The Project of Rejuvenilization

By Kimball, Roger | New Criterion, May 1998 | Go to article overview

The Project of Rejuvenilization


Kimball, Roger, New Criterion


The adepts of the Free Spirit did not form a single church but rather a number of like-minded groups, each with its own particular practices, rites, and articles of beliefs; and the links between the various groups were often tenuous. But these people did keep in touch with one another; and the Free Spirit was at all times recognizable as a quasi-religion with a single basic corpus of doctrine.... They divided humanity into two groups -- the majority, the "crude in spirit," who failed to develop their divine sensibilities, and themselves, who were the "subtle in spirit." ... The heart of the heresy was in fact not a philosophical idea at all but an aspiration; it was a passionate desire of certain human beings to surpass the condition of humanity and to become God.

--Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium

For us the planet was without Original Sin, designed for our sacramental pleasure.

--Timothy Leary, Flashbacks: An Autobiography

No account of America's cultural revolution can omit the career of Timothy Leary, "promoter, apologist, and high priest of psychedelia nonpareil," as Theodore Roszak put it in The Making of a Counterculture (1969). Dr. Timothy Leary, Ph.D., had his first experience of LSD in the spring of 1962 when he was forty-two and teaching in the psychology department at Harvard University. In the summer of 1963, Leary and his colleague Richard Alpert -- who would later turn himself into a guru and take the Hindu name Baba Ram Dass -- would be expelled from the Harvard faculty for disseminating drugs to students. But in the meantime they were sedulous in "researching" the effects of these drugs. For the previous two years, Leary and Alpert had eagerly "experimented" -- to use the preferred euphemism -- both on themselves and on hundreds of others with various hallucinogenic drugs, especially psilocybin. But LSD was something new and much more powerful. It had, Leary knew, been secretly tested by the CIA in the late 1950s for possible use in interrogations and unconventional warfare. In the words of an official intelligence document, LSD was "capable of rendering whole groups of people, including military forces, indifferent to their surroundings and situations, interfering with planning and judgment, and even creating apprehension, uncontrollable confusion and terror."

Leary's introduction to the drug came through an English academic named Michael Hollingshead. "On the basis of his claim to have ingested more LSD than anyone in the world," Leary recalled in Flashbacks, the autobiography he published in 1983 (new edition, 1990), "I invited him to stay at our house and act as a project consultant." A short while before, Hollingshead had inadvertently taken a large dose of LSD with a colleague. "They became," Leary wrote, "mystics on the spot."

Like so many apostles of mind-altering drugs, Timothy Leary was very big on the idea of becoming a mystic on the spot. He did it hundreds, indeed thousands, of times. Leary first sampled hallucinogenic drugs in Mexico in 1960 (more "research" for his new job at Harvard). Describing the experience years later, he wrote that

   I gave way to delight, as mystics have for centuries when they peek through
   the curtains and discovered that this world -- so manifestly real -- was
   actually a tiny stage set constructed by the mind....

      Starting back to the terrace. Hello, my walk had changed to a rubber-leg
   slither. The room was apparently filled with invisible liquid. I undulated
   over to Poet Betty. Her classic face unfolded like a sunflower. She was in
   some sort of bliss....

      Next came a trip through evolution, guaranteed to everyone who signs up
   to this Brain Tour. Slipping down the recapitulation tube to those ancient
   mid-brain projection rooms: snake-time, fish-time,
   down-thorugh-giant-jungle-palm-tree-time, green lacy fern leaftime....
   Hello, I am the first living thing. … 

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