Interview from Notes from the Pop Underground
edited by Peter Belsito, 1985
How would you describe yourself politically and how did you become that way?
RAW: I was born in Brooklyn in 1932, the worst year of the Great Depression. Until World War II, my father was several times unemployed and my childhood memories are of poverty and anxiety. I think this marked me permanently; although my temperament is individualistic in the extreme, I’ve always been a Left Libertarian rather than a Right Libertarian. I loathe Marxism because it is a religion and I detest religions and dogmas, but I find nothing pernicious in democratic socialism, even though I would prefer a syndicalist or anarchist or guild socialist system. If I were forced to choose between democratic Fabian socialism and capitalism (which thank Gott I am not) I would choose the democratic socialist system.
Why do you detest religions so much? Has that loathing led to anything particular about your style of writing?
RAW: I was educated in grammar school by nuns, who filled me with religious horror stories. I think this led directly to (a) my loathing for all religions and (b) my emphasis on horror in my fiction. I think I use horror, not to scare the reader (like Stephen King, for instance) but to transcend horror, by resolving it into satire and crazy humor. My books are never simply journeys into terror but journeys beyond terror, back to sunlight, a good laugh, and renewed optimism. To say it otherwise, I cannot leave the horrors out because they were imprinted on me when I was so young, but I am always looking beyond them. I agree with Sean O’Casey’s great line, “Life contains terrible things but life itself is not terrible.”
How much influence did your parents have on your development as a writer?
RAW: Parental influence? My mother was off her head part of the time during my childhood and I was what is now called a battered child. She gradually recovered after World War II came along and my father became full-time employed at a good salary again, but angry women still make me more nervous than angry men. I always feel I can handle an angry man, but I want to leave the room when a woman starts shrieking. This is probably why, although sympathetic to Feminism, I flee the scene when a Women’s Libber approaches. What about your father’s influence?
RAW: My father’s principle influence on me was saying many, many times, “Ah, God, the union is not what it used to be, but I’d never do without it. When there were no unions, the working man didn’t have a chance, not a chance, he got screwed every way.”
What were your primary interests as a teenager?
RAW: Teenage interests? My main interest was in getting laid, and I was not successful until I got out of my teens, partly because that was in the 1950s and partly because I was still myself recovering from Roman Catholic brainwashing.
When and how did you become interested in scientific theory?
RAW: As soon as motion was autarchic, I got out of the Catholic Church (aged fourteen) and majored in sciences, at Brooklyn Tech and later Brooklyn Polytech. Although I have worked mostly as an editor until age forty and have been a full-time freelance writer since then, I remain fascinated by the hard sciences and especially by Futurism–the attempt to forecast future technology and its effects on social behavior. Everything I write, whether published as fiction or not, is in a sense Science Fiction, an attempt to imagine vividly what science is doing and will be doing to our lives, our minds, our relationships. I feel that this is the most interesting field for a writer today, just as theology was for Dante circa 1300. We are living willy-nilly in a world science has made, and I keep trying to understand science better so I can understand that world better.
What did your parents think of your leaving the church?
RAW: My parents never objected to my leaving the RC Church; they were fairly lapsed Catholics themselves and sent me to a Catholic school only because they thought “it was good for chiddren.” [sic] What were your literary influences as an adolescent?
RAW: Major intellectual influences on my adolescence were Darwin, H.L. Mencken, Frazer’s Golden Bough, Clarence Darrow, Tom Paine, and Marx and Trotsky for a short while only.
What have been the continuing influences in your life?
RAW: Major continuing influences on my thought: Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics, R. Buckminster Fuller, and quantum mechanics, all of which impacted on me in my early twenties and continue to mold my way of seeing the world. Timothy Leary has been a major influence almost as long, since 1964. Much of what you write in your books seems to make light of culture and history. With that in mind what do you think the future will be like?
RAW: Although a lot of the ideas in my books are jokes, satires, provocations etc., I am serious about the idea that history is accelerating and I do expect more changes before 2000 A.D. than in ALL previous history. I think we will have life extension by then, and I think we will evade nuclear war but only at the cost of another major depression, more massive unemployment and some kind of gizmo close to world government or closer to world government than the present United Nations. That is, I think governments cannot borrow enough from the international banks to keep on Welfare the growing numbers of the unemployed, so the system will crack somewhere and a new system will emerge out of the chaos.
What is your association with the O.T.O., Golden Dawn and other occult orders?
RAW: Those are only two of the occult orders into which I have been initiated. For a while in the early ’70s I was going around to occult conventions the way some people go to every science-fiction con, and frequently members of one occult order would initiate the members of another order _en masse_. If I listed all my mystical titles, the catalog would be quite impressive (to those who are impressed by titles). Chiefly what I learned from all this hocus-pocus was that ritual can be a very effective method of brain-change or neurological reprogramming, but only if it contains a high element of symbolic drama and a certain carefully calculated shock. That is, the reason most church rituals accomplish nothing and are so bloody *dull* is that the drama and shock are missing. The real reason for the secrecy of occult orders (including the Freemasons) is that the drama and shock are most powerful if the candidate literally does not know what is about to happen next.
A true ritual, containing a neurological shock, can be as effective as many years of meditation or other yogic practices. Of course, it doesn’t always work; amateurs often botch their rituals and the effect then is like a syrupy Disney film that’s supposed to make you cry but just makes you squirm, or a comedy that doesn’t make you laugh, or a horror film that doesn’t scare you. But when a ritual is performed correctly, everybody feels the energy and knows they have entered a new level of reality.
The principal methods of altering consciousness are drugs, meditation, special breathing techniques like pranayama, and a heightening of shock or confusion. A good ritual creates that shock and confusion in which you begin to see with new clarity and hear what is being said. It opens you to experiences that your cultural conditioning has previously armored you against.
After a while, however, all ritual becomes vain repetition. There is no more to learn from it. I dropped out of all occult orders, with no hard feelings on any side, many years ago. My work on consciousness these days is involved only with meditation and yogic breathing. In my experience, those techniques never become repetitious or redundant. You learn more from them every year.
You had an article published in Science Digest in 1982 called “Mere Coincidence?”, which seemed to me to be stretching the limits of science to suit your own ends. At the same time, once I had read the article my interest in “coincidence” was so aroused that I began noticing several per day. Was your article on coincidence one of your jokes or do you defend this theory?
RAW: I’ve been studying this subject for over twenty years now, and still haven’t come to any final conclusions . . . except that it was worthy of further study. The basic question raised by synchronicities, or seeming synchronicities, is: how much of what we experience is created by our own minds? I think that is really the most important question in modern science. It is naive to think our minds are like typing paper and just register experience passively; this has been thoroughly refuted by cultural anthropology, psychoanalysis, perception experiments, and dozens of other bits of clinical data. We do create part, maybe a great deal, of our experience. On the other hand, those who claim we create all our experience are asking us to believe an astonishing doctrine and I see no reason to go that far. So, we create a great deal of our experience, not necessarily all (did you create the universe?), and the Big Question (or the Wig Question) is: how much are you creating right now? Every synchronicity is like a Zen koan, forcing you to ask that question again and think about it deeply.
Freud noticed strange coincidences happening in psychotherapy long before Jung, although he never called them synchronicities. The reason these coincidences make us feel uncanny, Freud said, is because they are isomorphic to things in our unconscious. That is, a coincidence gets our attention, and makes us feel eerie (and nowadays gets called a synchronicity) only if it corresponds to something our unconscious is “trying to tell us” and we are trying to repress. Jung’s theory is that such congruencies indicate a connection across space-time between our minds and other minds, and between mind and matter, this does not seem at all implausible to me. There are very similar ideas in quantum mechanics-non-local connections, they are called, which act as if space-time were unreal. Physicists such as Dr. David Bohm, Dr. E. H. Walker, Dr. Jack Sarfatti, Dr. Fritjof Capra, and many others, have written extensively about such non-local connections, which seem to be mathematically necessary if quantum mechanics is valid. The question still remains when you notice a coincidence that moves you: Is this case an example of that non-local connectedness in nature, or is this case just the result of chance and is the meaning all in your own head? I can’t answer that question, but I think it is worth investigating the subject more and thinking about it.
Someone pointed out to me that your current home (Sandycove, Dublin, Ireland) was also the home of James Joyce, whom you use as a character in Masks of the Illuminati. Why did you move to Ireland, and why Sandycove in particular?
RAW: I always said that if Ronald Reagan were elected President, I would get the hell out of the country. He was elected, so I got the hell out of the country. As W.C. Fields said, “You must take the bull by the tail and look the facts in the face.”
Of all the places in Europe I could have settled, I picked Sandycove on the Dublin shore, because of its associations with James Joyce, my favorite writer. He was as fascinated by synchronicities as I am. In Finnegans Wake, he calls it the “coincidance” – the dance of coincidences that make life possible. Coincidentally enough, he was born on the same day as my mother, February 2, 1882. Eamon de Valera, the most influential man in Irish politics in this century, was born on that day too: February 2, 1882. Is that enough coincidences to make a synchronicity?
Are you aware of the Church of the SubGenius? Do you think the Church of the SubGenius was somewhat based upon your writing?
RAW: There’s a rumor going around that the Head of the Church, Bob Dobbs, is really me under an assumed name. I don’t think I should dignify such wild and irresponsible stories by commenting on them at all; but it is true, you know, that if you say “There’s no prob with Bob” a thousand times you’ll get exactly the same effect as if you had said “Hare Krishna” or “Twas brillig and the slithey toves” a thousand times. Really. You get the same effect from fifty “Our Fathers” and twenty-five “Hail Marys,” too. It’s called boredom.
A while ago I got a record to review in the mail by a group from the Boston area called Magic Mose and His Royal Rockers, featuring Blind Sam. One of the songs on the record, titled “Dating a Witch Beats Dating a Nun,” had your name in it. Did you ever hear it? I think they mention Aleister Crowley, the Bavarian Illuminati and a few other occult figures in the same song.
RAW: Never heard of it, but I’m delighted that somebody has put my name in a song. There was also a group a few years ago, called the Bavarian Illuminati, who had a picture of me on the jacket of one of their records, along with Crowley and George Washington and somebody who looked like King Lear. (Maybe that was Nostradamus?)
How would you describe your style of writing?
RAW: I change my style and perspective from book to book, or even from paragraph to paragraph–as Joyce did–because I am engaged in what I call guerrilla ontology. What e.e. cummings said about Ezra Pound is true of me, also: “The damned sadist is trying to force his readers to THINK!” Ramming dogmas into the reader’s head until the reader starts regurgitating some of them out of his or her mouth-the kind of thing that is called teaching in schools, or conversion in religious cults–doesn’t interest me at all. I try to present a phalanx of urgently exciting puzzles and possibilities, and offer two or three ways of organizing them into a pattern. Or a dozen ways of organizing them, or two dozen. Then the readers can either start thinking for themselves, or be left with all these annoying puzzles to haunt them forever. One of the reviews that pleased me most was by Jay Kinney; he said my books were deliberately annoying. Well, they are – for people who hate to think and want somebody else to do their thinking for them, That’s not my job. Why the hell should I do anybody else’s thinking; when it’s hard work already to do my own thinking? Besides, those who really can’t or won’t think just have to look around – there are hundreds of Perfectly Enlightened Masters who will be glad to do their thinking for them. A Perfectly Enlightened Master is ideal, if you want to become a Perfectly Benighted Slave.
I have a few disciples, despite the fact that I keep telling them I don’t want no bloody disciples. Some of them in Providence, the Providence Random Assembly, have a letterhead that says “Purveyors of Doubt and Choice Since 1976.” I like that. That’s what my books are doing – purveying doubt and choice.
Of course, that’s only the philosophical reason for my style; the real, pragmatic, gut reason that I don’t reveal the final answers is that I haven’t found any final answers yet. Every time I think I have a final answer, I turn it over and find another annoying question underneath it. I think this keeps me young, or at least curious. If I ever do find any final answers, however, I will gladly share them with the world, and they can elect me Pope or Ayatollah or whatever is fitting for a case like mine, but in the meanwhile all I’ve got to offer is–doubt and choice. As God said to Moses (at least in Illuminatus!), “Think for yourself, schmuck!”
Since Illuminatus! deals with anarchy, rock-‘n-‘roll, and youth culture, and predates Punk rock, do you think that your writing may have had an influence on the Punk scene?
RAW: I never thought of myself as an influence on Punk, but you may be right. I used to be an anarchist and a nihilist, but I had to drop out of that because the anarchists and nihilists had too many rules. I guess I’m still allied to anarchy and nihilism in that I don’t believe in any Authority that wants to tell me what’s true or false or what’s right or wrong; I want to decide for myself. In general – I could be wrong – I have the impression that there’s a lot of anger in Punk, and that’s not my bag at all. As some great philosopher of the ’60s said, “I used to be disgusted, but now I’m just amused.” When a nation of two hundred million allegedly sane people elects Ronald Reagan as President, the only choices are despair or just sitting down and laughing your head off. I prefer to sit down and laugh my head off. Why couldn’t they have picked the fat guy who played the police chief in Plan 9 From Outer Space? He’s just as funny as Reagan and maybe he can count past ten without taking his shoes off.
Is this idea Punk? My basic opinion, after more than fifty years on the planet, is that there is very little difference between wild primates in the jungle and the average domesticated primate in a large city. We are literally living on the Planet of the Apes. Once you realize that, there’s no point in being angry about it anymore. We’re in a zoo, and the biggest, ugliest, meanest baboons are always picked to lead the herd. If you look at the news and think that the incredible stupidities and brutalities you hear have been done by human beings (who are rational beings according to Aristotle) you can only despair or take to heroin, I guess. But if you realize these things are being done by primates–by apes dressed up in funny “customes” [sic], like chimps who drive motorcycles in circuses – then it all makes sense, and it’s quite astounding that the apes can handle the machinery and walk upright and so on. There have been damned few human beings; the human being is something that is evolving and about to happen, but has not happened yet.
Earlier you mentioned Futurism. The only Futurists that I’m aware of were the turn-of-the-century Italians who called their art movement Futurism. Could you explain further what you mean by Futurism?
RAW: Futurism, as I use the word, has nothing to do with the Italian art movement of 1909. Futurism, also called Future Studies or Futuremics, is a branch of sociology and social psychology that studies the effects of technology on society and attempts to project trajectories of where present trends are taking us. My Ph.D. was in psychology only because the university where I got it, Hawthorne, had no department of Futurism or Future Studies; my dissertation was pure Futurism actually. I’ve been studying that field since I was in high school, back in the 1940s. The books that opened me up were Manhood of Humanity and Science and Sanity, both by Alfred Korzybski, a mathematician who was obsessed with social problems. He had two great ideas, and a lot of others too of course, but his main ideas were, one, that information is increasing faster every generation, which leads to more and more rapid technological change, and two, that traditional education and religion both train us to assume certainty prematurely. That is, we are trained to be, or pretend to be, certain about things which just are not certain. The result of this, Korzybski said, is that the world is changing faster and faster, but our ideas aren’t changing and we are growing more and more disoriented. Now, a lot of people have noticed that since then, and many want to stop the acceleration of technology, but Korzybski thought this was impossible. He said language itself creates information–it I tell you a fact, and you tell me a fact, the very telling makes us suddenly discover a relationship between the two facts, which is a third fact. Korzybski also thought language creates a compulsion to communicate – people are in prisons, in fascist and Marxist states all over the world, because they just would not shut up, even when they knew talking would get them in trouble. In a sense, you could almost say Korzybski’s thesis was that we are transmitters created by language to spread information around the world faster and faster. We can’t stop this, he said, so we have to adjust to it, and we can only adjust to it by changing our brains – by taking out all the rigid reflexes that create false certainty, and by learning to think in a more flexible, agnostic way. Since this proposal goes directly against traditional education and religion, not to mention advertising and politics, it’s no surprise that few people have ever heard of Korzybski.
Another major Futurist who impacted on me in my youth was R. Buckminster Fuller. I first met him in 1954 and I interviewed him for Science Digest just shortly before his death in 1983. For over thirty years his ideas have been running around in my head, and meanwhile the world has changed rapidly, always in the ways Fuller had predicted. He has more successful predictions on record than any other Futurist. I believe in the argument of his last two books, Critical Path and Grunch of Giants, that we now have the technology and resources to abolish starvation and poverty world-wide and even to give everybody a living standard equal to that of the Rockefellers, and that the only thing preventing this is greed at the top level of society and stupidity at all levels. I think a lot of the rage and fury around these days-terrorism and revolution and coup d’etats and maybe even Punk in a way–is registering the fact that people, without knowing the specific facts about our planetary resources etc. are still able to intuit the general picture. They realize that most of the misery that’s going on is totally unnecessary and is not caused by lack of food to feed people or a lack of transportation to get the food delivered or any kind of real lack; it’s caused only by the greed and stupidity I just mentioned. Spaceship Earth, as Fuller called this planet, could now be a paradise, and instead the Giants (the multi-nationals and governments) are rapidly turning it into a hell. The world situation today is quite like two gangs of lunatics who are fighting and trying to murder each other over possession of a glass of water, in the middle of a rainstorm. To continue the metaphor, if they came out of their hypnotic hate state for even a second, they would wake up and notice that there is enough water falling for everybody to take thousands of gallons of it.
The big question in Future Studies is: will the peoples of the world wake up and see the rainstorm, the potential technological abundance around them, or will they remain fixated on the tiny glass of water (the visible energy) they started fighting over 6,000 years ago? Can they look critically, even momentarily, at their false dogmatic certainties, and see the statistical possibilities and probabilities? All the rage and alienation around us these days is caused by the hopeless feeling that the stupidities and brutalities on the news (every night will continue until they blow us away entirely. Future Studies gives one more hope, eventually, because the pattern emerging does show that information is getting around faster everywhere, so there must be some mental activity occurring behind the melodramatic facade of the two gangs of rival apes throwing sticks and stones at each other.
Gurdjieff said, “Fairness? Decency? How can you expect fairness or decency on a planet of sleeping people?” What he meant by the metaphor of sleeping is what I mean when I say there are many more apes among us than there are human beings. Most people are still controlled by the mammalian emotional-territorial circuits in the old back-brain. I think as the planetary emergency worsens, we as a species will mutate and begin to use the more human frontal lobe circuits. We are being drenched in information and information itself excites and provokes thought. It is even possible that by 1987 something remotely like the idea or a thought might penetrate even the skull of a clergyman or a high school principle.
Other Futurists who’ve influenced me include Marshall McLuhan, Alvin Toffler and Timothy Leary. McLuhan stressed how communication media create the tunnel-reality we perceive, and showed that the information explosion is accelerating even faster than Korzybski realized. Toffler points out that every major social change has happened, on the average, ten times faster than the major change before it. Leary keeps insisting, correctly I think, that if we survive until 2000 A.D., we will have a lot more space and time than humans ever had before – that is, space colonization and life extension are coming much faster than most people realize.
Nietzsche is a major influence, too. Every year I see more meaning in his famous lines, “What is Man? A bridge between the ape and the Superman – a bridge over an abyss.” The possibility of superhumanity is quite real now: we can live thousands of years, and roam among the stars, and become smarter as a species than we have ever been. But the abyss is quite real, too: we can use our technology and our old ape-psychology of territorial squabling to blow this planet right out of space-time. Despite the evening news, I am an optimist. I think intelligence of the species is greater than the intelligence of the individual; and the intelligence of the earth itself, the living biosphere, is greater than that of any species; and there are hierarchies of intelligence quite invisible to those who think that the abominations of politics are the important things happening on this planet.
(posted across UseNet by Dan Clore)
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