Heute die Welt: The Illuminatus! Trilogy
There are books and there are books.
There are books that you love; books that you read over and over again; books that mean things to you. And then there are the books that change how you see the world forever. For me, Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World is one, The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to Galaxy is another, but Illuminatus! is very definitely in that very special little group of books that has affected me in a profound way(1).
One of the key things to remember about the Illuminatus! Trilogy is that it started life as a running in-joke between two writers, Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson, working for Playboy in the 1970s. It was a gag taking in all the major conspiracy theories of the time, and building on earlier publications, including the Principia Discordia. Conspiracy theories were hugely pervasive in American culture during this period(2) – remember that this was the time of Watergate, Cold War paranoia , the tail end of the Vietnam War, and a degree of insecurity in the American psyche that hadn’t been witnessed for very many years. This was the world the first volume emerged into in 1975, and it’s probably the main reason we have now the idea of the Illuminati so embedded into popular culture as a byword for shadow organisations with ghostly hands, pulling invisible strings. And it is pretty much the last word in seventies sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll books because it’s full to bursting with all three. It’s also one of the small pool of books that are quite likely to be truly unfilmable for several reasons, even though Ken Campbell’s infamous adaptation of the series was well-received at the time.
The story begins in what looks like traditional thriller fashion, with a New York detective, Saul Goodman, and Muldoon, his partner, investigating the bombing of Confrontation, a radical magazine. From the outset, these events are tied to an number of conspiracy theories, as Confrontation is supposedly investigating the JFK, RFK, and MLK assassinations. Both the magazine’s editor, Joe Malik, and a reporter, George Dorn, are reported missing. Goodman is a good cop, thorough and meticulous. Despite his partner’s protestations, he approaches the case with an sceptical but open mind, and progressively finds evidence that pulls him away from his initial reservations and down into the rabbit hole.
We first meet Dorn in Texas, where he has been imprisoned in a right-wing stronghold on drug possession charges following up a story tied to his Confrontation work. He is stunned when broken out of the prison by a group of outlaws led by the aquiline Hagbard Celine, who declares himself to be the leader of a group of affiliated organisations that are best described as Discordians (which include the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, and the Legion of Dynamic Discord)(3). At this point, George is taken aboard Hagbard’s submarine, the Leif Ericson, and is inducted into the group. Here is where the fun truly begins, and quite a lot of what transpires does so by George experiencing, or being told about it.
The plot, such as you might describe it, is quite deliberately non-linear and scattered through time and place. It is ostensibly building up to a huge music festival(4) to be held in Ingoldstadt, headlined by a band known as the American Medical Association, whose five members are all siblings, the family Saure. The reasons for this event being so pivotal become clear as the narrative progresses, and Celine continually claims that they must be there to prevent a majorly catastrophic event occurring. The Discordians declare themselves to be fighting against the forces of conformity and authoritarianism, the Illuminati. Celine explains to George that the Illuminati want to crush human spirit and free will to bend the world to their grand plan. This fight, Celine explains, started in Atlantis, with a confrontation between Gruad, the Altlanteans’ most senior scientist, and its Elders, and was a major factor in Atlantis’ destruction. All, none, or some of this may be true.
As the trilogy continues this initial story is peeled away through layers of claim, counter claim and extensive obfuscation, and as the reader you are positively encouraged to be confused and not know which version of things, if any, is the case. As we pass through these layers, there are a number of characters, ideas, and situations that are referred back to throughout, and their roles and characteristics often contradict themselves as we go.
In fact, the authors go out of the way to debunk and contradict pretty much everything they tell you throughout the course of the novel, including their own debunking. It’s highly self-referential, and frequently plays with breaking the fourth wall with the reader, especially towards the end of the third volume. At many points during the story characters often question the reality of their situation, and some even wonder if they are part of some kind of weird work of fiction.
But in the end, the centre of things is always the fight between the forces of convention and conformity, and the power of free-thinking, scepticism and enquiry. While all of this is wrapped up in mystical elements, the whole book boils down to that simple choice: order or chaos, discovery or compliance. Twenty years later, it’s a theme Philip Pullman uses in to great effect his His Dark Materials trilogy.
There are in fact any number of mystical elements floating about. The major one floating through proceedings is the The Rule of Fives, which manifests in any number of ways, including with the number 23. Music fans will be more than aware of the significance of some of this, as Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty employed a great deal of it in their work as the KLF.
It’s also no accident that the title of the book is Illuminatus!, the Latin word which provides us with illuminated, a marker of enlightenment. One of the major historical touchpoints of the early part of the book is Adam Weishaupt, who on 1 May 1776 did indeed found a society that he called the Ancient Illuminated Seers of Bavaria: the Illuminati. That society was outlawed by the Hanoverian authorities in 1784, resulting in his exile. While it’s beyond the scope of this bit of writing to debate in detail exactly how far Weishaupt’s society espoused the Kantian idea of Enlightenment(5), there is little doubt that it was part of the movements in thought spreading through Europe and the New World at the time. Many of these values were familiar to both Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson in their travels through the old world prior to the US War of Independence. So even the title points back to scepticism and knowledge.
Like many other “breeze block” novels, there are three volumes: The Eye In The Pyramid, The Golden Apple, and Leviathan. They total around 730 pages, plus another 70 pages of appendices. In accordance with the Rule of Fives, the volumes are arranged into 5 “books”, labelled Verwirrung (chaos), Zweitracht (discord)(6), Unordnung (confusion), Beamtenherrschaft (bureaucracy), and Grummet (aftermath). These five categories are described in the books as stages of the evolution of all societies, which begin from chaos, and then progress through the Hegelian stages of thesis+anithesis=synthesis, before reaching stages four and five: parenthesis (where synthesis has not been possible), and finally paralysis. At which point, we begin at stage 1 all over again, with the bureaucracy of stage 4 having collapsed under its own weight, resulting in the entropy of stage 5. It’s widely suggested throughout the books that our society as a whole now sits very firmly in stage 4.
All of this is a pretty wild ride, to be honest. and describing plot, or narrative arc seems almost pointless for something where the intent is almost to ensure there isn’t one. It’s probably easiest to say that the book is a compendium of a whole bunch of in-jokes, callbcks, popular culture and counterculture touch points, and themes. Perhaps dumping ground is an even better phrase, or in a more current mode of thinking, a rag-tag meme factory. But everything is connected, and in an intensely satisfying way. At every point the authors are encouraging you not to believe anything they write, and to develop reservoirs of intelligent scepticism. For the current times it’s a hugely instructive approach.
That distrust starts of with Saul’s initial scepticism about the reports that fall into his view, to the signs Markov Chaney(7) leaves in public places. It encompasses being disparaging about the work of Ayn Rand, who was enjoying a reappraisal at the time, and the psychology and mindest of late-period FNORD(8) capitalism. It is deliberately eclectic in its sources too, pulling together references to Kurt Vonnegut(9), historical details about the Knights Templar and their last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, as well as (not so) oblique references to the Cuban Missile Crisis of the previous decade(10). The difference between this book, and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, however, is that this book is knowingly preposterous, and is very certainly unable to take itself entirely seriously. even though it manages to smuggle quite a lot of serious ideas in along the way.
In the end, this is the appeal of the whole thing to me. The best way to make people think is usually to make them laugh first. This means a couple of things: first, funny books are often under-regarded by critics, who routinely dismiss them as “not serious”; second, Wittgenstein could really have done with slipping a couple of knob gags into his Tractatus: it would have lightened the tone. Poor Ludwig sort of needed it.
(1) I’m not going to get into talking about Terry Pratchett here: whole different ball game. Or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books. They are for another time, perhaps.
(2) So no change there, then.
(3) The Discordians are followers of Eris, also known in Roman mythology as Discordia, the goddess of chaos. In classical Greek mythology, she is the root cause of the Trojan War. It is she who throws the golden apple of discord, marked with the word καλλίστῃ into the throng of gods at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. She may, or may not, appear in various incarnations and manifestations through the course of the novels.
(4) Deliberately echoing Woodstock.
(5) Actually, he didn’t much. Weishaupt disagreed with Kant quite a lot, as it happens.
(6) It appears this way in the book, though in German the correct word is actually Zwietracht
(7) A midget, who performs a selection of situationist pranks, mostly by leaving deliberately ambiguous and confusing notices and instructions in public places. His name is a deliberate double pun on the Markov Chain used for calculating stochastic probability functions, and Lon Chaney (as well as his son). His notices are always signed “The Mgt.”
(8) FNORD. “Can you see the Fnords?” is a recurring theme, and is an idea resused later by John Carpenter in They Live, though both may have originally used Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” as a starting point. The use of the word fnord is a marker used for the purposes of subliminal neuro-lingustic programming. Subjects from the earliest ages at school are taught to consciously “unsee” the word, wherever it appears, instead feeling a sense of unease or discomfort, urging complicance or obidience.
(9) The phrase “So it goes”, borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, is used a number of times. The use of the phrase is always connected to a death, as it is in Vonnecgut’s novel, and for good reason.
(10) Fernando Poo, in the story is, located close to Equatorial Guinea, though it is clearly an analogue for Cuba. It is used as an example of the means by which the Illuminati will Immanentize the Eschaton, and bring about a major change in human and metaphysical affairs.