Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Robert Anton Wilson: The Lewis Shiner interview

[Editor's note: I think I have something special here. This is one of the best interviews with Robert Anton Wilson I've ever read, and it's one that hasn't been reprinted on the Internet, until now.

It was published in issue No. 5 of Trajectories. This is NOT the magazine of the same name that Robert Anton Wilson published, but a journal published in the 1980s in Austin, Texas.

"In fact, I didn't know at the time RAW published a mag of that name, and believe that curiosity on his part is one reason he granted the interview. We determined they were different enough in scope to not worry about the name, and in fact, mine actually started publication first," says Richard Shannon, who published the Texas Trajectories. Susan Sneller was the editor.

"As best I remember (and Rick probably has a better memory than I do), this all started with him. He found out Bob was going to be in town, and he knew that I was a HUGE fan of the ILLUMINATUS! trilogy. So he set up the interview, the three of us met for dinner (I think Rick picked up the check), and we had a tape recorder going the whole time. Rick even has a couple of photos of the occasion," Shiner says.

"It was kind of a weird interview. At the time, I felt like Bob was not really listening to me, kind of talking over me and delivering somewhat prefab responses. Yet when I listened back to the tape, it was a really good interview, and he sounded very compassionate and wise.. "

The interview is reprinted with Shiner and Shannon's permission. In fact, when I wrote to them, Shannon mailed a copy of the zine from Texas to Shiner (now a resident of the Research Triangle area of North Carolina referenced in my recent reprint of Arthur Hlavaty's article) and Shiner kindly scanned the interview TWICE, one as a jpeg so I could see what it looked like, and once as text so I could reproduce it.

The interview is pretty long, so I am publishing it here in two parts, and then will link to a copy of the full interview under Feature Articles and Interviews, as I've done with other long pieces.]

Conducted by Lewis Shiner, Susan Sneller, and Rick Shannon

We met Robert Anton Wilson in the lobby of the Marriott. It was April 28, 1988, and he was in Austin for a lecture and a workshop. He was dressed casually, his receding white hair combed straight back, his neatly trimmed beard slightly worn just under his lower lip, where he habitually rubs it while talking. He was only a little reserved, considering he'd committed himself to an evening with total strangers. We had a relaxed interview over dinner in the hotel. His answers were slow and well considered, delivered in a somewhat gruff voice that still has the accent of his New York upbringing.


Are you involved with computers?

I know a lot of people in Silicon Gulch. I know a lot of the gossip and shoptalk, but I don't do anything with my computer except write. I know I've got this enormous machine there that will do a million other things, but I'm so busy writing, writing, writing. Overproduction is the only way for a writer of minority appeal to survive.

I'm always trying new things to supplement my income. I did a new type of seminar in Boulder a few weeks ago, which I co-created with a friend named Liz Freeman. Instead of a regular seminar it was a game. Everybody who came in — we had about 40 people — was taken to a little room, and told who they were playing and what their goal was, and nothing else. And then the party began. There were five levels of deception, which we thought would be a lot of fun. The party ran from 3 in the afternoon to 9 at night, and by 9 most people had only got to the second level. We had made it too bloody complicated. Nobody found out how complicated it was. It was all based on competing conspiracies. I've been thinking that could be adapted for a computer game, for networking. If people had enough time they could get back on, in a week, you know, after they've thought it over, and figure out the deceptions.

Do you know about Steve Jackson's Illuminati game?

Everybody I meet thinks it's based on my Illuminatus! novels and I'm getting royalties on it. He claim it's not based on the novels, so I'm not getting royalties on it. Different lawyers give me different opinions. Decide for yourself.

Are you married?

Very. We're going to be celebrating our 30th anniversary soon. 30 years.

That's impressive.

I don't know if it's wonderful, but it's sure unusual. Especially in the circles we travel in. The average California marriage lasts about 6 months.

You grew up in New York, then moved to Ohio. Why Ohio?

I was offered a job editing a magazine for a place called the School for Living, which later moved to Maryland. The School for Living had a very interesting philosophy, which was "back to nature, live on the land, eat health food" — and a bit of anarchism and Wilhelm Reich. I agreed with about half of that and thought the over half was kind of flakey, but it was interesting. I thought it would be a great idea to live on a farm and see how I did at it.

I enjoyed it. We were there for two years.

Were you influenced by your years on the farm?

Yeah, I think so. My children were very young then. I guess the oldest was about eight when we left Ohio. I used to look at the grass and crops and trees and goats and cows and at my children and my wife and myself and think about evolution — all these different types of intelligence. I got fascinated by the intelligence of insects. It turned me into a pantheist. No, pantheist is not correct. The technical word is pan-psych-ist. I became more and more convinced that everything was intelligent.

Recently I read a Sufi philosopher of the 14th century who said, "Within every atom are a thousand rational beings." That's just what I've suspected for years.

How did you encounter Aleister Crowley?

I was having lunch with Alan Watts in 1969 and I told him I was writing a book. He asked me what it was about so I told him a bit about the Illuminatus trilogy, including the eye in the pyramid, and he said, "That reminds me of the most wonderful book I've read all year, called the Eye in the Triangle, by Israel Regardie." So I made a note of that. I was working for Playboy at the time — I went back to the office after lunch and I told the Playboy library to order the book. Editors had that privilege at Playboy; you could order any book you wanted and the library would get it in. So I read it and it got me fascinated, and that's how I got involved with Crowley.

So you came into Illuminatus through the conspiracy angle rather than the occult angle.

That's right. I was educated to believe that there are no conspiracies, or if there are we shouldn't talk about them. To think about conspiracies was somehow uncouth or lower class or might cause you to turn into a Nazi in your sleep or something. You should never think about conspiracies or talk about them. But then with the Kennedy assassination ... I just couldn't believe the Warren Commission. I started studying a lot of the different conspiracy theories and then I started running into the really kooky ones. Bob Shea and I used to go out for drinks every Friday evening after work and solve all of the problems of the world over a few Bloody Marys. We were talking about all of these kooky conspiracy theories and Shea said, "Why don't we write a book about all the craziest conspiracy theories." And eventually the Illuminatus trilogy developed out of that.

What have you been reading lately?

The book that impressed me most, recently, is The Psychobiology of Mind/Body Healing by Eugene Lawrence Rossi. It's a book about the neuropeptide system, and how the ideas in the cortex affect the hypothalamus, which affects the neuropeptide system. He explains how people can die of black magic curses and how they can get better if they have faith in something, like Christian Science, or Vitamin C — like Norman Cousins, who had an allegedly fatal disease. Cousins just took massive doses of Vitamin C and looked at comedies on television, and cured himself. I've known these things were possible for many years; Rossi's book gives the best, up-to-date, scientific explanation of how it works, how the neuropeptide system controls the immune system, how the immune system fights off disease or doesn't fight off disease. For instance, we all get cancer eventually, and most of us fight it off. The immune system is strong enough to fight it off. It's when the immune system fails that the disease kills you.

I'm a model of good health considering all my vices. Tim Leary said that recently, he said, "Bob is walking proof of the neurosomatic circuit — he has all the bad habits they warn us against and he's still healthy."

You've often said that we can't trust history — so how do you go about getting accurate historical research?

I don't know how accuracy is to be found in history, given the amount of prejudice and coverup. I don't have any faith in my historical research. I use what seems .... usable. I'm not entirely arbitrary; I can tell the difference between a real whacko and somebody who's fairly intelligent and rational. But even the people who are fairly intelligent and rational have their prejudices, so I don't trust them completely. Sometimes the whackos maybe were accurate.

You feel you've developed a nose for political agendas?

There's a certain style that warns you. There's a paranoid style of writing. When you see that you know you have to take everything very skeptically.

Are there any plans to restore the pages Dell ordered cut from Illuminatus?

No, all that got lost. Dell had the book for five years before they published it. They kept announcing they'd publish it next year, and then the editor would get fired, or quit to take a better job, and the new editor wouldn't know anything about it. The thing dragged on for five years. Finally we got a definite announcement they were going to publish it, but they wanted us to cut 500 pages, and they'd then divide it up into three volumes, which we'd never intended. Shea and I were so worn down, after five years of struggle, we said, "Okay, we'll cut 500 pages." So I said to Shea, "Let's cut it like Godard cut Breathless, totally at random. They're buying it by the pound, they have no concept of literary structure or anything like that, so let's give them a literary structure that's totally original, a stochastic structure." Shea agreed with me, so we just made our cuts at random. We didn't use any principle at all — there are cuts in the middle of dialog, people talking about one subject and suddenly they're talking about another. It's just like Godard did it with Breathless, even ten minutes he made a cut of a few feet of film. It kept the audience off balance. It seemed to work with Illuminatus, too.

When we were doing the cutting I was in Mexico and Shea was in Chicago and Dell was in New York, so in the process of these pages flowing back and forth through this loop, what got cut was lost permanently. I decided to accept it in the Zen way as a lucky accident. It turned out to be an even weirder book than we had planned. And the people at Dell were totally uninterested in literary qualities — they just thought it had enough sex and violence so it might succeed, and had no concept of literature at all. Nobody commented, "Hey you turned your book into total chaos." They were weighing it by the pound. If you've got a big name like Michener you can get a fat book published because everything he writes is a bestseller, but if you're unknown they divide it up into three books, cut it down to a size they can afford to lose in case it doesn't succeed.

Every chapter is based on a Sephiroth of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. You can still find that in there if you look hard enough. It was very carefully planned originally. For instance, Simon Moon's first words in the book are "Crown Point," which turns out to refer to the jail Dillinger escaped from, but it also refers to Kether, the title of the first chapter, and Kether means "crown" in Hebrew and is symbolized by a point. That cabalistic symbolism runs all through the book, every page has parallels with the Tree of Life. There were 22 appendixes, which were the 22 paths on the Tree of Life, and that got cut to eight. I finally just decided to regard it as a joke. That's the way you have to regard capitalism or you either go crazy or become a socialist and I didn't want to do either.

3 comments:

michael said...

You're right, Tom: this is a really good one, so far! Thanks!

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Great stuff. I'd never heard the comparison between the editing of Illuminatus! and the editing of Breathless.

5alam83 said...

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