Prototype dissidents: Timothy Leary and Václav Havel at the dawn of the internet age

A previously unknown connection between Czech dissident Vaclav Havel and American psychologist Timothy Leary is revealed by an inscribed copy of Leary's 1977 Neuropolitics.

"The case of Dr. Leary is outright a case of persecution of ideas and texts--the persecution of his philosophy. Though arrested for grass, he was imprisoned for opinion. Denied bail for grass possession, he was detained behind barbed wire for Ideological Heresy" - Allen Ginsberg, "Declaration of Independence for Dr. Timothy Leary," July 1971.

"You do not become a 'dissident' just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society" - Vaclav Havel, "The Power of the Powerless," 1978.


The cover of the first edition for Leary's Neuropolitics, written in prison, during 1973-74, and published in 1977

A previously unknown connection between Czech dissident Vaclav Havel and American psychologist Timothy Leary is revealed by an inscribed copy of Leary's 1977 Neuropolitics.

In 1992, following the fall of Eastern Europe's totalitarian governments and Havel's rise as president of a free Czechoslovakia, Leary wrote a message of thanks in the margins of what remains his most political work.

"Let everything hang open," were among the words marked for Havel's attention. "Let government be totally visible. The last, the very last, people to hide their actions should be the police and government."

The thought marked the culmination of two radical and parallel journeys. Both men were jailed during the same era on trumped-up charges, each spending more than four years in prison, and many more being surveilled, harassed and often arrested by the regimes they opposed as writers and activists.

When Leary explained that "one dissident electronic-media expert [or] one libertarian psychologist can jam the system."—Leary always considered himself a libertarian psychologist—he anticipated a time of electronic-media whistleblowers that then seemed like science fiction. Now, decades later, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are household names. And they are only the most prominent of those who have successfully jammed the system, exposing the extent of government misdeeds and the secrecy surrounding them.

Leary officially became a political prisoner when he was sent to a California prison, for up to ten years, in the spring of 1970, for possession of a tiny amount of marijuana. The real reason for this draconian sentence was his published writings and public speeches, advocating the benefits of psychedelic plants and drugs, and his entering the California governor's race against the arch conservative Ronald Reagan.

"Well, yes, I'm in prison, and that may seem odd: a philosopher in prison. But I'd like to say this about my profession. The best philosophers often end up in prison. If you're a good baseball player, you end up in the Major Leagues. If you're a really successful politician, you end up in Washington, I'm sorry to say. If you're really a good philosopher -- if you're coming out with new ideas about the seven great destiny questions that are going to rattle the walls of the social institutions, like most of the men I have modeled myself after -- they'll have been lucky if they got away just being in prison, with their ideas."

- Timothy Leary, Folsom Prison, 1973 (2m17s, 'From Folsom Prison' Video)

The judge who sentenced him (a Reagan appointee) not only cited Leary's writings on the benefits of consciousness-expansion and his defense of righteous psychedelic chemists and marijuana dealers, but he actually held up a copy of Playboy containing a Leary article in the courtroom, calling him "an insidious and detrimental influence on society...a pleasure-seeking, irresponsible Madison Avenue advocate of the free use of LSD and marijuana." Giving up on the possibility of being freed in Nixon's America, Leary risked his life escaping from prison, opting for life in exile, first in Algeria, and then in Switzerland, where the American PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) Club, headed by Arthur Miller (himself a target of right wing extremists during the early 1950s) declared Leary a political prisoner in opposing his extradition back to the US in 1971. Switzerland followed suit and granted him provisional asylum.


On the verso of the title-page he wrote: "Please note pages 21 & 43. Most of this book is dated, topical satire. TL."

After he was captured (kidnapped, according to his lawyers, as there was no extradition treaty) in Afghanistan, in early 1973, and returned to face trial for escape, Leary ended up doing hard time in Vacaville and Folsom prisons, with no prospect of release on the horizon. The Nixon resignation gave him some hope, but the Drug War was intensifying. It was there that he began reading the works of the writers who were at the forefront of the dissident movement in Eastern Europe. As he read their work and learned of their fate, he found himself strongly identifying with the Russian writer Alexander Solzhinetsyn, and physicist Andre Sakharov, imprisoned for advocating for human rights and intellectual freedom against the totalitarian Soviet state.

THE PRAGUE SPRING


"To Vaclav Havel. You have done good--my Brother. Thanks! Timothy Leary 7-4-92"

At the time, Leary probably was not yet aware of Vaclav Havel, one of Czechoslovakia's greatest playwrights, who became an activist when Russia invaded his country to suppress the 1968 popular uprising against Soviet control, known as the Prague Spring. There has long been speculation that LSD played a role in that event. Spofa Pharmaceutical Works in Prague supplied the LSD for the Soviet Union's psychological warfare program, just as the United States designated Eli Lilly & Co. as their source, once Sandoz refused to supply the drug in the enormous quantities requested by the two Cold War adversaries. Certainly LSD would have eventually found its way from the Spofa laboratories to the street, where it would have contributed to the mind-set fated to play the kind of role in the Prague Spring uprising that it had in student-led rebellions in the US, UK, and France that same year.

On p. 6, he calls Havel's attention to a sentence he has underlined: "The seeds of the sixties have taken root underground. The blossoming is to come" and writes in ink above it: "Thank you Vaclav for this.""

Havel's connections to the Prague psychedelic underground were strong; he attended the trial of Eastern Europe's foremost psychedelic band, the Plastic People of the Universe, and he co-wrote the central document of the Czech revolutionary movement, the Charter 77 manifesto, in 1976, partly in response to the group's imprisonment.

Havel was constantly under surveillance, interrogated, and frequently jailed by the secret police; like Leary, he spent four consecutive years in prison (1979-1983). He was a fan of Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground, ultimately becoming a friend of the band's frontman and chief songwriter, Lou Reed. Some attribute the naming of the Velvet Revolution, which in 1989 ended more than 40 years of Communist rule in Czechoslavakia, to the house band of Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable multi-media shows. "Reed has given at least one radio interview where he stated that 'it was called the Velvet Revolution because all of the dissidents were listening to the Velvet Underground leading up to the overthrow, and this music was an inspiration for the events that followed.'" (Wikipedia) A more common derivation of the name comes from the fact that the revolution was bloodless.

PARTNERS IN TIME

"Vasilios Choulos, Kent Russell and Melvin Belli have just written a brief challenging my illegal kidnapping in Afghanistan by American agents...It's a small dissident world now, and a small exclusive club of fearless free men and women. So it goes. Nixon is still in the White House, Eldridge Cleaver is still in exile, and I'm still in Folsom Prison."


On page 21, Leary expresses solidarity with other political prisoners as his "Partners In Time" (Andrei Amalrik, Kim Dae Jung, Alexandrous Panagoulis, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov).

On p. 21, Leary circles the entire text, in which he speaks of dissidents in Russia, South Korea and Greece, all recently abducted by secret police, and whom he considers to be his "partners in time." Leary was to remain in prison three more years.

Peter Stafford, the foremost chronicler of 20th-century psychedelic culture, put Havel on his list of distinguished people who had experimented with LSD, along with Carl Sagan and Sir Francis Crick. It can only be speculation at this point, but it would seem impossible that Vaclav Havel did not take LSD during the years between the Prague Spring (1968) and the trial of Plastic People of the Universe (1976). During the years of the Soviet crackdown, the Czech counterculture was deeply connected to the dissident movement. Plastic People of the Universe were the Velvet Underground and Mothers of Invention of the Eastern Bloc.

The chief method of communicating amongst the dissidents and citizen-sympathizers in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe, where the press was a tool of the state, was by the crudely produced street publications known as samizdat. (This was the equivalent of the "Mimeo Revolution" and the Underground Press in the U.S. during the same period.) Some of Havel's most influential writings were printed and distributed in this format. Leary's book, Neuropolitics, is entirely composed of his prison writings from 1973 and 1974, hand-written and often smuggled out. A separate work, Neurologic, Leary's monograph on the evolution of the human nervous system, was written in maximum security while awaiting trial for escape, and is a prototype samizdat, which were the blogs of the underground.

The success of the Velvet Revolution meant the liberation of Czechoslavakia from the control of the Soviet Union. In 1989, Havel became the president. He stepped down when the country was split into two parts, and became president again in 1993, this time of the Czech Republic. It marked the first time in history a playwright was elected president of a country.

In his 1990 essay, "The New Breed," Leary, who sometimes described himself as a cheerleader, wrote this: 'The last thing the young Czechs (whose cheerleader is the playwright Vaclav Havel) want to do is grab power and establish a new regime and march around in frowning suits or menacing uniforms. Since the 1960s, they have watched young America for their clues."

On July 4, 1992, fifteen years after it was published, Leary inscribed a copy of Neuropolitics, his most political book, to Vaclav Havel, to acknowledge the success of the Velvet Revolution that catapulted Havel to the presidency of his country.

"Let everything hang open. Let government be totally visible. The last, the very last, people to hide their actions should be the police and government."

Why this book wasn't sent to Havel at the time it was inscribed is a mystery. We know Leary passed it on to a friend who, some twelve years after Tim's death, passed it on to someone else. That owner intended to personally bring it to Havel, and arrangements were begun, but there were delays, and Havel passed away before the book could be delivered.

This inscribed copy of Neuropolitics links two dissident writers who were vilified and imprisoned by the political regimes they opposed. One fought for freedom to change one's consciousness, the other for the right of citizens to live free from state control. The mantra, "Think For Yourself. Question Authority," which was the central message of their lives, is embedded in this unique artifact.

Leary and Havel both survived their years in prison. Havel went on to become president of his country, and honored throughout the West; Leary remained an outsider to the mainstream culture, but became an intellectual force in the emergent cyberculture.

"The control people realize that a highly technological society requires total cooperation and docile obedience of the citizenry. One dissident electronic-media expert, one libertarian psychologist can jam the system. I did it here. Sakharov is doing it in Russia. Only by understanding the principles and techniques involved can one avoid being computerized and conditioned. This is, of course, why I am the prototype Sci-Fi prisoner in America."

Visit TimothyLearyArchives.org

Published 6:00 am Mon, Jul 1, 2013

About the Author

Michael Horowitz was Timothy Leary's archivist, editor and bibliographer. He co-founded the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library and co-edited Moksha: Aldous Huxley's Classic Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience and Sisters of the Extreme: Women Writing on the Drug Experience (with Cynthia Palmer). He currently operates Flashback Books, an online store, specializing in rare and out of print books on psychedelic science, history and literature.

Lisa Rein is the Digital Librarian for The Dr. Timothy Leary Futique Trust. She was the Text and Graphics Editor for Surfing the Consciousness Nets, one of Dr. Leary's last published books. Lisa is a co-founder of Creative Commons, a consultant for KurzweilAI.net, a freelance journalist (Wired News, CNet, H+ Magazine), and a singer/songwriter/musician (new album due out in 2015).

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