An Interview with
Robert Anton Wilson
by Michael Helm
When I was growing up in the ’50’s people used to jest, „STOP the world, I want to get off!“ Now, twenty years later, individuals like Steward Brand, Jerry Brown, Tim Leary, and Robert Anton Wilson have joined the chorus – only in earnest. Specifically, they have become charter members and advocates of Gerard O’Neill’s space colony proposals. Proposals which envision millions of people leaving earth to orbit about the solar system in brave new mini-worlds by the year 2020. Given our unsolved problems here on earth, one can see the attraction. Maybe a fresh start somewhere else is our only hope. Popular interest in Star Trek and Star Wars may reflect but the leading edge of a general anxiety concerning the human race’s future.
Anyhow, however far out and out of sight one might consider space colony proposals, in recent months the idea has achieved sufficient currency to warrant popular debate. Playing the role of a friendly adversary – in the spirit of a counter Mr. Spock – I’ve asked Robert Anton Wilson some questions about the feasibility and desireability of space colonization. Whether the cogency of his responses matches the charm of his Irish-American wit, you’ll have to judge for yourself.
In addition to space colonies and their implications, we explore a lot of other „ground“-much of it related to Cosmic Trigger, Wilson’s controversial book just published by Berkeley’s And/Or Press. If you’re interested in libertarianism, immortality, Tim Leary, higher intelligences, Aleister Crowley, Magick, UFO’s, the Illuminati, Guerilla Ontology, yoga, and theoretical physics, you’ll enjoy the new book. In it, Wilson has come as close as possible to accommodating the „queerness of the universe“ as any recent metaphysical voyager I know. Rightly or wrongly, Wilson has made an honest, well-written attempt to synthesize the outer limits, the anomalous factors, of both the scientific and mystical traditions. And all within the biographic crucible of his own life. Stylistically and materially the flavor of the novelist, the engineer, the ex-Playboy editor, and the mystic are all there.
The interview itself took place on a sunny day in the Berkeley Hills on October 14th, a day which, interestingly enough, corresponded to what affeccionados of the underground classic, Principia Discordia, and the Illuminatus! Trilogy refer to as the Law of Fives. As you’ll gather from what follows, Robert Anton Wilson is a generous, witty idea addict who is that rarest of all God’s creatures – a forty-five-year-old optimist.
After reading the Illuminatus! Trilogy and the Cosmic Trigger, I’m curious about how you would describe yourself. In the past you’ve often used the word, libertarian.
Robert Anton Wilson: Well, 10 years ago I would have called myself an anarchist, an atheist, a witch. Five years ago I called myself a libertarian, an agnostic, a pantheist. At the rate I’m going I’ll probably end up being a decentralist and a theist.
A theist? That’s interesting. A lot of people think that secular, scientific thinking and religion are incompatible.
Robert Anton Wilson: Well, I don’t think there’s anything in the various religious traditions that one could flatly say on scientific grounds is impossible at this point. I think that’s one of the big turning points. In the last 300 years, religion has been on the run, science has been chopping it down – tree by tree the whole forest of religion has been falling. A few people have begun to notice lately, however, that current science has been having the opposite effect. For instance, if you want to believe in higher intelligences, there are plenty of things in science to indicate that there may be higher intelligences. Elsewhere in the galaxy, scientists estimate that there are millions of earth-type planets, and many of them will be billions of years older than earth; evolution will have gone much further. And there are many things beyond the merely extraterrestrial. The possibility of time travel, the possibility of multi-dimensional universes, beings communicating with us from others types of space time. If you want to believe in immortality, there are lots of scientists who believe we are going to have longevity very soon, and we may achieve immortality. Two Russian scientists are quoted in this week’s National Inquirer as saying that they have a formula that they think will expand human life-span to 200 years. There are others aiming for 800 years or longer. Additionally, though parapsychologists are still reluctant to say anything in public, privately they’ll admit that the evidence seems to point to some sort of survival after death.
How does this relate to religion?
Robert Anton Wilson: I’m not saying that science is going to bring back the old-time religion, but science has shown that a great deal of what was formerly thought mystical is within the realm of the possible. We live again in an exciting and hopeful universe. Whereas around the turn of this century, between 1850 and 1950, say, all you could get out of scientists was that we lived in a blind, impersonal universe where, if it weren’t for copying errors, we’d all still be amoebas.
So you feel more optimistic because of the convergence of the scientific and mystical traditions?
Robert Anton Wilson: I’d say that what is emerging is a realization that the universe is far more remarkable than we had previously realized. As IBS Haldane, the biologist, said (after taking up the study of yoga and jolting his own nervous system into higher consciousness), „The universe may not only be queerer than we think, but queerer than we can think.“ I think that’s what the study of Oriental consciousness-expanding techniques and the study of advanced sciences like physics are all pointing us toward: that the universe is much more remarkable than we ever knew. My own position I would describe as agnostic mysticism: I just know that something incredibly wonderful is going on but I don’t have any particular dogmas about it.
You mentioned immortality. That’s a central theme in the Cosmic Trigger. What kinds of implications come from that in terms of social planning, in terms of the mental sets we have now?
Robert Anton Wilson: Well in the first place everything is going to have to change. It’s a whole new ballgame, a whole new phase of evolution. Everything we take for granted has to be challenged in the light of the possibility of longevity and the long-range possibility of immortality. This changes everything. Among other things, the human nervous system is going to have to mutate. People can presently stay hung up in the same games for 70 years. You’ll find that a lot of people have the same mental limitations at the age of 70 that they had at the age of 2½. But with life spans running into hundreds of years, people are going to get pretty damned bored with their limitations. The upsurge of do-it-yourself psychology, encounter groups, yoga, oriental consciousness-expanding techniques, LSD, biofeedback … all of that I think is going to increase. People are going to be more and more into changing themselves in order to avoid going absolutely crazy from boredom and despair at the narrow little games they’re trapped in. Or they’re going to say to hell with that, I want to die young – I’ll die at 70.
Well, in an epistomological sense people will die many times. So, in a sense we’re re-defining death.
Robert Anton Wilson: That’s it exactly! The death of the ego is something that people in a 1,000-year lifetime will experience many times. As Bubba Free John has pointed out concerning longevity, we haven’t seen how high human consciousness can reach: the highest mystics all died young. When we have mystics 800 years old, we’re going to have far-out mystics. And when we have scientists 800 years old we’re going to have far-out scientists.
Assuming that breakthroughs in biology and chemistry extend the span of life immeasurably, what about the politics of immortality? Who will be first to get it? What about the politics of choosing the immortals?
Robert Anton Wilson: Well, that’s the big question. I think it should be available to all (from my point-of-view as a libertarian, I have to say that) and the best way to insure that it’s available to all is to make the loudest possible noise about it in advance, so that the whole goddam planet will be arguing about it, taking a hand in this decision. I define this as the conscious goal of all my writing at this point. I want everybody involved now so that they know where they stand, and it won’t be something that Nelson Rockefeller and his friends can hog for themselves and a few kept scientists.
What about the resultant population crunch? With much longer life spans, isn’t something like forced sterilization going to be pushed to keep the planet habitable?
Robert Anton Wilson: I think the present population problem plus the longevity breakthrough necessitates that we will migrate off the planet. Gerard O’Neill has calculated that by 2025 there will be more people moving off the planet than being born on it, and so there will be no more population crunch on the planet.
As I understand O’Neill’s proposals, their attractiveness lies in not having to deal with gravity. What I wonder about is the extent of resources necessary to allow appreciable numbers of people to leave the planet and colonize space. Don’t you see that as.a problem when we’re talking about millions of people, potentially?
Robert Anton Wilson: You’ve got to realize that the potential of space is staggering as compared with the potential of the planet. We’re going from a closed system to an open system in terms of General Systems Theory. In a closed system, entropy increases; but in an open system, entropy doesn’t necessarily increase. In a closed system, the Malthusian laws apply: you have to struggle for survival-there’s not enough to go around and the predatory types will always get most of the food, shelter and luxuries. In an open system, all of that changes. Specifically, G. Harry Stein in his book, The Third Industrial Revolution (which deals with space technology), calculates the number of technical processes that can be done cheaper in gravity-free space than on the planet, and the number turns out to be higher than a googol – which is higher than the number one with 100 zeroes after it. This makes the first industrial revolution appear as a single raindrop in comparison with Noah’s flood.
Well, I can follow the logic of it once you’ve gotten into space, the efficiencies and possibilities of it. But-getting there will take resources …
Robert Anton Wilson: Well actually, to put a human being into orbit doesn’t require any more actual energy expenditure than to fly the same human from New York to San Francisco. In terms of actual energy. That’s the calculation of Peter Vajk, a physicist I know. It’s the biggest real estate’bonanza in history. And though people now look at O’Neill’s figures and say, „My God, how can we afford it?“, when you consider the return on capital invested, an awful lot of people are going to be investing. There’s going to be opportunities for everyone who wants to go.
As you’re no doubt aware, there’s a real concern among people like Wendell Berry who have an ecological perspective in terms of priorities; saying why use resources „out there“ when we have a potentially beautiful environment here on earth to improve and appreciate?
Robert Anton Wilson: That’s as idiotic as telling the pilgrim mothers and fathers, „Stay here and make Europe better. Don’t go somewhere else and try your own trip.“ I think progress throughout history has been due to people who moved out and started their own trip; that is a much more constructive thing than to stay where you are and try to force everybody to get into your trip. Or to try to convert them by propaganda,seduction, etc., which is less coercive, but it bloody wears you down. An open system is of much more advantage to everybody than a closed system. In a closed system,the best you can do is equalize the misery. Without a growing and expanding technology, the best you can do is divide up what we’ve already got among everybody on Earth which would give us a living standard like that of Costa Rica. On the other hand, an open system creates the possibility of abundance for all. It comes down to a question Wayne Benner likes to ask. Wayne asks everybody, „If you could make everybody equally rich or equally poor, which would you do?“ And some people are so ingrown with masochism and the whole self-denial trip that they want to make everybody equally poor … I say to them, sit on it. I want to see everybody rich and in an open system that’s possible. If space critics were to convince me that they had a better plan to abolish poverty, then I would get off the space migration kick and get on that kick. But I think that space migration is the main solution. There are many other things operating and something could happen any day to change the picture; a breakthrough in another field could change the whole picture.
What about the biological aspect of living in space? The San Francisco Chronicle recently ran a story about the astronauts experiencing decalciflcation of their bones as a result of short stays in space. What would longer stays mean? Would we mutate into jellyfish or what?
Robert Anton Wilson: We would create artifical gravity. That problem has already been solved by Professor Gerard O’Neill in his LS spacetown designs. Of course, some people will always fear the pioneer’s path-like those who warned Columbus he’d fall off the edge.
On psychological and aesthetic grounds, I wonder whether space colonies would be as interesting, diverse, and nurturing as Earth is.
Robert Anton Wilson: I think more so. There would be more diversity. I think there would be cultures created unlike anything we’ve ever had in the primitive conditions of the closed system, the malthusian crunch on this planet. To quote Leary, „The lesbian vegetarians could have their own world. The Buddhists could have their world; the communists could have their world …“
So you see the existence of many different colonies which would be accessible to each other so that people could travel between them and experience each of them?
Robert Anton Wilson: Oh yes, visiting between colonies would be wonderful. Of course some of them may put up walls and say stay out, but if they feel that way, OK – I’d just visit the ones that would be open.
One of the things which has been absent from the discussion of space colonies by proponents is a serious public debate as to whether they should remain a statist monopoly under the aegis of NASA with its quasi military flavor.
Robert Anton Wilson: Well, that seems to be Leary’s role to break up the monopoly. In the fifties he broke up the monopoly of professional therapy by pioneering all these techniques of group therapy and so on which became the human potential movement of today. He was one of the real pioneers of that – which was taking the mental health movement away from the professionals and making it a buyer’s market. Of course, when mind-altering drugs came along, the government tried to make that a monopoly too; and for Leary’s efforts to prevent that monopoly he spent time in 29 prisons. But that is the trajectory of his work: what Leary is up to these days is guaranteeing that space will not remain a government monopoly. Like Leary, my emphasis is on getting it away from the State: it should not be a NASA monopoly.
To your knowledge has there been any serious attempt to form voluntary corporations or associations such that space colonization can be seriously initiated privately?
Robert Anton Wilson: Yes, there are several projects of that sort going on. There’s a group who call themselves Free Space Colonizers who are talking about forming a corporation. There’s a guy in Germany who has already formed a corporation for space migration and manufacturing in space. There is a great deal of talk going on right now about something big really happening I don’t want to talk about it because nothing is firmed up yet.
Do you think existing governments will allow private groups to set up space colonies?
Robert Anton Wilson: Well, some governments put fences all around. On the other hand, the United States Government has a public image of freedom. If they throw an iron curtain over the country and say nobody can leave, then they’re on all fours with Russia and they lose points in the ideological war. Also, I don’t think the American people would stand for it at this point we had enough totalitarianism under Nixon and people want more freedom. I don’t think they would tolerate it if the government said, „You can’t go, this is a prison, we’re locking you in.“
Guerilla Ontology and Ethics
In the Cosmic Trigger there seems to me to be a sense that dogmatic monistic systems are per se scientifically untenable … that there are so many ways of looking at what we call reality that to commit yourself to one is basically a dimunition.
Robert Anton Wilson: Well, I think all of my „books have basically a guerilla ontology. I reject the one-model approach to reality (which Korzybski, the semanticist, called the Aristotelian approach), the approach of making a model in your head and saying, „This depicts reality accurately,“ and being emotionally and esthetically and sexually in love with that model. Well, Buddha and Lao-Tse and a couple of other bright people figured out 2,500 years ago how stupid that idea was. By inner-neurological research on themselves they found how they could shift their focus. We know scientifically, beyond all doubt, that the one-model approach is unsound. The lifetime of.scientific paradigms is growing shorter all the time. (The paradigm is a particular world model.) The Newtonian paradigm lasted three hundred years the Einsteinian is already under attack after 70 years. In the really far-out areas of physics I know scientists who will talk about three paradigms at the same time. I ask them, „Which one do you believe in?“, and they say, „Well, all three of them look equally good right now.“ I think that is the intelligent way to use paradigms. Doubt all of them, especially your own favorites.
When I think about multi-model approaches I wonder what are going to be the ethical bases upon which people interact? Specifically there is the question of Evil. Does a multi-theoretical perspective invalidate and make obsolete the concept that certain things are Wrong?
Robert Anton Wilson: That’s the most difficult question you’ve asked. More or less Ex Cathedra, I’ll answer … in terms of Gurdjieff’s distinction between conditioned morality and objective morality. People can be conditioned to accept any morality as natural. If you grow up among a tribe of head-hunters, that’s a natural way to behave. If you grow up in a tribe that accepts it as its mission to police the world and napalm everybody who disagrees with them, you tend to believe that like the average, well-adjusted American citizen did during the sixties. Conditioned morality is entirely an accident of where you were born and how your nervous system was imprinted when you were young.
There is an objective morality, on the other hand, which is based on what is loosely called intuition the capacity to see from beyond your own ego. And this doesn’t have to be enforced either. It comes naturally when your consciousness has advanced to the point where you realize that hurting another human being is, strictly speaking, equivalent to hurting yourself: There is no difference. This is more or less Ex Cathedra; I can’t prove it in any logical way. All I can say is here is the evidence of several thousand years of mysticism. Anybody who wants to argue the point has got to be as informed as you have to be informed if you want to argue about nuclear physics. First you have to do the research before you have the right to have an opinion.-Do the research on your own nervous system, follow the instructions in the manuals of yoga and other consciousness-expanding techniques and you will find that you will develop this objective morality.
Can you be a little more specific?
Robert Anton Wilson: I would say that there is a circular causal chain of karma. Leary once stated the part that seems most paradoxical to straight people, „You can’t do good until you feel good.“ Which I think every mystic knows. This is why they’re so tolerant. They know that most people feel bad most of the time; they understand why people behave badly and they forgive them. When you start feeling better, you act better. The corollary to what Leary said is that you can’t really feel good until you start doing good. You can feel better than most people do in our society, but you won’t feel really deep down good until you start doing good. I think one of the bravest statement of the 1970’s was made by Norman Lear in a Playboy interview when he said, „I’m an old-fashioned, bleeding heart liberal.“ That is so corny and so kitch and so camp and everybody sneers at that kind of thing. But if you’re not a do-gooder you don’t really appreciate life. That’s the secret of secrets. You don’t really know what it’s all about, As Obi Wan Kenobie said to Darth Vader in the novel, not in the film, of Star Wars, „You only know the Force as the glass knows the wine. You haven’t tasted it.“ Once you’ve tasted … the fountainhead of OK, I’ll go ahead and be pretentious Infinite ‚Love, there’s nothing that compares to it. You’ve got to see both sides of it you can’t do good until you feel good and you can’t feel good until you do good.
I think that „doing good“ has its critics historically mainly because it has often had as its concommitant a totalitarian patronizing mentality.
Robert Anton Wilson: Of course. I know why people despise do-gooders: because most do-gooders are masochists on a power trip; they’re on a trip of repressing themselves and repressing everyone else they meet. They’re carriers of what Wilhelm Reich called the emotional plague. That’s one of the eight standard neuroses of our culture. I’m talking about something on an entirely different level, where you’re not going around telling people to be good, or pushing them around. Instead, you go around every day trying to be as kind and loving as you can because you know that’s the way to have a happy day.
There was an aphorism along that line in Cosmic Trigger …
Robert Anton Wilson: „They live happiest who have forgiven most.“ That was said to me by my Holy Guardian Angel and I took it very seriously …
In the Dhamapada which is, I believe, the earliest of the Buddhist scriptures and probably contains more of the Buddha’s own words than any of the later scriptures, he says: „In those who harbor thoughts like, ‚he beat me, he robbed me, he cheated me‘ hatred will never cease. In those who refuse to harbor such thoughts, hatred will cease. Hatred does not cease by hatred at any time; hatred ceases by love. There is nothing that haters do to haters or enemies do to enemies as bad as what an angry mind does to itself.“
Can love be willed?
Robert Anton Wilson: Not completely, but it’s a place to start. You can try it, try doing it, but as Meister Eckart says, „When Jesus said that you will ‚know my followers by the fact that they love one another‘ he was not giving a command, but offering a promise.“ The capacity for love is a reward. To a certain extent you’ve got to will it; to a certain extent you’ve got to open yourself to it. The door opens inward.
What about drugs? What is your attitude about people using drugs as a means towards re-programming themselves as opposed to the more yogic tradition?
Robert Anton Wilson: That depends on the drugs and it depends on the individuals. There are definitely advantages in the use of drugs for some individuals in that they allow a rapid brain change that can’t be accomplished any other way. To achieve this, one must have achieved a certain level of maturity already. I’ll put it this way: to people who have had enough yoga or enough psychotherapy, or both; or enough experience of life, enough joy and enough suffering, enough success and enough failure to have acquired an internal balance; to such people, drugs (certain drugs, and I’m thinking specifically of psychedelics) can be tremendously beneficial in accelerating their progress. The same drugs are as dangerous as TNT to people who haven’t had any psychotherapy or any yoga, who have never been successful in anything, who despise themselves and are frightened and resentful towards the whole world. They’re just going to make themselves sicker fooling around with such drugs.
Let’s talk about Tim Leary. Right now he’s dismissed as a spaced-out corrupter of the young on the one hand by the straight media; and on the other hand is viewed by much of the underground press as a traitor under the allegation that he cooperated as an informer while he was in prison. What can you say about that?
Robert Anton Wilson: Well, the popular American image of Leary, like the popular Russian image of Sakharov, is entirely fictitious. People are trained to believe what those above them tell them. The average Russian believes that Sakharov’s mind has been ruined by alcohol and he’s incoherent; the average American believes that Leary’s mind was ruined by acid and that he’s a mental basket case (as the National Lampoon once called him). Actually, what I’ve read of Sakharov and what I’ve seen and read of Leary convinces me that they are both men of exceptionally high IQ, exceptional sanity and stability. Wesley Hyler, who was a psychiatrist at Vacaville, when I interviewed Tim there, went so far as to say that „Tim is totally, radiantly sane.“ So he’s not a mad scientist by any means. As for the informer allegations, Leary is an informer in one sense. So was Marion Brando in On The Waterfront. The question is, is it always wrong to inform? Leary informed on people whom he felt had done a great deal of harm to him personally and a great deal of harm to a lot of other people, too. And he was acting basically in self-defense, because they were plotting to do more harm to him. Specifically, they were trying to frame him for a lot of their own crimes while he was under investigation by a grand jury. He was charged with 29 counts of manufacture and smuggling of drugs with.which he had nothing to do. He was eventually cleared, and (and this has not been widely publicized) a lot of other people were cleared, too. Leary testified honestly and totally about the whole thing with the up-shot that four people went through a great deal of anxiety thinking they might go to jail. But they suffered mainly from their own imaginations his testimony wasn’t that damaging to them. And none of them went to jail.
So as far as you know, no one is in prison as a result of Leary’s testimony?
Robert Anton Wilson: As far as I know, no. No one who has attacked Leary has pointed to any specific case and said that Tim Leary’s testimony was responsible for that. Tim Leary was responsible for some people getting some highly unwelcome attention from the government and from ethics committees in their own professions. But, they didn’t go to jail. As to who was right and who was wrong in that particular battle, you will hear conflicting accounts. I trust Tim.
In Cosmic Trigger, you draw parallels between Bruno, Reich and Leary. Would you elaborate on that?
Robert Anton Wilson: Well, Bruno, Reich and Leary all got in trouble with the Establishment. Bruno was burned at the stake, Reich died in prison, and Leary spent time in 29 prisons over a six-year period. All three of them tried to combine scientific Investigations with things which are considered occult. It always seems to bring down the house when anybody tries to do that. The whole establishment comes down on them. And all three Bruno, Reich and Leary claimed contact with higher intelligence, which is only allowed in our culture to certified Catholic saints. Anybody else who reports that is supposed to be a nut. Contacts with higher intelligence are reported, nonetheless, in every culture. And in our own culture, for instance, John Lilly has reported the same kind of experience.
How does one, without the personal experience, evaluate those claims? What would the process of validation be for those people?
Robert Anton Wilson: As I said before, do the yoga and find out for yourself. I believe the last words of the Buddha were, „Doubt, and find your Enlightenment.“ I’m not against doubt at all. Or scepticism. I am against the dogmatic viewpoint that we know in advance, without investigation, that a certain experience must be hallucination or insanity. Do the research and find out for yourself.
What about the question of the government having made mind-altering drugs illegal? It seems that a stand like that, even though it’s advanced on the grounds of public protection, has outlawed certain investigations.
Robert Anton Wilson: That was the Inquisition’s attitude toward Galileo – „Don’t look through that telescope! We know in advance that what you see is the work of the devil.“
Why do you think the government has clamped down so heavily?
Robert Anton Wilson: I don’t believe in any conspiracy theory. Well, let’s say that I don’t believe that any conspiracy theory totally accounts for it. I think that to some extent the government wanted to keep their own monopoly. The CIA and Army were doing their own research in the uses of these chemicals in brainwashing and interrogation. But, I don’t think that is the whole explanation. I think a great deal of it is Stupidity, which, as Voltaire said, is the only thing on this planet big enough to give you a conception of what mathematicians mean by infinity. The lesson of Illuminatus! is that if you study any power group you will find that they are too busy fighting each other to be effective against the ostensible enemy. I think stupidity is really the strongest force on this planet right now. I hope to see that change and have intelligence become the strongest force.
Secrecy and the SNAFU Principle
What techniques, what political theory do you have for dealing with the fact that information is controlled?
Robert Anton Wilson: It’s a complex question. I could say, across the board, that I’m opposed to secrecy. I don’t approve of the government having secrets from the people. As Bertholt Brecht said; „If the government doesn’t trust the people, why don’t they dissolve them and elect a new people?“ The idea of a democratic government keeping secrets is a contradiction.
What about in the case of private groups, where secrecy is justified on the grounds that if you eschew secrecy you open yourself up to being prosecuted?
Robert Anton Wilson: I think that’s a risk we’ve got to take. It’s like the risk Of allowing free speech to the Nazis. As a libertarian I say, yes, let those lunatics parade and march and distribute their literature. If you believe in an open society, you take the risks that go with an open society. Let everything out in the open. I think secrecy is the main cause of neuroses and maybe of psychoses as well. We’ve got to learn to be much more up front with one another. I think one of the great moments of the 20th Century came back about 1958 or so, when an interviewer asked Alan Ginsberg, „Why are their so many references to homosexuality in your poetry?“ and Ginsberg said, „Well, that’s because I’m queer, you see.“ And I jumped up and said „Hurray for you!“ That took a lot more guts in ’57 than it does in ’77. (It still takes guts, of course.) A society based on secrecy is a society based on stupidity. One where people are hiding from one another, and, ergo, everybody has inaccurate ideas about everybody else. Every minute we’re making maps of our reality, and to the extent that we practice secrecy, we cause each other to make inaccurate maps. Of course, you can‘ be perfectly open and up front and some people are so paranoid that they’ll still go away with the wrong idea. In that case it’s not your fault. We ought to be as open, honest, arid brave as possible. Of course, as W.C. Fields would say, „There’s no sense in being a damn fool about it.“
One of the Discordian Laws is that communication is possible only between equals …
Robert Anton Wilson: That’s the SNAFU Principle. I also call it Wilson’s Law. I hope that eventually it will get incorporated into sociology books. I really believe it. This came to me when I was working for Playboy, and realized that everything that was wrong with Playboy was due to the hierarchy there. I’d like to say that I predicted the decline and fall of the Hefner Empire, but I didn’t. I could see that communication was all screwed up because of the hierarchy, and then I thought of every other corporation I ever worked for,
and armies and governments, and I realized that this is the situation in the authoritarian family, too. This is what women’s liberation is all about. Another big influence on the SNAFU Principle was Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. There’s a great sentence in there that goes roughly, „To the sheriff, Lucas was just another nigger and both the sheriff and Lucas knew it; but only one of them knew that to Lucas the sheriff was a redneck without any reason for pride in his forbears nor hope for it in his descendents.“ And that’s what hierarchy does: it creates a situation where the person on the top doesn’t know what the person on the bottom thinks.
But there are some people who don’t care.
Robert Anton Wilson: You’re talking about sociopathic personalities. Where they can have a pretty accurate idea of the other person’s condition and still go ahead and trample all over them. What can I say? I don’t claim to have a solution to all the problems of the Universe. Only three or four of them.
If you were going to suggest some information to people that you feel could be useful to them in broadening their perspective, what would you recommend?
Robert Anton Wilson: I would say they should start with The Center of the Cyclone by John Lilly, which is fairly easy to understand. Then go on to Programming and Meta-Programming in the Human Bio-Computer by Lilly, which is a little harder to understand. Then go on to Exopsychology by Tim Leary and Mind Games by Masters and Houston; then get a hold of Magick by Aleister Crowley. From then on they’re on their own. They’ll find other things. Why don’t you ask me some literary questions?
OK. Who are your favorite writers?
Robert Anton Wilson: My favorite writers are James Joyce, Ezra Pound, H.P. Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler.
An unusual association. What do you find they have in common with one another?
Robert Anton Wilson: I don’t know that they have anything in common with one another. But, they all turn me on, excite me, and give me pleasure to read. I was delighted in re-reading Ellman’s biography of Joyce the other day to learn that Joyce once told somebody that the music hall is a better criticism of life than poetry. I do like to break down conventional standards. I like a great deal of television. Television is supposed to be the gutter, the pits of our culture; but I enjoy a great deal of it.
What, specifically, do you enjoy?
Robert Anton Wilson: Specifically, I enjoy Norman Lear’s shows and Startrek when it was on … Mary Hartman, Fernwood Tonight, Maude, All in the Family, I loved All that Glitters; I was really sad when that got taken off so rapidly. That was too far out … the first use of social science fiction on television. Apparently there wasn’t an audience prepared to receive that kind of satire. Although I suppose that revealing male chauvinism the way they did, by reversing the roles, was probably a traumatic experience for some viewers.
So you think television is a legitimate art form?
Robert Anton Wilson: I would say that the two seasons of Mary Hartman achieved a level of artistry (by combining the gritty social realism of the Actors‘ Theater and 1930’s dramatists like Odetts with 1970’s style black humor out of Thomas Pynchon and Terry Southern and writers of that sort) that was better than any novel or any movie or any play of those two years. I would say that for those two years, TV was the major art form in the country. And it’s up to the novelists, the filmmakers and the playwrights to catch up now.
Along that line, what are you specifically engaged in? Are you thinking about writing for TV or have you written for TV in the past?
Robert Anton Wilson: I never have; I may. That’s an open possibility. At the moment, I’m working on four novels – after that anything can happen.
How does one work on four novels?
Robert Anton Wilson: Consecutively … well, not really. Theoretically one works on novels consecutively. Actually, I sometimes work on one that should come later. Just because I feel like working on it.
How do two people write a’novel together? You and Robert Shea collaborated on Illuminatus! What were the dynamics; who decided and did what?
Robert Anton Wilson: He’d write a scene and I’d write a scene; and then he’d write a scene and I’d write a scene; and then he’d re-write my scenes and I’d re-write his scenes; and then we’d discuss the previous 20 pages, what changes I made that he didn’t like and what changes he made that I didn’t like and we’d come to an agreement. I found Shea very pleasant to collaborate with. I’ve also found Leary very pleasant to collaborate with. I think I’ll probably collaborate with other writers in the future as well as writing books on my own. Collaboration is a very creative process. Things happen in collaboration that don’t happen any other way.
That’s interesting because a refrain that is almost a standard mark in judging literary work is whether or not someone has found their literary voice. It would seem that collaboration can’t be so egocentric.
Robert Anton Wilson: It’s a growth process for both collaborators. I guess that’s what I like about it. I will definitely, besides writing books of my own, be collaborating again; perhaps with Shea, perhaps with Leary. I am collaborating with Peter Beren right now on an anthology.
Dealing with what?
Robert Anton Wilson: Contact with higher intelligence.
In Cosmic Trigger, the phrase „and/or“ occurs many times as a kind of meta-programming semantic device.
Robert Anton Wilson: Yeah; if you wanted to reduce my contribution to thought to one phrase it would probably be, „And/or makes more sense than either/or.“ That’s the main idea behind almost everything I write.
That’s a specific jibe at the Aristotelian tradition of linear logic …
Robert Anton Wilson: Definitely. Very much so. Who was it that said „God save us from the logician in politics.“? I couldn’t agree more. I say God save us from the narrow logician in any field.
Tim Leary said in his introduction to Cosmic Trigger that great works are both encyclopedic and epic: does that thought enter into your own esthetics?
Robert Anton Wilson: Yeah; I’ve often thought that way. I like encyclopedic authors, authors who try to cover a lot. For instance, I prefer Joyce to Hemingway on the grounds that Joyce tried to cover the whole scope of human life while Hemingway concentrated on one narrow area that he was good at. Oh hell, if you’re going to quote that let me say that I really dislike all the putting down of Hemingway these days. I’ve learned a lot from Hemingway. I try to learn more all the,time. I try to be encyclopedic. My ideal is to be a renaissance person. That’s another reason I’m into longevity: I have a better chance of succeeding if I have a few hundred years more. I feel as ignorant as an old farmer
An Interview with Robert Anton Wilson
by Michael Helm appeared in City Miner, Volume 2, Issue 4 in December/January 1977/78.