Today is the birthday (1932) of Robert Anton Wilson, a US author, novelist, essayist, editor, playwright, poet, futurist, and self-described agnostic mystic. Recognized by Discordianism as an episkopos, pope, and saint, Wilson helped publicize the group through his writings and interviews.
Wilson, born Robert Edward Wilson, spent his first years in Flatbush, and moved with his family to Gerritsen Beach around the age of four, where they stayed until relocating to Bay Ridge when Wilson was thirteen. He suffered from polio as a child, and found generally effective treatment with the Kenny Method (created by Elizabeth Kenny) which the American Medical Association repudiated at that time. Polio’s effects remained with Wilson throughout his life, usually manifesting as minor muscle spasms causing him to use a cane occasionally until 2000, when he experienced a major bout with post-polio syndrome that continued until his death.
Wilson attended Catholic grammar school, likely the school associated with Gerritsen Beach’s Resurrection Church, and attended Brooklyn Technical High School (a selective public institution) to escape Catholic influence. At “Brooklyn Tech,” Wilson was influenced by literary modernism (particularly Ezra Pound and James Joyce), the Western philosophical tradition, then-innovative historians such as Charles A. Beard, science fiction (including the works of Olaf Stapledon, Robert A. Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon) and Alfred Korzybski’s interdisciplinary theory of general semantics. He later said that the family was “living so well … compared to the Depression” during this period “that I imagined we were lace-curtain Irish at last.”
Following his graduation in 1950, Wilson was employed in a succession of jobs (including ambulance driver, engineering aide, salesman and medical orderly) and absorbed various academic perspectives (Bertrand Russell, Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Leon Trotsky and Ayn Rand, whom he later repudiated) while writing in his spare time. He studied electrical engineering and mathematics at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute from 1952 to 1957 and English education at New York University from 1957 to 1958 but failed to take a degree from either. Wilson began to work as a freelance journalist and advertising copywriter in the late 1950s. He adopted his maternal grandfather’s name, Anton, for his writings, telling himself that he would save the “Edward” for when he wrote the Great American Novel and later finding that “Robert Anton Wilson” had become an established identity.
He assumed co-editorship of the School for Living’s Brookville, Ohio-based Balanced Living magazine in 1962 and briefly returned to New York as associate editor of Ralph Ginzburg’s quarterly Fact: before leaving for Playboy, where he served as an associate editor from 1965 to 1971. According to Wilson, Playboy “paid me a higher salary than any other magazine at which I had worked and never expected me to become a conformist or sell my soul in return. I enjoyed my years in the Bunny Empire. I only resigned when I reached 40 and felt I could not live with myself if I didn’t make an effort to write full-time at last.” Along with frequent collaborator Robert Shea, Wilson edited the magazine’s Playboy Forum, a letters section consisting of responses to the Playboy Philosophy editorial column. During this period, he covered Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s Millbrook, New York-based Castalia Foundation at the instigation of Alan Watts in The Realist, cultivated important friendships with William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and lectured at the Free University of New York on ‘Anarchist and Synergetic Politics’ in 1965. Wilson received a B.A., M.A. (1978) and Ph.D. (1981) in psychology from Paideia University, an unaccredited institution that has since closed. Wilson reworked his dissertation, and published it in 1983 as Prometheus Rising.
Wilson married freelance writer and poet Arlen Riley in 1958. They had four children, including Christina Wilson Pearson and Patricia Luna Wilson. Luna was beaten to death in an apparent robbery in the store where she worked in 1976 at the age of 15, and became the first person to have her brain preserved by the Bay Area Cryonics Society. Arlen Riley Wilson died in 1999 following a series of strokes.
Among Wilson’s 35 books, and many other works, perhaps his best-known volumes remain the cult classic series The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), co-authored with Shea. Advertised as “a fairy tale for paranoids,” the three books—The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, and Leviathan, soon offered as a single volume—philosophically and humorously examined, among many other themes, occult and magical symbolism and history, the counterculture of the 1960s, secret societies, data concerning H.P. Lovecraft and Aleister Crowley, and American paranoia about conspiracies and conspiracy theories. The book was intended to poke fun at the conspiratorial mindset.
Wilson and Shea derived much of the odder material from letters sent to Playboy magazine while they worked as the editors of its Forum. The books mixed verifiable information with imaginative fiction to engage the reader in what Wilson called “guerrilla ontology”, which he apparently referred to as “Operation Mindfuck” in Illuminatus! The trilogy also outlined a set of libertarian and anarchist axioms known as Celine’s Laws (named after Hagbard Celine, a character in Illuminatus!), concepts Wilson revisited several times in other writings. Among the many subplots of Illuminatus! one addresses biological warfare and the overriding of the United States Bill of Rights, another gives a detailed account of the John F. Kennedy assassination (in which no fewer than five snipers, all working for different causes, prepare to shoot Kennedy), and the book’s climax occurs at a rock concert where the audience collectively faces the danger of becoming a mass human sacrifice.
Illuminatus! popularized Discordianism and the use of the term “fnord”. It incorporates experimental prose styles influenced by writers such as William S. Burroughs, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. Although Shea and Wilson never co-operated on such a scale again, Wilson continued to expand upon the themes of the Illuminatus! books throughout his writing career. Most of his later fiction contains cross-over characters from “The Sex Magicians” (Wilson’s first novel, written before the release of Illuminatus!, which includes many of his same characters) and The Illuminatus! Trilogy.
Illuminatus! won the Prometheus Hall of Fame award for science fiction in 1986, has many international editions, and found adaptation for the stage when Ken Campbell produced it as a ten-hour drama. It also appeared as two card based games from Steve Jackson Games, one a trading-card game (Illuminati: New World Order). Eye N Apple Productions and Rip Off Press produced a comic book version of the trilogy.
Wilson wrote two more popular fiction series. The first, Schrödinger’s Cat, a trilogy later published as a single volume. The second, The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles, appeared as three books. In between publishing the two trilogies Wilson released a stand-alone novel, Masks of the Illuminati (1981), which fits into, due to the main character’s ancestry, The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles’ timeline and, while published earlier, could qualify as the fourth volume in that series.
Wilson also criticized certain “scientific” types with overly rigid belief systems, equating them with religious fundamentalists in their fanaticism. In a 1988 interview, when asked about his newly published book The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science, Wilson commented:
I coined the term irrational rationalism because those people claim to be rationalists, but they’re governed by such a heavy body of taboos. They’re so fearful, and so hostile, and so narrow, and frightened, and uptight and dogmatic … I wrote this book because I got tired satirizing fundamentalist Christianity … I decided to satirize fundamentalist materialism for a change, because the two are equally comical … The materialist fundamentalists are funnier than the Christian fundamentalists, because they think they’re rational! … They’re never skeptical about anything except the things they have a prejudice against. None of them ever says anything skeptical about the AMA, or about anything in establishment science or any entrenched dogma. They’re only skeptical about new ideas that frighten them. They’re actually dogmatically committed to what they were taught when they were in college.
On June 22nd, 2006, Huffington Post blogger Paul Krassner reported that Wilson was under hospice care at home with friends and family. On October 2nd, Douglas Rushkoff reported that Wilson was in severe financial trouble. Slashdot, Boing Boing, and the Church of the SubGenius also picked up on the story, linking to Rushkoff’s appeal. As his webpage reported on October 10th, these efforts succeeded beyond expectation and raised a sum which would have supported him for at least six months. Obviously touched by the great outpouring of support, on October 5th, 2006, Wilson left the following comment on his personal website, expressing his gratitude:
Dear Friends, my God, what can I say. I am dumbfounded, flabbergasted, and totally stunned by the charity and compassion that has poured in here the last three days. To steal from Jack Benny, “I do not deserve this, but I also have severe leg problems and I don’t deserve them either.” Because he was a kind man as well as a funny one, Benny was beloved. I find it hard to believe that I am equally beloved and especially that I deserve such love. Whoever you are, wherever you are, know that my love is with you. You have all reminded me that despite George W. Bush and all his cohorts, there is still a lot of beautiful kindness in the world.
Robert Anton Wilson
On January 6, 2007, Wilson wrote on his blog that according to several medical authorities, he would likely only have between two days and two months left to live. He closed this message with “I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying. Please pardon my levity, I don’t see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd.” Wilson died peacefully five days later, on January 11 at 4:50 a.m. Pacific time, just a week short of his 75th birthday. After his cremation on January 18th (his 75th birthday), his family held a memorial service on February 18 and then scattered most of his ashes at the same spot as his wife’s—off the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
Long-time friend Scott Apel wrote this concerning Wilson:
(Bob and Arlen loved Red Lobster. When they lived on Brommer St. in Capitola in the early ‘90s, they lived within walking distance of a Red Lobster in the Capitola Mall, and dined there at least once a week. In the final years of his life, when Cathy and I spent every Saturday night with Bob, the SOP was to stop at a Red Lobster in San Jose and order up several carry-out meals for him on our way to Capitola. We became close with the manager who took our order, and when she found out the food was for Robert Anton Wilson, we discovered she was a fan and started adding extra food to our take-out order, free of charge. Bob inspired that kind of love and generosity.) In the years since then, Cathy and I have always referred to the chain as “Red Bobster.”
I suppose you could make a trip to Red Lobster if you wanted an authentic Robert Anton Wilson experience to celebrate his birthday, but that would not be my first choice for several reasons. First is that I rarely eat out, and food chains are never my choice when I do. Food chains, and Red Lobster is no exception, get a bit secretive if you probe too deeply where their ingredients come from (and what they really are). Chains that have surprisingly low prices must be cutting corners somewhere. DNA analysis of Red Lobster’s lobster bisque showed that it had mostly langoustine in it, which is called Norway lobster, so technically they are on safe ground, and langoustines are grouped in a family of genuses Nephrops and Metanephrops that all have “lobster” in their names. But they are usually called “scampi” in Europe and are a lot cheaper than their cousins in the Homarus genus, which people typically think of when they use the term “lobster.” All right, that’s just marketing sleight of hand. Red Lobster remains a bit closed mouthed about where it sources its ingredients, which raises a red flag for me.
I’m much happier making my seafood feasts at home, and I expect Wilson would have been happy with my seafood lasagna – flying or otherwise. Chameleon cook fashion, I’ll give you the basic idea and leave you to figure out the details. Standard lasagna requires a meat sauce, several cheeses, and lasagna pasta layered in a dish and baked. Seafood lasagna is a lot simpler (and potentially more expensive). I have seen recipes for seafood lasagna with cheese in them, but I do not like the combination of seafood, pasta, and cheese (nor do many Italians), so I leave out the cheese. You’ll need a good béchamel sauce and a variety of seafood. You can just use a medley of fish if you are hard up, but if the pocket allows, you can add shellfish of choice. Lightly poach your seafood mix and mix it with your béchamel. Cook lasagna pasta barely al dente. Grease a casserole, spread a thin layer of béchamel in the bottom, and line the bottom with pasta, then layer the dish – seafood mix, pasta – finishing with a pasta top brushed with a little béchamel. Bake at 375°F for about 30 minutes, or until the dish is bubbling and the top is golden. Serve in squares with a green salad.