Overweening Generalist

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Fugitive Thoughts: Timothy Leary's Reading of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow

[Quick prefatory remark: This post was actuated by a blogger friend I admire, PQ, who writes with verve and erudition about James Joyce, hip-hop, sports and many other things. He'd just tackled Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow for the first time and wanted to know what I might have to say about Timothy Leary's reading of Pynchon. I've read his Pynchon piece, "The Allure of Gravity's Rainbow and Its Mysterious Author" and it's stellar. We meant for our posts here to be complementary. Let us know what you think! Thanks, - OG]

I wonder if anyone reading this has ever had the same recurring bizarre fantasy that I've had: I become so deeply immersed in the worlds of my reading and books that when what we so laffingly call "the real world" calls me away, I curse inwardly...and fantasize about Reading In Prison. I capitalize that because it seemed to demand it. It's such a crazy thought and I've only spent one night in a jail in my life. It was hellish. Does some antique area of my mind think prison is an amniotic desert island, with chow breaks twice a day, or some sort of zen book-meditation retreat?

And then there's the knowledge of what solitary confinement does to a person's brain: every good study I've read likens it to torture. All I think about when I've fantasized about Reading In Prison is the lack of The World calling on me to do, ya know: adult stuff, like work or pay the bills or take out the garbage. I've no doubt been infected by numerous books where writers talk about all the reading they'd done in prison. Not much else to do. I conveniently bracket off ideas about getting killed in a gang fight, or raped, or going mad from lack of intimate contact with other humans, especially females. It's an embarrassing thing to confess here, but I have my reasons, albeit nutty ones.

After Thomas Pynchon published The Crying of Lot 49 in 1966, for what we know, he spent the next six-odd years smoking cannabis in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan Beach, California, writing the most dazzling, harrowing, encyclopedic epic of the second half of the 20th century, Gravity's Rainbow, which appeared in 1973. The number of scholarly books and articles about that novel runs into the thousands. It's a daunting read. Pynchon's erudition is on the level of Joyce, but his bend toward scientific knowledge seems particularly impressive. Robert Anton Wilson writes, "Pynchon shows considerable knowledge of information theory and other scientific matters generally ignored by the literary intelligentsia. In [Gravity's Rainbow] he uses calculus and quantum mechanics in the way Joyce used Homer in Ulysses."

                                  I own two copies of GR, but neither has this cool cover

While Pynchon worked on his magnum opus, Timothy Leary's years from 1966 to 1973 seemed, in retrospect, to have been imagined by Pynchon. Leary held court in a 100-room mansion loaned to he and his friends by heirs to the Mellon fortune in Dutchess County, upstate New York. He met and dined and became friends and collaborators with an absurd number of celebrities and intellectual luminaries: McLuhan, Jimi Hendrix, John and Yoko, Albert Hoffman, virtually everyone in underground publishing. He was married at Joshua Tree, with a director of TV's "Bonanza" filming. He toured putting on plays about Jesus and Buddha, was in San Francisco at the beginning of the Summer of Love and was recognized everywhere. He was at Altamont. He kept a home in Berkeley all the while he conducted experiments with his own mind at the Millbrook mansion. He became friends with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, based out of Laguna Beach, CA. He traveled to Manhattan to meet with Krassner, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin and clashed with their new visions of the Yippies. He went on lecture tours. He debated Dr. Sidney Cohen, who now opposed LSD; earlier Cohen had turned many Hollywood stars to the drug. He watched as the youth of Unistat grew militantly against LBJ and then Nixon as Vietnam escalated. He ramped up a run for Governor of California. He was continually meeting with his legal team to combat bullshit "busts" in Laredo, Texas (where cops "found" two roaches in his car), Orange County (where they pulled him over for no reason, planted a bit of pot in his ashtray and arrested him), and in upstate New York (where G. Gordon Liddy and his goons repeatedly harassed him and his friends). He went to Otto Preminger's apartment and turned him on to LSD, because Preminger wanted to make a movie about it.

Leary went to prison in 1970, escaped thrillingly with the help of the Weather Underground, made it out of the country to Paris, then Algeria, where Eldridge Cleaver - another fugitive from the madness of 1960s Unistat, and seemingly damaged by prison himself - treated Leary and his wife like prisoners. (Cleaver's book Soul On Ice was one of many books that fed my demented Reading In Prison fantasies, no doubt!). Leary escaped Algeria and ended up in Switzerland, feeling at times very much under guard by a millionaire arms dealer Michel Hauchard, who seems one of the more enigmatic  figures in Leary's life during those six-seven years. (My litany barely touches on these incredible years; the interested reader is encouraged to read Leary's autobiography, Flashbacks;  Robert Greenfield's unfriendly but well-researched bio of Leary; and don't miss John Higgs's lucid and delightful take on Leary: I Have America Surrounded. I'm still waiting to get my hands on R. U. Sirius's recent Timothy Leary's Trip Through Time.)

                                      Leary in 1969, by photographer Robert Altman

Getting back to this period in Leary's life: he gets caught in Kabul and ends up back in the California Archipelago. He once counted how many different prisons he'd been in: 36. It was in solitary confinement in Sandstone, Minnesota that Leary asked a trustee for something to read. "No books fro special cases," was the answer. Soon after, he "heard the clank of the padlock and the rasp of the metal slot being opened. He passively accepted a book which was pushed through the slot." It was the recently released novel Gravity's Rainbow. Leary, in solitary confinement, read it for 12 hours straight until the lights went off, then woke at sunrise and read it for 15 hours. When he finished the first reading, he began again at page one and annotated, "decoded, outlined and charted the narrative." (I wonder whatever happened to that copy?)

Why? Why was Leary so enchanted by this book? Because, somehow, this Pynchon guy, in postmodern prose (kaleidoscopic narrative, shifting perspectives of time, unworldly erudition, hundreds of characters, lowbrow humor, passages of phantasmagorical proportions) had described the very worlds Leary had been enmeshed in during and after his academic career. I will elaborate on this below, but first: solitary confinement.

I have some hyper-educated friends but not one I've talked to lately had thought much about solitary, except that it seems inhumane, even for a bona fide murderer. I agree, but if you don't: read up on solitary. To me, it's so medieval I want it stopped Yesterday. And we are making some progress. I will include links to a few articles I read on it in the notes. Solitary literally damages the brains of inmates, and many of them are there because of damaged brains in the first place. If anything, prisoners should be in environments that stimulate their brains. Off my soapbox, for now...

So: picture Leary, with people like Manson all around him, reading a book filled with robotic scientists bent on total control of humans and machines, in an all-out rush toward megadeath...and it's a "rational" world! How did Leary's brain cope with this?

Robert Anton Wilson visited Leary many times in prison, and one time Wilson asked Leary how did he manage to cope in such a situation? Leary said he was spending time with the most intelligent person he knew: himself. This sounds flippant and/or typical Leary, but it could be that Leary's prior reading and extensive cosmopolitan experience gave him such a cognitive surplus that he could deal with it all. Also: he didn't spend years on end in solitary, as many prisoners in California have. Remember: he was really a political prisoner. He was facing 50 years at age 50 for two roaches. (Friends of Leary say he was imprisoned, basically, for "Poor usage of the First Amendment.") Nixon had called Leary "the most dangerous man in America." Imagine this shit: it really happened.

Leary was a PhD in Psychology, a fierce individualist-libertarian and had written a dense book called Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality that his peers awarded him Best Psychology Book of the Year. And then there was the scientific mindset that had carried over to his experiences on psychedelics. (Still: I often wonder to what extent - if any - solitary confinement had damaged him; this seems an underrated discussion when writers probe Leary's life after 1976.)

If we look at the 20th century, many of us, when forced to use one word, might choose "bloodbath." Go back to the late 1890s and read the scads of scientist's proclamations that the 20th century will be a utopia. Why wasn't it? Leary says Pynchon nailed it: it was nationalistic forces using their brightest scientific minds to compete using neuro-technological know-how. "The national competitions of 1914 compelled the antagonist countries to master the tank, the airplane, radio and the rapid transportation of masses of people. The political lineups of World War II seem equally absurd until we understand that the genetic purpose of the conflict was to stimulate the development of radar, rocketry, synthetic chemistry, atomic fission, long-range naval maneuvers and accelerated aeronautics, and, most important, computers and digital linguistics." The teleological riff is Leary's; we don't know - of course! - if Pynchon agrees. Although, this?

After all of Leary's run-ins with Authority and Control, who can fault his reading of Pynchon in this way: "Every character in Gravity's Rainbow is either an operative working for a Psycho-political hive-bureaucracy, or and Independent Intelligence Agent (Out-Caste) working counter to the hive-bureaucracy." In other places Leary calls these competing genetic "castes": Control vs. Expansion, with Pynchon elucidating a monumental treatise on human intelligence control - which Leary thought made people stupider - against intelligence expansion. Some readers may be thinking Leary's just talking about the freedom to explore one's own mind using consciousness-expanding drugs, but it's far, far, far deeper than that. And this is where it gets Really Weird.

Early on in your first reading of Gravity's Rainbow you'll notice the repeated allusions and hints and outright citations of academic-military types and their psychological test apparatuses. The Americans were steeped in their Skinner, the Europeans in Pavlov. Conditioned responses. Control. Not much thought for the dignity of the individual. All must be rational, quantified. There will be no limit to the delving into how much control can be exerted on agents (people). As Leary writes about this aspect in Pynchon:

"The Anglo-American Psychological Warfare Branch operates a mind control unit called Pisces (Psychological Intelligence Schemes for Expediting Surrender)...From a base in England, Pisces' agents probe the mysteries of consciousness, behavior and brain-function, using Pavlovian conditioning, ESP, brain surgery, hypnosis, clairvoyance, drugs, objective questionnaires, projective tests, personality assessments, behavior modifications."

                                    Henry A. Murray, colleague of Leary's at Harvard,
                                    sadist, one-worlder, "liberal," speed freak, Melville
                                    fanatic, CIA spook for MKULTRA ops. A real
                                    innarestin' character.

Back at Harvard, before he got thrown out for allowing undergraduates to take part in his experiments using psychedelics, Leary had turned on fellow Harvard Psychology professor Henry A. Murray. Murray had worked with the OSS during the war, and continued working for the OSS's successor, the CIA. Murray was a methamphetamine freak and sadomasochist (see Alston Chase's woefully under-appreciated Harvard and the Unabomber, esp. pp.240-326). Murray's great achievement had been the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), something both Leary and Pynchon knew a lot about. Biological organisms and machines were subject to entropy, a topic fascinating to two of Unistat's greatest scientific thinkers after the war, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener. The CIA was interested to find out how humans broke down. They hired undergraduates, told them very little about what was going on, and basically drugged the students with quite large doses of LSD. One student remembered seeing an ad: he'd get $15 an hour to be a "psychopath for a day," saying to a friend, "Imagine getting paid for what we do anyway!" Theodore Kaczynski needed the money. He was subjected to LSD without knowing what it meant, then a battery of abusive psychological testings.

                                 Theodore Kaczynski as Math prof at Berkeley. He'd soon
                                 drop out - 1971 - and move to a cabin in Montana.
                                 Source: Wikimedia Commons

In a letter Kaczynski wrote from prison to attorney Michael Mello: "We were told that we were to engage in a debate about our personal philosophies, and then found that our adversary in the debate subjected us to various insults that, presumably, the psychologists helped him to concoct. It was a highly unpleasant experience."

While Leary and his Harvard psychology colleagues were using LSD to gain insight into religious experience and seeing if it helped prisoners to see their own part in the "game" of criminal go-round that led to recidivism (it seems to have been very promising), Murray and his CIA-linked Harvard men were purposefully making their subjects "as confused and disquieted" "as much as possible" and that "All subjects became, to a varying degree, both anxiously and angrily involved in this stressful situation." Apparently, Murray thought Leary's importance of "set and setting" was something to sneeze at indeed.

[Above I linked to Pynchon's essay, "Is It O.K. to be a Luddite?" We now know the FBI suspected some very prominent writers as possibly being, or knowing who the Unabomber was: Tom Robbins was surveilled and visited by the FBI and questioned. The Feds gave William T. Vollmann quite a look as a suspect. Of course John Zerzan had been a suspect. Zerzan openly admires Kaczynski. Due to Pynchon's essay on Luddism and common interpretations of his writings about technology, many of us wonder to what degree the FBI took seriously the idea that Pynchon may have been suspect. Perhaps we'll hear from Pynchon on this one day. Maybe not.]

Back to Leary, writing on psychological warfare in Pynchon: (In addition to massive psychological testing and screening by military co-opted academics) "Diagnosis and treatment of psychological casualties - an entirely new concept of human nature - also developed. Machines break down; personalities could not break down until personality types were defined by our new mechanical-civilization. All our external technology serves as a model to understand internal (i.e, somatic-neurological) technology. Machines help us to understand our own bodily mechanics. Electronic computers lead us to understand and control our own brains."

Leary also spilled about who got to implement CIA "dirty tricks" and other espionage games. They too were dosed with LSD and tested. "Easy-going, trustful souls, given to cocktail fun, were transferred out to the Office of War Information. Distrustful, cagey, paranoid types were immediately screened-in as part of the Intelligence (sic) elite." Then Leary quotes Pynchon from page 434 of Gravity's Rainbow:

"...the New Chaps, with their little green antennas out for the usable emanations of power, versed in American politics, (knowing the difference between the New Dealers of OWI and the Eastern and moneyed Republicans behind OSS), keeping brain-dossiers on latencies, weaknesses, tea-taking habits, erogenous zones of all, all who someday might be useful."

O! The lives of Pynchon and Leary! Leary died on May 31, 1996. Pynchon seems very much alive as I write. Leary kept an archive of everything he did from an early age, and much of it is housed now in the New York Public Library. Has there been a more media-friendly intellectual who was not at the service of the Hive-State? And then there's Pynchon. Will he leave us with an autobiography? Will we ever know much of his life? It would seem we will find out whether or not we are allowed access to the personality of Pynchon, sometime by around 2030. (Pynchon turns 78 on May 8, 2015.)

Nevertheless, outside of academia, I think Leary should be more often noted as a wonderfully erudite exegete of Pynchon's magisterial novel. I've only quoted from a few of Leary's notes on Pynchon. I wish he had left even more. As a reader of Pynchon, I appreciate Leary's comments and notes on Pynchon; Leary clearly constitutes an "elite" reader of the book. In delving into Timothy Leary's reading of Pynchon we detect a mostly neglected but quite informed work in "deep politics."

- RAW's quote about Pynchon: Everything Is Under Control, pp. 137-138
- "heard the clank of the padlock..." - Intelligence Agents, p.54
- "The national competitions...digital linguistics" - Neuropolitique, pp. 140-141
-"Every character in GR..." - Intelligence Agents, p.54
- "The Anglo-American Warfare..." - Intelligence Agents, p.54
- "Imagine getting paid..." - Harvard and the Unabomber, p.252
- "as confused and disquieted" and "All subjects..." - Harvard and the Unabomber, p.251
- "Diagnosis and treatment of psychological casualties...our own brains" - Intelligence Agents, p.109

Large Study Links Psychedelic Use to Reduced Recidivism

solitary confinement:
The Horrible Psychology of Solitary Confinement
What Solitary Confinement Does To The Brain
How Extreme Isolation Warps the Mind
Does Prison Erode the Brain?
"From a Steel Box to a Wicked Young Girl," by Robert Beck, AKA "Iceberg Slim", originally in From the Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim; found in Outlaw Bible of American Essays, pp.7-16

The Net: Unabomber, LSD and the Internet (dir: Lutz Dammbeck) (See esp from 57:05 to 1:02:50, about the Josiah Macy Group conferences: Henry A. Murray was a participant; and when Dammbeck travels to the heavily wooded and secluded Pescadero, CA, to interview pioneering systems theorist Heinz von Foerster, not long before Heinz died. Von Foerster has always seemed to me one of the trippiest intellectual characters to me, and this interview does not disappoint! The Heinz von Foerster sequence is between 1:07:50 and 1:15:40)

other books:
John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death, by Steve J. Heims
Game of Life, by Timothy Leary
Chaos and Cyberculture, by Timothy Leary
Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon
A Gravity's Rainbow Companion, by Stephen Weisenburger
Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties and Beyond, by Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain

                                          artwork by Bobby Campbell


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

About your fantasy of reading in prison: I've noticed that I enjoy reading books when I fly, because it seems to be the ONE place that I can read without being interrupted by a phone call!

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

As I understand it, "Gravity's Rainbow" often is compared to Ishmael Reed's "Mumbo Jumbo" and Shea and Wilson's "Illuminatus." I finally got around to Reed about a year ago, so maybe this is the year that I try Pynchon.

michael said...

@ Tom-

I read about these beautiful vacation spots to escape the stressful, high-paying job and read. I can't afford that, and besides, I get in a LOT of reading anyway. I do not have a high-paying job...which is stressful. But something like THAT seems like a saner fantasy than the Reading In Prison regression I go through. Thanks for not laffing at the idiocy of it.

If you get to GR this year, think of it as the Graduate Course after those two other luminous novels. You read Ulysses; you can get through GR. With both novels I enjoy the scholarly secondary sources, like Gifford and Seidman for Joyce; Weisenburger for Pynch. At least to have them by my side, sorta like Linus's blanket.

Eric Wagner said...

Great piece (as usual) about a topic i've spent a lot of time thinking about). I particularly like your use of the Pynchon quote about 1914. Musil's The Man without Qualities and Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March paint brilliant portraits of Austria in 1913, oblivious of how the world will change. I find it interesting that Proust published the first volume of his monster that year as well.

I find it fascinating how Tim zeroed in on Gravity's Rainbow. i asked him what he thought about Pynchon's Vineland, and he dismissed the question. Leary seemed more interested in Gravity's Rainbow than the whole of Pynchon's oevre.

I think Leary's intelligence increased in prison. (I too have shared your fantasy about reading in prison.) I love Leary's books from the 60's, but in prison his writing became something special.

(I wonder if the screenwriter of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? read Gravity's Rainbow with its Jessica and Roger.)

Some friends and I had a Gravity's Rainbow reading group for a while. I found it an interesting experience.

Tom, I bet you'll enjoy Gravity's Rainbow.

PQ said...

I wonder how Pynchon feels about his 40 yr old novel being considered his magnum opus.

michael said...

@Eric: Thanks for the positive feedback. Re: your observation that Leary' prison writing "became something special": I just re-read _Jail Notes_ (from jails before he made his escape, 1970) and thought it underrated...because I never hear/read much talk about it. The structure seems particularly interesting: a mix of FW-like writing, and lots of juxtapositioning of his running commentary on Colin Wilson's novel _Necessary Doubt_, passages about hardcore Judeo-Xtian "morality", a very good imitation in prose of African-American male prison-speech, paranoid satires supposedly emanating from the prison loudspeaker system, diary-like writing, etc.

@PQ: Mason and Dixon is a long, big book, but not nearly as dense and harrowing with deep politics as GR; Agains the Day is about 300 pages longer than GR, but I think GR was really TP's Great American Serious Novel. The best word I can summon for GR is density. All of TP's books are denser than most novels as far as poetic prose and knowledge, but GR is just HUGE. Since you read Inherent Vice first, then jumped straight to GR, I think you'll see what I mean if you go further into Pynchon's oeuvre.

I'm like Eric: I really really love Vineland (THAT would be a fun group read too!). Mason and Dixon still seems like it was influenced by RAW, in part, although I might be projecting.

(Pynchon? If you're reading this, please feel free to correct me, okay?)

I have only read _V_ once and feel like I didn't give it a good enough reading. I found his short pieces collected in Slow Learner to be a sort of primer on many of the scientific issues he hits on in his novels, esp "Entropy."

I enjoyed Bleeding Edge but feel him slipping a bit. He turns 78 in about a month or so. If he leaves it to his wife and friends and editors to tell us what he was about I'll be greatly disappointed. I want him to at least give us something personal. He apparently doesn't like "recluse." I wish he'd sit down with Richard Powers and William Gibson and do a long interview with them...I suspect we're not going to see Pynch come forth into any Big Media spotlight. I'd be happy with something smaller. But I'm ready to keep making my own Pynchon our of his books and essays, little Jules Siegel-ish bits, the liner notes for Spike Jones and Lotion, etc.

PQ said...

Man, you guys have got me so intrigued by Vineland now. Somehow I'd been under the impression that it was one of his lesser works.

As for the densely dense density of GR, I had originally began reading the book alongside a friend so we could discuss it together. A brilliant guy, stats professor, he gave up on it after 80 pages saying it was way too heavy to read.

I agreed completely of course, but that wasn't gonna stop me from pushing through to see why it's considered so damn special.

To me it felt very much like a massive collection of interrelated short stories, sort of like an extremely expanded version of the Wandering Rocks episode of Ulysses.

I would love to see him discuss each of his books, their process, and which he thinks are his best (like Vonnegut's grading system).

[Also want to point out: I've been enjoying this whole discussion immensely. I wonder if there are Pynchon message boards where they get really deep into the complexities and puzzles.]

Bobby Campbell said...

What a great concrescence of narratives!

I love the idea of looking at the Gravity’s Rainbow through the lens of Timothy Leary’s solitary confinement. (The ideal reader in the perfect set & setting for this particular work)

Great work w/ this titanic team up!

Alias Bogus said...

Wonderful, thought-provoking stuff, as ever.

I read GR over about three days cat-sitting for a friend, with tea, toast and spliffs. Waking and sleeping, endlessly reading. I loved it. Sort of in solitary (I didn't go out) but with cats for company.

I note that Oscar Wilde got locked up in Reading Gaol. Ahem.

PQ said...

@Alias Bogus: That's a great story. Tea, toast, spliffs, and solitude (and cats!) sounds like a perfect setting for a GR marathon reading.

michael said...

@Bobby Campbell: Thanks! PQ's idea. We had salvaged some titanium concrescence from an olde V-2 rocket, decided what we could make of it. First: a little hat. Then a pterodactyl. Now: this. I see just now Disinfo linked to your blog notice about our blog-joint, and now the Disinofnauts are looking in on OG and PQ: are we agents of some sort? We'll see.

@Alias Bogus: When I was in college (a long-assed time ago, indeed!), I hadn't known about the Brit spelling of "jail" and I'd loved Wilde's short pieces, plays, and anything. I remember telliing a whip-smart female friend that' I'd like to get to reading Wilde's "Ballad of Reading GA-ool" <---that's how I pronounced it. Earlier I'd said "Albert CAYmuhss"....humility is endless!

That tears it: when I get around to sitting down to read Gravity's Rainbow again, it will be in a 8x12 foot space, and I'll have pizza delivered by the "guards" at Chicago Deep Dish Style, in solidarity with Leary's...uhh...memory? Act of astonishing bravery?

The warden at the Minnesota prison (where the Feds had put Leary under what's now called "diesel therapy") was told by the FBI that, if Leary didn't tell him how the Weather Underground were being paid off by the KGB or some Reds somewhere (Cincinnati?), that Leary was to be released into the general prison population under the name "Charlie Thrush," which Leary took - probably correctly - as a death warrrant. He refused, got thrown into solitary, a black trustee furtively gave him Pynchon to read. I'd love to see the annotations in that book!

Never forget: Leary went through all this shit for, basically two roaches. Now granny can waltz into a dispensary in many states and score psychedelic THC-level sativa for her rheumatoid arthritis. My Q: does she know about Leary's story?

Bobby Campbell said...

Ah yeah, the disinfo post was my doing, hopefully not an unwanted signal boost!

I thought the mediasphere wd do well with a quick dose of PQ & OG.

I'd forgotten I had a disinfo account until recently, and have started skipping my little stones across them there prodigious waters.

michael said...

Thanks BC. Huge number of unique page views. Maybe one or two will actually dig what PQ and OG do. The OG does NOT know how to advertise his blahg.