Friday, June 20, 2014
The literature of cult and conspiracy
There's a new book out called Lure of the Arcane: The Literature of Cult and Conspiracy by Theodore Ziolkowski. He's a professor emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Princeton University, and the book mentions the Illuminatus! Trilogy (including its alleged structural weaknesses, according to the book's index.)
The Times Literary Supplement review by Oliver Harris is here. Here's what he says about Illuminatus!:
An interim tradition, between the Protocols and Dan Brown, redeems the pleasures of the arcane with irony. The LSD-tinged meeting of metafiction and meta-conspiracy seen in the 1960s is, in part, a response to the dark side of straight conspiracy reflected in the Protocols. Its self-conscious mischief-making achieves literary credibility in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), exposing us to the shadowy Tristero, a secret underground postal delivery service. It is a paranoid melange revisited in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) (the Templar-allied Wallflower Order is attempting to root out a jazz-infused “virus” spreading dance crazes and black consciousness), and in less artful, more expansive form by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in their collage of ancient sects, government agencies and hallucinatory ramblings, The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975) (“More important than Ulysses or Finnegans Wake”, according to Timothy Leary).
I complained about the slighting reference to Illuminatus! to Michael Johnson (I can't imagine that any literate person would argue that Mumbo Jumbo is better written) and he replied, "There seems an unwritten rule that if you're mentioning Illuminatus! before the Kwality Lit Establishment, you give backhanded compliments. Harris's quote from Leary on Illuminatus! also functioned as code for his audience, it seems. I don't think of Illuminatus! as "less artful" than Mumbo Jumbo, either. The standard bearer for artfulness in that paragraph was Crying of Lot 49, which has made it into the Canon, so..."
Ziokowski himself also has written about his new book, and here's what he says about Illuminatus!
In Ishmael Reed’s diatribe against Western civilization, Mumbo Jumbo (1972), a secret society calling itself “The Wallpaper Order” strives to combat a “psychic epidemic” infecting black communities as it moves from New Orleans toward New York. The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975) by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson begins as a detective story when two New York detectives investigate the bombing of a leftist magazine’s office and the disappearance of its editor. They discover that the editors were investigating secret societies and conspiracies: notably the “Illuminati.” As the lengthy work develops, the detective story gives way to a science fiction about a group known as the Discordians, whose base is a golden submarine in the Atlantic Ocean and who have been engaged for centuries in a continuing battle against the Illuminati.
Herr Professor Ziolkowski remarks that Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum is "is a critically acclaimed masterpiece and not simply a cult classic," so I guess he gets in his little dig, too. But the book looks interesting.
The erudite Dr. Johnson adds, "BTW: other academic/intellectuals who have written about fiction and conspiracy that I found worthsomewhiles:
-Timothy Melley's _Empire of Conspiracy_ (His main idea is readers' "agency panic.")
"-Michael Barkun's _Culture of Conspiracy_
-Mark Fenster's _Conspiracy Theories_ (He values RAW's satirical play; the book has been significantly updated since the first ed, which I bought when it came out.)"
Hat tips: Dr. Johnson, Jesse Walker, Ted Hand.