The Booklist Interview

conducted by Patricia Monaghan

from Booklist, 05/15/99, Vol. 95 Issue 18

Before The X-Files – long before – there was Illuminatus! – a wild, weird, three-volume journey (partly by yellow submarine) through a world in which secret societies enfold other secret societies, conspiracies contend with other conspiracies, but everything is controlled, from beneath that grassy knoll in Dallas, by the Dealy Lama … or maybe not. FBI agents, possibly double agents for the Bavarian Illuminati (or, perhaps, the Mafia), threaten to release anthrax. Rock musicians, possibly members of the Illuminati, give drugs to festivalgoers while releasing zombie Nazis upon them. And then there’s this dwarf.

After almost 30 years, the trilogy remains in print, selling strongly to a third generation of readers. Fans abound, including TV writers who encode 23 and 17 (secret Illuminatus! numbers) into their scripts (X-Files agent Dana Scully’s ID number includes both) in homage.

The coauthors of Illuminatus! are the late Robert Shea, who went on to write such historical nobels as ShikeThe Saracen, and Shaman, and Robert Anton Wilson, whose novels, essays, screenplays, and even haiku straddle every boundary he can locate: between philosophy and fiction, between science and psychology, between fantasy and satire. His Schroedinger’s Cat trilogy is one of those science-fiction works that is invariably labeled “a cult classic,” while nonfiction works like Quantum Psychology (1993) and Everything is under Control (1998) have wide and intergenerational influence. Not surprisingly, Wilson is a major presence on the Web, with numerous sites dedicated to his works and ideas. In keeping with that aspect of his personal “reality tunnel,” this interview was conducted entirely online.

BKL: Would you describe Everything Is under Control and how it fits into your overall work?

WILSON: I regard Everything Is under Control as a mini-encyclopedia of conspiracy theories. I couldn’t include all conspiracy theories (that would take as many volumes as the Britannica), but I tried to cover the territory by judicious sampling of the whole spectrum from Far Right to Far Left, from the plausible to outright wacko, with lots of examples in between those extremes.

It’s also intended as an interactive book: every entry has links at the end, leading the reader to (a) similar and/or contrasting entries elsewhere in the book and (b) online Web sites where further data on that particular theory can be found. Following path (a) you will quickly find that the plausible often leads to the totally nutty, and the totally nutty leads to the plausible, in a very surrealist montage. Following path (b) you can easily spend a year following my leads around the World Wide Web and either turning into a stone paranoid or laughing yourself silly, or probably doing both alternately.

I never try to persuade the reader to think what I think; I always try to offer a heaping platter of sweet-and-sour reality tunnels, and provoke and prod the reader to think and choose for him-/herself. The traditional authorial stance of “Here’s The Truth, all in one book, come and get it” seems to me as archaic as the televangelists yowling, “I’ve got the one true religion!”

All of my books, whether they get called science fiction or science fact or philosophy or whatever, all attempt to break down conditioned associations—to look at the world in a new way, with many models recognized as models (maps) and no one model elevated to the Truth. I doubt that I’m smart enough to know the Truth, and I leave great suspicions about those who think they’re smart enough to know the Truth. A book like Quantum Psychology–my most technical bit of scientific writing–has the same structure as the wild satire of conspiracy theories in Illuminatus! (which I wrote with Bob Shea): the reader gets several versions of what’s happening. They call this “model agnosticism” in physics, but Joyce used it in Ulysses, before Bohr brought it into physics. I regard this multimodel approach as the single most important advance in both science and art in this century.

BKL: Conspiracy has been a theme in your works ever since Illuminatus! Would you comment on contemporary interest in conspiracy theories and its sources?

WILSON: I see at least three sources. First, the government and the major media have gotten caught in so many bare-faced lies that most people don’t trust them anymore. Everybody wants to know what the hell is really going on, and conspiracy theories provide quick, easy answers. Secondly, some conspiracy theories make a certain amount of sense, or at least they make more sense than the official line handed out by Washington and NBC-ABC-CBS, et al.

Thirdly and most important, we live in a time of ever-increasing information acceleration, which necessarily means ever-escalating chaos. I’m using both information and chaos in their technical mathematical sense. Information = binary units of unpredictable-in-advance new data; chaos = unpredictable-inadvance change in systems. The more information flow accelerates, the more the world changes chaotically, unpredictably, suddenly. People who can’t follow this simple mathematical argument perforce have to find simpler answers. Usually they ask “Who’s doing this?” or, even more likely, “Who’s to blame for this?” Once you’ve asked those questions, you have started thinking like a conspiracy buff.

According to statistician Georges Anderla, information doubled between the birth of Christ and A.D. 1500. What happened next? The Renaissance. In 17 years–one breeding generation–the first successful Protestant revolution in Germany (1517). Seventeen years later, 1534, the second successful Protestant revolution in England. Thereafter, about 250 years of religious wars. Information doubled again by 1750. Results: the Industrial Revolution, the American and French Revolutions, the first Mexican Revolution, the decline of feudal-agricultural society, the rise of capitalist democracy. Information doubled again by 1900, followed by relativity, uncertainty, surrealism, two world wars, the rise of fascism and communism.

Information doubled again by 1950, followed by cybernetics, a long cold war, the age of anxiety. In each case, most people became conspiracy buffs: they looked for somebody else to blame for the abrupt, unpredictable changes. Now information is doubling every year, and we have more conspiracy theories than ever. As mathematician-economist Theodore Gordon says, every time he finds a fractal (chaotic chain) in a corporate profit cycle and tries to explain it to the client, they exclaim, “Who’s doing it?” Most people don’t have enough math. They always look for an agent or first cause instead of looking at the interrelated functions synergetically.

BKL: We’re conducting this interview by e-mail: me in Chicago, you in Santa Cruz. Would you comment on the rise of the internet in terms of your philosophical and social ideas?

WILSON: I consider the computer the most revolutionary invention of all time. A computer “is” NOT a machine as previously known, but a metamachine: it becomes a potentially infinite number of machines, depending on the software you put in it. This means ever-increasing unemployment, as Norbert Wiener of MIT realized 50 years ago. Or, in Buckminster Fuller’s terms, it represents a giant leap in “ephemeralization,” or “doing more with less.” Our whole socioeconomic system will go through increasing chaos until we reorganize on a higher level of coherence.

The ‘net seems even more interesting. Hitherto, freedom of the press (or media in general) has belonged to those who own the press or media. I have always regarded the Marxists as correct on that one point. All previous media have been centralized-monopolized, and dissidents just didn’t count as news—they became marginalized, as Noam Chomsky says. The Internet, the Web, the e-mail, the newsgroups, etc., have no monopolized-centralized censor or control center as such. We will get dragged, kicking and screaming, into real freedom of communication. I think it can only stabilize at a level of world-round desovereignization. The ‘net will replace governments: the future looks like a ramshackle technoanarchy to me, and I love it.

BKL: Many thinkers of your generation have little appeal to younger readers. Yet your readership distinctly crosses generations. I understand you regularly appear at raves.

WILSON: I suppose my appeal registers chiefly on those who have anti-authoritarian attitudes, which usually means young people. Not only do my lecture audiences have more young than old members, but my biggest European market, both for books and lectures, is Germany. I think that’s part of the anti-Nazi reaction there: young Germans don’t trust leaders and respond very warmly to somebody who tells them to think for themselves.

I have appeared at several raves, and quite a few punk rock and trash rock groups have dedicated albums to me. What can I say except that I love it? John Adams had the same delight when, as vice president, age 55 or older, he wrote an article under a pen-name and saw it denounced as the work of “a brash young man.” But I also take great pleasure in the number of older people who have begun to appear more and more at my lectures, and I feel positively ecstatic when I get a fan letter from a hard scientist. Maybe I’m not as crazy as I sometimes suspect.

BKL: What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in your long life?

WILSON: 1. They live happiest who have practised forgiveness.

2. A sense of humor results from perspective. The wider the perspective, the more humor you will perceive.

3. Dogmas kill both intelligence and perception.

4. I don’t know what is important art or literature, but I know I prefer science fiction and surrealism to mainstream books, Orson Welles to Elia Kazan, bawdy jokes to ugly news bulletins, and Gene Kelly musicals to Death of a Salesman.

5. The Dalai Lama seems the only religious leader around who isn’t at least half crazy.

6. Certitude belongs exclusively to those who look up the answer in only one encyclopedia.


(posted to by R. Michael Johnson)

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