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Michael Neve

  • Flashbacks by Timothy Leary
    Heinemann, 397 pp, £9.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 434 40975 8
  • Freud and Cocaine by E.M. Thornton
    Blond and Briggs, 340 pp, £12.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 85634 139 8
  • Right-Wing Women: The Politics of Domesticated Females by Andrea Dworkin
    Women’s Press, 254 pp, £4.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 7043 3907 2
  • Hidden Selves: Between Theory and Practice in Psychoanalysis by Masud Khan
    Hogarth, 204 pp, £12.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 7012 0547 4

How do minds close? Under what series of angers, of single visions, does the deliberate deafness take hold? Not an easy question to answer, since part of the dialectical nightmare of this argument is that the only way a closed mind might be opened is by a mind single-mindedly bent on the task. And you end up with two closed minds, as in a quarrel. It is salutary to reflect how comparatively rare is the expression ‘I don’t know,’ and to admit that arguing with (say) John Wesley, or Bertolt Brecht, or even – to be banal – Roger Scruton, would be a pretty grim business.

Part of the reason for closure, or for manic pedagogy, must be political, in the widest sense of the word. Having launched a social campaign, or founded a project requiring loyalty and propaganda, it is hard to withdraw, or collapse with laughter at the vision of one’s own ghastly self. We are always re-educated, and very rarely re-educate ourselves. Certain themes in the life and work of Sigmund Freud, of the LSD prophet Timothy Leary, and of the more strident feminist authors, of whom Andrea Dworkin is undoubtedly one, give glimpses of the culs-de-sac into which many roads turn. Unsurprisingly, Freud comes off least badly, but the case made against him by E.M. Thornton is so one-track-minded that it really can only lead nowhere. It is the smiling fatuities of Tim Leary which cause the middle-aged flower child most embarrassment, and which make Flashbacks an ‘important historical document’ (American Library Association Booklist).

I can certainly remember when the Leary-inspired craziness took hold, in Cambridge, England. (Interesting how psychedelics seem so Cambridge, in both England and America. Where, other than England’s Cambridge, could Pink Floyd have come into being? Not, one feels, in the University of Oxford.) In the hazy afternoon of one long-vacation term, I was returning to my rooms when I saw a friend of mine approaching, looking, well, different. ‘You won’t believe this, man. The ivy on the walls is turning into snakes, the lawns are silver, there are rainbows round your skull, and what is more, I’ve just passed the Ancient of Days RIGHT HERE IN CHRIST’S COLLEGE!’ This seemed impressive, and I looked into the distance to spot this awesome figure. I turned to my tripped-out chum. ‘What have you taken, man? That’s not the Ancient of Days! That’s Lord Todd of Trumpington!’

Given how vibrant the psychedelic flashback – and, no doubt, the experience – can be, the puzzle is how poorly accounts of it read, and how little difference the terrific powers of LSD-25 made to the social history of the time. Leary turned himself into an evangelist of evolutionary transcendence, and seems doomed to replicate the serious-mindedness of evangelicism while churning out a message of pranks, fun and cultural takeover. As a document of a much underexamined subject – the way that Harvard academics end up with a criminal record – his autobiography makes easy reading. Leary is interesting about his Celtic roots, and about his own wildness. His recommendation of drugs as against alcohol could be taken as the rational message of an Irish bullshitter, O’Leary, able to reflect on his own violence, especially in the personal realm. He starts the book, alarmingly, with a description of his wife Marianne’s suicide, and employs a diluted version of the cut-up technique all the way through, to evoke childhood unhappiness, before flashing forward to Harvard, LSD experiments, drug busts and exile. There is a good discussion, during the schooldays, of how his ‘Gaelic goofiness’ was redeemed by the insights of the Jewish outsider, Richard Alpert, later known as Ram Dass, guru. Leary spent a lot of time getting himself expelled from institutions, and forcing himself into exile, or, as an alternative, turning into a Hollywood prophet for psychedelic drugs. (The other exponent of the virtues of psychedelics in Hollywood in the early Sixties was none other than Cary Grant.) After academics found him too irritating, the evangelical mission became full-time, and it seems that some visitors to Leary’s psychedelic farm at Millbrook, New York found the place almost monastic. Leary loved to turn people on, with various results. Robert Lowell, for example, seems to have felt uncomfortable.

There are some scary bits, in Flashbacks, that force one to admire the recklessness of Leary. The hidden presence of the CIA is menacing, as was (and no doubt is) the extent of the Agency’s interest in using drugs in warfare. The ex-Harvard psychologist becomes the clownish threat to the social control programme of the Intelligence services, knowing more than they do about psychedelic drugs (still legal at the time) and extolling their use against the leaden minds of the straights and the cops. There is no sense in these pages of Timothy Leary being a liar, or a bad man. In the Sixties, he played the part of the Herbert Spencer of the drug culture to the full – ‘Tokyo, an urban hive fascinating to any diligent student of insectoid interpersonal relations’. Or on his early experince of marriage: ‘The nesting circuits of our brains were activated. It was the first time for us both, experiencing that most wondrous human pleasure: all-out-fucking-for-fusion.’

Flashbacks has a lot to say about American political exiles in the Seventies, beached in Algiers, like Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers, and in Switzerland, like Leary. He always seemed to be able to afford champagne and skis. There is also no doubt of his despair, particularly after the failure of his second marriage, exhausted by seven years of flight and harassment. And things got worse: refused entry into England, in the winter of 1972, and unable to prepare a journey to another ‘country of choice’, Leary ended up back in America, to make his way through a series of prisons on the West Coast. None of this can have been fun, particularly running into Charles Manson in Folsom Jail: ‘It tells you right there in Revelation that the women are the cause of all man’s problems,’ says Charlie.

It is around this time that Leary’s mind closes. The circuits close in on their owner. But not only on Leary: Eldridge Cleaver, for example, has apparently become a Reaganite. Leary himself has become One-Dimensional Man, a member of the ‘inventor-innovator genetic caste’, who believes that the population boom after the war has produced 76 million young Americans ‘fresh, confident, programmed for innovation’. His unreadable recent books take their place alongside the mass of 19th-century American Lamarckist literature, equally greedy, equally implausible. (We are all due to go and live in outer space, if young enough.) Leary is at the mercy of this empty epic, hopelessly confident in the expanding future, travelling around with his unconvincing smile and saying ‘Hi’ to everybody. He is putting on a brave face, while turning into precisely the apologist for high-tech vapidity that will eat away the planet he appears to care about.

Inside Flashbacks is a short story about Catholic enthusiasm trying to get out, about a generous spirit, troubled by depression, who believed in finding somewhere else to enjoy life. The closure of this zaniness, its collapse into empty technocratic cheerfulness, is regrettable. But there are worse people than Celtic loonies who believe life can be fun on acid, and if Leon Brittan hadn’t foolishly kept Leary out again, he could have stayed with me.

The perils of believing in ‘the message’, or in the power of a single substance, occupy E.M. Thornton and Andrea Dworkin. Thornton’s bizarre, monomaniacal thesis is straightforward enough. Sigmund Freud was a dope-fiend, wired, for longer than he ever admitted, on cocaine, and all his theories display this addiction and its results. The book is billed as ‘The Demolition of Sigmund Freud’, and sets about its task with some thoroughness.

Instead of following the responsible, somaticist tradition being laid out by the neurologists, Freud was seduced by Charcot, turned onto cocaine by Fliess, and became an irresponsible idealist obsessed with sex. The dark night of Romantic naturphilosophie fell over Europe, as ‘the Freudian revolution’ took hold. Writing a history of medicine that is literally of the ‘Nietzsche paved the way for Nazi Germany’ kind, Thornton sees Freud as an obstacle. Her fantasy is that she has helped kill him, along with Fliess and Breuer, and helped science to continue with its correct approach, concentrating on organic lesion and (something the author has stressed before) the understanding of epilepsy.

Nothing can be wrong with expressing admiration for medical insight into concrete neurological and other disorders. Thornton has not done that particularly well, since her vantage-point is always the correctness of present practice: she quotes extensively from current research, quite anachronistically. But why does she want to close in, convinced of the symmetrical explanation that controls her? Why should it follow that an experimenter with cocaine – as Freud briefly was – should be hounded and reduced? Many students interest themselves in Freud’s ability to mythologise himself, to remain convinced of his own originality, against all the evidence, without foaming at the mouth. And it is not just Freud – father of the terrible swinging Sixties – who is abused. Thornton makes a cheap crack at William Halsted, surgeon at Johns Hopkins Medical School at the end of the last century. Halsted became a cocaine addict for a year or so, around 1885, and had to come off the drug, in a hospital on Rhode Island. During this time, William Henry Welch, professor of pathology at the newly-created medical school in Baltimore, maintained his confidence in Halsted. But, Thornton says, ‘the brilliant, gay and extrovert surgeon had vanished for ever.’ In fact, Halsted became professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins and supervised the activities of its outstanding surgical department there for 21 years. Thornton asks us to regard him simply as a morphine addict. Freud and Cocaine may be inspired by concern for drug-damage, for the failures of ‘permissiveness’. It certainly has it in for Charcot, Freud, Marcuse, Timothy Leary. At times, it can look like medical history as penned by Kingsley Amis, and I suspect it of a harmless, if dislikeable, anti-semitism, and of a definite hostility to the legacy of German Romanticism.

Andrea Dworkin’s ludicrous Right-Wing Women confirms, I am afraid to say, that women do suffer from paranoia. It is an insulting tirade about the ‘coming backlash’ against gays, Jews and some women; about how women will be eliminated (‘gynocide’) as technical means of reproduction make their reproductive role redundant; and about how some women, ‘right-wing women’, have begun to collaborate with patriarchy, as patriarchy winds itself up for the Final Solution to the Women Problem. All men are Mansons. There are no women in this trashy, battering-ram of a book, and certainly no men. There is some twisted theology, a lot of hatred, and a prolonged fantasy of elimination that is then ascribed, to men, as their millennial programme. Men can be dangerous: but so, it seems, can women. Dr Johnson may have been ‘talked dead’ by his female atheist: a certain kind of feminism, and a certain kind of closed language, would now want him dead.

Relief is on the way. As so often, it has a Romantic ancestry, as indeed the work of Freud may have had and as the best of Timothy Leary ought to have had. Romanticism takes up the vital idea that there are times when the self has run out of insights, when the speaking voice is failing, or just talking nonsense. And this admission, that some line of thought is just wrong, or played out, or insufficiently imaginative to warrant attention, brings with it the chance of stopping, of taking a break, without retribution. Of biding, not wasting, one’s time. Of the right to silence, and the absolute importance of being able to change one’s mind or be ambivalent, or, more likely, of having nothing to say. In his essays in Hidden Selves, Masud Khan gives an unsatisfactory sketch of the Romantic contribution to psychoanalysis, but this thin book contains one small gem, the essay ‘On Lying Fallow’. Developing the idea from his understanding of the work of Winnicott, Khan proposes that the ability to ‘tolerate non-communication’ and find a ‘quiescent aloneness’ is part of the way to find the hidden self, the Other.

Lying fallow may mean ‘being unintegrated’ lying fallow may be misread by the outside world, and seen as laziness or arrogance. But in that silence, that admission that one part of the game is up, a self may begin. Without overdoing the natural imagery that he so finely evokes, Khan gives the self its chance of refreshment, its chance to stop thinking mercilessly, its admission of ‘failure’ that conceals future success. Three of these books are about the closed, while arguing for the open. Khan’s hint at Romanticism’s respect for failure, and the need to bide time, is also his indication that, lying fallow, something happens in us.