Monday, June 26, 2006

Menand on Leary, Condensed

Louis Menand's review of the biography Timothy Leary in last week's New Yorker is worth reading in its entirety, but you may not have time (or the magazine), so I thought I'd pull out some choice bits for you. I think what I look for most in an essay about a subject I'm not particularly interested in (and Leary certainly qualifies) is a judicious selection of quotes and anecdotes peppered throughout. On this count, Menand's piece is a big winner.

Why am I not interested in Leary? Well, I sympathize with Menand's take early on in the review:
Leary belonged to what we reverently refer to as the Greatest Generation, that cohort of Americans who eluded most of the deprivations of the Depression, grew fat in the affluence of the postwar years, and then preached hedonism and truancy to the baby-boom generation, which has taken the blame ever since.
Plus, I'm stuffy and old-fashioned in certain ways, including my distaste for the philosophy of drug-use-as-portal-to-enlightenment. I'm not saying the experience is completely hollow, but when people preach too fervently for it, I see them as no better or more convincing than an evangelical who's traded in God for fungi. (Also, I have some silly notions of purity, and I don't like the idea of drugs as a shortcut -- I remember feeling offended that it took smoking pot for the characters in The Breakfast Club to open up to each other.)

OK, before this is hardly "condensed," on to the choice bits. (These are better if you're high. Just kidding.)

Tom Wolfe after trying LSD for the sake of an article: “I had the feeling that I had entered into the sheen of this nubby twist carpet -- a really wretched carpet, made of Acrilan -- and somehow this represented the people of America, in their democratic glory.”

Menand himself on Leary and Richard Alpert, both of whom left (or were fired from) Harvard: “They became famous as the two Harvard professors -- geniuses? rogues? who knew? -- who had been fired for being too far-out. A large and undiscriminating audience for things far-out was just around the historical corner, and it was an audience for whom being kicked out of Harvard was evidence of righteousness.”

An ex-wife on Leary’s eerily frozen smile: “the smile of the ego actually eating the personality.”

Barney Rosset, founder of Grove Press, after taking hallucinogens: “I pay my psychiatrist fifty dollars an hour to keep this from happening to me.”

And finally, Arthur Koestler after a trip: “I solved the secret of the universe last night, but this morning I forgot what it was.”


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