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Monday, July 26, 2010

Michael Johnson answers my questions about Robert Anton Wilson


Few people on Earth know as much about writer Robert Anton Wilson as Michael Johnson, a former Aldous Huxley devotee who walked into a bookstore the day after Christmas in 1992 and became a dedicated Wilson fan almost instantly.

Johnson had never heard of Wilson, but bought a copy of RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE SITTING NOW

“I bought it, and stayed up all night reading it before going to work in the library at Palos Verdes, CA, all bleary-eyed. I finished it, then started again from the beginning,” Johnson says. “Within a year I'd read everything that was in print by him, being particularly blown away by Illuminatus! and the SCT.”

Since then, Johnson has intensively read and re-read everything everything he can find that Wilson wrote or cited as an influence. He also seems to have read just about every book that mentions Wilson.

To inaugurate the series of interviews and articles I plan to publish on this site, I asked Johnson if he would agree to let me interview him by e-mail. He agreed, and the interview was conducted in July 2010. Although I told him he could reject any questions he didn’t like, he answered all of them.

Johnson, 49, has worked as a rock music guitarist, a music teacher and a library employee. He and his wife live in Berkeley California.

Johnson posts comments at and other sites devoted to Wilson, but he doesn’t have a Facebook or Twitter account or a blog of his own. “I'm glad other people do that and find it helpful; I'm far more stodgy than most, it seems. I'm committed to books. (And in turn some people think I should be committed, but that's another kettle of fish.)”

Q. What are your favorite RAW books?

A. Over the years it has changed; I vacillate. The Widow's Son seems uber-RAW to me because he's working all (mostbunall?) of his favorite late 20th c. ideas into a novel set in the late 18th century. At the same time he's also doing his "historical novel" with a bit of Bildungsroman added in, PLUS he's got that whole other footnote-world counter-narrative, which captures the mad acidhead postmodernist-cum-surrealist Erisian Wilson. I love that book. He did too. He said when he wrote it — circa 1985 — he was "really hot." He wrote that one in Ireland.
I could go on about other favorite books by Bob, but I'll let it stand there. The easy answers would be either Illuminatus! or Schrodinger's Cat, because I've had endless hours of joy — as I bet your readers have too — and they are practically inexhaustible. "Inexhaustibility" was a very high value for RAW himself as far as his own literary tastes went, witness his 50-plus-year mania for Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, and Pound's Cantos, amongst other weighty wiggy tomes.
I'm also crazy about Cosmic Trigger Vol III: My Life After Death. So much so that I wrote an index for it. In that book I think RAW got deeper into the issues of "mask/reality" that he often hovered around and played with in the past; he had a lot more to say on the topic and that book fleshed it out, I thought was really well integrated. I think it's one of the great books about postmodernism — his take on pomo — and it also highlights him as a non-academic intellectual in a particularly brilliant way.

Q. You discovered RAW when you stumbled on a copy of RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE SITTING NOW in a bookstore in 1992. Do you think your perspective on RAW is any different from the vast majority of us, who came to him via ILLUMINATUS!, or is that irrelevant?

A. Wow. Okay, I confess I've been asked when I started reading RAW many times and I always winged the answer because I didn't really know until now. Your question prompted me to look back in my old journals and try and find the exact day I found RWYASN. I have written in a journal (usually just a log of the day's events) almost every day since September of 1989. It's compulsive, really.

So I took about 35 minutes today and found this entry from December 26, 1992 - I was WAY off!:

"On to Borders, where I blew $41 of Noble's (my future father-in-law) $50 gift certificate. on Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience, Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade (in the Women's Studies section), and Robert Anton Wilson's Right Where You Are Sitting Now. I have been leafing through Wilson and am rapidly falling in love...he's so hip and intelligent! UFOs, drugs, conspiracies, semantics, strange loops, Teilhard, games, humor, Bucky Fuller, entropy, evolution, witches, consciousness, Wm. S. Burroughs, on and on and on. I could easily get hooked on this stuff. Like eating potato chips."

So first off: thank you, Jackson, for forcing me to nail exactly when I stumbled onto RAW.
I think my perspective must differ from every other RAW reader — and each reader from all the others — if only because I take Korzybski seriously: No two experiences are identical, for a welter of reasons — age, genes, previous education, unconscious habits, imprints, the phenomenon of time and a person's place in space and perspective, whether they're having a bad day, etc, etc, etc.

On another level of abstraction, I've met many a RAW reader and it's almost always like I've found someone from my Tribe. Most of the RAWphiles I've met strike me as scary-smart but not really thinking they're all that brilliant. They do like to smoke dope and laff, aye! state the obvious.

I think you're probably right in that Illuminatus! was the entre for many a Wilsoniac, but then again I think Cosmic Trigger Vol 1 was also a tremendous first reading of RAW for a lot of my fellow weirdos.

So to answer your Q: yes, it's irrelevant.

AND: better than eating potato chips, turns out.

Q. Why did that book have such an effect on you? What elements of RAW's philosophy made you determined to find out everything you can about him?

A. Well, what I didn't write about in that first journal entry (Which I thought no one would ever read; I always write in my journal asking myself "Why would anyone wanna read this shit?" and then, "Well, they won't. I'll die and someone will look through this mound of bound-spiral notebooks and just dump them in the round file." Then again, "Then why are you writing? Ego? Lack of serotonin leading to some mild form of hypergraphia? What, asshole?") Anyway...What I didn't write about in that...what was the question? Oh...

Later, after seriously delving into RAW and his ideas about information and structure, his influences — especially Burroughs and Pound and McLuhan for RWYASN — I think he knew the structure of that book was a large part of the info-dense character of it. (It's dedicated to Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, "pioneers.") There's a bit in there where he says the book is a machine for living in, or something like that, and he invokes Le Corbusier's name. It was cut-up/experimental enough to not be "too much" for me at the time, as WSB's Nova Express and Joyce'sFinnegans Wake were when in my first delvings. I found that book and RAW at just the right time, maybe?

I told RAW that RWYASN was where I found him, and that I still dearly love that book after many re-readings, and he seemed a little surprised. I don't think he'd heard that very often.
The crux of my interest in his philosophy lies in the matrix of model agnosticism/perception/language/"reality." For RAW, epistemology seems to be the handmaiden of ontology, but maybe I'm just full of shit.

Tuesday: Johnson's upcoming RAW book.


dylan said...

Excellent interview! I am loving your RAW blog!
My first RAW book was SCT, given to me by a friend that went to Antioch Uni, around 1992 as well. But I think Cosmic Trigger 1 is the book that has made me think more than any others.

Keep up the good work!

Eric Wagner said...

Great interview! Dr. Johnson seems brilliant as always.

I think I consider the original version of _Schroedinger's Cat_ my favorite RAW book right now, with the revised version of _Prometheus Rising_ a close second and _The Widow's Son_ a strong third.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I've expended a lot of verbiage on RAW on this blog, but I think Dylan has neatly summarized RAW's greatest quality -- he forces me to think.

I'm reading the original SCT books right now and they are even better than I remembered.

Bobby Campbell said...

I find this tremendously entertaining!

Eric Wagner said...

Tom, your post reminds me of e. e. cummings' comment to Ezra Pound, "You sadist, you want to make your readers think!"

Eric Wagner said...

What a great interview!