Half Witness at the Trigger:
An Inter-Review with
Robert Anton Wilson
Bob Wilson has got to be one of the happiest people I’ve ever encountered in print or in person. It’s a happiness that borders on the zany and the half-witted. In the language of the Tarot, he’s a Fool. Folly is the best teacher. Wilson has pinballed his way from the pseudo-posh of Playboy’s editorial offices to months under the thumb of Oakland’s welfare system. He now lives in Berkeley with an extended family, a.k.a. a commune. He has written or collaborated in the writing of six books prior to his latest offering. He still writes and is polishing off another science fiction work at the moment. It is difficult to see how he can top the blazing, convoluted, holistic and sometimes exasperatingly cosmic comicry of Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the llluminati.
Illuminati? Final secret? Well, now, let’s just back up a bit in time, shall we? Illuminatus! is the trilogy Wilson coauthored with Robert Shea. Playboy called it “a cross between a literary acid trip and a political tour de farce.” But we won’t count that because Wilson had connections at Playboy. The Village Voice put it another way: “Based on actual incarnations of the mystic illuminati sects … the novel ties together everything you’ve ever dreaded about Watergate, the Mafia, UFOs, all the recent political assassinations, Atlantis, Nazi Germany, giant rock festivals, the CIA, pyramid power, John Dillinger, LSD, yoga, the FBI and the last words of Dutch Schultz—for starters—in a hilariously raunchy style. Illuminatus! is the ultimate conspiracy book, and will probably become the biggest sci-fi cult novel since Dune.”
Since those words were written, sure enough, Illuminatus! has hit the college campus crazies and is showing signs of breaking out of the sci-fi, speculative fantasy crowd and into the realms of astral money. The British have discovered him with a royal vengeance and Illuminatus! was adapted as a 10-hour Wagnerian science fiction rock epic and performed at Great Britain’s National Theatre under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Wilson appeared briefly in a cameo role for that production. Not bad for a former welfare recipient, no?
You may ask, “What is the secret of his success, much less the final secret of the Illuminati?” It could be Just Magick, since Wilson holds titles as an initiate in several occult orders, including White Cord Witch, Voo Doo Priest. Water Brother, and High Priest of the Cult of the Sacred Cyborg, his most recently conferred and most highly cherished achievement, for which he did nothing.
His favorite living author is, he thinks, William S. Burroughs. His favorite dead author is, I think, Aleister Crowley. Like Crowley, he is master of the printed put-on. Like Burroughs, he knows where bodies are buried. Like Vonnegut, he slips the reader out of time, but unlike just about any contemporary writer of any kind, Wilson has a vision, even though he claims to be an agnostic. A stoned agnostic, at that. In spite of some incredible personal disasters and trials, Wilson has emerged with voice more clear than ever about the basically optimistic future of the planet. Meeting together in his communal retreat in the Berkeley hills, our recorded exchange began on that note.
I’ve noticed that when I’m most happy and high I get strange input from others who seem to want to penetrate that happiness with all kinds of reasons why I shouldn’t be happy. It’s an interesting phenomenon.
Robert Anton Wilson: I agree with Don Juan. Almost everybody is a black magician. The whole art of life is just to not let them bring you down. Once you figure it out you find that everybody or nearly everybody in one way or another is looking out suspiciously for signs of happiness; and whenever they see it they pounce in one way or another: paranoia, depression or something that’s your fault, which, once you’ve attended to, will bring you down into their misery.
Is it safe to say that what you’ve done in Cosmic Trigger is to build a new model of the universe?
Robert Anton Wilson: I’m not offering a new model; I’m offering several new models simultaneously. I regard my writing as guerilla ontology. In Illuminatus! I offer the reader several models of the conspiracy that runs the world, if you believe there is such a conspiracy, and let the readers choose their own paranoia. You get every possible variation and permutation in Illuminatus! you can pick whichever one suits you best. If you want to live in a loser’s script with “somebody else” running your world and you’re one of the victims, that book will give you any one you want You can pick from about 20 of them in there. In Cosmic Trigger I give about eight major models of what the universe is all about. You can pick whichever one you like.
But these models seem to interlock in an interdependent way. They all have something in common.
Robert Anton Wilson: I don’t know. Some of them are more scientific and some of them are more occult. What do they have in common?
Well, what I saw was that a) they each originate in and through the human nervous system and b) they become real to the extent that they can be communicated and shared with people in some way. Paranoid communications, for example, will evoke a paranoid reality. The models one chooses to live by are somewhat arbitrary, but that some models work better than others can be discovered using so-called empirical methods.
Robert Anton Wilson: I regard so-called reality as the resultant of all the conflicts of all the gangs of organized and unorganized magicians operating on this planet. “Resultant” in the physical sense. In physics you can analyze forces by taking any two of them and finding the result using the parallelogram method. You continue to do this until you get down to one resultant of the forces. This is elementary physics.
Is the planet itself becoming a functioning organism as a result of those forces in conflict?
Robert Anton Wilson: I think the planet always has been an organism. I think we’re just becoming more conscious of it. Needless to say, the Western intellectual tradition lost sight of the her books, shows that contrary to the popular impression, the scientific revolution was largely the work of hermetic philosophers who were in rebellion against Aristotle and had a very organismic philosophy that was heavily influenced by Cabalah, gnosticism, alchemy and what you might call the Western Taoist tradition, the underground hermetic tradition. Yet by the time the scientific revolution was accomplished, that background was entirely lost in the shuffle and we come out with this dead, mechanistic universe that we have been stuck with for 300 years. For 300 years the intelligentsia of the west has been stuck with this dead universe. They are just beginning to discover that it’s really not a machine at all, but a living presence.
Robert Anton Wilson: Eddington said it’s more like a great thought than a great machine. But the latest physics seems to really indicate that it’s more like a great acid trip than a great thought.
The thing that is the most fascinating to me at this point in history is how many things seem to be converging, how much information that was apparently lost for a time is being rediscovered and resynthesized with what we think we’ve learned through the dead, mechanistic approach. It’s coming full circle.
Robert Anton Wilson: There’s nothing that mystics have ever claimed that is now scientifically impossible. Say around 1900, or even as late as 1950, you were on pretty good scientific ground if you said that any particular claim of the mystics was absurd. In some cases you could have said, “That’s impossible.” But from the point of view of 1978 science, any wild idea you care to come up with will fit in somewhere as a possibility. For instance, the number of higher intelligences that may exist in this galaxy or the higher intelligences that may exist in other dimensions are scientifically quite conceivable entities, and they are just as staggering to contemplate as any of the angels or archangels of Cabalah. That’s the whole point of Kubrick’s 2001. 2001 is really a watershed film in that it shows where the scientific and the mystical overlap, in the possibility that we have been programmed by higher intelligences in ways that we don’t even dimly begin to understand, which is quite thinkable scientifically, now. And it is just as eerie as anything Cabalists or hermeticists have ever had to offer. In addition, the basic One-ness of consciousness has so much in modern science to back it up now. Humanistic psychologists more and more are incorporating oriental insights from Zen and Yoga and so on. Quantum physics is full of ideas that sound just like new cosmology or even Sufi cosmology.
Speaking of physics, would it be safe to make an analogy and say that when physicists work in their laboratories, what they do has aspects of ritual and some of the work of the alchemists?
Robert Anton Wilson: I think it’s going to become more that way. Already, Brian Josephson has seriously proposed that the difference in experimental results between American physicists and European physicists was due not to defects of instrumentation or experimental bias in the usual sense, but to psychokinesis. Josephson got the Nobel prize in physics in 1973. The Americans and Europeans were getting different results, because their minds were affecting the quantum level and determining the results they were getting. This idea has been put into print by Dr. Evan Hams Walker. I think science is going to have to come back to the alchemical proposition that the character of the scientist determines the results and that the highest science will demand the highest character. It’s going to be a total reversal of what scientific education is. Scientific education will have to be in a sense mystical education, too. Some scientists will be completely nonplussed by that idea, but I really think that’s what it’s coming to.
Nuclear scientists have formed a virtually international cabal with their own language, their own journals, operating quite above political and national categories. Do you think the connection between the high magick you were just describing and this international work has been made by any of them?
Robert Anton Wilson: I think a growing number of scientists are beginning to realize it. They are still a minority, of course, but then I think the first one to begin to understand that was Wilhelm Reich, who began to realize, to use his terminology, that you have to get rid of your character rigidities and muscular armors before you can observe certain aspects of nature without distortion. You have to get rid of sexual inhibitions, among other things.
That’s where the sexual connection comes in and how I got interested in all of this, and your work, too, I might add.
Robert Anton Wilson: Well of course. Reich was the first to note that connection and he was regarded as a nut and thrown in jail and his books were burned and so on. But in the ’70s I find more scientists who are becoming aware of aspects of that. As the alchemists knew, you’ve got to liberate yourself before you can see certain aspects of nature at all. If you’re armored against them, you can get hit in the face by them and not notice them.
I’m trying to understand sexuality as it connects with various forms of ritual, both practically and theoretically. Could you talk a little bit more about ritual?
Robert Anton Wilson: When I first got started on consciousness work, or whatever you want to call it, I was not into ritual at all. I was very heavily into Zen meditation and I regarded ritual with a great deal of contempt. Then I went through a complete turnabout and I decided that meditation just wasn’t for me, but I was getting tremendously good results with ritual once I started working with it and, for a while there, I was going around telling everybody: “Oh, fuck meditation, it’s a waste of time. Ritual is where you get the action.” And finally it dawned on me that that’s just me. I’m a novelist. I think novelists are particularly prone to get good results out of ritual because every novelist is to some extent a frustrated actor, a playwright, a playwright/actor/producer. You’re trying to put on a show in your own head that will become real in the head of the reader, and so novelists, I think, are prone to be good magicians, whereas other types of people might find meditation much quicker.
I’m not sure, but I think that both methodologies serve a somewhat different, if overlapping, purpose. One cannot prescribe a single way for everyone.
Robert Anton Wilson: Everyone has got to find their own way. Somebody said to Buddha as he was dying, “What can we do?” He said, “Doubt and find your own path.”
If there is any basis to neurophysiology at all, there are going to be certain overlapping broad channels, as it were, that one can discover in oneself, no matter what the specific path is that we might take in time-space/consensus reality.
Robert Anton Wilson: Ritual, as Aleister Crowley once wrote during one of his atheistic phases, consists of a series of physiological experiments. That’s what it comes down to. You’re experimenting on your own nervous system.
I’m in the midst of that right now. I’m using film and other media techniques.
Robert Anton Wilson: I think that when you turn on to the higher circuits of the nervous system you become aware of the extent to which you create your own reality, and that’s when you face what’s called the “dark night of the soul”—Chapel Perilous.
Is that akin to “crossing the abyss?”
Robert Anton Wilson: Yes. You can flip-out entirely or become a solipsist, or you can get yourself into all sorts of unwholesome or nonfunctional states. As Don Juan says to Carlos in one of the books, some people who reach that state just go out into the desert and starve to death because there doesn’t seem to be any point in doing anything.
How is that avoided?
Robert Anton Wilson: The way you avoid that is to pick something that’s meaningful to you and attach yourself to it. I sort of did it more or less intuitively, so to speak. Timothy Leary has expressed it very well. What you do at that point, he says, is to just take the highest, holiest, most beautiful, truest, finest, greatest thing you can imagine and aim at that. In other words, you create a god and aspire towards it, and that’s the only thing that’ll save you from solipsism or schizophrenia on the path to higher consciousness. If you can’t find some sort of goal that you can believe in, then you can easily burn yourself out, with nowhere to go and no reason to go there.
This is the crux of my criticism of pre-packaged consciousness trips like est. for example. People are taken to the threshold of Chapel Perilous and then left there. What they then end up doing is attaching themselves to the organization that took them there.
Robert Anton Wilson: That’s true of an awful lot of head engineers. The highest thing they can think of to turn their followers onto is themselves. You then get all these cults of people wandering around saying “My guru is better than your guru” and so on. I’m very fond of Werner these days, because he has found something higher than himself.
You mean the world hunger thing?
Robert Anton Wilson: Yes. To me that’s one of the most important ideas on the planet right now. The idea that we can abolish starvation. We can make the planet work. Bucky Fuller’s been saying it for a long time, but having a messianic character like Erhard take it up gives me great hope that it will move much faster.
You demonstrate a kind of faith in that. I recall that in Cosmic Trigger you described the process of how you dealt with the murder of your daughter. You have had her brain placed in cryogenic storage. What is the source of your apparent faith in science to someday unlock the secret of immortality?
Robert Anton Wilson: I regard it as a reasonable gamble. I don’t regard it as faith. It costs me, to preserve the genetic information of my daughter Luna, less than my smoking habit does and I think it’s a reasonable gamble. If the longevity breakthroughs keep coming at the rate they are, anybody in their … let’s say … under 60 today has an equally good chance of living through the longevity revolution and getting a whole new lifespan, probably longer than the lifespan we have now. And there’s a good chance that while they’re living through their second adulthood, further breakthroughs in longevity will raise lifespans up to the point where some will reach the immortality breakthrough. So, some people alive today may never have to die, which is a staggering thought when it first sinks in. In that case, I really believe there’s a chance I might be around when Luna is recreated and this long-range gamble will have paid off magnificently. Bubba Free John, who is a local guru interested in longevity research, has said that the highest states that mystics have gotten into so far will appear childish compared to the states we can get into with a lifespan of thousands of years. Once we start thinking about it, it’s obvious that the more time you have to work on your consciousness the higher you can make it. Intelligence, too. I was very impressed by the fact that in this research that has gone on with people who’ve come back from near death or clinical death, they all encounter this luminous being of light that shamans have been describing for millenia. John Lilly, among other scientists, has also described this entity. One of the things they get from this being of light is a strong desire for more knowledge. Most of them feel that the chief thing that was wrong with their lives was that they didn’t learn enough. They’re very interested in learning more. The orthodox oriental position stresses the expansion of consciousness, whereas Leary and I are much more interested in the expansion of intelligence, which means expanding consciousness as far as it will go and expanding very precise knowledge as far as it will go after consciousness. Higher intelligence is much more inclusive than higher consciousness.
You once said, on a radio program, that “Maybe the secret of the Illuminati is that you don’t know you’re a member until it’s too late to get out.” I see a parallel there with the gay experience. I think that people who discover themselves to be attractive and attracted to members of the same gender class have a slight advantage in consciousness work.
Robert Anton Wilson: Here, again, I agree with Leary. You can find all sorts of evidence leading to the conclusion that the sex role is imprinted rather than conditioned. Masters and Johnson found that most dysfunctions go back to traumatic experiences at the beginning of adolescence. According to Leary, that’s the point of imprint vulnerability for the sexual circuits. So, if you get caught by a cop the first time you’re trying to make out, you can imprint impotence and that can last until you go to a clinic. Whatever turned you on during your first sexual experiences is very likely to be imprinted. Once you realize that, it becomes absolutely hilarious to find people going around with the attitude that their sexual imprint is the only right one and that everybody else is a little bit crazy. If you want to change your imprint, go ahead. Nobody else has the right to try to change your imprint for you, and they’re all weird anyway.
You have warned, in Trigger, that there are many neurological experiments that should not be undertaken because they are likely to blow one’s mind. Why do you take that position when you also argue for openness and a general “no secrets” policy?
Robert Anton Wilson: I have seen a lot of neurotic people get invloved in the occult and very quickly become psychotic. I think it’s a great system for turning neurotics into psychotics. I don’t think neurotics should get invloved in the occult at all. I think you should get your head together on the plane of dealing with objective reality, social/consensual reality and interpersonal reality before you start investigating non-ordinary or separate realities. The techniques that I referred to in the paragraph you mentioned are techniques for creating and/or contacting non-human intelligences and it is a very subtle issue among professional occultists whether we are creating or contacting them. You will find Alexandria David-Neal in her books on Tibet indicates that the lamas told her that we create them although they can take on a reality of their own and become independent of us. Israel Regardie, who was Crowley’s secretary and really knows Crowley’s system from the inside, says you can either regard them as objective or as your own creation and either works equally well. The fact is that if you are at all prone to anxiety attacks or paranoia, experiments of that sort can very easily lead you into a horror film. I’ve seen it happen to people who weren’t prepared for it and I’ve seen them hauled off to nuthouses in that state. I think that should be clearly stated if you’re going to do any of the exercises that contact higher intelligences. When you’re writing about topics like this, which I did in Cosmic Trigger, there’s a problem that arises that I call the Puharich effect. Poor old Puharich, in his book Uri, made the tactical mistake of telling too much of the truth and now he’s got a reputation as a crank or burn-out case. All you have to do is look at the list of this man’s scientific credentials and you know he’s not an idiot. I decided not to make Puharich’s mistake: I left out some of the more incredible things that I could have put into Trigger. What we’re going through is a process of gradual disclosure. Everybody who has the nerve to reveal a little gives others the nerve to reveal a little. I’ve heard a few anthropologists since Castaneda’s books came out who are willing to say in public that they’ve seen primitive or so-called primitive magic work. They didn’t have the nerve to say it before Casteneda. Lilly has given others the nerve to report experiences they wouldn’t report otherwise. I know a physicist who was willing to reveal in an interview with an underground paper certain extra-terrestial experiences which he put in a letter to a scientific journal and then changed his mind and left them out. He feels he can talk about them to an underground press audience, but not to a scientific journal. I think, in the next five years, there’ll be more and more coming out of these “paranormal” experiences, and more people in the sciences and elsewhere will be willing to talk about them. Then people like Lilly, who were pioneers, will talk more frankly about the things they’re not ready to talk about yet. There are certain things that all of us in this field don’t want to talk about because if we did, a predictably high percentage of our readers would say, “Well, he’s gone nuts.”
What are the fundamentalists afraid of?
Robert Anton Wilson: Themselves. What they’re afraid of is change. One etymology of “devil” traces it to “double.” It’s the shadow, the repressed part of the self. What they’re afraid of is what Freud called the unconscious: parts of their nervous system which they have blocked off from conscious perception. The only way they know how to handle it is the traditional human way of picking scapegoats and ritually driving them over a cliff. You can study how widespread this phenomena is by studying anthropological texts. The fact is we’re living at the time of the greatest acceleration of change in human history, and it’s not letting up: the acceleration itself is accelerating. The rate of change is getting faster all the time. So people with rigid mental sets, people whose nervous systems are heavily imprinted with a past reality, for them the world gets to seem stranger and stranger and therefore more and more sinister, more and more frightening. This is why the average liberal becomes a conservative within about 10 years. His nervous system isn’t changing any more but the world is. So the world begins to seem stranger and more frightening and he begins to see “those conservatives have got something there; there’s something sinister going on. We’ve got to slow down a little. Let’s not get too reckless.” And of course in 20 years he’s a reactionary. As for a right-wing backlash, I’m not worried about it. I have been through it already once. We had that in the ’50s. Then came the outbreaks and breakthroughs of the ’60s. I think in the ’70s the pendulum swung back and we’re in for another revolutionary period. The scientific breakthroughs of the next 10 years are going to discombobulate our society entirely. Besides, I think we can buy them off. The scenario I’m into has something for everybody. It’s not a zero-sum game any more. It’s a game in which everybody can be a winner, so we can stop hassling one another and start enjoying ourselves.
Half Witness at the Trigger:
An Inter-Review with Robert Anton Wilson
by Dean Gengle appeared in The Advocate, issue 234 in February 1978.