June 11th, 2014
There are various things that are crucial to understanding Dave Sim’s work, but which the essays on the phonebooks themselves won’t give me enough time to discuss. So after every two phonebooks we cover, I’m going to take time out to look at these subjects. The plan as of this writing is that there will be essays on Oscar Wilde, Sandman, Sim’s misogyny, Warner Brothers cartoons, the self-publishing field in the 80s and 90s, and the documentary hypothesis of the writing of the Old Testament.
And this, Illuminatus!
For those who don’t know, Illuminatus! is a science fiction novel written by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Part political satire, part Pynchon-esque postmodernism, it’s one of those books that has influenced culture far more than it’s been read. Just off the top of my head, modern Libertarianism, post-Moore superhero comics, the Free Software and Open Source movements, 80s house music, the Da Vinci Code, David Icke, chaos magick, and cyberpunk would all, if they had existed at all, have been wildly different if Illuminatus! hadn’t been published.
So it’s a mixed bag when it comes to influence — it’s caused Tammy Wynette to end up on Top Of The Pops singing about ice cream vans, but also an ex-goalkeeper to travel the world trying to convince people that Kris Kristofferson is a blood-drinking lizard.
The reason for this is that Illuminatus! was designed with a specific effect in mind — to change readers’ ways of thinking. The book’s plot basically involves treating every conspiracy theory ever, no matter how ridiculous, as true. Wilson and Shea knew a lot about conspiracy theories, having worked on the (non-porn) letters page for Playboy, where they were required to choose letters more for entertainment value than for any connection to the real world evident in their authors.
As a result, Illuminatus! includes arguments that there is a scary synchronicity attached to the number 23, that John Dillinger assassinated Kennedy, that hippies were descended from the people of Atlantis, and that Adam Weishaupt, the leader of the Bavarian Illuminati, had assassinated George Washington and taken his place as President of the US.
Anyone reading Cerebus will notice the recurrent 23s throughout the series, and President Weishaupt (who looks like Washington), who turned up in the first phonebook, will soon become a major character. But more importantly, Sim took the idea of multiple conspiracies, all working against each other in unpredictable ways, and built his whole story structure around it.
The conflicting conspiracy theories in Illuminatus! were partly a political statement by Wilson, who was an anarchist (Shea was a more conventional leftist at the time) and knew enough about cybernetics to know that the world showed all the signs of being run by several competing groups of incompetents rather than one all-powerful group, but there was another reason for them.
Wilson, in particular, was an adherent of Aleister Crowley’s maxim “Doubt. Doubt Thyself. Doubt even if thou doubtest thyself. Doubt all Doubt even if thou doubtest all.” and wanted to instill a healthy scepticism in his readers. Illuminatus! was intended as a work that would cause a certain amount of ontological meltdown in dogmatists, and to do this Wilson and Shea mixed fact and fiction in ways that could seem cruel if they weren’t so funny. A chain of links between well-known real events would be created, with one utterly plausible (but utterly wrong) link that would lead to a completely false conclusion.
On the other hand, an utterly bizarre-sounding part of the book that might seem totally fictional would be based on truth, so that a reader who had dismissed it might, on coming across the fact years later, end up wondering what else was true. “If George Washington really did write that letter about separating the male and female hemp, maybe H.P. Lovecraft really was writing about real occultism!” or “If those really were Dutch Schultz’s last words, maybe Dillinger did escape!”
For many readers, nineteen-year-old me included, this had precisely the intended effect, leading them to be more open-minded, less dogmatic, and generally more aware of the absurdity of life. I’m a rather better person for having read Illuminatus! than I otherwise would be, and the same goes for many others.
But a lot of the readers of Illuminatus! were not dogmatists. A lot of them were hippie New Agers, who as a class have two characteristics that don’t go together well with the particular brand of ontological confusion promoted by Illuminatus! — they are more gullible than average, and they smoke an awful lot of dope.
This last is the salient point. One of the things that cannabis seems to do is to increase the pattern-matching aspects of the brain. It seems to create a kind of pareidola, so people start seeing patterns in unconnected events. This is why cannabis can increase people’s creativity, but it’s also why people on cannabis can sometimes seem paranoid. And it’s why when taken too often for too long, cannabis can cause psychosis.
Illuminatus is meant to act, in a sense, as a mental vaccination, triggering your scepticism and causing you to question everything. But for people immersed in a subculture that prized open minds above all else, and smoking a lot of cannabis, telling them “you see that pattern you’ve seen? It’s part of a bigger pattern, which in turn is part of an even bigger pattern, which in turn…” made Illuminatus! into almost an autoimmune disease of the mind, turning their scepticism against itself and destroying it.
Letting people see the fnords is a good thing. Making them think everything’s a fnord isn’t. And Dave Sim, as the public record shows, is someone who smoked copious amounts of dope every day for roughly twenty years, and who was hugely inspired by Illuminatus! — both Cerebus’ structure, and the structure of the personal philosophy that Sim was to develop over the next few decades, bear the fingerprints of Illuminatus!‘ authors all over them.