Interview with Prop Anon by R.U. Sirius
I don’t think anyone would have suspected it back in the ’60s and ’70s, but the author Robert Anton Wilson may have emerged as the most influential counterculture figure of those times. Who else has massive followings of fans fighting over the implications of his politics and philosophy? I can’t think of anyone.
RAW requires no introduction with this crowd but for those of you stumbling in, here’s a wikipedia page with a full bibliography.
PROP ANON is the author of the upcoming Chapel Perilous: The Life and Thought Crimes of Robert Anton Wilson, the first official biography of the late counterculture philosopher. He started his career as a Hip-Hop artist whose 2010 album Squat the Condos presaged the Occupy movement. In 2014, Prop switched musical gears and released a Stoner Rock album called HAIL ERIS! with his band, HAIL ERIS!
R.U. Sirius: Is there anything about Bob’s childhood that indicates that he will become a counterculture philosopher of note?
Prop Anon: Bob was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn and spent his childhood in one of its most remote neighborhoods, Gerritsen Beach. He described the one-road-town as an “Irish Catholic Ghetto,” as he grew up a prodigious youth who survived two bouts of Polio, child abuse at the hands of the nuns who ran his grammar school, and a narrow-minded working-class neighborhood. The polio that nearly killed him was almost completely cured by The Sister Kenny Method — which today is considered ‘alternative’ medicine, but in 1935 denounced as quackery by the medical establishment. Sister Kenny proved everyone wrong and eventually was considered an alternative medicine pioneer. More indirectly he received inspiration from his favorite contemporary artist, Orson Welles. Welles played with the notion of uncertainty in nearly all his work, and this spoke to Bob. Bob was a fan of Welles’ since his 1938 ‘War of the World’s” was performed on the radio, which catapulted the then 23-year-old Welles to fame. Events like these, and more, sent the message early on to Bob that a keen sense of self was a necessary survival tool. He possessed the desire and capacity to live counter to the dominant culture, and he did. Wilson, like many of his generation, faced some serious existential threats living in a society deeply immersed in bullshit. As a response he developed a highly functional ‘Bullshit Detector.”
RUS: Were you able to learn much about Bob’s time at Playboy? Fun stories from the Bunny Empire? Did he like Hef?
PA: There are some stories about Bob’s time at Playboy, which he never wrote about in his books. One story he called ‘How I became a Paranoid,’ which began when a mysterious Playboy executive visited his office during a workday and told him that his name was added to Chicago PD’s ‘Red Squad,’ which was a list of radical people the authorities put under surveillance. An early example of Red Squad behavior was seen in 1886, when Chicago agents targeted Anarchists with surveillance directly after the Haymarket Affair in 1886. 85 years later, there were specific Red Squad agents that targeted people like Bob, who they would have called a ‘closet hippie.’ In others, a person who had a regular job and didn’t dress like a hippie yet were protesting the Vietnam War. During this visit, Bob and Arlen, were at their peak of political activism. Both were involved with local Anarchist groups; Arlen was an early member of the Anarcho-Feminist group and magazine, Siren. She was also a part of the Chicago Woman Liberation Union (CWLU) Bob was exploring a Surrealist angle of Anarchism, through his associations with Franklin Rosemont and the Chicago Surrealist Group. They were both part of an Anarchist group that changed its name for every event. On top of that, Arlen and Bob were sociable people who hosted parties and discussion groups at their apartment.
In Bob’s office the mysterious executive had shut the door and told him that a police informant had tipped the Chicago PD off to Bob’s activities as a gunrunner for the Black Panthers. Bob said that he and Arlen were actually helping the Panthers with their influential Free Breakfast program for local children. After Bob denied the accusation he asked how Playboy was able to find out about police informants circulating through radical circles within Chicago. The executive told Bob that Playboy had their own cadre of informants, who heard the whispers of police informants and then reported to Playboy, especially when it concerned someone who worked at Playboy. Perhaps this Playboy editor was playing a prank on Bob. There was never any tip to the ‘Red Squad,’ just a great bullshiter who wanted to test Bob Wilson. However, the FBI’s COINTELPRO was going strong during this time, and the extent of the spying on activist communities by law enforcement agencies was not fully known to the public as of 1971. Bob later said this conversation sparked the idea for the character Tobias Knight from Illuminatus! Knight is a quintuple-agent and is the punchline to the joke highlighting about how many agents and informants there were in resistance movements of the late 60s, and continue to be today.
As far as Wilson and Hefner went, from my research, it seems like Bob did not really know Hefner on a personal level. He and Arlen, did however, attend some of Hefner’s movie nights at the Playboy mansion while Bob worked at Playboy. Wilson appreciated Hefner’s stance on Civil Liberty issues within the United States. Both were committed to the First Amendment, and Playboy was a progressive voice within the media when it came to such issues. Something about his job at Playboy must have worked because Bob was able to harness his ability as a writer. He honed his craft while working at Playboy, wrote Illuminatus! with his co-worker and friend, Robert Shea, and managed to provide full medical and dental insurance for his family while getting paid, Playboy worked well for Bob and his family.
R.U.S: Robert Shea — coauthor of Illuminatus Triology — sort of ended up being “the quiet one”. What can you tell us about Shea and he and Bob’s relationship?
PA:Wilson and Shea became fast friends at Playboy. They would hang out together at the bar on payday. They, and their wives, would all hang out, smoke weed, watch TV or listen to records and think of funny sketches that made each other laugh. They had a lot in common: Both raised Irish Catholic, both left the Church young, both seeking to become full time free-lance writers. They both really dug into the Anarchist perspective. After Illuminatus!, Shea went on to start an Anarchist newsletter called No Governor, which Wilson contributed to. Wilson had a talent for collaborating with like-minded artists and thinkers; his and Shea’s collaboration resulted in Illuminatus! and that was itself a further collaboration out of their involvement with The Discordian Society. The two continually spoke of writing their sequel, Bride of Illuminatus, which they barely started before Shea was diagnosed with cancer. Shea’s death left Bob deeply distraught. Michael Shea, described seeing Bob at his father’s funeral looking shook by the whole event. Bob’s eulogy, Chimes at Midnight, published in Cosmic Trigger vol. III, written shortly after Shea provides a glimpse into Bob’s thoughts about his dead friend.
R.U.S: He had a long and loving marriage to Arlen, all of it in the midst of a lot of cultural chaos and sexual libertinism. Any complications there?
PA: The short answer is, yes, there were bumps in the road, though they chose to stay committed to their marriage. That said, while Bob was working at Playboy, her two daughters told me that Arlen had a short-lived affair with a mutual friend of theirs; a fellow activist who attended Arlen’s weekly meetings. Alex believes that Bob was also having an affair with his secretary at Playboy, Pat. Though Christina believes that Bob only went so far as flirting with Pat and never engaged physically with her. Christina says she knows this because she asked her father towards the end of his life if he’d ever had an affair while married to Arlen. She told me that he said he never did because Arlen was everything he needed. This moment of Arlen’s affair, and Bob’s possible affair, occurred at a very intense time for the Wilson family. A psychic pressure had built up around the whole family during 1970 &’ 71. Bob believed his family may have been under some type of surveillance, and Arlen was immersed in a ‘mid-life crisis,’ while battling depression. The pressure was felt by their children as well, as Christina was going through her own battles with Trichotillomania-compulsive hair pulling due to anxiety. Bob was unaware of Arlen’s affair at the time, but his feeling that he needed a change may have saved their marriage, as the following years of adventure and poverty drew the two even closer together, remaining so until Arlen’s death in 1999.
R.U.S.: He was a self-described libertarian who went on welfare to finish Illuminatus. Was this a struggle for him?
PA: While Wilson did call himself a Libertarian at times, he did not go on welfare to finish Illuminatus! Wilson and Shea completed their novel, in 1971, while Bob was still working for Playboy. It was the completion of the book, and the confidence he felt in it being picked up quickly by a publisher, which played a role in his leaving the magazine. Wilson went on welfare during his tour of Chapel Perilous in 1973, two years after completing Illuminatus! He went on welfare because of the financial struggles he faced while getting his freelance writing career off the ground. During the period of 1971 to ’76, Wilson produced a dizzying number of articles, taught classes at his family’s apartment, published three non-fiction books through Playboy Press, his first fiction book with a small publisher, also pitching numerous books proposals to other publishers, while working as a book reviewer for the San Francisco Phoenix. On top of all this, he still needed to go on welfare. With the publication of Illuminatus! Wilson’s earnings rose incrementally, however, most of his career he was “living paycheck to paycheck” like most Americans, until the day he died.
His appreciation for Libertarianism, seems most informed, to me at least, through his exposure to the work of the American Individualist-Anarchist, Benjamin Tucker. Wilson read nearly all of Tucker’s journal, Liberty, when he lived and worked at the School of Living in Ohio in 1962-63. Tucker, and other Individual-Anarchists like Lysander Spooner, Ezra Heywood, Josiah Warren, and a few others are often left out of the narrative of the Anarchist tradition within America, as Emma Goldman and the Anarcho-Communists are mistakenly credited with bringing Anarchism to America. The influence of Ayn Rand, Ludwig Von Mises, and Murray Rothbard pale in comparison to the work of Tucker and the Individualist-Anarchists. Wilson also liked Bucky Fuller’s radically optimistic declarations that it is possible for everyone on earth to live more abundantly than ever before. These two philosophies are prominent threads in an eclectic economic and political lattice that he called ‘Non-Euclidean Politics.’ He rejected the economics of scarcity and concentrated his efforts in how to conceive of tapping into the abundant energy sources that are not yet ‘in-tune,’ like how electricity was not in tune at one point, there may be other energy sources which our minds haven’t learned how to grasp yet. The ultimate nexus for his ‘Non-Euclidean Politics’ is a ‘non-zero-sum society,’ where cut throat ruthless competition is phased out by exchanges guided by cooperation and equality. Wilson’s views moved in flux and he liked to change the different hats he was trying on quickly at times. I’d like to think that I unpack Wilson’s ‘Non-Euclidean’ political perspective, thoroughly in my book.
R.U.S: Reading his essays and his collaborations with Timothy Leary I imagined them as hangout buddies. But there lives were pretty separate and their temperaments were pretty different. Any thoughts in this regard?
PA: Going into the research phase of Chapel Perilous: The Life and Thought Crimes of Robert Anton Wilson, I was also under the impression that Bob and Tim were “hang out buddies.” It is clear to me that the two had a tremendous amount of respect for each other, and both believed deeply in the others work. They were intellectual comrades, much like Shea and Gregory Hill were his artist comrades. Wilson and Leary inspired each other as they enthusiastically crafted and refined the 8-Circuit Model of Intelligence together. I got a chance to view the successive drafts of their book The Game of Life, during visits to the Timothy Leary Archive at the New York Public Library, and it really shows how much of a collaboration that book and the 8-Circuit Model of Intelligence really was.
Personally, Bob and Tim really liked each other. I think Wilson enjoyed Leary’s freewheeling ways. Tim was extremely outgoing and charming, while Bob could come across as aloof at times. Bob, when not on the microphone, was often was quiet and polite. Leary was more gregarious. Tim believed that Wilson was an extremely important philosopher. Another layer of companionship exists between the two as both had children who were schizophrenic. Tim’s daughter, Susan, suffered greatly from schizophrenia-she ultimately took her own life after she was arrested for the attempted murder of her live-in boyfriend. Bob’s son, Graham, had a schizophrenic break when his sister, Luna was murdered in 1976. Bob was reticent in speaking about his son’s illness, and he never once mentioned Graham’s battle with the disease in any of his books. However, he was able to speak openly with Tim Leary about his son because he knew Leary was going through something similar. This could have strengthened their bond as friends.
As far as hanging out goes, I think Wilson and Leary probably hung out most when Bob and Arlen were living in West Hollywood from 1988 to the early 90s. Leary was living in Beverly Hills at the time, and the two were often on speaking panels together.
During the 90s, when Bob and Arlen moved to Santa Cruz, he and Leary saw less of each other. Arlen’s health issues with her heart began shortly after arriving in Santa Cruz and Bob’s attention increasingly turned towards taking care of his wife, while maintaining a very disciplined writing practice of typing for hours a day. Though they hung out less and less in the 90s, their friendship remained strong. When Tim was nearing his death, Bill Maher invited him in his television show Politically Incorrect. Maher wanted to provide Leary a proper media toast, as opposed to the litany of media roasts he endured over the years. When Leary was unable to attend, he sent Bob to take his place. Leary had more famous friends than Bob, and it’s clear from viewing the episode that Bill Maher never heard of Bob before, but he chose to send Bob because he knew that Bob could best relate Leary’s perspectives. It was also a cool thing to do for Bob, as mainstream media attention eluded him in America throughout his career, appearing on the show may have given him a boost in book sales that month.
R.U.S.: Bob did not like the radical left and he was a bit into a “men’s rights” thing —writing, essentially, that some aspects of feminism were dehumanizing men. I wonder if you dealt with that and how you feel and think about it.
PA: I wouldn’t say that Wilson disliked the radical left. I think he was opposed to when the radical left, or any group of people, engaged in groupthink and witch hunt behavior. From the later 50s on, he wrote for Paul Krassner’s pioneering underground newspaper, The Realist, while living in Yellow Springs, Ohio and he took part in a civil rights protest to desegregate a local barbershop, which led to the only arrest of his life. This protest has become local legend as the chaos of that day made the national news. His work with the Chicago Black Panthers during the late 1960s and his role as an organizer of Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations got him tagged as a radical leftist by local authorities.
Wilson remained committed to the idea that only Individual events and creatures exist in nature. Though one can be associated with a group, one can never be branded the same as a group. This was even the premise of his first, unpublished book, Authority and Submission. To Wilson, groups are grammatical fictions and only individuals exist. Most of philosophy is concerned with how to open one’s mind to this, because, he hoped, this raising of consciousness would decrease the amount of violence in the world.
Wilson’s criticism of some opinions expressed in radical feminist rhetoric begins with their stated assertions that “All men are potential rapists,” or “All men are pigs,” etc. Wilson regarded such demonological thinking as a conspiracy theory, because the statement has fallen into the realm of either/or logic that Wilson’s General Semantics training would not let him accept any value from the previous statements. He especially disliked Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem, and MS. Magazine. He thought that much of the theory coming forth from some radical feminist camps in the early 1970s was unproductive and divisive. Arlen Wilson was an avowed feminist and women’s rights activist throughout her life. Bob listened to Arlen’s perspectives on gender issues. There was a healthy discussion and debate about gender issues going on in their marriage. Arlene Meyers, the co-founder of Siren called Bob a ‘sexist pig.’ Many years later, Bob told me that the greatest compliment he’d ever received was from Arlen who told him that if all men were like him there would be no need for feminism. Wilson believed he saw some unproductive tendencies forming in some feminist circles in the early 1970s, and he had a point. At the same time, I wonder how quickly he threw the proverbial baby out with the bath water, as his rejection of a whole group based on some stupid statements does not seem to fit with his constant stress of remaining open minded.
I dedicate more ink to this timely aspect of Wilson’s thought in my book Chapel Perilous: The Life and Thought Crimes of Robert Anton Wilson. His comments and positions are worthy of heavy scrutiny, and I hope that my book provides a critical eye on Wilson in this area.