Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1224
Design for Dying contains two introductions: one by Leary and one by R. U. Sirius. Leary introduces readers to the event that incited the book: his 1995 diagnosis of prostate cancer. This led him to think more thoroughly and more practically about how he wanted to die. ‘‘Even if you’ve lived your life like a complete slob,’’ Leary writes, ‘‘you can die with terrific style. I call it ‘Designer Dying.’’’ Leary poses a handful of questions related to main taining a life of ‘‘self-reliance and personal growth,’’ which he addresses in the rest of the book.
Sirius’s introduction discusses Leary’s original plan, to die on the Internet, and fantasizes about what such a death might have looked like. He praises Leary for his honesty and his unrelenting critique of dishonest discourse and claims that Leary’s dying ‘‘performance’’ was successful.
Leary recounts ‘‘making a pact’’ with his DNA in 1962, promising to probe the meaning of life as deeply as possible. His conclusions were that the future is unpredictable and that the true meaning of life is recursive, that is, the purpose of life is to seek the purpose of life. Leary makes comparisons between the human body and computers and suggests that people should ‘‘see the goal of humankind as mutation,’’ requiring human participation. Using the language of physics, he thinks through many of the same questions that philosophers and theorists address, examining human identity in relation to dichotomies such as time and space and matter and energy. A typical Leary question and answer from the chapter: ‘‘Is the universe fundamentally continuous or discrete? One can only answer ‘yes.’’’
In this chapter, Leary draws parallels between alchemy and computer technology, claiming that both involve symbolic systems largely unknown to the general public. He calls the field resulting from the evolution of cybernetics—the field which uses the details of systems to divine their organizational principles—‘‘cybernautics,’’ to describe its exploratory and magical nature. Leary claims that abstract mathematics, the ultimate theoretical system, is becoming more important in helping human beings learn about themselves.
In these chapters, Leary discusses what he calls the ‘‘tools of human evolution and self-definition,’’ topics he has explored throughout his life. These tools are language, drugs, and psychology. Language, Leary claims, enslaves human thought. It is a system of self-referentiality that can never really describe the world outside of itself. In his chapter on drugs, Leary cites Terence McKenna as someone with a grip on the truth of human evolution. McKenna theorizes that human beings evolved largely through eating mind-altering plants such as psilocybin. Human beings’ continued interest in consciousnessexpanding drugs, as manifest in the popularity of LSD, mescaline, marijuana, and other drugs, shows that drugs continue to play a role in the evolution of human consciousness. According to Leary, America’s anti-drug campaign is, in reality, a campaign against human evolution. Lastly, Leary examines psychology. To Leary, psychology is a tool that has been used to control and mold people by dictating what normal behavior is. Leary, who himself participated in government research at Berkeley and Harvard, writes that, through the use of psychology, ‘‘the industrial age ideology of factory life and factory death was imposed by the military-industrial complex of the twentieth century.’’
Leary sets forth his theory that ‘‘evolution is a participatory sport.’’ He details the stages and ‘‘circuits’’ of his theory, paying homage to writer Robert Anton Wilson, who has also described this theory. Mutants, ‘‘certain human beings . . . [who] activate the post-hive, post-modern, postterrestrial neural circuits ‘prematurely,’’’ are those alienated from contemporary human concerns and who live in the future. Leary calls these mutants ‘‘agents’’ and ‘‘evolutionary scouts.’’ Agents activate social change, and the rise of the Internet signals a victory for ‘‘countercultural mutation.’’ Leary implies that he is one such agent.
This chapter begins the second section of the book, titled ‘‘Dying.’’ Leary expresses the joy he felt when told he was dying. He took charge of his life, deciding how much and what kind of media coverage he would permit, and developed a homepage to track his dying. In this chapter, Leary supplies a few quotes he dispensed to journalists from the Washington Post, New York Times, and other publications, describing his ‘‘House Party for Intelligent Dying.’’
In this chapter, Leary lists his daily drug intake during his dying days. He discusses society’s taboos against ‘‘celebratory dying,’’ society’s fear of death, and the ways in which the government has conspired to take people’s autonomy away from them when they are dying. He ends the chapter by praising Jack Kevorkian for his efforts to help people die with dignity, suggesting that Kevorkian needs to be more publicly proud of his activism.
Leary lays out his own plan for his death and offers advice to others who are dying. His suggested plan includes extending control over the nervous system, using techniques such as hypnosis and meditation; becoming educated about one’s culture’s death rituals; and ‘‘rehearsing’’ for death by taking drugs such as ketamine, which creates a neardeath experience (NDE).
In this chapter, Leary reviews some of the literature on what happens to the brain at death. Calling death ‘‘the ultimate trip,’’ Leary says that upon death consciousness returns to the nervous system and ‘‘We become every form of life that has ever lived and will live.’’
These two chapters begin the last section of the book, titled ‘‘Designer Dying.’’ Calling human beings ‘‘information processes,’’ Leary explores alternatives to biological death, making the case for cryonics (i.e., deep-freezing the body or brain), preservation of tissue or DNA, direct brain-computer transfer, isomorphic mapping of neural networks to silicon chips, and other futurist ideas. He refers to William Gibson, the author of dystopian novels such as Neuromancer, whose own ideas on human mutation and technology mesh with Leary’s. Leary claims that since human beings are primarily made of information, many options exist for postbiological storage of that information.
These chapters outline Leary’s thinking on nanotechnology and cyborgization. The former refers to the manipulation of matter at the cellular level, often by tiny robots. Nanotechnology may make possible the reengineering and repair of DNA in the near future. Cyborgization refers to the process by which the intersection between machines and human beings blurs. Leary hopes that becoming more machine-like will help the human species to evolve.
This chapter, written wholly by Sirius, is the book’s shortest. Sirius reviews some of the injustices done to Leary through his life (e.g., FBI defamation of his image, poor reception of his work by critics, etc.) and provides a short explanation of Leary’s decision to not be cryogenically preserved after death.
In this section, a host of Leary’s friends, family, and associates pays tribute to him. This section was developed by Sirius, who included it so readers could understand not only Leary the scientist, whose writing could be off-putting, but Leary the friend, the human being behind the public persona and cultural icon. Sirius asked respondents to answer two questions: ‘‘What was the lesson for you of Tim’s performance of the dying process?’’ and ‘‘What’s your favorite memory of Tim from that time?’’ Sirius begins the section by recounting his own first meeting with Leary in 1980.