An Interview with Robert Anton Wilson
Conducted by Neal Wilgus
from Science Fiction Review #37, Vol. 9, No. 4., Nov 1980
reprinted in Seven By Seven, ed. Neal Wilgus, 1996
Robert Anton Wilson is a much-interviewed author. There may be others but to my own knowledge interviews with R.A.W. have appeared in NEW LIBERTARIAN WEEKLY, CONSPIRACY DIGEST, CONFRONTATION, WEIRD TRIPS and SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW — the latter being my first interview with him and in fact the first I ever conducted.
One reason Wilson is interviewed so often is that he’s available and cooperative, but more important is the fact that he can be relied upon to give provocative and stimulating – often outrageous -answers. What’s more, his comments are usually about something important and controversial — and Wilson usually takes a strong position, often unpredictable, always witty, literate, urbane.
Wilson was born in Brooklyn in 1932, and suffered through the conventional upbringing and education of our times but somehow survived it all without losing that unique sense of self and universe displayed in his writing and interviews. In the early 1970s he worked as an Associate Editor of PLAYBOY where he met Robert Shea who was eventually to collaborate with him on that unique three-volume romp known as ILLUMINATUS! In the meantime Wilson managed to turn out numerous pieces on a variety of subjects for a variety of publications and to work on books such as THE SEX MAGICIANS, PLAYBOY’S BOOK OF. FORBIDDEN WORDS, SEX AND DRUGS: A JOURNEY BEYOND WORDS and THE BOOK OF THE BREAST.
By the time ILLUMINATUS! was published in 1976 Wilson had left PLAYBOY and moved to California to try his hand at full-time freelance writing. One of the first (and best) results of this successful venture was COSMIC TRIGGER: FINAL SECRET OF THE ILLUMINATI (1977), a non-fiction, somewhat autobiographical treatment of many of the themes that have occupied him over the years, including the Crowleyanity of Aliester Crowley, messages from the dog star, Sirius, the uses and abuses of drugs and sex, the secrets of synchronicity, Timothy Leary’s cosmic mission, the illuminations of, the Bavarian Illuminati and SMI2LE. He has also collaborated with Leary on a number of pieces, most notably several essays in Leary’s NEUROPOLITICS (1978).
Like the characters in ILLUMINATUS!, “Wilson is unpredictable, sometimes inconsistent, often brilliant, always entertaining. So here’s yet another interview with the man with the Cosmic Triggerfinger. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
SFR: Why did you write ILLUMINATUS!?
WILSON: To make money. I have discovered that, contrary to Holy Writ, it is not true that with God all things are possible. It is not even true that with Zen all things are possible. And, despite what I may say at other times, it isn’t even true that with cocaine all things are possible (it only seems that way). But with cash, brothers and sisters, all things are possible.
SFR: Was that your motive? Are you totally commercial?
WILSON: Absolutely. If I speak to you with the tongues of men and of angels and have not cash, it is as nothing. If I have faith to move mountains and have not cash, it is as nothing. For now abideth faith, hope and cash, these three; and the greatest of these is cash.
SFR: Aren’t you a bit cynical and bitter?
WILSON: Not at all. I feel happy, joyous, vibrant and tranquil in every muscle, fibre, cell, molecule, atom and quark. I have arrived at the position where my chief commodity is wit, and as Bernard Shaw discovered before me, you can make a bundle in that market by simply telling the truth. People are so accustomed to lies and euphemisms that all you have to do is state the facts in plain, unvarnished language and you will immediately acquire a reputation as a most wickedly funny scoundrel.
SFR: Well, then, even if you claim ILLUMINATUS! was a totally commercial venture, you admit that it contains wit or truth, or is it truth disguised as wit?
WILSON: ILLUMINATUS contains very little wit or satire; it is a simple documentary presentation of the basic gambits and strategies of primate politics. If it’s a funny book, that’s because there’s something innately comical about the higher primates, such as chimpanzees, baboons and humans. Other classical studies of primate sociobiology, such as Ernest Hooten’s APES, MEN AND MORONS or Machievelli’s THE PRINCE are rather funny, too, but they are also serious documentaries, like ILLUMINATUS and not intended as satire.
SFR: George Scithers, editor of ISAAC ASIMOV’S SF MAGAZINE, summed up what you’ve said about commercialism recently by saying he’s only interested in competing for “beer money” and small change his readers might otherwise squander on booze. With out criticizing this policy — it’s his magazine after all — don’t you think there’s more to writing than beer money and ego-boo?
WILSON: Fucking aye. I am passionate about style, which is the white heat that makes a sentence glow; the reflection in words of the mental intensity of the writer. I’d like to write the greatest novel of the 20th Century. Since James Joyce evidently beat me to that pedestal, I’ll settle for Writing the second greatest novel of the 20th Century, if I have it in me. The point is merely that I don’t agree at all with those who tell us money is evil. To me, the supreme evil, the most cruel and obscene of all evils, is lack of money;I’ve talked to junkies about withdrawal symptoms and I don’t think that’s any worse than what the average husband/father, goes through if his’ money supply is cut off abruptly.
I would predict that when we abolish poverty (by the National Dividend of Pound and Douglas, or the Negative Income Tax of Friedman, or through the economy of abundance arising out of the new technologies of people like Bucky Fuller and Gerard O’Neill) there will immediately be a’ dramatic, almost “miraculous” decrease in suicides, homicides, violent crimes in general, schizophrenias, neuroses, psychosomatic ailments and the swinish bad manners of Capitalist society. As Mae West said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and rich is better”. To me that’s as axiomatic as “I’ve been sick and I’ve been healthy, and healthy is better”.
My friend; Wayne Benner, has a single question by which he judges people: “If you could make every body equally rich or equally poor, which would you do?” It’s astonishing how many Leftists answer that they’d make everybody equally poor. That’s on all fours with saying that, if you could make everybody healthy or give everybody the bubonic plague, you’d give them the plague. I don’t think any school of psychology can yet explain the Left; it would take a bile specialist to account for them.
SFR: In a letter to SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW some time ago, someone named Boschen takes you to task for a book review in which you referred to Martin Gardner as “high priest of the Materialist Church”. Boschen says you’re a Materialist too and a member of the same church. Any comments on Materialism?
WILSON: In the immortal words of John Mitchell, I mis-spoke myself. What I meant to say, and usually do say (as on page 101 of COSMIC TRIGGER) is that Gardner speaks for the
“Fundamentalist wing of the Materialist Church”. If I’m a Materialist at all, I certainly represent’ the Liberal wing. But I would rather call myself an Operationalist than a Materialist, since Materialism is a body of dogma and I am allergic to dogmatisms of all kinds. Operationalism is a method of thinking, a kind of semantic hygiene; a tool, rather than a doctrine. When I dissent from mystics and parapsychologists, it is not because I think that what they are talking about doesn’t exist – I know from experience that it does – but because their terminology is operationally meaningless. I try to restate the facts about altered consciousness in precise scientific language, operational language — which causes the mystics to call me a Materialist. Meanwhile the Fundamentalists of the Orthodox Church of Materialism, such as Gardner, would regard me as a mystic for thinking and writing about such subjects at all. But that’s to be expected on a primitive planet. When you try to build a bridge between two gangs of rival fanatics, each side thinks you’re preparing an invasion route for the other side to over-run and massacre them. The idea of communication and synergetic pooling of information just does not penetrate the dogmatic mind. Dogmatists are Senders in William Burroughs’ terminology, not Receivers.
SFR: Perhaps that’s a good way of getting deeper into your own philosophy expressed in COSMIC TRIGGER. Why did you write COSMIC TRIGGER?
WILSON: Primarily, to make money. Secondarily, it’s an exercise in guerilla ontology — a calculated assault on the monotheist “one reality” delusion. By taking one person of average intelligence (myself), I show many different reality-grids the brain can construct if you make a determined effort to break down all the imprinted, conditioned, learned and habitual reflexes that program perception into one static world-view. I believe that about 99.99999% of all human stupidity is caused by imprinted and conditioned perception-sets. As Tim Leary says, we have literally been robbed blind; we have literally taken leave of our senses. We are like badly-wired robots bumping into each other -sleepwalkers, as Gurdjieff said. The practise recounted in TRIGGER of switching your reality-map frequently, over months and years, ‘ makes you aware of billions of signals usually screened out by habitual reflex-circuits in the brain. I regularly switch circuits from Materialism to Buddhism, from Buddhism to Sufism, from Sufism to something I’ve never tried before and each neurological quantum jump teaches me more. To remain stuck in one ego, one belief-system, one morality, one set of conditioned reflexes, is literally walking zombieism. We should be able to turn channels in our brain as easily as we do on our TV sets, or switch programs as efficiently as a computer technician. As the old Zen story has it, a monk asked a Zen Master, “How does one find the Tao?” And the Master replied, “Walk on!” Any place we stop or stick, any emotional or dogmatic hang-up, is a place where we have become deaf, dumb and blind to billions and billions of signals which would tell us of a much bigger and funnier reality, if we would only open ourselves to them. The universe is a Big Mother.
SFR: Following this line of thought, I’d like to protest against the “Never Whistle While You’re Pissing” concept from ILLUMINATUS. Isn’t it more important to develop simultaneity — both halves of our brains at once — rather than such single-mindedness?
WILSON: Every yoga is worthwhile if it teaches you something new. The yoga of total concentration on pissing is not my invention; I got it from R.H. Blythe, who got it from a Zen Master whose name I don’t remember. If you’ve learned all you can from that exercize, by all means try other programs. The human brain is a multi -purpose computer. Use it to the utmost; learn as many of its functions as you can. Mathematics is a more powerful brain-change device than LSD, for instance, but few people have discovered that yet – despite the fact that the most important new ideas always come from mathematicians or from scientists trained in mathematical yoga. Doing every single thing you’re afraid of is another good yoga. Since many of us are going to live 800 years or longer, it is very worthwhile to start using our brains better — for fun and profit — which is what Leary means by Intelligence Increase or I2. I call it the H.E.A.D. Revolution — Hedonic Engineering And Development. If you don’t know how to enjoy your brain, longer life will just mean more time to get yourself in to miserable and frustrated states.
SFR: I’ve been looking into the works of Aleister Crowley recently’ and was struck by the prophecy in THE BOOK OF THE LAW about the 1980s being another major conflagration. This ties in with the dire predictions I’ve been reading about in CYCLES OF WAR: THE NEXT SIX YEARS, by R.E. McMaster, Jr., which shows a variety of predictions for disaster in the 80s. Given these, and various other gloom-n-doom philosophies floating around, how can you seriously expound the optimistic SMI2LE philosophy (Space Migration/ Intelligence Increase/ Life Extension) which predicts various world-saving revolutions coming up?
WILSON: In the first place, the future is up for grabs. It belongs to any, and all who will take the risks and accept the responsibilities of consciously creating the future they want. Karl R. Popper wrote a book around 30 years ago called TIIE POVERTY OF HISTORICISM which is still, I think, unrefuted. Popper demonstrated, very rigorously, that there is no way any person. or group of persons or any computer can predict the future exactly. His argument seems to me as sound as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, to which it is in many ways analogous. In the second place, I have never said that the SMI2LE scenario must happen; I only say that it can happen. I am not in competition with the Delphic oracle. In the third place, there is no such thing as purelydescriptive Futurism; future projections are always somewhat prescriptive. They are projections in the psychological as well as mathematical sense. My guess is that if you ran a battery of standard psyche tests on the gloom-n-doomsters, you would find that basically they are guilty, masochistic people. They don’t like themselves much, and they like other human beings even less. (This is classically illustrated by one guy who wrote a denunciation of the Space Colony idea in CO-EVOLUTION QUARTERLY and said he thought humanity deserved to perish.) The doom brigade wants a punishing future and hence declares it inevitable, by the same psychological trick by which Marx, who wanted socialism, declared it was inevitable. On the other side, I think rather well of myself (as you might have noticed) and of other people, and I think humanity deserves and has the wisdom to achieve the SMI2LE mutation, which will give us all the Space we need, all the Time we need, and all the Intelligence we need to enjoy Space and Time. I admit this is as much a projection of my Hedonism as the doomsday scenarios are a projection of the masochism of their creators. The real issue is, to anybody not awed by authorities and dogmas: what kind of future do you want, and how hard are you willing to work to create that future?
SFR: In my book THE ILLUMINOIDS I do my best to make a case for the continuing Illuminati conspiracy, a la the John Birch Society etc., but I never came up with any real proof that Weishaupt’s Bavarian Illuminati continued to function beyond 1787 when it was suppressed. Yet the myth persists (with who knows what core of truth) that the skull-duggery going on today is part of the same plot. Do you think the present Masters are direct descendants of Weishaupt’s crew? Distant cousins? Different species?
WILSON: First of all, who are the present Masters? The Cowboys? The Yankees? The old boy network in England? I don’t think any of these mammalian predator bands have anything to do with the Illuminati at all. You might as well say that a gang of chimpanzees combining (“conspiring”) to drive another gang of chimpanzees off the turf are the Illuminati. These second-circuit territorial rituals have nothing at all to do with the real goals of the Illuminati, who are operating several evolutionary mutations beyond that. Specifically, a real member of the Illuminati (whether he knew it or not) was John Von Neumann, who prevented World War III. How did Von Neumann do that? He devised mathematical game theory and invented the first programmable computer. As a result of these innovations, the primates now feed their war game strategies into remorselessly logical computers, which tell them over and over again that they can’t win a nuclear exchange, and so war has been limited to symbolic (although still tragic) skirmishes over small areas like Indochina. Von Neumann was using the basic Illuminati law that you can only change primate behavior radically by teaching the primates a new technology. Witness the dramatic changes in chimpanzee behavior after somebody taught them the simple manual technology of sign language. Similarly, the Wright Brothers, Einstein, Henry Ford and such types have caused more behavior change than all the politicians, policemen, prisons and psychologists in the world, by introducing new technologies. And, of course, the new technologies of Space Migration, Intelligence Increase and Life Extension, if and when we achieve them, will cause more behavior change than a million operant conditioners like Skinner.
SFR: How is the cause of Discordianism coming?
WILSON: We already hold Northern California and have agents in all the media in America, France, England, Denmark and Germany. I confidently expect a Discordian President in the White House by 1984 and a Discordian Pope in the Vatican by the 1990s, if not sooner.
SFR: The usual objection to the concept of synchronicity and related ideas like the so-called 23 enigma, the law of octaves and so on, is that the observer of such phenomena is choosing the data deliberately to emphasize a “pattern” that might not otherwise be there. Do you think these things are objective reality or subjective selection? Paranoia? All of the above?
WILSON: I refuse to answer on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate me. I may have already given away too much by mentioning that Von Neumann was One of Us and that We control a large part of the media. Let’s just say that “reality”, so-called, is an evolving, ever-changing, quantum-jumping energy-dance, not a rigid and block-like box confining us. Those who know how to swing with the dance are co-creators of the next hour’s reality, the next day’s, the next year’s, the next century’s… The reality of any instant is the temporary resultant of the ontological guerilla warfare between rival gangs of artists, technicians and magicians. John Archibald Wheeler of Princeton uses the term “participatory universe” to describe what I’m getting at here. It comes down to what Weishaupt said 200 years ago: we are all freemasons in the literal sense, builders of our own experience.
If this still isn’t clear, I can say it in words of one syllable, citing the late Redeemer of Biblical fame: “Ye are all Gods”. (John, 10:34.)
SFR: I understand you’ll have a science fiction trilogy coming out soon and are working on an occult novel called THE DEVIL’ S MASQUERADE.
WILSON: The occult thriller will be published first and is now called MASKS OF THE ILLUMINATI. It’s set in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1914 and the principle characters are Albert Einstein, James Joyce and Aleister Crowley. It should be in the bookstores early next summer. The sci-fi trilogy is called SCHRODINGER’S CAT and is a kind of quantum comedy, based on the most literal possible reading of the Everett-Wheeler-Graham multi-universe interpretation of the Schrodinger equations. That is, it’s the parallel worlds theme that’s been done and redone and almost done to death in sci-fi, but I really think I have an unusually comical slant on it. That’ll be out in winter’ 79- 80, in some universe or other. The action or actions of SCHRODINGER’S CAT are set in various possible realities that might emerge by 1984 and, if the Eveiett-WheelerGraham theory is true, the publication of the trilogy should cause the readers’ subsequent experience of 1984 to be more like my Hedonic projections than like the masochistic projections of the doomsters. That is, the writing and publication of the trilogy is a magical and scientific experiment — an attempt to demonstrate the creation of an alternative reality. It’s very much like the old Marx Brothers routine: “There’s $1000 in the house next door”. “But there is no house next door”. “Then let’s build one”. I’m going beyond guerilla ontology to guerilla Futurism.
SFR: Do you really think a work of art can alter reality?
WILSON: Ideas alter reality. Very concretely, if you believe a certain woman won’t ball you, you will not make a pass at her, and she will ball somebody else., If you think you can’t get a job, you will not go in for the interview. If you think you can’t pass the exam, you will not bother to study.
I feel that the writings of people who have lost faith in humanity are semantic poison. I heard one of these embittered authors on TV a few nights ago, saying explicitly what is obvious to any reader of his fiction: he doesn’t like the human race; I think self-hatred and hatred of humanity are self-fulfilling prophecies which can very definitely produce all the worst gloom ‘n’ doom scenarios, if enough. people believe in them; but conversely, we can solve all our personal and social problems, if we believe in ourselves and in humanity.
Every minute you have a choice whether you will put out positive energy or negative energy. You alter your own future, without noticing it, by those little momentary decisions. You alter the whole future of humanity, even more obliviously, by the effect of those decisions on other people around you. No energy is ever lost. What goes around comes around, as some wise hippie once said.
You give negative energy to B, B passes it on to C, C to D, and so on, forever, or until it comes to somebody conscious enough to refuse to pass it on. When that one conscious individual makes that decision and performs the alchemical transmutation of turning the bad energy into good before passing it on, a whole new chain of good energy is started. This is what the Sufis mean when they say we don’t begin to understand our real responsibilities. Today is the first day of the rest of the universe.
Can art create reality? Damned straight. I know people who are living in gloomy Naturalistic novels of the ’30s, and people who get into the occult the wrong way are living the paranoia of THE EXORCIST, and people who are living in DAS KAPITAL, and people living in the New Testament, and so on. I prefer to live in science fiction, which is the most exciting and funny reality to be in. Of course, I don’t mean the misanthropic kind of sci-fi; I mean the cosmic and noble visions of people like Clarke and Heinlein and Olaf Stapledon. There is simply nothing better to live for than the idea that humanity has a noble destiny and that you can be part of the love-energy-brains network that will make it possible.
SFR: To you have any concluding thought?
WILSON: Yeah. As Ezra Pound once said, the only real enemy is ignorance — our own.
Daraul, Akron. A HISTORY OF SECRET SOCIETIES, 1961, Pocket Books Paperback.
Roberts, J .M. THE MY’IHOLOGY OF SECRET SOCIETIES, 1972, Paladin paperback (British).
Robinson, John. PROOFS OF A CONSPIRACY, 1798; reprinted 1967 as an Americanist Classic by Western Islands, Belmont, Massachusetts, 02178.
Shea, Robert, and Wilson, Robert Anton. ILLUMINATUS!, 1975, Pocket Books paperback (Vol. I – THE EYE IN THE PYRAMID; Vol. II – THE GOLDEN APPLE; Vol. III – LEVIATHAN).
Wilgus, Neal. THE ILLUMINOIDS: Secret Societies and Political Paranoia, 1978, Sun Publishing Co.; available from Neal Wilgus, Box 25771, Albuquerque, NM, 87125.
Wilson, Robert Anton. COSMIC TRIGGER: Final Secret of the Illuminati, 1977, And/Or Press, Box 2246, Berkeley, CA, 94702; also available in Pocket Books paperback edition.
Wilson, Robert Anton. SCHRODINGER’S CAT, 1979, Pocket Books paperback.