When I was younger, I had a breathless fascination with UFOs and other stuff that just doesn’t fit in to the way the world typically seems. I remember a family holiday in a sleepy Norfolk fishing village, aged 7 or 8. My parents and brother had gone out, but I was ill and stayed back in the cottage we rented. To occupy myself, I watched television. There was a documentary about Uri Geller, which fascinated and terrified me — both the sinister spoonbender himself, and the way the camera zoomed in to his piercing stare, accompanied by a spooky soundtrack.
Another time, when we were again staying in that cottage, we went out for the day to one or other of the towns in the area, probably Norwich. And there was a plague of ladybirds, the beasties inches deep in the street, clouds of them in the air, painting the city red and black and crunching underfoot as I wandered about in my StartRite shoes. If ladybird blizzards existed, how could I doubt that beings from another world built the pyramids, that a monster inhabited Loch Ness, that an intense Israeli could stop or start your watch with the power of his thoughts?
And so it went, as I followed a trail dotted with CIA mind control experiments, tatty paperbacks promising the secrets of astral projection, comics in which a race of Inhumans dwelt in a crystal city on the far side of the moon, all of which inevitably led to the work of Robert Anton Wilson. I came across the Illuminatus trilogy, which he co-authored with Robert Shea, in a charity shop at the age of 17, and life hasn’t been the same since. Thing being, Wilson was just as fascinated by all that Forteana and conspiracy theory as I was, but went beyond breathless excitement about it to constructing a worldview that encompassed such braincandy in a framework that made something like sense of it all.
Thanks to Wilson, I started to see that what was interesting about flying saucers and cutlery-botherers wasn’t that they actually existed, but that people believed in their existence. More, that some people had a need to believe such things. That stance is very apparent in his work, but sadly many of his readers get caught up in the crazed content of his writing, and continue to bang on about Lemuria and Madam Blavatsky where Wilson is pointing to something far more interesting: the way that we construct our personal universes.
One instance of all this is Wilson’s fascination with the number 23, and its apparently synchronistic recurrence in his life, and the work of many of the creators he admires. This sadly became the meme that is most associated with Wilson’s work, and it’s no wonder that people find it hard to take him seriously. Point being, not that 23 ‘really’ crops up lots (whatever ‘really’ entails), but that by setting yourself up to look for instances of its appearance, you create a self-fulfilling prophesy. And that exactly the same principle can be used for other areas of your life, all the better to make it all the better.
Some people have taken that in the spirit in which it’s intended. Culture at large has half-digested the notion and regurgitates it in the form of 23s cropping up in the sort of comics aimed at supposedly mature readers, on the back of records whose listeners like to accompany them with recreational drug use, and — most egregiously — Joel Schumacher’s film The Number 23, the publicity for which conveys to me that Schumacher got Wilson right about as much as Dan Brown did when he watered down the intricacies of Illuminatus and turned it into The Da Vinci Code.
All of which demonstrates that, if nothing else, Wilson was ahead of his time. Or that we’re behind his. He was way ahead of the curve, exploring Korzybski’s General Semantics before Bandler and Grinder and Pucelik and co got there, checking out approaches to mysticism and magic in a way that NLPers might deign to call modeling, developing an amazing model of consciousness with Tim Leary that’s explored beautifully in his seminal book Prometheus Rising, and having all kinds of fun declaring people to be Popes in his appearances at talks, workshops, and in the media.
And, for all that I’m sniffy about some of the manifestations of his influence, there were things of beauty too. The KLF’s brand of cheeky dance music entirely appropriated its mythology from Illuminatus, having big budget media fun with the ideas that Wilson and Shea had derived from letters they got while working as editors at Playboy. One half of the KLF was a fascinating man called Bill Drummond, who before he got into the world of music was involved in the set design for the 1976 theatrical version of Illuminatus helmed by maverick actor-director Ken Campbell. And one of the times I got to see Wilson speak — in London on this occasion — was when the KLF were Number 1 in the UK charts. I still don’t know how he arranged that particular stunt.
It goes further. Ken Campbell, who like Wilson is no longer with us sadly, was very impressed by the acting of one Michael Breen — yes, the NLP trainer, whose thespian talents have been witnessed and praised by Eric Robbie (who co-trained with Bandler in the 80s and is one of the field’s serial innovators) — and wanted him to participate in a revival of another of his mindbending shows, The Warp. Breen was too busy building up a training empire with Paul McKenna and Richard Bandler, but he and Campbell continued to meet up for dinner from time to time, and one of the occasions I got to meet Ken was on a McKenna-Breen course.
There’ll be more concerning Ken another time. Back to Wilson though, and is it any surprise that he got to work with Richard Bandler? As far as I know, the two of them got to know one another when Paul McKenna and Michael Breen were putting together their one year NLP training with Richard, and Breen — who rates Prometheus Rising highly — got Wilson involved as a guest trainer. The rest is history…though history, as Wilson noted, is not much more than an account left by conflicting conspiracies. And even if you never read any Robert Anton Wilson, please take this meme from him as I have and would like to share: if you’re going to insist on the existence of conspiracies, do yourself a favour and put yourself at the heart of a winning one.