Offhanded thoughts

The Delicious Grace of Moving One's Hand: The Collected Sex Writings
By Timothy Leary
$13.95, 294 pp. Avalon-Thunder's Mouth Press

The only thing worse than watching police teargas protesters in Seattle was sitting through the commentary that followed. Right-wing pundits expressed righteous indignation, referring to the hordes as cappuccino-sipping dilettantes and professional weirdoes who quickly fell into self-parody as they laid waste to Starbucks outlets, the icon of staid yuppiedom.

But beneath the gloating, you could hear cringing. Didn’t the Reagan Revolution and the Contract on America finish off the ‘60s and that decade’s malcontents? The hippies and yippies either threw in the towel and moved to the suburbs, checked out permanently or became refugees in bohemian quarters well-sequestered from decent, God-fearing folk.

Alas, there they were, out of their cages, wreaking havoc on the star chamber of the World Trade Organization and the alleged glories of globalization. While the messengers may be overearnest cartoons, their message is anything but frivolous. And it was in that spirit that I cracked the spine of The Delicious Grace of Moving One’s Hand, a collection of sex writings by Timothy Leary, ex-guru of love and LSD to the Flower Children.

Leary died in 1997 from prostate cancer, the same disease that has afflicted right-wing stalwarts such as Bob Dole, now shilling his own love drugs, and Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, macho hero of the Gulf War. The Leary contained in this book is not the man we saw in his last days, a goat-faced cadaver yammering about the cosmic dimensions of the Internet from his wheelchair. No, no, no. This is Leary at full mast, if you will.

And what messages he beams out! The book begins with an anti-prohibition screed, anchored by a very explicit description of his own conception on a military base the very day after Prohibition became law in 1920. Ma and Pa have at it, and out of their primal urges comes a ready-made seeker who, 42 years later, finds himself in the arms of a lovely lady, enjoying his first psychedelic experience:
We had been sitting harmoniously in front of the fire when Flora Lu leaned toward me. "It’s all Sex, don’t you see?" It had all become clear. Black jazz combos playing the boogie. Swedish blondes disrobing on a tropical beach. Tanned slim Israeli boys belly dancing to frenzied drums. Soft laughter from dark corners and behind bushes. The real secret of the universe was that everyone knew it but me.

Forgive me for checking the name on the book cover. Hugh Hefner himself would have a hard time topping that. Indeed, when describing his "enlightenments," Leary combines the descriptive lyricism of Albert Camus in his Algerian travel pieces with the sexual-liberator egotism of Hefner, the original middle-aged crazy. There is no small irony that soon Leary was lording over a mansion in Millbrook, N.Y., filled with the flotsam and jetsam of the Psychedelic Generation. Like Hef before him, he turned his back on being "a successful robot."

However, the person Leary sounds like most of the time is none other than Marshall McLuhan. The sage of the mass media was a dyed-in-the-wool technological determinist — the toys of communication decide the tone of the culture. A lot of what McLuhan wrote was prognosticating shit wrapped in the old newspaper of Luddite nostalgia. But he had energy to burn. And that’s ultimately what you get from Leary — a lot of heat without much light.

LSD was Leary’s technology. Just as TV had turned Americans into a legion of shopping zombies, acid would free them to rediscover the tribal wonders of community and communion. Ideas were his thing and he had the means and the will to churn them out, decade after decade.

Cynics will say that where there’s heat, there’s hot air. Leary does make an easy target as a gasbag; the title of the book is cunning in its self-deprecation. I can’t imagine sitting through his Berkeley lectures (which make up more than half the book) without ducking out for a drink and some Q-tips to clean my ears. That said, one feels more envy than pity for the author. Leary never sold out. He rode the liberation wave as fast and as far as the culture allowed. He kept searching, never retreating, always hungry for a new hook on which to hang his old concerns.

The final essay, an optimistic look at the future of free love entitled "Cybersex," reads like an elegy, unintended or not. Long gone are the days of naked love in open spaces, the revelers stoned and sexy. Now we’re sitting in front of a box of junk designed by lovelorn geeks, jacking off to the words of a stranger thousands of miles away stuck in the same middle-class nightmare as we are.

No doubt Leary, looking down from on high upon the Battle of Seattle, would see it as a beginning of a consciousness rather than the end. Here’s hoping.

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