I never met Robert Anton Wilson, but after reading him closely for years, I like to think I know him pretty well. When I went to college in the 1970s, I encountered Illuminatus!, and it had a greater effect upon me than anything I learned in class. It's impossible to minimize the impact the book had on inspiring a new generation of libertarians, although Wilson was hardly an orthodox libertarian. (He wasn't an orthodox anything). Once, summing up why he didn't vote for the 1980 Libertarian Party candidate, he explained, "I am not that kind of Libertarian, really; I don't hate poor people." The attitude of wonder and skepticism toward what we can know about the world in llluminatus! is at least as important as the politics.
Partly because of regret that I never got around to interviewing him or even meeting him when he was alive, I started my RAWIllumination.net a couple of years ago. Decades of heavy reading in all forms of fiction and nonfiction have convinced me that Wilson is a major American writer who has not received the attention he deserves. This crops up on all sorts of ways. Years before Dan Brown wrote his best seller, The Da Vinci Code, Wilson covered much the same ground in a much better book, The Widow's Son. With help from other Wilson fans, I have used RAWIllumination.net to make available articles by Wilson and interviews with him that were not reprinted in his books.
I did get to meet Illuminatus! co-author Robert Shea once, and I would point out that his "solo novels" also deserve attention; they are available in cheap Kindle editions and in free versions at the official Robert Shea site, maintained by his son, Mike Shea. All Things Are Lights, a fast-moving historical novel set in the time of Saint Louis, is a thematic prequel to Illuminatus! which I believe almost any reader would enjoy.
My Dr. Martens had that darker sheen around the toes where the water had sunk into the petrol-resistant exterior. The smell of damp and of dusty books filled my nose as I prepared for another day of work at the library. It was 1995 in Seattle. The WTO had just formed, The Oklahoma bombing went down, and Grunge was slowly decaying in an acrid smoke after Kurt Cobain's suicide. It was then, on that day, Robert Anton Wilson entered my life.
I had just got in the building, which looked like a huge Viking ship, designed that way on account of all the Norwegians who took up residence in that particular part of town. I shook the rain off of my formidable, flaming red hair when, suddenly, I was vehemently tugged behind the stacks by my coworker.
He was thirty-ish, pagan, had a long blonde ponytail and a nose ring. We would often chat together about Egypt, witchy-poo stuff, and things like that.
"You should really check this book out, I think you would really like it," he said quietly as he handed me a corpulent tome. I looked down at it and saw a checkerboard cover with dolphins jumping over a pyramid with an eye on it. Oh boy, I thought to myself. Like I'm really going to read this obviously new age tedious thing that probably is filled with cheerful advice of how to align my chakras. I humored him politely, as all I wanted to do was take off my wet jacket (which was covered in Metallica patches), took the book and said "thanks, I totally will!" as I snuck past to put my coat in my cubby. Now, it's not that I was opposed to "new age" per se, but I was heavily into OCCULT material and was very snobby about it at the time. If it wasn't older than the 1800's I didn't give a snit about it.
I had just purchased the Hermetic works of Paracelsus, and all the froofy rainbow dolphin material made me cringe as I blasted my Soundgarden tapes on my Sony walkman while walking in the rain. So, I waited until my co-worker went in the back and stealthily snuck the girthy volume onto my cart of books to re-shelve whilst turning up the volume on my headphones. Upon approaching the shelf to replace the seemingly uncouth bundle back exactly in its proper Dewey decimal order, a book directly next to it caught my eye. The cover of this book looked not unlike the covers of some of my Heavy Metal comics, which I was very dedicated to at that point in my life. Prometheus Rising was written in airbrushed chrome lettering with a hermeticy looking fellow emerging from a robot. Now I was interested. I was also a huuuuuuge Frankenstein (the novel) fan, so anything with the word Prometheus in it instantly ignited me in affinity.
Photo of Tiffany Lee Brown by Wiley Wiggins
Robert Anton Wilson was kinda more George Carlin and less Timothy Leary than he sometimes appeared. I didn't know him truly, madly, deeply and we did not eat, pray, and love together. (OK, we did eat together, now that I think of it.) I did get to hang out with him a number of times.
What surprised me most was his practicality. Bob didn't actually strike me as being all that far-out; rather, he seemed a practical guy with a very smart mind and a very wacky sense of humor. Turning on was fun, sure, and led to important and far-reaching discoveries, some directed inward, others outward. Tuning in was essential: homing in on what matters and communicating to the tribe and also, importantly, to the potential tribe, to the yahoos who hadn't gotten all enlightened 'n' shit, the people who might really *need* to have their minds blown.
But he didn't think that dropping out was an option. He was solid in the pre-old-school sense. Solidly built in physicality, solidly convinced of the efficacy of his ideas, and despite his curmudgeonly tendencies, solidly committed to making the world a better place -- or at least showing its denizens some potential for doing it themselves. Sometimes, that's exactly what we need.
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I like to think of myself as a believing skeptic, someone who relishes in the ideas, the imagery, the arguments, the theories, and the literature of the occult and the paranormal, but accepts little of it as valid in a phenomenal sense. I love that small publishers such as Ouroboros Press and Fulgar Limited put out beautiful magical texts and that many current underground and avant garde musicians incorporate occult ideas into their work. But beyond its power as a method for art and imaging, I recognize much of the occult as woo. On the other hand, I accept that the human imagination is something magical, and very powerful and that we know little about human consciousness except how malleable it really is. It's a precarious position, however, and I often need to remind myself of smarter, more articulate thinkers who shared these views.
So it is with great respect and admiration that I celebrate the life of Robert Anton Wilson during this memorial week by remembering that he was the great believing skeptic, someone for whom the collection and curating of all that is weird was his life's work, who reminded us always to question everything, while recognizing that we should never stop exploring. I sure wish RAW was alive today, especially at a time when there is something like a real Occult Revival going on, from the psychedelic explorers who see 2012 as a great trans formative event, to the huge increase in the membership of organization like the O.T.O. and Freemasonry, and by extension a whole load of conspiracy theories. RAW warned against any idea, group, or person that claims knowledge of the "Real" Universe, echoing Umberto Eco who wrote in Foucault's Pendulum we should be mindful of turning metaphysics in mechanics.
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It seems appropriate that we all should pause this week to remember Robert Anton Wilson on the 5th anniversary of his death. The world is a little less fun without RAW, and his cosmic humor/insights/insanity.
When I wrote something about his departure from this plane, a remembrance more than an obituary in 2007, I naturally called it "23 Skidoo." That's what he'd done, and there was no two ways about it.
I still think that someplace, Bucky Fuller, Timothy Leary, Charles Fort, and Robert Anton Wilson are deciding whether it's time to play supercheckers or Texas hold 'em.
I corresponded with Robert Anton Wilson (RAW as he sometimes was called) from the 1970s through the early 1990s, until his health and his in-and-out self-exiles moved him near-and-far from many people. In the waning years, like many, I kept in touch via friends of friends, as it were. Wilson had a universe of friends, as was shown by Boing Boing's pre-death appeal that snatched Wilson from falling off the cliff of poverty as he was dying. We all loved the guy. But it was the intellectual part of him that really appealed to me.
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Editor's note: I received so many wonderful essays about Robert Anton Wilson, that I've extended RAW Week for a few more days! -- Mark
Robert Anton Wilson departed from this world on January 11, 2007 at 4:50 am. He will be missed enormously by his many loving friends and devoted fans, and his powerful impact upon the world will continue to catalyze the evolution of the human species for many years to come. Bob was one of the most brilliant and conscious people to ever grace this wayward world, and he was always a man ahead of his time. I predict that his books will be far more popular in years to come than they are today. Future generations will cherish his books with the same reverence that scholars today hold for geniuses like James Joyce and Ezra Pound.
Bob had an uncanny ability to lead his readers, unsuspectingly, into a state of mind where they are playfully tricked into "aha" experiences that cause them to question their most basic assumptions. His books are the literary equivalent of a psychedelic experience and they can be every bit as mind-expanding as a couple a good swigs of Amazonian jungle juice. Many people attribute their initial psychological "awakening" to their reading of his psychoactive books -- myself included. It was Bob's book Cosmic Trigger that not only allowed me to understand the concept of "multiple realities," but also inspired me to become a writer when I was a teenager. It was also where I first discovered many of the fascinating individuals who would later become the subjects of my interview books.
I really owe a lot to Bob. After I completed writing my first book at the age of twenty-six, I approached Bob after a lecture that he gave and asked him if he would be willing to write me a promotional blurb for the back cover of the book. He said, "maybe." and didn't really leave me with the impression that he was too eager to do it. I got the feeling that young writers bugged him all the time for back cover blurbs.
But I had my publisher send him a copy of the book anyway. You can imagine my surprise -- and total radiant delight -- when I discovered that Bob had actually written an eleven page introduction for the book (Brainchild, which was published in 1988). Words simply can not describe what a thrilling experience this was for me! In 1989 I moved to Los Angeles, where Bob and Arlen were living at the time, and I became good friends with them. (I dedicated my book Virus to Bob's wife Arlen.)
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RAW quote: in other words, if you think you know what the hell is going on, you're probably full of shit.
"Whenever people are certain they understand our peculiar situation here on this planet, it is because they have accepted a religious Faith or a secular Ideology (Ideologies are the modern form of Faiths) and just stopped thinking."
-- Robert Anton Wilson
"Intelligence is the capacity to receive, decode and transmit information efficiently. Stupidity is blockage of this process at any point. Bigotry, ideologies, etc. block the ability to receive; robotic reality-tunnels block the ability to decode or integrate new signals; censorship blocks transmission."
-- Robert Anton Wilson
Gwendal Uguen has created this terrific mindmap about Discordianism, and has kindly given us permission to run it on Boing Boing. Click it for full-size. Discordianism is a religion founded in the late 20th Century by Greg Hill and Kerry Thornley, and it featured prominently in RAW's books.
Interestingly, Thornley served alongside Lee Harvey Oswald in the armed forces and wrote a novel called The Idle Warriors (before Kennedy was assassinated) and the main character was based on Oswald.
Written and first published (on my radio show) shortly after Bob’s death in 2007.
Robert Anton Wilson is dead, again, and I'm not feeling so good myself. Wilson -- or let's call him 'Bob', as he would have preferred -- was first reported dead on February 22nd, 1994. But the reports of his death turned out to be greatly exaggerated: fittingly, Bob had fallen prey to one of the first great Internet hoaxes. However, his second death, on January 11th, 2007, was all too real. Bob died at home, at 4:50 a.m., from complications due to post-polio syndrome.
Bob was, among other things, one of the last great '60s figures. He was a friend and collaborator of Timothy Leary, William Burroughs, and Buckminster Fuller, had a bit part in the JFK assassination, was a founding pope of Discordianism and the Church of the Sub Genius, coauthored the The Illuminatus! trilogy and, in his autobiography Cosmic Trigger, anticipated the sex, drugs and magick movements that started in the '60s and continue to this day. That he was also an editor at Playboy magazine for several years is a characteristic, but minor, footnote to his colorful life.
Bob was first, last and always a writer and his books, for the most part, remain in print. He wrote prolifically for his cult following and is probably best known for the the Illuminatus! trilogy, the book that made the Illuminati a feature of mass consciousness. But those of us who are, you know, in the cult are probably most affected by the first volume of his autobiography, Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati.
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RAW Week: Interviews with Douglas Rushkoff, RU Sirius, David Jay Brown, Phil Farber, and Antero Alli, by Propaganda Anonymous
Robert Anton Wilson Remembered: Interviews with Douglas Rushkoff, RU Sirius, David Jay Brown, Phil Farber, and Antero Alli, by Propaganda Anonymous.
My favorite memory of Bob, hmmm. Late one night during one of many infamous Discordian Salons that Bob and Arlen hosted for their fellow writers, scientists and misfits, I found my gaze drifting to the window and out to the blackened sky beyond. There I saw a steady light hovering in the distance like some planet or star until, that is, it slowly dropped, made a ninety-degree angle turn and then, sped away at a 45 degrees angle out of view. I recall my mouth opening speechlessly thinking, "I just saw a UFO". At that moment, I looked across the room where I saw Bob looking right back at me, smiling with that Irish twinkle in his eyes. -- Antero Alli
January 11, 2012 marked the fifth anniversary of the passing of Robert Anton Wilson. January 18, 2012 also marks the 79th anniversary of Bob's birth, so this is a very good time to post this interview. For those who do not know who Bob Wilson was, he was an icon for being an iconoclast; as well as the author of over 35 books, including the Illuminatus! trilogy (Co-authored by Robert Shea).
Wilson described himself as a "model agnostic," who utilized "maybe logic." In other words, Bob was of the opinion that the maps we create -- i.e. mathematical formulas, words written down or spoken, pieces of art, etc. -- are more telling of the individual interacting with an experience, than the experience acting upon an individual. Therefore, it made very little sense to him to speak about this universal "law" or that absolute Truth. Bob believed that everyday language should and could integrate the 20th Century scientific discoveries in mathematics and physics, that it would be most wise to drop our attachments to Aristotelian either/or logic, the Euclidean "left/right" dichotomy applied to politics, and all the other medieval philosophic detritus clogging perceptions and causing confusion. Hence, a model agnostic, utilizing maybe logic.
Five years after his death, Wilson's work may now be heading towards the threshold of greater recognition. Wilson often reproduced the quote, "It is dangerous to understand new things too quickly," attributed to the 19th Century American Anarchist Josiah Warren. Perhaps these increasingly dangerous times are calling us to understand all the new things Robert Anton Wilson had to say, and to do so quickly.
I have interviewed five writers who knew both Robert Anton Wilson, the satirical philosopher, and Bob Wilson, the laid back husband and father who managed to find the time to write such mind-blowing and hilarious treatises as Prometheus Rising and Natural Law: or Don't Put a Rubber on Your Willy. Douglas Rushkoff, RU Sirius, David Jay Brown, Phil Farber, and Antero Alli are all accomplished thinkers in their own right, and have been kind enough to reminisce about the man they considered a mentor, teacher, and friend.
Here's an essay about RAW (followed by interview with him) by our friend Mark Dery, which ran in 21C magazine.
Mark Dery: You’re best known as the co-author of the Illuminatus! trilogy, which seemingly interweaves every known conspiracy theory. What do you think makes this moment in history such a breeding ground for paranoid visions of government cover-ups of alien autopsies, black helicopters over America and so forth. Is millennial culture out of control?The Rabbit Warren Report: An Investigation into the Funhouse Logic and Reality Tunnels of novelist Robert Anton Wilson
RAW: Yes. Most people don’t know why the world is changing so fast and in so many weird directions, so they look for somebody to blame; it just depends on their belief systems, whether they’re going to blame the Elders of Zion, the Bavarian Illuminati, the Freemasons, Swiss bankers, or whoever. People just can’t understand that some things are dynamic structural factors of the whole sociology, the whole technological environment in which we live; they want to find a bloc-like entity to explain everything. It’s primitive, but very prevalent. I’m currently working on a book called The Encyclopedia of Conspiracies; it’s an attempt to keep the irony subdued and do a scholarly treatment of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories fascinate me because they’re a good testing ground for non-Aristotelian logic. Most people either accept them in whole or reject them in whole; I try to apply fuzzy logic, asking “How much of this can really be proven and how much of it is just blind assertion?” It’s interesting to look at them without an either/or but simply in terms of how probable various parts of the theory are. Either/or seems so crude and primitive to me, and yet most people are still hung up on it. Korzybski had a major influence on my thinking in this regard.
As "outsider" teenage readers of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's classic Illuminatus! Trilogy in the early 1980s, it seemed to some of my friends at the time (all big Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan and Philip K Dick fans, too) that the novel's authors were trying to communicate something "in code" to their readers, like it was a message about "the conspiracy" that was coming from an underground resistance group. I thought that was bunk and fanciful nonsense, but it goes to show how strong of an effect that book had on kids' imaginations back then.
Illuminatus! was a touchstone for freethinking weirdos of that era, one of the rare books that even attempted to make sense of being born into an ever increasingly surreal world still reeling from things like the JFK/MLK/RFK assassinations, Watergate and the Vietnam war and where Ronald Reagan, a bad actor who once worked with a chimpanzee, had just become President.
It was also an interesting experiment in mass occult initiation -- sold at shopping malls across America -- that satirically tore away the veils of the modern world and (actively, not passively) imprinted a skeptical worldview on the reader. Read those books from cover to cover and there was virtually not a chance in hell that you'd be a normal person ever again. The Illuminatus! trilogy really made quite an impression, let's just say.
Wilson's non-fiction work, Cosmic Trigger, was of even greater interest to me with its cheerful speculations on Timothy Leary's channeled communications from "holy guardian angels," psychedelic drugs and Aleister Crowley. The so-called "23 enigma," I was familiar with already because of The Third Mind by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, but it was explained in greater depth in Cosmic Trigger. It was the first place I'd read of Robert K. Temple's book The Sirius Mystery and it was also the first time I heard the name Terence McKenna. I can't tell you how many weird and wonderful things that book exposed me to.
-- Robert Anton Wilson
RAW (seated) and Rev. Ivan Stang (left)
All SubGeniuses, Dr. Philo Drummond and myself in particular, owe Pope Bob big time, and we've never made any bones about that. He and Shea gave us the broad view of conspiracy theories that is required for any understanding of what we call The Conspiracy. RAW's seemingly countless other books also served to remind us that while we are indeed crazy, the so-called "normal" people are even crazier.
In the late 1970s, I felt compelled to get Pope Bob's attention somehow, mainly so that I would have an excuse to send him our first SubGenius Pamphlet. He had once mentioned an oddball Texas UFO-related cult called The Silver Shirts, so I decided to write him with questions about them. At the end of his informative response, which I was amazed to receive, he told me, "If you get any deeper into UFOs, remember to keep your sense of humor!" His timing was perfect -- I was about to lose my sense of humor about UFOs -- and I took his advice to heart.
Later, in the 1980s, I had the honor of opening for him, or at least introducing him, when he lectured in Austin or Dallas, so I got to meet him in person and even have a few dinners with him. I busted ass writing up a proper introductory rant about this fellow that I regarded almost as a god, and I expanded on it each time. It was a series of lines like, "...he is the James Joyce of swingset instruction manuals... the Lenny Bruce of children's books..." I have been gratified that not only have others swiped that intro to describe other artists, but that Pope Bob himself used parts of it to describe himself.
I 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. Read the rest
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Like, I'm sure, tens of thousands of others, I snapped up the Illuminatus! trilogy when Dell first published it in 1975, reading each volume as it came out, awed by the erudition, the chutzpa, and the sheer lunacy of it. Who were these guys? I reviewed the trilogy in Tales from Texas, a fanzine I edited at the time with my friend Bob Wayne, and talked it up for years. As a result, Austin zine publisher Rick Shannon thought of me when he scored the chance to interview Wilson in April of 1988.
It was a strange evening. Wilson insisted that we conduct the interview over dinner at his hotel. He knew that Rick had virtually no budget, but he insisted that Rick pick up the check and ordered from the top of the menu -- steak and lobster, with wine, if memory serves. He didn't seem fully present to me -- I had the feeling at the time that he wasn't really listening to our questions, that he was talking over us, and delivering set pieces from his repertoire.
But when I sat down with the tape to transcribe it, I had a completely different reaction. The Wilson on the tape seemed compassionate and engaged, prescient and wise. It was like an alternate version of the evening. And when I subsequently approached Wilson to write an original short story for my anti-war anthology, When the Music's Over, he was quite friendly and accommodating.
So, apparently, he was not just covering old ground. He was a real character, definitely one of a kind.
“Belief in the traditional sense, or certitude, or dogma, amounts to the grandiose delusion, 'My current model' -- or grid, or map, or reality-tunnel -- 'contains the whole universe and will never need to be revised.' In terms of the history of science and knowledge in general, this appears absurd and arrogant to me, and I am perpetually astonished that so many people still manage to live with such a medieval attitude.”
― Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger
Some time in 1976, I went into this very hip bookstore in downtown Binghamton, New York where I lived and came across two books whose covers screamed for my attention with their flaming psychedelic designs. I picked one of them up and read the blurb on the back cover. It spoke of psychedelic supermen, conspiracies and a yellow submarine. Reading bits of random pages I knew right then and there that I'd stumbled upon my Rosetta Stone -- an alternative world similar to my own that not only acknowledged the sorts of thoughts and fantasies and cultural and political references that I shared with my "out there" friends, but that did so with language that seemed like it had been plugged into the same sort of excessively electrified everything-at-once brain-sockets that our brains were sometimes plugged into. I fished the rumpled scraps of welfare-provided legal tender out of my pocket and bought both immediately.
Illuminatus! was unusual in its time because, in some ways, there seemed to be a sort of unspoken embargo against any novelist who wanted to be considered intellectually credible writing something this directly tied in to hardcore psychedelic freak culture.
If you were a countercultural person, you probably had read Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest; you read some Vonnegut; you read Heller's Catch 22; maybe some Marge Piercy. If you were into SF, you read some of Philip K. Dick's funny, gloomy, strange loopy multiple reality stories. In 1974, everybody read Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein and Diary of a Drug Fiend by Aleister Crowley. You might have been catching up on Burroughs' cut up trilogy, which sat in my bathroom and seemed conducive to picking up at random, particularly while stoned and crapping. Some of the characters in some of these books were hipsters or alternative in their ways, but you weren't going to get direct references to SDS and Yippies and tantric sex and groovy hashish meditations on the nature of reality in the language of the "kids" of the time. Besides being a dense, brilliant, philosophic, multileveled yarn, Wilson and Shea tapped on my brain and said "Hello, fellow tripper."
After finishing Part One, I headed back to the store and requested Part Two. The owner ordered it, but I wasn't going to sit around waiting and lose the buzz. I dived right into Part Three. One morning, with a good 100 pages or so left to read, I snorted a nice sharp line of speed (I was no speed freak, but on the occasions when I did take some, I loved to read and read and read... and read some more. I read most of Gravity's Rainbow that way) and I spent the day sitting in a local park devouring the rest of the book in its entirety.
It was just getting dark when I finished and started my brief walk home. But as I passed by the first house on the corner upon exiting the park this actual speed freak -- bearded, hair spilling in all directions, rough looking and wild eyed rushed out of his door shaking bodily and glared at me."You've been watching us but we've been watching you. Who are you with?" Now, I was in the Illuminatus! Trilogy. "Kenny Goffman. I know who you are. Who are you with?" I noticed other characters peering out of the house from behind the blinds -- speed freaks having a major paranoid episode, all because I'd sat out in the park right near their house all fucking day no doubt pretending to read a book. A quick sputtering of words including "rip off" and "bust" expressed the strung out man's concern that I was advance man either for some druggies bent on robbery or some narcs that were coming to get them that very day.
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Back in the late '80s, when Gnosis Magazine was just beginning to find its audience, we were lucky enough to have Robert Anton Wilson as one of our contributors. Over the span of six issues he contributed three major articles and one book review. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm cooled soon after that, as he was miffed that I'd written in a review of his Schrödinger's Cat trilogy that it largely read like outtakes from the Illuminatus! Trilogy. It was my honest opinion, but RAW didn't take kindly to such literary criticism.
It wasn't until ten years later, in the fall of 1998, that he agreed to appear in Gnosis again, this time in an interview for our 50th issue. Little did we know then that #50 would be the next-to-last issue of the magazine. An unauthorized, OCR'd version of the interview is online, with all the little glitches that often creep in through OCR. Still, Wilson's voice comes through loud and clear, amused and bemused by the perennial question: what is reality?
[Note: Copies of the back issue of Gnosis #50, in which RAW's interview appeared, are available from Fields Books]
Here's a link to the unauthorized version of the interview.
"More stringent security measures. Universal electronic surveillance. No-knock laws. Stop and frisk laws. Government inspection of first-class mail. Automatic fingerprinting, photographing, blood tests, and urinalysis of any person arrested before he is charged with a crime. A law making it unlawful to resist even unlawful arrest. Laws establishing detention camps for potential subversives. Gun control laws. Restrictions on travel. The assassinations, you see, establish the need for such laws in the public mind. Instead of realizing that there is a conspiracy, conducted by a handful of men, the people reason -- or are manipulated into reasoning -- that the entire population must have its freedom restricted in order to protect the leaders. The people agree that they themselves can't be trusted.”
― Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, The Eye in the Pyramid, 1975
The Summer of 1979; Berkeley California. The back story of how I got here is far and away too convoluted to explain but here I am sitting on a couch in Robert Anton Wilson's living room, dumbfounded by the rapid-fire laughter and brain power of the intelligentsia bouncing off the walls around me. At 26, I was clearly the youngest person in the room, the baby of this illuminati of scientists, authors, mathematicians, magicians, and discordians. The person who stood out beyond all the other lights in the room was Bob’s wife, Arlen, a wizened red-haired, full-bodied woman with a bawdy sense of humor and an astonishing literary intellect. There was something about Arlen that was simultaneously severe and merciful, critically observant yet very kind. Arlen was also clearly Bob's muse.
Bob was in fine form that night reading excerpts from his as of yet unpublished book, The Trick Top Hat, from his Schrödinger's Cat Trilogy. I sat there astonished by the highly compact, information-rich writing style he had developed. It was as if every other word triggered a different chemical in my brain. Bob had this unique way with words that acted on my ear-brain loop just like drugs. I remember thinking to myself, "This is what writing is all about! Writing is all about magick." Certain books can change your life and Bob’s masterpiece, The Cosmic Trigger, changed mine. Though it was not the first book to blur the lines between "reality" and "fantasy", it was the first one to suggest that no such lines existed beyond my beliefs in those lines. It was the first book to challenge my beliefs about beliefs, period. Cosmic Trigger was also where I first discovered Timothy Leary’s Eight Circuit Brain, a stunning revelation that would eventually drive me to write two books of my own, Angel Tech (Original Falcon, 1986) and The Eight-Circuit Brain (Vertical Pool, 2009).
The Bob Wilson I came to know (circa 1979-86) was at the peak of his game. As far as I could tell, this game was initiating his readers -- in books and in person during his many worldwide lectures -- to the most operational Einsteinian language possible and he did this in the most entertaining ways his epic imagination could conjure. I remain bewildered by just how he was able to contextualize quantum physics through the interactions of his fictitious characters and labyrinthian plot designs in the Schrödinger's Cat Trilogy and Masks of the Illuminati. Though Bob was clearly a master of this game, I never saw him treat actual living people as characters, or their interactions as games. He knew the difference and took the time to show others that he knew. Bob was very soulful that way. He seemed to simultaneously belong to two generations; the Caregivers of the World War Two era and the Hedonic Seekers of the Sixties. I suddenly saw Bob as a psychedelic mensch with a genius IQ, which for me was as hilarious as it rang true. Beyond all his extraterrestrial communiqués with the Sirius star system, his Pookaville of invisible rabbits, and his byzantine conspiracy theories, Bob consistently struck me as one of the most genuinely and clinically sane people I have ever met.
“Every fact of science was once damned. Every invention was considered impossible. Every discovery was a nervous shock to some orthodoxy. Every artistic innovation was denounced as fraud and folly. The entire web of culture and ‘progress,’ everything on earth that is man-made and not given to us by nature, is the concrete manifestation of some man’s refusal to bow to Authority. We would own no more, know no more, and be no more than the first apelike hominids if it were not for the rebellious, the recalcitrant, and the intransigent. As Oscar Wilde truly said, ‘Disobedience was man’s Original Virtue.”
― Robert Anton Wilson
I always liked getting letters from Robert Anton Wilson. He enjoyed playing with the fonts on his Mac. In this letter, he thanked me for sending him a copy of my self-published comic book, Toilet Devil (which was the name that Koko the Talking Ape called people she was upset with).
“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.
Wilson and Krassner Display Maturity . . . Maybe
Most likely your daily newspaper didn't acknowledge the death of Robert Anton Wilson on January 11, 2007. He was 74. The prolific author and countercultural icon had been suffering from post-polio syndrome. Caregivers read all of his late wife Arlen's poetry to him at his bedside and e-mailed me that "He was quite cheered up by the time we left. He definitely needed to die. His body was turning on him in ways that would not allow him to rest."
In his final blog entry on January 6, Wilson wrote: "I don't see how to take death seriously. I look forward without dogmatic optimism, but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying." Actually, it was expected that he would die seven months earlier. On June 19, 2006, he sent this haiku (with one syllable missing) to his electronic cabal:
Well what do you know?
Another day has passed
and I'm still not not.
We originally became friends in 1959, when his first published article graced the cover of The Realist. It was titled "The Semantics of God," and he suggested that "The Believer had better face himself and ask squarely: Do I literally believe that 'God' has a penis? If the answer is no, then it seems only logical to drop the ridiculous practice of referring to 'God' as 'he.'" Wilson then began writing a regular column, "Negative Thinking."
In 1964, I ran another front-cover story by him, "Timothy Leary and His Psychological H-Bomb," which began: "The future may decide that the two greatest thinkers of the 20th Century were Albert Einstein, who showed how to create atomic fission in the physical world, and Timothy Leary, who showed how to create atomic fission in the psychological world. The latter discovery may be more important than the former; there are some reasons for thinking that it was made necessary by the former. Leary may have shown how our habits of thought can be changed."