Embracing The Chaos: Discordianism & The Counterculture
WRITTEN BY JOSH RAY – JULY 2016
Now enough time has passed, it seems as though we’re ready to give a lot of ideas from the last century another go; whether it’s in political discourse, with previously unimaginable ideas like marijuana legalisation and a universal income building momentum, or in medicine with doctors looking at the mental health benefits of psychedelics, the possibilities are opening up. There’s definitely something happening culturally too, but at the moment the direction it’s going to take is less clear. One thing apparent though, is that amidst all the chaos of the modern world, Discordian ideas are beginning to start making sense to people on a wider scale again.
Discordianism is a satire religion that grew out of a series of late night bowling alley discussions between Greg Hill and Kerry Thornley in latter half of the ‘50s in California. The basic premise was to pull the rug from under people’s belief systems with paradoxical thinking aimed at highlighting how much of what we perceive to be ‘reality’ is actually a projection from our own minds. “Reality is the original Rorschach.”
Centred around the veneration of the Greek goddess, Eris (Discordia in Latin), the spoof religion grew in size and complexity throughout the 1960s as the ‘sacred text’, the ‘Principia Discordia’ came together – the 4th edition, subtitled ‘How I Found Goddess And What I Did To Her When I Found Her’ is the most widely read. Most of it was written by Hill who adopted the moniker, Malaclypse the Younger and proclaimed, “Don’t reject these teachings just because I am crazy. I am crazy because they are true.”
Following in a similar vein to Situationist International, Thornley, Hill and the disparate cabals that started forming around and away from their movement, engaged in a subversive practise that later came to be known as Operation Mindfuck. The idea being that their chaos-enduing pranks might start making people question the ‘reality tunnels’ they view the world through. However, wrapped in hyperbole and peppered with red herrings, it could be said that Discordianism was itself part of OM so it is therefore hard to know the true motivation behind any of it.
No doubt propelled by OM, the two associate editors at Playboy magazine, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea found themselves inundated with bizarre correspondence from the general public on the subject of civil liberties: espousing warped conspiracy theories and paranoid rants with ludicrous proclamations.
The two Bobs, who already had plans for ‘the Great American Novel’, set about weaving together a narrative that entertained all of these idiosyncratic conspiracies, not least, that the Bavarian Illuminati continues to exist and seeks to exert control over every aspect of modern life, hence the title, ‘Illuminatus!’. Originally written between 1969-71 against the backdrop of political assassinations and a society fraying at the edges, the madness in the book started to echo reality a little too eerily for the authors. No publisher would go near the book until 1975, and even then they only agreed to release it in three volumes – they didn’t think anyone would be crazy enough to read the whole thing in one go.
In 1977, as a remedy to the previous book’s madness, Robert Anton Wilson released the first edition of ‘The Cosmic Trigger’ subtitled ‘The Final Secret Of The Illuminati’, explaining the process of ‘self-induced brain change’ that he went through in the ‘chapel perilous’ – a psychological crossroads that leaves you either ‘paranoid’ or ‘enlightened’ – before laying out his all-encompassing, multiple-model agnosticism belief system – or the firm belief in having no beliefs. Weaving together strands of ancient spirituality and cosmology with modern science and psychology, Robert Anton Wilson processes the crucial parts of human knowledge and presents them in a way that relates directly to the trials of modern life.
“For me he’s the only person who made it through the 20th Century and got it,” observes the masterfully insightful countercultural author, John Higgs. “He’s a summation of all that we learned in the 20th Century. You see this in all his debts to Joyce, to Einstein, to Crowley, to Leary. He sort of took on all the nutty but important things that we learned about who we are and synthesized them – he was the guy who made sense of everything in the counterculture. Not many people got out of the 20th Century as insightful and astute, with a philosophy as useful as his.”
Although Discordian ideas have always been bubbling away under the surface, it’s probably fair to say John’s book, ‘The KLF: Chaos, Magic And The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds’ reintroduced a lot of Discordian ideas back into public consciousness with the mythology it built around the enigmatic duo. Originally taking their (misspelt) name from the chaos-based movement, The Justified Ancients of Mummu, who diametrically opposed the usury and corruption of the Illuminati in the two Bob’s epic trilogy, The KLF set about subverting the crooked music industry with their manic culture jamming. The book’s main aim was to try and put the pair’s infamous money burning into a comprehensible context and in doing so, it created a ‘gateway drug’ into the chaotic, countercultural underground.
With those ideas floating around the zeitgeist again, it’s no surprise that Daisy Eris Campbell’s production of the ‘Cosmic Trigger Play’ was such a resounding success back in November 2014. Following in her father’s footsteps, she sought to reimagine one of Robert Anton Wilson’s books for the stage – opting for the more optimistic and elucidating ‘Cosmic Trigger’ over her dad, Ken Campbell’s choice to adapt ‘Illuminatus!’ back in 1976.
Like her father, she chose to open the play in Liverpool because of its symbolic significance in counterculture – Swiss psychologist Carl Jung had a dream about Liverpool, ‘the pool of life’ in 1927 that acted as a ‘stream of lava’, which reshaped his life with the ‘heat of its fires’. Having been unsatisfied with the conclusions Freud had drawn, Jung had made a step into the dark unknown, which was finally illuminated by this vision. His research and experiments surrounding dreams in the period leading up to this discovery sparked an interest in the field of synchronicity, or ‘meaningful coincidences’, which, naturally, started to amass around both himself and the Merseyside city he never actually visited, and eventually influenced ex-merchant navy man, Peter O’Halligan to transform a dingy Mathew Street warehouse space into The Liverpool School Of Language, Music, Dream And Pun where The Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool first realised Ken’s epic ‘Illuminatus!’ production.
To be true to her late father, Daisy knew she had to “make it heroic”, like he always said, so instead of merely putting the play on, she staged a ‘Conferestival’ that took over a warehouse space in Liverpool for a whole weekend. Inspired by LSD guru Timothy Leary, the ‘Cosmic Trigger’ weekend sought to “find the others”, connecting disparate pockets of seekers to come together and share ideas.
When the cosmic trigger was pulled in the pool of life it definitely felt like everyone there was tapping into some kind of intangible, uncontrollable energy. “Of course, we didn’t know what the pulling of a cosmic trigger might lead to,” Daisy recalls. “I think it was definitely up in Liverpool that it happened, you could feel it in people, it felt like something totally different to the London run.”
Using a fungal metaphor Daisy has used herself previously; the ‘Cosmic Trigger’ weekend was similar to the physical manifestation of a mycelium mushroom, which appears above the ground when enough separate mycelium strands overlap each other underground. Like 1965’s International Poetry Incarnation in London or 1976’s Sex Pistol’s Lesser Free Trade Hall gig in Manchester, it was the moment when various disparate groups realised that there were others doing similar things and the once isolated pockets of creativity began bouncing ideas off each other and growing in ways previously unimaginable.
Tim Holmes and his friend Anwen Fryer were amongst those lucky enough to make it to the seminal weekend in Liverpool. “It felt like arriving home – from that moment we knew we had to pick up the baton up on this,” he tells us. “We knew we wanted to bring that group of people, and the network around them together again – we got all this energy and took a leap of faith.” Taking ‘a fool’s leap’ into the unknown, Tim and his co-conspirators found a spot in a South Yorkshire woodland and set the date of July 23rd to build their 3-day, Festival 23 around.
The number 23 was picked to represent the festival because of its meaning within Discordianism that links back to William S. Burroughs, who supposedly met a certain Captain Clark in Tangier back in 1960. The captain was bragging that he’d been sailing for 23 years without accident, only to then go on and sink his ship that same day. While Burroughs was pondering the irony of this happenstance, he heard a radio report of a plane crash; a pilot named Captain Clark had crashed Flight 23.
The ‘23 Enigma’ appeared in the ‘Principia Discordia’, ‘Illuminatus!’ and ‘The Cosmic Trigger’ and above all else it’s used to illustrate just how much confirmation bias our ‘reality’ is subject to. When you ascribe significance to the number 23, you’ll start seeing it everywhere. The number itself is apparently arbitrary, if you pick any other number and start looking for it you’ll begin to see it everywhere too. Having said that though, when you see the amount the number 23 pops up in popular culture, it does start to feel like one big in-joke.
So from Friday 22nd until Sunday 24th July, the co-operative owned Festival 23 will play host to a veritable feast of counterculture; drawing in live music, talks, theatre, DJs, rituals, film and visual arts that all aim to challenge the norm. The festival will centre around a celebration of the dog star Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, on the 23rd. There’s a whole tangent I could go off on here, but I’ll leave it to you to consult the Internet (or your pineal gland).
Super Weird Substance have been invited along so we’ll be taking to the main stage with our feel-good balaericpsychedelicdubdisco vibes. Adopting our name from an experimental scientific term Moore touched upon in the highly illuminating ‘Mindscape Of Alan Moore’ documentary, we strive to take ideas from the edges of culture and bring them back into midst of things, whilst building bridges between the past and now.
John Higgs will be present at the festival, delving into his fascinating, ‘Ziggy Blackstar And The Art Of Becoming’ talk, as will one of the protagonists of his KLF book, Jimmy Cauty, who’s latest artistic endeavour, the ‘Aftermath Dislocation Principle’ offers a glimpse into a dystopian nightmare enclosed within the confines of an industrial container and, though he’ll be there in spirit not person, there’ll also be a special contribution from the Magus of Northampton himself, Alan Moore – a consciousness-altering interview conducted by Super Weird Substance’s Kermit Leveridge and Greg Wilson.
More live music will come in the form of punk-reggae outfit A0S3, who were born out of the 1990s’ free party scene and psychedelic rockers Knifeworld, fronted by Gong guitarist Kavus Torabi. Richard Norris, whom you’ll most probably know from the 1994 hit he had with The Grid, ‘Swamp Thing’ will be DJing as will DiY Records house veteran Pete Woosh, whilst the ‘Cosmic Trigger Cabaret’ will offer “a medley of theatrical delights to wet Discordian appetites”, according to Michelle Watson who worked extensively on 2014’s cosmic capers. “The main acts will be from the heroic collaborators who popped out of Eris’s apple during the Cosmic Trigger play and brought their creative magick to the Conferestival itself.”
Journalist and poet Ben Graham, who’s been assisting with the festival preparation, has grown to view Discordianism as a convenient all-encompassing banner for the counterculture. “I think that it’s just a useful rallying point because it’s not specifically tied to any particular musical style,” he explains. “It’s not particularly tied to any political point of view, or any kind of fashion – it just seems to be a general anti-authority ideal that people who are in the counterculture can rally towards.” However, the fact that it’s so open to interpretation can hinder as well as help the growth of the movement, with varying opinions causing splits and schisms – I’m sure there will be some who disagree with Ben’s ambiguous reading of it but that’s the nature of the beast – after all, Malaclypse the Younger did say, “we Discordians must stick apart”.
“Discordianism kind of ebbs and flows and there’s lots of people who call themselves Discordians that aren’t fans of Robert Anton Wilson,” explains Adam Gorightly, who’s done much to document the movement’s early literature over in California via his website and book, both titled, ‘Historia Discordia’ – using information from ‘The Discordian Archives’ given to him by the third important figure in the Discordian story who goes by the name of Bob – that is, Bob Newport.
What is clear though, is that lots of different people are pushing the Discordian agenda on both sides of the Atlantic, and even if it’s not necessarily all in the same direction, these new manifestations are results of the tireless work of various people who refused to let the ideas die. “In a very matter and fact sense, it’s down to lots of individuals coincidentally pushing these ideas successfully at the same time and it hitting a chord with people,” explains former Kerrang radio presenter, Nick Margerrison who’s been helping to popularise the goddess Eris for many years, most recently on his Cult Of Nick podcast.
“However, there are other theories which I think are more fun if you’re less bothered about the world of facts and what matters,” he goes on to tell us. “These ideas hinge around concepts such as aeonics, the suggestion this planet moves through huge cycles that span across thousands and thousands of years. In this worldview, which is enormously subjective and difficult to prove, we’re on the cusp of a tsunami-like change in the way humans experience reality.”
With the Robert Anton Wilson estate becoming more active in California, working with Hilaritus Press to republish his major works internationally, and with links being made between them and Daisy Campbell in regards to plans to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his death with a run of 21 bio-revival shows in London during May 2017, before staging an American ‘enthusiasts production’ of the play in Santa Cruz 23rd July – the day the mayor dubbed ‘Robert Anton Wilson Day’ – it’s certainly clear the movement is gaining traction. What exactly is going to happen in Santa Cruz, nobody knows, but, dating back to the days of her father Ken Campbell, all of these Discordian capers have an air of what Alan Moore would refer to as ‘high art’ and ‘high magick’ – “where you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing and you just proceed like everything’s a message from the universe,” explains Daisy.
With events like ‘Under The Austerity, The Beach: A Day Of Counter-Culture’ and ‘Artmageddon’ in Northampton, or the more recent ‘Adventures On The Edge Of Culture’ in Brighton and publications like ‘Peasants With Pens’, ‘Discordia Britannica’ and a new incarnation of International Times becoming increasingly commonplace with more people coming together and discussing radical ideas, it definitely feels as though the culture is on the verge of something. You only need to take a look around the world today to see that Eris, Goddess of Chaos is ruling supreme, so perhaps it’s time for us to use Discordianism to embrace all this chaos and start harnessing it as a positive force.
Hail Eris! All Hail Discordia!