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Volume 25, Number 3, Spring 2007

Illuminated manuscripts

The Legacy of Robert Anton Wilson

By Jesse Walker

The novelist, satirist, journalist, and philosopher Robert Anton Wilson passed away on January 11, just a week shy of his 75th birthday. When he was alive he sometimes complained—or maybe it was a boast—that his books were never reviewed in The New York Times. The paper of record did pay its respects when he died, though, with a brief piece about his life and work. It wasn’t entirely accurate, but the author of Illuminatus! would have enjoyed that. When a rumor of his death spread on the Net in the early ’90s, complete with a fake Los Angeles Times obituary that got several details of his life wrong, Wilson wrote that he “admired the artistic verisimilitude of the Gremlin who forged that obit…Little touches of incompetence and ignorance like that helped create the impression of a real, honest-to-Jesus LA Times article.”

Given his enormous influence on pop culture, from Lost to Laura Croft, you might have expected Wilson’s death to get more attention in the mainstream press. But while there were a few more notices in the newspapers—a detailed story in the London Telegraph, a short UPI dispatch that was basically cribbed from the Times—none I’ve seen has suggested that his work had an impact beyond the fans of the fringe, and only John Clute’s account in The Independent displayed any appreciation of Wilson’s oeuvre. Instead, the best tributes to the writer have appeared in the medium that most resembled the beautiful cacophony of his books: the Internet. On LiveJournals, email lists, and blog comment threads, Wilson received the praise he was due.

Robert Anton Wilson
Photo © Robert Altman

He was honored on the bigger sites, too. At The Huffington Post Paul Krassner, who started publishing Wilson’s articles in The Realist back in 1959, quoted one of my favorite things that Wilson wrote in the last year of his life: a haiku sent to his email list a day after he announced what looked like his pending death.

 

Well what do you know?
Another day has passed
And I’m still not not.

 

There were respectful memorials in places you’d expect, such as bOING bOING and 10 Zen Monkeys, and in places you wouldn’t expect, such as Wonkette. Even the conservative forum Free Republic got in on the act, with a thread that included the remarkable statement, “The modern right was greatly influenced by Wilson.” While you’re digesting that, I’ll note that elsewhere on the same site another reader greeted the news with the phrase “one less leftist nut.”

Wilson did occasionally claim to belong to the left or the right, usually when he was especially exasperated with the authoritarians on the other side of the spectrum. More often, and more accurately, he insisted his politics were “non-Euclidean.” His core fan base isn’t easy to categorize either: It includes hackers, futurists, science-fiction enthusiasts, Joyceans, Poundians, Forteans, Discordians, anarchists, libertarians, anarcho-libertarians, devotees of psychedelic drugs, mystics who sound like scientists, scientists who sound like mystics, people who believe in vast secret conspiracies, people who don’t believe in vast secret conspiracies but have a sense of humor about them, people who aren’t sure whether they believe in vast secret conspiracies, humanist psychologists, pookaphiles, and people who weren’t any of the above until they randomly happened on one of his books like a glass of tomato juice spiked with some unpredictable psychedelic compound.

In Cosmic Trigger 2, Wilson wrote about meeting a musician in Berlin who had fled from East Germany. “In Leipzig, where he grew up,” Wilson wrote, “there was a ‘public’ library that was not open to the public. (Isn’t that a marvelous Marxist oxymoron?) In this library were books which the Communist leaders did not want anybody to read but which, evidently, they didn’t want to burn.” The young dissident explained to Wilson that he had found a way to sneak into the library and surreptitiously borrow books; he then returned them, to avoid arousing suspicion, after reading their Heretical Ideas. When he made his escape to the West, he brought only one of those forbidden books with him.

He put it on the table. It was Illuminatus. “Would you please autograph it?” he asked.

 

A lesser writer would have stopped the story there, but Wilson went on to add an even odder detail. When he opened the book he was confronted with the words RAJNEESH INTERNATIONAL LIBRARY. “How the hell,” he wrote, “did the book get from either India or Oregon to the hands of a Communist official in East Germany, who decided to preserve it in a sealed library?”

You can invent your own account of why the Bhagwan would possess a sprawling sci-fi parody of conspiracy theories, and of how it would get from his hands to a verboten bookshelf in Leninist Leipzig before finding its way back to its source. Like most of the mysteries in Wilson’s work, the answers you propose, no matter how plausible, will all sound a little ridiculous—and a little awe-inspiring, too. Awe and absurdity all wrapped up together: that was Wilson’s engaging, infectious vision of the universe.

 

Jesse Walker is the Managing Editor at Reason Magazine. This tribute originally appeared online at reason.com. It is reprinted with the author’s permission, and with the permission of Reason’s online syndicator, Featurewell.

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