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Journal for the Study of Radicalism, Volume 4, Number 2, Fall 2010,


pp. 139-165 (Article)

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DOI: 10.1353/jsr.2010.0000

For additional information about this article


http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/jsr/summary/v004/4.2.versluis.html

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arthur versluismichigan state university

A Conversation with
Peter Lamborn Wilson

P
eter Lamborn Wilson (b. 1945) is certainly among the most influential
anarchist authors of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centu-
ries. His books range in subject from heterodox aspects of Islamic
tradition, to pirates, to the theme for which he is perhaps most well known,
temporary autonomous zones. Under the name Hakim Bey, he has pub-
lished numerous provocative works, widely available on the internet, yet
he is a strong critic of the web and of computer technology in general. We
met on a sunny day in late August and sat in a park, conversing about his
personal history, his current analysis in light of the history of the left and of
contemporary anarchist perspectives, and the theses that guide his thinking
today about the present and the future. It was a wide-ranging, sometimes
surprising, sometimes arcane, and sometimes quite amusing conversation.

Arthur Versluis [AV]: Were sitting in a park with Peter Lamborn Wilson.
Oftentimes what we do in these conversations is think back chronologically,
in terms of your childhood or your adolescence, because we wonder what led
to the unusual course you took over the years. You were at Columbiadid
you ever graduate?

Journal for the Study of Radicalism, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2010, pp. 139166. issn 1930-1189.
2010 Michigan State University Board of Trustees. All rights reserved. 139
140 Arthur Versluis

Peter Lamborn Wilson [PLW]: No.

AV: What do you want to say about your youthful period?

PLW: The first thing that flashed into my mind when you asked what in
childhood led to whatever it is Ive become, I immediately thought comic
books, or comics, anyway. That was one of my childhood ambitions, to be a
comic artist. I never did it, but it obviously warped my mind, just as theyve
said. Thats what they feared. The comics coderemember the comics code?

AV: Sure.

PLW: As far as that goes, I could just quickly get it out of the way by saying
the sixties. I was just the right age to be, as I like to say, a buck private in
Generalissimo Learys army of premature entheogenists. That was the sixties,
and then I spent ten years in India and Iran. Thats it in a nutshell.

AV: I have questions about that. You were traveling in the East during the
sixties. It wasnt Columbia alone. You were doing traveling during that period,
werent you?

PLW: I dropped out of Columbia and then I was a conscientious objector for
two years during the Vietnamese mess. Then I pretty much immediately,
in a fit of disgust after 68which I clearly saw had been the failure of the
revolutiondecided to give up politics and go to the Orient.

AV: So you went to Iran at that point, then?

PLW: No, I spent a certain amount of time in North Africa, Lebanon, and
Turkey, and then I went to India and stayed there for two years. I was on my
way back, and I came to Iran and realized what a great place it was and how
many possibilities it had. One thing led to another, and I ended up staying
seven years there.

AV: Thats an era and a group of people that Im really quite interested in. It
included Seyyed Hossein Nasr and who else?
A Conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson 141

PLW: Henry Corbin.

AV: So you knew Henry Corbin?

PLW: Yes, and Toshihiko Izutsu. I dont know if youre familiar with his work.

AV: Sure.

PLW: And William Chittick.

AV: I didnt know William Chittick was there, too.

PLW: He was one of the founders of our little academy there [ ].

AV: Did Frithjof Schuon ever have any relationship to that or not?

PLW: He never was there, but Nasr had close connections with him, of course.

AV: At that time.

PLW: How much dirt are we going to dish here? I suppose its all ancient
history now. Im saying hes [Nasr] still alive, so . . .

AV: Yes, he is.

PLW: I dont think its a secret that a Sufi order was behind these connections.

AV: No, thats published. Thats available, public knowledge of Schuons order
and so on of the connections that they had.

PLW: So I should point out that Corbin, Izutsu, and other people at the academy
were not part of that. They had their own rows to hoe.

AV: Since that time, after you left, maybe during the time you left, you also
left behind Traditionalism.
142 Arthur Versluis

PLW: Well, I wouldnt put it that way. Im a very palimpsestic thinker, so I


never throw anything away. Im still, on some level, an Episcopalian just like
I was growing up, as well as all of the other things Ive added to it on top, you
know? And Traditionalism, in some sort or another, is one of those things,
but its the party line that I left. Its the rigid exclusivist neo-Traditionalism
of the sort that leads to murky politics and interpersonal, interhuman rela-
tionsthat part I didnt like.

AV: It seems like theres an inherent set of maybe conflicts or contradictions


in Traditionalism, which is really effectively, I think, very powerful as a set
of critiques of the modern world.

PLW: Critiques are easy, you know what Im saying? How many times have
you had the experience of reading a book of commentary on this or that,
and the critique part is spot on, and then you get to the Now what can we
do about this? And now comes all the blah blah and the bullshit and the
stupid ideas and the ill-thought-out and obviously futile suggestions. So yes,
Traditionalism has a great critique, but whats its proposal? That became the
problem for me.

AV: What I was going to suggest is that Traditionalism and anarchism . . .

PLW: They absolutely have an interface.

AV: They have a point of interface.

PLW: I cant remember his name now, but the person who converted Ren
Gunon to Islam was actually an anarchist. This is also published.

AV: Ivan Aguli.

PLW: Yes, him. And Ananda Coomaraswamy was an anarchist; I dont think
he ever actually gave up being some sort of anarchist. These ideas can easily
interface. William Morris.
A Conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson 143

AV: Lord Northbourne actually had some dimensions of that I think, a


little bit.

PLW: Lord Northbourne?

AV: Yes, didnt he have the emphasis on localism and distributism?

PLW: Oh, that kind of distributism. Chesterton [G. K.] and Belloc. Thats
another interface area. Those people can be very libertarian in their way. They
sometimes say it jokinglylike John Michell called himself an anarcho-tory.

AV: Yes, he would.

PLW: He was an amusing character.

AV: Yes, I remember John.

PLW: You met him?

AV: Yes.

PLW: I wouldnt want to join any political parties with him. I wouldnt have
wanted to join any actual political parties with any of these people, but if it
comes to joint action on certain issues, then obviously we share a lot of the
same ideas. Lets say my whole appreciation is as an anarchist of the Paleolithic
argument, the original anarchist societys argument, which is actually a
political platform for a few thousand people in the world nowadaysgreen
anarchists and neoprimitivists, John Zerzan, folks like that, couldnt have
arrived at those understandings without first having gone first through . . .

AV: Through the critique that Traditionalism provided.

PLW: Exactly.

AV: Traditionalism provides the critique, and then at a certain point one comes
144 Arthur Versluis

to the end of that, and then you look around for alternatives: you could call
that alternative Paleo-anarchism.

PLW: Its more like Anarcho-paleolithicism, which is not a very pretty sounding
term. By the way, I dont necessarily think of that as a practical proposal either.

AV: You mean Primitivism.

PLW: Yes, Primitivism. Its a thought that has to be thoughtlets put it that way.
You know, its a question of how far back you go, right? Most Traditionalists
really only go back to the middle ages or classical times, and they follow some
kind of Babylonian/Egyptian concept of authority, but if you go back a little
farther, you discover that all those institutions didnt exist in the Paleolithic.
If you study it seriously through the work of Marshall Sahlins and people like
that, you begin to realize that theres an even more traditional Traditionalism,
and lo and behold, its nonauthoritarian. So you could say that Im even more
Traditionalist than I was before, in theory. In practice, its another matter.
Right now, there is no practice. As I said, theres only the illusion of society
thats provided by technology.

AV: The French term for what I was thinking of is Archeofuturism.

PLW: Ive never heard that one.

AV: Archeofuturism is the concept of Guillaume Faye, a French writer, and


its analogous to what youre talking about.

PLW: A whole generation of people arrived at this thought together, if you


look at, for example, the unfortunately titled but extremely important book
Man the Hunter, which came out in 1968. Just at the moment that the last
possible leftist revolution failed, these ideas about the past began to come
in to focus. Its the usual story in intellectual life. A large number of people
have the same idea at the same time, because theyve all been thinking about
the same set of things in the past. I should mention Fredy Perlman too. And
indeed the Situationists began to think along these lines to a certain extent.
A Conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson 145

AV: Its interesting that you mention that, because the next question I have
is: What kind of role has Situationism played for you?

PLW: Well, it became obvious to me at a certain point that the response to the
problem that Ive called the technopathocracyfor shorthand, but you know
what I meanthis begins with the Romantic era, so basically all avant-gardes
have been prolongations of Romanticism in this respect. They seem to have
taken different forms because each one contains a critique of the form that
preceded it and failed. This leads right up to Surrealism, which is quite clearly
the Romanticism of the twentieth century, and that leads to Situationism.
So basically, I came to appreciate Situationism as Romanticism, and to read
it the way that people like Fredy Perlman were reading itas, what did you
call it? a form of Archeofuturism? The Situationists themselves began to look
back in interesting ways.

AV: So it isnt so much that Situationism itself is particularly formative for


you, so much as it represents one among a series of comparable kinds of
reactions to modernity.

PLW: The reason why I explain it like that is because I didnt know about Situ-
ationism when it was hot in the sixties; that was something that Americans
didnt know about until the mid-seventies, basically when I was in the East,
and I never heard about it. I never heard about it until I got back to America
in the early eighties. So for me, the whole thing has a retrospective tinge;
I was never following the Situationists ideas at the time they were being
propagated, except in very indirect ways that all hippies were. As soon as I
came across it, I saw it in this perspective.

AV: The larger perspective is one of reactions against or attempts to overcome


modernity, basically.

PLW: If you want to play with dialecticswe could make them Paracelsian
dialectics if you prefer that to Hegelian dialecticsbut if you look at things
dialectically, this is a whole long series of antitheses, none of which managed
to produce the new synthesis.
146 Arthur Versluis

AV: So again, to come back to that theme, then what were looking towards
is a new synthesis, a kind of larger movement.

PLW: Right, and as I say, the situation is such now that I dont think we have
to play the ideological game of renouncing the past and refusing to take any
inspiration from any past models [that] so afflicted certain elements of the
left in the twentieth century. Basically, I think were free now to delve into
our own tradition, which goes back to the Paleolithic, because the human
spirit being what it is, theres always been some form of resistance. I like to
think of it as a secret society that was founded the moment the first ziggurat
cast its shadow over the late Neolithic. As soon as the first coup dtat, the
first state appears, obviously, theres going to be resistance. You can read all
about it in The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the so-called Babylonian Creation.
Have you studied it?

AV: I havent studied it. Ive read it.

PLW: Well, Tiamat is obviously the old Neolithic polity, and Marduk is the
emergence of the state and hierarchy. He splits her body into two, an above
and a below, and create[s] human beings as serfs out of the bloody remains
in the mud. Marduk creates human beings to be the slaves of the god caste,
whereas all Tiamat and her lazy brood of monsters wanted to do was zero
work, you know? Remember they wanted to just . . . These young gods are
making too much noise, you know? Whats this progress shit? The way I
see it, theres been some kind of counterconspiracy, counterilluminati secret
society. If we wanted to play that Rosicrucian game, we could trace back to
most ancient times.

AV: In some respects you create, some parts of your work can be seen, I think,
as creating alternate lineages in the West that wouldnt have existed.

PLW: Absolutely. I think we can draw the line between history and mytho-
poesis, but its a very shaky line, of course, a very blurred line. Ive done both.
These countertraditions, or whatever you want to call them, are often lost
to official history for obvious reasons. The pen is in the hand of the enemy,
as they always say, especially the winner. Naturally, its a constant struggle
A Conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson 147

to recover, and its what radical historians do. Even within academia, this
activity is now going on.

AV: Pirate utopias, the triracial groupings that you trace, the Ishmaelites, Hassan
i-Sabbah, the Assassins, those are all things that come to mind as new lines
that you bring in or put forward as countertraditions or alternate traditions.

PLW: Right, I have done that, yes, with my history hat on, right.

AV: When doing that, its not just history; youre creating . . .

PLW: So? Show me what is just history.

AV: Well, thats right.

PLW: Where is historiography without some kind of ax to grind? Find me one


work of absolutely objective historiography, and Ill grant you your question.

AV: Ill get right on that.

[laughter]

PLW: Okay. Of course there are degrees, and we can see that quite clearly,
but the pretense of a disengaged historiography is just that: its a pretense,
an illusion put up by a capitalist world that wants to present itself as a law
of nature.

AV: Actually, theres a theologian whose work I was reading recently, and he
said the function of the contemporary university is to duplicate the existing
social order. Period.

PLW: Thats what compulsory education and Deweyism is, thats its history
in America, which is again suppressed. There are people working on that
now, like John Gatto. Hes blown a lot of very interesting whistles on the
American education system.
148 Arthur Versluis

AV: Ill take a look at that, because thats a special interest of mine.

PLW: I dont think theres been such a creative thinker on the subject since
Ivan Illich. His politics are a bit murky; I dont know quite what they are. Hell
defend family values just as much as freedom of thought. Hes some kind of
libertarian I guess, but he was also a professional teacher, and twice in a year
he won like the best high school teacher in America award. And then he quit
in disgust and said [that] this is all nonsense, and has been devoting himself
since to exposing education in America for what it is, which is basically social
conditioning on the one hand, and economic warehousing on the other. He
says things that are just so obvious that you wonder that no one has ever
dared to think them before. Like all this money we pour into the high schools
because were trying to create livelihoodswhatever happened to vocational
schools? How come they disappeared? The answer is that were not interested
in creating livelihoods. If we were, wed have vocational schools. So therefore,
we must look elsewhere to see what education is really after. Anyway, I dont
want to get sidetracked on him. I admire him.

AV: That fits within the larger scheme of creating contemporary social structures.
Theres another aspect of that, and that is, Ive taught T.A.Z. and use that as
a course text and some others of your[writings], and occasionally there are
themes that come up in there that are really social anathema. Most of your
work is a celebration of antinomianism. Thats what temporary autonomous
zones is, thats what periodic autonomous zones also would be, I would think.
Its an antinomian, I dont want to say order, but an antinomian space.
Antinomian space would be better.

PLW: Spontaneous ordering, an anarchist concept contrary to what vulgar


critics think: If youre an anarchist, how could you belong to an organization?
Ha ha ha! Please. Its not something [that] escapes the social, obviously. Its
very importantly linked in with the social; its about the social as much as
the individual.

AV: But whats your ethos? Whats the ethos that underlies your antinomianism?
In other words, where does it come from?
A Conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson 149

PLW: I guess, without wanting to seem presumptuous, I would have to say it


comes from inspiration, you know, from mystical inspiration, from direct
experiential perception ultimately. Its something that I experience.

AV: And that experience is what? Its the superseding of conventions or going
beyond?

PLW: It shouldnt be too hard to understand this in [the] history of religion


terms. Its the worldly illusion. Im not a Gnostic dualist; I dont think the
world is evil. Its the social world where these problems appear, not the
world of nature. But given that, there still remain the critiques coming from
radical Buddhism and Taoism and Sufism, that this social world is illusory;
its values are false. Lets, just for an example, analyze law. What is law? From
an anarchist perspective, law is what rich people can afford to get away with,
and thats all it is. Its not written in heaven. Theres no natural law in that
respect for human society. If there were, we wouldnt need laws, you know?
So its a philosophical shithouse, the whole concept of law. So that makes me
an antinomian, if I look at reality that way.

AV: But your antinomianism fits in, actually, with this kind of archaism that
has been a theme throughout [your work], because what youre suggesting
is that modernity is based on an illusory contemporary order, whereas there
is a more fundamental spontaneous order thats much more archaic.

PLW: Id like to say that, roughly speaking, theres a proper way for humanity
to live, and its exemplified by what we know of tribal, so-called primitive
societies. This is not to say that they were all goody-goodies, that they were
all flower children. Violence is real, and it will always be real, and disappoint-
ment and death are always there, so Im not talking about a science fiction
utopia in the past; Im just saying theres a more natural way for human
beings to relate to each other and to themselves. Traveling also helped me
to understand that. These things seem . . . its hard to say where they come
from, because I didnt arrive at them through a process of ratiocination; it
just seems obvious to me.
150 Arthur Versluis

AV: So that understanding, that kind of a foundational understanding that


derives from direct inner experience, then manifests itself in the natural
expressionfor example, your referring to things that the social order
regards as illegitimate but are in fact part of natural, an expression of nature
and natural life.

PLW: Right. I think entheogens are a very good field to make this clear,
because we obviously live in an extremely bizarre situation where something
that is so clearly natural that it has to do with plants and has been going on
for thousands of years and exists in every society that Ive managed to study
in one form or another, in our particular modern world here in America is
considered to be illegal, is illegal, and is considered to be a threat to some
kind of cosmic or social order.

AV: Its anathematized.

PLW: Yes, so this is a casebook example of what Im talking about. The laws
themselves are irrational and immoral, if you want to speak in rough terms.
This is why I get a laugh out of this. The pro-drug people are rationalists, and
theyre always saying, Cant you see? Youre acting irrationally. If only you
would understand, its not harmful to society, and not only that, you could
get a lot of tax dollars out of it, you know?

[laughter]

AV: So youre making rational arguments when the antidrug argument is


totally irrational?

PLW: Why cant you understand what were saying? And the real irrational-
ists, the ones who appear to be completely whacked out on something, are
the drug warriors. No, you must never touch that plant. Theres a terrible
taboo on that plant. I mean, come on. Whos the mumbo-jumbo barbarian
in this scenario?

AV: The conversation helps me to get a sense of how things tie together in your
worldview, because you see different parts in different works. Sometimes its
A Conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson 151

expressed in poetic form, sometimes in essay form or in nonfiction history,


so the conversation helps me to see the larger framework for it.

PLW: I might add, by the way, just as a postscript to that, that several of the
Traditionalists themselves changed their position on drugs, including Mircea
Eliade and Huston Smith.

AV: Yes, Huston Smith. I was quite surprised to see him included in the
entheogen anthology.

PLW: Because they were objective enough to reassess their own positions.
Eliades was revealed in a little-known interview shortly before his death; it
never appeared in any of his books, unfortunately.

AV: I thought we might change the area of the conversation a little bit, because
Ive spoken a few times to John Zerzan and some other folksDavid Watson,
for example, and Bob Blackwho regard themselves as within the anarchist
community, but there seems to be a lot of disagreement among folks. For
example, Murray Bookchin was highly critical of your work, and he was a
Marxist, not a really an anarchist at all

PLW: I gather he renounced anarchism on his deathbed or something; I never


did get this story straight.

AV: It seems to me he never really was anarchist in a meaningful way, but


Bob Black or John Zerzan, thats another story. Ive had conversations with
John Zerzan in which I asked him directly about mysticism and esotericism,
and it seems like that sort of territory, hes a little open to it, but Bob Black
is not open to it. It seems to me as though youre out there on your own in
that respect.

PLW: No, not really. Since Ive been out here on this corner for such a long
time Ive accumulated a whole set of comrades and predecessors. I think
theres a strong tradition of spiritual anarchy going all the way back to the
seventeenth century and the Ranters, those kind of far-out Protestant mystics
who were antinomian and anarchist before the term. So, I dont feel completely
152 Arthur Versluis

lonely. I mean, look, Raoul Vaneigem wrote a book on the Brethren of the
Free Spirit, so these worlds keep on coming together. Its inevitable that they
should. Of course, anarchism is like the rest of the historical Left: its still
engaged in a nineteenth-century progressivist, materialist, what I would call
vulgar materialist, worldview that it shared and shares with Marxism and
other forms of the historical movement of the social, and not everybody
within the anarchist milieu makes the transition from what I would think
of as post-sixties anarchist thought.

AV: Its interesting that so many of the people who are classified as radical seem
to have an allergy to religion. Thats true of some of the folks weve mentioned,
though not all, and then you look at somebody like Ted Kaczynski. You read
his Unabombers manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future, and in there I
was struck by the fact that literally theres nothing, theres no indication that
religion really exists except for, I think, a footnote. It just strikes me that for
a lot of political radicalism, the whole theme of religion is, what would you
call it? terra non grata?

PLW: First of all, theres obviously historical reasons for this, especially if were
going to use the word religion, lets say, instead of spirituality. When I talk
about post-sixties developments, Im specifically thinking of the decoupling
of spirituality and religion, which was accomplished by so many thinkers in
that period in the sixties and seventies that it would be impossible to name
them all. Its a very complicated development. Youd have to include such
weird and forgotten things as the Death of God movement, the Christian
theologians interested in Nietzsche back in the fifties. So its very complicated,
but the reason for libertarianssmall L libertariansto be wary of religion
is historically obvious. Religion qua religion is part of the Babylonian scam.
In my view, its a recuperation of shamanic spirituality in which the priests
first put a taboo on effective spiritual techniques and then deny their existence.
You can see it in the history of Soma in orthodox Hinduism. First there are
substitutes for it, and then there are allegations of it, and then finally it doesnt
exist anymore. We dont know what it was; its gone. This is what they used
to call priestcraft. The free-thinkers, the free spirits called it priestcraft, and
its part of the Babylonian illusion.
A Conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson 153

AV: So this distinction between spirituality and religion, which I fully


understand, it resonates with the sixties and the hippy, the emergence of
the counterculture that [Theodore] Roszak wrote about, and that would be
a movement of spirituality.

PLW: Absolutely. Its unimaginable without the spiritual component, which has
a hugely complex history of being recuperated, rescued, filtered out, stolen
from religion as well as from other sources such as Hermeticism, which is
not a religion in that sense.

AV: No, it isnt.

PLW: Thats why I like it. I see it as a way to deal with the problem of Western
attitudes toward religion and spirituality, to come up with something that is
both traditional and radical.

AV: So is your work over these years, in a lot of ways, an extension of the
counterculture or a continuation of this counterculture?

PLW: Sure, why not? Absolutely. The sixties was yet another one of the avant-
garde revolutions that failed, but that doesnt mean we give up the basic
Romantic project, right? We just find a new form for it. Thats what were
struggling to do now, I hope; it would be nice to think.

AV: What form do you think that might take? Youve been thinking about
utopianism for a long time.

PLW: Yes, I like to think of utopianism as a very useful heuristic tool if nothing
else. Charles Fourier is my favorite, because he was a great Hermeticist; and
when you actually analyze what he was talking about, he was an anarchist,
because its all voluntaryits all spontaneous ordering. And he was the
first real critic of civilization. Hes the intellectual precursor of all this, you
know, the critique of civilization that weve been talking about. Its nice to
use him as a bellwether or a measuring stick for what were thinking about
when we think about a utopian solution to some social problem or other.
First of all, I think that were in a very bad place in history for all of this right
154 Arthur Versluis

now, it seems to me, with the collapse of the Left. In 1989, when the Soviet
Union collapsed, we had a few years of thinking, Oh, at last weve got that
albatross off our back. Now its going to be the century of anarchism, right, or
whatever. And it turned out that this behemoth, as it sank, its suction took
down the rest of the historical Left with it, and anarchism is no more popular
or on top of things on the crest of the wave of history now than it was in 1957,
to pick a particularly dismal year. Its worse, in some respects, in terms of
actually getting anything done about really reorganizing human society so as
to maximize the kinds of freedoms that anarchism values. Why this should
be? As I say, in part I blame technology, the overwhelming success of the
capital/technology/global image in swamping human consciousnessin the
past twenty years. In fact, I think that ideas like the temporary autonomous
zone are more important now than they were when we were first thinking
about them. What remains is the possibility for small groups of human beings
to experience some kind of real life outside an opposition to this whatever-
we-want-to-call-itthe Babylonian Lie would be as good as anything else,
in the way the Rastafarians use the term.

AV: So temporary autonomous zones are a way of envisioning utopia . . .

PLW: Of living utopia.

AV: . . . of living utopia that effectively ignores the kind of suction downward
of the entire Left. It provides an alternative, which is an immediate alternative,
rather than an imaginary or envisioned long-term alternative.

PLW: Thats right, and out of thatI mean, if we could mobilize more of that
kind of spirit, then out of that might start to emerge less temporary, if not
permanent, crystallizations of spontaneous form. I kind of predict, I quasi-
predict, not in a Nostradamus way, but in an attempt to be antipessimistic at
least, I would predict that were probably going to see another generation of
people interested in concepts of dropping out of the rat race of civilization
in the way that it happened in the 1840s, as weve been discussing here at
this conference. Theres a long American tradition of the dropout solution.
If groups of people can begin to get things organized on that level, well, then
who knows what comes next? Now were in the realm of perhaps building
A Conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson 155

the kernel, the new society within the shell of the old, to steal a phrase from
the IWW preamble. But at least I think were going to see a wave of revulsion
against this too-late capitalist consumer dystopia that were stuck in. Either
thats going to happen, or I give up; I resign.

AV: Kirkpatrick Sale said he fully expects that the whole technological apparatus
is just going to crash to the ground.

PLW: Thats what [Paul] Virilio also talks about, the global accident. When you
have a global technology, then you have the possibility of the global accident.
I like to say sometimes, just to get people angry, that its already happened:
weve already had the end of civilization; were now inhabiting the haunted
ruins, and that if you want a symbol of that, it would be the Internet. Im
basically on Kirks [Sales] side in this respect in at least hoping that something
like that could happen without some kind of horrible, cataclysmic, centuries
of hideous darkness and radioactive disease for humanity. Some kind of
peaceful transition could be hopeful at least.

AV: And then envision something on the other side of that.

PLW: Right, well, there I wouldnt be too terribly original; I mean, human
beings know what they want, and theyve always known what they want.
Thats why its interesting to see what kinds of desires are expressed in utopian
literature. You could say that this is a surfacing of a great subconscious:
its always a surfacing of a great subconscious power when people begin
to imagine the Golden Age or utopia or the Messianic Age. It may lead to
unfortunate political solutions, and it often has, especially futile uprisings
that lead to bloody massacres. But there are alternatives, as we know from
the long experimental history of leftist institutions. Some of them were very
successful. The whole cooperative movement was extremely successful. Then
it was destroyed by capitalism.

AV: Gaskins farm down in Tennessee still exists. I went down and visited.

PLW: Yes, theres a handful of communes, and theres a handful of neighbor-


hood groups who are doing real things and so forth and so on; its not
156 Arthur Versluis

entirely bleak. But when you look at the big picture, there is no big picture
except the image.

AV: That leads to the alternative, which is, rather than the system crashing
down, it just continues to build, and one has totalitarianism.

PLW: Thats the J. G. Ballard future. I believe he expressed that better than
anybody. Yes, the infinite shopping mall.

AV: Or worse.

PLW: Yes, right.

AV: Thats another potential future that one cant totally rule out.

PLW: No, no, no. As I say, my position is antipessimist; its not optimist. I like
to make a distinction there. Optimists are always disappointed, so theres no
point in that.

AV: Ive got a question here that actually comes from Morgan, whos a student
that I work with. This is his question: There seems to be a general disconnect
between our self-understanding and the various images given to us by media
and elsewhere. Where does an idea like Marcuses eros fit within your theory,
and can it play a productive role in society? You seem to get closer to the
idea of eros presented by Marcuse than any other modern writer. What do
you think?

PLW: Thats nice. I was never a major disciple of Marcuse but influenced by
him like so many others in the sixties. Charles Fourier again helped me focus
on the concept of desire as it would manifest in everything from hermetic
cosmology to the sleeping arrangement in the phalanstery. And again Sur-
realism, the way Surrealism uses the word desire. And the way Sufism uses
the word desire. The whole eros of spirituality. And Tantra. All of these
things come together.

AV: And they all fit in the same general ambit as antinomianism, because
A Conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson 157

antinomianism would be simply providing the space within which eros or


desire can play.

PLW: Right. The only reason I wouldnt want to primarily label myself as an
antinomian is its negativity. Limitations in anarchism might be revealed in
the very fact that the term itself is a negative.

AV: Whereas erosand this is the genesis of his questionis an affirmative.

PLW: Is a positive. Right. Im very taken and have been for years with the
Hesiodic cosmogony of chaos, eros, earth, and old night, ancient night. Thats
the first four deities in his cosmogony. That works very well for me.

AV: Ive got a longer question. This is kind of a complex question, and thats
why I wanted to create a little space around it. What draws you to Islamic
heresies as evidenced in books like Scandal, or for that matter, [to] Islam at
all? Isnt Islam a monolithic monotheism as its usually presented? I have to
say, Ive grown skeptical of monotheism in general, but one could make a
case that monotheism is interesting for what it generates on its periphery,
its marginal antimonotheisms. Do you think thats true? These antitheses
are built into the life of a figure like Schuon, come to think of it. Is that what
really attracted you to Islam or Traditionalism, their antitheses? Or is it
something else?

PLW: Its an interesting insight, because in fact, one of the first things that
attracted me to the whole Islamic ethos was its enemy quality, its outside
quality, which goes deep into our culture, back to the Crusades and so forth. I
wouldnt deny it; its the Apache element. But it was also the seductive beauty
of Sufism. And in the sixties it was the whole element of complete mystery
about the whole thing like, are we talking about the fifteenth century here?
Or could there still be any of this left? Thats one of the reasons I went to the
East, to find out, because you certainly couldnt just log on to the Internet
and find all your local Sufis. That just wasnt happening. There were some
around, but we just didnt know how to get in touch with them. And then
the fact that I therefore went to the Islamic world and lived in it for seven or
ten years, however you want to add it up, that also continued to shape my
158 Arthur Versluis

existence in the way I thought about things and perceived things. A good
sixth of my life is in Shiite Islam, you know. That obviously has to be taken
into consideration. I now have to come to terms with all that experience and
all that thought.
On the other hand, I also distrust monotheism, and I like to talk about
the repaganization of monotheism rather [than the] overthrowing of it. Im
not just an anti-Christian or anti-Muslim. As I told you, everything Ive ever
been I still am. Someone once said to Grard de Nerval, Oh you have no
religion. He said, What? Me? No religion? I have at least seventeen. I very
much resonate with that. All of these things, Im constantly trying to either
deal with my ambulatory schizophrenia or else make syntheses or both. I
like to perceive the whole Islamic thing through the kind of heretical lens
that Ive learned to use from Corbin rather than through the rigid systems
of Neotraditionalism that stem from Gunon, as much [as] I might admire
many things about Gunon and his critique and his writing. First of all,
it leads me to appreciate the medieval manyness of Islam as opposed to
the neo-Puritanical oneness of it; to look at syncretistic sects in India and
Indonesia, places like that, and find real inspiration in them. These are real
forms of spiritual experience that overcome narrow orthodoxies. They take
place usually both on the subliterate level and on the superliterate level. On
the village level, you have some cult where a Sufi saint and Kali are somehow
conflated. Believe me, India has everything you could dream of in this respect,
and thats the aspect of Indian culture, which I really love, that syncretism.
Persian culture too, in a way. Persian culture, Turkish culture, and northern
Indian culture, historicallytheres just a constant cornucopia of heretical
forms. You scratch an Iranian who thinks, and youre going to find some kind
of weird Shiite messianic alchemy. Alchemical, right? Some crypto-Zoroastrian,
highly individual response to the whole challenge of monolithic Islam. I
cant speak of Arab culture, because I havent lived amongst the Arabs, really.

AV: Some people throw around the word postmodern, but really what youre
describing is not postmodern; its syncretic in the way that naturally happens
as an engine of culture. Historically, theyre all syncretic.

PLW: The problem with postmodernism is its failure to take into consideration
the Nietzschean demand for reevaluation of values. It just simply has no values.
A Conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson 159

AV: Its funny you say that.

PLW: Whereas syncretism, in the sense that I think of it, is precisely a desiring
mechanism for arriving at precisely that.

AV: Can you say a little more about reevaluation rather than the kind of
loose nihilism that characterizes much of what goes under the rubric of
postmodernism?

PLW: Sure. I was thinking just the other day that one of the most valuable
and underrated philosophers of the twentieth century is Colin Wilson, who
I think carried on the Nietzschean project in an interesting way that nobody
else did. In other words, he tried to come up with a practical solution to the
problems posed by Nietzsche. I dont know how familiar you are with his work.

AV: Oh, Ive read a fair bit of him. Starting with the early work, The Outsiders.

PLW: So you know he began with a kind of nihilist position, and then through
meditating on such ideas as the peak experience and the reevaluation of values
and so forth, he arrived at this life-affirmingin the Nietzschean sense, not in
the vapid new age senselife-affirming, strong but not authoritarian response
to the existentialist crisis that he began [to address]. I think its splendid. Its
simple; its something thats easy to understand. You maximize the potential
for these peak experiences, and then you have a device for the reevaluation
of values, coming up with reasons to live, in effect.

AV: But thats a foundational kind of reevaluation of life. In other words, it


comes back to the idea of looking at the ground of things rather than just an
artificial reconstruction of values or construction of values. Youre talking
about a foundational reunderstanding that comes out of peak experiences
or some kind of a direct inner experience. Thats the fountain out of which
the new culture or the emergent culture would come.

PLW: Right, and of course, since it usually turns out to be an individual opera-
tion, the social implications are not so immediately apparent. Again, Colin
Wilson has devoted some interesting pages to that aspect as well. In effect,
160 Arthur Versluis

the more individuals who begin behaving in this way, the closer you are to
the reevaluation on the social level. Hence, one is revolutionary. And, also
hence, one is open minded towards spirituality and the paranormal, even.

AV: Without that, there really isnt the possibility of some kind of larger or
long term.

PLW: Then the bootstrap problem becomes crucial in a completely material-


istic void such as some people interpret Nietzsche as proposing, including
Nietzsche himself at certain times. Wheres the bootstrap by which you pull
yourself up out of the nihilist problem? Nietzsche insisted on founding the
project on nothingwell, thats like one of those Zen koans where youre
falling off a cliff. What do you do in a situation like that? Nietzsche left us in
the shit a little bit on this subject. He really hadnt been able to think about
that until almost the moment before he went mad and fell frothing in the
street in Turin. I believe that the answers are all there within Nietzsche if you
look for them. Hes a universal philosopher in that sense, and he contradicts
himself constantly. So you can find all sorts of things there, from poison
and dynamite to the idea of Christ and Dionysus reconciled, which was the
subject of his last crazy letters. The question was so long, Im not sure we
got to all the parts of it.

[laughter]

AV: I think we did. The question had to with postmodernism and nihilism,
and the originating point of that part of the conversation had to do with
postmodernism and nihilism and reevaluation. I think you answered it, and
I think its, in a lot of respects, accurate to situate postmodernism as in the
shadow of Nietzsche. I think thats true. He poses the questions.

PLW: Right, he poses the question and a lot of the postmodernists gave the
wrong answer, the sort of deconstructionist side of the answer.

AV: Meaning that thats a cul-de-sac, that all these highly abstract critical
theories go nowhere.
A Conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson 161

PLW: Right. Id go so far as to say that theory has betrayed us. As much as I
admire the whole theoretical project of the seventies, thats another albatross
now that has to be thrown off, another terrible old man with its corpse arms
around our throat that has to be thrown off by some magic spell, which were
going to learn. Its time to consider action over theory now; its that swing of
the dialectical pendulum, if you like. Or so it appears to me, and thats why its
so depressing to find oneself living in a country, in a society where nothing
of that nature seems to be going on, except in the minds of millions of people.

AV: In the minds in the sense of through technology and the internet, which
provides the illusion of action without the reality. Thats what youre suggesting.

PLW: So I believe, yes. So I would argue.

AV: Do you want to say a little more about technology as a kind of grand
illusion or a kind of delusion?

PLW: First of all, the usual caveats. Im not talking about tekhn; obviously,
human society doesnt exist without some form of tekhn. Im less of a
Zerzanite primitivist than I am a Luddite in Kirkpatrick Sales use of the term.
Whats important about technology is its appropriateness to the social and
to desire. When technology serves the desire of capital, which is always and
only for money, then it is not serving the luxury of human desire. I like to
ask as a thought problem: try to imagine what science would be like if the
state had never emerged. Based upon what must have been a huge body of
knowledge by the end of the Neolithic about herbs and human health and
relations between humans and plants and humans and animals and so forth,
instead of all of that being reorganized to the aggrandizement of the pharaoh
and his henchmen and leaving everybody else as fellahin groveling in the
dirt, supposing that human society had gone on developing in the roughly
egalitarian tribal way, and yet science had developed as it obviously would
have, where would we be now scientifically? Im not going to answer that; I
prefer to leave it as a thought problem. I mean, I have given some thought
to it, and Ive seen that theres a whole other science thats possible. Hence,
again, the interest in Hermeticism, which I think has carried the torch for
this secret project for a long time.
162 Arthur Versluis

AV: Thats actually the question I had at the very end of this. Regarding Green
Hermeticism, historically it is true that theres a profound set of links in the
early modern period, as you know, between science, Hermeticism, alchemy.
Theyre all intermingled, and an alternative technology could have come out
of that intermingling that would have been quite different.

PLW: Thats right. To play with conspiratorial ideas, if the Royal Society hadnt
stolen all the secrets of the Hermeticists and turned them to the uses of the
British Empire, right? That was a very key moment; so far its only been
studied by crackpot historians. Its worth your tenure to start whispering
about pre-Masons and rogue Rosicrucians founding the Royal Society and
bringing modern science into it. You and I know about this, but the historians
of science are still involved in suppressing this information for the greater
glory of progressism and our supposedly rational peak, the highest form of
civilization that we inhabit, post-Enlightenment scientific rationalism, still
unable to face the hobgoblin of Hermeticism and the vital role [that] steal-
ing hermetic secrets played in the emergence of modern technology. Every
great technological advance of the twentieth century, when you look at it,
was a dream of magic. Or lets say, of the modern period, not the twentieth
century. Lets talk from the sixteenth century onward. Every accomplishment
of techno-science, technology/science, every real world accomplishment, is
all based on the dreams of magic.
Just to take one prime example would be aviation. The first person to
fly was an Hermeticist. I mean in history. I believe the ancient Chinese
and Indians probably also invented the hot air balloon, but the modern
invention was made by the Montgolfier brothers, who were followers of the
phlogiston theory thats propounded by [Joseph] Priestley and the Romantic
scientists who were working in the Hermetic tradition. Lavoisier, who was
the grand panjandrum of modern science and rationality [and] who was
their contemporary, was trying to build a balloon at the same time based on
his so-called correct theory of gasses, and they failed, they lost the race to
space. The crazy Montgolfier brothers won; they got there first. So, aviation
begins as the dream of Hermeticism. Flying flat-out, in my opinion. You
can see in the kind of imagery that they put on the balloons: its almost all
exclusively hermetic imagery. Its fascinating. You on from there to people
like [Alberto] Santos-Dumont, the Brazilian who flew the first dirigible and
A Conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson 163

actually beat the Wright brothers by a few years in manned flight. He was a
great idealist and eccentric, had artistic vision. He used to fly around with a
tuxedo and champagne. He was a great character, and he believed that aviation
was going to change the world, put an end to warhow could there still be
war when everybody can bomb themselves to oblivion? He just didnt get it,
and the first time he saw airplanes being used to drop bombs on people, he
committed suicide. He went back to his hotel and told the elevator man, Ive
made a great mistake, and then he went into his room and hanged himself.
And then you have the whole romance of flight. Proust was enamored with
the romance of flight. All of these early writers thinking of it as basically
magical; its still the magical dream. So, you know, where are we now with
aviation? Post-Hiroshima. Post-9/11. Does anything remain of the magical
dream? No. Its all been changed into itsIm tempted to say satanic parody
to use some condemnatory phrase. Its turned into the nightmare. Its the
antimagical dream.

AV: And the Green Hermeticism project is an effort to point people back
toward the origins of science and technology, seeing them in a new light.

PLW: Thats certainly what one of our projects would be if only we had some
historians of science on our side. I cant think of anybody whos working this
vein. Only crackpots think this way. Its changing a little bit.

AV: Allison Coudert has done a little bit with that.

PWL: There are glimmerings, but way fewer than youd think in the post-sixties,
you know? It just never happenedthis reassessment of Hermeticism just
hasnt happened yet.

AV: Maybe its still to come, like so many of these things.

PLW: Absolutely its still to come. And its jobs for scholars for the next fifty
years, if they only looked at it that way. Its also politically interesting for
me. When I came up to the country, I wondered how to be an activist in
my new rural setting; and it seems to me, and I share this with the Uncle
Watermelons, the idea that the environmentalist movement really can be a
164 Arthur Versluis

foundation for radical social activism in the situation that we find ourselves.
And the whole idea of the repaganization of monotheism, which I was coming
to at the same time in my thoughts about spirituality, came together. You
know, I gave a little conference here in New Paltz on the theory of sacred
earthwhich I believe, if I remember correctly, is the title of a book by John
Ray, one of those early Romantic scientistsand people like Novalis and
Erasmus Darwin were discussed. Then Zia Inayat-Khan, he was one of the
guests at that first meetingwhich we held in the Huguenot stone church
here in New Paltztook up the torch and sponsored a series of conferences,
and Christopher Bamford became, I would say, one of the founders of Green
Hermeticism and published our book on the subject.
But we dont want it to just be another exercise in theory; we want to see
some action. Originally, I was thinking that there could be actual experiments
attempting to apply spagyric ideas to bioremediation situations. That is not
within my competence; thats going to take people with real scientific training.
So Ive decided to work in the area which I am qualified and to do some kind
of artwork, magical art, for the earth. And again, Im hoping that the Sufis
will sponsor this action if we could get it organized. I dont want to go on
about this, but lets just say it would be a mixture of sculpture, what Joseph
Beuys called social sculpture, and art, pyrotechnics, and all sorts of other
art forms in an attempt to evoke the Paracelsian elementals. And all the art
would disappear almost as soon as it had appeared. It would eventually be
aimed at the spirits. In order to solve the problem of capitalist recuperation
of every revolutionary art form, which has been the tragic history of the
avant-garde since the Romantic period, I say make the art disappear; dont
leave anything to sell. Bury it. Some of it will be buried, some of it will be
submerged in water, some of it will be made out of fire so it will come and go
in a few minutes, and so on. So thats the concept of the art work. If people
want to call it art, thats fine. If people want to think of it as magic, thats fine.

AV: But like so much of your work, it is a matter of evocation. Youre evoking
potential future as well as generating or creating something in the present.
Youre evoking a future moment.

PLW: Right. The key phrase here would be reenchantment of the landscape,
although the Sufis already have a pretty enchanting landscape, so its not like
A Conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson 165

were taking some industrial ruin and transforming it, which would be a great
experiment along the lines of the New Alchemy Institute but with a more
artistic slant. That would be great, but as I say, its not within my competence,
not to mention my budget, hence my decision to take on art as some kind
of position thats between theory and practice. Its actually perhaps neither
one nor the other, or its both.

AV: Yes, perhaps both is a better way to phrase it.

PLW: So thats the Green Hermetic project for the future. I have to say I dont
have all that much energy in my old age. This is sort of my last, or maybe
my last attempt at some kind of activist position. It does take a hell of a lot
of energy to do these things. Organizing conferences, as you probably know,
is a fairly thankless task.

AV: I have been there. Well, weve worked our way through the questions,
and there are others and other avenues we could pursue, but I think we have
enough that its shaped into a larger whole. So, I think its probably best to
call it to a close. Thank you very much. I appreciate it. It actually has been a
good and illuminating conversation.

PLW: I hope so.

AV: Thats the truth, so thank you.