Freelance writer John Wisniewski last contributed to this blog in October, when he interviewed Adam Gorightly.
Mr. Wisniewski now returns with a brand new interview of another one of my favorite writers, John Higgs, author of The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds, the Timothy Leary biography I Have America Surrounded, and (as JMR Higgs) the novels The Brandy of the Damned, and The First Church on the Moon
He also published a short book on the monarchy, Our Pet Queen: A New Perspective on Monarchy, and 2000 TC: Standing on the Verge of Getting It On, a limited edition book about the rock band TC Lethbridge published in conjunction with last year's production of the Cosmic Trigger play and festival in Liverpool. Only 111 copies of 2000 TC were published, although you can get a small taste of it from this blog posting.
Everyone, though, will be allowed to purchase as many copies as they like of Higgs' big new nonfiction book, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, which will be published later this year in both the U.S. and Great Britain. The new book threatens to give Higgs a bigger audience and take away his status as everyone's favorite cult writer, but you can't have everything.
John Wisniewski is a freelance writer who has written for L.A. Review of Books, Paraphilia magazine, Toronto Review of Books, Urban Graffiti magazine and other publications. He lives in West Babylon NY.
JW: When did you interest in Discordianism begin? Were you also interested in magic/chaos magick?
John Higgs: I was first aware of Discordianism through the Illuminatus! Trilogy, which I bought a copy of in Liverpool in about 1991. I didn't actually get very far with it at the time, I gave up pretty quickly and it sat on my shelf for the next 20 years, slowly contaminating my other books with its presence. But I do recall what I got out of that first attempt to read it. The book gave one explanation for the eye in the triangle symbol, and then a number of pages later gave an entirely different explanation. It sounds daft now, but that made a real impact. It was the first time I was aware that a symbol could have different meanings, that there was not just single explanations for things, and that contradictory statements could be equally valid - or invalid. All that seems self-evident these days, and maybe it says something about the times then or the education that I had had, but it was a real eye-opener.
That was enough for me from that first reading, I put the book away and let it sink in.
Then around 2004 I was researching my book about Timothy Leary, which naturally involved getting a better handle on Robert Anton Wilson, so I started reading him properly — Cosmic Trigger, Prometheus Rising, Quantum Psychology etc., and lots of interviews online, as well as the Principia Discordia. All that helped to flesh out my sketchy understanding of Discordianism.
As for Chaos Magic, I was certainly aware of it during the 90s and over the years, and curious, but I wouldn't say that I was drawn to it. It seemed very Thatcherite, in that it just seemed to be about getting what you want and nothing else. There was something a bit inharmonious about that, the idea that the Universe is your bitch and it has to give you what you want. It also looked isolating. It's possible that the chaos magicians I was aware of were unrepresentative, and I was missing something of value. I can see now that it was absolutely of its time, and a necessary step. But I much prefer the approach of Alan Moore and Steve Moore, in which magic is understood as something that takes place in the immaterial mental world, and which is a tool with which you can produce worthwhile things, in particular creative works.
JW: Are there any important figures in Discordianism that you can tell us about?
John Higgs: According to Discordian lore everyone is a Discordian, even if they don't know it yet, and even if they have no sense of humour and hence can never know it. If chaos is the fundamental universal principle, then everything and everyone in that universe are parts of the chaos whether they like it or not. This was all explained in the original draft of the Principia Discordia (which you can now find in Adam Gorightly's Historia Discordia). Because of this, everyone is an important figure in Discordianism, which explains a lot about contemporary politics.
We can have our favourite Discordians, though, and mine are Robert Anton Wilson, Alan Moore, Ken Campbell, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty.
JW: Is there a dark side to Discordianism, John?
John Higgs: Oh yes — there's a dark side to everything, if you find the relevant perspective. Discordianism does not look good if you intend to run for public office.
A lot of Discordian thought centres around what Robert Anton Wilson called Chapel Perilous - that state where all your maps have run out and the models you use to make understand the world are shattered, from which it is only possible to emerge agnostic or paranoid. In the 1970s, when people liked to mix their Discordianism with a lot of LSD, many became deeply paranoid. LSD is a good drug to get you in to Chapel Perilous, but a terrible drug if you want to get out. There were a lot of casualties.
These days, though, I think the good outweighs the bad. Discordianism protects you from anxiety, stress and embarking on damn-fool crusades under the illusion that your perspective is the only one that is valid. Modern Discordianism is only really dangerous if you lose your sense of humour.
JW: Are you interested in the writings of Aleister Crowley or The Necronomicon?
John Higgs: Crowley's hard to avoid, if you have any interest in the immaterial. He also makes an appearance in my next book (Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century), thanks to his understanding of the individualism that ran through the 20th Century.
I'm not entirely sure exactly what I make of him. When I first heard about him as a teenager, he was spoken of in terms of a dark, terrible thing you must never go near. Then after reading Robert Anton Wilson and Tim Leary, I saw him as someone whose work had real value. Then I read biographies and some of his writing, and saw him as a horrible person, a proto-fascist. Then I learnt more about the early 20th Century, and saw him as very much a product of his times. Currently, I'm going through a period where he strikes me as funny, like a cartoon character - a dirty old man desperately trying to find excuses to legitimise his own personal kinks. Perhaps in a couple of decades I will have seen enough sides of him to form a valid opinion.
He was cremated in near where I live, so there's a local connection. It caused a bit of a tabloid frenzy at the time, after reporters mistook his ceremony for a black mass. The local paper got his usual nickname wrong, and referred to him as 'The Worst Man in the World'. I like to think he would have approved.
I've not read a lot of HP Lovecraft, one day I'll look into him more.
JW: Did you speak with Robert Anton Wilson frequently?
John Higgs: Sadly I didn't speak with Robert Anton Wilson frequently, I only met him once, in Dec 2004.
JW: What role did Discordianism play in history, John?
John Higgs: You can make a case for Discordianism being an important factor in the development of a whole range of different cultural areas, such as conspiracy theory, the counterculture, parody religions, the creative commons movement, and so on. I think that does it a bit of a disservice, I prefer to see it as a spice spread throughout our recent history. Discordianism has a bit too much of the Trickster spirit about it to fit neatly into cause and effect explanations.
JW: Are there any authors or films that you like?
John Higgs: Oh, many. In terms of film, I'm a big fan of Ben Wheatley's stuff, particularly A Field In England and Sightseers, so I'm very much looking forward to his adaptation of J.G. Ballard's High Rise. A Field In England restored my faith in cinema, which had been all but destroyed by that film where Superman knocks down buildings for five hours.
The book that I've loved most recently is The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. If anyone is considering reading that book but is put off by the pseudo-Old English dialect it is written in, my advice would be to just dive in regardless. If nothing else, you can use The Wake as a training level for the first chapter of Alan Moore's novel The Voice of the Fire.
JW: Will you be writing a book, John?
John Higgs: I will, I expect to be writing a few. My next, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, will be out later in the year. It's an ambitious fucker, if nothing else. Then there's a book called Watling Street, the proposal and sample chapter of which are currently gathering dust in my agent's in tray somewhere. I'm currently writing a spec TV script called None of the Above, which is a long shot but certainly worth a try.
Then there's a novel called The Last Book which is preoccupying me at the moment. I very much want to write it soon but at the same time, to do it justice, you would have to go into it accepting that it would be the last book you would ever write - for reasons that would make a bit more sense if I was to tell you the plot. Which is a horrific thought, but the fact that it is so scary is a reason to do it. I may see how long I can put off starting that one!