The late Robert Anton Wilson was one of the most enigmatic figures to emerge during the late 20th Century. A deeply intelligent and thoughtful man, he was one of those rare human beings who could discuss esoteric mysticism and quantum physics with equal enthusiasm. His work spans numerous novels, essays, non-fiction books, plays, and informal talks. You’ve probably seen people (like me) sharing memes featuring odd quotes from this enigmatic man and wondering just who this person was and why he was challenging everything you thought you knew. This series is for you.
RAW (as he’s colloquially known) was a rebellious agnostic who spent much of his life trying to help people understand how robotic their behavior is and how easy it is to program ourselves to be happy as it is to be miserable. He loved to demonstrate how many of our cherished beliefs about the world were merely models that we carry around in our heads and have nothing to do with the actual reality we live in.
In this three-part series, I will present the books I (and other RAW fans) consider the foundation of his work, the bare minimum you need to read to gain an understanding of the man and what he was trying to accomplish. For sanity’s sake, I’m limiting this to just his non-fiction works.
The partly autobiographical first book in the Cosmic Trigger series details Wilson’s journey into the depths of aliens, conspiracy theories, shamanism, magick, psychedelic brain-change, and quantum physics. He establishes himself first and foremost a skeptic and a man willing to consider multiple explanations for unexplainable events. Wilson had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a genuinely curious attitude that enabled him to make connections that the hard-core skeptics and true believers alike tended to miss. This is a personal takeaway, but Wilson’s refusal to believe 100% in anything may be the most important attitude anyone can adopt when exploring mysticism. He referred to himself as a “Model Agnostic” after the theory that any method we use to organize our perceptions of the world cannot encompass all of reality itself and instead represents an incomplete model of the whole and the very act of perception changes the model in small ways. The folly of the human mind is that it mistakes these incomplete snapshots for the whole picture. Imagine taking a road trip and assuming that your map is a 100% complete picture and nothing exists if it’s not on the map. That sounds crazy, but it’s how most people behave.
The other important point that Wilson makes over and over (and people tend to miss) is how vital it is to maintain a compassionate, forgiving, and loving attitude. Compassion is important not only for surviving in a human world where selfish, predatory behavior is rewarded more often than not, but also for navigating the often rocky waters of divine revelation. There’s a reason every spiritual path on the planet places its primary focus on love and forgiveness. This was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn, being a natural curmudgeon. I can attest from personal experience that trying to perform magick or run the energy orbits while angry or upset is a great way to screw up your life, including, but not limited to, giving yourself some really spectacular migraines.
Cosmic Trigger also points out the importance of comparing notes with interesting people. Wilson was friends with Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, Kerry Thornley (founder of Discordianism), Grady McMurty (head of the O.T.O.), Dr. Jacques Vallee,etc; his Rolodex was a veritable Who’s Who of esoteric research. Wilson jumped at the chance to gain initiation into every occult lodge and secret society that would have him. He found himself in the interesting position of being equally comfortable celebrating the Catholic Mass as participating in an O.T.O. ritual. He kept his focus on experimenting to see what effects different spiritual paths had, as opposed to jumping in and becoming a true believer.
Cosmic Trigger I is the kind of book you can read over and over and still find new insights. Frankly, I couldn’t make heads or tails of Crowley until I read Wilson’s work. Reading Crowley, Wilson came to the conclusion that the much dreaded Illuminati were more than likely a harmless group of adepts using tantric techniques to open new circuits in the brain. Some of those new circuits enable what appears to be communication from aliens in the Sirius star system, but RAW allows that that interpretation may just be how our mind copes with an experience we currently have no basis for understanding.
Wilson details the highs and lows of his life in this book: from living the good life as an editor at Playboy in New York, to barely scraping by as a freelance writer in San Francisco. The lesson of compassion comes back as he reveals the heart-breaking story of his youngest daughter’s murder at the hands of an angry ruffian. Wilson eventually forgave the killer – not only because the hatred would have slowly poisoned him – but also because that’s what his daughter would have wanted. Despite being only 15, Luna Wilson understood a fundamental truth that forgiveness and love are far more powerful than the angry emotions we typically think of as giving us strength.
In the end, Wilson asks Timothy Leary what to do when the world keeps shoving negativity onto you. The ever-positive Leary simply grinned and informed him that you just come back with all the positive energy you have.
And thus RAW learned the final secret of the Illuminati.