I just learned that Robert Anton Wilson died on Thursday.
I knew he'd been in ill health lately, but hadn't known quite how ill, and hadn't been following his blog.
I first picked up my father's copy of The Eye in the Pyramid, book 1 of Wilson's and Robert Shea's Illuminatus! trilogy, when I was about 14; I think it was the summer between 8th and 9th grade, summer of 1982. I read the whole trilogy avidly though not linearly--I jumped around a lot, picking up whichever volume I was reading at any given moment (this was the 1975ish Dell three-volume mass-market-paperback edition, before the three-in-one edition was published), opening to a random page, and reading a few pages before trying to find where I had left off before. I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to say that Illuminatus! changed my life.
Partly that was because it was among the first sexually explicit works of fiction I had read. Not the first I'd encountered, but among the first. The reason I'm pretty sure I was reading it that particular summer is that I remember telling another kid, on the job I had that summer, that it was about "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll," in an attempt to make it sound interesting to more mainstream tastes than mine.
But there was lots more. It was my introduction to all sorts of things: conspiracy theories, experimental prose (I don't think I knew at the time how much they were borrowing from Joyce), anarchism (and libertarianism, though I don't think I knew that's what it was--the anarchism stuck, the libertarianism didn't), Discordianism and other mock religions, synchronicity, Aleister Crowley, kabbalah, gnosticism, the Knights of Malta, Timothy Leary, Thomas Pynchon, William S. Burroughs, Emperor Norton, the Hashishim/Hashshashin. I'm not sure whether the trilogy was my introduction to Lovecraft or not, but certainly I hadn't read much Lovecraft before reading Illuminatus!. It may or may not have been my introduction to metafiction. My political-history education had begun with Doonesbury but continued with Illuminatus!. The trilogy was, as they say, a trip; it pretty much blew my mind. And the aftershocks lasted for years.
(One thing it was not, sadly, was particularly feminist. IIrc, it tends, by and large, to put women on pedestals and leave them there, though it has moments of letting the women be more solid characters (including a couple of sex scenes from female PoVs).)
Peter was a huge fan of Wilson's work in general--I now have half a dozen of Wilson's books that I didn't have before, rescued from Peter's house. (I should note that although I gather Shea was an equal partner in writing the original trilogy, I tend to think of it as being by Wilson, probably because so much of Wilson's later work covered similar themes, while Shea switched to writing historical fiction.) Over the years I read bits and pieces of Peter's copies of some of Wilson's other books--most of the Schrodinger's Cat trilogy, much of Cosmic Trigger, most of The Illuminati Papers. (I've been known to quote one of the aphorisms from that last: "It only takes 20 years for a liberal to become a conservative without changing a single idea.") None of them had quite as strong an effect on me as the original trilogy, but I thought all of them were interesting. One of his books was the first place that pointed out to me the gendered assumptions I make about words like "doctor."
Here are a couple more tidbits from Illuminati Papers, since I've got it right here:
"In one sense, Illuminatus! is a reductio ad absurdum of all mammalian politics, right or left, by carrying each ideology one logical step further than its exponents care to go." (p. 46, from an interview with Science Fiction Review.)
Also, there's a "Neophobia/Neophilia Quiz" on pages 10-11, involving questions like:
1. Add the next term to the series:
- ride horseback;
- fly by jet;
15. The accepted opinions of today will appear to be idiotic superstitions by:
The answers appear upside-down in a small box on p. 30. It says:
There are no correct answers. The future depends on the decisions you and I make in the next hour, the next week, the next decade.
Peter and I went to see Wilson speak once, down in Santa Cruz I think. I only remember that he talked about reality tunnels, about our perceptions being filtered by what we expect to see and what we're paying attention to. He asked, iIrc, some detail question about the stairway we had come down to enter the lecture room, pointing out that we hadn't really been paying attention when we'd come in.
Sometime during high school, I found out that a small publishing company called Loompanics Unlimited was selling paper copies of Principia Discordia, so I ordered several of those (at $5 apiece, iIrc) and distributed them to friends. I was on the Loompanics mailing list for years; reading their catalogs was something of an education in itself.
I still think of Illuminatus! every time I see the numbers 23 or 5, every time I see a list of rock band names, every time I hear about a conspiracy theory (or watch a movie centered on conspiracy theories), and, of course, every time I see a fnord.
I wish I had written to RAW to tell him all this. Too late now.
I know he didn't take death seriously--that was the last thing he wrote in his blog--but it's hard for me not to.
I'll close by quoting one of the last blog entries Wilson wrote:
Wavy Gravy once asked a Zen Roshi, "What happens after death?"
The Roshi replied, "I don't know."
Wavy protested, "But you're a Zen Master!"
"Yes," the Roshi admitted, "but I'm not a dead Zen Master."
Farewell, R.A.W. I'll miss you.