This post is a continuation of our look at influential counter-culture figures that seem to have followed their own liberal paths of religious inspiration, this time examining a second book by Timothy Leary. The Politics of Ecstasy is a collection of various lectures (sermons?), articles, interviews, and poems from Leary’s output in the mid-1960s, almost all after his expulsion from Harvard and before his incarceration. Part do-it-yourself manual (“Start Your Own Religion”), part psychedelic history lesson (“The Magical Mystery Trip”), part manifesto (“The Molecular Revolution”), the book’s over-riding themes are the right of the individual to ingest any and all substances, the holiness of the drug experience, and the urgent necessity of altering one’s consciousness in response to such modern problems as the atomic bomb, political assassinations, and the loss of civil liberties.
Although he has often been portrayed as a simple hedonist and sensualist, Leary’s quest does seem to be fundamentally religious in nature. His personal faith lies in the inherent divinity of the universe and one’s mind, with the body serving as the holy temple wherein communion is made. Psychedelics such as mushrooms and LSD become his sacraments, with experienced guides taking the traditional place of gurus or priests. The stated goal is to discover the wisdom and divinity that exist within the human organism, operating on a conscious, sensory, somatic, cellular, and atomic level. Based on repeated LSD experiences, the practitioner of Leary’s upstart religion is expected to explore questions of power, identity, consciousness, and ontology. There is no concern with morality, no notion of sin or pollution, no divinity ultimately divorced from the seeker, and very little clear concept of the afterlife. While the seeker is urged to plumb his or her own consciousness for all the answers, Leary recommends that the pursuit be undertaken in relationship with small family-clans of supportive co-religionists sharing space, finances, and an extremely localized cult. His attitude is one of unstinting, and sometimes seemingly unwarranted, optimism–though his methods are unorthodox and his conclusions often highly speculative, he is nothing if not a true believer in the power and sacredness of his holy psychotropics.
One of the distinctive features of New Age movements seems to be their eager enthusiasm to appropriate elements of other religions without any feelings of guilt or concern over distortion of the intent of the original, to say nothing of the issues of orientalism or neo-colonialism. Leary gets his start a bit before the real New Age is inaugurated but still displays this attitude in his willingness to use a wide range of (refashioned) traditional material to support his views: he retells the Buddhist origin story so that Buddha becomes a “drop-out,” stages a showing of the Passion of Christ where Jesus comes down off the cross to get high, calls himself a Hindu and a scientific pagan, and marshals everything from Sufism to Hasidic Judaism to Aztec religion to buttress his claims that all religions are originally based on psychedelic consciousness. He does so without concern for the actual attitudes and doctrines of devoted followers of these religions, such as the strict Buddhist opposition to intoxicants or mind-altering substances proclaimed in the Fifth Great Precept of basic Buddhist morality. He feels that the symbols and motifs of many (perhaps all) religions originate in the psychedelic experience, and that since he is in touch with the primal source of these derivations via his mystic experiences, he therefore has authority to co-opt, adapt, and discard ideas and rituals from Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and a range of indigenous polytheisms at will.
While perhaps noble in sentiment, there is something troubling about the way in which Leary consistently downplays his obvious enfranchisement as an educated, middle-class, middle-aged, straight white male in the 1960s. He presumes not only to be an ally of the young, the impoverished, the politically marginalized, blacks, homosexuals, the Vietnamese, Indians, and Native Americans, but also to actually speak for them in many cases. His psychedelic experiences have broken down his attachment to his individual ego (but seem not to have reduced his egoism!) and expanded his sense of kinship with other people, but by the late 1960s don’t appear to have resulted in an in-depth examination of the political realties of how his own privileges operate. The people he repeatedly, if often good-naturedly, rails against look (not uncoincidentally?) precisely like what he sees each day in the mirror, yet he makes no acknowledgement of this. He clearly expects to get away with everything, an attitude that must be based in his life experiences of continued privilege even during and after overt persecutions; if he had been black, one assumes he quite possibly would’ve ended up dead or in jail far sooner than he did.