a Robert Anton Wilson biography
[Note: CT 1/2/3 refers to the volumes of the Cosmic Trigger Trilogy]
Robert Anton Wilson arrived on this planet on January 18, 1932 – the 28th birthday of fellow acid head Archie Leach - in Brooklyn, NY, to John Joseph (a longshoreman) and Elizabeth (Milli) Wilson. He traces one branch of his family tree back to a Danish pirate named Olav the Black, who seized control of the Isle of Man in the 7th century.
His was one of many "Shanty Irish" families occupying the rolling dunes of the Garrison Beach environs of Long Island, and he recalls the Deep Depression years before World War II as an age in which many middle-aged women had goiter, it was thought that wearing galoshes in the coal-heated house caused deafness, that Roosevelt was a Wicked Jew itching to get the US into another war in order to become even richer, that if you drank milk right after eating pickles you'd die, and that masturbation caused blindness. In this barbaric age people regularly died of tuberculosis, and children contracted dozens of diseases that have since been practically abolished. Wilson himself had measles, German measles, mumps, flu, rheumatic fever, whooping cough, diphtheria, and in 1934 he was diagnosed with polio, which was later cured by the Sister Kenny Method of manipulation. (For RAW this was the first of many incidences in which he obtained results from methods deemed by Authority to be "worthless", "dangerous", "unscientific", "metaphysical claptrap", "witchcraft", etc.) By the time Wilson was four it was noted he was a great talker, and one neighbor told his parents they should send him to law school, because he could "'talk any judge off the bench', an Irish metaphor I do not quite understand." (CT2, pg.44) He seems to have had the typical Catholic grade school education: emotional and physical terrorization by sadistic nuns, rote memorization of "facts", and indoctrination into the Mysteries of the Trinity.
Some Selected Highlights in RAW's Life, 1932-1950:
1936: In his backyard saw a Giant Spider the size of an Australian Shepherd dog.
1940: Began a stupendous lifelong reading career with Believe It or Not by Ripley and Amazing Stories.
1946: Became an atheist, largely due to raging hormones, and convinced his parents to let him go to Brooklyn Polytechnic High School, where he might study engineering. His real goal was to get away from the Catholic Reality Tunnel.
1946-1950: At Brooklyn Poly studied mathematics, learned about virtual reality from films and read James T. Farrell, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, and Steinbeck; read Orson Welles's column in the New York Post and saw his stage production of Around the World in 80 Days; read all of Shakespeare and forbidden "revisionist" historians like Charles Beard, James J. Martin, and Harry Elmer Barnes; found Philip Wylie's _An Essay on Morals_, which turned him on to Jung; read Keats, Shelley, Blake, Whitman, Yeats, Eliot, and Pound; stumbled onto Heinlein, Sturgeon, and Stapeldon; read "many who now seem totally 'unimportant'"; discovered Picasso; read Spinoza, Hume, Marx, Veblen, Henry George, Sir James Frazer, H.L. Mencken, and "all sorts of folks like that". (CT2,pp.107-112) He dates his discovery of James Joyce at around 1947 (age 15). He has been reading Joyce's works ever since.
In 1949 he was browsing Brooklyn Tech's library and happened upon Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity. He checked the book out and read it all in one weekend, the first time. Then he returned it to the library and went out and bought a copy, "Because I knew I would have to re-read it several times before I could hope to understand it fully." (CT2, pg.151) RAW says this massive amount of reading and studying exposed him to folks who had "reality-tunnels very different from Irish Catholicism...I had moved in Virtual Space from the one square mile of Gerrison Beach and its Irish Catholic grid to several square miles of Brooklyn/Manhattan and the world of modern thought and modern art generally." (CT2, pg.111)
1950-1962: Brief Glimpses:
1950: Experienced a "hallucination" in which he felt like he "became unstuck in time."
c.1950 - next few years: Graduated from Brooklyn Poly, got a job with an engineering firm specializing in the problem of underground corrosion of pipes. Enrolled at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, majoring in Electrical Engineering. Worked 8 hour days with math-heavy night school for 2 hours four days a week, all the while finding time to imitate Ezra Pound miserably and write stories in the mold of H.P. Lovecraft, none of which were ever published.
He changed his major to Mathematics, mostly because he loved pure math and because he realized his basic temperament was analytical, not practical. Spent time as young white hipster intellectual, listened to be-bop greats in NY nightclubs. Had an affair with a black woman, which taught him about racism in a more-than-intellectual way.
Started smoking pot.
1956: Another "hallucination", felt a "spontaneous satori of immanent divinity of all things."
The 50s: After a brief fling as a Trotskyite (he quit because he liked the "wrong" artists and Jung), RAW became interested in Ayn Rand's philosophy. "Like most Randroids, I went around for a few years mindlessly parroting all the Rand dogma and imagining I was an 'individualist'." Many years later RAW met Rand. When he confessed to her his doubts about certain Rand dogmas he was "Cast Out Into the Realm of Darkness forever to wail and gnash my teeth in the Realm of Thud." Rand made the Trotskyites and Catholic Priests he'd known "look like models of tolerance in comparison." (CT2, pp.119-120)
After his Randroid days he adopted the philosophies of Bertrand Russell, Mencken, and Nietzsche while imagining himself a "freethinker." He went from agnostic to dogmatic atheist to Buddhist; from Buddhism he migrated to existentialism, then New Left activism, followed by New Age mysticism. (By 1970 he'd done enough acid to remain permanently agnostic.)
1956: Read Wm. S. Burroughs' unpublished m.s. of Naked Lunch, and pronounced "This man is the greatest prose stylist since James Joyce." (CT1, pg.43)
1950s: Underwent at least three different varieties of psychoanalysis in order to deal with conflicts between his old Catholic indoctrination and his newer atheistic hedonism. He finally went to a Reichian therapist, and was cured of chronic sinus headaches and of the underlying fear of having ground glass dumped into his eyes by Satan, something a well-meaning nun had brainwashed into him way back in the early 40s.
c.mid-50s: Quit his engineering job and became a medical orderly (riding in an ambulance), enrolled as an English Education major at NYU.
1956: Was bowled over by a Buckminster Fuller lecture at a seminar on General Semantics.
1956: Gave his first public lecture, on "science, pseudo-science, and science fiction" at the New York Academy of the Sciences, sponsored by the Society for General Semantics. He auditioned for the talk in front of an audience that included Arlen Riley.
1957: Dated a jewish gal named Bobbie, and he thought things were going great when she dumped him. He got drunk and contemplated suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge.
1957: Wilhem Reich's books burned.
1957: Alan Watts turns RAW on to zen.
1958: Married Arlen Riley, a former script writer for Orson Welles's radio show "The Lives of Harry Lime." Thornley and Hill invent Discordianism.
Faint Outline of the Weird Years, 1962-1976:
1962: Began a 14 year experiment in "induced brain-change, which Dr. John Lilly more resoundingly calls 'metaprogramming the human biocomputer'. In simple Basic English, as a psychologist and novelist I set out to find how much rapid reorganiztion was possible in the brain functioning of one normal domesticated primate of average intelligence - the only one on whom I could ethically perform such research - myself." (CT1, pg. iv) On December 28th, 1961 he began experimenting with psychedelic drugs (at age 29), first using peyote while living with his family in an old slave cabin in the woods outside Yellow Springs, Ohio. He taken a job as Assistant Sales Manager for the Antioch Bookplate Co. [RAW documented his 14 year experiment in his book Cosmic Trigger, vol 1 (1977 New Falcon Publications).] late 1962.
Had logged at least 40 peyote trips. Had seen Mescalito. Alan Watts and his wife Jano visited the Wilsons at the farm. RAW had introduced Alan to Jano a few years earlier. Jano talked about her idea of The Net: a web of coincidence/synchronicity which connects everything with everything.
1962: Moved to Millbrook, Ohio to become editor of The School of Living's magazine Balanced Living, of which name he changed to Way Out, and convinced Norman Mailer to write a few poems for the first issue. In the School's library he read most of the classics of anarchist theory.
1964: Arrested in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for engaging in an illegal sit-in at a segregated barber shop. Eventually he was bailed out by an anonymous benefactor. RAW guesses it was one of the rich Quakers in the area. Later he found out the charges had been dropped. Took a job as Associate Editor with New York magazine Fact. Moved the Wilson clan to Northern New Jersey.
1964: Alan Watts alerted RAW to an interesting Harvard professor named Leary. While under assignment form Paul Krassner's mag The Realist RAW visited the mansion at Millbrook, NY. He and Leary discussed Game Theory, LSD, psychotherapy, and relativity in psychology. RAW returned home and shortly afterward the Wilson family had their first UFO encounter.
1966: Met in person William S. Burroughs and was startled to find "a rather prosaic, almost academic, quite gentlemanly genius." (CT1, pg.43) Burroughs told RAW about his bizarre synchronicities with the number 23.
1966-71: RAW became Associate Editor at Playboy in Chicago. His main job was editing the letters to "Playboy Forum" and writing the replies (in italics). He began a correspondence with fellow libertarian pacifist-anarchist Kerry Thornley, writing a few articles for Thornley's New Libertarian.
1968: Smoking pot regularly. Practicing yoga scientifically, "without piety". Discovering much about "reality" and the nervous system, conditioning, and re-programming. Made much progress in learning Korzybski's "consciousness of abstracting." Got tear-gassed at the Democratic Convention with his friend Robert Shea. In a time-out from the Convention's insanity he took Burroughs and Ginsberg out to lunch; Ginsberg talked about his sad meeting with Pound. Around this time Shea and Wilson begin cooking up The Illuminatus! Trilogy.
[See also: Who "is" Robert Anton Wilson, refresh often]