Peter Lamborn Wilson

This is an extract, provided by the author, from Blame It On Blake: a memoir of dead languages, gender vagrancy, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso & Carr by Jacob Rabinowitz, “a memoir of the Beat generation authors I knew, and my own explorations of Witchcraft, Egyptology, Voodoo, gender confusion and mind-altering drugs, authorized (more or less) by William Blake.” This is part one of chapter six, and is a personal narrative about the author’s acquaintance with Hermetic Library Fellow Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey.

VI: Hakim Bey

1: Peter Lamborn Wilson

About the time I “woke to the world,” that is when I went down in fames on entering the atmosphere of the modernity, Charles Potter, my old French teacher from Columbia, with whom I was on friendly terms, told me he had someone to introduce me to. This was Peter Lamborn Wilson, who was one of Potter’s old friends from when they’d both attended Columbia. Potter finished his degree and went on to study medieval French literature in Europe. Peter had dropped out of Columbia and made the “Journey to the East”—looking for enlightenment in India. He finally wandered into Iran where he was able to talk his way into a job at Tehran’s only English-language newspaper, largely on the strength of his native, literary English. Other qualification needed he none. He parlayed this into a place in the court of the Shah, friendship with the Empress, and a central role in the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy. The Shah wanted to cast the mantle of culture over his tyranny, and funded all sorts of interesting projects.

Peter spent years in Iran, during which he converted to Islam and seriously pursued the Suf path under the direction of a traditionalist spiritual master. Peter’s life there was a decade-long oriental adventure, during which he enjoyed the hashish and caviar that can be had so cheaply on the shores of the Caspian Sea, collected magnificent rugs (which he shipped steadily back to America to be stored) and explored traditional mystical Islam, siting crosslegged on fine rugs, sipping sweet tea and smoking with the Sufis.

Peter is gay, and his turn to Islam was in part an attempt to cure himself of his condition with the help of Allah. It was not a great success. I speak this sympathetically, since I undertook a similar project, though in the ambiance of Jewish New York intellectualism, the “church of Freud,” rather than in the shadow of the Koran.

Over the centuries there have been countless defections from Western Christianity to Islam, and almost none in the opposite direction. Whence this eagerness to “turn Turk?” A part of the appeal of Islam for the West has always been its comparative tolerance of homosexuality. Though this is forbidden in the Koran, it is so, like wine, in a somewhat ambiguous way. In fact, wine and boys are promised as rewards to be enjoyed in heaven, the later being appealingly described in one of the surahs as “pale youths, scattered like pearls across the lawns of paradise.” Despite periods of {153} reformist rigor, homosexuality (and for that mater drinking) has generally been regarded in the Islamic world as a minor and somewhat amusing sin, much as adultery is in the West. One may see this from even a desultory reading of the medieval Arabic classic, The Arabian Nights, where wine freely flows and boys promptly comply. In fact, Sufism includes among its more arcane byways a platonic meditation on beautiful youths, the “contemplation of the unbearded.” The reader of Yehuda Halevi’s poetry from Islamic Spain will be well familiar with the romantic praise of adolescent boys, who are described as “gazelles”—as common and conventional a trope in context as the nymphs and shepherds of Elizabethan poetry.

Islam never had Christianity’s ambivalence towards material existence and the body, so it was more tolerant of sex in general. Chastity was not considered a virtue. (“There’s no monkery in Islam” is a saying attributed to the Prophet.) The puritanism of present day Islamic fundamentalism is the rigor mortis of a religion already dead under the onslaught of modernism—exactly the confrontation that produced the Puritans and the “reign of the saints” in seventeenth-century England. This situation, “the faith purified into a caricature of itself,” in Peter’s phrase, is late, anomalous and terminal.

While Peter was in Iran, the forces of religious puritanism were held in check by the Shah, and Peter was able to enjoy the last hours of “decadence” before the neo-barbarians took control. Not that Peter was getting laid. The permissiveness of the old Islamic world was certainly off limits to him. A convert to any religion is always held to a higher standard of observance. I mentioned the ambiguity of Islamic attitudes to homosexuality only as a factor which made this religion unconsciously more appealing to Peter, and which would fascinate and preoccupy him, in a totally intellectual and inhibited way, for years.

I met Peter when he had just returned from Iran. He had made a timely fight from the already begun revolution, and now rented a room in an apartment on the corner of 107th Street and Amsterdam, a situation which he referred to a “Major Hoople’s Boarding House” (after a comic from the twenties about a boarding house full of eccentric types). The leaseholder of the apartment was a crank who brought home all sorts of junk and broken machinery from the street. The living room was impassible with dusty, unidentifiable and certainly non-functional equipment. He was quite litigious and had legally changed his name to “Joe Friendly” in the expectation that this would produce a mollifying effect on judges and juries. I only saw Joe once or twice in passing, a tall man, casually dressed, with an enormous beard. The other resident, besides Peter, was an alcoholic who lay in bed, the door to his tiny room open, coughing sepulchrally when he {154} wasn’t in a deathlike stupor. He usually lay outstretched on the bed, with glazed eyes and a gray crewcut, looking at nothing.

Peter was easily the most fascinating person I had ever met. I use the term fascinating quite precisely. He had the ability to charm anyone. When he addressed you he showed a pleased attention, and in conversation he asked far more questions than he answered, and seemed genuinely interested in all your particulars, difficulties, and events. Though he spoke of his own ideas, reading and adventures, very entertainingly and at length, it was always in response to something you had said, in amplification of whatever topic interested you. He had a way of making it seem as though he included you in his plans, that he looked on you as an equal and ally. I’ve never seen anyone who didn’t promptly capitulate to Peter’s charm, and he used it on everyone. He seemed to be more interested in you than he was in himself, and no one could resist this. And it wasn’t insincere. Nor was it something he had any control over. There are persons who need very much to be liked by everyone, who develop this brilliant sociability. Charisma is a gift, but like all gifts, it comes at a price.

He was amazingly unforthcoming about himself. He never really opened his heart or told his troubles. And not just to me. He was of an old and distinguished family, and traced his ancestors back to the Mayflower, so I think this was some sort of aristocratic white guy thing.

Once Peter had gotten his bearings in New York, he held continuous court, and has to this day a continuous stream of visitors. This is rather less of an achievement when you reckon in how uncritical his friendship is. Though he fully appreciates intelligence and expertise, and can hold his own in conversation with anyone on any subject (so vast and curious is his reading and his experience), he is equally content with the company of utter fools.

In part, Peter is a classic gay male type, of whom Bret and Harry Smith are likewise exemplars. Masters of monologue. They can go on illimitably, and if you never pipe up they will. They’re brilliant and fascinating, whether they’re telling you rare facts from Beethoven’s biography or what awful thing they saw on the way to the grocery store. I think the origin of this condition is bachelorhood. You live alone long enough, and you start talking to yourself, perhaps not aloud, but you do by imperceptible degrees become your own company. In my day, being gay and smart was plenty isolating for an adolescent to begin with: you were on the outside of life from middle school on. Then instead of having escalating series of involvements that ended with a long-term relationship, you had casual sex, or more likely no sex at all, until you were out on your own as an adult, and by then you were well used to going to museums or operas or restaurants with yourself as {155} your only company. The interior monologue develops into the exterior monologue, and thus you arrive at the Quentin Crisp-like persona, assuming you have the gray mater to carry it of.

I’m not entirely exempt from this condition, as this present feat of nattering attests. I found the talent particularly handy as a teacher. There are times when you have half an hour left on a Friday afternoon, you’re as tired of the lesson as the kids are, and though they can be extremely entertaining if you draw them out, it takes effort and attention to keep them on topic and prevent them from just talking to each other in private knots instead of making it a class-wide dialogue. So I’ve sometimes just told stories about myself, suitably edited of course. It can be quite entertaining for me to see what I’ll say next—and a bit of a tightrope walk as well, since I’m addressing a roomful of adolescents and I have to make sure I say nothing that will come back to bite me if repeated to Mom and Dad over dinner.

So, I do kind of “get” the tendency to monologue. I think I missed out on fully developing this myself because I was too interested in seeing what I could learn. A precondition of monologorrhea is the belief you already know everything. And also at a critical moment in my life’s journey, I found myself with a woman, and no conversation with a member of that gender will be entirely one-sided!

Peter didn’t know everything, but he sure knew a lot of it, and want of self-confidence was not one of his failings. What balanced out Peter’s verbosity was a particular personality type which I have seen in a number of iterations. For convenience I will call this the Don Juan persona. Such persons cannot be alone. They positively require the company and approbation of others. It is a disposition common among actors. Al Jolson and Marilyn Monroe seem to have been particularly extreme examples of this special desperation.

The secret of pleasing is the desire to please. The practice is really as simple as asking people about their favorite subject, themselves, and then staying on topic by talking about things they’re involved with. If you’re not obviously trying to get into their pants or part them from their funds, this will always work. Finesse will come with practice, but you really can’t do it too crudely. Peter was very, very good.

He could devote himself to professional sociability while working full-time as a writer since his father had fixed him up with a trust fund which gave him enough to get by on, albeit with a narrow margin. His father, Douglas Wilson, was a retired army man, a desk general who had risen through the ranks of military bureaucracy, and was quite well of. Peter was his only child. A cultivated man, whose passion was proofreading, and who had supervised inter alia critical editions of Chaucer and Emerson, Peter’s {156} father was entirely sympathetic to Peter’s literary career, and never pushed him towards conventional employment.

I met Douglas on a number of occasions. I made the mistake of trying to draw him out on Chaucer, discussing the Knight’s Tale with him. He was utterly flummoxed. Though he had read every line of Chaucer with, as it were, a magnifying glass, what really interested him was the punctuation and orthography. He was breathtakingly dull. He had had a go at being an English professor, but had been so colorless, his supervisor suggested he grow a big mustache to give himself some personality. Though he was offended at the time, he did take the suggestion. When I met him he was a great tall substantial man with a bald head and a handlebar mustache. He looked every inch the retired general.

I met Peter’s mother as well. She was a retired high school English teacher, and she’d divorced from her husband, never to remarry, when Peter was a boy. She lived down in Maryland, a warm and cordial hostess, and an excellent adventurous cook. On one of our visits she splendidly prepared muskrat which she’d purchased from a local hunter with a roadside stand.

Peter supplemented his income by dealing pot on a small scale, enough to keep himself supplied and cover occasional luxuries and nonessential expenses. He was stoned for the entire time I knew him. It was only a few years ago that a medical condition finally required him to cut out grass and cigarettes. But for the first thirty years of our friendship he moved in a fog of reefer smoke, a bearded Jove ensconced in his happy personal cloudbank. I recently asked him about what he remembered of our early acquaintance, his first years back in Manhattan. He demurred. At first I thought it was perhaps some Waspy diffidence about discussing himself directly, but I finally concluded that all that grass had prevented him from coding all the events into memory. I have rather the same difficulty regarding the periods when I was drinking. That’s the one thing they always forget to tell you about drugs. They steal your memory.

When Potter introduced us, Peter had been out of America for more than a decade. He had missed Punk and arrived at the beginning of the greed-is-good Reagan eighties. The connections he had made for the advancement of his literary career were in Iran, and London, where he’d spent four years on the Saudi’s nickel, on retainer to organize an Islamic cultural festival that never got of the ground. Happily for him, he was in London when Khomeini took over. When Peter arrived in New York, he was at loose ends and desperate to network. I was still at Columbia, never integrated into, and still disconnected from, student life, and desperately lonely. {157}

Peter was going through a spiritual crisis. Long before the revolution in Iran, major cracks had appeared in Peter’s cosmos. He had attempted to fully enter into traditional Islam, and in half-modern Tehran, this was still not impossible. The motivation was, originally, a sincere quest for enlightenment, the authentic spiritual hunger that gave the sixties in America its nobility. Peter had joined a Sufi order, and accepted the guidance of a pir (spiritual master), but the exotic charm wore of and then began the wearisome work of keeping the faith—which Peter described to me as “protecting our common failures of awareness.”

Sufi practice hadn’t freed Peter from desire either. (In the words of the Gita, “As a man’s nature is, so must he be. How could repression help?”) And Peter finally concluded, quite reasonably, that the problem wasn’t the quality of his faith, but the faith itself.

Peter gave considerable attention to the interesting antinomian heresies that had arisen within Islam. Particularly the Assassins, a heretical Shiite sect whose use of hashish in their devotions gave them their name. Peter was also fascinated by Caliph Hakim, the eleventh-century Ismaili lord of Egypt who, depending on who you ask, was either the mad Caligula of medieval Islam or a Shiite messiah. I needn’t go into detail on these interesting topics, for Peter himself has done so in a number of books. For our purposes it will suffice to say that these extreme mystics believed that the disclosures of the apocalypse and the rewards of paradise were to be enjoyed, or at least tasted, now. The initiates felt this insight entitled them to take their pleasures as a defiant sacrament—a program which was rendered even more effective if those pleasures were in fact prohibited by the religious law. No doubt Peter was to some degree aware of how prurient was his interest in these themes, but on the other hand historical research into thousand-year-old heresies doesn’t amount to much of a sin.

Peter was impelled to deep reflection and bold decision by his experience of mystical Islam, which transfigured Peter’s reality, but not his sexuality. And of course he was shaken, even shaken awake, by the fall of Iran, which had landed him in a Manhattan rented room like a man awoken from a long exotic dream. It was all sort of parallel to my crisis precipitated by the failure of the affair with Robert, when I was casting off the traces of Neoplatonism and traditional Western culture in favor of a new and radical magical materialism.

We only really reconsider our course when things utterly fail to work. It seems probable that we’d keep all our illusions and pass our lives in sweet stupidities if only everything went smoothly on and on.

Rabinowitz Blame It On Blake