(Thought I'd try to get the word out. As John Higgs has remarked sentimentally, you never forget your first press release. Now I have to write the press release I promised Steve Pratt for his new album. -- The Mgt.)
Website RAWIllumination.net to sponsor online group reading of 1970s cult literary work “Illuminatus!” starting on Feb. 24.
An online reading group plans to spend more than a year doing a page-by-page analysis of an unusual 1970s cult novel that has never gone out of print.
Illuminatus! by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, originally published as a series of three science fiction paperback originals, was influenced by writers as diverse as James Joyce, William Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft. The book reads at first like a thriller about a vast conspiracy, albeit one that uses an obscure theological term, “immanentize the Eschaton,” in the first sentence. But it also has elements of fantasy and the occult and spends many pages discussing political theory.
The ostensible subject of the book is the Illuminati, an alleged secret society that seeks to control the world and is still the subject of many conspiracy theories. Many of the book’s protagonists are either battling the Illuminati or struggling to figure out what is really going on.
The work makes liberal use of Discordianism, a tongue-in-cheek religion devoted to worship of the Greek goddess Eris, who was blamed for starting the Trojan War, and of the Kabbalah, an esoteric mystical system that began as part of Judaism. The text also reflects the authors’ strong interesting anarchism and libertarianism.
Readers of the RAWIllumination.net website will participate in an online discussion of the book beginning on Feb. 24. The discussion will proceed at a pace of 10 pages a week, to give readers time to untangle many of the esoteric references and meanings in the text. The slow pace also will allow time for readers who missed the initial announcement to get caught up and participate. The standard paperback edition has 805 pages, so the discussion is expected to take well over a year.
Each week, an entry on a 10-page section of the book will be posted on the website’s blog, and readers will be invited to weigh in using the comments.
The book began as a joke in a Chicago bar. The two authors, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, were editors at Playboy magazine in 1960s, responsible for the Playboy Forum, a section of letters from readers. Many of the letters dealt with speculation on who had killed the Kennedys and other conspiracy theories.
The two editors, who were friends, had a habit of going to a bar every payday. One day, Shea jokingly suggested that the two collaborate on a novel that would take seriously every crazy conspiracy theory that had been sent in by a reader. The idea caught the pair’s imagination, and they began work on the book that became Iluminatus!
Issued beginning in late 1975 as three mass market paperbacks, The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, and Leviathan, Illuminatus! was reissued beginning in 1984 as a one-volume trade paperback and has remained in print ever since. It also is available as an ebook and an audiobook.
Illuminatus! received good reviews from publications such as the Village Voice but was generally ignored by major literary magazines, newspapers and book reviewers. It won only one literary award, the relatively obscure Prometheus Hall of Fame Award, in 1986. It has received less attention from major literary critics than two broadly similar works written at about the same time, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon and Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed. It has nonetheless enjoyed a strong cult following from its initial publication and there are many websites on the Internet devoted to it or to one of its two authors.
The two authors never collaborated on another book, although they remained close friends, but Illuminatus! helped them launch their literary careers. Wilson quit his job at Playboy and became a freelance writer. He eventually published more than 30 books, including novels and essay collections. He died in 2007. Shea continued to work for Playboy, but after he lost his job at the magazine, he began sending out proposals for novels and began a successful second career as a historical novelist. He died in 1994.