Monday, February 24, 2014
Illuminatus! online reading group, week one
(First part, till the bottom of the Page 13, "we're closer to the pet shop here." I'm using page numbers in the standard Dell Omnibus edition, but I'll also use quotes to make things easier for anyone using an ebook version.)
The three books of what was originally the Illuminatus! trilogy were published in 1975. The work has pretty much remained in print every since and currently is available as a one-volume omnibus, an ebook and an audiobook.
I read Illuminatus! for the first time in the 1970s, sometime when I was a student at the University of Oklahoma, probably not too terribly long after the three paperbacks came out. I still have those three books. I can't remember where I bought them or how they came to my attention, although if I had to guess, I would blame my libertarian science fiction reading friends such as Steve Browne and Richard Onley.
One account I've found from Robert Anton Wilson about the origin and saga of Illuminatus! is this one "The Illuminatus! saga stumbles along." In that telling, "Bob Shea and I began the Illuminatus series in 1969, inspired directly by our work as co-editors of The Playboy Forum. The Forum (not to be confused with The Playboy Advisor) deals with civil liberties, the rights of the individual, and abuses of government power. Naturally, in addition to a great many intelligent letters from people justifiably indignant about real cases of unconstitutional behavior by judges and legislators, the Forum – especially in those days – received a lot of paranoid rantings from people imagining totally baroque conspiracies. One day, either Shea or I – we don't remember which-asked whimsically, 'Suppose all these nuts are right, and every single conspiracy they complain about really exists.' "
In other accounts, however, Shea is credited with coming up with the idea of writing a novel. For example, in this interview:
STARSHIP: Can you discuss the genesis of Illuminatus!? How did the idea originate?
WILSON: It started with the Discordian Society, which is based on worship of Eris, the Greek goddess of confusion and chaos. Actually, the Discordian Society is a new religion disguised as a complicated joke, although some skeptics think it’s a joke disguised as a religion. We [Robert Shea, his coauthor] felt the Society needed some opposition, because the whole idea of it is based on conflict and dialectics. So, we created an opposition within the Discordian Society, which we called the Bavarian Illuminati. We got the idea from the John Birch Society and various other right-wing groups who believe that the Illuminati really run the world. There were several Discordian newsletters written in the 1960s, and several Discordian members wrote for the underground press in various parts of the country. So, we built up this myth about the warfare between the Discordian Society and the Illuminati for quite a while, until one day Bob Shea said to me, “You know, we could write a novel about this!” The rest is history.
Illuminatus! was written from 1969-1971 and published in 1975, so it took awhile to get into print. It was written at about the same time as two somewhat similar books, Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed and Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. The latter two have entered the modern literary canon, but Illuminatus! has not. Sombunall of us have a chip on our shoulders about that. I certainly do.
(Jesse Walker in Reason: "In 1973 Thomas Pynchon published an enormous experimental novel called Gravity's Rainbow. In 1975 Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson published an enormous experimental trilogy called Illuminatus! Both were written at about the same time, and both offered panoramic perspectives on history, liberty, and paranoia.
"Gravity's Rainbow won the National Book Award. Illuminatus! won no awards, save a science fiction prize issued a decade later.")
Sombunall, by the way, is a Robert Anton Wilson coinage that means "some, but not all." The philosophical point is that while for some ears/nervous systems, the statement, say, that "David Bowie is a great musical artist" may be true,"for others, it may not be true. It recognizes that people are individuals.
I have been re-reading James Joyce's Ulysses, and I noticed this time that Joyce starts out with relatively easy to understand prose and then gets into some very difficult passages. Perhaps as a nod to Ulysses, perhaps not, Illuminatus! starts out with opening sentences that may seem a bit opaque but then gets into an easy-to-follow police procedure, perhaps to reassure readers that they will not be left at sea, after all. The first few pages also show the mix of "literary" and "popular fiction" influences (less usual in the 1970s than now), with passages that sound like Joyce mixing with passages that sound a bit like Raymond Chandler or other mystery writers. (Actually, when I re-read the first paragraph of the work I was struck by how good it was. I plan to read it aloud to my local book discussion group.)
The cover of my 1977 original paperback edition (second printing) says "Dell SF." The fact that The Eye in the Pyramid was published as a science fiction paperback original (like many of Philip K. Dick's novels) probably explains by itself why it generally wasn't reviewed by literary magazines, book review sections, etc.
The cover art for the three original paperbacks was by an artist named Carlos Victor Ochagavia. To give credit, the identification was made by this guy, I think his name is Lex Berman, in this blog post. More about Ochagavia here. (He was born in Spain but lived in Argentina from the age of two, except when he studied in New York.)
A few annotations:
(Dedication) "To Gregory Hill and Kerry Thornley." The two founders of Discordianism. Kerry is also Lord Omar Ravenhurst, or Lord Omar. Adam Gorightly's biography of Thornley, The Prankster and the Conspiracy, remains in print. Hill is also Malaclypse the Younger. For more on Discordianism and its founders, see Gorightly's Historia Discordia website. which has been publishing much of Greg Hill's archives. The Church of the Subgenius is sometimes considered a spinoff of Discordianism.
Ishmael Reed quote from Mumbo Jumbo: Reed is a well-known American writer and Mumbo Jumbo, his best-known work, was written at about the same time as Illuminatus! and has a plotline about a battle between secret societies. As I note here, the quotation from Mumbo Jumbo used in Illuminatus! is not word for word but is a paraphrase.
Page 7, "The first trip, or Kether." From the Kabbalah. For more on the Kabbalah and Illuminatus! see Eric Wagner's An Insider's Guide to Robert Anton Wilson, specifically the chapter "Appendix Samekh."
Quotation at the beginning of Page 7: As mentioned, Lord Omar is Kerry Thornley.
Page 7, "Fernando Poo," a real island.
Page 8, "Nkrumah Fubar," first use in the book of a suggestive name. "Fubar," acronym for "fucked up beyond all recognition." Compare with "snafu," as in the Snafu Principle. For more on Wilson's use of names, see page 43, Cosmic Trigger, Vol. 3: "Then we went to Westminster Abbey and I paid homage to Ben Johnson, the man who inspired some of my own flights of nomenclature by giving his characters names like Face, Waspe, Epicure Mammon, Fastidious Brisk and (the first parody of an anti-smoking fanatic) Zeal of the Land Busy ... "
Page 9, "Hagbard Celine." First mention of perhaps the main protagonist, other than Simon Moon. Note that Hagbard CelinE's name has HCE, initials of the Finnegans Wake protagonist.
Page 10, "Numbly, dumbly, mopingly, gropingly out of the dark," Joycean language, similar to the love of words and sound in Ulysses.
Page 13, this sentence always jumps out at me: "You see a thousand faces like his on the street every day and never guess how well they are carrying their tragedies." The heroic quality of everyday life is a major theme of Ulysses.
Next week: Pages 13, from "we're closer to the pet shop here" to page 23 "rather close to the Weatherman faction."