Pataphysics Magazine Interview with Timothy Leary
October 17, 1989
from the Mercedes issue
You go though life and there are certain ordeals of Hercules you have to pass. So I got a Ph.D. I went to West Point and showed that I could deal with the military. I got thrown out of Jesuit school because I wouldnít take shit from them. Iíve spent five years in the army and five years in prison. Iíve been a Harvard professor and a movie actor. I have no more pretensions about being an actor than a professor, but I must admit that Iím a proud card-carrying member of the screen of the screen actors guild. I donít see myself as a radical, but rather someone just doing what came along. To that extent, itís a matter of competence. Everything I do I try and do well. I was a model prisoner but I wanted to escape. If youíre going to be an outlaw youíve got to be good at it.
I survived prison because I am a self-satisfied person. I enjoyed being by myself. My mind was amusing and I could share a joke with myself. People are amazed to learn that I was in solitary confinement for over two years. In fact it was very easy. My cell mate was a very funny guy. Frankly, when I was in prison I didnít want visitors. The way you serve prison time, especially long sentences, is to create a routine for yourself. Once youíre preoccupied with a routine the days go by very quickly. So I would be in the prison yard maybe playing handball, or sitting in the sun reading, and my name would be announced calling me to the visiting room. Iíd have to get up, have a shower, and put on a blue uniform just to talk to someone. I didnít mind it of courseóbut I wasnít desperate for company or looking for a break. Solitude accelerated contemplation. I came out of prison with a head full of ideas. I was given time to think and read. Shortly afterwards I wrote a number of books, none of which were that great, but it was getting my ideas out.
My escape from prison resulted in a very spooky episode in my life. When youíre a fugitive youíre a total victim. You have no legal rights; youíre totally helpless and vulnerable. Anyone can run numbers on you. Whatís worse, I was depending on a foreign government, so it was a very freaky and paranoid situation. And there was a lot of afghani around which didnít help. I mean, eat a little of that and you get very paranoid. As it turned out, all my paranoias were correct. But at least I took some psychedelics in Algeria that produced some very powerful experiences. The Sahara Desert was a fine place for getting on different levels. In particular, just outside Algeria, coming down the Rif mountains you find a desert town called Bou Sa‚da. Itís known as the City of Happiness. Aleister Crowley had one of his great mystical experiences there, just wandering about in the desert. Itís an oasis town, so for thousands of years it was the first civilized or populated place that caravans crossing the Sahara would come to. It became an intersection for a diversity of culturesóa very magical place. I recall I wanted to find a safe place to meditate in the desert. Itís amazing. Cab drivers all over the world hustle girls, boys, their sisters and whatever. But in this place I was put in touch with some old Arab guide who understood immediately what I wanted. Try thinking of another city where the cab driver would take you seriously if you told him you only wanted to meditate.
Aspects of Femininity
I like John Lilly a lot. Heís a really liberated guy. You go and see Lilly now that heís supposed to be a big time philosopher. Heíll meet you at the door in drag and wearing makeup. Also he had an operation done to make himself a titómind you only one tit. Weíre talking major eccentricity. Curiosity-driven people go and visit him. He can only beg their pardon for not being able to live down to their expectations.
Junky vs Psychedelics
Burroughs was very cynical about what we were doing at Harvard. Particularly our belief that psychedelic drugs could salvage the world. Heís basically not a psychedelic person. The only psychedelic substance that he tolerates is marijuana. He is basically a junky and junkies like things to be simple. Burroughs has forgotten more about drugs than Iíve learnt. He considers himself a very successful junky, and I would have to agree that he is well in charge of his life. He knows what he is doing. As for myself, I think that heroin is probably the best anaesthetic there is. I donít want to generalize. Iíve taken heroin maybe only fifteen times in my life for curiosity, but itís obviously a loner drug. You take it to go within. Itís a powerful inner experience but youíre not socially aware under its influence. To me, heroin and cocaine are a kind of masturbatory lonely use experience. Anyway, Burroughs isnít a guy that would go around talking about peace and love at the best of times. Heís a very crusty introverted type with a deep sense of humor. Burroughs is now doing shot-gun art. He fires tubes of paint onto the canvas. The thing is that heís making more money in one month from his paintings than he made in years writing, perhaps in the whole of his literary life. Although his books are tremendously influential, they never sold. Whatís more, people discuss his ideas without ever buying his books. Burroughs doesnít even want to write anymore. The story is that as long as Gysin was alive, Burroughs was too intimidated to try and paint, almost as if he didnít want to be seen to compete. But as soon as Gysin died, he felt free to pursue painting with a vengeance and now his paintings are more famous than Gysinís. Although it should be added that he influenced Burroughs tremendously.
In the í60s we tried to externalize the psychedelic experience. At Harvard we realized the only way that we could express it was though using multi-level sensory overload. We were experimenting with various forms of cellular movement overlaps, in an attempt to duplicate, in a rather feeble way, the visionary trance experience. At a wider level there was acid art. Every dance floor had strobe light shows, or the whole room was made to look like a big bowl of jello. Gysin was very influential in developing what was known as the Dreamachine. A very early wonderfully creative and primitive psychedelic machine. Holes punched in a spinning metal lampshade were presumably meant to put you in an altered state. Strobe lights and sounds intended to match the frequency of your alpha waves. But today, the computer allows a psychedelic simulation closer than anything we had before. Computer generated images such as fractals create an equation from an algorithm. By giving every number a color you produce a recursive and responsive equation. Fractal forms appear comparable to the structure of coast lines or the insides of your digestive tract. The thing about fractals is that any part of it reflects the whole. And that seems to be the way that biological evolution works. The DNA code is an algorithm. The universe is written through algorithmic equations.
I couldnít exactly say that G. Gordon Liddy and I are friends today. Mind you over the years there has grown a mutual respect and fondness for each other. Gordon is very romantic and to his mind weíre like armored knights fighting for different causes Of course I didnít always respect him. After all, when I first met him he was an asshole cop harassing me in my bedroom. But looking back he was doing his job and I was doing mine. Anyhow, heís become a greater outlaw than I ever was. I went to prison for some grass, he did serious things. Liddy is very proud to have been jailed for contempt of congress. Every fascist hates congress if only because it represents the people. So for Liddy it was a great merit badge to be charged with contempt.
Do I seem American to you? We can talk about myths of Tom Sawyer, but the average American is an extremely docile person looking for a leader. Kennedy told us not to ask what the state can do for us but what we can do for the state. Most Americans ever since have gone around thinking that that was good news.
Hollywood; thereís no such thing as Hollywood. Hollywood is a reflection of international influences. But I donít watch television much. The news, sports and occasionally a movie. In Los Angeles on Cable TV there are probably 36 programs you can pick up at any given time. You spin the dial around but thereís nothing there you want to watch. Everyoneís got a remote control. The brain obviously likes being strobed that way. The brain responds to light oscillations. Nine flashes per second will bring on an epileptic fit in someone thatís susceptive. The brain is readily addicted to electronic signals. Iíve always said that weíre predisposed to the electronic media. Just as the metabolic system needs carbohydrates, the brain is equipped to deal with electronic stimulus. Itís almost as if the brainís been waiting for 25 thousand yearsówaiting to be fed electrons.
The critics of the information age, particularly the French philosophers, see everything in the negative, as if the quality of information can lead to a loss of meaning. They said the same thing about Gutenberg. Printing was seen as the death of learning because the mind was meant to learn things by rote. Even today, the brightest and best educated young Islamic scholar is taken to compete to see who can best recite the Koran. Thatís what brain power is to them. Books are not only seen as crutches, they were seen as an oncoming avalanche of information. But the human brain can deal with 125 million signals per second and yet the French writers with their quill pens are saying that there is going to be an information overload. Tell that to a 10-year-old in the video arcade. Today there are more theorems published in math every year than there have been in the past 100 years. Itís impossible to understand mathematics as an overviewóbut so what. The kids brought up on video games will be able to cope. A small area of their brain is being activatedóbut itís being activated electronically. Never before has the individual been so empowered. But in the information age you do have to get the signals out. Popularization means making it available to the people. Today the role of the philosopher is to personalize, popularize, and humanize computer ideas so that people can feel comfortable with them. The European tradition of intellectual elitism was wonderful 100 years ago. Today the academy is as deadly as the concentration camp.
The Ways of Progress
We are mutating into another speciesófrom the aquaria to the terrarium now weíre moving in to Cyberia. We are creatures crawling to the center of the cybernetic world. But cybernetics are the stuff of which the world is made. Matter is simply frozen information. Itís not the old 19th century notion of progress. Iím not saying things are getting better. Things are always changing and nobody can be sure where itís going. The evil along with the good is becoming more complex. The struggle of freedom against control will surely go on. Iím not suggesting things are getting better, just faster, smarter and more complicated and you have to keep up with it. Some say the things Iíve been involved with have a dark side. First it was LSD, now itís computers. They ask me if I feel responsible for my involvement, as if all the consequences are mine. Do I feel it? Well, if you want me to take the blame, Iíll take all of it. The fact is that a few of us saw what was happening and we wrestled the power of LSD away from the CIA, and now the power of the computers away from IBM. Just as we rescued psychology away from the doctors and analysts. In every generation Iíve been part of a group of people who, like Prometheus, have wrestled with the power in order to hand it back to the individual.