With synchronicity of which Wilson (and Jung) would approve, were either still alive, Amazon recommended to me the Illuminatus! trilogy the day after I referenced Robert Anton Wilson in a recent blog. I’m pretty sure Amazon’s ‘bots don’t scan my blogs, so an algorithm used some mix of my purchases and views on the company’s own site to pick the title. I read Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! along with the Schrodinger’s Cat trilogy a decade before Amazon existed. Both trilogies are intelligent but “out there” science fiction steeped in a counterculture ethic. Wilson’s play Wilhelm Reich in Hell, something I also purchased before Amazon, is worth a read too. While the recommendation came a bit late, it reminded me that I had read little of Wilson’s copious nonfiction: not much beyond the introductions he appended to his fiction and a neurological analysis of the Patty Hearst case that he co-wrote with Timothy Leary (yes, that Timothy Leary); the article about Hearst originally appeared in Oui of all places. His perspective was too metaphysical for my taste so I hadn’t bothered with anything heftier – until now. From his nonfiction offerings, I picked out Prometheus Rising, first published in 1983 but revised in 1997. It is, as we used to say, a trip.
Prometheus Rising is about the evolution, achievement, and prospect of higher states of consciousness within individuals and among humans as a species. First of all, let me give Wilson his due. The man is tremendously erudite, and in a fairly short book manages to find intelligent things to say about subjects as scattered as Beethoven, Gödel’s Theorem, James Joyce, brainwashing, Voltaire, Bell’s Theorem, Aleister Crowley, neurochemicals, and Jim Jones, and interrelates them in a coherent way. Wilson uses Leary’s Eight Circuit model of consciousness as a basis for discussion, while acknowledging from the start that this is an arbitrary division that could be consolidated into fewer circuits or carved into more. The first three circuits are well-founded in biology and brain structure – biological needs, emotions, and reason – while the others (higher levels of awareness) get ever more transcendental. Their biological bases get more debatable at each higher level, though he does make arguments for them that are not altogether flaky. I probably haven’t taken enough LSD in my life to grok all Wilson tries to convey. That’s not a flippant remark: Wilson is a fan of LSD though he views it as useful rather than necessary. I stretched myself as much as I could without benefit of acid, isolation tanks, or yoga. That said, even after reading the book I must admit to remaining stuck mostly in circuits I-III with some slop-over into IV. I have my doubts about the reality of much above circuit V (and even parts of V), but if this book teaches anything it is to keep an open mind, though not an undisciplined one.
One point to which Wilson keeps coming back is that we all live in constrained reality tunnels, i.e. ways of comprehending the universe. Furthermore, we get quite defensive about our tunnels and our simplified models: “The Thinker thinks, the Prover proves.” We find “proof” for whatever we are inclined to think. Nearly always, what we are inclined to think is determined by the accidents of our genealogy and of our personal experiences. We can choose to alter our reality tunnels, however, and learning to do so is a step toward those higher circuits and higher consciousness. At the end of each chapter, Wilson gives a list of exercises to help reshape your tunnel and expand your mind. These are most definitely useful – perhaps even inspired. A random sample:
1. If you are a Liberal, subscribe to National Review, the country’s most intelligent (and witty) conservative magazine, for a year. Each month try to enter their reality tunnel for a few hours while reading their articles... If you are a Conservative, subscribe to The New York Review of Books and try to get into their headspace for a few hours a month.
2. If you are a Rationalist subscribe to Fate magazine for a year. If you are an occultist, join the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and read their journal The Skeptical Inquirer, for a year.
3. Buy a copy of Scientific American and read any article in it. Ask the following questions: Why do they sound so sure? Does the data support dogmatism at this point, or is dogma a primate habit (defending headspace)? Will these theories be believed in 2593?
4. Spend all Sunday watching animal shows on TV (getting stoned on weed, if this is permissible to you). Then go into the office the next day and observe the primate behavior carefully, like a scientist.
5. Try to change your sexual imprint. See if you can reach orgasm by some method that has been taboo or unthinkable to you before.
6. Consider the reality tunnel of an educated reader 1200 years ago. How much of that tunnel still seems “Real”?...Consider the reality tunnel of an educated reader 1200 years from now. How much of our reality tunnel will still seem “Real”?
7. Refute this whole book. Demonstrate that everyone else has been brainwashed but you, and your mother (father) has the one, real objective view of the universe.
There are scores of these exercises in the book. You see the common thread here. The idea is not just to examine another viewpoint in order to find things to ridicule, as so many partisans defensively do, but to exceed those limitations and actually try to see things the other person’s way. Even if you end up returning to your original philosophy, experiencing an alternate perspective is edifying on any number of levels.
Whether or not you get up into those higher circuits, and despite the counterculture guru aspects of all this, there is some age-old advice at the bottom of it all: even if only within your own headspace, walk a mile in my shoes.
Walk a Mile In My Shoes (1971) Joe South