'The White Hand Society', or, the Nirvana Salesmen of Applied Mysticism

Allen Ginsberg, stoned on Timothy Leary's mushrooms, calls the operator to contact Jack Kerouac: “What’s my name? This is God. G.O.D.”

The White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg

Publisher: City Lights
Price: $16.95
Author: Peter Conners
Length: 312 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-11
Publisher's website

The title refers to a drinking club of two Timothy Leary started at Harvard, around 1960. It never amounted to much, but Peter Conners uses it for his book, which links Leary to Allen Ginsberg over the decades, from the Beats to the Hippies, and into the Watergate era, the War on Drugs, and the final days of both countercultural pioneers. Their partnership is not an unfamiliar story.

What Conners contributes that is fresh are his excerpts and summations from the Ginsberg archives of his correspondence at Stanford; added to the referenced material from Barry Miles’ and Bill Morgan’s published research on the poet, Conners maps the trail of where Ginsberg’s paths intersected with Leary’s over three-hundred readable, well-paced, straightforward pages. While Conners does not credit Michael Schumacher’s 1994 Dharma Lion biography, which focused on the poetry itself, his use of Miles and Morgan among others, along with a reliance on Robert Greenfield’s excellent 2006 biography of Leary, makes for a welcome overview for those seekers who may not wish to tackle those hefty volumes in their quest to find out about what linked, and sometimes divided, these two visionary pranksters.

Via such vignettes as a deadpan recital of an early mushroom trip under Leary (Ginsberg calls the operator to contact Jack Kerouac: “What’s my name? This is God. G.O.D.”), Conners reviews Ginsberg’s poetic and cultural impact. He explains Leary’s professorial and clinical LSD studies starting in 1958. William Burroughs enters the circle. In February 1961, Leary tells Ginsberg about his newest convert to his mushroom experiments. “And it all goes so well, pieces falling into place, running along with some great nine foot tied that’s pushing the white hand.” Conners explains the Society, such as it was: Ginsberg introduces Leary, at the start of the '60s, to the artists who can influence the Great Society. Leary exposes Ginsberg to “powerful hallucinatory visions.” By making psilocybin and mescaline respectable, under Harvard’s sponsorship, Leary sought to break out of academia while using his position within it to, at least not yet, drop out. First, he wanted America’s elite to tune in and turn on.

Leary dominates most of the ensuing saga. As a “nirvana salesman”, his entrepreneurial skills and charlatan flair enabled him, for example, to go AWOL from the Ivy League to hang out in Hollywood on behalf of his front group for psychedelic experimentation, The International Foundation for Internal Freedom. He crafted and timed his failure to show up for the end of the spring semester of 1963 so as to make it seem as if Harvard fired him “for taking and advocating the use of psychedelics.” With such publicity, Leary launched his movement.

In January 1967, Leary and Ginsberg convene at the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park. “Only a half-dozen years after they had sat in Leary’s kitchen at Harvard, they were now watching its physical manifestation in the form of 25,000 psychedelic voyagers grooving together in a field in San Francisco.” The Pope of Dope urged the crowd: “The only way out is in. Turn on, tune in, and drop out. Out of high school, junior executive, senior executive. Follow me!” He then sat down and played patty-cake with a little girl for most of the afternoon.

This was the carefree appeal, and the practical problem. As Ginsberg represented the activist, Berkeley, politically radical contingent, Leary spoke for Haight-Ashbery’s psychedelic flower-children, the pacifists and resisters to conformity, or to revolution. As the following month’s “Houseboat Summit” on Alan Watts’ boat in the San Francisco Bay documents in an appendix, how to drop out and from where, as Ginsberg and Gary Snyder challenged Leary, remained the practical problem. Leary insists that a portion of society will be able to withdraw from the straights, analogous to a day off every seven days in our work week, and that the world can survive. Ginsberg wonders how the engineers and astronomers will pass on their knowledge and skills to those who leave the universities for the prairies and woods.

Leary’s “applied mysticism” did have idealistic qualities. Leary convinced himself and earnestly, if fumblingly (as the Summit records) tried to convert such as Snyder and Watts along with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters to the concept of raising consciousness by chemicals so as to allow dropouts to transform the technocratic capitalist machine into an ecologically gentler, anti-urban, and subversively sexy society. The showdown, as chronicled incompletely by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), at Leary’s Millbrook manor-commune (the conflation is telling) between the West Coast Pranksters who followed Kesey’s “Get them into your movie before they get you into theirs” contrasts with East Coast Leary’s game-theories, linguistic grounding, and more unified front approaches to psychic liberation—thus the White Hand Society and IFIF and other monikers.

The rest of the story takes up Leary’s increasing advocacy of radical change by violence rather than peace. The shift to engage, on terms even beyond Berkeley’s and Ginsberg’s stances, can be attributed to the Federal government’s crackdown on Leary’s possession of marijuana in 1966, his first run-ins with nemesis (and future tag-team lecturer on the college circuit) G. Gordon Liddy, and prison time after his arrest at the end of 1968. His Brotherhood of Eternal Love, another front, this time for drug smuggling and production, angered his mellower, spiritual followers. Leary grandstanded running against Ronald Reagan as California’s governor, and by 1970, Leary was locked up. There, he was administered his own psychological test, and he gamed the answers to get him better conditions that would lead to his flight.

His escape, dramatically retold by Conners, led to a manipulated limbo at Eldridge Cleaver’s Black Panther embassy in Algeria, which had no extradition treaty. When Cleaver tired of Leary’s empty promises for a share of the book advance for the tale of his prison break (the project was shelved), Cleaver had no use for hanger-on Leary. Edgy, suspected, his open letter to Ginsberg from Algeria signaled his espousal of Weathermen rhetoric. He proclaimed a new slogan: “Shoot to Live/Aim for Life.”

Subsequently, if told in a too compressed a form by Conners, Leary worked with the FBI and DEA in exchange for release from a second term in California’s penitentiary when he was recaptured after uneasy passages with shady minders, via Geneva and Kabul. By the '80s, Ginsberg eased into the role of elder statesman to the non-territorial tribe he helped shepherd. Despite the War on Drugs and the Reagan years, both men wind up their lives with a degree of grace.

Leary “with a puckish twinkle in his eye and the rumpled demeanor of a pleasantly stoned Classics professor,” for his keep turned to debating Liddy on the road. Space travel occupied his interests in the 1980s. His ashes, after his death in 1997, joined those of Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry to circle the earth aboard Spain’s first satellite, for two- to ten-years in orbit.

Ginsberg lamented that government research on “human mind engineering” had, except for a few military projects, been stopped, and he mourned the control of heroin by the mafia and police. He too lectured on the college circuit, continued to advise LSD use “for an intelligent kid”, and stood to the left of the mainstream—even if the mainstream had moved closer towards him over the past generation. While less confrontational, his stands on homosexuality, spirituality, and ecological issues, as Connor reflects, had been adopted by millions since he had first expressed them publicly. As a Buddhist and in more genteel fashion, he spoke in 1987 of not challenging the neurotic and incompetent anymore so much as trying to enrich those who needed inspiration and guidance.

While Leary may have gained more notoriety, and may have been unable to shake his need to stay in the spotlight as an agent and a provocateur, one closes this dual biography convinced that Ginsberg may prove the more lasting contributor to personal freedom and social liberation.

Conners ends his book by summing up what Ginsberg worked on in 1997, during his final days: a long poem “Death & Fame”. He wanted a “big funeral” where all who were touched by him and who touched his life could attend. Conners concludes: “Allen’s list in ‘Death & Fame’ is long, but nowhere near comprehensive. That would have been impossible.”


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