Illuminatus! Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson

In 1969, Robert Shea and Robert Wilson were working as associate editors for Playboy magazine. Part of their job was to deal with letters from the public on the subject of civil liberties. Many of these letters were paranoid rants about imagined conspiracies. Inspired by the breadth and variety of these letters, Shea and Wilson decided to write a novel on the premise – as Wilson later wrote – that “all these nuts are right, and every single conspiracy they complain about really exists”.

The resulting work, Illuminatus! Is a vast, rambling trilogy that was written by Shea and Wilson largely under the influence of mind-expanding drugs. It attempts to draw in and make sense of every one of the scores of urban myths and conspiracy theories that are the common currency of the literary and intellectual undergrowth of the United States. I need point no further than the fact that the back of a US one-dollar bill is decorated with the Masonic motif of an Eye in a Pyramid (the title of the first book in the trilogy) to indicate the kind of conspiracy with which the book deals.

All of this would be amusing and entertaining but might quickly pall were it not for a brilliant “chance” meeting the authors had in the Southern California literary underground, while they were writing their book, with Kerry Thornley, a self-confessed doper and drop-out who invented the religion (or anti-religion) of Discordianism which worships the goddess Eris or Discordia and seeks to promote chaos and anarchy as the political movement of the future.

The addition of the “teachings” of Discordianism to their drug-fuelled text lifts Illuminatus out of the ordinary to a realm where, despite the sometimes schoolboy humour, they often succeed in touching on some very deep philosophical and social questions and re-examining them in a new and fascinating light.

Most people will probably find most of the book completely barmy. But to me it is barmy in an illuminatingly positive and constructive way. If Robert Persig’s Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance re-cast urban existence by looking at it through the paradoxical prism of Zen Bhuddism, then Illuminatus! is Zen and the paranoia of urban life – it re-evaluates modern society by exposing its unconscious illusions.

Is the world governed by a secret sinister conspiracy like the Illuminati? Do corporate businessmen, politicians, media moguls, the rich and powerful meet behind closed doors and draw up secret plans for ruling the world?

It’s not difficult to arrive at a judgement on this point. You only have to look at how effective or ineffective governments and secret intelligence agencies have been at keeping their secrets. How much has the CIA and the SIS managed to keep quiet about their antics (thanks to Julian Assange)? How much has the NSA kept under wraps (thanks to Edward Snowden?) How much did Bill Clinton manage to keep quiet about his sordid sex trysts in the White House (thanks to the New York Times?) The list is a long and depressing one.

It doesn’t take long to realise that even the most powerful people in the world are totally inept and powerless when it comes to acting in secret, largely thanks to the internet.

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