Various members of the Read and Trust network spent November writing about their favorite authors. Since I’m not nearly cool enough (and let’s be honest probably never will be cool enough) to belong to a group of such excellent writers, I thought I’d share mine here: Robert Anton Wilson. You’ve probably never heard of him.
I first came across Bob’s work while I was a very impressionable teenager. I must have been taking a break from my obsession with The Lord of the Rings because I was looking through my dad’s book collection for something (countercultural?) to read. On one of the shelves I found a book enticingly titled Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati. It was an old paperback; the pages were yellowed. The Illuminati reference is what initially piqued my interest, but it was the epigrams and wonderful illustrations scattered throughout the book that sucked me in. Much like a Lovecraftian scholar vanishing from the Orne Library, the book mysteriously disappeared from my dad’s.
Cosmic Trigger wasn’t the first book that Bob had written. Both the cover and the text made reference to another book: The Illuminatus! Trilogy, which he had co-written with Bob Shea. It sounded fascinating. This was in the days before Amazon.com, so it was difficult to track down a copy, but track it down I did. Most people would be put off by an 800+ page non-linear narrative, but I gobbled it up like a five year old reading Thomas the Tank Engine (or whatever it is five year olds enjoy). And that’s where shit got crazy.
You see, it wasn’t just the content of Bob’s books themselves that made me such a fan. Everything he wrote drew from so many sources that I’d find myself traveling down some ridiculously eclectic avenues of investigation. A very small handful of things I’ve been exposed to thanks to Bob:
- Discordianism and The Church of the SubGenius
- Fnords and the 23 enigma
- Alfred Korzybski and General Semantics
- Reality tunnels and Synchronicity
- James Joyce
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- H.P. Lovecraft
Given even this small list, I think most people today would simply dismiss Bob as a crazy burned out relic of the Hippie age who dropped acid with Timothy Leary one too many times. It wouldn’t be a completely unfair observation; he couldn’t help but be a product of his time (who can?). I certainly didn’t agree with some of his more utopian ideas and was never particularly keen on the drug references, but to me he was more the sage mystic who knew a secret none of us did. He made me think about how arbitrary everything really is and how needlessly complex we’ve made this silly little world of ours. He taught me that in most situations there’s more than yes/no, either/or: there’s also a maybe.
Bob was an eternal optimist. He, like Nietzsche, lived most of his life dealing with various kinds of pain. He contracted polio at a young age and suffered from post-polio syndrome for the remainder of his days. His daughter was killed in a robbery at age 15. He lost the love of his life to stroke. Despite all this (and the election of George W. Bush) he still believed in the basic goodness of people.
Bob died on this day, at this hour, in 2007. And it saddens me that he never wrote a book on Finnegans Wake.