Book Notes: Flashbacks: An Autobiography

This is the first in a series of brief book notes on counter-culture figures who seem to fit the definition of liberal religion, yet aren’t necessarily claimed as ancestors by mainstream Unitarian-Universalism. Discussing them may help to highlight how liberal religion has been a project not just of Protestant-based elites, but how liberalizing trends have also taken place in other streams of American culture and religion.

First up is Timothy Leary. He definitely meets the criteria for liberal religion discussed in a number of previous posts on this blog. For instance, he acknowledges the fact of change in religion (in fact he demands it), rejects literalism in the interpretation of texts, acknowledges the legitimacy of multiple viewpoints on religion and seeks religious inspiration from multiple sources, and he certainly affirms the ability and legitimacy of individuals to make up their own minds (and change the constitution of those minds!) about religion. Some other factors, often associated with liberal religion, also come into play in Leary’s thought. For instance he valorizes the natural world (as the source of the holy psychotropics that he considers a sort of sacrament), he is optimistic, holds a high opinion of human nature and its potential perfectibility, and believes in harmonizing science and religion–indeed, that the best religion is a sort of spiritual science of the mind.

The first book of Leary’s to note here is Flashbacks: An Autobiography. There’s little risk in saying that Timothy Leary had one of the most colorful lives of the 20th century, and his autobiography details many of the most interesting circumstances, from his silencing at West Point, to his discovery of psychedelics, his run for Governor of California, his escape from prison, and exile in Africa and Europe. Leary is a good storyteller and it is easy to see how his charisma won many over (and threatened others). But beyond the story of his life, his autobiography seems to be intentionally designed as a didactic tool to once again get his essential message out: turn on, tune in, and drop out.

Leary’s opinion about his “role” in the narrative he spins seems to be ambiguous, even conflicted. On the one hand, he presents himself as basically square before his first experience with mushrooms. “And that’s how it happened, step by step from the Harvard firing to the deportations, from Laredo to the Liddy raid, I was pushed from scientific detachment and scholarly retirement into public opposition to the policies of the ruling regime. (p. 252)” This suggests a passive, perhaps innocent bystander who is shoved by circumstances out onto the frontier and persecuted by overt and hidden forces without cause. At the same time, Leary describes early rebellions, such as the many schools he was expelled from prior to Harvard, suggesting that he was always headed toward confrontation and prophetic martyrdom. He contradicts this passive perspective by assuming the mantle of genetically predestined messiah: “It pleases me to believe that I belong to the inventor-innovator genetic caste. My brain is designed to program new realities, to see things differently, to create original perspectives . . . In most cultures we inventors-innovators are in trouble; the power-control caste is instinctively threatened by our pressure for continual change. (p. 383)” Leary seems to want to have it both ways: he seeks to place the blame for his unpopular politics and personal misfortunes on exterior authorities, while affirming his destiny as mythic and essential trickster-hero tweaking the noses of the “menopausal” and “robotic” establishment.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of the book’s design is the inclusion of mini-biographies of (mostly) famous people that open each chapter. In forty-one vignettes Leary introduces the reader to major players in the history of mind expansion, particularly as it relates to drugs and/or official persecution (we can note the presence of significant religious liberals on his list). The effect seems to be intended to operate on several levels. Leary is attempting to tell not only the story of his life, but of a mindset, an era, and a drug experience. First, the mini-bios help Leary organize his life, which included contact with many of the most important people of his time. Second, they create a lineage, a necessity for every emerging religion, legitimizing his seemingly far-out ideas: in effect, he says “See, I’m not a lone crazy shouting in the wilderness–many of the greatest figures in history set the exact precedent for my view and behavior.” It furthermore indicts his opponents by grouping them with the Inquisition and other authoritarian organizations of the past. The references to past pioneers and their opponents reinforce Leary’s vision of mythic archetypes and roles that play out generation after generation–since he has cast himself in the role of messiah he must call attention to previous prophets of consciousness and demonstrate how his experiences (and the actions of his oppressors) recapitulate the eternal themes. Finally and perhaps most importantly for Leary’s quest, the lineage lays out a map of what has gone before him and what is going on still–the reader inspired to join Leary’s quest is given dozens of clues as to what historical thinkers to look up, what books to read, what authorities to avoid, and what living personalities to consult and learn from in the attempt to turn on, tune in, and drop out. It is transmission in the religious and mystical sense: the empowerment of the students to become practitioners themselves.

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Filed under Book Notes, Defining Liberal Religion, Liberal Religious History

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