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From Chapter Thirteen: The World's Oldest Cyberpunk
The Los Angeles Times had called Terence McKenna "the Tim Leary of the 90s." McKenna had even used his own playful variation of Leary's infamous catchphrase of the Sixties: "Log on, tune in, and drop out." Even Tim Leary called McKenna "the Tim Leary of the Nineties," but that did nothing to diminish Leary's stature in the story of the psychedelic culture. Cyberpunk had more than vindicated Leary. By the winter of 1993, his smiling countenance was being widely featured in a print campaign for the Gap. Twenty years later, the same man who had once been labeled the most dangerous man in America by a federal judge in California was selling blue jeans and T-shirts to a whole new generation as Timothy Leary, Philosopher. Leary had successfully surfed his way right onto the cybercultural cutting edge. He had become what Mondo 2000 was calling a "cyber-delic guru....The MVP (Most Valuable Philosopher) of the 20th Century." "The 90s are here," declared William Gibson, the cyberpunk novelist, "and the Doctor is in!"
As he looked back and totaled the assets and subtracted the costs of the use of drugs in America since the 1960s, Leary blamed many of his "mistakes" on simple naïveté. "For example, I made the classic mistake that we all make. It was wonderful for thin intellectuals like Aldous Huxley and me to get high and suddenly enjoy the pleasures of the body and aesthetics and sensuality and music: My God, this is wonderful! What I didn't realize is that eighty percent of the people out there are not motivated, and if they smoked marijuana, no question it could take away what little motivation they might have had. Tragically, in the cases of many younger people I observed, I didn't realize that there is a real problem with marijuana and young people who would smoke pot in the morning and not go to school what's the difference, put on another Grateful Dead record! You know, the last thing I ever had in mind was to create a whole subculture of adolescent haschischines! I cite this as one of my many mistakes of omission and naïveté, and I blame it on the tendency of every philosopher of every human, in fact to believe that everyone's like you, when of course they're not! "
He laughed, one of those Timothy Leary laughs, bittersweet and full of irony, self-deprecating honesty, and Irish blarney, more about the cosmic joke of the human condition than anything else.
"Oh, yes, we were well meaning good natured primitives back at Harvard. We didn't know anything about computers, nor did we realize anything about the implications of quantum physics, chaos theory, and fractals. We did know that when you had a visionary experience with a psychedelic drug, you were exposed to what we now call chaos. BOOM! You were experiencing a thousand times more information in a minute than in normal life. But we knew we needed to have a new language to describe it. We didn't have the language of technology back then, and now we do."
And so had Dr. Timothy Leary become America's oldest cyberpunk, a "neurologician" who portrayed the brain as "a galactic network of a hundred billion neurons," each one "an information system as complex as a mainframe computer." "The PC is the LSD of the Nineties," Leary declared in no uncertain terms, now speaking the language of fractals, digital information algorithms, virtual reality, and quantum electronic engineering as fluently as he had once spoken the language of transactional psychology and psychedelic transcendentalism. Lately he'd constructed a new philosophical platform based on the legend of the ronin (translated as "wave people"), a metaphor derived from the Japanese word for the samurai who had left the service of their feudal lords to become warriors without masters. It was the cyberpunks who were now the "pilots of the species," as Leary observed, the clear and creative thinkers who used "quantum-electronic appliances and brain know-how," the "strong, stubborn, creative individual who explores some future-frontier, collects and brings back new information, and offers to guide the gene pool to the next stage."
Cyberpunks were "mavericks, ronin, free-lancers, independents, self-starters, non-conformists, odd-balls, trouble-makers, kooks, visionaries, iconoclasts, insurgents, blue-sky thinkers, loners, smart alecks" in other words, exactly like Leary. He was certain that the policies of Ronald Reagan had not been what caused the Soviet Union to topple; rather, it had been the yearning on the part of Soviet-bloc youth for the very freedoms represented by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, blue jeans, computers, and yes LSD. In Leary's mind, the whole Reagan-conservative counterreaction to the Sixties that had demonized the psychedelic movement as misguided and immoral hedonism run amok was to have been expected.
"It happened after the Italian Renaissance, too, when they came in and busted all the naked statues and took down all the Venuses from the museum walls! Quite predictable, and I must say that every time we move it ahead and by 'we' I mean the humanists, those who believe in the human spirit and potential and believe you have to question authority every time we move it ahead, it's thrown back. But the base camp has been made, and the next wave will come and find your wreckage, and they'll be encouraged to go beyond that."
Of course, there were those in America who viewed any kind of "base camp" that Leary and his constituency might establish on the American cultural landscape as a kind of malignant plant that should be uprooted and eradicated just like the marijuana plants of Humboldt County. Those people were hardly downhearted by the news of Leary's prostate cancer in the next few years, any more than Leary was saddened by the demise of J. Edgar Hoover. As the media learned that Timothy Leary was dying and that he planned to have himself cryogenically frozen and "reanimated," journalists began a pilgrimage to his home in Los Angeles, where, for a fee of one thousand dollars, they could take their measure of the man in his final days. Most, of course, were unable to get past the most hackneyed sobriquets "High Priest of LSD," "Acid Guru," "Drug King of the Sixties Generation," and so on and asked questions like "Do you have any regrets about all the LSD you took, all the drugs that were taken in your name?" As for Leary's response to them, it was usually similar to the words he proclaimed so emphatically that day in his backyard
"I still honor botanical substances that activate the brain. I honor cannabis; I honor lysergic acid, mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms! I honor at least a hundred new botanical brain drugs which aren't even discovered yet, for all the receptor sites in the brain! I honor the ancient tradition of using the gifts of the vegetable kingdom or queendom! I do believe that the brain needs them; the brain loves electrons and psychoactive chemicals! "
He was smiling again.
"Hey, the receptor sites are there! Just like you have lungs well, they must want air! You got a belly, the body must want food! You got these receptor sites in your brain, it's obvious! Most human beings love to get high, love to alter their consciousness with vegetables! That's why you have taboos! That's why you have these prohibitions! That's why you have the war on drugs! Because people love it! The inevitable complication here is that the people in control, the top management, always make the idea of altering consciousness or changing your own brain something immoral, illegal, or unethical! Only God can do that, right? particularly if it's enjoyable! Well, naturally, it's enjoyable! Brains love electrons!! Brains love to be strobed by colors and images!! But you're not supposed to enjoy it, right? "
Timothy Leary laughed again, delighted by his own rant, forever tweaking the authorities, the theologians, the conservatives the ronin on the white horse, without masters, unrepentant, unbowed. He died on May 31, 1996, with the words "Why not?" on his lips. Having abandoned the plans to have himself cryogenically frozen, Leary nevertheless managed to have his ashes shot into space in a capsule. It was, as his official Web site readily pointed out, his Final Trip.
Copyright © 2004 by Martin Torgoff