Literary Review: Timothy Leary The Harvard Years by James Penner (Ed)

Timothy LearyOriginally published in 2014 Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years – Early Writings on LSD and Psilocybin with Richard Alpert, Huston Smith, Ralph Metzner, and others – is a collection of Leary’s authored and co-authored scholarly papers on hallucinogens. Sympathetically compiled, along with an introduction, by James Penner, the collection brings a number of interesting articles back into print after 50 years. Penner is an assistant professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras.

It has become something of a cliché to ask the question: Which Timothy Leary? The trickster motif is his well-established cloak, and while he wended his large way through the (auto)biographies, histories, and cultures of Psychedelia, he remains a questionable character. So, which Timothy Leary? The Harvard Years. These papers, several of them co-authored, are Leary the Harvard psychologist, who wishes the subject of hallucinogens to be scientifically legitimate, if not always conventionally so. What they do show, however, along with the changing language of his understanding, is his gradual move toward being a more popular writer.

“Like LSD itself, Timothy Leary remains somewhat misunderstood. For conservatives, Leary is generally associated with the worst excesses of the Summer of Love and the reckless hedonism of the late 1960s and early 1970s. For other members of the media, Leary is merely a glorified “product salesman” for LSD and the psychedelic revolution.” (Penner 4)

In many respects the editor James Penner has let Leary speak for himself in this collection. None of the papers are abridged, and although some were written in the late 1960s while Leary was not at Harvard, they are concerned with the research he did there. Interestingly, which gives the selection some context, Penner has included Noah Gordon’s article ‘The Hallucinogenic Drug Cult”, which was a sensationalist piece printed at the time of the Harvard Drug Scandal in The Reporter. As Penner notes, “The scholarly Leary…writes for two audiences: psychedelic enthusiasts and sceptical non-users.” (Penner 11). An interesting balancing act, and one this publication also seeks to perform.

There are two strong movements going on in this body of writing. The first is a change in emphasis in Leary’s own framing of psychedelics: from social game playing to deconditioning. The latter, in fact, provides a theoretical mechanism, through the use of psychedelics, of firstly revealing the game-nature of reality, and secondly the ability to re-imprint correctively: “All behaviour involves learned games. But only that rare Westerner we call “mystic” or who has had a visionary experience of some sort sees clearly the game structure” (Leary in, Penner 23). Huxley’s influence is clear here, in 1961, but with the question of re-imprinting becoming more central later, Leary certainly opens himself up to being criticized as a cultist operating outside academia by those who disagreed with him.

“During 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. All known relationships transcended. New ones are possible” (Leary in, Penner 281).

The second movement is in his writing style, which although largely academic here, is also notable for having more literary pretences: “We deal here with the Faustian bargain. For the handful of concepts in Webster’s dictionary and for the power of ego control we exchange the timeless infinity of direct game-free awareness” (Leary, in Penner 107). And this grandiosity grew, evidenced when writing about LSD for the first time in 1964, in LSD: The Consciousness-Expanding Drug, in which he declared “We are witnessing an exponential increase in time-space perspectives, esthetic and deliberate shatterings of classical symmetry” (Leary, in Penner 248). Calmly put, I imagine.

The turning point of this part of Leary’s life and writing, when writing for a non-academic audience becomes more pressing, is marked by the Harvard Drug Scandal, which resulted – for various reasons – with the sacking of Leary and his colleague Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass). Causing him to question the role of, first, institutions, and later, Western psychology, the scandal is, in many respects, a pivotal moment for Leary, when any revolutionary—popularist, genuine, or sponsored—fervour could take shape culturally. Always armed with his previous revelations though, he sought a social re-imprinting in the mid to late 1960s.

Quite a number of the papers deal with the two most famous researches Leary was involved with – the Concorde Prison and Good Friday Experiments – which are both well-trodden paths, but the most extraordinary to my mind is his paper on experiencing DMT. Appearing in Psychedelic Review 8 (1966), Programmed Communication during Experiences with DMT includes long passages of experimental writing, where forms and structures disintegrate in an explication of his DMT experience. He used a similar, albeit more controlled in terms of form and content, when writing Psychedelic Prayers (1966). His earlier writing, while displaying a penchant for literary pretension, becomes an exercise in experiment itself.

A twenty-two year old Radcliffe graduate, when asked by Noah Gordon for his piece ‘The Hallucinogenic Drug Cult’, said of her two experiences with morning glory seeds, “The first was good. The second was half-good and half-bad”. These were also my reactions on reading these papers, while I find his game theory quite enticing in the first instance, his re-imprinting period I find only “half good, half-bad”—too much like he’d latched onto a personal crusade without asking LSD whether or not it liked to behave in such a way. Regardless, the theories and writings contained in this book are a very worthy read, and challenging for all the right reasons.

Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a historian, writer and editor. He is the founder of the Psychedelic Press, co-director of the Psychedelic Museum, and is currently undertaking his PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests focus on the history and literature of psychedelic substances, and the role of writing in spiritual and magical traditions during the 19th century. He is also the author of the novel 'Erin', and has occasionally be known to perform a poem or two.

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