Timothy Leary wrote the attached letter to poet George Andrews as an early attempt to “language” his subjective experiences with psilocybin (magic mushrooms). Leary cites Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as a literary predecessor of his psychedelic research–an analogy that would reappear throughout Leary’s writings on psychedelics in the 1960’s.
1st May, 1962
Your letter arrived out of a clear blue sky, like a bolt. How (on earth) can I answer your question? And what does it mean if I tell you that I have seen the Beginning in a mushroom vision, where there were all kinds of strange things going on and very different to what we read about in history books; indeed, the least extraordinary personages were those outer-space people, who seemed only intent on mapping the earth and pursuing ape-women up and down the valleys of the Himalayas. Having said that, you will understand my difficulties here. However, I shall attempt an answer of sorts.
In the Beginning, all was static; the earth was neither fire nor solid. It was a drop of water on someone’s kitchen table: an instant between the action of spilling and some future cleaning-up. Or, perhaps, the earth is a barnacle on a rock, formed between two waves; an event of no significance, then, created in a vacuum between the ebb and the flow of some unthinkable, unimaginable sea. And man evolved in one billionth of a second; still less, will he disappear. And then another wave will sweep across the rock, and another barnacle will be created that is also the centre of a Universe. And so on, even down to the Hotchkiss-Yale-Brooks bros. suit-sneering barnacled-smile.
But what strange events took place in this one billionth of a second – cities were built in the image of the human-cortex; religions were invented to explain the kitchen table; the stars are the reflection of distant electric light-bulbs; Tangiers is the figment of your imagination; mushrooms are eternally high; Times Square is a grain of sugar on a plastic hard-top……We are in a cave of shadows, a subway ride with other shadows for company. And at any minute we can decide to leave the cave, come out into the sunshine of another existence that dazzles our eyes. But who will believe us when, upon our return to the cave, we tell of another world far more real in its magnificence than the accustomed half-light we call this shadow-earth. Here, then, is part of the Platonic parable, which you must read. It is one of the best metaphorical descriptions of man in a state of expanded awareness, of his difficulties to communicate to his fellow-man what he has seen beyond the cave, and of his joy, despair and amazement at all of this. You will find it in the 7th Book of the Republic.
Hastily, and with warmest regards,
Image: 1995 AP file photo. Source: http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2013/09/timothy_leary.html