Wednesday, June 26, 2002 :::
Books: It's What's for Supper
DESIGN FOR DYING by Timothy Leary and R.U. Sirius. One suspects this is written almost entirely by Sirius, using Leary’s past writings and ideas as a guide. Another explanation of Leary’s still interesting “eight circuit” model of the brain (more precisely, of human personality development); but that job was still done best by exegete Robert Anton Wilson in Prometheus Rising. Leary has been less respectfully treated by modern historians than any other major sixties cultural figure; seven years after his death and still no one has attempted a serious biography; and this is, one should remember, one of the most fascinating lives of the 20th century—“one of the 20th centuries greatest adventurers” I called him when profiling him in Liberty magazine, and by gum I was right.
He is, as he noted, a living archetype of 20th century life, living out the zeitgeist from the best seats in the house all the way, from West Point silencing to rising high within the most frightening enclave of White Man Establishment Science and Order as a psychologist in the ‘50s to drug and revolution guru in the ‘60s to prison escapee, international fugitive, and prison inmate in the ‘70s to Hollywood slickster in the’ 80s to software and Internet huckster in the ‘90s, the guy was everywhere, met everyone, did everything.
On the back of this book there’s a great picture of the great man, probably in his last year; at any rate looking like, and wearing the same coat, I remember him from the (precious and) few moments I got to spend with him before he died, and thanks Howard, thanks Celia. I wish I’d had the nerve to get a picture of us taken together. I wish I’d had the nerve to do something else I should have done, as well, but that shame is a secret for a limited crew, for now at least.
The book is ostensibly about dying, of course, Tim’s vaunted “final trip.” He knew he was letting down the futurists by not getting his head chopped off and frozen; at least he cooperated with an amusing faux documentary purporting to “show” the non-existent decapitation. I’ll always remember the amusing contempt with which he repeated the phrase “the mind is like an onion” in that one. He was not a Prince of Love, after all, but a prickly Irish prankster intellectual with all the crankiness and dismissiveness that portends. He does have an inspirational message here, one I’ve also encountered in the aging Albert Jay Nock: that your body, bless it, begins winding down the survival instinct as natural death approaches. That is, know how fucking awful you’d feel if you found out today that you’d be dead in a month? When you are 75 and you hear that, you won’t feel quite so bad. The will to live just whiles itself away. Tragic, sort of—it was Tim’s writings that hit me when I was 14 and made me want to live forever and know everything. (They had nothing to do with making me want to get my soul psychedelicized.) But better, probably, in the end, for all of us.
I miss Timothy Leary. This won’t be the book I’ll turn to much when I want his mind around, but I’m glad it’s here, just to immortalize his thoughts on the death trip between two (remaindered, but at least from a major New York house instead of some New Age indy) hard covers. I think Szasz had Kevorkian’s number better than Tim—he’s about empowering the medical monopoly, not the individual, and a fucking weirdo creep besides—but the memorials from friends that make up a big portion of this book are always good if I want to think of Tim and be sad.
THE INHUMANS by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee. A collection of a 12-issue Inhumans mini-series from the ‘90s sometime; something about Lee’s style, grossly sensual and oily, begins to repel after awhile. Besides, if you look at the linework you realize that computer coloring is really supplying most of the feel of the art; Lee isn’t that great with the drawerings. The story does a little bit of that ‘90s “superheroes in the real world” thing but thematically it’s ultimately about making sure superheroes stay as far away from the real world as possible; that’s OK, it’s probably where they belong. The insights into the tragically, um, Inhuman way the citizens of Attilan deal with the changes wrought by adolescence (and the Terrigan mists) on their children are interesting as well.
READING JAZZ: A GATHERING OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY, REPORTAGE, AND CRITICISM FROM 1919 TO NOW, edited by Robert Gottlieb. To truly deal with this over-thousand-page collection of, well, read the subtitle, would mean truly dealing with my thoughts and feelings about jazz, a music style I came to through the printed word; picked up an old Leonard Feather paperback called The Book of Jazz to read over a bowl of frosted shredded wheat one night and soon enough I had a whole new section of the record store to browse through and a new excuse to spend hundreds of dollars. And I found whole new worlds of valuable pleasure, both in books and records. (The bulk of my reading that isn’t novels, short stories, or professional obligations for the past two years has been books about jazz and jazz musicians, and guess what? As books, almost all of them fail, riding not on the author’s skill, passion, storytelling ability or insight but merely on the fact that the topic becomes quasi-intellectual comfort food .) But quickly, in case anyone cares: this one is a bit heavy on autobiographical snippets and reportage from before the 1940s for my interest; but I don’t think there’s a single piece in here without something of value; and if your interest in jazz is wider than mine, so will be your interest in this book.
MAD IN AMERICA: BAD SCIENCE, BAD MEDICINE, AND THE ENDURING MISTREATMENT OF THE MENTALLY ILL by Robert Whitaker. I reviewed this one professionally in the pages of a fine libertarian political magazine, and don’t want to repeat that here. But: the best book of its type I’ve encountered (reportage and history on the dark side of psychiatric medicine) and I hope to God it makes a difference. Like most great non-fiction (and most bad as well, thank someone for small favors) it appears to have sunk to the bottom of our cultural ocean with barely a stray ripple. Well, I’ve been hyping it 12 ways to Sunday every chance I get and I won’t stop here: Read this book!
::: posted by Brian at 2:45 PM