Robert Anton Wilson and reality tunnels: a retrospective reflection
About a week ago, horror writer Mark Samuels — who’s a friend of mine, and whom I interviewed here at the Teeming Brain a couple of years ago — started a discussion thread at the Shocklines message boards about the concept of “reality tunnels” as expressed and examined in the work of one of my favorite writers, Robert Anton Wilson (affectionately known as RAW by his fans), who died early last year. Mark had just finished reading RAW’s 1991 book The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science, and started the conversation to advance his tentative opinion that Wilson’s expressed disdain for fundamentalisms and dogmatisms of all varieties was itself a kind of dogmatic fundamentalism. This kicked off a lively online conversation to which I couldn’t help contributing. My words are below. Names have been changed (except for Mark’s) to protect the innocent.
N.B., I wrote the first paragraph in response to a Shockliner who expressed his intention to disregard and scorn RAW because of his very public connection with Timothy Leary.
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At one point a few years ago I owned no fewer than nine books by RAW and had read a couple more beyond that, so I was a confirmed fan of epic proportions. He shaped my own reality tunnel to a considerable extent.
I think S– hit the nail on the head, Mark. In The New Inquisition Wilson was being deliberately dogmatic to an extent in order to combat the scientistic dogmatism he was attacking.
As for the idea that the reality tunnel he developed ended up being, according to the rules of the game as he himself explained and analyzed them, just one more reality tunnel among others, with no valid claim to being more correct than any of these others, and yet Wilson ended up forgetting or ignoring this fact — I think that was a facet of his lifelong trajectory that some people did notice and comment on. He did get a bit more rigid and dogmatic in his skepticism and cynicism and hatred of fundamentalism as he aged, much as George Carlin became an Angry Old Man. (That was appropriate enough, too, since in later life Wilson began referring frequently and with only partial irony to “the philosopher Carlin.”) I recall Jay Kinney, the longtime editor of the late, great, sorely missed Gnosis magazine criticizing Wilson for this very fact in an early 1990s review of Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger II. Kinney pointed out that Wilson’s tone and outlook had grown more rigid over time, as evidenced by the book’s unabashed and frequently reiterated scorn for fundamentalism and fundamentalists of all kinds. And he (Kinney) gently suggested that Wilson ought to voluntarily and rigorously undertake some of the same kinds of thought experiments that he had championed and promoted for a great many years, only this time he should put himself into the frame of mind of a garden variety fundamentalist and try to explore that viewpoint from the inside.
The thing is, even though this criticism and advice may have been valid, Wilson was a savvy enough guy (to put it mildly) to recognize all of this on his own. And the very theory of reality tunnels that formed the fundamental orientation for his entire outlook and body of work was in a sense self correcting. The deep underlying effect of living with it — as Wilson was, again, completely aware of — was to engender an abiding and unshakeable irony toward all reality tunnels, even his own. And that was the entire point. The message was contained in the method. He confronted these matters head on in various books like Quantum Psychology, Prometheus Rising, and Cosmic Trigger (the first one), where he talked about the fact that although there is such a thing as “reality,” no human being knows anything about it except through the perceptual and conceptual/emotional filter of his or her own nervous system, and all attempts even to think about, talk about, or otherwise symbolize and deal with these things are predicated upon this underlying and overarching and inescapable truth. Given this, it’s as if the seed of his later quasi-dogmatism was contained and clearly evident within the outline of his earlier thought. Maybe the later creeping skeptical fundamentalism was just the natural outcome of what came before, not as a bad thing, but just as a thing.
I find the books I listed above to be more helpful and wide-ranging in getting to know Wilson than The New Inquisition, which, despite its depth and incisiveness, is pretty much a one-note performance. Cosmic Trigger is highly autobiographical and thus quite valuable (and fascinating) for getting a feel for how Wilson’s life shaped his outlook. Quantum Psychology and Prometheus Rising, in addition to their direct philosophical, psychological, and scientific musings, are stocked with recommended thought experiments and other exercises for helping a person to get a personal, experiential understanding of the reality tunnel relativism that Wilson was getting at (a tactic that sometimes seems pointedly pedantic but still delivers the goods). I’ve also found his fiction to be quite valuable in this respect, most especially the Historical Illuminatus chronicles, which, sadly, he never finished. Their heady adventures through an 18th century American and European revolutionary-era tableau of political intrigue, secret societies, Western occultism, religious chicanery, bizarre states of consciousness, explosive philosophical insights, etc., are fairly wondrous. The second volume, The Widow’s Son, may be the best thing he ever wrote: a book that actually crosses over into the realm of by-God literature and bristles with enduring value. It’s also a damned fun romp, both narratively and philosophically. And it pushes the envelope of his fact/fiction mixing “guerilla ontology” tactic to its most exquisite extreme.
As for Timothy Leary, you shouldn’t be so quick to write him off, H–. Yes, he became known and will forever be remembered as “the LSD guru” of the 1960s-70s counterculture. But he was a much smarter guy than mainstream cultural memory gives him credit for having been. Remember, he was a Harvard psychologist whose experiments with LSD on willing human subjects were considered to be groundbreaking and fraught with great psychological potential before LSD was made illegal and he lost his Harvard post for refusing to stop with the drug. A grid that he developed to classify personality types is still widely used in some mainstream psychological circles (it appeared in one of my textbooks when I was majoring in communication at the University of Missouri in the late 80s/early 90s). He was in fact a genius-level thinker who got too caught up in his own media image during the heady 1960s-1970s countercultural explosion, and willingly exploited the off-center guru facade that ultimately led to his being judged a clown by the culture at large. The current incarnation of the Wikipedia article about him features a valuable and nicely nuanced section about his lasting influence (including his mutually influential relationship with Robert Anton Wilson) and the characteristic mixture of brilliance and buffonery that marks his remembered legacy. Notably, widely renowned religion scholar Huston Smith — one of my favorite writers, incidentally — is quoted both for his early relationship with Leary and his rueful diagnosis of Leary’s late-in-life direction.