Neil Rest at Minicon 49, April 2014 in Minneapolis
When Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea were getting involved with anarchist politics in Chicago in the 1960s and early 1970s while working at Playboy magazine, Neil Rest was there.
In fact, this interview is rather timely for the ongoing online discussion of Illuminatus! because there are traces of that Chicago sojourn in the book, and because Rest says that Robert Anton Wilson told him that the Simon Moon character in the book was based upon Rest, "Wobbly Surrealist" Franklin Rosemont and RAW himself.
Rest in fact turns up by name in a couple of places in Wilson and Shea's solo novels: As "Neal Rest" in Schrödinger's Cat (see below) and in the acknowledgements for Shea's All Things Are Lights (also as "Neal Rest.")
I became aware of Neil (a science fiction fan, active in fandom, as well as an anarchist) when he popped up in the comments for this blog, posting as "Neil in Chicago," so I asked him if he would take some questions by email and he agreed. -- The Mgt.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself -- how old are you, do you still live in Chicago, did you keep up with Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's writings over the years?
I'm 65. My birthday is December 21, with Thomas a Beckett, Paul Revere, Disraeli, Kropotkin, Stalin, and Frank Zappa.
How did you get to know Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea when they were writing Illuminatus! ? Or did you meet them before then?
I think it was the spring of 1970, near the time I became a full-time SEED seller, I somehow heard of an anarchist conference at Wobbly Hall. This was after the Wobs had moved from Halsted St. (described in Illuminatus! where Simon Moon's mother hears the gunshots that killed Dillinger) to the big second floor at 2440 N. Lincoln. I recall that Solidarity bookstore was there too.
There were a dozen or twenty people, and at least from my perspective it was a great success, because it agglomerated an affinity group which was active for the next several years. Parties, picnics, political actions. I thought it was terribly funny that by far the longest-running political action was arguing over what to call ourselves. We invented a site-specific name for each action, signing leaflets with whatever, but could never get close to consensus about ourselves. Finally, I started calling us The Nameless Anarchist Horde, and that was as much name as the group ever had. Shea did mailings announcing get-togethers and stuff, and called it The Nameless Newsletter.
I don't know when I found out Bob & Bob were writing a book. One of the things I say about Illuminatus! is that one of the few things that's clear about the book is that they stole material anywhere they could find it. Many of the Horde are in the book, and at least one set of kittens.
Can you give me examples of how members of the Nameless Anarchist Horde found themselves in Illuminatus! ?
I'd have to go back and scan. I do have a favorite example There is a mention of three kittens, Clitoris, Penis, and Fred. They were real; the fire-breathing feminist named her kitten Clitoris; her old man named his Penis in response; and the sweet pot head they lived with in turn responded by naming his kitten Fred.
One of the enduring mysteries of Illuminatus! is which Dell editor bought it. Do you happen to know, or do you happen to know who might know?
Someone once told me that Kelly (one of the circle) had a copy of the 500 missing pages, but I eventually asked him and he said no.
Did you know Shea and Wilson from your mutual interest in anarchist politics? Did you feel you knew them well, and which one were you closest to?
That's how we met. There was some sort of anarchist conference at Wobbly Hall when it was on Lincoln, I think in the spring of '70. I have no idea how I heard of it, but I'm still in touch with six or eight of the people I met that day.
I'm sorry I didn't work with Shea more. He was here in the near north suburbs while the Wilsons moved all over the place. I mostly saw him when Wilson was visiting. That post office box for Green and Pleasant Publications was Shea.
I was probably closer to the Wilsons. Here's a clue for you: If someone purports to have really been close to them, it's only true if they talk as much about Arlen as Bob. She was very private (someone once told me she had never so much as had a bumper sticker on her car), but she was his equal and partner. I'm no judge, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if she was more "spiritually advanced" than he.
After they left Chicago, I only visited occasionally, but made a real point whenever I was in California. It was an enormous house in northeast Berkeley that Wilson first told me about Bell's Inequality (summer of '76, probably). Someone recently did a history of the odd group who forced the physics world to take note, called How the Hippies Saved Physics. Wilson was their publicist.
And I visited in a little house in the flats shortly before the murder. I'm tone-deaf to vibes, but even I picked up seriously odd vibes there. [Neil is referring to the murder of RAW's daughter Luna, discussed in Cosmic Trigger 1. -- The Mgt.]
And I may have helped at the end. As a freelance writer, Bob never had financial security. You know how broke he died I was on the phone with one of his caretakers and insisted that they publicize the situation on the net, which they eventually did. After one week they had to tell people to STOP sending money.
Isn't it true that Arlen Riley turned you on to Sufism?
The 1975 World Science Fiction Convention was in Australia. I inherited several thousand dollars about a year before, so not only could I go, but I could spend time heading west to make a great circle home.
I spent my last week in the country in the Bay Area. The Wilsons were in Berkeley, and always on my must visit list, and I did. Somewhere in the conversation, Arlen asked if we had any Sufis in Chicago, because they were all over out there, and it takes about three years for something to get from Berkeley to Chicago.
After Australia, I spent three months in Indonesia, and then went down Malaysia to Singapore. I was really hungry for reading material, and being Commonwealth, Singapore had marvelous Penguin book stalls. (And probably the best street food in the world.) So when I saw Idries Shah's The Sufis, I picked it up. Shah seriously blew my mind, and I adore his work to this day, though I gradually learned not to trust almost anything he said about himself.
Incidentally, that's how it came about that I read parts 1 and 2 of Illuminatus! in Singapore, and part 3 in Jerusalem.
Have you read Chaos and Beyond, the "RAW and his circle" anthology? I ask because it has some of Arlen Riley's writings, and I wondered if it offered a pretty good picture of her.
I don't know that I'd ever heard of it. I see it's collected from Trajectories, which I remember, but didn't follow meticulously. Back here in Chicago, Arlen had been very active in an "anarcho-feminist" group called Siren, and wrote for/with them, but I don't know of too much else.
What's the scene in Schrödinger's Cat in which you appear?
I'm at the big Manhattan cocktail party where just everyone who is anyone is there, and the plot of the story keeps wandering through. I can't give you a page, but I once copied it into my .sig file. (Pat Murfin was GST of the Wobblies for a couple of years.)
I had remarkable hair. There's another point at the party where someone is very startled -- "I just saw a sasquatch on the balcony!" "Oh, that's just Simon Moon." One of the bits of Simon which is most clearly me. [He's actually "Bigfoot," page 207 of the omnibus edition. The next paragraph is the other scene that features Neil. -- The Mgt.]
"There is a love that binds it all together, and that love is expressed in primate language as the love of a parent for a child, so Simon was not surprised to find Tim Moon pervading everything, or at least a kind of continuous Tim Moon potential that could be encoded again in another book or that could remain latent for long times, vaguely permeating every book. There were hundreds of thousands of other Wobs there, Frank Little and Joe Hill and Pat Murfin and Neal [sic] Rest and Big Bill Heywood and they were all singing like an outlaw Hallelujah Chorus:
"Though cowards cringe and traitors sneer
"We'll keep the Black Flag flying here"
-- Schrödinger's Cat [Page 317 of the Omnibus, toward the end of The Trick Top Hat, in the section in which Simon Moon is toking on a pipe and ruminating. It's page 210 of the original paperback of The Trick Top Hat -- The Mgt.]
Would you describe what your current politics are? As a Chicagoan who probably heard of Barack Obama long before most of the rest of us, have you been surprised at how Obama has governed?
How I label my politics varies with circumstance and mood. Often it's "lapsed anarchist", which is not inconsistent with the delightful "non-Euclidian."
I wasn't aware of Obama until he was already in the state Senate. He's a South Sider and I'm a North Sider, so he almost might as well be from Milwaukee. I was taken in; I'm still too regularly gullible, but for a couple of years now, one of my lines has been, "We used to have a name for politicians like Obama. We called them 'Republicans.' Jimmy Carter was the last President who wasn't to the right of Nixon."
Did you know "Wobbly Surrealist" Franklin Rosemont very well? Can you talk about how he provided some of the inspiration for the "Simon Moon" character in Illuminatus! ?
Nope. Didn't know him. When I saw Bob Wilson, probably later in the summer of '76, I diffidently stoked my ego by saying that I recognized a lot of people in Illuminatus! but not myself. He replied, "Simon Moon is a composite." I'm not sure when, but I eventually found out it was himself, Franklin Rosemont, and me.
Did RAW and Arlen Riley ever talk about their courtship back in the 1950s? Didn't she already have children when she met RAW?
Nope I can't say for sure if all her kids were Bob's. Can't remember the question ever coming up.
One of the things I'm sorriest I never pursued is what Arlen did when she worked for Orson Welles (one of Bob's idols).
Why did you tell Robert Shea to begin using a computer for his writings? Were you yourself an early adopter of computer technologies?
Yeah, Shea inscribed my copy of Lights, "To Neil Rest, who helped illuminate the author'" and I said, "WOW! I have no clue what you're talking about." "Oh, you were the first person to tell me trhat I ought to be writing on a microcomputer." And most of those historicals were written on an Apple II. For me the farthest out thing in the book was to imagine a Cathar heretic. I really loved that.
This fall, kinehora*, is the fiftieth anniversary of my first programming class . . . I had the bug when integrated circuits were the cutting edge.
And in case you are thinking of asking, I'm a late adopter of the internet. I've been on line for only 20 years.
(*a Yiddish anti-curse, literally "no evil eye")
A guy who lists the "Worldcon in the Bermuda Triangle" bid on your resume on Linked In must be pretty cool.
Yeah, a bunch of "friends" made me chairman of a bid to hold the World Science Fiction Convention on a Carribean cruise.