Archives, Short-Term Research Fellows
Short-Term Research Fellowship: Timothy Leary as Illuminatus!
The Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library has proof that Timothy Leary was in the Illuminati. Or, if he was not an ‘illuminated’ one himself, there is evidence in the Timothy Leary papers that he was in correspondence with representatives of this mythically ambiguous organization from the time of his incarceration in Folsom onwards. Identified, at the top of their stationary, as ‘The Bavarian Illuminati: The World’s Oldest Most Successful Conspiracy,” the group responsible for the letters was neither Madame Blavatsky’s Ascended Masters, nor 32nd degree Freemasons. They were members of a ludic, minority religion called The Discordian Society. Chief among this group of metaphysical pranksters was amateur historian of esotericism, self-proclaimed witch, and novelist Robert Anton Wilson, who, throughout his career, co-opted the seemingly irrepressible cross-cultural meme of the Illuminati to illustrate and promote his interpretation of Discordianism.
Preserved in the Timothy Leary papers are large segments of an epistolary exchange between Leary and Wilson, the 'Illuminati Primus,' in which Wilson discusses at length the “Discordian mysteries,” Aleister Crowley’s “magick,” and Gurdjieff’s self-observation techniques. Having only met him in person a handful of times before Leary’s incarceration at Folsom, Wilson’s admiration for Leary was nonetheless a hallmark of his writing. Indeed, even before their prison-letter exchange Wilson had integrated Leary and his work into his own occult philosophy, and by extension, Discordianism’s complicated mythos. It was the prison letter exchange, though, that laid the foundation for their decades-long friendship, during which they co-authored books, developed a psychologized form of esotericism termed “the 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness,” and collaborated on “stand-up philosophy” tours throughout the United States. Financial difficulties prohibited the Robert Anton Wilson estate from maintaining a posthumous archive, and thus the Leary papers at NYPL represents not only an essential resource for Wilson’s work, but also acts as one of the few repositories of Discordianism’s material history.
The Discordian Society
The Discordian Society was founded in 1958 and remained an entirely provincial, albeit vibrant, metaphysical in-joke amongst only a handful of people until the late 1960s, when it was introduced to Robert Anton Wilson. As the most active evangelist for the diminutive Discordian Society (which totaled no more than thirty people when Wilson joined), Wilson’s ground breaking Illuminatus! (1975) trilogy, co-authored with Robert Shea, transformed this minority religious society into a broad-based, yet decentralized movement known as Discordianism. Openly written as a Discordian recruiting manual, the Illuminatus! trilogy continues to be regarded as a cult classic for conspiracy buffs, science fiction fans, and occultists. Wilson incorporated Leary into this series of novels as both a Discordian philosopher and an Illuminatus Primus, thus integrating him, and his ideas on metaphysical psychology, into the fabric of Discordianism.