Friday, August 27, 2010

Robert Shea's "ILLUMINATUS!" acceptance speech

Robert Shea, co-author of ILLUMINATUS!, showed up in person when the Libertarian Futurist Society presented its Hall of Fame award to the book at the 1986 World Science Fiction convention in Atlanta. From the pages of the "Prometheus," the group's newsletter, here is Shea's gracious and interesting short speech that he gave when accepting the award:

I would not be doing this today were it not for the other half of the team, one of the wittiest, most erudite and lovable people I've ever met, a man capable of sawing the most difficult ideas in two without hurting them, making them jump through hoops, walk into cabinets and disappear and pop out of trick top hats, a man with a universe up each sleeve. He is my very good friend and I miss his presence here today more than I can say — Robert Anton Wilson. So I very gratefully accept this award on behalf of Bob Wilson and myself.

I asked Bob if there was anything he wanted me to say in his place since he could not be here, and he wrote back, "Well, it sure was good news to hear we finally got an award of some sort for ILLUMINATUS! ... The only thing you can do for me in Atlanta is tell as many people as possible that my next American lecture tour begins in January, and anyone who is interested in lectures by me or seminars by Arlen and me should contact us at 3 the Haggard, Howth, Dublin, Ireland." So I have just passed that on to as many people as possible.

I also want to thank the members of the Libertarian Futurist Society who thought enough of ILLUMINATUS! to vote it into their Hall of Fame. The greatest honor of all, I think, is to have our work mentioned in the same breath with the seven great novels that make up the Libertarian Futurist Society's Hall of Fame.* Heady company. And I am very, very grateful to the thousands of readers who have kept ILLUMINATUS! alive from the day it was first published to this moment. It is claimed that ILLUMINATUS! started a cult. I am happy to be a member of the ILLUMINATUS! nut cult, which is responsible for my meeting some of the most delightful people it has ever been my pleasure and privilege to know.

I sometimes think it's remarkable that anybody at all read ILLUMINATUS! When it first came out in 1975 the publisher decided to label it "Science Fiction," which meant that it would be put in an obscure corner of the bookstore where, as we all know, only a handful of weird people ever venture. On the other hand, the editors of all the science fiction magazine then extant refused to review ILLUMINATUS! on the grounds that it was not science fiction — by whatever definition they were using that year. So we were banished from the mainstream but also rejected by the ghetto. A novel without a home. The fact that ILLUMINATUS! survived this inauspicious start is proof that the weird people are even weirder than anybody gave them credit for.

Wilson and I initially had it in mind to write a fairly short international espionage paperback thriller based upon the conspiracy theories in the air at that moment, particularly those about the Bavarian Illuminati and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Well, things got rather out of hand. Bob sometimes puts forward the notion that our minds were taken over by a bunch of super-intelligent dogs living on a planet circling Sirius. It's not hard to believe that, because in my home we have two ordinary Earth-type dogs who pretty much run our lives. But my own more prosaic idea is that the madness of ILLUMINATUS! was implicit in our decision to satirize the theories we were using as premises. To satirize you have to exaggerate, and since the theories themselves were already so wild in their natural state, we had go to to incredible lengths to make them look even more ridiculous. But for satire to work it also has to have a grounding in reality. So we carefully mixed strange things that were true with strange things that were not true. We put into the book things we believed and things we did not believe, things one of us believed and the other did not and things we sometimes believed and sometimes did not. And while writing the book, and afterwards as well, we often forgot which was which. Eventually it dawned on us that we were trying to make a statement about the nature of reality. We didn't start out trying to do anything so grandiose. It just grew on us.

I've been thinking about ILLUMINATUS! in comparison to the other novels that have been chosen for the Hall of Fame, and one major difference has occurred to me. In the other Hall of Fame novels the distinction between fact and fiction is quite clear. In ILLUMINATUS! we made a deliberate attempt to blur that distinction, to suggest that fact may be fiction and fiction may be fact. This blurring is consistent with that statement about reality we were trying to make. But even though our attitude toward reality may be somewhat confusing, I think our values are quite clear. I hope and think it is plain that the message of ILLUMINATUS! is an anarchist message. The novel stands as a record of the anarchists we were in the 1960s and 70s. I still consider myself an anarchist. Bob Wilson does not, more, as I understand it, because he rejects labeling than because he is out of sympathy with anarchism.

We say in the novel that the original Illuminati were dedicated to religious and political freedom and that this secret organization somehow became perverted so that in recent centuries the Illuminati had become a vehicle for a monstrous authoritarianism. Thus the myth of the Illuminati is an archetype for every political movement, from Lenin's Bolshevism to Reagan's Republicanism, that has promised people greater freedom while loading them down with more government. People can be fooled in this way because they are not sure what freedom is. Freedom is a word whose meaning has been worn away by overuse, like a coin that has passed through too many hands. We need to be clear about what it means to us when we use it and maybe not use it quite so much, but use other, more precise words instead.

In ILLUMINATUS! we suggest that freedom begins in your right to define yourself and to insist on the validity of your own perceptions and your own thoughts. To change to a new point of view because you find it convincing is, of course, merely an exercise of that freedom. But freedom is lost when you are coerced or frightened into denying your own way of seeing reality and into accepting a point of view you cannot really believe in, be it that of a family, a teacher, a boss, a party, a church, a state. And an amazing thing is that when each of us insists on his or her own vision, it does not divide us. It unites us as no externally imposed unity ever could. It unites us in reverence for that inner light which we can only find by knowing ourselves, never by denying ourselves, that light by which each one of us can truly be said to be illuminated — the true Illuminati.

* [Editor's note: Those first seven honorees are "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," Robert Heinlein; "Atlas Shrugged," Ayn Rand; "Nineteen Eighty-Four," George Orwell; "Fahrenheit 451," Ray Bradbury; "Trader to the Stars," Poul Anderson; "The Great Explosion," Eric Frank Russell, and "The Syndic," Cyril Kornbluth.]

The Libertarian Futurist Society is alive and well and is happy to accept new members.

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Note, this morning I imagined rewriting Crowley as "Musick in Theory and Practice." In a universe next door Crowley built clavichords and became a pioneer in the period instrument movement, befriending Ezra Pound and Oliver Strunk, etc.

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