Wednesday 23 January 2008

Who is Hagbard Celine?

I’m very often asked this question because Hagbard Celine is the forum username I usually give myself. Who is Hagbard Celine? He’s a most fascinating character from that most ingenious of novels: The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. He is similar to Jules Verne’s character Captain Nemo in that he’s an outcast from society with an axe to grind and that he’s taken refuge at sea, driving a superlative, futuristic submarine, in Celine’s case the Leif Eriksson.

We discover very little about Celine’s background, and what little we know is distorted through his enigmatic fables. Celine tells many fabricated and contradictory stories, but he doesn’t seem to be maliciously lying; rather he tells these stories merely for the fun of it. He’s an arch-prankster and joker with a very developed and sophisticated sense of humour. A good example is the name he gives his submarine’s computer: the First Universal Cybernetic Kinetic Ultramicroelectronic-Processor. The name is definitely chosen so it can be shortened to the acronym FUCKUP! He’s also written a pamphlet on his philosophy which he has given the unlikely title of Never Whistle While You’re Pissing! He is leader of the Dischordian Movement, the insider-group who is fighting the Illuminati. I got the impression that they were a branch of the Illuminati who have broken away from the “Great Work of Ages” and gone renegade. They’ve been initiated into the same knowledge as the Illuminati, but wish to use it to free the world rather than enslave it. They are called Dischordians because they encourage chaos, in contrast to the Illuminati’s order. Their deity is the Greek goddess, Eris, who threw the golden apple of chaos into a dinner party of the Gods. The book itself is written in a very Dischordian way, which is why I find it so difficult to be certain of all the plot elements. The storyline narrative constantly shifts from one scene to another and from one viewpoint to another, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence! It breaks all the rules you’d learn at a creative writing class, but somehow it works! And it works beautifully. It’s definitely the best novel I’ve ever read.

During the story I got the feeling that Celine actually knows far more than he is revealling. He has a knack of turning up in trouble-spots all over the world, from Chicago riots to a rock concert in Bavaria. Leif Eriksson can sail much faster than any conventional submarine, and probably has an esoteric propulsion and power source. In one scene they pick up the character George Dorn from the coast of Texas and then a few hours later arrive in the middle of the Atlantic to stop the Illuminati raiding the lost city of Atlantis for its treasure. This means the boat would have to be travelling at similar speeds to a jet aircraft! (I wish I could play this boat on my favorite computer game, Dangerous Waters!)

Yet the story does give us a tiny bit of important information on Hagbard Celine’s past. And the reader gets to see that behind his carefree exterior lies a deep, complex and driven man. There is one very poignant flashback where Hagbard Celine is a young lawyer representing a Mohawk Indian tribe whose homeland is about to be permanently flooded by the building of a dam. This is a situation that has actually happened several times all over North America, like in 1931 when the Hoover dam was built on the River Colorado between Arizona and Nevada. He makes friends with the Indian elders and he becomes very passionate about their cause. In the courtroom, when it becomes obvious that the dam-builders have rigged the process and the Indians are going to lose, he makes an enraged outburst and is dragged out of court by security. Celine exhibits a very sardonic wisdom during the narrative. In one scene, a member of the Leif Eriksson’s crew becomes disgruntled and bitterly critical of Celine’s captaincy of the boat. On any other vessel the miscreant would no doubt be clapped in irons and dumped in the brig, but instead, Celine takes off his captain’s hat and hands it to the sailor saying: “Very well; I appoint you captain of the Leif Eriksson. What are your orders, Sir?” meaning “If you think I’m not doing a good enough job then you have a go and see if you can do any better!” The sailor is dumbstruck and then just sheepishly returns the hat to Celine.

One of the authors, Robert Anton Wilson, known as RAW, is almost as facinating and enigmatic as Hagbard Celine; in fact I sometimes think that the character is the author’s own personification in the story (as some people think Dill Gibson is for me in Rockall) He has written a whole series of books on conspiracies and mysteries: He used to be the editor of Playboy and this is apparent in his raunchy attitude to life and the over-the-top sex scenes in Illuminatus!. He has also lectured extensively and his talks are well-worth seeing. Many are available online. Here’s just a selection of the best ones:
There are many researcher with his level of scope, but none who match his style. His shows are so much more than just relating and reporting discoveries and sharing knowledge; he infuses the world around him with joy. You can feel the audience beaming back at him!

Sadly it is no longer possible to see his shows live (at least not in the physical world). RAW died a year ago. He kept his optimistic and sarcastic chin up to the very last. A couple of days before his death he said this: “I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying. Please pardon my levity, I don't see how I can take death seriously. It seems so absurd." Wherever he is now I hope he’s well. Thanks for everything, Bob. Eris be with you


nessa felagund said...

I have wondered where you got your user name. That's sounds like a very interesting story. Can the books still be found for sell?

Thanks for sharing that. It gives me more insight into that name.

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

All RAW's books are still in print, Nessa. Since his death a lot of memorial editions are being published I think. Dying is one of the things that boost an author's sales! Well I'm not planning on that myself yet!

I really recomend Illuminatus!; It's easily the best novel I've ever read.

Elwyn said...

Thanks so much for your article, quite helpful material.
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Anonymous said...

To get a really clear idea of how much of the Illuminatus Trilogy was Wilson and how much Shea I highly recommend reading the Illuminatus Chronicles by RAW alone. Just a side note... All of Wilson's books are worth reading especially the Cosmic Trigger series. I can't prove I'm not a robot... especially by doing something so utterly robotic as checking that box.