Robert Anton Wilson is a philosopher of sorts whose acquaintance I first made some forty years ago with the Illuminatus trilogy. Recently rereading it for the first time in decades, I found it wasn’t as compelling as back then, so I went on to his memoir, Cosmic Trigger, which was.
In that book he tells how he grew up in an Irish Roman Catholic home, jettisoning his Catholicism when it conflicted with his sex drive, and reached adulthood interested in lots of things. For one thing, he tried joining a lot of different groups (Ayn Rand and Trotskyite groups, for instance) which made him realize that there were a lot of different ways to see the world, and that different groups have different things they accept and reject. This means that virtually no one sees the world as it actually is: there’s always something being rejected or ignored which provides a different perspective on things. Wilson called these tunnel realities.
And humans tend to dislike different perspectives. Christianity in particular has dictated what people must and must not believe. A lot of people and organizations have imitated them. We’ve become very aware that people give us propaganda instead of truth, and resent it, even if we’re not good at telling the difference.
Wilson got caught up in the psychedelic experience of the early sixties before it became well-publicized. He took peyote first, then LSD when it became available. On one of his peyote trips he observed a green-skinned humanoid figure dancing. This was before Carlos Casteneda began publishing his books, when the green-skinned figure would become known as Mescalito, the spirit of the peyote. As the sixties progressed he met Timothy Leary to interview him, and they realized they had a lot of interests in common. Leary suggested he investigate Aleister Crowley, and Wilson did so, with increasing interest.
Crowley practiced magick (the spelling to distinguish it from Harry Houdini sleight of hand), and found it a rich source of unusual perspectives. Wilson had heard Crowley was a junkie, but also that he had climbed higher on Chogo Ri (a mountain in the Himalayas) than anyone else, which seemed unusual for a junkie. He began reading Crowley’s books, many of which suggest exercises to expand consciousness. Wilson began practicing a number of these, sometimes in conjunction with LSD or other psychedelics, sometimes without.
One such was to go a week without using the word “I” and punishing himself (Wilson bit his finger) whenever he slipped and said it. He found his state of mind changed pretty dramatically, and began to see his ego as an inconvenience.
Another practice was to invoke various gods or goddesses of the pagan past. He would decorate with colors and symbols associated with each, pray to them, and recite various invocations that Crowley had written. He found that these practices began changing his worldview too. Once he began getting results, he would start invoking a different god or goddess.
Wilson had also met William S. Burroughs (author of Naked Lunch most famously), who told him about strangeness associated with the number 23. Burroughs had discovered it when talking to an ferry boat sailor named Captain Clark, who told him he had sailed the ferry 23 years without an accident. That day Burroughs heard that Clark’s ferry had sunk, killing all aboard. Then he heard about an airplane crash, piloted by another Captain Clark. It was flight number 23. Wilson began looking for 23s, and began finding them synchronistically. Synchronicity is a pattern which doesn’t seem to have a cause, but appears too meaningful to be merely coincidence. The more Wilson looked for 23s, the more he found, and the more meaningful they were. He records numerous examples, one being that sperm and egg each contribute 23 chromosomes to what becomes a human fetus. There are many more.
He was also interested in UFOs, and their significance. Such incidents are often witnessed by lots of people, though not all agree on what they see. The incidents seem to contradict the laws of nature, and it’s uncertain what their cause is. They’re similar to reported incidents prior to the twentieth century which people used to attribute to encounters with angels, or with fairies. They can be pretty bizarre. My favorite was reported by a man living in Wisconsin, who said a UFO landed in his yard, an alien got out and handed him some pancakes. That seems a nice thing to do, but what was the significance? The pancakes, incidentally, turned out to be ordinary pancakes when analyzed. Wilson thinks such an incident (and many others) indicate that when we’re confronted with something completely unfamiliar, like a technology well in advance of our own, our consciousness tries to change it into familiar terms, however senseless (or hilarious) those terms turn out to be.
Besides the magickal practices and psychedelic drugs, Wilson had been reading as many of Crowley’s books as he could obtain, and found that Crowley had been practicing Tantra, or sexual magick, which consisted of various ways to postpone orgasm which would make it extremely powerful and psychedelic. In the early 1970s in the midst of these practices Wilson began to believe he was receiving messages from the area of the star Sirius.
Sirius is the brightest star in our sky, and has a very interesting history. When he began to research it, Wilson found that the Dogon tribe in Africa had told people (Including Robert Temple, who wrote a book about it) a lot of information about Sirius no one would have expected them to know, including that it was a double star, and that the second star (invisible until the twentieth century to astronomers until they had telescopes powerful enough to see) was much smaller than the primary, which is the one easily visible. Sirius, known as the Dog Star, contributes heat to the “dog days” of summer, and would contribute much more if the universe weren’t expanding, and Sirius receding from us. When asked how they had found out these things, the Dogon said aliens from Sirius had told them.
When Robert Temple researched further he began to believe there had been contact with aliens in the Middle East about 4500 years ago, and that knowledge of this had traveled across Africa to the Dogon. If such a thing happened, and if his timeline was correct is difficult to say. Egypt already had a great deal of interest in Sirius well before 2500 BC. They identified it with the goddess Isis, and in building the Great Pyramid, constructed a shaft to the south through which they could observe the star. When Wilson looked into this further he found that a LOT of people claimed to have received messages from Sirius, including Crowley.
George Gurdjieff seems to have known about this too. When writing his most important book he realized that he had made some passages more plain than he intended, and said he needed to bury the dog deeper. When asked if he didn’t mean the bone, he said, No, the dog, and that the dog was Sirius. Sirius is also said to be the star portrayed on the card by that name in the Tarot deck. Some say the Tarot was put together by Sufis, and Sufis provided at least some of Gurdjieff’s education in the occult.
By the time all this was happening, Wilson had quit his job at Playboy, and was trying to earn his living by writing. He was having some difficulty. He and Robert Shea, who had also worked at Playboy, had written the Illuminatus trilogy, satirizing many conspiracy theories they came across while working at Playboy. The Illuminati were composed of people from the Freemasons who had achieved higher consciousness, but their organization located in Bavaria was outlawed in the 18th century. Some saw them as heroes, many saw them as villains, and the more the two authors researched the group the more probable it seemed that they had a long ancestry which may have extended back to ancient Egypt or even further. Learning about them fit well with Wilson’s desire to expand his own consciousness.
He and Shea had finished writing the novel, but were having trouble getting it published, so Wilson was poor. He and his family were living in San Francisco with poor people, since they couldn’t afford a great place to live. He was doing a Sufi exercise to open his heart, and was often horrified at things he saw poor people have to go through.
Such things touched his own family too. His youngest daughter, who was aware of his occult interests, and shared them, got beaten up by a gang of black kids, but understood that if she held a grudge against them, it would only continue the negative energy–so she forgave them, and never showed any fear or dislike of anyone black. Wilson was amazed that a girl in her early teens could be so wise.
By this time Timothy Leary had been busted for possession of pot and imprisoned. He managed to escape and spent some time overseas before being kidnapped in Afghanistan and brought back to the USA. Just why the authorities were so hysterical about the threat his advocacy of LSD posed may be clearer when one realizes that his interest in the drug was because of its ability to change what he called “imprints”, impressions that cause the mind to see things in certain ways. Governments prefer that people see things in ways they prescribe. Anything that allows them to see independently is threatening. Leary had incautiously advertised his intentions, trying (as Wilson sees it) to reserve the use of LSD to competent professionals who could use it as a tool to safely help people. That he publicized it so effectively helped to spread its use, and many used it less than safely. Of course the main effect of government prohibition was to drive LSD into the black market and prevent scientists from studying it. But before LSD became illegal Leary had used it in a project with prisoners that was very successful in preventing recidivism. With less public hysteria, and with good training, mental health could have been greatly improved.
When Leary was released from prison he no longer wanted to talk about drugs, but about immortality and space travel. He had theorized a model of various higher “circuits” that LSD, other drugs, and various practices can induce to begin operating in human beings. Four of these he said were the ones we use in our ordinary life on earth. There are, he said, four others which are rarely experienced, and which are for use in outer space. He wanted to become immortal and journey in a starship which need not go faster than light if its passengers were immortal. He expected science to discover a method (or methods) to attain immortality quickly (this was in the mid-1970s). This was where I began to part company with the ideas in the book.
For one thing, immortality would cause immense problems if people in general stopped dying. Nature, as experienced on this planet, is organized around death: each generation has to make way for the next. All living organisms reproduce, therefore all must die. Their deaths help provide, through decomposition, the food that will nourish all the organisms that support life on the whole planet, which is already overpopulated with humans. An order of magnitude more would even more rapidly deplete the natural resources which could provide for them. And not enough space ships could be built–at least until we can easily mine the asteroids or moon– to take more than a small percentage to other star systems. There’s also a possibility that the bulk of the human race has responsibilities here.
Leary and Wilson seem to have been confident that human science would rather quickly find a way to stop death and keep humans healthy and happy for hundreds, thousands, even billions of years. That was forty years ago. Why haven’t we heard anything about it since?
One reason is that immortality is something the powerful wouldn’t want ordinary people to have. If a method of immortality was discovered, powerful people would want to keep it for themselves. If such a thing has been discovered, I suggest that is exactly what has happened. Immortality would be a powerful tool to obtain even more power.
That section of the book seems almost insanely optimistic, reminding me of something Wilson says he learned about Crowley from someone who knew him well. Crowley, his acquaintance said, often believed that the illumination he had attained was shared by many of the people he met, causing him to trust wrong people. Israel Regardie, a biographer of Crowley, who has worked as his secretary in the 1920s stated that Crowley had unresolved issues which caused him to have blind spots. He was, in some respects, wiser than many, but he wasn’t perfectly wise. Regardie’s autobiography stops before 1914, by which time he had had and assimilated most of the visions which had so deepened his perceptions. He had written most of the works for which he is known, and had also lost all his money. He lived more than thirty more years, but Regardie didn’t find his later life inspiring.
Another example of the optimism Wilson shows is his view of the acceleration of knowledge. Human knowledge took a long time to increase in the past, especially knowledge shared with the largest part of humanity. With the beginning of science about 500 years ago, knowledge has been piling up at an ever increasing rate. Some were predicting forty years ago that by this time the human race would be entirely transformed, with many obstacles passed very quickly. This has obviously not happened. The human race remains stuck in sorrow and suffering.
But much of the book remains exciting, though I can’t agree with all of it. It’s a sort of detective novel in which the author tries to understand more and more of how the world operates, and goes further and deeper than usual understandings. That can be pretty thrilling.
Wilson ends the book by telling how his daughter was beaten to death by an unhappy man who couldn’t have understood what he was doing, and how he resisted allowing that to crush him. As terribly as he suffered from that, he found that many people loved him and his family, and wanted to help in any way they could. One psychologist made a point of visiting a couple of times a week to talk if anyone needed him. Wilson later called such kindness bewildering, and was grateful and amazed it should exist. I don’t know if one should see such a crushing death as some kind of punishment for Wilson or anyone else in his family, but if he had done wrong, he was certainly punished.
He ends the book by asking Timothy Leary what he did when he was overwhelmed by negativity. Leary replied, “Come back with all the positive energy you can.” This, said Wilson, was how he learned the final secret of the Illuminati.