RAW Week: My Weirdest Summer Ever, by Erik Davis

201201111045I first read Robert Anton Wilson in 1985, which also happened to be my Weirdest Summer Ever. After freshman year at college back East, I went to Berkeley and lived with my high school girlfriend in Barrington Hall, the most legendary and notorious of Berkeley's student-run co-ops, already sunk into a long sunset of countercultural haze. The place smelled like cat pee and cheap incense, and the cries of weird rituals and speed deals gone awry echoed through hallways covered with wondrous and faded hippie murals. Graffiti captured the unnerving tenor of the place: a large "LSD" had been spray-painted on Haste Street to the north in order to jog the memories of any high-flying trippers who might have made their way to the roof, while a mystical phrase from Lao Tzu -- "Those who know do not say, those who say do not know" -- somehow took on ominous overtones once it was tagged across one wall, a hint of the foreboding secrets and cosmic conspiracies that would nip at my heels all summer long until by the time I fled east I barely escaped without a drug addiction or, even more dangerous, the unspoken Answer to the Riddle.

It didn't help that I spent the summer reading Aleister Crowley, Phil Dick, the Principia Discordia, and Robert Anton Wilson, especially the Illuminatus! Trilogy, Prometheus Rising, and Cosmic Trigger. Or maybe this was the only stuff that actually did help -- and especially RAW, who taught me, as he taught so many others, to nimbly dodge the gravity wells that threaten to suck us down the various informational reality tunnels that make a Swiss cheese of our consensus trance. A year ago I traded a bunch of books to a Russian teenager who sent me a couple of samizdat copies of my book Techgnosis, translated into Russian. He liked Terence McKenna and wanted me to send him more books that would tug the silly putty of his world with humor and verve. He was about the same age I was when I had my Weirdest Summer Ever. And so RAW -- and especially the two indispensable nonfiction books listed above -- topped the list. He appreciated them.

I got to see RAW give a few talks and workshops, but didn't meet the man until a year or so before his death. Every Wednesday a group of friends and supporters, including some utterly charming female care-givers, would gather at his Santa Cruz apartment and read through Joyce's Finnegans Wake -- which basically meant reading half a paragraph and then watching RAW unpack it with extraordinary finesse, humor, and erudition, revealing the text to be a palimpsest of possibilities dependent on the mind of the reader to unfurl. (This was one thing that linked him to McKenna.) Before the group bull session began, as the sun slipped into the Pacific, I hung out with RAW on his balcony. Deep in my own investigations into the history of California esoterica, I pressed him on biographical information, especially about the early-70s East Bay psychedelic and occult underground that forms the invisible backdrop of Cosmic Trigger. But he avoided my questions and invitations to stroll (or sneak) down memory lane; instead, he stuck to more-or-less familiar ideas about general semantics, cognitive filters, and mind viruses. His personal life lay in a galaxy far, far away.

What impressed me most about the evening was not RAW's scintillating Joyce readings or his continued devotion to the broad and fertile set of ideas he explored in his many books. Instead it was his attitude towards his own physical infirmity. In addition to whatever unspoken indignities he was forced to endure and had the good grace to leave unmentioned in the gathering, he had a terribly difficult time moving his body forward once he had settled himself back into the sofa. The simple act of leaning forward took him minutes to perform, but perform it he did, without aid. He may have just been stubborn, but he seemed rather to simply be manifesting his own amused and bemused attitude toward the absurdities of life, his own struggle with the cornball mystery.

RAW has long been a fiercely independent thinker and writer, and he performed that independence for us and himself as he took those excruciating moments to eek his body forward from the sofa. Of course, you pay a cost for fierce independence. Indeed, when I came to understand RAW's precarious financial situation, I was struck with the realities of what a life on the cognitive fringe can leave you materially in your dotage. At the same time, the evening was also a testament to the community of care that had "anarchically" formed around him, a local crew of cannabis activists, alternative thinkers, and very friendly freaks that RAW himself had unknowingly helped seed through his books and ideas. This particular feedback loop was deeply moving.

In October of 2006, Douglas Rushkoff, another mind permanently marked by RAW's unique semantic hieroglyphs, helped raise a good deal of cash for the man's hospice care in a web-driven campaign that anticipated the crowdfunding logic of Kickstarter by several years. Other networks that helped spread the word that year included Slashdot, innumerable weirdo listservs, and, of course, Boing Boing -- old-school nethead cultural nodes that were and are deeply marked by RAW's canny and skeptical mytho-logic, his data-dense cultural enthusiasm, and his wry and libertarian embrace of indeterminacy.



  1. All this talk of RAW… OK, I’ll bite: Although I’m a big SF fan, I’ve never read him. Actually I’d never even heard of him before his death. I’m not trolling. So, my question is: is he still worth reading NOW ? Should I read him knowing that I hate most fantasy ? And which book would you recommand ?

    1. Don’t read him as sci-fi, read him as philosophy. He’ll teach you how to maintain your hold on identity by relinquishing your hold on reality. If you want a hilarious, sexy, scary monster of an epic then you could do a lot worse than the Illuminatus! Trilogy; if you’re interested in philosophy, check out Cosmic Trigger.

      1. Oddly, I agree with the original list.
        Illuminatus! was written to be the ultimate conspiracy novel: they’re all true!  One thing which is clear, among the ambiguities, is that Shea and Wilson stole material anywhere they could find it.  It’s a wide-ranging romp.  Incidentally, the little bibliography which appers near the beginning of the book is completely real, and Shea and Wilson themselves only wrote one or two of them.
        Prometheus Rising, despite its eclecticism, is one of Wilson’s most linear presentations.  He’s piggy-backing on Leary, but don’t sweat that part.
        Cosmic Trigger, in my opinion, will tell you more about the person, his trials and ambitions, than any other book.

        Beyond that, keep in mind that Bob was a commercial writer, and had no problem recycling material to pay the rent.  If you’re a completist, you’ll waste a lot of time.  You will really want half his writing if you become a serious fan, but not necessarily much more.

    2. Yes, he is still worth reading, although if you’re not already a fan, I could easily nominate at least six or eight of his books to skip.

      If you prefer fiction, and are only going to read one book to decide, I strongly recommend /Masks of the Illuminati,/ historical fiction in which Einstein and Joyce team up to solve the mystery of a young upper class British twit who thinks he’s being hunted by Crowley.

      If you prefer non-fiction, I recommend volume 1 of his autobiography, /Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati./

    3. hey guillaume, great question. if there is one thing i would recommend to all human beings, it would be to ensure that you expose your mind to the thinking of robert anton wilson. ‘prometheus rising’ and ‘cosmic trigger’ are essential non fiction reading, and the ‘illuminatus trilogy’ is mind blowing fiction. you will not be the same person having read these books. also, the net is full of videos of great bob talks. maybe logic being amongst my favoutire r.a.w memes.

      1. Unless someone already has an existing interest in magick and/or the occult, I really can’t recommend Prometheus Rising as a starting point. And if somebody is only going to read one book, I can’t recommend Illuminatus! as their starting point, no matter how much I love it.

        Roughly the first 1/3rd of volume 1 of Illuminatus! is an homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses. I know several people, personally, who have wanted to read RAW, but who just plain got bored with being confused before they got to the point where the story starts being told in any way that makes sense. If you’re already a fan of ’70s New Wave science fiction, and are used to not having the slightest idea what you’re reading for the first 50 to 100 pages, the first 50 to 100 pages of Illuminatus! will not set you off. If you’re not used to that, you just have to take the word of the rest of us that it’s worth slogging through that part to get to the good stuff, that it does get better.

  2. I read the Illuminatus! Trilogy right after Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. It’s both hilarious and scary how perfectly they go together.  

    1. *laugh*  After I read Foucault’s Pendulum, the next time I saw Bob, I told him it was an alternate version of Illuminatus!.  he said, “Good!  Now I don’t have to read it.”

  3. Adding to the chorus, i guess a lot of us went through that weird summer/year and the R.A.W, K. Dick, Crowley, Douglas Adams regimen is the usual fare. 

    And yes, you come out of that phase a different person. I guess you become someone who does things seriously without taking himself seriously (herself if you’re a girl. Although I believe this to be more of a guys thing). Reality is one universe among all the multiverses, no need to worry.

    1. Maybe “more” of a guys’ thing, but definitely not exclusively… although I came to RAW later; for me that “weird year” consisted of Tom Wolfe and Kurt Vonnegut.

  4. Tangent!!   Hey Erik, I lived in Barrington Hall for a few months in 1970.  One day I came home to find the place crawling with cops.  A room filled with bomb-making materials had been found in the building…

  5. Ah, the things they do, allow and do not allow in order to keep the counter culture in check. One a day soon the counter culture will align more of less with the mainstream and something big will happen. Maybe the Society of the Psilocrosse ( http://psilocrosse.bravehost.com ) will have something to do with it.

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