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."
“I regard belief as a form of brain damage.”
― Robert Anton Wilson
Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary of Robert Anton Wilson's death. Bob was a writer of fiction and non-fiction, most notably the Illuminatus! trilogy (co-written with Robert Shea) and the non-fiction memoir Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati. In all, he wrote 35 books, countless articles and essays, and a couple of plays and screenplays.
Bob was an intensely curious, intellectually playful, and profoundly insightful person and his writing and talks influenced my world view more than any other writer. He wrote about conspiracy theories, government nuttiness, the future, Freemasonry, quantum physics, magick, occult and paranormal phenomena, human behavior, mental models, psychedelic drugs, cult psychology, and the nature of reality. He had a knack for giving straightforward explanations of hard-to-grok concepts without stripping them of their power or complexity. Before I read RAW's books, the world was confusing and mysterious. After I read his books, the world became much more confusing and mysterious -- but in a good way! Bob converted me from atheism to agnosticism (which, in his words, means "never regarding any model or map of the universe with total 100% belief or total 100% denial").
One of my favorite things about Wilson was his skepticism towards skeptics. From Wikipedia:
Wilson also criticized scientific types with overly rigid belief systems, equating them with religious fundamentalists in their fanaticism. In a 1988 interview, when asked about his newly-published book The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science, Wilson commented: "I coined the term irrational rationalism because those people claim to be rationalists, but they're governed by such a heavy body of taboos. They're so fearful, and so hostile, and so narrow, and frightened, and uptight and dogmatic... I wrote this book because I got tired satirizing fundamentalist Christianity... I decided to satirize fundamentalist materialism for a change, because the two are equally comical... The materialist fundamentalists are funnier than the Christian fundamentalists, because they think they're rational! ...They're never skeptical about anything except the things they have a prejudice against. None of them ever says anything skeptical about the AMA, or about anything in establishment science or any entrenched dogma. They're only skeptical about new ideas that frighten them. They're actually dogmatically committed to what they were taught when they were in college..."
Philip K. Dick spoke for many RAW readers when he said, "Wilson managed to reverse every mental polarity in me, as if I had been pulled through infinity. I was astonished and delighted." Over the next week, Boing Boing will be posting a series of remembrances, interviews, videos, and other material about Robert Anton Wilson that we hope will astonish and delight you, too.