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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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"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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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.
In this special episode of Gweek we interviewed Christina Wilson, the daughter of Robert Anton Wilson. Before interviewing Christina, I really didn't know much about Robert Anton Wilson's personal life, other than what he shared in his memoir, Cosmic Trigger. It was very interesting to learn more about Bob from his daughter.
Joining me in the interview is Carla Sinclair, who cofounded the print edition of bOING bOING with me back in 1988!
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