This rambling tale, centering on a bravura trio of books by John Higgs, begins in dramatic fashion. I'm sitting on a bar stool in the Lewes Arms when Adrian rushes through the door. Adrian is in his late '70s, went to art school in the '50s. He holds out this book and says you must read this - and then rushes out again.
So I was plunged into the world of 'The KLF: Chaos, Magic and The Band who Burned A Million Pounds'. Next I caught sight of JH's recently published book 'Stranger Than We Can Imagine', an alternative view of the 20th century and requested a review copy. Finally came 'I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Tim Leary' which I devoured in about 48 hours. Now I'm trying to draw breath, explain what's happened to me and try and give you some introductory insights into three books which I consider to be of great value and import.
'What was my KLF book but a statement that five seemingly separate stories were, in a certain light, one bigger story? It was my way of saying that the stories of Bill Drummond, Robert Anton Wilson, Ken Campbell, Alan Moore and Doctor Who were parts of something larger, even if none of the characters in that story were aware of it.'This is a perfectly pitched John Higgs quote. There is something going on here but you're note sure what it is. Are you Mr Jones. It certainly to do with connectivity, synchronicity, magical thinking, new perspectives and alternative angles on 'the truth' which is out there somewhere. Monsieur Higgs is very deft at interweaving and I am sure also at public speaking judging by his timetable of talks.
In case you haven't been introduced, Bill Drummond is one half of KLF, Robert Anton Wilson wrote the Illuminatus trilogy which Ken Campell later staged. Alan Moore is the uber-genius, Gandalfian figure who revolutionised the comic and graphic novel medium and Dr Who is a Time Lord (but you knew that).
The KLF long-story-short story is almost unbelievable. Drummond and Jimmy Cauty found KLF which becomes a monstrous behemoth that strides the world of dance music, generating number ones across the planet, making millions. Disillusioned by their success, they then seek to remove every single trace of KLF from the internet and the world which they are quite successful at. But how to get rid of the filthy money. Simple: burn a million pounds. All in all its a wonderful read. Full of juicy quotes, tit-bits of startling information, unusual conjunctions, challenging assertions. It will make your brain fizz.
Short intermission: KLF are or were Discordians, a belief system first popularised by Robert Anton Wilson. The Wikipedia entry is good entry point
Discordianism is a religion and subsequent philosophy based on the veneration or worship of Eris, a.k.a. Discordia, the Goddess of chaos, or archetypes or ideals associated with her. It was founded after the 1963 publication of its holy book, the Principia Discordia, written by Greg Hill with Kerry Wendell Thornley, the two working under the pseudonyms Malaclypse the Younger and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst. The religion has been likened to Zen based on similarities with absurdist interpretations of the Rinzai school, as well as Taoist philosophy. Discordianism is centered on the idea that both order and disorder are illusions imposed on the universe by the human nervous system, and that neither of these illusions of apparent order and disorder is any more accurate or objectively true than the other. There is some division as to whether it should be regarded as a parody religion, and if so to what degree.
The golden apple symbolizes the eristic principle (disorder). The pentagon symbolizes the aneristic principle (order).
'Stranger Than We Can Imagine' is a lengthy and studious work from which I took copious notes. Summarising its many levels and subjects is difficult but here goes.
There is, say Higgs, 'a moment for every generation when memory turns into history...the right time to take stock.' He describes his journey as an 'alternative route through the landscape of the last century.'
The book is constructed of 15 chapters of around 20pp each, which follow an overlapping chronological sequence: Relativity, Modernism, War, Individualism, Id, Uncertainty, Science Fiction, Nihilism, Space, Sex, Teenagers, Chaos, Growth, Postmodernism, Network.
Every one is introduced with an unusual and striking double-page photo that strikes an eerie chord:
'Science Fiction' has a picture from the set of Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' the girl actress inside the metal girl suit with her helmet off, drinking through a straw from a glass held by a white lab-coated technician. On her other side a man in a suit and tie, holds a hair dryer that is blowing air down into the cracks in her suit. 'Individualism' has a bunch of five sturdy outdoor explorer types posing in front of three tents. The second from left is Aleister Crowley, an image of him which is miles away from the classic caricature.
What is genuinely interesting is that in that period 1900-1912 and post-War the worlds of both science, art and culture were transformed by what Higgs describes as 'genuinely new, unexpected and radical new ideas: atomic science, the birth of relativity and later quantum were being paralleled by The Rites of Spring and the works of Kandinsky, Cubism, Duchamp, Joyce et al . What's more these new ideas seemed to be pointing in a broadly coherent direction.
Underlining the role of chance, this memorable paragraph about the event that led to World War 1 is a stunner:
'The initial shooting that led to the conflict was itself a farce. The assassin in question was a Yugoslav nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. He had given up his attempt to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand of Austria followng a failed grenade attack by Princip's colleague and gone to a cafe.' Whilst he was standing outside 'by sheer coincidence the Archduke's driver made a wrong turn into the same street and stalled the car in front of him. This gave the surprised Princip the opportunity to shoot Ferdinand and his wife Sophie... Over 37 million people died in the fallout from that assassination.'
In the work of writers, musicians and artists there were 'persistent attempts to destroy frames of reference' by film makers (Eisenstein), musicians (Schoenberg, Stravinsky), writers (Joyce, Eliot and Pound). A big theme that emerged was 'no single perspective can be considered correct or true.' Knowledge is dependent on the perspective we take.
'Einstein and the Modernists' appear to have separately made the same leap at the same time... [and] 'found a higher framework'.
'There are no eternal facts as there are no absolute truths'- Nietzsche (1878)JH incidentally puts forward the hypothesis that Duchamp's 'Fountain' was actually the idea (and work) of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
In the 'War' chapter, Higgs describes the concept of emperors as being 'one of the great constants in human history.' Within a few short years they are swept away in the carnage of World War 1. Again the 'removal of single, absolute, fixed perspectives.'. Universal suffrage appeared in much of Europe and democracy acquired its own multiple perspective.
What follows is the birth of 'individualism' with Aleister Crowley singled out as a leading influential figure, who considered us to be 'self-centred rational agents with free will.' Mussolini coins the terms 'fascism' and later Ayn Rand invents 'objectivism'.
'Id' begins with the premiere of the 'Rites of Spring'. Picasso, Proust, Gertrude Stein, Ravel, Debussy and Cocteau were all there. 'The wild and irrational premiere', says Higgs, was 'followed by global descent into total war' in what he later calls ' a perfect storm of technology, nationalism, individualism and the political rise of psychopaths.'
'Uncertainty' leads us to logic and paradox, Bertrand Russell and Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. Niels Bohr, one of the father's of quantum mechanics' says: 'Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.' One of the most surprising discoveries about the atom was that it was mostly empty.The sub-atomic world was 'a fuzzy sea of guesswork and speculation' which could be changed by the very act of observation. A particle could be in two places at once.
These discoveries were unsettling. Higgs writes; 'Just as our conscious minds were only a bubble of rationality in a larger unconscious mind... so the physical world of matter and comprehensible cause and effect was just a hiccup in a larger reality....Our world, both mind and matter, was a small bubble of coherence inside something so alien, we haven't even been able to find adequate metaphors to describe it.'
'Science Fiction' as a term was named in the 1920s. J.G. Ballard considered it 'the last genre capable of adequately representing present day reality.'
Higgs spends some space and time discussing Carl Jung's 1959 book on UFOs, written when he was 83. The first sighting by Kenneth Arnold in 1947 had triggered of a wave of other reports of sightings of alien craft. People had always seen, lights, gods, angels and visions in the sky but the emergence of this new 'alien' version of the 'other' intrigued Jung. he thought it represented 'a huge change in the collective unconscious. 'UFOs to Jung,' say Higgs, 'were a projection of Cold War paranoia and the alien nature of our technological progress. He recognised that the phenomenon told us more about our own culture than it did about alien spaceships.'
'Nihilism' is a rich vein in post-war times. After Hiroshima and the Holocaust, existentialism thrived - 'life is meaningless and the experience of existing in the present moment is all that matters'. The gang's all here: Alex Trocchi, Beckett, Camus, Sartre and, in the US, The Beats, where it got mixed up with beatitudes, satori and other forms of eastern mysticism. The 'I Ching' and the 'Tibetan Book of the Dead' were consulted. It was about the here and now, loss of ego and a connection with something larger than the self. Higgs explores also Joseph Campbell's 'monomyth' 'The Hero's Journey' - his own invention that he projected onto the stories of the ages. Hello Star Wars!
'The Bomb' and 'Space'. The first begins with Russia's first nuclear test (August 1949) which triggered the space race, fuelled by weapons technology. Higgs interestingly focuses on the Russian space programme and Sergie Korolev its visionary architect. The Big K got the Sputnik up there (4th Oct 1957) and Gagarin in orbit by 12th April 1961 with much in between. When he died in 1966 the Russian space programme collapsed and the US became the ascendant.
We also meet Marvel Whiteside Parsons, who loved blowing things up and became the co-founder of the US Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Did I mention that, during the same period, he was running an occult commune in Los Angeles based on Crowley's teachings. Also Werner von Braun, architect of the Nazi V2 rocket programme, built with slave labour, who was smuggled to the US in Operation Paperclip and masterminded the US space programme.
'Sex' touches on Marie Stopes, suffragette and contraceptive pioneer, Betty Friedan and The Female Eunuch as well as the prosecutions of Henry Miller and 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' and the fact that in 1974 the Paedophile Information Exchange was receiving funding from the Home Office. In 'Teenagers' there is talk of the growth of individualism, counter culture and Thatcherism.
'Chaos' begins with Lorenz's mathematics, the 'butterfly effect' and the emergence of order in chaos. The wonderful Benoit Mandelbrot reveals that reality is fractal and chaotic. This Higgs links to James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis and the vision of earth and life working together as a self-regulating organism, life generating conditions for life. Gaia.
'Growth' examines the rise of corporations, hardwired to perpetual growth and the rise of the environmental movement. The uncomfortable truth is that Margaret Thatcher was the first world leader to acknowledge climate change, at the UN in 1989.
'Post -Modernism' came and went as did the New Age movement. 'Network' brings us to our globally connected world and the need to challenge individualism and corporate power. 'The millennial generation...understand that the most effective way to get on in such an environment is to co-operate.' Occupy and Anonymous are leaderless structure.
Higgs believes that as the concept of an 'individual' has become more complicated to define (there are entire ecosystems inside the human biome); that our sense of 'self', of a single entity making rational decisions, is no more than a quirk of mind.
He concludes: 'Perhaps the network will last as our defining model for as long as the imperial system did. If that is the case, then free-floating, consequence-ignoring individualism was a brief liminal moment in history a pause between breaths. The twentieth century will have been a rare time indeed...it was a glimpse of mankind at its worst, and at its best.'
Source: The Leary Project
Like most others of my generation, Leary was a lighthouse figure whose beam touched us all when we too began conducting our own experiments with LSD in seaside bungalows but his legend became tarnished and muddied by allegations of him snitching to the authorities. The media turned him into a cartoon character which Leary played up to but this has overshadowed his genius, his humour, handsomeness and humanity. A genuine pioneer of the mind-altering world, he faced his own death with inquisitive enthusiasm and wonder.
The trajectory of his life: An only child, born (Oct 20th 1920) to an uptight mum and charming alcoholic rogue of a dad who disappeared when he was 14. Five years later. he enrolled at the prestigious West Point military academy where he got into trouble for illicit drinking. He refused to resign and was court martialled and 'sent to Coventry'. He endured nine months of this punishment before resigning. He then enrolled in the University of Alabama and, more by accident than design, started studying psychology. He was found spending the night in the girls' dormitory and expelled which meant he lost his draft deferment.
He enlisted in the anti-aircraft artillery but had his hearing damaged as a result which prevented him being sent into combat. He completed his psychology degree before his discharge, moved to California (Sept 1946) and enrolled as a doctoral psychology student at Berkeley. He rose quickly and smoothly through the ranks and became director of the Kaiser Foundation Hospital (1954) and published nearly 50 papers in psychology journals. His meisterwork 'Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality' - a method of categorising patients based on their personality types - was highly praised and considered essential reading.
Leary married Marianne (12 April 1944) and they had two children (Susan and Jack). Cracks in their marriage, Leary took a mistress named Delsey and Marianne took her own life the day before Leary's 35th birthday (Oct 21st 1955). Leary married Delsey, honeymooned in Mexico, traveled to Spain and was divorced shortly afterwards. In Spain his whole life seemed to be falling apart and then he got so ill that he thought he was dying. Letting go of all his worries remarkably led to a full recovery, an experience Leary considered spiritual.
Shortly afterwards he was offered a job at the Harvard Center for Personality Research.
Here he met Richard Alpert and other like-minded souls and they discussed recent reports about 'magic mushrooms' with extraordinary properties. In August 1960, Leary and colleague traveled to Cuernavaca in Mexico where he ate psilocybin mushrooms for the first time. The slight change to the chemistry of his brain had altered his entire world. It was a pivotal moment in his life. He decided to dedicate his life to understanding the psychedelic experience.
On his return he set up the Harvard Psychedelic Research project. obtained a supply of psilocybin in the form of pink tablets from Sandoz Labs in Switzerland and wrote a proposal for 'A Study of Clinical Reactions to Psilocybin Administered in supportive Environments'. A happy coincidence was that the 66-year old Aldous Huxley, author of 'Brave New World' was a visiting lecturer at nearby MIT and was happy to advise on the project. He considered Leary to be the ideal 'front man'' to explain the importance of psychedelics. He also introduced Leary to Dr Humphrey Osmond, the British psychologist who'd coined the word 'psychedelic' and used mescalin to treat alcoholics in Canada.
Leary began by running psychedelic sessions with Beat writers, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg, who was an enthusiastic convert. Ginsberg first took it with Peter Orlovsky at Leary's house in 1960. This profound experience made him realise it was time to start a 'love and peace movement'.
Leary and Alpert set up a programme to work with inmates in the Massachusetts prison system. The results appeared to show that recidivism rates amongst prisoners who had undergone psilocybin therapy had dropped from 70% to 10 percent. They also conducted similar experiments at Harvard Divinity School in order to compare the psychedelic experience with "true" religious ecstasy.
In November 1961, Dr Leary was introduced to LSD. He wrote later that it was the most shattering experience of his life. The rest is history. LSD became illegal in 1966 and Leary was described by Nixon as 'the most dangerous man in the world.
Leary's most famous soundbite came when he was one of the main star speakers at the legendary Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park (14th January 1967). he told the assembled crowd of 20,000: "The only way out is in, Tune in, turn on and drop out! Of high school, junior executive, senior executive. And follow me! The hard way!'
Source: Timothy Leary Archives
[Interestingly, Wikipedia quotes a 1988 interview by Neil Strauss as the source for the fact that this quote was "given to him" when he had lunch with Marshall McLuhan at the Plaza Hotel in New York (Spring 1966). Higgs discusses their meeting but does not mention this. Rather he says McLuhan advised Leary to become a living advertisement for the positive benefits of the drug and that this could best be done by using one of Tim's greatest assets - 'his infectious smile.'
A third version about the friendship between the two men is found in an article by Leary's archivist Michael Horovitz that was published on Boing Boing in June 2014:
'Leary wrote: “The conversation with Marshall McLuhan got me thinking [that] the successful philosophers were also advertisers who could sell their new models to large numbers of others, thus converting thought to action, mind to matter.”'Inspired by McLuhan, Leary took LSD and devoted several days to creating a slogan. He claims he was in the shower when he came up with “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.” ]
After declaring his candidacy for governor of California in 1970, Leary was arrested on marijuana possession and received a decade-long jail sentence. After several months inside, he managed to escape from prison with help from the Weather Underground, financed by The Brotherhood of Eternal Love.
He made it first to Algeria, where he hung out with Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers, then Switzerland and then Afghanistan, where the DEA caught up with him in 1973 and brought him back to face American justice. He was eventual pardoned by Governor Jerry Brown in April 1976.
Amongst the many issues, campaigns and ideas that Leary embraced in later life was interstellar travel. Appropriate then that after he died (May 31st 1996), his ashes were sent into space in a Pegasus rocket (April 21st 1997) along with the ashes of Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry, space colony pioneer Gerard K. O'Neill and the rocket scientist Krafft Ehricke. It orbited the Earth once every 96 minutes for just over five years before re-entry on May 20th 2002.
The last word rests with Hunter S. Thompson, he said of Leary: "Tim was a Chieftain. He stomped on the terra, and he left his elegant hoof-prints on all our lives,"