“And so it is that we, as men, do not exist until we do; and then it is that we play with our world of existent things, and order and disorder them, and so it shall be that non-existence shall take us back from existence and that nameless spirituality shall return to Void, like a tired child home from a very wild circus.”—Principia Discordia by Malaclypse the Younger, Robert Anton Wilson and Kerry Thornley
Robert Anton Wilson, philosopher, visionary, Discordian, author of the Illuminatus! epic and hacker of the mind, passed away earlier today. I’m rather tired of eulogies, will the people I admire kindly stop dying.
Wilson had a profound impact on me when I was younger and I’m not exaggerating when I say his book Prometheus Rising completely changed the way I look at the world — in good way — but I haven’t read anything by him in some time.
When I read on BoingBoing this afternoon that he had died, I started digging around the internet, reading and listening to some of Wilson’s various audio and video archives. I was struck by the fact that the world just lost one of its great humanizers.
Wilson is often pigeon-holed by the same cultural reputations of his friends, namely Timothy Leary and William Burroughs, but Wilson always seemed to me less concerned with edification and more interested in humanization, which is something the world will miss.
And I started thinking about how a man who wrote some of the most paranoid, conspiracy-oriented novels I’ve ever read could remain, at the end of day, and even the end of his life, eternally an optimist.
Wilson’s final entry on his blog, written five days before his death, reads:
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.
Wilson didn’t take much of anything very seriously and that’s one of the things I acquired from reading him. I’ve discovered over the years that many people in my life are somewhat put off by my refusal to take things seriously and I have at times perhaps taken that too far, but by and large I remain convinced that that levity and a lack of certitude are important.
How do you stay optimistic in a world which is increasing bent on fostering global insanity? I think the first step is to realize that the last sentence is an abstraction and doesn’t really mean anything. Which isn’t to say we should all stick out heads in the ground and ignore things that upset us, but simply that we recognize that the things that upset us need not define us.
When you read something like Illuminatus, with characters like, Fission Chips, the world’s first quintuple compromised secret agent, you can’t help but come away laughing. The focus in Wilson’s work was never to make you paranoid. “My business,” Wilson once told the LA Weekly, “is not to expose but to collect comparative exposes so that the readers can see that conspiracy is normal behavior and that there’s no one big conspiracy that runs everything.”
One thing Wilson said over and over in the audio I listened to earlier stood out — perhaps we should try using “seems” more often and “is” a whole lot less. Now maybe that only sounds like a good idea to someone who’s obsessed with linguistics in the first place, but maybe it isn’t that limited.
At the end of the day there may well be no “is.” I’d be the last person to embrace any sort of relativistic notion of ethics or morality, but I also try to keep in mind that I am a colossal idiot and I have long, tragically long, history of being wrong. Wrong about where the car keys are and wrong about what the world needs, what I need and what those around me need. In short I’ve come to distrust the certitude of statements involving is.
Most of the conflicts in this world involve conflicts of is-es — my is is better/bigger/more correct/morally superior/more logical/ad nauseam than your is.
The saddest irony being of course that in the end all we create are additional problems by arguing about problems (never mind that abstract problems are generally self-invented anyway, probably have no practical solution, and even if they did most of us are powerless to implement a real solution outside ourselves and our own narrow lives).
Perhaps if we spent more time talking about how the world seems, rather than how the world is we’d construct a more kind-hearted and enjoyable world.
Happy trails Mr. Wilson, may you finally escape the fnords, we’ll keep the lasagna airborne, or as a line from the eponymous song says — let’s fuck it up boys (and girls)/make some noise.
[Update: A bunch of people have emailed me asking for more links to RAW’s writings and such. Rather than compile everything again, I’ll offer this Reason Magazine article, which is chock full of links.]
This Essay is for my friend Hilary who introduced me to the writings of Robert Anton Wilson