A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here.
Autumn equinox 2021
Hello all – somehow it’s autumn already. Hope this finds you well.
I’ve been thinking recently about the time I met Robert Anton Wilson back in 2004. In particular I was remembering his health, as he was suffering from a flare-up of post-polio syndrome at the time and found it difficult to stand. He had contracted the horrible muscle wasting disease polio as a child in the 1930s, and it was thought that he wouldn’t survive.
I had never met anyone who had had polio before. Talk of the disease seemed a little unreal, as if he had caught leprosy or the Black Death or some other horror which, to those of us in the wealthy west, are found only in history books.
In desperation, Wilson’s parents had him treated by a method developed by the Australian nurse Sister Elizabeth Kenny – who the American Medical Association dismissed as a quack, peddling a ‘cure’ that was little more than snake-oil. Yet despite the perspective of the establishment, the treatment meant that Wilson survived and largely recovered. Sister Kenny’s ideas were eventually developed into the science of physiotherapy.
All this taught Wilson that experts and organisations could indeed be wrong, and it helped establish the healthy scepticism that framed his intellectual life. This is a perspective that is easy to accept here in Britain, where we have a system that is notorious for putting people who are not the brightest in positions of authority. Our last three foreign secretaries, for example, have been Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab and Liz Truss. This does not inspire confidence.
If you’ve read my book The Future Starts Here, you’ll recall that some of it deals with the collapse in trust we have to deal with now – not just because of the establishment chumocracy, but also because of how the business models of the media and the algorithms of social media work. The book looks at the extent to which our own personal relationships with others – and in particular, meeting people in real life rather than just online – have become increasingly important. This is exactly what we’ve been unable to do during these last 18 months or so. We probably all know people who have gone a bit wrong during this time.
We all went a bit mad during lockdown, of course. We’ve been living with a degree of stress which may have been low-level at times, but which has been constant for a prolonged period. In the circumstances, a bit of crazy is not surprising. What I’m talking about here is when people come to identify with certain beliefs so strongly that they immediately react with anger if people see things differently. This is never a good sign, especially when it leads to people cutting others out of their lives.
I mention this because Wilson’s embrace of scepticism has led to some of his quotes being taken up by the anti-vax movement. As his daughter has stressed, Wilson would not have been an anti-vaxxer. He lived to see the widespread roll out of polio vaccines after the war, which led to children growing up in a country almost entirely devoid of the disease that nearly killed him. He wished he had been able to receive the vaccine himself as a child, instead of enduring the pain caused by the after effects of the illness throughout his life. Wilson was sceptical, but he wasn’t stupid.
It wasn’t just the polio vaccine that saved countless lives – the disfiguring and frequently fatal smallpox was wiped out by 1980 thanks to a global vaccination programme. Currently, millions are being vaccinated against Yellow Fever in West Africa, and there are hopes for a new vaccine against malaria. If the saving of a human life is a thing to be valued, then vaccinations are one of the greatest of all human healthcare achievements. Even the most committed anti-vaxxer benefits massively from the immunisations taken by previous generations.
The miracle of vaccines, however, is not a story that social media is likely to promote. An issue here is that the success of vaccines is abstract and invisible, which makes them just the sort of thing that our brains are bad at factoring in. We are hardwired to pay more attention to the tale of a friend of a friend who had a funny turn after being vaccinated than we are the tens of thousands of unspecified people who did not die because they had their jabs.
You’ll no doubt be familiar with the way ideas lurk in our brains and seem entirely reasonable until the moment we open our mouths and say them out loud. Only then do we realise how daft they are. This is why speaking to people in real life is very different to typing at people online. The problem is amplified by the way online algorithms connect you with people who already agree with you – and indeed are probably a bit more extreme and committed in these thoughts.
As blind spots go, the massive life saving effects of vaccines is a significant one. We all have blind spots and areas that we fail to factor into our thinking, but the huge falls in death and disease among vaccinated people takes some overlooking. Blind spots like these are exactly the sort of things that friends in real life will point out to you, but which online discourse will keep hidden. A friend in a pub is free to pull a face and say, “I dunno, that sounds like bollocks to me” without causing offence, yet your reaction is very different if someone types that response online.
It’s still not as simple as it was to connect with people in real life, of course. Even protected by vaccines, we have to constantly be aware of the danger we might pose to people with compromised immune systems. But if you know someone who has become isolated – especially if they have isolated themselves to avoid the views of others – then consider reaching out. They may not be ready to connect again just yet, but ultimately we all need to see ourselves reflected in other people.
Since my last newsletter, I’ve been a guest on Russell Brand’s Under The Skin podcast. I think the idea was that I would talk about Blake, but needless to say it ended up being far more random and rambly than that. I think you might enjoy it. You’ll need a Luminary subscription to listen to the full thing, but note that there is a free trial if you want to just nip in to hear this. I’ve also been talking about Blake on the Some Other Sphere podcast, which was lot of fun.
If you missed the Ditto.tv Campfire Blake online event, that is now online for you to watch here. I talk with Daisy Campbell in a portion of this, which is always a joy.
I’m looking forward to the Laugharne Weekender in Wales at the beginning of October – the line-up is stellar. It’s sold out alas but if you have tickets, I’ll be talking about Blake on Sunday 3 October, at “2pm or possibly 1pm”. Hope to see you then.
Here’s a headmashing article about Blake and AI that I wrote for Big Issue North – it includes some freaky Blakean imagery created by Shardcore.
Thanks to International Times – and David Erdos – for reviewing William Blake Vs The World with a poem.
If you are struggling with the issue of purpose in life – the vexing question of what it is that you’re actually supposed to be doing – then I can heartily recommend a new book by my wife Joanne Mallon, which is beautifully designed, very wise, and deals with this exact issue. It is called Find Your Why – and not, as the author keeps insisting, Find Your Wine.
In previous newsletters, you may recall mention of a wild, strange and transformative pilgrimage from the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset to the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Accounts of this journey by some of the 69 pilgrims involved have been collected by Jeff Merrifield and form a new book called Immanentizing The Eschaton. It is required reading for those who suspect something important happened on that journey, and also those who were there but who are still trying to get their heads around what happened. Currently you can only get the book from Jeff directly, who you can reach by emailing mythologies23 (at) gmail dot com. His book on the underground temples of Damanhur, however, can be found on Amazon.
And finally – it’s almost time for me to start talking about my next book. I know! There will be more about this in my next newsletter, but I can say that the book will be announced on 5 October, so not long now. Until then, I will leave you with this mockup image of an underwater Lotus Esprit passing a Yellow Submarine. Until next time!