The Illuminatus!Trilogy

This is another in an occasional series of short articles exploring the books that influenced me in some way or other during my formative years, and this one, for me, blew open the doors of mind in a way that no other book had done up until the time I discovered it (or has done since, perhaps).

Today’s tome is actually three-in-one, The Illuminatus! Trilogy, written by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, a truly mind-blowing set of books that were, in some ways, the precursors to today’s blockbusters of the order of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, and others of similar ilk. The difference here, however, between the Trilogy and its modern brethren is that it’s actually a rollicking good read, and it also introduced ideas and themes (and narrative structures) that were truly ahead of their time and, to a greater degree than any of the copycat books of later years, captured the zeitgeist of the era.

But let’s start at the beginning shall we?

I was fourteen or fifteen years old, so it would have been about 1977-78 (or thereabouts – my memory is somewhat fuzzy these days) and studying for my O-levels. My good friend Karl (who I am still occasionally in touch with!) lent me the first volume in the trilogy, Eye in the Pyramid, presumably because he thought its oddity and bizarreness would appeal to me. And he was right – it was quite unlike anything I had ever come across, blending as it did conspiracy theories, countercultural themes and occultism with a global battle for world domination involving supposedly long-dead Nazis and secret societies. I then quickly devoured the other two volumes, The Golden Apple and Leviathan. My kind of thing, all told.

So, what happens in it then? I hear you all breathlessly ask.

Well now, there’s a question. It’s a sprawling novel, involving a battle between the Illuminati (founded by Adam Weishaupt and who secretly control the world) and the Discordians, led by the enigmatic Hagbard Celine, who travels around the globe in a golden submarine and funds his enterprise against the controlling secret society by smuggling drugs. Bring in such things as Atlantis and talking porpoises, the Gnomes of Zurich, Cold War confrontations, numerology, rock festivals, masses of drugs, deviant sex, early twentieth century occult societies and philosophies, psychedelic weirdness and mayhem, as well as a conspiracy that intends to give Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis (who have survived into their old age, despite reports to the contrary) eternal life through mass sacrifice (immanentising the eschaton – an event to be instigated at a rock festival in Ingolstadt, Bavaria, by the rock band American Medical Association). And there you have it. Sort of.

That’s grossly over-simplifying things, as it’s far more complex and convoluted than I could ever hope to describe in a short blog post. The Illuminatus! Trilogy (and yes, the exclamation mark is absolutely essential here) is so much more than just a rollercoaster of a thriller in the mould of the Da Vinci Code. It displays a self-awareness and sophistication lacking from later ‘conspiracy thrillers’ (except, perhaps, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum – but then, that was written by a professor of philosophy). It’s self-referential, takes the mickey out of and deconstructs itself, and often employs ‘meta-fictional’ devices, such as the characters themselves coming to a realisation that they aren’t actually real and only have an existence within the confines of the novel they’re in. Narrative viewpoints change constantly, too. It’s a clever book, but it’s never smugly or pretentiously so (as some modern literature has a tendency to do). Extra layers are added in the form of personalities and events from history, effectively mixing fact with fiction in such a way that the reader is left wondering about the plausibility of the whole scenario.

That in itself is very clever, since that’s how many conspiracy theories weave their dangerous magic. By introducing verifiable elements into the narrative (whether conspiracy or fiction novel) , then the reader is always left in some doubt as to whether it could, in fact, be true. This is the device that hooks ‘believers’ into the clutches of many conspiracies in the first place, in other words, the very plausibility of the conspiracy reels them in.

The Trilogy itself was born out of the stream of letters that both Shea and Wilson received whilst they were Associate Editors of Playboy magazine in the late 60s. Rather than throw them away, they decided that it would be more fun to string a narrative together out of them, especially considering that many of the conspiracies shared a lot of the same basic ingredients (a very human trait – seeing patterns where there aren’t any: the human mind is unable to comprehend, or reconcile itself with, chaos). The pair started as early as 1969, at the height of the Flower Power/Counterculture period (which, presumably, is why there are copious drug references and also espousal of ‘free love’). The Trilogy itself didn’t appear until 1975, and only after several rejections and the final publishers asking for 500 pages of it to be cut out (a fact that was cleverly woven into one of the Appendices in the final volume, where ‘paper shortages’ were blamed for the non-appearance of a large chunk of the book).

There have been ‘sequels’ of sorts, all written by Wilson: Masks of the Illuminati, The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles (The Earth Will Shake, The Widow’s Son and Nature’s God), The Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy (The Universe Next Door, The Trick Top Hat and The Homing Pigeons), The Illuminati Papers, and the Cosmic Trigger trilogy – The Final Secret of the Illuminati, Down to Earth and My Life After Death. Wilson had found a rich creative seam, and often used the vehicle to expound his own take on things. Shea, though, never collaborated with Wilson on, or touched the idea of, anything to do with the Illuminati again.

It’s also had an enormous amount of influence in other areas, being turned into an 11-hour stage performance by Ken Campbell’s Science-Fiction Theatre Of Liverpool. There has also been a comic-book adaptation, as well a card game created by Steve Jackson and a role-playing game. It even led to the founding of real Discordianism (including the publication of The Principia Discordia, by Malaclypse the Younger) and The Church of the Subgenius. It’s even provided names and ideas for bands, like the KLF (The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu), Machines of Loving Grace and Mixmaster Morris’ Irresistible Force. And, of course, it gave us a new genre of fiction: the conspiracy thriller.

What did it give me, however? It taught me about possibilities, both in terms of fiction itself and in narrative structures. It essentially freed me from the constraints of the linear storyline and it also showed me that it was okay to be weird, bizarre and screwed up as long as the story was internally consistent. By way of an unintended consequence, it also set me on a path of seeking out those beliefs and streams of thought and media that were termed ‘underground’, ideas that helped to enormously enrich my cultural and philosophical life. I discovered The Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, HP Lovecraft and much else within its pages. It also led me to things like fortean phenomena and underground comix. A great deal of that has gone by the wayside as I have grown older – but what STILL remains from reading the books is a very broad outlook on life and an understanding that what we see on the surface is only a part of what goes on – there are currents bubbling underneath that we’re mostly not party to. History, for instance, isn’t just a series of disconnected dates and discrete events: they were only the results and consequences of actions and currents that happened long before those events took place.

Above all, though, is the fact that it’s a damn fun read and it taught me that much of human activity, however important we may think it is, is just so damn absurd and incredibly pointless sometimes.


3 Responses to “The Illuminatus!Trilogy”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sharon Ring and Sharon Ring, Simon Marshall-Jones. Simon Marshall-Jones said: Today's blog, on a trilogy that greatly influenced me: […]

  2. informative article
    thank you!!

  3. […] when I read The Illuminatus! Trilogy, back when I was a teenager (for details on that book, click here). Bearing in mind my somewhat hazy memory, it mentioned Yog-Sothoth and Great Cthulhu himself […]

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