by Jeffrey Elliot
From Starship: The Magazine about Science Fiction Vol. 18, #1, Spring 1981. Originally printed in Literary Voices #1, Jeffrey Elliot ed., 1980. pp. 50-64.
“The great beasts that inhabited Europe, Asia and North America die off as a result of mutations and diseases caused by the solar flare. All relics of the Atlantean civilization are destroyed. The people who were Gruad’s erstwhile countrymen are either killed or driven forth to wander the earth. Besides Gruad’s Himalayan colony there is one other remnant of the High Atlantean era: the Pyramid of the Eye, whose ceramic substance resisted solar flare, earthquake, tidal wave and submersion in the depth of the ocean. Gruad explains that it is right that the eye should remain. It is the eye of God, the One, the scientific-technical eye of ordered knowledge that looks down on the universe and by perceiving it causes it to be. If an event is not witnessed, it does not happen; therefore, for the universe to happen there must be a Witness.”
– Robert Shea/Robert Anton Wilson, Illuminatus!
High atop a hill overlooking the University of California, Berkeley campus, lies the rustic communal retreat of Robert Anton Wilson, the author of over 2,000 articles and ten books, including Illuminatus!, the highly-acclaimed epic science-fiction satire (written with Robert Shea). A former editor of Playboy magazine, Wilson has spent much of his life writing and lecturing on the challenges and opportunities of man’s future. In addition, he is the president of the Exo-Psychology Institute in Berkeley and a director of the Prometheus Society, as well as a charter member and advocate of Gerard O’Neill’s proposals for space colonization. His most recent work, Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati, is the nonfiction sequel to his novels on the subject. It represents a synthesis of new trends in physics and parapsychology, combining elements of science fiction and political satire. It revolves around such contemporary interests as UFOs, holistic health, cosmology, quantum mechanics, and human consciousness. Several critics believe it is destined to become the most popular science-fiction cult novel since Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Robert Anton Wilson is an important thinker and doer, a renowned mystic and revolutionary, whose books and articles are read and debated with delight and fervor. His work has won the plaudits of the literary establishment as well as the literary underground. Alan Watts has dubbed his writing “subversive, esoteric, and extremely interesting.” Timothy Leary has proclaimed it “scholarly, literate, witty, and great!” David Harris has declared it “the anarchist acid-rock answer to Tolkien.” Henry Miller has pronounced it “something we’ve needed for a long time!”
When I arrived for our scheduled interview, Wilson was smiling and accommodating. He led me into his front room, which was chock-full of books and papers. After chatting a while, and discussing the merits of freshly squeezed orange juice, we began our dialogue. An incisive and engaging conversationalist, Wilson was enthusiastic and spirited. He talked for nearly five hours–without letup–exploring such provocative topics as space colonization, libertarianism, life extension, Timothy Leary, magick, higher intelligences, the Illuminati, and guerrilla ontology, among others.
There is something quite inexplicable about Bob Wilson–perhaps it is his earthy wisdom or his mystical propensities. In terms of the latter, he holds titles as an initiate in several occult orders, including the White Cord Witch, Voo Doo Priest, Water Broker, and High Priest of the Cult of the Sacred Cyborg. Whatever the key is to the Wilson persona, I came away from the interview buoyed and optimistic. His energy and vitality proved intoxicating. I left feeling I had, yes, made contact with one of the higher intelligences! In the interview that follows, Wilson discusses a wide range of subjects, constantly striving to forge a workable synthesis of both the scientific and mystical traditions. In the end, what emerges is a provocative discourse on the nature of reality–what it is and isn’t–and why such a synthesis is vital to this planet’s future.
STARSHIP: Let’s go back to the beginning. What made you want to be a writer?
WILSON: As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a storyteller. When I was 12 years old, I started drawing comic strips, which I circulated among other kids in the neighborhood. When I was 14, I discovered there were books made up of nothing but words. It seemed much easier to just write the words rather than having to do the drawings to accompany them. I wrote my first novel that year and, of course, I couldn’t get it published. It was about a meek, mild reporter, somewhat like dark Kent, who drank a potion which turned him into a virtual Superman-type character. His name was Danny Dingle, because it was a comedy rather than a melodrama. In my youthful naivete, I thought I could sell it as a movie starring Danny Kaye. I wrote quite a few short stories in my teens, all of which were rejected. I knew I needed a money-making occupation until I became a success as a writer. As a result, I decided to pursue engineering and write in the evenings. Well, after five years as an engineering aide, I realized I couldn’t be a writer and an engineer at the same time. It was too demanding in terms of time, so I decided to become, instead, an English teacher. Along the way, I got married and ended up in the advertising business instead of teaching English. I spent about three years in advertising and then escaped, thank God, relatively undamaged. I’ve spent most of my life since then in various editorial positions at a number of publications. It took me an awfully long time to get my first book into print. In fact, I sold over 2,000 articles to various magazines before landing my first book sale. I suppose I have more articles in print than any other living author.
STARSHIP: At what point in this process did you know you could support yourself as a full-time writer?
WILSON: I’ve only been able to support myself as a full-time writer in the last five years.
STARSHIP: What kinds of jobs did you take along the way while you were trying to get started?
WILSON: As I mentioned, I worked in numerous editorial jobs. I was also a medical orderly, a salesman, a long-shoreman, and an executive. In addition, I was an associate editor of Playboy for nearly six years. Also, I worked for a sweat shop in New York, where I edited five magazines simultaneously. Actually, this meant I wrote practically everything in the magazines under a variety of pen names. They had a very low budget. I got $125 a week before taxes for editing the five publications. I had a lot of other jobs like that. I was an editor of Ralph Ginzburg’s fact: magazine for a while (which is what Ginzburg did after Eros was suppressed by the Supreme Court, and before he started Moneysworth magazine).
STARSHIP: What formal training did you have as a writer?
WILSON: I took one course in writing at New York University.
STARSHIP: Have you ever found your lack of formal training a handicap when it came to developing your skills as a writer?
WILSON: No. The first piece of writing I submitted in that writing class caused the teacher to remark that it was the most professional piece of writing she had ever seen and that I should be a full-time writer, which simply confirmed my own opinion. So, really, I developed on my own.
STARSHIP: Can you see in your writing any specific stylistic influences in terms of other writers whose work you admire?
WILSON: Oh, very definitely. I can easily look at my own prose and see whose voices are represented. There’s a great deal of Ezra Pound, a great deal of James Joyce, a great deal of Raymond Chandler, a touch of Norman Mailer, and a soupcon of H.L. Mencken.
STARSHIP: Did any of these writers prove helpful in the sense of teaching you about the process of writing itself?
WILSON: Yes. For example, from Pound I learned that every sentence should have a life of its own. There should be no empty sentences. Basically, there are two types of writers: one type is interested in getting the damned thing done and sold, while the second type really enjoy writing and want every sentence to have its own wit, its own beauty. Pound converted me into the second type of writer. I want every sentence to contain a bit of pleasure for me and for the attentive reader. From Mailer, I learned how to write long sentences that are modern and swing. Faulkner writes long sentences, but one gets lost in the syntax; one doesn’t get lost in Mailer. Joyce taught me a great deal about how to vary the tone of a paragraph and create emotional effects that are almost subliminal, and how to convey very subtle psychological processes. Chandler was a major influence, in the sense that there’s not a single dull sentence in any of his books. I’ve tried to follow that practice in my own writing. It’s odd, but I can’t think of a single science-fiction writer who has significantly influenced my style of writing. What I have learned from science-fiction writers, though, is to have an open attitude towards the future. In this sense, they’ve influenced my philosophy more than my style.
STARSHIP: What is it about writing that you find so personally rewarding?
WILSON: Well, I think it’s a kind of hedonic-controlled schizophrenia. It’s also a kind of yoga, especially novel-writing. Full-time fiction writing is a constant daily exercise in getting outside one’s own head and thinking and feeling the way other people think and feel. I often think of it in terms of Gurdjieff’s work. Gurdjieff, the Russian mystic, devoted most of his energy to teaching his pupils how to get outside their own egos and see the world the way other people see it. I’ve become very interested in his work in the last four or five years, and it has occurred to me that what he is teaching is what every good novelist learns if he sticks with being a writer. One can’t create characters who are simply variations of oneself. One must go way out and create characters who are nothing like oneself. When one does that, one really learns something about humanity. In that sense, I think novel writing is more educational for the novelist than for the reader.
STARSHIP: Do you write more out of an innate need to express yourself or simply to support yourself economically?
WILSON: It’s sheer pleasure. As I said before, I’m definitely a style-oriented writer. Every paragraph is a challenge, and when I get the paragraph organized just the right way, I experience a great sense of bliss, such as a mathematician experiences when he solves a difficult equation. It’s a head game, a brain exercise, and it’s lots of fun if one’s attuned to that type of mental exercise. Every writing project is a growth project, especially if one has the aim, as I have, of never repeating myself. I keep trying to do things I’ve never done before, which means that every writing job entails another brain-change operation.
STARSHIP: Do you write with a particular audience in mind? Does audience figure into what you write and how you write it?
WILSON: Obviously, not as much as it should or I would have been more successful much sooner. Insofar as I have any audience in mind, it’s not the audience I should have in mind. I tend to write for the most hip and intelligent people I can envisage, which is not necessarily the way to commercial success. I must constantly remind myself that there are other audiences, too, and I must try to please them as well. Unfortunately, I always tend to slip back into writing for an elite audience. However, I try to put things into my books that appeal to a larger audience. For example, Illuminatus! has enough sex and violence in it to satisfy any television fan.
STARSHIP: How, then, would you describe your audience?
WIL50N: Actually, I have several audiences. My work appeals to those who are interested in such subjects as Kabala, magick, occultism, etc. There are political libertarians who dig my work because of the anti-government satire. Scientists and science-fiction fans also enjoy my work because of my comic use of ideas from modern physics.
STARSHIP: Is a book fully organized in your mind before you start writing or does it take shape as it unfolds?
WILSON: Sometimes I have a clearer idea of where I’m going than other times, but it always surprises me. In the course of writing, I’m always drawing on my unconscious creativity, and I find things creeping into my writing that I wasn’t aware of at the time. That’s part of the pleasure of writing. After you’ve written something, you say to yourself, “Where in the hell did that come from?” Faulkner called it the “demon” that directs the writer. The Kabalists call it the “holy guardian angel.” Every writer experiences this sensation. Robert E. Howard said he felt there was somebody dictating the Conan stories to him. There’s some deep level of the unconscious that knows a lot more than the conscious mind of the writer knows.
STARSHIP: Are you a meticulous writer? Do you agonize over word choice and syntax?
WILSON: I’m very meticulous, but I don’t “agonize.” It’s all a lot of fun, and no more agonizing than anyone else’s favorite hobby. It varies, however, according to what I’m writing. I’ve written some things as many as 16 times before I was satisfied with the finished product, but I enjoy myself the whole time. Sometimes, I enjoy myself so much that I collapse from exhaustion. I’ve been known to work from 16 to 20 hours and collapse with a very stiff back and wake up the next morning with an acute case of conjunctivitis. Even there, I enjoyed myself all the way through it.
STARSHIP: When you write, do you follow a set regimen?
WILSON: Yes, in a rough sort of way. I start some time in the morning, usually around nine or ten o’clock, depending on my mood or how much I want to sit around over breakfast talking to my family. Generally, I try to knock off between five and six o’clock. Frequently, though, I get a second burst after dinner and go back and write for several more hours. However, that doesn’t happen too often any more. It happened more when I was broke, desperate, and struggling to turn out as much material as I could in order to make ends meet.
STARSHIP: Does writing ever serve a therapeutic value for you? Have you learned important things about yourself in the process of writing?
WILSON: Oh yes, definitely. I would say, though, I’ve gotten more surprises out of LSD than I’ve gotten out of writing.
STARSHIP: When you finish a piece, do you generally like what you’ve written? Would you read your own work, had you not written it?
WILSON: Yes, very much so. I tend to be childishly delighted with everything I write. Every now and then, though, I’m very unhappy with a certain piece and can’t bring myself to submit it anywhere. Usually, in a case like that, after about three months, I’ll take it out, and submit it some place.
STARSHIP: Does writing come easily to you? Do the words flow smoothly and effortlessly?
WILSON: Oh, yes. It comes as easily to me as tennis comes to a professional tennis player. It’s my game. To me, it’s the third best thing in the world, after sex and Chinese food.
STARSHIP: How do you feel about critics? Do their opinions affect you?
WILSON: As William Butler Yeats said, “Was there ever a dog that loved its fleas?” Critics have been very kind to me, personally. Of all the reviews of my published books, something like 90 percent have been highly favorable, so I have no personal grudge against critics. On the other hand, in an impersonal way, I have a strong, moral objection to critics. Whenever I see a critic tearing a writer or actor to shreds in print, I feel a sense of revulsion. I write a lot of criticism myself, but I only review things I like. I don’t admire the desire to tear other people apart. I can only think of two unfavorable reviews I’ve written in my whole life, and I regret them. One was about a book in which a woman gets raped and is said to enjoy it; the other was a review of a very dogmatic book about UFOs, in which the author described those who disagreed with him as neurotics. People who like to write witty, nasty things about other people are not generous or charitable, to put it mildly. We should all try to give out as much good energy to other human beings as we possibly can. I honestly believe that every bit of bad energy we put out has adverse effects that go on forever. This is the Buddhist doctrine of karma. The Buddhists believe that every bit of anger, resentment, hate, and so on that goes out passes from one person to another, without stopping. The same is true of good energy: every bit of good energy one puts out makes someone else feel a little bit better. I think if people were really conscious of this psychological fact, they would try very, very hard to put out nothing but good energy, no matter what happened to them. They would certainly not be so casual about passing on bad energy. All the bad energy in the world builds up like a giant snowfall, until we have a huge war. Nowadays, it can mean a total nuclear Armageddon. This is traditional Buddhism, as I say, but I think it’s materialistic common sense, too. One only needs to study human behavior to realize it. I regard those people who make a career out of being nasty as emotional plague carriers.
STARSHIP: As you review those pieces you wrote early in your career, can you detect clear signs of stylistic improvement?
WILSON: I hope so. I would rather be gored by a rhinoceros than see some of my 1950’s pieces be reprinted now! Even some of my 1960s pieces, I hope, are lost forever.
STARSHIP: In what ways has your writing improved over the years?
WILSON: I hope I’m less acerbic, less dogmatic, less moralistic, and more charitable.
STARSHIP: Are you concerned that your work has didactic value, that people learn from it?
WILSON: Absolutely! Didactic literature is very much out of style these days; if one is suspected of having a message, it’s almost regarded as some kind of impurity. I think, however, that all first-rate literature is didactic. Dante is didactic. Shakespeare is didactic. Melville is didactic. Science fiction is the most didactic literature around; that’s why I enjoy it so much. All writers are teachers, whether they’re conscious of it or not, or whether they’ll admit it or not. For example, take Mickey Spillane. He used to give interviews in which he said he only wrote books for money. However, if you look at his work, it’s obvious he has very strong beliefs. He’s always pitching them at the reader. They’re rather fascist beliefs, but they’re beliefs nonetheless, and he’s a teacher, just like every other writer. Unfortunately, he’s only teaching a violent, fascist morality.
STARSHIP: You seem to be a virtual storehouse of ideas. Do you file ideas away, keep a notebook, or record your thoughts?
WILSON: When I’m working on a novel, I keep notes on things that occur to me that can’t be used in that particular work. I might use these thoughts at a later time, which is why I go through the effort of recording them. By and large, I don’t keep notebooks, except one special notebook, in which I record dreams, synchronisticies, and occult happenings. I like to have a record of such things, just so I can check it every so often and see if there are any significant patterns emerging.
STARSHIP: Are you still an active reader? Does being a writer afford you much time for reading?
WILSON: No. That’s one of the paradoxes of a writer’s life: the more successful one becomes, the less time one has to read. I spend so much time writing that, generally, by the time I knock off for the day, my eyes are too tired to do much reading. I used to read a book a day when I was younger. Now, if I manage a book a week, it’s unusual. A book every two weeks is more common for me now.
STARSHIP: Your work is said to be very symbolic in content. Do you pre-plan your use of symbolism or does it creep in by accident?
WILSON: Oh, I’m very tricky that way. My books are full of hidden gimmicks–not just symbols, but very obscure jokes, cross-references, and parodies of other writers. I feel I’m giving future Ph.Ds a vast field for research.
STARSHIP: You’re a writer who’s known for having an enormous cult following. What explains this underground interest in your work?
WILSON: Actually, I have several cult followings, not just one. That’s amusing. I’ve got fans who like me for one reason, others who like me for another reason, and neither are aware of the other. I have no idea why my work generates this interest, but I would like to think it’s because I’m a very funny writer. Of course, there’s the fact that an awful lot of my writing comes out of very deep levels of the unconscious. I incorporate into my writing a lot of stuff from my dreams and from various yogic and magickal exercises that turn on parts of the brain that connect with what Jung calls “the archetypes of collective unconscious.” So, there’s probably a level in my work that’s mythic, in the sense that King Kong is mythic or Lord of the Rings is mythic. I don’t know if it’s that archetypal level that explains the interest in my work, or whether it’s just the humor. Perhaps it’s a mixture of the two.
STARSHIP: Are you ever amused when you hear people discuss the symbolic significance of some aspect of your work, when you know full-well it has no real significance whatever?
WILSON: No. Everything in my writing operates on several levels at once. Any symbolism people find in my work was probably intended to be there, especially since I employ so much dream material.
STARSHIP: As you review the 2,000-plus pieces you’ve written, are there any salient themes or ideas which seem to repeat themselves over and over in your work?
WILSON: Yes. From the beginning, my writing has had a clear libertarian bias. It has always contained a good deal of anti-government propaganda. Moreover, there has always been an element of self-mockery in my writing, because I feel uncomfortable being on a pedestal, and so I try to encourage the reader not to take me too seriously. Furthermore, I’ve always written on a variety of topics, for a variety of audiences. I’ve never limited myself to any one field or area.
STARSHIP: Can you discuss the genesis of Illuminatus!? How did the idea originate?
WILSON: It started with the Discordian Society, which is based on worship of Eris, the Greek goddess of confusion and chaos. Actually, the Discordian Society is a new religion disguised as a complicated joke, although some skeptics think it’s a joke disguised as a religion. We [Robert Shea, his coauthor] felt the Society needed some opposition, because the whole idea of it is based on conflict and dialectics. So, we created an opposition within the Discordian Society, which we called the Bavarian Illuminati. We got the idea from the John Birch Society and various other right-wing groups who believe that the Illuminati really run the world. There were several Discordian newsletters written in the 1960s, and several Discordian members wrote for the underground press in various parts of the country. So, we built up this myth about the warfare between the Discordian Society and the Illuminati for quite a while, until one day Bob Shea said to me, “You know, we could write a novel about this!” The rest is history.
STARSHIP: When you began the project, did you ever envisage that it would take on such massive proportions, both in terms of scope and direction?
WILSON: No. When we started, Shea and I planned to write a fairly short novel. Once we got into it, though, we got carried away and it got longer and longer. Shea kept telling me, “It’s getting too long,” and I kept saying, “Yeah, but this is good stuff, isn’t it?” Eventually, the book was so long that when Dell finally accepted it, they insisted that we cut 500 pages.
STARSHIP: In what sense is the book science fact as opposed to science fiction?
WILSON: I wanted to write a book that combined several different literary genres. As a result, Illuminatus! is a combination detective story, occult thriller, political satire, and science-fiction work, with overtones of a porno novel, a dissertation on politics, and an occult fantasy. It constantly keeps changing. Whenever the reader thinks he knows where it’s going, it turns into another type of novel. That was part of our problem in selling it. Publishers don’t like that; they like a novel they can easily label. I’m still struggling with this problem in my present writing. My next book, Masks of the Illuminati, is something the publisher is going to have a hard time finding a label for, because it deliberately starts out as one type of novel and turns into an entirely different type of novel. This, to me, is realism. After all, life doesn’t fall into categories. People don’t live their whole lives in detective stories or gothic thrillers or soap operas or science-fiction novels or Hitchcock dramas. People’s lives change from day to day, from hour to hour. I’ve always wanted to write novels in which the reader doesn’t know what kind of script he’s living in. Publishers can’t stand this approach. They want to put a label on a story, and I keep trying to break that restriction. This is all part of my insidious campaign to undermine the minds of readers who think they know what they’re reading. I want people to realize that literature isn’t always what they think it is. Then they might realize that life isn’t what they think it is.
STARSHIP: In the past, you’ve described your work as “anarchist fiction.” What does that term imply?
WILSON: My early work is politically anarchist fiction, in that I was an anarchist for a long period of time. I’m not an anarchist any longer, because I’ve concluded that anarchism is an impractical ideal. Nowadays, I regard myself as a libertarian. I suppose an anarchist would say, paraphrasing what Marx said about agnostics being “frightened atheists,” that libertarians are simply frightened anarchists. Having just stated the case for the opposition, I will go along and agree with them: yes, I am frightened. I’m a libertarian because I don’t trust the people as much as anarchists do. I want to see government limited as much as possible; I would like to see it reduced back to where it was in Jefferson’s time, or even smaller. But I would not like to see it abolished. I think the average American, if left totally free, would act exactly like Idi Amin. I don’t trust the people any more than I trust the government.
STARSHIP: Many people think that Illuminatus! can also be viewed as “anarchist fiction,” in that it employs a multitude of writing styles and techniques. Would you agree with their
WILSON: Yes. However, I didn’t invent that method. Joyce did the same thing in Ulysses. Every chapter of Ulysses is written in a different style. I don’t think Illuminatus! is quite as original as a lot of people who only read science fiction think it is. The basic structure which has aroused so much controversy is boldly lifted from D.W. Griffith’s movie, Intolerance. I think Intolerance is the greatest movie ever made, so I stole everything I could find from it. I’m very much in love with Griffith’s technique of montage. Illuminatus! is written just the way Griffith edited his films. In Intolerance, he has four stories set in four different periods of history. He continuously goes back and forth between the four. That’s basically the technique I used in Illuminatus! It’s amusing to me that people find it so startling when it was done in film as early as 1915, when Intolerance was made.
STARSHIP: How would you respond to the charge that the book lacks thematic unity, that it strays from idea to idea without ever resolving any of the ideas themselves?
W/LSON: The same kind of criticism could be leveled against Don Quixote, Moby Dick, and Ulysses, which are three of my favorite novels. I’m writing for an audience that digs that type of artistic encyclopedia. Those readers whose attention span is much shorter should ignore Illuminatus! and stick to “Little Orphan Annie.”
STARSHIP: You’ve also described your writing as “guerrilla ontology.” How does that term apply to your work?
WILSON: The Western World has been brainwashed by Aristotle for the last 2,500 years. The unconscious, not quite articulate, belief of most Occidentals is that there is one map which adequately represents reality. By sheer good luck, every Occidental thinks he or she has the map that fits. Guerrilla ontology, to me, involves shaking up that certainty. I use what in modern physics is called the “multi-model” approach, which is the idea that there is more than one model to cover a given set of facts. As I’ve said, novel writing involves learning to think like other people. My novels are written so as to force the reader to see things through different reality grids rather than through a single grid. It’s important to abolish the unconscious dogmatism that makes people think their way of looking at reality is the only sane way of viewing the world. My goal is to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone, but agnosticism about everything. If one can only see things according to one’s own belief system, one is destined to become virtually deaf, dumb, and blind. It’s only possible to see people when one is able to see the world as others see it. That’s what guerrilla ontology is–breaking down this one-model view and giving people a multi-model perspective.
STARSHIP: For those who have not read Illuminatus! and would like to know something about the storyline of the book, how would you describe its contents?
WILSON: I like the description by John White, in his review of the book, who said, “It’s a journey through paranoia to metanoia. “Paranoia is a state of mind in which one is able to see that everything is connected, which indeed it is, but the paranoid sees everything in the form of a conspiracy directed at him. In metanoia, you see that everything is connected, but in a very funny, comical, and ultimately triumphant way. I would say that the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the greatest expression of metanoia in Western art. Every successful mystic has a basically metanoid outlook on life. Anyone who has ever taken LSD has experienced a few hours of metanoia.
STARSHIP: Why is it so difficult to get people to accept the fact that there are many answers to any given problem?
WILSON: Well, that started breaking down with the rise of urban civilization and commerce. As long as people lived in tribes, it was very easy to think that “our way of looking at things was the only correct way.” When piracy and nomadic raiding parties developed, people could still think that way. However, when people started trading and having commerce with one another, they had to learn to see things the way other people saw them. As a result, some sense of cultural relativism appeared in the ancient Greeks, who were great traders. I think that’s what’s responsible for the rise in Greek philosophy. Unfortunately, this has always remained a minority point of view because of the entrenched power of dogmatic thought. With the rise of modern electronics and technology, however, things have begun to change faster. We’re now living in the global village which Buckminster Fuller and Marshal McLuhan have long been predicting. I’ve actually met people in their 20s who have traveled to as many as 30 different countries in their lives. With that amount of travel and the emergence of modern electronic media, more and more people are developing a sense of cultural relativism. This leads directly to what I call “neurological relativism,” which is the recognition that the way one’s nervous system organizes impressions into Gestalts is not the only possible way; and that everyone else’s nervous system is likewise organizing an entirely different reality. They’re all equally real because they’re all an outgrowth of human experience.
STARSHIP: A collaborative effort, Illuminatus! was written with the assistance of Bob Shea. Did you enjoy the process of collaboration? Did it pose any special problems?
WILSON: Actually, I’ve done a number of collaborations as well as seven books on my own. I wrote Illuminatus! with Shea and I wrote Neuropolitics with Tim Leary, as well as another book with Leary, which hasn’t been published yet, titled,The Neurological Tarot. I find that writing alone and collaborating are both fun in different ways. The collaborations worked very well with both Shea and Leary. I would be delighted to collaborate with either of them in the future. I suppose there are some people who, if I tried collaborating with them, would drive me up the wall. I think one has to choose one’s collaborators quite carefully.
STARSHIP: How would you explain the fact that while you’ve produced so much work, and really excellent work, you’ve yet to really crack the literary mainstream?
WILSON: I think the answer is genetic. If one studies the evolution of gene pools, it’s clear that humanity began somewhere in the east and has been migrating steadily westward. I think it’s the more adventuresome, far out, exploratory genes which have traveled west. Most of my fan mail comes from the west coast – California, Washington, Oregon, and Arizona. The official intelligentsia of the United States, by which I mean those who have declared themselves to be the intelligentsia, all live in New York. Genetically, they’re a separate stock from the westerner. Westerners are a totally different breed of people, and I don’t think it’s any accident that Tom Robbins, Thomas Pynchon, Ted Sturgeon, Tim Leary, and I all live in the west. To the eastern intelligentsia, the latest things in science are Marx and Freud; they simply haven’t heard of anything since then. There’s an entirely different genetic stock and neurological set in the east. Basically, I would say they’re about 70 years behind in terms of neurological evolution.
STARSHIP: In what sense is Illuminatus! a product of your own experiences with drugs, such as LSD?
WILSON: I suppose it’s a product of my own drug experiences, but it’s also a product of my experiences of being tear-gassed by the Chicago cops, my experiences of being an editor at Playboy, my experiences of being a welfare recipient, and my experiences of going up and down the economic ladder.
STARSHIP: Let’s talk about the issue of space colonization. There are many people who view this as such a remote possibility that they find it difficult to take the whole idea seriously. Do you see space colonization as a real possibility within the foreseeable future?
WILSON: Yes. I think space habitats are absolutely inevitable in the next 30 years. The only remaining question is, how soon? All of the major problems confronting this planet will either be alleviated or solved once we start building space colonies. By 2025, there will be more people leaving this planet than being born on it, so that the population will simply wither away. I think solar power derived from space is the first step toward creating worldwide affluence and abolishing poverty and starvation. Space is also a great hope in terms of enlarging human freedom, because freedom is always found on the perimeter of society, on the expanding wave. Freedom is the vector of where the pioneers went, to get as far away as possible from the nearest government. The art of freedom is to keep moving on the expanding wave. That’s why all the most libertarian people are piled up on this side of the Rockies or in Hawaii. The industrial frontier is closed, so the next place for the libertarian to go is into space. As Tim Leary likes to say, “In space, even the lesbian vegetarians can have their own habitat in 50 years.” Everybody who wants to create a new type of society will have a chance to join forces with like-minded individuals and create their own Utopia. That happened in this country in the 19th century. There were over 1,000 “intentional communities,” as sociologists called them, that were Utopian in nature and founded on the frontier. Some of these failed, some of them partially succeeded, and some of them were eventually incorporated by the federal government as it expanded its powers. A few still survive today, although it’s under the control of the federal government, like the Amish community. Basically, the argument for space is that we need the energy and that it’s a chance for societal experiments which are impossible on this planet under present conditions of increasingly omnipotent governments.
STARSHIP: Do you sense a growing national commitment to space colonization?
WILSON: Yes, very much so. A number of studies have been done which confirm that the majority of kids in grammar school expect to go into space by the time they grow up, and I think they’re quite right in expecting that to happen. More people have been in space now than had flown the Atlantic 50 years ago. If you use aeronautics as your model, taking the years 1928 to 1978, you will find that one person flew the Atlantic in 1928, while 200 million people did so in 1978. Projecting space forward at the same rate, there’s likely to be more than 200 million people leaving Earth in 2028. Moreover, for anybody with good old American cupidity in their heart, the quickest way to become a millionaire is to invest in space technology, space industry, and so on. There’s an awful lot of raw materials out there. It represents the greatest real estate boom we’ve ever experienced.
STARSHIP: How does this square with the present lack of federal resolve in this area?
WILSON: The government’s foot-dragging suits me fine. I would much rather see space opened to settlement by private industry than by government. I don’t think that space colonization should become a government monopoly. Sadly, the government is only interested in space from the military angle, and that has turned out to be not as significant as they thought. Moreover, government in this country is made up chiefly of lawyers, and lawyers are always oriented toward the past. What does a lawyer do when preparing a case? He looks for precedents; in other words, he looks up the past. I think if our Congress were made up largely of engineers, or if we had as many engineers in Congress as we have lawyers, Congress would be much more oriented to the future and the space program would be rocketing ahead at incredible speed.
STARSHIP: How would you respond to the argument that spending increased dollars on space and space colonization rechannels those same funds away from badly needed domestic programs?
WILSON: In the first place, I think space colonization should be carried out by private industry rather than by government, so that argument doesn’t really apply. In the second place, I think people who raise that objection don’t fully understand how much we’ve already benefited from space exploration. It’s absolutely staggering when one considers the number of technological advances that have come out of NASA and been applied here on Earth. For instance, Buckminster Fuller, in his book, I Seem to Be a Verb, includes a long list of things developed by NASA which have proven to be extremely beneficial on Earth. Moreover, Arthur Clarke has estimated that the improvement in our ability to predict the weather, brought about by the development of weather satellites, has saved the farmers alone so much money, that that in itself would support the entire space program.
STARSHIP: Do you share the view that NASA has done a poor job of selling the space program to the American people, in the sense that it has played up the development of teflon pans as opposed to major medical breakthroughs?
WILSON: Yes, I do. I think NASA has an inept and clumsy style as far as public relations go. Hell, after the success of the Moon landing, one of their top officials was quoted as saying, “This is a triumph of the crew-cut guys who aren’t ashamed to say a prayer now and then,” thereby, in one great proclamation, insulting everybody who had long hair, everybody who wasn’t male, and everybody who didn’t believe in the Judaic-Christian God. That idiot managed to offend three-fourths of the population in one fell swoop, and, of course, what he said wasn’t true. NASA was built on the efforts of scientists over the last 3,000 years, including some who had long hair, like Einstein, many who were rabid atheists, like Haeckel, some who were female, like Marie Curie, and many others who would emphatically not be regarded as respectable citizens by middle-class America. I think NASA is a masterpiece of stupidity in the field of public relations.
STARSHIP: Given the large number of by-products which have resulted from science and scientific exploration, why is it that the average American has so little knowledge of and interest in science, even at its most basic level?
WILSON: I think it’s chiefly due to the activities of organized religion. Any teacher who tried to impart a really scientific outlook to students in grammar school, or even in high school, would come in for sharp criticism; at least, to some extent, this is true even at the college level. The teacher who really tried to convey to students the skepticism of the scientific outlook, the ability to distinguish a real argument from a lot of pompous noise, would fare very badly at most institutions. Organized religion, advertising, and politics are all based on perpetuating naivete and stupidity, so none of them are anxious to see people become more intelligent and rational. They wouldn’t want to see an educated, intelligent population–they wouldn’t know how to manipulate them.
STARSHIP: Many of the concerns that run central to your life, such as mysticism, the occult, and magick are often themselves the butt of ridicule on the part of large numbers of people. They’re frequently dismissed as too bizarre or outlandish to warrant serious examination. Why do people go to such great lengths to discredit that which they don’t understand?
WILSON: Well, it’s a question of hive solidarity. Every mammalian or insect colony is terrified of the mutant or the one who doesn’t play his assigned role in the hive or the pack. For example, the German secret police, at one point, were trailing Emanuel Kant around, and his philosophy had nothing to do with politics, really; the fact that he was a rational, thinking human being was enough to frighten them out of their wits. Right now, the occult is the area we’re not supposed to think about. It frightens people much the same way.
STARSHIP: Another salient idea that looms large in your writing is that of immortality and the entire question of life extension. How did you become interested in this area?
WILSON: It came gradually. I heard about cryonics in the late 1960s, and at that time it seemed like a very long shot to me. Then in the early 1970s, I started hearing about various new approaches to life extension. The more I heard about the subject, the more interested I became. I now believe it’s very likely that within this generation, we will see the first dramatic breakthrough in longevity. I would not want to predict what the first breakthrough would give us in terms of additional years, but assuming that we each had only 30 more years than we presently have, that means most of us would be living on to the point where the more enthusiastic researchers into life extension could conceivably raise our life span to 400 years or more. There are presently a number of scientists, such as Dr. Paul Siegal, who believe we can raise human life to 400 or 800 years. Even if they’re a generation premature, I think we’re going to see a dramatic jump in life expansion in this generation, which means that we’ll live on for another generation of researchers. These researchers will very likely achieve what the more optimistic researchers today are aiming at: life spanning the centuries, then the millenniums.
STARSHIP: Many of your books call upon the reader to view the world from alternative perspectives. As you see it, what are some of the best ways to bring about this mind-expansion?
WILSON: I really don’t know of any legitimate way to do it to somebody else. Almost any way you do it to somebody else is disguised brainwashing. The only legitimate one to experiment on is yourself, I think. Of course, if you’re a professional therapist and people come to you voluntarily, that’s quite a different matter. I don’t approve, though, of involuntary commitment to mental hospitals. I think there are many known ways of changing people’s heads around–putting them into a different reality–ranging from chemical methods to electro-shock to isolation to the traditional brainwashing techniques used by totalitarian governments. I object to all of these methods, unless the person has volunteered to have his brain changed. As far as experimenting on oneself is concerned, I think that’s one’s constitutional right, and no government has the authority to interfere with it. If people want to alter their consciousness with heroin, for example, they have that right. If they want to try electro-shock, they have that right. If they want to go through scientology, they have that right. Nobody, however, has the right to give them heroin against their will, or electro-shock against their will, or force them into scientology against their will, or force them to do anything against their will.
STARSHIP: For you personally, what kinds of mind-expansion techniques have proven most valuable?
WILSON: To be absolutely honest, I can’t be sure what techniques have benefited me the most, mainly because I’ve tried so many different techniques. I don’t know which ones deserve the most credit or blame for where my head is at. With that caveat, I suspect the techniques which have helped me the most have been the ones I’ve learned from Tim Leary and Aleister Crowley. However, I’ve tried so many different techniques that I can’t evaluate their individual effects. For example, I may have derived tangible benefits out of general semantics 25 years after I stopped studying it. I was in rather orthodox Freudian therapy back in my 20s, and that may have loosened me up to a considerable extent. Maybe that’s why I was able to respond more favorably to LSD than many other people who have experimented with its use.
STARSHIP: Many people view mind expanding drugs, such as LSD, as extremely dangerous, both to the individual and to society at large. How would you respond to the charge that the use of drugs, such as LSD, have extremely deleterious consequences, and that the potential benefits are not worth the possible risks?
WILSON: As you suggest, LSD is a powerful brain-change agent. As such, it’s extremely dangerous to the average American, especially those who don’t use it, but just read about it. It creates all sorts of paranoid trips in them. Among those who use it, I’ve seen some serious damage done. However, I think the benefits are also tremendous, particularly when used by professionals who really understand what they’re doing. In short, LSD is a potentially beneficial change-agent, but there are very few people capable of using it effectively at the present time. As a result, I discourage its widespread use, especially since most of what’s called LSD these days, is not LSD at all, but all sorts of things containing varying degrees of speed and other garbage.
STARSHIP: Timothy Leary has had a profound impact on you, both in terms of your life and work. How would you assess his overall influence on modern society?
WILSON: Leary has made a number of important contributions. In the first place, the Leary Interpersonal Grid is one of the most widely used diagnostic tools in the nation. In fact, it was used on Leary himself when he first arrived in the California prison system. An understanding of the grid will give you a better appreciation of yourself and other people. Leary’s comprehension of LSD is, I think, superior to any other scientist who has written about it; he understands it and knows how to use it constructively. He recognizes, as few others do, that LSD suspends the printed neurological programs of one’s life, thereby creating imprint vulnerability, in which a new imprint can be created. This means that if one is working with someone who understands LSD, or the person himself understands it, it is possible to create an entirely new ego for oneself. On the other hand, if one is simply experimenting casually with it, one is likely to imprint anything (including delusions).
STARSHIP: A prominent theme that runs throughout your writing is that of libertariansim. How would you like to see the government reshaped, recast, so that it would be more in line with libertarian thought and practice?
WILSON: First of all, I would like to see all of the “top secret” and “confidential” stamps thrown in the Potomac. I would like the government to be totally open. A government that hides things from its own people becomes implicitly totalitarian and, as we have seen in the last 20 years, explicitly totalitarian very rapidly. I don’t think government should ever hide things from its citizens. So, if I were asked to reform things, the first thing I would do is pass a law requiring the government to open its activities to scrutiny by any citizen, simply on the basis of being a citizen. Anybody should have the right to walk into any building in Washington and say, “I want to see what’s going on here!” and nothing should be hidden from them. If we don’t have that, we don’t have democracy.
STARSHIP: In addition to openness in government, what other areas of American life would you reform?
WILSON: I’m all for the taxpayers’ revolt which started here among the genetic mutants in California. I would like to see it spread throughout the entire country. I think the ideal government would be supported entirely by voluntary contributions, like any other business contraption. If people think they’re getting something useful from government, they’ll be glad to pay for it. If not, they won’t. I think government should compete on the free market with Lockheed, General Motors, and the Pinkerton Detective Agency. If one wants protection, one should have the right to choose whether one wants the FBI or the Pinkertons. I don’t especially trust the FBI, so if I felt I needed protection, I would personally go to the Pinkertons. I think government should be a free-market operation which buys and sells its wares to the public. That way, the people can buy them if they want or ignore them. They shouldn’t have to buy them simply because the government says they should. The idea that one has to buy something whether one wants it or not is simply a rationalization for exploitation. Taxation is merely robbery under another name. If one doesn’t have a choice about what’s happening to one’s money, then one’s simply being robbed.
STARSHIP: Do you favor volunteerism when it comes to providing for people who are unable to provide for themselves?
WILSON: If we were to make the reforms I’ve already mentioned, and go full speed ahead with space industrialization and longevity research, then everybody would have space enough, time enough, and eventually intelligence enough to not be in need of charity. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t cut welfare for the poor, but I would eliminate it for the rich.
STARSHIP: The criticism is often voiced that ours is a cultureless society, that we have contributed little to the development of Western Civilization. Do you share this point of view?
WILSON: Hell, no! I only need point to the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the design innovations of Buckminster Fuller, and the writings of William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, and Raymond Chandler. I also think jazz has proven to be a singular contribution to the world’s music. I think the Modern Jazz Quartet will some day be looked back at in the same way we look back at Vivaldi.
STARSHIP: Finally, in recent years, it has become fashionable to deride television and its influence on modern society. How would you assess the impact of television on American life?
WILSON: Oh, man, there you’ve got me on one of my favorite subjects. I really think television is 100 times better than most literary intellectuals admit. I think that “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” in its two seasons on the air, was better than anything done in movies, in novels, or on Broadway at the time. As far as I’m concerned, television was the major art medium of the country for those two seasons. Movies, the stage, and literature were totally out-done. The combination of social realism, coupled with black comedy, was masterful. They really made it work! In looking at the show from minute-to-minute, you never knew whether you were going to laugh or cry. The artistic ambiguity was handled brilliantly. I think there has been a lot of other good things on television, too. Since most science-fiction fans despise “trekkies,” let me go on record as saying that I’m an ardent “trekkie” myself. I love the show. I also think “The Prisoner” is as good as any movie of our generation. In brief, I think television has come in for a lot of very unfair criticism. Of course, it’s primarily the fault of the networks themselves. It’s extremely irritating to look at something first-rate, only to have it interrupted by those idiotic commercials every seven minutes.
STARSHIP: Thank you, Robert Anton Wilson.
(posted across usenet by Dan Clore)