The Politics of Ecstasy By Timothy Leary
Originally published in 1968 ‘The Politics of Ecstasy’ is a collection of essays by, and interviews with, psychedelic troubadour Timothy Leary. The book contains Leary’s central ideas for the Sixties psychedelic revolution; both social and scientific. Arguably less well received than ‘The Psychedelic Experience’, it is in fact a much more insightful perspective on both the man and his beliefs and conveys many, still important, observations on society.
The summer of love is over. Post-India visits, the Millbrook bubble has all but burst. The Politics of Ecstasy is the product of a transient decade dominated in one respect by the psychedelic theories of one man, namely Timothy Leary. This book is the culmination of an adventure he has undergone; through the social, scientific and political elements of a decade fraught with change. There lies within the words a certain desperation to try and formulate his own methods for change; yet, not withstanding the historicism, there is cohesion in the thoughts of this book.
Leary writes, in the essay ‘Drop Out or Cop Out’, that “the external power structure is forever rent by struggles for material control, national rivalries, economic competition, political conflicts, ideologies of might. The boring battles of generals and politicians.” The underground, which opposes these strata, is divided as well by cults, schema and psychedelics. However, he argues, it is only from the underground that one can recognise the existence of this “ancient duality.”
The upshot of this social outlook is that the use of psychedelics is a conditioning tool. That is, they have the power to decondition from the external power structure and reconvene an individual to an ‘underground’ perspective. This conception of the social is then a radical philosophy that opposes mainstay politics, which goes a long way to explaining why he could be dubbed “the most dangerous man in America.”
As with any duality though, it is not simply a case of black and white, there is in fact just a murky area of grey. Leary, in ‘The Politics of Ecstasy’, plays the very “ego-game” that he superficially opposes. For example, he defends himself from media attacks (Ecstasy Attacked-Ecstasy Defended,) which ultimately legitimizes the contestation between the opposition. He appears to be subliminally aware that, methodologically, he retains much in common with the “external power structure” but that he differs in the detail; the morality, the goals and the end.
The prime example of reimpacting on the social is the chapter entitled “Start Your Own Religion.” Leary explores why a religious consciousness is necessary. His classic motif of “turn on, tune in, drop out” is reversed; you must first drop out of the externalism: “You must form that most ancient and sacred of human structures-the clan. A clan or cult is a small group of human beings organized around a religious goal.” Belief must be fragmented in order for it not to be a tool of the power structures. The manifold of conditioning does appear to be inherent again in this perception.
What one must remember when reading the social discourse and mock revolutionary language is that scientific theory underpins the extrapolation of his other ideas. Leary’s circuit-model of consciousness (seven circuit but later expanded to eight) that he explores in the opening chapter “The Seven Tongues of God” is the essential component. Examination of the “7 basic spiritual questions” and what they mean in the context of religious experience and practice, neurological circuits and how they are activated by different psychedelics, is the model by which Leary conducts his understandings. It seems to me, however, that this flies in the face of his “set and setting” hypothesis. Do these circuits exist? Or can they be made to appear to exist through the correct set and setting?
Leary explained his model, phenomenologically, in his interview with Playboy magazine, chapter title “She Comes in Colors”, in reference to what Leary perceived as the ‘highest’ level of consciousness, the pre-cellular or atomic: “It’s happened to me about half of the 311 times I’ve taken LSD, And every time it begins to happen, no matter how much experience you’ve had, there is that moment of terror-because nobody likes to see the comfortable world of objects and symbols and even cells disintegrate into the ultimate physical design.”
Another key area of this book is the creation of a historicism of individuals; to whom Leary deems his psychedelic brand owes a debt of gratitude. These include such luminaries as Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, who exerted some say-so on the beginnings of the Sixties psychedelic movement. Although, it should be said, Leary moved away from what he branded as their elitism with his and Ginsberg’s move into popular culture.
Author Hermann Hesse, ‘The Poet of the Interior’, whose books went far in exploring the essential spiritual being of the human, The Beatles, A.A. Orage, Humphrey Osmond (who first termed ‘psychedelic’ in a letter to Huxley) and, of course, the poet William Blake. Unlike later psychedelic advocates, who preferred a more scientific account of psychedelic history, Leary places much emphasis on the ideas of individuals and the egoist concept of genius. He shows a great love for the literary evidence of the great ‘spiritual questions’.
Timothy Leary has caused great division within psychedelic circles. Prophet and ‘High Priest’ to some, destroyer of scientific and social legitimacy on the other. A character such as him must not only be strong, but filled with remarkable ideas, to provoke such a reaction. ‘The Politics of Ecstasy’ is a great example of how all these various perceptions are part of the transient individual and yet should also be read as a product of its era.
“We measure social evolution in terms of increased freedom-external and internal. Freedom to step out of the tribal game and move to construct a new social form. Freedom to move in space. Freedom to experience. Freedom to explore. Freedom to get high. Freedom to let go.”
Leary and his work is a benchmark from which the social element of the psychedelic movement can learn and grow. Sadly however, many of the problems that Leary identified are as relevant today as they ever were. The so called “internal freedom” is heavily regulated, constricted and restricted and yet a return to the text of “The Politics of Ecstasy” can certainly go far in reminding people what it is they fight for within the psychedelic movement. This book is remarkable political work.