I never written obituaries before but for over 20 years I have been a big fan of Robert Anton Wilson (RAW) and though I’m not surprised by news of his death, I am saddened by it (I found out about his death from Bob Morris over at Politics in the Zeros). RAW was/is one of my favorite writers and I read many of his books both fiction and non-fiction and always enjoyed them even if some of the stuff written went over my head. His writing forced readers to look things up in order to understand what was being said and challenged the things we often take for granted. I found him to be an inspiration. For those not familiar with him it’s a bit hard to explain so I shall litter this post with quotes and short extracts from his work and put in links for further reading. Let’s start with:
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in your long life?
- They live happiest who have practiced forgiveness.
- A sense of humor results from perspective. The wider the perspective, the more humor you will perceive.
- Dogmas kill both intelligence and perception.
- I don’t know what is important art or literature, but I know I prefer science fiction and surrealism to mainstream books, Orson Welles to Elia Kazan, bawdy jokes to ugly news bulletins, and Gene Kelly musicals to Death of a Salesman.
- The Dalai Lama seems the only religious leader around who isn’t at least half crazy.
- Certitude belongs exclusively to those who look up the answer in only one encyclopedia.
It’s ironic that I often have to battle with conspiracy theorists when I post pieces about, say, the London Bombings of July 7th 2005 or the death of Dr David Kelly whilst at the same time being a fan of RAW who was a renown researcher of conspiracy theories. The difference is that the conspiraloons of today tend to be very dogmatic in their beliefs whereas RAW never really believed anything, he just wondered a lot. And that is what shaped my thinking. RAW described his writing as:
[An] attempt to break down conditioned associations–to look at the world in a new way, with many models recognized as models (maps) and no one model elevated to the Truth… My goal is to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone, but agnosticism about everything.
Thinking in this way is not easy because of the nature of our language. RAW wrote a lot about E Prime, a form of English that dispensed with all forms of the verb “to be”. It has its roots in the field of general semantics, as presented by Alfred Korzybski in his 1933 book, Science and Sanity. Put very simply, the word “is” assumes too much, it gives the impression that we actually know what we’re talking about. For example:
Consider the following paired sets of propositions, in which Standard English alternates with English-Prime (E-Prime):
- lA. The electron is a wave.
- lB. The electron appears as a wave when measured with instrument-l.
- 2A. The electron is a particle.
- 2B. The electron appears as a particle when measured with instrument-2.
- 3A. John is lethargic and unhappy.
- 3B. John appears lethargic and unhappy in the office.
- 4A. John is bright and cheerful.
- 4B. John appears bright and cheerful on holiday at the beach.
- 5A. This is the knife the first man used to stab the second man.
- 5B. The first man appeared to stab the second man with what looked like a knife to me.
- 6A. The car involved in the hit-and-run accident was a blue Ford.
- 6B. In memory, I think I recall the car involved in the hit-and-run accident as a blue Ford.
- 7A. This is a fascist idea.
- 7B. This seems like a fascist idea to me.
- 8A. Beethoven is better than Mozart.
- 8B. In my present mixed state of musical education and ignorance, Beethoven seems better to me than Mozart.
- 9A. That is a sexist movie.
- 9B. That seems like a sexist movie to me.
- 10A. The fetus is a person.
- 10B. In my system of metaphysics, I classify the fetus as a person.
Of course using language this way requires a great deal of discipline and I find it impossible to maintain in everyday speech, but I find it a very helpful tool when writing essays or blog posts. If our politicians used language in this way, there would be a lot less fundamentalism in the world and probably a lot less conflict.
Before he became to ill to write regularly, I often visited his website to read his Thought of the Month. Sometimes these thoughts were political and sometimes they were more philosophical but I always found them thought-provoking. This is representative:
3.11.93 Jia Shen, Year of the Monkey
I don’t believe anything, but I have many suspicions.
I strongly suspect that a world “external to,” or at least independent of, my senses exists in some sense.
I also suspect that this world shows signs of intelligent design, and I suspect that such intelligence acts via feedback from all parts to all parts and without centralized sovereignty, like Internet; and that it does not function hierarchically, in the style an Oriental despotism, an American corporation or Christian theology..
I somewhat suspect that Theism and Atheism both fail to account for such decentralized intelligence, rich in circular-causal feedback.
I more-than-half suspect that all “good” writing, or all prose and poetry that one wants to read more than once, proceeds from a kind of “alteration in consciousness,” i.e. a kind of controlled schizophrenia. [Don’t become alarmed — I think good acting comes from the same place.]
I sometimes suspect that what Blake called Poetic Imagination expresses this exact thought in the language of his age, and that visits by”angels” and “gods” states it an even more archaic argot.
These suspicions have grown over 72 years, but as a rather slow and stupid fellow I do not have the chutzpah to proclaim any of them as certitudes. Give me another 72 years and maybe I’ll arrive at firmer conclusions.
RAW is probably best known for his collaboration with Robert Shea on the Illuminatus Trilogy, but he also wrote prolifically on a variety of subjects including psychology and quantum mechanics often mixing them and creating new philosophical ideas and always with humour. It was these books which I enjoyed reading the most.
RAW died on January 11. He had post-polio syndrome which severely damaged his legs and weakened his body. After a hard fall in June last year which landed him in hospital, he was unable to walk and confined to bed. His medical bills seriously depleted his finances. In his last days he kept a blog. This is his last post:
Various medical authorities swarm in and out of here predicting I have between two days and two months to live. I think they are guessing. I remain cheerful and unimpressed. 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.
This thought from R U Sirius seems like a good place to end this post.
Robert Anton Wilson taught us all that “the universe contains a maybe.” So maybe there is an afterlife, and maybe Bob’s consciousness is hovering around all of us who were touched by his words and his presence all these years. And if that’s the case, I’m sure he’d like to see you do something strange and irreverent — and yet beautiful –- in his honor.
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