"The Delicious Grace of Moving One's Hand: The Collected Sex Writings" by Timothy Leary

Acid wasn't the only mindblower the '60s guru preached.

Published January 31, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The reviewer's temptation in vetting a book this atrocious is merely to step to the side and, via liberal quoting, feed the author, hand over hand, all the rope required for his own hanging. And while that's precisely what I intend to do, it isn't only Timothy Leary -- the turned on, tuned in and dropped out '60s drug guru (1920-1996) whose biography proved so absurd that David Gates, writing his obituary in Newsweek, felt compelled to inject, in passing, "We're not making this up" -- who deserves the blame. The editorial staff at Thunder's Mouth Press is just as culpable for releasing this wrongheaded ragbag of woefully dated rubbish -- perhaps even more so. Leary, after all, is dead, his ashes currently circling the earth in a lipstick-size capsule, while the Thunder's Mouth Press staff is presumably alive and even cogent, present evidence notwithstanding.

"This is a periodical, a collection of 'highlights,' quick film clips of 'the great moments,'" Leary writes by way of posthumous introduction to this compendium of essays, speeches and feuilletons (a number of which appeared in Playboy and Hustler). Then he modestly adds, "If any." Oh, Dr. Leary, I'm sorry: There weren't any great moments, at least when you were writing about sex.

Unless you're referring to the fictionalized dialogue you concocted to demonstrate the "most romantic, elegant, sophisticated, all-out wanton, mutual sex affair imaginable," meaning cybersex chat, circa 1988 -- "floppy disco, sloppy disco, hard-disco cyber-porn," as you put it, that would involve "pre-frontal nudity," whatever that might be. Highlights: "Let me show you my display menu." "You download so good!" "Can I slide my joystick into your f-slot?" "Let's interscreen ..." "Oooh! Disk overload!" Was this supposed to turn me on, Dr. Leary? Or drop me out?

My favorite passage comes at the front of "The Hedonic Revolution," Leary's fourth lecture in a 1969 Berkeley series, just after he informs the audience that he's "higher tonight than I was two nights ago." "I understand," he begins, "that the name of this temple is the Martin Luther King Junior High School. I think that we merit this school a promotion. I think that after this week we can say that it is now no longer a junior high school, but a full-fledged high school." Wait a second, that's Martin Luther -- oh, never mind.

Throughout the collection, which spans 30 years of Leary's writings, his effusive style remains wholly and consistently impenetrable. In a valentine to phone sex, he writes, "Actually, the neuro-phone-sex-link, if employed with a light touch-tone, can be a wonderful way to learn how to become skilled at Tele-Fucking." Inaccuracies run rampant: Pat Robertson is referred to as Pat Robinson; Bruce Springsteen, Quiet Riot and director David Lynch, among others, are collectively heralded as "kinky techno-punk musicians."

Acronyms are used or invented for no apparent reason, resulting in sentences like the following: "Pissing: The V.C.O. contains the urethra which ejects around one QUPD." Lines of thought stagger about like whacked-out revelers: "Do we dare equate the CLITORIS to the soul? To be clinical, after surgical removal of the clitoris, do we assume the woman cannot have full orgasm? Is this true? How would I know?" And, apropos of nothing, Leary makes certain that we know the backwards spelling of words -- e.g., "eros spelled backwards is sore," "Reagan spelled backwards is Nagger" [sic]. To which I might add, stoned out of your gourd spelled backwards is druog ruoy fo tuo denots (D.R.F.T.D.). Is this true? How would I know?

"If only Tim wasn't such a silly ass," Aldous Huxley once lamented. Alas, it was too true: Leary's heart, if not his mind, was in the right place. He believed -- as passionately as anyone, and with an unironic devotion that seems today not only quaint but utterly foreign -- in liberty and love, in eros and expression, in an individual Dionysian purism that could save the world. The publication of this collection, however, does a grave disservice to those ideals, not to mention the disservice it does to sex, drugs, the '60s and the mixed legacy of the figure that Richard Nixon once called "the most dangerous man alive." There's no danger here -- not even eroticism. Only wretched silliness (W.S.).

By Jonathan Miles

Jonathan Miles, a contributing editor at Men's Journal, writes regularly for Salon Books.

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