The Illuminatus! Trilogy

The Illuminatus! Trilogy
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

The Illuminatus! Trilogy, “a fairy tale for paranoids,” is a cult classic coauthored by Robert Shea (1933–994) and Robert Anton Wilson (1938–), former editors of Playboy magazine. Intrigue—and lots of sex, drugs, and rock and roll—characterize this psychedelic epic that defies paraphrase.

Thirteen years after its 1975 publication, the 800-page trilogy was the best-selling trade science-fiction paperback in the United States. The novel won the 1986 Prometheus Hall of Fame Award and was adapted into a ten-hour rock opera at London’s National Theatre.

Structure of the Novel

The form and the content of this novel focus on an ancient struggle between anarchy and authority. The Illuminati, a secret society formed on 1 May 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, turns out to be a much older organization, 30,000 years old, originating in Atlantis.

While the Illuminati embodies authoritarian forces linked to a one-world government, readers learn in one of many twists in the novel that this is a false identification; the true Illuminati—known only as A(A(—employs a totally different, laissezfaire (and Taoist) agenda.

The authors employ a conscious strategy of jumbling time and switching points of view with such frequency as to disorient the reader. While these nonlinear techniques are part of a satire on modernism in the novel, they have much deeper significance, enacting anarchy on the level of narrative. These techniques create a certain vicariousness, with the reader’s disorientation mirroring the initiation rites, mind-altering drugs, secret rituals, and webs of deception that make up much of the story line.

The Illuminatus! Trilogy is heavily influenced by the Principia Discordia (1965), a religious treatise on the worship of chaos, by Greg Hill and Kerry Thornley (the latter a companion of Lee Harvey Oswald during his time in the marines). H. P. Lovecraft appears in the novel as a writer murdered by the Illuminati for revealing the existence of extraterrestrial “soul eaters” known as the lloigor.

The Plot

The plot revolves around the decision of the Illuminati to “immanentize the Eschaton”—to annihilate the world in order to release enough consciousness energy to give Illuminati members transcendental illumination or immortality and to placate the lloigors.

The Illuminati stage three attempts at mass destruction: a nuclear world war over the island of Fernando Poo, the release of a plague known as Anthrax Leprosy Pi, and the resurrection of Hitler’s lost legion placed under a biomystical protective field under Lake Totenkopf in Ingolstadt, Bavaria.

The story begins with a New York City bombing in the office of a small, left-wing magazine Confrontation and the disappearance of its coeditor Joseph Malik, who had been researching the Illuminati. Saul Goodman, investigating the case, is captured by the Illuminati but rescued by Malik, who turns out to be working with John Dillinger and characters Simon Moon, Padre Pederastia, and Miss Mao for the Justified Ancients of Mummu (JAMs), a discordian group fighting the Illuminati.

Joining the JAMs in opposition to the Illuminati, Goodman—as part of his enlightenment—learns to perceive fnords, words people are brainwashed not to see, which are inserted in texts to manipulate negative responses.

Meanwhile, George Dorn, a journalist for Confrontation, who is investigating a right-wing assassination ring, is imprisoned in Mad Dog, Texas, where he meets Harry Coin, one of several candidates for the assassination of John F. Kennedy (the real assassin, it turns out, is Harold Canvera, an obscure individual with apolitical motives).

Dorn is rescued by members of the Legion of Dynamic Discord (LDD), another anarchic organization fighting the Illuminati. Hagbard Celine, a charismatic billionaire, heads the LDD; Celine, however, turns out to be one of five leaders of the Illuminati.

Joining the LDD, Dorn visits the ruins of Atlantis, travels the underground Sea of Valusia, meets Howard the talking dolphin, and makes love to two women (Mavis and Stella Maris) who turn out to be versions of the same woman— Marilyn Monroe, who has reached transcendental illumination and can incarnate Eris, the goddess of discord.

The novel moves toward a very literal climax since Eris incarnates herself through the energy released in an explosive mass of orgasms during Woodstock Europa, a rock concert held 1 May 1976. In an apocalyptic parody, the goddess of discord, with assistance from porpoises and many of the major characters in the story, thwarts the Illuminati’s resurrection of Hitler’s lost legion.

Meanwhile, in the Lehman Caves outside Las Vegas, Saul Goodman contains the threat from Anthrax Leprosy Pi, when he finds Carmel, a pimp who is the most important man in the world since he’s the only carrier of the disease. Near the close of the novel, readers encounter the Leviathan, an enormous single-celled sea creature (the true pyramid with the eye) who communicates telepathically with FUCKUP, Celine’s computer.

Thus, starting out as a detective story, the novel becomes science fiction, and finally a love story between a super computer and a sea monster.

Conspiracies in the Novel

The novel refers to many of the major conspiracy theories circulating in post-Watergate America, and it depicts many militant left-wing organizations of the 1960s. The novel also invents conspiracy theories of its own, such as the Washington-Weishaupt theory, in which Adam Weishaupt replaces George Washington on the eve of the formation of the United States.

Summing up their novel, the authors state, “This book, being part of the only serious conspiracy it describes—that is, part of Operation Mindfuck— has programmed the reader in ways that he or she will not understand for a period of months (or perhaps years).” In other words, the reading is not just a description of conspiracy—it is a conspiracy.

Operation Mindfuck in the novel is anarchic, a discordian strategy. So how, without contradiction, can these authors program readers to be anarchists? The answer lies in the form of programming, whose goal, like that of a computer virus, is to disrupt a system.

Politically speaking, disruption is revolution when the objective is to overthrow a form of government or way of life. In this way the effect of reading the novel compares with a political act involving the subversion of cherished norms in the West—logical consistency, the sequence of time, the social order, and, of course, objective “reality.”