FAREWELL, ROBERT ANTON WILSON
You'll be missed (2007)


Robert Anton Wilson, author, futurist, guerrilla ontologist, libertarian and "standup philosopher," flew the coop this month after a lengthy illness. He was 74.

The first time I saw RAW in action, speaking from a dais at a conference at Port Townsend, Washington, I couldn't get over the size of his head. It looked liked a goateed planetoid, big enough for its own weather system. The speakers sitting next to this wisecracking, garrulous Gulliver looked Lilliputian in comparison.

Wilson certainly had a lot crammed into that cranium. His eclectic interests included quantum physics, Sufism, neurolinguistic programming and the philosophy of semanticist Alfred Korzybski. He wove his influences into a philosophy uniquely his own, in which his supple, humourous prose played lightly over a steady intellectual bass line. He was the funniest intellectual I've ever read.

Over the space of four decades, Wilson authored 35 books of fiction and nonfiction. His writings knocked superlatives like sparks from other authors. "Wilson managed to reverse every polarity in me, as if I had been pulled through infinity," wrote sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, who added, "I was astonished and delighted."
New Scientist magazine asked, "What great physicist lurks behind the mask of Wilson?" Novelist Tom Robbins described the author as "a dazzling barker hawking tickets to the most thrilling tilt-a-whirls and daring loop-o-planes on the midway of higher consciousness."

Of the many obituaries written this month, Paul Mathers at getunderground.com summed Wilson and his work best in one brief sentence. "Dude was all over the map and drew up some new ones."

RAW called himself a "model agnostic," which meant he entertained various models of reality without wholly subscribing to any of them. By flipping back and forth from one viewpoint to another, the author tried to shake the reader out of dependence on his or her conditioned belief systems. "Certitude belongs exclusively to those who only own one encyclopedia," he reportedly insisted.

He was a radical skeptic, believing in nothing with finality, making him a remarkable combination of rationalist and mystic. His doubt extended into everything, from his homeland to civilization itself. "Every war results from the struggle for markets and spheres of influence, and every war is sold to the public by professional liars and totally sincere religious maniacs, as a Holy Crusade to save God and Goodness from Satan and Evil."

The author had no time for absolute convictions--but that wouldn't stop him from making bald statements, until you realized his whole gig was about getting people to question their own. "I think the best thing for the Middle East would be an outbreak of atheism," he said to me in his gravelly Brooklyn accent, when I sat down to interview him several years ago. By that time Wilson's postpolio syndrome was full-blown. He was in a wheelchair, reduced from what he called a "standup philosopher" to a "sit-down philosopher." But he stilled looked wiser than a tree full of owls, and as he talked at length about the predations of Bush politics, and his fight for medicinal marijuana, he radiated a kind of equanimity and mirthful grace in the face of his declining health.

Sitting across from him at Victoria's Empress Hotel, I marveled at how Wilson's head, which looked so abnormally large only a short time earlier on stage, up close looked no bigger than your average noodle. I was caught between choosing between two Wilson-style "reality tunnels." Was it a trick of the stagelight, caroming off his polished dome? Or did the man generate a reality distortion field when he got on stage? Things certainly got interesting when he wheeled out to speak. I watched him reduce his large Victoria audience to gales of helpless laughter, a pretty impressive feat for any public intellectual. (Imagine such a thing from Canada's pompous brainiacs--Rex Murphy, Michael Ignatieff, et al.)

Astoundingly, this author of dozens of acclaimed works never found a major publisher for his nonfiction. Toward the end of his life, spiralling medical costs had depleted his finances, putting him in the position of being unable to pay his rent. Author Douglas Rushkoff, bless him, set off on an Internet campaign, and fans from around the world quickly responded with tens of thousands of dollars in PayPal donations. The radical skeptic had one thing to believe in entirely in his final days--how much people who only knew him from his work cared for him.

Wilson decreed in his will that upon his death his body be cremated and the ashes thrown in the face of Jerry Falwell. There will be wakes/memoriams for Wilson in cities across North America on Feb. 18.