Monday, 18 November 2013

High Weirdness at the Horse Hospital

I had a wonderfully mind-bending evening at the London Horse Hospital recently, thanks to the London Fortean Society. The event was a celebration of the 'guerrilla ontologist', Discordian Saint (and Finnegans Wake nut), Robert Anton Wilson. 

Wilson is best known for The Illuminatus! Trilogy, co-written with Robert Shea when both were editors of Playboy Forum. The clearest description of the trilogy is Wilson's

The Forum...received a lot of paranoid rantings from people imagining totally baroque conspiracies. One day, either Shea or I­... asked whimsically, "Suppose all these nuts are right, and every single conspiracy they complain about really exists." Thus, the Illuminatus saga was born. The idea was simple - a novel, perched midway between satire and melodrama, and also delicately balancing between "proving" the case for multiple con­spiracies and undermining the "proof."

The evening began with an inspiring and funny talk from John Higgs (above right), author of the magnificently titled I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary. John talked about Wilson's philosophy of 'multiple model agnosticism' - not just agnosticism about God, but about everything. Wilson describes his agnosticism in his introduction to Cosmic Trigger:

My own opinion 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.

John talked about how Wilson's books demonstrate just how arbitrary and untrustworthy our beliefs really are. To Wilson, what we perceive as 'reality' is only a partial model - a 'reality tunnel'.

You can see all of John's great talk on youtube

The second talk was from Daisy Eris Campbell, whose father, the brilliant Ken Campbell,
adapted Illuminatus! for the stage in 1976. A lot of her talk was about synchronicity - meaningful coincidence. Illuminatus! is full of synchronicities, often involving the number 23. You can read an article Wilson wrote about The 23 Phenomenon in the Fortean Times. Daisy began by describing the effect Illuminatus! had on her, when she read it (aged 23!)

I began to see synchronicities everywhere, and life became too meaningful...I flipped out and I found myself in a very plush loony bin somewhere in Kent.

She went on to describe some wise advice her father (who shared Wilson's agnosticism) gave her:

Now listen Daisy, don't believe anything! Nothing that has come out of a human mind is a fitting subject for your belief. But you can suppose anything and everything. In fact you should....Suppose God, if you must, suppose flying saucers, suppose fairies. I suppose you could suppose that one of the big religions had got it right right down to the last nut and bolt. But don't believe it Daisy!

I took this photo of Ken at the 2003 Fortean Unconvention, when he was enthusing about the Nag Hammadi Gospels as a great source for weird supposings. 'Fortean', by the way, comes from Charles Hoy Fort (1874-1932), someone else who refused to believe:

I conceive of nothing in religion, science, or philosophy that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while. Wild Talents

I believe nothing. I have shut myself away from the rocks and wisdoms of ages, and from the so-called great teachers of all time, and perhaps because of that isolation I am given to bizarre hospitalities. I shut the front door upon Christ and Einstein, and at the back door hold out a welcoming hand to little frogs and periwinkles. I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written. Lo! 
I love that phrase, 'I am given to bizarre hospitalities', which could also describe Robert Anton Wilson.

Daisy told us that she's planning her own stage production of Wilson's Cosmic Trigger, the autobiographical work he wrote after Illuminatus! She then introduced the actor Oliver Senton (right), playing Robert Anton Wilson, who read the introduction to Cosmic Trigger:

Cosmic Trigger deals with the process of deliberately induced brain change through which I put myself in the years 1962-76.....Briefly, the main thing I learned in my experiments is that 'reality' is always plural and mutable.

Wilson's experiments involved hallucinogenic drugs, Crowleyan magick, and bizarre suppositions (e.g. that he was receiving transmissions from Sirius) - various ways of finding new 'reality tunnels'.

Daisy then showed us a scene from the play, set in the Playboy Office, in which William Burroughs, played by Mitch Davies, explains the 23 Phenomenon to Wilson and Alan and Jano Watts (Nick Marcq and Kate Alderton).

Mitch Davies (left), veteran of the Science Fiction Theatre
Daisy also took us through the story of Ken's 1976 production of Illuminatus!, a story bursting with strange synchronicities. It began when the Liverpool poet, Peter O'Halligan, read Carl Jung's Memories, Dreams and Reflections. On page 223, Jung described a life-changing dream he had about Liverpool (a city he had never visited). Jung wrote, 'I found myself in a dirty, sooty city. It was night, and winter, and dark, and raining. I was in Liverpool' After a detailed description of the location, he concluded 'I had had a vision of unearthly beauty, and that's why I was able to live at all. Liverpool is the 'pool of life.''

Jung's bust and plaque, in 2004
O'Halligan believed that he knew the location of Jung's dream, on the corner of Matthew Street, near the Cavern Club where the Beatles once performed. He rented an abandoned warehouse here, which he called 'The Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun' (shades of the Wake!). O'Halligan put a plaque on the wall with a bust of Jung and a quotation from his dream, which you can still see today.

O'Halligan offered the building to Ken Campbell, then planning to set up a Science Fiction Theatre. Looking for a book to adapt, Campbell went to Camden's Compendium Bookshop, where he noticed a book with a connection to Matthew Street - a Yellow Submarine on the cover! Turning to page 223, Campbell found that Jung was in the book!  

Daisy read out the quotation, and I felt my own jolt of synchronicity when I realised it also involved another father and daughter - James and Lucia Joyce!:

Do you know what Jung, that old Chinese sage disguised as a psychiatrist,
said? 'You are diving, but she is sinking.' 

Jung said this about the Joyces' respective explorations of the unconscious. Diving, Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake; sinking, Lucia became schizophrenic. This made me think of Ken and Daisy's own experiences of Illuminatus! Ken, diving into the trilogy, turned it into theatre; Daisy, sinking in the same text, found herself in that 'loony bin'.

Robert Anton Wilson came to London to see the Illuminatus! show when it transferred to the National Theatre. He writes about the production on page 223 (of course!) of Cosmic Trigger, which is dedicated to Ken. Wilson even had a walk-on role, as a naked participant in a black mass, chanting 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.'

In 2007, Ken gave his own version of these events in a talk for a Robert Anton Wilson memorial night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. His talk is on youtube and so is Daisy's.

I've already sent my donation of £23 to help 'fire the cosmic trigger'. You can do the same (with whatever currency you use) on Daisy's website, where she writes: 

I'm adapting Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger for the stage, because Synchronicity has told me to. It's all rather apt since my father adapted and staged Illuminatus! and I was conceived backstage...The plan is to crowd-fund it, stick on a UK run, and from that raise enough money to do a tour of US Discordian Cabals. And to immanentise the eschaton (the good one).

Help these people stage Cosmic Trigger!

I've never managed to get far with Illuminatus!, which strikes me as harder to read than Finnegans Wake. But I was inspired by both talks to read Cosmic Trigger, and I love it. I've almost finished Volume Two, which has a lot about James Joyce in it. Wilson was obsessed with Finnegans Wake, which he called 'the Good Book'. He used it for bibliomancy, like the I Ching, opening it at random to see what it had to tell him. There's a recording of him doing just this at a talk he gave to the Reality Hackers Forum in 1988.

Wilson even took the Wake's opening line, quoted at the top of this blog, as an instruction, and in 1984 moved to Howth Castle and Environs:

After over 30 years study of the Good Book, I had finally...found myself living in its first sentence. Cosmic Trigger Volume 2

Wilson first arrived in Dublin on 16 June 1982, when the city was celebrating Bloomsday and Joyce's centenary. He describes the day in Cosmic Trigger Vol 2:

Bust of Joyce unveiled on Bloomsday 1982
I was astonished when I read this, because I was also in Dublin that day, and our paths must have crossed. Like Wilson, I was running around Dublin with a radio pressed to my ears, and watching the performance of Wandering Rocks. I also went to see Siobhan McKenna's Molly Bloom at the Abbey. I'd seen Eamon Morrissey's Joycemen the previous evening.

By coincidence, when we went to the Dublin Theatre Festival last month, the first thing we saw was a new one-man show, at the Peacock, by Eamon Morrissey!

Wilson once gave a long interview about Finnegans Wake, which you can hear on the Only Maybe blog, with a transcription by Scott McKinney. Here's how he describes what Finnegans Wake meant to him:

Finnegans Wake is what I call “The Good Book”, and I’m only half joking.  To me it’s not only the greatest novel ever written, it’s the greatest poem ever written, the greatest detective story ever written, and the most entertaining work in all literature, and as William York Tindall of Columbia says, it’s the funniest and dirtiest book in the world.  

Wilson has some extraordinary ideas about the book. He's the only reader I've come across to take seriously Joyce's claim to be able to predict the future. For example, he finds prophecies of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, 'which hadn’t happened yet except in Joyce’s head'.

But there is also a lot of level-headed advice. I love his answer to the question about the best way to approach Joyce's book.

The best way to approach Finnegans Wake is in a group.  It has to be stalked like a wild animal, and you need a hunting party.  I’d been reading Finnegans Wake alone for many years before I discovered this....It was Tindall, I think, who was the first to say Finnegans Wake has to be read aloud. The second thing is - it’s best in groups.  And the third law, which I discovered, is it’s best in groups with several six packs of Guinness on the table.  The more Guinness you drink the clearer Finnegans Wake gets. 

Who could argue with that?

Drink Guinness and read the Wake!

1 comment:

  1. "It's amazing what you can see when you've had a few pints." — Doc Shiels.