Stuart Holroyd, Gnosticism, & the Occult Wave (Part I)


Stuart Holroyd (born 1933)

The name of Stuart Holroyd (born 1933) is associated – if rather erroneously – with that British literary insurrection of the late 1950s, the “Angry Young Men.”  In fact, Holroyd and his two close associates, Colin Wilson and Bill Hopkins, differed strongly from the “Angries,” among whom the representative figures were John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Harold Pinter, and Kenneth Tynan.  The “Angries” emphasized their politics, leaning strongly to the left; they assumed an ostentatiously materialistic viewpoint, wrote in self-righteous condemnation of the existing society, put ugliness on display, and tended towards an egocentric species of pessimism or nihilism.  Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which enjoyed theatrical success in London in 1956, typifies the outlook of the “Angries”: It presents an English version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s bleak Existentialism, set in a universe devoid of meaning where, in Sartre’s phrase, “Hell is other people.”  Holroyd and Wilson, and to a certain extent Hopkins, could not content themselves with the restricted mental horizon of the “Angries.”  Nor did they wish to waste energy “condemning society.”  Holroyd and Wilson especially responded to a shared mystical impulse that saw in human nature possibilities of transcendence.  Wilson remains better known than Holroyd, but their early careers ran on parallel tracks.  Wilson published his first book, The Outsider, in 1956.  It became an unexpected best-seller.  Holroyd published his first book in the same year although it appeared in print after The Outsider had come out.  Emergence from Chaos exceeds The Outsider in a number of ways – it is better organized, its prose more finished, and its arguments more coherent.  Both books recount indirectly a type of metanoia springing from the inveterate reading, since adolescence, of serious books, in Holroyd’s case with a focus on poetry and philosophy, Wilson’s Outsider being oriented more to the novel.

I. Emergence from Chaos proposes the overarching thesis that religious or spiritual experience drives human development, both for the species, historically speaking, and for the specimen individual at any given moment on the historical continuum. Holroyd, as expected, defines religious experience broadly; he will not confine himself, say, to the standard tale of Christian conversion although he by no means excludes it. Holroyd focuses on effects.  Mystic ecstasy comes in many varieties, which “have different causes,” as Holroyd writes in Chapter One, “and are expressed in different terms”; but “they always lead to the same metaphysical conclusions.”  The subject espouses the new conviction that “there is a higher reality than the obvious, tangible, worldly reality, and man is most nearly himself, lives most intently, when he seeks to embody or to exist upon this higher level.”  Spiritual experience “thus leads to a severe shaking of the foundations upon which the lives of most of us are built.”  The initiate often interprets his access to the vision as both a rebirth and a type of humblement.  He tells of what has befallen him, but he makes no egocentric claim about it.  He now sees the ego in its proper place in the divine-cosmic hierarchy.  In Chapter Three, Holroyd discusses the conjunction of “Religion and Art.”  Holroyd makes the point that, “Art is not religious because it concerns itself with obviously religious subjects, but rather because the artist’s attitude to life is a religious one.”  Holroyd cites the still-life canvasses of Paul Cézanne where the intensity of the painter’s vision functions as the mark of his exalted spiritual state.

Benjamin Williams Leader (1831 - 1923) Derwent Water Cumberland (1869)

Benjamin Williams Leader (1831 – 1923): Derwent Water Cumberland (1869)

Again in Chapter Three, Holroyd contrasts the genuine religious attitude with its false and all-too-common counterpart.  He characterizes the latter as something sophistical: “The pseudo-religious attitude measures all things with the yardstick, Man.”  On the other hand Holroyd perceives in the real thing “a certain anti-human element” that correlates with the revelation of “an absolute set of values.”  Holroyd therefore rejects Humanism.  He writes how “when the Humanistic categories dominate men’s minds they encourage a flaccid and sentimental way of thinking”; whereas on the other hand, “genuine religious art has a certain hardness, precision and austerity which Humanist art lacks.”  The urge to transcendence comes into its own, as Holroyd puts it, “in a reaction against the ugliness, imperfection and transience of worldly things” and involves “spiritual suffering… that restlessness of the spirit which urges the mind to be ever seeking answers to the eternal questions.”  Holroyd alludes to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, especially to “Burnt Norton,” as exemplifying the hardness and dissatisfaction that he invokes.  He also makes reference to the sufferings of Ivan in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.  In Part Two of Emergence, Holroyd devotes the chapters to a number of case studies, such as W. B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Arthur Rimbaud, and, in his final chapter, Eliot.  For Holroyd Eliot embodied “the intellectual soul,” a variant on mystic or visionary proclivity.  “The intellectual soul,” Holroyd writes, “is found in the man who is endowed with the metaphysical need of finding an explanation of the world and his own place in it.”  Moreover, as Holroyd adds, “faith does not come easily to him; it is not a natural disposition… or an inherited and unquestioned belief.”  Rather the intellectual soul attains his surety of faith by discipline.  The goal is “the forming of the future,” or the betterment of the world, but only by a rigorously unsentimental program that avoids the reductive themes of a failed modernity.

Holroyd produced two quasi-sequels to Emergence in Flight and Pursuit (1958) and in Contraries: a Personal Progression (1975), both of which confirm the crypto-autobiographical interpretation of the earlier volume.  The hiatus between Flight and Pursuit and Contraries signified Holroyd’s immersion in other activities.  He produced occasional literary work in articles and reviews, wrote for television, and authored a textbook on literary studies (The English Imagination, 1969); but his main activity in this period seems to have consisted in the establishment and perpetuation of a language-school franchise.  When with Contraries he resumed writing books, his direction had changed.  While Contraries, a memoir of the 1950s, resumed the seriousness of Emergence and Flight, the remainder of Holroyd’s authorship suggests a commercializing attitude.  Holroyd produced books on psychic phenomena, extraterrestrial intelligence, sex, and Eastern religiosity, topics which in the 1970s and 80s exerted a strong appeal on the public imagination.  Wilson too had exploited such popular interests in The Occult (1971) and Mysteries (1978).  Holroyd himself has referred to his latter-day exploits as “literary whoring,” a phrase that indicts the latter part of his oeuvre more severely than necessity requires.  Being a keenly intelligent and massively educated man, Holroyd, even where it concerns outré or faddish topics, always manages to devise a nourishing, as well as an entertaining, exposition.  He knows that even a delusion will yield a meaning if interpreted in its proper context, according to its symbolism, and with requisite sensitivity to its connotations.  He knows further that eccentricity often functions critically with respect to the social conformity against which it rebels.

Consider Alien Intelligence (1979).  The book shows no little continuity with Emergence and Flight, sharing with them a preoccupation with mystical experience and the philosophical metanoia.  Holroyd comments, in his introduction to the book, on Olaf Stapledon’s visionary, science-fiction epic Star Maker (1937), which deals with the development of mentality on a cosmic level and dramatizes the yearning of the Cosmic Mind, once synthesized, to fuse with its absolute Other – the titular “Star Maker.”  A reader who, like Holroyd, permits Star Maker to absorb him will, to borrow a phrase from Emergence, experience vicariously “that restlessness of spirit which urges the mind to be ever seeking answers to the eternal questions.”  Returning to Stapledon in the book’s final chapter (“Supermind”), Holroyd characterizes Star Maker as a prolonged, mythopoeic meditation on “the immensity of creation and… the dependence of the Creator upon his creation”; Stapledon’s speculation underscores, as Holroyd states, “the interdependence of creator and creature.”  Holroyd invokes a variety of Imitatio: God, a higher being, exercises his potency through creation, implying “that to seek and create and to evolve is to participate in the divine purpose and nature.”  Holroyd’s reading of Stapledon affirms the sacredness of creation, whose fundamental basis is “God-stuff.”  Given that “God-stuff” is psychic, the Cosmos would then be “minded.”  Thus in a slightly wacky volume aimed at customers of what, in the 1970s and 80s advertised themselves under the comical name of “metaphysical bookstores,”[i] the commercializing writer validates the Platonic notion of the universe, reinserting a traditional philosophical idea, that of the ordering Logos, into popular discourse.

William Dyce (1806 - 1864) Pegway Bay (1858)

William Dyce (1806 – 1864): Pegway Bay (1858)

Holroyd’s Elements of Gnosticism (1994) takes its place, with qualifications, in the milieu just mentioned – that wave of interest in the 1970s and 80s in alternative religiosity, a new spiritualism, and a misnamed metaphysics that might more honestly have called itself theosophy.  The scholarly literature on the Late-Antique Gnosis has a lengthy pedigree.  It could be said to originate in the heresiology of the early Christian writers, but as proper scholarship it can trace itself to the early Nineteenth Century, in such weighty tomes as Ferdinand Christian Baur’s Manichaeische Religionssystem (1831) and Christliche Gnosis (1835).  By the fin-de-siècle, the bibliography of Gnostic studies had waxed copious.  The repressed heresy exerted its appeal again in the new century, on the scholarly level, in two key events.  In Egypt in 1945 a collection of Fourth-Century Gnostic tracts, called the Nag Hammadi Library after their provenance, turned up and the decades-long project of translating them from the original Coptic began.  In 1958, on the basis of what so far had been translated, philosopher Hans Jonas published his ambitious study of The Gnostic Religion, with the subtitle The Message of the Alien God & the Beginnings of Christianity.  Jonas, a former student of Martin Heidegger, argued that the intellectual complexities and convoluted symbolism of the Gnostic writings made them more than just an antiquarian curiosity; he saw in Gnostic thought an “anti-cosmic” theme that betokened a radical rejection of Hellenistic science and theology.  Jonas also argued, in an appendix to the revised edition of The Gnostic Religion, that antique Gnosticism had modern analogues, citing especially the existentialist philosophers including his old teacher Heidegger.

II. No few books about Gnosticism, whether scholarly of character or popularizing, followed in the wake of Jonas’ best-known opus. On the academic side there were, outstandingly, Kurt Rudolph’s Nature and History of Gnosticism (1983), Giovanni Filoramo’s History of Gnosticism (1990), and Yuri Stoyanov’s Other God (2000), to name only three titles among many more. On the popularizing side one might cite Stephen Hoeller’s Gnostic Jung (1982), Tobias Churton’s Gnostics (1987), and Elaine Pagels’ Gnostic Gospels (1989), once again to name only three titles among many more.  Respecting The Gnostic Gospels, it could boast an academic author – at the time of the book’s appearance, Pagels enjoyed a tenured professorship at Barnard College – but the publisher clearly intended it for a laical audience, the people namely who bought Hoeller’s Gnostic Jung and Churton’s Gnostics and who shopped for them at “metaphysical bookstores.”  Pagels, who grew up in an evangelical community, had in her teens suddenly revolted against her Christian instruction.  The authorial attitude in The Gnostic Gospels tends toward a type of reactive sectarianism which expresses itself, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, under a distinctly proto-postmodern and anti-Christian mood.  Pagels, for example, levels the charge of literalism against the Orthodox account of Christ’s resurrection, calling it “wholly implausible.”  She next reverts to a crudely Marxian thesis.  “The doctrine of bodily resurrection,” Pagels writes, “serves an essential political function: it legitimizes the authority of certain men who claim to exercise exclusive leadership over the churches as successors of the apostle Peter.”

Pagels, in the course of her chapters, discovers in the Gnostic Gospels the full suite of contemporary liberal affirmations.  The Gnostic dissentients were proto-feminists; indeed, they re-inserted a goddess into the theological scheme, to be venerated equally with the god.  The Gnostics anticipated Feuerbach and Nietzsche in reallocating aspects of an alienated godhead to humanity.  Theirs qualified as the real humanism, which the Church always strove to quash.  Pagels, however, consistently mischaracterizes Orthodoxy, which she refers to repeatedly as monotheistic.  Judaism and Islam are monotheistic.  Christianity is Trinitarian; its god manifests himself in three distinct persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Pagels’ charge of literalism in respect of the resurrection also misfires.  Far from purging the resurrection of symbolic meaning, the Patristic writers endow on Christ’s return to living flesh a vast range of far-reaching connotations.  Nor does Orthodoxy reduce the resurrection to a literal-minded implausibility, as Pagels argues.  Rather, Orthodoxy presents the resurrection as a mystery, in awe before which neither the peasant nor the scholar can offer explanation.   Gnosis reveals itself contrarily as the opposite of mystery; it takes the form of a type of knowledge, granted only to an elite class, which possesses the absolute degree of certitude.  The Gnostic’s everything-you-previously-knew-is-wrong type of illumination functions emblematically like the modern humanities doctoral degree – it certifies its bearer as wiser than others and therefore also as the dispenser to others of a mandating wisdom.

Joseph Thors (1835 - 1920) Scene near Cheltenham (1880)

Joseph Thors (1835 – 1920): Scene Near Cheltenham (1880)

Holroyd lists The Gnostic Gospels in his bibliography along with titles by Churton, Hoeller, Jonas, and G. R. S. Mead.  The Elements of Gnosticism, written by a college drop-out and washed-up actor, differentiates itself from Pagel’s book, and all those that hit the shelves of the metaphysical bookstores in the same decade, first of all in its tentative voice.  The phenomenon of Gnosticism – in its elaborate intellectual constructions, its contrariness, and its stubborn persistence – fascinates Holroyd.  He wishes to share the object of his fascination with his readership.  Unlike Pagels, Holroyd has no ax to grind.  He appreciates the intrinsic allure of Gnosticism, but without wishing to espouse it as such and without too heavily apologizing for it.  Readers of Holroyd will discover the background to this tentativeness in his earlier books.  Flight and Pursuit and Contraries record serious episodes of self-examination and set out the influences and arguments by which, through several alterations of conviction, the book’s author arrived at his reconciliation with a faith in God.  This event implied a corollary.  If Holroyd’s early life had consisted in a good deal of disorderliness, one of the grounds on which he could re-gruntle himself was that he lived in an orderly universe – if not at the social level, full of corruption, then at the cosmic and divine levels.  Men’s troubles stem from their errors and misdeeds, not from the God whose sole desideratum for men is to love.  The Elements, for its part, sets forth its survey in seven chapters: “Gnosticism Ancient and Modern”; “Gnosticism and Christianity”; “The Major Schools of Gnostic Thought”; “The Gnostic Religions”; “Gnostic Literature”; “The Legacy of Gnosticism”; and “The Gnostic Revival.”

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 the statement about Existentialism, which also omits to explain itself, the influence of 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.

Carl Brennir (1850 - 1920) Pastoral Landscape (1903)

Carl Brennir (1850 – 1920); Pastoral Landscape (1880)

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.

[i] An actual (if “actual” were the word) “metaphysical bookstore” would be intelligible, but not tangible.  It is not certain how the proprietor would make change.  Two such businesses nevertheless established themselves under that generic moniker in Santa Monica in the 1980s during the time when I worked toward my doctorate in Comparative Literature at nearby UCLA and lived in West Los Angeles.  Phoenix Books was located in the downtown of Santa Monica, the Dawn Horse on Wilshire Boulevard near the West La-La Land demarcation.  If memory serve, the Phoenix announced itself in its display-window lettering as a “metaphysical bookstore,” while offering a wide variety of theological, philosophical, ufological, and other types of books.  The Dawn Horse specialized more narrowly in occult and spiritualist literature.  Neither survived the Internet’s massacre of independent booksellers beginning in the late 1990s.  When Colin Wilson came to Southern California on a lecture tour in 1987, he made an appearance at the Dawn Horse one Thursday morning to sign books.  I met him there on that occasion when he kindly autographed my copy of Necessary Doubt.  Robert Anton Wilson, author of the Illuminatus trilogy, frequented the Dawn Horse and might be encountered browsing the shelves.  I acquired any number of books by Wilson, Holroyd, Geoffrey Ashe, and John Michell at these establishments.

2 thoughts on “Stuart Holroyd, Gnosticism, & the Occult Wave (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Stuart Holroyd, Gnosticism, & the Occult Wave (Part I) | Reaction Times


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