Sunday, February 7, 2016

New Ezra Pound biography

U.S. Army mug shot of Ezra Pound 

The Wall Street Journal's book section runs an interesting review of a new Ezra Pound biography, Ezra Pound: Poet, Vol. 3, by A. David Moody, completing a three-volume set. The review is by Allan Massie, a prominent Scottish novelist and critic, and in Massie's telling the book is very interesting and well-researched, discussing Pound's later poetry and the controversies over his radio broadcasts and the accusations of treason.

About Pound's imprisonment in a mental hospital, Massie writes,

Many assumed Pound would soon be released. In fact, he remained in the asylum for a dozen years. It was embarrassing to keep “America’s greatest living poet” there. It would have been embarrassing to release a fascist and presumed traitor. It was embarrassing when the Library of Congress awarded him its Bollingen Prize for “The Pisan Cantos.” It was embarrassing when Jewish writers expressed their disapproval of the award. It was embarrassing when Dag Hammarskjold, the secretary-general of the United Nations, said that Pound’s continued incarceration was damaging the image of the United States. In short there was no end of embarrassment.

I've never read any of Massie's books but apparently he's quite a famous writer. Here is Sean Gabb's review of one of Massie's historical novels,  Caesar. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

RAW 'reality hacks' piece at Ultraculture

Prometheus Rising. But look for a new cover for the Hilaritas Press edition. 

"Here’s 4 Classic Reality Hacks From Robert Anton Wilson" is a piece at Ultraculture that I apparently missed when it came out, so I'm pointing to it now. The article, by Andrei Burke, highlights "four classic techniques for consciousness change taken from Wilson’s classic Prometheus Rising," and they seem well-chosen to me. If the article interests you, I suggest waiting to obtain the new edition of Prometheus Rising, due out soon from Hilaritas Press. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Illuminatus! fans helped develop the World Wide Web

You'll have to get to the end of this blog post to see what film star and singer Barbara Streisand has to do with any of this. 

Yeah, you read that headline right. And if you didn't know that, well, I didn't know that either.

But it's true. Here are a couple of bits from an interview of Mike Masnick, the well-known technology journalist and founder of Techdirt. If you don't know him, Masnick is a well-informed and influential writer who is, from my point of view, on the "right" side of technology and civil liberties issues about 99 percent of the time. I read him all the time, but had no idea he was a RAW reader until I read an interview with him at Mimesis Law (a web site that covers the legal industry), a long piece that Jesse Walker at Reason magazine ran across and kindly pointed out to me.

Here is a first bit from the interview (on how his approach to studying issues got started):

I’m not sure I honestly had any serious viewpoints on any of that when I started at Cornell ILR.  I will say that I had just come off an intense reading of the infamous “Illuminatus! Trilogy” by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, that a high school friend had given to me, saying “I need you to read this to stop you from becoming like a CIA spook or something” (a vibe I didn’t know I was apparently giving off at the time) and the book actually had a pretty intense influence on my view of things at the time, to the point that it was more “I’m not sure I trust any of what I’ve been told before, and I really ought to question lots of assumptions.” 

And now, the bit where you find out about the development of Mosaic, an early web browser which popularized the World Wide Web:

And, of course, the other amazing thing was once I got to Cornell, I got on the internet for the first time in the fall of 1993, and got sucked in immediately.  I spent an awful lot of time exploring IRC and Usenet — including falling in with a crazy group of folks on Usenet who were all fans of the Illuminatus Trilogy (it all comes around!), including a bunch of folks who went to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and they started telling me about this neat thing they were working on called “Mosaic” which was the very first graphical browser software for this new concept known as “the World Wide Web.”  So, one night, I dialed in with my 2400 baud modem and downloaded Mosaic overnight while I slept.  And, from there I was hooked on the whole concept of the internet and how powerful it might be.

It took awhile, but I read the whole article, because it was interesting and I'm a Masnick fan. There's quite a bit about not being trapped in any particular political reality tunnel, although admittedly Mr. Masnick does not use that exact terminology.

Incidentally, I related to anecdote about being handed a copy of the first issue of "Wired" magazine.

And then, just as I was graduating high school, the very first issue of Wired Magazine was published.  I still remember my friend Ari handing me the first copy in the parking lot of our high school, telling me that it was “the new thing” after Mondo (yeah, rather than drugs in the parking lot I was getting tech magazines — make of that what you will), and I quickly got a subscription and would devour the magazine cover to cover every month.

I bought the first issue of "Wired" when it came out (it had Bruce Sterling on the cover! wow!) and I remember thinking how cool it was that someone was putting out a commercial magazine aimed at people like me. Although in my case, I was unfamiliar with Mondo 2000. I thought it was a slicker version of my favorite magazine, bOING bOING. (bOING bOING guru Mark Fraunfelder — they spell the name a little differently now — and I are both on the "RAW Trust Advisors" board now. Everything connects!)

Mike Masnick, FYI, also came up with the concept of the Streisand effect. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Nick Herbert's (and Alan Watts') Taoist buddy from China

Nick Herbert

My favorite hippie physicist (and maybe yours) is Nick Herbert, who is mentioned in Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati, and who, as I have mentioned, has a blog.

Dr. Herbert had a recent blog posting I particularly liked, about a Taoist he knew for years, Gia-fu Feng, who did a best selling translation of the Tao Te Ching, and who helped Fritjof Capra get the Tao of Physics published.

After coming to America, Feng intersected with American culture in interesting ways, Herbert writes:

Gia-fu enrolls at the Wharton school in Philadelphia but, becoming increasingly disoriented by American culture, he "hops in an old jalopy" and wanders across the United States, a trek which eventually leads him to San Francisco where he finds a position with Alan Watts at the American Academy of Asian Studies both as student and translator. Arriving in the midst of the San Francisco Renaissance, Gai-fu becomes friends with writers Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac, poets Lew Welch, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other talents, among them fellow student at the Academy and future cofounder of Esalen Institute, Dick Price.

Herbert's blog post was prompted by the discovery that a woman named Carol Ann Wilson wrote a biography of Feng, Still Point of the Turning World. One more book for me to try to get around to reading.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

RAW on 'Scandinavian socialism'

As John Higgs points out in the introduction to the new "Cosmic Trigger," American libertarians and British socialists both like this guy

On Facebook, Olga Struthio asks,

"Wondering what Bob would think of Bernie Sanders: an old interview gives a clue . . .
Are there any existing political systems you admire?
Scandinavian socialism. I found the Scandinavians to be about the most admirable people in Europe. clean streets, a low crime rate, a general air of high civilization - luxuries for all and a total absence of slums, poverty, and ugliness. They seem very happy and productive, with one of the most way out futurist movements in the world. They're the California of Europe.
I hate to sound like a Marxist, which I'm not, but the reason you haven't heard about Scandinavian Socialism is because the media of this country is controlled by rich people who are scared shitless of socialism. They want Americans to think there's only one type of socialism, Soviet Communism, which is the kind of place where dissident scientists get thrown in lunatic asylums, all of which is true. Americans are paranoid about Russians but Scandinavians regard them with amusement; they're those backwards people who think that you can only have socialism by putting all the poets and painters in jail. The Scandinavians reward their poets and they don't put anyone in jail for dissident political opinions."

This ties in nicely with Michael Johnson's observation, in a comment to Monday's post, "RAW did emphasize individualist anarchists and Crowley and individualist ideas in general, but I suspect he'd - were he alive today - see the 2008 bankster-driven collapse and growing inequality as a reason to emphasize social well-being as complementary to our personal projects." (Read all of Michael's comments, and all of the other comments. There's some pretty good discussion.)

Leftists tend naturally to emphasize RAW's "left" side while libertarians tend to play up the "libertarian" ideas. (Conservatives don't have much in RAW's work they can point to for inspiration.) It seems to me that RAW was better at posing questions than coming up with ways to successfully reconcile his conflicting impulses. I personally want a strong safety net with maximum individual liberty, which is why I tend to gravitate to policy proposals such as the basic income guarantee.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Waywords and Meansigns releases new Finnegans Wake recording

James Joyce in 1915 in Zurich — the time and setting for Robert Anton Wilson's novel, Masks of the Illuminati.

Today, Feb. 2, is James Joyce's birthday. It's also the day for the release of the new Waywords and Meansigns album, in which the entire text is combined with music.

This is actually the second Waywords and Meansigns album. One was released last year, and this is the second edition. Download both editions at the official website.

I was given a "sneak preview" copy of one of the tracks on the second edition, which was done by David Kahne, a prominent music producer, a film and ballet composer, and also a Joyce fanatic. Kahne does the second track, which is 46 minutes and 15 seconds long — really, the length of an album. I think of it as an album. And I've been listening to it, and enjoying it.

I asked the Waywords and Meansigns publicist who helped Kahne with the track. There's the spoken words, and music from a variety of instruments. I was told that Kahne did the whole thing.

Kahne has produced folks like Paul McCartney, the Bangles, Sublime, and on and on. I am hoping to get an interview with him, which I will share here if it comes to pass.

Here are excerpts from a recent press release:

We set Finnegans Wake to music unabridged once already last spring, and now we’ve done it again. With a new cast of all-star readers, musicians, and artists.

Our contributors poured so much dedication, creativity, and passion into this project. We are really excited to share it with the world.

As always, all audio will be distributed freely under creative commons licensing via

Please share this info with friends! if you have any press contacts who may be interested in coverage or reviews, please let us know.

The second edition of Waywords and Meansigns features original readings and music from British fringe musician Neil Campbell, renowned author Brian Hall, composer Mary Lorson, Grammy-award winning producer David Kahne, punk rock icon Mike Watt, composer Steve Gregoropoulos with Kaitlin Wolfberg and Becky Stark, KPFK DJ Mr. Smolin, Joycegeek Adam Harvey, artist Kio Griffith, the Conspirators of Pleasure (artist Poulomi Desai and bassist Simon Underwood), painter Robert Amos, Maharadja Sweets, Hinson Calabrese, Double Naught Spy Car, Ollie Evans, Steve Potter, Graziano Galati, SIKS, Rio Matchett, Jenken’s Henchm├Žn, and many more wonderful folks. [Mary Lorson was with Madder Rose and Saint Low -- the Management.]

Album art by Nicci Haynes.

Last year, I wrote quite a bit about Waywords and Meansigns.  My interview with Peter Quadrino and Steve Pratt came out quite well, I think.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Review: John Higg's "Stranger Than We Can Imagine"

John Higgs new history book, "Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century" is not the  usual political-military narrative that most historians offer.

Instead, Higgs argues that the best way to understand how we got from the 19th century to the present day is to examine some of the difficult but interesting ideas and artistic conceptions that arose from 1900 to 2000. Some of these ideas are hard to  understand, so the "Making Sense" in the title is something of a double entendre.

This approach plays to Higgs' strengths. He is very good at explaining difficult ideas in a way that makes them easy to understand, and he often uses humor. A floating teacup (Higgs seems very British) is used to discuss the theory of relativity.

Although 12-tone music was invented fairly early in the century, the results of the composing style remains incomprehensible to many listeners today, and it's also difficult to explain to non-musicians. Higgs manages the job, lucidly, in one paragraph:

In traditional composition, a stream of musical notes complement each other in a way that sounds correct to our ears because the pitch of every note is related to, and determined by, the central tone of the key chosen by the composer. Without that central tone, which all the other notes are based on, we become adrift in what Professor Erik Levi called "the abyss of no tonal centre." This is similar to Einstein's removal of the Cartesian x, y and z axes from our understanding of space, on the grounds that they were an arbitrary system we had projected onto the universe rather than a fundamental property of it. Without a tonal centre at the heart of Viennese atonal music, the compositions which followed could be something of a challenge. 

Although Higgs is one of the most clear prose stylists writing today, his book actually is rather complex. By my count, he offers three narratives.

In one narrative, the book is what it appears to be — a history of the 20th century, focusing on some of the more striking and hard to understand ideas and social movements. These ideas and movements are discussed in a series of thematic chapters, but the topics they cover are arranged to form a kind of temporal narrative; relativity is covered in the first chapter, for example, while the Internet takes up the last.

But as a kind of organizing principle, Higgs narrates these events as a history of the rise of individualism, and how that played out. For Higgs, while there is a positive side how individualism freed people, individualism is not an end to itself, but a stage along the way to organizing a new approach to society that balances freedom and responsibility.

In his chapter on teenagers and rock and roll, Chapter 11, Higgs compares Margaret Thatcher's philosophy to the philosophy of the Rolling Stones, and he does not intend that as a compliment to Mick Jagger & Co.  He ends the chapter,

The second half of the twentieth century was culturally defined by adolescent teenage individualism. But despite complaints about kids being ungrateful and selfish, the adolescent stage is a necessary right of passage for those evolving from children to adults. Understanding the world through the excluding filter of "What about me?" is, ultimately, just a phase.

The teenage stage is intense. It is wild and fun and violent and unhappy, often at the same time. But it does not last long. The "Thatcher Delusion" was that individualism was an end goal, rather than a developmental stage. Teenagers do not remain teenagers forever.

But RAW fans will recognize the book as a kind of "secret history" or hidden narrative of RAW's intellectual universe.

I call it a "secret history" because Wilson is not mentioned at all. He's not in the index, although the bibliography does mention the Illuminatus! trilogy.

But Higgs, who often lectures about Wilson and who often writes about him (he wrote the introduction for the new edition of Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati, published by the RAW Trust) provides discussion and background on many concepts, people and ideas mentioned by Wilson.

For example, he discusses modernism and the writing of James Joyce;  Emperor Norton in San Francisco; Aleister Crowley's career; John von Neumann's game theory; rocket scientist and magician Jack Parsons; Carl Jung's interest in UFOS; Erwin Schroedinger and quantum mechanics, and George Gurdjieff's efforts to get people to come out of "waking sleep" — all issues raised by Wilson's writing. I'm probably forgetting other examples. Because I have read so much Wilson, there were probably fewer surprises for me than for most of Higgs' readers. I doubt that many of them had heard of Emperor Norton before.

Higgs' rather skeptical treatment of the value of individualism allows him to put some distance, however, between himself and Wilson, who rooted much of his philosophy celebrating the uniqueness and primacy of the individual.

Higgs' book is entertaining and stimulating from beginning to end; when I did a "best books of 2015" piece for my paper, I included it in my list.