On Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy

John Fischer

I first came into possession of The Illuminatus! Trilogy, in its staggering 805-page glory, at a hobby shop in central Long Island. This was during my middle school years, when a weekend playing “tabletop strategy games” and eating cold pizza seemed like the ideal use of my time. The hobby shop, Men at Arms, attracted what I now understand to be a kind of nerd paramilitary crowd: men in cargo pants who knew the unreported details of the Oklahoma City bombing and the effective range of 5.56 mm ammunition. Larry, an old British goth in a leather trench coat, lent me a copy of The Illuminatus! Trilogy in return for the promise that I not tell anyone, lest he be charged with corrupting a minor. But at fourteen, I didn’t know what to make of the book, so I mostly thumbed through the sex scenes and returned it to Larry a month later.

Reading The Illuminatus! Trilogy as an adult, as I did late last year, was a kind of revelation. The book—which is actually three smaller volumes mashed together into a single text—defies description. It was, according to authors Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, conceived in the late 1960s during their tenure as associate editors of Playboy magazine’s Forum, a section devoted to reader correspondence on the subject of civil liberties. Shea and Wilson received a near-steady stream of “paranoid rantings from people imagining totally baroque conspiracies.” At some point, the duo decided to write a novel that would consider what might happen if every possible conspiracy theory was not only real but also interconnected.

The resultant saga has been described by Wilson as an exercise in “guerilla ontology.” It is nominally about a millennia-old conflict between the global Illuminati that secretly controls world governments, and the Discordian Society, an Eris-worshiping chaos religion. To Shea and Wilson’s credit, both factions draw as much on historical reference as they do on surrealist fantasy. The true identities of the Illuminati are wrapped in a series of guises specific enough to evoke plausibility: the Freemasons, the Founding Fathers, the Nazis, the mafia, the CIA. Likewise the trilogy’s Discordians are drawn from an actual pseudo-religion of the same name that was founded in the early 1960s as something halfway between a prank and an LSD-inflected riff on Zen Buddhism, and with which Wilson was loosely associated.

It’s hard not to marvel at the way The Illuminatus! Trilogy savages the concept of believability. Despite its remarkable depth of research, the trilogy refuses to distinguish between the credible and the credulous. Over the course of its wanderings, it presents a still-living John Dillinger (in hiding under an assumed identity), the lost continent of Atlantis, a talking dolphin, a battalion of hibernating Nazis, and a rakish proto-libertarian submarine captain named Hagbard Celine, who periodically makes reference to an Ayn Rand–satire text entitled “Telemachus Sneezed” while simultaneously expounding upon the value of free will and drug use. Moreover, The Illuminatus! Trilogy is written in a compositional style not unlike an exquisite corpse. Point of view, tenses, and even characters’ identities shift midscene where Shea and Wilson have traded the manuscript back and forth, one-upping each other with ever more ridiculous scenarios.

If the style of The Illuminatus! Trilogy tends toward the aggressively postmodern, its underlying message is more straightforward. In knotting conspiracy and truth into a serpent with neither head nor tail, the book says more about the state of America in the late 1960s than it does about the secrets with which it claims to be concerned. Below its surface are clearer markers of implication—a pivotal scene set amid the 1968 Democratic convention riots; an obsessive returning to the JFK assassination; an implication of organized religion as fraudulent and hollow; a contemplation of uninhibited sex, psychedelic drugs, and their subversive power. It is, in its way, a remarkable record of the country’s collective fears during a period of unprecedented social and political upheaval. When the Discordian Hagbard Celine is asked to describe the Illuminati’s agenda, he offers a tellingly specific list: “Universal electronic surveillance. No-knock laws. Stop and frisk laws. Government inspection of first-class mail. Automatic fingerprinting, photographing, blood tests, and urinanalysis of any person arrested before he is charged with a crime. A law making it unlawful to resist even unlawful arrest.” It is perhaps no surprise then that The Illuminatus! Trilogy makes more than a passing nod to Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, the other massive 1970s tome that attempted to wring similar metaphysical meaning from America’s Vietnam-era cultural schizophrenia.

So it’s strange to read The Illuminatus! Trilogy at a time when real people suspect Hillary Clinton of being a witch, and of running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a DC pizza restaurant. Alex Jones, incendiary founder of the alt-right darling Infowars, has previously accused the government of staging the Sandy Hook shooting with paid actors, and connected 9/11 to the JFK assassination, all at the behest of the very same global Illuminati parodied in the book. The polarity of our suspicion seems to have reversed, no longer a spiritual conflict between brave psychonauts and their FBI bogeymen, but more of an internet-powered search for scapegoats in an age of diminishing expectations. Around the world, progressive thought faces a dual assault from plutocrats for whom it is a financial inconvenience and nationalists for whom it is an easy villain. In May of this year, Jones was granted a White House press pass, while the angry white men who appear in the background of every Trump rally look increasingly like those long-ago tabletop war gamers from Men at Arms.

If the lunatics are now truly running the asylum, then Shea and Wilson have been warning us for a great many years not just of their potential rise, but of how effective their fantasies of persecution would prove to the ruling class. When every conspiracy is true, anyone is entitled to be a victim. There is little practical difference between cries of “fake news” and the possibility of a lost Nazi battalion hibernating beneath the fictitious Lake Totenkopf. Paranoia claims no political allegiance, only emotional expediency; if Obama is a secret Muslim, then so much the better to distract from the calamity of a lost job or a shuttered factory or a staggering medical bill. In the meantime, our leaders continue to bomb the Middle East with automated flying robots and monitor citizens through glossy thousand-dollar mobile phones, and The Illuminatus! Trilogy seems to understand this, even some forty years after its publication. As it turns out, the conspiracy that runs deepest is the one that we can all plainly see.

John Fischer is a writer currently living in Brooklyn. His essays have appeared in the AtlanticGuernica, the Sun, and elsewhere.