Robert Anton Wilson

By: Erik Davis
January 18, 2015


The singular genius of American writer and polymath ROBERT ANTON WILSON (1932–2007) has influenced many an anarcho-futurist, chaos magician, and transhuman reality hacker. But beyond such margins, RAW remains woefully underappreciated as an American intellectual. He wrote in an accessible, avuncular style spiced with the exact degree of Mephistophelean mischief conjured by his chosen middle name, and the resulting texts elude the styles and genres we have learned to take “seriously.” His original and sometimes brilliant nonfiction forays into epistemology, esoteric history, and neuro-politics frequently digress into journalese and surrealist humor, while the stoner fictions he wrote or co-wrote (especially the monstrous 1975 Illuminatus! trilogy he did with Robert Shea) were larded with facts, historical characters, and persuasive raps. In his essays, Wilson crafted a compelling philosophical vision — a kind of psychedelicized Pyrrhonian skepticism — out of wide-ranging sources he was happy to acknowledge: Korzybski and Crowley, Lysander Spooner and Timothy Leary, Joyce and Lovecraft. His novels were pinnacles of high weirdness but also of American libertarianism, and while that category may not mean too much to some, it does provide us all with the pleasure of placing Illuminatus! rather than Ayn Rand’s dreadful doorstop at the top of that particular pyramid. Besides, RAW represented the most charming fringe of American libertarianism: a commitment to social experimentalism and existential freedom, and an earthy (and somewhat nerdy) playfulness regarding pleasure, pranks, and human potential. Not for Wilson the Austrian plum-visions of corporate freedom or the resentful attacks on the welfare state, which he saw as little more than hostility to the poor. As a more ontological anarchist, Wilson wanted instead to expose and wrestle with the spooks — ideological, psychological, linguistic — that constrain and shape our experience of reality. For RAW, nomadic freethinking was indistinguishable from the hedonistic pursuit (and propagation) of the mindfuck.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Danny Kaye, Gilles Deleuze, Cary Grant, Joanna Newsom.

READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).