Reimprinting Timothy Leary: An Interview with James Penner
Psychedelic Press UK: Hi James, I’d like to begin by thanking you for putting together Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years, it’s a brilliant and, in my opinion, much-required collection of his papers. Why did you yourself consider such a collection was necessary? And what led you to his work originally?
James Penner: I first discovered Leary was when I was writing my first book, Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture. I was mainly interested in tracing and understanding his influence on the counter culture. I decided to collect everything that Leary had written in the 1960s. I gradually became obsessed with the Harvard Drug Scandal of 1963 and I read all of the articles that Leary wrote when he was a professor. I was especially interested in the articles that were written just after he was fired from Harvard in 1963. After I collected everything, I was amazed at how brilliant his early writing was. It was also really weird because many of his articles were out-of-print and really hard to find. I found this situation really bizarre because his early writing, in my view, was so much better than the work that he did in the 1970s and 1980s. I became convinced that Leary’s early period has been overlooked and forgotten for some strange reason. I was convinced that it needed to be in print again. Some fifty years after the Harvard Drug Scandal, we revisit Leary’s early work: it contains—in very clear language—his radical understanding of the psychedelic experience.
PPUK: What were the biggest challenges and surprises in gathering Timothy Leary’s papers together for the collection?
JP: The biggest surprise was not only that Leary’s best work was out of print, but also that people mainly viewed Leary as a trickster figure who was fond of media stunts and telling young people to “drop out of society.” I discovered that the media often recycles a simplistic view of Leary as a joker/LSD clown. I found that this stereotypical view was completely at odds with the scholarly Leary of the early 1960s. The Leary of the early 1960s was a Harvard psychologist and a public intellectual who wrote lucid articles about consciousness expansion and what happens to the human mind during the throes of a visionary experience. I eventually arrived at the view that the intellectual version of Leary has been completely overshadowed by the trickster version of Leary. Another surprise was that Leary was partly to blame for this trend. He consciously moved away from his scholarly work when he attempted to write for a more popular audience. This happens in 1966 when he does the famous Playboy interview. When Leary became an iconic celebrity in the mid-1960s, he was fond of making hyperbolic statements to the media (“a woman can have several hundred orgasms in an LSD session”). These ridiculous statements brought him much media attention, but they also diverted people away from his serious thinking. I believe that Leary’s attempt to repackage himself for a wider audience was, in many respects, regrettable. The scholarly Leary of the early 1960s is the vital and seminal version of Leary—the one who speaks most directly to the concerns of the twenty-first century.
PPUK: This collection deals with his scientific papers, which were written for a much more niche academic audience, especially when compared with his later, more popular, publications. Stylistically speaking, particularly with his paper on ‘re-imprinting’, do you believe he was still attempting to ‘stir things up’ as it were? In other words, although his style changed, was the intention to shock an audience already present in his work?
JP: His article on re-imprinting (“Language: Energy Systems Sent and Received”) comes out in a general semantics journal called “ETC” in 1965. I argue that it is Leary’s last serious attempt at scholarly writing. Today, we would classify it as “critical theory.” In this very complex and ambitious piece of writing, Leary introduces his radical theory of “re-imprinting.” Leary suggests that we can overcome social conditioning (“imprinting”) through intense and focused LSD sessions: “[d]uring a psychedelic session, the nervous system, stripped of all previous learning and identity, is completely open to stimulation (and here is the joy, the discovery, the revelation), but it is also completely vulnerable. Naked suggestibility. Powerful attachments and repulsions develop during psychedelic sessions.” Leary’s theory of “re-imprinting” was certainly designed “to stir things up.” I think that Leary was no longer bound to academia and Harvard and he felt he could say anything he wanted to about psychedelics. Some people believe that Leary’s notion of “re-imprinting” is a theory for cultic brainwashing. I don’t see it that way. I think that’s a paranoid interpretation. In 1965, Leary is writing in an extremely utopian vein, he is suggesting that we can “decondition” ourselves and remake the self. For Leary, the concept of “naked suggestibility” was both romantic and utopian. He had tremendous faith in the psychedelic experience of ego death and rebirth. In the twenty first century, we now know that Leary was too optimistic about the extent to which human nature could be altered through focused LSD use. However, I don’t think we should fault Leary for attempting to foster and create a higher and more receptive form of consciousness.
PPUK: A number of the papers deal with his two most famous experiments – the Concord Prison Experiment and Marsh Chapel – and have been returned to a number of times of late by other researchers. While the reasons for being conducted are clear from his intentions and research aims, how far do you think their results came to influence his later thinking?
JP: I think that Leary’s early experiments at Harvard definitely influenced his later thinking. The Concord Prison Experiment convinced him that psychedelic drugs could be used in various group forms of psychotherapy. He also discovered that the catharsis experience that occurs in psychedelic sessions could be used to promote what he called “behaviour change.” The inmates in Leary’s experiments discovered that they no longer wanted to play the criminal game, and their version of the cops and robbers game. Leary’s initial success with prisoners led him to believe that psychedelics should be used in a radically democratic manner—that the catharsis experience could be extended to American society as a whole.
I think the Marsh Chapel experiment (aka the Good Friday Experiment) also influenced his later thinking a great deal. Leary’s mystical turn is interesting because, in many respects, he is an unlikely candidate for a spiritual experience. Prior to Leary’s first experience with magic mushrooms in Cuernavaca in 1960, he was an atheist, a scientist, and a staunch critic of Roman Catholicism. I think that Leary quickly realized that psychedelics could offer a spiritual experience that organized religion could not. Leary turn toward spirituality also signified his break with his materialistic worldview. He no longer believed that the scientific approach, with its insistence on empirical proof, was the only way of interpreting and understanding the nature of the psychedelic experience. The Good Friday Experiment teaches Leary to distrust “the science game” and its monolithic interpretation of reality and consciousness.
PPUK: It would seem, as Leary began to see the ‘science game’ and alike, that he will have first required a change in ontological belief, which can perhaps be pinpointed to his first mushroom experience. Aside from his intellectual development within the paradigm of psychology, how do you think his changing attitude toward the larger, metaphysical questions, informed his later approaches generally?
JP: I think that Leary’s epiphany in Cuernavaca in August of 1960 can be read as the genesis of the mystical turn that fully emerges with the Good Friday Experiment of 1962. Prior to Cuernavaca, he is primarily a behaviourist with a scientific understanding of consciousness. However, Leary’s first mushroom trip reveals that science is limited in the sense that it lacks the ability to describe epiphany, or the moment of illumination. Leary sees that science has little to say about epiphanies; in most cases, science distrusts subjective experiences and the hyperbolic language that people employ when they attempt to describe a mystical experience. Leary gravitates towards mysticism not only because it validates visionary experiences, but also because it has a rich vocabulary for describing these moments (revelation, moment of illumination, satori, nirvana, etc.,). In toto, Leary’s embrace of his visionary experience turns behaviourism on its head.
However, there is an important caveat: Leary’s mystical turn does not imply that he gives up being a scientist. It simply means that he realizes that science is just one way of looking at the material world and consciousness. In short, science becomes just another social construction. In a weird way, Leary’s early writings become a remarkable blend of science, mysticism, and poetry. In “How to Change Behaviour”—his very first article on psilocybin in 1961—he describes the psychedelic experience with the following expression: “In three hours under the right circumstances the cortex can be cleared.” I think this sentence embodies Leary’s new way of thinking: he is poetic and scientific at the same time. I think Leary always wanted to be both a poet and a scientist. But then again he also enjoyed using mystical and poetic language because he knew it would really piss off his behaviourist colleagues at Harvard. He quite enjoyed doing that as well.
PPUK: One of the most notable evolutions in Leary’s outlook is the move from discussing game play, into the development of ‘deconditioning’ or ‘re-imprinting’. To what extent do you think the implications of the ‘social game’ and ‘re-imprinting’ theories fuelled the backlash against psychedelic substances?
JP: To answer your question, I think we have to understand the progression of Leary’s thought in the early 1960s. Leary’s earliest theory of psychedelics is linked to social game theory—the idea that all cultural behaviour is simply a “game” that we play. Each game—our job, our religion etc.—has specific roles, rules, and goals. Psychedelic drugs are important because they allow us to see beyond the game and its rules. Leary’s critique of cultural behaviour extends to individuality and the ego game (“the Timothy Leary game”). Leary’s game theory of the early 1960s eventually morphs into what he terms “deconditioning.” The notion that you can use psychedelic experiences to decondition yourself from debilitating cultural myths (i.e., consumerism, racism, militarism, etc.). The final—and most radical—stage of self-transformation is “re-imprinting”: the idea that you can use psychedelics to “re-imprint” a new identity and self. In Leary’s terminology, the notion that richly aesthetic LSD sessions can produce, in the right circumstances, lasting “behaviour change.” Broadly speaking, I think it is a mistake to imply that the theory of “re-imprinting” inspired a backlash against psychedelics. When President Nixon called Leary “the most dangerous man in America,” he was not referring to Leary’s embrace of “re-imprinting.” Nixon never experienced psychedelics and was not familiar with the nuances of “game theory,” “deconditioning,” and “re-imprinting,” etc. However, Nixon did know that Leary was against the Viet Nam War and that he was encouraging young people to reject patriotism and traditional values (i.e., social conditioning). Nixon disliked Leary and psychedelics because he believed they made young people rebellious and more likely to burn their draft cards. Nixon was probably right about that.
PPUK: You wrote: “When the ideological dust of the twentieth century has settled, Leary will not simply be remembered for his advocacy of psychedelic drugs, he will also be remembered as a consummate interpreter of the human psyche.” What do you think his greatest achievements, and legacy, will be as an interpreter of the psyche?
JP: I believe that Leary is one of the most important intellectuals of the mid to late twentieth century. The catharsis model that he developed in the Concord Prison experiment is being used again in contemporary forms of patient-centred psychotherapy. I also believe that Leary’s early writings on psychedelics—the articles in The Harvard Years and High Priest (1968)—are canonical texts for psychedelic literature and the psychedelic movement. They should be read right alongside Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. If you want to understand the psychedelic explosion of the 1960s, you have to read Leary’s early work; Leary’s nascent ideas about psychedelics would eventually have a tremendous influence on the zeitgeist of the 1960s and the popularization of consciousness expansion in the twentieth century.
When I mention “the ideological dust of the twentieth century” must settle, I mean that people often view Leary as “irresponsible” and “dangerous.” They often dismiss Leary without actually reading his early writing and engaging with his foundational ideas. They think, “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out” represents the breadth of his thinking and philosophy. This is unfortunate. Lastly, I want to say that perhaps many of Leary’s ideas are simply too radical and too utopian for our epoch. I believe that future generations will able to encounter his core ideas—especially his radical vision of remaking the self—with less trepidation.