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On the irrelevance of an old friend - Elf M. Sternberg
elfs
elfs
On the irrelevance of an old friend
Someone asked me recently, "Should I read The Illuminatus! Trilogy?" Here's my reply:

The Illuminatus! Trilogy saved my life.

It won't save yours.

Since first reading it at age 13 (the year it saved my life), I have dutifully re-read the entire trilogy (really, it's not that long) every five years since. But when I was 13, that was 1979: the jokes about Nixon, late 60s and early 70s rock bands, the coming of disco, the obscure neopagan nonsense that washed through every college campus in the late 1980s, bizarre alternative histories and conspiracies theories, were hilarious and fascinating.

There's even a page from the Principia Discordia mentioned, and that too was life changing, because in tiny print in one corner it contained this quote: "When I was 8 or 9 years old I acquired my first split beaver magazine. You can imagine my disappointment when, upon examination with a microscope, I discovered all I could see was dots." And I realized that, hey, I'm not the only one who's tried that. Being 13 and finding someone like Robert Anton Wilson, who wrote so irreverantly about sex, morality, religion, politics-- all the things that do not make up polite dinner conversation-- does change a life, especially when that life had been constrained by a middle class conventionality wherein parents seethed with their own furtive excesses and failed to understand their SF-reading child.

The Illuminatus! Trilogy really is a beast of its own time, and that time has passed. It is a historical oddity. The wacky conspiracy theories of Illuminatus! have become either the grist of Dan Brown's mill or the weirdly pessimistic thought experiments of Scott Adam's Dilbert. Our culture now has its own bugaboos-- we are a highly pornographic culture, with nearly-naked underage nymphs selling underwear on billboards and Disney promoting boy bands with lyrics about irresponsible lust and desire, yet at the same time we consider red-lettering for life any and every man who had sex in a public park at midnight or chatted up just the wrong person at the wrong moment. The Internet tightly wires our entire informational existence together which has had the effect of telling us what other people really think and feel-- and paradoxically led to the even stronger vehemence against those opposing worldviews because now we perceive just how many people hold to them. These habits of thought, these expectations, just do not live in Illuminatus! and we miss them. Illuminatus! is a historical oddity and a good one, but unless you have a grasp of that history, Illuminatus! will be a hollow and unmemorable pleasure.

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dougs From: dougs Date: December 12th, 2006 05:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
My friends-list is full of people who would find this interesting -- so I've linked to it. I hope that's in order.
elfs From: elfs Date: December 12th, 2006 05:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, it is. Thanks for giving me warning, though!
andrewducker From: andrewducker Date: December 12th, 2006 11:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
I first read it in 1995 - when I was 23. It didn't save my life, but it did give me a huge help in opening my mind up to the world outside of, as you put it, middle class conventionality. It led me to the rest of RAW, and while I now find it hard to re-read much of his work (things that seemed amazing and groundbreaking when I first read them now seem obvious, showing how much he's influenced my worldview) for which I'm terribly grateful.

I must try re-reading it again at some point, and see how it works for me now. I did re-read the Schroedinger's Cat Trilogy about two years ago, and found that that was still terribly good, on the level of raw writing if nothing else.
dossy From: dossy Date: December 13th, 2006 01:47 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh my, Elf. I have this really creepy and aversive feeling after reading this fnord.
jenk From: jenk Date: December 13th, 2006 01:56 am (UTC) (Link)
Some of my "open up my brain" writers were

Berke Breathed ... first-run "Bloom County". Banzai.
F.M.Busby ... for treating bi women as everyday humans.
Madeleine L'Engle ... for religious writing that made sense. "How anyone ever took the Bible literally, I'm not quite sure. You can't have an IQ of even +2 and take it literally. It just doesn't work."
Robert B Parker ... for pointing out the many conscious choices most people abdicate.
norincraft From: norincraft Date: December 13th, 2006 08:48 am (UTC) (Link)
You turned me onto the Illumanitus trilogy by way of the later books of Robert Anton Wilson. By way it, I came across Buckminster Fuller, the Principia Discordia, Dr John Lilly, Alan Watts & S.I. Hiakawa. Formative, at an important time. And with it came it great deal of skepticism and an utterly agnostic view towards things.

But I still think there are lessons to be pulled from the book, even if you factor out the material that has become dated.

The big one is Chapel perilous. So, in Wilson's words:
"In researching occult conspiracies, one eventually faces a crossroad of mythic proportions (called Chapel Perilous in the trade). You come out the other side either stone paranoid or an agnostic; there is no third way. I came out agnostic.
The other is the agnostic perception model, which is illustrated well from the top of the very page you linked to.
Do these 5 pebbles REALLY form a pentagon?
Those biased by the Aneristic Illusion would say yes. Those biased by the Eristic Illusion would say no. Criss-cross them and it is a star.

An Illuminated Mind can see all of these, yet he does not insist that any one is really true, or that none at all is true. Stars, and pentagons, and disorder are all his creations and he may do with them as he wishes.

Now, different author... but same concept

So, dated references? Yes. Truly great writing? No. But still (in my opinion) quite worthwhile.

Oh, and thanks.
continuecat From: continuecat Date: December 14th, 2006 08:35 am (UTC) (Link)
How many 13 year olds today have a good enough grasp of current events to really miss those things? Illuminatus! was one of the best books I'd read all year when I was about that age (the 90s). Although I had been reading my daily newspaper for a few years I wouldn't say I was truly well informed.

I wouldn't say it changed my life. But I appreciated it enough to find it memorable. I guess if you get them while they're young enough....
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