Sunday Nibble #62: fnord

Today is Sunday, May 23, 2021, although it’s a special day according to the Illuminati, known as “Eye Day.” Well, at least according to some, or maybe just the infamous “many people (who) are saying…” Or it could all be made up.

Which is kind of the point. The real significance of the date are the 5 and the 23, which go back to Discordianism an ancient (fake) religion created in 1963 by the disciples Malaclypse the Younger and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst, better known, or maybe not, as the author Gregory Hill and general counterculture prophet and muckracker Kerry Thornley.

You can still find various versions of their seminal work Principia Discordia, the founding document of Discordianism, and a really hilarious read. In case you haven’t grok’d it yet, the religion is a total parody, and one of the matches thrown into the plastic bag full of gas that was the LBJ administration.

This blew up into massive protests against the Vietnam War, a total generational split between those “damn hippies” (now Boomers) vs. the Greatest Generation (graters?) who had fought in WW II, and LBJ’s decision to nope the hell out of running for election in 1968, even though he could have.

BTW, the Gen-X of that era were known as The Silent Generation. They got fucked, too.

But let’s circle back to the date itself, because that’s what’s important. 5/23. These two numbers were very important is Discordianism and were claimed to show up everywhere. And, remember, 5 = 2+3. Plus the number 23 shows up in so many places that it’s ridiculous.

And how many fingers do you have on each hand? Toes on each foot? Holes in your face, not counting your ears? (Assuming the normal number, of course, not to be ableist.)

Twelve years after Principia first came out as a sort of underground guerrilla pamphlet, the three volumes of the Illuminatus! trilogy, by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, were unleashed on the world. (Funny story: All four writers of the two works were, in fact, The Gen-Xers of their day. Make of that what you will.)

Now, Illuminatus! drew heavily on what Principia had created, but then went on to pull in basically every single then extant conspiracy theory, left or right, and treat them all as if they were true. And the two Bobs were exposed to plenty, since they worked for Playboy magazine at the time, and got to read all of the “slush pile” incoming mail, which consisted of unsolicited article ideas.

So, maybe normal stuff interspersed with plenty of JFK conspiracy theories, UFOs killed Marilyn, the Nazis didn’t die, they moved to Argentina, etc., etc., etc.

Or, in other words, they were getting QAnon crap in the post and mostly had to deal with ignoring it, although instead of that, they turned it into literary fodder, turned it on its head and satirized it.

One of the places where they ran with it the most was in those two numbers, 5 and 23, which they posited as sacred to the Illuminati, but then they proceeded to scatter them throughout the text, as well as to give lots of real-life examples of where they showed up.

In later works, Wilson documented his own encounters with the two numbers, invoking The Law of Fives originated in the Principia. Keep in mind that 23 is just a hidden invocation of the number 5 since, again, 2+3 = 5.

Now, oddly enough, I first actually read Illuminatus!, long after it had been published in an omnibus volume, when I happened to be 23, and the book both blew my mind and changed my life. At least all of the conspiracies used in it dramatically were presented with such tongue in cheek that it was clear that none should be taken seriously, but other elements did stand out.

One of these was the idea that no two people could ever experience the world in exactly the same way, because they would not have the exact same experiences — and this had a huge positive influence on me. Wilson’s term for it was “reality tunnel,” as in everybody goes down their own.

After Illuminatus!, I proceeded to get my hands on and read absolutely everything he had ever written, or was yet to write, and somewhere along the way he led me through the true origin and meaning of the Law of Fives.

I think this was in his book Prometheus Rising, where he described his “Find the quarter” exercise, and it went like this. Whenever he was lecturing to a large group of students, he would tell them, “Whenever you’re out walking around, keep one thought in mind. ‘I am going to find a quarter.’ Then… keep looking for that quarter.”

A funny thing happened. His students kept finding goddamn quarters everywhere. And when I tried it, so did I. But it wasn’t until late in that book that he sprung the secret: People drop change all the time. You just don’t notice because you’re not looking for it. But by changing your focus, you see what was formerly hidden from you.”

Or, in other words, you will see what you’re looking for, or perceive what you expect. And it was the same with the Law of Fives, or the Number 23. Give them special significance and start watching, and they will show up everywhere.

Try it right now, and in the coming days. Pay strict attention, and any time that a 5 or a 23 or, really, any combination of those three digits shows up in any order, take note. You’ll be surprised at how often they occur.

And so… Wilson’s works did have a big effect on me in my early 20s, especially has he led me into and out of what could have been some woo-woo fantasy belief system, except it wasn’t. In fact, it was the opposite of that, at least when it came to religious and spiritual stuff.

Politically, though? I eventually drifted away from him because his combination of cynicism and extreme libertarianism (no matter how liberal his version) just didn’t work for me. There are just some things that society cannot make happen unless everyone throws into the common bucket and no, you don’t get to opt out of paying for schools if you have no kids, or paying for roads if you don’t own a car, or paying for airports if you never fly, or paying for libraries if you never read, and so on.

But what I did learn from him, at least, was that we all create our own kaleidoscope through which we watch the world, and our main responsibility is to freely admit and acknowledge that what we see through ours is not what anyone else sees through theirs — and that limit comes as close as your kids, parents, siblings, spouses, and besties.

So, in response to that, let’s try this approach. Instead of springing right into, “No, you’re wrong,” start with, “That’s interesting, but here’s what I see/think/feel.” Offer the chance for a response, and see what you get.

You might just get your face bitten off, but at least you tried.

And, really, if you’re going to start by arguing with someone who insists that 5 and 23 are numbers with magical properties, you’re probably not going to be able to convince them anyway. Oh well…

Friday Free-for-All #58: Movie love, movie hate, major useless, and “normal”

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What terrible movie do you love?

This one is easy. A lot of critics and others think that the movies Caligula is total crap, despite the all-star cast. But the thing is this — it is actually a really faithful retelling of Suetonius’ The lives of the Twelve Caesers.

Sure, Suetonius may have been totally full of shit and he may have libeled the fuck out of Caligula for the sake of kissing up to later Emperors. Still, ignore that part of it, and the film’s story follows the source pretty closely.

In fact, if anything, the producers actually held back on the sex and violence. But, come on. What’s not to love about this flick? Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud, plenty of eye candy for all genders and preferences in the supporting cast, and script by Gore Vidal – even though he disowned it — but he shouldn’t have.

Seriously, ignore the scissor sisters BS that Guccione snuck into it because he could just before he had to smuggle the footage out of Italy to avoid obscenity charges, boom, done.

One really interesting aspect of the anniversary edition I own is that one of the features on the DVD is raw footage from a scene set in Tiberius’ (infamous) grotto on Capri, where it looks like all kinds of bizarre sex acts are going on in the background – but unedited and from angles not used in the film, it’s quite clear that what you thought you saw was far more graphic and nasty than what was really happening. The magic of film!

What is the most overrated movie?

Oh, there are many, but two stand out because they won Best Picture and had absolutely no goddamn business doing so.

Exhibit A: Forrest Gump.

Exhibit B: Gladiator.

I mean, come on. In the case of the first movie, it’s the glorification of stupid, and I did not ever for one second connect with or empathize with Gump. Why would I? He obviously has mental problems and, given the era, if his Mama wasn’t able to help, he would have been put into an institution, preventing the rest of the movie, period.

Still… Forrest’s character through the rest of the film is an object lesson in this: The mentally ill, despite their condition, are still quite capable of being total assholes.

Second film, Gladiator… as a Roman History buff, this stack of shit just loses from the get-go. And it only gets worse from there, for ten thousand reasons. One big one beyond the rape of history at the end?

Well, true Gladiators were not slaves. They were celebrities. Think MMA fighters now, or social media influencers. So if they got tossed into the ring, it was not to die. It was to play up a high-profile slap fight at the most.

But don’t even get me started on the whole “Pissed off Gladiator killed Commodus in the ring, in public” bullshit.

Anyway, long story short: No way in hell that Gladiator deserved a single accolade, much less “Best Picture.” Nope. It was a steaming pile of crap then, and it still is now.

What is the most useless major in college?

I’m going to have to go with Philosophy – and not that I’m pegging it as a major, not a course of study. I absolutely think that everyone should have to take two philosophy courses in college, one general and the other more specific – but beyond that, majoring in it is pretty pointless.

You learn that when you take your lower division general philosophy course and realize that quite a lot of these philosophers were basically talking out of their asses, and most of them were stuck in the same error that wasn’t even discussed in philosophy until the 20th century.

That is, they forget to include themselves and their own experiences in seeing how their philosophies formed, and instead tried to create these grand mystical rules for what is “reality.”

And it all started with the worst of them, Plato, and his “ideal” forms. This meant that for every object, there was an ideal version of it that existed in some invisible ethereal realm, and that version was the one invoked every time an earthly imitation was created.

Carpenter makes a chair? He’s just copying from that ideal. Singer creates a song – echo of the ideal, and so on. Of course, he never talked about whether that dump your kid just took was a copy of the ideal ethereal shit. What he implied, though, was that everything ever yet to be invented was just floating out there somewhere, waiting to be invoked down here.

He did have one good bit though, his parable of the “slave in a cave.” In it, a slave is chained to a rock in a cave, constrained so that he’s facing the back wall with the entrance behind him. Way beyond the entrance is a bright fire. All the slave can see of the outside world are the shadows on the wall, created by people and animals and the like passing between the fire and the entrance.

In other words, he was saying, we could not perceive the real world of these ideal forms because our perception was limited. And that’s a kind of yes, kind of no, although I’d think of it more in terms of things like we couldn’t conceive of germ theory until we’d made the microscopes to see them, or couldn’t fathom the skies above until we had telescopes and math. Lots and lots of math.

There is, though, a great parody of Plato’s Cave that I first heard from the late, self-proclaimed “guerrilla ontologist,” Robert Anton Wilson. In that version, a slave and a Buddhist are chained up in the cave, just watching the shadows. Then, the Buddhist suddenly slips his chains off and walks outside, staying there for a while.

The Buddhist finally returns to the cave calmly, sits down and puts his chains back on.

“What did you see out there?” the slave asks, excitedly.

The Buddhist replies, “Nothing.”

Anyway, don’t major in Philosophy. It’s not worth it and doesn’t translate to anything marketable.

What seemed normal in your family when you were growing up, but seems weird now?

How rarely my parents had any kind of dinners or parties or invited guests, to the extent that the few times we did host something really stand out in my mind. And the lack of invited guests growing up extended to my friends. I was expected to go play elsewhere, and god forbid that I invite one of my friends into my Mother’s Holy of Holies.

I think we did host a couple of extended family Thanksgiving dinners, as well as my Mom’s older brother when he was in town with his college debate team (he was the professor/coach, who came with his two students, and I can still remember their names to this day: Vinnie and Tim.) Mom’s mom came and stayed with us twice, and one of my cousins (my mom’s niece) came and stayed with us once.

My mom did plan to host my 4th birthday party, but that happened to be the year that we had a bit of a flu epidemic, the end result being that the only guest who finally was well enough to make it was a kid down the street named Scott, whom I didn’t really know. Yeah, awkward!

When I was in Kindergarten, my parents did invite my teacher, Miss Jones, over for dinner and it wasn’t until I became an adult that I wondered. Jones was my father’s mother’s maiden name. Any relation? Although it’s such a common name, who knows.

Anyway, this all seemed normal until I grew up, and then saw friends who were constantly hosting parties of get-togethers, or frequently had relatives or distant friends visiting for a few days, and it blew my mind.

People did this? How weird. How… intrusive. And, unfortunately, I think I wound up inheriting the “No guests!” gene (definitely from my mother), and I cannot come up with more than maybe one time I hosted an overnight guest – an old friend and former roommate – and I’ve never hosted a party. Keep in mind, I’m only counting the times when I’ve lived alone. I’ve had plenty of roommates who were really into the parties and weekend visitors and the like.

And I don’t mind that. I think I was just not programmed on how to do this shit. Of course, I used to live along in a two-bedroom apartment back when that was affordable, but nowadays, it’s a one bedroom, so unless I’m really intimate with an overnight guest, there’s really nowhere to put them.

23 and me (and thee)

Warning: after you read this, you’re going to start seeing the numbers 23 and 5 everywhere. Sorry.

When I was 23 years old, I first encountered and read the very trippy book The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. I’ve mentioned the latter several times here, and probably will again. Along with several others, he became one of my major writing influences early on.

Now, the thing about me coming to read the book for the first time when I was 23 is that it seemed to come about completely by happenstance. I mentioned to a coworker, who was a Wiccan, that I’d just turned 23, and she said, “Oh, you need to read this book.” I did a little research into it, thought it looked interesting, and headed down to the Bodhi Tree, the now-defunct Melrose Avenue bookshop that specialized in all things new age and esoteric.

The thing is massive — something like 800 pages, I think, and was published in trade paperback format, which is the bigger size in comparison to mass-market paperback. Trade paperbacks are close to the dimensions of standard hardcover books.

Anyway, I started to read it, and the book hooked me immediately. Why not? I was 23, and it was full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It also affectionately mimicked and imitated the styles and structures of things like Joyce’s Ulysses and the cut-up technique preferred by William S. Burroughs. Threads of the story weave in and out of each other in constant interruptions, the identity of narrator keeps changing by passing among omniscient third person to first-person from the characters — some of whom seem aware that they are characters in a novel, maybe — and the whole thing plays out as a neo noir detective mystery wrapped around a psychedelic conflation of every far right and far left conspiracy theory of the time, with a healthy dose of science fiction, fantasy, and eldritch horror.

Besides Joyce and Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft and his universe receive various nods, and one of the protagonists (?) travels about in a golden submarine that evokes both the Beatles and Captain Nemo at the same time.

One of the running ideas in the book is the mystical importance of the number 23, which pops up constantly in the narrative. This also implies the importance of the number 5, which is the sum of 2 and 3. This is also why, in later years, it was tradition for Wilson to always publish his newest book on May 23rd.

There are some very interesting facts about the number, actually — and it shouldn’t escape notice that Wilson’s last initial, W, is the 23rd letter of the Latin alphabet. Those facts do go on and on, too. Here’s another list that has surprisingly little overlap with the first.

William S. Burroughs was obsessed with the number 23, which is mentioned in the novel, and many works created post-Illuminatus! capitalize on the concept by using it. You’ll find 23s in things like the TV show Lost, various films including Star Wars Episode IV, and two films that specifically deal with it, the American film The Number 23 and the German film 23, although the latter would be more properly called Dreiundzwanzig.

There are, of course, also plenty of examples of the number 5 doing interesting things as well.

So here I was, reading this amazing brain-bender of a book at the young age of 23, and I started to wonder whether there was any truth to this idea. You know what happened? I started seeing the number 23 everywhere. It would be on the side of taxis and buses — bonus points, sometimes I’d see 523, 235, 2355 or similar combinations. It would show up on receipts — “You’re order number 23!” It would be one of the winning numbers or the mega number for the current lottery winner. The total when shopping would end in 23 cents, or else 67 cents, meaning that I’d get 23 cents in change.

Wilson eventually gives up the secret to the secret, although not in this book. He does offer another interesting exercise that worked for me at the time, although probably not so much anymore since people don’t tend to carry change around any longer. He referred to it as The Quarter Experiment, although I think of it as “Find the Quarter,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. When you’re out and about walking around, visualize a quarter (or local coin in your currency of similar size, about 25mm) and then look for one that’s been dropped on the ground.

Back in the day, Wilson claimed success with this and, sure enough, so did I. It’s worth it to click the link above and read the explanation, as well as the several ways to interpret it. (It’s also worthwhile to check out and do the other exercises listed, but especially number four. Too bad the list didn’t make it to five.)

But, again, people just aren’t as likely to drop quarters because they probably only trot them out to do laundry, especially with most parking meters accepting debit and credit cards now. A lot of public washers and driers are also doing the same, so we may be swiftly approaching a day where the only likely place someone might drop some coins is in front of one of those grocery store change converter machines.

Still, you can probably do this experiment fnord with any other object likely to be dropped, like a pen, or a receipt, or keys.

After I finished my first read of Illuminatus!, I went on to read almost all of the rest of Wilson’s oeuvre, both fiction and non. He wrote a number of books outlining his philosophy, like Prometheus Rising and Right Where You Are Sitting Now, as well as his Cosmic Trigger series, which is a cross between autobiography and philosophy, and the amazing novel Masks of the Illuminati, in which James Joyce, Albert Einstein, and Aleister Crowley walk into a bar in Geneva and things get trippy. I’ve always wanted to adapt this one into a play or film and, in fact, it was influential in the creation of my own play Three Lions, which involved Crowley, Ian Fleming, and Hermann Hesse. (Available for production, if you’re interested — here’s the first scene.)

Okay, Wilson has got too many works to cite individually, so just go check out his website for the full list. Meanwhile, this is where we’re going to go meta and full circle.

I’ve re-read Illuminatus! multiple times, and in fact started another read-through about (d’oh!) five weeks ago. Every time through it, it’s a completely different work and I get different things out of it. When I was 23, it was one story. Each of three times after that, it was another. Now, it’s yet again completely different and I just realized that this is, in fact, my fifth pass through the text.

So it was weirdly appropriate when I found out that a friend of mine from our improv company was going to turn 23 on April 30. That date itself is significant because a large part of the present story of the book takes place in April and May, but on top of that I suddenly had the chance to return the favor that my coworker had done for me oh so long ago, so I gifted my young friend a dead-tree copy of the anthology version.

Hey, I survived that journey and I think it made me a better person. Might as well share the love, right? My only hope is that somewhere down the line, after he’s read it a bunch of times, he’s in the position to pass the torch to another 23-year-old.

Pictured: My photo of the covers of my original U.S. paperback versions of the books, which I was lucky enough to find in a used bookstore for cheap a few years back. Interestingly enough, that bookstore is called Iliad Books, and it used to be next door to a video rental place called Odyssey. Both of those also figure into the fnord book. Yes, it’s quite the rabbit hole.

Not pictured: my autographed by RAW himself original edition and my later “checkerboard” cover version from the 90s.

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