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.
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.
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.