Last year the dwarf planet UB313 almost succeeded in demoting Pluto from planetary status. By September, in recognition of her boat-rocking character, she received the name Eris, after the Greek goddess. Around the time Eris was named, an aged Robert Anton Wilson was ill, unable to pay his medical bills or for much else. I hope the naming of UB313 gave him a much-needed smile. It is of course, from RAW that many of us heard of Eris in the first place. He popularized both the goddess of discord, and her religion/joke/religion, Illuminatus! Trilogy, co-authored with Robert Shea and first published in 1975.
Lovers of RAW's ideas might insist this was not coincidence, but a cosmic wink from the goddess herself.
He did that too, much before anyone else. The re-discovery of the divine feminine, which by now we�ve all heard so much about we wouldn't mind a change of topic.
But back then, it was new. Remember, this was before new age, and its many and varied re-visionings of the sacred. Wilson�s Eris, was, anyways, a pretty cool goddess, a bit of a brat, more than a little wild. Alanis Morisette�s highly entertaining portrayal of God in the 1999 film Dogma owed more than a little to Wilson's Eris.
It seems strange that there has been little or no mention of his death on any of the SFnal lists or blogs I frequent, for Illuminatus!, while hard to classify, definitely falls under the spec fic rubric. I learned about his death because of a bulletin posted on MySpace by Disinformation, where, as at Boing Boing, he is considered an influential hero. There was little or no mention made in the mainstream press either, beyond a brief New York Times obit. It is only at Boing Boing that there are several posts by Mark Freuenfelder about RAW's illness, his need for financial help (which came) and finally, his passing in January. Freuenfelder goes so far as to call him the patron saint of Boing Boing, and, indeed, RAW was a frequent contributor back in the day when it was still a print operation.
Illuminatus! is a conspiracy novel about, well, almost everything, and, unlike so many trilogies, actually fills its hundreds upon hundreds of pages, and not just with repetitions of what happened before, or pointless info-dumping. It's smart, it's funny, it makes you wonder whether even a few of its author's multitudinous tongue-in-cheek conspiracy theories might have some small basis in fact. Indeed, it was a book ahead of its time.
Science fiction writers are supposed to ask the next question. That's their job. Nowadays, so few do. This might account, partially, for the oft-bemoaned greying of the readership. Young people are young, lest we forget. They like asking difficult questions, not because they expect answers, but because the questions are, well, there. Will anyone write an Illuminatus! for today's kids?
And what is the question?
What is reality made of?
P.K. Dick asked this question over and over. So did Wilson. The trilogy was followed by the just-as-famous memoir, which apparently garnered Wilson more mail than all his other books combined. The Cosmic Trigger is irreverent, exploratory, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes hard to believe, in short all the things an honest exposition of spiritual adventure ought to be. And writers don't flock to it either, as they ought.
In Trigger, Wilson describes some very strange things that happened to him during the course of, and following the writing of Illuminatus! I've been at enough writers' gatherings where, late in the night, secret confessions come out. You write something and something an awful lot like it happens. If not to you, then to someone close by. You meet someone who resembles one of your characters too closely for comfort. There is this sense that, at times, writers are actually playing with causality.
Poking it, just a little, with a thankfully very long stick.
The strange things that happen to Wilson are particularly odd, which is not surprising considering his conjoined subject matter of conspiracy theory and spiritual quest. Trigger's premise is that reality is both mutable and plural, and that there are techniques by which the psychonaut is able to breach the boundaries between realities. Of course, the idea of a multi-verse has increasingly received more than a passing nod from science.
Most interestingly, in his introduction, Wilson points out that the content of Trigger is very similar to that of PK Dick's thinly disguised autobiographical novel Valis, as well as that of Doris Lessing's The Sirian Experiments, and that he discussed this synchronicity with both writers. I've meant to read Valis for at least a decade, and now have renewed motivation.
Just for fun, this excerpted from RAW's home page, under About Wilson's Works:
The Chinese lifeform seldom secretly admires a demon near the fairy. Wilson believes that the illuminatus about a movie theater knows the dystopian eggplant, but he also considers how feverishly another psychedelic subGenius hides. A homo Sapiens related to some geodesic dome, a radioactive CEO, and a non-chalantly temporal wife are the keys to illumination. When Wilson describes the grizzly bear of a wife, it means that a non-Euclidian Emotional Plague procrastinates. Wilson further extrapolates, the sexist dolphin takes a coffee break, and a subGenius usually buries a Catholic trickster.
And beneath it:
Reload this page to get a slightly different essay.
Eris would approve.
I repeat: Wilson died poor, having, in his final days, to appeal to his fans for help with the rent. Why is this still happening to once lionized writers? And especially, and most sadly, to writers as intelligent, funny and mind-fucking as RAW?
A memorial to the man's life and work was held on Sunday, February 18, in Santa Cruz. The money from tickets was donated to Amnesty International.
Good on ya, Bob.