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Saturday, 4 April 2015

Return of the Drop-Out Boogie

Wow, the medium is the message, folks. Look at that badge (available in a variety of places online) morph and swirl and almost dissolve into No-thingness before coming back into focus again.

The best of western culture and civilisation, it seems to me, is in good part the result of the creativity of the Flawed Genius. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert; Shelley, Byron; Michelangelo, Leonardo, Giorgione; a pleasure boat full of Impressionists on the Seine on a Sunday afternoon. I quote from the few slender slices of cultural history with which I am familiar. There is, in some quarters, a tendency to romanticize the Flawed Genius. Not a necessary move, I propose. And the notion finds itself devalued and debased, the 'genius' bit removed altogether, with the arrival of 'the Loveable Rogue'. This tag could fruitfully be thrown straight into the bin. Look at little Billy. Robbed an old man of his savings, beat up his girlfriend and her sister, but he's always got a chirpy smile when he goes to buy his Sunday newspaper. Always buys his mum a nice Christmas present. A loveable rogue. No, I don't buy that one at all.

If we were to look for the perfect embodiment of the Flawed Genius archetype from recent times, we would need to look no further than Dr. Timothy Leary. His flaws were incontrovertible and enormous. They revolved around his tendencies to shameless opportunism and an endless thirst for self-publicity. Anyone trying the 'Leary said this..... Leary believed this....' gambit is onto a loser: he said almost everything at some point or other in his rich and all-too-varied life. People try to put all sorts of things on to Leary - he was a Control System stooge, he was in the pay of the CIA etc etc - based on some random comment he once made, or one teensie weensie sliver of his life story, but it's all a blind alley. There is a remarkable couple of minutes (like many other things, you can find it on YouTube). Leary is almost dead, you can see it in his gaunt and wasted face, and he is being interviewed by some dude or other. 'Doctor Leary, you have been  deeply involved with psychedelic drugs during your life. Do you have any regrets about this?' 'Yes I do.' (And at this moment the world is waiting for that great deathbed confessional). 'I regret that I didn't take more psychedelic drugs during my lifetime.' Brilliant.

It is fashionable to trash Leary nowadays. He gets it from both mainstream and 'alternative' directions. But, despite the bullshit, he said more of insight and wisdom than all the heads of state of the past fifty years put together. He gets a particularly huge amount of flack for the motto he made a commonplace: Turn on, tune in, drop out. It's the 'drop out' bit that folk have particular problems with. It's been turned into 'take over','transform','transcend' and doubtless others that I haven't come across or have forgotten over time. But the thing is this: Dr. Leary had it well-and-truly nailed. He hit the spot, spot-on. 'Drop out' was it to perfection.

The meaning that Leary gave to 'dropping out' has been widely distorted and misrepresented, sometimes wilfully, sometimes through ignorance. I don't think he ever had in mind the classic student drop-out, who rolls out of bed in the middle of the afternoon for a strong coffee, a joint, and to hang around the rest of the day on the sofa watching television. For Leary, dropping out was an act of strong intent and volition. The notion of 'dropping out of society' meant leaving behind the many games, as Leary put it, that characterise modern life, and which ultimately act as barriers between us and our deeper, more real and authentic nature. Here it is in his own words:

'By drop out, I mean to detach yourself from involvement in secular, external, social games. But the dropping out has to occur internally before it can occur externally. I'm not telling kids just to quit school; I'm not telling people to quit their jobs. That is an inevitable development of the process of turning on and tuning in.'

To succeed in what Leary is advocating requires a profound turning inside-out of ones life and entire being. I would suggest that the good man himself was only partial successful in the endeavour - hence some of the 'flaws' in his life, which inevitably influence his work. In Leary's psychological theories, one of the central concepts is 'games'. Most people, most of the time, live their lives through the unconscious adoption of a succession of games. These games are more basic, more visceral, than what we normally attribute to the word 'role'. For a time, Tim Leary played the professor game, wearing the clothes, adopting the style, the social milieu, the values, the motivations and objectives suitable for that particular game. And so it continues.....

A section from 'Flashbacks', Leary's autobiography, illustrates for me most poignantly the devastating effects that shattering the world of games can have. The good doctor is in the middle of his first and terminally game-changing LSD trip:

'After several billion years I found myself on my feet moving through the puppet show of reality. The thought of my kids led me upstairs to my daughter's room. Susan was sitting in bed, the very picture of a thirteen-year-old with her hair up in curlers, frowning at the school book in her lap while rock-and-roll music blasted through the room. It was pure Saturday Evening Post. "Hi, Dad." She was biting a pencil. I slumped against the wall, amazed at this marionette stranger from assembly-line America. She glanced up at me. "Dad, what would you like for Christmas?" She went on biting the pencil, frowning at the book, waving slightly at the beat of the music. In a minute she looked up again. "Dad, I love you."

Leary continues: 'A shock of terror. This was my daughter and this was the father-daughter game. A shallow superficial stereotyped meaningless exchange of Hi, Dad,  Hi, Sue,  How are you Dad? How's school? What do you want for Christmas? Have you done your homework? The plastic doll father and the plastic doll daughter both mounted on little wheels, rolling past each other, around and around on fixed tracks. A complete vulgarization of the real situation: two complex trillion-cell clusters, rooted in an eternity of evolution, sharing for a flicker this unique configuration of space/time. Offered this chance to merge souls and bring out the divinity in the other, we exchanged Hi-Dad-Hi-Susan squeaks. I looked at her beseechingly, straining for real contact. I was stunned with guilt.'

Knowledge, insight, wisdom, awakening: with what a price they come!

Let's return to dropping out, and run through this again: 'dropping out must occur internally before it can occur externally'. This is the nub of the matter. What Leary is doing here is nothing less than reformulating the mystic way - the game to end all games. Invoking the spirit of the Wise Ones of Yore, and presenting it for the times that he found himself in. Dropping out of games, the habitual ways we go about our lives, in large part unconsciously; our default identities, thrust upon us partly by ourselves and partly by the world around us. It's the alchemist's way, purifying the vessel. It's removing the obscuring veils, as one ancient Buddhist text puts it. It's creating the ground on which we may miraculously blossom into our authenticity, our original face, our magnificent uniqueness.