on June 12, 2004
This is a hard book to get started on. When I first started reading this book I got a hundred pages into it and set it down for 6 months. I did this two more times. After about 2 years, I was in between jobs and had enough time to devote myself to reading it. Reading this book is like looking at Finnegen's Wake for the first time. It is a good book that needs time, patience and a little understaning. Treat it like a new puppy and you will watch it grow up in front of your eyes. There are many drug and sexual references in it but they are to be taken light heartedly.
on January 6, 2004
Live From Chapel Perilous
We're living in Robert Anton Wilson's world
In 1973 Thomas Pynchon published an enormous experimental novel called Gravity's Rainbow. In 1975 Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson published an enormous experimental trilogy called Illuminatus! Both were written at about the same time, and both offered panoramic perspectives on history, liberty, and paranoia.
Gravity's Rainbow won the National Book Award. Illuminatus! won no awards, save a science fiction prize issued a decade later. Gravity's Rainbow is often assigned in college classes. Illuminatus! might be required in some school somewhere, but such spots are surely few. Judging from anecdotal evidence, more people have started Gravity's Rainbow than Illuminatus! But far more people have finished Illuminatus! than Gravity's Rainbow.
Robert Anton Wilson is the unacknowledged elephant in our cultural living room: a direct and indirect influence on popular books, movies, TV shows, music, games, comics, and commentary. (His late co-author has left less of a mark: Many of Wilson's books have cult followings, while the only Shea effort to make a big splash was the trilogy he wrote with Wilson.) Allusions to Wilson's work appear in places both classy and trashy: There's a Wilsonian stamp on films as diverse as Magnolia, The Mothman Prophecies, and Sex and Lucia, and it's because of Wilson and Shea that the Illuminati, a secret society that once lurked only in right-wing conspiracy tracts, became the villains of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider. Now Wilson's the star of a lively documentary, Maybe Logic, that's being screened at film festivals and distributed on DVD.
Wilson is a primary source for the ironic style of conspiracism, a sensibility that treats alleged cabals not as intrigues to be exposed or lies to be debunked but as a bizarre mutant mythos to be mined for laughs, metaphors, and social insights. If you were an amused aficionado of conspiracy folklore in 1963, you were a lone hobbyist or specialist. By 1983, you could turn to a number of fanzines, comics, and weirdo institutions such as the Church of the SubGenius, a satiric cult founded by some Illuminatus! fans. By 1993, you were a target market for several half-joking mass-market conspiracy tomes; your sensibility was reflected regularly in magazines such as Mondo 2000 and The Nose; and two brand new pop juggernauts were about to enter your heart: The X-Files and the World Wide Web.
And by 2003, this was all standard background noise. These days, choosing your politics is a matter of choosing who you're more afraid of, the Washington cabal that's openly trying to erase your freedoms or the various foreign cabals that are openly trying to kill you. Like it or not, we're living in Robert Anton Wilson's world.
Illuminatus! did not invent this mental universe sui generis. But it was Illuminatus! that created the template, with its sprawling story that treated every interpretation of the world, paranoid or not, as equally plausible and equally ridiculous. And it was Wilson whose other novels and essays, from the historical fiction The Earth Will Shake to the autobiographical Cosmic Trigger, explored conspiracy theories not to expose "the truth" but to reveal the ways we construct strange stories out of the everyday truths we only hazily perceive.
This wasn't a purely abstract intellectual pursuit. In the early '70s, experimenting heavily with psychedelics and other forms of "deliberately induced brain change," Wilson underwent a series of unusual...experiences. "Around 1973 I became convinced for a while that I was receiving messages from outer space," he informs us in Maybe Logic. "But then a psychic reader told me that I was actually channeling an ancient Chinese philosopher. And another psychic reader told me I was channeling a medieval Irish bard. And at that time I started reading neurology and I decided it was just my right brain talking to my left brain. And then I went to Ireland and discovered it was actually a six-foot-tall white rabbit -- they call it the pooka."
A little later he comments, "I like the giant rabbit from County Kerry because there's no chance anyone will take that literally."
Including yourself? asks the interviewer.
Wilson agrees. Then he adds, "Well, not too literally." He glances over his shoulder. "Sorry about that, Harvey."
If there's a central message to Wilson's work, the film tells us, it's the agnostic notion that you can't be completely certain about anything -- and that even when you're pretty sure an idea is baseless, it might be fun to entertain it for an evening. Somewhere between absolute belief and absolute incredulity, he tells us, the universe contains a maybe. To which anyone who follows the news these days can reply: No doubt.
Associate Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air (NYU Press).
on February 4, 2004
3 STARS ONLY BECAUSE I LIKE THE SUBJECT MATTER. Otherwise, 2 stars.
This book tries too hard to be mindblowing and, unfortunately, the only way it aspires to this end is by confusion. There are several groups of characters in this trilogy who have different beliefs. Each group is presented a little bit at a time contrasted with the others, making it difficult to keep track of which group believes what.
The narrative jumps back and forth in time, dreams, 1st person, 3rd person, fantasies, hallucinations, tricks of pereception, etc. I see the reason for this. It's really pretty obvious, especially when you're talking about RAWilson. What's real, what's belief and what's the importance of either? Yes, yes, great point. But, please. 700 pages or so of this nonsense is a bit much. Dude, my mind is blown. Not from this, though.
The book would have made a MUCH better read if the ideas and the plot were developed clearly. In fact, it probably would have been more mindblowing when reality shifts occur. When the whole book is a mess, it reads very much like a William Burroughs' cut-up book like The Ticket That Exploded (you might read 3 entire pages with a wandering mind and not even bother to go back and reread it to be sure of what you read because it's most likely not very important).
Loaded with disjointed conversations which also serve to completely bore the heck out of the reader. Down-to-earth fictional conversations of important historical figures occur frequently -- for what? To show their fictional 60s-era humanity? Boring.
on January 15, 2009
WOW this book completely destroyed my mind (in a non bad way). I had to work really hard to keep my focus for the first couple of hundred pages but by the start of the second book i was totally captivated.
If only there was a real life Hagbard Celine...
this book comes highly recommended, in fact this is my #1 most recommended book of all time.
Read it. Get confused by it. Love it
on May 19, 2003
Is this trilogy a fantasy, a treatise, a cosmic romp, or the stream of consciousness meanderings of two madmen? I think yes.
Wilson and Shea, in their only collaboration, have a great time weaving conspiracies, numerology, science, pseudoscience, practically everything else they can get their minds around.
The writing is lively, outrageous, and funny, but the details and cross references of ideas means that one should take the time to read these books when there are few distractions.
Do not, however, use these books as a basis for Sunday school lessons or self-improvement exercises.
The 23 enigma is given full play here, so be on guard. Once let loose, it will overwrite your neurolinguistic programming and established paradigms.
(I loaned a friend my first set of these books for him to read while he was traveling in Europe. As he was reading in the books a scene where the characters visit the statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, he decided to do the same. When he returned to his room, the second and third books were missing. Nothing else was taken including the first volume.)
on April 5, 2003
Imagine a world in which all the conspiracy theories are true, and you get the very bizarre alternate universe of the Illuminatus! Trilogy.
The book is sometimes very funny, and hits on most of the major conspiracies, letting you know about the "death" of John Dillinger, the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill, the Kennedy Assassination, the theory of George Washington's imposter, and so forth. It was written in the 1970s, so it is a bit dated, and its countercultural viewpoint is somewhat out of place today.
It is a very badly structured book -- dozens of characters, hundreds of plot lines, and takes place in many different times and places. The book also will change from one plot to another, mid page, without any type of break letting you know that the story is changing. This is done intentionally to create a "mosaic" in which the various conspiracies and characters can interact, but to a reader it is very maddening.
I love conspiracy theories, but rather than be content with existing organizations and places, the authors throw in a few of their own, each with annoying acronyms; as if to show how clever they can be.
The men who wrote this are obviously very intelligent and well schooled in conspiracy theory, but the book lacks any kind of coherent structure or editorial discipline. There is a lot of sand and a few pearls.
Should be in the library of any conspiracy buff, but it is not on my list of favorites. It also cannot hold a candle to Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum", which goes over some of the same ground in a much more coherent fashion.
on February 11, 2003
Many things can be said about Shea's and Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy. It is not immune to literary criticism, except for its blatently self-acknowledged frivolity. This is a very crafty prophylactic device, leaving critics and apologists alike to identify their own preoccupations in relation to the material content and style of the novel.
More importantly, this work presents, through its phenomenally colorful cast of characters and imaginative themes and events, a veritible cornucopia of historical facts and thoughts about the real life of politics, religion, metaphysics, psychology, crime, fanaticism, conservativism, liberalism, etc., and behind-the-scenes activities, real and imaginable, of the major institutions of global culture and civilization.
The full reading of this epic novel forces the reader to assimilate such a complex amalgamation of diverse and conflicting, subtly interacting currents of thought and action that it would seem that no imaginable position is left unsatirized. Ultimately, this enables the reader more clearly to understand one's own thoughts and actions within the context of the full blown dimensions of our tumultuous modern/postmodern world.
The information download alone makes this book well worth the reading. The great humor employed in the characterizations and blending of known facts and prominent personages makes the assimilation of this historical knowledge a most delightful experience. Victims of our national school systems in America and elsewhere can easily remedy that deficiency to a great degree by the reading of Illuminatus!
on February 6, 2003
First off, let me first say that I'm not one of those reviewers who say this book is total garbage. Wilson & Shea are clearly well-read and have quite a breadth of knowledge.
Much of the facts the use to establish the framework are true (Important exception [among several]: The Great Seal of the United States on the back of the dollar does have 13 levels, but there are NOT 72 [or is did they say 73?] sections in the pyramid- there are less than 64, and it doesn't occur to them the 13 stands for the number of colonies that became the US after the revolution! Also, that is not a marijuana plant being held in the eagle's left talon. I understand the book isn't meant to be taken seriously, but the part 've mentioned is possibly the most idiotic part of the book.), even though the plots that are based on them quite often go off the deep end.
I laughed my buns off when the reviewer below actually thought the George Washington "pot farms" were RAW's invention. Even though it's not mentioned in the book, Thomas Jefferson also smoked it, and he even developed a sort of "cotton gin" type device for processing it!
There are many other examples, but the weaknesses of the book and the authors are sufficient to knock it down to two stars. The book sloppily written- the plot has a tendency to ramble.There is little to no character devolopemnt, and when it does occur it is presented unrealistically. There are too many characters, and unlike Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, they aren't very functional. In addition, it's pretty clear that RAW and Robert Shea are classic cases of being intelligent people who know a lot, yet have little or no comprehension of how thing operate (which explains most of their inanities).
The Stream-of-Conscousness(sic) style of writing is abused in a way that blurs determination of context for the reader. In the typewritten format of the book- not in the novel itself, mind you, but in the way the text is actually arranged on the pages of the book- there is no horizontal line to seperate(sic) distict sections within chapters, like in most decently written books.
RAW would probably claim that this is becuase it would destroy the continuity of the novel (a suprising cocern to me, given the Battlefield Earthisms that pervade the plot). However, I believe the true reason for this is due to the fact that the huge need for these divisions in the text to make the book more readable would substantially (sic?) increase the physical number pages required fo the book (by probably 40 or more), and was avoided to use less paper (and therefore keep the book cheaper!) for marketing purposes.
There is a Battlefield Earth like tendency to create major plot threads, but diverge off when creativity runs out. For example, the Ferdinand Poo plot thread that dominates the begining of the 1st Book was clearly intended by the authors to figure heavily in the later plot of the book, but end up ignoring it for several hundred pages before mentioning it again.
It's clearly superior to Hubbard's BE in terms of humor, and I died laughing at some of the more whack inside jokes- like the fact that the reviewer in the book who gives "Illuminatus!" a poor review, Epicene "Eppy" Wildeblood is actually an open parody of Oscar Wilde, the not-quite-hidden revelation that the God's Lightning affiliate KCUF, is F--- reversed, and (I basically died for half hour when I cuaght this more obscure one, at least for non-punk rock fans) the presense of JAMs in the book and the reinterpretation of the phrase "Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters!" This is a quotation from the band MC5 (there's the law of fives again). The quotation is kind of ironic in light of the fact that RAW is actually unaware that "Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters!" is actually quotes an edited sourse record and that in the unedited version of that song, the vocalist shouts the phrase "motherf---ers" in place of "brothers and sisters". What a doofus!
I think the most hilarious moment in the book is near the begining of the 1st chapter of the 3rd book, when they're naming the bands in the Woodstock Europa Festival. My first take was, with the exception of the five groups in that list that were actually real (Steppenwolf, Mick Jagger, Joan Baez, the Zombies and Nirvana), the whole rigamarole looked like a list of names for bad indie rock bands. A side note for you fools who aren't into prog-rock: Long before "Nevermind" broke No. 1 in the U.S., in the late sixties and then the seventies Nirvana was the name of a post-psychedelic experimental rock group from the U.K. and probably the band refered to in the list. It wouldn't be out of character for the author, given the geist of the book. Same reason I know RAW probably knows the Zombies were a real band- he at least heard THE TIME OF THE SEASON! (Laughs without mercy at the puzzled book review lurkers).
Anyway, I've read the whole book except for most of Book III and most of the appendices (the most coherently written part of the book, ironically). It's pretty clear to me that despite actually being pretty funny, and having well-written sex scenes among other things, RAW & company (at least at this stage- the book was written 30 years ago) have no idea how to write round, dynamic characters, with realistic character development, and need to take grade-school level courses in plot developement. It wouldn't hurt this book one bit to SIMPLIFY the plot.
I don't regret reading the book and I intend to finish it, and I'm glad that there are books in this field that are far superior, if the other posts are to be believed. However, despite being quite interesting, the book is just plain miswritten.
on November 4, 2002
This has to be one the greatest book ever written. I do not say this lightly. This book breathes with life energy. The secrects of the universe hide in these pages. Robert Anton Wilson is a genius of the first order. He takes you on a trip that never stops even after reading the book. You see worlds within worlds, reality limited only by the imagination. I have ventured to read this work several times and will probably read it several more times, and each time I do I see something new in it. This story, to me, is the culmination of a literary philosophy of physics. The idea that we live in a universe with endless alternate realities, that perception can not be trapped by in an either/or scenario. The idea of this multiverse can be seen expertly in several other great tomes as well. Both Michael Moorcock's Cornelius Chronicles and Brian Talbot's Adventures Of Luther Arkwright. However, one can not deny the level of unrelenting unreality or reality in Wilson's book. He takes their concepts to the nth degree. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in all the possibilities. If this book showed me anything, it was that there is no limit to those possibilities.
on September 17, 2002
I must admit, this book is wildly entertaining. However, I took off three stars because of the way in which it mangles the more complex philosophical questions. Wilson preaches a very narrow, dogmatic ethic of paranoia-- "A, and never B, is what the smart person is afraid of, and C, and never D, is how he can escape..." and that in itself would not be so bad, had he not also disguised it, very effectively, as open-minded nonpartisan questioning or "neophilia." He accomplishes this disguise through a...very superficial...PRETENSE that he does not arrive at a single answer. Thus, he manages to obscure the real questions, and possibly the anawers, for those potentially insightful minds with little training in critical evaluation. Please do not take this book at all seriously if you are seeking wisdom. I doubt that Wilson himself does so, unless I underestimate his intelligence. In fact, to view this book as a parody of liberal-progressive metaphysics and the "X-Files" fnord contingent would be a much more enlightening, and funny, approach.