Of Possible Interest

Holroyd Elements

My essay on Stuart Holroyd, Gnosticism, and the Occult Wave appears at Voegelin View. Holroyd’s is an unfamiliar name in 2020, but it circulated fairly widely beginning in the mid-1950s through to about the turn of the century. It helped that he associated himself with Colin Wilson and Bill Hopkins, in whose publicity wake Holroyd might be said to have ridden. The three of them considered themselves to have constituted the avant-garde of a particularly English school of Existentialism that took its foundations in a severe critique of Sartre and Camus and that incorporated a sympathy to mysticism and – especially in Holroyd’s case – to religion.  Holroyd’s first two books, Emergence from Chaos (1956) and Flight and Pursuit (1959), deal with the same topics as Wilson’s Outsider (1956) and Religion and the Rebel (1957). Beginning in the late 1950s, Holroyd entered into a period of commercially oriented writing that he designed to take advantage of the burgeoning interest in the arcane, the occult, and exotic religion of the time. Among these is his Elements of Gnosticism (1994), a remarkably sane treatment of the Late-Antique religious movement that parasitized Christianity and Neo-Platonism. My essay compares Holroyd’s “take” on Gnosticism with that of Elaine Pagels, who effusively praised the view of the Gnostic adherents in such titles as The Gnostic Gospels (1979) and Beyond Belief (2004). It speculates on the relationship between the Occult Wave and the pseudo-religiosity of contemporary leftist politics – with comments on Marianne Williamson. I offer a sequence of paragraphs from Part II of the essay. –

Holroyd readily perceived that certain aspects of modernity wear a Gnostic guise.  In his first chapter, he remarks on the Gnostic proclivities of notable literary figures of the last three centuries.  Holroyd proposes the following names as members of the Gnostic club: “Voltaire, Goethe, Blake, Melville, Yeats, Jung, [and] Hesse.”  Under the claim that “there is… a substantial corpus of modern Gnostic literature,” Holroyd invokes “the literary-philosophical school of Existentialism,” which can boast “many affinities with classical Gnosticism.”  Later, in Chapter 7, Holroyd returns to these names, but in most cases his explanations fall short of full persuasiveness.  Voltaire seems somewhat alien to a list of Gnostics, except that he rejected the standard theodicy and introduced into Candide a character who describes himself as a Manichaean.  Goethe qualifies as visionary, but to conflate vision and gnosis would be an error.  Blake makes a better candidate than Goethe: His “Nobodaddy” resembles the Gnostic Demiurge.  Melville, in Moby Dick, linked Captain Ahab to “the ancient Ophites,” but that served the purpose of underlining Ahab’s fanaticism, a gesture that cannot, by itself, induct Melville’s novel into the ranks of Gnostic belles-lettres.  This is so despite the fact that Melville took an interest in Gnosticism.  One could say the same of Yeats as one says of Goethe.  Now Jung and Hesse, on the other hand, knew of Gnosticism, felt its allure, and might indeed have espoused it – but the latter’s Glass Bead Game could easily be interpreted as a critique rather than an expression of late-modern Gnosticizing elitism.

In [Holroyd’s] statement about Existentialism… the influence of [Hans] Jonas makes itself felt, but only readers of Jonas would sense this.  Invoking Existentialism as a positive instance of the contemporary Gnostic presence, Holroyd in fact puts himself in something of a contradiction.  In the late 1950s Wilson, Hopkins, and Holroyd saw themselves as constituting the English school of Existentialism.  Their brand of Existentialism differed considerably from the French brand; and Holroyd’s particular brand incorporated a belief in God, as already mentioned.  In Flight and Pursuit, Holroyd devotes his final chapter to a convincing critique of Sartre’s argument for atheism, as set forth in Existentialism is a Humanism.  Holroyd notices that Sartre cannot help but endow a character on the god whose reality he denies, treating him as though he existed.  This god, “Sartre’s God,” holds himself remote from humanity, never advises his creatures, permits the rampages of evil, and is therefore complicit in them and tainted with sadism.  Or rather he would be if he existed, but he is not supposed to exist.  As Holroyd suggests, however, Sartre’s rhetoric creates ambiguity with respect to the existence or non-existence question.  Sartre paradoxically requires the god who does not exist in order to carry forward his argument.
From the retrospective viewpoint of Elements, “Sartre’s God” in Flight resembles the Gnostic Demiurge.  Consider the parallelisms.  Sartre concluded in his pamphlet, as Holroyd reports, that the grounds for positing a deity were entirely lacking and that, therefore, without a divine source no transcendent meaning, such as theology asserted, inhered in the universe.  Men could make no valid appeal beyond this world.  The Gnostics, for their part, perceived in the Demiurge a false god, to worship whom entailed a degrading delusion and a blasphemous disregard for man’s potential dignity.  The false god’s botched world, moreover, held no meaning; in it, humanity wandered lost, abandoned, and with only a few illuminated souls yearning for redemption.  For Sartre, such meaning as might be produced in this, the only, world would derive solely from the will of men; or rather from the will of those whose intellectual endowment and volitional fortitude (“commitment”) enabled them to make their own meaning and in so doing to substitute for the non-existent creator.  In the Gnostic view, most men could not discern the wretchedness of their condition; only an elect few possessed that broadcast particle of the true god, or of his environment, the pleroma, in following the compass-needle of which they might reascend to unity with the divine.  Sartre’s denunciation of the bourgeoisie implies an analogous conviction.  Where the Gnostics leap beyond the false god to the true god, Sartre retreats from the non-existent god back to a charmless, café-dwelling version of Nietzsche’s superman, who through his engagement, in those moments when he leaves the café, elevates himself above the common run of men.

7 thoughts on “Of Possible Interest

  1. I have read a couple of Holroyd’s books, as a spin-off from my interest in Colin Wilson – Emergence from Chaos was pretty good, but not as good as CW – who covered similar ground. I also read a memoir of the ‘Angry’ years – Contraries. And I came across bits and pieces by and about him in a small, home-made CW magazine I used to read and write for – ‘Abraxas’ (a mag that I find still well worth re-reading!). But I did not like SH’s ‘persona’ as it came through in the books (e.g. I didn’t like his attitude to women), he did not come across as likeable; so I didn’t pursue the matter further. I think he fell out with CW quite quickly – which tells against him since Wilson was such a likeable chap. Holroyd is still alive, as I understand – he must be the last of that generation of authors.

    • I owe a good portion of my education to Colin Wilson, beginning in high school. Nicholas Bray’s critical biography of CW takes some of the amiable sheen off the Outsider author. I suspect that CW, perhaps not quite such a “likeable chap” as he has been made out to be, and SH had differences — not least because SH reconciled himself to Christianity and CW remained rather hostile to the same. They were competitors, so it is not unusual that they should recoil from one another. I believe that Geoffrey Ashe is also still alive. He and Holroyd are the survivors of an important literary movement that was not of the Left.

      It is possible that I have one or two numbers of Abraxas in a plastic bin in my cellar. I shall need to ferret them out.

  2. Pingback: Of Possible Interest | Reaction Times

  3. So am I! I just read Ashe’s Eden in the Altai for the first time, and I re-read, with much pleasure, his sole novel, The Finger and the Moon.

  4. Hello, Tom! Coincidentally I was reading Wilson’s The Outsiders recently, and my wife has been plowing through Camus. It has been many years since I read Pagels, and she seemed to be suggesting that Christianity was parasitizing Gnosticism, if I remember correctly. I’ll look for Holroyd.

    • Dear Alan — None of Holroyd’s books is currently in print, so you will need to make do with second-hand copies, but these can be purchased from Amazon’s many affiliates. There is, of course, no such thing as a coincidence!


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