Robert Anton Wilson
[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Robert Anton Wilson (1932–2007)"]
Robert Anton Wilson was born January 18, 1932 in Brooklyn. He grew up in the section of Brooklyn known as Flatbush and, later, after his father lost his job on the waterfront, in a much poorer section of Brooklyn known as Gerritsen Beach. "Rents were very low" in Gerritsen Beach, Wilson recalled in his book Down to Earth, the largely autobiographical second volume of his Cosmic Trigger Trilogy, "because only the poor Irish Catholics lived there." At another point in the same account, he refers to his old neighborhood as "an Irish Catholic ghetto." Not that all Irish Catholics were poor, mind you. "My father had relatives in Brooklyn Heights," Wilson wrote in 1991,
who actually owned a big two-story house, instead of renting a bungalow, and I think they had central heating, too. We referred to them as "lace curtain Irish." Only when I was much older did I discover that they called us "shanty Irish." But none of us knew any of the half-fabulous "cut glass Irish," who existed only as a romantic rumor … people who, even though Irish, lived as well as the Protestants. These semi-mythic beings, the cut glass Irish, lived in New England and drank cognac.
I define it chiefly in negatives. Most readers born since 1945 cannot imagine the ignorance and brutality of those days. Many middle-aged women had goiter, a disease creating an ugly lump in the neck, which looked like a cancer.… People regularly died of tuberculosis, which is now normally cured in its early stages, and children had dozens of diseases now abolished. I myself survived measles, German measles, mumps, flu (still a major killer in those days), rheumatic fever, whooping cough, diphtheria and polio.
The Gerritsen Beach Wilson remembered
had no paved roads and nobody had central heating … the bungalows were heated with coal, when we could afford it, but more often with driftwood we picked up on the beach in the summer and stacked in the yard to dry until we used it in the winter. Only the center of the house (living room/kitchen) got heated that way, and a trip to the bathroom in January or February was like a journey to the Pole with Scott of the Antarctic and twenty dog-sleds. People were always dying of influenza and pneumonia and other diseases related to lack of heat in winter. Every head cold created minor panic because it might develop into one of these killer diseases. Knowledge of medicine was primitive.… People were always expecting the worst because all they had known in all their lives were deadly diseases and grinding poverty.… One year after my birth, President Roosevelt declared that "one third of the nation" lived in conditions as bad as, or worse than, what I have described.
On the other hand, Wilson wrote, "nothing in my childhood ever led me to suspect that the overwhelming majority of the human race was … living in conditions far more deplorable than the Shanty Irish in Gerritsen Beach."
Attentive readers will have noted that one of the childhood diseases of his era that Robert Anton Wilson personally survived was polio. The story is worth recounting, for reasons that will become evident as we go along. "When I was diagnosed as having polio at age two," Wilson wrote in Down to Earth, "the doctors told my parents I would never walk again." But "my mother fought back against the medical verdict." She and Wilson's father, "after giving up on the doctor who said I'd be paralyzed for life … and just by blind chance … found one of the few doctors in the United States who thought the Kenny method was worth trying."
The Kenny method was the method advocated by Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian physical therapist and nurse who had reported extraordinary results in working with polio patients who had been told by medical doctors to expect lives of paralysis. Her method had won many adherents in Australia by the time it was used on Robert Anton Wilson in 1934, and it would win many more adherents in this country a decade later, during World War II, but it faced an uphill struggle both Down Under and in the United States. As Wilson wrote in 1991,
the A.M.A. and the whole organized medical profession at that time had denounced Kenny and all her works. She was only a nurse and therefore couldn't discover anything of importance; she was only a woman, also, and therefore could not understand medicine, which requires male brains; her technique of treating polio, we were told, was dangerous nonsense and hogwash and "witchcraft." Thus the major event of my early childhood consisted of being cured of a major crippling illness that left most of its victims permanently confined to wheelchairs, by a method that all recognized experts denounced as unscientific and useless. This instilled in me certain doubts about experts.
Wilson, who would "never walk again," walked for the rest of his life, though with a bit of a limp when fatigued and sometimes with a cane.
If he had ever had anything that could be described as an attitude of reverence toward authorities, however, it never recovered. There are careers that seem custom designed for such people. And so, by the time he was old enough to go to high school, he knew he wanted to be a writer. By this time, his family was considerably more prosperous, for Wilson started high school just after the end of World War II, which had brought increased work for longshoremen and warehousemen and new employment for his father, at higher wages than he'd ever earned before the Depression started. And after the war, the prosperity had not only continued; it had actually grown.
Wilson's father remembered his long years of unemployment, however, and was determined that his son would train for a career that would continue to pay him, even in tough times. Writing was an impractical dream; what his son needed was a career like … engineering. So the family moved to the section of Brooklyn known as Bay Ridge and young Bob enrolled in Brooklyn Technical High School. It is not recorded whether any lace curtains were purchased for their new home, but Wilson recalled that, after the move to Bay Ridge, they "were living so well, compared to the Depression, that I imagined we were lace-curtain Irish at last."
From Brooklyn Tech he went, in 1952, after a couple of years of working and saving his money, to the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now a part of New York University), where, about a decade later, Leonard Peikoff and Murray N. Rothbard would be teaching. He studied engineering and worked in that field and as a medical orderly and as a salesman, among other jobs he regarded as meaningless dead ends. But he was also, in his spare time, writing."The really superior man, just because he is intelligent enough to know the limitations of his knowledge and the fallibility of his judgments, has no taste for the ruthlessness that is essential to the exercise of power."— Ralph Borsodi
Gradually, he began to sell some of that writing, and gradually that began to open a few doors. He got a job as a copywriter at an advertising agency. And then, in 1962, when he was 30 years old, a small, Ohio-based magazine he had been writing for offered him a job as an editor. He eagerly accepted the offer. But when he arrived in Brookville, Ohio, about 15 miles northwest of Dayton, to take up his duties as "coeditor" with Mildred Loomis of Balanced Living magazine, he arrived under what you might call an assumed name.
A few years before, when he first began earning money by writing, he had decided to use the name Robert Anton Wilson as his professional name. He had been born Robert Edward Wilson, but he wanted to reserve his "real" name for the serious literary works he would write one day. The "Anton" he had adopted to replace "Edward" on the ad copy and journalism he might write in the meantime had come from his maternal grandfather, Anton Milli of Trieste.
As Wilson later told the tale in Down to Earth, his grandfather "had left the Austro-Hungarian Empire to avoid military service, and … was proud of the fact, as a sign of his sagacity. The best thing about America, he told my mother, was that we had no compulsory military service here." Wilson admired his grandfather, he wrote, because "the old guy was brave enough to be a draft-dodger and sail across the wild Atlantic in a crude wooden ship to try to find a free country. I wish there was still a free country here, for others like him."
In the end, of course, Robert Edward Wilson never wrote any serious literary works; instead he gradually became Robert Anton Wilson. And so we return to the main thread of our story.
Balanced Living, the small magazine of which Robert Anton Wilson became coeditor in 1962, was published by an organization called the School for Living, which had been founded nearly 30 years before, at about the same time the two-year-old Robert Edward Wilson was being treated for his polio by a practitioner of the Kenny method. The founder of the original School for Living on an estate outside the village of Suffern in Rockland County, about 35 or 40 miles north of New York City, was a man named Ralph Borsodi.
Borsodi had been born in New York City in the mid 1880s, had grown up there and entered the advertising business there, enjoying some success. He gradually became convinced, however, that, as he put it in his 1933 book Flight from the City, those who chose to stay in the city — any big city — were choosing to be
financially insecure … never [knowing] when [they] might be without a job … lack[ing] the zest of living that comes from real health and suffer[ing] all the minor and sometimes major ailments that come from too much excitement, too much artificial food, too much sedentary work, and too much of the smoke and noise and dust of the city,
all the while living "lives [that] were barren of real beauty — the beauty that comes only from contact with nature and from the growth of the soil, from flowers and fruits, from gardens and trees, from birds and animals." Borsodi wanted to offer, he wrote, "a way out for … men and women who desire to escape from dependence upon the present industrial system and who have no desire to substitute for it dependence upon a state controlled system."
Borsodi had read his Henry George, you see, and also some Josiah Warren, some Lysander Spooner, and some Benjamin R. Tucker. He was skeptical of the ability of the state to solve anyone's problems. As he put it in his 1929 book This Ugly Civilization,
We are born into a political status. We have no choice about the matter. We are … born under the dominion of politicians.… We can change our political status by emigrating from the subjection under which we are born to some other which we may think more desirable, but we cannot free ourselves from subjection to government altogether. In this respect we have somewhat less freedom today than even with regard to religion. We can avoid tithes, in many states, but none of us can avoid taxes. Public opinion has progressed to the point where it recognizes that abandonment of the church is not in itself an evil however sinful it may be from the standpoint of the clergy. But it has not yet arrived at a point where it recognizes that the abandonment of the state is equally free from evil.… But while we may have to consent to a political status and to contribute to the support of the government, we do not need to over-estimate the extent to which politicians and the political state contribute to our comfort. For government is, at best, a necessary evil. It does not become less evil because it seems necessary.
Borsodi gets better. "There are three needs of mankind," he wrote,
and therefore three functions, which seem to justify the existence of governments. The first is the protection of society as a whole, and of the law-abiding members of it, from the illegal, and sometimes antisocial activities of individuals. The performance of this function has brought into existence the police powers of the government: law, law enforcement, and the courts of law. The second function is the protection of the government itself from the attacks of other governments, and by virtue of what is presumably the corollary of self-defense, the function of attacking other governments that may for some reason — good, bad, or indifferent — interfere with the activities of the attacking government. The performance of this function has brought into existence the war powers of the government: armies and navies, international law, and diplomacy. The third function is that of rendering various social and economic services that seem, like our schools, too important to entrust to private initiative, or that seem, like the issue of money, too dangerous to entrust to private monopoly. The performance of these functions has brought into existence the social activities of the government: public schools, postal service, streets and roads, fire protection, water supply and a myriad of similar municipal and national activities. If we admit, for the moment, that these functions are essential to mankind's well-being, it does not necessarily follow that the only way in which they can be provided is through the agency of political government. History, which is one long record of the imbecilities and the injustices of governments, furnishes us good grounds for seeking some alternative solution for them. And the comfort that we as individuals seek makes it very desirable that the alternative should be controlled as far as possible by us personally and not by the community as a whole. We develop government because it is an agency that generates social control, when we should develop institutions like the family that are agencies for generating self-control.
At times, Borsodi sounds amazingly like Murray Rothbard or Robert LeFevre. "What we call a government," he wrote in 1929,
is after all nothing but a group of individuals, who, by a variety of sanctions, have acquired the power to govern their fellows. The sanctions range from the fraud of divine right to that of sheer conquest; from the imbecility of hereditary privilege to the irrationality of counting voters. In most cases the extent to which these sanctions produce capable legislators, judges, and administrators will not bear critical examination. Nominally, government exists and functions for the public. Actually it exists and functions for the benefit of those who have in one of these absurd ways acquired power to govern. It is accepted mainly because of the sheer inertia of great masses of people. Ostensibly, of course, it is accepted because it confers a sufficiency of visible benefits upon society to make the officials who operate it tolerated in spite of the selfish and idiotic exercise of the powers conferred upon them.
Borsodi thought it absurd to fasten any serious hope on the idea of getting "the right people" or even "better people" into government. "The really superior man," he wrote,
just because he is intelligent enough to know the limitations of his knowledge and the fallibility of his judgments, has no taste for the ruthlessness that is essential to the exercise of power. For government officials must, first of all, maintain power. Only by maintaining power can they have the opportunity to exercise it. Their preoccupation with the arts that lead to power and that enable them to maintain it after they have secured it is inescapable. The ambitions that should animate them and the purposes for which their power should be used have to be subordinated to "practical politics."
Thus, if an intelligent and well-meaning person attains political power,
he is almost compelled to sacrifice the ideals to which he may originally have been genuinely devoted in order to maintain power. He is almost certain to sacrifice them unless his tenure of power is accompanied by a social convulsion that carries his ideals into force almost in spite of what he himself may do. Ordinarily the task of maintaining himself, and his party, in office is so great that the inclination to make wise use of whatever power he secures rarely survives the ordeal.
In the face of these facts, Borsodi recommended economic independence. "Economic independence," he wrote,
cannot, unfortunately, completely free us from government. But it can enormously reduce the field of activity for government as a whole.… Dependence upon the public services furnished by the government itself or by quasi-governmental institutions operated upon franchises, can be materially lessened. We can furnish our own water supply; our own sewerage system; our own fire protection; our own schooling. Some of these things for which we now turn to the public services we can do completely for ourselves. Others we can do only in part. To the extent to which we enable ourselves to do them, we avoid the annoyance and escape the incompetence of having them performed by the state.… Support of the government through the taxes we pay we cannot avoid, nor can we entirely escape from such forms of government support as military service and jury duty.… Fortunately, we have progressed to such a point that it is possible to yield to these various forms of duress without too great suffering. Perhaps philosophy can reconcile us to paying the taxes imposed upon us, even though we see every day how the taxpayers' money is wasted by those who hold political office.… Voluntary contributions to the work of government, such as voting, party work, officeholding, and agitating, educating and organizing reform movements — these can be reduced to almost nothing. An occasional effort in this direction may be justified, but earnest devotion to these contributions to government is almost certain to disillusion and disappoint us.
To Borsodi, it was clear that what was "supremely important" was the freedom "to experiment with our ideas — all the ideas that occur to us. We must put ourselves into a position where the ideas that interest us can have real opportunity to function."
So far, I have quoted Ralph Borsodi more extensively than I've quoted Robert Anton Wilson, the ostensible subject of this article. But I have done so because it is crucial that we understand Borsodi in order to understand Wilson. Clearly Wilson had read Borsodi before he showed up in Brookville, Ohio in 1962 to assume his editorial duties on the School for Living's magazine. Or at least so one would most likely infer upon learning that, as Wilson himself puts it in Down to Earth, "The first thing I did was change the title of the magazine [from Balanced Living] to [A] Way Out, which I hoped would attract a younger, hipper readership." That phrase — "a way out" — figures in one of the passages I just quoted from Borsodi's books.
Wilson had also read Ayn Rand before he arrived in Brookville. And he had doubtless read at least some of the writing produced by his fellow contributors to the magazine, who included Murray Rothbard, Timothy Leary, Robert LeFevre, Frank Chodorov, and Paul Goodman. Still, he was somewhat surprised — pleasantly surprised, of course — to discover that, as he put it,
the School of Living … had a great library of radical and off-beat literature. It was there that I found and read all the issues of Liberty, the individualist-anarchist magazine edited [1881–1908] by the brilliant Benjamin R. Tucker ("the clearest mind, ever, in politics," [James] Joyce called him). I also read all the issues of Mother Earth, the communist-anarchist magazine of Emma Goldman.
Wilson didn't stay long in Brookville, only a couple of years or so — just long enough, really, to read his way through the library and learn the basics of magazine production. Then his career took off. As the early sixties became the midsixties, he moved on to Ralph Ginzburg's Fact back in New York, and then to Hugh Hefner's Playboy in Chicago. He stayed there seven years, longer than he ever stayed in any other job in his life. He wrote of the experience in Down to Earth that 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.
The biggest success of his subsequent freelance career was Illuminatus!, a three-volume satirical novel written in collaboration with fellow late-sixties Playboy editor Robert Shea. To the extent that it is possible to say coherently what Illuminatus! is about, it's about conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists, but it also mixes in the sixties counterculture, the libertarian movement, and a number of other arcane topics, along with what would later become Wilson's trademark agnosticism and skepticism about not only all authorities, but also all claims to Truth, especially Universal Truth.
Robert Anton Wilson freelanced for the rest of his life, nearly 35 years altogether (he died in January 2007, just a week shy of his 75th birthday). Things weren't always easy financially (though it became a cult classic, Illuminatus! did not make him rich), but he became extremely well known. Nonetheless, he never let his fame go to his head. He continued to write for small, low-budget periodicals, including libertarian movement periodicals like Sam Konkin's New Libertarian, of which he was a contributing editor from sometime in the late 1970s through the 1980s.
He also showed up now and then at libertarian gatherings of various sizes and types. I still remember how startled I was one day in 1981, when I was chairing a panel on civil liberties at the national Libertarian Party convention in Denver. I had been chatting with my fellow panelists and letting them know how I'd be managing things, and I hadn't been paying much attention as the room filled up. So when, at last, I stood to make a few introductory remarks and looked out at the crowd that had gathered, I almost jumped out of my skin when I realized that the man sitting in the middle of the front row, virtually under my nose, was none other than Robert Anton Wilson, then in his late 40s and at the height of his fame.
Illuminatus! won the Libertarian Futurist Society's Hall of Fame Award in 1986. This award has also been won over the years by such works as Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Anthem, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Eric Frank Russell's The Great Explosion, C.M. Kornbluth's The Syndic, Ira Levin's This Perfect Day, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, A.E. van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Winning the Hall of Fame Award amounts to a kind of official recognition: this work is a true classic of libertarian science fiction or fantasy. Robert Anton Wilson was never much for official recognition, of course. But I have every reason to believe that he was pleased by this particular instance of it.
This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Robert Anton Wilson (1932–2007)."
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.