Overweening Generalist

Monday, February 9, 2015

Robert Anton Wilson: Missing Books

I've just finished reading Patton Oswalt's book Silver Screen Fiend:Learning About Life From An Addiction To Film (2015) and it was of course very hilarious and entertaining: it's Patton Freaking Oswalt. But I had had no idea he'd haunted the New Beverly Cinema as I had. LA's greatest revival house for film, it had and has a cult following of film freaks and the book is dedicated to Sherman Torgan, who ran the place while Oswalt saw gawd only knows: probably 400 films there over a four year period, 1995-1999. The Appendix (pp.189-222) lists all the films, so I guess I could count but I'm too lazy... Yea: Patton Oswalt saw hundreds of films in movie theaters in those four years, he lists them all: date/film(s)/venue, and it's a lot like my own lists, only his manic phase of crashing the canons of film seemed deeper and more intense than mine. Torgan's programming easily convinced me he knew what films were worth seeing. I knew that if the New Bev was showing it it was probably worth seeing, it didn't matter if I hadn't heard of the film, or if it was from a genre I don't strongly gravitate toward (musicals and gorefest, anything with Doris Day in it). There's a hilarious chapter where he details the unhinged drive to see 12 Hammer Horror films in two days, and eventually, from sleep deprivation and insane film gluttony, the Hammer films begin to run together in his mind with other classic Hollywood films he'd seen recently...he's having a bad hallucination trip while awake, hilariously described, like something out of Alexander Trocchi, while in the theatre supposedly watching another film. A fellow film weirdo asks him if he's okay. Yea. (Noooo.)

I think I started driving from San Pedro up the Harbor Freeway (to the 10) to that predominately orthodox Jewish neighborhood of LA (near the corner of La Brea and Beverly Blvd) around 1996. I drove that stretch a lot. From one corner of the metropolis to another. I think I was aware of Oswalt as a stand-up comedian, and I may have seen him there, but I saw a lot of familiar screen faces there. I remember one night I took a seat in the dark moments before a double feature of Jeunet et Caro: Delicatessen (one of my all-time favorite films), and City of Lost Children. When the delicatessen owner asks "Have I got something right here?" the crowd erupts in laughter (as it should: one of the great anarchic comic moments in cinema history), and I look over at a guy cracking up and note I'm sitting next to Doogie Howser's, best-friend Max Casella.

I remember dragging my wife to see a John Frankenheimer double feature, because Seconds was the second film. Seconds totally slays me. Always. It was a Friday night - date night, when young, well-educated hipsters invaded the New Bev, usually to see the first film, then leave for - their actual lives. They all saw the admittedly great and famous 1962 Manchurian Candidate then left, despite my leaning into the aisle and telling twentysomething strangers filing out: "If you thought that was good, wait till you see Seconds," and no one would even make eye contact with the Scary Old Guy.

                                       a bit from Seconds (1966): Rock Hudson rocks!

Anyway...After Sherman Torgan's death (and Quentin Tarantino publicly standing up for film freaks all over LA by saying "As long as I draw breath, the New Beverly will remain open"), Oswalt attends a "sloppy, spontaneously organized 'wake'" inside the not-too-far-away Egyptian Theatre. (Everyone agreed it wouldn't be right to do it inside the New Bev). Oswalt tells the anecdote about the night Lawrence Tierney walked into the middle of Citizen Kane and sat behind Oswalt and started talking out loud to the screen for about 15 minutes before his handler finds him and ushers him out. Tierney had never seen the film, but the stuff he says, like the best DVD commentary ever - as remembered by Oswalt, coupled with what we know about Tierney's history and that voice - a shimmering anecdote in a book filled with them. (see pp.94-98) (I wonder how many RAWphiles that know of Tierney and his work think of him as a classic 2nd Circuit type as I do.)

After the wake, Oswalt programmed an entire month of fantastic, non-existent films for the New Beverly in Heaven, just for Sherman. Oswalt writes that he got the idea from Neil Gaiman's storyline in  The Sandman books, of "Brief Lives," where there's a "dream library" of books that famous authors never got around to writing, like Raymond Chandler's Love Can Be Murder, or Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures on the Moon. I for one would drop everything going on in my life to go see every one of these dream films, which includes Orson Welles's 1942 Heart of Darkness and Orson's 1944 Batman: Riddle of the Ghoul, starring Gary Cooper as Bruce Wayne/Batman. "And leave it to Welles to populate his movie with six of Batman's cast of villains: Lee Marvin as Two-Face, Edward G. Robinson as the Penguin, Ella Raines as Catwoman, Dwight Frye as the Riddler, Everett Sloane as the Scarecrow and, towering imperiously over the whole mad feast, Welles himself as Ra's al Ghul. The Richard Widmark cameo, at the end, as the newly scarred Joker, leaping toward the screen from the smoking ruins of the chemical plant, still makes people scream. The costumes that longtime fans wear to midnight showings only add to the chiaroscuro carnival." (p.174) I see the great RKO noir Director of Photography, Nicholas Musuraca, doing the lights and camera here, with Orson, of course.

Oh yea: how perfect is this?: In some alternate universe/Torgan's Heaven that Hal Ashby directed A Confederacy of Dunces? John Belushi played Ignatius in a miraculous performance without ever having read John Kennedy Toole's novel. With Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin. Oswalt goes on with this, an invention of 29 films. Hey! I just noticed the blogpost that forms this chapter of "dream films" is HERE! (<----In the blog there, you only get the names of the nonexistent films; you have to get hold of Oswalt's book to read the synopses.)
Reading this bit from Patton Oswalt's film addiction book reminded me of the Books Missing From Robert Anton Wilson's Oeuvre. Many of us have discussed what RAW's Tale of the Tribe would have been, but he died before he could write it. We got a precis, tantalizing to the utmost, at the end of TSOG: The Thing That Ate The Constitution, pp.203-213. If we could pool the no-doubt thousands of pages of notes from RAWphiles on what RAW was hinting at, we might be able to cobble something together. But it wouldn't be RAW.

Now please bear with me: I've gotten hold of some...well...let''s just say I've gotten lucky and was able to obtain a hot underground tryptamine drug made by the Disciples Of Shulgin (DOS). Psychonauts have been reporting that at the half gram dosage level, they've had very pleasant glimpses of other possible worlds, but only those worlds the person had been daydreaming or thinking about in their ordinary, non-stoned lives. I took some after thinking of RAW's books and, for whatever it's worth, here's what I've come back with:

The Shea Correspondence Course: Letters Between Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea (2017): RAW finally collected the vast trove of letters received from his friend Robert Shea, and via excessive volunteer wrangling by RAWphiles, found well over 40 long type-written letters he'd sent to Shea. All of the letters from both men had been dispersed, scattered among numerous friends and collectors of literary ephemera. Interviewed by NPR about the 423 page tome, RAW says from his home in Capitola that he was surprised how much he'd forgotten about how Illuminatus! eventually coalesced, but was grateful such a large number of the letters had shown up after an Internet call-to-arms from his fanatic readers. NPR seemed most interested in the fervor of glee among the cultish readers of Wilson over the publication, long awaited and thought at one time impossible. Why the word "course" in the title, NPR asks? Wilson said his friend Robert Shea was the sort of person whose anarchic intelligence always made him think, and re-reading their letters before publication he realized how much he'd learned. Shea died in 1994. Reviewed at BoingBoing: "I've never seen a correspondence that was so funny and at the same time brimming with endless ideas. Even when they seem to have a simmering feud over some idea or another, you can always tell they loved each other."

Hollywood Notes (2012?): The long-awaited chronicles of RAW's first-hand experiences seeing his books Masks of the Illuminati, The Walls Came Tumbling Down, and the midnight movie Reality Is What You Can Get Away With made into films and the sausage-factory behind the scenes. RAW agrees with Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald: if they want to pay you for the rights, best to just take the money and leave Hollywood. But RAW's too interested in the machinations of filmmaking and while he has grave problems with the liberties directors, editors and script "doctors" took with his material, he seems pleased by the results, all in all. My favorite part of the book is RAW's anecdotes about the film community party scenes in the hills above Hollywood.

Heretic: How Timothy Leary Foresaw the "New Teleology"(2025): This short tome is a surprise hit with academics who had been trying to forge the "New Synthesis" sometimes called the "New Teleology," since the rise in prominence of Sheldrake, epigenetics, CRISPR techniques that helped to rapidly cure most diseases and food shortages. Other texts had emphasized the rapid falling out of favor of "selfish gene" ideas as the main motors of evolution. RAW traces the history of self-organizing life to cosmic panspermia notions and the long list of scientific "heretics" who emphasized latent "systems" inherent in the human nervous system. This book argues that Leary's ideas about the brain and evolution were far ahead of his time (Leary died in 1996), that Neo-Darwinism was always a big chunk of the puzzle, but that scientific visionaries - once marginalized as "crackpots" or "mystics" such as Bruno, Reich, Lamarck, Sheldrake and Leary - are now seen, retrospectively, as victims of a sort of mass hubris and "Mind-Forged Manacles" of working prole scientists/old paradigm adherents (RAW loves to quote the poet Blake). It was said that the philosopher Thomas Nagel was a fan of this book, but this can not be substantiated at the moment you're reading this. At 225 pages and good humor, this one's on many a college syllabus and wins RAW a National Book Award for Non-Fiction.

New Age Sewage (2016): RAW seems to be channeling George Carlin here in his non-fiction satire on anti-vaxxers, Randroids, supply-siders (these last two not New Age per se, merely bad ideas), New Earthers, "race-ists," orthorexics, those fearful of taboo words, and fundamentalists of all sorts. Perhaps surprisingly, the book receives very good reviews from those Skeptics that RAW lampooned in many works. RAW at his most polemical, this book is at least the equal in tone and logical vigor as The New Inquisition and Natural Law.

Life Plus 3000 (2030): RAW's immortality book, which in the Preface he says he'd radically revised at minimum 32 times because of the "Jumping Jesus Phenomenon." A very old version had a working title Death Shall Have No Dominion. I found it most impressive that RAW doesn't gloat here: he'd been writing about longevity and immortality since the 1970s and was scoffed at by New York intellectuals. When the worm began to turn most decisively around 2023 he decided to wrap it up. Now he's been proven "correct" for the most part, but rather than name his fairly "wrong" (and mostly forgotten) detractors, he seems more in awe of Nature than ever.

Collected Writings on Joyce (2014): Joyce scholar Fritz Senn was the impetus behind this. He thought young European readers needed an introduction to Joyce by an intellectual non-academic Joycean. I had no idea RAW had written this much, in such detail, on Joyce. Lovers of RAW's book Coincidance will want to graduate to this text, many of the ideas of which were once too "far out" but have now made it inside mainstream Joyce scholarship.

Robert Anton Wilson's Book of Black Magic and Curses (2007): A rollicking book of humor about domesticated primate hypnosis and words, psychoneuroimmunology, the omnipresence of metaphor, a vindication of Vico and Korzybski, and "How To Tell Your Friends From the Other Apes." One reviewer blurbs on the back cover: "A linguistics book sui generis if I ever saw one. Highly recommended." RAW scholars can now see what Playboy's Book of Forbidden Words was supposed to be, before the editors took out all the most interesting parts. Or, as RAW put it, "The editors at Playboy Press, like most editors, want to pee in the soup before they let go of someone else's work."

Bride of Illuminatus! (2019) Long-awaited. Carries his (and Shea's) saga of certain families and ideas through the Age of Surveillance. The plotlines developed with Edward Snowden vs. Dick Cheney (under disguised names, for this is one long True Shaggy Dog Story) makes this Trip worth reading over and over.

Babylon L-5 (2021) One of the best of the sixty-some-odd books preparing humanity for space colonization. Said to have cheered Elon Musk, who, after reading it, redoubled his efforts to get LaGrange point communities going for industrial production in zero-gravity, followed by his (and others') move to make Project Exurb a reality. Meanwhile, space travel impact on human physiological systems are being solved almost weekly. RAW keeps up on this stuff.

Untitled Epic Poem on Evolution: So far: no publisher. He's said to still be working on it, although over 100 chapters exist in the version that passed through my hands. Seemingly influenced by both Pound's Cantos and Joyce's Finnegans Wake as well as the wildest, most outre ideas about baby universes, brane theory, black holes, and self-organizing Taoist cybernetic feedback loops within loops, the loose-leaf copy I had was over 1700 pages of "holographic poetry" and seemed to fuse in equal measure hardcore-scientific, poetic and mystical ideas. The work functions as an encyclopedia of history and hard science, while reading as poetry. One strain of poetic rumination, about a divine feminine and repressed aspect of history, coupled with - believe it or not - the history of economics (!) makes a bracing case for universal liberation and "true freedom" for all "sentient beings" and a freedom from fear, want, and State and other Gangster coercion, based on communication, humor and massive cybernetic feedback loops of information so dense...well, I just want you all to be able to get hold of a copy some day, as this is a true Terran Archive and "Blueprint For Humanity" (<-----the name of one of the poems.) There were references and allusions enough to support the argument that this might truly constitute RAW's Tale of the Tribe. Difficult and psychedelic. Readers new to Wilson are advised to study his works from 1959-2005 first. Another helpful idea, until the work is finished and published: RAW includes an annotated bibliography that in itself was over 200 pages and quite cosmically hilarious, I thought.

That's all I can remember until I take that particular tryptamine again. If any of you have similar access and find something out about RAW's nonexistent-in-this-world oeuvre, please report back here in the comments!

                                           graphic art by Bob Campbell


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

What a great blog post!

This seems pretty complete, but you left out a few of my favorite unwritten RAW books:

(1) The World Turned Upside Down, (2009) the long-awaited fourth book of "Historical Illuminatus!" with its vivid scenes of the creation of the Bill of Rights, the French Revolution, etc.

(2) "The Black List," (2015) the fifth "Historical Illuminatus!" book focusing on abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and some of the difficult experiences of early Irish immigrants to the United States. This is the book that won RAW his invitation to President Barack Obama's dinner for the Irish prime minister.

(3) National Insecurity (2017), This revisionist book on American foreign policy, more than just the Pearl Harbor book discussed in the Lewis Shiner interview with RAW, also covers the National Security Act of 1947. Wilson was hailed at "the new Gore Vidal" when the Nation magazine ran a cover article on the book. Attacks on the book on the Fox TV network helped propel it to the New York Times bestseller list.

michael said...

I was looking for The World Turned Upside Down, and was surprised when it didn't..."come my way"? Glad you saw it.

Man, I would love to read The Black List. I was wondering what he'd do with the 19th century. Has anyone else...."encountered" The Black List or a Historical Illuminatus book that covers the 19th century?

With the knowledge of _National Insecurity_, many of us will realize the loss in this dimension. I find it hard to believe there aren't notes on this book in THIS world, somewhere.

O! So many Wilson works we've missed!

michael said...


I stumbled upon a note just now: In the "Forum" section of Green Egg mag, Feb, 1974 RAW wrote that had a forthcoming book on Crowley, _Lion of Light_.

Who really knows the degree of ontological status that book had?

Eric Wagner said...

Terrific post. I remember Bob talked about writing a book about the Battle in Seattle.

I also enjoyed Gaiman's Library of Dreams, inspired by James Branch Cabell. I remember Gaiman included Wodehouse's Psmith and Jeeves.

I've imagined a theater of dreams where I could see an uncut Magnificent Ambersons and the original eight hour plus Intolerance, plus an uncut Greed and Kubrick's Napoleon starring Al Pacino, filmed over twenty-three years.

Roman Tsivkin said...

Great post, Michael. Reminds me a bit of Stanislaw Lem's introductions to nonexistent books.

I'd add Welles's unfinished last film, The Other Side of the Wind, to Eric's "theater of dreams" list. Apparently the film is finally going to be released this year (http://variety.com/2014/film/news/orson-welles-final-film-2015-release-1201341048/). Too bad RAW didn't get a chance to see it.

michael said...

@Roman: I always have Lem foremost in mind when it comes to discussion of the contents of nonexistent books, although that sort of thing has a long literary tradition. I mean, who among us can forget the first time we actually dipped into the eldritch pages of the Necronomicon? As just one example...

Almost all of the RAW books that both Tom and I cite as nonexistent have some basis in actual utterances from RAW about books he'd like to publish some day.

Speaking of which: Patton Oswalt was having fun with Orson Welles's film _Heart of Darkness_, but Orson really did want to film Conrad's book at one point, as discussed in some of the very many books about Welles extant, viz: