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A Burnt-Out Case | The Nation

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A Burnt-Out Case

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Leary's life was one of those rare American ones with a second act. After the 1970s he moved to Beverly Hills, went on a political minstrel-show lecture tour with G. Gordon Liddy, snorted coke in the Playboy Mansion with Hugh Hefner and hung out at the Viper Room. He also developed some of the earliest interactive computer games. What lessons are we to learn from such a life? Obviously, the specifics don't apply to us ordinary mortals. And we certainly don't want to follow Leary's lead in terms of family life. As Greenfield painstakingly details, he was a serially bad husband and an even worse father. Leary's careerism, while quintessentially American, was corrosive and destructive, another warning siren against the false promises of celebrity-obsessed modernity.

About the Author

Neal Pollack
Neal Pollack is the author of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, Never Mind the Pollacks and Alternadad...

Yet his life contained surprising pockets of peace, extraordinary grace notes. When Leary's famous commune in Millbrook, New York, wasn't being raided by local authorities or invaded by trashy jet-setting hipsters, people achieved transcendence there, or at least had a lot of fun. As Greenfield writes, "When Charlie Mingus heard the tap in the sink yowling, followed by banging noises, he took out his bass and began playing counterpoint." Of all the crazy scenes in the book, that's the one I would have most liked to see, though I also enjoyed the one where Leary's wife attempts a seduction of Jerry Brown in order to blackmail Leary out of prison.

Used in the right doses by the right people, under controlled circumstances, certain drugs have creative potential. Despite Leary's many ego-fueled missteps, his ideas about the transformative powers of psychedelic drugs still hold some water. In his mind-bending book Breaking Open the Head, Daniel Pinchbeck--who is rapidly becoming our generation's foremost proponent of controlled psychedelic experimentation--called Leary the "central villain in the psychedelic saga...naïve, charismatic, sloppy, self-promotional and out of control." It's hard to argue with that assessment, but in later interviews, Pinchbeck softened this view, saying that Leary was a product of his time, a temporal blip in human understanding of psychedelic substances.

While I find Leary's writing bloated, self-absorbed and, let's face it, hippy-dippy and dated, Pinchbeck makes a far more persuasive, modern case for psychedelics. Breaking Open the Head is The Doors of Perception written from a skeptical East Village perspective. Pinchbeck's latest book, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, expands on his thesis, arguing that psychedelics may be opening a portal to a transformation of consciousness that has the potential to change the world forever. I can't say whether I believe that or not, and I certainly hope the Phoenix Suns win an NBA title before this evolution happens, but Pinchbeck's skeptical, analytic reportorial approach to the subject appeals to my brain far more than Leary's musty counterculture rhetoric.

It was, in fact, Pinchbeck who led me to start experimenting with psychedelic drugs again last year. I had neither the time, the resources nor the physical energy to go on an acid trip again, and I didn't have much interest, either. But I was really into the idea of trying something called Salvia divinorum. Salvia is a branch of the sage family that has long been known to have psychotropic qualities. According to Pinchbeck, the trips are short, pleasant and revelatory (though not to be taken lightly), and they don't cause much of a hangover. Salvia visions tend to center around a whimsical spirit that appears to be half-woman, half-plant. She occupies a domain that appears as a combination of fairy garden wonderland and surrealist painting. That sounded interesting to me.

I did some research and found the dosage I thought would suit me best. Though the drug is still legal where I live, it's sold in some pretty sketchy stores. I found one and made the buy. Later that night, I settled into my easy chair with a big cup of water by my side and smoked a bowl. Immediately, I felt myself being pressed back into my chair, and then I closed my eyes. I traveled through a series of doors that slammed behind me as I passed them, while hearing a strange, but not scary, rhythmic chant, something along the lines of "welcome, welcome," and then I was hurtling through space. I landed in a garden, and sure enough I met the spirit. She showed me around for a couple of minutes, and then I opened my eyes. The trip was over.

About ten days later I went on another voyage, which proved pretty similar. Another night I smoked the Salvia; it seemed to have little effect. I fell asleep instead of tripping. In the middle of the night, I perceived that a flash of light had filled the room, though it didn't wake up my wife. I heard, and even felt, an enormous thud. A squat, thick stone warrior was standing at the foot of my bed, unmoving, unspeaking. It was like he'd been sent to me as a gift or an offering, or maybe a warning.

Dude. That was freaky.

Salvia has definitely altered my perception of the world. I now walk around wondering if there really are other dimensions out there, untouched and unnoticed by our under-used brains. Timothy Leary would have been proud. But if we can learn anything from Leary's experience, it's that we don't need drug prophets, and that collective tripping isn't going to transform reality; it's just going to shift our present reality around a little. I share my experience because I think it's interesting, not because I recommend it. This is my trip, and I'm not going to lay it on anyone else.

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