I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary by John Higgs

It was flat out epic grandeur.
Now, I can claim no sincere, personal knowledge, no inspiration, or, in fact, any respect, grudging or otherwise, in, of, from or for Timothy Leary. Everyone knows of Tim Leary (even those of us who occasionally get him mixed up with foul-mouthed comic Denis Leary [whose comedy sadly now plays second fiddle to his roles as Diego in the Ice Age movies, an experience any recent parent might feel sympathy for]), and people cluck their tongues and stroke their beards and say, "Acid–what the fuck was that all about?" I haven't taken acid (that I've noticed, and I'm sure I would have done so), and my only flirtation with psilocybin ended in a fit of the giggles which, unsure as I am of the cause, may well have been because my friend thought he was high and was really very rude to our housemates, probably also because he decided his inhibitions were gone rather than because they were, and because he had a ready-made excuse for the morning after*. 

What I was delighted to find out, however, thanks to the hugely readable writing of John Higgs, was that Timothy Leary is directly responsible for Cardinal Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger becoming Pope Benedict XVI, and pretty much every other major cultural and sociological advance and breakthrough in American history post-1955.

What a guy!

I don't joke about these things [sarcasm klaxon], but as sarcasm is hard to detect in blog posts without a sarcasm klaxon to help, I want to make this abundantly clear. Higgs does actually make the connection between Leary and Benedict XVI. He states that because Ratzinger didn't take acid before, during or after the student uprisings in Germany in 1968, "...his understanding of [moral or metaphysical] relativism remained theoretical instead of empirical." Which meant that the church was able to dissuade a young doctoral student Ratzinger from pursuing the study of relativism, and instead become an advocate of absolutism, believing that there is one absolutely true version of the world, the universe and everything (and that is the way God made it) and not seven billion completely subjective worlds in existence at the same time, shaped by their creators's experiences and personal narratives. This was Leary's view, that each person inhabited his or her own 'reality tunnel'. Somehow, Higgs gets from this that because Leary was the LSD guy, Ratzinger became pope because of Leary. Up to this point, which is ridiculously far into the book, I had been on the cusp of buying into some of the Leary brain-washing, of going out and buying some God-awful German techno by Ash Ra Tempel, of tentatively seeking out someone with some 'good' acid and finding somewhere safe and warm to take a trip. But in retrospect, I should have noticed the very many times that Higgs lets his facade of objectivity and sociological curiosity slip and starts fawning over a man whose legend is clearly something of a graven image to the author. You want another one? Okay, he says that Republicans are represented as red and Democrats are blue on political maps because of Leary. Of course he prefaces this bombshell by using the passive "It has been suggested that..." but even then he goes on to say, "...there is no doubt that..." as if he has discovered incontrovertible evidence to support this hypothesis, but which he accidentally forgot to reference. 

So, can this sour apple really spoil the rest of this book? Yes, it can, but only for me and it shouldn't for anyone better read or more informed about the influence of the counter-culture on the development of American society after World War Two. I'm wilfully ignorant of most everything that I have not read in a novel, avoiding for the most part historical texts and anything resembling a factual television programme for dear life. Higgs might be right. Leary may have had the most profound of impact on our way of life, that psychedelia could have opened many doors for psychiatry, psychology, art, music and politics, but for me, this book is rendered another rock 'n' roll biography of one guy's hero, a man who, though intellectual, articulate and astute, and capable of great charisma, did fuck loads of drugs and fucked his way through the second half of the twentieth century. And all it took was the hint of hyperbole. You know what, maybe I should go find some acid.

*Not that, "Sorry, I'd taken a shit load of mushrooms I found growing in sheep crap," is really, in retrospect, much of an excuse for anything.


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