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The muse and the paranormal: Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson

[UPDATE May 2014: The article described here is no longer available online (nor is the Demon Muse blog). A slightly abridged version of it can be found in the book Daimonic Imagination: Uncanny Intelligence, edited by Angela Voss and William Rowlandson (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013). The same version can also be found in Paranthropology, Vol. 3, No. 4 (October 2012).]

Over at Demon Muse, my blog about the psychology of creativity and the experience of the muse/daimon/genius, I’ve published the next installment in my article series about the ontological status of the muse.

“Theology, Psychology, Neurology: Is the Muse Real? (Part Two)” looks at the interlinked experiences of three major figures in the 20th century’s occult and paranormal scene — Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, and Robert Anton Wilson — in receiving what they perceived as communication from “higher intelligences.” It also says a bit about Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, two modern-day legends in the comic book scene who are tapped into the same thing.

Here’s an excerpt:

In the opening post of this series, I raised the question of whether the personification of the creative force that we’ve been pursuing here at Demon Muse is “really real.” Is the muse, the daimon, the personal genius — that gravitational center of our creative energy and identity — truly a separate being/force/entity with an independent, autonomous existence? Or are such words and the experience to which they refer simply convenient metaphors for the unconscious mind? The first thing we discover when we truly begin to consider the issue in depth is that arriving at a viable answer will not be, and cannot be, as straightforward a matter as it might first appear. All of our attempts run us into immediate difficulties, because whichever side we try to choose, we find we’re automatically skirting important issues and begging crucial questions. Hence, the value of reviewing some of the various ways in which intelligent individuals have understood the experience of guidance and communication from a muse-like source.

Of all the myriad strands in the cultural conversation about this issue, it would be hard to identify a more pertinent — or fascinating (and entertaining) — one than the line of influence connecting 20th-century occultist Aleister Crowley to psychedelic guru Timothy Leary to counterculture novelist-philosopher and “guerilla ontologist” Robert Anton Wilson. The dividing line between objective and subjective interpretations of the experience of external-seeming communication from an invisible source is highlighted not only in their individual stories but in the plotline that connects them. In particular, Wilson’s final “resting point” in terms of a belief system to encompass the whole thing is helpful and instructive in our search for the muse’s ontological status, and can prove a helpful tonic for dogmatism, because what he ended up with was more of an anti-belief system that highlights and hinges on the irreducible indeterminacy of any possible answer.

This I Believe: An uber-agnostic on religion, psychology, consciousness, the paranormal, and the meaning of life

Image: I Want to BelieveIt has come to my attention that although I write all the time about religion, philosophy, spirituality, psychology, consciousness, culture, the paranormal, and other idea-based subjects, my own position on any or all of them generally comes off as obscure.

ITEM: My friend Kim Paffenroth, the religion scholar and zombie horror author, has characterized me as “deeply but ambiguously spiritual.”

ITEM: When I was interviewed in March 2010 by Lovecraft News Network about the half-fictional and half-academic combination of horror and religious speculation contained in my then-forthcoming (and now published) book Dark Awakenings, Christian Horror Blog linked to the interview, quoted my claim that “what has long interested me is the speculation that maybe there’s something fundamentally horrific about God or the Ground of Being from the human perspective,” and then commented, “It is unclear where exactly Cardin stands on these issues, other than to say he is thinking deeply about them.”

ITEM: Last Christmas when I was visiting my mother and her husband in Arkansas for the holidays, one of my cousins-in-law, who happens to be a charismatic-evangelical Christian preacher, and also a fun and smart guy to talk to, engaged me in a conversation about my personal religious beliefs that still has my wife cringing in recollection. As she later put it (and has sometimes said of me in different contexts), “You talked in circles!”

Of course I know that I tend to abet such perceptions, especially when I say things like the following, which appeared in the aforementioned LNN interview: “Note that whenever I talk about these things, I do so hypothetically, in a kind of philosophical hyperspace. I’m not saying I actually believe in this type of cosmic-horrific situation. But I’m not saying I don’t, either.” Yes, I can see how it might seem that I’m deliberately being coy when I talk that way.

But in point of fact, I’m not being coy at all, but am just stating things the way they appear to me. Apparently as a genetic fact, whether physiological or psychological, I’m an incurable agnostic about most things. The reason that I tend to state everything in hypothetical terms is that I think and deeply feel in those terms. I find it natural, in fact reflexively so, to put mental brackets or quotes around any answers offered to any and all questions about religion etc.

How come?

On Robert Anton Wilson and not believing anything

As a long aside, I could speculate — again with brackets or quotes around it — that perhaps I’ve been slyly reprogrammed to think-feel-see things this way by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea via their Illuminatus! trilogy. After all, they claim as much in one of the appendices to that Moby Dickian masterpiece of mind-blowing counterphilosophy: “This book, being part of the only serious conspiracy it describes — that is, part of Operation Mindfuck — has programmed the reader in ways that he or she will not understand for a period of months (or perhaps years).” I first read Illuminatus! in 1988. Then I went on to read the rest of Wilson’s considerable body of work over the next decade. Did this maybe help to engender my thoroughgoing worldview-agnosticism? After all, it was Wilson who devoted the first few paragraphs of the new preface to the 1986 edition of what may be his chief work, Cosmic Trigger, to a rigorous clarification of where he stood on the issue of belief as such, since many of his readers continued to assume, 10 years’ after the book’s first publication, that he really did believe in the various paranormal matters, conspiracy theories, and other wacky things that he wrote about:

I want to make it clearer than ever before that I DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING. . . . It seems to be a hangover of the medieval Catholic era that causes most people, even the educated, to think that everybody must “believe” something or other, that if one is not a theist, one must be a dogmatic atheist, and if one does not think Capitalism is perfect, one must believe fervently in Socialism, and if one does not have blind faith in X, one must alternatively have blind faith in not-X or the reverse of X.

My own attitude is that belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as one believes a doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of existence.

….Belief in the tradition sense, or certitude, or dogma, amounts to the grandiose delusion, “My current model” — or grid, or map, or reality-tunnel — “contains the whole universe and will never need to be revised.” In terms of the history of science and knowledge in general, this appears absurd and arrogant to me, and I am perpetually astonished that so many people still manage to live with such a medieval attitude.

Yep, that describes my own axiomatic agnosticism pretty well.

On Lovecraft, cosmic horror, and the cracking open of one’s personal cosmic egg

And/but, I was recently spurred to really try and articulate what I think about matters of religion etc. when the proprietor of the blog TheoPhantasmagoria sent me an email to let me know that he had created a post (“Lovecraft, Meet Yahweh: The Biblical Book of Isaiah as a Horror Story“) revolving around my reading of Isaiah as a cosmic horror story. He closed his email by asking, “Just out of interest, what are your beliefs?”

Normally I would have deflected such a question with some sort of vague comment. But this time, for some reason, it just seemed natural to answer. So I typed, and typed, and then typed some more — and found that my answer had rapidly grown into a concise but detailed — and, I’m afraid, dry and technical-sounding — explanation of precisely how I see things.

So for those who may be wondering, here’s the breathlessly awaited statement to dispel the specter of my deep but ambiguous spirituality once and for all:

Regarding my beliefs, I don’t really have any beliefs as such when it comes to supernaturalism, spirituality, religion, etc. When I say that, be advised that I’m using the word “belief” to mean an intellectual/emotional assent to, or clinging to, a certain set of propositions about reality. The very word implies a kind of arbitrary choice: “Some people believe this. Other people believe that. I believe the other thing.” At root I’m not interested in beliefs but in what’s self-evidently true, so that’s it’s not a matter of belief or disbelief but of simple, incontrovertible verification. In the objective realm of physical nature, that’s determined by empirical science. In the subjective realm of inner space or interiority, that’s determined by coming to an understanding of the givens of both the human perceptual apparatus and, more intimately, the deep structure of the human psyche that not only shapes the interpretation of external space-time perceptions but, more intimately and significantly, provides its own content to consciousness in the form of the Jungian collective archetypes and such.

So what does this mean for paranormal stuff? It means that, based on the fact of the age-old accounts of such things, which indicates that something’s really going on, people really can and do see ghosts, angels, demons, elves, cryptids, UFOs, aliens, etc. — but that these phenomena are as much internal as external. They probably inhabit a kind of liminal zone between subjective and objective, the realm that Patrick Harpur has memorably dubbed “daimonic reality.”

So are they real? This understanding of them puts that word in scare quotes and foregrounds the usually muted issue of ontology. Somebody who has really and pointedly become aware of what Jung called the objectivity of the psyche recognizes that this aspect of life categorically eludes the conventional polarity of real and unreal that’s a fact of objective daily life, precisely because the daimonic stuff hails from a part of psychic space that 1) precedes, dwarfs, encompasses, and transcends the conscious ego that observes the external world and analyzes and discriminates among things there, including questions of reality and unreality, and 2) emerges right from the substratum of Being itself, so it somehow bridges the gap between conventionally real and unreal by appearing as a real projection in the psyche that’s not just the product of individual fancy or imagination.

I could also add that as far as a general religious/spiritual/philosophical attitude toward life and living goes, I’m pretty much a Zen Christian agnostic. The ultimate and universal point of life is clear perception, pure seeing from the center of Being outward: awakening to awakeness, Buddha nature, Christ consciousness. The ultimate and specific point of life for each of us as unique individuals is to live this limited, differentiated bodymind existence as an experience of that clear absolute awareness knowing itself through a finite point of entry into the objective world. In other words, to learn to be fully immersed in this experience while remaining fully cognizant of one’s identity as that basic, pure, absolute seeingness. This is encapsulated in various guises in the teachings and practices of Christianity, Buddhism, certain schools of depth psychotherapy (see Carl Jung and James Hillman), the current neo-advaita philosophical-spiritual movement — not to mention traditional Advaita Vedanta — and other traditions.

And that’s it. To quote Edward R. Murrow: THIS I believe.

Any questions?

– –

Image credits: “Bigfoot Crossing” used under Creative Commons from Chiceaux

On clarity of language, thought, consciousness, and being

As a professional writer and English teacher for the past decade, I’ve been prone to think frequently about the role of language in life. One of the recurring themes in my thoughts — occasioned at least in part by some of my grad school studies in philosophy, anthropology, and sociolinguistics, and also by my being confronted at my job every day by extremely rough and problematic uses of the English language that are damned difficult to address — is the question of “correct” language. Is the very idea of correctness in this area just a culturally imperialistic metanarrative? Is it just arbitrary in the grand scheme of things? Or does it really get at a crucial truth?

And beyond mere technical correctness — grammar etc. — what about matters of rhetoric, style, and syntactical choices? How important are they not just to academic matters but to life in general, and not just in a utilitarian sense but a deeply human one?

A recent essay in The New York Review of Books offers some real fodder for reflection on all of these things. In “Words” (July 15), British academic Tony Judt talks about the vast significance of language in both his own personal life and the life of human culture at large.  The essay is fascinating and poignant — fascinating because of the insight Judt brings to bear on the relationship between the clear and skillful deployment of language (in both print and speech) and the achievement of a general clarity of life and thought, and poignant because he caps the whole thing off by talking about a progressive neurological disorder from which he suffers, and which will inevitably rob him of speech. “Translating being into thought,” he says, “thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.”

He explains that he was brought up in a family where talking and debating were centrally important, and was processed through the British elementary school system of the 1950s, when “‘Good’ English was at its peak” and “We were instructed in the unacceptability of even the most minor syntactical transgression.”

The heart of the essay appears in his comments about the close connection between clarity of language and clarity of thought, and the way this connection has been devalued over the past half century of public life:

Sheer rhetorical facility, whatever its appeal, need not denote originality and depth of content.

All the same, inarticulacy surely suggests a shortcoming of thought. This idea will sound odd to a generation praised for what they are trying to say rather than the thing said. Articulacy itself became an object of suspicion in the 1970s: the retreat from “form” favored uncritical approbation of mere “self-expression,” above all in the classroom. But it is one thing to encourage students to express their opinions freely and to take care not to crush these under the weight of prematurely imposed authority. It is quite another for teachers to retreat from formal criticism in the hope that the freedom thereby accorded will favor independent thought: “Don’t worry how you say it, it’s the ideas that count.”

Forty years on from the 1960s, there are not many instructors left with the self-confidence (or the training) to pounce on infelicitous expression and explain clearly just why it inhibits intelligent reflection. The revolution of my generation played an important role in this unraveling: the priority accorded the autonomous individual in every sphere of life should not be underestimated — “doing your own thing” took protean form.

Today “natural” expression — in language as in art — is preferred to artifice. We unreflectively suppose that truth no less than beauty is conveyed more effectively thereby. Alexander Pope knew better. For many centuries in the Western tradition, how well you expressed a position corresponded closely to the credibility of your argument. Rhetorical styles might vary from the spartan to the baroque, but style itself was never a matter of indifference. And “style” was not just a well-turned sentence: poor expression belied poor thought. Confused words suggested confused ideas at best, dissimulation at worst.

He goes on from this to observe that in the modern social media milieu of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and texting, “pithy allusion substitutes for exposition,” and people who live under the reign of an overweening consumerism begin to talk like text messages.

The prognosis he offers is unequivocal:

This ought to worry us. When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Alice was right: the outcome is anarchy.

As I said, this all hits home because of my personal and professional positions as a writer and teacher. And also because of my philosophical and spiritual proclivities. I’m deeply influenced by a loose Zen-Christian nondual school of thinking, seeing, and knowing, and of course this involves the recognition that reality in itself is fundamentally unspeakable, fundamentally a matter of pure being-ness and first-person apprehension. “The menu isn’t the meal.” “The map isn’t the territory.” Don’t get so distracted by the finger pointing to the moon that you miss the moon itself, the “finger” being words and concepts and the “moon” being the living realities they symbolize. And so on.

For years I struggled with the question of whether this semi-existentialist recognition of the abstraction of language and thought from real being, while valid and crucial, might not entail the necessary conclusion that language is unimportant. That’s one of the major reasons, among all the others, that Judt’s insights are so gripping:  because he with his neurological disorder is faced with the imminent loss of his ability to communicate in words. And this really and truly does strike him — and me — as a loss.

In point of fact, reality’s transcendence of language means that the real world and life in general should be infinitely expressible in words. No matter that the words and concepts are relative realities instead of absolute ones, and symbolic realities instead of existential ones. This very fact means a person should ideally be able to describe his or her thoughts and experiences in a literally endless variety of linguistic variations, all of them circling around and pointing toward the realities themselves, and recreating in the mind and affect of the equally linguistically astute listener or reader an approximation of those very realities, thus encouraging a “see for yourself” transition to direct looking. Not to be able to do this, to lack the skills and sensibility to state and restate our experience, is to be locked away in a prison of muteness.

I recall being exhilarated as an undergraduate when I read Robert Anton Wilson’s The Widow’s Son and came to the fantastic philosophical passage in which — as I recall (it’s been a few years) — Wilson presents a hypothetical scene of humanity’s first explosion of self-consciousness, wherein an early human spontaneously develops the first-ever capacity for self-conscious reflection, and is thus able to recognize the beauty of a flower or sunset for the first time, and exclaims to another human with gasping wonder and delight, “Oh, look! Look at this!” Writes Wilson, “And beauty was created in a world that had been flat and dead and meaningless until that moment.”

The entire history of language proceeds from that delightful leap in self-consciousness, from that titanically freeing and empowering ability to step back from life and really see it, and to symbolize it in some form that’s communicable to others, so that they, too, can see for themselves by using the symbol for its proper purpose: as the Taoist’s “finger pointing toward the moon,” which directs attention away from itself and toward reality, serving only as a bridge. (See my “The Evolution of Consciousness and the Alchemy of Language” for more along these lines.)

I finished reading Colin Wilson’s The Philosopher’s Stone recently, and the entire philosophical thrust of that ecstatically philosophical novel is the value of being able to step back from immediate experience and grasp wider meanings. Wilson writes, “So poets, philosophers, scientists are always having these moments in which they grasp enormous meanings.” He even deliberately presents an instance in which a dull and prosaic-minded character suffers a head wound that accidentally endows him with the ability to induce “value experiences” (the novel’s fictionalized version of Maslow’s “peak experiences”) at will, simply so that he (Wilson) can make this very point about the importance of linguistic expression: “We had found someone who could plunge into ecstasy as a moment’s notice. Here was s Wordsworth without the power of self-expression, a Traherne who could only say ‘Gor, ain’t it pretty.'”

So all of this is just a longish and rambling rumination to get around to saying this: that Judt is right. The power to use language with self-conscious correctness, and not just that, but with rhetorical beauty, is a real power with real value because it really does allow “the translation of being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication” — which means your and my subjectivity becomes sharable. Our walled-off world of interiority becomes something we can communicate to someone else, and they can communicate theirs to us. There may be, in fact there truly are, wordless ways of doing the same thing — but words are one of the finest and most effective means we have of doing this. (See yesterday’s post about fictional entertainments and their power to cultivate empathy.)

Even more: Words, like self-consciousness, can actually enhance primary experience. The capacity for self-consciousness and the capacity for language being inextricably interlinked, it’s simply the case that the better your ability to reflect upon and express your experience consciously and linguistically, the more fully you know that experience. The very act of reflection creates the reflector. It’s bound up with the fact of individual subjecthood itself, as any student of the Western intellectual, philosophical, political, and social tradition, not to mention any student of Buddhism, can tell you. And the achievement and refinement of that ego self, despite the undeniable and enormous problems it has created — everything having to do with the “nightmare” of recorded/civilized history from which Joyce was struggling to awake — is one of the greatest quantum leaps in the history of the universe’s evolution. It’s the universe becoming awake to itself, and our purpose lies not in fleeing from the ego but in fulfilling the purpose for which it arose. See the pre/trans fallacy famously articulated by Ken Wilber. See the biblical Jesus: “I come not to destroy the law but to fulfill it.”

Our culture now presents us with an opportunity either to rise to, and even above, the opportunity embodied in words and language, or to sink below it. This is what I and every other writer and/or teacher is charged with addressing. We’re not just trying to enhance students’ communication skills in order to enhance their employment prospects. We’re helping to focus their being, to focus Being itself, for the ultimate fulfillment of its purpose, by helping them to develop their linguistic capacities and conscious interior sensibilities to the greatest possible extent.

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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.

* * * * *

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.

R.I.P. Robert Anton Wilson and Douglas Harding, 1/11/07

I was rather stunned to receive the news today that two of my most cherished philosophical and spiritual influences have just died.

Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007) was an American author, philosopher, wiseguy, and all-around mega-genius who co-wrote, along with Robert Shea, the legendary Illuminatus! trilogy that became an instant counterculture classic when it was published in the 1970s. He also wrote a huge number of additional books, both fiction and non-fiction (or perhaps they all fell somewhere in the gray area between those polar distinctions), dealing with consciousness, evolution, mysticism, occultism, conspiracy theories, linguistics, semiotics, self-programming, intelligence increase, life extension, quantum physics, the philosophy of science, space migration, human idiocy, religion, meditation, money, and more. He was one of a kind and will be sorely missed by pretty much everybody. Do a Google search is you’re not familiar with him, and revel in the wealth of material you’ll find. I myself came to him via Illuminatus! when I was in late high school, and I was never the same again. Bob’s been a constant companion ever since. I was pained to read in recent years of his agonizing struggle with post-polio syndrome (he suffered through the disease itself as a boy), but now he’s free of that.

Douglas Harding (1909-2007) was a British philosopher and spiritual teacher whose most famous books are the monumental The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth (1952) and On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious (1961). He taught a practical, on-the-ground method of spiritual awakening based on the immediate first-person experience of headlessness. From one’s own first-person vantage point, as a matter of immediate personal experience aside from any speculation or abstraction, one manifestly has no head (look for yourself right now and see). From this central truth Douglas developed a philosophy, and just as importantly, a practical method of transmitting its primary experiential realization, that synthesizes and integrates elements of all the world’s great spiritual traditions. He was recognized early on as a genius of startling vision; when he sent the unpublished draft of The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth to C.S. Lewis, who by that time was already a world celebrity, Lewis wrote back in a letter dated Easter 1950 and raved, “Hang it all, you’ve made me drunk, roaring drunk as I haven’t been on a book (I mean a book of doctrine; imaginative works are another matter) since I first read Bergson during World War I. Who or what are you? How have I lived forty years without my having heard of you before and my sensation is that you have written a book of the highest genius.”

Lewis went on to write the preface for the first published edition of the book. In it he said, “This book is, I believe, the first attempt to reverse a movement of thought which has been going on since the beginning of philosophy. . . . If [this book] should turn out to have been even the remote ancestor of some system which will give us again a credible universe inhabited by credible agents and observers, this will still have been a very important book indeed.”

Douglas’s influence grew in the 1960s and 70s when such prominent figures in the burgeoning countercultural spiritual movement as Alan Watts referred approvingly to his work. I myself encountered him for the first time in the late 1990s through some of his articles and interviews published on the web, and it was like meeting a lifelong friend for the first time.

So to repeat, today, January 11, 2007, saw the departure from this world of Robert Anton Wilson and Douglas Harding. Rest in peace, Bob and Doug. You will be missed.