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.
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.
Erich Neumann (1905 – 1960), although self-consciously Jewish and distinctly Zionist in attitude, allied himself intellectually with the Swiss-German innovator of “Analytic Psychology,” Carl Jung, whose peculiar religiosity (“Ich glaube nicht das es Gott gibt, ich weiss es”) veered toward Gnosticism, but nevertheless kept something like a Protestant Christian orientation. Neumann broke with the crudely sexual and absurdly reductive psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud and embraced a version of Jung’s polymythic and symbolic approach to the understanding of consciousness, an approach that Neumann developed in some respects beyond Jung. The cliché that “ontogeny repeats phylogeny” circulates widely – and no doubt conforms subtly to truth. Jung or Neumann, but Neumann more than Jung, redeems the cliché by modifying it. In Neumann’s view, ontogeny strongly implies phylogeny, such that the speculator might reconstruct the latter on the basis of the former. The development of consciousness in the individual from childhood to adulthood would reveal in outline the development of consciousness overall going back to its origin. The speculation might then be validated by comparing the phases of individuation, on the personal level, with the symbolic record of human development expressing itself in the archaeological layers of myth. “Just as unconscious contents like dreams and fantasies tell us something about the psychic situation of the dreamer,” Neumann writes in the introduction to Part II of his Origins and History of Consciousness (1949 – R.C.F. Hull’s translation), “so myths throw light on the human stage from which they originate and typify man’s unconscious situation at that stage.” In his exposition Neumann reverses the order, dealing first with the sequence of mythic imagery and only then with its analogy to individuation.
Rosalind Murray (1890 – 1967) was the daughter of the Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray, who sensing early his daughter’s talent encouraged her to write. She published a first novel, The Leading Note, in 1910. In 1913 Murray became the wife of Arnold Toynbee, bearing him three sons. She divorced Toynbee in 1946, thirteen years after her conversion to Catholicism. No one today knows Murray’s name but in her lifetime she wrote steadily, sustained an audience, and garnered the attention of literary critics. In her later career she sidelined herself as a fiction-writer and devoted her productivity to religious non-fiction. She produced the first fruit of this authorial metamorphosis in 1939 under the heavily laden title The Good Pagan’s Failure. No doubt but that the coinage of “the Good Pagan” implies close personal relations, touching on both her father and her husband, but the book never mentions either. In it, rather, the formula denotes generically the modern, upper-class humanist whose sincere good intentions center on building up a global regime of justice and equality, but who, at the same time, rejects any concept of God and assumes a stance, sometimes dissimulated, that is hostile to religion. Such people appear as early as the Eighteenth Century. They refer to their advent as Enlightenment, which materializes in 1793 as the iconic Guillotine. Their heirs in later centuries have adopted, variously, such labels as Liberal, Progressive, Socialist, or Communist. Their failure consists in the irony that acquiring total control over the institutions and using them to carry out their policies they have by no means improved the human situation. They have largely torn down civilization and immiserated millions. When The Good Pagan’s Failure first appeared, Murray could point to the Great War as evidence for her thesis; revising the text in the early 1960s, she could point to another global conflict, the subsequent and dire Cold War, and many signs of degeneration in Western society.
The poet and fantasist Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961) wrote in a sonnet of “enormous gongs of stone,” of “griffins whose angry gold, and fervid / store of sapphires [were] wrenched from mountain-plungèd mines,” and of other exotic artifacts that exist in a long-lost provenance, inaccessible except in dreams or by ecstatic witness. Contemplating the vision, and beseeching the reader in his opening line, the monologist of Smith’s verses asks the portentous question, “Rememberest thou?” Ah, remembrance! Plato’s “unforgetting”! Smith called his poem “Lemuria,” after the fabled counterpart in the Pacific Ocean of Plato’s Atlantis, the far-famed and foredoomed continent, home to a high but wayward civilization, which vanished beneath the waves in a great and world-implicating catastrophe some twelve thousand years ago and more. According to the claim, Atlantis leaves its traces in such geographical entities as the Canary Islands, the Azores, and the submerged Mid-Atlantic Range. Lemuria’s fragments, as enthusiasts purport, consist of the scattered atolls of the South Pacific, their enigmatic monuments, as at Ponape or Easter Island, and a tissue of myth that the poetic sensibility might cherish, but that stern rationality dogmatically and erroneously dismisses. Rational or not, plausible or not, the Legend of Lost Lemuria, like the Legend of Lost Atlantis, speaks to a need – or rather to a gnawing hunger – that afflicts certain rare souls who find themselves stuck against their will in the modern world: To believe in the fabled, in the scientifically unsanctioned, and in the remoteness-cum-greatness of a past age, very nearly lost to memory, that mocks the modern pretension of omniscience. The allure of Lemuria, like the fascination of Atlantis, responds to the vapid parochialism of the so-called rational world’s ultra-conceited self-perception.
The story supposes Lemuria to be as old as Atlantis (although the precise measure of its age varies from author to author), but, as a story, Lemuria post-dates Atlantis by two and a half millennia. The notion of Atlantis – the island-continent beyond the Pillars of Hercules whose people, grown decadent and greedy, attempted world-conquest only to suffer heavenly chastisement in a cataclysm that obliterated them and their homeland – goes back to the previously mentioned Plato (428 – 347 BC), the greatest of Greek philosophers, a metaphysician, and a visionary. In Plato’s linked dialogues Timaeus and Critias, the tale of the Sunken Continent figures centrally. Plato offers the Atlantis narrative as a “likely story,” whose meaning remains within the realm of symbols and whose imagery the reader should take care not to interpret literally. Nevertheless, the tendency since Plato, especially in the late Nineteenth Century and again in the early Twentieth Century, has been to take it literally. As for Lemuria, it only becomes a topic in the Nineteenth Century in a proposal, indeed in a scientific one, put forward by zoologists and ethnographers to explain otherwise inexplicable uniformities in the zoology of the Pacific archipelagos and in the myths and legends of their people.
H. P. Lovecraft wrote his famous story, The Call of Cthulhu, in 1926 and saw it published in Weird Tales in the February 1928 number of that pulp periodical. The story pieces itself together through the gimmick of having its narrator, the nephew of a mysteriously deceased scholar of ancient Semitic languages, sort through his uncle’s papers – among which figure prominently a cache of documents under the label of “CTHULHU CULT.” In the last few years of his life Professor Angell had fixed his interest on this esoteric topic. Evidence indicates that the cult, traces of which appear worldwide, dates back to prehistory; it also manifests its existence in the archaeology of historical religions, particularly those that center on human sacrifice. The deceased scholar had concluded that the cult’s reality extends into the present and that, after a dormant period, it had resumed its activity. As the reader makes his way through Lovecraft’s deliberately fragmented story line, he learns that Cthulhu, the entity whom the cultists worship as a deity, belongs not to the category of the supernatural (nothing in Lovecraft does) but rather to that of the superhuman in an implacably materialistic and Darwinian version of the cosmos. In the immensely distant past, Cthulhu, one of the “Great Old Ones,” descended to Earth from a distant star and enslaved the primitive humanity through his faculty of telepathic manipulation. A rival power, indifferent to humanity, checked Cthulhu and condemned him to hibernation in the sunken city of R’lyeh in the South Pacific. In the final paragraphs of the story’s first section, the executor describes a sheaf of newspaper clippings that Professor Angell had collected. These items, the narrator avers, “touched on cases of panic, mania, and eccentricity,” which betoken Cthulhu’s return to potency. As the nephew records: “A fanatic [from South Africa] deduces a dire future from visions he has seen; and “a dispatch from California describes a theosophist colony as donning white robes en masse for some ‘glorious fulfillment’ which never arrives, whilst items from India speak guardedly of serious native unrest toward the end of March.”
In the view of the Russian religious thinker and philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), freedom arises from no causality whatever – for if freedom arose from causality, it would operate under determination, in which case it would be shackled, not free. Freedom belongs to spirit, which is to say that it belongs to the person; and the person, bearing within himself the image of God, exercises his freedom positively by the Imitatio Dei of willing the good in the two closely linked modes of love and creativity. Through love and creativity, moreover, people differentiate themselves from one another. Some people distinguish themselves as more capable of love than others; these people – some of whom number among the saints – reap in higher degree than others both the delights of love and the tragic pathos that attends love in the mortal realm. Likewise some people distinguish themselves as more creative than others, whether in the arts or in business or in scientific endeavor; or, simply, in the ability to socialize and to form friendships and initiate sodalities spontaneously. Those who can create at a high level, like those who can love prodigiously, form a justified, if not an acknowledged, aristocracy, and while indeed they enjoy satisfaction in their creativity, they also experience its annoyances, not least of which is to fall under the resentment of lesser talents of invidious proclivity who cannot measure up to, much less surpass, the standards that emerge from the self-working-out of genius. Because freedom emerges from no causality whatever, it partakes in mystery. To treat freedom as a concept rather than living it, to find an explanation of it, would be to reduce freedom to a mere natural phenomenon and thereby fully to ensconce it in the domain of causality. According to Berdyaev, freedom springs forth from the same Ungrund, or endlessly self-replenishing abyss, as the boundless will-to-goodness of God; and it springs forth as the Will and the Gift of God.
As freedom partakes in mystery, it entwines itself with faith. As freedom produces inequality, it entwines itself with politics. In freedom, then, faith and politics find themselves in conflict. Faith on the one hand corresponds to a spiritual condition, which struggles ever to remove itself from the trammels of the fallen world so as to seek the good, and to create it, freely, beyond causality. Politics, on the other hand, corresponds to an adaptation in respect of that selfsame fallenness. In politics, men experience the temptation to exercise freedom minimally by yielding freedom to an objective – or as Berdyaev would put it, an objectivized – authority or totality. Politics, as the present moment so clearly demonstrates, always tends towards an authoritarian totality. Because politics adapts itself to humanity’s fallen condition, it necessarily adapts itself to envy and resentment, which it attempts to placate. The only way, however, to placate envy and resentment is to limit the scope of genius – and that means to limit the scope of love and creativity in the realm of freedom. Politics thus always declines, not only towards an authoritarian totality, but at the same time towards a leveling, egalitarian totality; politics as an authoritarian-egalitarian totality positions itself as essentially anti-person and anti-freedom. This tendency in politics is magnified by the incomprehensibility to the faithless of the paradox that evil must share the same prerogative as good because otherwise freedom would annihilate itself. The faithless believe that through the imposition of the authoritarian-egalitarian totality they can prevent evil. Berdyaev recurred to these themes and propositions throughout his authorship. His early Philosophy of Inequality (1923) treats of them; so do his middle-period Spirit and Reality (1939) and his late-period Slavery and Freedom (1944).
A proposition that can’t be acted upon must be false, or even meaningless. So its contradiction must be true. Thus you can’t think that you can’t think, e.g.; so you can think, period full stop.
The corollary is that if you cannot avoid acting as if a proposition is true, then it must be true. You must at every moment act, willy nilly; so it is true that you can act. Your agency is real. There is literally no way around this operational presupposition. There is no way for us to be, except by an implicit presupposition of its truth. And the only way for us not to be – namely, suicide – is a way that, again, implicitly presupposes its truth. You can’t kill yourself if you can’t act. You can kill yourself. So you can act. QED.
You can’t act as if you can’t act, for example. So, it is not true that you can’t act. Likewise, you can’t think that you can’t think; can’t be aware that you can’t be aware; can’t mean that there is no meaning; can’t yourself suffer the illusion that your self is an illusion; and so forth.
This is the practical aspect of the fundamental epistemological criterion of truth, which is adequacy to quotidian experience.
Extending this notion a bit further: you can’t say that there is no such thing as metaphysical truth other than by asserting a putative metaphysical truth. Ditto for moral truths, and aesthetic truths: you can’t say that morals or aesthetics are relative except by asserting a moral or aesthetic absolute. Indeed, this holds for any sort of truth. You can’t say there is no political truth other than by asserting a putative political truth, for example.
Nominalism and positivism both fall before this scythe. Nominalism can be asserted only by means of the very universals it reprehends. Positivism itself is among the propositional systems that cannot be logically or empirically demonstrated, and insists are therefore meaningless; so that its assertion is its contradiction.
Also, of course, you can’t for very long successfully live as if an important falsehood were true. We’ve all proved this for ourselves a million times.
Thus the very rejection of God is an implicit recognition of him. You can’t rebel against a nonexistent Lord.
This one is so simple, I’m shocked it took me so long to get it. But it eliminates ab initio a whole raft of perplexing conundra; not least, the puzzle of self-reference: of how it is that we can apprehend ourselves.
The basic idea is that we can only apprehend what is, and is therefore definite: definitely itself, and not some other thing. To the extent that a thing has not yet finished becoming, and thus become forever fixed in its character, it is not yet in fact out there for us to apprehend. It is invisible to us, and to all others, because, being as yet indefinite, it has as yet no definite character that we might grasp and evaluate. It just isn’t yet finished becoming. And until it is finished becoming, it isn’t yet anything in particular. It isn’t itself. It isn’t.
Until it is, and is therefore definitely itself and not something different, it cannot act qua itself. It cannot have any effect. We cannot be affected by it. We cannot feel it.