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The Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy By Robert Anton Wilson At 40
Sean Kitching , June 24th, 2019 04:57

Revisiting the work of the American futurist and self-described agnostic mystic, Robert Anton Wilson, forty years since the publication of his Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy, Sean Kitching finds the author’s questing vision more vital and necessary today than it has ever been

Born into the ‘Irish Catholic Ghetto’ of Flatbush, Brooklyn, on January 18, 1932, Robert Anton Wilson went on to become one of the most influential alternative thinkers of the American counterculture. His two illuminati-based works, The Illuminatus! Trilogy (co-authored with Robert Shea), and The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles, were largely responsible for popularising the conspiracy-fiction genre and for seeding many of the ideas concerning the allegedly world controlling secret order that persist in popular culture today, as well as such notions as the ‘23 Enigma’.

The KLF’s name came from a secret society in Illuminatus!, and Bill Drummond also took the moniker the Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu from the trilogy. Drummond was 23, and by his own admission knew nothing of conspiracy theory, when he met director Ken Campbell to work as the set designer for his unabridged stage adaptation of Illuminatus! in 1976.

In a talk given at a memorial event for Wilson on March 18 2007 at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall (organised by Mixmaster Morris, who also named his band The Irresistible Force after a group that appears at a fictional festival in the trilogy), Drummond credited Campbell’s urging him to attempt the impossible task of making stage sets for the play as having a formative effect upon him: “I was completely out of my depth... It made me think anything was possible, and it made me think that the things I was reading in the book could be possible as well.”

Although Wilson’s work may on the surface appear related to the notion of the conspiracy theorist that sits uneasily today with the concept of ‘fake news’ and the inexplicable resurrection of beliefs such as those espoused by ‘flat Earthers’, Wilson was very clear that his purpose was ‘to try and get people into a state of generalised agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone but agnosticism about everything.’ Perceiving belief to be ‘the death of intelligence’, for once one accepts ‘a doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of existence’, Wilson’s writing playfully entertained innumerable possibilities without committing to any of them. He said: ‘I don’t believe anything, but I have many suspicions.’ His exploration of the plurality and mutability of reality is best represented in his fiction by the Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy, and in autobiographical and philosophical essay work such as Cosmic Trigger.

Although the assembled cast of hipsters, junkies, New Agers, FBI double agents, spoofs on Black Mountain poet types such as Simon Moon, or the transexual literary critic, Epicene Wildeblood, may seem a little anachronistic to modern audiences, Wilson’s arguments against the dangers caused by the serious mistakes humanity makes in misperceiving itself have only become more pressing with the passing of time. It’s also worth noting that in an interview for Dutch television in October 2000, whilst warning that “some people are only pretending to be dumb, because they want to sell you something... but some people are just fucking crazy,” when asked what he thought of Donald Trump, he showed no hesitation in selecting the latter diagnosis.

Originally comprised of three separately published volumes, The Universe Next Door, The Trick Top Hat and The Homing Pigeons, the Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy draws inspiration from the different possible consequences of the quantum experiment from which the trilogy derives its name. Long since passed into the realm of popular culture due to the Wilson’s work, as well as that of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Ursula K Le Guin and Neil Gaiman, the paradoxical thought experiment essentially posits a hypothetical feline that may be both alive and dead as a result of being linked to a random subatomic event.

The first volume takes place in different parallel universes, drawing inspiration from the ‘many worlds interpretation’ which suggests that all possible alternate histories and futures may be real, given a vast, perhaps even infinite, number of universes. The characters of the second volume are unwittingly connected through non-locality, in that having once enjoyed a brief connection, they remain joined in quantum entanglement. The third volume posits an ‘observer-created universe’, in which consciousness itself is responsible for the collapse of the wave function. Hence in the first instance, the cat is both alive and dead, in parallel universes. In the second, the cat and the experimenter are connected to everything else in the universe in such a way that all connections would have to be considered in determining the present state of its mortality. In the third, the cat is neither alive nor dead, until the observer perceives it to be one or the other.

Wilson was neither a physicist nor a mathematician but you don’t have to have much of a grasp of quantum mechanics to appreciate the philosophical implications of Schrödinger’s paradox, which basically asks whether our physical models represent an objective description of the universe, or merely defines the limits of our own knowledge. Wilson was drawn to what became known as ‘the Copenhagen Interpretation’ of quantum physics because it chimed with his own perception of how belief influences perception.

In his introduction to the reprint of Cosmic Trigger, Wilson writes: ‘The Copenhagen Interpretation is sometimes called "model agnosticism" and holds that any grid we use to organise our experience of the world is a model of the world and should not be confused with the world itself.’ Or as the Buddhists would have it: ‘The finger that points at the moon is not the moon.’ The way our language functions helps maintain the illusion that the situation is otherwise. ‘Reality’ is a singular noun in the English language, and as such is at odds with the findings of quantum science. Likewise, our use of the words ‘is’ or ‘I’ both suggest a singular, unchanging event or identity, and it is our misguided attempts to cling on to those illusions that, for Wilson, lies at the root of all human misery and stupidity. Nevertheless, this is not the same as denying truth or meaning - a dangerous road which has led to the ludicrous notion of ‘alternative facts’ and the absurd paradox of an American president who constantly declaims the ‘fake’ quality of news he does not agree with while simultaneously clocking up over 10,000 false or misleading claims since his time in office (according to several branches of the accursed ‘fake news media’).

Wilson attempts to make his meaning as clear as possible in his revised introduction to Cosmic Trigger:

‘This book does not claim that "you create your own reality" in the sense of total (but mysteriously unconscious) psychokinesis. If a car hits you and puts you in hospital, I do not believe this is because you "really wanted" to be hit be a car, or that you "needed" to be hit by a car, as two popular New Age bromides have it. The theory of transactional psychology, which is the source of my favourite models and metaphors, merely says that, once you have been hit by a car, the meaning of the experience depends entirely on you and the results depend partly on you (and partly on your doctors). If it is medically possible for you to live - and sometimes even if the doctors think it is medically impossible - you ultimately decided whether to get out of the hospital in a hurry or to lie around suffering and complaining. Most of the time, this kind of "decision" is unconscious and mechanical, but with the techniques described in this book, such decisions can become conscious and intelligent."

If all this sounds potentially rather dry and without wit or humour, let me assure you that is not the case. Striking a tone that is for the most part like a more occult American version of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Schrödinger’s Cat is, if anything, likely to be too irreverent and downright loopy for some tastes. Wilson plays very much the trickster archetype in all of his books, and having gone through a lengthy process of self-reprogramming which included experiments with psychedelic drugs, tantric yoga and western magickal techniques, developing an appreciation for the darkly surreal and often cruel developments of the eras through which he lived was undoubtedly a necessary safety valve.

In Robert Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land, Valentine Michael Smith, the human who comes to Earth after being raised by Martians on Mars, cannot understand laughter until it comes to him in a flash, that if humans couldn’t laugh, they wouldn’t be able to bear the absurdities of existence. Wilson’s experience of writing Illuminatus!, which allegedly began when he and Shea would write spoof letters to Playboy, where they both worked as editors of its Forum, led him to conclude: ‘You simply cannot invent any conspiracy theory so ridiculous and obviously satirical that some people somewhere don't already believe it.’ Wilson goes even further for satirical effect in Schrödinger’s Cat, and there is much humour to be had from the kind of detached, macroscopic viewpoint he adopts when attempting to transcend human-centric bias:

‘The majority of Terrans were six-legged. They had territorial squibbles and politics and wars and a caste system. They also had sufficient intelligence to survive on that barren boondocks planet for several billions of years. We are not concerned here with the majority of Terrans. We are concerned with a tiny majority - the domesticated primates who built cities and wrote symphonies and invented things like tic-tac-toe and integral calculus.’

The novels take place in a parallel United States called Unistat. In The Universe Next Door, The Purity Of Essence terrorist organisation threatens to explode nuclear devices in major cities throughout the country if their demands are not met. In The Trick Top Hat, Unistat eventually becomes a utopia under the auspices of President Hubbard, who promotes the design of a robot workforce to relieve the tedium of manual labour and encourages experiments in efforts to prolong the human lifespan. The Homing Pigeons features President Kennedy as a character and switches between multiple parallel universes as it reaches its finale. It also makes significant use of words invented by the author as a substitute for certain terms it was considered taboo to write about in western culture at the time.

Anticipating a possible future censorship case, no doubt to some of the racier passages, Wilson used the names of Supreme Court Justices as such ‘stand ins’, which might have seemed a clever move to the author at the time, but which only serves to make this aspect of the book appear dated. In the early section entitled ‘Alternative Texts’, Wilson has a lot of fun including the book itself, along with its author, as part of the narrative, alleging: ‘Despite his sinister reputation and his well-known eccentricities, Wilson was one of the last of the scientific shamans of the primitive, terrestrial phase of the cruel, magnificent Unistat Empire... Some have even proposed that Schrödinger’s Cat is actually a manual of shamanism in the form of a novel, but that opinion is, almost certainly, exaggerated.’ Wilson also playfully posits a situation in which the character Blake Williams, who was also a witness to some FDA-sanctioned burning of books by the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, has a mystical experience whilst reading Cosmic Trigger:

‘Williams found that he actually believed this preposterous yarn. The discovery thrilled him, since it didn’t really matter whether the pretentious Wilson’s pompous claims were true or not. What mattered was that he, Blake Williams was free at last.’

For the transhumanist anarchist Wilson, the neurological relativism revealed by his own learning and personal deprogramming experiments called for a form of ‘guerrilla ontology’ that lampooned, rejected and transmitted much needed interference into the ‘reality tunnels’ that attempt to control much of contemporary society and individual behaviour. In the Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy, characters are repeatedly placed in positions of cognitive dissonance, where they are forced to reevaluate their own belief systems due to experiences that they are unable to accommodate.

Wealthy WASP industrialist, Mountbatten Babbit, who works for a company that manufactures napalm, begins to fear for his own sanity (and bank account), as: ‘Anything that endangered the bank account must be a symptom of the most aggravated psychosis.’ Initially dismissive of a tale told by a neighbour’s wife during a dinner party, concerning one ‘Neon Bal Loon, a Tibetan monk who had allegedly transferred his consciousness into the mind of an Englishman and was now writing books through the Englishman’s mediumship’, Babbit begins to unravel as visions of helicopters and blazing jungle foliage insinuate themselves into his mind. The personality of Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Ped Xing, eventually takes control of Babbit, and is only vanquished when defined by a psychologist as ‘a hallucination caused by the negative conditioning of the pacifist pickets surrounding Weishaupt Chemicals’, and is driven out by a combination of hypnotism and apomorphine-based aversion therapy.

Wilson’s books were extremely important to me when I went through a period of cognitive dissonance myself, during my late teens and early 20s. Having spent much of my school years feeling dissociated from much of the information considered to be of importance by the education curriculum, I finally discovered a sense of connection to the writings of the beats. Kerouac and Burroughs led me, indirectly, to Robert Anton Wilson, who in turn provided a gateway to figures such as Buckminster Fuller, Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, Wilhelm Reich, Alan Watts and John Lilly. Any current reader’s reaction to Wilson’s fictional work is liable to depend in part on their taste for the trappings of the late 60s and early 70s era in which they are set. Whilst it is also the case that his characters, as amusing as they are, often seem to be ‘types’ rather than fully-rounded entities, this is a criticism can often be directed at a lot of science-fiction or ideas-based imaginative writing.

For anyone too attached to a simplistic, materialistic view of the universe, who is overly reserved in their ability to see the funny side of an anarchistic portrayal of it, the book might well seem completely nonsensical. Whilst someone such as that would likely see little that wasn’t meaningless in the Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy, it is perhaps a fair point that, given all the talk of escaping our robotic imprints and writing new neural circuits for ourselves, Wilson’s viewpoint would feel simply hollow and distressing if he failed to suggest some sort of meta-belief capable of uniting humanity in the midst of all the chaos. Given that Wilson sees all religions and other grand narrative beliefs such as Marxist utopianism as fictitious in the sense that they are human created and morally relative, what overarching concept be posited in their place that would, in Wilson’s words, for all humanity: ‘...spur creativity, higher intelligence, expanded consciousness and, above all, broader compassion’?

In countering the thought that Wilson may after all, be just another cynic, consider this line from the Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy: ‘Cynics were primates who realised the monotonous life-death cycle of terrestrial life, but were not imaginative enough to conceive of future evolution after longevity and escape velocity had been obtained.’ Wilson certainly wasn’t lacking in imagination, and his own vision for humanity’s future resonated with those of his friend Timothy Leary, as supposedly revealed to him whilst incarcerated in Folsom Prison, California, in 1973, which Leary called ‘The Starseed Transmissions’:

‘It is time for life on Earth to leave the planetary womb and learn to walk through the stars... You are about to discover the key to immortality in the chemical structure of the genetic code, within which you will find the scripture of life. The time has come for you to accept the responsibility of immortality. It is not necessary for you to die.’

Wilson also posits a proposal for the creation of a post-work society in the second volume of the Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy, which he calls the ‘RICH (Rising Income through Cybernetic Homeostasis) economy’. Drawing inspiration from Buckminster Fuller, Ezra Pound and C.H. Douglas, Wilson’s model attempts to maximise automation, through efforts made by the character of President Hubbard, who offers a large cash sum reward to anyone able to replace their own job with a machine, and ensuring against the threat of massive poverty via a negative income tax or guaranteed minimum income and a significant growth in adult education.

Guaranteed basic income is an idea still being explored today. Finland trialled the idea between January 2017 and December 2018. It concluded that people were ‘left happier but jobless’, and perhaps the incentive for individuals to apply themselves to new courses of learning was not yet strong enough to drive the idea, but as automation of jobs once done by humans increases, that incentive will likely soon arrive. Experiments in psychology using psychoactive drugs such as LSD, MDMA and Ketamine, once utterly taboo amongst the scientific community in the post-Leary era, are coming back into fashion. MDMA may be a revolutionary treatment for PTSD and Ketamine may offer a safer route to making new neural connections in cases of extreme depression than electroconvulsive therapy.

The decoding of the human genome sequence is perhaps the greatest achievement of our time, and the potential for new medical treatments, such as personalised DNA-specific drugs to cure cancer, is enormous. The notion of cryogenic freezing (once entertained by Leary and Wilson), may seem a little dated to us now, but it still has its adherents, and life extension research is ongoing, with articles featuring the likes of prominent researchers such as Aubrey de Grey and David Gobel, of the Methuselah Foundation, appearing from time to time even in the pages of the weekend supplements of national newspapers. Of course, Wilson was hugely over optimistic in the timescale he perceived such new developments occurring in, but a lot of his ideas resonate even more today than they did when he first suggested them.

As the English counter-culture historian, John Higgs, notes in his introduction to Cosmic Trigger: ‘Truly great books tend to have two things in common. First they are utterly of their time... And secondly, they transcend their time.’ Such a thing is certainly true of Robert Anton Wilson’s work. Although modern writers now often derive a certain pleasure from commenting on how deluded the optimism of mid-70s counter-culture was, Wilson’s work endures because it is about navigating psychological space where the maps you have no longer make sense. It is perhaps even more important today, since the ‘reality tunnels’ created by both the mainstream and social media have become so pervasive, that many accept them simply as fact perceive neither the arbitrariness of their construction, nor the possibility of healthier, more compassionate and inclusive alternatives.

This situation appears to have reached a point so dire over the last decade that a large percentage of the population have seemingly lost the ability to notice the different competing forms of information that are sent to colonise their minds and in a lot of cases don’t even require sophisticated articulated arguments to win their votes, just grossly unsubtle signals on abortion, immigrants, or the legitimacy of aggressive foreign policy. If scientists do one day discover some methods of extending human life significantly, those discoveries are likely to remain hidden and in the domain of the rich one percent, unless we offer some collective resistance to the methods used to keep us asleep and easily manipulated.

William Burroughs once said: ‘Language is a virus from outer space.’ When I first heard that quote, I thought it merely clever and a little outlandish, but it is far deeper and more provocatively philosophical than it at first appears. Much of Wilson’s work consists of describing the idea of ‘reality tunnels’ - the information systems shared non-locally by humans which make up much of their inner worlds. His use of the ’23 Enigma’ is a good example of the kind of ‘spanner in the works’ to those tunnels that he offers as potential experience to his readers. Largely popularised by Wilson, but originally speculated upon by William Burroughs, the ’23 Enigma’ appears to be a kind ‘linguistic virus’ capable of taking hold of an individual’s attention and manifesting innumerable examples of itself to the consciousness of those willing to entertain it even as a possibility.

Don’t take my word for it, take a look at some of the points contained here, let them sink in and see what happens. As Wilson notes in Cosmic Trigger: ‘When the donkey metaprogrammer has noticed a few oddities of this sort, the key signal becomes prominent everywhere.’ It’s perhaps worth noting here that my deadline for this article was 23 June - a fact that my editor, John Doran, assures me is purely coincidental. Burroughs of course, also said: ‘In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen.’

All of these ideas, according to Wilson’s ethos, are intended to be stimulating and useful rather than objectively True, and are offered as a counter-effective remedy against the forces of mass hypnotism that keep the populace asleep and easily controlled. This, in itself, is an idea very much of Wilson’s time, but it is not yet one we have transcended the need for. If anything, in our age of social media and the ubiquitous consequences of so-called ‘Reality TV’, we need such ideas more than ever.