The Illuminatus! Trilogy

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Cover of the collected edition

The Illuminatus! Trilogy is a series of three novels written by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. The series is a post-modern science fiction-influenced drug- and sex-laden trek through a number of conspiracy theories, both historical and imaginary, which hinge around the authors' version of the Illuminati. The narrative often switches between third and first person, and jumps around in time. The three books that comprise the trilogy are The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple and Leviathan. Although originally published separately, they are now more commonly found in the single-volume edition, which was first published in 1975. The trilogy won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 1986.

Although the many conspiracy theories in the book are (presumably) imaginary, these are mixed in with enough truth to make them seem plausible. The title of the first book, for example, refers to the US dollar bill which does, somewhat surprisingly, indeed have the kabbalistic symbol of an eye in a pyramid on it. Within the book, this is used as an example of the conspiracies teasing us by showing hints of their existence which we won't believe even though they stare us in the face.

The books are loaded with references to Discordianism, the Illuminati, the A∴A∴, and various world domination plans, conspiracy theories and pieces of gnostic knowledge. Many of the odder conspiracies in the book are taken from unpublished letters to Playboy magazine, where the authors were working as associate editors while they wrote the novels. Kinky sex is prevalent, mocked by one character in a typical self-referential joke as "only to sell a bad book filled with shallow characters pushing a nonsense conspiracy".

The trilogy was later republished in a single volume, minus the "what has gone before" introduction to The Golden Apple. Some of the material in that foreword, such as the self-destruct mynah birds, appears nowhere else in the trilogy, likely a result of the 500 pages cut by the publisher to reduce printing costs on what was seen as a risky venture. These 500 pages were subsequently lost in the mail between Mexico and Los Angeles, although Wilson states that most of the ideas contained therein made it into his later works. The idea that the top secrets of the Illuminati were cut from the books because the printer decided to trim the number of pages is a joke typical of the trilogy.

Wilson subsequently wrote a number of sequels and spinoffs based upon the Illuminatus! concept, including a second trilogy called The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles, a third trilogy of books that combined fiction with non-fiction entitled Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati, a standalone work entitled Masks of the Illuminati, and a direct spin-off from the original work entitled The Illuminati Papers -- among others. Many of Wilson's other works, fictional and non-fictional, also make reference to the Illuminati or the Illuminatus books. Many of Wilson's books, in particular the Cosmic Trigger series, have been embraced by the New Age community and can often be found in New Age bookstores alongside textbooks on tarot card reading, crystal energy, and Feng Shui, a fact many of his fans find amusing since Wilson frequently lampoons new age beliefs. Shea, meanwhile, never wrote another Illuminatus!-related book, although many of his later novels include references to the themes of that work.

Plot summary

The trilogy's rambling plot begins with the investigation by two New York City detectives (Saul Goodman and Barney Muldoon) of the bombing of Confrontation, a leftist magazine, and the disappearance of its editor, Joe Malik. Discovering the magazine's investigation into the Kennedy and King assassinations, the two become drawn into a web of conspiracy theories. At the same time, the magazine's reporter George Dorn, having been turned loose without support in deep right-wing Mad Dog, Texas, finds himself being dragged bodily into the hands of the Discordians, led by Hagbard Celine who alternately battles and represents the Discordians and the Illuminati, the conspiratorial organizations who are either colluding with or fighting each other.

The plot meanders circuitously and non-linearly around the globe to such far-flung locations as Las Vegas, Nevada (where a potentially deadly, secret USA government-developed mutated anthrax epidemic has been accidentally unleashed), Atlantis (where Howard, the talking dolphin, and his dolphin aides help Hagbard battle the Illuminati), Chicago, Illinois (where someone resembling John Dillinger was killed many years ago), the island of Fernando Poo (the location of the next great Cold War standoff between Russia-China-USA), and to Ingolstadt, Bavaria, Germany (the site of the first European "Woodstock" festival and the reawakening of hibernating Nazi battallions from the bottom of Lake Totenkopf). The American Medical Association is the evil rock-and-roll band organized to reawaken the Nazis. The plot meanders also between the thoughts, hallucinations and inner voices (both real and imagined) of its many characters, as well as through time (past, present and future)—sometimes in mid-sentence. There are even parts in the book where it actually reviews and jokingly deconstructs itself.

One of the most well-known conceits in the book is the fnord, a type of subliminal message technique brought about by seeing the word in print: a word that the majority of the population since early childhood has been trained to ignore (and of course trained to forget both the training and the fact that they are ignoring it), but which they associate with a vague sense of unease. Fnords are scattered liberally in the text of newpapers and magazines, causing fear and anxiety in those following current events. However, there are no fnords in the advertisements, thus encouraging a consumerist society.

Another concept found in the books is that of immanentizing the eschaton, a catch-phrase meaning "bringing about the end of the world" or "creating heaven on earth", and derived from a quotation in the works of Eric Voegelin. In this trilogy it refers to the secret scheme to bring about a mass human sacrifice at Lake Totenkopf, the purpose of which is the release of enough "life-energy" to give eternal life to a select group of initiates, among others Adolf Hitler.

All views of reality ever mentioned in the book are derided in some way, whether they are traditional or iconoclastic. The trilogy is an exercise in cognitive dissonance, with an absurdist plot built of seemingly plausible, if unprovable, components. Ultimately, readers are left to form their own interpretations as to which, if any, of the numerous contradictory viewpoints presented by the characters are valid or plausible, and which are simply satirical gags and shaggy dog jokes.

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