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Robert Anton Wilson: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

Beginning a deeper exploration of one my most important intellectual influences.

by
Dave Swindle

Bio

January 23, 2013 - 2:30 pm

Author James Wasserman posted this image on Facebook last week and noted:

Laura Wiggers sent me this photo of Robert Anton Wilson in Gurney’s apartment (1986) for the post-lecture evening described on page 216 of In the Center of the Fire when a certain Nancy Wasserman drove me half crazy, probably in collusion with Laura if memory serves. Not that anyone was drinking in those days!

(New Year’s Resolution #3 – Find and Post More Humorous Items)

In trying to figure out a regular angle for my third resolution, it dawned on me the other day how many Robert Anton Wilson (RAW) books — particularly his novels — I still had not read. Maybe for my excerpts for funny PJ Lifestyle Bookshelf recommendations I should highlight his jokes? Hence today’s excerpt from Schrodinger’s Cat: The Universe Next Door.

How the Nihilist Anarchist Horde Settled On Their Name

As with many countercultural and spiritual wanderers of the past 40 years, one of my most cherished guides and influence was RAW, a comedic philosopher-intellectual and novelist most well known for his mind-bending memoir Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati and The Illuminatus! Trilogy (co-authored with Robert Shea.)

The idea uniting Wilson’s books is one that I still sympathize with but no longer embrace: radical agnosticism. Wilson sought to provoke his readers to learn to always question their perceptions and assumptions, to strive to look through other people’s “reality tunnels.” As a general principle this is still a sound cause to triumph. But I understand now, having imbibed a few more glasses of painful life experience, that this as an overarching ideology cannot sustain itself.

Recognizing a multiplicity of potentially valuable, useful reality tunnels is one thing. But figuring out how to value one as more effective than another is something else entirely. And looking back now across Wilson’s work I see how he failed to do that. His list of influences runs across the gamut from the genuinely brilliant to the malevolent charlatans. And his storyteller and raconteur’s gifts then apply to help popularize both. Perpetually doubting and always striving to see from another’s perspective means that when the time comes to really stand strong on an important principle it can be very hard to do. Insist long enough that we live in a world of endless shades of gray and someday you’ll stumble into a darkness far bleaker than anything imaginable. And doubt can stand against it?

No, but laughter can. And just because Wilson couldn’t realize that some of the ideas and authors he trumpeted were better than others it doesn’t me that we cannot.

For Wednesday’s humorous blogging I’m going to start going through my old RAW books and highlighting what I discover now through my more seasoned, less naive eyes. I want to try and figure out what Wilson got right and where he went off the rails. Which of his 11 novels and 18 nonfiction books merit inclusion on the Counterculture Conservative book list?

But I’ll still try and stick to the New Year’s Resolution and offer up some humor too and not just dwell on the darkness that he and so many of his generation and many since chose to escape confronting.

****

Related at PJ Lifestyle:

6 Varieties of the Agnostic Experience

7 New Year’s Resolutions I Invite Others to Steal

David Swindle is the associate editor of PJ Media. He writes and edits articles and blog posts on politics, news, culture, religion, and entertainment. He edits the PJ Lifestyle section and the PJ columnists. Contact him at DaveSwindlePJM @ Gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @DaveSwindle. He has worked full-time as a writer, editor, blogger, and New Media troublemaker since 2009, at PJ Media since 2011. He graduated with a degree in English (creative writing emphasis) and political science from Ball State University in 2006. Previously he's also worked as a freelance writer for The Indianapolis Star and the film critic for WTHR.com. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their Siberian Husky puppy Maura.
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