Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975)
I've avoided this one for most of my adult life without quite having formulated a coherent reason why, and in the end it was Andrew Hickey's testimony which changed my mind, inspiring me to the realisation that I had no good reason to not at least just try the thing.

You've almost certainly come across every idea in it before, in a watered-down form from a million wankers who think they're being amusing by repeating things other people have said, he suggested, having anticipated most of my reservations, but if you can get past that, it's a good book. Most of its innovations have been absorbed into the countercultural mainstream, so it won't blow your mind or anything, but if you can get past that, you might well enjoy it.

At the risk of sounding affected, I was already bored thoroughly shitless by the supposed twenty-three phenomenon by about 1982, the year of Psychic TV's impressively disappointing debut album. I too had read William Burroughs, and had assumed everybody nicked it from him. There was a feature about Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! books in Vague, which I never bothered reading - it being too much trouble with colour images printed over faint text - so I never made the link. In the late eighties I provided artwork for a relatively popular fanzine called Hoax!, which seemed to be another variation on Re/Search with a load of fairly predictable Porridgey obsessions thrown in, but I liked the guy who put the thing together. Well, I liked him up to a point, but I didn't share his fixation with conspiracy theories, and I got tired of drawing stuff I wouldn't otherwise have drawn and drawing it for free - notably a cover for the second issue of Hoax! which I now recognise as having been an exercise in ticking off boxes on the Illuminatus! check list. In fact, having now read the trilogy, I realise that Hoax! was pretty much a straight exercise in recycling Wilson's material wholesale because plagiarism is the new originality blah blah blah...

By the time Grant Morrison came out with The Unreadables - recycling his own juvenilia as Robert Anton Wilson recycled via Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius with the plates switched, I was about ready to punch the next giggling imbecile to tug at my sleeve and point out that something or other had just cost him - oooh fancy - twenty-three pence chortle chortle...

As Andrew suggested, I have indeed encountered much of this material before, often without realising it; and of course it would be churlish to refuse admission to members of the Rolling Stones on the grounds of Primal Scream being a big pile of wank, so let's do this.

Firstly, as you might gather from the title, Illuminatus! is concerned with conspiracy theory in so much as that conspiracy theory forms the fabric of the narrative, serving as the language by which the book describes whatever the hell it's trying to describe. By conspiracy theory I mean the idea that secretive organisations or forces might be controlling human society from behind the scenes. I've never really given much credence to this sort of thing, mainly because I don't believe any of those supposedly in charge of human society possess either the resources or the intelligence necessary to maintain a contrary fa├žade or to orchestrate anything resembling a tangled web of subterfuge. In other words, there's probably a story behind the Kennedy assassination, but I seriously doubt it's even half so interesting as everybody seems to think. That said, I believe that human society - and particularly where large governmental systems have formed - tends to behave like a living organism, subject to the will of its own internal manias without much in the way of conscious influence on the part of those involved, and that this often very much has the appearance of the kind of society we would inhabit were any of the conspiracies true. So conspiracy theory can serve as a useful metaphor for the discussion of human activity on an historical scale, which is partially what Wilson has done.

It's not just Wilson though. Himself and Robert Shea were both working for Playboy when they came up with this thing - apparently inspired by cranky letters sent in to the magazine - each writing sections to play off the other as a sort of narrative duel utilising the premise of all conspiracy theories being equally valid. The story roughly follows a private detective named Saul Goodman - doubtless inspiration for Bob Odenkirk's character in Breaking Bad - investigating the disappearance of a magazine editor, a person presumed silenced by the conspiracy, whatever it may be. The narrative serves as a framework upon which are hung all manner of conflicting theories and versions of human history, at least a few of which involve Atlantis, the Bavarian Illuminati, Hassan-i Sabbah, various Lovecraftian entities, Adolf Hitler, John Dillinger, and everything else ever.

It's mostly bewildering, not least with the narrative switching from first to third person every so often, and with different passages blending into one another with no break to differentiate scene or subject. There are strong elements of satire alternating with parodies of other writers - notably Ayn Rand - then Joycean streams of consciousness, and even the main characters realising they're in a book. Whilst the prose is such as to make for generally pleasurable, even thought-provoking reading, you may as well give up on  expectations of finding a coherent story in here. It seems to have one - something about a golden submarine, a rock festival, and a monolithic single-celled entity named Leviathan - but spends most of the page count having a fight with itself. Wilson's writing is apparently influenced by William Burroughs, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound, and to me Illuminatus! reads a little like a hybrid of Burroughs and Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books in its tendency to switch between the vaguely hard-boiled and ponderous or even inscrutable philosophical discussion; and there are eight hundred fucking pages of it.

Probably for the sake of argument, Illuminatus! adopts the value system which I later found so aggravating about Hoax!, namely that no single view holds greater validity than any other, so nothing is necessarily more true or even more interesting than anything else, meaning we are obliged to accommodate a certain quota of complete bullshit - at least as I see it. Shea and Wilson therefore jam conflicting fantasies of human history up against each other so as to create confusion, and the point of this is that we might learn to be more picky about which ideas we let into our heads, or at least accept that those already incumbent might have gained access under a false pretext. The confusion seems to be a variation on Burroughs' cut-up technique, destroying the familiar patterns in order to discern what others are to be found.

Some of it is fascinating, and some of it is just annoying or boring - which probably isn't deliberate but may be inevitable given that the authors probably didn't envision Illuminatus! condensed to two-hours of screen time with a grimacing Sean Connery in hot pursuit of a mysteriously robed foe - at least not literally, the escapades of agent 00005 notwithstanding. The subject of the trilogy is more or less the nature of reality and how we experience it, so the book isn't above invoking the eternally yawnsome Timothy Leary alongside a load of guff equivalent to how quantum physicists and tribal shaman are the same thing, which they aren't, but I suppose it's forgiveable. Philip K. Dick did kind of the same thing with a more reader-friendly voice, and without quite such a page count.

More disappointing still is that every single reference to pre-Colombian Mexican culture - more or less inevitable in a book involving conspiracy theories and pyramids - is drivel of the kind suggesting that research in that specific area didn't even stretch to a  library book. For starters, there's no such thing as a Great Pyramid of the Maya, the references to Tlaloc actually refer to Chalchihuitlicue, and the famed Feathered Serpent was neither feathered nor in any sense serpentine and thus has no place in a list alongside either the mythic serpent which devours its own tail or old Snakey from the Garden of Eden; and I know it shouldn't really matter in a novel which spends at least some time hanging around in Atlantis, and the whole point is to illustrate approximate truths as worth more than absolutes; but if you're going to smuggle an indeterminate quota of complete bollocks in with the good stuff, you really need to make sure the good stuff is of a certain standard.

Anyway, against all odds, Illuminatus! achieves that for which it was written, and manages to be more or less entertaining throughout, and certainly philosophically provocative - which is more than can be said of almost everyone following in its footsteps, most of whom really needn't have bothered, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty; but eight-hundred pages! I still don't quite get why it needed to be so long, but whatever. It didn't blow my mind, although I still sort of wish I'd read this prior to exposure to at least some of the drivel it inspired, directly or otherwise.

I think that's a recommendation.

Let's just say that it is.

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