Sunday, January 21, 2007

I Have Seen The Fnords

Robert Anton Wilson
"Let your spirit dance!"

I was having this dream. It was one of those deeply irritating, frustrating dreams in which everything is wrong somehow.

There was a baby in a bag on the floor, crying. I wanted to find the “owner” of the baby: the person who was responsible for it. I picked up the baby and the baby started pissing. He was pissing all over the floor. I located the responsible person and confronted him. He was this fat loser, unshaved and dishevelled-looking, standing limply in a corner. I was trying to hand the baby over, but the fat loser refused to accept responsibility. Then he loomed up very close to my face and was grinning like an idiot.

Meanwhile I was leaning on the banister of the stairs, but I could feel the floor beneath me giving way. Afterwards I was trying to clean up. The place was a horrible mess. There were piles of filth everywhere. Filthy rags soaked in grease. I was washing up, but people were getting in my way, trying to make dinner. They were making this “healthy” meal amidst all the piles of grease and slime. Eventually I confronted one of them.. I was shouting at him. I was very angry. He is a person I know. I used to be friends with him but we have fallen out. There is a long history between us.

He used to live in this town but has since moved away. When he comes here I always hear from a third person that he is here. “Guess who is sitting in the Labour Club with a pint?” she says.

In the dream that’s what I was shouting about. I went up very close to his face and shouted: “you never tell me you are here. I always have to hear it from someone else. Why don’t you let me know you are here?”

After that I woke up. I was seething with an unaccountable anger. It made no sense. I mean: I was angry at a person I was no longer friends with for not telling me he was in town.

Why should I be angry? Why should I even care? It's not like he was a friend of mine. But it was obvious from the dream that I did care. From the dream it was obvious that if he told me he was in town once in a while, maybe we would still be friends.

My first thought was, “That was a fnord. I have seen the fnords.”

What are “the fnords” you ask?

They are nothing. “Fnord” is a nonsense word. It means nothing at all.

Wikipedia defines it as “the typographic representation of disinformation or irrelevant information intending to misdirect, with the implication of a conspiracy”.

The word was first used in a book called the Principia Discordia by Kerry Thornley and Greg Hill, also known as Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst and Malaclypse the Younger. Later it was picked up by the writers Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in the cult Sci-Fi novel, The Illuminatus! Trilogy.

In The Illuminatus! Trilogy the word is used as part of a conspiracy to create unease in the population. From an early age we are taught not to see the fnords. We are conditioned by subtle electronic means not to see the word. And then, when the secret rulers of the world – the so-called “Illuminati” - want us to feel uneasy, or to undermine a particular point of view, they add the word to the text of the newspaper or magazine article. So we see the word but don’t see it. We don’t allow ourselves to see it. It doesn’t exist.

My anger in the dream was a form of this. It was an anger I wouldn’t allow myself to feel: the anger of my sense of betrayal by someone who used to be a friend. Instead of feeling it I pretended indifference. But the dream revealed it. In the dream I was truly angry. The reason I idendified it as a fnord is that it was a hidden anger, and symtomatic of all the anger I feel about everything that pisses me off in the world. All that garbage. All that fractious irritation. All those piles of slime and filth.

This was clarified for me by an I-Ching reading I did later that day.

I got hexagram 57, Sun, The Gentle, Penetrating.

Nine in the second place means:
Penetration under the bed.

Priests and magicians are used in great number.
Good fortune. No blame.

At times one has to deal with hidden enemies, intangible influences that slink into dark corners and from this hiding affect people by suggestion. In instances like this, it is necessary to trace these things back to the most secret recesses, in order to determine the nature of the influences to be dealt with. This is the task of the priests; removing the influences is the task of the magicians. The very anonymity of such plotting requires an especially vigorous and indefatigable effort, but this is well worth while. For when such elusive influences are brought into the light and branded, they lose their power over people.

That is the best description of the fnords I have ever read. "Penetration under the bed".

A friend of mine who lives abroad told me that she was on a tube train during a recent visit to the UK. She said an Asian man with a rucksack got on, and the tension in the carriage visibly mounted. Everyone was looking at him. Everyone was suspicious of him.

“It is this damn war on terror,” she said. "You can't get away from it." She said she felt the tension too, despite the fact that she knew that the man was most likely innocent. She said she felt afraid of him too.

The war on terror is a fnord. "Disinformation... intending to misdirect." The word "terror" is applied in the news with dreary regularity, until we forget what it means, until it is absorbed unconsciously, and becomes part of the backdrop of our daily lives.

This is how the fnords are described in The Illuminatus! Trilogy:

Then I saw the fnords.

The feature story involved another of the endless squabbles between Russia and the U.S. in the UN General Assembly, and after each direct quote from the Russian delegate I read a quite distinct "Fnord!'' The second lead was about a debate in congress on getting the troops out of Costa Rica; every argument presented by Senator Bacon was followed by another "Fnord!'' At the bottom of the page was a Times depth-type study of the growing pollution problem and the increasing use of gas masks among New Yorkers; the most distressing chemical facts were interpolated with more "Fnords.''

Suddenly I saw Hagbard's eyes burning into me and heard his voice: "Your heart will remain calm. Your adrenalin gland will remain calm. Calm, all-over calm. You will not panic. you will look at the fnord and see it. You will not evade it or black it out. you will stay calm and face it.'' And further back, way back: my first-grade teacher writing FNORD on the blackboard, while a wheel with a spiral design turned and turned on his desk, turned and turned, and his voice droned on, IF YOU DON'T SEE THE FNORD IT CAN'T EAT YOU, DON'T SEE THE FNORD, DON'T SEE THE FNORD . . .

I looked back at the paper and still saw the fnords. This was one step beyond Pavlov, I realized. The first conditioned reflex was to experience the panic reaction (the activation syndrome, it's technically called) whenever encountering the word "fnord.'' The second conditioned reflex was to black out what happened, including the word itself, and just to feel a general low-grade emergency without knowing why. And the third step, of course, was to attribute this anxiety to the news stories, which were bad enough in themselves anyway. Of course, the essence of control is fear. The fnords produced a whole population walking around in chronic low-grade emergency, tormented by ulcers, dizzy spells, nightmares, heart palpitations and all the other symptoms of too much adrenalin. All my left-wing arrogance and contempt for my countrymen melted, and I felt a genuine pity. No wonder the poor bastards believe anything they're told, walk through pollution and overcrowding without complaining, watch their son hauled off to endless wars and butchered, never protest, never fight back, never show much happiness or eroticism or curiosity or normal human emotion, live with perpetual tunnel vision, walk past a slum without seeing either the human misery it contains or the potential threat it poses to their security . . .

Then I got a hunch, and turned quickly to the advertisements. it was as I expected: no fnords. That was part of the gimmick, too: only in consumption, endless consumption, could they escape the amorphous threat of the invisible fnords. I kept thinking about it on my way to the office. If I pointed out a fnord to somebody who hadn't been deconditioned, as Hagbard deconditioned me, what would he or she say? They'd probably read the word before or after it. "No this word,'' I'd say. And they would again read an adjacent word. But would their panic level rise as the threat came closer to consciousness? I preferred not to try the experiment; it might have ended with a psychotic fugue in the subject. The conditioning, after all, went back to grade school. No wonder we all hate those teachers so much: we have a dim, masked memory of what they've done to us in converting us into good and faithful servants for the Illuminati.

In the book the fnords are nonsense words inserted into the text of newspapers and magazines which we are taught not to see but which create a sense of unease. More broadly, they are unconscious, hidden or invisible forces, directing us (or misdirecting us) in certain ways.

Examples of fnords might be: God, bigotry, patriotism, wealth, greed or hatred.

I must admit to not liking the book. I personally wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a huge, sprawling, hardly comprehensible work, with a constantly changing narrative - sometimes written in the first person, sometimes in the third - shifting from one point-of-view to the next in the space of a paragraph or halfway through a sentence. Rolling Stone magazine described it as “the longest shaggy dog joke in literary history”.

It was first published in 1975, written by two Playboy editors at the time, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. The basic premise of the book is that every conspiracy theory is literally true. It soon became a sort of bible for the New Age Traveler movement of the late seventies and early eighties. There were five requirements for a New Age Traveler: unlaced paratrooper boots, a dog on a string, dreadlocks, dirt and a copy of the Illuminatus! trilogy. Only the last was mandatory.

Later Robert Anton Wilson went on to write a number of mischievous, funny, irreverent works of non-fiction, including Cosmic Trigger, Prometheus Rising and Quantum Psychology.

These books are definitely worth reading. They explore the interface between politics, spirituality, science, art and psychology. Is there such an interface? Of course not, which is why it is worth exploring. They are deliberately anarchic, wildly funny, darkly conspiratorial and amongst the best books to have been written in the 20th century. It’s only odd that the name “Robert Anton Wilson” isn’t more widely known.

I predict that one day it will be.

Every rebellious teenager should be told not to read him, thus ensuring that they do.

In a 2003 interview with High Times magazine, he called himself a "Model Agnostic”. This, he says, "consists of never regarding any model or map of the universe with total 100% belief or total 100% denial.... I put things in probabilities, not absolutes... My only originality lies in applying this zetetic attitude outside the hardest of the hard sciences, physics, to softer sciences and then to non-sciences like politics, ideology, jury verdicts and, of course, conspiracy theory." More simply, he claims "not to believe anything," since "belief is the death of intelligence." He described this approach as "Maybe Logic."

Maybe Logic is also the name of a film made about him.

Here are some lines from the film: "Dogs see grass differently," he says. "You need the human brain and the grass hitched together to make the yoga which we call The Greenness of the Grass. Everybody thinks it's very hard to be a mystic. Gotta go through a hell of a lot of effort to realise your union with everything. Actually you are experiencing your union with everything all the time, otherwise you wouldn't be experiencing anything."

He said that the greatest conspiracy in the world was the conspiracy of the stupid.

In an entry in his blog about three years ago he wrote:

I don't believe anything, but I have many suspicions. I strongly suspect that a world "external to," or at least independent of, my senses exists in some sense. I also suspect that this world shows signs of intelligent design, and I suspect that such intelligence acts via feedback from all parts to all parts and without centralized sovereignty, like the Internet; and that it does not function hierarchically, in the style an Oriental despotism, an American corporation or Christian theology. I somewhat suspect that Theism and Atheism both fail to account for such decentralized intelligence, rich in circular-causal feedback. I more-than-half suspect that all "good" writing, or all prose and poetry that one wants to read more than once, proceeds from a kind of "alteration in consciousness," i.e. a kind of controlled schizophrenia. [Don't become alarmed -- I think good acting comes from the same place.] I sometimes suspect that what Blake called Poetic Imagination expresses this exact thought in the language of his age, and that visits by "angels" and "gods" states it an even more archaic argot. These suspicions have grown over 72 years, but as a rather slow and stupid fellow I do not have the chutzpah to proclaim any of them as certitudes. Give me another 72 years and maybe I'll arrive at firmer conclusions.

He never managed another 72 years. In fact he managed barely three.

Robert Anton Wilson died on the 11th January this year, just a few days shy of his seventy fifth year on this planet.

He was a great writer.

In an imaginary phone call to the Marquis de Sade* he asked: "Jesus told me that he and you agree on at least one thing and it explains freedom. What is that one thing?"

"Quite simple," replied the Marquis, "don't be afraid of the Cross. The fear of death is the beginning of slavery."

His last written words were these, on the 6th of January, five days before his death: "Various medical authorities swarm in and out of here predicting I have between two days and two months to live. I think they are guessing. I remain cheerful and unimpressed. I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying. Please pardon my levity, I don't see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd."

In The Illuminatus! he reflected on death in the following words:

If there were no death, there would be no sex. If there were no sex, there would be no death. And without sex, there would be no evolution towards intelligence, no human race. Therefore death is necessary. Death is the price of orgasm.”

As for whether we think the price is worth paying or not, I suspect that Robert Anton Wilson at least would have replied in the affirmative.

Is it worth it? Is death a price worth paying for the joy of a few good mutual orgasms?

Of course it is.

Maybe death is the final fnord.


Robert Anton Wilson essays:


1 comment:

John M. said...

Thanks you Bob, for all your wit and wisdom - you were the person to show me that 'reality' is plural, mutable & relative. My current way of looking at, and thinking about the world, I can put down to your talks and books, and for that I'll always owe you a huge debt. See you on the next level, my friend.
(Thanks for the kind article on the great man, CJS.)