War Of The Certain: John Higgs Interviewed

The KLF, the cult of the individual and the bollocks of neoliberalism are all up for discussion alongside Robert Anton Wilson, multiple model agnosticism, and a sincere optimism about the upcoming generation when Ben Graham meets with author John Higgs

Robert Anton Wilson is probably best known for Illuminatus!, the 1975 ur-conspiracy science fiction trilogy he co-wrote with fellow Playboy editor Bob Shea. But the self-styled "guerrilla ontologist" went on to write many more works that explored the outer limits of philosophy, psychology, history and occultism via fiction, autobiography, poems, plays and essays. Playful yet erudite, Wilson’s central concern was always what he termed "multiple model agnosticism": a breaking down of absolute belief systems in any area, whether that be religion, politics or the nature of reality itself. Wilson saw belief as a trap- "convictions create convicts,"- while nevertheless advocating the temporary adoption of many different "reality tunnels" just to see where they led, while being careful not to assume that the one you were currently viewing the world through was any more valid than any other.

A friend and co-conspirator with Timothy Leary, William Burroughs and Alan Watts, Wilson was very much a product of that late sixties/early seventies counterculture. But while some aspects of his work have dated, much of it is now more relevant than ever. That’s certainly the view of British author John Higgs, who followed his acclaimed biography of Leary (I Have America Surrounded, 2006) with 2013’s The KLF: Chaos, Magic And The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds. As Higgs readily admits, the KLF book was in large part a way to write about Wilson, who he’d become a champion of since meeting him in 2004 while researching the Leary book. The KLF borrowed much of their imagery from Illuminatus!, funnelled through the 9-hour 1976 stage adaptation by Ken Campbell’s Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, on which Bill Drummond was the set designer. The KLF’s magical-anarchic-subversive approach to the music business was also equal parts Campbell and Wilson; even their famous money-burning in 1994 had antecedents in Wilson’s work.

Researching the KLF book eventually led Higgs to Daisy Campbell, Ken’s daughter, who was preparing to adapt Wilson’s 1977 semi-autobiographical work Cosmic Trigger for the stage. Both feared that no-one was interested anymore in Wilson’s writing and ideas, but encouraged each other to go ahead with their respective projects. They were soon heartened to discover a considerable groundswell of contemporary interest not only in Wilson but also in Discordianism, the Eris-worshiping, semi-satirical anti-religion he contributed to and popularised. This led to the 2014 Find the Others Festival in Liverpool, where Daisy’s Cosmic Trigger play premiered amid three days of Discordian performance and activity.

Now in 2016, Wilson’s books are finally being republished in 21st Century-friendly editions by Hilaritas Press. Higgs has written the introduction to a new edition of Cosmic Trigger, while Daisy is hoping to revive the play in London and Santa Cruz in 2017. Before then both Higgs and Campbell will be part of Festival 23, a 3-day Discordian music and arts festival happening near Sheffield on 22-24 July this year, also featuring contributions from Jimmy Cauty, Alan Moore, Knifeworld, DJ Greg Wilson and many others. I caught up with Higgs in Brighton to ask him about this revival of interest in Wilson’s work, and why he thinks it is still so relevant today.

John Higgs: In the modern internet world you have what I talk about as the ‘War of the Certain’: people insisting that their absolutist viewpoint, in 140 characters, is exactly the right way to think, and anyone who doesn’t agree with them is terrible. If you’ve grown up reading Robert Anton Wilson this is awful. Having all of these certain people with no nuance or doubt, and no understanding of multiple model agnosticism, is not going to go anywhere good. And I figured if more people were into Robert Anton Wilson and reading his books, it would be a better world and I’d like it more! So for that purely selfish reason I wanted more people to get into his stuff. But I was aware that to the modern millennial generation it can just look like hippy bollocks, with terrible covers, and he wrote a lot about how he thought he’d never die, and he died. So that doesn’t initially make you think here is the wisest man of the twentieth century! But his reasoning behind everything is the importance of doubt, and the importance of not being certain of anything. The importance not only of not falling for other peoples’ bullshit, or their belief systems, but also of not falling for your own, is massively useful. It just makes life much more enjoyable and pleasurable. He’s one of those authors where the twenty-first century would be much improved if he got his due.

When and how did you first encounter Robert Anton Wilson’s work?

JH: It was when I was at university in Liverpool in the early nineties. Liverpool’s quite a psychedelic town really; it’s very different to, say, Manchester. And he was just a known person who people would mention. There wasn’t a sense that he was obscure or cult or unknown. You’d hear some mates talking about him, and then a bit later you’d hear some other mates talking about him, and there was a sense that he was a person you had to read. So that’s when I first got the Illuminatus trilogy, but I didn’t get very far with it when I first started trying to read it. Like many people I gave up on Illuminatus on the first attempt. But when I was researching Leary, Robert Anton Wilson was coming up quite a lot, and that’s how I got to meet him. I had to go to Northern California where Leary’s archive was. The estate gave me access to all his papers and introduced me to Robert Anton Wilson. I’d never written a book before, and all through the process of doing that I was thinking oh, I’m going to be found out as a fraud at any point. And then when I was taken to meet Robert Anton Wilson I thought he’ll definitely see right through me, because that guy is smart, he’s really intelligent and he’s going to see me for what I am and this is going to be terrible. And I met him and he saw me for exactly what I was and was welcoming and happy and delighted. I thought what a lovely guy! I’ve never met anyone who knew him who had a bad word to say about him. And when you’re looking at people who offer you better ways and recipes for living and things like that, the amount of them who turn out to be cruel or shit to their family or bad people; surely the whole point of having a philosophy for life is to turn you into someone who’s not a shit to their family! And he was the first person I’d ever met whose natural goodness seemed to match his work.

In your most recent book, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century you don’t actually mention Robert Anton Wilson at all, yet his ideas seem to inform the whole book.

JH: No, it’s weird; he was in every single draft up until the last one. There were bits that had huge chunks of him in there, but when it got to the ruthless editing stage towards the end, he fell out. And it was a real surprise to me that he did, because a lot of what he was inspired by were the twentieth century greats. He was inspired by Joyce and Einstein and Korzybski and Leary and Crowley, and all of those people are in there. So I’m talking about them, but going oh, Robert Anton Wilson liked them as well didn’t really matter. And then for a while there was a big argument for multiple model agnosticism where I talked about Robert Anton Wilson, and then I thought no, I’m not going to argue for that; I’m just going to state where we are. I’m just going to state that we are in a state of multiple model agnosticism, because we are. So he sort of fell out there. In many ways he was the scaffolding that the book was built around, but in the end you come and take the scaffolding away and there it is.

In Stranger Than We Can Imagine you seem optimistic that the upcoming generation are more open to that multiple model agnosticism.

JH: Yeah, I think that they are. I’ve got kids that are 12 and 16 and I’m thinking of their generation, and I do think they’re a lot smarter than we are in many ways. I don’t think they’ve fallen for this cult of the individual or this sense that their identity is wrapped up in owning things, which people in the twentieth century had. It’s quite clear to them that the whole neo-liberal thing is bollocks. I’ve yet to find one who doesn’t think that.

One thing that does make me slightly uncomfortable about Robert Wilson is the way that he’s sometimes held up as a figurehead for American libertarianism.

JH: This is fascinating, in that over here there are a lot of British socialists who absolutely love Robert Anton Wilson, and over there you get all these American libertarians. These are two tribes who really shouldn’t have anything in common. But they just get on great, and it’s partly because they’ve read Robert Anton Wilson and they don’t believe that their one singular viewpoint is the one that has to be inflicted on everyone else. You saw this at the Find the Others Festival in Liverpool. There was this great coming together of people who had nothing whatsoever in common except for the fact that they’d read Robert Anton Wilson.

Wilson mocks Ayn Rand mercilessly in a lot of his stuff. In the Illuminatus trilogy, Atlas Shrugged is mocked as Telemachus Sneezed. There was a brief period where he found her interesting, but he quite quickly recognised Ayn Rand for what she was. So you don’t get that strain of libertarianism that has this messianic faith in Ayn Rand liking Robert Anton Wilson. You just get people who are mistrustful of the state, but don’t necessarily believe in the virtue of selfishness like Ayn Rand did, or anything like that. Robert Anton Wilson always used to say that the left’s view of corporations is true, just as the right’s view of the state is true. Multiple model agnosticism is not necessarily a political viewpoint; it sort of hovers above them all and it’s valuable to everyone on the political spectrum, I think.

Very quickly since then there’s been this major revival of interest in Robert Anton Wilson’s work, and also in the whole Discordian thing that grew up around him but also predates him. When did you first become aware that this was happening?

JH: From my perspective it certainly looked as though I was doing this thing and all of these other things were being triggered by it. But it’s probably more true to say that there were all these shoots just waiting under the surface to shoot up as soon as spring came, and they really didn’t need much encouraging. It was always going to resurface. I think his work is so valuable to so many people that somebody had to step up and go hey guys, remember that.

I suppose the Find the Others festival in 2014 was where people realised that something was really happening.

JH: I think it’s like a pearl. A pearl needs a piece of grit in the oyster to form around, and someone like Daisy is a very good piece of grit. When I first met her she was also of the opinion that no-one else was interested in this, so to find someone else who says I get it- I think that’s a lot of the reason why Bill and Jimmy went so far with the KLF, it’s because they had each other to say I get it, I recognise what you’re doing. If it had just been either one of them alone I don’t think it would have got out of hand to the extent that it did. But actually a lot of people were delighted to have an excuse to start talking about Wilson again and start reading him again, and to come together at these festivals and talks and gigs. When me and Daisy first went out doing talks together we really were "let’s go and tell everyone about Robert Anton Wilson." We’re not like that anymore; we don’t need to do that anymore. There’s a conversation going on, and certainly we’ll encourage it in every way we can, but it’s a fire that is happy to burn without us. It’s off and away and we’ll see how it lasts.

Discordianism also provides a great flag for people to rally under without it having to be anything prescriptive. It’s not about having to like a certain kind of music or wear a certain kind of clothes; you can interpret it so many ways precisely because the core tenet is about thinking for yourself, and it embodies the anti-authoritarian stance and creativity that was common to all of the important twentieth century counter-cultural movements. Everything is a lot more disparate now, which is great, but it’s also good to have some kind of freak flag for all these outsiders to rally under.

JH: There are so many ways in, and when you get there it’s just this crazy maze of all these other things that you’re coming across rather than a single thread. I still think that multiple model agnosticism is the jewel at the heart of it, but everything around it is fun, and different bits can be dispensed with if you don’t like them, and you can go off in different directions. Things like the KLF, and its influence on Alan Moore, and the occult side of it. It all spirals out from it and it’s so rich and fertile and full of potential. There are many ways in, and many ways out.

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