Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Chad Nelson talks about the new Robert Anton Wilson book


Last year, as one of the volunteers who helps Rasa with the publications at Hilaritas Press, I helped copyedit what is now the newest Hilaritas book by Robert Anton Wilson, Natural Law Or Don’t Put A Rubber On Your Willy And Other Writings From A Natural Outlaw. 

The book is not simply a reprint of the long essay, long out of print, in which Wilson argues against the idea of "natural law" as a basis for libertarianism, an argument he carried out on the pages of New Libertarian in 1985. In the new book, the reprint of "Natural Law: Or Don't Put a Rubber On Your Willy" takes up about 80 pages. But there are another 145 pages of additional Wilson -- articles and two interviews -- selected by Chad Nelson, the book's editor.

The book originally was intended as a collection of RAW's political writings. Instead, as Nelson writes in the book's introduction, the book's material actually focuses on model agnosticism, a bedrock RAW philosophy. Or to put it another way, it's not a libertarian book, it's a RAW book, and a really good one.

I read the new Natural Law last year, minus Nelson's introduction and the reprint of John Higgs' "Happy Maybe Day" newspaper column for the Guardian. I became very enthusiastic. I resolved to do my best to promote the book when it came out. (Full disclosure: I am mentioned in the acknowledgements, although I actually had little to do with helping the book take shape.)

Nelson is an attorney and Robert Anton Wilson scholar.  He is the Senior Planned Giving Officer at the Rhode Island School of Design and also a practicing estate planning attorney. (The name of the school nagged at me, it somehow seemed familiar, until I realized it was where the three founding members of Talking Heads, David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, had been). 

When I asked Chad if he would take some questions about the book, he agreed, so here we go: 

RAWIlliumination.net: What do you think of the new book? Are you satisfied with how it came out?

Chad Nelson: I am thrilled with how the book came out. I'm biased, of course, but it might be my new favorite in the Wilson essay collection genre. 

I'm as much thrilled with the finished product as I am with the process it came out of. It evolved conceptually in a way Wilson fans might find interesting. It was initially conceived of as a collection of essays showcasing Wilson's political thought over the course of his life, with Natural Law, Or Don't Put a Rubber on Your Willy, as the lead essay. We were  thinking of a companion to TSOG, but one that covered more of Wilson's earlier political thought from the '50s through the '70s. 

Eventually, after we had assembled about 20 "political" essays, we realized that most of them were concerned far less with politics than with model agnosticism. There is certainly overlap between the two themes in much of Wilson's work, but we decided that model agnosticism was really the predominant theme we were seeing in what we had pulled together. I also tend to think it's more foundational to Wilson's philosophy.

So we had a "lightbulb moment," as it were, where we looked at each other and said, "Gee, maybe we can pivot and create something far more interesting than we'd originally envisioned." We shelved several of the more overtly political tracts and focused exclusively on Wilson's writings on model agnosticism. The project really became fun when we made that pivot explicit. Wilson scholars know how much model agnosticism underlies his worldview, so the idea that there would be a newly published book of essays and interviews spanning five decades where we get to see him riff on that theme very directly, over and over again, in a variety of different ways, was one of the coolest moments for me. 

I've probably read the book 5 times through the course of editing it, and with each read I realize just how special the content is. Of course, there is no single book one can pick up and understand the breadth of Wilson's scholarship. You really need to take it all in. But if there was one non-fiction piece to start with, this might be it.

Chad Nelson

RAWIllumination.net: When you talk about "we" as the book evolved, do you mean discussions between you and Rasa? Were you given complete leeway to make the final decisions on what would be included in the book? And how hard was it to obtain the various permissions? 

Chad Nelson: Rasa and I collaborated on content decisions. He gave me pretty broad license on decision-making though, and in the end, everything I felt belonged in the book wound up included, and the essays I didn't feel were a good fit got shelved. We were both reassured knowing that we had you and Jesse there to offer input on what you'd seen as well.

Getting permissions was a surprisingly easy process. All of the publications that are still in existence offered their material without issue. It was fun to engage with them and explain what we were up to.

RAWIllumination.net: Have you read "Email to the Universe"? I ask because the new edition of "Natural Law" reminds me of "Email," i.e. a carefully curated collection of some of RAW's best short pieces, written over a span of many years.

Chad Nelson: I love Email. I wanted "Left and Right: A Non-Euclidian Perspective" in this volume, but Rasa reminded me that it was already in Email.

Murray Rothbard (Creative Commons photo)

RAWIllumination.net: I loved the bit in your introduction about Murray Rothbard coining the term "Natural Outlaw" to refer to RAW. [Note the full title of the book: "Natural Law, Or Don’t Put A Rubber On Your Willy And Other Writings From A Natural Outlaw."] Who were the six people in the debate, and who was the other "Natural Outlaw"? Have you read Rothbard? He and RAW were both antiwar, although obviously they had differences.

Thanks! The others in the debate were Wilson, Samuel Edward Konkin III, George Smith, Jeff Riggenbach, Robert LeFevre and L.A. Rollins. Rollins was the other "outlaw". It was amusing to see the natural law proponents refer to themselves unironically as "lawmen." What self respecting libertarian wants that moniker?! 

I do have a profound respect and appreciation for Rothbard. He's a personal favorite of mine -- I've learned so much from him. Even when he went in a right-wing, "paleolibertarian" direction later in his career, advocating for national borders and strict immigration controls (notions I despise), I enjoyed his writing. It was always full of flair and he was often very humorous. I appreciate those qualities in political talking heads, even if I don't like their underlying views. Most of today's political "thought leaders" seem utterly devoid of humor and incredibly boring. 

RAWIllumination.net: What's your opinion on the cover? As the editor, did you participate in discussions with @amoebadesign, or was that between Rasa/Christina and @amoebadesign?

Chad Nelson:  I was very surprised at how different it was from Amoeba's previous Hilaritas covers, and how well it fit the content. 

I'm sure Rasa had input, but I think we largely let Amoeba do his thing. I wasn't involved at all in the process. I know the green grass evokes some very specific material in the book that I'll leave as a surprise for readers, but it also seems to me to be a larger metaphor for the book's ideas. To me the simplicity Amoeba dialed up is a perfect visual reprentation of the vast openness, lightness, clarity, bliss -- all of those things that one experiences when they begin to play with model agnoscistism. [See this post for more on the cover.]

RAWIllumination.net: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you get involved in the "Natural Law" book project?

Chad Nelson: I was first turned on to Wilson ten or so years ago after watching some of his "stand up philosophy" performances on YouTube, and reading the Illuminatus! Trilogy. But it was really his non-fiction work that I dove into after Illuminatus! which turned my fascination with his ideas into what now seems like a full-time study. The two that really grabbed me were Quantum Psychology (1990) and The New Inquisition (1986). It's not a stretch to say that reading Wilson has transformed the way I think and operate in life. Thanks to RAWIllumination.net and the handful of other sites devoted to archiving and keeping his work alive and circulating, I've never felt like there is a shortage of new places to turn. 

In any event, Rasa recently pointed out to me that I first contacted him when Hilaritas Press was founded, offering my services. I think it was in 2015. I was willing to do basically anything to assist their work. I really just wanted to be involved in whatever he and Christina planned on doing with Hilaritas. I had previously been involved with Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and Antiwar.com as an editor, so I thought I had something to offer. Rasa and I maintained an ongoing dialogue after that (which mainly consisted of me trying to pry secrets out of him -- i.e., what they were working on and when their next title would be released). Then around this time last year he asked if I would edit the new Natural Law edition, which of course I jumped at. Natural Law is particularly important to me because I've always felt it's the most underappreciated book in the Wilson canon. I've never told Rasa this, but when I first saw it on the list of scheduled Hilaritas publications, I sort of mentally flagged it as the most exciting one they planned to put out -- that maybe this time it would get the attention it deserves.  So I guess the stars really aligned here. 

H.P. Lovecraft's grave (photo by Chad Nelson)

RAWIllumination.net: You live in Providence, which of course is where H.P. Lovecraft lived, and which as a result is one of the named settings in Illuminatus! Have you visited any of the places associated with Lovecraft? 

Chad Nelson: I have visited all of the ones I know about. A few of them I have unintentionally stumbled upon. That's always amusing when it happens: "Oh look, a Lovecraft monument on this random street light." His gravestone is probably the coolest site. It's in this beautiful private cemetery called Swan Point  where a lot of Rhode Island's prestigious families are buried. It's always adorned with the most random stuff, and I understand there are "weird" ceremonies around it at different points of the year. I wish somebody would invite me to one of those! 

RAWIllumination.net: Don't you actually own a sculpture of Robert Anton Wilson? Where do you display it? Weren't there actually negotiations with your wife on where to display this priceless piece of art?

Chad Nelson: I do, but it fell and part of RAW's nose broke off so it lives in a drawer now. All of that negotiating for it to be displayed on the bookshelf was for naught, I guess. I do have a RAW coffee mug that I use most days, at least!


RAWIllumination.net: You mentioned reading "Illuminatus!" I have read it over and over again. Have you read RAW's other fiction, or do you prefer the nonfiction?

Chad Nelson: Me too, though I haven't re-read Illuminatus! in a while. Sometimes I pick it up off the shelf looking for a specific Hagbard Celine quote though. The one I've wound up reading over and over again is the Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy. The new Natural Law collection actually includes a 1972 short story from the inaugural issue of Gallery that wound up being adapted into one of the characters in Schrodinger's Cat. That Gallery piece may be my favorite single individual writing from Wilson, and I was so glad it found a permanent home in this book. Gallery described it as a story about "the life and death of a Reichian rebel." I look at it as the story of a fictional hero who takes many of Wilson's ideas (including model agnocistism) to the extreme.

All that said, I do have a strong preference for Wilson's non-fiction.



7 comments:

supergee said...

I recommend Natural Law even though I’m a Horrible Example in it. (I’ve gotten better since then.)

Murray Rothbard may have been the most conservative libertarian ever, and I wasn’t surprised when he became Buchanan fodder, but he said two things I love:

1. He was the first male I ever heard saying that there’s no such thing as “dressing provocatively” as an excuse for rape.

2. Egalitarianism is a revolt against nature.

I read the Gallery story before Schrodinger’s Cat was published. I have pondered much on the metaphysical difference in the ending.

Rarebit Fiend said...

Great interview! Looking forward to reading the new book. I really want to visit Providence for a Lovecraft tour some day sooner than later.

Hugh said...

Supergee: which ending did you like better?

Rarebit: Providence is so fun, IMHO! One of the cooler small cities around if you value interesting food and funky aesthetics!

supergee said...

I like both endings Hugh’s disappearance is a Mystery, and it’s good to have multiple answers, as so much of the book offers.

Eric Wagner said...

Nice interview. I visited Lovecraft's grave back in the eighties.

Spookah said...

All those recent posts related to Natural Law are great, and make me want to get a copy and read it !
Thank you Tom Jackson.

Prop Anon said...

Congrats to Chad on the edit of the newest version of the book!
One more for the Cannon
BLAST!!!