Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Gravity's Rainbow, Timothy Leary and the Occult

   "Somewhere in Der Platz now, early morning, somebody's two-year-old, a baby as fat as a suckling pig, has just learned the word "Sonnenschein." "Sunshine" sez the baby pointing. "Sunshine" running into the other room.
   "Sunshine" croaks some grownup morning-voice.
   "Sunshine!" hollers the baby, tottering off.
   "Sunshine," a smiling-girl voice, maybe his mother
   "Sunshine!" the baby at the window, showing her, showing anyone else who will look, exactly.
 - GR p. 700

For the working mystic, having the vision and passing through the chambers one by one, is terrible and complex.  You must not only have the schooling in countersigns and seals, not only the physical readiness through exercise and abstinence, but also the hardon of resolution that will never go limp on you.  The angels at the doorways will try to con you, threaten you, play all manner of cruel practical jokes, to turn you aside.  The Qlippoth, shells of dead, will use all your love for friends who have passed across against you.  You have chosen the active way, and there is no faltering without finding the most mortal danger.   
- GR p. 764

All page numbers refer to the 2006 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition. The following essay assumes some familiarity, at least a rough outline, with the story of Gravity's Rainbow.  It's easy to find a synopsis online.  The Leary connection has been given an excellent treatment by The Overweening Generalist in a joint effort with PQ who wrote a separate and excellent overview of the book.

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon has been called the premier book of postmodern literature.  It communicates multiple visions on multiple levels not the least of which coincides with Dr. Timothy Leary's vision for the next step for humanity - space colonies; expanding terrestrial life into outer space.  On another, not mutually exclusive level, GR presents a manual and course of study for the aspirant, the initiate, the bardo explorer and the working mystic.  We present a preliminary exploration into the occult side of this novel as well as Timothy Leary's role in it.

Pynchon gets quite explicit with the occult angle particularly toward the end.  One whole sub-episode called Weissmann's Tarot gives a full Celtic Cross reading for this character.  A few pages later he gives the Kabbalist Creation myth.  The Golden Dawn is name checked and sourced as well as A. E. Waite, Madame Blavatsky, Freemason's, Rosicrucians and others of their ilk.  All this arcanum gets expressed literally and therefore not quite occult, meaning hidden.  Yet, we see a great deal below the surface.  The literal references suggest a direction to look in.  This direction leads down Alice's rabbit hole into the Wonderland of transitional consciousness with lots of handy hints, advice and warnings along the way.

The plot of GR concerns the rockets used at the end of World War II.  It could be said that the main nonhuman character = a Rocket.

"Of 77 cards that could have come up, Weismann is "covered" that is his present condition is set forth by The Tower.  It is a puzzling card, and everybody has a different story on it. ... We know by now that it is also the Rocket."  - GR p. 762  Pynchon then goes on to explain this card on The Tree of Life.  In PQs blog linked to above, there is a photo of a mock-up of Mindless Pleasures, GRs original title, with The Tower card as its cover.  Pynchon makes this correspondence explicit.

As an aside to critics who considered Mindless Pleasures a stupid title, although I agree that Gravity's Rainbow is unquestionably better, the former appears quite brilliant from the working mystic point of view especially when you understand that Pleasure relates to another tarot card.   Qabalistic illiteracy obscures and occludes particular signs that may seem abstract, nonsensical, or trivial without knowing the language.  Your judgements often reveal the limitations of your knowledge.

The quote I opened this post with looks completely congruent to the new born child Horus, the deity in charge of our present age according to Aleister Crowley and his spiritual kinfolk.  The work of Crowley et al gets known as the 93 Current.  The baby in the quote = "a baby as fat as a suckling pig." P = 80, I = 10, G = 3; PIG = 93.  Crowley uses the same pig pun in The Book of Lies.  Pynchon has his main character Tyrone Slothrop going around in a pig costume at one point.  I am not asserting that Pynchon consciously and deliberately used a pig totem to indicate Thelema (Crowley's religion), we'll get to that.

An obvious reason Pynchon chose The Tower to represent the Rocket and hence, the book:  The Tower = the path of Mars = War.  Except for a couple of flashbacks and flashforwards, War hangs in the background for the entire novel.  He gives other explicit reasons for The Tower attribution on page 762.  A less obvious reason could be that this path indicates an introduction to Thelema.  This path corresponds with Horus.  It is one of the three cross paths on the Tree of Life, being the lowest and thus the first cross path encountered when ascending from Malkuth, the Material World.

One of the stories of The Tower card, known in older decks as the House of God, gets told quite well in The Book of Thoth by Crowley.  The whole entry is worth reading; here is a relevant excerpt:

There is a direct reference to this card in the Book of Law.  In Chapter I, verse 57, the goddess Nuith speaks: "Invoke me under my stars! Love is the law, love under the will.  Nor let the fools mistake love; for there are love and love.  There is the dove and there is the serpent. Choose ye well! He, my prophet hath chosen, knowing the law of the fortress, and the great mystery of the House of God."
      The dominating feature of this card is the Eye of Horus.  This is also the Eye of Shiva, on the opening of which, according to the legend of this cult, the Universe is destroyed.  
 - The Book of Thoth, p. 108

The opening of the Eye of Horus, the introduction of this vision, can blow up old belief systems and destroy the Universe as you know it.  On the card it looks, and gets described as, explosive.  Explosions repeat somewhat frequently in GR, even moreso in Pynchon's next epic, multilayered and magickly related novel, Against the Day.

I did not notice any direct references to Crowley in Gravity's Rainbow and have no idea if Pynchon knows anything about him.  Given TP's encyclopedic proclivities, I suspect he does.  He kind of dances around Crowley naming people and things like The Golden Dawn that played roles in the old man's life without any direct references.  He even alludes to a well-known incident involving uber Crowley student and collector, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page (p. 666). The lack of any mention could be from not knowing the Crowley literature or it could be that he keeps AC occult and remote like Pynchon's own public persona.  The closest mention of Crowley I saw in GR occurs on page 24.  At this point in the adventure, Slothrop is working for an Allied government agency called ACHTUNG investigating the aftermath of V-bomb (i.e. rocket) "incidents."  ACHTUNG = German for attention.  Slothrop works for attention - this seems a huge clue!

"...he'd detach his pencil smeared buck slip, go draw the same aging Humber from the motor pool, and make his rounds, a St. George after the fact, going out to poke about for droppings of the Beast, fragments of German hardware that wouldn't exist, writing empty summaries into his notebooks - work-therapy.  As inputs to ACHTUNG got faster, often he'd show up in time to help the search crews..." GR p. 24

As is well known, though with little understanding, Crowley identified with The Beast of Revelations.  Another indirect reference is the introduction of Timothy Leary as a character in the book.  More on that later.  Leary declared himself to be carrying on Crowley's work.  You can view a YouTube video where he says that.

Perhaps Pynchon knew absolutely nothing about Crowley when he wrote Gravity's Rainbow.  Still, there appears hard evidence that he worked invocationally; he could have been tapping into the 93 Current without knowing it, though I personally find this unlikely, I suspect he had some conscious knowledge of it.  In a 1970 letter Pynchon wrote to Arthur Mizener about writing: "the further I get into this wretched profession the clearer it is that I am doing very little consciously beyond some clerk routine - assembling, expediting - and that either (a) there is an Extrapersonal Source, or (b) readers are the ones who do most of the work, or all of the above. "(Quoted from Weisenburger in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon, p. 44)

Like Robert Anton Wilson, some of Pynchon's characters turn up in more than one book.  In Weisenburger's invaluable guide: Gravity's Rainbow Companion, he mentions which characters began life in Pynchon's first novel V, others that first showed up in one of the short stories found in Slow Learner, etc.  We also find metaphors repeating in his different novels.  Pynchon's entire vision might only come to light by reading his entire oeuvre, or at least all the novels.

I tried to read V, but couldn't get into it.  At some point I'll go back and dive in with more preparation.  The first time I tried Gravity's Rainbow, I slogged through the first half before giving up.  A few weeks ago it came back up on my radar when I started seeing video reviews for it on my YouTube recommendations list.  After seeing a few of these, I realized it was time to try again.  I took it as an instruction from the "Universe" to act upon.  I picked up a used copy at Powells when working up in Portland, thinking to start reading it within a few weeks.  My prior copy literally self-destructed. The next evening after work I read the assigned portion of The Earth Will Shake by Robert Anton Wilson for a discussion group.  Waiting for dinner, I turned on another GR review and observed the reviewer bring up some points also found in Wilson's book.  This dude sounded very whimsical, part of it may have been his pronounced Australian accent; he ended the review by saying: "see if you can read the first 12 pages of Gravity's Rainbow without craving a banana."  Naturally, I took this as another instruction and proceeded to begin the adventure and read at least the first 12 pages.  My edition begins on page 3 so I read the first episode ending on page 17.  On page 14 Pirate Prentice has a long running fantasy briefly described as exactly what happens in a scene I had just read in The Earth Will Shake involving getting kidnapped by an organization of Sicilians.  These two books successively conspired to blow my mind with that synchronicity.  Both writers act as Hierophants and they both went to the same school.

Although I've only read a few pages of V, I've seen one or two reviews and learned that the primary plot point concerns a search for V described as a woman who does get found near the end.  At least one critic has said that Gravity's Rainbow could have been called V2 because that is the type of rocket at the center of the novel.  His next novel's title = Vineland.  Qabalistically the letter V corresponds with The Hierophant in the Tarot - the one who communicates the secrets of the temple.  The search for V in Pynchon's first novel may have symbolically reflected a search for The Hierophant, a search for an Extrapersonal Source to serve as a conduit for.  As reflected in his fiction, he definitely found and took on the Hierophant's task by the time of GR.

Another attribute of GR aligned with both Crowley and Gurdjieff = its profound God intoxication.  It has been rightfully said that this novel is dark, expresses extreme pain and has very disgusting scatalogical and pornographic scenes.  That perspective may be what predominately comes through without the insight of Qabala.  A subtext of imagery pertaining to Kether, the highest Sephira on The Tree of Life and the one associated with God, runs throughout the book.  It shows itself most often through the color white, a color that makes frequent appearances in the description of various things particularly near the novel's beginning.  For instance, the building that houses the odd group of psychics and clairvoyants making up "PISCES - Psychological Intelligence Schemes for Expediting Surrender," goes by "The White Visitation."

These instances of white seem hardly ever, if ever, pure.  They often appear in a mixture with a dark element of one sort or another.  In other words, Pynchon doesn't offer the appearance of Kether as an escape into a spiritual world, he injects the vision of Kether into the material world of war, dirt and pain possibly as one response to the Sufi question: "Why is God in Hell?"  From a Qabala perspective Hell = the Space/Time continuum.  The work seems on the surface, right where you are sitting now.  Another instance of Kether arrives toward the end with the search for the next model of rocket, this one with the serial number 00001.  The firing of its predecessor, rocket # 00000 plays a large role and ends the novel; we'll get to that.

The white of Kether gets folded in to so many much darker elements that it appears, at times, like a dialectic between the two poles of light and dark, spiritual and material; as a mixture or blend, not as mutually exclusive.  In painting or drawing this effect is called chiaroscuro.  You can find no better philosophic treatment of this than in The Fold, by Deleuze.  A good example of this symbolic chiaroscuro blend occurs in the character of Blicero, the novel's primary antagonist.  Weisenburger informs us that according to Grimm's Teutonic Mythology, one of Pynchon's sources: "'Blicero' is one of the many German nicknames for death. Grimm traces the etymology from 'bleich' (pale)" aka "The Bleacher for what death does to bones."  We find an element of whiteness in this dark character's name.

The first time I spoke with someone other than myself who had read Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson by G.I. Gurdjieff said that the two things they were most struck by were his demonstration of the horrors and stupidity of war and his adoration and love for "Our-Common-Father-Creator Endless.  I find these same two attributes in Gravity's Rainbow.  Pynchon depicts war as mindlessly bureaucratic, mechanical, horrific and insane.  An atmosphere of violence, oppression and pain runs in the background for nearly the entire book.  On the other hand, the encoded language of Qabalah enables the detection of a profound respect, adoration, and love for the Highest.

 The chiaroscuro cover of the edition used here

* * * * * * 
YouTube book reviewer The Book Chemist made the point that historical novels inevitably contain elements of the present time of writing.  This holds true of Gravity's Rainbow written in the 1960s and early 70s.  As was true of that era, we see a liberal amount of a wide variety of drug use.  Slothrop steals a whole brick of hashish in one scene that becomes a plot element for awhile.  Richard Nixon even makes an appearance, first literally with a quote attributed to him that starts the 4th section, then as the character Richard M. Zhlubb "who is fiftyish and jowled, with a permanent five-oclock shadow ..."  Pynchon has fun skewering him. Nixon, of course, became a leader of the status quo culture.  His counter-cultural nemesis, Timothy Leary also makes an appearance.

The story of Leary receiving a copy of Gravity's Rainbow in prison and declaring it a book of genius appears well known to readers of the Good Doctor's life.  See the OG blog by Michael Johnson linked to above for more background and details about this.  In a brief YouTube clip Leary gets asked the one thing he would like to do that he hasn't done before.  He answers: "meet Thomas Pynchon" then goes on to make this a direct appeal to the author.  Many people have wondered what he saw in this dark, chaotic and fragmented novel.  Johnson appears to suggest that the setting of solitary confinement in prison make have played a significant part.  I agree as the atmosphere of GR often makes you feel like living in an oppressed environment.  Some times GR evokes pure Hell in a disgustingly visceral manner like it probably feels in the worst prisons.  I would go so far as to say that getting inside GR feels like being in a prison comprised of the worst aspects of humanity, or as the Gurdjieffians might have it, a prison of sleep.  Yet all along we feel a promise, a rainbow, of redemption and eventual freedom.  I can see this resonating with any prisoner.

It remains unknown to me whether Leary recognized himself as a character in the novel, though I don't see how he couldn't, and whether this factored in to his high opinion.  In my reckoning, Pynchon recognizes and praises his contribution in one spot while also criticizing and rebuking his message elsewhere.  Leary takes the stage as the character Steve Edelman.  On page 770 Edelman "is currently in Atascadero under indefinite observation."  The ever helpful Steven C. Weisenburger notes that: "LSD guru Timothy Leary was incarcerated there after his arrest in 1969." (GR Companion p. 382).  In the previous paragraph from p.770, the Nixon character says that he had a lot of trouble from that Steve Edelman.  Nixon famously declared Leary "the most dangerous man in America."  Mirroring Leary's situation Pynchon writes: "It is alleged that Edelman, in an unauthorized state of mind, attempted to play a chord progression on the Department of Justice list, out in the street and in the presence of a whole movie-queue of witnesses." 

Pynchon honors Leary in a couple of ways.  First, his character's name.  Edel = old-fashoned German for noble or kingly.  Steve comes from the Greek Stephanos meaning crown.  Steve Edelman = the crowned nobleman or the crowned king.  Crown corresponds with Kether.  Also, I am told there is a portion of Christian imagery in this adventure.  St. Stephen was a deacon who was stoned to death as told in the Book of Acts in the New Testament.  He is regarded as the first Christian martyr. It seems easy to consider Leary a martyr for his cause at that time.  By all accounts including his own, Leary frequently got stoned to death, albeit the death of his ego which never failed to get reborn. 

Two pages back, p.768, "Kabbalist spokesman Steve Edelman" explains the Tree of Life.  Though not widely known or recognized, Leary indeed rates as a master Qabalist after his own fashion.  See his book, The Game of Life.  After explaining the creation of the Sephiroth, Edelman continues:  "To return to God, the soul must negotiate each of the Sephiroth, from ten back to one.  Armed with magic and faith, Kabbalists have set out to conquer the Sephiroth.  Many Kabbalist secrets have to do with making the trip successfully."  There's more that connects Edelman with Leary on this page though one must be aware that Pynchon likes to reverse meaning.  We'll get to his reversals shortly. 

This obvious representation of Timothy Leary makes it easier to consider a criticism meant for him made earlier on page 744: Henryk the Hare, driving, keeps a leery eye on the temperature gauge.  He's called "the Hare" because he can never get messages right, as in the old Herero story.  So reverences are dying.  This recalls the story of the Tortoise and the Hare.  To me, it appears to criticize the message of LSD as a quick route to enlightenment.  Reverences are dying seems a heavy statement. 

I noticed another Leary sighting earlier in the book in a passage reminiscent of Crowley on p. 84: "But the Reverend Dr. Paul de la Nuit is not fond of the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory). "Rosie, are there scales for measuring interpersonal traits?" Hawk's nose probing, probing, eyes lowered in politic meekness. Human values? Trust, honesty, love?  Is there - forgive me for special pleading - a religious scale, by any chance?

No way, padre: the MMPI was developed about 1943.  In the very heart of the War.  Allport and Vernon's Study of Values ..."  In the 50's, before his psychedelic researches, Leary developed his well-known Interpersonal Circle Model of Personality that measured interpersonal traits.  Although anachronistic, the name Allport suggests Leary's future research partner Richard Alpert.

There is another aspect related to the 1960s that probably caught Leary's attention which recurs frequently throughout the book and will remain occult in this essay. 

* * * * * * 
The number 69 appears significant in Gravity's Rainbow.  The main character = Tyrone Slothrop.  His initials add to 69.  The first 3 words of the book's first sentence: "A screaming comes across the sky" adds to 69.  The entire sentence = 139; 1 = Kether; 39 = To abide, dwell; Dew; The Eternal is One; Angel of 3 of Pentacles = Work (from AC's 777).  

69 indicates reversal of meaning, a reversal of letters, or it can mean a pun with two opposite meanings.  Tyrone Slothrop's name appears a good indication of the latter.  His name makes an anagram of Sloth Entropy with the letter "o" left over.  O = The Devil in the tarot, it can indicate male energy destructive and gone amok as in a war.  Another anagram his name makes: by switching the position of one letter Tyrone becomes "Try one," another reference to Kether.  By switching one letter in his last name and reading it backwards, Slothrop becomes "Porthols", the word "portholes except for the letter "e."  E = The Star in the tarot.  That is what is missing.  Try one Porthols seems opposite in nature to Entropy Sloth. 

The other number that shows up an incredible amount of times = 68 in the form of "s" and "c" letter combinations; most often where these letters occur as initials to consecutive words or words obviously connected.  You will see this in the very first sentence: "A screaming comes across the sky."  The possible significance of that shall also remain occult here though if you click on this link, my interpretation will get revealed especially when you click on the links inside that link.



  1. If anyone is interested, the ongoing reading group for The Earth Will Shake is at Not too late to join us!

  2. Great post Oz! Very interesting- I haven't read GR since high school before my obsession with the occult took full swing. I did like Against the Day a lot better and remember there being quite a few references to Orphic mystery cults and the order of the Tetractys.

  3. This is really really cool stuff! Great post. And thank you for sharing link to what OG & I wrote.

  4. You are very welcome rarebit and PQ. I am very active in The Earth Will Shake reading group and join with Tom to encourage more participation in it.