Illuminatus! Trilogy: “They” with a capital “T”

You probably hear the word thrown out offhandedly; maybe you played a board game when you were in high school; maybe you listen to the wrong radio stations. Maybe it just got shouted down the bar from you the other night in the middle of a heated political discussion after someone’s fifth cheap whisky.

Why is there an eye on a pyramid on the American dollar bill?

Who killed Marilyn Monroe?

What is “Fnord”?

Wait, forget that last one.

What are the dolphins up to?

Why does nobody talk about George Washington’s past as a hemp farmer?

What is the connection between Atlantis and the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”?

Who are the Illuminati?

And finally… what is the significance of the number five in so many suspicious places?

The Illuminatus! Trilogy is a one-volume set containing The Eye in the Pyramid, the Golden Apple, and Leviathan, originally published in 1975 after being written from 1969-71 by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. It was written while they were both editors at Playboy, and researched (mis-)using the magazine’s staff. Like many brilliant and deeply influential books, it’s been claimed as representative of their philosophy by everyone from mystics (gnostic reality, deeper forces beyond the physical) to libertarians (don’t trust the government, don’t trust the status quo, don’t trust your mother) to absurdist comedians and satirists – and as the book points out, in its final lapse into self-deconstruction, these are often the same people depending on the day of the week.

And here’s what it amounts to, in narrative terms: an overarching, millenia-long plot to end the world (“immanentize the eschaton”) dating back to the dawn of intelligent life, with the knowing assistance of George Washington doppleganger Adam Weishaupt and the Bavarian Illuminati, the Republican party, the German techno scene, and just about everything that you can imagine hiding in the shadows.

Naturally this is a story with some protagonists in the mix; intrepid pirates aboard a golden submarine, investigative journalists, ancient mystics, and the generally disgruntled stand in the way of apocalyptic progress.

And of course there are the Discordians, followers of Eris (of golden apple fame) and general disrupters of anything organized or sensible. One of the earliest memes on the Internet (when it was still coalescing out of Usenet culture) was a compilation of snippets of Illuminatus-related material called “Principia Discordia”; this gives you some idea of the breadth of the book’s appeal.

Illuminatus! does a few things extraordinarily well. First, it does its research. Although it’s more a work of satire than of honest exposé, it definitely goes the extra mile to include every possible conspiracy theory. Before there was Wikipedia, this book provided ample opportunity to go down paranoid rabbit-holes and think big. And it builds it all into a (semi-) coherent framework – no mean feat.

Second, the book is an interesting look at culture and counter-culture from the perspective of the early 1970s. Hefner, Nixon, and the Cold War feature heavily in the story’s trappings, as do less-than-mainstream sex, copious drugs, and psychedelic rock. In many ways it was extremely topical and real-world-anchored, making it almost the “Watchmen” of conspiracy novels.

Finally, it’s a fundamentally silly book. While still embracing and endeavouring to communicate broader mystical truths, from one perspective or another, it’s still a picaresque storm of insanity very much along the lines of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” or even some of Terry Pratchett’s more whimsical endeavors, not least “Small Gods”.

The notion of the Illuminati seems to be everywhere in pop culture. From hip-hop to the KLF, from Steve Jackson boardgames to Deus Ex, from National Treasure to The Number 23, after you read this book you’ll see echoes of it everywhere.

And maybe it’s onto something. Maybe you won’t really know the deeper secrets of the world until you deeply understand the Law of Fives.

The only way to find out is to crack the tome of forbidden knowledge, and enter the hidden world of the Illuminatus! Trilogy.

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