Conducted by Lewis Shiner, Susan Sneller, and Rick ShannonWe met Robert Anton Wilson in the lobby of the Marriott. It was April 28, 1988, and he was in Austin for a lecture and a workshop. He was dressed casually, his receding white hair combed straight back, his neatly trimmed beard slightly worn just under his lower lip, where he habitually rubs it while talking. He was only a little reserved, considering he'd committed himself to an evening with total strangers. We had a relaxed interview over dinner in the hotel. His answers were slow and well considered, delivered in a somewhat gruff voice that still has the accent of his New York upbringing.
Are you involved with computers?
I know a lot of people in Silicon Gulch. I know a lot of the gossip and shoptalk, but I don't do anything with my computer except write. I know I've got this enormous machine there that will do a million other things, but I'm so busy writing, writing, writing. Overproduction is the only way for a writer of minority appeal to survive.
I'm always trying new things to supplement my income. I did a new type of seminar in Boulder a few weeks ago, which I co-created with a friend named Liz Freeman. Instead of a regular seminar it was a game. Everybody who came in — we had about 40 people — was taken to a little room, and told who they were playing and what their goal was, and nothing else. And then the party began. There were five levels of deception, which we thought would be a lot of fun. The party ran from 3 in the afternoon to 9 at night, and by 9 most people had only got to the second level. We had made it too bloody complicated. Nobody found out how complicated it was. It was all based on competing conspiracies. I've been thinking that could be adapted for a computer game, for networking. If people had enough time they could get back on, in a week, you know, after they've thought it over, and figure out the deceptions.
Do you know about Steve Jackson's Illuminati game?
Everybody I meet thinks it's based on my Illuminatus! novels and I'm getting royalties on it. He claim it's not based on the novels, so I'm not getting royalties on it. Different lawyers give me different opinions. Decide for yourself.
Are you married?
Very. We're going to be celebrating our 30th anniversary soon. 30 years.
I don't know if it's wonderful, but it's sure unusual. Especially in the circles we travel in. The average California marriage lasts about 6 months.
You grew up in New York, then moved to Ohio. Why Ohio?
I was offered a job editing a magazine for a place called the School for Living, which later moved to Maryland. The School for Living had a very interesting philosophy, which was "back to nature, live on the land, eat health food" — and a bit of anarchism and Wilhelm Reich. I agreed with about half of that and thought the over half was kind of flakey, but it was interesting. I thought it would be a great idea to live on a farm and see how I did at it.
I enjoyed it. We were there for two years.
Were you influenced by your years on the farm?
Yeah, I think so. My children were very young then. I guess the oldest was about eight when we left Ohio. I used to look at the grass and crops and trees and goats and cows and at my children and my wife and myself and think about evolution — all these different types of intelligence. I got fascinated by the intelligence of insects. It turned me into a pantheist. No, pantheist is not correct. The technical word is pan-psych-ist. I became more and more convinced that everything was intelligent.
Recently I read a Sufi philosopher of the 14th century who said, "Within every atom are a thousand rational beings." That's just what I've suspected for years.
How did you encounter Aleister Crowley?
I was having lunch with Alan Watts in 1969 and I told him I was writing a book. He asked me what it was about so I told him a bit about the Illuminatus trilogy, including the eye in the pyramid, and he said, "That reminds me of the most wonderful book I've read all year, called the Eye in the Triangle, by Israel Regardie." So I made a note of that. I was working for Playboy at the time — I went back to the office after lunch and I told the Playboy library to order the book. Editors had that privilege at Playboy; you could order any book you wanted and the library would get it in. So I read it and it got me fascinated, and that's how I got involved with Crowley.
So you came into Illuminatus through the conspiracy angle rather than the occult angle.
That's right. I was educated to believe that there are no conspiracies, or if there are we shouldn't talk about them. To think about conspiracies was somehow uncouth or lower class or might cause you to turn into a Nazi in your sleep or something. You should never think about conspiracies or talk about them. But then with the Kennedy assassination ... I just couldn't believe the Warren Commission. I started studying a lot of the different conspiracy theories and then I started running into the really kooky ones. Bob Shea and I used to go out for drinks every Friday evening after work and solve all of the problems of the world over a few Bloody Marys. We were talking about all of these kooky conspiracy theories and Shea said, "Why don't we write a book about all the craziest conspiracy theories." And eventually the Illuminatus trilogy developed out of that.
What have you been reading lately?
The book that impressed me most, recently, is The Psychobiology of Mind/Body Healing by Eugene Lawrence Rossi. It's a book about the neuropeptide system, and how the ideas in the cortex affect the hypothalamus, which affects the neuropeptide system. He explains how people can die of black magic curses and how they can get better if they have faith in something, like Christian Science, or Vitamin C — like Norman Cousins, who had an allegedly fatal disease. Cousins just took massive doses of Vitamin C and looked at comedies on television, and cured himself. I've known these things were possible for many years; Rossi's book gives the best, up-to-date, scientific explanation of how it works, how the neuropeptide system controls the immune system, how the immune system fights off disease or doesn't fight off disease. For instance, we all get cancer eventually, and most of us fight it off. The immune system is strong enough to fight it off. It's when the immune system fails that the disease kills you.
I'm a model of good health considering all my vices. Tim Leary said that recently, he said, "Bob is walking proof of the neurosomatic circuit — he has all the bad habits they warn us against and he's still healthy."
You've often said that we can't trust history — so how do you go about getting accurate historical research?
I don't know how accuracy is to be found in history, given the amount of prejudice and coverup. I don't have any faith in my historical research. I use what seems .... usable. I'm not entirely arbitrary; I can tell the difference between a real whacko and somebody who's fairly intelligent and rational. But even the people who are fairly intelligent and rational have their prejudices, so I don't trust them completely. Sometimes the whackos maybe were accurate.
You feel you've developed a nose for political agendas?
There's a certain style that warns you. There's a paranoid style of writing. When you see that you know you have to take everything very skeptically.
Are there any plans to restore the pages Dell ordered cut from Illuminatus?
No, all that got lost. Dell had the book for five years before they published it. They kept announcing they'd publish it next year, and then the editor would get fired, or quit to take a better job, and the new editor wouldn't know anything about it. The thing dragged on for five years. Finally we got a definite announcement they were going to publish it, but they wanted us to cut 500 pages, and they'd then divide it up into three volumes, which we'd never intended. Shea and I were so worn down, after five years of struggle, we said, "Okay, we'll cut 500 pages." So I said to Shea, "Let's cut it like Godard cut Breathless, totally at random. They're buying it by the pound, they have no concept of literary structure or anything like that, so let's give them a literary structure that's totally original, a stochastic structure." Shea agreed with me, so we just made our cuts at random. We didn't use any principle at all — there are cuts in the middle of dialog, people talking about one subject and suddenly they're talking about another. It's just like Godard did it with Breathless, even ten minutes he made a cut of a few feet of film. It kept the audience off balance. It seemed to work with Illuminatus, too.
When we were doing the cutting I was in Mexico and Shea was in Chicago and Dell was in New York, so in the process of these pages flowing back and forth through this loop, what got cut was lost permanently. I decided to accept it in the Zen way as a lucky accident. It turned out to be an even weirder book than we had planned. And the people at Dell were totally uninterested in literary qualities — they just thought it had enough sex and violence so it might succeed, and had no concept of literature at all. Nobody commented, "Hey you turned your book into total chaos." They were weighing it by the pound. If you've got a big name like Michener you can get a fat book published because everything he writes is a bestseller, but if you're unknown they divide it up into three books, cut it down to a size they can afford to lose in case it doesn't succeed.
Every chapter is based on a Sephiroth of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. You can still find that in there if you look hard enough. It was very carefully planned originally. For instance, Simon Moon's first words in the book are "Crown Point," which turns out to refer to the jail Dillinger escaped from, but it also refers to Kether, the title of the first chapter, and Kether means "crown" in Hebrew and is symbolized by a point. That cabalistic symbolism runs all through the book, every page has parallels with the Tree of Life. There were 22 appendixes, which were the 22 paths on the Tree of Life, and that got cut to eight. I finally just decided to regard it as a joke. That's the way you have to regard capitalism or you either go crazy or become a socialist and I didn't want to do either.
How about politics?
I've gotten increasingly agnostic and I've gotten older, and increasingly wary of ideologies, including my own. So if you tied me to a lie detector, with a gun to my head, I would have to say, most of the time, I'm somewhere on the libertarian-anarchist continuum. But I distrust myself. I distrust being rigidified and getting dogmatic, so I keep challenging my own assumptions and looking at alternatives. Knowing how dumb I am, I don't want to become another dogmatist. I saw what happened to Ayn Rand and sweet Jesus forbid it should happen to me.
Now my political activity consists of making regular contributions to Amnesty International, which I regard as insurance, not as charity. Amnesty has a very simply policy, namely, "People should not be locked up for their ideas." I'm all for that. I figure anybody in jail for his or her ideas is depriving my brain of nourishment. If they could get out and publish their ideas it might inspire me; it might give me new ideas; it might cause brain growth. As long as one heretic is locked up, part of my brain is locked up and I'm not getting the nourishment I need. So that's the one thing I still contribute to regularly: Amnesty. My wife contributes to the American Friends Service Committee — I don't, because she's already doing it. That's about it. I'm very cynical about politics. I have a wan, nostalgic hope that Jesse Jackson will win, just because a black president would restore a balance. So would a woman president, of course.
Large parts of The Earth Will Shake are openly didactic —
I don't mind being didactic. It's unfashionable, but my favorite writers were all didactic — Dante was didactic, Shakespeare was didactic, Chaucer, Jonathan Swift, Ezra Pound.
Do you see a big distinction between your fiction and non-fiction?
No, because I can't tell the difference myself. I think it's entirely arbitrary which books are put in fiction and which are put in non-fiction. I'm a big fan of Charles Fort, and one of the things he said that I especially treasure is, "I frankly offer this as fiction, in the same sense that Genesis and The Origin of Species and Euclid's Geometry are fiction."
Strieber's Communion is entertaining, whether it was true or not.
It's a very clever work of art. He creates more terror in that "factual" book than most "fiction" writers. He knows how to build up the tension and get under your skin. I'm pretty skeptical about abductee stories, but there was a point about three quarters of the way through that book where I found myself looking around the room to see what damned thing might have gotten in in the last few minutes.
I'm not convinced Communion is fiction. I'm not convinced it's non-fiction. It's in a quantum "maybe" state as far as I'm concerned.
Were you a Lovecraft fan before you got into Illuminatus?
I was a Lovecraft fan since I was about 12. I think it was when I was 12 I heard "The Dunwich Horror" with Ronald Coleman as the narrator. It impressed the hell out of me. I started looking for Lovecraft and I couldn't find any Lovecraft books, but I found a few short stories by him in anthologies. Then when I was 14 I found a whole book of Lovecraft, edited by August Derleth. So Lovecraft has been a passion with me most of my life. I like the way he uses techniques that make you think, "Gee, maybe this isn't fiction." That fascinates me, because doubt lasts longer than faith and provokes thought rather than discouraging it.
Surrealism fascinates me, too. The first Surrealist show, people had to come in through a garden where there was a taxicab, and it was raining inside the taxicab but not outside. When the audience — or victims — got past that, the first thing they saw in the building was a big sign that Andre Breton had hung up that said, "Dada is not dead! Watch your overcoat!" At that point the distinction between art and life had been completely obliterated. I aim for that in all my books.
I like happenings, I like that game I was telling you about earlier. I like to blur the distinctions, because most of what we think is perception is actually projection anyway. I like to make people more aware that they are creating the reality they inhabit. Lovecraft taught me a lot about how to do that, in a literary way.
My favorite of all my books is The Widow's Son because I think I created uncertainty better there than anywhere else. I don't think there's anybody in the world who can tell how much of that book is real and how much is fiction. Including me. I don't absolutely know how much to trust my sources.
--- and how much you made up may have been true.
I've had that happen, too. In Illuminatus I made Beethoven a member of the Illuminati. That was a parody of the Christian Crusade in Oklahoma — they were claiming the Beatles were Communist agents. I decided to put it back 200 years and make Beethoven an Illuminati agent. And, my God, that was just a joke, but it's true! Beethoven either belonged to the Illuminati or was certainly a fellow traveler. He was very closely associated with them. I had no idea that was true when I wrote it.
What other SF writers have influenced you?
Robert Heinlein. Some people say Heinlein's later stuff isn't as good as his earlier stuff. There are weaknesses in his later books but there are good things in his later books too. In some ways I think he's gotten worse, and in some ways he's gotten better. But his books are all interesting. They're certainly provocative.
Some people regard books as a narcotic. I regard books as a stimulant. If they don't stimulate me, to hell with them. Same thing with movies. I don't want soothing, sedative movies. I want provocative, challenging movies.
The next science fiction writer who's been a major influence on me is Olaf Stapledon. I think he's the greatest science fiction writer who ever lived, and a greater philosopher than Bertrand Russell or Sartre.
Phil Dick is another of my favorites. In fact there's a lot of synchronicities between Phil and me. Phil and I had a lot of the same sort of paranormal experiences at around the same time. Phil was just as agnostic about it as I am. Cosmic Trigger and VALIS were statements for that time. I'm still mulling over a lot of those things, and Phil would be mulling too, if he were here.
What kind of a person is Timothy Leary?
That's a hard one. Tim says there are 24 Timothy Learys, and which one you contact is a measure of your own intelligence. I guess I've encountered about 18 of them. He continually astounds me. I find him admirable, at times. He's certainly brilliant. He's very funny. At times I find him annoying. He can be very cold and inhuman, and he can be very warm and sympathetic. There are so many facets to Leary that anything you say about him is untrue. He's just too complicated for anybody to summarize him briefly.
Visiting Tim in prison was a really major influence on me. Seeing how he kept himself high and cheerful under those conditions convinced me it can be done.
Have you done any short fiction?
I had a few short stories published, but I sort of stopped writing short fiction when I started getting books published.
Do you have a favorite of your own works?
I like all my books. [Laughs.] If you don't enjoy your work, you might as well give up. Frank Lloyd Wright was a witness in a court trial once, and he was asked, "What is your profession?" and he said, "Architect." The next question was, "What is your standing in your field?" and he said, "I am the world's greatest architect." His friends told him later, "Frank, you carry this arrogance too far sometimes." He said, "What could I do? I was under oath."
You must feel you've had some kind of growth.
I don't think I'm moving towards becoming a Platonic Ideal Writer. I think my style has improved over the years. I think I'm more versatile with certain types of dialog, styles of dialog for different types of characters. And the conversational tone--I'm getting better at that, without getting sloppy, or losing such intelligence as I possess. I think my style has developed, and I'd like to go on developing it.
I want to write a whole book about Joyce someday. I have a lot of ideas for books. One of them is The Truth About Sex. I probably will never do this one; that's why I talk about it so much. I'd like somebody to rip the idea off, so I don't have to do it. There was a book that was a bestseller, ten or 15 years ago, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But You Were Afraid To Ask Your Doctor, and it was in question and answer form. I thought the author was one of the stupidest people I'd ever read. I decided to do the book correctly. It'd be in question and answer form, but instead of one answer to each question there would be four or five, or maybe even a dozen, all from leading authorities, and all contradicting one another. The idea of the book was to show that the authorities don't know what the hell they're talking about. It's an area full of prejudice. There's no real science of sexology yet; it's all various people expressing their personal prejudices and disguising it as psychology or sociology. So I thought, take a question like, "What causes homosexuality?" and give twelve different answers just to show how much the scientific community really knows; they can't even agree about a simple thing like that. "What causes heterosexuality," for that matter? "What is the difference between vaginal and clitoral orgasm?" I'd get about 24 different opinions on that, in the literature.
The reason I'll probably never do that book is getting the permissions from all these authors is a Herculean task, which publishers always dump on the writer. And once they found out what they had agreed to, the experts would all be furious because they'd all look like idiots, because they're all overly dogmatic. They'd be very furious and god knows what they'd do about it. So I hope somebody else does that book and I don't have to do it.
I'd also like to write a book about Pearl Harbor. The revisionist historians have been thoroughly slandered and are mostly out of print. I wouldn't be adding much original; I think everything worth saying has been said by Charles Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes and James J. Martin and a few others. But their books are out of print or hard to find. My book would be just one more effort against what Barnes called "the historical blackout." One more effort to put the facts on record.
Or, I'd like to do a book of eight essays on eight things that everybody believes about history that can be clearly proven to be dubious at best and probably untrue. That the arrack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise. Or the common image of Christopher Columbus. It's pretty well documented that he was a Jewish homosexual, but that's not what we're taught in school. And the genocide of the American Indians. Americans all assume genocide was invented by Hitler. I'd like to document that. Hitler was just copying the example of this country.
I'd like to do an essay on the case against Earl Warren. I remember getting into an argument with Ralph Ginsberg, and he said "I believe the Warren Report, because I believe Earl Warren was a great liberal and an honest man." So I'd like to do a whole review on Warren's record, beginning with putting' the Japanese in concentration camps during World War II, and show what a great liberal Warren really was.
Another book that I am doing, as a matter of fact, when I get the time--I've already discussed it with Falcon press--is New Age, Sewage. I just did a book, The New Inquisition, which was on the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. As usual, when you start writing a polemic, you get carried away by your own rhetoric. I figure I gave them such a drubbing that people are going to think I'm entirely on the opposite side--this being an Aristotelian culture where people think in either/or terms. So I figure I ought to give the New Age a drubbing too, to show what my true position is: agnostic, against all dumb dogma. I especially want to do a chapter on Ramtha, demonstrating that you can be dead 40,000 years and still be a bore.
Have you ever been tempted to pull an L. Ron Hubbard, and start your own religion?
Oddly enough, I've never been seriously tempted, although I think I could get away with it. It reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my daughters recently. She asked if she could borrow some money to pay her auto insurance, and I said, "Sure," and I sent her the money. She called back a few days later to say she got the money and thank me, and I said, "Would you agree there are 20 million cars in California, at least?" And she said, "Oh, at least 20 million." I said, "The lowest insurance you can get is $400." She said, "Yeah." So that's eight billion dollars a year the insurance companies are making, in one state. Eighty billion in ten years. So that was worth spending at least ten million on bribing legislators--maybe a hundred million--to get a law like that through. So I said, "Why don't we start our own insurance company." And she said, "I'm afraid that would be bad karma." And that's why I haven't started my own religion. It's bad karma to swindle people.
What's your opinion on pornography?
I agree with Magnus Magnusson. He's the host of an English quiz show called Mastermind, that's a very--not intellectual, but erudite quiz show. The contestants are all experts in some rare field of knowledge, like German history from 1872 to 1886, or Irish poetry of the 7th and 8th centuries--things like that. The winner is the person who can answer the most questions in one minute.
Anyway, Magnus Magnusson was on an Irish television show and somehow the subject of pornography came up and he said, "I'm absolutely against all censorship." And the host said, "That's on the usual Libertarian grounds?" And Magnusson said, "Of course. But I also like pornography." And I thought, my god, that's the first time I ever I heard that. Everybody else who defends it, they argue on these abstract things, the First Amendment or whatever--in England they quote John Stewart Mill. Magnusson was the first person honest enough to say, "I like it, you know." I like a lot of it. I'm not only against censorship, but I feel the damn people who want to ban it are interfering with my right to enjoy myself.
Kiddie porn is a different issue--that's nothing to do with censorship, that has to do with abusing children.
There's a lot of bad pornography around, but there's a lot of bad detective stories, a lot of bad science fiction. One of the things that fascinates me is, the best pornography I've seen recently is by women, and it's on the Playboy channel. There's a company called Femme Productions. They make very good soft-core porn, very artistic and very sensitive.
The issue that bothers me, where my libertarianism starts to break down, is not pornography, but the exploitation of violence in films. There's growing clinical evidence that it does tend to produce more violence, and that scares the hell out of me. It's caused me a long, painful reexamination of my principles, from which I have not yet emerged; I'm still working on it.
It was right up in the center of my attention in the last few weeks in LA because of this movie Colors, in which Hopper used the actual jackets of actual LA gangs. I can see why he did it, artistically, it makes the film more vivid and real. But the upshot is a lot of the community is in hysterics that this will inspire the gangs and it has already. There's been one shooting, The guy was waiting on line to see the film.
That is a hard one. Hopper is a serious artist, there's no doubt about that. But that's a very hard one and I don't have the answer. I don't believe it's necessary to have the answer all the time. It's better to think a while.
People need to use their creativity to come up with nonviolent solutions.
You know who's urging that? Colonel Jim Channon. He's retired, but he's still a consultant for the Pentagon. He keeps writing proposals for non-violent solutions to problems. He suggested we need a class of Buddhist soldiers. He's a really far-out guy and so far he's had no major influence on American policy.
Has he published?
He has, and he's been widely interviewed. His proposals on hijackers have been used a couple of times. His proposal is they should be given maximum media coverage and allowed to talk to television as much as they want--hours and hours on end if they want to. He says what motivates terrorists is their feeling that nobody in the world is listening. If they feel that everybody is listening, then it's easier to negotiate with them. Where that has been tried, it has tended to work. He's got a lot of other ideas, about the Army going into third world nations where there are anti-Capitalist revolutions brewing and instead of trying to kill the anti-Capitalists, go in and build dams and bring modern technology in, and give the people a better life.
The Sandanistas originally wanted help from the US and we wouldn't give it.
Ho Chi Minh's constitution for North Vietnam , began, "We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men ... " It begins like the Declaration of Independence. He was very influenced by Jefferson. But this country supported the French against them, and when the French couldn't fight anymore, JFK sent American troops in, so Ho became more and more anti-American.
While we're on this subject--I was saying some favorable things about Heinlein a while ago. The thing that irritates me most about Heinlein is his constant pro-war propaganda. What irritates me is not only that I disagree with him, but that it's inconsistent with his basic position. Heinlein's basic position is "never trust the government." They're a bunch of thieves, liars, and looters, they're out to rob us and deceive us and gull us and abuse us all the time, except when they say, "Hey, we want you to go kill a bunch of people on another continent." Then we must believe them, and we're traitors if we have any doubts whatsoever. That is such a thumping, enormous contradiction. How do these crooked, stupid bureaucrats suddenly become honest people we should believe once they declare war?
The only people who are pro-war who make sense are the people who believe the government is divine all the time. I wanted to get this into some science fiction magazine--thank you for giving me the opportunity. I hope Heinlein sees it. [In fact Heinlein died before this interview was transcribed.] Oh, well, if a few people who've been influenced by Heinlein notice this, and notice that contradiction in his thinking, then it's worth saying.
Any final thoughts?
I'd like to see people get a lot smarter, a lot kinder, a lot less gullible, a lot more skeptical, and a lot less paranoid, and a lot more optimistic. I'd follow Leary's basic rule: TFYQA. Think for yourself, question authority.