A Critical Look at Robert Anton Wilson


In previous posts I’ve mentioned how huge a fan I am of the late hippie writer Robert Anton Wilson, but in re-reading a several of his books a few years back due to an “alien contact encounter” (new book out super cheap, you know the drill) I also remembered just how much I disagreed with him on a lot of fairly fundamental levels. In finally reading through the entire Cosmic Trigger trilogy (I’d up to this point only read book one), something becomes increasingly obvious: Robert Anton Wilson failed as a mystic. So, anyone of the more shamanic or occult persuasion should have a lot to take issue with in his writings and philosophy in general, yet I’ve very rarely read any critical analysis of his work whatsoever, I suppose probably because people just like what he’s about and dig the dude’s vibe in general. Or, there aren’t actually that many fans of his who have gotten significantly out there enough. Hard to tell.

I mean, it’s not super tough to diagnose what went wrong with R.A.W. as far as spiritual progress goes. To advance in this capacity, you have to shut off the part of your mind that’s been imprinted with the idea that western atheistic scientism is the only means of understanding reality. You have to realize that you’re immersed in the midst of a primitive time stream where everything we think we understand about the world is going to be erased within another hundred years, then that shit will seem stupid and primitive in another fifty. More to the point, you have to accept that the objective literal thinking promulgated by modern academia is but one half of a Yin/Yang duality and to a large extent is preventing you from understanding things like visions and dreams more than it’s helping you. Of course shamans refer to achieving this understanding as “submission to a higher order of knowing” and truthfully, it’s what Robert Anton Wilson never managed to do.

If I was to wager as to why he struggled in his acceptance of the “higher orders”, I’d say it had to do with his engineering background more than anything else. He obviously had a far more technical imprinting than someone like say myself or Grant Morrison, which is part of what made him such a great researcher and writer. Again, the issue being that these sort of aptitudes can actually become a hindrance in understanding the subjective and metaphorical nature of things like visionary dreams. The thing is, this shit ain’t easy and I don’t really hold it against R.A.W. that he never managed to accomplish this feat but as a whole, the Cosmic Trigger series is odd. It’s about a guy who makes contact with his Holy Guardian Angel through sex magick, then completely bails on the process yet never gives an entirely detailed explanation as to why he bailed exactly. Book I: all about the link between psychedelic sex magick and “alien contact”. Books II and II: very little regarding either one of those topics. Granted, both books II and III are worth your time, but it’s more than a bit anti-climactic when taken together. As I mentioned in the last piece, because of his willingness to default to conformist atheism, I think the guy was dead wrong about just as many things as he was right about. Not a bad idea for a listicle is it? This time in reverse descending order because for some reason it makes more sense that way. Things I think Robert Anton Wilson was dead wrong about from most glaring to least glaring. Go.

1. The Concept of Chapel Perilous is Total Bullshit

This is the elephant in the room. According to Bob, when someone engages in a spiritual quest toward the unknown realms of shamanic or occult visionary spirit evolution (have a new book out about this sort of thing, only $5 to download), they enter a state called “chapel perilous” and come out on the other side either an agnostic or stone cold paranoid. Errr, no. There is a third alternative and that’s that you end up a shaman or a sorcerer or magickian or whatever you want to call it. Turning agnostic is just what happened to Bob and truthfully, it’s really bad advice, not to mention quite demonstrably untrue. Did Grant Morrison turn out agnostic or raving mad paranoid? Nope. How about Alan Moore? What about say, his beloved Aleister Crowley? How about, ummm, any Peruvian Ayahuasca shaman? Again, it’s just bad advice, a dumb concept, and quite obviously wrong. More than anything I truly don’t like the negativity of the language. Perilous? I’d be the first one to point out that you can seriously fuck up your life with magick, but I’d also have to acknowledge that not engaging in this sort of thing might be equally as dangerous, if not even moreso. With visionary spirituality you’re at least trying to take control of the process. It’s why I named my musical/film project Chapel Supremesus as a countermeasure. I’ve been in this state for over a decade straight now, and you know what? My life has done nothing but improve. Hell, magick is what ultimately pulled me out of my unconscious death spiral in the first place.

Here’s where I agree with Bob though, if you pay close attention while reading through the back half of the Cosmic Trigger series, you realize that he chalks up his entire Sirius contact encounter period to taking too much acid. That’s really all he has to offer as to why he gave up on this phase of his life and writing. Too much acid. So when he’s talking about chapel perilous, that’s ultimately what he’s talking about, going way too far with the recreational usage of psychedelics. That shit is fucking perilous. I’ve joked a million times that if I ever partied like they did back in the 60’s, I would have wound up in a mental institution a long time ago. Graham Hancock actually bought the story of why I stopped taking acid and mushrooms very often in my late 20’s for his compilation book The Divine Spark (which you should totally check out). Hell, even Terrence McKenna got bitch slapped by the mushroom gods and didn’t take them again for the remaining decade plus of his life, which I just found out recently. Ken Kesey fried his brain and lost his ability to write. At least I’m still on good terms with those transdimensional weirdoes.

Are you detecting a pattern here? I’ve often said that the failure of psychedelic culture is now and has always been a failure to take shamanism seriously. Until we can see the spirit model of consciousness as equally valid as the materialist model of reality, we’re never gonna understand the true potentialities of psychedelic drugs. Here’s the thing, I honestly think you can probably get away with a buttload of recreational trips before these things will turn on you. But eventually they will. You’re supposed to be learning from these experiences. If you’re using them primarily and increasingly to escape without moving on to a more focused and consistent spiritual practice, I’d predict a falling out. That’s what Wilson’s chapel perilous is truly about, the problem being that he never frames it this way specifically, which brings me to my next topic.

2. Agnosticism

Booooo. It’s sort of hard to blame anyone for failing in the pursuit of sorcery, but to then pass off this failure as profound wisdom is where the Bob Wilson plot gets a bit iffy. Again, not that this even takes away a whole ton from my fandom, but it’s simultaneously terrible advice for anyone diving into shamanic waters and somebody has to point that out. Listen, I get it. Nobody truly understands anything and all reality is subjective to a large extent. These are mystical concepts. The mystic reminds us that as humans we’ll never truly comprehend the vast ocean of cosmic weirdness percolating just outside the veils of cognition. Hell, you can’t even truly understand the supposedly obvious stuff when you get right down to brass tacks. But late era Bob gets into this really wishy washy “believe in nothing, belief is the death of intelligence” schtick, and I agree with him in a way. On the other hand, I think when he got up to watch TV, he “believed” that when he turned on a certain channel at a certain time, Law & Order would be on. You know what I mean? When he booked a flight to a speaking gig, he “believed” that if he got on the plane as scheduled, he’d end up at his destination.

So there’s only so far this “believe in nothing” stuff can really go before it gets beyond impractical. And let’s face it, when people talk about agnosticism, they’re talking about being agnostic to matters of the spirit. When you identify yourself an agnostic, what you’re basically saying is: I want to have my cake and eat it too. It’s sort of like living when most people thought the sun revolved around the earth and being all, “maybe the sun revolves around the earth, maybe the earth revolves around the sun. No one will ever know.” The problem is they will. It’s nice to think the supreme spiritual ignorance we’ve been enmeshed in for the last several thousand years will be unending, but drug laws are loosening. Psychedelic, dream, and near death research is finally starting to happen, and maybe more importantly, we’re just now starting to tinker with our DNA. We’re not going to be lost in this maze forever.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The other day someone on Facebook (like my page for transmissionary psi intel), posted a quote from Cosmic Trigger I where Bob talks about how he finds the concept of reincarnation a bit too convenient or new age wishful thinking for his rational self to accept. The problem with that take I suppose would be the work Dr. Ian Stevenson conducted at the University of Virginia. He collected close to 3,000 examples of kids who remembered eerily accurate details of past lives they’d had that ended up completely checking out, often in distant places, before they were born. They even often remembered details of precisely how they died which ended up being totally on point. His research of course gets even stranger and more bizarre the deeper you dig, and the funny thing is, I’ve essentially never seen a real materialist “skeptic” counter argument to any of it. Carl Sagan even admitted there was something there, but we just pretend it never happened because nearly all of us behave as if this couldn’t possibly be true. So, it wasn’t really the “rational” part of Bob that couldn’t push itself to believe in reincarnation. It was the conformist part. Social psychology has taught us that people are alarmingly conformist by a fairly objective measure, and we just love to ignore that research as well.

And that’s what you’re doing with agnosticism, defaulting to conformity no matter how objectively irrational the position you’re holding might actually be when confronted with new information. Like I said, you’re wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Hey, I take all these enormously unpopular fringe ideas into consideration, but I also see the counter, more conformist position as equally plausible because I don’t want to seem crazy. If pressed, I could go either way depending on the company. Problem is, one side’s totally off. As it turns out, the earth was round all along. You ate the cake, it ain’t around to look at anymore. Sorry mate.

Thad McKraken

Thad McKraken

Thad McKraken is a psychedelic writer, musician, visual artist, filmmaker, Occultist, and pug enthusiast based out of Seattle. He is the author of the books The Galactic Dialogue: Occult Initiations and Transmissions From Outside of Time, both of which can be picked up on Amazon super cheap.
Thad McKraken