Inside the Resurgence of Discordianism – the Chaotic, LSD-Fuelled Anti-Religion

The concept was conceptualised in the mid-1960s and adopted by hippies, psychonauts and future countercultural icons. Now, it's coming back, in the form of a massive party in the South Yorkshire Woodland.

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jun 17 2016, 5:00am

Props from the stage production of 'Cosmic Trigger', a sort of new-New Testament for Discordianism (Photo by Beccy Strong)

On the way to interview the curators of Festival 23: Convergence of Disco, a coming-together of Discordians – adherents of Discordianism a quasi, pseudo or perhaps even anti-religion founded on the veneration of Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos – it was impossible to get past one insistently nagging question. It was the sole question I had prepared, a question written in red ink with two !!s between the three ???s and underlined a few times.

The question was this: How do you organise a festival based on the principle of chaos?!?!? Isn't that a contradiction? Or perhaps it's a paradox?

It wasn't long before performance poet and DJ Buddhist Punk (or Tim Holmes to his parents), part of the F23 "veering committee", would be setting me straight-ish, and in a manner entirely befitting of Discordianism: by making me still more confused.

The story begins – that is, Discordianism is pulled from the infinity of potential ideas surrounding us as possible deviations from our haphazard historical path – in 1965, with a photocopier in the office of the Texas DA investigating the JFK assassination: the conspiracy of conspiracies, and the single event that jolted America from its plangent, pastel-hued 1950s utopia toward the realisation that shit was a whole lot weirder than they had been led to believe.

A pair of old Californian schoolmates-cum-daydreamers-cum-authors, Kerry Thornley and Greg Hill (AKA Omar Khayam Ravenhurst and Malaclypse the Younger), had used said photocopier to publish five copies of Discordianism's founding text: the Principia Discordia, or How I Found the Goddess and What I Did to Her When I Found Her, Wherein Is Explained Absolutely Everything Worth Knowing About Absolutely Anything; the Magnum Opiate of Malaclypse the Younger.

The basic premise of Discordianism is that all organised religions' take on the workings of the universe – essentially, a cosmic order superintended by a deity who, given a few niceties like absolute obedience, guarantees that order – were wrong. Philosophically wrong and morally wrong, they argued. Rather, the opposite was true: the fundamental reality of the universe is strife, discord and chaos.

It's no great coincidence that all this bubbled through in the 60s, when various psychonautical and astrophysical experiments were carried out that not only questioned the stability of the universe, but also the stability (and thus reliability) of the person perceiving the universe. We are a wobbly neurochemical brew, tugged this way and that by forces malign and benign. Hill and Thornley thus reasoned it was better to embrace chaos and confusion than fight them, and so set about making the sort of mischief that both demonstrated and contributed to that chaos and confusion. They called this Operation Mindfuck.

Operation Mindfuck was a sort of absurdist take on culture-jamming, initially centred on the dissemination of artfully batshit conspiracy theories (which, incidentally, evolutionary psychologists ascribe to the human desire to project order on to reality and thereby alleviate the anxiety of an unknowable world: whence religion). A regular target was Playboy magazine, whose letters page was at the time being edited by two guys named Robert Anton Wilson and Bob Shea, and which soon became inundated with conspiratorial communiqués detailing the nefarious acts of "the secret rulers of the world, the Illuminati". New Discordian chapters and sects formed, each involved in their own Mindfuck operations.

Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy [Image: the discordian archives, via)

Wilson and Shea got into the spirit of things to such an extent that they penned what would become Discordianism's New Testament: Illuminatus! Eye in the Pyramid, a sprawling sci-fi trilogy detailing the mythical struggles of the Bavarian Illuminati and the Discordians, AKA the Justified and Ancients of Mummu. (Of course, it would be downright idiotic to take a bunch of sci-fi novels as gospel, and to this extent Wilson and Shea were arch-Discordians in steadfastly repudiating "self-referential reality tunnels": dogmatic systems of thought that rely on a central, unfounded claim, to which all "evidence" is then bent in order to confirm and reinforce that basic premise.)

It was this magnum opus that brought Discordianism across the Atlantic in 1976, when maverick Liverpudlian playwright Ken Campbell's Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool decided to put on a nine-hour stage adaptation of Illuminatus! According to Ben Graham, another of F23's "organisers", "Illuminatus! seemed to sweep up all of the madness, occultism, drug visions, paranoia and weirdness of the previous decade into a farcical anti-authoritarian sex comedy; one that some people were still prepared to take at least half-seriously."

The sets were designed by future KLF frontman Bill Drummond, who was given but a single direction by Campbell: "Is it heroic?" Meanwhile, the cast – most of whom were tripping on super-strong acid brought over by Robert Anton Wilson – included Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Chris Langham and, by the time the production had moved to the National Theatre in London (where the other half of KLF, Jimmy Cauty, was in the crowd), iconic actor Sir John Gielgud, voicing the part of the super-computer FUCKUP. Wilson himself played a role that basically involved lying on the stage and repeatedly bellowing the maxim of countercultural magus Aleister Crowley: "Do what thou will shall be the whole of the law!"

Operation Mindfuck may have been devised to fuck with other people's minds, yet mainly fucked with those of its prankster progenitors. Thus, in Cosmic Trigger, Wilson's follow-up to Illuminatus!, he details his harrowing experiences in "Chapel Perilous", a sort of existential crossroads in which, after years spent investigating conspiracies, necking acid and noticing various uncanny cosmic "synchronicities", he came to the realisation that his options were either full-blown paranoia or agnosticism. He opted for the latter, and set about outlining this healthily playful scepticism. There's nothing about the universe that can be said with certainty, he affirmed. But what we can say with certainty is that the way we say something certainly creates certainty-effects, and thus forms an important tool in our continued grappling with that obstinate, unruly reality, trying to attain a passable working knowledge of it so as to make it work for us, to get some task or other done. This is close to what Discordians understand as magic: making thoughts and ideas and the imagination cut into and modify reality.

It's perhaps hardly surprising that there's cross-pollination between Discordianism and Situationism, the French artist-philosophers of the happening, while other influences and precursors include: the Dada movement; Beat novelist William S Burroughs, who first mooted "the 23 Enigma" after which F23 is named; psychologist and LSD guru Timothy Leary, dubbed "the most dangerous man in America" by Richard Nixon; and Zen Buddhist thinker Alan Watts, whose proto-Discordian attitude, perhaps familiar to anyone versed in psychedelics, is pithily captured by Graham: "We are only just the universe looking at itself, and you is an illusion, but so is the 'you' that wants to overcome that illusion."

Discordianism is a broad church, sharing an affinity with pretty much any "anti-foundationalist" or flexible and pragmatic philosophy (rather than dogmas, Discordians have catmas, which are temporary and non-binding, to be discarded when no longer useful, and one of a slew of playfully subversive concepts such as pronoia: the irrational belief that the universe is out to help you). We humans are not inevitable endpoints of some pre-existing programme, but chance-riddled mutations from billions of combinatory possibilities. Happy accidents. There's not only a great deal of political liberation to be had in that – in not living up to a pre-given model or code of behaviour; in making it up as you go along – but also a fair bit of fun...

This was precisely the original countercultural ethos, of course, which reactionary forces will tell you was a harmless hippy indulgence killed by Vietnam, the oil crisis and "growing up". But ideas cannot be killed – as Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai remarked in 1953 to a reporter who asked what he thought of the French Revolution (which happened 164 years earlier): "It's still too early tell" – and Graham sees the Discordian spirit percolating through punk, anarchism, chaos magick and rave, among others: "Discordianism provides a handy banner to rally beneath, a freak flag of convenience. It can be anything you want it to be and no one has to take it seriously."

Perhaps the British figure that most embodies the anarchic Discordian ethos is Chris Morris. His pranks and hoaxes – from "Paedogeddon" to the drug cake – don't just represent weirdness, but intervene in reality, like those Situationist détournements (stunts), both exposing and intensifying reality's inherent oddness. I mean, the USA may soon have as president the presenter of The Apprentice. The Dutch recently recognised Pastafarianism as an official religion. Shit's strange.

Situationist détournement is also a good way of grasping one of recent British culture's most absurd and quintessentially Discordian acts (although this may not have been immediately apparent to its perpetrators), as detailed in John Higgs' terrific The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band that Burnt a Million Pounds, which investigates Drummond and Cauty's spontaneous combustion of said cash on the Isle of Jura on the 23rd of August, 1994.

John Higgs with Alan Moore (Photo by Eric Drass)

Higgs had met Robert Anton Wilson while researching a book on Timothy Leary, yet it was through contacting Ken Campbell's ex-wife, the actress Prunella Gee, for photos of the original Illuminatus! production for the KLF book that he found himself triggering the Discordian revival that has spawned F23, at which he will be appearing. Gee put Higgs in touch with her daughter, Daisy Eris Campbell (conceived backstage at Illuminatus!), who was developing a stage version of Cosmic Trigger, to be premiered in 2014 in Liverpool on Discordianism's holy day, the 23rd of November. It would be the centrepiece of a "Conferestival" whose purpose, to borrow Timothy Leary's phrase, was to "Find the Others": the fellow travellers. Holmes says watching the play was akin to seeing The Sex Pistols live in 1976: "Not many people saw it, but for those that did it changed their lives."

"The 2014 Conferestival acted as a rallying cry for misfits and weirdos of all stripes," adds Graham. "Artists, musicians, writers, performers, magicians, party people and outsiders who came together and then went away again, determined to spread the word." Cue a crowdfunding campaign and the establishment of a "veering committee" to birth Festival 23.

Higgs is giving a talk on Bowie, "Ziggy Blackstar and the Art of Becoming", to which people can dance along if they like – although should they prefer music for shape-throwing, there are plenty of options, including: legendary DJ Greg Wilson's Super Weird substance; Kavus Torabi, recently famous as Steve "The Nugget" Davis' DJ partner, is bringing Knifeworld; there's Sony-award winning Dr Bramwell and tons of other live acts; and Pete Woosh from free party pioneers DiY will be spinning, as will Richard Norris, once of The Grid.

Jimmy Cauty is bringing his acclaimed Aftermath Dislocation Principle, previously seen at Banksy's Dismaland. Cult graphic novelist of V for Vendetta and thus the man behind a thousand masks, Alan Moore, will be making a special guest non-appearance as a disembodied televisual presence in a rare and exclusive interview. There's the brilliant Puppet Alan Watts; Daisy Campbell's Cosmic Trigger Cabaret; various experimentalists, performance poets and a host of Others.

For Holmes the festival "is about creating a visionary space in the English countryside for hedonism and idealism, dancing and thinking, challenging preconceptions and breaking down boundaries. Festival 23 isn't about catering to any one particular subculture. We welcome everyone: ravers and rockers, hippies and punks, beatniks, freakniks, wizards and spacemen. Most of all we welcome free thinkers, outsiders and misfits of every stripe. Come together and find the others."

As for my question, guess I'll have to go along and find out for myself. When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

Hail Eris!

Festival23 will be held in a South Yorkshire Woodland on from the 22nd to 24th of July. Tickets can be bought here.

@reverse_sweeper

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