High Times Greats: Robert Anton Wilson

On future drugs, life extension, understanding physics through LSD mutation, and Cabalistic magic.
High Times Greats: Robert Anton Wilson
Robert Anton Wilson by Roger Ressmeyer

From the April, 1980 issue of High Times comes Michael Hollingshead’s interview with the great Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007), in which the author of the Illuminatus trilogy expounds on multiple realities, guerrilla ontology, and things that go bump in the night. On the occasion of Wilson’s birthday January 18, we’re republishing it below.

On the back of every U.S. one-dollar bill sits the Great Pyramid, eye blazing omnidirectionally from its apex, all a part of the Great Seal of the United States of America. Though this symbol is usually traced back to the myths and legends of the Masons, the full story of the Great Pyramid was finally revealed with the publication of the Illuminatus trilogy.

Written during 1968-69 by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, at that time both editors at Playboy, the Illuminatus trilogy has gone on to become one of the great classics of the last decade. A science-fiction epic, a detective story, a weaving together of most of the known conspiracy theories of the past five millennia, the Illuminatus trilogy is an inkblot of modern times: funny, wild, scary, sexy, political, philosophical, mystical—in short, modern moksha medicine.

Illuminatus captivates the reader with its incredibly complex plots, subplots, over-and underplots, its madcap humor, its yellow submarine, its explanation for the Jack Kennedy assassination, its armies of revivified Nazi soldiers marching up from the depths of a Swiss lake in the middle of a rock concert, as well as its anarcholibertarian political philosophy. The trilogy has already been published in English, German, French. Japanese and Swedish.

It has also been adapted for the stage and performed in a nine-hour version by the National Theatre Company of London. Over the past three years other presentations of the stage version have been seen in Liverpool and Cambridge. England, and in Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Seattle. The film version of the Illuminatus is currently in preproduction.

Robert Anton Wilson has been bringing back communication from the farthest reaches of the mind and culture for more than a decade. Described by anthropologist Roger Wescott as a polymath, Wilson sees his role as artist-psychologist (Ph.D.) enabling him to plumb the collective genetic archives for the myths that will determine our future.

Born in Brooklyn on the 18th of January, 1932, Wilson says: “I share most of the traits associated with all the great Capricorns: Jesus, Cary Grant, Joseph Stalin and Georges Gurdjieff.” His interests range far and wide over modern times: life extension, new theories of physics, intelligence increase, space travel and settlements (he is an active member of the L-5 Society and often lectures on topics concerned with the future move into space).

His interests in life-extension research were put to a supreme test with the violent death of his teenage daughter, the victim of a robbery. Wilson and his wife made arrangements for the brain of their deceased child to be preserved in cryogenic suspension, awaiting medical and brain-computer advances that might enable identity reconstruction at some future time.

Wilson’s involvement with the Physics-Consciousness Research Group in the San Francisco Bay Area (they have made him chief literary spokesman for their more far-out ideas) may well yield the results necessary for such things as brain-to-brain communication and identity reconstruction. His other interests and activities touch on topics as varied as astronomy, sex, magic, psychopharmacology and conspiratorial history.

In order that his readers might better follow Bob Wilson as he charts the unknown, he published a “neurological autobiography” entitled Cosmic Trigger in 1978. He has also written Sex and Drugs and coauthored, with Timothy Leary, Neuropolitics. His latest work of fiction, The Universe Next Door, is the first volume of a tetralogy called Schrodinger’s Cat. The three volumes of Illuminatus and the four volumes of Schrodinger’s Cat are part of a series of 12 novels Wilson intends to complete that will cover the entire scope of mystical, conspiratorial and scientific history from 1776 through the 21st century.

Robert Anton Wilson, epistemologist, magician, psychedelic pioneer and master wordsmith, is one of the most exciting and imaginative talkers of the late 20th century. Michael Hollingshead talked with Bob high above the hills of Berkeley, California.

High Times: One critic has described Illuminatus as a “psychedelic novel.” What is a psychedelic novel?

Wilson: Illuminatus is a psychedelic novel in the sense that it is a novel of initiation and revelation in which the characters go through various forms of brain-change. Robert Shea and I were generally dismayed and pissed off by the stupidities of American politics in the late ’60s, when we began it. We had this strong drive to write a satire on all political movements, all the way across the spectrum.

High Times: The book that followed, Cosmic Trigger, was that also in the psychedelic mode?

Wilson: Well, I regard it more as “guerrilla ontology.” The reader is challenged to decide what’s real and what’s fantasy. My books are the literary equivalent of magical initiation. That’s the sort of thing you face when you get involved in consciousness games.

High Times: In other words, your books are intended to turn readers on?

Wilson: Yes. They’re intended to provide the literary equivalent of LSD or of magical initiation. I want the reader to ask the hardest question in philosophy: What’s real? Most people think they know what’s real, but they don’t at all.

High Times: Really?

Wilson: People just know what they were conditioned to think of as real.

High Times: The Illuminati themselves are members of a mystical, secret brotherhood whose origins go back a very long time indeed but whose membership has had an upsurge since the so-called modern phase began in the Bavaria of the late 18th century. Have you ever met any of the Illuminati yourself?

Wilson: I’ve met quite a few people who claim to be part of the Illuminati. Like I say somewhere in Cosmic Trigger, the final secret may be that you don’t know you’re a member until it’s too late to get out.

High Times: You said just now that you were pissed off with the stupidities of American politics in the late ’60s. We are now starting on the ’80s. Are we less or more free today than we were ten years ago?

Wilson: Oh, I think we are a much freer country today than we were back in 1960, in many dimensions. Of course, there’s a bit of a backlash building up against the new freedom, but that was only to be expected. By and large, I think the drug revolution had a good effect on America, despite individual casualties. I wish it could have been handled more intelligently, but I guess you don’t have major social changes without a certain amount of upheaval. So it was perhaps only natural that there would be a certain number of bad trips, and a lot of people getting thrown into jail, and scientific research stopped, and so on. You’ve got to go through these upheavals before a new stage of evolution is stabilized.

High Times: Is there still a future in drugs? What about the year 2000? Will we be turning on then?

Wilson: Well, long before the year 2000 we’re going to have a much bigger drug revolution than we had in the ’60s.

High Times: What sort of drugs?

Wilson: I think psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and so on, will have more and more specific drugs for every type of emotional problem. I agree with Nathan Klein and the recent McGraw-Hill poll of scientists that the majority of the scientific community predicts that we’ll soon have drugs to permanently raise your intelligence, for example. I’ve seen this coming for a long time.

High Times: You seem to be talking only of the therapeutic application of drugs. What about drugs for recreational purposes?

Wilson: Oh, sure, there will be many more of them. To mention Nathan Klein again, he thinks we’ll have perfectly safe intoxicant drugs in the year 2000. I think that marijuana and LSD and everything that has caused so much controversy will be phased out by a much more precise, specific prescription type of approach. People will be able to find out just what they need, just the right thing for their mental state at a given time, and they will up-level them to a higher mental state. A friend of mine who is a psychiatrist has predicted, for instance, that within 15 years people will be able to go to a psychiatrist and he’ll have a standard set of tests and about 30 different drugs. After giving you the battery of tests, he will prescribe a drug that’s just right for what’s bothering you. I think that is definitely the direction we’re moving in—control of the nervous system by the nervous system. We should be free to choose the circuits in the brain we want to use and not be robots subject to others’ imprints and conditioning.

High Times: You mean, people ought to have the freedom to deprogram and reprogram their nervous systems?

Wilson: That’s right.

High Times: But doesn’t LSD do that now to some extent?

Wilson: Oh, yes, to a very great extent. But I don’t think LSD is specific enough. I think in some ways it’s a little bit freaky and unpredictable. It needs a very good therapist indeed to get the best results out of it. Its use as a recreational drug has been a mixed blessing. It has done a lot of good for some people, and some people have gone completely ape under it. I think we’ll have much more specific forms of brain-change drugs in the next 10 to 15 years.

High Times: How did you first get interested in psychedelic drugs? Was it as a result of meeting Dr. Timothy Leary?

Wilson: It had nothing to do with Tim. I didn’t hear of Tim until about one year after my first peyote trip. I was turned on first by a Quaker who had discovered peyote through Aldous Huxley’s books and was convinced that it was an aid to religious awareness. And he became such an enthusiast of peyote that he went around turning on all his friends. You know, the picture painted by the mass media was entirely false. Many people were turned on originally by religious people.

High Times: And many by psychiatrists.

Wilson: Yes. Cary Grant, for example, was turned on by a psychiatrist in Los Angeles.

High Times: Why did a lot of people suddenly start taking LSD and other psychedelic drugs in the early ’60s and, indeed, throughout that decade?

Wilson: Most people were seeking to expand their consciousness in order to become freer, higher human beings. Everyone was fantastically idealistic in those days. And at that time there was no criminal element at all. That came later when some people saw that they could make a profit out of psychedelics, when the government stupidly made the whole thing illegal, thereby shooting the profits sky-high.

High Times: You have pointed out that the religious component was always very strong in the psychedelic sphere. I agree that many people who have used these drugs in this way do obtain a sense of what religious life is really all about, even that the mystical, revelatory experience, via drugs or not, is also a means of expanding one’s consciousness. Do you think that religion could ever become a true science?

Wilson: (Laughing) I really should be eloquent on that subject and not be sloppy. I feel that through the work of Leary and John Lilly and Stanislav Grof and Stan Krippner and others that we are starting to learn precise, operational, scientific procedures for altering human consciousness, or “brain-change” as Tim likes to say. It’s a good word, brain-change. I think, though, we have always had a science of brain-change. After all, shamans all over the world have known techniques, including drugs and various types of ritual initiation, that cause rapid brain-change and the imprinting of new circuits. Even though these techniques have been used and acknowledged over many thousands of years, it is only in very recent times that we are getting a much more precise, scientific slant on how they work. And I think this is something completely new in history. Science—in the modern Western sense—when it appeared 300 years ago, was something completely new and it totally revolutionized the world. It’s still revolutionizing the world: It’s the most revolutionary force on this planet. But the sudden joining of the scientific revolution with the revolution of sensibility, or mysticism, that occurred in the ’60s, and chiefly via the new range of psychedelic drugs by modern synthetic chemistry, is something even newer.

We’ve got a completely new kind of scientist these days. I know quite a few physicists, for example, who’ve used LSD, and I think it has definitely mutated them to a state where they understand physics in a completely new way. They have a kind of emotional and existential relationship with the subatomic world, which—before LSD—was only a theoretical one. There are sociologists whose work shows the influence of LSD. And there are modern psychologists who were once involved in LSD research who believe that people can learn how to change their reality. Modern thinking is getting a whole new view of the fact that there is no given reality. Reality is simply something created by our nervous systems and our experiences as we go along. And I think this insight is completely revolutionizing all the sciences. We have produced an entirely new mentality that has never existed in history before, yet one that is both scientific and mystical.

High Times: You seem to attach a lot of significance to the religious component of the psychedelic experience. I’m sure you don’t mean the sort of religion you get in church each Sunday. On the other hand, can you envisage LSD, or any psychedelic for that matter, ever being used in a sacramental way in a church kind of structure?

Wilson: I think the ideal way to do psychedelics is in a group. I don’t think our society is ready yet for taking psychedelics in a religious context, but I believe that was the way these hallucinogenic substances were used in Vedic times in India and also in ancient Greece. From surviving references it seems to me that they were using a drug plus a ritual to get the person to a specific state of consciousness, what Stan Grof calls the “phylogenetic unconscious,” and Tim Leary the “neurogenetic circuits.” It is the stage where you remember all the genetic archives and the fact that you’ve lived hundreds of thousands of lives before, animal as well as human.

High Times: This brings us naturally to a topic of great interest: life extension. Is it possible that modern science will some day come up with an answer to the problem of dying?

Wilson: I think the breakthrough is definitely coming in the next five years. Some people say it won’t occur for the next 10 to 15 years, but I think they are being unduly pessimistic. I see the momentum of the research accelerating. I have absolute confidence that by 1990 I’m going to be younger than I am today. This is the first generation in history where you could say something like that with some degree of sanity. (Laughs.) I really do think that in 1990 I will be younger and more vigorous than I am at this present moment!

High Times: Some scientists have predicted that they will be able to increase the human life span to 800 years. Is that a more or less accurate figure?

Wilson: There are various estimates right now. A very good friend of mine, Dr. Paul Segal, has been doing life-extension research for 17 years and he prefers the figure 400 to 500 years. Others put it much higher. However, once you’ve succeeded in extending the life span, even if only by 50 years, you could expect that during those 50 years there will be further jumps—say, being able to extend life for 100 years or 200 years—and it could go on forever. It’s a thinkable thought. Alan Harrington, an extremist who calls himself an immoralist, thinks that we can go on making these jumps in life extension and some of us will never have to die at all. It is something so new that it is a difficult concept to grapple with.

High Times: Isn’t this something many of the new gurus are also saying? And even though they may refer to eternal life in some other, more cosmic dimension, they do seem to be saying that the ‘‘particular Me” can live on in some form forever and forever. What do you think about gurus? Ram Dass [Dr. Richard Alpert], Swami Prem Dharmo and Dr. George Litwin come to mind.

Wilson: Well, I leave it to Tim Leary to criticize those people. I prefer to think well of my fellow humans and to be as charitable as possible in my judgments. I am reminded of something Bucky Fuller said when he was asked what he thought about the Hancock Building in Chicago: “I can’t think of anything good to say about it so I’d rather not say anything.” (Laughs.)

High Times: How do you feel, then, about traditional religion?

Wilson: I don’t think it’s a big advance to go back to the metaphysics and philosophy of 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. To the extent that gurus tell you to abolish mind and just go with the flow—I think that’s fine for a holiday. I don’t see it as a way of life. I think it gets pretty boring after a while. I want to know more and more precise things. However, I think you can learn a great deal from Tibetan Buddhism, from Zen, from the Hindus. My own preference, amongst all these movements, is Sufism, because Sufism seems to be more dynamic and more of a confrontation with the real world. I can also agree with the Sufis that mere ecstasy is not the goal of life. But all these trips are interesting if you learn something from them, and I think the more you know about everything the better.

High Times: Have you yourself ever duplicated the LSD experience without using drugs?

Wilson: (Laughs.) I’ve done it through Cabalistic magic.

High Times: How did you do that?

Wilson: Well, I think I sort of explained that in Cosmic Trigger. Basically, Cabalistic magic is a complicated way of brainwashing yourself so you can find reality in a variety of entirely different ways. I also think that Cabalistic magic is much easier to do after you’ve done some psychedelics, when you’re used to going through brain-changes. At least, I have found it easier than it is traditionally supposed to be, and I attribute this to the fact that I had been experimenting on myself with psychedelics before I got into magic.

High Times: Cabalistic magic, as far as I am able to understand it, makes use of an elaborate symbol system, as indeed does the modern physicist, to tell something about the nature of reality or realities.

Wilson: Cabalistic magic is a way of relating to symbols that turn everything into a joke, eventually, but a joke with a lot of poignant point to it, with lots of astonishing surprises on the way.

High Times: Do you know of any ongoing LSD research in this country at the moment?

Wilson: The only research I know anything about is all illegal. I don’t know of any legal research.

High Times: It is quite possible that the CIA is still using psychedelics as tools for brainwashing.

Wilson: Well, how are you going to stop the CLA from abusing any technology? As a libertarian, I feel that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. I think it was, has been, and always will be a continuous struggle against the tendency of power groups to use any new technology, or any old technology, for that matter. Yet I think there is an innately self-defeating quality in the power game as it’s played by politicians on this planet, especially in the way they use secrecy. I believe the more secretive a government, the more it destroys its own effectiveness in the long run. My long-range hope is based on the notion that eventually power groups will come to realize this fact themselves, as they will also come to realize that in order to function more intelligently they will need to get more accurate feedback. This means that they have to stop the whole mania of making things secret and conspiring against their own people, and so on. As Bert Brecht once said, if the government doesn’t trust the people, why doesn’t it dissolve and elect a new people?

I really do think that secrecy is the main cause of most of the problems of the modern world. Any society with a secret police (such as Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany or even the United States today) is playing Russian roulette with itself. Secrecy breeds paranoia. It creates problems more than it solves problems. Even the people who employ the secret police eventually get paranoid of the monster they helped to create. Nixon was paranoid about his own secret police. Stalin executed three chiefs of the Soviet secret police in a row. You see, the secret police always have the capacity to get more power than any other branch of government. They can blackmail everybody. Even if they don’t do it, those employing them always worry that they might.

The more authoritarian a society becomes, the less feedback there is. The more communication jamming there is, the more inaccurate a picture people have of everybody else, which is why you get these wild, crazy, fear syndromes that have swept across America periodically ever since the National Security Act of 1947. I think at this point in our nation’s history the most constructive things that can be done are essentially nonpolitical, like advancing space industrialization and the human life span, and raising human intelligence.

High Times: Should anything be banned? Should anything be made illegal in a democratic society? I think it was Truman Capote who said nothing should be banned, except murder. What do you think?

Wilson: I would add that people committing acts of fraud and force against us should be legislated against. None of us want to be defrauded. And any laws going beyond that point are just impertinences. (Laughs.)

High Times: One last question: Dr. Wilson, what is your business?

Wilson: My business is making people see that there’s more than one reality.

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