Last week was raw week over at Boing Boing. .Marking the fifth anniversary of Robert Anton Wilson’s transition to a different pattern of energy and information and who’s 4-dimensional form existed in space time January 18, 1932 – January 11, 2007.
I’d originally intended to write a post about Wilson’s influence on comic books but instead I ended up writing this. Will hopefully get to that other one next week. So this is just some thoughts on Wilson, whose work had a profound impact on my philosophical and psycho-spiritual development and who still sometimes (not sure if I should mention this so I will) appears to me as as a kind of gigantic and benign floating head whenever my more unusual states of consciousness seem like they might get too much. Which, by the way, is awesome and I don’t care if its not really him; everyone gets the Robert Anton Wilson they deserve. So, an intellectual influence then and, in some strange way that only writers who you love but have never met can be, a friend.
It’s a common thing to say a book or a writer changed your life. It’s considerably less common to mean it. But in the case of Robert Anton Wilson and I it’s absolutely true. I was first introduced to Wilson via The Illuminatus Trilogy he co-wrote with Bob Shea. Maybe it was everything I’d read up to that point and maybe it was my other recreational activities at the time but Illuminatus spoke to me like no book I’d ever read, like Wilson and Shea had plunged their hands into my brain, plucked out all my perrenial obsessions and constructed a narrative (no, not quite a narrative, something less linear, more hypnotic, more mind-altering) around them. Anarchy. Magick. Conspiracies. Weird sex rituals. Aliens. Reality not being remotely what we are told (or sold). (I knew it!) It was all there. If before I thought that the comics of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore were the height of head-fuckery, the Illuminatus trilogy was like striking mind-melting gold. Main-lining counter-cultural ideas, secret histories and forbidden knowledge. I had a new god to add to my literary pantheon.
Illuminatus was fun, but it was happening upon Prometheus Rising, which like Illuminatus before it just seemed to be waiting for me at exactly the time I was ready for it, that pushed me over the edge a touc more. Primed for mental re-printing by the earlier book, Prometheus Rising totally re-wired my nervous system. All books alter your perception of the world of course, but Prometheus Rising rewired my brain (and I let it) in strange new ways. Ways, in fact, that there was no going back from. Like taking psychedelics, reading Wilson meant laying your cards on the table. The trip would change you, and once you returned there was no going back. This, I assure you, was a good thing.
Prometheus Rising began life as Wilson’s PhD thesis The Evolution of NeuroSociological Circuits: A Contribution to the Sociobiology of Consciousness. In it, Wilson elaborates on Timothy Leary’s 8-circuit model of conciousness (see here, but its a post for another day, trust me). The book sprang form Wilson’s decision to
rewrite the manuscript in more commercial form. The first change consisted of removing all the footnotes (about two of them per sentence) which gave the original a truly academic stink but would annoy the average reader. Then I expressed myself a little more bluntly (and perhaps snidely) in many places, adding much to the humor and nothing to the good taste.
Prometheus Rising taught me much about models and metaphors and in some respects my academic work is really just an attempt to couch Wilson’s ideas in terms of and through thinkers that are a touch more academically respectable. The good stuff of course, is found at the source, stripped of ‘academic stick’ and ‘good taste’. Prometheus Rising might raise eyebrows in the ivory tower but it remains persuasively and brilliant written, wide-ranging and enyclopedic in its sources and references. If I thought my own writing (or my comedy) could ever de-condition the reader of the illusions of consensus reality as effectively as Wilson’s work did for me I would be a happy man indeed. Certainly my long-lost and uncompleted graphic novel the E.O.D., which would morph into an attempted book about comics and magic and societal development called the Geek will Inherit the Earth, until finally, bizarrely, mutating into a PhD, was heavily influenced by Wilson’s rhizomatic style, his way of finding examples for his argument in disaparate realms, pilfering from film, literature, philosophy, science and esotericism to build his conceptual models. My paper (shameless plug) “The Silver Age Superhero as psychedelic Shaman“, which touches on Leary and Wilson, is the closest in tone and content as i dare come to Wilson before I would get shunted out of the academy (or is it..?). As it is, my advice would be just go and read Wilson.
Anyway. Then one day, miraculously, synchronistically, Cosmic Trigger appeared in the same Gloucester branch of Waterstones that I had stumbled across Prometheus Rising. Surely this book was only here for me? Cosmic trigger is, hands down, my favourite book in the world. It is wise and funny. it fucks with your head and it breaks your heart. It takes you on a mad dance through the worlds of conspiracy theories, psychedelic drugs, the history of western occultism, working backwards from Timothy Leary through Gurdjieff and Crowley, Blavatsky, the Rosicrucians, Sufism, Taoism, hermeticisim, alchemy, shamanism. It takes in UFOs and quantum physics, Carl Jung and Buckminster Fuller. Cosmic Trigger is both guidebook and a memoir of Wilson life during a period of ‘self-induced brain change’ through the use of magickal rituals, yoga, drugs, and meditation among other methods. Covering similar ground to the other two books, Cosmic Trigger marries it with an autobiographical strand that makes the concepts being discussed both clearer and more emphatically real (a slippery term in this context to be sure). Not abstract ideas but a life lived. Interspersed with the occult history and mystical experiences and synchroncities is a tale of family life, albeit a bohemian family who host parties frequented by physicists, artists, writers, psychedelic proselytizers, UFOlogists and witches. Which sounds like the best parties ever. All of which makes it all the more brain-melting when the net results of his period of willed brain change results in Wilson experiencing what may or may not be an extraterrestrial contact (wierdly similar to Philip K Dick’s Valis experience which happened independently) with intelligences from Sirius beaming information into his brain.
But then comes a simultaneous punch in the gut and moment of transcendent grace. Wilson’s teenage daughter Luna is murdered. Wilson writes about the pain and heartbreak of this event in a deeply moving way. but what struck me most when I first read it, and still seems deeply profound to me today, is Wilson’s reaction. he writes of the death of his daugter, “Luna Wilson, who tried to paint the clear light and was the kindest child I have ever known”, that:
I knew the answer to those who would ask me, as they did in later months, “Do you still oppose capital punishment?” The reply is of course that I oppose it more vehemently than ever. I have made a choice for life and against death and my whole psychology has changed in the process. if is still remember that all realities are neurological constructs and realtive to the observer, i am nonetheless committed now to one reality above all alternatives: the reality of Jesus and Buddha, in which reverence for life is te supreme imperative.
Wilson’s work, I think, reveals brilliantly, with wit and elan and intelligence, how the realisation that we are nothing but badly programmed robots; the realisation that nothing is true and everything is permitted; the awakening to the idea that that the ‘self’, and all the social constructs used to bolster it-like nationality, patriotism, religion, philosophical preference, ideology- are all just flukes of programming, no more consciously chosen than we choose for our lungs to breath; and that becoming conscious of these things is not something to be feared, not a loss, and much less an opening into a world of horror, pain and lovelessness. Rather the opposite in fact.
Talking of the Sioux Indian who killed his daughter, Wilson understands that his alcoholic, delusional, suicidal mind would have believed (and belief is the key) that it wa stsriking some sort of blow for all those Native Americans who had suffered at the hands of white settlers. That history, as James Joyce said, was a nightmare from which we are seeking to awaken. We may bemoan the horrors and petty cruelties of the world but Wilson quotes Gurdjieff in this regard: “fairness? decemcy? How can you expect fairness and decency on a planet of sleeping people?”
Fairness, decency, forgiveness. These are higher moralities. They have nothing to do with notions of what is good for society or what is morally acceptable. What is good for society and the only thing that is morally acceptable is for the human individual to express themselves and explore their inner selves as freely and fully as possible. Almost everything we were told was good for us is bad for us. And almost everything we were told was bad for us is good for us. Robert Anton Wilson proves that you can dive headlong into psychedelics, occultism, satanism, secret societies, sex magick, alien contact experiences and anarchist theory and still come out the other side of that Chapel Perilous a happier, healthier, kinder, smarter, sexier human being.
Time to wake up. And keep the cosmic trigger happy.
Night night everyone.