Thoughts on Conspiracy Gnosticism: Robert Anton Wilson, Illuminatus!
â By Edgar Garcia | June 7, 2012
Iâve had as hard a time convincing people to read Thomas Lovell Beddoes as people have had convincing me of the delectability of the fresh cucumber. Some things are just a matter of taste. So, even though a critic might think of themselves as a tastemaker, they can never get you to like a vegetable if your nose and tongue have leagued against it. For me, this is the case when trying my best with a gourd as insipid as the cucumis. But I can at least acknowledge a rich and colorful historyâlong before Roman women carried them on their waist to increase fertility, and Tiberius had a growing method invented to guarantee them fresh on his table every day throughout the year, the cucumber was cultivated by the Dravidians of ancient India. A few web sites even tell me that Gilgamesh mentions the comestible pimply cylinder in his epic poem of Ur. Likewise, if anyone wants a solid sense of how an intellectual torch was passed from Shelley to Browning, theyâll have to consider Beddoes more carefully. He was your typical poet between worlds, too young when Shelley, Keats, et al. were all dyingâand broken by the mid century. Without friends or an intellectual net of interlocutors, he fell straight down. Charles Olson saved himself from a similar fate by waiting around for a decade. Beddoes stood for something that held no social currency in his years. Having published little of his best work, he took his own life in 1849.
And still I suspect few readers of this article will go out now and read Beddoes. Anyway, save for the possibility that you might like a line or two of his (I didnât give up on the cucumber without many sincere attempts), I suppose that Iâve told you what you need to know. Eat what you will, but you should at least try everythingâis what I believe. I should add however that there are recommendations that are made on more than taste. Some things are good for you. Another author that Iâve been trying to get people to take a bite at is Robert Anton Wilson. The most thrilling conspiracy minded author next to Philip K. Dick, he is also the more legible writer of altered consciousness next to James Joyce. For readers who struggled with Finnegans Wake and left it behind but felt something powerful lurking inside itâWilson is the mid century author who brings that elusive force to the fore. âThey had been talking about Joyce and his unfortunate daughter, and the novelist mentioned Joyceâs attempts to convince himself that she wasnât really schizophrenic. âHe told Jung,âAfter all, I do the same sorts of things with language myself.âDo you know what Jung, that old Chinese sage disguised as a psychiatrist, answered?âYou are diving, but she is sinking.âIncisive, of course; and yet, all of us who write anything that goes below the surface level of naturalism can understand Joyceâs skepticism. We never know for sure whether weâre diving or just sinking.ââ His most celebrated work (co-written with Robert Shea), The Illuminatus! Trilogy, is, on the one hand, a frazzling drug-, sex- and magic-laden dive through a bevy of minds uncovering ancient secret society conspiracies reaching back to Atlantis; it moves midsentence across time, space and minds, including most notably the minds of a squirrel and a dolphin. And, on the other hand, the book is sluggish and heavily digressiveâit sinks into and out of points and events which are later revealed to be meaningless then meaningful again then meaningless, and so on. It is the preeminent psychedelic novel and a foundational text in the Discordian (non-) belief system.
But why read it? After speaking to friends who have read the tome (my version is 815 pages), I found that there was an odd consensus that the book had somehow altered our consciousness, in a way that was extremely difficult to describe. âGuerrilla ontology,â writes Wilson, âthe basic technique of all my books. Ontology is the study of being; the guerrilla approach is to so mix the elements of each book that the reader must decide on each page, âHow much of this is real and how much is a put-on?â This literary technique seems justified by the accelerated acceleration of new knowledge, new theories, new inventions, and new possibilities in our time, since any ârealityâ map we can form is probably obsolete by the time it reaches print.â To beat the plastic disposability of contemporary intellectual life (products designed after a certain time to fail), Wilson developed a literary technique to train the mind in radical skepticism and likewise to expand the mindâs horizon of possibility in a legitimate and permanent way. As exciting as its wilderness of conspiracies is to me, the real substance of the book is its rangy apprehension of alternative models of literacy. Itâs a hypnotizing book about de-hypnotizing reading practicesâread it and youâll know what I mean. You might even begin to see the fnords.
So why hasnât it caught on, if itâs as spellbinding as Iâm saying it is? Because Wilson was of an agnostic mystical ilkâand, like all such mystics, he based his pedagogical program on debunking mysticism. âTo debunk by lucidity,â as Pound put it, meant for Wilson the refutation of any cult following whenever it began to grow around him. Unlike, for example, someone like Timothy Leary, Wilson wanted readers to learn to distrust even him. This makes writing a panegyric somewhat tricky. My earlier comparison to Joyce is quickly undermined by a review of the book that is written in the diagetical world of the book itself: âItâs a dreadfully long monster of a bookâŚ and I certainly wonât have time to read it, but Iâm giving it a thorough skimming. The authors are utterly incompetentâno sense of style or structure at all. It starts out as a detective story, switches to science-fiction, then goes off into the supernatural, and is full of the most detailed information of dozens of ghastly boring subjects. And the time sequence is all out of order in a very pretentious imitation of Faulkner and Joyce. Worst yet, it has the most raunchy sex scenes, thrown in just to make it sell, Iâm sure, and the authorsâwhom Iâve never heard ofâhave the supreme bad taste to introduce real political figures into this mishmash and pretend to be exposing a real conspiracy. You can be sure I wonât waste time reading such rubbish, but Iâll have a perfectly devastating review ready for you by tomorrow noon.â Parallels to Gravityâs Rainbow are obvious as well, but Wilson uniquely incorporates Pynchonâs authorial self-effacement into a writing style. See, for example, Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger trilogy. These are supreme works of anti-authoritarian sensibility; collectively a Prometheus Unbound of the twentieth century. They remap the way youâve been trained to think.
Another complication in the reception of the book has been its celebration by libertarians after it won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award for remarkable works of libertarian science fiction. Sitting in some readersâ mental bookshelf next to the works of Ayn Rand (whom he satirizes in the Trilogy) and Robert Heinlein, itâs forgotten that Wilson was a decisively anti-corporate capitalist, with friends and interlocutors as radical (if not anarchic) as Kerry Thornley, Buckminster Fuller, and Alan Moore. Indeed he was known for favoring a form of basic income guaranteeâbut, even without such political ârecuperation,â itâs worth noting that few people fault William Burroughs for a guns and dope platform similar to Wilsonâs. In any case, readers could start off by defining what Prometheus means to them, what he might have meant to his greatest champion, Percy Shelleyâand, moving forward from Shelley, could finally begin to read a little bit of Beddoes. It couldnât hurtâand, like a dose of RAWilson, could even be good food for your mind.