columns

Nov 28, 2017

Robert Anton Wilson: Mildly Puzzled All the Time

D’Amato profiles Robert Anton Wilson, an eclectic thinker with a strong commitment to individualism and a penchant for mischief.

 

Robert Anton Wilson was born Robert Edward Wilson on January 18, 1932, in Brooklyn. That distinctive middle name, Anton, was the first name of his maternal grandfather, who left Trieste — today Italy, then the Austrian Empire — to escape military conscription, which Wilson considered a courageous and heroic act. When he took Anton as his middle name, Wilson believed he would return to his given name when he had one day amassed the prestige necessary to write serious literature. Thank goodness Wilson never became quite so serious.1 In the Brooklyn of his youth, Wilson was raised in a kind of poverty and want few Americans alive today would recognize. To make matters worse, when he was only two years old Wilson was diagnosed with polio, which his doctors said would leave him unable to walk. If we believe his account, the Sister Kenny method saved young Robert, even as the establishment medical community and its licensing cartels damned the controversial treatment. This early experience with the controversial and unorthodox left Wilson with little use for conventional wisdom of any kind, little trust in the expertise of the properly credentialed.

Wilson sought others interested in far-out and dissentient ideas, and he found them. His ventures off the beaten path led him to one Ralph Borsodi, a self-sufficiency guru and homesteader who abandoned an urban life of corporate work, congestion, and filth for a different and, in his view, better way. Already inclined toward anarchism and the politically unconventional more generally, Borsodi’s School of Living was the conduit through which Wilson encountered the ideas of Benjamin Tucker and others in the individualist tradition. Those ideas, in turn, had come to the School via its association with second-generation anarchist Laurance Labadie, with whom Wilson would share countless conversations on anarchist theory. It was a fortuitous turn that the School of Living’s newsletters and periodicals should have reached Labadie in Detroit, half than a century or more before the presence of the internet made connecting with like-minded individuals relatively effortless and instantaneous. As Borsodi’s closest associate at the School, Mildred Loomis, observed, despite Borsodi’s curiosity as an “inveterate seeker,” he “had somehow missed America’s individualist anarchists until he met Laurance Labadie at Lane’s End in the early 1950s.” If, as Jeff Riggenbach reflects, understanding Wilson’s thought requires understanding Borsodi’s, then certainly both owe a great deal to the Keeper of the Flame, Labadie. Much as Tucker had pressed readers of Liberty, Labadie pushed Borsodi and Wilson to follow their anti-authoritarian instincts to their logical endpoint.

Wilson assumed the editorship of the School’s magazine, Balanced Living, rechristening it as the more libertarian-sounding A Way Out in an effort, he said, to “attract a younger, hipper readership.” Wilson also persuaded Norman Mailer to contribute several poems, which he hoped would draw the attention of “the intellectual world.” Other notable contributors at the time included Paul Goodman, Murray Rothbard, Sidney E. Parker, Frank Chodorov, and Robert LeFevre. Together with other movement eccentrics like Labadie, Wilson was a living bridge between an older, left-flavored individualist anarchist current and the present-day libertarian movement. As Brian Doherty observes in his definitive history of the movement, Wilson “was one of the last of the pure Benjamin Tuckerites,” though Wilson would undoubtedly have bristled at being labeled a pure anything.

Wilson’s worldview affirmed life and repudiated anything he saw as an unhealthy obsession with death and “the deathist philosophy.” But Wilson was never moralistic or ideologically committed. Max Stirner’s consciously amoral egoism, filtered through Benjamin Tucker, apparently left its mark on Wilson, who rather defiantly insisted that he would do anything, murder included, to avoid leaving his children in poverty and added, “I regard morality and ideology as the chief cause of human misery.” Stirner’s language, in particular his burning desire to shatter all “fixed ideas,” became a conspicuous part of much of Wilson’s work, both fiction and nonfiction. Wilson described himself as “mildly puzzled all the time,” his natural curiosity preventing him from settling on any absolute truth, motivating him constantly to revise and update. Thus did he maintain a position of “neurological relativism.” He derided True Believers of all kinds, holding that the “reality maps” to which they clung so inflexibly were all equally wrong—or, at the very least, equally limiting. Wilson therefore counseled and practiced what he termed “a state of generalized agnosticism,” that is, “agnosticism about everything.”

Captivated in the early ’60s by the communist anarchism of Peter Kropotkin—as elucidated in the Russian aristocrat’s famous Encyclopedia Britannica article on the subject—Wilson had since (owing in no small part to Labadie’s influence) revised his anarchism in a decidedly more individualistic direction. Yet salient features of Kropotkin’s thought remained with Wilson. Kropotkin’s article stresses, for example, that even an anarchist “society would represent nothing immutable,” that instead anarchism contemplates a social harmony resulting “from an ever-changing adjustment and readjustment of equilibrium between the multitudes of forces and influences.” In all of Wilson’s work we find the rejection of the rigid and immutable in favor of a spirit of skepticism and free inquiry.

On economics, Wilson was deliberately ecumenical, his inclusive posture permitting influence from all over the economic map, from Proudhon and Marx to Mises and Rothbard. In this way, Wilson was consummately anarchistic and, once again, gripped by the radically anti-ideological work of Max Stirner. No thinker’s ideas, Wilson said, should be “erected into dogma,” held above criticism or debate. But Wilson was, unlike many present-day libertarians, no lover of capitalism. Anarchism, for Wilson, is worthwhile specifically insofar as it is an alternative to capitalism, a position that puts him at odds with libertarians who, like Murray Rothbard, find in anarchism “the fullest expression of capitalism” and see the two as practically inextricable. Wilson saw the Austrian School as presenting an elaborate apology for historical abuses, as unduly concerned with justifying a kind of society described in a parable Wilson received from fellow individualist anarchist Laurance Labadie. In the story, there is “a king who decided that everytime he met somebody he would kick them in the butt, just to emphasize his power.” So regular are these physical abuses that, in time, they become an important part of the philosophical foundations of the society, carried on even when the king dies and is replaced. Like Labadie, Wilson believed that this story could teach us much about how power operates. Interested in subtle manipulations of the human mind and the architecture of its reality constructs, Wilson closely studied the power of illusion and wanted his readers to wonder, “How much of this is real and how much is a put-on?” This idea was important to both his art and his politics. He once mused that “the ordinary reality of the conditioned citizen is somewhere around 99.97 percent mythology.” Citizens were conditioned, he argued, to believe and obey, their minds sufficiently numbed to accept the thin ideological justifications of ubiquitous government violence: “Hell, you don’t want the people you conquer to be too smart, and you certainly don’t want them armed.”

By the mid-’60s, Wilson had joined the staff of Playboy, his longest-held steady job. Wilson, during this stint, immersed himself in a world that libertarian writer Samuel Edward Konkin III once called “Conspiracy Fandom.”2 There was, it seems, a somewhat consistent pattern in the letters Playboy received, a tendency among its readers to abandon themselves to the most far-fetched flights of conspiratorial fancy. In his fascinating study of conspiracy theories, The United States of Paranoia, Jesse Walker notes that “the heat of the 1960s and ’70s” produced something new, a politically and ideologically transcendent “focus on conspiracy in itself.” If before “people adopted the conspiracy theories peculiar to their own ideologies,” then they were increasingly engrossed by a tenebrous subculture in which interest in such theories needn’t be confined by “Left/Right barriers.” Conspiracy research had become its own field of study. Thus was a pathway opened for mischievous trouble-makers like Wilson. He took the opportunity, as editor of the Playboy Forum, to stir the pot, to amuse himself. As “R.S.,” a made-up reader from Kansas City, Wilson submitted a letter culminating in a series of earnest questions about the Illuminati, its leadership, and the extent of its influence. Hilariously cataloging its fictitious author’s “galloping descent into credulity,” the letter moves from the Illuminati’s role in “the current wave of assassinations” and in banking and the mass media to its history in Freemasonry and, perhaps, an Ancient Arabic religious group. Wilson found a childlike delight in such attempts to confuse and disorient. He believed, too, in the rejuvenative and protective power of laughter, its ability to remove curses and exorcise “bum trips.” He was having a smashing time entertaining himself, spreading stories of subterranean plots and secret histories, all in service to a larger project called Operation Mindfuck.

The work for which Wilson is most well-known can be understood as the madcap centerpiece of that Operation. Whimsical, purposely nonsensical and unpredictable,  The Illuminatus! trilogy is not a work that lends itself to synopsis. Through its pages, Wilson and the trilogy’s coauthor, Robert Shea (whom Wilson met when the two were editors at Playboy) erratically and hilariously pursue their shared love of all things conspiratorial and occult. Wilson’s account finds the trilogy’s origins in his fascination with the Discordian Society, described in his own words as “a new religion disguised as a complicated joke” — or perhaps “a joke disguised as a religion.” This is the kind of ambiguity around which Wilson and Shea positioned their narrative. In both his fiction and nonfiction, Wilson was interested in exploring “conflict and dialectics,” and Illuminatus! both leverages the power of wild conspiracy theories and ridicules them. Comparing Wilson’s antic parodies to the sincerely held conspiracy theories on which they’re based calls to mind Poe’s Law. As writes cultural critic and communications scholar Kembrew McLeod, “You might have a hard time telling which passage is Robertson’s and which is deadpan satire.”3

Wilson and Shea even dedicated the first book in the series to Discordianism’s founders, Kerry Thornley and Greg Hill, the former of whom had been Wilson’s friend before an increasing paranoia convinced him Wilson was employed by the CIA.4 Upon encountering one another and exchanging a series of letters, Wilson and Thornley found that they shared much in common, their subversive political idea in particular. Wilson observes, “We were both opposed to every form of violence or coercion against individuals, whether practiced by governments or by people who claimed to be revolutionaries.” It is, perhaps, safe to say that radical libertarians in the eccentric Wilson and Thornley mold can be a jumpy, paranoid lot. If Wilson was able to maintain his balance on the edge of such fear and paranoia, keeping his distance through humor and mockery, then Thornley tripped and fell, eventually drowning. Many of us, as libertarians, will recognize the Thornley type. The radical must always take care not to let his hatred of authority fester into an all-encompassing, delusional panic.

With Illuminatus!, Wilson distinctively and brilliantly constellated the strange combination of interests and impulses that, though seemingly unrelated to one another, are familiar to most libertarians as something like our cultural heritage. The cult classic (like Wilson himself) is serviceable for presentation as an “exhibit A” to anyone who sees libertarianism as merely a version of conservatism. For his one-of-a-kind sense of humor and unique political perspective, Robert Anton Wilson is a libertarian treasure, to be discovered by newcomers and revisited often by fans.


  1. See Jeff Riggenbach’s profile of Wilson.
  2. Jesse Walker, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (Harpercollins 2014).
  3. Kembrew McLeod, Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World (NYU Press 2014).
  4. Robert Anton Wilson’s Foreword to Adam Gorightly’s The Prankster and the Conspiracy (Paraview Press 2003).