Monday, August 02, 2010

Michael Johnson answers my questions about Robert Anton Wilson


Few people on Earth know as much about writer Robert Anton Wilson as Michael Johnson, a former Aldous Huxley devotee who walked into a bookstore the dayafter Christmas in 1992 and became a dedicated Wilson fan almost instantly.

Johnson had never heard of Wilson, but bought a copy of RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE SITTING NOW

“I bought it, and stayed up all night reading it before going to work in the library at Palos Verdes, CA, all bleary-eyed. I finished it, then started again from the beginning,” Johnson says. “Within a year I'd read everything that was in print by him, being particularly blown away by Illuminatus! and the SCT.”

Since then, Johnson has intensively read and re-read everything everything he can find that Wilson wrote or cited as an influence. He also seems to have read just about every book that mentions Wilson.

To inaugurate the series of interviews and articles I plan to publish on this site, I asked Johnson if he would agree to let me interview him by e-mail. He agreed, and the interview was conducted in July 2010. Although I told him he could reject any questions he didn’t like, he answered all of them.
Johnson, 49, has worked as a rock music guitarist, a music teacher and a library employee. He and his wife live in Berkeley California.

Johnson posts comments at and other sites devoted to Wilson, but he doesn’t have a Facebook or Twitter account or a blog of his own. “I'm glad other people do that and find it helpful; I'm far more stodgy than most, it seems. I'm committed to books. (And in turn some people think I should be committed, but that's anotherkettle of fish.)”

Q. What are your favorite RAW books?

A. Over the years it has changed; I vacillate. The Widow's Son seems uber-RAW to me because he's working all (mostbunall?) of his favorite late 20th c. ideas into a novel set in the late 18th century. At the same time he's also doing his "historical novel" with a bit of Bildungsroman added in, PLUS he's got that whole other footnote-world counter-narrative, which captures the mad acidhead postmodernist-cum-surrealist Erisian Wilson. I love that book. He did too. He said when he wrote it — circa 1985 — he was "really hot." He wrote that one in Ireland.

I could go on about other favorite books by Bob, but I'll let it stand there. The easy answers would be either Illuminatus! or Schrodinger's Cat, because I've had endless hours of joy — as I bet your readers have too — and they are practically inexhaustible. "Inexhaustibility" was a very high value for RAW himself as far as hisown literary tastes went, witness his 50-plus-year mania for Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, and Pound's Cantos, amongst other weighty wiggy tomes.

I'm also crazy about Cosmic Trigger Vol III: My Life After Death. So much so that I wrote an index for it. In that book I think RAW got deeper into the issues of "mask/reality" that he often hovered around and played with in the past; he had a lot more to say on the topic and that book fleshed it out, I thoughtwas really well integrated. I think it's one of the greatbooks about postmodernism — his take on pomo — and it also highlights him as a non-academic intellectual in a particularly brilliant way.

Robert Anton Wilson and Michael Johnson, Feb. 18, 2003, in Wilson's apartment. Wilson's shirt designates him as a "Pope."

Q. You discovered RAW when you stumbled on a copy of RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE SITTING NOW in a bookstore in 1992. Do you think your perspective on RAW is any different from the vast majority of us, who came to him via ILLUMINATUS!, or is that irrelevant?

A. Wow. Okay, I confess I've been asked when I started reading RAW many times and I always winged the answer because I didn't really know until now. Your question prompted me to look back in my old journals and try and find the exact day I found RWYASN. I have written in a journal (usually just a log of the day's events) almost every day since September of 1989. It's compulsive, really.

So I took about 35 minutes today and found this entry from December 26, 1992 - I was WAY off!:

"On to Borders, where I blew $41 of Noble's (my future father-in-law) $50 gift certificate. on Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience, Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade (in the Women's Studies section), and Robert Anton Wilson's Right Where You Are Sitting Now. I have been leafing through Wilson and am rapidly falling in love...he's so hip and intelligent! UFOs, drugs, conspiracies, semantics, strange loops, Teilhard, games, humor, Bucky Fuller, entropy, evolution, witches, consciousness, Wm. S. Burroughs, on and on and on. I could easily get hooked on this stuff. Like eating potato chips."

So first off: thank you, Jackson, for forcing me to nail exactly when I stumbled onto RAW.

I think my perspective must differ from every other RAW reader — and each reader from all the others — if only because I take Korzybski seriously: No two experiences are identical, for a welter of reasons — age, genes, previous education, unconscious habits, imprints, the phenomenon of time and a person's place in space and perspective, whether they're having a bad day, etc, etc, etc.

On another level of abstraction, I've met many a RAW reader and it's almost always like I've found someone from my Tribe. Most of the RAWphiles I've met strike me as scary-smart but not really thinking they're all that brilliant. They do like to smoke dope and laff, aye! state the obvious.

I think you're probably right in that Illuminatus! was the entre for many a Wilsoniac, but then again I think Cosmic Trigger Vol 1 was also a tremendous first reading of RAW for a lot of my fellow weirdos.

So to answer your Q: yes, it's irrelevant.

AND: better than eating potato chips, turns out.

Q. Why did that book have such an effect on you? What elements of RAW's philosophy made you determined to find out everything you can about him?

A. Well, what I didn't write about in that first journal entry (Which I thought no one would ever read; I always write in my journal asking myself "Why would anyone wanna read this shit?" and then, "Well, they won't. I'll die and someone will look through this mound of bound-spiral notebooks and just dump them in the round file." Then again, "Then why are you writing? Ego? Lack of serotonin leading to some mild form of hypergraphia? What, asshole?") Anyway...What I didn't write about in that...what was the question? Oh...

Later, after seriously delving into RAW and his ideas about information and structure, his influences — especially Burroughs and Pound and McLuhan for RWYASN — I think he knew the structure of that book was a large part of the info-dense character of it. (It's dedicated to Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, "pioneers.") There's a bit in there where he says the book is a machine for living in, or something like that, and he invokes Le Corbusier's name. It was cut-up/experimental enough to not be "too much" for me at the time, as WSB's Nova Express and Joyce'sFinnegans Wake were when in my first delvings. I found that book and RAW at just the right time, maybe?

I told RAW that RWYASN was where I found him, and that I still dearly love that book after many re-readings, and he seemed a little surprised. I don't think he'd heard that very often.

The crux of my interest in his philosophy lies in the matrix of model agnosticism/perception/language/"reality." For RAW, epistemology seems to be the handmaiden of ontology, but maybe I'm just full of shit.

Q. Tell us about your upcoming book about RAW.

A. I've already ditched about 300 pages, because I'm trying to learn how to do this thing called, umm..."writing a book that would not be boring if I were the reader." Lemme see: I will try to show how RAW's oeuvre is similar to many of his contemporaries, but the interest lies in DIFFERENCE. I will trace the trajectory of his career as a particular kind of Artist-Intellectual. I have outlined his outstanding metaphors and recurring tropes as I have read his body of work, and I note that beneath all the deep play there's an urgency. RAW was very much like Buckminster Fuller, in that he wanted humankind to be "a success in universe." The Bomb seems always lurking behind Wilson's work.

I flesh out a minor bio, I have a long interview in there, and I go over each book, not in E-Prime like Eric Wagner's book The Insider's Guide To Robert Anton Wilson, because I find the E-Prime thing too difficult, although the spirit is there...I'm quite fascinated by RAW's sociology of knowledge and the deeper structures of it. I speculate, bullshit, pull legs, put-on...and try to situate RAW as a thinker, a hairy endeavor indeed for a damned eejit like myself.

Ya know? I just realized something profound. Yosemite Sam was right! Bugs Bunny was INDEED a "long-eared ijit-galoot"! Let that sink in a bit...

I recently realized, via Ed Sanders, via Charles Olson, that I'm trying to do my "Saturation Job." See p.420 of Sanders' book on the Manson group, The Family, 3rd edition. Oh? You don't have that on hand? Okay, here is the relevant passage, for any other writers in a similar quandary:

[Sanders is talking about trying to score ultra-elusive videos of
famous people fucking for who-knows why]:
"Then the meeting ended. During the next few days I strove to complete
the deal, to no avail. I couldn't devote full-time to it, since I had
begun writing my book, the biggest book of my life. My mentor, the
great bard Charles Olson, had written about a 'Saturation Job,' as a
rite of passage for a writer of substance. In a Saturation Job, Olson
pointed out, you studied one subject, whether a place or a person or
persons, 'until you yourself know more about that than is possible to
any other man. It doesn't matter whether it's Barbed Wire or Pemmican
or Paterson or Iowa. But EXHAUST IT, Saturate it. Beat it. And then U
KNOW everything very fast: one saturation job (it might take fourteen
years). And you're in, forever.'"

"Writer of substance." Aye, there's the rub!

Q. I hope you will finish the book, rather than spending years working on it. If you have second thoughts, you can always write another book!

Rudy Rucker, in a book called SEEK that collects his nonfiction, described RAW (at age 62) as an unpleasant person who was only easy to be around when he was inebriated on alcohol or pot. What was your experience with RAW, and what did you think of Rucker's account? Was RAW generally kind to fans?

A. I was disappointed in Rucker's aloofness towards RAW. It would've been easy to find out RAW's wife of 40+ years was dying — I either remember or suspect Rucker knew this yet was still kind of a dick writing about RAW — that his post-polio made long plane trips to places like Portugal (where they filmed) far more uncomfortable than any of us could imagine, and that RAW needed the money desperately, having bills and a brood. It was a dark and difficult time for Wilson, and Rucker seems so blase about Bob's pain. Rucker is freaking brilliant though; I love his books. He's distantly related to Hegel, or so I heard him say when he gave a talk in Berkeley three years ago. All of his books have stimulated me, but some of the math is over my head. He's prolific too. In that piece you cite of Rucker's, if I remember, he said he thought RAW was obviously a genius of some sort; I think the same of Rucker. [Editor’s note: The article, originally published in “bOING bOING” magazine, was about a 1994 movie made in Portugal called “The Manual of Evasion.” The Internet Movie Database lists nothing about the movie, but excerpts are posted on YouTube.]

Rucker once said he liked the IDEA of people doing psychedelic drugs; he himself wasn't interested. Maybe there's a bit of a wedge there? And then again he and Terence McKenna (TM was also in that same Portuguese film with RAW and RR) were born in 1946, while RAW was 14 years older. So there was a generation gap? Who knows? (See my bit about Writin' 'N Fightin' below.)

I could speculate too much about the Rucker perspective on Wilson as depicted in that piece in Rucker's Seek! Selected Nonfiction. I don't want to misrepresent Rucker. Wilson is an object of interest by many a writer/artist/musician, and this picture of RAW by Rucker represents an anomaly, in my experience. I have heard numerous accounts of RAW being incredibly sweet with his fans. When I asked for an interview, he invited me and my wife into his home, and made me feel very comfortable. He seemed like a Buddhist sage with otherworldly intelligence, spoke in complete paragraphs from questions I had not given him beforehand, quoted passages of Pound from memory, had limitless jokes. I had the feeling that interviews were a sort of performance for him, but he was also genuine and warm. I've heard similar stories from others.

At the same time I couldn't help but feel this guy doesn't suffer fools gladly, and was so trying not to be one. The documentarians doing the film about him called Maybe Logic were there when I got there, all their equipment set up, so he was warmed up and I was nervous and he made me feel relaxed. By the end of the interview we were discussing things more as equals, and he was extremely open-minded and listened attentively. He complained that it was hard to keep up on everything; he felt like he'd fallen behind. When I asked him if he'd read this or that book and he hadn't, he said there were a lot of books he had not read! (I admitted to thinking it seemed like he'd read EVERYTHING.) His apartment was filled with gifts from friends and fans, books piled up everywhere.

As far as pleasantness and inebriation, one writer who knew RAW since the 1970s said — and I'm quoting this second hand, so maybe I have it right — that he never saw RAW not stoned! (Let us chalk this up as "lore"?)

Q. I want to explore a few vexing questions for Wilsonians. Here's one: What do you think happened to the material that was cut from ILLUMINATUS! at Dell's insistence? Do you believe any of it survives?

A. Jesus H. Christ on a pogo-stick, I wish it would resurface, but I have strong doubts it will. I think if RAW could've recovered it he would've found a way to sculpt it — ideally working in tandem with Shea — into another genius tome and get it into our hands. I see no reason to doubt the official story (from him) that it's lost. 500 pages or so! Can you imagine a 1300 page version of Illuminatus! ??? The reel minds, or rind meals, or...see what I mean?b

Q. Do you have any insight into how far Wilson got on BRIDE OF ILLUMINATUS, and why it was never finished?

A. Of this question I have almost no insight. I hope to tease out some more info before my book gets published. When I saw him give a talk after Cosmic Trigger III came out, in Santa Monica, he got that question about Bride. I recall him saying there will be a satire on the OJ Simpson fiasco, and Monica Lewinsky. He said very little about his upcoming book projects, which with hindsight seems like a "smart" thing to do.

Q. How much material was cut from SCHROEDINGER'S CAT when it was reduced from three separate books to one omnibus edition?

A. Quite a lot of really really RILLY cool stuff, to my eyes. I don't have the actual page count difference. I had read the omnibus edition four or five times before I finally scored all three of the originals via Ebay, and I was astonished and delighted there was so much "new" and Wilsonic-trippy stuff that got left out of the one-volume edition. Why? The ways of the publishing houses are inscrutable to me. I have the feeling that if I found out someone who knew the straight answer it would be something like, "Oh yeah. That was Joe 'Bottom Line' Smith who edited that. He took one look at it, said, 'Naw. Sorry. Too big. No one's buying fat books anymore,' then cut out a shitload of pages. He quit soon after that and became a broker on Wall Street."

Do I sound jaundiced?

On the other hand, RAW ended up with New Falcon because they wouldn't tamper-edit his books. The drag of it is: he could've used someone at least proofing his books there. They are filled with typos, and only two of his non-fiction books published by New Falcon have indexes. And I don't think they had any marketing budget to speak of. But I digress...

Q. Did TALE OF THE TRIBE turn into EMAIL TO THE UNIVERSE, or was it never completed?

A. The way I understand it, RAW wanted to write the book that is delineated with tantalizing tidbits at the end of TSOG: The Thing That Ate The Constitution, pp.203-213. He ended up publishing Email To The Universe instead, and there's no bloody way that was what he was wanting for Tale of the Tribe. He ended up finding about half to a third of old pieces that Mike Gathers, Eric Wagner, Dan Clore, myself, and a few others had found in disparate old magazines that had never made it into RAW's published books. We had collected tons of stuff we'd bought on eBay or had stashed in old boxes somewhere, some of it from quite obscure little magazines. Gathers took the time and put it all up at I think he did a helluva job. One day, New Falcon asked Mike to take certain pieces off the site, and he did without complaint. Those pieces ended up in E to the U. Gathers got a free copy out of it.

There's a quote from RAW in an old entry for him in the reference set found in libraries, Contemporary Authors. He said he had, if I recall correctly, about 1500 articles in print before he made it as a writer. And those articles were in scholarly journals, porno mags, little literary mags, schlocky publications, everywhere. And in a circa 1980 interview with Dr. Jeffrey Eliot he told Eliot he'd rather be "rhino-gored" than to see some of those pieces re-surface. Methinks RAW saw quite a lot of stuff at up at and thought they weren't half-bad at all, at all. I'm glad he was able to put out that last book with our anonymous help. He was having a really tough time those last eight years or so, after Arlen died. His post-polio syndrome really did a number on him; cannabis was a godsend for him, but being stoned all the time definitely slowed his writing down. But I quite like E to the U, don't you?
I think it remains for one of his disciples to carry on and write a heavily-influenced by RAW Tale of the Tribe. The blueprints are on the pages I cited for TSOG, above. And he did an online course for his MaybeLogic Academy that was intensively "Tribe" oriented. There are many others more qualified than I to comment on this projected last book.

Q. Do you believe Wilson's fans will succeed in keeping interest in his writing alive?

A. Maybe it's just selective perception, but I see it, yeah. I think it's building, slowly. I do think Wilson was quasi-tragically ahead of his time. But if it was between dying out or growing interest, my money's on him getting bigger over the next decade or so. Let it ride, too! I hope to be some sort of influence on that, obviously.

Q. How aggressive do you believe Wilson's family will be in bringing his out of print books back into print and bringing new material into print?

A. That one scares me a bit. My impression is that (I will just say "they") they knew he was an author with a particularly devoted fan base; I don't get the impression they understand his work the way fans like you or I do. I hope I'm wrong. Wilson did leave his kids with debts. They may be jaded, I don't know. It's in their best interests — one would think — to maintain control of the rights and to keep him in print, but there are too many moving parts there for me to tell for sure.
If they do have unpublished material I wish they'd let someone like me edit it first! (Am I dreaming?)

Q. You have worked for years as a musician and guitar instructor. Do you have any particular insight into Wilson's writings on music?

A. I asked him why Beethoven, especially the Ninth Symphony, shows up so often and with such prominence in his work. I said, is it because he represents your highest ideas about Enlightenment? He bluntly said he'd had a peak experience while high on acid and listening to the 9th. Ahhh...why didn't I guess that? I asked him if he wrote with music on, and he said he listened to "light" classical sometimes while writing, but his favorites — esp. Ludwig van — were too engrossing; they demanded all of your attention.
He once listed favorite pieces in Usenet under the nym "Mark Chan." I remember they were all classical, maybe a jazz performer or two, and then last, "Iron Butterfly." I think Wilson's take on rock was ironic because he perceived it was the music of his fans, but he thought JS Bach wrote the "sexiest" music in history.
I have a section about RAW and music, so I don't wanna blow my wad here. I will say that I think the hotbed — or one of the hotbeds — for RAW's thinking about music is found in Sigismundo Celine's interior monologues as found within the Historical Illuminatus Chronicles.

Q. I've never noticed any reference to sports in Wilson's writings. Do you know if he had any interest in any sports?

A. I mentioned this to Eric Wagner years ago, and he said RAW had interest and knowledge of Joe Louis, Babe Ruth, and few others, if I recall with any accuracy that email exchange. But by and large, I'd say, comparatively speaking, RAW was not a big sports guy...and can you blame him? Having polio and being as cerebral as he was as a kid? He liked Mailer, I'll say that. Is that sports? He was also an acquaintance of the great Oakland/Berkeley-based writer Ishmael Reed, whose Mumbo Jumbo reminds some of us of Illuminatus! and Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 in tone and antic humor and secret society tropes. Reed says, "Writin' is fightin'!" From Hemingway to Mailer punching Gore Vidal: writers as boxers, trying to knock their fellow (Male? Oh let's let in Joyce Carol Oates for fairness...) writers out of the ring, writin' bein' fightin' 'n all, ya know...

Q. It's my impression that California is a particular hotbed of Wilson fans. Has that been your experience?

A. RAW and Leary had some things to say about the maverick genes lighting out for the territory, and ending up in California, the edge of the Pacific, the Granola State, filled with fruits and nuts. But they were also serious: they thought that genetic neophiles agglomerated in California, where you got Hollywood and Silicon Valley, CalTech and JPL and Berkeley, the progressive-liberalism of San Francisco, and all kinds of weirdo cults and inventors: their kinds of peeps! At times they identified parts of California as the avant garde of 5th circuit Hedonic Engineering: hot tubs and pot, fine wines and tantric cults, surfing and fucking on the beach, then going to a movie after a vegetarian meal. (This all fits more the coast of CA; the inland areas can be pretty conservative and pent-up-regressive, right wing, what have ya. Their point was generally: when there is enough Wealth, more people will activate the somatosensory circuit of "feeling good" floating, which usually leads to tolerance towards others doing their own things. It can happen anywhere.)

I think it's probably right that CA has more RAW readers than any other state, but hell, it's a big-assed state, and the neophilic gene thing was probably a rhetorical flourish not quite fully-baked. I know he has a substantial fan base in Germany. He said he thought it was the children (and their children in turn) who were particularly raised to Question Authority, after the unpleasantness of 1914-45. Anywhere there are freaks like us, we will find guys like RAW. Libertarians and anarchists of various stripe, Discordians and Sub Genii, futurists, New Agers with scientific educations, surrealists, particularly literary science fiction fans, entheogenic enthusiasts, and people who like dense, eccentric and difficult heretical ideas, writers and thinkers will gravitate towards Wilson, wherever they are. Anyone can find him, even right where they are sitting now.

Q. What did you think of Eric Wagner's "An Insider's Guide to Robert Anton Wilson"?

A. 1.) He knows more than he let on.
2.) Any first book on an author starts the conversation in a literal way, for me at least, and for that he's to be commended. Subsequent books on Wilson will have to answer some of what Wagner addressed, if only to take issue with him. I'm grateful he got the first book on RAW out there.
3.) There are some tremendous insights in there; there are some things that really opened my eyes, and we're all lucky he spend time with RAW and corresponded with him.
4.) He carries the E-Prime off really well. No mean feat!
5.) Wagner takes his epistemology very siriusly indeed, and that renders his book as at times wildly subjective, intensely personal...really pretty avant in approach, especially for a first book on the subject. I admire him, but I think he hurt his cause a bit by being so subjective (which seems in keeping with a certain strict reading of RAW and Korzybski regarding "what we can know").
6.) He definitely "knows" more than he lets on. (I know I already said that.) I wrote the first review of the book at the Amazon site.