“It's not true unless it makes you laugh, but you don't understand it until it makes you weep.” -- Illuminatus!
I first discovered Robert Anton Wilson when I was 18 years old. I'd just moved to a commune in the tobacco fields of central Virginia and was working for the magazine that the community published. Wilson and Bob Shea's Illuminatus! trilogy had just been published and I sent off for a review copy on the magazine's letterhead. I was shocked when Dell actually sent me the books. I had no idea what Illuminatus! was; I thought I was getting some free trash sci-fi to kill time down on the farm.
The first few chapters in and I knew I wasn't reading sci-fi, not any kind I recognized, anyway. Reading the first book, The Eye in the Pyramid, then the second, The Golden Apple, and then the third, Leviathan, was like going on an extended acid trip, complete with that phasing delirium of humor and the absurd, flashes of diamond clarity and numerous a-ha moments, awkward sexual arousal, plenty of cartoonery, fear, paranoia, and maybe a little out-and-out terror. (It's no coincidence these books are divided up into ten “Trips.”) There is so much to Illuminatus!, an almost fractal density, that you have to unhinge your mind (like a serpent would its jaw) to fit it all in. I read the trilogy, and then read it again. (When my late-wife and I hooked up, we read them out loud to each other, and after Bob died, I read them for a fourth time.)
There are few works of art or pieces of media that have altered my nervous system to the extent that Illuminatus! has. In 1976, I was this awkward, alienated Wiccan teen, a restless seeker. But I was also a science and space nerd. I could never reconcile these two and constantly switched between them, rejecting one for the other, at least for a time. But here was a world where these points of view were not mutually exclusive, a playfully plastic world where open curiosity, creativity, absurdity, and skepticism leavened all explorations, whether religious/mystical/artistic or scientific. It was Robert Anton Wilson who turned me onto the concept of “hilaritas” (what he described as being “profoundly good natured”). These books (and all of RAW's oeuvre) are steeped in that spirit.
Illuminatus!, and all of the Robert Anton Wilson books that I read after that (which is all of them), have formed an amazingly steady through-line in my life. I've gone through many intense changes since that 18 year old kid scammed free reading material, and my belief systems (or “BS” as RAW called them) have oscillated wildly, but most of my takeaways from Wilson have remained. His basic approach of being “open to anything, skeptical of everything” is how I've tried to live my life. This allowed me to finally embrace both parts of myself, the part that wanted to be open to magick and spirit and the part of me that needs extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.
In recent past, I'd somewhat fallen out of touch with RAW's unique brand of “guerrilla ontology” until a few years before he died. Some friends were on their honeymoon, traveling through the deserts of Utah. They found the 5-volume set of audio interviews that Bob had done called Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything: Or Old Bob Exposes His Ignorance, in the bargain bin of a truck stop. They aren't particularly into this sort of thing, but more based on my interest, they bought the set. They listened to it on their honeymoon and enjoyed it so much, they bought me a copy. I now listen to it regularly and can't recommend it highly enough.
At one point in Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything, the interviewer asks Bob why he's so into conspiracy theories. He'd spent the better part of his life studying them, writing about them, but he doesn't seem to actually believe any of them. So, why the intense interest? Bob thinks about it for a moment and replies: “It keeps the mind supple.”
Thank you, Mr. Wilson, for pulling an uptight, overthinking teen out of his constrictive reality tunnels and for a lifetime of “keeping the mind supple.”
Bonus Bob!: There are many threads and themes shot through Illuminatus!: Puzzles, parodies, bad puns, conspiracy theories, synchronicities, Burroughsian cut-ups, libertarian politics, occultism, sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. One of these themes is pranking, part of what Wilson and Shea dubbed “Operation Mindfuck” (or OM); what they describe as the only serious conspiracy in the book (of which the book is the principle manifestation). OM is the art of confusing consensus reality with plenty of pranks, misinformation, and mindfucks. In the appendices, a rubber stamp is described that reads “See Mental Health Records.” On any bills, junk, or other mail that one of the Discordian characters didn't like, he'd use this stamp on the envelope and return to sender. After reading about this, I had a stamp made up that read: “This is Not Art” (a statement from the Fluxus movement). For years, I stamped this on tax returns and business envelopes, on the backs of endorsed checks, on much of my daily correspondence. I loved imagining what the various worker bees who processed my paperwork made of this puzzling statement.
So, give the world's sad sonambulism a wakeup call. Put some OM (whether “trivial or colossal”) in your day. Bob would have wanted it that way.
Gareth Branwyn has been dog-paddling the waters of sidestream culture, as a participant and chronicler, for his entire adult life. He's been involved in the commune movement, the DIY and zine scenes, cyberpunk, steampunk, punk-punk, and has written for bOING bOING (print), Mondo 2000, Wired, Esquire, Details, and numerous other magazines and dailies. He is the editor-in-chief of MAKE magazine's blog, and is currently editing a collection of his work: "Borg Like Me & Other Tales of Art, Eros, and Embedded Systems."
MORE: raw week