What an unusual book this is! I read it first at age 18 I think, and then again during university. I remember not understanding most of it. The historical references and US centric cold-war themes just went over my head. But Illuminatus! is such a well-regarded classic I wanted to give it another try two decades later, now that I know most of the context.
The problem is, it’s still highly confusing! The narrator changes between first-person and third-person without telling you, sometimes even literally stating “I’m not even sure who I am”, it skips around in the timeline, and I’m quite sure some different names are actually the same person. Also, at a few points the narrator suddenly is what appears to be a squirrel living in Manhattan’s Central Park, going about its business. There is a talking and singing dolphin, the sunken continent of Atlantis is a major place of action, there’s drugs, violence, and sex involved, and a global conspiracy is at the heart of it and very real: The Illuminati exist in this book.
These are my thoughts about the first of the three books in the trilogy, which are called “The Eye in the Pyramid”, “The Golden Apple”, and “Leviathan” respectively. Here in the first book, the main plot is comparably easy to understand, as opposed to the second book, in which, half-way through it, I still have no idea what’s going on.
First things first. The authors are called Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. Both met while working as editors at Playboy magazine. This already tells a lot, I think. From what I’ve read, they wrote this book together by alternating chapters: It became sort of a joke that one would try to write a new chapter so absurd that the other would have trouble following that one coherently. If that’s really the case, I actually think they have done a great job.
Then there’s the international praise for the book. Rolling Stone magazine loved it, Timothy Leary said it’s more important than Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.
The book was published in 1975, right after the Watergate scandal which led to US president Richard Nixon’s resignation. The Cuban Missile Crisis was still on everyone’s mind, the cold-war was peaking, the Vietnam war had just ended, and on the other hand, the hippie movement and sexual liberation changed culture significantly.
Here’s the first sentence of the book:
It was the year when they finally immanentized the Eschaton.
Right away, there are two words I didn’t understand as an 18 year old. Turns out, that’s actually a phrase with its own article on Wikipedia, although auto-correct has never heard of it. It means bringing about utopian conditions to the world, creating a sort of heaven on earth. Still, the chapter continues to talk about the threat of a real nuclear proxy-war between the US, the Soviet Union, and also China, by making the island of Fernando Poo the center of attention. In the real world, that island was in fact spelled only with one ‘o’ before being renamed to Bioko and is off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, Africa. In the book, the super powers have stationed military there, the British Secret Service is involved, too, but in reality it hasn’t been a showplace of any such things, as far as we know of.
That’s one of the fascinating bits about this book: Lots of truth is intertwined with made-up history like this Fernando Poo example, so you start to wonder and research a lot to find out which parts are real until you’re not so sure anymore, either.
Interesting side note, this book turned German hacker Karl Koch insane. He got addicted to several drugs, most prominently cocaine, successfully hacked into several nuclear power plants and into the Soviet KGB, before killing himself in 1989. There’s a German movie about his life starring August Diehl of Inglourious Basterds fame. Author Robert Anton Wilson has a cameo in it.
The movie’s name is “23”, a number which plays a big role for the Illuminati who secretly run the world, but as the book suggests, they do so just to mess with people and demonstrate their power. If you look for it, you can find the number anywhere. For example, the German Federal Republic was founded on May 23rd, 1949 – May is the fifth month, and five is the checksum of 23 because 2 + 3 = 5. The year 1949 also has the checksum of 23, because 1 + 9 + 4 + 9 = 23. Another symbol of the Illuminati is the Eye in the Pyramid, hence the title of the book, which can be found on the one dollar note. “Proving”, in quotation marks, how much power the Illuminati possess.
So, what about these Illuminati? The book starts with two detectives investigating a bombing at the office of the controversial magazine Confrontation in the Bronx of New York City. Barney Muldoon and Saul Goodman enter the place and later find the editor, Joe Malik, was on the brink of discovering some truths about these Illuminati. Apparently, someone wanted him silenced.
These Illuminati actually were an existing secret society or maybe even a sect, founded in 1776 in Ingolstadt, Bavaria by Adam Weishaupt. This is historically correct, as well as that one of its early members was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Evidence of this sect disappeared over the years, but, the book and its protagonists argue, just because they got better at hiding and steering global politics without being identified.
We then jump to another protagonist called George Dorn, who seems to be the main character. He might be the same person as detective Saul Goodman, but I’m not sure about that. When he is introduced, George is in a prison in Mad Dog, Texas, together with cellmate Harry Coin, who wants to attack, rape, and kill him. The guards take George out of the cell and talk to him for a few minutes. When he returns to the cell, his cellmate is hanging from the ceiling, disemboweled and surely dead. Possibly killed by the other guards. Just as it gets interesting in this plot-line, we switch to two love birds named Simon Moon and Mary Lou who try tantric sex according to the Way of Tao. They are not involved in the main story, but sometimes we return to them.
And back to George.
George is panicking, but rescued by some independent fighters led by a woman named Mavis who immediately has sex with him before taking him to the giant golden submarine in the Atlantic called Leif Erickson (named after the first European to sail to the American continent) and its captain, Hagbard Celine. Hagbard, the next main character, has vast resources and is fighting the Illuminati, also in secret. The woman, Mavis, turns out to be ex-Illuminati and having now switched sides.
We also learn that Harry Coin, who was killed by the guards in the cell, might be the same person as John Dillinger, the famous American gangster, who died in 1934. Dillinger is mentioned a lot in the book, and the secret here might be that he is just one of identical quintuplets, if I got that correctly. Go figure.
Hagbard, piloting the Leif Erickson submarine towards the sunken continent of Atlantis, located roughly in the middle between North America and Africa, is teaching our hero George Dorn about the Illuminati and how to fight them. He has to undergo several initiation rites involving sex and a woman named Stella Maris, but in the end is deemed trust-worthy.
What are the objectives of the Illuminati, according to the book? It’s all about creating chaos in order to rebuild global society anew from the rubble, creating utopia. All the paralyzing political disagreements, all the wars nobody wants, everything that brings humankind closer to full collapse is started and amplified by the Illuminati, in secret. Their near-term goal is Anarchism.
Hagbard Celine wants to stop that, seeing himself as a freedom fighter, anti-capitalist, believing in the Goddess Discordia, of chaos. Which is a fun contradiction, because that’s also what the Illuminati want to create: Chaos.
What happens next is an epic battle down in the Atlantic ocean between some spider-like submarines controlled by the Illuminati and Hagbard’s golden submarine, George Dorn aboard. The porpoises, mammals similar to dolphins, led by Howard, accompany our heroes and aid them in this battle against the Illuminati, suffering some losses themselves. After defeating the Illuminati’s spiders, Hagbard is able to capture several golden statues from the ancient civilization of Atlantis. On their way back George gets to see a giant pyramid near Atlantis’ capital city on the ocean floor, sporting a huge red eye in it. Implying that the Illuminati had their origin way before the Bavarian sect, all the way back when Atlantis wasn’t a sunken continent yet.
Hagbard sends George Dorn to deliver the statues from Atlantis to Robert Putney Drake, the head of the world crime syndicate, to buy allegiance with this hugely powerful man and block the Illuminati from doing so. He succeeds and is rewarded with a night of sex with professional Miss Serpentine Tarantella. Then suddenly he seems to become the same person as detective Saul Goodman, unifying the memories of both people. And the book ends.
There is a lot more to it, and it’s incredibly tough to write down such a plot synapsis of it because it’s all over the place. Some major plot points are revealed right in the first chapters where you still have no idea what’s going on. Reading the book a second time is a must, in my opinion. Many things will be a bit clearer, but certainly still confusing.
Just for this reason, I think it’s worth a read. I mostly read non-fiction books, so I have not much of a point of reference, but from what I’ve seen remarked about the book, it really seems to be one of a kind. To me, it certainly is.
To show you the self-referential humor of this book, at one point two characters discuss a fictional book one has to write a review on. Here’s the whole paragraph:
“It’s a dreadfully long monster of a book,” Wildeblood says pettishly, “and I certainly won’t have time to read it, but I’m giving it a thorough skimming. The authors are utterly incompetent – no sense of style or structure at all. It starts out as a detective story, switches to science-fiction, then goes off into the supernatural, and is full of the most detailed information of dozens of ghastly boring subjects. And the time sequence is all out of order in a very pretentious imitation of Faulkner and Joyce. Worst yet, it has the most raunchy sex scenes, thrown in just to make it sell, I’m sure, and the authors – who I’ve never heard of – have the supreme bad taste to introduce real political figures into this mishmash and pretend to be exposing a real conspiracy. You can be sure I won’t waste time reading such rubbish, but I’ll have a perfectly devastating review ready for you by tomorrow noon.”
I strongly plan on finishing reading the second and third book of the trilogy as well, because if I remember correctly from reading them once nearly twenty years ago, it gets even weirder. Zombie Nazis have populated the dark side of the moon after World War II, Adolf Hitler becomes a character in the book, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu is confronted, and probably lots of other imaginative things.
Here are some bits I’ve highlighted in the book for several reasons, just to give you an idea of the language and tone of the book. Not much to learn here, though.
📔 Highlights & Notes
Book One: Verwirrung
It was the year when they finally immanentized the Eschaton.
And, finally – the part you’re most interested in – the Bavarian Illuminati was founded on May Day, 1776, in Ingolstadt, Bavaria, by Adam Weishaupt, a former Jesuit.
“Maybe I’m not going fast enough,” Saul said. “An organization that has existed for a couple of centuries minimum and kept its secrets pretty well hidden most of that time might be pretty strong by now.”
There is a secret society that keeps screwing up international politics. Every intelligent person has suspected that at one time or another. Nobody wants war any more, but wars keep happening – why?
[In 1090 A.D.] The founder [of an orthodox Moslem religion], Hassan i Sabbah, taught that nothing is true and everything is permissible. He lived up to that idea – the word ‘assassin’ is a corruption of his name.
[About technological acceleration and political retrogression] The breaking apart is fundamentally the schizoid and schismatic mental fugue of lawyer-politicians attempting to administrate a worldwide technology whose mechanisms they lack the education to comprehend and whose gestalttrend they frustrate by breaking apart into obsolete Renaissance nation-states.
[About the Chinese leader, using the same paragraph which was used to describe the American and Soviet leaders] He was fifty-five years old, tough, shrewd, unburdened by the complicated ethical ambiguities which puzzle intellectuals, and had long ago decided that the world was a mean son-of-a-bitch in which only the most cunning and ruthless can survive. He was also as kind as was possible for one holding that ultra-Darwinian philosophy; and he genuinely loved children and dogs, unless they were on the site of something that had to be bombed in the National Interest.
Whatever the Illuminati were aiming at had not been accomplished. Proof: If it had, they would not still be conspiring in secret.
It was April 30, Walpurgisnacht (pause for thunder on the soundtrack), and I was rapping with some of the crowd at the Friendly Stranger. H.P. Lovecraft (the rock group, not the writer) was conducting services in the back room, pounding away at the door to Acid Land in the gallant effort, new and striking that year, to break in on waves of sound without any chemical skeleton key at all and I am in no position to evaluate their success objectively since I was, as is often the case with me, 99 and 44/100ths percent stoned out of my gourd before they began operations.
Simon was beginning to wish he was stoned; these conspiratorial conversations always made more sense when he was slightly high.
A moral victory, Joe thought bitterly: All we ever achieve are moral victories. The immoral brutes win the real victories.
“[..] Are you game?” And Joe Malik – ex-Trotskyist, ex-engineering student, ex-liberal, ex-Catholic – heard himself saying, “Yes.” And heard a louder voice, unspeaking, uttering a more profound “yes” deep inside himself. He was game – for astrology, for I Ching, for LSD, for demons, for whatever Simon had to offer as an alternative to the world of sane and rational men who were sanely and rationally plotting their course toward what could only be the annihilation of the planet.
“[..] Who can doubt where they get their orders from? What person in this audience needs to be told what group is behind this overflowing sewer of smut and filth?”) “May storms and rains and typhoons beat them,” Howard sang on. “May Great Cthulhu rise and eat them.” “I got into the JAMs in Michigan City Prison,” Dillinger, much relaxed and less arrogant, was saying as he, Simon, and Joe sat in his living room drinking Black Russians.
“We’ve run studies of cultures where the Illuminati were not in control, and they still follow Weishaupt’s five-stage pattern: Verwirrung, Zweitracht, Unordnung, Beamtenherrschaft, and Grummet. That is: Chaos, discord, confusion, bureaucracy, and aftermath. America right now is between the fourth and fifth stages.
Book Two: Zweitracht
“The only choices? One must go to one extreme or the other?” Drake looks back at the ceiling and talks abstractly. “You had to get an M.D. long ago, before you specialized. Do you know any case where germs gave up and went away because the man they were destroying had a noble character or sweet sentiments? Did the tuberculosis baccilli leave John Keat’s lungs because he had a few hundred great poems still unwritten inside him? [..]”
I’m sure Buchenwald was the same: some of the guards tried to be as humane as possible, some of them just did their job, some of them went out of their way to make it worse for the prisoners. It doesn’t matter: the machine produces the effect it was designed for.
“I’m not a masochist,” Hagbard replied. “The world makes me uncomfortable enough. I see no reason to make myself more uncomfortable. [..]”
“Entropy. Breaking the straight line into a curve ball.” “Hagbard,” I said, “what the hell is your game?” “Proving that government is a hallucination in the minds of governors,” he said crisply.
Objectivity is presumably the opposite of schizophrenia. Which means that it is nothing but acceptance of everybody else’s notion of reality. But nobody’s perception of reality is the same as everybody’s notion of it, which means that the most objective person is the real schizophrenic.
In the interval between the first suppressed report by the Swiss businessman and the liberation of the first camp, six million people had died.
“You see?” Simon asked. “Use words they’ve been conditioned to since childhood – ‘fire drill,’ ‘stay in line,’ like that – and never look back to see if they’re obeying. They’ll follow.
“The individual act of obedience is the cornerstone not only of the strength of authoritarian society but also of its weakness.”
Two together form a third entity which is synergetically more than the sum of its two parts. Thus two always leads to three. Two and three. Duality and trinity. Every unity is a duality and a trinity. A pentagon.
“Those reasons contradict each other,” said George. “That’s the nature of logical thought. All propositions are true in some sense, false in some sense and meaningless in some sense.” Hagbard didn’t smile.
George had been scared when he went to Mad Dog, when Harry Coin tried to fuck him up the ass, when Harry Coin was killed, when he escaped from the Mad Dog jail, when he saw his own death just as he was coming, and when the Illuminati spider ships had attacked the Leif Erickson. Being scared was beginning to seem a normal condition to him.
After all that, Hagbard told George he was perfectly free to turn down the mission if he didn’t want to go. And George said he would go for the same reason he had agreed to accompany Hagbard on his golden submarine. Because he knew that he would have been a fool to pass up the experience.
“[..] Despite Simon Moon’s obsessions, the twenty-three has no particularly mystic significance,” Hagbard added quickly. “Just consider it pragmatically – it’s a number of possible relationships which the brain can remember and handle. But now suppose the system has five elements …?” Joe wrote 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 and read aloud, “One hundred and twenty.” “You see? One always encounters jumps of that size when dealing with permutations and combinations. But, as I say, administrators as a rule aren’t aware of this. Korzybski pointed out, back in the early thirties, that nobody should ever directly supervise more than four subordinates, because the twenty-four possible coalitions ordinary office politics can create are enough to tax any brain. When it jumps up to one hundred and twenty, the administrator is lost. That, in essence, is the sociological aspect of the mysterious Law of Fives. The Illuminati always has five leaders in each nation, and five international Illuminati Primi supervising all of them, [..]”
“All affirmations are true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, true and false in some sense, true and meaningless in some sense, false and meaningless in some sense, and true and false and meaningless in some sense. Do you follow me?” (In some sense, Joe mutters …)
The usual hoax: fiction presented as fact. This hoax described here opposite to this: fact presented as fiction.
I’ve been saving the best for last. Aldous Huxley, the first major literary figure illuminated by Leary, died the same day as John F. Kennedy. The last essay he wrote revolved around Shakespeare’s phrase, “Time must have a stop” – which he had previously used for the title of a novel about life after death. “Life is an illusion,” he wrote, “but an illusion which we must take seriously.”