Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Shea

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

The Rotary Club Booster

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L. Ron Hubbard was unquestionably one of the more incredible figures of the twentieth century, but popular culture, which hasn’t been shy about going after Scientology itself, has tended to steer clear of his life and personality as a source for stories. One exception is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which is less about Hubbard than an electrifying mediation on the nature of dianetic auditing. Another is Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, which features a villain, whom we glimpse only briefly, with the evocative name of L. Bob Rife. Hubbard isn’t the only inspiration here—there are equally obvious affinities to Ted Turner—but many of the parallels are intriguing. Rife is a seafaring media mogul who starts a religion using a form of mind control based on the phenomenon of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. It perpetuates itself through a franchise of churches called Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates, as the lead character, Hiro, explains:

[Rife] constructed a string of self-supporting religious franchises all over the world, and used his university, and its Metaverse campus, to crank out tens of thousands of missionaries, who fanned out all over the Third World and began converting people by the hundreds of thousands…L. Bob Rife has taken xenoglossia and perfected it, turned it into a science…[His followers] will act out L. Bob Rife’s instructions as though they have been programmed to. And right now, he has about a million of these people poised off the California coast.

And Hiro concludes darkly: “L. Bob Rife’s glossolalia cult is the most successful religion since the creation of Islam.”

A big chunk of Snow Crash is devoted to a reinterpretation of Sumerian religion as a form of neurolinguistic programming, most of which is delivered in the form of long conversations between the characters. (This is actually the least successful part of the novel—it seems to be trying to pull off what Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea did in The Illuminatus Trilogy, but it ends up sounding more like an anticipation of Dan Brown, complete with people who say things like “Bear with me.”) The central figure is the mythological hero Enki, who developed a linguistic virus that led to the origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. After stumbling across this fact, another character in the novel, Lagos, begins to look for additional information in the remains of cuneiform tablets:

The surviving Sumerian myths exist in fragments and have a bizarre quality. Lagos compared them to the imaginings of a febrile two-year-old. Entire sections of them simply cannot be translated—the characters are legible and well-known, but when put together they do not say anything that leaves an imprint on the modern mind…There is a great deal of monotonous repetition. There is also a fair amount of what Lagos described as “Rotary Club Boosterism”—scribes extolling the superior virtue of their city over some other city.

Eventually, Lagos manages to reconstruct the original virus, which Rife then steals for his own benefit. To stretch the analogy a bit, you could say that the Enki myth plays much the same role for Rife that the Xenu material does for Hubbard, except that within the plot of Snow Crash, it happens to be real.

But the part that really catches my eye is the odd reference to religion as a form of “Rotary Club Boosterism.” If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember that this is remarkably close to what the journalist William Bolitho says of Muhammad in his book Twelve Against the Gods:

The start of Mahomet’s adventure, or in its more usual synonym, the basis of the Mahomedan religion, is this preoccupation of his with the fortunes of his native town. Squeamish pedantry may object to the triviality of the phrase which fits nevertheless with a precision no other can give: Mahomet was a “home-town booster,” and this conception will unlock the many obscurities of his life and his doctrine, with which the most subtle theological speculations and the most careful minutiae of history are incapable of coping with. The door by which he enters is this: “How can we attract the whole world, at least the whole of Arabia, yearly to the Ka’ba?” And the vision of One God, greatest common denominator of religion, is the solution, not the prime inspiration. In fact Mahomedanism is a religion, because Mecca’s problem, as a religious town, was religious. The rhapsodies, the epilepsies of the man while he is still struggling toward his invention, are the symptoms of a process which they sometimes assist and sometimes retard; if they were taken as analogous to the painful mental straining of a Rotarian enthusiast racking his brain for a world-beating slogan for the town of his heart it might be irreverent…but it would not be a joke; nor a mistake.

The italics are mine. And one of Bolitho’s fans was none other than L. Ron Hubbard, who once described Muhammad in a lecture as “a good small-town booster.”

The use of the phrase “Rotary Club Boosterism” in this context is so peculiar that I can hardly help concluding that Stephenson is quoting Bolitho. As far as I can tell, he’s never made this connection in public, although it isn’t hard to believe that he would have read Twelve Against the Gods, since his appetite for this kind of material seems limitless. (The fact that Elon Musk is also a big fan of the book makes me want to trace its subterranean passage from the hand of one futurist to another, which would be an adventure in itself.) I don’t know Stephenson’s work well enough to talk about it further, so I’m just going to throw it out here in case someone else finds it useful—which brings us, in a way, back to Snow Crash. Hiro’s job, as described by Stephenson, is that of a “freelance stringer” who assembles and distributes information like this for its own sake:

The business is a simple one. Hiro gets information. It may be gossip, videotape, audiotape, a fragment of a computer disk, a xerox of a document. It can even be a joke based on the latest highly publicized disaster. He uploads it to the CIC database—the Library, formerly the Library of Congress, but no one calls it that anymore…Millions of other CIC stringers are uploading millions of other fragments at the same time. CIC’s clients, mostly large corporations and Sovereigns, rifle through the Library looking for useful information, and if they find a use for something that Hiro put in it, Hiro gets paid.

Stephenson finishes: “[Hiro] has been learning the hard way that 99 percent of the information in the library never gets used at all.” Which is probably true of this blog, too. But here’s one more piece.

“Someone was here…”

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"Layered the lasagna and garlicked the bread..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 38. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’ve written before about the reasons I’m drawn to conspiracy fiction, but one point I’d like to underline is that it turns the characters into surrogates for the author himself. To an even greater extent than that most clichéd of fictions, a novel about a novelist, a properly constructed conspiracy story allows the writer to dramatize the heart of the creative process. Writing, after all, is really just a search—or imposition—of patterns on the larger world. Confronted with the confusion of reality, our natural impulse is to tell stories about it. These stories can be attempts to give order to the events of our own lives, to history, and, perhaps most crucially, to the inward consciousness of others, and a novelist in the middle of a long project resembles a paranoiac in at least one way: in the end, everything seems connected. The best conspiracy novels take this process and literalize it, following a character as he or she searches for meaning, discovers patterns, and sees structure where none was there before. If every novel is ultimately about the process of its own creation, that goes double for conspiracy fiction, which captures something essential about the writing life that you don’t find in any other genre.

Of course, that isn’t true of all conspiracy novels. For the story to truly mirror the author’s journey, it needs to be approached with a touch of irony, rather than with earnest prefaces stating that most of what follows is true. The gold standard for this kind of novel remains Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which has influenced me, sometimes perniciously, ever since I first encountered it at age thirteen. The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea—as well as Wilson’s subsequent work—has been hugely important to me as well. But the acknowledged master of conspiracy fiction, at least of the kind we’re discussing here, is Thomas Pynchon, whose Gravity’s Rainbow is my favorite American novel, largely because it reimagines history into a paranoid shape that implicates the reader as well as the characters. Pynchon’s grand theme is information, and how our access to endless amounts of it makes the world paradoxically harder to understand. And Pynchon’s greatness as a novelist—aside from his staggering level of talent—is centered on the fact that his work confronts one of the inescapable problems of our time.

"Someone was here..."

Perhaps inevitably, my own work includes a few thinly disguised nods to Pynchon. Near the end of Eternal Empire, assuming that it doesn’t get edited out at some point between now and September, I quote a brief lyric from a Joni Mitchell song, which suits the context, but which was also one of the original epigraphs in Gravity’s Rainbow, before being cut shortly before publication. (If that isn’t an inside reference, I don’t know what is.) I’ve mentioned before how in Chapter 1 of The Icon Thief, Study for Étant Donnés is auctioned off as lot fifty of that night’s sale, which implies that it comes right after lot forty-nine. There’s an even more obscure homage in Chapter 38, in which Maddy and Ethan prepare dinner at home, with Ethan making salad, layering the lasagna, and garlicking the bread, which evokes a similar meal made by Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas:

…then through the sunned gathering of her marjoram and sweet basil from the herb garden, reading of book reviews from the latest Scientific American, into the layering of a lasagna, garlicking of a bread, tearing up of romaine leaves…

This may seem like an arbitrary reference, and in some ways it is, but it’s also fitting that it appears here, at the moment when the novel’s conspiracy theory spills over definitively into the character’s lives. As they eat, Maddy and Ethan trade discoveries, with Maddy sharing the story of the occult center Monte Verità, including its connections to the Rosicrucians, the Ordo Templi Orientis, and the Dadaists, many of whom spent time at the resort. From there, we move on to the curious case of Georges Bataille and Acéphale, which is strange enough to fuel several novels of its own. But when Ethan makes the next connection—that an organization with the qualities they’ve been attributing to it would look a lot like global organized crime—the different threads of the novel come together at last. And a minute later, when Maddy realizes that some notes from her desk are missing, we’ve crossed a very Pynchonian line from abstract theorizing to the invasion of one’s own life. It’s a crossing that every novelist understands. And although Maddy is right to fear that someone has broken into her house, she doesn’t yet suspect the full truth…

The return of the 23 enigma

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After last Friday’s record Mega Millions lottery drawing, instead of dreaming about all the things I’d buy if I had $640 million—like the full edition of The Plan of St. Gall, for instance—I found myself fixating on the number 23. As the more paranoid among us have long understood, the number 23 recurs at particularly significant moments in history. This lottery, with the attention of so many millions focused on the outcome, seemed like a particularly appropriate time for the number to appear, and it didn’t disappoint. The winning numbers were 2, 4, 23, 38, 46, and Mega Ball 23. Numerologically inclined observers noted the two 23s at once, and a few even made reference to a certain Jim Carrey movie. But there’s even more here than meets the eye. 46 divided by 2 is 23. So is (38/2) plus 4. And I’m not going to even try to get into the significance of the fact that the drawing was held on 3/30/2012.

The 23 enigma was first publicized by one of my intellectual heroes, the author and skeptic Robert Anton Wilson. Wilson, in turn, had heard about the phenomenon from William S. Burroughs, and he wrote about it at length with Robert Shea in The Illuminatus Trilogy. Since then, the 23 enigma has become widely known, with countless discussion threads devoted to exposing its uncanny recurrence in all of our lives. And the secret of the number 23, of course, is that there is no secret: given sufficient cleverness, as Wilson puts it, you can find an arbitrary number anywhere, as long as you’re looking for it in the first place. As such, it’s a particularly evocative example of how we impose meaning on the world around us, which, as regular readers know, is my favorite subject as an author. (The enigma even makes an appearance in The Icon Thief, in the form of April 23, 1916, which was the date of one of Duchamp’s earliest readymades, the Easter Rising in Ireland, and the three hundredth anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. April 23 is also my brother’s birthday.)

Wilson is a fascinating character. A former associate editor for Playboy, a close friend of Timothy Leary, and later a fixture of the Berkeley region, he remains, along with Montaigne, one of my favorite exemplars of agnosticism as a way of life. I’ve written at length about why I think a kind of permanent agnosticism is the most pragmatic intellectual position for a working writer, and Wilson took this position to its extreme. He was a skeptic, or more accurately a zetetic, who took great delight in puncturing the claims of New Age fraudsters, pseudoscientists, and conspiracy theorists, but also took equal glee in pointing out the more dogmatic forms of scientific materialism, and he remained open to rather farfetched ideas, like the possibility that he might be receiving transmissions from an intelligent entity on Sirius. To my eyes, Wilson was the best sort of agnostic, which is what you often get when an atheist takes a lot of psychedelic drugs.

In fact, Wilson was a bit like another one of my skeptical heroes, Marcel Duchamp, in that it’s often hard to tell the difference between his serious work and his practical jokes—and that some of his most important and influential insights often began as a sort of prank. The difference between Wilson and Duchamp is that Wilson was genuinely funny. (Duchamp often claimed that he was trying to be funny, and referred to The Large Glass as a “hilarious” picture, but he’s more in the tradition of slightly frigid, labored French jokes that put the rest of us to sleep.) And it’s Wilson’s sense of humor that I find more inspiring as time goes on, if only because I can’t dream of matching it. The Icon Thief will never approach the humor of The Illuminatus Trilogy—although note the symmetry of their titles!—but I hope it captures some of the same sense of how we impose meaning on the world, and on our own lives. As I was writing this, I just got a call from my agent. And as I was hanging up, I couldn’t help but notice that the first three digits of his phone number were 223…

Written by nevalalee

April 2, 2012 at 10:48 am

Yes, that’s really me

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Two weeks ago, in what felt like an important milestone, I finally had an author photograph taken for The Icon Thief. The photographer, Brian Kinyon, is a very smart and talented guy from Oak Park who took the pictures for my own wedding, and whom I knew could be counted upon to make me look fairly presentable. Before the photo shoot, I half-seriously sent him a link to the website of Marion Ettlinger, generally considered to be the Rembrandt of author headshots. Brian said that he loved Ettinger, but cautioned me that I shouldn’t expect to look quite like her picture of Truman Capote. I agreed. After all, that’s a face you need to earn.

We began with some informal shots around the house, which my wife insisted we get. In my favorite photo, I’m holding my Pantone mug, which I bought at the Art Institute here in Chicago. (The color of the mug is Columbia blue, or Pantone 292, which should ring a bell to fans of the Magnetic Fields.) This mug, which has contained something like two thousand cups of green tea over the past couple of years, has been my constant companion, and I’m glad it’s in this shot. And among the books visible on the shelf behind me is Illuminatus! by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, to which I owe a great deal. The Phantom Tollbooth is also there. So while I don’t think this picture is going to be my official photo, I’m glad to have it.

With that, I changed into my official suspense novelist’s uniform, mandated by law, which consists of a blazer, dress shirt, and dark jeans. (A turtleneck, I’m relieved to say, is optional. But have you ever seen a thriller writer wear anything else?) It was a nice day, so Brian and I went out to explore my beautiful neighborhood of North Center, heading up toward Lincoln Square. We took shots at the Sulzer Regional public library, at Cafeneo coffee shop, where Brian used to hang out when he lived in this area, and under the El tracks, which is the picture I’ve ultimately chosen. (“The steel girders make you look like a tough thriller writer!” my wife said.)

All in all, we took more than nine hundred shots, of which Brian ultimately sent me close to two hundred. And although I reserve the right to change my mind, I’m pleased by the one I’ve chosen. This is pretty much how I look, at least on a good day, and I’m grateful to Brian for doing such an inspired and professional job. The result, greatly reduced, will probably end up on the inside back cover of my novel, my publisher’s website, and various other places. And hopefully I’ll still look more or less the same when the novel comes out in April 2012, recently pushed back two months from its original date of February. (But that’s a story for another day.)

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