Wilson described his work as an "attempt to break down conditioned associations, to look at the world in a new way, with many models recognized as models or maps, and no one model elevated to the truth". His goal being "to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone but agnosticism about everything."
"Is", "is." "is"—the idiocy of the word haunts me. If it were abolished, human thought might begin to make sense. I don't know what anything "is"; I only know how it seems to me at this moment.
Born Robert Edward Wilson in Methodist Hospital, in Brooklyn, New York, he spent his first years in Flatbush, and moved with his family to lower middle class Gerritsen Beach around the age of four or five, where they stayed until relocating to the steadfastly middle-class neighborhood of Bay Ridge when Wilson was thirteen. He suffered from polio as a child, and found generally effective treatment with the Kenny Method (created by Elizabeth Kenny) which the American Medical Association repudiated at that time. Polio's effects remained with Wilson throughout his life, usually manifesting as minor muscle spasms causing him to use a cane occasionally until 2000, when he experienced a major bout with post-polio syndrome that would continue until his death.
Wilson attended Catholic grammar school, likely the school associated with Gerritsen Beach's Resurrection Church, and attended Brooklyn Technical High School (a selective public institution) to remove himself from the Catholic influence; at "Brooklyn Tech," Wilson was influenced by literary modernism (particularly Ezra Pound and James Joyce), the Western philosophical tradition, then-innovative historians such as Charles A. Beard, science fiction (including the works of Olaf Stapledon, Robert A. Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon) and Alfred Korzybski's interdisciplinary theory of general semantics. He would later recall that the family was "living so well... compared to the Depression" during this period "that I imagined we were lace-curtain Irish at last."
Following his graduation in 1950, Wilson was employed in a succession of jobs (including ambulance driver, engineering aide, salesman and medical orderly) and absorbed various philosophers & cultural practices (including bebop, psychoanalysis, Bertrand Russell, Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Leon Trotsky and Ayn Rand, whom he later repudiated) while writing in his spare time. He also studied electrical engineering and mathematics at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute from 1952 to 1957 and English education at New York University from 1957 to 1958 without getting a degree from either institution.
After smoking marijuana for nearly a decade, he first experimented with mescaline in Yellow Springs, Ohio on December 28, 1961. Wilson began to work as a freelance journalist and advertising copywriter in the late 1950s. He adopted his maternal grandfather's name, Anton, for his writings, telling himself that he would save the "Edward" for when he wrote the Great American Novel and later finding that "Robert Anton Wilson" had become an established identity.
He assumed co-editorship of the School for Living's Brookville, Ohio-based Balanced Living magazine in 1962 and briefly returned to New York as associate editor of Ralph Ginzburg's quarterly fact: before leaving for Playboy, where he served as an associate editor from 1965 to 1971. According to Wilson, Playboy "paid me a higher salary than any other magazine at which I had worked and never expected me to become a conformist or sell my soul in return. I enjoyed my years in the Bunny Empire. I only resigned when I reached 40 and felt I could not live with myself if I didn't make an effort to write full-time at last." Along with frequent collaborator Robert Shea, Wilson edited the magazine's Playboy Forum (not to be confused with The Playboy Advisor). During this period, he covered Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert's Millbrook, New York-based Castalia Foundation at the instigation of Alan Watts in The Realist, cultivated important friendships with William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and lectured at the Free University of New York on 'Anarchist and Synergetic Politics' in 1965.
He received a B.A., M.A. (1978) and Ph.D. (1981) in psychology from Paideia University, an unaccredited institution that has since closed. Wilson reworked his dissertation, and it found publication in 1983 as Prometheus Rising.
Wilson married freelance writer and poet Arlen Riley in 1958. They had four children, including Christiana Wilson Pearson and Patricia Luna Wilson. Luna was beaten to death in an apparent robbery in the store where she worked in 1976 at the age of 15, and became the first person to have her brain preserved by the Bay Area Cryonics Society. Arlen Riley Wilson died in 1999 following a series of strokes.
Among Wilson's 35 books, and many other works, perhaps his best-known volumes remain the cult classic series The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), co-authored with fellow Playboy editor Robert Shea. Advertised as "a fairy tale for paranoids," the three books—The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, and Leviathan, soon offered as a single volume—philosophically and humorously examined, among many other themes, occult and magical symbolism and history, the counterculture of the 1960s, secret societies, data concerning author H.P. Lovecraft and author and occultist Aleister Crowley, and American paranoia about conspiracies and conspiracy theories. The book was intended to poke fun at the conspiratorial frame of mind.
Wilson and Shea derived much of the odder material from letters sent to Playboy magazine while they worked as the editors of its Forum. The books mixed true information with imaginative fiction to engage the reader in what Wilson called "guerrilla ontology", which he apparently referred to as "Operation Mindfuck" in Illuminatus! The trilogy also outlined a set of libertarian and anarchist axioms known as Celine's Laws (named after Hagbard Celine, a character in Illuminatus!), concepts Wilson revisited several times in other writings.
Among the many subplots of Illuminatus! one addresses biological warfare and the overriding of the United States Bill of Rights, another gives a detailed account of the John F. Kennedy assassination (in which no fewer than five snipers, all working for different causes, prepare to shoot Kennedy), and the book's climax occurs at a rock concert where the audience collectively face the danger of becoming a mass human sacrifice.
Illuminatus! popularized Discordianism and the use of the term "fnord". It incorporates experimental prose styles influenced by writers such as William S. Burroughs, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. Although Shea and Wilson never co-operated on such a scale again, Wilson continued to expand upon the themes of the Illuminatus! books throughout his writing career. Most of his later fiction contains cross-over characters from "The Sex Magicians" (Wilson's first novel, written before the release of Illuminatus!, which includes many of his same characters) and The Illuminatus! Trilogy.
Illuminatus! won the Prometheus Hall of Fame award for science fiction in 1986, has many international editions, and found adaptation for the stage when Ken Campbell produced it as a ten-hour drama. It also appeared as two card based games from Steve Jackson Games, one a trading-card game (Illuminati: New World Order). Eye N Apple Productions and Rip Off Press produced a comic book version of the trilogy.
Wilson wrote two more popular fiction series. The first, a trilogy later published as a single volume, was Schrödinger's Cat. The second, The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles, appeared as three books. In between publishing the two trilogies Wilson released a stand-alone novel, Masks of the Illuminati (1981), which fits into, due to the main character's ancestry, The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles' timeline and, while published earlier, could qualify for the fourth volume in that series.
Schrödinger's Cat consists of three volumes: The Universe Next Door, The Trick Top Hat, and The Homing Pigeons. Wilson set the three books in differing alternative universes, and most of the characters remain almost the same but may have different names, careers and background stories. The books cover the fields of quantum mechanics and the varied philosophies and explanations that exist within the science. The single volume describes itself as a magical textbook and a type of initiation. The single-volume edition omits many entire pages and has many other omissions when compared with the original separate books.
The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles, composed of The Earth Will Shake (1982), The Widow's Son (1985), and Nature's God (1991), follows the timelines of several characters through different generations, time periods, and countries. The books cover, among many other topics, the history, legacy, and rituals of the Illuminati and related groups.
Masks of the Illuminati, featuring historical characters in a fictionalized setting, contains a great deal of occult data. Intermixing Albert Einstein, James Joyce, Aleister Crowley, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and others, the book focuses on Pan and other occult icons, ideas, and practices. The book includes homages, parodies and pastiches from both the lives and works of Crowley and Joyce.
Wilson's play, Wilhelm Reich in Hell, was published as a book in 1987 and first performed at the Edmund Burke Theatre in Dublin, in San Francisco, and in Los Angeles. It features many factual and fictional characters, including Marilyn Monroe, Uncle Sam, and Wilhelm Reich himself. Wilson also wrote and published as books two screenplays, not yet produced: Reality Is What You Can Get Away With: an Illustrated Screenplay (1992) and The Walls Came Tumbling Down (1997).
Wilson's book Cosmic Trigger I: The Final Secret of the Illuminati has been adapted as a theatrical stage play by Daisy Eris Campbell, daughter of Ken Campbell the British theatre maverick who staged Illuminatus! at the Royal National Theatre in 1977. The play opened on November 23, 2014 in Liverpool before transferring to London and Brighton. Some of the costs were met through crowdfunding. Wilson's book is itself dedicated to "Ken Campbell and the Science-Fiction Theatre Of Liverpool, England."
In his nonfiction and partly autobiographical Cosmic Trigger I: The Final Secret of the Illuminati (1977) and its two sequels, as well as in many other works, Wilson examined Freemasons, Discordianism, Sufism, the Illuminati, Futurology, Zen Buddhism, Dennis and Terence McKenna, Jack Parsons, the occult practices of Aleister Crowley and G.I. Gurdjieff, Yoga, and many other esoteric or counterculture philosophies, personalities, and occurrences.
Wilson advocated Timothy Leary's 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness and neurosomatic/linguistic engineering, which he wrote about in many books including Prometheus Rising (1983, revised 1997) and Quantum Psychology (1990), which contain practical techniques intended to help the reader break free of one's reality tunnels. With Leary, he helped promote the futurist ideas of space migration, intelligence increase, and life extension, which they combined to form the word symbol SMI²LE.
Wilson's 1986 book, The New Inquisition, argues that whatever reality consists of it actually would seem much weirder than we commonly imagine. It cites, among other sources, Bell's theorem and Alain Aspect's experimental proof of Bell's to suggest that mainstream science has a strong materialist bias, and that in fact modern physics may have already disproved materialist metaphysics.
Wilson also supported the work and utopian theories of Buckminster Fuller and examined the theories of Charles Fort. He and Loren Coleman became friends, as he did with media theorist Marshall McLuhan and Neuro Linguistic Programming co-founder Richard Bandler, with whom he taught workshops. He also admired James Joyce, and wrote extensive commentaries on the author and on two of Joyce's novels, Finnegans Wake and Ulysses, in his 1988 book Coincidance: A Head Test.
Although Wilson often lampooned and criticized some New Age beliefs, bookstores specializing in New Age material often sell his books. Wilson, a well-known author in occult and Neo-Pagan circles, used Aleister Crowley as a main character in his 1981 novel Masks of the Illuminati, also included some elements of H. P. Lovecraft's work in his novels, and at times claimed to have perceived encounters with magical "entities" (when asked whether these entities seemed "real", he answered they seemed "real enough," although "not as real as the IRS" but "easier to get rid of", and later decided that his experiences may have emerged from "just my right brain hemisphere talking to my left"). He warned against beginners using occult practice, since to rush into such practices and the resulting "energies" they unleash could lead people to "go totally nuts".
Wilson also criticized scientific types with overly rigid belief systems, equating them with religious fundamentalists in their fanaticism. In a 1988 interview, when asked about his newly published book The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science, Wilson commented:
I coined the term irrational rationalism because those people claim to be rationalists, but they're governed by such a heavy body of taboos. They're so fearful, and so hostile, and so narrow, and frightened, and uptight and dogmatic... I wrote this book because I got tired satirizing fundamentalist Christianity... I decided to satirize fundamentalist materialism for a change, because the two are equally comical... The materialist fundamentalists are funnier than the Christian fundamentalists, because they think they're rational! ...They're never skeptical about anything except the things they have a prejudice against. None of them ever says anything skeptical about the AMA, or about anything in establishment science or any entrenched dogma. They're only skeptical about new ideas that frighten them. They're actually dogmatically committed to what they were taught when they were in college....
In a 2003 interview with High Times magazine, Wilson described himself as "model-agnostic" which he said
consists of never regarding any model or map of the universe with total 100% belief or total 100% denial. Following Korzybski, I put things in probabilities, not absolutes... My only originality lies in applying this zetetic attitude outside the hardest of the hard sciences, physics, to softer sciences and then to non-sciences like politics, ideology, jury verdicts and, of course, conspiracy theory.
Wilson claimed in Cosmic Trigger: Volume 1 "not to believe anything", since "belief is the death of intelligence". He described this approach as "Maybe Logic."
Wilson wrote about this and other topics in articles for the cyberpunk magazine Mondo 2000.
Wilson favored a form of basic income guarantee; synthesizing several ideas under the acronym RICH. His ideas are set forth in the essay "The RICH Economy" found in The Illuminati Papers. In an article critical of capitalism Wilson self-identified as a "libertarian socialist", saying that "I ask only one thing of skeptics: don’t bring up Soviet Russia, please. That horrible example of State Capitalism has nothing to do with what I, and other libertarian socialists, would offer as an alternative to the present system." In his book Right Where You Are Sitting Now he praises the German anarchist economist Silvio Gesell.
Robert Anton Wilson and his wife Arlen Riley Wilson founded the Institute for the Study of the Human Future in 1975.
From 1982 until his death, Wilson had a business relationship with the Association for Consciousness Exploration, which hosted his first on-stage dialogue with his long-time friend Timothy Leary entitled The Inner Frontier. Wilson dedicated his book The New Inquisition to A.C.E.'s co-directors, Jeff Rosenbaum and Joseph Rothenberg.
Wilson also joined the Church of the SubGenius, who referred to him as Pope Bob. He contributed to their literature, including the book Three-Fisted Tales of "Bob", and shared a stage with their founder, Rev. Ivan Stang, on several occasions. Wilson also founded the Guns and Dope Party and its corresponding Burning Man theme camp.
As a member of the Board of Advisors of the Fully Informed Jury Association, Wilson worked to inform the public about jury nullification, the right of jurors to nullify a law they deem unjust. He advocated for and wrote about E-Prime, a form of English lacking all forms of the verb "to be" (such as "is", "are", "was", "were" etc.).
A decades-long researcher into drugs and a strong opponent of what he called "the war on some drugs", Wilson participated as a Special Guest in the week-long 1999 Annual Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, and used and often promoted the use of medical marijuana. He participated in a protest organized by the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz in 2002.
On June 22, 2006, Huffington Post blogger Paul Krassner reported that Wilson was under hospice care at home with friends and family. On October 2, Douglas Rushkoff reported that Wilson was in severe financial trouble. Slashdot, Boing Boing, and the Church of the SubGenius also picked up on the story, linking to Rushkoff's appeal. As his webpage reported on October 10, these efforts succeeded beyond expectation and raised a sum which would have supported him for at least six months. Obviously touched by the great outpouring of support, on October 5, 2006, Wilson left the following comment on his personal website, expressing his gratitude:
Dear Friends, my God, what can I say. I am dumbfounded, flabbergasted, and totally stunned by the charity and compassion that has poured in here the last three days.
To steal from Jack Benny, "I do not deserve this, but I also have severe leg problems and I don't deserve them either."
Because he was a kind man as well as a funny one, Benny was beloved. I find it hard to believe that I am equally beloved and especially that I deserve such love.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, know that my love is with you.
You have all reminded me that despite George W. Bush and all his cohorts, there is still a lot of beautiful kindness in the world.
Robert Anton Wilson
On January 6, 2007, Wilson wrote on his blog that according to several medical authorities, he would likely only have between two days and two months left to live. He closed this message with "I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying. Please pardon my levity, I don't see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd."
Wilson died peacefully five days later, on January 11 at 4:50 a.m. Pacific time, just a week short of his 75th birthday. After his cremation on January 18 (also his 75th birthday), his family held a memorial service on February 18 and then scattered most of his ashes at the same spot as his wife's—off the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California.
A tribute show to Wilson, organized by Coldcut and Mixmaster Morris and performed in London as a part of the "Ether 07 Festival" held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on March 18, 2007, also included Ken Campbell, Bill Drummond and Alan Moore.The Sex Magicians (1973)
The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975) (with Robert Shea)
The Eye in the Pyramid
The Golden Apple
Schrödinger's Cat Trilogy (1979–1981)
The Universe Next Door
The Trick Top Hat
The Homing Pigeons
Masks of the Illuminati (1981)
The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles
The Earth Will Shake (1982)
The Widow's Son (1985)
Nature's God (1988)
Cosmic Trigger Trilogy
Cosmic Trigger I: The Final Secret of the Illuminati (1977)
Cosmic Trigger II: Down to Earth (1991)
Cosmic Trigger III: My Life After Death (1995)
Wilhelm Reich in Hell (1987)
Reality Is What You Can Get Away With (1992; revised edition—new introduction added—1996)
The Walls Came Tumbling Down (1997)
Playboy's Book of Forbidden Words (1972)
Sex and Drugs: A Journey Beyond Limits (1973)
The Book of the Breast (1974)
Revised as Ishtar Rising (1989)
Neuropolitics (1978) (with Timothy Leary and George Koopman)
Revised as Neuropolitique (1988)
The Game of Life (1979) (with Timothy Leary)
Prometheus Rising (1983)
The New Inquisition (1986)
Natural Law, or Don't Put a Rubber on Your Willy (1987)
Sex, Drugs and Magick: A Journey Beyond Limits (1988) revision, with new introduction, of Sex and Drugs: A Journey Beyond Limits
Quantum Psychology (1990)
Everything Is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults and Cover-ups (1998) (with Miriam Joan Hill)
TSOG: The Thing That Ate the Constitution (2002)
The Illuminati Papers (1980) collection of essays and new material
Right Where You Are Sitting Now (1983) collection of essays and new material
Coincidance: A Head Test (1988) essays and new material
Email to the universe and other alterations of consciousness (2005) collection of essays and new material
Semiotext(e) SF (1989) (anthology, editor, with Rudy Rucker and Peter Lamborn Wilson)
Chaos and Beyond (1994) (editor and primary author)
A Meeting with Robert Anton Wilson (ACE) cassette
Religion for the Hell of It (ACE) cassette
H.O.M.E.s on LaGrange (ACE) cassette
The New Inquisition (ACE) cassette
The H.E.A.D. Revolution (ACE) cassette and CD
Prometheus Rising (ACE) cassette
The Inner Frontier (with Timothy Leary) (ACE) cassette
The Magickal Movement: Present & Future (with Margot Adler, Isaac Bonewits & Selena Fox) (ACE) Panel Discussion – cassette
Magick Changing the World, the World Changing Magick (ACE) Panel Discussion – cassette
The Self in Transformation (ACE) Panel Discussion – cassette
The Once & Future Legend (with Ivan Stang, Robert Shea and others) (ACE) Panel Discussion – cassette
What IS the Conspiracy, Anyway? (ACE) Panel Discussion – cassette
The Chocolate-Biscuit Conspiracy album with The Golden Horde (1984)
Twelve Eggs in a Basket CD
Robert Anton Wilson On Finnegans Wake and Joseph Campbell (interview by Faustin Bray and Brian Wallace) (1988) 2 CD Set Sound Photosynthesis
Acceleration of Knowledge (1991) cassette
Secrets of Power comedy cassette
Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything: or Old Bob Exposes His Ignorance (2001) Sounds True ISBN 1-59179-375-0, ISBN 978-1-59179-375-5
Túneis da Realidade, Os (a.k.a. Who Is the Master Who Makes the Grass Green?) (1996) Edgar Pêra (Portugal)
Manual de Evasão LX94 (September 16, 1994) Edgar Pêra(Portugal)
Wilhelm Reich in Hell (2005) (Video) Deepleaf Productions
Children of the Revolution: Tune Back In (2005) Revolutionary Child Productions
The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick (2001) TKO Productions
23 (1998) (23 – Nichts ist so wie es scheint) Claussen & Wöbke Filmproduktion GmbH (Germany)
Arise! The SubGenius Video (1992) (V) (a.k.a. Arise! SubGenius Recruitment Film #16) The SubGenius Foundation (USA)
Borders (1989) Co-Directions Inc. (TV documentary)
Fear In The Night: Demons, Incest and UFOs (1993) Video – Trajectories
Twelve Eggs in a Box: Myth, Ritual and the Jury System (1994) Video – Trajectories
Everything Is Under Control: Robert Anton Wilson in Interview (1998) Video – Trajectories
Maybe Logic: The Lives and Ideas of Robert Anton Wilson, a documentary featuring selections from over 25 years of Wilson footage, released on DVD in North America on May 30, 2006.