In 1972 Dr. Timothy Leary picked up a pack of Aleister Crowley-designed tarot cards and asked them the question, “Who am I and what is my destiny?” He then cut the pack and found the Ace of Discs, the card that Crowley believed represented himself. It featured the Greek words To Mega Therion or ‘The Great Beast’, which was the name Crowley had adopted for himself. This convinced Leary of something that he had recently come to suspect; that he was a ‘continuation’ of Aleister Crowley and that his role in life was to continue Crowley’s ‘Great Work’, that of bringing about a fundamental shift in human consciousness.
The Timothy Leary of 1972 was a very different man to the Timothy Leary of 1967’s ‘Summer of Love’, when he had been at the height of his fame. Leary was the ex-Harvard professor who preached peace and love, adopted the mantra “tune in, turn on and drop out”, and led the exploding psychedelic movement. In the five years that followed he had been repeatedly arrested, imprisoned, had escaped from jail, been smuggled out of America by terrorists, was kidnapped by revolutionaries in North Africa, escaped again, fled to Switzerland, been jailed by the Swiss and was currently living a nomadic life moving between different Swiss Cantons under the protection of an exiled French arms dealer. Nixon had called him “the most dangerous man in America” and had sent John Mitchell, his Attorney General, to Switzerland to try and obtain his extradition. Leary’s life was playing out on such a grand, dangerous scale that it was tempting to believe that he had been somehow selected by the hand of history, and that great deeds were expected of him.
His identification with Crowley began in earnest after Leary took an acid trip in the Sahara desert with an English beatnik artist and writer named Brian Barritt. Barritt was, in Leary’s words, “a fucking genius”. “Brian is an English Untouchable,” Leary wrote in 1971. “His shadow falling across the path of the middle class is enough to contaminate twenty lives. He is highly toxic. Brian is ancient but not old. He has put as many drugs as possible into his body for thirty six years and is obscenely healthy, diabolically wealthy, and looks about twenty. He intends to maintain this state for an indefinite period. He is not going to die; they will have to kill him.”
Leary and Barritt first tripped together over the night of Easter Saturday and Sunday, 1971. The pair drove from the Algerian coast to a place called Bou Saada, on the edge of the Sahara. ‘Bou Saada’ means ‘City of Happiness’ and it was rumoured to be a very magical place. Leary had to collect some belongings from the Hotel Caid, where he and his wife Rosemary had previously stayed. These included the foreword that he had written for one of Barritt’s books, and some of his wife’s clothes. It was the clothes that they were primarily interested in, for there were tabs of Orange Sunshine acid sewn into the hems, and some high quality Afghan hashish in the heels of the shoes.
They ate the acid, and some hash, and drove out into the endless dunes until they found a dried up riverbed. Here they sat on the ever shifting, pepper-fine sand and watched the sun set while they waited for the LSD to hit. A full moon rose. Night fell on the desert.
“The sky was on fire,” is how Barritt later described the trip that followed. “Massive galactic spaceships blinked into being, golden vessels with the faces of Egyptian Gods on their prows, gliding between life and death. [ . . . ] Beauteous cities glide by composed of materials not yet invented, towers twisted skywards. Through a window a woman with the face of an angel and the body of a spider was chatting me up with her eyes . . . ”. Leary, meanwhile, seemed to be performing some form of ceremony. He was pacing up and down reciting the alchemical phrase solve et coagula.
Even by Leary and Barritt’s standards, it was a memorable night. But the trip included a few synchronicities that seemed to indicate that there was more to it than just a string of imaginative hallucinations. At the start of the trip Barritt became aware of a hooded man in the middle of a dust devil or a whirlwind of sand. He had a scroll or manuscript that seemed to be important, and which was linked to the Elizabethan magician and alchemist Dr. John Dee.
Dr. Dee was one of the leading scholars of his day, and a man who played a leading role in the development of the science of navigation. He was also the court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, and he used her horoscope to choose the day of her coronation in 1558. He possessed what was believed to be the largest library in Britain, until the local townsfolk, believing him to be an evil sorcerer, burnt it down. He was also a spy for the Crown, and was sent on intelligence missions in various other European countries. It seems fitting, therefore, that he used to sign documents with the code ‘007’.
Dee was also an alchemist and deeply involved in occult studies, even though these practices were extremely politically dangerous in the religious turmoil of the times. He became involved with the thief and grave-robber Edward Kelly, believing that Kelly had the ability to hear spirits and demons. Over many months Dee transcribed the information that was channelled ‘through’ Kelly, and the result was a body of magical work, including the language of the angels, that is known as Enochian Magic.
A year after their trip at Bou Saada, Leary and Brian discovered that, in 1909, Aleister Crowley and the poet Victor Neuberg conducted a magical ceremony at that exact same riverbed in the dunes outside Bou Saada where they had taken LSD. Crowley and Neuberg summoned demons by invoking nineteen ‘calls’ that had originated with Doctor John Dee and Edward Kelly. Enochian magic was integral to Crowley’s magical system, and it was Dee and Kelly’s angelic script that Crowley was invoking at Bou Saada.
The work took a few weeks as they invoked one ‘key’ of the manuscript a day, bidding a string of angels and demons to appear inside a magical triangle marked in the sand. Mescaline was used, as was sexual magic, with Neuberg at one point buggering Crowley at an altar in a makeshift stone circle and dedicating the act to the god Pan. When the day came to invoke Choronzon, the demon of chaos and the abyss, Crowley did not remain outside the magic triangle. Instead he deliberately sat inside it.
The pair would have made quite a sight as they performed their strange works amongst the shifting Saharan dunes. Crowley was dressed in a long black hooded robe with a revolver around his waist. Neuberg, with two tufts of dyed red hair twisted into horns, sat watching in a magic circle created for his own protection, and made notes. Crowley instructed Neuberg that, whatever happened, he must resist any attempt from the demon to be released. The invocation was completed, three pigeons were sacrificed and, according to Neuberg and Crowley’s accounts, Choronzon appeared. The demon possessed Crowley and began to taunt Neuberg, pleading to be released. They later claimed that Crowley/Choronzon began to change shape, appearing to Neuberg in a string of forms including an old lover and a snake with a human head. It begged the poet for a drink of water and promised that it would sit at his feet and obey him if it was freed. With Neuberg distracted by the dazzling images materialising before his eyes, the demon gradually dribbled the fine sand on the magic circle, slowly erasing it. Then the entity that possessed Crowley’s body rushed at Neuberg and, according to The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, “flung him to the earth and tried to tear out his throat with froth-covered fangs.” Fortunately, Neuberg had been armed with a consecrated magical dagger and managed to fend the beast off. Choronzon was banished, leaving Crowley lying naked in the sand. With the ceremony over, the magic circle and triangle were erased and a fire was lit to purify the place.
Leary and Barritt were astounded when they discovered this, a year after their desert trip. That they had been at exactly the same riverbed was coincidence enough, but the cowled figure inside a dust devil that Barritt had ‘seen’ matched Crowley’s description of his possessed self. Crowley, who had been wearing a black hooded robe, described the demon possessing him as being a coagulation of forms that “swirl senselessly into haphazard heaps like dust devils”. The fact that he had been using a manuscript of the work of Dr. John Dee, which had also appeared to Barritt, pushed the incident way beyond coincidence.
There were many similarities between Timothy Leary and Aleister Crowley, and this had not gone unnoticed at the time. Andy Warhol, for example, had commented on it. They had both come from repressive middle class backgrounds, and both rejected those values to found liberated and hedonistic religious sects. They both put great value on sex and drugs, and there are strong parallels between Leary’s Millbrook commune and Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema on Sicily. Crowley was dubbed the ‘wickedest man in the world’ during his lifetime, while Leary was called “the most dangerous man in America” by President Nixon. Crowley’s commandment ‘Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole Of The Law’ has similar libertine values to the commandments of the League of Spiritual Development, a “personal religion” of Leary’s invention, although Leary’s were softened to disallow controlling others. Both wrote re-interpretations of the Tao Te Ching. This is an indicator of the similar size of their egos, as the Tao Te Ching is arguably one of the most complete pieces of text ever written, and there are few who believe that they can improve on it. As Robert Anton Wilson demonstrated in Cosmic Trigger, there are many parallels between the “Starseed Transmissions”, the information received during Leary’s experiments with channelling whilst in Folsom Prison, and Crowley’s Book of The Law. There are also parallels between the decline of each man’s life during their later years, and on the people, such as John Lennon, whom they have both influenced. They both had wives named Rosemary.
Leary started to think of himself as a ‘continuation’ of Crowley, as opposed to a ‘reincarnation’ as it is normally understood. There were strong parallels between Dee and Kelly, Crowley and Neuberg, and Leary and Barritt, and Leary saw himself as part of a line of sorcerers that reoccurred throughout history. This was something that Crowley appeared to be aware of, although he believed that he was a reincarnation of Kelly, rather than Dee. (From what we know of Crowley, it is not surprising that he would wish to associate himself with the one considered to be the most evil!)
Leary believed that he was playing out a ‘script’ for a regular transformative current that repeated itself throughout time. These ‘scripts’ existed in a similar manner to a song. A song only exists in time, not space, but it still exists enough for patterns, harmony and meaning to be detectable. Indeed, ‘time’ was the key here, or rather the change in the qualities of time that could be detected under LSD. There were moments during a trip, Leary believed, that his awareness outgrew the normal, unstopping, linear flow of time. After all, just as a two-dimensional drawing can only be properly observed from three-dimensions, so time, the fourth dimension, should only really make sense from a fifth dimension or higher. The expanded awareness of LSD seemed, on occasions, to give just such a higher perspective. From this point otherwise invisible patterns and currents in history became apparent.
Leary’s belief that his awareness had gone beyond the linear flow of time is actually not as absurd as it might seem at first glance. There is a growing consensus amongst scientists that, while time itself is real, the perceived onward march of time is an illusion. As Einstein once famously wrote to a friend, “The past, present and future are only illusions, even if stubborn ones.” Writing in The Scientific American (Vol. 15 No. 3 2005, p82) Paul Davies concludes that, “The passage of time is probably an illusion. Consciousness may involve thermodynamic or quantum processes that lend the impression of living moment to moment.” He then goes on to note that, “It is possible to imagine drugs that could suspend the subject’s impression that time is passing.”
During this period Leary was writing a book about his jail break called It’s About Time, and he would later end his autobiography with the exact same words. The book was later renamed in a direct homage to Crowley; it was published under the name Confessions of a Hope Fiend, a title chosen to consciously reference Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend and Confessions of Aleister Crowley.
Shortly afterwards Leary was kidnapped at gunpoint in Afghanistan, brought back to America and placed in solitary confinement in Folsom prison. After making a deal with the FBI that destroyed his reputation amongst many of his hippy followers, he became an evangelist of personal computers and the Internet. He died of cancer on May 31st 1996.
According to William Burroughs, “Tim changed the world. It may be another century before he is accorded his rightful stature. Let his detractors shake their heads, a hundred years from now.” It is certainly true that a re-assessment of Leary’s ideas and his impact on our culture is long overdue. There are those who believe that Leary was successful and did bring about a fundamental and lasting shift in human consciousness for millions of people. There are others who believe he should take the blame for the problems and disillusionment that ended the Sixties dream. But one thing is clear: there is no figure from the second half of the twentieth century who has a better claim on the continuation of Crowley’s ‘Great Work’ than Dr. Timothy Leary.
Adapted from “I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary”, by John Higgs.
(Image of Leary as Crowley by the brilliant Adam Scott Miller)