[A vintage 1990s-era disinformation® essay-interview with Robert Anton Wilson by our former site editor, Alex Burns]
Author’s note: This interview was originally published in REVelation magazine (#13, Autumn, 1995): 36-40. The many lists of occult and New Age philosophers betrays its authors’ self-conscious youth: beginners often first learn discourse by referencing. I subsequently joined the Temple of Set in June 1996 after further correspondence with Dr. Michael A. Aquino and other Setians. This was also Robert Anton Wilson’s first interview by email. At least, I think it was RAW who replied, but I’m still not sure . . .
The paleolithism of the future (which for us, as mutants, already exists) will be achieved on a grand scale only through a massive technology of the Imagination, and a scientific paradigm which reaches beyond Quantum Mechanics into the realm of Chaos Theory & the hallucinations of Speculative Fiction.
~~ Hakim Bey, Temporary Autonomous Zones.
Some may get through the gate in time.
~~ William Burroughs, Cities of the Red Night.
Robert Anton Wilson has always been an enigma. Surfacing in a Faustian Age, his writings, lectures and multimedia projects have become frontline weapons in the war against the forces of unconsciousness. A trickster-like figure, the self styled ‘RAW’ has unleashed the forces of Rebellion and Curiosity, Knowledge and Power, to many over the past 25 years. As the current social structures that have dominated Western Civilization over the past 2000 years disintegrate and Chaos ensues, RAW is amongst a loose cabal of anarchists, scientists and philosophers, all firing the opening shots in a war that will hope to awaken the latent creative forces in humankind.
His work is a sobering antidote to much of the deliberately irrationalist “New Age” theologies or the restrictive dogmas of modern science. Written during one of the 20th Century’s major culture shifts, his many books are weapons used by the few self-conscious people against the smothering herd-like masses. RAW makes us aware of the current low intensity culture warfare in which the sacred is manufactured and commodified, controlled by intellectual castes, and challenges us to liberate ourselves from this neo-feudalism. Whilst many other authors make millions out of flashy psycho-mystical doubletalk about consciousness, ‘change’, and pop psychology, RAW shows us the true methods of self discovery. The landmark Prometheus Unbound (1983) and the later Quantum Psychology (1992) are two key treatises on self liberation from mental addiction to “ideals”, alienation, cultured infantilism, anger fuelled by anti-parental vengeance and other opressions. These modern grimoires are loaded with techniques to move from being what cyberneticist Norbert Weiner called “a controllable thermostat,” to becoming more human.
Our interview was to be conducted by email, as RAW was working frantically to finish several projects. It was his first experience of an interview by email, and he was genuinely excited to get his grips on the super-information highway; previously being exposed to International Relay Chat (IRC) in 1993. His new book Cosmic Trigger III: My Life After Death was at the printers, and it seemed that RAW was using his ‘trickster’ act to parody the constant queries on various news-groups about his earthly existence. Eagerly awaited by longtime fans, the new book promises to recapture the early Wilson magic that made the original Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati (1977) so special.
My Life After Death represents a synechdoche, if you’ll pardon a classical reference. The book deals with masks, deceptions, art and conspiracy – but, I think, from a new angle I haven’t used before. My death in cyberspace is just the prolog and archetype of many other interfaces of art, illusion and conspiracy I discuss. For instance, Elmyr de Houry, the greatest art forger of our century – did he forge as many masterpieces as he claimed, or did he exaggerate his own criminality? Who can we trust to judge this, when he fooled the experts for three decades at least? The Priory of Sion – a serious conspiracy, a joke, a joke that turned into a conspiracy, or what? The canon of art – another joke or another conspiracy? UMMO, the alleged extraterrestrial correspondence school that has impressed a lot of intelligent people not normally fooled by UFO hoaxes – if UMMO is not extraterrestrial, what band of human conspirators are behind it, and is it is a joke, a conspiracy or something else? All these questions, and many others, relate to the basic topic of the reality of masks and the masks of reality. My death is much less mysterious than many of these other enigmas. . .By the way, some people still insist I am dead, really. Anything I publish is regarded by them as the work of a Virtual Robert Anton Wilson created by the C.I.A. Will you believe me if I deny that?”
It was ironic that the interview was by email, an appropriate place to discuss masks of reality, conspiracy and deception. RAW kept his address secret, posting using a pseudonym. His manipulation of reality extended to the interview process itself. As RAW has been known to comment, “Reality is what you can get away with.”
An early influence on RAW was the work of Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), the inventor of the geodesic dome and a leading researcher into synergetic geometry. In the 1960s “Bucky” challenged the then emerging “pop ecology” movement’s assertion that humanity faced imminent destruction because population growth would outstrip our natural resources. He believed that we use less than 0.05% of the energy available on our planet. For example, since our architectural plans are based around Pythagorean “golden means” and other classical forms, this leads to generic buildings that inefficiently use space and aren’t integrated into the surrounding environment. Fuller’s experience with naval design, which packs the most objects into the smallest, lightest space, lead him to conclude that our land buildings overuse potentially recyclable materials. RAW saw this self imposed limitation was due to conditioned responses and thinking, and that by changing perspective as Fuller had done, new solutions, such as Mike Reynold’s “Earthships,” to previously “unsolvable” problems could occur.
“As Bucky Fuller liked to say, there is no energy shortage on this planet but there is a terrible intelligence shortage,” RAW told me.
RAW’s early activities included membership in the legendary “John Dillinger Died For You Society”, part of the Discordian movement inspired by Greg Hill’s Principia Discordia tract (1968). This was a direct influence on the Illuminatus! trilogy (1975). What began as a satire on weird religions has mutated over the last 25 years into an unusual form of individual liberation by worshipping Eris, Goddess of Chaos. It now has a sizeable net presence and several news-groups, and has spawned a mini publishing industry. RAW recently criticised several games companies who have marketed products exploiting Illuminatus! and the Discordians, and are able to escape paying royalties through legal loop-holes. Further commercialisation beckons . . .
After working as an engineering aide and sales manager, RAW became an Associate Editor of Playboy between 1966-71. During these formative years he encountered revolutionary artists/movements such as James Joyce, Surrealism, Borges, and ‘Pataphysics’ which inspired him. He read the spy novels of Eric Ambler, John Le Carre and Len Deighton (“where you can’t believe anything the characters say”) and skeptical philosophers such as John Hume and Friedrich Nietszche (“who believed reality cannot be known but only guessed”).
Whilst studying these diverse sources which were to influence his later work, Hefner’s empire published several of his works. These included Sex & Drugs (1973), one of the first Western book to explain the ancient Tantric secret that consciousness can be altered by slowing the orgasm during sexual intercourse, often with the help of drugs. Such secrets had been previously available to initiates of secret orders such as the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and had been alluded to by the notorious magician Aleister Crowley, but RAW was the first to explain sex-magick scientifically as a “peak experience.”
Breaking with the Hefner Empire coincided with the authorship of RAW’s most popular work – the Illuminatus! trilogy, co-authored with the sadly recently deceased Robert Shea. This three volume work has been described as “the longest shaggy dog story in literary history” and “a fairy tale for paranoids.” Yet underneath the satire of just about every conspiracy theory and political/religious group in modern society lay an incredible work of hallucinatory Speculative Fiction. As a means of liberation through trash culture, it rivals Philip K. Dick’s VALIS novels, ironically conceived around the same period.
Illuminatus! introduced readers to the enigmatic character Hagbard Celine and Wilson’s theory that all points of view are umwelts or “reality tunnels,” which exclude other truths or information. Amongst the multi-layered characters and shifting plots, RAW alluded to much of the modern Western Magickal Tradition, such as sex magick, links between secret societies and intelligence services (the three main figures who influenced the early Twentieth Century occult revival – Theosophist Helena Blatavsky, Russian mystic George Gurdjieff and Aleister Crowley all worked for the latter), ritual drug use, secret Nazi research under the Ahnernerbe organisation into occult technology, and parodies of the 1960s hippie experience.
Whilst Illuminatus! was campy, its hidden references to philosophies and descriptions of occult knowledge catapulted Wilson and Shea into the ranks of writers like Daniel Defoe, Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, and Mary Shelley – authors who had used allegories to communicate a second, hidden meaning in their literature – such as the perennial search for the elusive Philosopher’s Stone: “pure consciousness” and the Fountain of Youth.
Twenty years later controversy regarding Illuminatus! rages on. Apart from discussing esoteric doctrines, the book conveyed a model of conspiracies and paranoia that rival Eric Hoffer’s examination of fanaticism in The True Believer. Wilson and Shea used the metaphor of the “Order of Illuminati or the Enlightened”, an organisation founded in Bavaria, 1776, by Adam Weishapt, then Professor of Natural and Canon Law at the University of Ingoldstadt. The organisation was similar to Freemasonry, and after gaining over 2000 members and lodges across Europe, was suppressed in 1784 by the Bavarian Government. This group of republican free-thinkers began to decline and Weishapt fled Bavaria in 1785, later dying at Gotha in 1811.
Although most likely a curious historical footnote, the Illuminati were the first modern society to use for political subversion the machinery of the secret organization. RAW was able to link this back to the Knights Templar and Hassan i Sabbah’s shadowy Assassins, who had a stranglehold on religious power from the ninth Century onwards. His dying words reportedly were “Nothing Is Real, Everything Is Permitted.” Conspiracy theorists have linked the Illuminati to the rise of Hitler, the Trilateral Commission, the Club of Rome, International Zionism, Communism, the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the Military-Industrial Complex; all vying for world domination. RAW found it intriguing that such theorists were spread across the entire political spectrum, suggesting that conspiracies are metaphors for this troubled age. Some modern conspiracy theorists even contend that the publication of Illuminatus! sent shockwaves through the N.W.O., the Vatican, Masons and the CIA by revealing the “great hidden secret.”
RAW’s response was: “Well, I’m flattered that some people think Illuminatus! could have shaken up the New World Order, but I find it hard to believe. The conspiratorial details in that book came from (1) long published paranoid literature (2) the satirical imaginations of Shea and myself. Reprinting the old paranoid rants couldn’t have disturbed the Masters of Earth, could it? The only alternative then is that either Shea or I or both of us possess unconscious ESP and the things we think we invent actually come to us by telepathy. A charming idea! I must think about it some more . . .
“Actually, a few things that I thought I invented did turn out to be true, oddly enough. The one I still remember is Beethoven’s link to the original, real, historical Illuminati. I invented that as a parody of right-wing books on the Beatles serving Moscow – but hot damn years later I found, in a bio of Ludwig, that he had several associates in the Illuminati and the Illuminati commissioned his first major work, The Emperor Joseph Cantata. So maybe I do have unconscious ESP. . . .in odd moments. Most of what I think I invented still seems like fiction to me and to all sane people I know.”
A startling revelation for RAW fans are his future projections for the fictional Illuminat series as a whole. “I eventually plan to continue The Historical Illuminati Chronicles. Right now I’m more concerned with the future again. I’m working on Bride of Illuminatus which takes place in 2026, a more congenial place for my mind to roam than the Eighteenth Century. If I live long enough, I hope all my novels will form one continuous saga from 1750, when Bach died and Sigismundo Celine was born, up through the democratic and industrial revolutions, on to Darwin and Nineteenth Century rationalism, then linking in the outbreak of Relativity (Einstein, Joyce, Crowley) in Masks of the Illuminati, jumping forward to the psycehdelic age in Illuminatus and quantum/computer revolutions in Schroedinger’s Cat and then finishing up with my hopes for the future in Bride.”
He hopes that readers will gain a new perspective by being able to read the series sequentially. “After the first Illuminatus! trilogy with Shea, I noticed that some of the negative responses indicated an ignorance, not just of modern science, but of the Enlightenment philosophy of the 18th Century. Many people who can read are still living, mentally, in the dark ages. So thats when I began to think of a series of interconnected novels that would take such readers through all the revolutions of the past two centuries and prepare them for the 21st Century. The reason Sigismundo Celine, in The Earth Will Shake, is born in Naples is because the Inquisition still existed there in 1750. Taking him out of that fanatic Catholic world into the world of French rationalism begins the process of taking the readers from the Age of Aquinas to the Age of Space.”
A disturbing trend, which supports the need for many people to be exposed to RAW’s grand vision, is that monotheistic State and Religious powers have cracked down on many cults, organisations and individuals who challenge consensus reality – such as the ritual child abuse scares of the late 1980s, the trial by the Federal Drug Agency of Wilhelm Reich (discussed by RAW in a 1988 play titled Wilhelm Reich In Hell), parapsychologists, the Black Panthers, and religious groups such as the Branch Davidians and Wiccans. Narrow fundamentalist thinking and a witch-hunt inquisitorial atmosphere by the media in the 1990s is the result of such rampant, unchecked paranoia. Complicating the matter even further is the existence of elite secret societies since early Paleolithic agricultural based civilizations formed, from the early priest-shamans and Socratic philosophers of Egypt and Greece, through the Vatican, Knights Templar and Freemasons to modern espionage agencies, G-7, Club of Rome, the OTO, Temple of Set, hidden monasteries in Tibet and Iran, and the Manhatten Project.
This inquisitorial atmosphere embraced the U.S. during our interview after the Oklahoma bombing incident in May 1995, with domestic law enforcement agencies cracking down on right wing militia groups and controversy surrounding the powerful National Rifle Association gun lobby. From a unique vantage point, RAW (who once described his politics as anarcho-technocrat and his religion as transcendental atheist/experimental mystic) surveyed the resulting socio-political upheaval and restriction of civil liberties.
“Considering the political capital that President Clinton could make out of using the bombing as an excuse to lead a witch-hunt and smear all his political enemies – and/or his political “critics” – I think he has shown remarkable restraint. I can’t explain it. At times I suspect that he is a man of integrity despite being in politics. (Is that the first sign of senility appearing in my aging brain?) I hate to sound naive, but I think Clinton will try to avoid a witch-hunt and just set the police on the nuts who did the bombing. Of course, by the time the anti-terrorism bill gets out of Congress, it will undoubtedly have some nasty and dangerous clauses in it. I still don’t feel quite ready to run for Canada. I just increased my monthly contribution to the American Civil Liberties Union, to help them fight any excesses that may get into the anti-terrorism bill, but I am not ready to flee or hide yet.”
RAW’s interest in conspiracies in disguise and conspiracies within conspiracies evolved into his “guerilla ontology” phase of work during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He collaborated with Timothy Leary on several books, including Neuropolitique (1977) and Game of Life (1979). His analysis of our reality tunnels synthesised many aspects of human knowledge including the General Semantics of Count Alfred Korzybski (“the map isn’t the territory, the menu isn’t the meal”), Zen poetry, references to Beat writers like William Burroughs, and other cultural icons.
RAW suggests as Gurdjieff and Burroughs did, that man lives in a kind of hypnotised state, hardly ‘existing’ at all and changing from hour to hour, a victim of events that pull him along. Occasionally he receives flashes of intensity and freedom, but mostly lives a routine, habit filled existence, occupied by trivialities. Burroughs suggests a kind of language-virus (as Ludwig Wittgenstein did), leading RAW to examine political/religious fanaticism, mind-control experiments, psychiatric manipulation, propoganda, irrational science, and other traps that create non existant problems to be exploited by politicians, priests, the media and other authoritarian figures. With Philip K Dick, Timothy Leary, John Cunningham Lilly and others, he became interested in Information Theory, and the idea that people’s nervous systems have been wired inefficiently into a “low level fear” configuration, reinforced by benign deceptions such as media rapid fire information; illogical socio-religious concepts; psychotherapy that creates the need for dependency on institutions; and knee jerk authoritarianism. These keep people from realising their true creative powers and keeps the sleeplike masses in constant confusion, to be manipulated and controlled by an elite few who restrict the flow of pure information signals by distorting them to others. (RAW’s Situation Normal All Fucked Up Law – “Communication is possible only between equals.”)
Echoing the study of fascism in our family, political and social structures by Wilhelm Reich, RAW sought to exalt the individual over the State, and to make people aware of the subtle, often hidden influences that control and distort their lives. As Antonio Gramsci stated, “We are taught to desire our own psychological imprisonment.” RAW’s correlation of many seemingly separate fields of experimentation and study often yielded surprisingly coherent models and new concepts.
Taking the next step from rational study into action, RAW began to fuse scientific techniques with those of ceremonial magick (“the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in comformity with Will,” according to Aleister Crowley) at the same time as Timothy Leary was conducting LSD research on William Burroughs, Allan Ginsberg and others, as well as later developing his 8 circuit model of human consciousness.
Whilst Leary was lecturing across America on the Politics of Ecstasy and later escaping prison with the help of the Weatherman radicals, RAW tried most of the major methods of brain exploration, bringing the new paradigms and manuals into the Space Age; the next stage from Leary’s experiments at Harvard using the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead).
When asked what techniques were most beneficial, RAW replied, “I really don’t know what techniques have helped me most. I mean, really, you do 6 months of A and 6 months of B and you feel you’ve learned something organic. Do you attribute it to A or B or both? I’ve tried dozens of systems and think I learned a little from each, but I don’t like picking favorites. Well . . . a few favorites . . . the Acoustic Brain Research tapes; General Semantics; yoga meditation; cannabis; scientific method . . . but some things that didn’t do much for me may do wondersor others. I never liked isolation tanks, but I don’t doubt that they have opened doors and new brain paths for many of their users.
“None of the “smart” drinks have impressed me much so far – but I absolutely 100% support that line of research. I have been more impressed with the brain-training tapes produced by Acoustic Brain Research.But I am keen, as always, on any new technique that accelerates or expands awareness.
“Most advanced shamanistic techniques such as Tibetan Tantra or Crowley’s work in the West work by alternating faith and skepticism until you get beyond the ordinary limits of both,” he told Science Fiction Review in May 1976. “With such systems one learns how arbitrary are the reality maps that can be coded into laryngeal grunts by homids or visualised by a mammalian nervous system. . .Most people are trapped in one static reality-map imprinted on their neurons when they were children.”
It seems extraordinary that two pioneering dissident philosophers would meet and combine their talents to create their most important work, but RAW preferred not to dwell on it. “That’s like Crowley’s question to candidates who came to him for mystical wisdom. “Why,” he would ask them, “of all the teachers on this planet did you come to me? And why, of all the days of your life, on this particular day?” You just can’t answer such a thing in words. It’s a Zen koan. The whole universe conspired to send each student to Crowley on a particualr day, and the whole universe conspired (I mean that in a literal or ironic sense) to have Dr. Leary and myself thinking the same things at the same time and it seemed natural for us to collaborate on a few parts of a few books.”
The Wilson/Leary 8 circuit model of the brain is mentioned at the end of RAW’s non-fiction post-script to Illuminatus! called Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati (1977), and by Leary in Info-Psychology (1987). This acclaimed work, which ranks with Prometheus Rising (a practical manual dealing with the 8 circuit model and how to overcome the limits of your reality tunnels) as RAW’s most important, is a mindblowing journey through a landscape of Futurists, Immortalists, RAW’s occult experiments, secret societies and synchronicities.
The first Cosmic Trigger covered the dark side of the “New Age” movement, such as links between Aleister Crowley, the Jet Propulsion Laboratories at Pasadena (which launched the Apollo space missions), and Scientologist L.Ron Hubbard. But mainly, these books were nothing less than a manifesto for self controlled evolution, which all true religious teachings point to: an effort to exalt the gift of isolate awareness, reason, and the unnatural aspect of mankind’s consciousness. Neo-Nietzschean in flavour, they presented the reader with the modern Quest for the Holy Grail – the realisation of the unique (polarised) self (or ubermensch).
Extending John Cunningham Lilly’s idea that the mind can be modelled by computers (thus linking with his work on informations theories and guerilla ontology), Wilson/Leary postulated 4 basic circuits that program our behaviour: (1) the Oral Bio-Survival Circuit; (2) the Anal Emotional-Territorial Circuit; (3) the Time-Binding Semantic Circuit; and (4) the “Moral” Socio-Sexual Circuit. Wilson acknowledged that these circuits are antique and conservative, existing in everybody and readily manipulated. When reprogrammed, they allow control of the five senses, which if properly trained allow the psyche to experience the world directly, but most often act as blockages. However his most inspiring work deals with the next four circuits – relatively new in terms of our evolution, which Wilson hopes will foreshadow our future stages of development. These four new circuits are: (5) the Holistic Neuro-somatic Circuit; (6) the Collective Neurogenetic Circuit; (7) the Metaprogramming Circuit and (8) the Non-Local Quantum Circuit.
These circuits are triggered by certain psychoactive drugs and other “peak experiences”, leading to deeper appreciation of aesthetics, noetic apprehension and the eventual unravelling of “the language of the gods” – contained in Egyptian hieroglyphs and the DNA Double Helix. In one stroke Wilson and Leary had linked the post-Einstein Quantum Physics revolution with modern religious, occult, and psychological techniques. This is one reason why despite the model being over twenty years old, Wilson sheepishly wrote, “I’m embarassed to say that I still like the 8 circuit model of the brain better than any other. This embarasses me because I said frequently over 20 years ago that it would be replaced by a better model within 10 years. Maybe it has been made obsolete already and I just don’t know about it . . . but in my area of knowledge, the 8 circuit model still fits more facts than any other model.”
The Wilson/Leary model extends on the Sufi/Gurdjieffian analogy of the “body as a transformational apparatus for energy,” linking with physicist Jack Sarfatti’s theory that higher levels of consciousness are a special form of energy within the universe, which only a few in each generation will discover and control.
“One of the major revisions in my current seminars (I haven’t published this yet) changes the names of the polarity of the first circuit. Instead of calling the extremes neophilia and neophobia, I now call them infophilia and infophobia, which I consider more general. I also have started (not always consistently) replacing 8 “circuits” with 8 “systems” because the circuit metaphor seems a little too electronic and I think humans are more electro-colloidal systems than the electronic models of human “mind” that we find in computers. In other words, like all protoplasm we can be modelled by computers but we remain more chemically complex and otherwise more complex than mere circuitry describes. I’m not trying to drag in some New Age “spirituality” here. I just mean that General Systems Theory seems more . . . well, more general than computer theory.
“I got the electro-colloidal idea from Charles M. Childs in his Individuality in Organisms. He says all protoplasm exists in electro-colloidal suspension between sol and gel and dies if it moves too far in either direction. (He says a lot of other interesting things, too . . .) So I tend to see humans as dynamic living systems in that kind of suspension between sol and gel. That means they can only be understood holistically or organically, not in a linear or mechanistic way. Hence, I prefer Systems to Circuits as models.”
This revision poses some important implications for Artificial Intelligence work, and whether computers will ever acheive consciousness. Wilson’s revision suggests that they may acheive some form – such as awareness of death, or intelligence (seen in the example of viruses approaching the complexity of low level bacterial forms), but never the “self-consciousness” that makes mankind unique on Earth.
Leary linked this model to his SMILE paradigm (Space Migration, Intelligence Intensification and Life Extension) which envisions a future free of restrictive Judeo-Christian morality and the limits imposed on us by a certain death. His monograph 22 Alternatives to Involuntary Death was an important contribution to the LE field, which involves a diverse range of technology and techniques, such as yoga, virtual reality, AI, cryonics, flotation tanks and certain elements of magick Commenting on the present trends, RAW observed that, “The people I know in anti-aging research all expect some major breakthrough soon, but I would not hazard a guess about in what area of research it will occur or when.
“I think anti-AIDS research will most likely give us the key to what causes the accelerated breakdown of the immune system in that disease, and that will probably but give us the key to what causes the slower breakdown that leads to aging and death for the rest of us who don’t even have AIDS. It will be a wonderful, and kindly, joke on the Fundamentalists if the greatest scientific gift to Gay men becomes a wonderful gift to the Fundamentalists, too.”
In the mid-1980s after having his work published by a range of major and independent publishers, RAW became involved with New Falcon Publications, a loose cabal of similarly minded authors, spearheaded by Dr. Christopher Hyatt, who wrote the seminal Undoing Yourself with Energized Meditation (1989). New Falcon reprinted his earlier work, along with tracts by Leary, Crowley and other proponents of brain change. Currently New Falcon is one of the leading publishers of such modern grimoires, differing from other New Age publishers in jettisoning pompous acedmia or hazy cosmic foo foo.
“Believe it or not, I don’t understand how New Falcon came about or even why it does much of what it does,” RAW admitted. “All I know is that Dr. Hyatt was a Jungian therapist, decided Jung didn’t cover everything and became a Jungian-Reichian therapist, and then for some reason became a publisher on top of that. He’s also the Outer Head of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. I think his major concern is to publish books that he considers important, especially if they contain the kind of ideas that the Establishment publishers in New York won’t touch with a ten-foot pole.”
Unfortunately despite much pioneering work, RAW does have his critics. Dr. Michael A. Aquino, co-founder of the Temple of Set observed in a review of the Illuminatus! trilogy that his later non fiction work “lacked the unself-conscious style of Illuminatus!, and fell right into the category of publications so successfully lampooned by it. Truth, however, remains stranger than fiction, and within the pages of Illuminatus! you will actually find many gems of occult wisdom.”
Robin Robertson of Psychological Perspectives points out that “beneath the skeptic, I find he is drawn to the magical side of life . . . he is not the model agnostic he holds up as ideal.” Such criticisms are hidden under a deluge of appreciative comments. RAW was criticised harshly by members of the science community after the publication of The New Fundamentalists in 1986, but he has managed to avoid the kind of criticisms about integrity levelled at his friend Timothy Leary.
More glaring are comments by Gnosis magazine contributor Jay Cornell in a review of Cosmic Trigger II: Down To Earth that Wilson’s later work suffered from “predictable ’80s pop leftism or nostalgic sentimentalism about the ’60s” and that “his trickster act needs updating.”
Wilson responded to this harsh indictment of his work by stating, “I never respond to that kind of criticism. First, nobody can be objective about his own work, and you make a fool of yourself if you pretend that you can. Second, if perchance my work has anything of lasting value, it will go on, as it has gone on for two decades, getting reprinted continually, and Cornell can’t stop it. On the other hand, if my work has no real lasting value, it will eventually all go out of print, and I can’t persuade people they ought to buy it to make me happy.”
In a 1976 Science Fiction Review interview he felt that his books should “leave the reader with the feeling that the universe is capable of doing something shocking within the next 5 minutes. Life without certainty can be exhilirating, liberating, a great adventure. I hope to create a real sense of awe, which is all the religion we need, and all we can honestly expect in this day and age.”
On the topic of literary criticism itself, RAW revealed, “I’m probably too sensitive, but so are a lot of artists. Richard Burton gave up reading all reviews, because he went into such dark suicidal depressions whenever he saw a bad one. Hart Crane and Ross Lockeridge actually did kill themselves because of critics. I don’t get that wounded, but I do feel pain. Why hide this? Critics know that most artists are sensitive. They would get no fun out of their vicious work if they didn’t know it hurts. Sadists don’t attack inanimate objects. They want victims who feel pain.”
Despite Cornell’s criticisms, RAW is still as relevant in the 1990s as ever. A recent essay in his Trajectories newsletter criticised the defence of the military-industrial complex by ‘futurist’ Alvin Toffler, author of the classic Future Shock (1971), now spokesperson for the Progress & Freedom Association. With the election of Republican Senator Newt Gingrich as House Speaker, Toffler has been elevated to guru-like status, serving as an adviser to various government departments, and being regularly quoted by Gingrich. Toffler’s closest rival, author John Megatrends Naisbitt, and right wing sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle, have also pushed for rises in military/high-tech industry/NASA spending. Pournelle was an avid supporter of the Star Wars or SDI (Strategic Defence Initiative) in the early 1980s, giving a vision that space is a new frontier like the Wild West once was, only bigger. This rush to put mankind into space as a priority echoes Leary’s admirable Space Migration work on the surface, but is more like the visions of pulp writer Robert Heinlein, who lobbied the Eisenhower Administration in the 1950s for similar industry subsidies, believing space to be the final utopia.
RAW is far more pragmatic. “The I-squared (Intelligence Intensification) part of Leary’s SMILE program has always seemed to me more important than the SM (space migration) and LE (Life Extension.) Without more brains, we won’t get more space or more time.
“I would tend to see this emerging culture as another sign of the fundamentalist materialism I’ve criticised in the past. Certainly, Futurism or Future Studies seem to have split into two camps. First, the Utopians like Barbara Marx Hubbard and the people carrying on Bucky Fuller’s work (they have about four different groups, advancing different parts of Bucky’s scenario.) Then, on the other side, the ones who call themselves the nuts-and-bolts realists. I regard them as “crackpot realists” in the sense in which the sociologist C. Wright Mills used that term. They define realism by the norms of the ruling class and then work within those parameters. I think all work within those ruling class parameters is doomed and pointless. The information revolution is changing everything so totally that we have to think outside the traditional Master/Serf paradigm, so the Utopians, who did get out of that grid, make more sense to me. I agree with Riane Eisler – the Dominator model is collapsing and a Partnership model will replace it. So, the Tofflers and their glorification of war seem anti-Futurist to me. War is the ultimate schoolyard bully form of Dominator ethos, unfortunately magnified into mass murder. This paradigm will destroy humanity unless we transform it into a Partnership/Negotiation paradigm.”
Hakim Bey, the author of Temporary Autonomous Zones and an ally of Wilson’s argues that such control of new technology by corporations will only continue the current neo-feudalism pervading our society. In TAZ he writes “certain doctrines of “Futurology” remain problematic. For example, even if we accept the liberatory potential of such new technologies as TV, computers, robotics, Space exploration, etc., we still see a gap between potentiality & actualization. The banalization of TV, the yuppification of computers & the militarization of Space suggest that these technologies in themselves provide no “determined” guarantee of their liberatory use.”
The issue is one of control and has occured before – LSD was used by the CIA’s MK-Ultra program as a mind control tool but also by Leary and many others to expand their consciousness and as a research tool into the human bio-computer. As Wilson says in a famous quote: “Whoever controls the definition has the ultimate control.” Since the State won’t wither away or be overthrown, Hakim Bey and others hope to render it obsolete by decentralist electronic technology and programmes of self liberation. “There is no humanity without techne,” Bey reminds us, “but there is no techne worth more than my humanity.” Despite a false optimism and egalitarianism, its clear that social stratification is more prevalent than before, and that technology will play a deciding role in what future society finally occurs.
Discussing the potentiality/actualisation gap, RAW suggests that, “actually, there are gaps in every part of the social-evolution process. For instance, new mathematical theories turn into new technology in about two years in computer science, but it takes fifty years in architecture. Fuller did a lot of calculation of these time-lags and most of his predictions about the 1980s, made in the 1920s, have come true.”
As we head towards the Omega Point and information spirals out of control, emerging subcultures such as the Cyberpunks, or sudden renaissances, such as the rise of dark goths transmute social groups into mutated forms. As an observer of this emergence, RAW surprisingly refrained from criticising others who fail to look beyond the surface trappings. “I don’t like to bum-rap other writers. They have to take enough crap from the envious little shits who write reviews; they don’t need my abuse, too. So, without saying anything about what I don’t like, the living writers whose work especially interests me at present include Douglas Adams, William Burroughs, who still seems topical no matter how old he gets, Tom Robbins, who writes the best sentences of anybody working in English today, George V. Higgins, who sees humans with a wonderful irony and writes the most realistic dialogue I’ve ever seen (even better than Joyce or Hemingway), and a lot of scientist-philosophers who seem to me to be giving us wonderful new ideas and perceptions: Rupert Shelldrake, Ralph Abraham, Terrence McKenna, Barbara Marx Hubbard, the fuzzy logic people, Riane Eisler, Nick Herbert, Nichlas Negroponte, Marilyn Ferguson, Peter Rusell, Fred Alan Wolfe . . . and of course, Tim Leary, who is ill, but may have a few unpublished books that might still blow all our minds.”
Regarding the subcultures themselves and projection of current trends, RAW suggests that, “.there remain a lot of reactionary forces, on all continents. But I still think that the basic cluster of science, democracy and Welfare Capitalism (or Free Market Socialism – call it what you will) seem stronger than all the other reality-tunnels and will increasingly dominate the next century . . . even more than they have dominated the last two centuries.”
In this projected world where fuzzy logic and shifting alliances are “good”, RAW’s unique brand of cultural antinomianism will continue to play an important role in shattering mainstream idols and agendas.
1997 Update: Three Responses:
When the Australian magazine REVelation published my profile of futurist author Robert Anton Wilson, it prompted some revealing comments from several people quoted in the original printed article.
The self styled ‘RAW’ has always been a target for controversy. His exploration of subjects that contemporary society finds dangerous or even sometimes frightening has often prompted angry responses from critics. The more mindless responses to RAW’s published work have been by Andrea Antonoff, who labelled him as “stupid”; Lou Rollins comment that RAW is “a male feminist . . .a simpering pussy whipped wimp . . .” and most scathingly by CSICOP’s (Committee for Scientific Investigation Into Paranormal) Robert Sheaffer, who labelled the views expressed in The New Inquisition (New Falcon Press: 1986) as “malicious, misguided fanaticism.”
The REVelation article quoted three major criticisms of Wilson’s work which were deemed by its author to be relevant. It’s true that those quoted were largely sympathetic to his pioneering work: Robin Robertson of Psychological Perspectives states in the same review that her initial quote was pulled from that “Wilson’s a very funny man . . . readers with open minds will like his books.”
I subsequently received responses from two other critics quoted. Jay Cornell is a columnist for the respected magazine Gnosis who wrote a review of RAW’s Cosmic Trigger II: Down To Earth (New Falcon Publications: 1992). Whilst largely positive, the review contained significant criticisms of the limits of RAW’s “reality tunnel” concept (“all views are reality tunnels that exclude other information and keep us all far stupider than we should be”) that RAW seemed to take a serious dislike to.
“I was surprised that he remembered that review and that it still bothered him so much. As a whole, it is far less negative than your piece implies. My overall opinion as expressed there might be summarized as: ‘Here’s a good and interesting writer and one I’ve always liked, but his latest book is a very mixed bag.’ I find it hard to see how any reader of that review would call it “vicious”, “more glaring” than some other “harsh” criticism he got at another time, or the writing of a “sadist.” Hell, I consider myself a fan! I certainly have no wish to “stop” him or his work in any way. Though I admit my libertarian soul wishes he would change his sometimes reflexive leftism/anti-conservatism.
“I was disappointed with only part of Cosmic Trigger II. I tried very hard to explain just what I liked about Wilson’s work in general and C.T. II in particular, and exactly what I didn’t like in that particular book. I realized at the time that he might take umbrage, but I felt that his own principles were forgotten when he wrote about certain subjects (Catholics, the C.I.A., and conservatives were the three main ones, I believe). It seemed especially glaring to me because in the autobiographical part of the book (the part I liked, and said so!) there were events which clearly formed to his negative feelings about those subjects. It seemed like he was blind to conditioning in himself that he would easily see in someone else. (Not an uncommon fault.)
“The thought even crossed my mind to write more of a puff piece, just in order to promote the work of someone I liked, but hey, I have to call ’em as I see ’em. Little did I know that this would plague him for years! My goodness, I had and have no wish to be cruel to him or anyone. I’m very sorry for any pain I caused him. I wish he would read that review again, and maybe give it to a friend to read so as to get another perspective about this “vicious” review. I don’t like thinking that a favorite author of mine hates me because he thinks I hate him.”
I also recieved a response from Dr. Michael A. Aquino, co-founder, and for many years High Priest, of the Temple of Set. Since 1975 the Setian approach to metaphysics and “conscious evolution of the individual self”\ (examined in RAW’s later work) has been amongst the most complex and precise in the occult community. It has investigated and studied many of the roots of RAW’s work, such as the ancient Egyptian Priesthood of Set, the magick of Aleister Crowley, Quantum Physics, and the psychological commentaries of Gurdjieff/Ouspensky alongside modern rituals/”brain change” techniques. As senior spokes-person for the Temple of Set, Dr. Aquino is uniquely qualified to comment on RAW’s work:
“Re-reading my comments about Wilson, I would stand by them today, but I do not mean that unkindly. I thought Illuminatus! was a marvelous work – just the sort of enema the “occult subculture” [and those without it who crab about it] needed so badly at the time. I continue to recommend it today to those who show signs of needing its dash of cold water.
“Similarly I greatly enjoyed Wilson’s Schroedinger’s Cat trilogy. All of these are books that I admire without any qualification whatever. As noted in the comments of mine which you quoted, I was a little disappointed in Cosmic Trigger and its aftermath. It seemed to me that Wilson was a bit dazzled by Timothy Leary, to the point of losing his own “arms-length grip on reality” where occultism & fringe-science are concerned. I think that works like Illuminatus! and Schroedinger’s Cat were possible because Wilson (& Shea) actually had their heads well-grounded in common sense, hence could lampoon their topics very accurately without being at all condescending about it. In the Cosmic Trigger series, I get the feeling that Wilson has lost his intellectual tether and is floating on up there into the stratosphere with Dr. Tim – not that this is an unpleasant pastime, as Leary is certainly a charming vision-spinner.”
The views expressed above represent the writer and not necessarily those of The Disinformation Company Ltd.