III. Holroyd’s case for Gnosticism remains nevertheless a measured one. Unlike Pagels, Holroyd’s attitude is not, against Orthodoxy, an angry one. In Elements, Chapter 1, in setting forth the common propositions of the numerous Gnostic systems, Holroyd remarks that “the idea that the world was the work of an incompetent or malevolent deity” figures among them. He adds that, “stated thus baldly, it seems a merely perverse idea, or an attempt to exonerate human iniquity by putting the blame on God.” He immediately tries to downplay the perversity by explaining that the Gnostic systems posit two deities: The inferior Demiurge who, envying the creative potency of the superior deity, authors the botched world; and that selfsame superior deity, sometimes referred to as the Father. Holroyd notes that the “transcendent God does not, and never did, act, in the sense of willing something and bringing it about.” Rather than create, as does the God of Genesis, the Father emanates the lower levels of the metacosmic hierarchy in which he dwells, whatever that means. Thus, to think like the Gnostics, “we have to substitute the idea of divine emanation, or ‘bringing forth,’ for the idea of divine action.” In Gnostic rhetoric, the Demiurge is the “abortion” of Sophia or Wisdom. When the Demiurge came forth from Sophia, then, in Holroyd’s words, “he imagined himself to be the absolute God.” Holroyd makes a good job of conveying to his readership the baroque complexity of the Gnostic myth, with its many levels of divine and demonic beings and its multi-stage causality that brings about the world as men know it.
Holroyd writes, again in Chapter 1, that “in some Gnostic schools the savior bears the name Christos, or Jesus, but there is a fundamental difference from Christian belief in that the Gnostic Christ brings salvation not from sin but from ignorance, offers not redemption but the knowledge that redeems, and demands not belief and contrition but spiritual effort and diligence.” Holroyd writes that: “There is an obvious elitism implicit in this. To be awakened to the existence of the divine spark within is in itself to be set apart from the majority of mankind, and actually to possess the gnosis is to attain a rare spiritual distinction.” It is the case, as Holroyd sees it, that “the Gnostic contempt for the material and physical world can easily be extended to contempt for human beings who do not see anything intrinsically wrong with the world, and the contempt for the Creator can result in the repudiation of moral principles and prohibitions and the assumption of a status above the law, where anything is permissible.” That last phrase alludes to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, in which Ivan Karamazov declares that, “I do not accept the world that [God] created,” and adds that in the rejection of God, “Everything is permitted to the intelligent man.” Intelligence! Is it not the same as gnosis? Holroyd’s allusion is tantalizing.
Holroyd writes in Elements, Chapter 2, of Gnostic stubbornness: “The Gnostics did not take kindly to authority.” As with the mentality of Ivan in Dostoevsky’s novel, “there were those among them who repudiated all terrestrial authority on principle, as deriving from the counterfeit God who created and governs the world.” Holroyd’s assertion that the Gnostics “had no vested interest in exercising authority” seems, however, baseless. Indeed, a non-Christian commentator, the Third-Century Neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus, devoted an essay to the Gnostics (Enneads, Book Two, Section Nine) in which he describes their fanaticism and their arrogation of a presumptive authority that exceeds all other authority. Members of a Gnostic sect rudely interrupted Plotinus’ lectures. For his part Holroyd notices the absence of caritas in the Gnostic doctrine: “The meek, the poor, the burdened, the captive and oppressed, the sick and the maimed, the little children are not the beneficiaries of the gnostic Jesus’ ministrations.” Later in the discussion, he writes that, “Undeniably there is something inhuman in Gnosticism, even anti-human, a repugnance felt and expressed for all things we associate with being human, which no doubt in part explains why orthodox Christianity, with its emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, prevailed.”
Not incidentally, these words would apply to Sartre’s philosophy, as Holroyd represents it in Flight. Indeed, in Elements, Chapter 7, in the context of justifying his classification of Existentialism under the rubric of gnosis, he returns to Sartre. Holroyd is thinking of Sartre’s Nausée when he writes that, “Existentialists, like the Gnostics, tended to regard the material, physical world, with repugnance, as constituting a mode of being utterly different from and inimical to the mode appropriate for men.” Holroyd invokes Sartre’s categories of “en soi” and “pour soi,” the former referring to mute objects and the latter to subjectivity. In Holroyd’s view, “Existentialism endorses the fundamentally gnostic view of the human condition as one of entrapment in an ‘inauthentic’ mode of existence, and that… escape from the trap demands a sustained mental effort of awareness.” This very “sense of entrapment” unites Sartre’s universe with the shared universe of the “Angries,” who whine about the wretchedness of an empty civilization while at the same time wallowing in it. For the “Angries,” at least, and quite possibly also for Sartre, authenticity is a spurious goal. Authenticity serves only as a rhetorical position from which to designate and denounce inauthenticity. Negativity permeates the practice of the Sartrean Existentialist – it hints at a desire to be conspicuous for conspicuity’s sake.
Holroyd wonders whether Oswald Spengler’s thesis of an inevitable civilizational decadence might explain the re-emergence of exotic religious ideas, especially those related to Gnosticism, in the current era. In The Decline of the West, Volume II, in a section devoted to Pythagoras, Mohammed, and Cromwell, Spengler adduces two phases of religious decline – what might be called religious frivolity and what he names as “the second religiousness.” In respect of the former Spengler writes: “Materialism would not be complete without the need now and then of easing the intellectual tension, by giving way to moods of myth, by performing rites of some sort, or by enjoying with an inward light-heartedness the charms of the irrational, the unnatural, the repulsive, and even, if need be, the silly.” As to the second religiousness, which follows religious frivolity, Spengler writes that it “consists in a deep piety that fills the waking consciousness.” The second religiousness emerges from rationalism, which for Spengler is already something defective, by way of negation. The renewed piety “starts with Rationalism’s fading out in helplessness,” whereupon the archetypes of “primitive religion” reappear “in the guise of a popular syncretism that is to be found in every Culture at this phase.” Whereas the structure of this piety is composite, its attitude is monistic and puritanical.
Spengler’s insight has considerable relevance for cultural phenomena under discussion. Take, for example, Holroyd’s late authorship, concerning which Holroyd himself used a diminishing vocabulary. In addition to Alien Intelligence and Elements, Holroyd wrote during the period from the late 1970s to the early 1990s Dream Worlds (1976), PSI and the Consciousness Explosion (1977), Mysteries of the Inner Self (1978), Briefing for the Landing on Planet Earth (1979), The Complete Book of Sexual Love (1979), Quest of the Quiet Mind (1980), and Krishnamurti: The Man, the Mystery & the Message (1991). As the titles indicate, these books furnished part of the vast bibliography of so-called spiritual and occult books that flooded the market – and found a large audience – in the first phase of post-1968 modernity. The subject-matter of these tomes corresponds to Spengler’s paradigm of cultic divertissement in the phase of religious frivolity.[i] Holroyd addresses Jung’s Unconscious and its archetypes, telepathic contact with alien beings, the allure of an intensified consciousness, a type of Tantric discipline, and the life and teachings of an exotic guru. Holroyd’s titles take their place in a catalogue that includes, in addition to similar titles by Wilson, the Seth books by Jane Roberts, the alien-abduction books by Budd Hopkins, and the series beginning with Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln.
How to sum up the Occult Wave, the reverberations of which are felt even today? If it were frivolous, it would never have been pious or puritanical as Spengler uses those terms. Interest in the ancient mystery cults, in the possibility of encounters with alien beings, or in telepathic contact via the psychically attuned with the spiritual dimensions would signify, as Spengler intuited, a need to escape from the weightiness and implacability of a materialistic milieu. The new type of esoterica is mildly dissentient. The Zoology Department tells people that no such creature as Sasquatch exists, whereupon the Bigfoot literature thumbs its nose at departmental dogmatism. The Air Force tells people that the flying saucers have no reality, whereupon the “Close Encounters” literature sends a raspberry at the starched uniforms. In this way, the weird diversions reveal a perhaps unexpected healthy streak. They are anti-pious and anti-puritanical. If the weird diversions were unserious, they would nevertheless be playful. They are playful, moreover, in a baroque manner that endows them with a certain qualified attractiveness. The book with which the Occult Wave began – Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier (French original 1962; first English version 1963) – is self-consciously ludicrous, from its mish-mash organization to its joyous embrace of the most outrageous and unlikely notions. The authors have discerned a stern system, which they playfully oppose: “The Positivists, in the name of Truth and Reality, reject everything en bloc: X-rays, ectoplasms, atoms, spirits of the dead, the fourth phase of matter, and the idea of there being inhabitants on Mars.” Holroyd’s Elements contains a summation of Manichaeism that relates to Pauwels’ jibe at Positivism. Speculating why, with its elaborate and worldwide organization, the Manichaean Church failed to secure a place in the world, Holroyd concludes that it qualified itself as “generally too uncompromising and demanding – in a word too gnostic – to furnish the foundation for a faith of universal and lasting appeal.”
IV. Pagels’ Neo-Gnosticism corresponds, on the other hand, not to Spengler’s religious frivolity, but to his second religiousness. One visited the same so-called metaphysical bookstore to purchase either Holroyd’s Elements or Pagels’ Gnostic Gospels, but the two books differ from one another, one curious but reserved, the other zealously affirmative; in the same way Holroyd’s oeuvre differs from Pagels’ oeuvre – the former eclectic and the latter focused on one thing repetitively. But then Holroyd lived independently, having established a language-instruction franchise. Pagels joined herself to the bureaucracy of scholarship in colleges and universities where an infinitesimal specialization, difficult to distinguish from a general ignorance, defines status. There is something inhuman in the bureaucratization of knowledge. There is something essentially corporate, and thus also essentially inhuman, in a bureaucratized society where human beings become “resources.” What have these phenomena to do with piety and Puritanism? Spengler asserts that the second religiousness mimics the “springtime” religiousness of the culture, but it also participates in the crude materialism and the fossilized rationalism of the global regime, the Imperium whether Roman or American. The need to mimic the original outburst of the culture with its panorama of symbols suggests both a lack of creativity and an impoverishment of consciousness. Because the decreased consciousness cannot deal with the richness and variety of the original symbols, it drastically minimizes their number and allegorizes them politically; at the same time it arranges the diminished remainder into a Manichaean dichotomy.
That Pagels should have linked the ancient Gnosticism with the modern progressive agenda well accords itself with the hypothesis that a stark dualism looming up from the past will appeal to the second religiousness. Pagels’ foreword to her translation and commentary on the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, written in collaboration with Karen King, supplies an instance. “At our first reading,” the co-authors record, “the author of The Gospel of Judas struck us as a very angry man with an offensive, even hateful, message, for he portrays Jesus repeatedly mocking his disciples and charging them with committing all kinds of sins and impurities in his name.” According to Pagels and King, “It seemed to us that the author was doing exactly that himself – using Jesus’ name to propagate his own homophobic and anti-Jewish views.” Once the two scholars recognized the document’s radically anti-Nicene character, however, they accommodated themselves to it: “We found that not all is angry”; and that “much of The Gospel of Judas is filled with Jesus’s brilliant teaching about the spiritual life.” A retrojected oppositionality, as the contemporary academic jargon would no doubt have it, permits Pagels and King to overcome their loathing of the “homophobic,” a word whose presence in the discourse betrays (pardoning the expression) the predictable orthodoxy of the two liberal professors.
Pagels can claim something of a successor in Marianne Williamson, a corporate motivational speaker, author of numerous books on spirituality, and in late 2019 one of the Democratic Party candidates for the presidential nomination in 2020. In February 2017 Williamson sat for an interview with The Bodhi Tree, a former brick-and-mortar bookstore of the metaphysical variety, as previously mentioned, once located in Hollywood, which migrated online at the beginning of the teens. Asked about her relation to Christianity, Williamson responded that: “There is a mystical tradition within Christianity, as there is a mystical tradition within Judaism and all the other great religions… The depths are there in Christianity, because the early Christians – the Gnostics – said it all.” Borrowings from Gnosticism permeate Williamson’s prose, which in its repetitiveness and sentimentality resembles that of a Hallmark Card. Human beings incorporate an “inner light” that corresponds to the Valentinian “spark.” To activate that inner light, one must undertake an elaborate self-initiation (the “Course in Miracles”). In the Bodhi Tree interview, Williamson remarks how: “This world of Maya is illusion… You don’t even try to work within the illusion – you transcend it.” Elsewhere: “The Zen mind is very much what the Course in Miracles is talking about, or what in Christic-philosophical terms is known as ‘being as a little child.’” Williamson’s “illusion” is the equivalent of the “botched creation.” Her metaphor of “being as a little child” inadvertently points to the diminished consciousness of her brand of theosophical gnosis, which her simplistic prose likewise indicates. Williamson is undoubtedly the first self-declared Gnostic to seek the presidency of the United States of America.[ii]
Holroyd’s work has disappeared into oblivion. Such a fate befell him ill-deserved but also probably unavoidably given the copiousness of modern publishing and the sub-literacy of the modern reading taste. A reexamination of that work has nevertheless provided the occasion to draw together some seemingly disparate strands of cultural phenomena of recent decades and to comment not only on their relation to one another but also on their genetic relevance to the present moment. In particular, Holroyd’s subtle self-reflection, revealing itself in Flight and Contraries, enables a reader to form the picture, in detail, of what might be called an optimal model of worldly reconciliation and centeredness. In Flight, Part V, in the chapter entitled “Darkness and Light,” Holroyd charts his progress from an alienating and egocentric world-rejection, which at low moments resembled that of the “Angries,” to a Christianizing sense of dwelling in a world whose basic goodness he no longer doubts – combined with a complementary sense of standing perpetually under the sign of what he freely names as “grace.” Moving towards a “point of balance,” Holroyd can already participate in that balance although not completely, and perhaps never completely. Holroyd writes: “I am no longer apart; I am a part; and I derive my meaning from the Whole.” The motion occurs “within God.” This progress is the equivalent of Holroyd’s “pursuit of meaning,” a quest that necessarily remains open and that gradually transforms itself into the path of transcendence. The quality of subtlety should be stressed. The questing attitude “embraces things that are irreconcilable and allows itself to be conditioned by… the conflict between them.” Holroyd adds that the “most characteristic expression of [this attitude] is in the form of irony and paradox.”
This metamorphosis in the disposition of the ego has at its beginning and in its consummation stark polarities. Yet Holroyd denies any “dramatic story of ‘conversion.’” As he writes, “the change was gradual rather than cataclysmic and more in the nature of an awakening than an apocalypse.” Holroyd’s transformation might justly be described as increase of knowing luminosity in the temporal flow of his self-consciousness. Recalling his phase of flight Holroyd tells how “walking in a large city, I felt more my community with the people of the backstreets than with those of the busy thoroughfares.” Despite this, as he writes, “I felt that my natural habitat was the city.” The world struck him as “malignant.” A conviction of “unreasoned pride” accompanied these sensations. In the phase of pursuit, however, “everything is reversed.” He now finds his home in the countryside, where the environment “correlate[s] with my inward condition.” He attunes himself to “vastness and permanence and slow rhythms of change.” The metamorphosis in the ego entails the sublimation of that ego. For the raw ego, life furnished only a scene for monologue. After the transformation, and in consonance with the movement towards transcendence that never completes itself, but that like Grace constantly vivifies, dialogue assumes a supreme importance.
The increasingly homogeneous mentality of the West, ever propagated and ever reinforced by broadcasting and the new digital technologies, takes it as a given that the world, although purely accidental and malleable according to whim, exists mainly to provide a platform for egocentric monologue. A neurotic flicka haranguing the United Nations General Assembly represents the trend in an iconic way. Although “progress” functions as a shibboleth for the “woke,” the signs point to regress and to sleepwalking – to a fatal restriction of consciousness that gives no evidence of participating in vastness and permanence and slow rhythms of change. Such a consciousness, insofar as the word consciousness finds justification in context, rejects dialogue. It seems also unaffected by wonder, in which, according to Aristotle, the quest for knowledge, eventually articulating itself as philosophy, finds its ground. In Gnostic fashion, the modern ersatz consciousness claims to possess wisdom or if not wisdom then some kind of diktat from out of the blue to which everyone must conform his thought and behavior. In the apocalypse of modernity, transcendence becomes subscendence, appearing even as human offal on the sidewalks of the megalopoleis. The trinity of vastness and permanence and slow rhythms of change has another name, with which Holroyd, subduing his ego, familiarized himself. That name, which modernity seeks with Ivan-Karamazovian anger to banish from all vocabularies, is – God.