In 1973 Thomas Pynchon published an enormous experimental novel called Gravity's Rainbow. In 1975 Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson published an enormous experimental trilogy called Illuminatus! Both were written at about the same time, and both offered panoramic perspectives on history, liberty, and paranoia.
Gravity's Rainbow won the National Book Award. Illuminatus! won no awards, save a science fiction prize issued a decade later. Gravity's Rainbow is often assigned in college classes. Illuminatus! might be required in some school somewhere, but such spots are surely few. Judging from anecdotal evidence, more people have started Gravity's Rainbow than Illuminatus! But far more people have finished Illuminatus! than Gravity's Rainbow.
Robert Anton Wilson is the unacknowledged elephant in our cultural living room: a direct and indirect influence on popular books, movies, TV shows, music, games, comics, and commentary. (His late co-author has left less of a mark: Many of Wilson's books have cult followings, while the only Shea effort to make a big splash was the trilogy he wrote with Wilson.) Allusions to Wilson's work appear in places both classy and trashy: There's a Wilsonian stamp on films as diverse as Magnolia, The Mothman Prophecies, and Sex and Lucia, and it's because of Wilson and Shea that the Illuminati, a secret society that once lurked only in right-wing conspiracy tracts, became the villains of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider. Now Wilson's the star of a lively documentary, Maybe Logic, that's being screened at film festivals and distributed on DVD.
Wilson is a primary source for the ironic style of conspiracism, a sensibility that treats alleged cabals not as intrigues to be exposed or lies to be debunked but as a bizarre mutant mythos to be mined for laughs, metaphors, and social insights. If you were an amused aficionado of conspiracy folklore in 1963, you were a lone hobbyist or specialist. By 1983, you could turn to a number of fanzines, comics, and weirdo institutions such as the Church of the SubGenius, a satiric cult founded by some Illuminatus! fans. By 1993, you were a target market for several half-joking mass-market conspiracy tomes; your sensibility was reflected regularly in magazines such as Mondo 2000 and The Nose; and two brand new pop juggernauts were about to enter your heart: The X-Files and the World Wide Web.
And by 2003, this was all standard background noise. These days, choosing your politics is a matter of choosing who you're more afraid of, the Washington cabal that's openly trying to erase your freedoms or the various foreign cabals that are openly trying to kill you. Like it or not, we're living in Robert Anton Wilson's world.
Illuminatus! did not invent this mental universe sui generis. But it was Illuminatus! that created the template, with its sprawling story that treated every interpretation of the world, paranoid or not, as equally plausible and equally ridiculous. And it was Wilson whose other novels and essays, from the historical fiction The Earth Will Shake to the autobiographical Cosmic Trigger, explored conspiracy theories not to expose "the truth" but to reveal the ways we construct strange stories out of the everyday truths we only hazily perceive.
This wasn't a purely abstract intellectual pursuit. In the early '70s, experimenting heavily with psychedelics and other forms of "deliberately induced brain change," Wilson underwent a series of unusual…experiences. "Around 1973 I became convinced for a while that I was receiving messages from outer space," he informs us in Maybe Logic. "But then a psychic reader told me that I was actually channeling an ancient Chinese philosopher. And another psychic reader told me I was channeling a medieval Irish bard. And at that time I started reading neurology and I decided it was just my right brain talking to my left brain. And then I went to Ireland and discovered it was actually a six-foot-tall white rabbit—they call it the pooka."
A little later he comments, "I like the giant rabbit from County Kerry because there's no chance anyone will take that literally."
Including yourself? asks the interviewer.
Wilson agrees. Then he adds, "Well, not too literally." He glances over his shoulder. "Sorry about that, Harvey."
If there's a central message to Wilson's work, the film tells us, it's the agnostic notion that you can't be completely certain about anything—and that even when you're pretty sure an idea is baseless, it might be fun to entertain it for an evening. Somewhere between absolute belief and absolute incredulity, he tells us, the universe contains a maybe. To which anyone who follows the news these days can reply: No doubt.