Twentieth-Century Neuronaut: Timothy Leary

Photo: Roy Kerwood (CC)

[disinfo ed.'s note: this original essay was first published by disinformation on June 21, 2001. It originally appeared at the Far Gone Books site and is reprinted here by kind permission of the author. Some links may have expired]

I was driving in traffic along West Temple on a hot Summer afternoon, when I felt the marquis outside of the Zephyr Club grinning down at me like some kind of self-satisfied voyeur–an unsettling experience that I hoped might finally be one of the “flashbacks” I’d always heard about, but which had never seemed to manifest in my own body chemistry. The sign announced an upcoming visit with none other than Timothy Leary; and having just spent a mad weekend on Ken Kesey’s farm the previous month, I wasn’t about to trifle with the Lords of Karma: I was riding a lucky streak. I also owned Leary’s phone number from a 1990 interview I had done with the Mad Doktor. Leary remembered that phone conversation and agreed immediately to dinner.

From an elevator inside Salt Lake City’s historic Peery Hotel, Leary emerged looking like some kind of harlequin jester. The shockingly bright checkerboard shirt under a purple vest, which bore the insignia “Anarchic,” must have been a calculated media ploy, I reasoned. He was tanned to the point of sunburn and wore, as always, a thousand-watt smile and a pair of white, high-top tennis shoes. Between quick, nervous puffs on his Benson & Hedges, we discussed the new face of electronic stimulation, the novel as an archaic art form–the possibility of fucking giving way to the sperm bank–revealing why the graying Pied Piper of the Sixties is still very much in demand in the Nineties.

INTERVIEW (Salt Lake City, Utah, September 28, 1992)

Fahey: What have you been doing these days? What’s your schedule?

Leary: Well, I give about ten to fifteen radio and television interviews and press interviews a week, and I give, oh, five or six performances a month. I’m involved with helping develop methods of electronic communications, which I will demonstrate tonight at the Zephyr Club–brain activating techniques using electrons–and I’m developing computer programs that allow you to design your own hallucinations and to operate your own brain. And I spend most of my time hanging out with the most interesting people in the world, from whom I learn things.

Fahey: Who do you see as the most important neuronauts of the last 50 years?

Leary: What do you mean by the word “neuronauts”?

Fahey: Well, people who have been involved in the consciousness-expanding frontier in the last 50 years.

Leary: Oh, that’s a good question. The 20th century has been, historically, has been the century in which the basic philosophic and scientific principles which run the universe–which is quantum physics–have been popularized, humanized, disseminated, domesticated, so that people can learn how to communicate with their brains, and not just with status symbols. And learn how to operate their brains. All this comes directly from the principles of Einstein and Heisenberg, who said, ‘the observer creates the universe that he or she interacts with.’ So, I say the great neuronauts would be Einstein and Heisenberg and Bohr, and people like that–the people that have applied brain-change techniques.

You start with, of course, the modern artists, the surrealists who totally destroyed reality. It’s all an attempt to . . . the 20th century, and the neurological task of our species is to somehow be able to get out of your left brain, out of your mind, precisely, under control, and access the rest of your brain; and then, of course, to be able to go right back to your left brain any time you want to. So, the modern artists did this; they were able to put incredible hallucinations on canvas and still operate very successfully.

The literature of the 20th century that I prize has been totally right-brain, that is fuzzing up literate grammar; of course, we’ll start with James Joyce, and then with William Burroughs and Brion Gyson who cut the word line and destroyed grammar; I would include people like Thomas Pynchon and William Gibson in the current generation. Certainly, music of the 20th century is quantum physics, emphasizing innovation and improvisation, and, of course, jazz. And rock music–definitely out to destroy left-brain mind focus and to expand consciousness.

The philosophy of the 20th century–again, its language, linguistic–is based upon quantum physics. The psychology of the 20th century, starting in the 1960s is, again, designed to activate brains and to allow us to operate our brain, both the left brain and the right brain.

That covers it: we have science, linguistics, philosophy, art, music, literature [laughs]. Excuse me [heads off to find a match].

Fahey: To what extent do the psychedelics factor into this equation?

Leary: [Laughs] Well, of course, one thing I omitted in my litany of brain-changing techniques is the use of drugs, which became popularized in the Sixties, but they trace back to the early 20th century [sic]. It’s the socialization and popularization of the notion that you can change your brain, change your mind, change your mood, boot up, turn on, turn off, drop out, turn in, drop in [trademark Leary grin]. It is interesting that I omitted psychedelic drugs in that list of . . .

Fahey: Maybe that shows where you’ve evolved at this certain state in your life.

Leary: Well, no, I just take that for granted. I think we have to give a lot of credit to the pharmacologists and the psychedelic philosophers like Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, our wonderful group at Harvard, and the dedicated LSD wizards like Stanislav Grof and Sasha Shulgin–the great designer drug wizard from Berkeley . . .

Fahey: Abram Hoffer.

Leary: And, of course, Hoffer. And the group around Al Hubbard, who was the great, enigmatic triple-agent.

Fahey: We could talk about the Sixties all day long, but it wouldn’t serve much of a purpose. To what extent, within this “reality smashing” . . .

Leary: Well, the word “reality smashing” is very tricky. What is real is what your neurons are processing. And hallucinations are just as real as anything on the outside. There’s an external reality and internal reality. Inner reality is certainly more important than the outer reality. It is the outer reality that we have to talk about, agree upon, fight over and organize in order to survive. But this notion that the outer, for example that the foreign policy of the Reagan and Bush is somehow reality, more real than, uhh [fades off]. It’s very complicated, and I object to anyone grabbing the term “reality” . . .

Fahey: What I was getting at was, to what extent are the psychedelics today even a part of any movement to get beyond what we know as our day-to-day sense? Are psychedelics minor, compared to the computer applications that are going on today? Were psychedelics a launching point? Are they a thing of the past?

Leary: We’re talking about the brain. And unless you have some way of really activating the brain, people are going to use electrons as simply as external devices for power, control and money. So, yes, unless someone has had psychedelic experiences, they simply don’t understand how to operate or use electronic devices except for materialistic reasons. It’s no accident that the people who popularized the personal computer were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, both barefoot, longhaired acid-freaks. It’s no accident that most of the people in the software computer industry have had very thoughtful, very profitable and creative psychedelic experiences. Bill Gates, rumor has it, was a very active psychedelic proponent when he was at Harvard, before he, uhh . . .

Fahey: Founded Microsoft.

Leary: Yeah. So, you could go right down the line of the people who are the . . . it’s well-known that the software, not the hardware, but the software so-called industry is saturated with people who have been turned on profitably, respectably and creatively by LSD.

* * *

Fahey: Is there any future for the psychedelics, in either medical research or social applications? Or do you see any in the future?

Leary: Well, I think the medical profession, we all know that, is totally corrupt. Every doctor now is a corporation. And medical research in this country is government-sponsored and government-funded or funded by large drug companies. I think that government corporations should fucking keep their hands off the brain-change substances. The idea of a government-sponsored, authorized, doctor giving LSD to mess around with people’s brains is the ultimate Orwellian nightmare. The operational access to and use of your own mind and brain is a highly individual choice. Just as the right-wing government and politician’s religions want to control women’s reproductive organs, they want to control brains. The key, here, is that . . . the adult American should be able to do with their mind or their body what she wants to.

So, I’m bored with discussions of the social, because it’s highly individual–it’s not just individuals, it’s individuals in small groups. Because individuals, by themselves, taking psychedelics are alienated, lost, fucked up; you’ve got to do it in small groups. That’s the basic shamanic [pause], which Socrates taught us, and which Aldous Huxley taught us at Harvard. Small groups.

* * *

Fahey: Do you run into [Augustus Stanley] Owsley [the Sixties' Robin Hood of LSD]?

Leary: I see Owsley every time I go to a Grateful Dead concert. He’s there backstage. He’s selling jewelry, which you have to look at through a magnifying glass; incredibly talented miniature, almost molecular jeweler now.

Fahey: His days of production are over, I assume. Long over.

Leary: [shrugs] None of my business.

Fahey: Where are we in the process of expanding our horizons? What do you see as the next wave, or the current wave?

Leary: By “we,” I assume you mean the human race; which always means individuals. The use of multimedia electronic software–CDROM discs, audiovisual disks–will put into the hands of every Third World kid, every inner-city kid in America the ability to boot up, activate, turn on their right brain, to reprogram their left brain. The use of electrons for brain-change and for brain-fucking and brain-reprogramming has been perfected in the form of the television commercial. And I totally admire a thousand years of the Catholic Church, using jewels, organs, rose windows and that sort of stuff to, uhh [pause]. What we’re understanding now is that the human brain is a photovore. That means that the human brain lives on light.

Fahey: How so? Explain that to someone having difficulty understanding the concept.

Leary: Every metaphor approximating the visionary experience is optical: illumination, revelation, insight, perspective, reflection. Right down the list. I’m too senile to remember all of them, but punch “illumination” up into your computer thesaurus, and you’ll get [laughs, nods, fades]. Light has always been the statement of the ultimate brain experience: Tibetans talk about the White Light of the Void. Dante’s Heaven was total white . . . the Egyptian religions, sun. These are primitive anticipations of what we now have available. The human brain is starved for electronic stimulation; the human brain is addicted to light. We can’t control the sun, but through diamonds and rose windows [interrupted by waitress; Leary orders cup of coffee].

Leary: . . . we’re now using electrons to create what’s called “virtual reality,” electronic realities, which mean brain realities of course, because for the brain to use the body to communicate in terms of words–nine muscles of your vocal chords to create the words that I am now, or printing presses to print out book–is extremely crude, when you consider the human brain can deal with a hundred and fifty million signals a second. We use oral and hand tools, mechanical forms of communication, basically for material purposes; but we’re now into the concept of direct brain exchange or brain communication, on screens. I think perhaps as important as LSD is a new device called the video projector; and what this means is that you have a small hand-held device that you can plug in a videotape, anywhere you go–which means you can bring one, I can bring one, and on our wall we can mix our electronic environments: you can have George Bush giving a speech on your projector, and I can be putting in Madonna taking off her clothes. I’m kidding, of course [winks].

The video projector is an extraordinary empowerment of the individual. We can no longer sit in front of the television screen like ameboids, just sucking up what they’re putting there. We can now move around and put on the walls what we have stored in our CDROM computers.

The empowerment of the individual implied in video projectors, of course, was not understood by the engineers who designed it; but it is thrilling. And in retrospect, you see, it was entirely predictable. Forty years ago, you had to go to a theater to see electrons sprayed on a big screen. Then you had television, and you could sit in your livingroom and you could have your own little screen. Now, with the multiplication of cable and the clicker, you can lie in bed and change your screen; now, with wall-sized screens, operating on a hand-held projector is just the ultimate empowerment of the individual to communicate brain-to-brain.

Fahey: Do you think psychedelics can be replaced by other experiences, or will there always be a need for an internal ingestion of something to . . .

Leary: That’s like saying, will fucking be replaced as a form of sperm/egg interaction by sperm banks and egg banks. It’s all up to you. [pause] We are told by the ethnobotanists and by the neurologists that there are probably seventy or eighty or more receptor sites in the brain for seventy or eighty different kinds of drugs, all, by the way, coming from plants. And we discovered maybe the twentieth now: the coca leaf, the marijuana leaf, the poppy seed, the ergot on rye, which is LSD; but there are at least fifty plant products that we are going to be using in the next twenty years, so tough shit, Nancy–we’ve hardly begun this game. [laughter on both sides].

Fahey: Have you read Ken Kesey’s new novel yet?

Leary: Huh-uh, did you?

Fahey: I’ve gotten through chapter eight or nine of it. I think it’s a brilliant piece of work.

Leary: Good. I love Ken Kesey. I don’t think the novel, just as letters mass-produced in printing presses is the real way to communicate now. Anyone who writes a book now, half of it should be a videoed, multimedia book. But I adore Ken Kesey, and I’m sure that what he produced, there, is something that could be enjoyed as an archaic form of art, just as Picasso’s [pause]; I just honor and adore Ken Kesey. I should also say that Ken Kesey is spending more of his time making films than he is writing books.

Fahey: Right now he is? Currently?

Leary: Oh, for the last five or six years he has. People criticize Ken because he hasn’t been writing books, but I endorse the fact that he’s been doing both.

Fahey: So you don’t consider his attempt to videotape or tape his whole Bus experience a waste of time, like so many other people did?

Leary: Well, the literary mafia running out of New York City considers anything that substitutes for printed letters on wood pulp, anything less than that is an inferior product. I credit Kesey for doing both. No reason why you can’t do both.

Also, I wanted to point out that Ken Kesey taught a course at the University of Oregon, in which the computer was basically like a videotelephone, the mind-link; and he had a group of student using computers to link their minds to write a group book, which was one of the most brilliant uses of computers ever performed. And I honor Ken Kesey for that.

Fahey: Caverns.

Leary: McLuhan said, ‘the medium is the message.’ You can argue about how great that computer book is, as compared to Proust or Hemingway; that’s not the issue. The fact that a group did it together–and presumably other people can add to it–is introducing medium. And Kesey will be probably as famous for that as for anything else he did.

Fahey: Even if people don’t see it now.

Leary: Well, nobody ever understands what a pioneer is doing. And the people who believe in the literal sanctity and holiness of the printed word hate the idea that Kesey is having a group of people come together using computers to produce a group thing; the fact that they’re literally threatened by being put out of business. If they don’t oppose you, you’re in trouble. So it was inevitable that Kesey would not be honored for that. It was a great act of courage on Kesey’s part to do that, because he is not basically an electronic, cybernetic person; he’s a people person. And he understood, intuitively, that the computer could be used as a group party-line telephone: a mind-phone.

[Phone call for Dr. Leary interrupts conversation]

* * *

[Leary reenters with KUED television reporter]

Leary: We’re about finished, aren’t we?

Fahey: Yeah, we are.

Leary: [Archly] More wisdom has poured out in the last ten minutes . . . [laughs]. It would take a hundred books to reel in what we’ve gone over, here.

Fahey: Let me ask you one last question.

Leary: Sure.

Fahey: If you had to do it all over again, is there anything you would do differently, substantially?

Leary: Damn right! I would have fucked more, taken more psychedelic drugs and spent more time with my family [laughter all around].

* * *

[Leary begins talking about Rolling Stone magazine; Fahey turns tape back on]

Leary: Jann Wenner has an editorial, full page, endorsing Clinton; and the last line of it [fades]. I’ve known Wenner since he was an eighteen-year old kid stringer for Ramparts magazine. ‘The day Clinton is elected President will be the greatest moment of our lives.’ [hysterical laughter from Leary]

Unidentified Camera Man: Wennerlogic.

Leary: Yeah, exactly. You know, I personally don’t like Jann; nobody likes him. But I’ve got to admire his insipidity; he’s so self-centered and so narcissistic. Jann Wenner is the essence baby-boomer. He was born in January 1946: the first month [bangs fist on table] of the baby boom. He’s always been the leader of it.

,

  • HCE

    Met the man, and he was an ass. He may have
    great ideas, but he was a jerk. Unless you could
    give him presspublicity andor were a good looking female.
    Not much of a human being in my experience.

  • HCE

    Met the man, and he was an ass. He may have
    great ideas, but he was a jerk. Unless you could
    give him presspublicity andor were a good looking female.
    Not much of a human being in my experience.

  • http://www.facebook.com/todd.fahey Todd Brendan Fahey

    I interviewed Tim Leary four (4) times; he was never an “ass” to me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/todd.fahey Todd Brendan Fahey

    I interviewed Tim Leary four (4) times; he was never an “ass” to me.

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