Conspiracy Theories

More on the Death of Robert Anton Wilson


Jesse Walker noted his death today below (and gave a great short example of what made him a wonderful writer). For those unfamiliar with Robert Anton Wilson as libertarian, herewith a sample of things I wrote about him in my forthcoming book, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement:

Wilson made libertarian anarchism–both political and epistemological, even ontological–seem open-hearted, fascinating, with a mysterious and energetic history, something that could win hearts and minds against any number of competing means of modeling human social reality…..[he] was a grand recruiter for libertarianism, both through Illuminatus! and his series of optimistic, futuristic, epistemologically anarchistic essays and nonfiction works that stress the glories of no human limits, physical, spiritual, or political. This is true despite his separation from most aspects of the standard movement, and despite the fact that his work appeals on so many levels that one can become a Wilson Head without reaching his libertarianism. Through Wilson's influence one might become an Aleister Crowleyan, a Wilhelm Reichian, an old-fashioned Tuckerite, a techno-future-optimist in the manner of Buckminster Fuller or Timothy Leary. It is an aspect of the growing health of libertarian ideas that it is no longer the small pond it was up until the late 1970s, where it could be assumed that knowledge of or involvement in any aspect of the movement means you almost certainly were quite familiar with, and probably intimately involved with, all the other parts.

Indeed, many Wilson fans, I find, don't even recognize him as a libertarian figure at all. He did once write in an early 1980s article that "Ideologically, of course, I should have voted for Ed Clark, the Libertarian Party candidate; but I am not that kind of Libertarian, really; I don't hate poor people."*

But he also said, as quoted in my book, when asked to expound on the differences between him and the then-dominant Misesian-Rothbardian strain of the movement in a 1976 interview, "this is turning into a diatribe against the group I find least obnoxious on the whole politico-economic spectrum…The orthodox conservatives and liberals, not to mention Nazis and Marxists, are really pernicious, and the Austrian libertarians are basically OK."

Some personal things I didn't say in my book: The ideas, modes, thinkers, that he exposed me to explain my intellectual and professional life more than does any other single influence–and from the comments on various blogs today, I think that is true of hundreds of his readers, maybe thousands.

He was my gateway to Welles and Chandler, to Leary and Fuller, to Pound and Reich, to conspiracy theory and libertarianism, and to all the ideas and experiences, intellectual, aesthetic, and actual, that rolled from those varied and fascinating entryways into art, ideas, and living. I hope I can do good by the principles he helped imbue in me. He excelled as both novelist and essayist; he was a noble steward of the ideas he espoused, a brilliant and passionate popularizer, and the characters and scenarios and approaches to fiction of his novels reward constant reading with constant pleasure and insight–he was a pop-Pynchon of sorts in his sprawling, comic-serious approach to Big Crazy Ideas, who got a thousandth of the respect and delivered a thousand times the joy and humanity.

I, and many others, will continue to read his work with both intellectual and aesthetic pleasure from now and on into the limitless human future he helped so many of us to see. If anyone deserved to reach techno-immortality, it was him. That's what's making me saddest right now. The best of him remains, and will always.

That all said, two words should suffice. as Pound said of Eliot on his passing (and I know this because I read Robert Anton Wilson): Read him.

[UPDATE: *Thanks to Jesse Walker for providing me with that exact quote, which I paraphrased from memory, and somewhat misleadingly, in the original post.]

NEXT: Pfizer Wants to Kill Your Grandfather

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  1. This is really sad. RAW was and is probably one of the most important intellectual guides in my life as well. He was like no other. It is a shame that he wasn’t known to a wider circle before he died.

  2. “That all said, two words should suffice. as Pound said of Eliot on his passing (and I know this because I read Robert Anton Wilson): Read him.”

    Right. Just as soon as I run out of Pound and Eliot.

  3. Another beautiful monster no longer among us. For good or ill, I’m certainly not who I was when I first stumbled onto his work in High School.

  4. Ah, hell. And I just started re-reading Illuminatus! the other night, too.

  5. He was probably the single biggest intellectual influence on my life. I’ll miss him.

  6. Hey Russell,

    Bob was my friend. Keep your snide jokes to yourself. RIP, RAW.


  7. ted,

    Apparently your ire comes from the fact that RAW is dead and Russell doesn’t have unconditional praise for him. If RAW were alive you probably wouldn’t be saying that. But remember RAW’s irreverant attitude towards death and stop taking everything so seriously.

  8. Andy,

    Maybe, but it seems to me like a really rude and trollish way to respond to the news of somone’s passing. If it were me, and I didn’t know the person and their work meant nothing to you, I’d probably decline to leave a comment rather than leave a smug message that makes me look self-important. I just find that kind of behavior impolite and inappropriate.

  9. I’m currently staying in the bay area with a woman who used to be RAW’s personal assistant… she’s going to be glum tonight. As will probably everyone at the EFF party we were going to.

    California lost it’s greatest sage today. But I’m afraid that I can’t wish him a peaceful rest- would Bob Wilson have wanted that? Nah, I hope he’s living it up out on the aethers, wherever they might be…

  10. This sucks. Illuminatus was a revelation to me in college. I don’t know that it changed my beliefs as much as spoke to them like no other work of fiction had before.

    BTW his encyclopedia of conspiracy theories, “Everything is Under Control” is some of the best bathroom reading ever.

  11. Never heard of him. Why did he mean by “but I am not that kind of Libertarian, really; I don’t hate poor people”?

  12. This review makes wilson sound like a crackpot.

  13. I’ve seen that review before. Some of the errors that it identifies are genuine, but most of them miss the point. The aim of The New Inquisition wasn’t to make the case for the existence of the paranormal; it was to show how easy it is to ignore inconvenient data when there’s a belief-system blocking the view. There’s one section where Wilson assiduously gathered evidence for the existence of a werewolf. At the end he revealed the counterevidence he had deliberately left out, to show how easy it is to create a bogus belief-system. He did that a lot, and he wasn’t always so explicit about the fact that he was doing it.

    He called this “guerilla ontology,” which he defined as “The basic technique of all my books. Ontology is the study of being; the guerilla approach is to so mix the elements of each book that the reader must decide on each page ‘How much of this is real and how much is a put-on?'” (It should be no surprise that he wrote regularly for Paul Krassner’s The Realist.)

    One of the things I like best about Wilson’s writing is his ability to spin stories that managed to be “real” and “a put-on” at the same time. One theme of his later work, for example, was an elaborate parody of those far-right theories that say the U.S. is controlled by a Zionist Occupational Government. Pointing to the Drug Czar, he said we actually live under a Tsarist Occupational Government, and then constructed a historical argument that Tsarist agents of influence had infiltrated and taken over the American government. It was hilariously absurd, yet most of the details were real — and so was the point he was making about the drug war.

  14. Edward:

    He was a complete crackpot. A complete, utter, absolute crackpot.

    But unlike most- he knew he was one.

    All he wanted to do was make the world a safe place for him and his fellow crackpots- and that’s why he’s a hero to so many of us. He didn’t really want followers, or anyone to believe his crackpot ideas (which he probably didn’t really believe anyway)- he just wanted people to know that it’s okay to be a little… off.

  15. Edit;

    …..a really rude and trollish way to respond to the news of somone’s passing…

    Sheesh, you shoulda been here to see what was said about Liberty Mag’s publisher….Bradford, dammit, Bradford. Got dam CRS.

  16. Edward,

    Never heard of him. Why did he mean by “but I am not that kind of Libertarian, really; I don’t hate poor people”?

    That’s certainly a twist on the old saw that libertarians are heartless and would simply allow people to starve in the streets because we oppose government welfare programs.

  17. Hey Ted :
    To qoute the literal Last Post of your favorite writer ” I remain cheerful and unimpressed…I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying.

    Please pardon my levity, I don’t see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd.


  18. It rather vexes me that the two Bobs were so influential but got so little credit. Seems everyone in Hollywood for many years has filled the screens with sly allusions to their stuff, without explicit mention. I hope Lost* at least does an “in memory of” slide. And Bob Shea didn’t even make it this far, dying quite a bit younger.

    *Dollars to doughnuts that island is Fernando Poo, now Bioko.

  19. Well, you’ve whet my appetite. I will definitely check Wison out.

  20. Russell,

    I never said Bob was my ‘favorite writer,’ that is your claim about my opinion and not mine. I liked him and his books, but you are taking a very small bit of evidence and conflating it in some attempt to marginalize me and my reaction to your thoughtless post. Listen, Wilson did claim not to take death seriously. Your comment, however, did not refer to his death, it was a flippant dismissal of what he did in life. If that’s what you want to do, it’s your loss; however I think it reflects poorly on you that you would offer it in this forum, which is otherwise going to be the province of people to whom the man and writer did and does mean something. Your attitude seems to be you are too superior to be bothered, so why are you wasting your time posting something like that? Probably because you are a small and pathetic soul, but I’ll admit that the amount of evidence I have to work with here is small.

  21. How is it a flippant dismissal to say that you’ll read Wilson as soon as you get through Pound and Elliot? Those two wrote enough to keep anyone busy for a while.

    BTW, I bought a shirt to help RAW out during his illness, and I’m very saddened to see him pass. He had a huge influence on me, too.

    I guess I’ll have to do some serious celebrating in his honour tomorrow!

  22. He was a major influence on me, too. I had a shelf of his stuff at one time, and to this day I would recommend his “Sex, Drugs and the Occult” to anyone.

  23. I think it’s the ‘Right.’ that precedes it that is the most flip. It frames the comment in a clearly sarcastic way.

  24. I’ve been wanting to read RAW for years, and just have never gotten around to it. I actually bought a copy of Prometheus Rising at a library sale, but never got to read it before I lent it out and never got it back. Would anyone care to make a nice “Best Of” list for me to take to Borders tonight?

  25. You won’t find any of his stuff published by New Falcon at Borders. But they’ll have Illuminatus for sure.

    You’re better of buying from this real cool website that sells books. It’s called It’s a pretty amazing website.

  26. There’s so much of & in RAW that a “best of” list depends on what you’re most interested in. However, he also had the teacher’s ability (he was a schoolteacher for a while IIRC) to tease you with some of the info you were after while getting you interested in another subject entirely.

    His literary deadpan was perfect. I guess I’ll never know whether “The Walls Came Tumbling Down” was seriously intended as a screen play, or whether its ending is parodic as I think.

  27. i’d recommend illuminatus, the cosmic trigger books (1 – 3, memoirs, the first is especially good) and prometheus rising for starters. the historical illuminatus books are good but he didn’t get to finish the last two, sadly. and tsog: the thing that ate the constitution is a great addition.

    if you can find it, and it might be difficult, his natural law attack pamphlet is great. i got mine before loompanics went under.

  28. I should mention also that although I met RAW a few times, I was more a FOAF of his. I was slightly closer to Bob Shea.

  29. Emme: I definitely will buy some of RAW’s work that I can’t find at Borders off of Amazon, but I have a thing for bookstores. Call me old fashioned I guess, but I really like being able to flip through a book. That and the whole instant gratification. Plus Borders has a totally smoking barista.

  30. Fiction: Illuminatus!, Masks of the Illuminati, The Earth Will Shake (and its first sequel, The Widow’s Son), Wilhelm Reich in Hell.

    Nonfiction: Cosmic Trigger, Prometheus Rising, The New Inquisition, Coincidance.

    There’s many other good ones — hell, even his occasional weak efforts have some good parts — but that’s where I’d start.

  31. Did Wilson draw on Nesta Webster in writing Illumninatus?

  32. RAW, that ‘crazy F’n crackpot’, had a helluva sense of humor…

    He shed his mortal coil at age 74, on January 11, 2007 (01/11/2007).

    Which, when rendered thusly,




    Thanks for ‘the meaningless coincidence’ Bob! 😉

  33. DC: Wilson drew on _EVERYONE_ with a conspiracy theory when writing the Illuminatus! Trilogy. I think at one point or another it references every signle parqanoid idea that existed in the late 60’s-early 70’s. If he’d written it today, there’d be parts about Halliburton and 5th-Dimensional Space-Lizards running England.

  34. A couple good quotes from him, which help explain his thinking on libertarianism and socialism:

    “I tend toward the libertarian, but I think – and this is going to shock every Libertarian who reads it – I think every country in Europe that’s had a socialist government has benefited from it. Having four or five parties, with the radicals winning occasionally, tends to produce a more balanced society than here, where we’ve got basically two right-wing parties, one of which has a nostalgia for its left-wing past. Relative stasis here – even Perot, whom I trust about as much as I would trust David Rockefeller – Perot was helpful in the sense that he made the debate more interesting in the last presidential election.” (

    “In general, European capitalists usually have broad educations, keep up with artistic and cultural trends, have long accepted some degree of socialism as inevitable, and believe they can make bigger profits with very well educated workers who understand the science behind the technology they use. American capitalists usually have narrowly specialized educations, no interests beyond profit itself, fear that any degree of socialism will destroy them utterly, and believe they can make bigger profits with an ignorant and docile working class. But, once again, out of the chaos I see us emerging to another (temporary) stability, in which more advances in knowledge and art will occur than at any previous time in history because we now process more information per week than most earlier societies processed in a generation.” (

    “The Democratic Socialism which by learning to co-exist with free enterprise, has permanently improved life in Europe, Canada and most of the industrial world, outside the U.S.” (

  35. Wow! So how does Wilson fit in with the right-wing libertarianism we espouse here????

  36. He fat in just fine. He was eclectic, and could change his mind. He was pro gun control after his daughter was shot dead, but changed him mind some time over the next ~20 years.

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