Overweening Generalist

Friday, January 20, 2012

Remembering Robert Anton Wilson

"RAW" to his legion of readers and fans, and "Bob" to almost all who knew him (although Wilson said his friend Timothy Leary called him "Robert"), would've turned 80 this past January 18th. He died a week short of his 75th birthday, in 2007. Recently Boing Boing made the week of Jan. 11-18 "Robert Anton Wilson Week," which largely prompts this blogpost. I think RAW was a major ingredient in the spiked-with-something mind-manifesting cream of the relatively free-floating unattached generalist intellectuals in Unistat in the second half of the 20th century.

I was still living in San Pedro, on the Los Angeles harbor's edge, when I wrote RAW and asked, if I drove up (a good five hour's drive from LA to Capitola/Santa Cruz, where he lived), could I interview him? He'd read some of my stuff about his writing at alt.fan.rawilson, and the writer Eric Wagner told him I was cool, so RAW said yes. We made a date. I was nervous, and in the two weeks before driving towards the Bay Area, filled maybe eighteen pages of a spiral notebook with questions, being careful not to ask anything anyone had previously asked in the fifty or so interviews I'd read with him. I had  emailed him only some of the topics I wanted to discuss, and he wrote back, saying "I can't wait to talk about this stuff with you."

We - my wife and I - buzzed his number at the gate and he let us in, and one of the crew members of what would be the documentary film Maybe Logic: The Lives and Ideas of Robert Anton Wilson, greeted us at the door and led us down a short hall (I remember seeing a room to my left completely filled from floor to ceiling with books, and regret I didn't get to peruse his collection) and there were cameras and microphones, and The Man himself, seated at his couch. I'm pretty sure at that moment I went into an altered state. I'm resolutely not a celebrity worshipper. There are only a few people in the world who, if I met them in public, I'd have to try and tell them how their work changed my life, and would you please sign this piece of paper? There are/were maybe five people for me like that, and he was one.

I was very nervous but he put me at ease quickly. I met the crew for the film: young very hip intellectual types who were interested in, besides RAW: jazz and progressive ideas. Because what I said was being recorded for possible use in the film, I signed a waiver. RAW was making the filmmakers laugh, and he turned to me and apologized that he'd fallen recently and had broken a tooth and was going to get it fixed, but he would sound sort of funny when he spoke. All around the living room, on every surface, were gifts that friends and fans had given him, mostly books.

                                    I don't know who took this photo, but this is pretty close to how 
                                                he looked when I interviewed him. He died at 4:50AM on January
                                                11th, 2007, in his home, among family and friends.

There was a brief lull, so I spoke up and asked him, "Are you ready?" He said let's go! I started my microcassette recorder, and here's the transcript from how the interview started, and as the goddess and the Green Horned Man are my witnesses, I'm typing it out exactly as he answered it:

Me: I gave you a list of some of the things I wanted to talk about, but didn't mention humor. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about humor first.

RAW: That's a great theme.

Me: It seems to me that humor, humorists, comedians, and satirists aren't given enough credit for their intelligence in our culture. It reminds me of the popular discourse about, say, Beethoven, Picasso, or Orson Welles: "Oh sure they're artistic, but I don't consider them intellectuals like Einstein or Chomsky." Do you see this too? And if so, why?

RAW: Well, that's an interesting question. The first thing I think of is the Academy Award has never been given to a comedy as far as I know. If they did it was only once. Comedies never even get nominated! The idea is that to be serious you've got to be grim. And I think some of the greatest writing in - I'm talking about my own field - some of the greatest writing in the world is comic writing: Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Rabelais, James Joyce, Ezra Pound...Ezra Pound is much funnier than he's given credit for...

I think the thing is that comedy arouses some of the same joyous feelings as orgone or pot. And these are the feelings our society most dreads. They're literally ashamed of them. A lot of comedians say when they're successful, "I killed them!" They mean they broke down our resistance to having a good time. There's a critical mass...I've known some professional comedians. The critical mass beyond which when the audience has reached that point of laughter, they'll laugh at almost anything. You can stop telling jokes and start reading the phone book and they'll laugh at that, too. It's a contagious thing, but that's because it's so repressed and you need a lot of pressure to unleash it. I think that's why people get drunk: it's to unleash their laughter. Unfortunately, it unleashes their violence, too. You get the laughing drunk followed by the fighting drunk. Followed by another homicide case. It's a Dionysian thing. And our society is very anti-Dionysian. What's the main association with Dionysus? Drugs and orgies. That's what our society is most terrified of. You can kill as many people as you want, but for god's sake don't look like you're having a good time! About anything.

That's why Hannibal Lecter is the greatest villain ever. It's like he has a magnetic field around him. Everyone either hates him or loves him. Most of them hate him. The ones that hate him the most - I think - are the ones that secretly love him the most. I once admitted I love him because he's so shameless. Without his bad habits, of course...That's the thing about Hannibal: he's fascinating because he's not only a villain but he's not a pathetic villain. The villains that people love all have a touch of pathos about them, like the Frankenstein monster, the Wolfman who doesn't want to turn into a werewolf but has to because he's under a curse. They've all got something sympathetic about them. Hannibal Lecter has nothing sympathetic about him whatsoever. There's no excuse for him. And he knows it and he doesn't give a damn. (Laughs) There's this polarity. He's incarnate evil. And enjoying himself thoroughly! He eats the best food, dines at the best restaurants, wears the best clothes, knows everything. He's a walking encyclopedia of music, art, science...How can you help hating him? I mean if you're a normal, well-adjusted citizen. And Anthony Hopkins plays him with so much charm that they can't help feeling, even while they're hating him they're strangely attracted, which scares the hell out of them.
Yes, that's RAW: give him a question and he can really take off, almost like a Coltrane solo: take a theme and just riff madly off it, linking ideas, following harmonies and ideas suggested by previous ones, trying to stay interesting by making the improvisation informationally dense, and landing on your feet by the end of the solo. He did this with me for four hours, with many breaks to sit on his balcony and look at the wine-dark Pacific, smoke.

And he was stoned the whole time, because his post-polio syndrome had really began to take its toll by then: an awful proportion of the nerves in his legs had died, he'd feel 20 degrees colder than what the thermometer read, he felt pain constantly, and he mostly used a wheelchair to get around.

The movie crew left after I'd been there for a couple of hours. Gradually, the interview turned into a discussion, and we riffed back and forth with each other about the sociology of science, avant garde classical music, how delighted he was that Lily Tomlin and George Carlin had been subscribers to his futurist newsletter Trajectories, the influence of J. W. Dunne, pragmatism in using intellectual models, ethnomethodology, Vico, film and Jungian archetypes, James Joyce, Freud, reading tabloids like they're cultural anthropology, and Pound. Among other things. I think he appreciated that I'd actually read Pound and had prepared some good questions for him. By the third hour he made me feel like his equal, and seemed to genuinely like listening to me riff on ideas about authors he said he hadn't read.

The only unpleasant moment during my whole time with him was my question, "How well do you think you've been understood?" He seemed to darken, then stared at me for what seemed like ten minutes but was probably only 20 seconds, and said, "Next question!" I almost panicked. Had I brought up the one sorest of sore spots? Had I ruined the entire afternoon? I had discussed aspects of this question with other Wilson scholars, and indeed, we wondered why this genius was not a bigger deal in the sociology of intellectuals.

I nervously laughed a bit, and asked my next prepared question, and he brightened immediately and it was as if I had never asked that Offending Question.

Since then, I have come to understand that the apparent lack of understanding of his work by the literati was indeed a very hurtful thing for him. I had asked the question in all innocence and earnestness, never intending to be snarky or provocative. I felt painfully naive later.

After four or so hours, I'd exhausted my questions and felt like I'd taken up too much of his time. It was agreed we'd go for two hours, and we'd been there at least four. But he still wanted to talk, so we chatted about stuff, my recorder off. I wish I had recorded everything, including the stuff he said on breaks on the balcony, because he was ALWAYS fascinating! He had an uncanny gift for combining elegant intellectual thought with human feelings, history and the hidden aspects of culture, all with a tinge of humor - from whacky to ironic - all at once.

Before we left, he asked us if we'd be so kind as to open a can of soup and heat it up for him, and my wife gladly did. As we were leaving I thanked him for making me feel so at ease in my nervousness, and he asked, plaintively, "What's there to be nervous about?"

He insisted on getting in his wheelchair and leading us to the door as we left, and he said something in what I took to be Hindi. I didn't understand any of it, and he explained it was a Buddhist saying about taking things as they come, as I recall. It all struck me as incredibly kind.

My wife and I went to a pub and discussed our day in the presence of the smartest, most interesting, and most alien-like sage we'd ever met or were likely to meet. I think I really had the orgone flowing at that point, and it lasted for hours.


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Great stuff. I love the comparision of Bob's riff's with Coltrane's solos. I'll have to ponder that. It also with how both Bob and Coltrane evolved over their careers. You really presented a great picture of hanging out with Bob.

P.S. A possible theme for a future piece: I think you mentioned somewhere an interest in Led Zeppelin. In Rolling Stone Dave Grohl suggested Zeppelin laid the groundwork for the popularity of Tolkien. Interestingly, the Hebrew letter cheth when spelled out adds to 418. The Hebrew letter teth adds to 419. Tolkien's initials J. R. R. T. also add to 419. I once say a t-shirt that said "4:19 - Got a minute?"

P.P.S. What do you think of E-Prime these days?

michael said...

Without being totally aware of it, I've found that I think of E-rime as being an underrated restrictive device, sorta like what the oulipeans do, but with a much deeper epistemo/ontological theory behind it. I try to keep the "spirit" of it, if not the letter; other times I'll write a passage and then say, "What if I make this entire paragraph conform to E-Prime? On another level, the use of the "to be" copulae are used consciously, w/the knowledge that writing can act like a spell, and it's sorta like owning a gun. Other times I find I'm constantly seeing new implications of, not only E-Prime, but other word-magic that works subconsciously. What a can of worms...worms that turn into spitting cobras or brightly colored candies.

Thanks for the analogous chain of kabbalah/Tolkein/Zep, but now it's in the open!

re: the Coltrane analogy: it seems that cannabis-mind coupled with a profoundly dense encyclopedic mind and a finely seasoned sense of humor informs these rollicking chains of jazzy free-associations on a theme...

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I had not heard of the oulipeans before. Your comments about writing acting as a spell connects with the Tolkien/Zeppelin thread and "Let the music be your master. Do you heed the master's call?"

This leads back to 'Traning -
I. Years with Miles
II. Monk apprenticeship
III. Giant Steps/Kind of Blue
IV. The Quartet
V. Further

& Bobbing for the Golden Apple -
I. Years of reading Joyce, Pound, Korzybski, books for Playboy.
II. Discovering Crowley, Illuminatus
III. Tragedy, Schoedinger's Cat, etc.
IV. Ireland, Swift, Prometheus Rising, etc.
V. E-Prime, Damned Old Crank, etc.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Not be be pedantic, but when did your interview with RAW take place?

I like Eric's comparison of Coltrane with RAW, and your comparison of a Coltrane solo with a RAW answer. I once say Kim Stanley Robinson give an excellent talk at a science fiction convention, and somebody asked him if he records his talks to be transcribed later. Robinson said no, it's like jazz, it loses something if it's not spontaneously in the moment. But I'm sure glad you recorded your interview!

I love the bits of Tolkien in Led Zep's lyrics.

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I also like listening to the Who when reading The Two Towers. John's bass playing sounds like an ent whistle.

Of course, I listen to Elvis when reading The Return of the King.

michael said...

@ Tom: 2/18/03

@ Tom and Eric: The Tolkein is, as I understand it, almost completely Robert Plant's dealio. Lately he's been touring with folkie/bluegrassy Allison Krause, and says that people don't recognize him much anymore. "I'm just an old hippie," he said in a recent interview.

Sue Howard said...

Amazing read - thanks for sharing it. I'd love to hear more, and if you ever get around to putting it in a book, say - I'd buy it in a nanosecond.

FLY AGARIC 23 said...


"Poets should never be too long out of touch with musicians"--Ezra Pound, Literary Essays, pg. 437.

I met both Rob Plant and Tim Tolkien(J.R.R's great nephew) on different occasions(2009/2001) in Stourbridge (a small town in the West Midlands where I was born) after Erik's book--which I still have not read--and this thread here, I come to associate the link between 'Plant and Tolkien' in my Universe, as having a geographical aspect that gives context to include the broader themes of Led Zepp and the works of J.R.R

Tim Tolkien created a monument to actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke, just 2 miles down the road from Stourbridge,

"The memorial takes the form of a giant filmstrip, the illuminated cut metal panels illustrating scenes from some of Sir Cedric's best-known roles, which include The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Shape of Things to Come, and The Ghost of Frankenstein. It was unveiled in November.

"And yet I see beyond that point,
For there is counterpoint and counterpoint
And counterpoint, and dimensions dimension
It is music like music--Sun Ra.

michael said...

@Sue: How kind!
@Fly: I think I know what you mean about art and artists and private associations with geography or topography. I grew up in LA and read very many books set in LA, not to mention seeing films in which I recognize the location shots. For a time I lived in San Pedro, where Bukowski was writing, and met him in a bookstore. I was born in Pasadena, and know the stretch where Parsons blew up his mansion. When I drove through parts of Hollywood, it felt Raymond Chandler-y, although some areas were James Ellroy. Michael Connelly's hero Bosch lived in a boat in the marina not far from where I rode my bike. On and on...Thanks for chiming in!

FLY AGARIC 23 said...

I envy American's for their rich literary geography and tradition, I have yet to find a novel set in Stourbridge or many modern literary landmarks from around the area where I was born. Indeed the thrill of Ellroy, Connelley and other crime masters seem to reflect the atmosphere of large cities, large governments, and thrive in the American 'Urban' wilderness.

p.s I thought Bosch lived in the hills and Terry McCaleb on a boat in the marina?

SatoriGuy said...

Great post Michael. I always enjoy reading about what RAW was like as a person and how he interacted with his admirers. It seems like he appreciated his readers and was genuinely kind to people in general.

All to often it seems that successful public intellectuals and writers tend to develop a certain misanthropy over time. Possibly, as a byproduct of the lonely and financially tumultuous process of becoming a writer. However, it's probably a testament to RAW's philosophy and self-work that he came like a kindly buddhist sage in the face of financial hardship and the struggles of aging.

Also, I've wondered as well why RAW has been misunderstood and dismissed in mainstream literary circles. I find myself compelled to tell anyone and everyone who will listen about RAW ideas and books. I'm sure I come off as an obsessed fanboy to my friends but goddamnit the world would be a better place if everyone read RAW! lol

michael said...

@Fly: you're right. It's been awhile. McCaleb who had the heart problem, FBI dude, lived at Cabrillo Marina, which was near where I lived and rode my bike. Bosch lived in a house on stilts off Woodrow Wilson in the Hollywood HIlls, which is very near where Mama Cass had wild parties where all kinds of people wandered in, had sex, did drugs...including Charlie Manson. I think I've read too much: the world of Ed Sanders, Roman Polanski, and certain novels, plus my actual experiences being in those places can, with time, get mixed up and sort of dreamy...I've always liked the terms "urban wilderness" and "asphalt jungle" and "concrete and glass corridors," etc, re: the labyrinthine metropolis.

I was talking to a friend not long ago about Pynchon's Inherent Vice, and there's a scene where he's driving the 405 south past LAX, and the jets are landing and taking off, flying low near the freeway, and the sky looks a certain way, and I'd driven that very stretch many times. It is like that, aye.

michael said...

@Satori Guy: I wonder also about writers and their temperaments, and I used to wonder if writers were born that way, but then thought that was too deterministic, and there plenty of good writers who do not seem jaded or misanthropic. Then I thought it's the life of writing that makes a lot of 'em uncomfortable in their own skin and/or with the world. Then I realized it's probably a combination of "all the above" plus the writer's developed character and their attempts to take responsibility for their choices as humans, not only as writers.

RAW said there was a proverb from the Middle Kingdom that went something like "One should be a Confucian in good times, a Buddhist in bad times, and a Taoist in old age."

I think I'll aim for that. Right now: Buddhism for me...

I too have felt baldly fanboyish when waxing the merits of reading RAW. The cultivation of uncertainty seems a hard sell and may only resonate with a small percentage of the reading population; part of he reason RAW may not have been "understood" was this enigmatic pragmatic philosophical stance? We're in a world in which, to quote the Colbert character, "Pick a side! We're at war!" seems too true...I've been thinking a lot about Levi-Strauss's anthropology and his "savage mind" that, basically, has a lot to do with counting to three and that's it. Often everything is either/or. And how presumptuous so many citizens in what's commonly called the "First World," with their amazing gadgets and comforts, and info-dense lives...and they still seem like Levi-Strauss's "savages" in their thinking.

I mean: look the political Mind behind "Left and Right: a Non-Euclidean Perspective," gathered in RAW's Email To The Universe, p.127. Compare that Mind to the mind of the current electoral assumptions and concomitant circuses.

This is just one example, I think, of RAW as avant.

Thanks for the good vibes, man!

leogang said...

Reading this interview some months ago was the main prod for me to dive into RAW. I'm very grateful.

On a slightly different note, do you have any personal recommendations of texts that discuss magic?

michael said...

I'm very pleased to have been some sort of catalyst. Other people have done the same for me.

I'm sure you're aware of the wealth of other interviews with RAW collected over at rawilsonfans.com

re: magick texts (I assume this is what you meant; the "k"added generally signifies a difference between what, say, Crowley was an Adept as and what David Copperfield is an Adept at): the first thing I thought of was: have you seen Monsters and Magical Sticks: There's No Such Thing As Hypnosis, by S. Heller?

My intuition says: try it. If you're all over this, have you dove right into 777? Have you looked at the books of Lon Milo Duquette?

leogang said...

I wasn't but I'll check those interviews out right now.

I've read some Crowley but most of my familiarity with him has been via RAW. I'll try 777 next.
I've gone through Carroll's Liber Null and Hine's Condensed Chaos, but I suppose I'm just looking for greater breadth/more insights than the chaos approach as presented by them.
Ahh glad you recommended the Heller/RAW book, I just picked up Uncommon Therapy by Jay Haley!