THE GNOSIS INTERVIEW WITH
ROBERT ANTON WILSON
BY RICHARD SMOLEY AND JAY KINNEY
A conversation with Robert Anton Wilson is like talking to an adult after spending years cooped up with children. Not that Wilson is dour or stern; he isn't. But after spending time with this consummate challenger of what "everybody knows," it's hard to avoid thinking that most of what passes for accepted truth amounts to little more than schoolyard prattling.
Longtime GNOSIS readers will remember Wilson for his articles on the ultimate secret society (in #6) and Jung and synchronicity (#10). Others may remember him for his Illuminatus! trilogy, coauthored with Robert Shea in the 1970s, in which he took the reader for a stroll down just about every corridor of conspiracy, real and imagined, and left us wondering whether there just might not be something in it all.
Wilson's latest work is Everything Is under Control (Harper-Collins), an engaging stroll into his favorite beat - the world of conspiracies, cults, and coverups. In this brief encyclopedia of un-conventional wisdom, Wilson explores everything from the secret "Mason word" to the murder(?) of Marilyn Monroe to UMMO. UMMO is supposedly an extraterrestrial race that has been sending letters on advanced scientific topics to selected specialists since the 1960s, all signed with the glyph )+(. Although a psychologist named Jose Luis Jordan Pena has confessed to hoaxing this material, Wilson isn't so sure he's telling the truth, since according to some experts, the letters actually do reveal knowledge surpassing human science; moreover a spaceship bearing the UMMO glyph apparently touched down in a large Russian city, Other topics covered in this book include the Sirius mystery, Yale's Skull and Bones society, and the Zapruder film of the John F. Kennedy assassination.
We went down to visit Wilson in his sunny apartment on the central California coast in September 1998. There we spied, among other artifacts, a copy of Aleister Crowley's Magick: Book 4 on his endtable.
Richard Smoley: Why is conspiracy a hot topic these days?
Robert Anton Wilson: The major reason is that we're undergoing such tremendous social change. Everything people take for granted is changing rapidly. This is because information flow is increasing faster than at any other time in history. I have some favorite figures I like to quote in that connection from the French statistician Georges Anderla, who says information doubled between the time of Christ and Leonardo; that's 1500 years. It doubled again between Leonardo and the steam engine, 250 years; doubled between the steam engine and quantum theory, 150 years; doubled between 1900 and 1950, that's 50 years. And he concluded his study in the '70s; it had doubled between '68 and '73, that was five years. Jacques Vallee recently calculated that it's doubling every eighteen months.
Jay Kinney: Is that information or data?
Wilson: Information in the mathematical sense. Things that can be converted into binary units - and almost everything can be; that's why you can see the Mona Lisa on your computer. That's why compact discs sound so good. So as information doubles, society changes rapidly. After Leonardo, after that doubling, we had the first successful Protestant revolution in Germany, followed seventeen years later by the second successful Protestant revolution in England. After 1750, we had the American Revolution, the French Revolution, several Latin American revolutions, and the Industrial Revolution. So as information doubles faster and faster, there's more and more dramatic and chaotic social change.
I heard Theodore Gordon, a mathematician, talking about information and fractals at the World Future Society in '89. He said that every time he shows a corporation a fractal in any process that they're trying to control, they say, "Who did it?" They can't believe it's intrinsic to the in-formation process itself; they look for some-body to blame.
That's why we have so many conspiracy theories. People are saying, "Who are we going to blame for everything changing?"
Smoley: Of all the conspiracies you've looked at over the years, which ones are you most inclined to believe in?
Wilson: I put them on a scale from zero to ten. With the ones I put above five, I'm more inclined to give then credit than to doubt theta. The ones I put above seven, that's pretty close to belief, except I try to shy away from belief, I think it's a dangerous state co get into,
Bucky Fuller has a theory of the Great Pirates - the sociopathic types who have always been the dominant force in history. The Great Pirates in modern times make up a group the abbreviates "MMAO": Machiavelli, Mafia, atoms, and oil. It's the international banks, the Mafia, and the atomic and oil cartels. He doesn't claim they work together, but they more or less make a singular force. But he also says that they're so engaged in conflicts with one another that they're steering Spaceship Earth in 50 different directions, which is why we're going around and we're not getting anywhere. I tend to find that fairly credible. A simplification of it is Carl Oglesby's theory of the Yankee and Cowboy War - the war between Western and old Eastern wealth. Those seem fairly credible to me.
The ones I find most incredible are the ones based on recovered memories therapy - the Greys and the monsters from outer space that are engaged in sexual molestation of people.
Kinney: How about Satanic abuse?
Wilson: That's based on the same sort of evidence as the Greys. It's the recovered memory therapy, which, for all I know, might be true, but I know you can get people to remember anything you want if you hypnotize them often enough. So the evidence doesn't seem very strong to me. I have noticed that with the more extraterrestrial conspiracy theories, you're essentially getting back to the Middle Ages. You’ve got incubi and succubi again. You've got sex demons that attack people at night. And you've got these Zarathustrian cosmic wars between good and evil, like Scientology or the Church of the SubGenius --- one of which I believe is a parody, I'm not sure which.
Smoley: This has all taken the field for imaginative play out of the purely physical realm into alternate realities. The astral plane is populated by angels and devils and incubi and succubi or extraterrestrials.
Wilson: Well, if you identify the astral plane more or less with Jung's collective unconscious, then all these beings exist on that level. The question is, how much of the other kind of reality are you going to attribute to them?
Smoley: Of all the paranormal experiences I've heard about, I can think of maybe two or three people who have told me about something that might sound like an encounter with a ghost. But I seem to know dozens who say, "I was walking down the street and there was a silver disk over-head." I don't know what they saw, I've never seen anything like that myself, but just from my own anecdotal experience, UFO reports seem to be the most common type of paranormal phenomenon.
Wilson: That doesn't surprise me. I see two or three UFOs a week, but that's be-cause I'm not quick to identify things. I not only see UFOs, I see UNFOs - unidentified non-flying objects. I see all sorts of things I can't identify. As for the ones in the sky, I've seen things that I haven't the foggiest idea of what they are. They might be spaceships. Then again, they could be airplanes with the sun blinking off them in a strange way.
I remember how once at the Irish science fiction society, after a lecture some-body asked me whether I believed in UFOs. And not yet having devised my ten-point scale between belief and unbelief, I said,"Yes." So he launched into a long rap about how they were all heat inversions.] said, “We agree. We both believe in UFOs. You think you know what they are, but I don't know."
Kinney: Do you think that the interest in conspiracies now, with things like "The X-Files," could be in part attributed to the Illuminatus! trilogy?
Wilson: I often wonder about that. The problem with that is that it would be tempting to think I'm responsible for all this. They all owe me money in that case; they've all been ripping me off and they should pay me. But I suspect a tendency to self-flattery in that theory.
I think Illuminatus! was ahead of its time. And now is the time, for some reason; people are inclined to think that way. Although llluminatus! is still not in the mainstream, because it doesn't accept any conspiracy theory literally; it toys with them, it plays with them, it uses them to open the reader's mind to alternative possibilities, but it doesn't sell anything.
My major difference with conspiracy theorists - and I'm a bit of a conspiracy theorist myself, though a skeptical one - is that most of them have never heard the word "maybe" Everything is the truth: "My conspiracy theory is true. Anybody else is a CIA disinformation agent trying to confuse people." They've never heard of the word "maybe," whereas "maybe" is a very central word in my vocabulary.
Smoley: What do you make of crop circles?
Wilson: I find crop circles endlessly entertaining, because every time a new group of hoaxers confesses, another bunch of circles appears that couldn't have been done by their method. I don't mind being perplexed. I think both people who are quick to believe in occult theories and people who are quick to deny them - like CSICOP - can't stand being perplexed; they want to have an answer right away. But I find most of the universe so damn perplexing that a little bit of perplexity doesn't bother me. The whole damn thing is perplexing,
Kinney: Have you had personal experiences over the years that have convinced you of deeper dimensions or subtle planes?
Wilson: I would rather say that I have had experiences that have convinced me that the commonsense, everyday map of reality is inadequate. We need other maps. I'm not particularly wedded to any particular other map. As you can tell from my novels and from my nonfiction too, I alternate between maps. If you're going to talk politics, you want a political snap. If you're going to talk geology, you want a geological map. If you want to talk weather, you want a meteorological map. A meteorological map changes every hour or so; the political map changes after every war; the geological map changes over eons, but no map lasts forever. That's a metaphor I adopted from Alfred Korzybski, founder of general semantics.
Smoley: Of the metaphysical maps, which are the ones that you've found most persistently appealing?
Wilson: I suppose the Buddhist map which tells you don't believe in any of your maps. Or don't believe in them too fervently. To be absolutely honest, although I don't believe in anything too fervently, I do tend to believe in some kind of mind behind the cosmos. I don't like calling it God, because God to most people means a grouchy old man sitting on a cloud, counting all the kids who are masturbating so he can put them in hell later on. That's so ridiculous that I can't use the word at all. But I don't believe that everything happened by accident. I just can't believe that - to use a metaphor adapted from Arthur Koestler - if you keep throwing junk over a wall for seven million years, you'll get a 747 jet in full working order. I can't believe that; I think there's intelligence somewhere in evolution.
Smoley: There's also that notion of the secret meta-real brotherhood that's supposedly working to enlighten humanity over the eons. Where do you put that on your scale of belief?
Wilson: It depends on what year you ask me. Back in the late 1970s, that was very high in my belief system. Since then I've retreated from that position quite a bit, al-though I haven't totally abandoned it. Every now and then I have strange experiences which make me wonder. I'm quite satisfed to be left wondering rather than having an absolute certitude on such matters.
Kinney: Why have you retreated from that position?
Wilson: Because I found more reasons to believe that it was a wishful projection of my own Fantasies. But some synchronicities look like they're orchestrated. I don't dismiss it out of hand; I put it somewhere around Five right now on my zero-to-ten scale.
Kinney: In terms of updating old beliefs, I was curious how you stand these days on SMI2LE, since you were a big exponent of that.
Wilson: SMILE: space migration, intelligence increase, life extension. It was a slogan coined by Timothy Leary; one of Tim's great talents was coining slogans.
I still have an ardent desire to see humanity migrate off the planet. For a variety of reasons: one, I think we're exhausting the resources of a single planet; and two, I think every time we move to a new environment, our intelligence increases. And I think that freedom is always found on the expanding perimerer. The further out you are from the centralized control system, the more freedom you have, And four, both the Russian and the American astronauts and cosmonauts - about 85% of them - have had consciousness-altering experiences of the type I regard as positive. Neurosomatic turn-ons, experiences of beauty and ecstasy, which I think is good for us. If 85% of the human race migrates off the planet, it means that 85% of the human race will mutate to a higher level of perception and consciousness.
I like life extension because the older I get, the more I realize how little I know. I'd like to live long enough to figure out a few things anyway. And intelligence in-crease is to me the number one priority on the planet. I've become more and more convinced that the major problem on this planet is stupidity, which not only exists as a thing in itself, but it's supported and encouraged and financed. There are dozens of entrenched interests that want to pro-mote stupidity.
However, I'm more interested in the Internet than in SMI2LE right now., because the Internet is happening right now, and it's happening fast and I'm a part of it - a small part, but I'm part of it - whereas SMI2LE I now see as about a generation away. lt's not as close as it seemed as when I was wildly enthusiastic about it and ready to blast off in the next spaceship.
Kinney: It seemed to me - maybe this was mainly in the '70s - that you were a better spreader of Leary's ideas than he was.
Wilson: He said that too, which was one of the most flattering things I ever heard. I don't know, I guess I reached a different audience than he did, that's all. One of my favorite Timothy Leary stories was, a month after his death, I got an e-mail from him. It said, "Dear Robert, How are you doing? I'm doing fine over here, but it's not what I expected. Too crowded. Love, Timothy" (laughter).
Kinney: Was there ever any explanation for that?
Wilson: Oh,Tim knew a lot about computers; I assume he had it set to go off at a certain time after his death.
Kinney: This interview is going to appear in our issue on Good and Evil. How you would define evil?
Wilson: I don't like the terms "good" and "evil" at all. They invoke too much subjectivity disguised as objectivity. I would rather talk about kindness and cruelty. They're a little more clear-cut and specific about what you're talking about. You get shady areas, you get some ambiguity, but by and large, when you say you're in favor of kindness and against cruelty, you're setting up a standard. When you say you're for good and against evil, you're like the clergyman in the story about Cal Coolidge. After church somebody asked him, “What was the sermon on, Cal?" "He was against sin." It's easy to be against sin and evil; what the hell do you mean? I'm against cruelty. That's more clear.
Kinney: Do you think there's any source of malevolence or cruelty larger than humanity itself- say, built into the universe as a force or a seductive tendency?
Wilson: I don't believe in that; I find that very dubious, although it's produced some damn good books - Moby Dick, and a lot of Faulkner. I think it's a great idea for literature, but I don't personally think there's any evil force seducing people. I think people do a good enough job seducing them-selves. Besides, I'm more inclined to look at it in the Buddhist way: it's more ignorance than malignancy. As a matter of fact, Ezra Pound got around to that at the end of his life after raving and ranting about conspiracies for so many years; toward the end of the Cantos he keeps repeating"Nicht Basheit - Drurmrheit": "not evil - stupidity." Which was his ultimate judgment on what was wrong.
And the trouble with fighting evil is, to quote Pound again, "I lost my center fighting the world." If it could happen to Ezra Pound, it could happen to anyone. Don't get too concerned about fighting evil; you lose your own center that way. Hey, I sound like a philosopher!
Kinney: It does seem as if one of the biggest sources of evil in the world is trying to do good too vociferously.
Wilson: Or trying to force people to be-come good. I once said, "An honest politician is a national calamity. "The crooks we can tolerate; we have to; we're used to them. An honest politician can turn the whole world upside down in his attempts to reform it. He could wreck everything.
Smoley: I'd certainly prefer a crook to an ideologue under most circumstances.
Wilson: Exactly. John Adams defined "ideology" as "the science of idiotism." That's what I think every time I hear someone spouting the standard libertarian line, the standard Marxist line, or any other standard line: "My God! Where have their brains gone? They've turned into parrots."
Kinney: Though you were identified with libertarianism pretty strongly.
Wilson: I think of myself as a kind of libertarian, But I know I've got as many critics in the libertarian movement as I have admirers. They don't like my relativism, my tolerance - "tolerance" is a self-praising word; my indifferentism, my Buddhism - they want me to fight evil, like they're fighting evil. But I prefer libertarianism to any form of authoritarianism.
Smoley: People who are blowing up Federal buildings are supposedly asserting freedom. But you wonder if
that's helping anything. It's also terrifying to think what would hap-pen if these people were actually able to dictate how society is run.
Wilson: I was a Trotskyist when I was seventeen. And the thing that drove me out of the Trotskyist movement was one of those doctrinaire meetings where we were
all being corrected for our ideological errors, I didn't get particularly bad criticism, except for liking Carl Jung and James Joyce, but something occurred to me: if these people ever took over the country, it'd be so much worse a mess than it is now. That's when I began to develop the pragmatic distrust of ideologies that I've kept for the rest of my life.
Smoley: Do you think American society is more ideological than it was 50 years ago?
Wilson: I'm astounded by the extent to which people are governed by almost meaningless slogans that are repeated over and over again. They don't seem to have much content at all, but you just keep hearing them over and over again, like "the liberal media." You break down what's in most of the media, and how the hell it could possibly be considered liberal is beyond my comprehension.
And yet I know what they're getting at, the people who talk that way. What they're talking about is that the media tends to be liberal on one issue and one issue only, and that's sexual morality. And to these people that's the most important issue. So therefore the defining characteristic of the media is liberalism. Never mind the fact that the media is conservative on almost all economic and political ideas. Clinton is a godsend to these people; he's the proof that liberals are sexual outlaws.
By and large, ruling-class males, how-ever they got into the ruling class, all tend to behave pretty much the same. Clinton's is the typical behavior of the alpha male in any mammal pack. I think it's hilarious that Ken Starr has taken five years and $50 mil-lion to uncover the fact that Clinton acts just like any other ruling-class male.
Smoley: To backtrack a little to Timothy Leary, could you perhaps tell us a little about your take on the possibilities of psychedelics?
Wilson: In the first place, my major take is the laws against them were imbecilic. I
think the benefits in the early research were so promising that the research should have been allowed to continue.
I can see why one doesn't want fifteen-year-olds playing around with LSD, but even there I don't think law is the best way to handle it. I think education is the best way - except when you say that, you sound like an idiot when you see what they put on as drug education. I mean serious drug education that tells the truth, But of course that's the major thing that most teachers have been fired for in the history of this country. If they're ever caught attempting to tell the truth about anything, they're immediately called before the school board and usually they're fired. That’s what Scopes stood trial for: telling the truth about biology.
As for the dangers of psychedelics, I think Timothy understood those better than anybody. He said drugs depend on the set and the setting. And you look at the worst cases; the people who survived the CIAs MK ULTRA, in which they were given LSD and other powerful drugs or electroshock therapy or locked in rooms with their own voices played back to them over and over when they were on drugs. This produced horrible results because the set and the setting were calculated to produce horrible results. Even if they were just given drugs without any warning, that's enough to make you paranoid. Some of them suffered from paranoia for decades after.
And if you're just taking them with-out any knowledge of what you're doing, that's dangerous too. But I feel pretty sure that given by a sympathetic and intelligent psychotherapist in a supportive environment - and I mean very intelligent as well as very sympathetic -- they can be tremendously beneficial. I still believe that. The evidence supports it, actually. There's very few cases of people being damaged in therapy by LSD. There's lots of cases of people being tremendously helped, including Cary Grant, who went around raving and ranting about how much good LSD did for him. He never went to jail for that. I think he learned to moderate
his enthusiasm after a decade or so.
Kinney: But you've also been an advocate of recreational drug use over the years.
Wilson: I don't think I ever advocated recreational drug use. I advocated the right of people CO decide for themselves if they're going to do
that. I would say if you want recreational drug use, stick to marijuana, that's the most recreational drug around. If you take any psychedelic, you're going to get into some-thing deeper than recreation, and you may not be prepared for it. And I definitely don't trust cocaine, I don't like people who use cocaine getting into my environment. If I find out anybody is using cocaine, I try to keep them away. I don't trust people on cocaine. Same thing with speed.
Again this is a practical approach based on information; it's not a metaphysical approach: "Drugs are bad." People who say "drugs are bad" never stop to think how many drugs the doctor gives them. If you go to a doctor and he says, "This is the galloping conniption fits; it'll go away in seven days," you feel let down. If he says, "This is the galloping conniption fits; take this for seven days, and it'll go away," you feel he's done his job. Everyone in this culture depends on drugs, and then they tell us we're having a war on drugs.
You've got to take one drug at a time, and say what you think about that drug. I don't think there's any drug that's good for everybody, even penicillin; there are people who are allergic to it.
Smoley:Are there any spiritual teachers these days that you admire particularly?
Wilson: I'm more inclined to people who don't use the label of religion or mysticism for what they're doing. I'm a great admirer of Richard Bandler of neurolinguistic programming. I was a great admirer of Tim Leary, and I still am. Ram Dass does a religious bit sometimes; I like him. Oh hell, I've met a few Zen masters I liked. I liked Baker Roshi. But I'm sort of suspicious of religious leaders. As a friend of mine once said - he was a Druid; I know a lot of Pagans of various schools - "A perfect master is ideal, but only if you want to be a perfect slave." I'm very suspicious of perfect masters.
Kinney: Were you raised in a religious household?
Wilson: Yes and no. I was raised by two lapsed Catholics. I don't know why they lapsed, but since they only had two children, I suspect the Church's position on contraception had something to do with their lapse. They were pretty skeptical about the Church, but they sent me to a Catholic school on the grounds that children should be taught some kind of morality. That makes sense to me in retrospect. I wish they had sent me to someplace else to learn some kind of morality rather than to a bunch of crazy nuns. My wife Arlen said the other night every ex-Catholic she knows hates the Church. And I said, "I don't think that's true. But they all hate nuns." Because those are the ones that hit you with the yardsticks when you're too small to fight back.
Smoley: I couldn't help noticing the Crowley book on your endtable. What do you think of Crowley?
Wilson: He fascinates inc. because by my standards he rates as a genius of some sort. He was an incredibly brilliant person, with talents in so many fields, and I've never been able to figure him out. He always leaves me feeling somewhat puzzled. I ad-mire him a lot; I've learned a lot from him; I enjoy his sense of humor, but people who consider him a Satanist and a monster don't seem totally deluded to me. There was something strange about Aleister Crowley that leaves me perpetually puzzled. And yet I'd rather read a book by Crowley than just about any other New Age writer. Because he's always a lot of' fun, and he always gives use new ideas and new perspectives. Even a book I've read before, I reread, and my God, I didn't notice that before! He's like an exploding volcano of perceptions and insights you don't get anywhere else.
Smoley: That sense of the monstrous and Satanic may have meant that he was willing to look at things that most other people close the door on.
Wilson: To get back to Timothy Leary again, Timothy said, "When you realize how many reality tunnels there are, you want to open the door to every one and see what's in there, but if you open the door and there's nobody in there but cannibals and Nazis, you close the door right away. You don't go in to check it out." Crowley seems to have opened a awful lot of doors; I don't know how many he walked into. I think he had enough sense to stay out of the worst ones.
Smoley: What's striking to me about people like Crowley and Jung and Gurdjieff is that their ideas are incredibly powerful and alive, but then they settle down into a comfortable slumber in the minds of followers.
Wilson: Maybe that's why I like Crowley so much. I find it impossible to slumber with Crowley. I'm always arguing with him whenever I'm thinking about him: "Yes, Meister, but . . . " Sometimes he wins the argument, though.
Smoley: Speaking of books, what are you trying to do with your new book Everything Is Under Control?
Wilson: One of my major ideas was writing a book that would be like surfing the Web. Every entry has links following from it, and if you follow the links from item A and, say, you come to "Nazi hell creatures," it'll seem utterly absurd. If you follow links from someplace else and come to "Nazi hell creatures," you'll suddenly think, "Oh my God, maybe there's something in this." And I like the way it crisscrosses so that every item, however innocuous it seems at first sight, will turn either into a joke or into something that scares the pants off you. I like playing head games with my-self and my readers.
It's also an interactive book. You can follow the links right out of the book onto the Web. And then you can go on for years following up these leads and steadily growing crazier, if you're inclined to believe all this stuff. Or laughing your head off, if you're inclined that way. Or just being perplexed like use, if you're inclined that way. Some of it I'm quite convinced ranks as so absurd that I can't take it seriously for a moment. But there's a great deal of it in the area where I feel it sounds pretty silly, but Jesus, maybe if I investigate it further, who knows?
Smoley: One thing I find interesting in that book is the real or imagined UMMO hoax, which I don't think is well known over here.
Wilson: It's better known in Europe. The fascinating thing about UMMO was that somebody confessed recently that he did the whole thing by himself, and yet there are some things he couldn't have done. The original UMMO sightings in Madrid would require the technology of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to do.
There was a sighting in Voronezh, a large industrial city in Russia. There were hundreds of people who saw what seemed to be a spaceship landing, what seemed to be eight-foot-tall extraterrestrials getting out and walking around, and there seemed to be teleportations; I don't know what the hell happened there. But I don't see how the guy who confessed could have managed all that by himself. He may have written the UMMO letters, but something else was going on; I don't know what.
That's another thing conspiracy theorists seldom say: "I don't know what."
Smoley: And yet in all of this, there's probably some border, however thin and nebulous, between conspiracy theory and just plain old paranoid schizophrenia. Where do you draw that line?
Wilson: Well, the line will of course be a little bit fuzzy. But when you get to people who, when you try to discuss the mat-ter with them rationally, gradually come around to the viewpoint that you are one of their CIA babysitters, then I think you're not dealing with just an absurd belief system, but with a serious mental derangement.
Smoley: Many of your ideas have to some extent become part of the New Age consensus view. How do you feel about that?
Kinney: You don't have much use for New Age circles?
Wilson: I don't want that label put on my writing. If I have to have a label, I'd prefer co be known, like Kierkegaard, as "that individual." That's what he said he wanted to be called. If I have to have a label, "postmodernist" is not too bad. But I really prefer "damned old crank." That one is the least pretentious I've thought of in all my years.