Robert Anton Wilson
It’s probably just best to come out and admit I’ve read pretty much everything Robert Anton Wilson wrote up to about 1995. After that, nothing. Much of Wilson’s writings does not stand up. It’s representative of a certain strain of out-there Esalen Institute, drugged up hippie witchcraft that was big in California in the late 1970s and 80s. Not quite New Age, but rubbing shoulders with it. A bit dark, kinda cynical, but still pretty woo-woo. I’m more than a little embarrassed by how into this stuff I was when I was 19-20, but here we are.
In my defense, it was another time, and exploration was limited by what was carried in the book stores. In my case, Tower Books on Lafayette and East Fourth, which had a huge “alternative” section and where I worked from 1994-1996. Kudos to Falcon Books, the publishers of Wilson at the time, they knew how to get their shit distributed in the East Village.
Anyway, Wilson’s nonfiction work* is a hodgepodge of western esotericism (Crowley, Spare, et. al) American takes on Buddhism, California drug culture, conspiracy theories, and, kinda remarkably, the writings of the now largely forgotten mystic/charlatan G.I. Gurdjieff. The books are a mix of memoir (notably the Cosmic Trigger books), wacko self-help (Prometheus Rising) and, source materials from across the woo-woo world.
Wilson’s project, presented often with humor and self-depreciation, is a sort of cobbled together world view of self-discovery through introspection, drugs, and self-work in the Gurdjieff style. In the end, it doesn’t amount to much in itself, but it did turn this uneducated white boy on to a lot of very out there and enjoyable stuff. For that, I’m thankful, though I’m sure I could have gotten the same pay off having read only one or two of these.
A final anecdote on Wilson – while working a Tower, a young woman came up to me one day and asked for Cosmic Trigger. She appeared lost and uncertain and when I asked if she was interested in Wilson, she responded “Not really, but my boyfriend was reading this book and now he’s gone insane”. Boyfriend clearly had troubles beyond his tastes in reading material, but he was like a lost kids who, like myself, were drawn to Wilson. Glad I got out in one piece.
*I’ve read most of Wilson’s fiction as well, I’ll review that separately at some point.