To Narc on One’s Self: The Head Cases of Timothy Leary and Philip K. Dick


Timothy Leary: A Biography, by Robert Greenfield. 2006
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson. 1971
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick. 1977
A Scanner Darkly, (Movie) by Richard Linklater. 2006
Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, by Lawrence Sutin. 1986

Time has been quite cruel to Timothy Leary’s best known prescription: that the mass indulgence of hallucinogens would result in a liberating transformation of American society. The “mystic vision” behind this bad notion actually belonged to the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, but Leary was seen as the “perfect person for the job” of advancing the alchemist’s agenda — initially through the dosing of famous artists, poets, intellectuals and musicians. Whatever value may lie in consciousness alteration among society’s vanguard, the more wide-spread the experiment became, the more terrible its public costs, the more Leary seemed to deny that it had all gone horribly wrong. The crimes of the Manson family should have been a sickening wake-up call, and if there is a flicker of vitality still left in the original proposition that some intrinsic and transcendent wisdom lies in the imbibing of psychedelics, the news that right-wing harpy Ann Coulter (a shrew so shrill even conservatives have tired of her) remains a wistful Deadhead might prove sobering.

Robert Greenfield’s 600+ page biography of Leary reveals a charismatic and talented Irish huckster who anti-heroically refused to sober up. Though he initially approached psychedelics with scientific skepticism and hopes for psychiatric use, the mystic vision imparted by Ginsberg took deep hold and propelled him from F. Scott Fitzgerald wanna-be to Acid King to pseudo-Revolutionary fugitive, before winding up as a Hollywood Squares style B-list celebrity with a penchant for fringe science. One of the oddest kinks in this declension, a turning point in Greenfield’s biography, is when Leary, behind bars and looking at rotting the rest of his life in prison, named names in the drug movement he had built. To show the depths of his penitence he penned articles for the conservative flagship The National Review, in which he lambasted the druggie music and wayward morals of his friend John Lennon (and Bob Dylan) while also attempting to lure his devoted ex-wife into arrest. Bummer.

Why did Leary flip and fink? Perhaps there was some residual effect from the stupendous amounts of all the acid, brain damage that lent a certain plasticity to his character, or maybe it was an addiction to a more common and insidious drug: fame. Leary behind bars was forgotten as the world moved on, a fate too grating to endure for an egomaniac, especially if all that was to be sacrificed were past principles and allies. Ratting out his friends, associates and lawyers would both place him back in the public eye and speed his release, and it seemed to have worked okay. Credit the man with dancing fast enough to avoid his “karma”.

A noteworthy side effect of this episode is the way Leary’s fall from grace came to symbolize the death of the sixties for so many. When a grand vision with utopian promise grabs a sizable chunk of culture then sputters out into betrayal and self-parody, it remains with the burned romantics, writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Philip K. Dick, to best chronicle the aftermath. Both men were masters of writing a certain style of drug addled jive, prose that crackled with wild energy and potential violence while teetering between complete paranoia and high comedy. Thompson, in his best known book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas captures both the triumph of the counter-culture in full bloom and its quick collapse:

You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning . . .

And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

The human cost of that “broke and rolled back” was vicious in lives, health, and hope. Even as early as 1971, Thompson bemoaned the “fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip”:

He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a though to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously. . . What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create . . . a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody – or at least some force – is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.

It was among the terror of those “grim meat hook realities” that Philip K. Dick (PKD) often lived and wrote, combining, in his later novels, the sweaty dregs of the drug culture with the All-American horror of H. P. Lovecraft. In his A Scanner Darkly, the protagonist, Bob Arctor, covertly works as a narcotics agent in a bleakly futuristic Orange County California. Coupled with an array of high-tech surveillance gear, Arctor’s growing intake of the schizophrenia-inducing drug “Substance D” is driving him to narc on himself. Arctor is a burned out divorcée living with other thirty-something bachelor freaks in a drug den of a suburban house, a setting inspired by PKD’s own shattered home in Marin County of the early seventies. PKD, according to biographer Lawrence Sutin, was near broke and addicted to amphetamines. He suffered from bouts of agoraphobia and kept an open house policy for teenage hippies and dealers. During roughly the same time, an exiled Tim Leary was enjoying the life of a coked-up ski bum in Switzerland, haunting through force of celebrity and charm, the chalets of dubious aristocrats in a dance of mutual scams.

In A Scanner Darkly, one of the more psychotic characters, in order to burn the luckless protagonist Arctor, impersonates him on the phone and signs off with “Tune in, turn on and good-bye,” a stunt seemingly calculated to call down the wrath of the straights. Leary’s most famous phrase, of course, was “Tune in, turn on and drop out” and the last clause was already a tacit admission that the initial flush of psychedelic potential had failed to radically transform America . . . that the drug culture should simply “drop out” and either go into internal exile or live parasitically off of the straights. Funny how touchy straight society got on that score.

Leary was a fan of PKD’s sci-fi, and through a bit of druggie synchronicity, the guru manqué has a connection to the current movie version of A Scanner Darkly, directed by Richard Linklater. Leary’s archivist through-out the sixties was Michael Horowitz, the father of the Hollywood actress Winona Ryder, who co-stars as in A Scanner Darkly. (Ryder regarded Leary as her godfather and has written a foreword to one of Leary’s latest biographies.) Horowitz, as archivist and friend, was put in a terrible bind when Leary started collaborating with the Feds in prison. He agonized over whether to surrender Leary’s files as Leary requested and was dismayed by the personal pressure to turn over incriminating letters. The New York Times reported that with the archives seized, the FBI hoped “they would be able to solve every drug case of the 1960s”. While the high aspirations and naiveté of the Feds were comical, the resulting paranoia among the drug culture was very real. The flood of undercover agents that hit the streets at the end of the Nixon administration, and the tactic of dealers to turn in the competition, were part of the reason that narcs were an obsession of both Thompson and PKD. The idea that the necessary intimacy of drug use could be contaminated by the subterfuge of a cop was the ultimate buzz-kill, the recession of that “high and beautiful wave,” and Leary’s betrayal helped to show how hollow the whole show was to begin with.

Called in front of a grand jury in 1975, Winona’s Dad refused to testify, befuddling the prosecuting attorney by maintaining that archivists possesses the same privileged confidentiality that is bestowed upon priests, spouses and attorneys. A clever tact, he escaped without indictment, and decades later, his daughter, in a PKD derived movie, would play a narc that plots to drive another narc insane in an elaborate plot to bust a drug manufacturer. That schizoid mirroring and fear/fascination with undercover cops was not just a literary trope for PKD. According to Sutin, in February of 1973, despite his still occasional use of cannibinoids, Dick wrote to the Justice Department offering up A Scanner Darkly as part of the fight against drugs.  Throughout the seventies he corresponded with the FBI to let them know that despite the appreciation of his novels by left-wing and even French literary critics, he, PKD, was a patriot.

Of all the many films that have been based on PKD’s works, Linklater’s is the closest in spirit and tone to such schizoid deliberations. The book, despite its thin veneer of sci-fi, was an obvious cri de coeur emanating from the sixties hangover. Stripped of its proper temporal context, Linklater’s film recalibrates much of Philip Dick’s horror and anguish as comedy, substituting gritty poverty and the bitterly-earned paranoia of the early seventies for nineties style slacker wit. In Southern California of the early seventies, it was possible that a bunch of edgy hippies and drug dealers might actually know someone, or have connections to, radical terrorist groups like the Weather Underground.  Similar connections between psychedelic slackers and today’s radical terrorism are hard to imagine, and the film characters efforts to make them stretch into silliness.

Imagining the future through science fiction was a shared fixation of Leary and Dick, one with flippant optimism and the other with tendentious horror. Their idiosyncratic approaches as futurists provided downright, well . . . . trippy codas to their lives. Leary briefly flirted with the idea of cheating death and getting a glimpse of tomorrow. Intrigued by cryogenic preservation, Leary, on his deathbed, talked of having a sketchy cryonic corporation sever and freeze his head for future re-animation. Owing to a lack of trust with said corporation, Leary backed out and passed away in front of cameras and surrounded by friends. Dick, who popularized the existential dilemmas of androids, died in 1982 but recently served as a model for a highly-detailed robotic head, a showcase for the work of Hanson Robotics Inc, complete with an “artificial-intelligence-driven personality”. The construct was designed to simulate a conversation with the dead author, but alas, David Hanson, the builder, misplaced the head on an airplane in December of last year and it has yet to reappear. Given such material, one’s tempted to ponder the bizarreness of it all, perhaps even by drifting into one of PKD’s parallel realms, a dark future in which the frosty noggin of Timothy Leary and the android cephalos of PKD bullshit each other on the nature of reality.