RAW Week: Mindfucking Since 1976, by Gareth Branwyn


Above: Gareth's original copies of The Illuminatus Trilogy.

“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.



  1. I remember buying a few sets of these and giving them to friends. In the intro text to vols 2 or 3 is the only place you can read about the suicide mynah birds.

    A minor loss, though, compared to the single-volume Schrodinger’s Cat, which is missing about half the text of the original 3-volume set.

    1. Just a minute. There are bits missing from the single volume of Schrodinger’s Cat? Seriously? Why?

  2. I still have that same edition, though they are in advanced states of entropy (i.e., the covers are mostly fallen off).

    I hadn’t read about “hilaritas,” but I love the concept, and in fact it’s generally how I try to live. Your link is misformatted, though, so it doesn’t work. I was able to cut and paste from it, though, to get to http://boingboing.net/2009/02/04/seek-ye-the-hilarita.html.

  3. Hi, I’m Michael Taft, the guy who interviewed Bob for the Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything audio series. I first read his work in college (Cosmic Trigger) and it literally rearranged my brain. After that, I read almost everything he wrote; much of it several times. I particularly like his Historical Illuminatus series.

    It was a dream of mine for years to meet him and do an interview, and around 2000 I finally got the chance. When I met him at his apartment in Santa Cruz, I was surprised to find him in a wheelchair. Time spares no one. Yet his humor, razor-sharp wit, hospitality, and general awesomeness were exactly what I expected. I had the pleasure of hanging out with him every night for a week and just asking him anything that came to mind. It was a real treat. 

    When it came time to title the series, I couldn’t resist a mental imagine I had of him caught in the act of doing something iconoclastic and socially unacceptable, and waving his hands, saying, “I can explain everything!!” It was just a comic image that I felt suited him, and not something about being a know-it-all. Nonetheless, RAW felt that we should add the subtitle about him “exposing his ignorance” just to make sure that listeners understood the joke. 

    Anyway, I’m glad you like the series.

    1. MICHAEL!!!!! So great to see you respond here. I LOVE that series so much and a big part of that was you. You asked really great questions and hung in there with old Bob. You have an awesome radio voice, too.

      What other interviews have you done that might be available?

      1. Thanks, Gareth. I really appreciate it. He made it easy. 

        I don’t have any other interviews worth sharing—these days I’ve mostly been on the other side of the microphone—but am always open to creating new ones. Especially if they turn out to be anywhere near that fun to produce. ;)

    2. RAW’s “Historical Illuminatus” series, which you mentioned, is a particularly sore spot with me.  The first two books of the series were published (at approx 400 pages each) and as everyone eagerly awaited the third (and presumably LAST) book in the series, it comes out (at approx 200 pages) and what was assumed to be a trilogy wound up being a quadrilogy (if that’s even a word).  And to top it all off, the “fourth” book never gets released.  Any thoughts or observations on that little bit of mind-fuckery?

      1. I don’t know, Thomas. Publishing weirdness is weird. I agree that the third book was disappointing. That just reminds me, though, about how much I loved the first two. 

      2. Historic Illuminatus was jinxed.  After the first volume came out, the publisher went bankrupt.  Eventually the second volume came out . . . and its publisher then went bankrupt.  Eventually, I asked bob about vol. 3, and he said, “When someone pays me to write it.”

  4. Stuff is missing from different editions?  Then I have a question…

    I first read Illuminatus! when I was 13.  At the time I was very ill, and for a few days my life consisted of drinking water (the only thing I could keep down) and reading Illuminatus! until the next time I passed out (Which was maybe an hour or two, tops).

    Years later I bought another edition, but I couldn’t find parts I remembered reading.   At the time I assumed the missing material only existed in my fever dreams, but now mwiik has raised a point.

    So just to settle this in my head (or practice OM if you want), was there or was there not a scene where George Dorn and another character were debating whether Mickey Mouse was a communist?

    1. I remember a debate over Mickey Mouse being a communist, but I just moved and can’t get to my books right now (and I only have two of the three), so I can’t confirm that the scene exists outside our memory

    2. It’s worse than that . . .
      Illuminatus! was written mostly between 1969 and 1971.  It was set in 1976 to give it a slightly futuristic flavor.
      Unfortunately, it severely confused publishers.  A junior editor would rave that they had to have this, be shrugged off, burn out, get replaced, and the new junior editor would start raving about this manuscript, rinse, repeat.
      So eventually, it got bought.  But it was way too ginourmous, so the publisher insisted they cut the manuscript by 500 pages (the appendices originally ran all the way through the alphabet, for instance) — and then cut the remaining stuff into thirds.
      Those 500 pages were lost a long time ago.

      1. My theory was that those 500 lost pages were resurrected as the Schrodinger’s Cat trilogy. Sure read like it.

        1. Naw, that’s The Sex magiciansSchroedinger’s Cat is just especially self-indulgent.  I really appreciated the shout-outs, though.

    3. p.s.
      The two crises that threaten to destroy the world but don’t are anthrax leprosy pi and Fernando Poo (usually spelled Fernando Po).
      In the consensus reality 1976, the two horrible crises which didn’t turn out to threaten the world after all were swine flu and Angola.  Another one of them coincidences.

  5. I love that so many other people experienced this as some kind of mentally-readjusting, paradigm-shifting acid trip. 

    I tried to read it twice when I was about 15, and just couldn’t get past 100 pages or so.  Then that summer we went on vacation and I sat down and read the whole darn thing, swaying in a hammock in the mountains, over the course of three days.  I felt shellshocked afterwards…  Completely changed my politics and aspirations.

  6. I think the time-delay joke names may have blown my mind more than anything else. I caught a ride home from the college class I was taking as a senior the year I read Illuminati and one of the traffic signs had the name of one of the characters in the book!  I will never, ever forget the feeling that gave me, of a profound mixing of two strictly separated realms.

    Later, I was telling my mother about the book and pronouncing the name of another character got me such an odd look that I had to rewind what I’d just said – and realized RAW had got me again.  Fantastic stuff!

    (I’m being deliberately obscure just in case there’s somebody who hasn’t read them and might like the same experience – and if you have read them, you can giggle about this very sentence with me…)

  7. “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.”

    been there done that. And it is thanks to RAW that I figured out how to put the two together. The Skeptic rolls her eyes at some of the stuff the Mystic does and says, but she’s not entirely sure that some of what the Mystic does works.

    I found the collected volume in the university bookstore when I was in college. Inhaled it in like one or two days, which to be honest is not that unusual for me – I read fast! And it turned things inside out for me.

    …in fact, hmm. I’m going on a plane trip tomorrow and I’ve been wondering what to read. Now I know. *hits up Amazon for a Kindle copy of the Illuminatus! Trilogy*

  8. Begin by lending out Cosmic Trigger I-III. Then Prometheus Rising. Then lend out Illuminatus! Usually a good sequence, I find.

    1. Close. I was a Wiccan (er… at the time), living in a commune, in former tobacco country. We had these amazing old tobacco barns on our property next to the fields.

  9. “Be open to anything; be skeptical of everything” are words to live by. I was fortunate to find RAW’s books in my teens, along with Forteanism, and while I can be terribly opinionated, I hope some of that attitude has stuck with me.

  10. Just for clarification… which series is missing so much material: Illuminatus!, or Schrodinger’s Cat? Thanks!

    1. There’s 3 answers:

      1) RAW’s original manuscript for Illuminatus! had to be cut by about 500 pages. These pages never existed in a published work and are lost to history forevermore.

      2) Volumes 2 and 3 of Illuminatus! began with short recaps of what occurred in the preceding volumes. This is where the story about Hagbard teaching mynah birds to be suicidal comes in. These were cut from the single-volume edition. These are just a few pages, no great loss.

      3) The currently in-print, single-volume version of the Schroedinger’s Cat trilogy, is missing somewhere around half the content. The book should be almost as thick as the single-volume Illuminatus!. Entire chapters are missing. It’s an abortion.

      1. Thanks for the info. Illuminatus! is one of those trilogies I’ve been meaning to read for years, and just haven’t gotten around to it. I was just wondering if I should try to track down copies of the original paperbacks, or if the in-print single-volume was sufficient.

        Schroedinger’s Cat is a different story…. doesn’t even seem worth reading if it’s missing that much material, and it seems likely that the original books are much harder to track down.

  11. I read Illuminatus! in the early 90s. I was a Rush Limbaugh quoting Dittohead, no lie.  Fortunately I had an interest in sci-fi and conspiracy theories, and saw something that described Illuminatus! in those terms, so I picked it up and read it. 

    Kaboom!  The book truly changed my life, altering my worldview in truly profound ways. I’ve read anything and everything by RAW that I’ve been able to get my hands on. I consider myself a model-agnostic libertarian these days, always (and often failing) to look at the world and maintain Wilson’s infectious optimism. Thanks RAW!

  12. Thanks for the great pieces.  I do miss Bob’s intelligence and sense of humor, etc.  I wonder what he would have made of the politico-econimic adventures of the past five years.

    Eric Wagner

  13. When the trilogy came out I had read a little Fort and a few issues of stuff like FATE and HIDDEN WORLDS as an addendum to FADS AND FALLACIES IN THE NAME OF SCIENCE (which I don’t imagine RAW liked very much). I had never heard of most of these conspiracy theories and was stunned to find that Wilson and Shea hadn’t just made most of them up. The books were a much bigger gateway drug than marijuana had been years before. When I got to the Dallas Museum of Art in 1980 I was *ripe* for the Church of the SubGenius. Thanks, Bobs and “Bob” (and Joyce and John Hagen-Brenner).

  14. I met Bob once, at the 2000 Disinfo conference in NYC. I was flustered and a bit tongue-tied, thanking him and telling him how influential he was to me blah blah blah, but as I stammered he noticed my girlfriend and all of his attention shifted to her.

    “Where you in Playboy?” he asked, smiling devilishly.

    Loved that guy. 

  15. “open to anything, skeptical of everything” The perfect recipe to survive working with a team (e.g. your workplace) Remember, you may be just as mad as they all are. RAW is just as much a genius as Stephen Hawking at translating post Einsteinian reality in some ways.

  16. I came across RAW around 1976. I had just spent most of the previous year as a Moonie, but had “escaped” and was one lost and confused soul. I spent quite a bit of time in a little bookstore in Novato where I lived. The owner seemed to take an interest in me (he knew my Moonie story, and we talked Buddhism sometimes) and recommended books occasionally. One day he saw me eyeing the Illuminatus Trilogy and, in no uncertain terms, advised me to NOT read it under any circumstances. Of course I gobbled it up immediately (I bought it elsewhere so he wouldn’t see me) and it grounded me back to the earth like nothing else possibly could have.

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