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Ken Wilber and Rational Spirituality
An interview with Ken Wilber on Boomeritis:
his postmodern novel.
First, a Rational Spirituality note on this book. It is wonderful!
By wonderful I mean a wonderful introduction to both Ken Wilber's essential work
and his tongue in cheek sense of humor/irony, as well as a commentary on the
state of the academic and cultural world of middle class intellectuals. I
really can't recommend it highly enough for those attracted or repulsed by Ken
Wilber. Click here for more on Ken Wilber and Rational
Spirituality. Now, onto the interview.
Shambhala: [Laughing] Nice try. Speaking of those sidebars to Boomeritis. How did you start doing those, and
why? Do they really have that much to do with Boomeritis?
KW: No they don't, not really. It's sort of complicated. I started writing Boomeritis as an academic treatise.
I finished writing that book--it ended up being around a 350-page critique of postmodernism, or rather, extreme
postmodernism. But no sooner had I finished that book than I realized I really didn't want to publish it. I was
a week or two away from the deadline for handing it in, and I decided I didn't want to publish it.
KW: Well, it was basically just a critical book, a negative book, and those types of things don't interest me very
much. Despite what a few critics think, I'm really not comfortable criticizing other views, and I have done so
in the past only when those views claimed to be comprehensive or integral but really seemed to be leaving out many
important items. I have never criticized the important truths of ecology, but only the attempts to reduce all interiors
to the exterior web of life. I have never criticized the important truths of pluralism, but only the universal
meta-theory of pluralism that claims there are no universals, and so on. Starting with SES, but not before, I fired
off a series of polemical endnotes turning the condemnatory tone of these critics back on themselves, which of
course permanently endeared me to these critics.
But I have never written an entire book that was basically critical. So I started to go through the book, and by
chapter 3 I realized, okay, I just can't do this. This just isn't me.
Shambhala: Weren't you a little panicked that you only had a few weeks to deadline?
KW: Definitely. I was also concerned about what to do with the material? So, this was--I think this was around
last January--I sat down and in a slightly crazed 10-day period, I took the academic manuscript and turned it into
a novel. [Laughing] This is maybe not the best idea I have ever had. I mean, how stupid is that? You want a novel
to be really interesting, then dump 300 pages of incredibly boring academic junk in it, yes? That will get that
puppy off to a fast start.
Shambhala: But the book is a riot, one of the most entertaining and hilarious books out there. Critics actually
say things like "Zap! Zing! Exhilarating!" Here's what George Leonard said: "Wow! Whoooeeee!! Hot
damn! There's so much about Boomeritis that I admire--Wilber's frightening erudition (even about popular culture),
his largeness of scope and spirit, his courage. It's daring, outrageous, vivid, funny, touching--and like all great
books, it will probably bring much praise and some juicy attacks."
KW: [Laughing] Did the publisher tell you to get these blurbs in here?
Shambhala: I thought that up all by myself. Seriously, the comment I hear most often is that it's the funniest
book anybody has read in a long time. And the only reason I'm bringing this up is that, from what you just told
us about how the novel was burdened from the start with hundreds of pages of boring academic stuff, it's very hard
to see how you got such a "Wow! Whoooeeee!" novel out of it.
KW: Oh, I see. Well, what I tried to do was... let's see, the idea was there should not be more than two paragraphs
of academic material at a time, then there had to be some sort of break. So I created the narrative structure around
that requirement. As you know from seeing the book, the result is a type of MTV series of moments, with fantasy
Shambhala: Many of them X-rated.
KW: Yes, and that's a story in itself. There ended up being several story lines, and the fantasy sequences, and
MTV cut-and-paste moments, and--scattered throughout all of that--the academic material, but in a reduced and simplified
fashion. Much of the academic material is off-loaded into endnotes and sidebars.
Shambhala: Endnotes for a novel.
KW: Another great idea, huh? All I need to do now is write large sections of it in the Croatian language to make
it a sure-fire bestseller.
Shambhala: So that 10-day period....
KW: That was to hammer out a rough draft weaving all of this material together, just to see if it would work at
all. It appeared that it would, so then I began a series of rewrites and additions, endnotes, sidebars, etc. All
of that stuff ended up taking 5 or 6 months, on and off. But none of that other stuff appears in the novel. In
novel itself, there are no endnotes, no sidebars, none of that. Those are only posted on the Shambhala.com site.
Shambhala: Let's get to some of the gory details. The main character is named after you. Critics will have a field
day with your narcissism.
KW: To put it mildly. Here is where that came from. The idea was that I was starting with an academic criticism
of postmodernism--that is, of extreme postmodernism, which is what I will mean when I say postmodernism--and trying
to turn that into a novel, one of those really great ideas like asparagus-flavored ice cream. So the idea, the
somewhat convoluted idea, hit me that in order to really pull this stupid idea off, the novel itself would have
to exemplify everything that it criticized.
KW: Because postmodernism is basically a critical stance--you deconstruct what others have said. And therefore
any truly postmodern novel would have to deconstruct itself, to be critical of itself, and that means that the
novel itself has to be everything that it criticizes. [Laughing] See, there's another really best-selling item
in this book.
Shambhala: But how did it get to be so damn funny, because postmodernism has no sense of humor at all.
KW: Well, once you really start making fun of yourself, it's infectious, don't you think? Postmodernism just doesn't
get its own joke.
Shambhala: Okay, so the novel had to be everything that it criticized.
KW: Yes. And since one of the things that it mainly criticizes is a type of rampant narcissism--"boomeritis"
itself means a type of narcissism--then if you must exemplify what you criticize, then....
Shambhala: Then name the main character after the author of the book, thus exemplifying what you criticize.
KW: There you go. Anyway, this character...
Shambhala: Shoot-from-the-hip critics will say it is your own narcissism.
KW: Yes, of course, but if the book was full of that sort of narcissism, don't you think my editors, friends, and
colleagues would be able to spot it and help scrub that out? Do you really think that such a blatant form of narcissism--naming
the main character after you--would go unnoticed and unchallenged? No, the narcissism that's there is intentional
and deliberately exaggerated, even wildly exaggerated, it's part of the inside joke. But the real point is, all
of us Boomers have some degree of narcissism, it comes with the territory; that's part of what the book is all
about. We can admit our narcissism and come to terms with it, or we can deny it and see it only in others.
Shambhala: You watch, that will be the most common criticism. Critics just don't go for any of the subtleties that
you are talking about. The most common criticism will be that the author is narcissistic.
KW: Well the author is narcissistic, that's the whole point. We all are--including the critics. It's what you do
with it that counts, how you handle it, how you confess it and move forward, move beyond it. The novel is structured
around exposing narcissism in its many forms, and helping those who wish to do so to move beyond it. But of course
we are all in this narcissistic game together.
Shambhala: You give example after example in the book. The "new paradigm," for example.
KW: Yes, every Boomer has the new paradigm, it seems. But think about it: I have the most revolutionary new paradigm
in the history of the world, which will usher in a social transformation of unprecedented proportions.... Part
of the intentions are so good, and so noble, and so admirable, but they get exaggerated, puffed up and blown up
by a rampant narcissism that knows few limits. The book attempts to help us acknowledge the good points about some
of these ideas, but scrub the narcissism from them and return them to some sort of basic sanity and realistic humility.
And it does so by exaggerating the narcissism and making it hard to miss.
Again, I am not saying that I am free of such narcissism, because I honestly believe that we all have it to some
degree; the book is simply an invitation to look at this mess together and see what can do about it.
Shambhala: Another major criticism will be that Derek Van Cleef is the real you.
KW: Yes, I think you're right.
Shambhala: Tell the audience who Van Cleef is.
KW: He's one of the characters who is trying to develop an integral approach to various issues. Derek is incredibly
bright, but he's also very aggressive, angry, edgy, volatile. His critics call him fascist.
Shambhala: Was he based on somebody real?
KW: Yes, an extraordinarily brilliant man I knew, who ended up killing himself, I'm sorry to say. I really loved
that gentleman, but he was always, to me, a reminder of what happens when you merely try to think your way into
these spiritual matters, without actually engaging in spiritual practice. The intellect is a fantastic servant,
horrible master. In some ways, it seemed that he just drove himself to despair with these ideas.
Shambhala: Okay, you started to say something about the main character.
KW: It seemed to me that the best way to talk about boomeritis would be from the vantage point of a college student
today whose parents have a bad case of it.
Shambhala: So Ken is 22 years old, his parents are fifty-something boomers.
KW: Yes. He's getting his degree in Artificial Intelligence from MIT, and he is trying to figure out what will
happen when AI creates the first truly self-conscious computers. In order to get some idea of what happens when
Silicon becomes conscious, he decides to look into the research on how the world of Carbon became conscious--and
especially how consciousness evolves or develops in humans.
Shambhala: That's how he ends up at Integral Center.
KW: Yes, that's right. Integral Center is loosely based on Integral Institute--again, there has to be some sort
of narcissistic component to all of this if it is going to be a good postmodern novel, because all postmodernism
is self-referential. Anyway, at Integral Center he learns about the Spiral of development--based on a simple wilber-2
type of ladder model, because the novel couldn't carry any more weight than that.
Shambhala: The sidebars have that.
KW: Yes, the sidebars introduce a more integral or AQAL model. But the novel itself is just a simple ladder type
thing, which is enough to get the main points across.
Shambhala: Critics will say you actually believe that ladder model.
KW: But they've been saying that for 15 years.
Shambhala: So he's at Integral Center....
KW: And he becomes obsessed with the thought: since the Spiral of development seems to be heading toward some sort
of ultimate Omega point, a type of full-blown cosmic consciousness....
Shambhala: But you don't believe that either.
KW: No, not in that crude a form. In my opinion, the actual "omega" point, or ultimate nondual ground,
is ever-present, it is not the end limit of some sort of development or evolution, although this ground can be
more easily discovered with increasing development, and development is important in that sense. But the ultimate
omega is not the highest rung in some sort of ladder but the ever-present ground of all the rungs, or the wood
out of which the entire ladder is made.
Shambhala: I'm sorry to keep bringing up the critics, but they will say that you actually believe that Spirit is
the highest level or something.
KW: Yes, I know, but that's what critics do. The whole punch-line of the book has to do with the brilliant clarity
of ever-present awareness, and the fact that it cannot be reached through any sort of development in the world
Shambhala: Okay, so he's obsessed with the thought....
KW: Since he believes that development in the world of Carbon is heading toward a great Omega point, then when
Silicon becomes conscious, it will also start heading toward this ultimate Omega point. So he becomes obsessed
with the thought: Who will first discover God on a widespread scale: Carbon or Silicon?
Shambhala: But there is a sense in which the discovery of ever-present awareness is easier the more you evolve.
KW: That's right, so his notion of some sort of omega is not totally incorrect, it just doesn't do justice to all
the subtleties involved--which, frankly, is the type of simple notion you need to drive a plot. [Laughing] There's
just not a whole lot of suspense you can ring out of "all quadrants, all levels, all lines, all states...."
The most suspense you can get out of that is like, "Huh?"
Shambhala: In the novel, is what goes on at Integral Center where all the academic material from the first book
KW: Yes. But in a very simplified form, with a good deal of it off-loaded into around 150 pages of endnotes [which
will be posted on this site] and around 400 pages of sidebars and postscripts [also posted, or soon to be posted,
on this site].
Shambhala: But as we were saying, those sidebars don't really have all that much to do with the novel itself.
KW: No, not really. It's just that, the academic research for the first version of the book, the academic version--which
was also part of the research for volume 3 of the Kosmos Trilogy, the volume on post-postmodernism--all sort of
occurred together. So I had this very dense, AQAL critique of postmodernism. And then when I did the novel version,
I could only use a very simplified, phase-2 type of model, and that was a problem, because I really needed to make
some sort of phase-4 statement about those issues. So I was forced, as it were, to start putting parts of volume
3 into these sidebars on Boomeritis which would explain my actual position, and not simply leave with it with the
wilber-2 stuff in the novel.
Shambhala: So that's how you inadvertently ended up writing volume 3 at this time.
KW: Yes, that's pretty much it.
Shambhala: Some folks are trying to criticize the novel based on the sidebars.
KW: The sidebars give no idea what the novel is like. The novel and the sidebars are not related in any narrative
or literary sense. It was probably not a great idea to continue the fictional characters into these endnotes and
sidebars. But, you know, you start down a particular path that seems to make sense at the time. But the real criticism
of boomeritis can only be developed from within the post-metaphysical AQAL matrix outlined in volume 3, so once
I started down the road of criticizing boomeritis, then much of volume 3 inevitably got dumped into endnotes and
sidebars to the novel. Yet another fantastically best-selling idea!
Shambhala: So all of the complex stuff is in the sidebars and the new book Kosmic Karma, and the simplified academic
material ended up in the novel in the sections about Integral Center. And all of the former will be published together
as volume 3.
KW: Yes. And as for the novel, in it the Harvard student union is sponsoring a series of lectures called "Unbearable
Faces of the Future," and one of them, called "Boomeritis," is being given by Integral Center. So
Ken stumbles into that.
Shambhala: At Integral Center a whole cast of characters unfolds, some of them real, some of them fictional.
KW: Yes. Because one of the main tenets of postmodernism is that there is no real difference between fact and fiction,
or between science and myth, then a truly postmodern novel would have to blur the line between real characters
and fictional characters. Half the characters are real, half are made up.
Shambhala: Again, the book must exemplify what it criticizes.
KW: Right. There is a postmodern doubling at every point.
Shambhala: That could not have been easy to write.
KW: [Laughing] Tell me about it.
Shambhala: One of the most prominent of the real characters is Stuart Davis, the young singer-songwriter whose
CDs include Kid Mystic and Bright Apocalypse. Stuart's maybe 30 years old, and one of your best friends. How did
you meet him?
KW: Stuart sent me Kid Mystic, one of his really great CDs, and we arranged to meet. Incidentally, if you're curious,
those first meetings happen to be recorded in One Taste.
Shambhala: I don't know how much of this you want to give away, so don't answer if you don't want to. But there
was a series of events in Stuart's life--in his real life--that unfolded as you were writing the novel, and those
events, by some extraordinary chance, happened to parallel almost exactly what you were writing in the novel at
the very same time. Want to talk about that?
KW: Okay, a little bit, sure. I was writing... let's see, how can I introduce this? I need to back up just a little.
You mentioned those fantasy sequences in the novel?
Shambhala: The disgusting, pornographic, obscene, X-rated fantasies--you mean those?
KW: [Laughing] Okay, they are not that explicit! Anyway, yes, about every 10 minutes of reading time in the novel,
there comes these short fantasy sequences, which are indeed X-rated. The reader is wondering what these mean, why
they are there, until around chapter 3, when somebody points out that, according to research--and this part is
true--the average twenty-something male has an X-rated sexual fantasy about once every 10 minutes.
Shambhala: I have to tell you, when you realize what those are, it's hilarious.
KW: Yeah, it's the X-rated fantasies of the 22-year-old male who is writing the narrative, so of course every 10
minutes these things occur in the narrative itself. Since this is a self-reflexive postmodern novel, you have to
include them. So, what happens is, these fantasy sequences--which are bold print in the novel--start to tell a
story. An actual story starts to unfold within the larger story of the novel itself.
Shambhala: More postmodernism doubling, more postmodernism turned on itself?
KW: Yes, multiple narratives everywhere, contexts within contexts indefinitely. So the story that unfolds in these
fantasy sequences is... well, let's just say that the story starts out being purely X-rated, the typical adolescent
male fantasies of intense, mechanical, anonymous, frequent, mindless sex. But then, over the course of the novel,
these erotic encounters take on more and more of a tantric nature--they go from merely bodily sex to an erotic
embrace of the entire Kosmos, a pure Kosmic consciousness. Probably the central message of the novel actually occurs
in the fantasy sequences.
Shambhala: That's also intentional?
KW: Yes, since there is no difference between fact and fantasy, the real message is in the fantasy.
Shambhala: So Stuart....
KW: So while I was writing these sequences, Stuart was involved in a romantic relationship where exactly--and I
mean exactly--the same thing was happening. He got involved with an amazing woman, at first for merely sexual reasons--she
was incredibly beautiful--and then the relationship tantrically exploded and Stuart was slammed into a full blown,
week long, Kosmic consciousness.
When I heard about this, I couldn't believe it. I asked Stuart to write up the entire story--some 20 pages of it--and
I cut all of his account, verbatim, into the novel. Almost every line that Stuart says in the novel was written
by Stuart himself.
Shambhala: Another example of the interchangeability of fact and fiction.
KW: Right, but even more so. As it turned out, in the novel, which is supposed to be fiction, there is the factual
account of Stuart's real life episode, which happens to parallel the fantasy sequence within the fictional novel
itself. This is like uber-postmodernism.
Here's my favorite part of the entire postmodern doubling, a sort of inside joke that Stuart and I pulled. On the
jacket of the novel is a blurb from the real Stuart Davis. It says, among other things, "Above all, the characters
in this novel are so damn lovable!" In other words, Stuart is actually complementing himself--thus exemplifying
the narcissism and the boomeritis that the novel criticizes (and embodies).
Shambhala: Not a critic alive would ever have spotted that.
KW: Well, it's an inside joke, but I think most of the other inside jokes are fairly obvious, I hope.
Shambhala: Okay, in addition to several real characters, there are the fictional ones. But some of them were based
on real-life characters, yes? Like Van Cleef.
KW: Yes, in some ways.
Shambhala: One of everybody's favorite characters--certainly the guys' favorite--is Chloe. Chloe is in the main
narrative, but she is also at the center of the X-rated fantasy sequences. The obvious model for Chloe seems to
be your wife, Marci.
KW: In many ways, yes. We all refer to Marci as "a fountain of Shakti." She is one of the most exuberant,
joyous, sensual, vibrant human beings I've ever known. You cannot be around Marci and not smile. It is physically
impossible. I have watched many dedicated stiffs and grumps attempt to maintain their distance around her, and
they all fail. They melt just a little, and tiny grins start to crease their faces. She's totally infectious. Around
Marci, you catch a bad case of life.
Shambhala: In the book, young Ken says of Chloe: "How many wonderfully stupid and alive things would I have
never tried without her?"
KW: Yes, definitely. So a lot of Chloe is based on Marci. I think Chloe has the same effect in the book. When Chloe
is in a scene, people pay more attention, because raw vividness is jumping out at you, and it's a breath of fresh
air. But Chloe is also a real wise-ass; she's cynical, a bit jaded, puts on a tough-guy persona; she's also a tad
slow intellectually. Marci is none of that.
Shambhala: After being together for five years, almost six years, you and Marci are separating. You have never
hidden the fact that the reason you are doing so is because of the issue of children.
KW: Yes, and it's really sad. This is something Marci and I have discussed at least every week since we have been
together. After the first month we were dating, I said, "This is going to be a tragic relationship. We are
going to be together for five years, and then we will have to separate so you can have babies." The fact is,
at this point--at my age, I'm 53--I simply do not want to have children. I think that when Treya got pregnant,
and we had to abort the pregnancy because of her cancer, that was the last shot in this life for me to be a father,
and for whatever reasons, it is simply not going to be. But Marci is just in her thirties, and she will be an amazing
mother. And we both know that she will not be happy--in fact, neither of us will be happy--until she has kids.
This was obvious right from the start, and all of our friends have known this from the start. Alas, that statement
turned out to be prophetic, right to the number of years.
Shambhala: But you got married last year anyway.
KW: We had a legal ceremony last year, yes. We lived together as husband and wife for five years--to my mind, we
were married for five years, and it really doesn't matter to me whether the legal ceremony occurred at the beginning,
middle, or end of that period. I wanted to have the ceremony to celebrate the time we had together, a type of exclamation
mark to the whole thing. Marci wanted me to marry her from the start, and I really should have.
Shambhala: Was there lingering Treya stuff complicating the situation?
KW: Sure, of course. But, tell you the truth, at this point I was mostly just being a male idiot.
Shambhala: You'd still get married even though you are slowly going your separate ways?
KW: Yes, not only because Marci wanted to, but because I'm really proud of Marci and what we did together for those
five years. She made it very clear that she wanted to be Mrs. Marci Wilber, and I wanted it, too. Those five years
were by far the most productive years of my entire life. I wrote five books, edited the Collected Works, founded
Integral Institute and helped start the EcoISP. All of that happened in large measure because of the wonderful,
vital, loving space created for both of us by Mrs. Marci Wilber, this fountain of Shakti. I am so proud she was
Shambhala: So you are in the process of separating now?
KW: Yes, we found Marci a wonderful house, and she is slowly moving in there. We are converting the Boulder house
into one of Integral Institute's main offices and recording studios, where we will be videotaping a series of Integral
Seminars, starting with one given by Mike Murphy, George Leonard, and myself on "Integral Transformative Practice,"
with dozens of other Integral Seminars upcoming, in areas like integral psychology, integral business, integral
ecology, integral art, integral spirituality, integral education, and so on.
Shambhala: Are you still in love with Marci?
Shambhala: Is she still in love with you?
Shambhala: That's really sad.
KW: It's terrible. It's really terrible. And very painful for both of us. But what were our choices? We knew that
this was a deal breaker from the beginning. And all of our friends knew it. We could have walked away from it then,
or we could have had five years together and then faced the sadness. Thank god we decided on the latter. I am so
unbelievably grateful for those five years, and for the sheer life that Marci brought to us both.
Shambhala: I think that was why all your friends were so happy to see you two together.
KW: I think so. Our time together is drawing to a close, but not our love. And Marci will be the world's best mom
Shambhala: You would not believe what some people are saying about why you separated.
KW: Oh, sure I would. When people don't know what actually happened, they have
no choice but to project their shadows into the situation and then describe
their own shadows, and shadows are by definition pretty weird. [Laughing] I'm
not saying I'm not weird, only that when people project their own weirdness onto
the situation, you get two weirdnesses for the price of one.
Mark Michael Lewis
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