Robert Anton Wilson, the Last Great Irish Modernist?

James Joyce and Albert Einstein are drinking in a pub together when a panicked man rushes into the bar. Jimmy, Albert and Sir John Babcock, the man claiming that he’s being pursued by a devil, leave the bar and go to Einstein’s apartment where Babcock recounts the mysterious occurrences that have led him to this point. His narrative is interspersed with questions, observations and pontifications from Joyce and Einstein. This is Masks of the Illuminati, Robert Anton Wilson’s 8th novel.

robert anton wilson masks illuminatiMasks of the Illuminati – Robert Anton Wilson
Dell Trade Paperback – 1981

The story is full of ideas that fans of Wilson will be familiar with, and there are references to half the authors that have been featured on this site. Not only do the names and works of writers like Lovecraft, Wilde, Charles Maturin and Philip Jose Farmer pop up throughout, but the story itself directly borrows from and repeatedly references Robert W. Chamber’s King in Yellow, Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, and Edward Bulwer Lytton’s Vril. Oh, and Aleister Crowley turns out to be behind most of the plot’s mischief, so a basic understanding of his work, life story and personality is probably necessary for readers of this book. I felt pretty cool reading through and patting myself on the back every time I came across a reference that I recognized.

James Joyce is not only one of the main characters in this book; he’s also a huge stylistic influence on the writing. Lots of the people following this blog are probably just here for the Satanism and aliens, and these unfortunates might not have much of a background in Irish modernism, so I’ll just briefly state that James Joyce was a genius writer whose books about life in Dublin city got progressively more mental and complicated as he got older. His final novel, the infamous Finnegan’s Wake, is 600 pages of dense, indecipherable nonsense. (I watched a lecture by RAW on youtube a few years ago in which he described a means of using Finnegan’s Wake as a form of telling the future. Masks of the Illuminati is set pre Ulysses though, so there’s no overt discussion of FW in here.) For most of Masks of the Illuminati, the Joycean influence is mild, and only the sections describing characters’ dreams are truly loopy.

finnegans wake nonsenseI got about 6 pages into Finnegan’s Wake before giving up.

While Joyce is clearly an important influence on the writing of Masks, it’s hard to tell how much of the Joyciness in here is direct Joyciness and how much is Joyciness à la O’Brien. Some might think that Samuel Beckett is the next greatest Irish modernist after Joyce, but for my money, that title goes to Brian O’Nolan, better known as Flann O’Brien. (Beckett worked as a translator for Joyce as he was composing Finnegan’s Wake, and while his own writing was clearly influenced by the avant-garde nature of his master’s, O’Brien’s work is more overtly Dubliny than Beckett’s and so its weirdness is a bit more noticeably Joycean.) While the literary techniques in Joyce’s Ulysses vary from chapter to chapter, At Swim-Two-Birds, O’Brien’s equivalent masterpiece (and crucial companion to Ulysses in my opinion) tells its story through the repeated use of a selection of literary gimmicks.

Nature of gimmicks: various modes of information presentation: notes, poems, lists, etc.

Descriptions of things within the narrative of At Swim are labelled as if they part of a medical or judicial report. In a very similar manner, much of the description of characters and events in Masks of the Illuminati is presented in the form of questions and answers. Several portions of the narrative are also presented in the form of a screenplay. Joyce had done similar things in Ulysses, writing one chapter entirely as question and answers and one as a closet drama, but the way Wilson goes back and forth with these methods throughout the novel instead of keeping them in separate chapters makes his book read more like an O’Brien novel than one of Joyce’s.

That Wilson was a fan of O’Brien is common knowledge. He not only described O’Brien’s The Third Policeman as one of the greatest Irish novels; he also included De Selby, a recurrent character in O’Brien’s work, as a character in some of his own fiction. This recycling of fictional characters is distinctly Flannish; most of the characters in At Swim-Two-Birds are borrowed from other stories due to the narrator/author’s belief that there are already too many characters in the canon of literature.

flann o'brien einstein

So the ways in which Wilson tells his story and chooses his characters are undoubtedly similar to those of O’Brien, but it is his choice of characters that most clearly highlights the Flannish influence on Masks of the Illuminati. James Joyce appeared as an important character in O’Brien’s Dalkey Archive 17 years before Masks was published. Dalkey Archive was also heavily influenced by O’Brien’s interest in Einstein’s work (Alana Gillespie wrote a doctoral thesis addressing this influence), and at one point in the narrative, DeSelby (the character to later appear in Wilson’s fiction) directly critiques Einstein’s theory of relativity. Much like the fnords, Flann O’Brien’s influence on Masks of the Illuminati may not be immediately obvious, but it is present on every page.

I find it hard to imagine enjoying the work of either Joyce or O’Brien without having visited Dublin at least once. That might sound obnoxious, but if you’ve read the books, you’ll know what I mean. Soon after Masks of the Illuminati was published, Wilson and his wife moved to Ireland for six years. He later claimed that, “Dublin, to me, is a James Joyce theme park.”

james joyce statue

In a way it’s slightly ironic that Wilson was so inspired by the likes of Joyce. Ulysses, Joyce’s masterpiece, is a mock-epic. It takes the banal, vulgar events of an ordinary day in Dublin city and fits them into the structure of Homer’s Odyssey while simultaneously threading the narrative through every literary technique imaginable. A huge part of the appeal of Joyce’s writing is his ability to see and depict the fantastic in the ordinary. While Joyce wrote about everyday life, Robert Anton Wilson is most famous for his books about absolutely insane conspiracy theories. I love Robert Anton Wilson, but his approach of using bizarre writing techniques to write about bizarre topics is probably responsible for how relatively unpopular his writing is. He was clearly a very intelligent man with a passion for literature, but his fiction (or at least 4 out of the 5 of his novels that I have read) is remarkably inaccessible. The deliberate esotericism doubtlessly prevents squares from reading his books, but it gets nerdy, Irish weirdoes like me hot, bothered and horny for more.

That being said, I didn’t actually like how this book ended. I get that it’s supposed to be a mental book about mental topics, but the last chapter both goes and stays off the rails for a little too long. Showing a Joycean influence is cool, but going full on Finneganean is a bit embarrassing. The last 30 pages or so felt like watching a modern punk singer trying to pull a GG Allin – watching a copycat punch themself in the face and then roll around in their own feces isn’t shocking or transgressive anymore; it’s just a lad making a smelly mess of himself.

Overall though, Masks of the Illuminati is quite an interesting book. My review has focused on its Irish influences, but there’s lots more to the book. I’m sure that twice as much could be written about the Crowleyean influence and content, but I’ll leave that to somebody else. While Robert Anton Wilson was undeniably an American writer, it’s worth pointing that he spent almost one third the amount of time living in Ireland that James Joyce did, and so I can think that Ireland can take at least partial credit for his genius.

masks of the illuminati robert anton wilson

July 23rd is International Robert Anton Wilson day, so if you haven’t read any of his books, today would be a great time to start. If you’re already a fan, you should check out my RAW day post from last year, a review of his first novel, the Sex Magicians. It’s definitely one of the better posts on this blog.

2 thoughts on “Robert Anton Wilson, the Last Great Irish Modernist?

  1. I had no idea it was International RAW day when I picked up The Illuminati Papers for a re-read jester day. Which is both pleasing synchronicity and amusingly Wilsonian/Joycean autocorrect. Love RAW too, and I’m happier for reading his books, but Joyce remains a mountain to climb. Oddly, while I couldn’t persevere with Ulysses myself, I really enjoyed listening to the audio version.

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