Masks of the Illuminati by Robert Anton Wilson: Not an Ordinary Mystery Whodunit

Masks of the Illuminati reads like a dark smart mystery -- a mystery penned by the combined and competing voices of James Joyce, Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, and perhaps, somehow narrated by (maybe astral projected by), above and beyond and throughout the sleuthing dueling clamor of its voices, the likes of a Tom Robbins. Which is to say the novel is zany and brainy.

Alan Moore Reads from Masks of the Illuminati
That Robert Anton Wilson (RAW) could make so many disparate historical icons sound humorously real on the page is mystifying.  Did he journey back in time and tape record them?  That he could accomplish such a chameleon's feat without sinking toward what could've been easy-cheesy parody for writers gifted with lesser wit and talent than he, is a minor miracle.  That he could meld so many writer's voices, styles, syntax, biographies, world views (whether faux or fact) and have enough creative chutzpah left to make the farfetched narrative, in its entirety, coalesce into a plot that's wild yet cogent, always compelling, tells me he could've conceptualized launching a land rover to Mars and then nailed its impossible landing.  With his eyes closed.  He's that good.  The ferocity of RAWs imagination is matched only by its enormity.  He takes complex ideas and compacts them into memorably whimsical truisms, such as "The Clue of the Quadrilateral Metaphor".  Don't expect me to explain it.  Would take too long.  And while I'm no freemason myself (though if I was I'd confess I wasn't), whether or not RAW invented such opaque phraseology as that quoted above, or confabulated it, perhaps borrowed it verbatim from some cabalistic creed, I certainly can't tell.  Not that my ignorance matters amongst such page-turning potential world-takeover-intrigue.  Does anyone fully fathom the intentional obfuscation Umberto Eco encrypted within the first 100 pages of The Name of the Rose?

Regardless of any conspiracies, real or imagined, within or without this ambitious novel, Masks of the Illuminati possesses that tastefully twisted, almost absurdly baroque ambiance about it, I so admire in freakish novels, in books that steadfastly refuse being altered in order to more easily fit inside some stock genre trope's predictable molds.  Masks of the Illuminati isn't baroque due to some contrived technical gimmicks or preciously ornate structure to the novel, but because of its technical and ornate details regarding the occult; because of its massive and elaborate manner of communicating its esoteric systems of learning concisely, in clear and what seems like geometric harmony.

Envision that ancient merry prankster, Rabelais himself, having authored The Secret Teachings of All Ages, rather than the dry but ultra erudite, Manly P. Hall -- could serve as my nutshell review of Masks of the Illuminati.  Though it would've been a less crass Rabelais, devoid of some, but not all, of his signature scatology ad nauseam, and you're getting a closer approximation, somewhat, of both Masks of the Illuminati's style and content.  But don't think for a second by "less crass" that I mean the novel isn't ribald and erotic -- for it assuredly is -- it just doesn't go over the top with it or experiment with language and wordplay to quite the extremely opulent degree as Rabelais.  But it's as comic, certainly, as Monty Pythonesque with its abundant and solemn tomfoolery.  Conversely, it's as flip with the gravitas it gives its philosophical, psychological, and metaphysical underpinnings -- its idées fixes -- as it is with its compendium of arcana that anchors the vaulted mysticism hovering inside it, inside what RAW referred to as a "Dark Tower" or "Chapel Perilous." Paradox might as well be the exposed arches supporting the hilarious yet serious heights of this outstanding oddity of peculiar prose.

Despite its sometimes silliness, its deadpan self deprecation, the novel still retains enough of a subversive yet scholarly acumen concerning its paranormal precepts to make a Fox Mulder proud!  Fans of Arthur Machen, Willy's Blake, Shakespeare, and Yeats, and particularly Aleister Crowley, should enjoy reading some delicious and decidedly occult takes on the lives of these writers and their works.  Important to note, too, is that RAWs strange universe is populated mostly by mystic practitioners who prefer what's vague to what's concrete, which means readers seeking RAWs opinion or personal definition of whatever "occult canonicity" might mean, won't find any such orthodoxy here.  For the heart and home of RAWs Illuminati; the pulsating abode for those few on the painstakingly narrow path leading to "enlightenment" (a narrow path indeed requiring two years of celibacy, including celibacy when in solitude!); for those on the narrow path, moreover, who've willingly concealed their membership from every other member of their order so that each member remains essentially "invisible" behind the "blindness" of their figurative "masks," beats to its own relative rhythms within the confines of each individual's personalized gnosticism.

Abandoning themselves behind their "masks," RAWs gnostics have removed their condescending pride (i.e., their "transcendental egotism") from their minds as if it were a parasite; the damnable parasite of delusional pride, exemplified by the divisive and derogatory attitude that can childishly boast, "my Illumination is higher than your Illumination".  Nanner-nanner.  Sickening spiritual hubris!  Left unchecked, that false sense of superiority in the novice makes him promptly powerless, unwise, unenlightened (though he may be unaware of his dead-end predicament), and thoroughly indistinguishable, for that matter, from the repugnant belligerent blathering of an unteachable and fanatic denominationalist bore.  RAWs characters wear an interesting multitude of "masks" to say the least.  We all wear masks, of course, but not masks like these.

Add magick, "constant suicides," and even that legendary, aquatic brontosaurus-like beast haunting Loch Ness to this surprisingly literary mix, and you've almost grasped what Masks of the Illuminati is. It's high-caliber literature for sure; a multiple-genre-bending Anomaly of Awesomeness to its convoluted core!  Vainglorious marvel of a novel as treacherous to precisely peg as the elusive identities of its myriad denizens with their incantatory visions inspired by the powerful secret society it depicts.  Who can foil the cosmic conspiracy of an ancient order whose long lineage of mysterious membership can hide in a plain sight that's synonymous with invisibility?  Could Sir John Babcock, our haunted, possibly hallucinating, hero, be the right man...?


  1. Several folks commenting at my RAWblog (e.g., and elsewhere argue that Masks of the Illuminati is an ideal introduction to Robert Anton Wilson's work. I still like The Earth Will Shake and Cosmic Trigger Vol. 2.

  2. EF - I have recently got RAW on my radar too. Prometheus Rising was the book I was after...

    Have you read Arcades Project yet?


  3. Z, very nice to hear from you. I had every good intention of reading the Arcades Project, sampled a bit of it a while back, but did not follow through. Not yet at least. I'll be buying any of RAWs works I encounter from here on out.

    Best wishes,



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