Robert Anton Wilson Interview (1992)
This interview with Robert Anton Wilson was first published in Fortean Times Issue 79 in February 1995. The interview itself took place some time before that on 27 May 1992 when Bob was visiting London to give a lecture at the University of London Union. I had a long and lively chat with him, and transcribed the whole thing. Bob and I edited excerpts for publication in Fortean Times. My friend the maverick actor, comedian and director Ken Campbell was there too. Ken had adapted Robert Anton Wilson’s epic Illuminatus! trilogy (co-written with Robert Shea) for the stage in 1976. Bob Wilson had come to the 1977 revival at the National Theatre where he took part in the witches’ sabbat scene. In 1976, his family had been the victim of an appalling tragedy: the murder of his teenage daughter Luna. It was in no small part due to the enthusiasm of Ken Campbell and his troupe that Wilson emerged from his devastating grief to start writing again. His next book – a magickal autobiography – was one of his most influential: Cosmic Trigger, Final Secret of the Illuminati (1977). It is dedicated to Ken Campbell and the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool.
A brief description of the show’s genesis occurs in Cosmic Trigger on page 223. The number 23 had a special significance for Ken Campbell and Wilson, and the latter explains in Cosmic Trigger a coincidence regarding Carl Jung’s autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections in which a description of the location in Liverpool where Illuminatus! was first staged mysteriously appears in one of Jung’s dreams – a life-changing, illuminating dream Jung had in 1927 . . .
I last saw Bob at his California home in November 2004. He was unwell, but still sharp, funny, and warm. We had corresponded for many years. After his death I bought a copy of Email To The Universe (2005), Bob’s final book, largely a collection of articles and interviews. He had reproduced our Fortean Times interview on page 223 . .
In 2014, Ken’s daughter Daisy Eris Campbell adpated Cosmic Trigger for the stage. Her parents met during the original production of Illuminatus! and her middle name comes from goddess Eris, portrayed on stage by her mother Prunella Gee. Daisy owes her existence to a series of life-changing coincidences involving Robert Anton Wilson and her parents. When I talked to Bob for that last time in 2004, he was thrilled by the notion that Daisy might adapt his work for the stage. A decade on from that last encounter, and a mere 38 years after the original production hit the stage, Daisy Campbell’s sequel premiered in Liverpool and London. – James Nye, November 2014.
CHROMOSOME DAMAGE! – A RANDOM CONVERSATION
WITH ROBERT ANTON WILSON
Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007) was one of the most lively and perceptive commentators on the profundities and absurdities of contemporary knowledge, elevating philosophy to a branch of hilarity. His prolific output of influential novels, science fiction and science faction demonstrate his fortean credentials and his dedication to breaking down the barriers between systems of thought as diverse as quantum physics, psychoneurology, magick, tantric yoga and mediæval theology. At the time of this interview, Bob had spent recent months convalescing after the premature announcement of his death on the Internet (see Fortean Times 77: 51). Composer and vorticist James Nye caught up with Dr Wilson on a visit to London.
JN: What are your current views on the alien abduction phenomenon?
RAW: Jeff Mishlove has edited an enormous book called The Roots of Consciousness which examines classic cases of parapsychology over the last hundred years. Jeff has a masters in criminology, and the only Ph.D in parapsychology given by the University of California. He’s made a study of the phenomenon and concludes that there are various layers to it.
There are people who think they’ve been meddled with by ‘visitors’; others who think that relatives took them to satanic rituals where they were sexually abused and sacrifices occurred; and others who think that relatives abused them. Jeff’s conclusion is that they were probably sexually abused in childhood and this created a situation – a response to trauma – in which their fantasy life is just as real as their ordinary life, and they’re always working on variations on their traumatic memory. The abusers – real or imagined – become aliens, visitors, incubi or succubi. That’s one kind of case.
Others, I think, start out as sleep paralysis – a state I have experienced twice in my 60 years. In pure sleep paralysis, you simply feel paralysed and don’t know whether
you’re dreaming or awake. In other cases, this is accompanied by a nightmare-like fantasy; in my two cases, this merely consisted of a fearful sense that something awful was in the room. In each instance, I awoke before it went further. But I think for some reason it might escalate to a real hallucination, in which the “something awful” becomes any kind of monster you have in your fantasy library – aliens, demons, whatever.
JN: I have often wondered whether Whitley Strieber’s insistence on calling them ‘visitors’ rather than ‘aliens’ might be because of the absurdity of the notion of aliens coming half-way across the universe simply to shove a probe up a horror writer’s bottom . . . I mean, they’re obviously quite a local phenomenon . . .
RAW: Maybe he’s got the most adorable bum in the Galaxy, but somehow I doubt that. In the film of Communion there is a fascinating ending where he discusses the creatures as ‘masks of god’, and talks about the experience in terms of Chinese boxes. I suspect the ‘boxes’ or explanations, like sub-atomic ‘particles’, will go on forever, because our creative imagination has no limit.
JN: What about apparent physical phenomena connected with visitation – radiation burns, spirit rappings? The Elizabethan magus John Dee reported strange knockings which proceeded his visitation by ‘angels’, and Strieber also alleges hearing knocking patterns . . .
RAW: In my book The New Inquisition I describe Persinger’s theory that there are transient energy fluctuations in the Earth’s electromagnetic and gravitational fields which may account for poltergeist distrubances, cars stalling, televisions turning
themselves on and off, ball lightning – a great deal of the UFO experience. Persinger also describes how this might affect the brain and create hallucinations. I think Persinger has an explanation for much of the phenomenon, but not quite all. We are surrounded by equipment whose effects on us are not fully known. One of Philip K. Dick’s favourite themes was: How do we know that are brains aren’t continually being altered, that the reality we experience isn’t entirely programmed? The violence of Total Recall [the 1990 film version] is not PhilDickian, but they really got the mood right in the scene where the hero is told what he is experiencing ‘on Mars’ is being done to him in a laboratory, on Earth.
ON PHILIP K. DICK
JN: I once had a telepathic dream communication from Dick: “Experience of telepathy does not necessarily indicate psychosis”!
RAW: That sounds like Phil! Ray Nelson was going to collaborate with Phil on a novel
when Phil died. Nelson then began having dreams in which Phil started dictating the plot – so he’s working on it and going to publish it as a joint novel! [Ed. – This novel, called Virtual Zen, was eventually published as being solely by Nelson, who confirmed that he had departed from the original collaboration.] Another friend of Dick’s is D. Scott Apel who co-edits my Trajectories newsletter. He’s also working on a novel in dream collaboration with Dick. In the first dream, Phil told him that “the secret is in the centre of Disneyland”. The curious thing is that another friend goes to Disneyland once a year, takes acid and talks to Mickey Mouse. Whoever is in the suit gives answers to this fellow’s questions that seem profound enough to satisfy him. He is the only one I know whose god is visible, tangible and responsive.
JN: Dick thought at one time that he might have temporal lobe epilepsy – a type which might prompt visionary experiences. Strieber also tested (negatively) for TLE, and I understand it is one of the parts of the brain Persinger is interested in.
RAW: One of Phil’s therapists suggested that sexual abuse by his grandfather might have been the root of his problems, so this ties Phil in with current theories of the abduction phenomenon. But Phil had a much more developed mind than some of these victims and drew a whole cosmology out of it – one of the most fascinating world views I’ve ever studied. I often think his ideas make more sense than Christianity or Hinduism, or atheism or Forteanism, and then I think “this is the ravings of a madman, how did I get sucked into this!” But then I read more, and start to wonder again . . .
ON TIMOTHY LEARY
JN: I often wonder how much social isolation has to do with this. I’m not just thinking of Biblical prophets and hermits, but people in solitary confinement who sometimes start hallucinating within hours . . .
RAW: And yet some people do very well in solitary. Timothy Leary said it was one of the most productive periods of his life. He said the only person he had to talk to was the most intelligent person he knew. He had a great time philosophizing about the universe and his role in it. For someone who’s supposed to be brain damaged by drugs he’s pretty good at designing software.
It’s very strange that Leary’s books don’t sell well, but he does well on the lecture circuit. We’ve done a double act together: the Laurel and Hardy of the futurist intelligensia – or the space cadets – if you like. Leary’s books on psychology and cosmology are very far out; generally they are regarded as proof that his brain is blown by all the drugs he’s done. A few people I know understand them – we think they’re brilliant, but maybe our brains have been blown by those drugs too. He’s also writing very successful computer programs. For someone who’s supposed to be brain damaged by drugs, he’s pretty good at designing software.
Leary and I appeared at the Libertarian Party Convention in Chicago. Coming back on the plane we met Guns and Roses, who love him – everyone knows Leary. And Tim got drunker and drunker on his bottle of Scotch, and finally he says “Fuck it! I’m gonna have a cigarette!” You’re not allowed to smoke on US airlines any more, so the whole of Guns and Roses gathered round to conceal him. At this point, one of the stewards sees Leary’s smoking and comes over, and he says to Tim “I just want to tell you I think you’re right about everything!” When we got off the plane. Leary spotted a wheelchair and got a Joyce scholar to push it for him through the airport. I was a bit drunk too by then, so as we raced through the crowd, I pointed to Leary and shouted “Chromsome damage, chromosome damage!” Wonderful night, wonderful . . .
Moses parted the Red Sea
Oppenheimer split the atom
But “Bob” cut the crap
RAW: Well, Rev Ivan Stang (aka Douglas Smith) (above, right) told me I was one of his main inspirations – but maybe he says that to all writers he wants to get on the good side of. There are a lot of my ideas in the SubGenius mythos, so maybe “Bob” was named after me. . . Maybe I should start using the inverted commas?
JN: In your second volume of autobiography, Cosmic Trigger II, there is a hint of resignation. You say that you would like to be shot into space and listen to Scarlatti. Have you given up on mankind?
RAW: The book was an attempt to present different sides of my personality as they’ve developed in time, and so you get the past mixed up with the present. The past does not always unfold chronologically. It’s the same with ideas – some I held for a long time, some I held for just one afternoon. The book’s an attempt to show that there is no consistent ego. It’s a Buddhist book. So the resignation was just a mood that George Bush Senior put me in around the time of the Gulf War.
JN: One of the recurrent themes of your writing concerns belief. . .
RAW: Not believing in anything, not disbelieving in anything – that may be one of the most important of the ideas in my books, though I hardly invented it. It’s characteristic of modern physicists to have that attitude. It also ties in with Fort’s notion that the product of minds are not acceptable as subject matter for belief – except temporarily. CSICOP – the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal – for instance are profound believers in conventional paradigms. They call themselves ‘skeptics’, but Catholics are just as sceptical – only about different things. Everybody has an area of belief and an area of scepticism. CSICOP’s dogmas are as rigid as anyone else’s. I heard a bloke from CSICOP denouncing chircopractors on the radio. I got so pissed off I called in and quoted the Office of Technology Assessment of the National Science Institute in Washington. They regard something as scientifically confirmed if it has had a period of randomised double blind experiments which have been published in several refereed scientific journals. By that standard, 85 per cent of American medicine hasn’t been verified, so CSICOP is in no position to throw stones at chiropractors.
ON ALEISTER CROWLEY
JN: Much of your early writing is influenced by Aleister Crowley – do you have any reservations about him?
RAW: In Cosmic Trigger, I said that Crowley’s philosophy as a combination of anarchism, fascism, and anti-Christian propaganda is not very congenial to my form of Libertarianism. So I’ve always tried to make a distinction between his method and his philosophy. He is part anarchist, part fascist – I like the anarchist bit.
JN: One Crowleyite told me that Crowley’s magick is ‘qliphophthically booby-trapped’.
RAW: I’ve heard that – I don’t agree with it. I’ve done a lot of Crowley rituals and I don’t see any sign yet that I’ve been obsessed, possessed or otherwise taken over by qliphophthic energies or entities. I think it’s a paranoid anti-Crowley idea that’s been spread, and like much else in that field has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re worried that Crowley’s system is booby-trapped, and you start fooling around with it, you’re likely to suffer hallucinations that you are being attacked by demons. Similarly the fears of the dangers of LSD can precipitate a bad trip.
JN: In Cosmic Trigger, you hypothesize about apparent telepathic communication emanating from Sirius. What’s your view about those experiences now?
RAW: Sirius seems to have been in the air at the time. Doris Lessing wrote The Sirian Experiments around the same time I was having my Sirius experience. Phil Dick had his extraterrestrial experience (which for one reason or another, he connected with Sirius) about the same time. You see, I used to think he got the idea after he read Cosmic Trigger I, but one of the recent biographies of Phil makes it perfectly clear that he connected his experience with Sirius before he read Cosmic Trigger. So that makes it even more interesting!
JN: The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who wrote a long work called Sirius (1975-1977), may have got his notions about the star from Edgard Varèse, who was involved with the late 19th Century Parisian Rosicrucian revival. Perhaps Varèse got it from there – or from the writings of Paracelsus with whom he was fascinated. It was Varèse who commissioned Artaud to write The Firmament is No More, based on his own apocalyptic outline for a projected music theatre piece concerning Sirius. I wonder if the Rosicrucians are the source for Varèse – especially with the importance of Sirius to occult groups such as the OTO and A∴A∴ which you have traced?
[Editor’s Note 2004: Actually, Varèse would have been far to young at the time of Sâr Péladan‘s Salons Rose+Croix. However, he studied at the Schola Cantorum at the same time as the much older composer Erik Satie. Satie had been ‘court composer’ to Péladan’s Salons Rose+Croix in the 1890s, and Varèse always valued very highly the compositions Satie wrote during that period – and those of the period immediately after his break with Péladan, in which Satie wrote his Messe des Pauvres for his own mystical church, L’Eglise Métropolitaine d’Art de Jésus Conducteur, of which Satie was Parcier, Maître de Chapelle, and the only member – and from which he gleefully excommunicated his critics, enemies and those who offended his æsthetic sensibilities.]
RAW: Well, there are a lot of occult traditions connected with Sirius. Among other things, Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, so if people are going to focus on anything out there -especially in the ancient world – Sirius would be very important. Particularly in Egypt, where it happens to rise just at the same time the Nile starts its annual flooding. I mention in Cosmic Trigger something I picked up from Theosophy: just as in yoga you activate the heart chakra and then move the energy up to the crown chakra: this is happening to the ‘Cosmic Being’ which is trying to move the energy up from our Sun to Sirius.
Later in Dublin I met somebody who told me – on the basis of God knows what authority besides his own imagination – that above the 33rd degree of Masonry, unknown to the world, there is actually an illuminated inner circle which is in touch with Sirius. I thought I’d invented that myself, but this guy is telling me this like it’s an inner secret of Masonry! But maybe that’s what Hugh Kenner calls an ‘Irish fact’, which is quite unlike an English fact, an American fact, or a French fact, and has no connection with a scientific fact. An Irish fact has the wonderful Dalìesque fluidity of a melting clock and the Joycean uncertainty of a rubber inch.
RAW: Well, it came out after I had my experiences (which I first attributed to Sirius, and then to the Pookah, a giant white rabbit from County Kerry – depending on which metaphor suited me at the time). His book came out after the experiences, and just at the point when I was giving up Sirius as an explanation for my experiences, and more inclined to look at it in terms of brain processes: the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere talking to each other, learning to communicate. So I was just about through with the Sirius model, and then Temple’s book came out trying to show that there had been connections between Earth and Sirius for about 4,000 years! So it did make me look back and reconsider the Sirius aspect of it. And then along came Phil Dick’s novel VALIS!
JN: So the Sirius model could be a screen for something more personal?
RAW: That’s what I think most of the time. Every now and then something about Sirius comes to me from somewhere and I start thinking, Well who knows, maybe I should take it literally? But that’s five per cent of the time; 95 per cent of the time I tend to look at it as neurological evolution.
JN: How then do you acount for the Dogon tribe of Mali apparently knowing about Sirius B, the dwarf companion to Sirius which cannot be seen by the naked eye – and was only photographed using the most powerful telescopes in the early 1970s?
RAW: I don’t account for that. I regard that as a mystery. I remember that a writer in CSICOP’s journal The Skeptical Inquirer pointed out that they could have learnt about this from a Jesuit missionary or a wandering explorer, or a merchant who digs astronomy – and I thought, yeah, all of that is possible. But then the writer concludes that therefore we don’t have to take it
seriously. Hell, the writer’s mother could have got knocked up by the grocer or the delivery boy, or the ice man, or the postman – therefore we don’t have to consider the hypothesis that his conception might have been due to the guy actually known as his father!
I didn’t bother sending that additional bit of scepticism to them because I knew they wouldn’t print it. They’re very selective about what they doubt.
JN: Temple also seems to have been at pains to point out that the Dogons got their information from ancient Egyptian sources as well – so the question is really how did the Egyptians know of Sirius B’s existence?
RAW: I have an open mind about these things, but don’t have any dogmas. I await further enlightenment.
Footnote : Timothy Leary (pictured below during an earlier arrest) was recently apprehended for smoking a cigarette in an airport in Austin, Texas, whilst protesting against “political correctness and the demonization of smokers.” (Life, The Observer, 29 May 1994.) Text copyright © James Nye 1994, 2004, 2014.