The Illuminatus! Trilogy

19 11 2009

I first read The Illuminatus! Trilogy as a freshman in college, in 1990. 15 years after its initial publication in 1975, it was dated but felt mostly relevant, especially in hippie-saturated Eugene, OR. I had mixed feeling about the book, and always thought I ought to give it another try before selling it back at Powell’s. I finished re-reading it a few weeks ago, almost 20 years later.

Halfway through the second book, I was getting frustrated. The deliberately dense and incoherent style is hard to follow. I wanted to know where it was going (I remembered next to nothing from my previous reading) but I was getting weary of the style and suspicious of the authors. It seemed like there was an undercurrent of libertarian dogma. Libertarianism sounds great in theory, but have you ever met any libertarians? I certainly would not want to live in their war-of-all-against-all world, thank you very much.

Finally I wikipedia’d the book and the authors to get a better sense of their intentions. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Wilson and Shea were playing games more than pushing ideology. It all started when they posited the question, what if every crazy conspiracy theory was actually true? They deal with that question quite successfully, weaving together all sorts of contradictory ideas in a stew of science fiction, history, and politics. I also went ahead and read the story synopsis on Wikipedia. I sort of regretted spoiling the identity of the 5th Illuminati Primi, but knowing which of the myriad threads were most relevant to the central plot made for a more enjoyable read.

35 years after initial publication it is definitely dated. The attitudes toward sex and drugs and equality that were revolutionary in the early 70s are sadly naive today. The meta-stream-of-consciousness style was surely meant to jolt the reader out of sleepy alignment with the dominant paradigm, but it mostly just gets in the way of absorbing the story. I kept thinking, The Invisibles did it better.

Even so, the book got me wrestling with ideas, mostly about the nature of freedom, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Also, Illuminatus gets right what almost every other conspiracy story gets wrong. That is, if some secret and powerful cabal is running the world, why should they be bothered about the plucky young journalist/lawyer/single mother/crank who has discovered the truth? What’s the stop them from crushing the little rebel like a bug and burying his/her message in the military-industrial-media complex? Nothing, that’s what. Illuminatus is not the story of one conspiracy ruling the world, but several conspiracies competing for influence. Even better, it becomes less and less clear which side is the good guys and bad guys, or even how many sides their really are.

I guess I’ll hang onto it for another 20 years.




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