Surviving With Robert Anton Wilson
by Tiffany Lee Brown
from FringeWare Review 08:20
Deep in the heart of darkest California, home to cults, crystals, and the techno-elite, pioneers of the psychedelic revolution live in quiet houses alongside surfers, artists, and programmers. Tourists flock to the beaches and craft shops while hippies drum in peaceful parks and hearty yuppies unload their cycling gear.
In one such community lives Robert Anton Wilson, icon to Discordians, conspiracy theorists, modern mystics, subgenii, and trippers the world over.
Best known for the The Illuminatus Trilogy (with Robert Shea), Wilson’s writing romps from the medieval Church to the Chicago Democratc Convention, from puns to ciphers, from LSD to JFK, fusing impressive historical research with mindbending science fiction and postmodern fable.
When I first met Wilson in 1991, I’d just spent a couple of years immersed in his works: Masks of the Illuminati, Cosmic Trigger: Vol 1, the Schroedinger’s Cat Trilogy, etc. I wasn’t sure whether his writing had helped me toward indelible epiphanies, led me to Chapel Perilous, or just fucked my brain so hard it didn’t know which way was up. Perhaps it had done all three; in any case, I immediately liked the man himself. Even while illustrating its ambiguity, he seemed solidly grounded in what passes for reality, treating with equal parts cynicism, humour, and hope.
In spite of flooded highways and a multitude of glitches on the part of my usually-trusty tape recorder, I managed to talk survival and politics with Wilson..
fwr: We’re interested in how people process their own instinct to biosurvival, and how they deal with it in relation to society. This theme recurs in your work, most specifically in Prometheus Rising, in which you presented a tutorial of Timothy Leary’s 8-Circuit model of consciousness. Do you still use that as a construct?
raw: Yes. I find the 8-Circuit model very, very useful. I’ve been saying for a long time now that everything is temporary these days, and the a-Circuit model will be obsolete in 15 years. Then someone pointed out to me, “You’ve been saying that for 20 years!” I haven’t found a better model yet.
I don’t call them Circuits anymore, I call them the eight Systems. I think Leary used too much cybernetic metaphor; “Systems” are a little more complex and abstract, and the word sounds better. The first thing is that Leary believes behavior results from genetics, imprinting, and conditioning. He hardly ever mentions learning, but I’m sure if you backed him into a corner he would admit that it plays a role, too.
Even if you don’t believe Leary’s model all the way down the line, there’s plenty of things which are neither conditioning nor genetics- they result from imprinting, or learning, or situational conditions. John Dillingerwas a heterosexual outside of prison, and a homosexual inside prison. I think that’s a pretty general pattern. This “either/or” I don’t like.
So, you’ve got four factors to behavior, and the Biosurvival System has a genetic drive to survival. Through bad imprinting this instinct can be negated, as in the case of autistic infants who don’t make any effort to be alive at all. The main biosurvival drive is to find a Mommy, and reptiles don’t have that drive because they’re born ready to deal with the world as it is. But mammals need a certain period of nurture; so we all have some sort of mother complex, to some extent. There is a strong bond to the mother, and some degree of neurological damage appears to occur if there is no bond.
Throughout history, the Biosurvival System has been attached to the tribe. Since tribalism has broken down and civilization has gotten more and more abstract, the biosurvival urge has hitched to “Survival Tickets”, what we call money. It’s not just Americans, it’s everybody in the industrial world that is money-mad. We don’t have tribes, we don’t have extended families, we don’t even have families anymore- so everybody’s biosurvival drive is attached to money. When the money disappears, people experience dizziness, anxiety, general sense of panic, and near-death experience –which is what tribal people feel when they’re lost from the tribe.
In traditional societies, exile from the tribe was considered a terrible reproof. In Shakespeare, Romeo says, “Exile! The damned use that word in Hell!” Everybody in Shakespeare hates the idea of exile; nowadays, nobody gives a damn, because our survival drive isn’t attached to the family and the tribe, it’s attached to money. Nobody minds going into exile if they can take a million dollars with them.
So how do you get your money? There is no general answer. Everybody’s gotta figure that out for themselves.
fwr: One of FringeWare’s exercises in community has been fostering some online tribalism, using the Internet to find like minds. We even try to earn survival Tickets through the Internet, without giving our energies over to the usual corporate entities…
raw: On the Internet, you don’t know who you’re talking to, so you respond to people’s minds. Ageism, racism, and sexism become less an issue in that environment. In a sense, people are fundamentally their minds; a strange thing for me to say, since I try to put things into functional and non-Aristotelian terms, and I just came up with something very Aristotelian.
But the mind of a person is what interests me most about them, and the Internet puts you in a position to interact with the mind, with the Third Circuit or Semantic System. You don’t know their colour or gender or sexual orientation.
fwr: It seems to me that government creates itself in an attempt to satisfy biosurvival urges; since we lack organic tribes or families, we create an external structure to act as our tribe, our protective father archetype, our nurturing mother, and to allocate our Survival Tickets.
raw: I agree with Tom Payne – government is a necessary evil. Or George Washington, who said “Government is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” I think government has become our master too much, and I find a great deal of morbid humour in the right-wing talk show hosts who are blaming it on the liberals. Most of the things the government does which have annoyed me have been done by conservatives. The government has become a monster that pries into our private lives and harasses us; continually, the conservatives have had as much blame to take for this as the liberals. It’s amazing how they can get away with saying that the liberals are to blame.
fwr: How do you suggest that Americans get involved with politics, or should they at all?
raw: For years, I was in the anarchist headspace: “Don’t vote, it only encourages them.” I didn’t vote for years. Then I went through a change; part of it was living in Europe, then moving back here, and part of it was the end of the Cold War, in which I began to see the differences between the Republicans and the Democrats again. During the Cold War, those differences tended to disappear. The Democrats have been corrupted to some extent, but they do pretend to be on the side of the working class. And some of them really are trying to help.
The main thing I learned from Europe is that a multi-party system is better than a two-party system. Every part of Europe has amenities that are distinctly absent here, due to the fact that they have three or four parties in their parliaments. A party that only represents a minority can change things, through blocking the legislation of the major parties.
I tend toward the libertarian, but I think – and this is going to shock every Libertarian who reads it – I think every country in Europe that’s had a socialist government has benefited from it. Having four or five parties, with the radicals winning occasionally, tends to produce a more balanced society than here, where we’ve got basically two right-wing parties, one of which has a nostalgia for its left-wing past. Relative stasis here – even Perot, whom I trust about as much as I would trust David Rockefeller – Perot was helpful in the sense that he made the debate more interesting in the last presidential election.
But if I could be dictator for a day and pass any law I wanted, I’d pass a law that every medium- television, radio, papers- has to give equal coverage to any political party that has over a million members. The media keeps telling us that a third party can’t win- well, they win all the time in Europe, and they would here if they got some coverage. The media always starves them out. If people knew more about the Libertarians, or about Peace and Freedom . . . the thing is people need to see more than just this incredibly narrow choice that they’ve got in the two-party system.
fwr: The media presentation encourages us to stay uninvolved. It generally presents two viable parties, and prevents those in the third parties as freaks, losers, or radical revolutionaries who wanna blow shit up.
raw: Every country that has a multi-party system has a higher voter turnout than we’ve got. We’ve got the lowest voter turnout in the Western world, and we were the first major democracy formed. People have gotten so disillusioned with it that they don’t bother; at the polls, they’re confronted with “not a choice, but a dilemma” as John Anderson said back in 1980.
The rest of the world is changing – Mandela comes out of prison and now he’s president? Apartheid is ended? You look at the USSR coming apart, the Berlin Wall coming down, the British and the IRA negotiating — the whole world is undergoing tremendous change because of the information revolution. And mathematically, this does lead to more unpredictable systems appearing.
As information flow increases, according to chaos Theory, unpredictable increases. So we’re gonna see a lot of surprising changes here. The way the country went to the Liberal side in ’92 and toward the Conservative side in ’94 is just a hint of the way the system is moving towards chaos, changing rapidly. I don’t think anyone really understands the changes: I think the pundits are just guessing about why it went the way it did. The people are dissatisfied.
fwr: How could we make third parties viable in American politics?
raw: Educate, talk about it, try to get the media to adopt such a law. If Clinton and Gingrich had a debate with a Libertarian, somebody from Peace and Freedom, and someone from the Green Party and the American Independent Party, boy the voters would turn out. Everybody would see somebody up there who was close enough to them to be worth voting for, and we’d have a more interesting Congress.
It’s going to surprise everyone. I think the changes that are going to happen have a good chance of occurring nonviolently, because of what happened in South Africa and others. Any attempt at a violent revolution in this country wouldn’t last very long. Nobody could overthrow this government, it’s so goddamned powerful and it’s got so many atom bombs to begin with.
The one thing I’m keen in keeping is the division of powers within our government.
fwr: One option for handling the discrepancy between how we think we ought to live and the reality of living in society is to “drop out,” or withdraw from the social or governmental structure. Have you made experiments in extracting yourself from American government and society?
raw: I extracted myself from the major society by going to live on a farm for a while, twice I did that, once in Ohio and once in Mendocino. It didn’t really work; rural life is okay for those who like it, but I’m not one of them.
I also did so by moving to Europe. The IRS doesn’t tax you when you’re in Europe unless you make over $75,000 a year. I went over there because I was so fed up with the pinhead bureaucrats in the IRS and their pinhead rules that get more incomprehensible every year.
Newt Gingrich was right in claiming the Clintons are counterculture McGovernicks or whatever the hell he called them. They’re definitely counterculture types who are trying to cover it up by acting respectable. You read about what they were doing in the 60’s, and
they have the same sort of education and background- they’re the first First Family in my lifetime that I would enjoy having dinner with, that I would enjoy conversation. I feel that all this hatred that’s being directed at them is directed at me, too; it’s directed at the whole aspect of American society that they represent- and we’ve turned out to be a much smaller group than we thought we were after the last election.
I like Hillary and Bill; I don’t like all the compromises they’ve made, but compromise is what government’s about.
fwr: I guess compromise is the problem I have with the government and with today’s structures for seeing to my survival needs; I know that compromise is necessary for any kind of social unit to exist, but it seems so impossible to reach acceptable compromises. You seem to have reached an equilibrium, which I admire, actually. You write good stuff, get it published, you have a home and family you care for. Yet a lot of your work is incredibly subversive.
raw: But in a good-hearted way. I don’t hate anybody.
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So, what’s up with Robert Anton Wilson in 1995? Is he resting on his hard-won laurels, drawing Social Security and drinking Guinness all day? Are he and his lovely wife Arlen lounging on cruise ships while some flunky ghost-writes their memoirs?
Nope. Wilson’s still cranking out his trademark prose and publishing Trajectories newsletter. “I’ve completed Cosmic Trigger 3,” he says, “which like everything when I’ve finished it, seems like the best thing I’ve ever written. I started thinking of things that would round out Cosmic Trigger 2, which I’d thought would be the last, and it turned into a whole new book.”
“I didn’t set out to be a trilogy writer, it’s just sort of happened,” he adds with a chuckle. CT3 will be available later this year from Falcon Books.
Previously, Wilson and Robert Shea has begun work on Bride of lIIuminatus, collaborating on the outline together. He explains, “The title derives from my saying to Bob Shea, “Let’s name it after the first great sequel.’ He said, “Bride of Frankenstein.” Then I thought that the first great sequel was really the New Testament. They said, “Hey, the God book is selling. Let’s do ‘Son of God!‘”
Shea passed away before the book had been written. Regretfully, Wilson says he’s writing Bride of the Illuminatus pretty much on his own now – though he did stick with the title Shea suggested. “It does make more sense to do the Bride before the Son, so I decided to follow the Frankenstein model,” he says with a laugh. “I may do a Son of Illuminatus later.”
There’s also a new Wilson book on the shelves of your local bookstore right now: Chaos and Beyond, a collection of articles from the first six years of the Trajectories newsletters.
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Miss Brown (a.k.a. magdalen) guest-edited Issue #8 of Fringe Ware Review with Erika Whiteway (a.k.a. outrider), in which this interview was first published. Nowadays, she is a Portland-based writer and performer who edits New Oregon Arts and Letters. – online at 2GQ.org. Though copyright is unfashionable, she’d appreciate it if you’d contact her should you be interested in reproducing this interview in whole or in part. Please seem magdalen.com for more info. Thanks.
Reprinted here at RAWilsonFans.com with permission.