In November of 1966, the poet Allen Ginsberg made a modest proposal to a room full of Unitarian ministers in Boston. “Everybody who hears my voice try the chemical LSD at least once,” he intoned. “Then I prophecy we will all have seen some ray of glory or vastness beyond our conditioned social selves, beyond our government, beyond America even, that will unite us into a peaceful community.”
The poet had been experimenting with drugs since the 1940s as a way of achieving the state that his Beat Generation friends named the “New Vision,” methodically keeping lists of the drugs he sampled — morphine with William Burroughs, marijuana with fellow be-bop fans in jazz clubs, and eventually the psychedelic vine called ayahuasca with a curandero in Peru.
For Ginsberg, drugs were not merely an indulgence or form of intoxication; they were tools for investigating the nature of mind, to be employed in tandem with writing, an approach he called “the old yoga of poesy.” In 1959, he volunteered to become an experimental subject at Stanford University, where two psychologists who were secretly working for the CIA to develop mind-control drugs gave him LSD; listening to recordings of Wagner and Gertrude Stein in the lab, he decided that acid was “a very safe drug,” and thought that even his suburban poet father Louis might like to try it.
By the time he addressed the Unitarian ministers in Boston, Ginsberg had become convinced that psychedelics held promise as agents of transformative mystical experience that were available to anyone, particularly when combined with music and other art forms. In place of stiff, hollow religious observances in churches and synagogues, the poet proposed “naked bacchantes” in national parks, along with sacramental orgies at rock concerts, to call forth a new, locally-grown American spirituality that could unify a generation of Adamic longhairs and earth mothers alienated by war and turned off by the pious hypocrisy of their elders.
Ginsberg’s potent ally in this campaign was a psychology professor at Harvard named Timothy Leary, who would eventually become the most prominent public advocate for mass consumption of LSD, coining a meme that became the ubiquitous rallying cry of the nascent 20th-century religious movement as it proliferated on t-shirts, black-light posters, and neon buttons from the Day-Glo Haight-Ashbury to swinging London: Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.
Among those who took up the cause was the Beatles. John Lennon turned Leary’s woo-tastic mashups of The Tibetan Book of the Dead into one of the most profoundly strange, terrifying, and exhilarating tracks ever recorded: “Tomorrow Never Knows” on Revolver, which swooped in on a heart-stopping Ringo stutter-beat chased by clouds of infernal firebirds courtesy of backwards guitar and a tape loop of Paul McCartney laughing.
As the public faces of the psychedelic revolution, Ginsberg and Leary made a dynamic duo. The charming, boyish, Irish Harvard professor and the ecstatic, boldly gay, Hebraically-bearded Jersey bard became the de facto gurus of the movement they’d helped create — father figures for a generation of lysergic pilgrims who temporarily jettisoned their own fathers in their quest for renewable revelation.
By the close of the ’60s — with ominous stormclouds on the horizon in the form of violent debacles like Altamont, a Haight-Ashbury that had been taken over by speed freaks and the Mob, and Charles Manson’s crew of acid-addled zombie assassins — Ginsberg was already looking for more grounding and lasting forms of enlightenment. He eventually found what he was seeking in Buddhist mindfulness meditation.
The poet retained his counterculture cred until his death of liver cancer in 1997, but Leary didn’t fare as well. Subjected to obsessive persecution by government spooks like Watergate plumber G. Gordon Liddy, Leary launched a series of psychedelic communes that collapsed under the weight of their own ego-trips. Years of arrests, jail terms, spectacular escapes from prison aided by the Black Panthers, disturbing betrayals, and bizarre self-reinventions followed the brief season when the psych labs of Harvard seemed to give new birth to a new breed of American Transcendentalism that was as democratic as a test tube.
The spectacular rise and fall of Leary and Ginsberg’s plot to turn on the world is the subject of a new book by Peter Conners called White Hand Society, published by City Lights Books. I knew Ginsberg well for 20 years and was his teaching assistant at Naropa, a Buddhist university in Colorado, yet I learned a lot about Ginsberg’s role in helping to create Leary’s public identity by reading the book, which is based mostly on the lively correspondence between the two men. (For more detailed analysis of White Hand Society, see this insightful review by poet, Buddhist student, and Ginsberg scholar Marc Olmsted.) I spoke with Conners when he came through San Francisco on his book tour. He is currently at work on an oral history of the jam-band scene called JAMerica.
Steve Silberman: How did you come to write White Hand Society?
Peter Conners: I was visiting a friend at Stanford Law School in 1995. I knew that Stanford had just acquired Allen Ginsberg’s papers for the whopping and well-deserved sum of $1 million, all beautifully catalogued and so forth. So I had my friend get me in to see Allen’s papers with no real agenda about I was looking for. I signed out some boxes from the years I was most interested in, and found all sorts of interesting things. But the most fascinating was the correspondence between Allen and Timothy Leary. These letters were so exciting and intriguing, written from all over the world — mail from Mexico, postcards from Switzerland. The first letters were very formal, written on Harvard stationery, but they take on this almost poetic form as the years go by. The whole progression of their relationship is very clear.
Silberman: Until I read your book, I never realized how much of an influence Allen had on Leary.
Conners: It was massive. That’s really the heart of this book: How Allen Ginsberg enabled Timothy Leary to become Timothy Leary. It goes back to Allen being asked to give a presentation to all these psychiatrists coming in for an annual conference in Boston. Allen gets up there and reads a poem called “Lysergic Acid” and another called “Laughing Gas.” After the conference, Allen hears about Leary’s work and Leary — who was involved in testing psychedelics as “psychotomimetics,” substances that mimic psychosis — hears about Allen. Before then, there wasn’t really any artistic component to Leary’s research.
So in comes Allen, this great networker, this expert at forging connections between people in a very pure and organic way, and he turns Leary onto this idea of getting great artists and intellectuals to take these drugs. They thought that by the time the government caught on to what they were doing, they would have a foundation of prominent intellectuals who supported their work. Leary would later come right out and say, “From the time that Ginsberg showed up on my doorstep, everything changed. After that, the project was different, my life was different, and I was on a different path.” That spark drove me to write White Hand Society.
Silberman: I think it’s very smart that you open the book with Allen having auditory hallucinations of the voice of William Blake, who was like his poetic guru, in his apartment in Harlem in 1948. Allen and the other Beat writers had been experimenting with peyote and ayahuasca as far back as the early ’50s. Back then, you could buy peyote buttons on the streets of New York; there was a famous nursery on the Lower East Side where all the local hipsters would buy their peyote.
For Allen, psychedelic experience — like writing poems or anything else — was a form of scientific investigation. I love that quote from Leary in your book: “Every citizen a scientist.” Allen certainly felt that way about himself, though he didn’t draw a firm line between scientific investigation and mystical gnostic investigation. So, every citizen a scientist, and every citizen on a gnostic quest for hidden knowledge. The epigraph of his book Kaddish and Other Poems is, “The message is: Widen the area of consciousness.”
Allen must have been a natural fit for Leary, and the elder poet was surely impressed with Leary’s Harvard credentials. Not many neo-hippie kids who post pictures of Leary to their Facebook profiles know that he was the inventor of some of the most widely-used standardized personality tests in the 1950s. Before he began championing LSD, he was taken very seriously by the psychiatric establishment. One of the most memorable moments from Leary’s early research at Harvard was the so-called Good Friday Experiment.
Conners: Yes. Leary, Walter Pahnke, and Ram Dass, who was then still called Richard Alpert, got a bunch of seminary students together in a Boston chapel on Good Friday and gave some of them psilocybin extract while others got placebos. The idea was to test if the drug enhanced the spiritual experience. So within 20 minutes you had some people rolling around in the pews, talking to God, and other people sitting there saying, “Well, I guess we didn’t get the good stuff.” The people who had taken the psychedelics certainly seemed to have a more powerful experience with a more lasting spiritual resonance. So Leary always touted that as being one of the most successful scientific experiments of psychedelics, and it passed into the countercultural lore.
Silberman: Ultimately, however, White Hand Society is a tragedy, because Leary’s scene gets so ragged. What were some of the choices he made that took him down the wrong road of becoming just a psychedelic huckster? Could Leary have done anything differently so that psychedelics didn’t create such an enormous panic among the authorities?
Conners: At a certain point, Leary gave up on science. At first he was really looking for data to legitimize psychedelic research. But eventually he just started talking in terms of cultivating spiritual enlightenment with these drugs. He started speaking in ways that were completely non-scientific, even in his professional papers and presentations. The way I look at it is that there was no adequate scientific language to talk about these experiences, so what Leary did was fall back on sort of hip talk and poetic language he was getting from Allen and also from the poet Charles Olson and other people who were in his circle at that time. That didn’t fly at Harvard. As soon as Leary came out and started talking like that, it was the end of psychiatrists and psychologists taking him seriously. From that point on, he became this person on a mission, proselytizing for enlightenment, beyond any sort of psychological principles.
One of the interesting side stories I love was William Burroughs coming to stay with Leary at Harvard, and having the same beef with him that the Harvard establishment had. Burroughs wanted rats running through mazes, electrodes, serious scientific studies going on. But after staying in Leary’s attic for a while he said, “You know, nothing is going on here — you guys are just getting high and enjoying yourselves!” And he started denouncing Leary. So Burroughs was the first influential figure from the counterculture to turn against him.
Another of Leary’s early clashes with the counterculture was the “houseboat summit” set up on Alan Watts’ houseboat by an underground newspaper called The Oracle following the Human Be-In in 1967. The participants were Leary, Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Alan Watts. I reprinted the entire summit in the back of the book because I thought it was such a valuable and insightful discussion. Leary had just started to unveil the “turn on, tune in, drop out” trip. Part of the idea of the Be-In was to bring together the free-speech Berkeley radicals with the hippie drop-out scene. So you had Leary coming in as one of the gurus of the counterculture, and you had these anti-war movement people in Berkeley saying, “Well, you can’t just ‘drop out.’ There’s a war going on, that’s completely irresponsible, we have a lot of work to do.” The houseboat summit laid open that divide very clearly. Leary stuck to his guns. He said that by engaging politically, you were empowering the war machine. That wasn’t going to go over well with people whose friends were going off to die in the jungle.
It’s interesting to consider Leary’s age at the time. He was quite a bit older than these guys. Leary had already aged out of draft eligibility, as had Allen. But Allen was so tied in with everyone anyway. He was able to go between the Berkeley scene and the Haight-Ashbury scene as a sort of ambassador. People on every side could catch Allen’s ear and ask him, “What does Leary mean by this?” Allen often found himself in the position of having to explain people to one another. He was such a sympathetic person.
So you see this divide emerging at that summit. Ginsberg was much more engaged in the anti-war movement, and starting to become more politicized, and he had given up on some of the Blake vision stuff. He wanted to engage with society and forge a poetics of activism.
Silberman: Allen had always been politically active. He was writing letters to the New York Times when he still was a teenager. He made some agreement with God that if God let him into Columbia University — where he could follow this guy he had a huge crush on — he would “save the workers” or something like that. Allen was a red-diaper baby: his parents had been socialists, as he explains in his tragic epic poem “Kaddish,” which I like more than “Howl,” actually. So Allen was always politically aware.
The other thing that made Allen distinct from Leary was that Allen was very practical. People see pictures of Allen dressed up in an Indian shmatte and chanting “Om” and they think, “This guy is totally off the wall.” But that’s the opposite of the truth. In fact, Allen was completely down to earth — a classic, skeptical delicatessen intellectual who would have said to anyone, “Drop out? OK — what then?”
When I was reading your book, I was very struck by how vacuous and insubstantial Leary’s sloganeering was. He was basically a genius marketer. Leary could have had a brilliant career hyping luxury cars, iPads, or social-media startups. But instead, he ended up hawking LSD and psychedelic gnosis. He was great at coming up with memes that would stick in everyone’s head, like “set and setting” or “turn on, tune in, drop out.” It was a genius slogan that fits on any bumper sticker or t-shirt. But then you need someone like Allen to say, “What is everyone supposed to do after dropping out? How does that help you deal with basic human issues like facing old age, sickness, suffering, and death?”
Conners: Gary Snyder had such great insights too. He was a back-to-the-land guy and was so in tune with the environment, with working the land and making things with your hands, and what you needed to do to set up a collective. He was such an important grounding figure. He was also someone Ginsberg was willing to take direction from. Snyder actually has my favorite statements in the whole houseboat exchange.
Silberman: Mine too. He comes across as totally clear-headed, not caught up in the over-the-top nonsense of the age at all.
Allen had a very conflicted relationship with visionary states, in part because spent the first part of his life obsessively cultivating them and saw that they led nowhere. You don’t get into what happened a week after his original vision of Blake’s voice, when Allen tried to re-invoke it and ended up having a horrific, nightmarish experience. He took that as a lesson if you tried to invoke visionary states consciously, you didn’t always know what you were getting. You might get merry Krishna or grim Shiva.
So as Allen developed as a poet and a Buddhist, he became less trusting that visionary states yielded anything useful, in part because they were transitory. No matter how high you got, you would always come down. He had gotten that lesson himself early on by trying to force another Blake vision and ending up in Hell.
Conners: There’s that section of my book when Allen and his partner Peter Orlovsky are in India with Snyder and have an audience with the Dalai Lama. At that point, Allen is still fascinated with LSD and very much working with Leary to spread the word, so he asks the Dalai Lama if he’d like to try some acid. And the Dalai Lama replies with a hilarious line, “If I take LSD, can I see what’s in that briefcase?”
Silberman: Yeah, but I believe you gave that line an ironic spin of your own in the book, as if it was a sarcastic question on the Dalai Lama’s part. I suspect that it was a very sincere question. The Dalai Lama has an extremely open mind, and sarcasm isn’t really his thing. As a boy, the Dalai Lama was raised in a palace, and there were certain rooms in the palace that he wasn’t supposed to go into. But he was extremely curious, so he would enter these rooms and discover things like microscopes and clocks. He was always very interested in what was going on in the West, and particularly in science. He has never been a retrograde fundamentalist who doesn’t want to know what’s happening in the great wide world out there. So I think he really wanted to know — if you take LSD, do you develop X-ray vision?
Conners: That’s interesting. I had taken it as a kind of koan.
Silberman: I like that the Dalai Lama was actually game to try acid, you know?
Conners: Yes (laughing). Then of course Snyder replied with something like, “Ginsberg, the contents of your mind are just as boring as the rest of us. You’ve got the Dalai Lama here! Let’s talk about meditation technique, posture and breathing instead.”
Silberman: Right. That’s one of the reasons Snyder’s writing doesn’t seem like bullshit years later — because he really is a rigorous scholar. When he wanted to learn about Zen, he wasn’t content, as Jack Kerouac was, to check out Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible from the library and cross his legs for 10 minutes on the couch. Instead, Snyder went to Japan and trained for years in one of the monasteries in Kyoto where Zen was invented. So Snyder deeply knew what he was talking about, while one gets the feeling that Leary’s knowledge of these ancient civilizations that he would tirelessly mention was very superficial and dilettantish. He didn’t really know how they worked or what was practical.
Conners: As you say, Leary was a great marketer. Unfortunately that might have been the extent of his interest in these traditions. He wasn’t about to go to a monastery to practice sitting. And eventually, he wasn’t even marketing psychedelics anymore. He was marketing Timothy Leary in order to get money to defend himself from the people who were persecuting him. So he was caught in a circular trap: “I have to be Timothy Leary to make money to defend myself for being Timothy Leary.” That’s where his story becomes terribly sad and breaks down into self-caricature. Ginsberg was saved by poetry. Whenever anything happened, it became fodder for his poetry — it was his life, his guiding spiritual force. He always had that to go back to. Leary didn’t have that — he didn’t have the intellectual grounding.
Silberman: Do you think that if things had unfolded differently for Leary, psychedelics could have been successfully incorporated into mainstream medicine or psychology?
Conners: I actually think they are now more than they’ve ever been. My wife is a clinical psychologist. I recently read an article in The Monitor on tests they’re doing now with psilocybin and MDMA. One potential application is for post-traumatic stress disorder that all these soldiers are coming back with from the Middle East. Another is to help terminal patients prepare for death. The Monitor is a very mainstream venue — it’s the trade journal for psychologists. So after 40 years of a virtual blackout on psychedelic research, you can do it again now, thanks to the efforts of people like Rick Doblin at MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
Silberman: I think Leary actually helped hasten the blackout, simply by going on and on with his inflammatory and hyperbolic claims about psychedelics. In a Playboy interview in 1966, he said in a properly conducted LSD session, a woman could expect to have hundreds of orgasms. He also insisted that LSD had “cured” Allen Ginsberg of homosexuality. Let’s just say that by the time I met Allen, when he was in his 50s, he must have been having a major relapse!
Leary would say these things that were almost designed to make cops and other authority figures freak out. What red-blooded American teenager could read about women having “hundreds of orgasms” and not want to rush out and gobble up all the LSD they could? So Leary’s karma was definitely complicated. It’s not that he was some pure-hearted gnostic visionary victimized by these awful G. Gordon Liddy and J. Edgar Hoover types. He was really rather unskillful in the way that he presented psychedelics to the culture. His way was almost guaranteed to provoke a hysterical response. I was taken aback when I got to the part in your book where you talk about Leary hanging out with Black Panthers in Algeria and he’s pushing the notion of armed revolution by issuing statements like, “Shoot to live, aim for life.” That seemed so unlike the Leary he had been just five years before. He was like a chameleon.
Conners: He was very much a chameleon, there’s no doubt about it. At that point, his two biggest benefactors were the Black Panthers and the Weathermen. The Panthers must have thought his “armed and dangerous” schtick was hilarious. I doubt Leary ever held a gun! You can imagine him pulling the trigger and getting knocked backwards by the recoil. Ken Kesey published a great response to that, which was basically, “Listen, we don’t need another nut with a gun. We need our friend, the scientist Tim Leary.”
Silberman: One of the poignant moments in the book is when Kesey and the Merry Pranksters arrive at Millbrook at the end of their cross-country trip in the bus called Furthur. You might think that Kesey, the guy who turned on the West coast, might get along with the guy who turned on the East coast, but they didn’t.
Conners: There was definitely a philosophical divide between them. The Leary camp saw themselves much more as spiritual investigators. They would tape themselves chanting translations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which they had turned into a kind of roadmap for psychedelic experience. So you’d be sitting in this quiet room, listening to these soothing voices coming in, and it was all meant to really guide your trip. Then you had Kesey with his Acid Tests — this massive Jackson Pollock approach to psychedelics, where you splattered things on the canvas, and out of that came the living artwork.
The timing of that visit was problematic too. The Millbrook folks had been up tripping all night and were just starting to come down, and up the road comes this busload of people peaking on acid, blaring rock music, and throwing smoke bombs out the window. They quickly pegged Leary’s group as a drag. They called that quiet-room stuff the “crypt trip.” The way the Pranksters saw it, Leary’s folks were trying to control the trip too much, as opposed to opening things up and making it all this spontaneous artistic celebration.
Silberman: Ultimately, what is the legacy of what Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary created together?
Conners: I think their legacy is an openness and acceptance of authentic spirituality in American life. You can go pretty much anywhere in America and start talking about meditation or Buddhism, or mind-body interactions, and there’s at least some vague grasp of what you’re talking about. It kills me that you have all these middle-aged housewives going around with their yoga mats now. It doesn’t crack me up like, “How phony it all is!” I think it’s wonderful. And of course then there’s the other side of their legacy too, which is the federal War on Drugs. So it’s a complicated situation — a heavy mixture of dark and light. That’s what I really tried to get at in White Hand Society.
Silberman: Yeah. I think some of the ways that Allen changed over the years was because of what he saw happen to Leary. Instead of trying to create a temporarily heightened state of consciousness, Allen wanted to cultivate a more stable, grounded baseline — compassionate, illuminated, in a sense, but not a supernova that would burn itself out. In the early ’70s, Allen found a Tibetan Buddhist teacher named Chögyam Trungpa, and one of the first things that Trungpa asked him was, “Do you even know what you’re doing when you’re chanting mantras in front of these huge audiences?” Trungpa warned Allen that he was getting his readers high — but then what? He was leaving them high and dry.
Trungpa had his own problems, but he stressed to Allen the importance of having a stable, regular meditation practice. You’re not looking to get high, you’re not looking to avoid getting low, you’re just putting your ass in a chair and breathing, and watching what’s happening — and whatever’s happening is the meditation. That turns out to be of more lasting benefit than grasping after states of transcendence and bliss.
Conners: Indeed. And that might be a nice place to end our conversation.
Thanks to Peter Hale of the Allen Ginsberg Estate for use of images. Please visit the official Allen Ginsberg website.