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robert anton wilson

︎Article, Abstract, Surrealism, Literature   
︎ Ventral Is Golden

“There are periods of history when the visions of madmen and dope fiends are a better guide to reality than the common-sense interpretation of data available to the so-called ‘normal mind’. This is one such period, if you haven't noticed already.” 
– Robert Anton Wilson
How much of reality is created by the words we use to define it?

This has been the question many progressive thinkers have been trying to answer, most predominantly under the terms Linguistic Determinism and Linguistic Relativism. From Ludwig Wittgenstein, who stated that the limit of his language was the limit of his world, to Benjamin Lee Whorf, who’s hypothesis described the idea of language not merely as a means of reporting the world, but also the framing of the world being reported.

The work of Robert Anton Wilson (who was a poet, playwright, Playboy Magazine contributor, conspiracy theorist, novelist and stand up comedian) focussed largely on these ideas of linguistic relativism, and manifested in a style similar to that of Hunter S. Thompson’s GONZO journalism. A melding together of fiction and non fiction to generate personal narrative and a heightened sense of intuition within the reader, to be able to discriminate for themselves between the kinds of information being presented.

Other writers, such as William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, in their novel ‘The Third Mind’, utilised this idea of interplay between fact and fiction, by way of cut-up techniques, in an attempt to free us from the conventional meanings of words, advertisements and newspapers. They also cut up any negative criticisms of their literature too, recreating them as prose poems. (James Joyce, when writing his book Finnegan’s Wake, similarly cut up all the criticism he received and turned it into high comedy in one of the book’s chapters.) For Burroughs, Gysin and Joyce, language was just another medium, like paint is to the painter, or wood to the carpenter, where the material is manipulated into a recognisable or fantastical form.

Like a map that represents the territory, only by leaving out certain details (such as natural habitat destruction, animal displacement and the general nuances and side effects that arise from establishing sedentary societies) words too leave out the constantly changing terrains from which they originally arose.
The cut-ups were an attempt to liberate the printed word from it’s intended meaning. Neologisms, new words, are testament to this. More often than not, the world moves more quickly than the mode of language being used to describe it. Etymology, the study of word origins, could be said to be a kind of archeology of the printed or verbal mind, where every word becomes a fossilised poem, containing traces of the mental environment that brought it into common understanding. The aim here then is not to mistake the map for the territory, or the common understanding for reality.

There is an essence of reality contained within languages such as Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Latin, Greek or French, that the english language largely borrows from, but then tries to define concretely.
The Chinese symbol for intelligence, for example, is the sun and the moon. In english we say a student is bright or dull when one of the aspects of intelligence overpowers its counterpart. This could be one example of how a word is a fossilised poem, originally having its true origin in distilling nature into a sound, and then a symbol.

In one of Anton Wilson’s books, Quantum Psychology, he took great lengths to write in E-Prime, a type of english that doesn’t include declarative statements about the world. Such statements or words as ‘is’ or ‘to be’ are consciously left out of the printed pages, to highlight the notion that the reality the reader is gleaning from the words, is not fixed but inherited by their relationship to the language.

There is an irreducible interplay between subject and object, they become one and the same thing whilst also remaining distinct. What McLuhan called a cool medium evoked the same sense of this interplay. Like a person in sunglasses conceals the eyes but reveals a certain nonchalance, a turning away from convention and towards another world, an illusion, which requires us to become creators in assessing that person’s motivations or their persona. Their personal reality. We don’t normally think in this sense because sunglasses are such an innocuous object, like most things. Nevertheless we construct narrative around these object, and this leads us to the act of 'playing'.

Like the map being only functional by leaving out certain details, we play with the meanings of words to reveal our opinions. Play, in this sense, is an aligning, reorganising, constructing and reconstructing of the architecture of language, where we erect semantic buildings to look out at the world from. Words become our objects that we place in our rooms to give these spaces functionality. This is necessary insomuch as we know not to sleep in our shower or cook a dinner in the cupboard, but to be defined by the objects in our mental, linguistic rooms is just as absurd as never reorganising their layout, or never hanging a piece of artwork, or assembling a new piece of furniture inside them.

The latin word ‘lude' means ‘to play’, and is where we derive such words as allude, collude and ultimately illusion.
It has an important role in how we communicate. An illusion, when spread across wide areas becomes a kind of interface with which was can grasp the chaotic rhythms of reality. Play, allows us to understand certain allusions whilst disregarding others. This is how we acquire personal understanding, based on our intention to create narrative. It doesn’t, however, get us any closer to 'reality’.

When the illusion works too well we tend to forget that it’s there, and in turn we forget that we had to collude with each other initially, in order to create it. When this happens, we become trapped. Instead of realising we are in the midst of a playful illusion, we erect words like ‘society’ or ‘ideology’, that are supposed to represent the belief systems of entire nations, who’s populace is constantly changing. Reality seems not to be fixed, but assumed. Anton Wilson, realising this, preferred to use the word ‘gloss’ instead of ‘reality’, meaning that we apply a thin layer of understanding onto the world around us.

The book covers in this article are a nod towards the inexhaustible information contained within the works of Anton Wilson, and their apparent ’science fiction’ aesthetic, are testament to our inability to accurately define the things he wrote about. Are they absurd stories, conspiracies, paranoid, laughable, unsettling or just insightful? I would suggest, that just like reality, they are all of them at once.

"Who is the great magician that makes the grass green?"

Further Reading ︎

Buy The ticket Take The Ride, Hunter S Thompson, Documentary
The Cosmic Trigger, Robert Anton Wilson, pdf book
Predicting the Internet with Marshall McLuhan, interview