Illuminatus by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, is a monster of a book, published as a trilogy and cut down from an even more gargantuan original manuscript. It is, in fact, much too big an edifice for me to describe here, and I shan’t. I may go at it at bits and pieces some other time.
Robert Anton Wilson, who died in January of last year, is also a complex and complicated subject, a man seriously wired into a particular zeitgeist that is quite recognizable to those interested in it: New Age philosophy, politics, sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll, science fiction and several of the attendant pseudo-sciences. Again, too big a subject for the moment.
But Ben and I went to see him once, and that’s a tale to tell.
First off, let me note that I never do this: just show up on the doorstep of some author or celebrity. I mean, it’s rude, no matter how politely you do it. It’s an imposition. It’s all manner of things you shouldn’t do. So I blame Ben. Well, not really, but it sounds better to put it that way.
Wilson, as nearly as I can tell, was used to having things like that happen, although he hadn’t yet the rock star that Illuminatus was going to make him. At the time, only a few months after Illuminatus had been published, he was still living only a few blocks away from U.C. Berkeley, and he was a nexus of one of those intellectual zeitgeist thingees. In fact, he hosted a regular salon, a weekly meeting of Berkeley intellectuals and intellectual wannabes. So Wilson invited Ben and me to the next gathering, which was very kind and gracious of him, see above note about rudeness. He also sold me a copy of Principia Discordia, the photocopied bible of the Discordian Movement, mentioned prominently in Illuminatus. These days, it’s all over the web, but thirty years ago it was pretty rare. I had more than one friend over the years ask for copies of my copy. But, of course, I’d have bought it even if it were crap, again, see the above note about rudeness and consider my wish for atonement.
We did chat with Wilson a bit before we left. We did come back later to his gathering, and that was also much fun, sufficiently so that I became a regular for a while.
Ben and I make a pretty good team. He’s very extroverted, while I’m mildly introverted. He draws people out; I remember what they say. When Ben and I went to Wilson’s gathering we had a fine old time. When we left, Wilson walked us to the door and said, “Loved your act, fellas.” Which is pretty cool.
Then there’s the other thing.
That first conversation often drifted over to things in Illuminatus and I mentioned The Language and Music of the Wolves which is stipulated as one of the central characters, Joe Malik’s favorite records. A while back, in an essay about WRPI, I wrote a little about the grief that said record had caused at the station, owing to its weirdness. It’s a recording of wolf howls in the wild, and not to everyone’s taste, especially not people who wanted their radios to emit music, not wolf howls. But I’d bought a copy (from the bargain bin, of course) and I’d grown to like it a lot, which is why I spoke of it.
“Ah,” said Wilson. “You’ve found Joe Malik’s dogs.”
See, one of the minor mysteries in Illuminatus is “what happened to Joe Malik’s dogs.” His neighbors were always complaining about his dogs, which were against the rules in his apartment building, but no one ever saw them, and, when Malik disappears, the police never find his dogs, either.
Well, of course, there were no dogs, just wolf howls on a record. I hadn’t made the connection, actually, partly because that wasn’t a mystery that I cared about. Or maybe my subconscious had solved the mystery and didn’t bother to tell me. But it did tell Wilson.
I’ve done this more often than you’d think. I once made an innocuous remark to another author that convinced him that I knew of a pseudonym he was writing under, so he proceeded to tell me all about it. I never told him that I had no prior knowledge of the matter, because, well, magicians never explain their tricks, and that’s one of mine.