The Excommunication of Timothy Leary
In a famous sub-title called “The Decay of Taste” in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon says of the Greeks of Constantinople:
“They held in their lifeless hands the riches of their fathers, without inheriting the spirit which had created and improved that sacred patrimony: they read, they praised, they compiled, but their languid souls seemed alike incapable of thought and action… In every page, our taste and reason are wounded by the choice of gigantic and obsolete words, a stiff and intricate phraseology, the discord of images, the childish play of false or unseasonable ornament, and the painful attempt to involve a trivial meaning in the smoke of obscurity and exaggeration…. The minds of the Greeks were bound in the fetters of a base and imperious superstition, which extends her domain round the circle of profane science. Their understandings were bewildered in metaphysical controversy: in the belief of visions and miracles they had lost all principles of moral evidence, and their taste was vitiated by the homilies of the monks, an absurd medly of declamation and Scripture…”
To see how far we have advanced from this, let us examine a few samples of popular thought, which, in the mass media at least, is taken to represent the very vanguard of “expanded” consciousness in our era.
John Lilly, explaining, presumably, his epistemological rationale:
“What one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true in one’s mind, within limits to be determined experimentally or experientially. These limits are beliefs to be transcended. This is the situation when one has been freed up from one’s environment, from one’s surrounding reality, and all of the usual forms and patterns of stimulation are attenuated to the minimum possible level.”
(I think this rare example of occultist philosophy is worthy of careful attention, for, although it makes no sense at all, it is never the less a perfect example of a style of incantation upon which occultists rely when they attempt to make the vague, shifting blobs of their pictorial imaginations "live up" to the standards of minimal definition without which no reasonable communication is possible.)
The famous Jean Houston and Robert Masters, co-authors of Mind Games (Viking, 1972), like most occultists, do not bother to define their terms. Instead, they suggest group hypnosis.
A full reading of "Mind Games" is necessary to appreciate the intellectual nadir which this work represents in the history of Western thought. The authors project, with such relentless bad taste that only the illustrations used in Rosicrucianist advertisements in the back of pulp magazines come to mind as an example of something comparable, what is surely the most dopey-minded, humorless, googly-eyed, imitative, insensitive, dishonest, pretentious collection of shoddy notions ever strung together in a book, and, on that account, we must admit that it belongs in every philosopher's library—as a reminder of what a sane person is up against when he tries to make himself heard in this arena.
“…and understand now we can and must materialize the Group Spirit, endowing that entity with a sufficiently material being that it can appear to all of us…and there is also believed to be a very great mystery surrounding the Egyptian pyramids…. The mind games are a means of advancing toward what must be the main goal of every person in our time—putting the first man on earth. In the near future such mind games will be routine in education at all levels.”
Let us pass on (resisting the temptation to quote Castaneda) to the case at hand—Timothy Leary. The following is taken from a report of a press conference in The New Yorker of December 3, 1973:
“Miss Leary, who is slim and has a wide, thin mouth and lank red hair, said that Dr. Leary had been receiving messages from intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. ‘Dr. Leary and I have been very conscious of the arrival of the comet Kohoutek, which, six months ago, we renamed the comet Starseed,’ she said, in an undeterminable European accent. ‘It is clear to us that Dr. Leary and I were brought back to the United States to decode the message of the comet Kohoutek. The Starseed transmission was received by Dr. Leary six weeks ago in his cell in Folsom Prison. This is the transmission translated into English.’ Then Miss Leary recited part of “The Starseed Transmission”: ‘One. The comet Starseed is to leave the womb planet Earth. The Starseed is a comet of prophesy. Two. Life seeds egg planets throughout the galaxy. When life leaves the womb planet, it attains immortality in the galactic star school. Three. When the embryonic nervous system can decipher the genetic code, it receives instructions for leaving the earth-womb and contacting higher intelligence. Four. There is no choice. Life must leave the womb planet to survive and evolve.’”
The above selections are but a few representative wisps of smog in a gigantic miasma which, since the beginning, has threatened to envelop and obliterate the empirical revolution which the introduction of the powerful psychedelic drugs brought to the practice and teaching of philosophy and religion. The descent from the original clear and simple solipsistic teachings of Jesus (“The Kingdom of God is within you”) to the fantastic and silly cosmological monstrosities of Byzantine theology took nine centuries. The collapse of the intellectual honor of the man who once dared to translate the Tao Te Ching into the psychedelic vernacular has taken nine years, and has ended in Cometolatry…or at least my attention to his descent has ended.
Leaving aside outright fraud, which would involve the invention of impressions and deliberate misrepresentation of experience, those of us who have had our LSD will admit that Dr. Leary may very well have heard a voice telling him what he says it told him, and this voice may have been accompanied by the presentation of images of great clarity, brilliance, detail and depth showing a comet streaking through the void, dancing double helixes, saints attending graduate school, and what not. Not only that, we will also admit that a variety of events in his everyday life may have shown a synchronistic tendency to illustrate and elaborate the same images present in the vision and the ideas he had about them.
Having granted all this, most occultists will be sincerely perplexed, and assume that I have some conflicting cosmological fantasy to offer and am merely being intolerant. One man’s word is as good as another’s, is it not? What’s the fuss about? You push your visions and I’ll push mine and may the better confidence man win. (I can testify that this is, in fact, a fair statement of the professional ethics common to most “high class” occultists, Leary included.)
I keep telling these characters that it isn’t their impressions I object to, (although I reserve the right to discriminate among visions in terms of beauty, utility, sex appeal or whatever other standard I care to apply whenever I feel like it) but their ideas. This distinction falls on deaf ears. Occultists, by and large, are not just poor philosophers, or dishonest philosophers (if there is any difference) but rather people who, despite the frequency of doctor of philosophy degrees among them, have no philosophy whatever, good, bad or indifferent. The paragraph I quoted from Lilly is, believe it or not, a sort of high point in the history of occult philosophizing, since it is at least evidence that the man is conscious of the absurd interest many people show in such questions as the means by which truth may be found and in the definition of terms.
Prior to the discovery of the powerful psychedelics, it is true, the brilliant and awesome visions anyone can now produce by taking a little LSD and retiring to a darkened room were in short supply and one might have maintained, with a superficial plausibility, that rarity and artistic quality were sufficient reasons to take them as superior guides to correct generalizations about the cosmological arrangements and ontological distinctions of the external world—assuming that there is an external world, and assuming some kind of agency which confers upon rare and beautiful things a special immunity from error—two assumptions I see no reason to make. But what is so “special” about such visionary experiences now? As collectors, although not as reporters, half the high school kids in the country are the equal or the superior to such as Blake, Coleridge, Crowley and Yeats. Why, if some external agency is responsible for them, do not these daily millions of visions produce a consistent and general coherent “message” rather than the infinite variety which we also find in our ordinary vague and slippery imaginations? If we distinguish at all between the mental and the material, between external substance and internal thought, it is contrary to all the evidence and logic to call the visions substantial and external rather than mental and internal events. It is implied, although rarely stated, in the writings of the occultists, that such distinctions are made by them as they are made by the supernaturalist philosophers of the conventional religious traditions.
Why is the comet vision of Timothy Leary more meaningful than a vision of ray gun warfare between legions of Martian mice and Venusian ducks? What is the basis for calling one set of visions “philosophy” and the other merely a laughable example of the “cartoon freakies”? Presumably, because the comet vision explains something while the cartoon freakies do not. What is it that the comet vision explains? What philosophic questions are answered? In what way has our understanding of ourselves and the world been improved by the introduction of these ideas of immortality, “galactic star schools” and the multiplication of (super‑human) entities?
The answer is—in no way whatever. These ideas have been around for a long time, and they reflect certain particular logical fallacies and certain psychological and social disorders which have crippled human thought since the beginning of recorded history.
To discover what philosophy Dr. Leary actually represents, we are obliged, despite the fact that he now calls himself a philosopher, to find out what is implied by his assertions rather than to respond to any straightforward definitions of what he means by “true”, “real”, “good”, “knowledge”, “life”, “self”, “space”, “time” and so on, because, like all occultists, he cannot do so without either admitting that his cosmological speculations, which he incorrectly calls "ontology", are undemonstrable trivia, or, alternatively, so boxing himself in with the conventional supernaturalist metaphysical distinctions that it will be revealed, not only to his public, but to himself, that he hasn't changed a bit since he was the star student in Sister Teresa's Sunday school class back in Irish Catholic Boston.
“It is clear to us,” Joanna says, “that Dr. Leary and I were brought back to the United States to decode the message of the comet Kohoutek.”
Now, container/contained distinctions may be “metaphysics” and so are similar assertions that one thing or class of things is in the service of, or an aspect of, another thing or class of things. It would seem here, that a conventional supernaturalist thesis is being asserted: a super-human entity (or entities) exists which manipulates human lives to achieve an intended result. Human suffering (such as imprisonment) may therefore sometimes be explained as a necessary condition of such an operation, which, at the time, is not understood by the robot or dancing marionette at the end of the strings. Doesn’t this sound familiar? It is also implied that the comet is not in Leary’s mind but that Leary is in the comet’s mind, or, if that would represent a pseudo-Catholic neo-Gnostic heresy, as I imagine it probably would, the alternative would be that Leary occupies part of this mundane sphere of suffering, but that it is ruled by the comet or comets, which (who?) are either superior to or perhaps even the authors of the laws of physical causation and randomness which ordinarily apply to those who, because of their lack of cryptographic skills, have not been extended a special dispensation. Surveying a world of dead “substance”, in which one’s body is but another thing or mechanism (at best, a “nervous system”), one is offered “hope” in the form of “immortality” if one follows “instructions” and “contacts” those ethereal Beings before whose “higher intelligence” one is but a hapless child (“embryonic”).
In a comment that shows a nice grasp of the conceptual derangement common to the pronouncements of official supernaturalism, the occultic systems of the fantasts, and the ravings of the unfortunate victims of educations founded on such, Gibbon says, “Their prose is soaring to the vicious affectation of poetry; their poetry is sinking below the flatness and insipidity of prose.”
There is a peculiar isolation to all of these elaborate occultic systems which extends to the social and intellectual relations, or lack of them, between the contemporary practitioners of these odd arts, an obliviousness, not only to the classic issues of philosophy and the rules of the game, but towards each other.
The Comet Being sees fit to communicate with Dr. Leary and his girl friend but for some reason the giant fleas and ambulatory roots which, according to Castaneda, are running things around here, are neither mentioned in the transmissions or appear in his visions. Elaborate hierarchies of immortal master‑minds may be discovered by Ram Dass and Subramuniya to exist in the oriental ether but these Omnisciences seem oddly parochial, if not downright jingoistic in their interests. Everything reduces to monads which never touch, and the world of “super‑conscious” entities becomes a ward of staring schizophrenics written large, a Kafkaesque Folsom Prison, with cosmic Keepers and a cosmic Parole Board “bringing people back” or “letting people go” according to some incomprehensible code beyond the ken of merely mortal minds.
Timothy Leary has learned nothing and imitated everything. At various times he has pretended to be a scientist, without, evidently, ever understanding the rules of the science game; a Taoist, without ever understanding why Lao Tse said what he said; a Buddhist, without ever understanding there is more to Buddhism than holding flowers and appearing inscrutable; a “Hindu” (that time he came close, for the degraded version of Brahmanism he favored is not far removed from Roman Catholicism).
The understanding which the peak psychedelic experience brings to everyone is always and everywhere identical (but is repressed in a million different ways): Life is a dream, and it is your dream. This message, which we may call “solipsism” or “nihilism” or “yogacara” or “madhyamika” or “zen” Buddhism is the message of every great mystical philosopher in human history—the message, within the dream, that tells you it is a dream.
Everything else is repression.
Three dimensional space is an illusion. The flow of time is an illusion.
History is an illusion. Timothy Leary is an illusion. I am an illusion.
Within your illusion, the great religious traditions (repressed, no later than they begin, in a million different ways), always stand for the assertion that one does not “attain immortality”, but rather realizes, upon one’s enlightenment, that there is no “death” and more than there is any “life”, other than as fake dramas to maintain the illusion of externality, multiplicity, and space-time. One’s mind does not exist in the world, the world exists in one’s mind. What is the nature of that mind—that is the question. The “conscious” wish system, obviously, is only a part of it. The ego may steer, but it does not rule. There is more to it than that.
This is the tradition of the Neo-American Church which I founded ten years ago, an organization which, although it is the oldest and the largest representative of the psychedelic wing of the “alternative culture” in our era, has been almost totally ignored by the communications media of both the dominant and sub-dominant cultures in favor of the ephemeral constructs of our ancient rivals. Why? Because there is no way we can be of service to the vanity of our logical positivist critics through patronization (“affectionate cynicism”) or to the vanity of the paranoid occultists produced by the use of psychedelics in a context of infantile supernaturalism. The dignities which one would naturally confer upon beings chosen to exercise such grand offices as telecommunication directors with comets, gods or angels, we have burlesqued and satirized from the beginning, having recognized at once that that was where the danger lay. We are an affliction, also, in that anyone who admits we exist (in a table of contents, so to speak) must also admit that we are at least half-right, for, in one’s dreams, we are always right. This is a horrid observation to the self-satisfied depressed neurotics who operate the publishing and entertainment industries, and they shrink back in loathing and confusion from the possibility, so odious to their vanity, that anyone or anything in this world of fools and frauds could represent an important truth which might bring some light to their dark lives.
What about the comet? The trouble with solipsistic nihilism is that people tend to think there isn’t anything in it. “Nihilism destroys itself,” they observe, and sit back, grinning like idiots, satisfied that they have demonstrated the futility of fire rather than the inexhaustibility of fuels and fools. The truth is that a good solipsist, like a good analysand, has liberated his imagination and his reason, rather than confined them by the iron bars of the supernaturalist’s mental prison.
Kohoutek “is”, I am sure, a “dirty snowball”, a collection of atoms, a collection of abstractions, just like everything else in the scientist’s world. But since we say that all of that is in a dream, we are in no way restricted by the “laws” of randomness or of physical causality when we ask what the comet means. In a dream, as we know, everything has meaning, it is all meaning, the randomness one might experience as a loss of cash in a dream Las Vegas, is merely an illusion, and so is “the force of gravity” or the “force” or “power” (words occultists love) of anything else. If a brick falls on your lover’s head in a dream, was it “the force of gravity” that brought about the concussion?
A comet in the sky, to a solipsist, is no different than a comet in a dream, is a comet in a dream, and therefore, its meaning will be found, partly, through the analysis of those symbolical relations which we have discovered, through myth, poetry, history and the science of psychology to have a universal application and, partly, through the analysis of the individual drama of the dreamer, here and now, by means of the techniques first coherently organized by Freud's sublime courage and genius and called “free association”. (Hume, alone among western philosophers, understood that everything was psychological, and called his book “A Treatise of Human Nature”.)
First, puns. A comet, a comment, a comma, and an exclamation point—joining name and appearance.
In other words, something important is happening. Pay attention!
Second, history (descending from zen to myths to moods.) Revolution. Invasion. The appearance and disappearance of genius.
Third, the games you are playing at the time you see the thing, the things you are trying to repress, your wishes and your fears.
But what if Leary's ideas become my impressions—what if (as some visions do) they become general and persistent and public, with, perhaps, a comet in the White House and an asteroid in every city hall? What then, forsooth?
Well—what about it? Is any fundamental question being answered then? Certainly, the supernaturalists always say. Your questions will then be answered—by the returning god, the comet, the saint at the lecturn in the star school, or whomever.
Leary, like all the rest of them, it turns out, does not have any answers. He is not the philosopher. Have faith and wait, and, in the meantime, don't agitate your mind. Daddy will tell you all—when he comes home.
The naive “realist”, in his dream, gazing out over the rooftops of a shining city towards a comet in the nighttime sky, is reminded of his helplessness and insignificance, and congratulates himself on the stoical courage which allows him to continue functioning under these circumstances without self deception.
Timothy Leary, having the same dream, appropriates unto himself a greater share of the power represented in the dreamscape before him than the average fellow gets, due to his favored place in the grace of his lord.
An enlightened dreamer, knowing that he dreams, knows also that he already possesses in his mind all the power of the universe, and is therefore free to appreciate what he sees without fear of being crushed or danger of a vain inflation, for, after all, what is power—other than the power to deceive oneself?
As far as this writer is concerned, the comet provides me with an excuse to excommunicate Timothy Leary from the society I lead—the dramatic and psychoanalytic inferences of which act I leave to the speculations of those who are interested. In Millbrook, which I have just completed, the bizarre history of my relations with this man whom I still consider to be great, if only as a politician, is fully explored. Perhaps, although it isn't likely, this signal of my displeasure may help him to recover his sanity, or his honesty, which are the same thing.
In any event, it is a blow which I am sure he can endure without inconvenience, and since it will help to define him, and me, and the Neo-American Church and thus favor clarity and dispel confusion, I think it is good for all concerned.
You can always repent, Tim, and be saved.
Note of January 10, 1974: In the failure of Kohoutek to live up to its advance notices, we have been deprived of a promised spectacle but provided with a good example of how synchronicity works. The pretensions of the occultists and the supernaturalists have, once again, been embarrassed, and the scientists, once again, have been warned to take care when predicting particulars on the basis of statistical probabilities.