Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Illuminatus

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Over the last few months, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Robert Anton Wilson, the late author whom I’d be comfortable describing as one of my intellectual heroes. There was a time when I seriously considered writing a book about his life, and I’m not sure that I won’t try it eventually. Wilson may not have had the range or the depth of the greatest science fiction writers, but at his best, he was at least their equal as a craftsman, infinitely funnier, and probably more sane. He was one of the few people to ever make it seem cool to be an agonistic, and his skepticism, which was genuine, makes much of what goes by that name these days seem like its own form of closemindedness. Wilson’s stated goal, which shouldn’t diminish his considerable merits as a pure entertainer, was “to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone but agnosticism about everything.” He achieved this, notably, not by preaching to the converted or by humorlessly attacking those with whom he disagreed, but by constructing elegant intellectual games that he presented with such a straight face that you weren’t sure whether or not he was kidding. The most famous is deservedly the 23 enigma, in which he followed William S. Burroughs in “finding” that number in everything from biblical chronology to the life of the gangster Dutch Schultz. (It’s been a while since I was conscious of it operating in my own life, but I notice now that Astounding is scheduled to be released on October 23, which is the anniversary of the day on which Schultz was shot.)

But what I like the most about Wilson, who was supremely confident and stylish on the page, is that he knew that he didn’t have all the answers. Oddly enough, this isn’t always true within science fiction, which deals by definition in uncertainty. The four subjects of Astounding could be infuriatingly sure of themselves, and unlike Campbell or Heinlein, when Wilson said he only wanted to raise questions, you could believe him. His attitude didn’t reflect a lack of intelligence, rigor, or strong opinions, but the exact opposite. The 23 enigma itself is a virtuoso piece of performance art on both the potential and the limits of cleverness, while in The Illuminatus Trilogy, Wilson and Robert Shea say of the related Law of Five:

All phenomena are directly or indirectly related to the number five, and this relationship can always be demonstrated, given enough ingenuity on the part of the demonstrator…That’s the very model of what a true scientific law must always be: a statement about how the human mind relates to the cosmos.

Wilson’s ingenuity shines through every page that he ever wrote, and he had such an abundance of it that he became intensely skeptical of where it led. As a result, he never used his position of authority to present his ideas as authoritative—which is a temptation that few other science fiction writers have managed to resist.

And when you look at Wilson’s actual beliefs, what you find can be a little surprising. He opens the revised edition of Cosmic Trigger, which is probably his single best book, what seems like a definitive statement: “Many people still think I ‘believe’ some of the metaphors and models employed here. I therefore want to make it even clearer than ever before that I DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING.” For once, however, he’s being disingenuous. Wilson may not believe anything, but he’s come to some provisional conclusions about what matters, and you find them throughout his work. For instance, he writes of the editorial stance of Playboy magazine, where he used to run the letters column: “This position is straight old-fashioned mind-your-own-business John Stuart Mill libertarianism, and (since that is my philosophy as well as Hefner’s) I enjoyed the work immensely.” A few pages later, he writes of his introduction to the underground writer Kerry Thornley:

We were both opposed to every form of violence or coercion against individuals, whether practiced by governments or by people who claimed to be revolutionaries…At times we discussed free-floating libertarian communes in international waters, which in my case gave birth to the anarchist submarine fantasy in Illuminatus, and, later, to enthusiastic support of the Space Migration plans of [Timothy] Leary and Prof. Gerard O’Neill.

Wilson describes Cosmic Trigger itself as an account of “a process of deliberately induced brain change,” and much of the book is devoted to a sympathetic discussion of Leary’s “SMI²LE” program: “SM (Space Migration) + I² (Intelligence Increase) + LE (Life Extension).”

In other words, Wilson was a libertarian transhumanist with an interest in space travel, seasteading, and life extension, including cryonics. You know what that sounds like to me? It sounds like Peter Thiel—and I can’t stand Peter Thiel. And the difference isn’t just that the latter is a billionaire preparing his own survival plan, although that’s certainly part of it. I’m not a libertarian, but I have nothing against the other elements in that program, as long as they’re combined with an awareness of other urgent problems and of how most people want to live their lives. Yet it really comes down again to the question of uncertainty. Our most prominent contemporary futurists can come across as curiously resistant to questioning, doubt, or criticism—which Wilson recognized as central to such thinking. When you’re talking about immortality, space colonization, and brain engineering, it seems reasonable to start by acknowledging how little we know or can foresee, as well as the strong possibility that we might be totally wrong. It might also help to show a sense of humor. And I frankly don’t associate any of these qualities with most of the public figures driving our current conversation about the future, who hate and resent being questioned. (It’s impossible to imagine Wilson ever lashing out with the toxic insecurity that we’ve seen in Elon Musk, who looks smaller and more Trumpian by the day.) It’s also significant that neither Wilson nor Leary were in a position to benefit financially from the changes that they advocated. We desperately need to think about the future, but we can’t afford to be humorless about it, and in these troubled times, I miss the man who was able to write on his blog five days before his death: “I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying. Please pardon my levity, I don’t see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd.”

Written by nevalalee

July 16, 2018 at 9:12 am

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