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Friday, September 30, 2011

Proposal for ILLUMINATUS! reference book

Editor's note: John Merritt is on Twitter as @17beowulf. I noticed him when he got into a dialogue with Ted Hand about RAW (reproduced here in the Sept. 21 posting.) We began following each other. On Sept. 24, he Tweeted, "Working on a precis for a annotations volume for "lluminatus!" Mater deoruum, would it be a lot of work!" Naturally, I was interested and I asked for more information, and he kindly shared the following article with me. Mr. Merritt is not nominating himself as the editor of the proposed volume but wants to get a discussion going. -- Tom.

Notes concerning a Concordance and Commentary for Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus!.
By John Merritt

(Divina Mater deorum, would this be a lot of work!)

The following represents some thoughts about a concordance and commentary on the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. This work was originally published in three volumes by Dell in 1975 and is now available in a one-volume edition first published in 1984. The basis of Illuminatus! is a general lampoon of various conspiracy theories and the mentality that goes along with them. This is a free-wheeling, drug-fueled free-for all, the Dionysian counterpart to Umberto Eco’s more Apollonian Foucault’s Pendulum.

Illuminatus contains numerous references to events in American history, especially between 1968 and 1972. Other historical subjects touched on are the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963 and the many conspiracy theories deriving from that event, the history of American gangsters in the 1930s, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the 1968 Democrat Convention in Chicago, the drug scene of the period, UFOs, alternative religions, and various occult currents. The work is also full of a Gawd-awful number of puns, many of which are tied to cultural and/or literary references which may not be apparent to the casual reader.

The physical structure of the work is based on the Tree of Life in Kabbalah in its normal form. The overall work is divided into four parts, corresponding to the Four Worlds of Kabbalah, the three parts of the narrative and the appendices at the end. The story parts are divided into ten chapters, named by the ten Sephrioth, and thirteen appendices named for the first thirteen letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The continuity of each of the three parts of the narrative is further broken into smaller parts by sudden changes in plot and/or location. There is a further division of the narrative into five parts, corresponding to the “Illuminati’s Theory of History”, which is explained in Appendix Gimel.

This compilation would consist mainly of a series of short articles explaining the historical and fictional persons and places mentioned, historical events, and geographical places real and imagined, and the explication of puns. The order of the articles should be that of the subjects’ occurrence in the work, an approach taken in similar commentaries for Joyce’s Ulysses, Pound’s Cantos, and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

An example of a pun: "Purple Sage": sage = wise man, also a  plant used as a seasoning. _Riders of the Purple Sage_: a novel by Western writer Zane Gray. Possible reference: "Riders of the Purple Wage", a short story by Philip Jose Farmer first published in _Dangerous Visions_, edited by Harlan Ellison, first published in 1967. Wikipedia also lists several bands with the name.

Since the work was published in two different formats, the page references should be given for both.

While it perhaps would be possible for one person to do this, it would be better if there was a general editor and several sub-editors for major topics:

• One for the Kennedy assassination and related conspiracies.

• One for American politics and the Viet Nam War (one for each?).

• One for the literary references and allusions.

(An example: General Tequila y Mota uses Edward Luttwak's; _Coup D'Etat: a Practical Handbook_ as his guide for taking power in Fernando Poo. Here's some links on Luttwak.  A tough bastard.)

• One for music allusions (?).

• One for occult references.

• One for libertarian politics and non-standard (i.e., not Keynesian, monetarist or Austrian “free market”) economics.

The following are some further thoughts:

• The three biggest sections would probably be those on the Illuminati—with or without the “regular” masonic groups—, the JFK hit and the fallout therefrom, and Atlantis.

• At the beginning of “Leviathan” is a long list of rock bands going to the big festival at Ingolstadt. How many are/were real and how many fictitious at the time that Illuminatus! was written?

• Sort biographies and bibliographies of the various libertarian and alternate economics authors and works mentioned, which are mostly in Appendix Zayn.

• Possible real-life basis for characters, e.g., how much of Joe Malik is based on Hugh M. Hefner, publisher of Playboy magazine. Both Wilson and Shea were assistant editors at Playboy when they started work on Illuminatus!

• Occult references: Aleister Crowley, Tarot, Kabbalah, the Black Mass.

• Chicago politics and the Daley Machine.

• Religions: Catholicism, Fundamentalist Protestant Christianity, Zen Buddhism, Discordianism. Discordianism as a spoof of revealed religions.

• In the bibliography of works mentioned in Illuminatus!: full bibliographic information for the first edition and any current printings should be given, as well as whether older books are available online.

• Writers mentioned or referred to: Joyce, Pound, Lovecraft, R. W. Chambers, William S. Burroughs, Edgar Rice Burroughs (?), Raymond Chandler, J-K Huysmans, Hart Crane, Ambrose Bierce, Zane Gray (in pun), Ayn Rand, Allan Ginsberg, J. G. Ballard, Dante, and Arthur Machen. This is a partial and incomplete list.

• The various Atlantis stories, starting with Plato’s Timaeus and including Mu and Lemuria as Pacific Ocean variants. How much of the film that Joe Malik sees is from previous post-Plato Atlantis yarns and how much is Shea and Wilson’s invention?

• A big part of the second and third volumes is taken up by a spoof of Ian Fleming’s MI6 hitman, James Bond—particularly, the last three books Fleming completed: Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. These are the books concerning SPECTRE and its chief, Ernst Starvo Blofeld. This is intertwined with a variation on the Cthulhu Mythos during the part of Illuminatus! that takes place on Fernando Poo.

• One big help would be Shea and Wilson’s Nachlass; where are they and are they available for study?
In Cosmic Trigger I Wilson mentions that, at one time, he had a fair sized collection of conspiracy books. What happened to them? If the collection didn’t survive, is there a surviving list of titles?

• A list of translations should be given, with notes on completeness, illustrations, and any other interesting points. Here is an example for the German translation.

Illuminatus! Die Trilogie. Aus dem Englischen von Udo Breger. Reinbek: Rowalt, 2011. Copyright © 1977, 1978, 1978 der ersten deutschesprachigen Ausgabe by (sic!) Sphinx Verlag, Basel. Copyright © 2002 der deutschsprachigen Ausgabe by Heinrich Hugendubel Verlag, Kreuzlingen/München.
I have no idea what is going on here with the copyright notices, unless Breger’s version is the second German translation. I also don’t know if Hugendubel the publisher is related to Hugendubel the bookstore chain. (I did buy my copy at a Hugendubel. Synchronicity strikes again.) The German Wikipedia article on Illuminatus! says that Breger’s is the only translation, and lists the different editions.

(The German Wiki article looks to be a lot better than the English one.)

The individual volumes are also available. The one-volume edition is not paged continuously, but keeps the pagination of the individual parts. It also keeps the introductory sections of the 2nd and 3rd volumes, which are omitted in the Dell one-volume edition.

Breger leaves some American slang untranslated, but otherwise this seems to be a complete, unexpurgated version. There are some interesting inconsistencies, though. On III, 276-7 he leaves the quotation of Chapter 23 of Crowley’s The Book of Lies untranslated, but the nearly complete quotation of Liber Oz at the beginning of volume 2 (p. 7) is translated entire. And in the other quote from The Book of Lies (on I, 183) he opts for the in German nonsensical half of Crowley’s pun on ass, translating it as Ärsche (‘arses’) and ignoring the equine reference (German Esel), though admittedly there is no way to get the pun to work in German—or in British English.

The chart of conspiracies from The East Village Other is reproduced untranslated on p. I,128. The other illustrations in the original are also present.

There is also a German translation of Masks of the Illuminati.

On the Internet
There is an Illuminatus! wiki at, but it seems to just be an outline for now.
There is a character index to Illuminatus! at


dylan said...

Awesome idea, sounds like a wiki that could become a printed work. The music section really piques my interest...

John Merritt said...

What I really hate about HTML -- or word processors; I'm not sure who the real culprit is -- is that you can't just paste a formatted text file into an HTML blog program and have all the text formatting come out. You have to go through and put in every one of those stupid tags.

There's probably a better way, but you're not going to get it from Micro$oft.

John Merritt said...


Other than that long list of groups, I'm not sure that there's that many music references. The only two I can think of off hand are the Beatles "Yellow Submarine" and the Fugs' "Kick out the JAMS". Most of the in-jokes seem to be literary, historical, or political.

Eric Wagner said...

I don't recall any references to J. G. Ballard in Illuminatus!

Eric Wagner said...

Re: Music. Illuminatus! contains references to Beethoven on pages 41, 133, 250 and 668, to Mozart on page 748, to Bach on 493 and 800, and to Wagner on 292 and 647, etc.

Eric Wagner said...

Also, much of the novel deals with a rock festival and Shea and Wilson created a ton of bands. Music seems central to the novel.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I don't remember Ballard,either. John, what say you?

John Merritt said...

I'm 90% sure that, in the 1968 Democratic Convention scene, there is a reference to Ballard's "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race". If the title is not quoted exactly, there is something very close to it there. The reference is during the tear gas attack from the Chicago police.

John Merritt said...

@Royal Academy of Reality:

I was focusing on the rock music aspect, as this would, in some degree, be more ephemeral than the big name classical composers like Beethoven.

Just about everyone has heard of The Beatles -- or Beethoven --, but how many remember The Fugs? It's the obscure groups that will need explicating.

Eric Wagner said...

I think Ballard and Illuminatus! both refer back to Jarry's "The Crucifixion of Christ Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race."

John Merritt said...

@Royal Academy of Reality:

Yes, the Jarry reference is probably it.

So scratch Ballard and insert Jarry in the authors list.

Ewan said...

The idea of of a fully annotated Illuminatus Trilogy is a great one. Had kind of crossed my mind before so any attempt to fully realise it would be incredible.

Think i might have to read it for the 5th time and make notes.