The last words of the psychedelic psychologist Timothy Leary are said to have been the phrase “why not?” muttered over and over until he went over to whatever state of consciousness awaits the brain after a person’s final breaths. For a man who so densely annotated his own work, as an investigation in the newly open-the-public Timothy Leary papers at the New York Public Library shows, it seemed sort of like a final subscript of openness on a life that had taken him from higher academia hallucinogenic experiments to counterculture fame to a rebel against the law who spent time in nearly 30 prisons before his 1996 death at the age of 75 from cancer.
The library acquired the over 330 boxes of the archive in 2011, but it was only after processing that the papers were made available last month to researchers and the public at the Manuscripts and Archives Division. You can see some of the “greatest hits” (hard not to associate everything written here with acid terminology) on the library blog, and over the months of archiving there have been regular “Transmission from the Timothy Leary Papers, like this one from an intern about coming across things like his West Point dog tag, political buttons, playing cards he turned into a “Game of Life,” his Nintendo Power Glove, and his death mask. As the New York Times reported, there are even games from his later interests in cyber culture that will be available for viewing and playing in the library, such as the very incomplete “Neuromancer: An Electronic Mind Movie” that was going to have Keith Haring, Devo, Helmut Newton, and William S. Burroughs collaborating on a choose-your-own adventure based on Neuromancer by William Gibson.
Leary was an incredibly public figure, joining John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their bed-in, running for governor of California against Ronald Reagan, escaping from prison where he’d been sentenced for drug possession, and leading many of the 1960s Beat figures like Allen Ginsberg on their first psychedelic experiences (he even wrote an instruction manual for it based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead). Yet Leary, with his doctorate in clinical psychology, was always an academic at heart, and his early studies with psychedelics at Harvard were always more about how they could be an aid for awareness more than just a mind altering drug.
The papers at the NYPL have only started to be researched, but in his thorough notes on hallucinogenic experiences, and his correspondence with people like Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, Charles Mingus, and Ken Kesey, there’s likely to be some interesting revelations or at least a better understanding of Leary beyond his public image as a sort of trippy new age guru. It’s been nearly two decades since Leary’s ashes were rocketed into space, yet the prolific material and experimental thought still seems like a fresh portal to new realms of consciousness worth exploring.