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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The three periods of RAW?

In the midst of a good-sized blog post ruminating on political corruption, Michael Johnson writes, "The middle period writings of RAW (which I consider as 1975-1985, with 1959-1974 the first period and 1986-2005 the third and last, not that anyone had asked) contains an abundance of non-Euclidean political writing, by which he meant that he saw value in left-libertarian and traditionally anarchist thought, and individualist-"right" libertarian ideas."

I am asking, in the sense that I hope Johnson will elaborate, but I agree that RAW's writings fall into three periods, because I've noticed a similar division in tone and content. The "middle period" (my favorite period of RAW's writings) are more optimistic, more overtly libertarian (although RAW espoused libertarian ideas, on and off, for the rest of his life), and more heavily in debt to Timothy Leary. The middle period also encompasses most of the fiction and all of the really good novels. The Widow's Son, a favorite of many of us, came out in 1985. Nature's God (1988) is certainly worth reading, but it's not one of his best. Thereafter we get nonfiction. The Historical Illuminatus series was never finished and the Bride of Illuminatus project apparently did not get very far.

As I continue to dig up old RAW articles, I am particularly excited when I find something from the middle period.


Bobby Campbell said...

These 3 periods seem to fit pretty well with the 3 literary descriptors RAW accepted/fashioned for himself:

Post Modernist: 1959-1974
Guerilla Ontologist: 1975-1985
Damned Old Crank: 1986-2005

michael said...

I like Bobby's take, esp that RAW was a pomo before the word was used in any widespread sense. And some academics have considered Illuminatus and SCT as pomo, and they were basically done in that period, although some of SCT bleeds into the GO period.

Pre-1975 RAW: starts off with lots of W. Reich and Pound in writing about social issues. He wasn't a published novelist/couterkulch figure of wide repute yet, hustling and writing voluminously for little mags for disparate audiences:sex and drugs; occult/magick/paganism; as advocate and closest reader of Leary; libertarian economics; questioner of "reality".

After 1975: Illuminatus! gradually becomes underground countercultural cognoscenti cult book(s), westward movement from NewYork/New Jersey/southern Ohio and Chicago (end of Playboy days in 1971) to Mexico, then California and Berkeley. He's beginning to make it as an author/writer of books.

His writing becomes much more ludic in this period. Every theme from the first period continues, but he's able to combine his interests in his books in a way that has more of the trippy impact he sought. And then 1982-85 and Ireland and incredible bursts of fecundity, creativity. He's prolific.

post-1985: move back to US, feeling that, after Reagan, Unistat in deep social-political crises. Much more writing of acerbic/Swiftian influence. Steps up his challenge to the fundamentalist materialists, who never really took him on. More overt writing about film, his Joycebook, a more free elaboration of the themes of the first two periods. Stabs at film scripts. RAW as well-established countercultural genius among the conspiracy ironists, Discordians and Subgenii, Crowleyites, as an exponent of some early 20th century modernists and their ideas (esp. Joyce and Pound), as philosophy and sometimes science popularizer. His writing voice as radical liberal Ironist coalesces. Etc. Sorry, think I'm running out of room here, Tom...

Bobby Campbell said...

Well extracted, Michael!

What does anyone make of Post Modernism anyways?

It doesn't seem to have any real shared meaning yet. (Beyond an est time span)

I read "Gravity's Rainbow" directly after reading "Ulysses", "The Cantos", and "Finnegans Wake" in hopes of discerning the shift in style.

Best guess, Post-Modernism = Modernism + Atomic Bomb

Or more generally, pomo = the emergence of the potentiality of a human/technological eschatology, and the resultant ontological implications on the reality of appearances as interpreted by human nervous systems and/or consciousness.

I like this interpretation, because it would make the Illuminatus! trilogy the most import work of Post-Modernism!

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

It seems to me the third period includes the realization that he's not going to get to migrate to outer space, he's not likely to live forever after all, and he's not likely to break through and become a famous mainstream writer. Hence a darker, more bitter tone.

michael said...

@ Bobby: I like modernism + Bomb. I once collected definitions of pomo, and I still have 'em around here someplace, but my favorite was from Jean-Francoise Lyotard, who said it was about the "incredulity toward metanarratives." Now, RAW seemed to subscribe to a metanarrative of technological progress and immortality, star travel, etc. This still seems like a worthy goal in the sense of the Frankfurt School thinkers' problems with 20th century capitalism, which was "techne without telos." RAW and Leary and the Transhumanists. Extropians, Kurzweil, provide a "telos."

I also think Tom makes a good point: RAW never specifically said he'd changed his mind. I still think he liked the ideas, but he saw his prognostications of the 1970s had been wildly overoptimistic, and I suspect he felt the blows of terrestrial politics, made ever worse when Arlen died. To add to Tom's points, something Eric Wagner has discussed seems also germane here: RAW really wanted one of his works made into a film, and it never happened, and I think that was a mounting disappointment to him.

There were bitter tones in the third period, but he still kept his optimistic stance on a lot of things; he loved his bright younger fans (he was certainly very kind to me, and I know many others with similar anecdotes), and if we compare more jaded/jaundiced writers that get reviewed everytime in the NYRB, no way was RAW ever that bitter. I think he was disappointed and he had his fair share of big-time let-downs, but I really sensed he had become something like a Taoist sage in those last few years. I'm very glad Bauscher did that documentary.

And yes: he seemed VERY disappointed he didn't make it as a mainstream best-selling writer-celebrity-genius. To me he was a genius. I think he wanted less money worries and his ideas discussed far more widely.

It's all quite dramatic to me.

fuzzbuddy said...

Michael, can you expand on "RAW really wanted one of his works made into a film"? Have you read about this or did you talk to him about it?

Eric Wagner said...

I guess I distrust a three fold division. I think of Carl Dahlhaus's criticism of the three fold division of Beethoven's work, pointing out the continuum of evolution evident, especially in the works on the borders of the traditional three phase division. I think the three fold division works better for Beethoven's work than for Bob's.

With Bob's writing, his sixties work shows his highly developed third circuit with emerging right brain intelligence. This becomes more pronounced in Bob's early 70's writing. In 1973 and 74 Bob had some intense experiences, and his developing writing demonstrates this, especially in the rewrite of Illuminatus! and in Cosmic Trigger.

The end of Cosmic Trigger and Schroedinger's Cat has show him processing the greatest tragedy of his life. This period culminates in the mastery displayed in Prometheus Rising.

I think Bob's writing takes another quantum leap with The Widow's Son, Natural Law and The New Inquisition, all of which show the growing influence of Swift and of living in Ireland, as well as his growing intelligence.

He moved back to the US in the late 80's and metaprogrammed himself for success in Hollywood. He didn't find material success, but his intelligence continued to increase and I think his writing improved. E-Prime became an important tool for him.

I think he became even more interesting and funnier in his final years, especially in the conclusion of TSOG and his Thoughts of the Month on, etc.

Unknown said...

Some great analysis and informed comments. It may be a bit of a sweep but RAW's output could be compared to his beloved Joyce's - The early period akin to Portrait and Dubliners with all its youthful technical brio, the middle to Ulysses as his most accomplished piece where the author was 'riding his curve and delivering peak performance and the last (which perhaps we should refer to as his 'Late Harvest' period) as his Finnegans Wake, it being more arcane and probably necessary for the reader to have at least some familiarity with his previous work in order for you to get/ appreciate where he is coming from and the techniques being used.