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Strange Days: Obituaries

 

Robert Anton Wilson

Paul Sieveking pays tribute to a bon vivant, author, Fortean Times contributor and promoter – and an inspiration to conspiracy theorists everywhere.

Robert Anton Wilson
Robert Anton Wilson was best known as the co-author of the Illuminatus! trilogy, but exerted a wide influence as a gadfly of the counterculture of the last 40 years. As the obituarist of the Daily Telegraph put it: “Scarcely any alternative school of thought popularised since the 1960s escaped his attention as a promoter (or debunker, and often both) of conspiracy theories, theology, philosophy, psychology, occultism, chaos theory, neurolinguistic programming and quantum mechanics.” He was American director of the Committee for Surrealist Investigation of Claims of the Normal (CSICON, his answer to CSICOP) and originator of the term patapsychology – a discipline based on the premise that there’s no such thing as normal. He was the inspiration for the founding of two “religions’’: Discordianism (a sort of anarchic metaphysics stemming from Illuminatus!); and the Church of the SubGenius (a satire of cults and fundamentalism, founded in Dallas, Texas, in 1980). Was the SubGenius guru, JR ‘Bob’ Dobbs, in part an echo of Bob Wilson?

Robert Edward Wilson was born in 1932 in Brooklyn, New York City, and spent his early years in a poor Irish-Catholic section of Flatbush. He suffered from a serious attack of polio when he was four, and although “cured’’ by the Sister Kenny method (regarded as quackery by the medical establishment), he suffered the effects throughout his life and it was post-polio syndrome that finally killed him. He was initially educated by nuns, whom he remembered as stern and unforgiving, and who told him when he was seven that there was no Father Christmas. “I kept waiting for them to admit there’s no God,’’ he said. “They never did.’’

The family moved to Gerritsen Beach, a fishing village on Brooklyn’s south-eastern coast. He studied engineering and maths, without graduating, at Brooklyn Polytechnical College and New York University. Reading Alfred Korzbyski’s 1933 book Science and Sanity (which argued that our understanding of the world was limited by our sensory system and our language structure) convinced him that few questions had yes-or-no answers. Prompted by this theory, he began to read widely – Joyce, Vico, Ezra Pound, Crowley, Buckminster Fuller, Fort – and to formulate a worldview which he later dubbed “Maybe Logic’’.

In 1958, he married Arlen Riley, a former scriptwriter for Orson Welles, through whom he became friendly with Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist and advocate of psychedelic drugs. Albert Hofmann, who discoved LSD, was also a longstanding friend. Wilson worked as an engineering aide, a salesman and a copywriter, began writing for Paul Krassner’s early counterculture journal The Realist (founded in 1958), and in 1965 was hired as an associate editor at Playboy, perhaps because of his Realist cover story, “Timothy Leary and the Psychological H-Bomb”. Playboy at the time saw itself at the cutting edge of the new liberated lifestyle.

He adopted his maternal grandfather’s name, Anton, for his writings, at first telling himself that he was saving the “Edward” for when he wrote the Great American Novel and later finding that “Robert Anton Wilson” (or RAW) had become an established identity. One of his responsibilities at the Playboy office in Chicago, alongside fellow editor Robert Shea, was answering readers’ letters on politics, many of which argued – with “evidence” – that the globe was being run by one secretive cabal or another. Contemplating the possibility that all these conspiracy theories were true led Shea and Wilson to co-write the first draft of Illuminatus! between 1969 and 1971, while they were still with Playboy. The work was published in 1975 as a trilogy – The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple and Leviathan. It described the epic battle of the Bavarian Illuminati, secret controllers of the world, against the Discordians, whose embrace of chaos might have derived from the paranoid uses of entropy in Thomas Pynchon’s V. It brilliantly incorporated elements from the cult literature of the time: stuff from Colin Wilson, Philip K Dick (and his SF pulp predecessors), Flann O’Brien, Carlos Castenada, Tim Leary and Kurt Vonnegut in a mix both knowingly tongue-in-cheek and pseudo-intellectually engaging.

Its freewheeling combination of jokes, thriller and preposterous theories was wildly popular, particularly with rock musicians and “underground” writers. Its biggest impact in the UK came when Ken Campbell’s Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool turned it into a 10-hour theatrical epic in 1976, and the following year it became the first presentation of the Cottesloe Theatre on London’s South Bank. “My goal,” said Wilson, “is to try to get people into a state of generalised agnosticism, not about God alone but agnosticism about everything.” Most subsequent grand conspiracy theories owe a great debt to Shea and Wilson, although their playful wit is worlds away from the earnest remixes of David Icke or Dan Brown’s clunking potboilers.

Illuminatus! was followed by The Illuminati Papers (1980), Masks of the Illuminati (1981) and another trilogy, The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles (1982, 85, 91). Wilson published incessantly and on every conceivable subject, arguing that the brain was a filtering system that disguised the true nature of existence: he wrote a screenplay called Reality Is What You Can Get Away With.

His 35 books included the Schrödinger’s Cat trilogy (arguably his best science fiction, inspired by quantum theory); the autobiographical Cosmic Trigger (1977, followed by two sequels); Neuropolitics (with Timothy Leary and George Koopman, 1978); Prometheus Rising (1983); Right Where You Are Sitting Now (1983); The New Inquisition (1986), a perceptive critique of dogmatic “skeptics”; Coincidance (1988); Quantum Psychology (1990); Chaos and Beyond (1994); Everything is Under Control: An Encyclopedia of Conspiracy Theories (1998); and TSOG: The Thing that Ate the Constitution (2002). His play Wilhelm Reich in Hell (1987) was performed at the Edmund Burke Theatre in Dublin.

RAW claimed encounters with magical “entities” while using peyote and mescaline; when asked whether these entities were “real”, he said they were “real enough” – although “not as real as the IRS” since they were “easier to get rid of”. With Leary, he helped promote the futurist ideas of space migration, intelligence increase, and life extension (SMI2LE). When his daughter, Patricia Luna Wilson, was murdered aged 15 during a robbery in 1976, he and Arlen had her brain preserved by the Bay Area Cryonics Society.

As a member of the Board of Advisors of the Fully Informed Jury Association, RAW worked to inform the public about jury nullification, the right of jurors to nullify a law they deem unjust. As Oliver Wendell Holmes put it years ago: “The jury has the power to bring in a verdict in the teeth of both the law and the facts.”

Bob Rickard and I first met Bob Wilson in London around the time Ken Campbell was staging his adaptation of Illuminatus! His first article for Fortean Times appeared in issue 23 in 1977. Appropriately, it was on the significance of the number 23. We reprint it on pages 22–23. For most of the 1980s, he lived in Sandycove, County Dublin, during which time he contributed “Synchronicity and Linguistics in Finnegans Wake” [FT39:4–10]. After that, he moved to California, first to Santa Cruz (where I visited him in 1993) and then to Capitola. His subsequent pieces for FT were “Atheistic Religions” [FT68:56]; “Preposterous Perception” [FT72:54]; and “An Exaggerated Death” [FT77:52–55], a commentary on the bogus, online LA Times obituary that claimed he had died on 22 February 1994. (Sadly and ironically, his old friend Robert Shea died for real 18 days later, on 10 March). FT also published extracts from his periodical Trajectories; the Journal of Futurism and Heresy [FT55:40–41, 58:39] and an interview with him by James Nye [FT79:22–26].

In latter years, Wilson suffered from post-polio syndrome and was a vigorous proponent of the medical use of marijuana. He moved into a hospice some months ago; an appeal on the Internet for funds for his medical fees brought in ,000 from admirers in a matter of days. His wife Arlen predeceased him in 1999, and he is survived by three of his four children. “I remain cheerful and unimpressed,” read Bob’s last entry on his blog on 6 January. “I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. Please pardon my levity, I don’t see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd.”

Robert Anton Wilson, writer, born New York 18 Jan 1932; died Capitola, California, 11 Jan 2007, aged 74.

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