Over the past 48 hours I have received numerous emails advising me of the death of Robert Anton Wilson.It seems important that I say a few words here about a man I never met, but who had a tremendous influence over the spiritual, cultural and psychological development of many of my friends over the years.
Wilson was the co-author, along with Robert Shea, of the Illuminatus! Trilogy.This series of paperbacks came out in the mid-1970s at a time of tremendous social upheaval in the United States.We had just come out of Vietnam, Watergate was in full-swing, and the various Intelligence Committee and Assassination Committee hearings were informing us of the extent to which our government had spied on its own citizens, committed assassinations, and conspired in all sorts of mayhem at home and abroad.At the same time, neo-Paganism was growing in popularity, in particular the version known as Wicca:the Witchcraft movement.
For many of us at the time, neo-Paganism was seen as an anti-intellectual, purely right-brain kind of environment: the epitome of what we would call the New Age.Those of us who tended more towards the left-brain, ritual magic environment found ourselves without a real group or society that measured up to our standards of serious scholarship and committed practice.There was the Church of Satan, which was seen as little more than a club for ex-Catholics (!) and of course the OTO.
The OTO at the time was in the midst of turmoil itself.Some prominent members were switching sides from Marcelo Motta’s group – in the US, headquartered in Tennessee – and Grady McMurtry’s group – headquartered in California.There were serious political and philosophical differences between the two groups and, unfortunately, they were the only games in town.Most of the groups – whether pagan, Wiccan, or Thelemite – were arenas for cults of personality, and that diluted both the medium and the message.
Then, suddenly, there was the Illuminatus! trilogy, and everyone had an alternative perspective, a weltanschauung that merged paganism, Thelema, and Asian religions with conspiracy theories, thousands of historical references and layers upon layers of meaning … all done in an exuberant, manic style that captured our imaginations and gave us a paradigm for our own cosmological and theological suspicions, amorphous as they were.We identified so strongly with the ideas in the Trilogy that groups began to form based on the concepts we found there:Discordians, Erisians, Hagbard Celine chapters of various cults, etc.In addition, the ideas and thought of Timothy Leary were evident in all of Wilson’s writings and that led us to neurological (and dare we say pharmacological!) perspectives on the phenomena of initiation, illumination, and conversion.
My own understanding of synchronicity, mind-control programs, and the link between government psychological programs and analogues with shamanistic practices and secret society rituals were mirrored in the Wilson-Shea Trilogy.Living in New York City at the time, I witnessed the emergence of an occult revival that took place in the bars, clubs, bookstores and apartments of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens … all of it tinged with the elements to be found in Illuminatus!.
There will be those who will tell you to read Cosmic Trigger and the other, later, books by Wilson, and they are justified in doing so.But I submit that you will never quite understand the context of Cosmic Trigger unless you read Illuminatus!.It will also take you back to a time when we, the people, felt we had a chance to own our own spirituality no matter what form it would eventually take.It was the pre-AIDS, pre-Iran-Contra, pre-Iraq world:a kind of interregnum between the end of Vietnam and the scandals of Watergate and the beginning of our Middle East adventure and the scandals of the Bush administration (replete with Fred Fielding, the same lawyer for both Nixon and Bush!).It was the Carter era, and John Lennon was still alive.Jonestown was in the wind, and so was the Son of Sam.But we felt we were on the verge of a spiritual breakthrough, a group satori that would result in an explosion of illumination signalling the end of the Old World and the beginning of the New … or, as Wilson would say, the immanentizing of the eschaton.