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January 29, 2019 / The Frogweb

Robert Anton Wilson: Things Are Not All Dark

Robert A. Wilson 2004 cropI first met Robert Anton Wilson through my friendship with Ken Campbell. I’d read many of Bob’s books and, though I didn’t agree with him about everything, enjoyed his humour and intelligence things he had in common with Ken who famously adapted Bob’s Illuminatus! trilogy for the stage.

Bob and his co-author Robert Shea both came to London to see the show when it transferred to the National Theatre in 1976. This was a key moment for Bob. His teenage daughter had recently be murdered and he had become dispirited and depressed. Ken and the cast which included Jim Broadbent, Ken’s then girlfriend Prunella Gee, David Rappaport, Bill Nighy and many others, none of them at the time famous or rich clubbed together and bought Bob a transatlantic plane ticket, telling him it was a special bursary for American authors.

The production gave Bob the boost he needed to get back to writing. The result was Cosmic Trigger (1977), the first in a series of idiosyncratic autobiographies that explained his philosophical quests and intellectual interests, his taste for the mysterious, the eccentric and funny. He dedicated the book to Ken Campbell and the cast:

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I spent a bit of time with Robert Anton Wilson on his occasional visits to London. He also generously corresponded with characteristic friendliness, avuncular concern and humour, first through regular mail, then via email when it became available.

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Robert Anton Wilson in 2004

My last interview came about  in 2004 when I travelled to his home in California to see him one last time. I’d made a film especially for Bob of Ken Campbell performing what became his penultimate one man show, Ken Campbell’s Meaning of Life. It was meant to cheer up Bob and show him he was still valued and admired.

I knew Bob had been pretty unwell but was still shocked by the much-wizened man who greeted me in November 2004. His beloved wife Arlen Riley Wilson had died in 1999 and Bob had largely cared for her at home through her final illness. He had also suffered the return of his childhood polio symptoms which meant he had struggled to learn to walk again for the third time in his life. He was clearly frail and still limited in his movement. Though 72, physically he seemed very old indeed. The polio affected his voice, as did his new dentures, and, like me, he was pretty tired so I suggest you watch the video of the interview with subtitles. I’ve also transcribed the interview below.

illuminatus_nt_posterI spent a few days with Bob. He was initially pretty subdued — a little depressed by the recent election of George W. Bush. The threat of this happening had persuaded Bob to vote, even though his usual motto was Don’t vote — it only encourages them! The need to vote, always, was just one of the handful of things I disagreed with Bob about. He was, I think, politically and philosophically, in the tradition (if such a thing can be said to exist) of American anarcho-libertarian romantic idealists and futurist dreamers. Grim reality often forces us to choose the least worst option in elections. If enough intelligent people disdain to vote, the consequences — as we’ve all discovered to our cost — can be disastrous.

“Goddamn there’s a lot of stupid bastards walking around. Carry a pad and pencil with you, you’ll wind up with thirty or forty names by the end of the day. Think about this; think about how stupid the average person is, and then realize that half of ’em are stupider than that.” — George Carlin

The visit cheered Bob up a bit. One evening I met his friend and sometime collaborator D. Scott Apel, whom I also interviewed, and Bob took us to his favourite restaurant. It was heart-warming and reassuring to discover that Scott, his partner, and a small coterie of local friends and admirers (including the makers of the Wilson documentary Maybe Logic) helped keep Bob going. When the need arose, they even raised money for medical care in his final years.

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Jim Broadbent in Illuminatus!

In the interview, Bob talks about the need for courage in the face of understandable despair. Part of my interest in his writing was due to his ideas on self-analysis and transformation. He had suffered periods of quite severe depression and so had I. These days I am more sceptical of some of the ideas he espoused, including some that flowed from the positive psychology movement. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my early 20s and, three decades later, I can tell you that though optimism can help, no amount of positive thinking was enough to manage such a challenge. Indeed, striving after happiness, even through positive psychology, can lead to unintended misery. I am also sceptical of NLP and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), just two of the sources, along with the writings of Alfred Korzybski, of Bob’s ideas. Like Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Smile or Die, I think pronoia can be as dangerous as paranoia — that uncritical ‘positive thinking’ can lead us astray with sometimes terrible consequences. However hard it is, however grim human nature, we should ultimately acknowledge and face reality rather than deny it or run from it. (Regular holidays from reality, in literature and the arts, are essential though.)

“…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

The painter Francis Bacon was famously “optimistic optimistic about nothing. Just optimistic.” That’s one way of protecting yourself against the inevitable disillusion and despair that follow being optimistic about specific things (like human progress, the idea that we are rational beings, or the concept of innate human goodness). But something that strikes me as being more in accordance with Bob’s insistence in the liberating importance of neither believing nor disbelieving in anything; with his own refusal to see things in binary oppositions (yes/no, black/white, good/bad etc ) with his observation that as well as true and false the universe contains a maybe, is this:

How about being neither optimistic nor pessimistic – just taking things as they come? Something like realism, in fact. After all, optimism and pessimism are, like Kipling’s Triumph and Disaster, imposters. Things are in a permanent state of flux — including are impressions and understanding of what the hell’s going on. Hold on to the centre.

I can’t help wondering. Perhaps we wouldn’t get quite so depressed if we didn’t expect so much of human nature.

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John Dee, Elizabethan mathematician and magus whose angelic magick often resulted in strange manifestations.

Though I shared Bob’s fascination with the renaissance angel magic of John Dee and Edward Kelly and its modern reinvention by Aleister Crowley their bastard child, I never saw the idea of actually practising it as anything other than very silly and potentially deranging. As with Wilhelm Reich and his orgone, I think Bob often romantically identified with historical and near contemporary mavericks however dubious their ideas. One case in point is Linus Pauling. True, he was selected as one of the twenty greatest scientist of all time for his work in quantum chemistry and molecular biology but he was almost certainly wrong in his advocacy of megadoses of vitamin C. Similarly, in his non-fiction books, Bob saw much that just isn’t there in quantum mechanics and the science of the multiverse. I also think the view he expresses in the interview regarding poverty was overly optimistic and western. The global picture is much less rosy, whilst in western countries wealth disparity has increased exponentially, and austerity programmes have caused great misery, the resurgence of Dickensian illnesses and death.

027-everything-under-control-1st ed.jpgAlthough the internet has allowed activists to pressure governments and bring about changes beneficial to society and the planet, merely spreading information and communication as widely as possible as Bob advocates in the 2004 interview has not so far had the effects Bob imagined. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him think. As much as it has made accurate information available, the internet has also encouraged the spread of mis- and disinformation, as well as a burgeoning culture of increasingly intrusive corporate and governmental surveillance effectively the invention of surveillance capitalism and new methods of behavioural prediction and control. It turns out you often can’t persuade people to abandon even the most ludicrous belief systems with rational debate, especially if they have strong emotional reasons for adhering to those beliefs.

Like me, Bob was an amused connoisseur of conspiracy theories, enjoying them as a means of challenging consensus (socially constructed) reality as much as for their entertainment value. I no longer find them funny. Of course individuals, businesses and governments do conspire, positively and nefariously, against other individuals and groups and always have done. But the internet, far from spreading enlightenment, has allowed the transmission and fomenting of aggressively stupid ideas. I’m not sure Bob would be sanguine about this. I worked in a bookshop for a while and once asked him whereabouts we should place his non-fiction books in the new Mind, Body, Spirit section. He said he didn’t mind so long as they were as far away as possible from those of David Icke.

I disagree too with Bob’s drug advocacy. Discussing psychotherapy with me, Bob eulogised LSD, something he said his friend Bob Shea was too nervous to try. Needless to say I quietly demurred. Bob Wilson seemed to think that since he had enjoyed and benefited from scores of LSD trips, the same would be true for anyone. True, recent research into therapeutic use of LSD, psilocybin and MDMA for treatment of depression and PTSD shows some promise. It’s still early days though and I suspect someone like me, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, would be screened out as too risky a subject.

Although he did issue warnings about drug use, I still think Bob was sometimes not mindful enough of their potential dangers he generalised too widely from his own personal experience. Self-medication with any recreational mood altering drug is unlikely to really help with anxiety and serious mood disorders, let alone anything as grave as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

023-reality-is-what-youOne thing Bob does get wrong in the interview is the prevalence of bipolar disorder. It definitely isn’t the most common form of depression he’s thinking of unipolar depression. He’s right, though, that you need courage to survive it. People who have suffered from depression and psychosis are some of the bravest and most resilient people I know. I met some of them during my own hospitalisations for mental illness. Less than a year before I ventured on that expensive (and possibly hypomania-fuelled) trip to California, I had been in a psychiatric ward for six weeks with severe depression. Eighteen months after that visit, I was in hospital again for another few weeks after a bout of hypomania. Fortunately, in my 40s I did gain more control over my illness. I will always be vulnerable but have never been quite as ill again.

I’m still fond of Bob’s books, his humour and intelligent curiosity about the world. One of his greatest influences on me is what he eventually called maybe logic the idea that doubt exists in every circumstance. We cannot be certain of anything and admitting this prevents us from dogmatism or blind faith in any paradigm we invent. This doesn’t mean that nothing is true, only that we can only approach the truth imperfectly. Doubt is the beginning of wisdom, so they say.

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David Rappaport in Illuminatus!

Bob sometimes referred to this as ‘model agnosticism’. All we have with which to navigate reality are human-created maps or models of how things are, each partial and imperfect. Believing one or other of these models to be the final, true, accurate depiction of reality is merely deifying a model. Scientific models (unlike religious ones) are, by their nature, temporary and open to revision. Whatever ultimate truth there is, it exists independently of our belief or disbelief in it. “Reality,” as Bob’s friend Philip K. Dick once said, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Beliefs are, then, irrelevant as is what we choose to disbelieve. Only evidence matters, and the likelihood of something being true or false. If something is extremely unlikely, only substantive evidence should persuade us that that something might be true.

So Bob advocated not believing or disbelieving in anything whether that be alien abductions, trickle down economics, homeopathy, God or string theory. By not shackling ourselves to belief or disbelief we thereby allow ourselves the intellectual freedom to explore any idea or viewpoint. Ken Campbell translated this as the freedom to suppose. “Do I believe or disbelieve in anything?” he asks in his show, Ken Campbell’s Meaning of Life. “No. But I can suppose it!”

029-email-to-the-universeBob survived through various health scares until 2007, occasionally announcing his imminent demise via email. Gone was his former enthusiasm for life extension and romantic longings for immortality. With so much gone that he valued, having endured much suffering, I like to think Bob had reconciled himself to his own mortality. While I have reservations about many of his ideas, I still think his books have much to offer. But as a human being I found him a most admirable man, devoted to his wife and family, thoughtful and generous to his friends. “Have I done good?” he once asked me, suddenly frail and in need of reassurance. “Yes,” I told him. “You did good.”

Bob had one last joke for me. The number 23 figures significantly in his personal mythology and Ken Campbell had found details of an inspiring dream of Liverpool on page 223 of Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections a dream that led to both the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool and his production of Illuminatus! In Bob’s book Cosmic Trigger, a reference to Ken and the show is also on page 223:

ken-in-cosmic-trigger-2Bob’s last book, Email to the Universe, a collection of essays and interviews, reprints my Fortean Times interview with him on page 223:

email-to-universe-223

 

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Robert Anton Wilson interviewed by James Nye Santa Cruz, 11 November 2004

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Ken Campbell (left) reunited with Robert Anton Wilson in a café in London. Photo © James Nye 1992.

JN: I first met Ken Campbell in the pages of a book. Ken, and the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool he co-founded, are the dedicatees of comedic philosopher Robert Anton Wilson’s first 1977 volume of memoirs Cosmic Trigger.

005b-illuminatus-vol1Ken also makes cameo appearances in Wilson’s novels the Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy (1979) and Masks of the Illuminati (1981). Why? Well, Bob was forever grateful to Ken and his anarchic gang for their stage adaptation of the monumental conspiracy epic Illuminatus! that he’d written with Robert Shea. This celebrated production, which premiered on 23rd November 1976, is now something of a legend. Its transfer to the Royal National Theatre came at a time when Robert Anton Wilson was traumatised and deeply depressed by the murder by thieves of his young daughter Luna. On returning from seeing and participating in the show in England, Bob at last started to write again Cosmic Trigger was born.

Through Ken I met and interviewed Bob in the early 1990s for Fortean Times. We corresponded from then on and he was always generous and encouraging. In the last few years of his life, Bob was demoralized by the death of his beloved wife and muse Arlen Riley Wilson and the return of his agonizing and crippling polio symptoms.

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In November 2004 I wanted to get Ken and Bob together one last time. But Ken balked at the prospect of flying to California. The next best thing was to film Ken at his home in Essex and take that film to Bob in Santa Cruz.

Bob was a wonderful host, buoyed up by the visit and the prospect of a revival of Illuminatus! which was mooted at the time. But he was reluctant to grant an interview in his frail condition. On 11th November 2004, the last day of my visit, he finally relented. “I better put my teeth in!” he said.

I first asked him if, like William Burroughs, he had any advice for young people.

RAW: Yeah, don’t give up! Young people tend to give up too easily. They tend to think the world is against them, the world is hopeless and so on. The longer you live, the more you realise, no matter how much they take away from you, there’s something they can’t take away. Hang on to what they can’t take away and don’t worry about the rest of it. That’s my advice to young people.

I was very suicidal in my 20s up until I got married then I couldn’t afford to be suicidal any more. I tend to think all young people are suicidal. A lot of them are — especially since George Bush just won the election!

JN: So marriage was one of the things that. . .

RAW: In my case, in my case.

JN: Or a good partnership, shall we say?

RAW: A good partnership, yeah. Let’s be more general about it.

JN: What would you say were the most important messages people should get from your books?

maybe-logic-rawRAW: If we all said “maybe” more often the world might go stark staring sane! Can you imagine [evangelist nutcase] Jerry Falwell going, “Maybe Jesus is the Son of God! And maybe he hates gay people as much as I do!” Can you imagine every minaret in Islam resounding with “Maybe there is no god but Allah! And maybe Mohammed is his prophet!” That would be the beginning of sanity wouldn’t it?

That’s one of the ideas. Another idea is every power structure has bad communication. The only way to make that communication as accurate as possible, and therefore make our behaviour as intelligent as possible, is to spread information around spread communication as much as possible. Everything that makes communication faster and more accessible I regard as good. Everything that blocks communication, whether that’s monopolies or censorship, I regard as bad.

Well, that’s two major ideas in my work anyway! Hey, how about that! I could think of two of them right away!

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James Nye & Robert Anton Wilson in Santa Cruz, 2004

JN: We’ve been talking over the last few days and you’ve said that one of the most important developments is the internet.

RAW: Yeah, well the internet is making it possible for more and more people to dialogue with more and more people. It seems to me that wonderful ideas of anarchism in the 19th century about voluntary association syndicates rather than coercion well, that’s more and more happening on internet. I think as time passes we’ll get more used to doing everything on internet and ignoring the government until it goes away! I really think that’s going to happen, and Buckminster Fuller thought so too and he was no dumbbell!

rbfuller-stampBucky: You never try to persuade anybody. You don’t try to sell anything. You see what needs to be done and you do it!

JN: I started reading your books I think in my early 20s and I think I was pretty suicidal as well at the time. . .

RAW: Yeah. You see what I mean? A friend of mine once told me everyone tries to commit suicide at 23! That was before I got fascinated with the number 23. Maybe he said 22 I’m not sure. I remember at 22 and 23 I was really. . . I thought the whole goddamn world was such a mess, what’s the point of trying to do anything. I couldn’t get a good job that I liked, there was nothing in politics that seemed hopeful. The whole world seemed to be getting ready for an atomic war. . .

Look at it now. It’s not much better, but it’s certainly not any worse! It just seems worse if you’re new to it.

JN: What I got from your books was a real sense of optimism. Particularly books like Cosmic Trigger and Prometheus Rising, gave me the message that change was possible. It was possible for me to change myself and I wouldn’t be stuck.

RAW: Yeah, I believe that. I believe we have more capacity for growth than we realise. And especially we have more courage than we realise too. Courage is very important in my philosophy. I don’t think I emphasized it enough in my books. You’ve got to have the guts to go on struggling. When you do that you find it’s easier than you thought. The hard parts aren’t going to destroy you they’re just hard parts.

006a-cosmic-trigger-1-later-ed-1991People are too afraid of the world, I think young people. That’s what I mean to convey: optimism and hope. What’s the sense of writing a book and telling people to be more pessimistic than they are already?! What’s the point of that! Most people are so damned pessimistic these days, that they. . . you know. We live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau said. Everybody’s on one dope or another. There’s the legal ones and the illegal ones it doesn’t make any difference. Everyone’s on tranquillizers or pot, or something or other! It’s the only way to survive this brutal environment.

JN: Certainly you gave me both the idea that it was possible to reprogram myself, and some of the techniques of how to do so. And one of the reasons I wanted to come and say hello was to thank you, really.

RAW: Well thank you for travelling all this way to tell me!

JN: But one of the things that impressed me the most was, when I was really down a couple of years ago you sent me an email. What you said was, “Always remember that every dark night of the soul is followed by a golden dawn.”

RAW: I wrote that?! That sounds rather extravagant for me. Oh well, if you say so, I must have written it!

JN: You did, and it really meant something to me.

RAW: Yeah, well that’s true. The most common form of depression is the bipolar thing. That always ends it’s just part of a cycle. And you can smooth out the cycle so that the rough parts are less rough, you know. And as for the world situation, actually most people in the world are better off than they ever were before. Really they are. Just read Dickens, just read Dostoevsky if you want to read what things were like 100 or 150 years ago. Read Dante to know what things were like 600 years ago! And the poor are much better off than the poor were a 100 years. . . even in Roosevelt’s day.

Things are not all dark it just seems that way from certain angles.

JN: As I’ve got older I think I have changed and found ways to be pretty optimistic.

RAW: Oh good! Good. You’re more creative if you’re optimistic.

JN: Just a couple of questions to end about Illuminatus! I remember you wrote in Cosmic Trigger that you took part in the production when it transferred to the Royal National Theatre.

RAW: Yeah.

JN: And you took part in the witches’ sabbat scene. Is that right?

RAW: That’s right, yeah. I was one of the people running around in robes.

JN: And you took great delight, I think, in mooning the audience?

RAW: I didn’t moon the audience! Heathcote Williams lifted my robe from behind to moon the audience! Heathcote Williams, the playwright, actor etc.

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Neil Cunningham & Prunella Gee

JN: Have you any reminiscences of that production? You travelled to see it with Bob Shea as well?

RAW: That’s right, yeah. Well I remember I liked Ken a lot. I liked Neil Cunningham who played Hagbard Celine. I liked the whole cast. I liked Prue [Prunella Gee]. I remember I gave an interview to one journal when I was stoned. . . The next day I was astounded to see in the paper I was quoted as saying, “This is nothing to do with art. It’s too late in the day for art. This is magic!” I figured I had said that! Boy was I stoned when I said that!

JN: Illuminatus! is a very rich and complex book. Do you have any advice for people coming to it fresh, who’ve never read your work before?

013-prometheus-risingRAW: Read something else first! I’m very fond of Illuminatus! I like it a lot. But over the years I’ve realised how hard it is for newcomers. Read an easier one of my books first to persuade yourself I’m worth reading, and then plunge into Illuminatus! And a lot of people plunged into Illuminatus! and liked it. But still I keep hearing these types of people who can’t figure out whose voice. . . I figured if I changed the style for each speaker, then they’ll know who’s speaking. But most people don’t listen that closely to what they read. They don’t know who’s speaking. If you read it out loud I think you have a clearer idea of who’s speaking. I don’t just change in paragraphs, sometimes I change in the middle of a sentence, you know, for the hell of it!

008a-schr-coverIf you follow the tone and the intonation and the vocabularies and so on, you’ll know who’s speaking and then it’s easier to follow. I’m not discouraging people from reading it I just mean if you do find it hard, read something easier by me. Try Schrödinger’s Cat, or better still try Prometheus Rising. Nobody ever had any trouble with that!

JN: I’m very fond of Masks of the Illuminati as well.

RAW: Yeah, me too.

JN: There’s a scene with Einstein, Jung and Aleister Crowley towards the end, which is fantastic. And of course Ken Campbell who adapted and directed the first stage production of Illuminatus! — he appears as a very minor character.

RAW: As a wrestler as a matter of fact.

010-masks-of-the-illuminati coverJN: As a wrestler, yeah.

RAW: I wish he’d do a production of Masks of the Illuminati. I always thought that would work on the stage better than [Illuminatus!] very easily. It doesn’t need much adaptation really.

JN: Well his daughter Daisy is, as you know, working on a new production of Illuminatus!

RAW: Yeah, I know, I know, I know. I’m thrilled!

Text and images copyright © 2019 James Nye

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