By Brenton Clutterbuck, 2018.
Discordianism is sixty years old.
Yeah, I did a double-take when I realised that, and I’ve been involved with Discordianism since the late 1970’s. The anarchic “religion disguised as a practical joke, or a practical joke disguised as a religion” was put together by a couple of American lads in a bowling alley in 1958, and is some ways it’s one of the more influential of the New Religious Movements; its chaotic pull is detectable in everything from the Church of the Sub-Genius and chaos magic to the potboilers of Dan Brown to some of the alleged perpetrators of the Trump administration (see the upcoming review of Gary Lachman’s Dark Star Rising for more on that). Discordianism has experienced a revival of interest in the ten years since Robert Anton Wilson died, something I have been privileged to be involved in via the British wave of theatre/music/art/magic events which began with Daisy Campbell’s staging of Cosmic Trigger in 2014.
Even so, I was surprised at just what a worldwide phenomenon modern Discordianism has become when I read this book.
Brenton Clutterbuck is a young Australian who came across a copy of the earliest generally known Erisian work, Principia Discordia, some five years ago and was fascinated. After reaching out online and chatting with the Discordian communities he encountered, he became obsessed with the urge to, in the Tim Leary phrase which many of us treasure, Find The Others. In the end, he literally travelled the world to do so. This is the book of his journeys.
As is only fitting for a belief system full of grass roots activism, amateur publishing and a strong sense of the individual, his tale is wandering, subjective and a little ramshackle – but rarely in a way which detracts from a genuine fascination with, and affection for, the people and countercultures he found.
Starting sensibly in his family’s home town of Brisbane, he first picked up the thread talking to Dr. Jon Swabey, author of the Apocrypha Discordia and an old Erisian hand like myself. Jon introduced him to members of the local scene and then Clutterbuck moved further outward. Eventually, his travels landed him in the US (of course), South America, then the UK and Europe.
There’s a sense of sheer delight in discovery in how Clutterbuck describes the individuals and groups he encountered on his pilgrimage: with few exceptions, he seems to have found a great deal of hospitality and interest in his project. Many of the folk and groups he found were interested in a lot of parallel concepts – unsurprisingly, chaos magic as a practice was primary among them, although local activism of a decidedly anarchic bent also figured highly. Others were decidedly doing their own thing, in keeping with the Erisian ethos of Sticking Apart (notably a Discordian-centric BDSM dungeon).
Each chapter focusses on a particular location’s take on Discordianism, headed with an apt quote from or referring to one of the participants: ‘Cooking Mescaline In The Meat Locker’; ‘Suicide By Pumpkin’; ‘That’s Not A Religion, That’s Bullshit’. I was delighted to hear of local variants that I had absolutely no idea existed, particularly in South America (Brazil and Argentina have some especially busy scenes who are doing fascinating work). His descriptions of the groups and people are affectionate, wry and thoughtful. One thing that I especially liked was his descriptions of the people involved; he describes their appearance and personalities but almost never resorts to the kind of “pretty, petite 25 year old blonde” school of journalism. (With one exception, where he describes one of the European women he met as, simply, ‘beautiful’. I can’t help but think there’s a tale to be told there…)
Woven into the book is a potted history of the evolution of Discordianism, much of which was gleaned from archivist Adam Gorightly, who deservedly gets his own chapter – although Clutterbuck’s commitment to the project led him personally to some deep archival corners, including finding some real treasures in the records of the British National Theatre on their staging of Ken Campbell’s Illuminatus! adaptation.
There are criticisms to be made: the book suffers from the hallmarks of self-publishing (typos galore and a tendency to repeat the same information in slightly different style across several chapters). I found the two chapters on the British scene were notably lacking in the kind of in-depth description of the people and scenes that are the lifeblood of other chapters: other than his presence at the Horse Hospital fundraiser for Cosmic Trigger, Clutterbuck didn’t seem to have spent as much time simply hanging out with the people, and so the two chapters on the UK scene focus more on the history (of the stage plays and the KLF respectively). I suspect this is purely a matter of timing, as the British scene didn’t have as much going on until after his visit – and this is balanced well by the generous foreword by instigator John Higgs (of this parish). The ‘afterfnord’ bring further context: Dan Comstock’s piece on post-Trump Discordianism is a fitting coda, and the appendices of ritual and history round everything off nicely.
Whatever its minor flaws – and Goddess knows we all have those – this is an indispensable book for anyone with an interest in Discordianism, modern religion and counterculture, or the sheer mania that comes from a few kindred souls playing with belief, chance and chaos.
Chasing Eris can be bought in paper and ebook versions here.
EDIT 18 AUGUST:
After reading this review and seeing my point on the relative lack of personal anecdote in the British section, Brenton has decided to release a free ebook of material cut from the final edition. This includes interviews with folk I know (Ben Graham of Festival 23 and The Quietus and Jon ‘The Money Burning Guy’ Harris), as well as some folk who I was happy to hear about (especially Morag of the Manchester based psychogeography group, The LRM).
You can download United We Fnord: More Discordian Stories from the UK and Ireland from Lulu.