Thursday, 19 April 2012

Imagination and Robert Anton Wilson

Honestly, I could write an entire set of entries on either of these subjects. Robert Anton Wilson, as a writer and thinker, heavily influenced the direction of my adult life. As for imagination, well mine looms large in my daily life (as, I suspect, it does for most people) and I rely on it for everything I create. However today I will be talking about both of these subjects as they relate to the shape of the world we live in, specifically the choice which we have about that shape. I will also, hopefully, relate this all back to last week's entry on magik, explaining its significance in that context.

Before I really get into it, I should probably explain about this Mr Wilson (or RAW) person. I worry about this, because a lot of what he did, being involved in the psychedelic movement, being a voice of the counter culture, writing for playboy, are activities which are easy to pigeonhole. What ou really need to know is that most importantly to me and this entry, RAW was a thinker and practitioner of ideas, ideas possessed of a stunning clarity, energy and common sense. Through reading his, I suppose you would call them instructional, books, I found new ways to think and look at the world.

One of these ideas of his, which still clearly resonates with me, deals with the different perspectives which people have. That when it comes to seeing the world there is no absolute right or wrong, that every time you limit yourself to one particular point of view you make gains in understanding in some areas at the cost of losing large tracts of other possible understandings. For instance a pro-life advocate may see a woman getting an abortion as being evil and clearly wrong, but at the same time, they may find through this point of view, a deeper and more poignant appreciation of every baby.

The example which RAW gives is that, in the midst of various arguments with Catholics in his daily life, he decided to choose to believe like a Catholic for a week. That is, he took all the precedents and precepts of the faith (well known to him from his childhood) and as much as possible let himself trust in them. He talks about how great the comfort this offered him in some areas was, and how great the sense of resentment he felt against those who disagreed with him.*

The idea that leapt out at me from this was not how to better sympathise with and understand Catholics, but rather that it is possible to choose the beliefs which we carry with us in our daily life and that, in doing so, we can change how we feel about and react to the world.

There is a particular example where I applied this new knowledge, but in order to understand it, you first need to know that for a long time (and perhaps even today) the main metric against which I judged myself and other people was intelligence. The reasons sense behind this are unimportant except that I recognised, albeit vaguely, that this was a limiting perspective on the world and, with this in mind, I set out to change it.

The solution I created was called, fairly unimaginatively, 'the clever stupid game'. Every day I alternated between choosing to believe that everyone around me was so much smarter than I was that they could easily out think me, or that the opposite was true (and I was a genius among fools). Playing this game taught me a number of valuable lessons.

The first thing it taught me was just how easy it is to play. My every day interactions with people are so fluid and often unclear that I found it quite simple to think both “oh they did that because they wanted to manipulate me into doing something I cant even guess at” or “oh they did this because they just don't understand what I'm saying at the level I'm saying it”. Honestly one of the first things I learnt once I was looking for it, is that both of these things are quite often true. I was surprised how often other people misunderstood me and carried on blithely and, equally, how regularly the entire thread of a conversation was lost to me.

The second thing I learnt was quite how quickly taking a stance like this effects how you act. If I was considering myself as stupider than all those around me, then I would be a lot freer and less careful, figuring it was up to them to sort it out if I got confused. Equally when I was taking the other stance then I was quieter, attempting to take more of a guiding role in conversations, helping others out when they weren't understanding one another. Both of these points of view even at times carried over into other parts of my life affecting how I thought about myself even when I was on my own.

I also discovered that creating a lie like this, then forcing yourself to live it is quite fun, as I had to constantly find ways to sidestep or reinterpret any information which contradicted it. However this realisation actually led to me stopping, because I saw that, even when I was taking myself as the dumb one, the effort involved in maintaining this illusion allowed me to, at the back of my mind, still think of myself as being devilishly clever (who else could fool themselves so adeptly). In effect, the experiment which started to alter my intellect based world view, had ended up reinforcing it. **

That experiment is a good example of what was, in many ways, a more purely imagination based magik (though it is a bit of a stretch to call it that). However what I learnt was really the impermanence of the world around us. Firstly, in that, there are a huge number of perspectives on the world and, while some are more sensible than others, each of them serves a function and it's hard to say any of them are entirely right or entirely wrong. Secondly, that we are all capable of making an active choice about how we view the world around us. That, even without fully believing it, I found it surprisingly easy to tell myself a lie which carried effects in every area of my life. Finally, it gave me a greater understanding of all the people I disagree with and an awareness that really, I can argue with them about how I see them as wrong, or I can find the, still very large, areas of common ground which we share and try to meet them there instead (I'm not really advocating an end to arguments, those are fun, but perhaps an end to the kind of arguments which teach neither participant anything except how wrong the other is).

It should be clear then, how this whole idea shapes my approach to magik. If I accept that I have a full range of choices about what world I live in, that I can if I like see angels and demons on every corner, then the question becomes not: 'is it wrong to believe that?', but 'would it be fun to believe?' or perhaps, 'would it be helpful?'. I fully realise that things aren't quite a mutable as I am making out here, that some people's believes or feelings are too deeply rooted for them to just tell themselves that it is not so, however for me, that is really where the magik comes in.

*[Perhaps this is purely laziness, but for the purposes of this entry I chose not to check any of these details. This was actually a conscious choice, because what I'm talking about here is not specifically what RAW believed or did, but what I took from his ideas and how they fermented in my own head. I hope the educated reader will realise what I'm describing is only a small subset of his beliefs and be motivated to go and find their own interpretation of his point of view on this and other matters]

**[I'm sure you can see that, in many ways, this was inevitable. After all I set out to dispel the importance of a particular value with an experiment which specifically made that value the most significant thing in all my interactions. In later versions of this game I tried different tactics (choosing to value physical or emotional intelligence above all else, for instance)]


  1. You write well. Stumbled upon your jewels of wisdom by pure chance. Noticed you spend time in Edinburgh. Not from there, but The Incredible String Band were. Worth a listen. Thank you for taking the time and trouble to put this blog together. May you live in interesting times (I'm sure you do). gluck

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I hadn't heard of them before, but Psychedelic folk sounds like an interesting mix so I'll check them out. May you ever see the Fnords.

    2. Hello again. Today, I met a young man from Edinburgh in a small town in Limerick, Ireland. Seemed like a cool guy, later discovered from his band info that his name was Adam. Just checking that no mad coincidence is at hand?

    3. Sadly no that was not me, I would love to be exploring my way around Ireland but the world currently has other plans for me.