Book Review:
Tim Leary's "What Does WoMan Want?"


The little boy wants to put it back when it dings. He is watching the typewriter, the keys that move so fast he can't see them, listening for the bell that tells him he can push  the carriage back for his daddy. Sometimes the ding comes in mid-word and he eagerly pushes the lever before daddy is ready so that the letters go spacing across the page and they make a joke of it. The little boy is 4½. He is arrayed in a helmet of purest gold, shoulders girt with azure topped by a bandlet, gules; his loins are girdled in gold, his graceful legs bare, and his feet shod in special magic boots of blue laced in white and called by the name of "fast-running shoes." Across his chest is emblazoned the legend, The Amazing Spiderman. He wants to be with his daddy, with somebody, anyway, because he doesn't like to be alone, and his daddy is there. So they decide to write together....

The cover of the book 'looks like two faces," he says. What does the face say? "I don't know." Well, listen to her. He holds the book up to the boy's ear. Listen! What does she say? "I don't know."

He says he doesn't know what she says. She says "I don't know," he says. And what was she asked? "What Does WoMan Want?"

Freud's name is attached to the question in this century, when it takes on the tones of male exasperation and despair at the deep ache of his loss of connection with the female. However it is also the basis of a whole body of Celtic myth, tales classified under the rubric "The Transformed Hag," or "Loathly Lady," in which a noisome witch whom the hero must embrace, because she has answered this question for him, turns into a beautiful erotic partner. Here the story appears as the latest transmission from Timothy Leary, who refuses to despair despite being practically exiled from humanity, having alienated many of his last supporters by appearing to break the commandment against finking. With T'ai Ch'i grace he accepts this role and announces himself a Wanderer in time as well as space, an intergalactic agent, whose mission is to mutate the planet. What Does WoMan Want? is his highly entertaining report to the center of the spiral galaxy labyrinth, strung on the thread of the local language.

With unpracticed hand, the boy writes the alphabet:
"ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ "Now I know my A B-C's, Next time won't you sing with me?"

Daddy writes it on the machine. "You copied it! You copied it! He runs to the door: "My daddy copied the alphabet!"

From "copy" comes "copious." Latin copia, abundance. The root meaning is "co-operate," work together.

We may consider Leary's book a spectacular copying, or retelling, of the Wyf of Bath's tale, in the context of a rollicking account of the author's exile in Switzerland, between the Cleaver episode and the capture in Afghanistan, with flashbacks to Milbrook and Harvard, related with exuberance and good humor and imagination that puts to shame the lurid stories that have appeared in the newspapers, in the form of a science-fiction adventure novel. (As a model for his story Leary takes not Chaucer's version but that of Gower the Scot (=Wanderer), whose hero was King Arthur's nephew Gawaine, a.k.a. Gowan, or cowan, the rogue mason, not a member of any guild, who learned by himself to cut and pile stone. A nice metaphor for the author's own public career.)

Another trick to get our attention? The others have certainly been worth watching although the last one was considered in bad taste. Now we can hear from the horse's mouth the inside story of What Really Happened during the Breakup with Rosemarie and the advent of the Mysterious Joanna, who has freaked out everyone. Boy!

The trickster, shape-shifter, is an archetypal cultural figure. In the Celtic tradition, which Leary is now invoking, he appears as the boy Gwion (pronounced "Finn"), become all-wise by accidentally sipping the witch Cerridwen's brew, as Leary sipped Albert Hoffman's, who is pursued by her and changes into hare, fish, bird before she finally swallows him as a grain of wheat and then bears him as a son, the half-divine riddling poet Taliesin.

The theme is metamorphosis, a paradigm for change, temporal existence, life. (He not busy bein' born is busy dyin'--and who wrote that but a Jewish bard who took the name of a Welshman.) The change comes about through opposition, crossing, connection (yoga) of that which is seen to be separate--the male/female, quantum theory/wave theory, single wing/T figure/ground Gestalt in which we cradle our existence.

Leary has already presented his riddle as scientist, psychedelic shaman, political rebel, and lastly prisoner/informer. (He told the saintly Ram Dass, who was visiting him in jail, "You get better and better and I get worse and worse.") With no more disguises possible, the leprechaun reveals himself: a moonstruck Irish poet, worshipper of the Triple Goddess--white for birth and growth, red for love and struggle, black (or blue--nice Bicentennial touch) for divination and death--she to whom all poetry is addressed, as we are reminded by the Sufi scholar Robert Graves.

The Christian West drove this tradition undergound at the Synod of Whitby in 664, when Rome suppressed the Celtic church and its practice of ancient psychedelic meditations. (Bede reports of Bishop Coleman practicing the Tibetan rite of Tummo, psychic heat, and spending the night in the cold sea, with otters.) In masking the relation of the date of Easter to lunar rhythms, the church at Whitby marked the separation of male and female that we now see reflected in the worship of Mary as Virgin. After Whitby, as chanting to the beat of one's own heart gave way to the measures of Rome's choirmasters, the dark inner spirit fled to the fields around the abbey, where it appeared in an untutored shepherd, Caedmon, who surprised everyone by transmitting in the language of the people and we had the first poetry in English.

That this spirit seems to be enjoying a revival today is closely traceable to Leary's notorious popularization of LSD. We may see it everywhere, however--in spirituality of all persuasions, in the trend to local political power, in the pervasiveness of the Tarot and the I Ching, and in the increasingly mystical reports of the most respected and reputable scientists.

Leary is a disreputable scientist. He has put himself into his own experiments, attempting to be in the world but not of it, which respectable science says cannot be done (though the Heisenberg principle seems to suggest that it cannot be done otherwise). WDWMW is the lab notebook of an experimental mystic.

In announcing his identity as a spacetime visitor, the author mirrorflips his genetic code and earth name, DNA LERI, to provide the key to his ancestry. Like another famous Irish exile in Switzerland, he knots his linguistic net of consciousness with puns and Celtic wit, refashioning the right-brain net of ancient myth in which we catch the images of life. Not Spiderman but spider woman spins the web. At the same time left-brain addicts can enjoy a slambang adventure told with the novelistic pace of Swiss neighbor Richard Condon.

Considered something of a Don of Con himself, Leary writes with more than a trace of blarney. He weaves spies, sex queens, psychedelics and space visitors into a pattern of charm and delight. The action is swift and the jokes cosmic. There is jet-set gossip and meticulous attention to numbers which will interest those who are interested in such matters. The riddle presents itself as macrofiction.

The boy eats a fortune cookie and passes over the pink slip for decoding: "The future belongs to those who vote for it. BOXER for supervisor."

What does WoMan want? Sovereignty, suggested Chaucer. Leary's answer, transcending right brain/left brain net and tree in yabyum conjugal embrace, is organized by a neocortica array grammar and the telling of it brings a smile to the lips. In the medieval tradition, his text is a polished mirror reflecting the message from spacetime as the myth of our own past.

Kurt von Meier