‘most of the literary intelligentsia still believe in those great dichotomies between the serious and the trivial, high art and low art, and all that bullshit.’ – RAW, 1977 interview, Beyond Chaos & Beyond
Picasso’s “small change” – the little doodles and creative bits and pieces (aka “junk”) that littered his studios – exhibited his genius to the same degree as his “finished” “authentic” artworks, in the view of his friend, Jean Cocteau. That might seem a banal observation these days, when we think of the high monetary value of, say, a scrawled autograph (if it’s from someone famous). But Cocteau knew Picasso back in 1915 – he said those who claimed to like the Spaniard’s art but didn’t notice or appreciate his throwaway fragments (his “small change”, as Cocteau put it*) liked him for the wrong reasons.
On RAW’s “small change” surpassing Big Authors’ Big Denominations
I’ve read numerous widely praised non-fiction books (several from celebrated authors) that contain a few good ideas padded with a lot of fluff. And, to be frank, some of the good ideas look not so great to me over time. But those books and their authors always seemed to receive much more press and attention than Robert Anton Wilson ever did.
When on fire (which seemed often), RAW produced striking insights in every paragraph – not just one or two per book. But those insights, like his books, appeared difficult to categorise and “market” in the way that most respectable publishing houses and mass media like to categorise and pigeonhole. Spanning multi- topics, genres, gestalts and “tones” they seemed – and still seem – inexhaustible as well as uncategorisable (“generalist”? Certainly not specialised).
Déclassé & CROC
RAW mentioned that H.P. Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler influenced him, but that horror and detective stories by most other authors bored him by comparison. He says Lovecraft and Chandler tend to be regarded as “déclassé” (low-class, inferior status) by the intelligentsia, and Bob W. himself probably falls into this category from the perspective of the Custodians of Respectable Official Culture (CROC) who write prominent newspaper reviews and commission successful “mainstream” books and decide what’s important and what isn’t.
But some of the authors that Bob cites, and likes, who could be seen as outré, “outsider” or déclassé, etc (like himself) definitely seem to have risen in status (as ranked by CROC) since RAW wrote about them. A few have even become quite fashionable (Lovecraft, Chandler, Philip K. Dick). The same has happened to some of the ideas RAW promoted – eg Universal Basic Income (or its equivalents) – which at the time got emphatically dismissed as unrealistically utopian or otherwise naive/flaky by most of the Important Expert Commentators that I read.
Despite the vaunted democratization of media by the internet, I generally find that something like CROC very much prevails with things like book sales and whether someone is well-known enough to have popular influence, etc. And a lot of people still seem in awe of celebrity and fame, of course – and maybe, more than ever, confuse those things with merit.
(Incidentally, I recall seeking out a copy of William Gibson’s Neuromancer around 35 years ago – years before Gibson appeared on the “Officially Important Writer” radar, and purely on the basis of Timothy Leary’s enthusiastic raves, which I read in obscure imported US zines, in Forbidden Planet bookshop, London, circa 1986).
RAW’s info-art form?
‘I see this book as a machine to disconnect the user from all maps and models whatsoever.’ – RAW, Right Where You Are Sitting Now
I would tentatively posit a reason why Bob W. never made the Big Time: he presented a new and mostly unrecognised form of combining ideas. Recall that Bob practised bisociation, dissociation of ideas, Dadaist cut-up methods (as popularised by William Burroughs), Edward de Bono’s Po, Sufi and “hermetic” language techniques, E-prime and other General Semantics devices, not to mention several other semantic and cognitive gimmicks and systems, in order to generate new ways of seeing, thinking and communicating.
‘Une maison est une machine-à-habiter’ – Le Corbusier
‘As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.’ – Comte de Lautréamont
Much of RAW’s output looked to me as if his “synthesis” of ideas came structured by something akin to Surrealism or Cubism (or post-Dada astroluxe space jazz… or something). Not the linguistic form (as in Chomsky’s focus) so much as the ideational “content”; not the narratives (fiction or non-fiction), but the structure of conceptual-takes – juxtapositions of genres and belief systems, notions, impressions, observations, metaphors, logical arguments, cosmic ironies and down-to-earth opinions. (It seems that certain other genius writers do something similar in novels – but if you can name anyone else who does the same thing as RAW does with ideas, outside of fiction format, please let me know!).
‘Wilson is a Quantum Leap.’ – Israel Regardie
RAW aficionados and enthusiasts (like me) get excited when a new RAW article or interview (or book – check out The Starseed Signals if you haven’t already) is uncovered and published, because there seems a high probability of new and different insights and aspects. Or unpredictable takes on previously unvisited subjects. Or outstandingly hilarious riffs or jokes we somehow haven’t heard before, etc.
Which, no doubt, is why many of us now miss RAW’s style of commentary on current events (in 2021 or even 2046) – we crave that particular flavour and level of weirdly unpredictable, high-information genius, even when it takes the form of “small change” – disposable one-liners, spontaneous chimerical humour, original capsule reviews (of various books or films, etc) that were probably never destined for the New York Times cultural review section.
Talking of capsule reviews, did you see ‘The Leftovers‘ (HBO series)? I started watching on the basis of its intriguing sci-fi premise – by the middle of the first series (episode 5) it started to lose me, but fortunately I persevered to the next episode, which focused on the ‘Nora Durst’ character, and from then on I found it a sometimes wild, surreal and increasingly gripping drama.
I mention it here as I imagine that – given its themes – it might appeal to some other RAW fans: strange belief systems and cults emerging from reactions to a bizarre global event (that’s the sci-fi premise). And most of the main characters seem to be going a little bit nuts under the strain. You’re not quite sure if you’re seeing “real” alternate realities or just beliefs that have taken too strong a hold on the characters (or whether there “is” any difference). Entertaining TV for these Covid times – although it was produced back in 2014-2017.
* As cited in Picasso: His Life, His Art (edited by Domenico Porzio & Marco Valsecchi, 1979). Cocteau writes, “I keep a cardboard game die that Picasso once cut out and painted. I use it to try people out. Whoever ignores this tiny object and claims to like Picasso does not like him for the right reasons.”
Thanks for this Brian. It needed to be said and I think you’re right regarding “lesser” authors. I see that as down to the publishing process and the particular motivations of those who ultimately have the power to publish and promote, or not. I myself find RAW’s writing of variable quality, and I can see how some people in the publishing industry wouldn’t be bowled over by it. But as you say, when on fire, he was up there with the very best, and no publisher worth their salt should miss that. I also agree with you that the Internet hasn’t changed things as much people think in terms of promotion and mass distribution. Yes, we have instant access to anything, but most people still get their cues on WHAT to go for from conventional sources. Who doesn’t look at reviews from professional newspaper and magazine critics rather than anonymous comments on a forum.
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I know what you mean about the big publishers. I have a few anecdotes (which I’ll write about some time) of occasions when “mainstream” publishers actually contacted me regarding book ideas (usually happens the other way around, and they ignore you!), and what happened when I mentioned my big interest in RAW & Leary. I’m really glad RAW’s book are in the hands of Hilaritas. I think that’s the ideal – publishers that have that connection with the author and deep appreciation of the material.
Regarding promotion & distribution – in the early days of the web, I taught myself web design and programming/designing in Flash (which was then the fashionable technology – since abandoned). The folks I created websites for (mostly small businesses) were under the illusion that as soon as they had a website that appeared on a search engine, they’d be inundated with business. That was one of hardest parts of the job – explaining why they only ever got a handful of hits for their web pages in lieu of big advertising. That’s analagous to the situation for independent “content creators” still.
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The Leftovers is so gd great! Damon Lindelof is a confirmed RAW influenced creator, so those resonances are likely legit :)))
During his last couple years, while teaching his Maybe Logic classes, RAW developed this super terse/compressed writing style, which resulted in numerous casually luminous fragments suchlike:
“All is cloaked in fog;
the world seems empty, until
far off, a gull shrieks.
Actually, the haiku describes an experience
I had and resolutely refuses to generalize
or philosophize about it….Readers, of
course, may generalize/philosofize as
much as they want, at their peril
Ideogramic thought deals with
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I only just finished watching The Leftovers, and wouldn’t have heard about it if my NOW TV trial subscription hadn’t shown it as a viewing suggestion. Totally weird, absorbing and great. Interesting its creator RAW influenced – I will check out further…
I must learn more about the ideogram thing. I love that terse/compressed style. Btw, I don’t recall RAW ever mentioning the Japanese wabi-sabi philosophy, but it’d be interesting to know if he was familiar with it (I’m a fan of Leonard Koren’s book on the subject).
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