Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. Blog, Internet resources, online reading groups, articles and interviews, Illuminatus! info.

Friday, July 31, 2015

New 'Nice Distinctions' fanzine [UPDATE]

Arthur Hlavaty holding forth at Detcon in 2014 (with Kevin Maroney and Bernadette Bosky.)

UPDATE: The new issue of Nice Distinctions 27 I write about here is now available at -- The Management. 

Veteran fan Arthur Hlavaty continues to publish his ish; he's just put out issue 27 of his "Nice Distinctions" fanzine and continues to mail it out to old school fans, although my copy arrived Thursday via email. This latest publication is listed as "Discordian Regimentation #127." Email version available by request; for contact info more about Arthur, see his blog. 

I read the latest zine from front to back shortly after getting it; many good bits, although I didn't get the bit about Stalin. Arthur reveals that he is gradually becoming more of a cyborg, and remarks that he isn't reading much science fiction this days: "As Lee Gold said, a fan is someone who used to read science fiction and likes hanging out with others who used to read science fiction." Arthur has hit on a real phenomena, although my own passion for science fiction remains unabated. (I'm currently reading the new Kim Stanley Robinson novel, Aurora. I recently finished Neal Stephenson's Seveneves and a re-read of Gene Wolfe's The Sword of the Lictor.)  I'm 58, and I expect to lose interest in SF at about the same time I lose all interest in women, Chinese food and classical music.

I liked Arthur's pithy summary of recent U.S. foreign policy: "The United States meddled in Indochina. After great loss of life and resources, we admitted defeat. In our wake came the Khmer Rouge, attempting to wipe out everyone with the privilege of literacy. The United States meddled in Iraq. Same kind of losses, and ISIS."

An almost-complete archive of Nice Distinctions is available online, although the new issue isn't up yet. Real Soon Now, I plan to go back and read all of the back issues I've missed.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

RAW estate to launch Hilaritas Press

Robert Anton Wilson's estate is dumping New Falcon as the publisher of most of RAW's books, and instead is launching its own publishing imprint, Hilaritas Press.

Here is the official word from Richard Rasa, projects coordinator for the Robert Anton Wilson estate. (I wrote to Mr. Rasa earlier this week, after I noticed that all of RAW's books have vanished  from the New Falcon website).

In terms of RAW Trust matters, this is good news. We didn’t want to announce anything before we were more prepared, but I think an explanation is due. Bob and now Christina have fought with New Falcon over many issues over the years. Bob often spoke about how he would have loved to have had another publishing opportunity. He especially wanted the profits from his writing to help his children, and I heard him complain more than once about how New Falcon offered no such possibility. This became even more true with the changes in New Falcon since Alan Miller “left” the publishing house to his son Michael. Google "Michael Miller arrest”, if you haven’t already.

We’ve been preparing for months and are close to being ready to launch The RAW Trust’s new publishing house, Hilaritas Press. We will be republishing all of New Falcon's RAW books. We’re meticulously editing the books for typos and other mistakes, and then reformatting for eBook and Print publications. It’s a huge job, and so we are planning on releasing the books as each is done. At the moment we are nearing completion of Cosmic Trigger I, Prometheus Rising, and Quantum Psychology. We’re still working on a few new prefaces, and new covers. Still no clear launch date, as we keep tweaking, but we’ll let you know.

Check out the temporary landing page for Hilaritas Press:

Only a few people know about this change, and we’ve been keeping it quiet while issues were being settled, but most of the legal issues have been resolved, and so there’s no reason that rumors can’t start. 

Amor illuminatio hilaritas et pasta volans!


A couple of notes: I wrote about Michael Miller's arrest last November; I could not find an update when I ran a couple of quick searches. New Falcon has been RAW's publisher for just about everything except Illuminatus! and Schroedinger's Cat. There was a schism that I don't know much about after Christopher Hyatt died, resulting in a split and two book publishing companies, New Falcon and Original Falcon.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

John Higgs announces book launch party

Publication is looming for British author and RAW fan John Higgs' big new history of the 20th Century, Stranger Than We Can Imagine. A book launch party has been scheduled for 7 p.m. August 28 at the Heavenly Social in London.

John's 2015 tour dates may be accessed here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Philip Glass memoir

Philip Glass in 1993

I like some of modern composer Philip Glass' music very much (particularly certain piano pieces, such as the "Six Etudes"), but some of his other music I am indifferent about. But I very much enjoyed his new memoir Words Without Music, which I thought was very interesting.

I mention the book here because I was struck by how many common interests Glass has with Robert Anton Wilson. Here are the ones I can remember (1) They both liked the poetry of Allen Ginsberg very much (Glass was a good friend of Ginsberg); (2) They were both into Alfred Korzybski; (3) Both read Herman Hesse pretty closely; (4) Both were interested in Buddhism; (5) Both were into classical music; (6) Both had a strong interest in 1950s bebop jazz; (7) Both liked the writing of William Burroughs — in fact, both were on the program of the Nova Convention held in Burroughs' honor in 1979. 

Perhaps all that this really means is that people who shared 1950s beatnik culture had many commonalities,.but I thought I'd remark on it.  Does anyone know if RAW listened to Glass' music? 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

But Siriusly, folks

Michael Johnson has posted a two-part series on Sirius, including alleged first contacts with creatures from Sirius (and with other extraterrestrials) and the influence of Sirius in the arts. Very interesting, so I suggest reading part one and then part two.

In the comments, Eric Wagner remarks, "I have contemplated inundating myself with Sirius inspired music and observing the results: Julius Hemphill's "Dogon A.D.", the Art Ensemble's "Sirius Calling", Stockhausen's "Sirius", etc." I am not as stout as Eric, but I would like to hear Stockhausen's "Sirius" opera, although tracking down a copy of the complete recording apparently will not be easy or inexpensive. In the meantime, you can listen to sound samples and order it from Stockhausen's website if you have about $51. At present, my only option may be YouTube. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The last days of Malaclypse the Younger

Gregory Hill in the mid 1980s. 

I hope you keep an eye on the "Sangha" section over on the right side of the page, as my friends have been posting many interesting pieces and I have been too busy doing my own thing over here to keep up.

Given your recent focus on Illuminatus!, I did want to call attention to Adam Gorightly's interesting post on the final days of Malaclypse the Younger, e.g. the important Discordian figure Gregory Hill. Note that you can download a PDF of Hill's outline of the history of everything.

I also particularly liked the latest Eris of the Month.

Friday, July 24, 2015

News from Daisy Eris Campbell

Daisy with some of her Cosmic Trigger crew 

It's been a quiet last few months from Daisy Eris Campbell, who produced the successful Cosmic Trigger play in Liverpool and London, but she sent out a new email message on Robert Anton Wilson Day, and it has news about her upcoming activities. Here are the relevant sentences:

So, Cosmic Trigger will rise again in the UK - the exact details of when and how are of course in Our Lady Eris's chaotic hands...

All we can is say is that The Cosmic Trigger Happenings are likely to be early 2017 — the ten year anniversary of Bob's death — and we intend that this Fertile Triggering will jujzsh the right juices our way,  enabling us to get the whole Discordian Circus to the States to Find the Others over there... 

And if that's too long to wait for more Cosmic fun - well, then come and find me talking if you're at Port Eliot festival or at No 6 Festival where Super Weird Substance are staging an all day happening...  

Or come to Treadwell's esoteric bookshop for a talk by Ian 'Cat' Vincent (who you may remember married us lovely if you were in Liverpool) about Robert Anton Wilson's Magickal system. 

And there's another Frabjous Caper we're scheming up for 2016 - but the Apple Corp will kill me if I declare it just yet... 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Happy Robert Anton Wilson Day!

Robert Anton Wilson

Today is Robert Anton Wilson Day, a holiday which, as you can read here, was originally proclaimed as a local event in Santa Cruz, Calif., but which has evolved into the gala international holiday that we recognize today. (July 23, 1973, is the date that RAW thought he might have been contacted by aliens from Sirius, as detailed in the experiments discussed in Cosmic Trigger 1.)

How will you spend the holiday? I am at work, but will listen to Beethoven later today.

Here again is a favorite quote:

"The Western World has been brainwashed by Aristotle for the last 2,500 years. The unconscious, not quite articulate, belief of most Occidentals is that there is one map which adequately represents reality. By sheer good luck, every Occidental thinks he or she has the map that fits. Guerrilla ontology, to me, involves shaking up that certainty. I use what in modern physics is called the 'multi-model' approach, which is the idea that there is more than one model to cover a given set of facts. As I've said, novel writing involves learning to think like other people. My novels are written so as to force the reader to see things through different reality grids rather than through a single grid. It's important to abolish the unconscious dogmatism that makes people think their way of looking at reality is the only sane way of viewing the world. My goal is to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone, but agnosticism about everything. If one can only see things according to one's own belief system, one is destined to become virtually deaf, dumb, and blind. It's only possible to see people when one is able to see the world as others see it. That's what guerrilla ontology is — breaking down this one-model view and giving people a multi-model perspective."

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Brian Doherty on Illuminatus! and RAW

Brian M. Doherty

[Brian M. Doherty is the author of four books: This Is Burning Man: The Rise of a New American Underground, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (which includes quite a bit of information about the development of Robert Anton Wilson's political ideas), Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle Over the Second Amendment  and Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired. I can personally recommend Radicals for Capitalism, which is lively and interesting and must have required an enormous amount of research. In his youth, Doherty founded Cherry Smash Records and played bass for punk rock bands, including The Jeffersons and Turbo Satan. He is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

Like his Reason colleague, Jesse Walker, Doherty, 47, has read a lot of Robert Anton Wilson in his time. When Wilson died in January 2007, Doherty pitched an appreciation piece on RAW to the New York Times Book Review, attempting to explain Wilson to a general audience. For whatever reason, the piece did not make it into print, and Doherty has now given me permission to share his never-published piece with you. --The Management].

Robert Anton Wilson: A Conspiracy of Silence? 

By Brian Doherty

Novelist Robert Anton Wilson died on January 11. Death’s bite was particularly bitter for his admirers. He intended to live forever — not as a literary memory, but as a live human. Wilson, author most famously of Illuminatus! (written with Robert Shea) insisted we were on the cusp of unprecedented leaps in control of the mechanics of life and intelligence, and an escape to a physically limitless future via space travel. His dedication to optimistic futurism was strong; when his young daughter was murdered in the 1970s, he had her brain frozen.

That act is a synecdoche for Wilson’s literary career—audacious, madly eccentric, curious and hopeful that the future will be better in unexpected ways, and cheerfully refusing to comport to “consensus reality.”

Illuminatus! was recognizably the work of a writer who adored James Joyce, Raymond Chandler, and Orson Welles. It’s replete with multiple viewpoints, narrative trickery both obvious and subtle for effects both playful and profound, avant-garde techniques used in a vulgarly pop context with an adventure plot, starring knight-like heroes seeking honor and truth in a complicated world where little was what it seemed — with lots of raunchy sex and long dialogues and lectures on political philosophy and epistemology held on an anarchist submarine exploring ancient Atlantis.

It took the paranoid panic of the multitude of conspiracy theories that he and Shea learned of via eccentric letters from Playboy readers during his late 1960s stint as an editor there and, imagining them all as simultaneously true, crafted from it absurdist pop opera in which outré facts and analysis forged the strange melody.

Illuminatus!, still in print from Dell 32 years after first publication, has sold over a quarter million copies. But Wilson’s career amounted to neither household name nor lasting respect. He is known, where he’s known at all, as a cult author—perhaps with a colorful virtue or two, trailing a coterie of (somewhat overenthusiastic) devotees, but not of serious literary worth. Wilson would note, with wounded pride, that “I have never had the fashionable pessimism and…despair necessary to get myself included among Serious Novelists in the judgment of New York critics.”

Well, other factors were at play; and critics notwithstanding, Wilson’s ideological and thematic fingerprints, his baroque world of conspiracies from ancient history clouding the present, of imaginative comic-book action marshaled for complicated scientific and philosophical exploration, have left their mark, whether acknowledged or merely obvious to his devotees, in everything from TV’s X-Files to Lost, from Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum to John Crowley’s Aegypt novel sequence.

The mighty presence who Wilson’s fictions most closely resemble is Thomas Pynchon, whose Gravity’s Rainbow came out after Illuminatus! was written, but before it was published. Their works have similarly sprawling, comic-bizarre takes on Big Crazy Ideas and the technological and bureaucratic forces that forged modernity and postmodernity. Wilson — the worse for his reputation — deals with it all more lightly, more humanely, in a prose style breezier and easier to take, clear and functional, with whimsies that serve his plot and theme more directly than Pynchon’s sometimes rambling fantasias.

Longtime Wilson followers also know that The Da Vinci Code was not the first novel to incorporate the Holy Blood, Holy Grail thesis about Jesus’s offspring and the Priory of Sion. It was central to Wilson’s three-volume “Historical Illuminatus” series (published from 1982-91). These were dramatizations of the major changes that European culture underwent in the late 18th century, covering politics, religion, music, and science, starring the ancestors of the characters in Illuminatus!.

That’s also a description of Neal Stephenson’s bestselling Baroque Cycle in relation to his Cryptonomicon. Stephenson, in an interview in Salon, hit at one of Wilson’s reputational problems when he complained that “In arty lit, it's become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se.”

For a quick perspective shift on the same phenomenon (which is the heart of Wilson’s writings): critic James Wood has said, of the modern lit-fiction whose work Wilson’s most closely resembles, that it is too obsessed with ideas and not enough with human beings, manically showing the writers “know a thousand different things.” Wood calls it “hysterical realism” and Wilson is a pioneer of it.

But Wilson is a master of a particular human drama: The drama of ideas in the human mind, which ought not be exiled from fiction’s kingdom. How new ideas shape and change human character is something Wilson not only showed, but caused.

In reading Wilson, the receptive reader can live though what the character is often living through—having one’s vision of politics, science, history, the very “meaning of life” evolve radically. Doing this clumsily can make you Richard Bach or a similarly thin didact. And the more Wilson you read, the more you hear the author telling you what’s what in his characters’ voices.

An authoritative answer as to his literary greatness—as the sometimes annoyingly scientific-agnostic Wilson would say, we lack an unfailingly accurate “greatnessometer”—is impossible. But in observable existential spacetime, as he’d describe it, we find over 1,000 comments on the personal blog post announcing his death, almost all noting he was an irreplaceable inspiration and guide in intellectual evolution.

This is not generally considered a respectable function for the novelist. Wilson’s work was not only an aesthetic experience, but a guide to new information, new models for interpreting the world. Among the thinkers and ideas for whom Wilson was a frequent first guide were Korzybski’s general semantics; Claude Shannon’s theories of information; Wilhelm Reich and his orgone; Timothy Leary’s models and theories of drugs as potentially profound tools of brain change; and the epistemological and ontological implications of quantum physics (which he built an entire trilogy around, Schrödinger’s Cat).

Wilson was an avatar for ideas that he saw as fecund ways to reimagine human existence, and that most literary intellectuals see as outmoded hippie-dippie nonsense. The newer generation of successful literary fiction writers would not, one expects, disagree with each other in important ways on politics and social attitudes or seek to remake anyone’s “reality tunnel” with drugs or weird science — good modern liberals for the most part, ready to vote Democratic. Wilson says that one of his goals with Illuminatus! was “to do to the State what Voltaire did to the Church — to reduce it to an object of contempt among all educated people.”

His limited literary respect is, then, ultimately no mystery. But his enduring value is in how he exemplified the thematic richness and sheer entertainment value of a literature of ideas not dismissive of, but not tied down to, character, plot, or Henry James’s “present palpable intimate.”

Wilson frequently defined information, after Shannon, as “surprise.” That’s what his work did for his readers: informed and surprised them. He showed the human mind can dial in more option-filled realities than everyday socio-political life and commonplace ideas knew of.

Those who loved him, loved him because his fiction enlarged their mental world, made it more entertaining and hopeful. In the Internet age, with an entire generation not necessarily reading standard literary fiction but dialing in their own realities — across a cyberspace more varied and ridiculous, as well as more tedious and banal, than its science fiction inventors imagined —Wilson’s importance can only grow.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Disinformation notices us

A Bobby Campbell depiction of Hagbard Celine. (CC BY 2.0)

Our efforts on the Illuminatus! trilogy get a nice notice at Disinformation. 

The posting was, in fact, by Bobby Campbell. Thanks, Bobby! I'll have yet another piece tomorrow that talks about Robert Anton Wilson and Illuminatus! Like the Charles Faris piece Monday, it was a welcome surprise.

Bobby reports he has some original art for sale at his online store.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Charles Faris on Illuminatus!

[Charles Faris, a health counselor, yoga teacher and writer in the Boston area, sent me this "Illuminatus! Week" contribution over the weekend. Charles has sent me a number of emails and often has participated in the comments. -- The Management.]

Charles Faris

Joining in close to the mid-point of the discussion in October of 2014. I found myself in a bit of a pickle—how to catch up and get on the same page (literally and figuratively) as the rest of the group. Ultimately I decided to do the weekly readings and also begin reading from the beginning, taking in the weekly group-speak as I went along. As if that sort of immersion was not enough, and since the cover art for my first week in the group was the Astounding Stories issue featuring Lovecraft’s "At the Mountains of Madness," I figured I may as well throw some H.P. into the mix as well.

The results were quite satisfying. Synchronicities piled up like dead bodies at an Antarctic base camp. Everything I was reading pointed to everything else I was reading and every building I passed seemed to hold within it some unutterable horror, or at least a heavy dose of mystery. The Atlantis material and the ritual scenes in particular seemed ripe and poignant, as my reading of scenes in Book 1 would dovetail with the current group readings—the same general story told from 2 or 3 perspectives at the same time, I found myself reading "The Shadow over Innsmouth" at the same time that I was reading George Dorn’s Mad Dog Texas horror show, the Markoff Chaney sections popped up just as I was digging into The Sex Magicians, etc.

By the time I caught up to page 348, where I had begun in synchrony with the group, I was having too much fun to stop, so I ended up re-reading most of Book 2 while catching up to the real-time reading of the group. Everything came together at the start of Book 3, which was a bit of a let down—reading Illuminatus! as a double reflected hall of mirrors cut-up was much more enlightening than reading it as published! Then again, perhaps it was just that the pace of the group was necessarily slower than I needed to stay deeply engaged, although I suspect it was at least a mix of the two.

The most surprising thing about this reading is that between the crazy method I was using and the wonderful insights of the group I was able to pull more out of Illuminatus! this time around that in all of my previous readings put together, and I was particularly astounded to notice the extent to which RAW’s first big burst (for me this is Illuminatus! through Prometheus Rising), which I had read at the time as an evolving thought-line, seemed to be fully formed by the time he was finished with Illuminatus!, perhaps allowing for a bit more heart development though the completion of Cosmic Trigger.

Perhaps my 3 biggest takeaways from this reading experience are that there is great power group reading, that there are many ways to read a book (or books!) in order to really GET what the author(s) has imbedded in the pages, and that with Illuminatus! the two Bobs have created a 20th century I Ching, ready to be dipped into at any moment for insight, revelation, and a good belly laugh!

Thanks Tom, for setting this up, and thanks to everyone who participated, visibly or not, for fleshing it out. Fnord.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

John Higgs, Ian 'Cat' Vincent set speaking dates

John Higgs

A couple of mark your calendar events for my British readers:

"Magical Thinking from Timothy Leary to the KLF," John Higgs, 8  p.m. Saturday August 15, Whitstable Labour Club, 12 Belmont Rd, Whitstable, United Kingdom. More here. 

Ian "Cat" Vincent is booked for 7:30 p.m. Thursday August 27 for Treadwell's Bookshop, 33 Store Street, Bloomsbury London, WC1E 7BS United Kingdom, price 7 pounds, more here.  I don't have a title for the talk, but the Treadwell's blurb says, "Ian ‘Cat’ Vincent has been working with elements of Wilson’s magical toolkit for over 30 years, and brings to Treadwells a detailed look at Wilson’s life, his perspectives and their utility for the modern magus."

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Christian Greer on Illuminatus!

Bobby Campbell illustration for Illuminatus! Week

[J. Christian Greer is a Ph.D. candidate at the Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents (HHP) at the University of Amsterdam. A collection of his papers and talks show that he has discussed Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, Carole M. Cusack's book on invented religions and Hakim Bey, among other topics. Recently he was awarded a Short-Term Research Fellowship at the New York Public Library, which resulted in his "Timothy Leary as Illuminatus!" article posted in September 2014. As you can see from his piece below, his academic career should produce plenty of interesting scholarship for years to come. -- The Management.]

J. Christian Greer

Reading the Illuminatus! trilogy feels like being dropped into an echo chamber that features multiple voices, which on more than one occasion speak at the same time. The most miraculous thing is that the voices harmonize so readily. Describing the trilogy as an "anarcho-occultist romp" or a "labyrinthine tale of Tantrick Reicheanism" (as I have done in classroom settings) only serves to obscure the full complexity of the layered investment of the authors. On one level, I like to try to read the book as the product of a distinct context, to wit, late-1960/ early-1970s radicalism in Chicago. Under this label, a network of intersecting intellectual currents can be traced. The most salient include anarchist anti-authoritarianism, ceremonial initiation, magick, psychedelic consciousness, Reicheanism, General Semantics, the Tarot, and conspiracy. A heady mix indeed!

I have attempted to paint a more accurate picture of the way in which the aforementioned intellectual currents intersect, but always find myself falling down rabbit holes that lead to halls of mirrors that extend ad infinitum. That said, I believe I have identified some of the main thematic pathways that run through the text. I would venture to say that they include: (1) an investment in esotericism that is mobilized to critique the materialist bias within anarchism/libertarianism; (2) conspiracy theory that is employed as a means to destabilize institutional history. In their effort to change the reader on a spiritual level (or, at least on the level of their spiritual identity), they subvert one of the most significant bases upon which identity is created: the past. By challenging the hegemonic influence of official history, Shea and Wilson attempted to renegotiate the construction of American identity. The last (primary) pathway to run through the trilogy is an extension of the first and second. It concerns the revolution that was unfolding all around them; in fact, one cannot hope to understand the trilogy if one is not steeped in the spectrum of late-1960s revolutionary thought. This “pathway” concerns the way in which (3) the militant’s phantasy of violent revolution, which fascinated so many within the protest groups of the 1960s, is rendered obsolete when confronted with the nondual nature of reality (see point 1) and the fact that only spiritual paradigm shifts (see point 2) can facilitate a true revolution. I take the narrative episodes focusing on Atlantis and the founding fathers as illustrations of successful revolutions, and point (3) in particular. Shea and Wilson seem to argue that you cannot expect change to occur if the revolutionaries are still mired in the same 'Yang'/militaristic mentality of those they oppressed. It is only with a Ying revolution (that is, radical consciousness change) that actual utopian change will occur.

On a deeper level, though, the book seems to be a dedicated attempt to make a serious (but not sober) contribution to the “secret teachings of the ages” viz. esotericism. It offers an expansive account of the way in which Discordianism offered a means by which readers could access higher knowledge (through sex magick initiation combined with psychedelics) and “occult” power (such as telepathy, gnostic communication, and transcendental orgasms) which, when used by enough people, would create the possibility for experimental utopian communities. The Leif Erikson serves as the model for this plan. Needless to say, the application of this knowledge (which, would be little more than the conversion to Discordianism) by thousands of people would be enough to bring down all world governments.

In a different dimension, the Illuminatus! trilogy was published upon its completion in 1971. Featuring all of its original, unexpunged chapters fully intact, the book gained wide distribution across the US and then the world. The trilogy revitalized the rainbow coalition of revolutionary groups dedicated to contesting the status quo at the time. However, under its influence, they shifted their focus from challenging the government and its lackeys, to overthrowing consensus reality in toto. Unable to withstand the full brunt of Operation Mindfuck (which has reached such epic proportions that Acapulco gold, Alamut Black, and acid were used as means of putting all the weirdness into perspective), the U.S. government fell and a de-centralized network of 'bolos' blossomed within the fertile soil of its decaying corpse. Within fifteen years, an exponential growth in intelligence makes space migration and life extension realities...

On a personal note, I have greatly enjoyed the reading group for the very plain reason that it provided me with the opportunity to interact with a small community of experts on the text. Clearly, the trilogy is a monument of erudition, and through  the contribution of all the commentators, and the dedication of Tom, I feel as though we have laid a solid foundation for the future study of the text.  While the preceding comments are all in my dissertation (hopefully available next summer!), I am fairly certain that they will not be as appreciated, or even understood, as they are in this forum. It has been an honor and a pleasure to read alongside you all, and, as always, it is my hope that these comments will serve not as a “final word” on the text, but as a means of deepening our discussion of this wonderful trilogy.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Arthur D. Hlavaty on Illuminatus!

Arthur D. Hlavaty, right, with Kevin J. Maroney and Bernadette Bosky, who are prominent fans in their own right. 

[Arthur D. Hlavaty has long been a prominent science fiction fan (he has appeared on the Hugo ballot as a finalist for "best fan writer" 12 times) and he also is well known  as a scholar of Robert A. Heinlein (see for example his discussion of two books about Heinlein.)  (Arthur remains active as a fanzine fan (although you can get zines such as "Nice Distinctions" via email now) but he also has adapted to the new era with his popular LiveJournal Supergee blog. He has been married for more than 25 years of Bernadette Bosky and Kevin J. Maroney, and the trio have lived since 1992 in Yonkers, New York. (The three were fan guest of honor at Detcon1, the 2014 NASFiC in Detroit.) Notwithstanding all of that, he has long been prominent in "Robert Anton Wilson fandom;" he founded the Golden APA (see my interview with him about that) and was friends with both RAW and Robert Shea. You can read an archive of some of his writings, and see also his "Nice Distinctions" archive.  He enjoys listening to popular music, so long as it was recorded before 1975 or so. -- The Management.]

I eagerly awaited Illuminatus! I'd been reading The Realist since the early 60s, and RAW fitted in with Paul Krassner, Lenny Bruce, and that lot. (He also resembled A. Nonymous Hack, author of a delightful reminiscence of writing for the tabloids and skin mags.) I sought out his work, even locating The Sex Magicians, and I enjoyed his Playboy Press books, learning from one of them, The Book of the Breast, that he was A. Nonymous Hack, another sign that I had entered into a world where things were not as they seemed. I did not agree with him about everything, but he gave me much that was good to think with.

I'd already had one major mind-expanding reading experience. In 1966 I had read Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and was reprogrammed in ways that were not apparent for months or even years (and some immediate): Hinduism, polyamory, distrust of church & state, and a number of lesser metaphors, jokes, and learnings. (Witchcraft Is Not Satanism was news in 1966.) I didn't accept it all. I immediately questioned the strong sexual dimorphism, and by early rereadings I was annoyed by the condescension to marijuana and homosexuality. Still it was, and remains, a major part of my mind.

I was ready for another such experience, and I was already a RAW fan. I was primed for a book about sex, drugs, rock & roll, metaphysics, gnosis, liberty, skepticism, conspiracy theories, and wiseass, and the notorious Bavarian Illuminati seemed an excellent vehicle for it. The book had been promised in The Realist, and in September 1975, when I saw a copy at the Science Fiction Shop, I grabbed it, learning that there were to be two more volumes.

I grabbed each as soon as possible. Like life itself it was a ride, with ups and downs. At one point between the second and third volumes, I decided that the conclusion would demonstrate that I was wrong about everything and drank myself insensible. The next morning I decided to persevere, and sure enough, when I read Leviathan on November 1, it did not demonstrate anything of the sort. I loved it, and questioned it, and welcomed it to work on my mind.

I tried the four-gods exercise immediately after reading the last volume, and at least once more, and it did not work for me. Years later RAW would tell me (in Natural Law, or Don’t Put a Rubber on Your Willy) that my feeling that the material world is a simultaneously boring and terrifying place was a statement about me, rather than about it, and I realized he was right. If I had the self-discipline to reprogram myself to feel differently, I might do so, but I lack the self-discipline to achieve that admirable state.

Robert Anson Heinlein and Robert Anton Wilson had a lot in common, so much so that I would fail to notice relevant differences. They had both studied General Semantics, which taught them that natural languages are severely deficient tools for dealing with the material world. Heinlein dreamed of a "Martian" language that would solve the problem, and that was a science-fictional vision that inspired me. Wilson concluded that such a language was impossible, but that was OK with him because he didn't want to pick up the material world from a safe distance. I fear that he was right.

Before I read Illuminatus!, I believed in what Thomas Nagel called the View from Nowhere, the objective view of how the world really is, and even the moral View from Nowhere, where one can see the General Good. Each reading somewhat deprogrammed me from that, and I emerge from this latest reading reminded that, like all of us, I create my own reality (out of materials and with limitations that I did not create and do not control). I will backslide as always, but, as always, I will backslide less each time.

Bobby Campbell's new illustration for Illuminatus! Week!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Oz Fritz on Illuminatus!

Oz Fritz in the recording studio.

[Recording engineer Oz Fritz, one of the most prolific commenters in the Illuminatus! online reading group, always has lots of interesting things to say about magick and music, among other topics. Read his blog. He did a special guest posting for me when I asked for one. Oz's credits as a recording engineer include Tom Waits, the Ramones, Blur, White Zombie, Primus, The Golden Palominos, Elvis Costello (in a Wanda Jackson session) and many others. He released an album, too. -- The Management.]

Illuminatus! - a pillar and touchstone of contemporary literature, one of the most important books of the XXth Century for promoting liberty in all possible ways, in particular, the liberty to create your own reality.  This includes the liberty to voluntarily be a slave to something higher or lower like a job of some kind.  On one level, Illuminatus! appears a product of advanced occult technology, a spiritual heir of such works as Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson, Magick, and Finnegans Wake in the sense of presenting fragmentary, coded, lines of freedom which could eventually lead to more fully realized potentials and greater abilities for some people.  Nietszche's Superman gets blatantly alluded to in Illuminatus!  Fragmentary and coded for each individual to begin putting the puzzle together however they see fit, also to unveil more information over time as the reader's understanding progresses.  It also seems that Illuminatus! promotes a certain kind of feminism in the same way that Joyce did with Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake, a joyful, reverential, portrayal of female mysteries and intelligence with a subtle (sometimes not so subtle) call for greater understanding in that area.  The last lines of  Finnegans Wake apply equally to Illuminatus!:”The keys to. Given!  A way a lone a last a loved a long the”

I once heard RAW say on a tape that one reason he enjoyed Crowley and Joyce so much had to do with the endless puzzles to solve in their works.  Reading them repeatedly was like peeling back an onion skin to reveal ever deeper layers of jokes, riddles and allusions.  This is why I enjoy Illuminatus! Immensely.  It gets deeper and deeper every time you read it.  It's proven extremely useful to read in a group to get the different perspectives.  Thank-you Tom for setting this up and keeping it going!

Someone once said that certain books are like monasteries, repositories of all sorts of arcane knowledge.  Illuminatus! matches that description; you can just as accurately call it a modern grimoire.  It's also interesting, and an indication of the potency of the work how much synchronicities increase when reading Illuminatus!; also with Schrodinger's Cat.  It seems like a sort of variable attunement occurs between different fragments of Illuminatus! and the external world.  The conclusion of this collective reading of Illuminatus! coincides with a liberal landmark decision by the Supreme Court for  gay marriage rights.  In my opinion, Illuminatus! brings what Burroughs called the Magical Universe to   life.  Shea and Wilson succeed in their mission to immanentize the Eschaton by providing an immanent plane of information and references for each person to create their own heaven on Earth, which is what Eschaton means according to Wikipedia.  Eschaton also means "trying to make that which belongs to the afterlife happen here and now (on Earth)" thus identifying Illuminatus! as another map of the bardo, a book of the dead.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

'Illuminatus' and neo-Baroque aesthetics, by Vittorio Frigerio

The Illuminatus! Trilogy and Bacchelli’s Il Sommergibile: Literary Synchronicity and the Case of the Disappearing Anarchist


(Originally published in Paradoxa:, Vol. 4, No. 8, 1998)

[I think I have something interesting here: An article about Hagbard Celine and the Illuminatus! trilogy from Paradoxa, an academic journal that publishes articles on genre literature. (The latest issue is about current science fiction.) 

The article is written by Vittorio Frigerio, a professor in the Department of French at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. Dr. Frigerio is an expert in 19th century French literature (particularly Alexandre Dumas père). He has written several books on French authors, in French. He also has written short stories and fiction. Full biography is here.

The article is reproduced here with the permission of Dr. Frigerio and David R. Willingham, the journal's editor and publisher. Thanks, much, to Andrew Crawshaw for obtaining the PDF and calling it to my attention. 

I've done my best to preserve the footnotes in the original article: I have boldfaced the number for each footnote, like this (1) ; page down to find the footnote. This is very interesting essay; please take time to read it. I spent hours trying to get the formatting right. Please tolerate any remaining mistakes.  — The Management.]

Vittorio Frigerio

In the midst of the extremely complex plot of the science-fiction cult classic the Illuminatus! trilogy, one character stands out as the “fil rouge” that connects and gives meaning to the actions of the numerous secondary figures around which the intrigue revolves. In spite of his postmodern attitudes, Hagbard Celine – a wryly humorous Anthony Quinn look-alike – displays some typical characteristics of the adventure hero of mid-19th century popular romanticism. His mephistophelian manner and, more importantly, his lack of an identifiable national origin allow him to present himself as a free agent, unfettered by any attachment to a specific country, and therefore not subject to any of the rules of law that restrict the freedom of common mortals. From Dumas’ Count of Monte-Cristo onward, cosmopolitanism is the inevitable defining mark of the rebel-hero who puts himself on the same level as the oppressive state structure, and insists on playing the game of life strictly by rules of his own creation. The half Norwegian, half Sicilian origin of Celine clearly represents, in this particular intertextual context, a symbolic declaration of independence, a union of opposites whose product defies description. However, Hagbard Celine displays a fundamental peculiarity that sets him apart quite radically from the earlier classical example of Schiller’s Raüber or, perhaps more appropriately, of Robin Hood. He has wealth: an immense, uncounted and uncountable wealth that allows him to travel throughout the world as he pleases, aboard a huge, technologically hyper-advanced, yellow (or rather, golden) submarine.

These unlimited financial resources would not of themselves suffice to provide the character of Celine with the modicum of originality needed in order to set him sufficiently apart from other fictional Nabobs with an axe to grind and money to burn, such as, once again, the former sailor Edmond Dantès or the more immediately evident reference, Captain Nemo and his Nautilus. What distinguishes Celine from his earlier counterparts is that the self-proclaimed leader of the “Legion of Dynamic Discord” has not only huge financial resources, but, more importantly, a theory to justify their use and his possession of them.

In his long discourses to George Dorn – the hapless, left-leaning, pot-smoking writer for the alternative magazine Confrontation, who becomes, quite unwillingly at first, a draftee in Celine’s “Legion” – Celine defines himself and his organization as anarchist, or at least anarchist-inspired. Words, however – as it becomes readily apparent when trying to make sense of the paradoxical declarations of this original character – do not necessarily have the same meaning in his world as they do in everyday life. Another character attracted in Celine’s sphere of action, Joe Malik, tries to locate the L.D.D.’s ideology in the traditional spectrum of anarchist thought, and in so doing provides the reader with an ironic, but essentially correct, tripartite division:

“Gradually, he began to identify the conflicting positions expressed: the individualist-anarchists, who sounded like right-wing Republicans (except that they wanted to get rid of all functions of government); the anarcho-syndicalists and Wobblies, who sounded like Marxists (except that they wanted to get rid of all functions of government); the anarcho-pacifists, who sounded like Gandhi and Martin Luther King (except that they wanted to get rid of all functions of government)[...].” (Shea and Wilson, 111)

Unwilling to be pigeonholed into any precise categories, Celine offers a statement that – while apparently equating his beliefs with a pure, undefinable revolt against everything, including existence itself – actually places him in the direct line of an historical “anarchist” school of thought, which originated from the German philosopher Max Stirner:

“We’re anarchists and outlaws, goddam it. Didn’t you understand that much? We’ve got nothing to do with right-wing, left-wing or any other half-assed political category. If you work within the system, you come to one of the either/or choices that were implicit in the system from the beginning. You’re talking like a medieval serf, asking the first agnostic whether he worships God or the Devil. We’re outside the system’s categories. You’ll never get the hang of our game if you keep thinking in flat-earth imagery of right and left, good and evil, up and down. If you need a group label for us, we’re political non-Euclideans. But even that’s not true. Sink me, nobody on this tub agrees with anybody else about anything, except maybe what the fellow with the horns told the old man in the clouds: Non serviam.” (Shea and Wilson, 86)

This declaration of extraneousness from any accepted ideological distinction, complete with the suggestion of a non-authoritarian form of association where free individuals join forces in spite of – or rather, because of – their differences, together with the apparently improbable cocktail of radical revolt and refined luxury that seem to be the hallmark of the adherents to his organization, mark Celine as an uncommonly coherent follower of Stirnerian principles.

This assumption is confirmed later in the novel, when Celine signs one of his messages with the quintessentially Stirnerian pseudonym, “der Einzige” (1)(Shea and Wilson, 495).

Thus, the man who presents himself as the only possible saviour of the world from the dark and unholy conspiracies of the “Illuminati” provides a relatively rigid frame of reference that may help in defining his position, his ideology and his goals. This seems to allow his fictional allies – and the reader with them – to make some sense of a character that had been until that moment a remarkable but unsettling jumble of contradictory statements and unpredictable, incomprehensible actions. A more thorough analysis of the relationship between the anarchist individualist world-view and Celine’s own reinterpretation of it will prove useful to define the role of this character.

An ostensible key to Celine: Max Stirner and individualist anarchism

Individualist anarchism is generally considered to be the creation of German philosopher Max Stirner (1806-1856), whose theories are expounded in his major work, Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum (The Ego and Its Own, 1844). The definition “individualist anarchism”, however, is not of Stirner’s own choosing, but was rather imposed upon his work towards the end of the century, when it was rediscovered by the anarchists and posthumously adopted as a precursor. (2) 

Described more appropriately as a “raw anarchism that does not refer to any ideology, supporting absolute freedom and the rejection of any power of any nature” (Richard, 9), Stirner’s individualist anarchism differs from the collectivistic anarchism of Proudhon, Bakunin or Kropotkin essentially in that it negates the altruistic, social human nature that these philosophers assume as the foundation of their systems, and states that the individual’s ego – its needs and desires – is the only veritable force motivating human action. Egoism – the realization that everything we do and think is filtered through our own individuality, that there is no such thing as an objective reality – becomes the ideal state to be reached by anyone who wants to achieve true freedom. Very close to a form of practical solipsism, Stirnerian philosophy postulates that nothing truly exists outside of one’s own self, or at least that everything that exists is a projection of the self. Outside of any ethical dimension, this school of thought sees personal pleasure as the only possible goal of life, and exhorts the individual to withdraw from the social contract, arguing that all oppressive structures (church, state, etc., equated with “ghosts”) will collapse on their own once men decide to take back the power and the energy that they lend them and upon which they thrive. Only when these structures have disappeared, will voluntary, perpetually shifting forms of free association between individuals become truly possible.

In opposition to the leftist forms of anarchism (Proudhon most notably), Stirnerian thought sees private property as a guarantee of personal freedom, so long as it is not considered sacred or untouchable and remains dependent upon the balance of power between individuals.

The opinions expressed by the members of Hagbard’s “Legion” reflect the most basic tenets of this ideology. For them, as for Stirner, there is no contradiction between luxury and revolution:

“You’ll find this submarine is opulently furnished. I have no need to live in monklike surroundings like those masochists who become naval officers. No Spartan simplicity for me. This is more like an ocean liner or a grand European hotel of the Edwardian era. Wait till you see my suite. You’ll like your stateroom, too. To please myself, I built this thing on the grand scale. No finicky naval architects or parsimonious accountants in my business. I believe you’ve got to spend money to make money and spend the money you make to enjoy money. Besides, I have to live in the damned thing.” (Shea and Wilson, 85)

This notion also entails that property itself is simply an illusion, that can be dispelled by an act of willpower:

The land belongs to the landlords, right now, because of magic. People worship the deeds in the government offices, and they won’t dare move onto a square of ground if one of the deeds says somebody else owns it. It’s a head-trip, a kind of magic, and you need the opposite magic to lift the curse.” (Shea and Wilson, 113) 

Similarly, the fight against the forces of oppression can only be won if it is shifted onto a different terrain, of the individual’s own choosing:

“Anarchism remains tied to politics, and remains a form of death like all other politics, until it breaks free from the defined ‘reality’ of capitalist society and creates its own reality.” (Shea and Wilson, 112)

As an inevitable consequence of this position, “objective” reality loses all meaning:

“This [the world] is the Abyss of Hallucinations. This is where our attention is usually focused. It is entirely constructed by our senses and our projected emotions, as modern psychology and ancient Buddhism both testify – but it is what most people call ‘reality’. They are conditioned to accept it, and not to inquire further, because only in this dream-walking state can they be governed by those who wish to govern.” (Shea and Wilson, 716)

In total agreement with Stirnerian analysis, no other action is needed in order to progress from slavery to freedom but a deliberate change in perception, which will cause a subsequent and logical change in the relationships that constitute “reality”. Miss Portinari’s twenty-three-step path to enlightenment shows an identical understanding of the individual’s relationship to outside forces; nothing else is required to change it but an attitudinal transformation. The situation is the same, but seen under a different light: “No,” Miss Portinari said, “Tarot is an anagram on rota, remember? The extra t reminds you that the Wheel turns back to rejoin itself. There is a twenty-third step, and it’s right where you started, only now you face it without fear.” (3)

Celine, this peculiar modern-day knight, could therefore be understood – on one level at least – as a freethinking, tough-talking contemporary incarnation of post-hegelian unfettered individualism, with a touch of Tucker and, for good measure, a memory of Ayn Rand’s mystical faith in the all-healing properties of the free-market. (4)

The apparent identification of Celine with Stirner’s “Ego” fulfils as well another essential role in the economy of the novel: a structural-ideological role of deeper significance than the simple, ostensible justification of a character’s complex and disturbing personality, and of the ideologies behind the ultimate battle between good and evil that the novel purportedly recounts. It is this role that I will now endeavour to examine.

Neo-baroque aesthetics and the dismantlement of ideology

Shea’s and Wilson’s novel appears to be practically a textbook example of what the well-known Italian semiotician Omar Calabrese calls “neo-baroque aesthetics”(5)

 According to this critic, contemporary mass-oriented culture (be it literature, art or music) can be identified through a number of virtually unchanging specificities, dictated by the extremely rapid mode of production and of dissemination of cultural creations through the media. In contemporary society, the oversaturated, culturally adept consumer finds himself in the position of having to transform the received canons of taste and his mode of fruition of the cultural product, switching from the search for novelty and originality generally associated with “classical”, highbrow creation, to an increased sensitivity for and appreciation of repetition, and, more importantly, of variation within repetition.

Modern, neo-baroque aesthetics appears thus as a cultural field where intertextuality is the text itself, where references, clins d’oeil [winks], allusions to other works, form the main body of the cultural object being created, in an unstable, hectic and shifting collage comprising disparate elements from all genres and time periods. (6) The Illuminatus! trilogy stretches this conception of aesthetics nearly to the limit, in its endless, hypnotic rehashing of the same story line, every time from a different angle and with a different interpretation (the L.D.D. and the Illuminati are enemies; they are the two sides of the same coin;they really are the same organization; the Illuminati do not truly exist; and so on...). It obeys quite strictly the rules identified by Calabrese in its deliberate refusal to adopt for any length of time the tone of a specific, recognizable genre,switching rapidly from science-fiction to detective story, to thriller, to pseudo-philosophical treatise and back again. The narration itself, often changing focus between several different focalizers (7) situations or time periods within a single page, displays a typical neo-baroque appreciation for both fragmentation and excess (Calabrese, 19-20). The whole narrative ballet thus revolves around three basic elements: organized variation (the story consists mostly of the characters themselves trying to make sense of the story, “rereading” both “History” and their personal experiences in successively different and contradictory manners), polycentrism (a constantly shifting narrative angle), and controlled irregularity (extremely rapid rhythm with sharp – and only apparently random – breaks).

The novel presents itself quite deliberately as an exercise in virtuosity, going as far as to provide its own ironic literary self-criticism: Confrontation, Joe Malik’s magazine, publishes a book review of the novel and thoroughly thrashes it.

In accordance with neo-baroque aesthetics, the Illuminatus! trilogy operates consistently on two complementary levels. On the one hand, the novel recycles, reuses and transforms an endless series of historical, mythological, political or literary events or figures (the assassination of JFK; the myth of Atlantis; John Dillinger; Pop music; The 60s student movement; Dutch Schultz and 1920s gangsterism; UFOs; Hitler; Leviathan, and so on and on to infinity), creating a virtually endless number of explicatory cause and effect relationships between them, with the inevitable result of compacting both time and space and consequently annulling any actual individuality these characters and events may at one time have possessed. The rapid-fire switches between time periods and locations, the constant discoveries of “secrets” behind “secrets”, the flashbacks and fast-forwards, create a chaotic effect that tends to deny the possibility itself of the existence of an objective truth. Randomness and disorder reign supreme at this level.

On the other hand, a new type of conceivable relationship slowly emerges, suggesting the possibility of the existence of a different universal order, where chaos simply corresponds to an intricate logic, essentially non-euclidean and therefore difficult to identify in what is generally perceived as “the existing order of things”, but nonetheless present and real. The “Sacred Chao” (8) that, as is suggested in the novel, symbolically represents the elementary underlying pattern of organization in the functioning of the universe, corresponds in orthodox neo-baroque fashion to modern “Chaos Theory”: a series of phenomena ruled by extremely complex laws (and therefore appearing to be outside of all control), that can be approached only through such means as, for example, fractal geometry or, in the novel, the enthusiastic consumption of large quantities of acid.

The book proposes a progressive, radical fragmentation of reality that shows a total correspondence between its aesthetic formula and its ideological position. In exactly the same way as time and action are destroyed as means of comprehension of the world – progressively creating a sense of total existential futility – all political and philosophical ideals are shown to be devoid of any autonomous value through Eichmann’s and Calley’s interminable debates, when the two former policemen, dressed as clowns, discuss systematically day after day the pros and cons of any imaginable subject until both positions are thoroughly destroyed and shown to be meaningless in isolation.

The result (apparent chaos and senselessness) has far-reaching consequences, including for the authors’ typically neo-baroque approach to the definition of their work: “All categories collapsed, including the all-important distinction [...] between science fiction and serious literature.” (Shea and Wilson, 714)

As could be expected, however, this final flattening of opposites, this assured mutual ideological self-destruction as between matter and antimatter, only represents a new starting point: the tabula rasa from which yet another theory can rise and aspire to provide the integrating, satisfying solution that can restore a sense of purpose and order to a world fallen prey to absolute chaos.

Thus, after the theatrical destruction of the evil pop singers of the American Medical Association, the dominating, charismatic figure of Hagbard Celine recedes for the first time into the distance. This character, who seemed to acquire progressively more and more power and importance – being revealed as the last “Illuminatus Primus”, as basically eternal or undying, and acquiring nearly Christ-like status – is shown to be barely more than a tool in the hands of the secretive, all-knowing Dealy Lama (whose real name is Gruad, last survivor of Atlantis and a close relative of Lucifer, if not Lucifer himself, understood in true romantic fashion as bearer of knowledge and light).

There follows a new, Buddhist-style interpretation of life as an eternally turning wheel, and of history as a recurring sequence of periods that change into one another with the passage of time, only to start over and over again.

The anarchist individualist activism of Celine, this “walking contradiction” (Shea and Wilson, 101), is thus portrayed by the Dealy Lama as essentially misguided: as a fundamentally naive attempt at restoring a perceived imbalance that does not truly require external intervention, since the wheel of life can know no wrong course. The increasing doubts of Hagbard himself as to the rightness of his actions seem to lend more weight to the Lama’s irrefutable conclusions:

 “I was trying to show them that it’s possible to get involved in this world without being corrupted by the crimes of this world. And I failed. One by one, I resorted to all the vices of governors: deception, carnival magic to impress the gullible, and finally, outright murder. Once again, the cynics have been proven right.” (Shea and Wilson, 730)

Through the intervention of the Dealy Lama, serving as Deus ex machina to provide a degree of closure to the narration, the final chapters succeed in sidelining entirely the anarchist-individualist philosophy that had been presented up to that point as the determinant motor behind the L.D.D. and its creator and as the philosophical counterpoint to the “neo-baroque” sensibility of the novel. Even more, this ideology is virtually put on the same level as the occultist-Nazi beliefs of the “enemy” – the Saures – and this notwithstanding a lingering touch of sympathy for the demoted hero, and the Dealy Lama’s own vague and rather unconvincing doubts about Hagbard’s role. (9)

The final, sudden negation of the “cosmic” validity of the anarchist-
individualist world-view, that reverts to immobility and stasis, shows the structural reasons that had been underlying its narrative choice as ostensible key to the meaning of the characters’ motivations. Stirnerian philosophy fulfilled that particular role in the economy of the novel not so much as a legitimate means of social analysis and knowledge, but rather as a “neo-baroque” symbol of the union of opposites, as an heterogeneous assembly of contradictory positions, required for their aesthetic effect far more than for their presumed logical or analytical qualities.

Within a deliberate representation of the world as a binary structure gone mad, where apparent formal difference always hides fundamental sameness, anarchist-individualist philosophy functions as a symbol of the coexistence of extremes, of contradictory, illogical thinking constructing itself into a system, as opposed to a legitimate ideological alternative to the present – and avowedly defective – functioning of society. Its initial recuperation appears therefore to be dictated not by its strengths but by its perceived weaknesses, not by its attempt to integrate into a coherent philosophical framework the divergent forces that Stirner saw at work, with destructive results, within society and within the human spirit, but in order to build up yet another castle of cards, yet another illusion that will eventually self-destruct and leave the stage to the Dealy Lama’s final presentation of history as an endlessly turning wheel where individual choice plays no role.

The dismantlement of the anarchist world-view, obeying as it does the dictates of structural, narrative necessity, raises however a vexing question. The sympathy with which Celine – undoubtedly the most positive character in the novel – is depicted, in spite of the obligatory denunciation of the error of his ways, begs the question of knowing whether the fictional representation of Anarchism may somehow imply as a necessary, inevitable development, its ultimate negation. In other words, is there such a thing as a predetermined structural-ideological role for the literary anarchist? Is the fictional rebel condemned to failure by a narrative fate he cannot avoid?

Of Anarchists and submarines

A brief analysis of a novel by a well-known Italian author may prove useful to develop a working hypothesis. Riccardo Bacchelli’s Il Sommergibile (10) exhibits at least one major resemblance to the Illuminatus! The plot revolves around the fate of an anarchist-individualist in a submarine. By an interesting case of literary synchronicity, the opening scenes of the novel show the submarine surfacing beside an impressive pyramidal structure, bringing of course to mind the Atlantean pyramid at the bottom of the sea in Shea’s and Wilson’s epic. (11) This particular pyramid, however, proves to be made of a material far less resistant than that of its science-fictional counterpart. (12) It functions as a symbolic opening statement playing on the opposition between appearance and essence, and condensing in one image the thesis of the book: “[...] a reef covered in guano; a pyramid, until the first storm will wash it away; a guano pyramid. For the common people: shit.” (13)

Quite apart from these striking similarities, it should be noted that Il Sommergibile belongs to a literary tradition worlds apart from that of the authors of the Illuminatus! trilogy. Bacchelli makes no mystery of his Catholic, conservative ideology, and sees himself as belonging to a school, both in style and thought, to which the “neo-baroque” virtuosities of the American authors would seem virtually incomprehensible and utterly pointless. In spite of these fundamental differences, however, the role played by the anarchist in Bacchelli’s novel is in many ways identical to that we have identified in the Illuminatus! trilogy: helping to build up an artificial confrontation that will eventually be defused in order to underline the correct ideological conclusions to be drawn from the adventure. Quite simply: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

Bacchelli’s anarchist, a misfit for whom ideological belonging grows out of an unfortunate personal experience, as opposed to a deliberate intellectual choice, infiltrates a submarine crew as a spy working at the same time for three or more governments (the inevitable cosmopolitanism). He is discovered and “tried” by the crew, following the order received by radio to execute him or otherwise dispose of him before returning to port.

The crew includes a naval engineer, a biologist, (this is an experimental trip) and the captain, an “old salt” who boasts he never disobeys orders, but never obeys without discussing them. The “trial” of the anarchist and the varied intellectual specialties of the crew members offer an occasion for a number of disquisitions on human nature, history and science. The sailors, who have grown attached to the anarchist (he is an excellent mechanic and that commanded their respect) want to disobey the death sentence and set him free on some deserted coast. However, by the end of the submarine’s voyage, the positions are completely reversed. The anarchist, won over by the camaraderie of the crew and happy to finally be able to belong somewhere, has seen the error of his ways, and demands to be handed over to the authorities to get his just desserts and settle his score with society. On the other hand, the captain and his friends review together the gamut of human weaknesses and come to a series of conclusions that smack of the most orthodox Stirnerian philosophy: force rules the world, law is an illusion, good and evil are determined exclusively by personal convenience:

... The gulls above – laughed the boatswain – the fish underneath; us in the submarine: I eat you and you eat me! ... It’s the rule – said the Biologist – to kill and be killed: but in the water it’s clear and honest; on land it’s hypocritical and deceitful. Who knows what it will be outside of the earth’s gravitational orbit?” (14) (Bacchelli, 42)

And also:

“And as for ourselves, what gives us the right to tell good from evil, and bad people from good, and then to count ourselves among the good? Our convenience, our appetites, our sadness and sorrow [...]” (15) (Bacchelli, 131)

Bacchelli’s synthesis is only superficially different from the pseudo-Buddhist “wheel” of the Dealy Lama. If everything proves to be illusion, the only possible safety resides in God, as “If the sky is not the so-called God, we are on this world only for a futility that defies thought, but not fear.” (16)(Bacchelli, 56) In both novels, the practical conclusions the reader cannot but draw, are virtually identical. If Hagbard’s action is useless, the Dealy Lama’s inaction is the only wise course, since the order of the universe is such that nothing can make it stray from its predetermined course. Similarly, if only God is real, Bacchelli’s captain can continue obeying the orders he is given, aware as he is of their arbitrariness, since they have no bearing and no influence on what truly counts: the afterlife. In both cases, therefore, the anarchist analysis of social ills and individual dissatisfaction only serves as a fragment of a complex puzzle, whose main interest resides in the figure it helps put together once all the pieces are assembled, and once the apparent chaos and contradiction of the initial state of affairs are shown to derive only from an incomplete, partial perception of the whole.

The same mechanism can be seen at work with strikingly similar results in other works dealing with similarly constructed artificial confrontations involving fictional anarchists, all dissolving in a neutral, ethical no-man’s-land that will ultimately be claimed by whatever political philosophy the writer subscribes to. The virtually perfect example is offered by G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday, where the story of an anarchist plot and of the Secret Police Service that is supposed to unmask it ends with the revelation that all of the anarchist terrorists are actually members of the “The New Detective Corps for the frustration of the great conspiracy” (Chesterton, 64) and vice-versa. Chesterton’s conservative, religious moral bears more than a passing resemblance to Bacchelli’s. (17)

At the other end of the spectrum, Winter Hall, the hero of Jack London’s Assassination Bureau, manages, by a swift use of rhetoric and logic, to turn the ideology of the leader of another anarchist terrorist organization back against him. Dragomiloff’s “assassination bureau” takes it upon itself to physically eliminate people who have been proven to be enemies of society, such as brutal police chiefs and corrupt, predatory businessmen. Hall persuades Dragomiloff that his organization itself works against society’s best interest, and the logical-minded Russian proceeds to dismantle what he so painstakingly built, killing his former associates, with the firm intention of committing suicide once his work is finished. Once again, the anarchist analysis is turned inside out and negated, and its influence carefully and completely erased. This time, London’s hero’s socialist convictions carry the day, and the distant hope of the proletarian revolution replaces Bacchelli’s and Chesterton’s God as the final horizon. (18)

Somewhere between these two positions, R.L. Stevenson’s heroes in his novel The Dynamiter fail to find the haven of faith – be it religious or political – at the end of their moral struggle, but reject nonetheless the global transformation proposed by anarchism, portrayed as futile. In this comical odyssey, where a band of incomparably incompetent revolutionaries, headed by the aptly nicknamed “Zero”, wander around London in search of the ideal target for the bloodiest possible bomb attack, it is something deeper and more universal than belief that condemns both society’s failures and the anarchists’ radical attempt at correcting them. This force is quite simply “honour”, an innate ethical sensibility that shrinks from excesses, no matter what their motives.

One of Stevenson’s young, idle and self-consciously romantic heroes takes upon himself the task of making plain where the middle way lays between the crimes of the opposing powers in society:

“His gods had fallen. He who had chosen the broad, daylit, unencumbered paths of universal scepticism, found himself still the bondslave of honor. He who had accepted life from a point of view as lofty as the predatory eagle’s, though with no design to prey; he who had clearly recognized the common moral basis of war, or commercial competition, and of crime; he who was prepared to help the escaping murderer or to embrace the impenitent thief, found, to the overthrow of all his logic, that he objected to the use of dynamite. The dawn crept among the sleeping villas and over the smokeless fields of the city; and still the unfortunate sceptic sobbed over his fall from consistency. At length, he rose and took the rising sun to witness. ‘There is no question as to fact,’ he cried; ‘right and wrong are but figments and the shadow of a word; but for all that, there are certain things that I cannot do, and there are certain others that I will not stand.’” (Stevenson, 194)

The author’s conclusion is reiterated one more time at the closing of the story by Prince Florizel of Bohemia – the central character in Stevenson’s English version of the Arabian Nights:

“Yes, these are my politics: to change what we can, to better what we can; but still to bear in mind that man is but a devil weakly fettered by some generous beliefs and impositions and for no word however nobly sounding, and no cause however just and pious, to relax the stricture of these bonds.” (Stevenson, 288)

This fundamentally pessimistic view of human nature – fickle, selfish and ill-disposed – finds, however, in man himself the ethical qualities that will keep his evil urges in check. The truth being within, it is only logical that those who seek to achieve it from outside are destined to fail, and that poor Zero ends up being the only victim of his much delayed dynamite attack, vaporized like a bad dream at sunrise.

As the review of these plots dealing with the image of the anarchist in – mostly “popular” – literature has shown, there is a considerable difference in perception between late XIXth and XXth-century literature’s approach to anarchism as a narrative subject, and that shown by earlier authors – during an era when this particular ideology could still count on widespread public support and notoriety.

Anarchism, in its various forms, as a political panacea for what ails society in the face of the brutal repression exercised by bourgeois governments – as it was advanced more or less openly by writers like Louise Michel, Benjamin Gastineau, Félix Pyat, Jules Vallès, and later Georges Darien – changes status entirely. The depiction of a potential political reality fades away and a new role, as an element in a metaphorical representation of the human condition, takes its place. The passing of time and the progressive disintegration of all forms of effective anarchist opposition to the dominant capitalist-communist deologies seems to have been reflected in a narrative shift, where the positive, complex figure of the anarchist that was put forward by essentially militant authors such as Mackay (19) has now entirely disappeared. (20) In its place, the anarchist appears as a symbol of outdated confusion – even when projected in the future and wrapped in a sympathetic and somewhat nostalgic veil of romantic admiration, as is the case for Hagbard Celine – doomed to see his individual self-assertion disappear in the irresistible maelstrom of historical, religious or ethical determinism, and the name of his ideal and the powerful magic it still evokes reduced to an empty aesthetic vessel in a neo-baroque strategy of recuperation of the past.


(1) Indeed, Celine’s “satori” is a furious condensation of Stirnerian principles, and deserves to be quoted in its entirety: “The next day, he had burned his naturalization papers and put the ashes in an envelope addressed to the President of the United States, with a brief note: ‘Everything relevant is ruled irrelevant. Everything material is ruled immaterial. An ex-citizen.’ The ashes of his Army Reserve discharge went to the Secretary of Defense with a briefer note: ‘Non serviam. An ex-slave.’ That year’s income tax form went to the Secretary of the Treasury, after he wiped his ass on it; the note said: ‘Try robbing a poor box. Der Einzige.’ His fury still mounting, he grabbed his copy of Das Kapital off the bookshelf, smiling bitterly at the memory of his sarcastic marginal notes, scrawled ‘Without private property there is no private life’ on the flyleaf, and mailed it to Josef Stalin in the Kremlin.” (Shea and Wilson, 495)

(2) In that sense it may be useful to make a difference between Stirner’s philosophy and that of other thinkers, and in particular Americans like Benjamin Tucker, who are also generally lumped under the collective label of “individualist anarchists”, and to whom Joe Malik was likely referring in the previous quote. For simplicity’s sake, however, we will keep the term “individualist anarchism” when speaking of Stirnerian thought.

(3) Stirner’s brand of individualist anarchism does not strive for a change in the economic and political relations of power within society, since it considers them simple forms without content. Therefore, it is not so much against revolution, as indifferent to it. According to Stirner, the individual needs only lose his fear and respect of authority for it to crumble away. It’s on this basis that his philosophy was criticized by Marx and Engels as being “reactionary”, due to its absolute lack of interest in social mechanics. The voyage of self-discovery of the ego, as in Miss Portinari’s version, inevitably leads back to itself: only the perception of the world changes. Religion suffers the same fate in the novel. The adoration of Lady Eris, goddess of choice of the submarine’s crew, is equally unencumbered by any self-delusion: “Lady Eris, who exists only because we believe in you, give strength to Mary Lou and help her find her own way.” (Shea and Wilson, 727. My italics.)

(4) It must be noted, however, that notwithstanding his love of money, the character of Celine stops short of identification with the more modern defenders of anarcho-capitalism. Ayn Rand herself and her Atlas Shrugged are parodied in the novel as Atlanta Hope, leader of “God’s Lighting” and author of Telemachus Sneezed. 

(5) In Caos e bellezza. Immagini del neobarocco. Milano. Domus Academy, 1991.

(6) It is worth noting that Calabrese gives as a literary example of this type of style Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, described as an assemblage of different texts where the author survives only as the hand that does the assembling. Characteristically, Eco’s next “popular” novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, follows the same procedure, and deals essentially with the same material as the Illuminatus! trilogy, narrating the discovery of a supposedly age-old conspiracy.

(7) We borrow this term from Mieke Bal’s “Notes on narrative embedding”, of which this novel would seem at first sight to be a prime example: “[...] the narrative text is considered to be a triple message, in which each level is defined by a subject, its activity and the result of this activity, and in which each activity has an object, its content, which is the next level. In other words, the narrative speaks the text whose content is the narrative; the focalizer presents the narrative, whose content is the history; the history is acted out by the actors.” (Bal, 45)

FUCKUP, the submarine’s computer, would occupy the first level, the various first-person focalizers present the narrative, and so on. In this case as in any other in the book, however, the wheel finally rejoins itself, and we find out that it is Celine (a character) who programmed FUCKUP to write the novel in which he is a character. The new fourth level meets the first, and the Illuminatus! proves to be quite a nightmare for standard narratological analysis.

(8) “Sacred cow?” Simon asked.“It’s pronounced that way, but you spell it c-h-a-o. A chao is a single unit of chaos, they figure.” (Shea and Wilson, 100)

(9) The Lama declares to Miss Portinari: “Daughter, my path isn’t the only path. Every spoke helps to hold the Wheel together. I believe that all the libertarian fighters like Spartacus and Jefferson and Joe Hill and Hagbard just strengthen the opposition by giving it an enemy to fear – but I may be wrong. Someday one of the activists, such as Hagbard, might actually prove it to me and show me the error of my ways. Maybe the Saures really would have tipped the axis too far the other way if he hadn’t stopped them. Maybe the self-regulation of the universe, in which I place my faith, includes the creation of men like Hagbard who do the stupid, low-level things I would never do.” (Shea and Wilson, 724).

(10) Riccardo Bacchelli (1891-1985), Italian historical novelist of the school of Manzoni. An impeccable and demanding stylist, best known for his epic Il Mulino del Po (The Mill on the Po) as well as for Il Diavolo al Pontelungo (The Devil at the Long Bridge), a novel depicting Bakunin’s last years in his retreat in the Italian part of Switzerland and his failed attempt at organizing an anarchist insurrection in Bologna.

(11) It may be useful to remember that in anarchist iconology the pyramid has always represented the traditional power structure against which free men must fight. See as an excellent example the cover illustration of the book by Hans Ramaer, De piramide der tirannie.

(12) The pyramid of the Illuminati defies the millennia: “It’s made of an imperishable ceramic substance which repels even ocean sediment.” (Shea and Wilson, 255)

(13) “[...] lo scoglio coperto di guano; una piramide, finchè la prima tempesta la laverà via; una piramide di guano, per il volgo: merda.” (Bacchelli, 18. The translations are my own.) This particular approach is typical of Bacchelli’s style. The Devil at the Long Bridge begins as well with an allegorical preface that summarizes metaphorically the mounting threat and the ultimate failure of Bakunin’s revolutionary attempt in Bologna.

(14) “— I gabbiani – disse ridendo il Nostromo – di sù, i pesci di giù; noi nel sommergibile: mangia te che mangio io!— È la regola – disse il Biologo – uccidere ed essere uccisi: solo che in acqua è chiara e sincera; in terra è ipocrita e subdola. Fuori dal campo gravitazionale terrestre chi sa che sarà?”

(15) “E noi poi, che cosa ci autorizza a distinguere buono e cattivo, e dai cattivi i buoni, eppoi a metterci fra i buoni, noi? Il comodo nostro, i nostri appetiti, la nostra tristizia e tristezza [...].” These same reflexions are expressed concisely and in a more positive tone by Celine: “To the creative mind there is no right or wrong. Every action is an experiment, and every experiment yields its fruit in knowledge.” (Shea and Wilson, 248)

(16) “Se il cielo non è il cosiddetto Dio, noi siamo al mondo solo per una inutilità che sfugge al pensiero, non alla paura.”

(17) Chesterton’s anarchists are also placed under the sign of contradiction, both in aspect and in thought: “Each figure seemed to be, somehow, on the borderland of things, just as their theory was on the borderland of thought.” (83) Lucian Gregory, the only true anarchist of the novel, shows quite explicitly this character: “His dark hair parted in the middle was literally like a woman’s, and curved into the slow curls of a virgin in a pre-Raphaelite picture. From within this almost saintly oval, however, his face projected suddenly bored and brutal, the chin carried forward with a look of cockney contempt. This combination at once tickled and terrified the nerves of a neurotic population. He seemed like a walking blasphemy, a blend of the angel and the ape.” (4) Finally, like for Celine’s ethical relativism and Bacchelli’s anarchist’s battle cry of “Down with all that exists!” (Bacchelli, 28) Chesterton’s vision of the anarchist ideal goes far beyond any simple political reorganization of society: “We do not only want to upset a few despotisms and police regulations; that sort of anarchism does exist, but is a mere branch of the Nonconformists. We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves. The silly sentimentalists of the French Revolution talked of the Rights and Wrong.” (24)

(18) Hall’s first convert, Dragomiloff’s daughter Grunya, explains in these terms her change of heart: “I’m not so revolutionary, Uncle dear. I’m growing up. Social development is slow and painful. There are no short cuts. Every step must be worked out. Oh, I’m still a philosophic anarchist. Every intelligent socialist is. But it seems more clear to me every day that the ideal freedom of a state of anarchy can only be obtained by going through the intervening stage of socialism” (London, 16).

(19) John Henry Mackay, novelist, political activist and the first biographer of Max Stirner, is best known for his novel The Anarchists. On Anarchist writers in France between the end of the XIXth and the beginning of the XXth century, see Thierry Maricourt, Histoire de la littérature libertaire en France (Paris, Albin Michel, 1990). For Anarchist literature in Germany, see Walter Fähnders, Anarchismus und Literatur. Ein vergessenes Kapitel deutscher Literatur-geschichte zwischen 1890 und 1910 (Stuttgart, Metzler, 1987).

(20) The swan song of the positive anarchist in literature can possibly be found in Léo Malet’s novel Brouillard au pont de Tolbiac. In it the author, himself an anarchist in his youth, describes an investigation where private eye Nestor Burma helps capture an industrialist who, among other crimes, is guilty of a murder. Burma was once a militant in an anarchist group; so was the corrupt industrialist, and so was his victim, the only one of the group who had remained true to his ideals, and who can only die in a world where everybody has changed with the times and fidelity to a cause is only a pathetically embarrassing anachronism.

Works cited

Bacchelli, Riccardo. Il Sommergibile. Milano: Mondadori, 1978.

––. Il Diavolo al Pontelungo. Milano: Mondadori, 1965.

––. Il Mulino del Po. Milano: Mondadori, 1970.

Bal, Mieke. “Notes on Narrative Embedding.” Poetics Today 2,2 (1981), pp.


Calabrese, Omar. Caos e bellezza. Immagini del neobarocco. Milano:Domus

Academy, 1991.

Chesterton, G.K. The Man Who Was Thursday. New York: Boni, 1908.

Fähnders, Walter. Anarchismus und Literatur. Ein vergessenes Kapitel deutscher

Literatur-geschichte zwischen 1890 und 1910. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1987.

London, Jack. The Assassination Bureau. New York: Penguin, 1978.

Mackay, John-Henry. The Anarchists; a Picture of Civilization at the Close of

the Nineteenth Century. New York: Revisionist Press, 1972.

Malet, Léo. Brouillard au pont de Tolbiac. Paris: Fleuve Noir, 1983.

Maricourt, Thierry. Histoire de la littérature libertaire en France. Paris: Albin

Michel, 1990.

Ramaer, Hans. De piramide der tirannie. Amsterdam: Wetenschappelijke

Uitgeverij, 1977.

Richard, François. L’anarchisme de droite dans la littérature contemporaine.

Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1988.

Shea, Robert and Robert Anton Wilson. The Illuminatus! Trilogy. New York:

Dell, 1988.

Stevenson, Robert Louis and Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson. The Dynamiter. Toronto: The Musson Book Company, 1907.