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Sunday 29 March 2009

Challenging Material

Timothy LearyTimothy Leary (via

Timothy Leary’s “Evolutionary Agents” is not a book one would immediately associate with Geoff Thompson’s Real Combat Method. I doubt even Leary - with his audaciously leftfield views - imagined that his lucid and controversial work would become set reading material for a class training to get certification in self-defence instruction. Yet there we all stood in a circle being questioned by Geoff Thompson, himself, about our thoughts on the work. In truth the course was far more than a simple “hard skills” course for training how to deal with a violent situation. Most of the students who went on the course already had instructor level certification in one respected realistic combative form or another. My take on Geoff’s decision that the reason why books such as Leary’s were made compulsory homework for all who attended the course was because they prompted the internal battle. This is what might be termed cerebral self-defence – as Geoff once put it “self-defence is defence against the self”.

There is nothing quite like tackling what might be called “challenging material”. Such material might repel you or make you feel awkward at first, but ultimately provides you with a deeper perspective over what you might have written off as absolutes. Challenging material is best when it scares you and it has clearly scared others. It should scare you not only because it challenges your beliefs, but because in some way it reinforces them. Geoff presented us with various books that acted as cerebral weight training material. He did not expect us to agree with all the books in their entirety – it is impossible that anyone could given the diversity of their individual philosophies – but to draw positive inspiration from each and every one of them. We were all on easy footing with books like “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin De Becker – a book treated like a bible in my own self-defence class – and “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl; however, it was clear that Yogananda’s “The Autobiography of a Yogi” would herald in the more challenging information. Out of these texts, “Evolutionary Agents” was one I found the most personally challenging.

Let’s get one thing straight, “Evolutionary Agents” is not, technically speaking, heavy reading. In fact, the first thing that impressed me about the book was the way its author got things moving from the start. In fact, the simplicity of the prose is quite daring. It is written as if the author was feverishly scrawling down his thoughts as they rushed into his mind, not stopping to take a breath and then rushing the book’s finish line. This might not be too far from the truth given Leary’s proud stance on the controlled use of hallucinogenic drugs, LSD in particular, to improve man’s capacity for creativity. In fact, he was part of a movement of controversial authors who aggressively promoted this theory. The pace of Leary’s writing style is in line with his argument regarding pace and the back of his book states that it is “not the survival of the fittest, but the survival of the fastest”. He plays with the word race in human race to put forward his theory that everything is about mobility.

Leary goes to great pains to explain the direction all natural progression moves. His all encompassing philosophy sees everything as a race through time with all of us living in different time zones – the progressive thinkers are living in the future and the rest are living in the past. He then gets quite deep into metaphors – so deep in fact it gets a little difficult to decide where the metaphorical finishes and where the literal begins. Likewise his arguments vary from the genuinely original and creative to what suspiciously reads like “shock for the sake of shock” statements. I am not completely dismissive of the obvious shock tactic. Some times we need to go to extremes to re-set a balance. Leary is very much – and consciously so – in line with punk in this respect. However, it didn’t take long in my first reading of “Evolutionary Agents” to really feel the bite of his elitist argument. This is the first stage where you realize you are facing “challenging material”. The fact that the book was compulsory reading, I have to admit, was the first coax to continue my reading. At this stage I feared that what I was reading was typical 1960s undergraduate academia at its most masturbatory.

There is plenty to support this fear. Despite preaching the importance of mobility towards to the future, there is clear nostalgia for the values of “The Age of Aquarius”. He says that the greatest advancements in creativity occurred between 1960 and 1980, his era, and he sees California being a migratory Mecca for all Evolutionary Agents. Of course, California was the place to be in the 1960s as far as the psychedelic movement was concerned – the location has also proven to be fertile ground for some of the world’s strangest cults, pseudoscience and mystical charlatans. Does Leary fall into this category?

My answer is that I don’t know, but one thing I did find despite all this was that “Evolutionary Agents” is an inspirational read. It inspires because it provokes and motivates at the same time. Like Ayn Rand, another hugely influential writer who has also been accused of being a founder of a “cult of personality”, Leary’s main focus is on developing the individual and breaking away from the conventions of society. He has fascinating metaphors to describe the insect-like castes that humans create to keep people from progressing as individuals. Looking at human behaviour in animalistic terms is quite valid. The great anthropologist Desmond Morris wrote some very accurate findings on the way humans act in a group in his “Naked Ape” and “Manwatching” books. Leary may not follow an orthodox biological route on this one, but I completely agree that humans generally follow a herd mentality or – as Leary would say – our “hive” mentality. Those who break away from these castes are what Leary calls “outcastes” – another play on words – and are the pioneers of the future. History certainly backs Leary up on this one. Single individuals who have gone against the norm of the day and stood hard and fast to their principles are those who have affected some of the greatest changes. They have shifted the paradigms of their time and changed our perceptions.

Changing perceptions; now this is a common theme running through the discussions conducted on the Geoff Thompson course. Around the time when I was seriously considering giving up reading “Evolutionary Agents” or, at least, skimming it, I arrived at his “Correspondence Theory”. This actually reinforced a belief I have had for a long time – that everything is connected and that it is a crime to completely break with the past. There is so much we can learn through history and valid foundations for the future are laid there. This is a fairly sound principle.

However, I did not intend this article to be a review of “Evolutionary Agents”, but rather a reflection on what happens when we expose ourselves to “Challenging Material”. This particular book was the first in a long while that exposed my personal prejudices. I don’t like to pigeonhole myself as anything, but I guess I am, roughly speaking, agnostic and sceptical in my life philosophy. I guess this has come about from often wanting to be objective, open-minded and having more than the average person’s experience with charlatans. Therefore books like Leary’s and another book on our list, Joe Vitale’s “Zero Limits” are immediate foils for me to exercise my principles and progress my thinking. The experience is never comfortable, but once you find a connection somewhere in the work – an “energy” as some might say – it becomes quite compelling.

Around the time I completed the Geoff Thompson instructor course I read a short book entitled “The Sadeian Woman” by the feminist author, Angela Carter. The book is perhaps one of the bravest I read in a long time. Carter effectively takes on Sade’s philosophy and not only draws positive ideas amid the scenes of extreme pornography that include torture, rape and a nihilistic approach to life, but actually finds the great libertine’s limit. This is no easy task. Sade is very hard reading and I don’t mean that in a “War and Peace” or “Paradise Lost” deeply profound way. If Timothy Leary’s books are written in a fast-paced style that easily pulls you along, Sade’s are long winded affairs that just seems to catalogue as many perversions and contentious ideas as possible. Having said this, his Libertine characters do have many parallels with Timothy Leary’s Outcastes or Ayn Rand’s Objectivists. After all he is presenting a philosophy that champions hedonism, like Leary, and selfishness, like Rand. Incidentally Rand has one character describe the hero of “The Fountainhead” as “The Marquis De Sade of architecture” for his audacity.

Angela Carter does not react with a counter-argument or the condemnation that many other feminist authors have done when they discuss Sade. Instead she discusses how his heroines, Justine and Juliette, are prototypes for the twentieth century image of women. Sade’s heroine Justine, of the book of the same name, who is punished throughout her whole meaningless life for trying to be virtuous, is seen as the forerunner for the inoffensive and vulnerable blondes of the media like Marilyn Monroe. Likewise Justine’s sister, Juliette, the eponymous heroine of the Justine’s sequel, who is rewarded for her crimes of survival and indulgence, is described as the archetype for the “career women” of the 1980s.

However, it is in his play “Philosophy in the Bedroom” that Carter actually finds that De Sade will only go so far. She demonstrates that far from having the sensuality usually associated with erotic fiction it is all rather mechanical and the orgy that is mainly described by the players comes across as a sort of aristocratic parlour game – regimented and anything but free. The play culminates in a scene clearly designed to derive the most shock possible – the rape and torture of a mother by her daughter. However, it is during this act that Carter sees that Sade will only go so far – that he actually does fear real chaos – and he pulls back. It is this one crucial moment that many a shocked or reactionary critic would have missed in their rising disgust for the horrendous acts being committed that Carter really goes that stage further as a literary feminist. She effectively challenges Sade, a man whose work was far more explicit than anything the controversial DH Lawrence would write and far more aggressively anti-religious than the expelled atheist poet Percy Shelley would publish, on his own terms and ends her succinct criticism with a type of “is that all you’ve got?”

During our course Geoff spoke of a short film he recently completed and was soon to be distributed called “Romans 20:12”. The film apparently deals with that most loathed and feared of crimes in our society, child abuse, and using the titular verse from the New Testament it offers forgiveness as the only real way the abused can successfully claim revenge. Geoff predicts it will be met with opposition and that it is a controversial idea, but he believes in its worth. Keen readers of Geoff’s work will see that it is another connection with his autobiography “Watch My Back”, where he described the abuse he suffered as a child and his adult confrontation with his abuser. I feel it will challenge those who do have religious views and perhaps spark debate on the nature of forgiveness – is it another hidden example of true selfishness and even a type of revenge?

We need material that challenges us if we are to progress. As the celebrated martial arts and self-defence instructor Mo Teague regularly says, “We need traction to move forward”. The challenge can come in many different ways, but I think it is important that it addresses an area we feel fundamentally weak about. I think this is not a million miles away from the Stephen R. Covey principle regarding empathetic listening. If we do not listen, read or face something that makes us feel uncomfortable we allow that thing to become an insurmountable obstacle. Also we allow unnecessary prejudices to feed our ignorance and handicap us from understanding more about our fears. My personal take on what stops certain people from looking into things that scare them is that they worry it will change them. This is every reason to take on the fear. How do you know that your principles are strong if you have never truly tested them?

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