Monday, May 27, 2024

Joyce, RAW, Crowley and the Book of the Dead

"Finnegans Wake is similar in structure to the song "Finnegans Wake" and to the four Gospels and to the Egyptian myth of Osiris and to the Book of the Dead and the Tibetan Book of the Dead and 1700 other things at least." – Robert Anton Wilson, Interview on Finnegans Wake and Joseph Campbell, 1988.

Joyce also regarded himself as an alchemist taking all the gross matter of the world and turning it into sublime eternal art. He also compares his work to what the priest does in the Mass only Joyce felt that he was doing it for real and the priests were faking it which is to turn the mortal into the immortal.
– Robert Anton Wilson, ibid.

My style is heavily influenced by Joyce. Everything I do has a Joycean element in it. 
– RAW, ibid.

Reality Is What You Can Get Away With (RIWYCGAW), a film treatment by Robert Anton Wilson, begins with the death of all life on earth via a seemingly relentless montage of atomic explosions – you are dead along with everything else. 

The reader-viewer gets thrown immediately into the Bardo. The story begins in the Land of the Dead which turns out to be a dream (or is it?) and recurs until Ignatz (our protagonist witnessing all this) can't tell if it's real or a dream. A TV turns itself on (a definite bardo indicator) with more atomic blasts then the title "Death of Earth." This soon morphs into "Death Of Ego."

Right off the bat this gives us the two primary reasons to learn about the Bardo: 1. Real, physical death and 2. Psychological death when your entire primate identity: ego, personality, intellect, gets blown to smithereens one way or another, and there you are, once again for the first time ever, in the bardo. 

Back in the film treatment, the "Announcer" who hipped us to "Death Of Ego" has a photo of a Playboy Bunny behind him. The next time we see him or her, a page later in the book, the photo has changed to the iconic one from 1968 showing the imminent execution of a Vietnamese prisoner on the streets of Saigon. Suddenly, death has gone from the death of all humanity to the death of an individual; from the impersonal to the personal or from the macro to the micro.

The Announcer proceeds to deliver the first direct bardo instruction:

"The process of rebirth can be painful and confusing. Many of the dead do not know they are dead. They think they are just wandering from room to room looking for their car keys – or watching a Cisco Kid movie about urine smugglers. Some even think they are watching educational TV." The opposite page shows Ignatz and his wife Betty Boop watching TV in a scene that appears to be from the 1950s or early '60s. They seem completely oblivious to the dead guy (Frankenstein's Monster) sitting beside them.

Being dead and not knowing your dead seems equivalent to being in the bardo and not knowing you're in the bardo, an obvious interpretation of the photo with Igntaz, Betty and the Monster (a dead guy brought back to life) (RIWYCGAW, p. 21). The last sentence in the quote: "Some even think they are watching educational TV, seems like it could directly hit home with a viewer watching this in a film – "are they talking about me, at this moment?" Might I be in the bardo and not know it? Wilson brilliantly provokes the reader-viewer to such a consideration.

Since we heard it straight from the horse's mouth that everything RAW does has a Joycean element, I'll offer the following connection. The heroic Cisco Kid character originally derives from an O. Henry story, "The Caballero's Way", published in a collection called The Heart of the West (1907).  Wilson was certainly well read enough that this reference could be intentional. The weighing of the heart is one of the most well known scenes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The candidate's heart was placed on the scale to be weighed against the feather of truth placed on the other side of the scale. If the heart proved lighter than the feather then the candidate was allowed to continue on their journey to the land of immortality, known in some instances, as the Western Lands. 

Smuggling urine forecasts a joke Wilson introduces later, but looking at a possible Joyce influence here: urine = you're in = you're in the bardo now. The Cisco Kid, via RAW's imaginative movie for dead people, smuggles in (gets it past the conscious censors) the notion that you're in the bardo now.

Incredulity trigger warning for the forthcoming anecdote that relates to the experience of being dead and not knowing it. A shaman I once worked with whom I found credible, told me that after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11/2001, he felt a calling to travel there in his body of light to tell the the spirits of the recently deceased what had happened. He claimed that they didn't know they were dead. They had no idea of what happened. He was providing a public service by telling them.

An obvious Joycean-style connection at the beginning of RIWYCGAW occurs with the riffing on "Death Of Ego . . . Death Of Earth", which to an experienced Joycean detective and a Cabalist gives the initials DOE. Wilson cuts to an animation of a small deer dancing then has Ignatz say "A female deer . . . a  doe . . ." (the two ellipsis – the three dots – are in the original). If we pursue this pun for further connections, like we might for something in Finnegans Wake, we find an allusion to the common mnemonic for remembering the notes of a diatonic musical scale: do, re, mi, fa so, la, ti, do. It became well known in the musical, The Sound of Music with a song that begins: 
"do a deer, a female deer, 
re a drop of golden sun . . ."

G. I. Gurdjieff, another Wilson influence, has his Law of Octaves which represents each step in any process with the notes of the diatonic scale. To sound a do (long "o"), in his lingo, means to begin something or to begin a process. RAW sounds a doe with Death of Earth . . . Death Of Ego at the start of RIWYCGAW.  Re, a drop of golden sun connects with the Egyptian influence. Re is a common alternate spelling for Ra the sun god.  The first step or instruction indicated in many of the spells from the Book of the Dead calls for the soul of the deceased to unite themself with Osiris. Osiris abides in the cabalistic sphere of Tiphareth, the solar territory on the Tree of Life.

Reminders that Reality Is What You Can Get Away With portrays a Bardo trip occur throughout the film treatment. Another one occurs on p. 48 - 50 with the Schrödinger's Cat paradox from quantum physics that concludes with the cat being both dead and alive until someone opens the box to take a measurement. Lest we dismiss this as simply a theoretical exercise from physics, we hear Orson Welles addressing Edward G. Robinson's objection that it's impossible for a cat to be both alive and dead at the same time. "Welles (witty twinkle) Erwin Schrödinger proved it. He's got a Nobel prize in physics. He also proves you're dead and alive at the same time." The Schrodinger's Cat paradox recurs throughout the film.

The concept of a favorable rebirth plays out on p. 28 - 29 starting with a study showing the benefit of an enriched environment upon the cognitive skills of rats. Our beloved Announcer returns on the following page with a death/rebirth procedure that could be likened to the methods of Zen koans or Finnegans Wake to name two.

"Announcer: If enough Alien Signals are thrown into the brain – enough Chaos and Confusion – the third neurological bardo prepares for rebirth on a higher level of networking. A new ego you might say."

The paradoxical bardo cat comes back on p. 158  in the context of a different Orson Welles film leading to a riff on reimprinting (rebirth) against a soundtrack of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." "If you want to change all your imprints at once, sign up now to join the first Space Colony and enter a totally new reality-tunnel." As Beethoven's Ninth Symphony begins rising to its peak, the following visual in the film suggests a glorious rebirth in higher dimensions. 

On p. 160 Betty Boop begins discussing the symbolism behind the Sacred Chao. She addresses the reader-viewer a couple of times as; "O nobly born," the same terminology used to address the Voyager who has left their body in the Tibetan Book of the Dead

Weirdly enough, a few days ago, I received an invitation to join a Betty Boop Facebook group from a complete stranger. The extent of my exposure to the wiles of Ms Boop prior to reading RIWYCGAW comes from multiple viewings of the highly recommended bardoesque film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

For me, just the title Reality Is What You Can Get Away With suggests the bardo. How long can you hang out in the bardo? How much presence can you bring there? How well are you able to use your attention to choose a favorable rebirth? What can you get away with in the Bardo?

* * * * * *

Contemporary so-called Books of the Dead differ from their traditional counterparts with a less direct, more allegorical or metaphorical presentation. For instance, they don't have "Book of the Dead" in their title. No one might know that James Joyce intended Finnegans Wake as a Book of the Dead (on one level) but for the fact that he requested his friend, Frank Budgen, write an article explicitly saying so. Sometimes an afterlife adventure can be deduced from the title – a wake indicates a reception, often a party of sorts following a funeral. Wilson's play, Wilhelm Reich in Hell seems obvious from the title. Another contemporary Book of the Dead, The Western Lands by William S. Burroughs makes it clear with its dust jacket of stylized ancient Egyptian illustrations and hieroglyphics that he intends to signify the Western Lands of Egyptian mythology.

Traditional Books of the Dead seem meant to provide direct assistance to the voyager after biological death, but also appear quite effective for aiding someone going through the death of ego for one reason or another. Many untrained voyagers in the mid 1960s to mid 70s found themselves flung willy nilly into scary bardo spaces after taking a strong psychedelic dosage. John Lilly asked his friend E.J. Gold to make a modern translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead specifically to help people having difficulties with an overwhelming psychotropic drug experience. This resulted in the American Book of the Dead, an instruction manual equally effective for both ego and physical death. Early in his consciousness-altering research Timothy Leary recognized the value of the Tibetan Book of the Dead for mapping out psychedelic spaces as made evident in the book he wrote with Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner, The Psychedelic Experience – A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1964). John Lennon  quotes directly from this book in his song Tomorrow Never Knows: "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, it is not dying, it is not dying . . ."

Modern literary Books of the Dead like Finnegans Wake and RIWYCGAW seem geared to ego death, aka raising consciousness. This means they are relevant to us right where we sit now in our current life even if we don't expect to die for years, decades, or millenia (if they figure out how to extend biological life). They provide bardo training both directly and indirectly. The latter through creating the feel or mood of the apres-vie by simulating bardo spaces through dream sequences (Finnegans Wake has its own dream language), surrealistic effects like suddenly shifting environments (sudden transitions), non-sequitur events, drug episodes, etc.; anything that disorients the habitual perception of how we make sense of reality. RAW, at times, employed the cut-up technique popularized by William Burroughs to come up with bardo sequences.

Publicly, RAW appeared more interested in what occurs after the death of the ego than in surviving the demise of his biological form. He seemed more invested in scientific advances to provide biological life extension than what might happen in the afterlife sans corps. His focus writing about bardo exploration concerned itself with mapping out and establishing a domain in territories of higher consciousness while learning how to function and even work there. In other words, bardo awareness and personal functionality after ego death rather than the individual's journey after physical death. Of course, the former also prepares you for the latter.

* * * * * *

Always assume you're in the bardo whether it seems like it or not. This axiom seems akin to advice from the Gurdjieff and Castenada schools to maintain the awareness that one could die at any moment. Castenada's Don Juan said that death is always behind you just over your left shoulder. If you turn around fast enough, you can see it. 

All this talk of staying aware of death can sound morbid until you realize that it's really about waking up to life. Anyone who has had a near death experience or even an encounter where the real possibility of imminent death stared you in the face can testify that you become incredibly alive and fully present when you think you're about to die. Bardo training is as much about life, maybe moreso that it is about death. Life outside the well worn grooves of a mechanical existence programmed by primate social and cultural imperatives. Navigating through life in the extraterrestrial brain circuits also seems like running through a maze or labyrinth. 

E.J. Gold is an acknowledged researcher and expert in Bardo training. He's the author of multiple books, videos, plays and computer video games on the subject. His most straightforward book on the Unknown realms shamans and other intrepid adventurers explore is Life in the Labyrinth, not death in the labyrinth. With enough experience, one come to the realization that death as an absolute finality does not exist; death becomes an indicator of profound change that always brings about a rebirth or resurrection of some kind, a becoming. RAW writes about the realization of his own immortality in Cosmic Trigger I

Always assume you're in the bardo. Why? Most of the time it feels like I'm going about my business doing the things of ordinary life. Most of the time I feel identified with my ego. There seem to be gradations of ego death. You can temporarily blow out your self identity for several hours with a psychedelic. If strong enough, you no longer assume you're in the bardo, you have the undeniable perception of being there. More gentle ego deaths result from any kind of meditation or magick ritual. It can happen when listening closely to or when playing music. We find even subtler deaths than those.

Always assume you're in the bardo seems the opposite of what we normally assume, that we are this static, unified persona that has predictable reactions to any given situation. A little self observation reveals the static ego to be a fiction, a construct in our mind that's constantly reinforced by others who have the same assumption. If we pay attention to our inner states and outer behavior it will become noticed that we subtly change identities and manifest ourselves differently as the environment changes. We're different with our parents than when hanging out with our buddies; different when in a church or temple (even if we're not religious) than in a bar or nightclub, etc.

* * * * * * 

The bardo is the territory where magick takes place. It's the space where reprogramming or metaprogramming can occur; also known as the choice-point space. Die to our old self, choose a preferred rebirth. For example, suppose I want to eat healthier food. Formulate a ritual where the "self" that loves junk food undergoes a metaphorical death. Introduce a set of instructions encouraging the bardo voyager to take rebirth as a "self" that eats healthier. Repeat as necessary – a complete transformation of one's eating habits seems highly unlikely after one experiment, yet there will usually be incremental progress . . .  and the progress accrues. I estimate that it took a good ten years, maybe more, to morph from someone who ate mostly fast food to someone who rarely eats junk food. One of the keys to reprogramming involves forsaking moral self-judgement. I'm not a "better" person because I no longer consume Big Macs, I just feel better. Conversely, I'm not prone to emotionally beating myself up for ingesting empty calories. I enjoy it at the time. 

Wilson devised a reprogramming formula; it's found in Cosmic Trigger I (p. 120 Hilaritas edition): 

"Bn = Bo + Pn + MS

where Bn is new behavior, Bo is old behavior, Pn is a deliberate new program for self-change and MS is a metaprogramming substance such as LSD." He showed his formula to the good Dr. Leary who commented that B could be switched out for C (Consciousness) or I (Intelligence). 

The "new program" and "metaprogramming substance" parts of the formula takes place in the Bardo, in the transition between the old and new behavior. Of course, psychedelic substances are not absolutely required. Crowley gives a drug free death/rebirth exercise in section "AAA" of "Liber HHH" found in Appendix VII of Magick Book 4 Liber ABA (p. 589 1st Edition). 

Cosmic Trigger I returns to the "pattern of death-rebirth" saying that it still appears symbolically in the Roman Catholic Mass and in the Masonic "raising" ceremony. He continues: "the candidate is often brought to a state of terror similar to the emergency condition of the nervous system in near-death crises. What occurs then, and is experienced as rebirth, is a quantum jump in neurological awareness. In Leary's terminology, new circuits are formed and imprinted."

Everything seems connected in the bardo. John Lennon expressed it perfectly in I Am The Walrus: "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together." RAW identifies it as the non-local circuit in Finnegans Wake.

* * * * * * 

The great advantage of encountering the Bardo gently through literature, film, music, theater, or any artistic medium is that you can take it at your own pace or choose to not take it at all. Timothy Leary famously said that reading Ulysses and Finnegans Wake served as preparation for psychedelic spaces. Bardo preparation or training for fully entering it later. 

An allusion to both rebirth and to death appears on the first page of Finnegans Wake. The reference of the rainbow ("regginbrow") can be interpreted as God's covenant for Life, as a promise of rebirth on a macrocosmic scale following the death of all animals outside of Noah's Ark after the Great Flood (except for ducks and fish, according to Eddie Izzard).  

                                                         Eddie Izzard – Ducks & the Flood

Immediately after this sign of hope and rebirth, this covenant for Life, is when we plunge into the Bardo with: "The fall", followed by the hundred letter thunder word. The sound of thunder signals the entrance to the underworld. Thunder is a not uncommon sound in the bardo. When you hear thunder, especially if close by, it can key in a bardo space which means it can wake you up a little. I was once doing sound design, adding sound effects behind spoken word readings from the American Book of the Dead. I was laying in the sound of thunder. E.J. Gold heard what I was doing, came into the studio and said there's lots of thunder in the Bardo. 

The next sentence following the thunder word describes the death of Tim Finnegan whose wake gives the book its title.

"The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: . . ."

In a 19th Century Irish-American ballad, also called Finnegans Wake, Tim Finnegan, all liquored up, falls off a a ladder and apparently dies.  At his wake, the corpse get splashed with whiskey which revives him – an early allusion to the death and resurrection theme that runs throughout the book. It also refers to Finn McCool, the legendary Irish giant said to lie in trance beneath the Dublin landscape. McCool was beheaded in one version of the legend. Perhaps this helps explain why his head sends someone to the west looking for his toes.

I've not seen an adequate explanation of "pftjschute." It reminds me of a sound a cartoon character might make upon suddenly disappearing and thus appears an appropriate sound for death. Dissecting this word, we see that "chute" in its standard definition of "a sloping channel or slide for conveying something to a lower level" sounds like going into the Bardo or the Land of the Dead. Chute is also the French word for fall; "pftjs" adds to 165. In Sepher Sephiroth, the dictionary of Gematria originally published in 1912 by Aleister Crowley with contributions from Allan Bennett and MacGregor Mathers, 165 = "To make them know;" also "NEMO." Nemo represents a high grade in the Thelemic hierarchy, the Master of the Temple. It means "no man" and connects with death. 

It's explained in the "Cry of the "13th Aethyr" from The Vision and the Voice by Crowley, Victor Neuburg, and Mary Desti: "And he saith: No man beheld the face of my Father. Therefore he that hath beheld it is called NEMO. And know thou that every man that is called NEMO hath a garden that he tendeth. And every garden that is and flourisheth hath been prepared from the desert by NEMO, watered from the waters that were called death.  We have an allusion to a garden with Eve and Adam in the first sentence of the Wake.

In the commentary to Chapter 65 "Sic Transeat —" from Crowley's The Book of Lies, :
"The chapter title means, 'So may he pass away', the blank obviously referring to NEMO.

I have no idea if Joyce knew the gematria meaning of 165 and intentionally placed it with the otherwise incomprehensible "pftjs ..." or if it's just one of those synchronicities that he loved. It certainly fits.

"Erse", the name of a language, is a synonym for Gaelic. It may also pun with "else;"  as in "the pftjschute (no man) of Finnegan – else (otherwise a) solid man.  Finnegan then gets conflated with Humpty Dumpty, the living giant egg and master of language in Lewis Carroll's Wonderland tales who had a great fall "offwall".  Humpty suggests the alchemical egg where transmutation occurs (see Paracelsus or Carl Jung).

Then we get to the (possibly) Egyptian part: "sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: . . ."; "unquiring" breaks down as the prefix "un" = not and "quiring": a quire is the area in a church or cathedral set aside for the clergy and choir; this suggests a "not Christian" one; "well to the west" recalls the Western Lands, the land of immortality. The journey through the bardo to immortality; "tumptytumtoes" has the Egyptian god of the setting sun, Tum, in the middle of it. The adoration of Tum occurs at dusk in the Thelemic "Liber Resh" ritual. Tum is a derivation of Atum. In very early Egyptian pre-history, Atum was the chief god, the primordial living being who created the cosmos as personified by other gods. 

Tum as the sun god at dusk fits in well with a book beginning to dive into the night. Atum as a creator sun god whose toes are creations of a material world (Malkuth on the Tree of Life) also seems appropriate for the emerging "chaosmos" (chaos + cosmos) of Finnegans Wake.

* * * * * *

Bardo episodes appear in all of RAW's fiction in various forms: dreams, drug experiences, magick, meditation visions, etc. The very first sentence of The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles Volume I says it all: Sigismundo Celine was lost in a dark forest with a Red Indian, seeking the supreme wakan. (The Earth Will Shake p. 3 Hilaritas edition). Sigismundo is having a dream or reverie in church on Easter Sunday.
Right off the top, we find parallels with Dante's The Divine Comedy which begins on Good Friday with Dante lost in a dark forest. I have written extensively on the S + C letter semiotic (Sigismundo Celine), most recently toward the end in the first post of this series, Folds and Overlaps Between Aleister Crowley and Finnegans Wake. Before that, in my post on Rabelais. "Red Indian" also appears a deliberate use of initials with R + I = 210, a significant qabalistic calculation for multiple reasons.

Wakan is a Native American term that translates roughly as Great Spirit or life force. Considering a Joycean influence, wakan sounds similar to waking. "Waking up" is a Sufi expression of enlightenment borrowed and used extensively in Gurdjieff's 4th Way movement and other contemporary spiritual guides. In the 4th stanza of The Divine Comedy, Dante describes himself as "so full of sleep just at that point where I abandoned the true path." (Knopf, 1995 translated by Allen Mandelbaum). Death soon becomes direct and explicit in the story with Sigismundo witnessing the murder of his Uncle in the church by 4 assassins.

Illuminatus! (co-written with Robert Shea) also begins in the Bardo and quite clearly connects with the start of The Historical Illuminatus – "The earth quakes . . ." being the most obvious sign,

The Bardo, magickal, non-local circuit aspect of RAW's fiction comprises just one level or layer of complex, multi-leveled presentations. They're also simply great adventure and detective romances. His most direct and sustained journey through the Bardo occurs in his two film treatments, Reality Is What You Can Get Away With and The Walls Came Tumbling Down (the latter links to a post on its bardoesque aspects) and to his play Wilhelm Reich In Hell which will be discussed in the future.

Stay tuned for a discussion on the 23 enigma, the Bardo, and a Book of the Dead by William S. Burroughs.


  1. Great post! Ignatz reminds me of ignition. Here's a song about the Bardos made by Oz along with other Labyrinth voyagers.

  2. As you note, "chute" is the French word for "fall". In fact, it works with different meaning of the word:
    litteral : the fall = la chute
    metaphorical : the fall of the house of Usher = la chute de la maison Usher
    verb : to fall = chuter
    compound : waterfall = chute d'eau
    So 'chute' connects to Tim Finnegan falling from the ladder, or Humpty Dumpty, or even The Fall from Eden.

    But in French, "chut" (without the final E) is also an interjection equivalent to the English 'shhh' or 'hush'. It is typically done with a finger on the mouth and is an injunction to Keep Silent.
    I thought you might like that.