Wednesday, January 24, 2007

More on Robert Anton Wilson

A memorial service for Robert Anton Wilson has been announced.

Last May, my newspaper, The Sandusky Register, published my column on Wilson. I tried to take advantage of the still-hot "Da Vinci Code" craze to focus attention on Wilson. Here's the text of the column:

If you're sick of hearing about "The Da Vinci Code," Dan Brown's exciting but factually-challenged thriller, this week won't provide any relief.

The new movie, starring Tom Hanks as a college professor who looks like Harrison Ford and dishy French actress Audrey Tautou as a dishy French detective, opens in theaters Friday.

As nearly everyone knows, Brown's book has a cliffhanger at the end of nearly every chapter and is hard to put aside.

But although "The Da Vinci Code" works as fiction, it fails as history. Its controversial claim that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and the two had kids is built upon half-truths and outright falsehoods.

It's an old theory -- I first ran across it on Jefferson Airplane's 1972 LP, "Long John Silver" -- and not a particularly convincing one. Entire books have been published detailing Brown's mistakes. It's not true, for example, nobody believed Jesus was divine until the Emperor Constantine suddenly cooked up the theory at the fourth century Council of Nicaea.

Brown's assertion Jesus must have been married because unmarried Jewish men were unheard of in the ancient world also presents an easy target. Paul of Tarsus, a Jew, converted to Christianity and made a big deal out of the fact he was a confirmed bachelor. You've heard of St. Paul.

Churches use "The Da Vinci Code" to deliver their own message. For pastors, the book is heaven-sent: Americans actually want to listen to lectures and read books detailing the history of early Christianity.

I have my own agenda. I'm hoping a little of the "Da Vinci" hype will rub off on "The Illuminatus! Trilogy," three very odd and very interesting novels by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. Originally published in the mid-1970s as three separate novels, the work now is usually sold as an omnibus volume containing all three titles.

The books helped launch the genre of conspiracy fiction popularized by Brown. The main villains in the books were the Illuminati, a purported secret society also featured in Brown's "Angels and Demons."

In many ways, Brown's very commercial book is an inversion of the "Illuminatus" books, which are too long and too strange to be bestsellers.

The novels are (loosely) about the eternal warfare between liberty-loving rebels and a secret society which seeks to use governments to enslave mankind. The rebels' weapons include self-destructing mynah birds, birds taught to say "Here, kitty, kitty" and then turned loose in the big city to undermine the social order by freaking out witnesses.

And while Brown's characters push the "Code's" main theory rather humorlessly, the Illuminatus novels refuse to take anyone or anything at face value. Ayn Rand's novel, "Atlas Shrugged," becomes "Telemachus Sneezed." The books' hero carries out missions in a yellow submarine.

The books began as a joke during a barroom conversation between the two authors, who at the time were editors at Playboy magazine. The original idea was to write a novel in which every conspiracy theory the authors had ever heard of would be true.

It took several years to find a book company willing to publish the work. The trilogy was never a best seller but has remained in print, attracting a loyal audience of libertarians, nut cases and minor newspaper columnists.

Shea died in 1994, but Wilson, 74, remains a prolific author and radical skeptic who attacks all ideologies, even skepticism.

In a recent interview, Wilson suggested the world would become "more sane" if dogmatic statements were qualified with the word maybe, as in "Maybe God hates gay people," or "There is no God except maybe Allah, and maybe Mohammed is his prophet."

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