The Will Self Club have made the sesquipedalian writer their God, boast ridiculous robes and titles, and hold literary orgies. Cult, religion, or postmodern joke? Founder Sam Mills explains
“If you want to get rich, start a religion” – so L Ron Hubbard infamously declared. Two years ago, I took Hubbard at his word. I set up a cult called the Will Self Club, dedicated to the worship of one of our most famous novelists. Many people wrongly assumed that this was simply a stunt to spin publicity for my novel, The Quiddity Of Will Self, in which a similar sect featured. Nothing could be further from reality. Admittedly, it was during the writing of the novel that I toyed with the idea that life could mirror art. But, once created, the WSC severed its umbilical cord from my book and evolved into an independent organisation in its own right. There are those who feel the WSC is an absurd idea, but consider what is more logical – worshipping a carcass that is circa two thousand years old, or deifying one of our greatest cultural icons? From this point of view, Selfianity makes far more sense than Christianity. My cult is that spiritual oxymoron – a religion for our secular times.
There are numerous advantages of worshipping a living being. For one thing, the thorny issue of faith becomes entirely redundant. I don’t have to deal with the onslaught of a militant opposition questioning whether my deity exists – I only have to invite them to a talk on Psychogeography, or a branch of Waterstones, to prove that Self is alive and well. Some do ask the question, as well you might – why Will Self? Why worship a novelist at all? Well, I view art not so much as a substitute for but a successor to religion. Novelists deal with questions of what it is to be human far more profoundly than priests, politicians or even journalists – Orwell’s 1984 tells us more about the dangers of an authoritarian society than any history textbook. Novelists also have the ability to shape society and influence the minds of great leaders – Lenin’s Communist ideals were influenced less by Marx’s non-fiction than by Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is To Be Done? – a book he reread again and again until his mind was gorged on its ideas and his heart set on revolution. Moreover, it is easy enough to spout clichés about art being the new religion, but theories ought to be tested in the terrain of real life. Whilst setting up the WSC sounds like an outrageous move, it was in fact a logical and grounding decision to put it into practice and see if it could really work.
Not many novelists are worthy of worship. There are those who might be fine prose stylists but behave like puffed-up cunts, those who are talented but are simply plain boring outside of their texts. Will, however, embodies everything one might seek in a living deity. He is one of our finest contemporary novelists. He possesses an IQ that is blatantly points ahead of most of us; he is unashamedly highbrow, with a love of sesquipedalianism. It is impossible to attend a talk he gives without being vivified by his quips and insights. And not only is he intelligent, but he is wise – a wisdom gained from having lived life to extremes, from a glamorous, Hunter S Thompson-style bad boy, infamous for taking heroin on Major’s jet, to a sober, clean writer anchored by a happy marriage, an avowed family man grounded in ordinary life. This has provided a foundation from which Will has become a fine satirist, regularly skewering politicians on TV – such as his recent run-ins with Tessa Jowell and Louise Mensch, in which he clearly came out the victor, a man of the people postulating the voice of common sense. Will’s snarky persona is also part of the attraction. History demonstrates that nobody desires a deity who is entirely benign. Christians have masochistically created a God who is wrathful and unpredictable in his punishments – look at the example of poor Job. Our deity can also be wrathful – but thankfully, his anger is directed at targets who deserve it.
The majority of the members of the WSC hold secular beliefs. Without wanting to sound too similar to Alain de Botton (whom Self has referred to as a “philosopher-lite” whose work “applies an antiseptic sticking plaster on a fevered brow”), one of the pleasures that a secular religion can offer is a sense of community. Originally, the cult consisted of a Masonic hierarchy of Grand Masters. We created positions that played on the titles of Self’s novels, with tongue-in-cheek grandeur – I took on the title of Sovereign Grand Quiddity Inspector General, the science author Dylan Evans was knighted as our Sublime Prince of the Great Apes, and the historian Kate Williams became Master of Psychogeography. The WSC has been accused of being elitist, but again, this is an unjust accusation. The organisation started off as a small group of literary types because in its virginal state, I was nervous of whether it would work – and, being a writer myself, it was natural to ask other writers whom I am friends with to join in. The WSC is an egalitarian organisation. Anyone is welcome to join and become a neophyte – provided that they are a sincere fan of Self’s work. All neophytes will be welcome to attend our first annual conference – which we are in the process of organising – which will involve talks and discussions of Self’s texts. If this makes the WSC sound too akin to a glorified book group, then rest assured: one cannot proceed from neophyte to Master without first undergoing our legendary Initiation Ceremony.
The Initiation Ceremony is not, as some believe, a test of worthiness, but an experimental exploration into the nature of higher states of consciousness. We all wear cloaks; we play music ("5ml Barrel" by Bomb the Bass, since Self features on it); we drink a little but not too much; Self’s books are torn into pieces and tossed onto a bed, and orgiastic rites are performed. Many people succumb to the weakness of joining a religion because they seek a means of transcending their quiet lives of desperation. This is where the WSC’s philosophy differs greatly from De Botton, who declares in Religion for Atheists that it is natural to seek out religion in order to be soothed and consoled. Indeed, quite the reverse is true: many people seek excitement from religion. Modern life in our Western sphere inevitably tends towards tedium. The boom became increasingly boring as our consumer desires and pleasures were satiated; the recession is merely a converse type of boredom, a boredom of restraint induced by austerity cuts and the mundanity of worrying how to pay the bills. Hence, religion has frequently become a conduit for the thanatos drive, a means of releasing ennui and frustration through violence, a justification for war and terrorism.
Our Initiation Ceremony, then, is a more positive escape from such ennui, yoking both eros and thanatos drives in a Bacchanalian-style rite that climaxes in an orgy dedicated to Self. It is worth considering that the word orgy was originally not a sordid term but a spiritual one. The Greek orgia referred to secret rites involving the worship of Greek and Roman gods; over time, it has lost its mystical roots and taken on a purely sexual connotation. Orgies can feel louche and degrading if they take place merely for hedonistic aims and the resulting comedown can be as depressing as a drug. But since ours are conducted in the pursuit of exalted states of consciousness, members rave of their exquisite experiences of bookish and bodily ecstasy. Hence, we do far more than stick a plaster on a fevered brow. Rather, we entice the fever, release the fever – surely a preferable way of seeking spiritual thrills than, for example, bombing our detractors or blasphemers (i.e. those who prefer Amis to Self).
On that note, the WSC is free from another issue that weighs down numerous religions – the question of sexual guilt, which also gave birth to the misogyny inherent in most religions. Unlike our Christian counterparts, we don’t have to worry about Will frowning down on us whilst we masturbate, nervously titillating ourselves in fear that we might miss out on heaven – Will clearly has better things to do: articles to write, books to promote.
To return to the Hubbard quote – I haven’t become rich from setting up the Will Self Club. We don’t charge for membership and rely purely on donations. At times, a lack of money has held us back; we recently wrote to Boris Johnson, bidding for Battersea Power Station in the hope of turning it into a WSC temple, and all we managed to drum up was a measly £138. Johnson was clearly unimpressed, despite our visions of turning the turbine hall into a Selfian shrine and decorating the Art Deco walls with a montage of his book covers. Our next hope is to set up a Selfian free school, where all pupils above the age of twelve will be given Self’s entire oeuvre, along with a free dictionary, which will undoubtedly result in producing students who are profoundly literate, eloquent and fresh and radical in their thinking. So, while my bank balance remains as precarious as ever, the WSC has infused meaning into my life; I am now rich in terms of community, happiness and intellectual elevation, not to mention the bliss of an occasional orgy.