An Interview with Robert Anton Wilson
Conducted by Neal Wilgus
SFR: I know you’re co-author of Illumatus!, have written for Gnostica, Green Egg and others and were once assistant editor of Playboy – could you fill us in on the details of your life and present activities?
Wilson: Well, to begin with, I never balled Sophia Loren on a bearskin rug. I think that’s what gives my writing its unforgettable poignance and haunting sense of cosmic search. I’ve got about a thousand articles in print, in everything from scholarly journals to tabloids of the sleaziest nature, some poetry here and there, a few short stories.
My other books are Sex and Drugs: A Journey Beyond Limits, Playboy’s Book of Forbidden Words and The Book of the Breast, all non-fiction, and The Sex Magicians, a rather funny porn novel featuring Markoff Chaney from Illuminatus!
I was busted for civil rights activities in ’62, walked a few yards behind Mailer in the Pentagon protest of ’67, got tear-gassed at the Democratic Convention of ’68. I’ve worked as a longshoreman, astrology columnist, reporter, medical orderly, laboratory assistant, engineering aide, encyclopedia salesman and most of the things you find on writers’ resumes. And I was an Associate Editor, not an assistant editor, at Playboy. The difference is as important as that between a mere Congressman and an anointed Senator or between a zebra and a horse with striped pajamas on.
I have a beautiful red-headed wife, four kids, and a cat named Conan the Bavarian.
SFR: Robert J. Shea is Senior Editor at Playboy and I understand Illuminatus! was written in 1970 while you were an editor. Could you tell us something about Shea?
Wilson: Illuminatus! was written in 1969-1971, while we were both Associate Editors. Shea had what it takes to stick it out at the Bunny Empire and is now Senior Editor. I quit after five years because I got bored and wanted to do something more amusing. Shea has a beautiful blond wife, a son, a home in a prosperous suburb and passes as a well-adjusted citizen. I have long suspected that he is actually a time-traveling anthropologist fro the 23rd Century doing a report on primitive civilizations. When I try to pump him about that, he becomes very evasive and looks nervous. To the best of my knowledge, he has never balled Sophia Loren on a bearskin rug, either.
SFR: Could you give us some idea of how Illuminatus!
was written? Who wrote which parts?
Wilson: Most of it was communicated to us telepathically by a canine Intelligence, vast, cool and unsympathetic, from Sirius, the Dog Star. I was aware of being a channel for interstellar sarcasm, but Shea thought he was inventing his part of the transmission. In general, the melodrama is Shea and the satire is me; but some of the satire is definitely him and some of the melodrama is certainly me. "When Atlantis Ruled the Earth" is 99% Shea. The sections about Simon Moon, Robert Putney Drake and Markoff Chaney are 99% me. Everything else is impossible to untangle. The celebrated Blow Job on the beach, for instance, is almost all Shea, but I think my lyrical additions to the text add to the esthetic beauty and philosophical richness of the symbology and give more existential meaning to Georges ultimate ejaculation into Mav's warm, passionate mouth, in a Maileresque sense. Of course, this is only important if you agree with Vonnegut's claim that the function of the modern novel is to describe Blow Jobs exquisitely.
SFR: Illuminatus! incorporates much of the Cthulhu Mythos, refers often to H. P. Lovecraft and even includes a short scene in which HPL appears. Is it you or Shea that’s the HPL enthusiast?
Wilson: It’s me. I went through a period in the early 1960s when I kept having the Lovecraft horrors every time I took peyote. Cthulhu leering at the window. Yog-Sothoth oozing down the chimney. Azathoth invading my neurons with vampiric psychic-horror vibes. It was like a non-stop Creature Weatures without commercials, every time I gobbled a cacti. A lesser man would have changed his religion, I assure you, but I managed to recapture the Reality Studio and banish them all with violent Cabalistic imprecations. They don’t dare show their faces, or lack of faces in any of my universes anymore.
SFR: Will there be more collaborations with Shea? A sequel to Illuminatus!?
Wilson: That depends on our Contact, the Mad Dog fro Sirius. Right now, we’re working on separate novels. Mine has some of the characters from Illuminatus! and much of the same psychedelic style. It concerns the aftermath of a sex-change operation and what happens to the amputated penis. To the best of my knowledge, it’s the first novel ever written with a penis as the protagonist and I’m hoping for a huge sale, especially in San Francisco.
SFR: The theme of “immanentizing the Eschaton” runs throughout Illuminatus! but the phrase is never defined or explained. In the framework of the book this seems to imply that various secret societies are working to bring about the end of the worked – is that a valid interpretation?
Wilson: The phrase was coined by a Christian historian, Eric Bogelin, and refers to the Gnostic doctrine that people aren’t really as hopeless as Christians think. Eschaton, form the Greek, means the last things, and, in Christian theology, these are Heaven and Hell. Immanentizing the Escaton means seeking heaven within the “immanent” universe, i.e. the only universe we know.
To a thorough going Christian pessimist like Vogelin anybody who tries to be happy or make others happy is dangerously close to Gnostic heresy. I am all for immanentizing the Escaton in this sense, next Tuesday if possible. Vogelin detects immanentizing tendencies in humanists, liberals, technologists, optimistic philosophies of evolution like Nietzsche’s communists, anarchists and most of the post-medieval thought of the Western World, all of which are overtly or covertly aiming at the verboten “heaven on the material plane.”
In the novel, we make the point that conservatives are also in danger of immanentizing the Eschaton by continuing a Cold War that can only result in Hell on the material plane – nuclear incineration.
In one sense, Illuminatus! is a reduction to ad absurdum of all mammalian politics, Right or Left, by carrying each ideology on logical step further than its exponents care to go. Voltaire used that satirical judo against the Churchman and I decided it’s time to turn it on the Statesman. The only intelligent way to discuss politics, as Tim Leary says, is on all fours. It all comes down to territorial brawling.
SFR: I understand the Eschaton them stems from an anti-Gnostic campaign in the National Review some time ago. Could you fill us in on the origins of the term?
Wilson: As I say, it was coined by Vogelin. The anti-Gnostic them was chronic in conservative circles during the early 60’s and even got into a Time editorial once. As an ordained priest of the Gnostic Catholic Church, I find this amusing, since it makes most of the educated classes into unknowing disciples of us Gnostics. As Marx said under similar circumstances, “I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”
SFR: What is your relationship with Timothy Leary?
Wilson: Are you sure you’re not from Gay Times? Dr. Leary and I are just good friends. I mean, really, do you mind, Bess? Honestly! Well if you must have the truth, I’m playing Zola and Tim is Dreyfuss – or, at least, that’s one of my old scripts. I suppose Tim might think he’s Johnson and I’m Boswell. Then there’s the theory that I’m his C.I.A. “babysitter” and supervised his whole campaign of mind-rot and betrayal of the New Left. Actually, if you want the facts, which are always funnier and more interesting than myths, Dr. Leary is the ring-leader and I’m an unindicted co-conspirator in a plot to immanentize the Eschaton by achieving higher intelligence, longevity and extra-terrestrial migration in this generation. In the next generation (for which, due to longevity we’ll both still be active) the hope is to achieve immortality and starflight. I told you the truth was more interesting than the myths.
SFR: Why are you suing the Neo-American Church for $1,000,000? Isn’t that just a promotion device to publicize Illuminatus! and the new book you’re writing with Leary?
Wilson: The Neo-American Church, who most certainly did not ball Sophia Loren on or off a bearskin rug, have claimed that Illuminatus! is actually written by Dr. Leary and that Shea and I are co-conspirators in a legal fraud committed by Tim to evade contractual obligations, whatever that means. (Neither Dr. Leary nor his lawyers nor the Justice Department are aware of any contracts that would prevent Tim from publishing Illuminatus! as his own book, if he had indeed written it.) The Neo-Americans have accused Shea, Dr. Leary and myself of a felony, and they have done so maliciously and untruthfully. In the American legal game, maliciously and untruthfully accusing somebody of a felony is a libel. The persons so damaged in reputation may collect pieces of green paper, blessed by the Federal Reserve and called “money,” in proportion to the damage, as estimated by 12 jurors who are hopefully sober at the time. Happily, the two typists who typed the originally ms. of Illuminatus! are still at Playboy, many of the editors heard Shea or me read parts of it when it was coming out of our typewriters (after business hours, Hef!) and there are dozens of accessory witnesses. The Neo-Americans have fouled and will have to pay the penalty. It does me no good in publishing circles to have my funnies book attributed to somebody else, or to be accused of a Clifford Irving fraud.
SFR: How serious are you about the rule of fives and the Importance of 23?
Wilson: Being serious is not one of my vices. I will venture, however, that the idea that there are no conspiracies has been popularized by historians working for universities and institutes funded by the principle conspirators of our time – the Rockefeller-Morgan banking interests, the Council on Foreign Relations Crowd. This is not astonishing or depressing. Conspiracy is the standard mammalian politics for reasons to be found in ethology and Von Neumann’s and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Vertebrate competition depends on knowing more than the opposition, monopolizing information along with territory, hoarding signals. Entropy, in a word. Science is based on transmitting the signal accurately, accelerating the process of information transfer. Negative entropy. The final war may be between Pavlov’s Dog and Schroedinger’s Cat.
However, I am profoundly suspicious about all conspiracy theories, including my own, because conspiracy buss tend to forget the difference between a plausible argument and a real proof. Or between a legal proof, a proof in the behavioral sciences, a proof in physics, a mathematical or logical proof, or a parody of any of the above. My advice to all is Buddha’s last words, “Doubt, and find your own light.” Or, as Crowley wrote, “I slept with Faith and found her a corpse in the morning. I drank and danced all night with Doubt and found her a virgin in the morning.” Doubt suffereth long, but is kind; doubt covereth a multitude of sins’ doubt puffeth not itself up into dogma. For now abideth doubt, hope, and charity, these three and the greatest of these is doubt. With doubt all tings are possible. Every other entity in the universe, including Goddess Herself, may be trying to con you. It’s all Show Biz. Did you know that Billy Graham is a Bull Dyke in drag?
SFR: Could you tell us something about the authors and ideas that have influenced you? Are you a long-time science-fiction/fantasy fan? A neo-Pagan or occultist?
Wilson: My style derives directly from Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Raymond Chandler, H.L. Menken, William S. Burroughs, Benjamin Tucker and Elephant Doody Comix, in approximately that order of importance. Chandler has also influenced my way of telling stories; all my fiction tends to follow the Chandler mythos of the skeptical Knight seeking Truth in a world of false-fronts and manipulated deceptions. (Of course, this is also my biography, or that of any shaman.) The writers who have most influence my philosophy are Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, Alfred Korzybski and Karl Popper (and a few Logical Positivists) are absolutely necessary for epistemological clarity, especially when you get to the growing edge of science, where the hot debates are going on, and even more if you wander into the occult. Sci-fi and fantasy are my favorite forms of fiction; I think the so-called “naturalists” and “social realists” have committed high treason against humanity by selling their gloomy perspective as the “real” reality. A book that lacks the element of heroism is a crime against the young and impressionable, in my opinion. A book full of anger and self-pity is another crime. Needless to day, as a libertarian I don’t mean literally that these are crimes to be punished in court. The only final answer to a bad, sad book is to write a good, funny book. (I love debate and hate censorship. Accuracy-of-signal and free flow of information define sanity in my epistemology. I should have included Norbert Weiner among the primary influences on my thinking.)
As for neo-Paganism and the occult: I’m an initiated witch, an ordained minister in four churches (or cults) and have various other “credentials” to impress the gullible. My philosophy remains Transcendental Agnosticism. There are realities and intelligences greater than conditioned normal conscious recognizes, but it is premature to dogmatize about them at this primitive stage of our evolution. We’ve hardly begun to crawl off the surface of the cradle-planet.
The most advanced shamanic techniques – such as Tibetan Tantra or Crowley’s system in the West – work by alternating faith and skepticisim until you get beyond the ordinary limits of both. With such systems, one learns how arbitrary are the reality-maps that can be coded into laryngeal grunts by hominids or visualized by a mammalian nervous system. We can’t even visualize the size of the local galaxy except in special High states. Most people are trapped in one static reality-map imprinted on their neurons when they were naïve children, as Dr. Leary keeps reminding us. Alas, most so-called “Adepts” or “Gurus” are similarly trapped in the first post-rapture reality-map imprinted after their initial Illumination, as Leary also realizes. The point of systems like Tantra, Crowleyanity and Leary’s Neurologic is to detach from all maps – which gives you he freedom to use any map where it works and drop it where it doesn’t work. As Dogen Zenji said, “Time is three eyes and eight elbos.”
SFR: Would I be right in saying you probably lean more toward the libertarian from of anarchism than the classic leftist variety?
Wilson: My trajectory is perpendicular to the left-right axis of terrestrial politics. I put some of my deepest idealism into both the Left anarchism of Simon Moon and the Right anarchism of Hagbard Celine in Illuminatus!, but I am detached from both on another level.
Politics consists of demands, disguised or rationalized by dubious philosophy (ideologies). The disguise is an absurdity and should be removed. Make your demands explicit. My emphasis is on whatever will make extra-terrestrial migration possible in this generation. The bureaucratic State, whether American, Russian or Chinese has all the clout on this planet for the foreseeable future. The individualist must fulfill hir genetic predisposition to be a pioneer, and the only way SHe can do that today is by moving into space faster than anyone else. I think the maverick Seed is included in the DNA scenario to serve that function in each epoch. I’m leaving Earth for the same reason my ancestors left Europe; freedom is found on the expanding, pioneering perimeter, never inside the centralized State. To quote another Zen koan, “Where is the Tao?” “Move on!”
SFR: You’re involved in an organization called the DNA Society which is interested in biological engineering and immortality, the creation and exploitation of higher forms of consciousness. How serious are you about this?” How close are we to achieving this on a broad scale?
Wilson: Let me refer the reader to the The Prospect of Immortality and Man Into Superman by Ettinger, The Biological Time Bomb by Taylor, Te Immortality Factor by Segerberg, Terra II by Dr. Leary and Wayne Benner, the writings of John Lilly and Buckminster Fuller, and my article “The Future of Sex” in Oui for November 1975.
With that documentation, I assert that the basic longevity breakthrough will occur before 1980. Segal, Bjorstein or Froimovich, among others, may be very close to it already. The basic principles of reimprinting or meta-programming the nervous system, as discovered by Leary and Lilly, will be accepted and used in daily practice by around 1985. A neurogentic quantum jump in life-expectancy, intellectual efficiency and emotional equilibrium (or, as Leary calls it, Hedonic Engineering) will be revolutionizing human life before the 21st Century. Some of us will be alive when the Immortality Pill is found between 2050 and 2100.
SFR: Dell’s marketing of Illuminatus! As a trilogy rather than a long novel and its hardsell advertising of the books seem designed to make it a “cult” novel like Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune. Do you think it will succeed?
Wilson: The senior execs at Dell had very little faith in such a madcap prank as Illuminatus! for a long time; it took the enthusiasm of five junior editors in succession, each of whom fought for publication, before the Alphas at the top of the herd were persuaded. Then they split it up into 3 volumes (and cut 5—page of the more spaced-out stuff) because he investment in paper to print it as one volume seemed too great a business risk to them. They only gave it an advertising budget, finally, after it became a success without advertising. As for my private opinion as one of the co-authors of this accursed neo-Necronomicon, why, I think it should be promoted as a major historical event, similar to the publication of Ulysses or the bombing of Hiroshima, and not as a “cult” novel at all. Did you know that Disney was a secret peyote and jimson weed cultist and his last words were “Red, white and blue cockroaches dancing in harmony.”?
SFR: Illuminatus! has heavy doses of obscenity and sex, requires pretty broad background knowledge and uses unconventional stream-of-consciousness techniques – do you think thee things will be an obstacle for large numbers of readers?
Wilson: There is no such animal as “obscenity,” scientifically speaking, until and unless somebody invents an obscenometer which can be pointed at a book and will give you an objective reading of how many smuts or microsmuts of “obscenity” are in it. Meanwhile, “obscenity” is just a word used by people with sex-negative imprints and confuses their private map with the objective territory. Sex seems to be the most festive aspect of mammalian life and should be enjoyed and celebrated to the full.
I started the “Linda Lovelace for President” campaign two years ago, by having a rubber stamp made with that slogan and using it on my envelopes. (I correspond extensively with editors, writers, witches, scientists and other culture-makers.) To my delight, the campaign has already resulted in a move with that title, Linda Lovelace for President, and I hope the idea will continue to snowball and become a mammoth write-in vote next November, which would be a perfect Discordian action to commemorate the first anniversary of Illuminatus! In a sane society, cock-sucking would be esthetically judged in terms similar to novel-writing, grand opera, swordsmanship, etc. and Linda would be an honored artist. I mean that gal can really swallow Peter. But I digress.
I don’t think the reader needs to be particularly erudite to appreciate most of the humor in Illuminatus! I’ve received lots of fan letters from teen-agers, and nobody is particularly erudite at that age (although I thought I was). There are lots of “in” jokes that will only be appreciated by mathematicians, or physicists, or Joyce scholars, or acid-heads, or Cabalists or other special interest groups, but that’s just the icing on the cake. Some traps are deliberate, of course; as Josiah Warren said, “It is dangerous to understand new things too quickly.” I have tried to shield my readers from that danger. Besides, a book should last and not get worn-out. I’ve been reading Finnegans Wake for 27 years now and I still find loads of new jokes and subtleties every time I get into it. I hope Illuminatus! might last that way for its real aficionados. There’s lots of fun, for instance, in store for anybody who starts relating the contents of the ten chapters to the Sephiroth on the Cabalistic Tree of life after which the chapters are named.
Finally, there is virtually no stream-of-consciousness in Illuminatus! The narrative technique is based on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, which I think is the greatest movie ever made. Of course, to get Schroedinger’s Cat and the new physics in, I had to introduce parallel universes alongside of or on top of the Griffith time-montage. But, as McLuhan pointed out, the newspaper uses similar collage or mosaic effect every day. Only static, archaic notions about what a book “should be” prevent people from just going along with the ride when similar cinematic-journalistic matricies are applied to the novel. Hitchcock uses the Griffith cross-cut continually, for tease-effect and suspense. People only object when the tens reaches the intensity of a Zen riddle and makes them genuinely uncomfortable about their current reality-map. Well, Illuminatus! reflects post-LSD consciousness, the new (post-
Bell’s Theorem) physics, the occult revival, etc. and therefore is an utter failure, In its ambitions, if it doesn’t make people uncomfortable with static reality-maps. There may be red, white and blue cockroaches in the universe next door.
SFR: Who really did kill JFK?
Wilson: In the universe created by Earl Warren, Lee Harvey Oswald did it, acting alone. In the universe created by Mark Lane, it was done by a cabal of right-wing millionaires and former CIA agents. In my current universe, that’s just one of the many mysteries remaining to be solved. I might add – “without fear of contradiction,” as Hitler used to say – that, whereas current IQ tests only measure one dimension of intelligence, future psychology will measure n-dimensional intelligence, according to how many universes a person can occupy simultaneously.
SFR: Is it true that your initials, RAW, are an Illuminati joke revealing you are really Ra, the Egyptian Sun God?
Wilson: No. Actually, I’m Kharis the Mummy, and who took my tanka leaves?”
SFR: What did happen to Joe Malik’s dogs in Illuminatus!?
Wilson: I’m surprised that a person of your intelligence hasn’t seen through that little koan. Anybody trained in classic detective-story thinking can solve that mystery quite quickly, by simply reviewing the evidence in an orderly fashion and then making the logical deductions. Actually, the first step is to ask, did anybody ever see the dogs, or were they only inferred? If the answer doesn’t appear from sifting the data through that question, re-read page 33 of Volume II very slowly. I might add that other “loose ends” complained of by certain distinguished critics (nameless assholes, actually) are, like the disappearing dogs, easily penetrated by a reader of lively and skeptical intelligence. But where are my tanka leaves?
SFR: Here’s a hard one. If George Dorn was a student at Columbia at the time of the 1968 student strike, how could he possible be as young as 23 in the novel, which is obviously set in the late 1970s?
Wilson: The novel is set in a very specific year of the 1970s, which can also be deduced from the dialog on pages 118 of Volume II. If you don’t have any tanka leaves do you have some Columbian Gold?
SFR: I realize the Squirrel is not inferior to most of the
characters in Illuminatus!, but I'm still wondering what purpose he
served. Did he serve any?
WILSON: One of the first things you learn in this business is that you just follow orders and you don’t ask questions. They told me we needed a squirrel, and I put the squirrel in. Once you start asking why, you lose your effectiveness immediately and then you’re no good to anybody, not even yourself. It’s your balls in a sling then, friend. I shit you not. “Termination with maximum prejudice” – as the boys around Alexandria and at CFR headquarters in New York. The overlords, on Sirius, don’t like it when any of us in Earth Control get out of line, believe me.
Actually, I think it has something to do with giving a DNA-eye view of history. It makes more sense in the original, before 500 pages were sent down the Memory Hole by the Reality Monitors at Dell, but even in the truncated published version, we have representatives of all the major races; nations and tribes if WoMankind; the gorillas and dolphins, representing Higher Intelligence; the squirrel, representing mammal-kind and at an even more primitive level than the human characters; FUCKUP representing non-biological intelligence; Leviathan, standing in for unicellular life Writ large, as it were; the American Eagle, for the domination of the air; the squinks (Swift-Kick Inc.), as designers of the local galaxy; etc. Together with the linear jump across time-zones and the non-linear warps of space-time itself, this should create a perspective transcending normal human chauvinism, oxygen chauvinism, Type G star chauvinism, and other parochialites imposed on "realistic" novels by the taboo against asking serious philosophical questions in so-called serious fiction. In other words, the squirrel and the other infra- and sub- and supra- and trans- human characters are there to dramatize Ouspensky's injunction "Think in other categories."
SFR: Thinkers of the John Birch persuasion have linked the “Illuminati to the modern super-rich so-called Bilderbergers, but there was no mention of this idea in Illuminatus! How come?
Wilson: That idea is in Illuminatus! several times, but the word “Bilderbergers” somehow didn’t get included. Probably a thought-ray from Bilderberger Hq. managed to knock out that particular synaptic connection in our brains. The Sphere of Chaos which controls the Elders of Zion, the Rothschild banks, the Federal Reserve, etc., in the diagram on p. 97 of Vol. I, is a portrait of the “Bilderberger” wing of the Conspiracy without the “Bilderberger” label. Curiously, the single most intelligent and least nutty of all the conspiracy books I’ve read (and I’ve literally read thousands by now) is The Naked Capitalist by W. C. Skousen. Skousen describes the Rothschild-Rockefeller-CFR network in brilliant detail, but he doesn’t use the word “Illuminati” and only mentions “Bilderberger” conferences in passing. I presume that these omissions must have some sinister meaning. Quite possibly, Skousen, along with Shea and me, is influenced by psionic Ascended Masters who prevent us from seeing, or revealing, too much.
SFR: What is your reaction to the reviews of Illuminatus!?
Wilson: They’ve all been most kind and gratifying, but I get the distinct feeling that none of them have really understood the book. Of course, I enjoy being told how witty and imaginative we were, but thus far only Dr. Leary and an occult journal called Green Egg have noticed that the satire is only the surface. Something else is going on under and above and alongside of the joking. Like Bernard Shaw, I have to look askance at my own skill in disarming my audience by making them laugh, and I almost wish I had provided a Shavian preface warning everybody that the final joke only becomes obvious to those who decipher the appendices called “The Tactics of Magick” and “Operation Mindfuck.” Or, as Shaw said, the funnies part of this comedy is that I really am a menace. Heh-heh-heh. (Murkey laugh.)
SFR: Thank you, Mr. Wilson.
(submitted to rawilsonfans by RMJon23)