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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Widow's Son: RAW's greatest novel?

While it is clear that Robert Anton Wilson will be remembered, at least in the near future, for ILLUMINATUS!, his great collaboration with Robert Shea, that leaves open the discussion about his greatest "solo" work of fiction.

Schroedinger's Cat obviously is an important work, so it is interesting to me how many people point to The Widow's Son, the second book of the "Historical Illuminatus" trilogy (which is a trilogy because Wilson never got around to the additional books he had planned.)

Wilson himself described The Widow's Son as his favorite book, according to Eric Wagner's essential tome, An Insider's Guide to Robert Anton Wilson (still in print and soon to be reissued by New Falcon).

When I interviewed RAW scholar Michael Johnson what his "favorite books" by Wilson are, Johnson replied (in part), "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 have just run across an interesting blog posting by horror writer Matt Cardin (whom I had never heard of before). Here is part of what he wrote concerning the Historical Illuminatus trilogy: "Their heady adventures through an 18th century American and European revolutionary-era tableau of political intrigue, secret societies, Western occultism, religious chicanery, bizarre states of consciousness, explosive philosophical insights, etc., are fairly wondrous. The second volume, The Widow's Son, may be the best thing he ever wrote: a book that actually crosses over into the realm of by-God literature and bristles with enduring value. It’s also a damned fun romp, both narratively and philosophically. And it pushes the envelope of his fact/fiction mixing 'guerilla ontology' tactic to its most exquisite extreme."

More on The Widow's Son soon.


Anonymous said...

"...which is a trilogy because Wilson never got around to the additional books he had planned."

It may seem to be a trilogy to you but personally I view it as a pentology which the author abandoned in order to chase cash.

Which I think explains why the published excerpt from "Bride of Illuminatus!" is so awful: Wilson, for all I love him, for all his brilliance, sold out his muse.

Dan Clore said...

I love all of RAW's novels, but the one that stands out to me as the best is Masks of the Illuminati.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

It's also Jim Frenkel's theory that Wilson did not finish "Historical Illuminatus" because Wilson could make more money as a lecturer. But it should be noted that Wilson, a married father of four, went on welfare while pursuing his efforts to become a successful freelance writer. Perhaps he felt a responsibility to earn money when he could. And I would argue that he was actually quite prolific -- 33 books despite a relatively late start as a book author is not bad.

Dan, I enjoyed Masks of the Illuminati and look forward to re-reading it.

Eric Wagner said...

Three different publishers involved with the Historical Illuminatus Series went out of business. I think this discouraged Bob from finishing the series.

I enjoyed the published fragment of "Bride of Illuminatus," and I think Bob remained faithful to his Muse all of his life.

Anonymous said...

"Masks of the Illuminati" is indeed mighty.

RAW alludes in an article in "Right Where You Are Sitting Now" to sacrificing a certain amount of momentum with his Historical books in order to take a well-paying gig; in that case he reasoned he could probably incorporate the material into the novel (= the brilliant "Rocks do not fall from the sky" sequence.)

The attitude is, I think, also implicit in the introduction to "Reality Is What You Can Get Away With" - RAW says that he was ill-advisedly chasing the Hollywood dollar. So we get fluff like that and the trivial "The Walls Came Tumbling Down" - where, tragically, RAW seems to have sincerely thought he was coming up with "the new 'Citizen Kane.'"

I'm also not sure what possible excuse there can be for "Everything Is Under Control" except as an attempt to cash in on the Conspiracy fad of the Nineties - and then he finally gets the book out right when everyone is sick to death of reading about conspiracy theories!

The man was indeed prolific, and none of his books are without merit. From a human perpective I wouldn't dream of faulting him: he was an aging man doing vastly more than most men of any age, he had a family, health problems, he'd gone through long brutal periods of poverty before - why shouldn't he do whatever it takes to remain comfortable?

From the artistic point of view however it was clearly his True Will to write the Illuminatus! sequence; he says in the introduction to "RIWYCGAW" that he regarded his novels as Art, his non-fiction works as mere "informed speculation." And he ended up checkmated, churning out endless variations of that "informed speculation" as his Immortal Work failed to reach the soaring orgasmic 9th Symphony climax he had planned for it.

Oz Fritz said...

My favorite Wilson title is Schrodinger's Cat followed closely by Masks of the Illuminati.

In my opinion, if people can't see the magick or hear the music in Wilson's work than the failure rests on their part not his.

Wilson's collected body of work represents a transmission from an initiated source of wisdom. Like Joyce and Crowley his writings contain multiple levels of meaning. To do nothing else but passively read the books will only get you so far. To combine the reading with the brain-change experiments RAW gives in his various works particularly Prometheus Rising and Quantum Psychology but also found in his works of fiction, will reveal new depths, insights and, if one is lucky, profound transformational experiences. It also helps to learn the lexicon that RAW used which means an in-depth knowledge of James Joyce, and of Crowleyean style Qabalah among other sources.

As one does the work of reading his books and of actively applying his brain-change suggestions, new understandings and revelations will come through. This applies to Crowley and Joyce's writings also. I've read some of Wilson's titles 3 or 4 or 5 times, have seen new things and have heard the timeless melody that runs through his work more clearly each time.

The Walls Came Tumbling Down is an important work in the area of bardo training, among others, for those not wishing, as Gurdjieff put it, to die like a dog. I wrote a review for it which I'll have to dig up. I enjoyed the conspiracy book and Reality Is What You Can Get Away With, as well.

I strongly suspect that those who criticize artists for making money have never been poor themselves. Lucky them. Changing artistic direction, even because one is economically forced to, does not mean that one has sold out one's muse. I can assure readers here, from personal experience, and from the personal experience of one of his caregivers, that Bob Wilson remained in touch with his muse until the very end of his carnal existence.

Eric Wagner said...

Brilliant response, Oz. I spent years digging deeper into _Everything Is Under Control_, and I can see why Bob felt so proud of it.

I second your suggestion to do the exercises in Bob's books, as well as immersing oneself in Joyce and Crowley. I have found these very rewarding experiences.

Anonymous said...

"It also helps to learn the lexicon that RAW used which means an in-depth knowledge of James Joyce, and of Crowleyean style Qabalah among other sources."

Drifting well away from the point here, but I want to say that if anyone feels baffled by the Qabalah, and uncertain how to even approach all those strange words and inscrutable diagrams, Alan Moore's "Promethea" is such a good Beginner's Guide. The first book is little more than a clever "Wonder Woman" pastiche, there are moments of brilliance in the second book with the chapters on Sex Magick and the Tarot, but books three and four are an exegesis on the Qabalah, and the graphic novel format makes it so very easy to grasp and to *feel*.

I'd like to read your review of "TWCTD," Oz Fritz, as I remember thinking it was a particularly vacuous and charmless tale. That was a long time ago, perhaps I should reread it; all I remember is the ending, which was the sort of soaring Rapture that RAW could do so well in prose but which, to my mind, would have looked ever so cheesy as a visual effect. Oh and there was the scene where the Wise White Man offers aid and instruction to the Earnest Black Crack-dealer...

"I strongly suspect that those who criticize artists for making money..." are as stupid as those who criticise plumbers or chefs for making money. It was the abandoning of the Magnum Opus I was criticising; if he'd given up on the Illuminatus! sequence for Love or Religion or Despair or Any Other Reason it would have been no less tragic.

Anonymous said...

Alan Moore: