By Richard Cabut.
What’s most interesting about Science Fiction, some would say, is its dystopian bent. The genre twitches if not bulges with works containing a pulse-pounding progressive inclination complete with overarching themes that speak of anxieties about and enthusiasms for the unraveling of society. Eschewing pseudo rationality and techno fetishism such works deal not so much with prediction, but instead hold a mirror up to the present. Radical ideas are applied to fantastic narratives by writers like Orwell, Dick, and Dave Wallis (Only Lovers Left Alive).
But the grooviest, hottest and horniest of these is surely Robert Anton Wilson, high and fly and way too wet to dry.
So, why is the late Robert Anton Wilson largely forgotten and overlooked these days? This is the teasing question raised by John Higgs, the main speaker at a recent event at London’s Horse Hospital to celebrate Wilson’s life and achievements.
Personable and gently funny, Higgs is worried about Wilson’s legacy. Normally when authors die, Higgs posits, interest in their books dips for a decade or so. Then, their work is rediscovered and reassessed, or it is disremembered and disregarded. Higgs fears it is a case of the latter for our Robert. Higgs, who has books on Timothy Leary and the KLF under his belt, doesn’t see much fresh interest in RAW’s literary offerings. This might be thanks to the artwork and associated vibe, which sniffs of the 70s Californian counter-culture. Or, it could be something to do with the fact that Wilson, while promoting his longevity theories, claimed he would not die — just before he died. Wilson’s motifs hardly help the cause — UFOs, conspiracy theories and Discordian in-jokes (one of his books was dismissed with a two-line review: ‘Deliberately annoying.’ Which apparently pleased Bob enormously). People, according to Higgs, like the fact that Wilson once stood for Governor of California on the ‘dope and guns ticket’, but are confused by everything else. It’s not looking good for poor old Bob.
This is a great shame, says Higgs, because Bob stands above all, for the inspirational conditions of probability and possibility in a modern world dominated by the stultifying ethos of absolute rightness.
I myself met Wilson in the early 80s, when he was living in Dublin. He told me the city suited him because the four faces of the town hall clock each presented a different time. People called it the Four Liars. This chimed with Bob’s sense of humour and philosophical outlook. ‘I do not believe in anything but I have my suspicions,’ he once said.
Wilson’s most rigorous attack on the dogmatism of ‘reality’ — one of his mottos was ‘Beware of the Dogma’ — came via the 800-page epic the Illuminatus trilogy (1975). This is a potted history of the world and a searing assault on the tricksy savagery of politicians and politics. The sprawling structure is underpinned by anything that can be used for fun and kicks: drugs, the occult, sex, and conspiracy theory. It’s a riot of dissonance and discord. Very funny with it, though.
One reviewer called it ‘a fairy story for paranoiacs.’ But fairy tales can teach us what textbooks can’t — about the power of mystery and about how reason and logic are not the be all.
In Illuminatus Wilson slugs it out in the artistic and philosophical arena, drawing on Burroughs, Joyce, Crowley, Ginsberg, Bakunin et al. in the tussle between convention and progress, the citizen and the state, the Man and men. Not to mention the hepcats and the deadbeats, the solid senders and the squares and the Righteous and the rotten. It’s an eternal fight. In the late seventies and early 80s I most encountered Illuminatus in the punk squats, crash pads and art labs around London town, in the hands of those on the margins looking for some action and magic.
But is Wilson’s work merely a kitsch reminder of more flagrantly vagrant times? Or, do his books have real cultural value?
Wilson always said that optimism is as self-fulfilling as pessimism. Hope for his legacy comes in the form of fans like Daisy Eris Campbell, the other speaker, in more ways than one, at the Horse Hospital event. Daisy is the daughter of the late, great Ken Campbell, who originally and infamously staged the Illuminatus trilogy in Liverpool and on the South Bank (it opened the new Cottelsoe Theatre in 1977). Daisy was actually conceived during the Liverpool run, in honour of which her father gave her the middle name Eris, the Discordian goddess of chaos. Now, to complete the circle, Daisy is about to stage a production of another of Wilson’s books, Cosmic Trigger.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Cabut’s fiction and poetry has appeared in various magazines and books. In the past, he played bass and wrote the propaganda for the punk group Brigandage, and wrote for the NME under the pen name Richard North. He lives in south east London, and works as a writer.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 7th, 2013.