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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.

Robert Anton Wilson (RAW,)  letterhead of the Bavarian Illuminati,  Sept 15, 1973

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.

RAW ordained, Adam Weishaupt Chapter, 9.27.69

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.

RAW, 1973
As a modern-day ludibrium, Discordianism has presented itself as a new religion disguised as a complicated joke. Discordianism styled itself as a decentralized, guerilla army set against the allied forces of mass-conditioning, as marshaled by dogmatic religion, Capitalism, and the culture industry. Eschewing armed revolt, Discordians singled out culture as their primary theatre of action, as they believed that societal control was exercised according to the way in which reality was defined. Discordianism asserted that reality was a negotiable, neurological construct and that all ideas were tools effective only for (self)creating the most desirable “reality tunnel” possible. Hoaxes, zen-style paradoxes, and surrealist absurdity functioned as Discordianism’s liturgical language, as they were utilized to breach conventional notions of reality so as to attain a ‘gnostic’ state of awareness. As Wilson explained it, the Discordian religion was based on 'guerilla ontology' or reality hacking. Wilson’s popular interpretation of Discordianism, largely indistinguishable from Discordianism itself, borrowed heavily from Leary, and on numerous occasions, Leary was (erroneously) credited with penning both the central Discordian text, The Principia Discordia, and the Illuminatus! trilogy.

Operation “OM”

One of the earliest and most wide-spread Discordian hoaxes was known as “Operation Mindf_ck” (hence “OM”). One aspect of “OM” was that Discordians would pose as bizarre groups such as the Bavarian Illuminati, or the John Dillinger Died For Your Sins Society, in extended letter campaigns aimed at “mindf_cking” their recipients out of their “reality tunnels” and into higher levels of awareness. Using various letterheads and rubber stamps to make their letters look official, Discordians would target paranoid political groups like the John Birch Society with messages that confirmed these conservative groups’ most outlandish accusations. It was at the height of OM that Wilson was granted permission to send letters to Leary at Folsom, and, being such a close correspondent with Wilson, Leary came into possession of “Golden Age” Discordian material now a small part of the archival collections at NYPL.
The New York Public Library's Short-Term Research Fellowships [] support scholars from outside the New York metropolitan area engaged in graduate-level, post-doctoral, or independent research with a demonstrated need to conduct research in the Library’s archival and special collections. The fellowships support research in the humanities including but not limited to art history, cultural studies, history, literature, performing arts and photography.


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Hail Eris

All hail Discordia

so. that's that then.

so. that's that then.

The UIllumintati

Your are joking, right?

->< Hail Eris-><-

->< Hail Eris-><-

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