Recent events may have caused you to wish you were not so reliant on swindlers and clowns for your knowledge of Asia. If so, you may be nourished by rumination of this cud from saner days. First, a little Kipling, a man than whom there are few saner guides to everything east of Suez (from “One Viceroy Resigns,” 1890). Continue reading
There is a small hill about fifty miles north of here, and like many hills, small and large, it bears no public name. This anonymity is regrettable, albeit more regrettable for the public than for the hill, and this is because all human companionship begins with the exchange of names. As a hill is mute by nature, and therefore unable to divulge its real name (assuming it has one), we are obliged to supply the want and give it a nickname. Continue reading
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.
As we look to the end of Christmastide next week, I thought it seemly to bid farewell to the season with a fond nod – not just of respect and gratitude, but as shall be seen of reverence and some awe – to the inspiring and administering angel of the domestic rites of that festival, Santa Claus. With that statement, I have given away the matter of this post.
“Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious
And gravitating with it to this ground
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in”
Philip Larkin, “Church Going” (1955)
Friends of religion are sometimes found in surprising places. Likewise, its enemies. I am not a topsy-turvy fantast who believes that saints are most often found in saloons and brothels, or that men of the cloth are uniquely wicked and prone to vice, but I have learned that there is no more than a probable relation between rectitude and religion. Continue reading
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.
Pride is, of course, the distinguishing quality of the homosexual. Indeed, the very word “pride” has become synonymous with homosexuality. When I was young, “school pride” meant pride in one’s school. Now “pride events” at any institution exist to celebrate its homosexuals. It is a remarkable thing to take pride in one’s sexual appetites. I find it difficult to imagine, even though I’ve never been as ashamed of some of my sexual appetites as I probably ought to be. And yet pride is what gays say they feel toward their inclination and what friends and relatives say of one who “comes out”. Nor is the self-exaltation of the homosexual a new thing, as one can see from homosexuality through the ages. From ancient Greek and modern Afghan pederasts to the Bloomsbury Group, homosexuals have seen their relations as more sublime and spiritual than those of the breeding masses. Given how openly heterosexuality is ordered to biological continuation, how could they not despise it as such with gnostic scorn?
If you have ever observed the collapse of a wooden building, you know that the evil begins with a hole in the roof. It is here, as we say, that the rot begins. And from this point of incipient decay, the mischief spreads to the rafters and joists, causing these members to rot, and fail, and by failing to open new and larger holes. As the trusses disintegrate, support is withdrawn from the overstrained and rotting ridgepole, until this unsupported beam begins to sag, and at last gives way, bringing the remains of the roof down with it.
I puzzled for years over the tradition that the Magi were led to Bethlehem by a star. I read all sorts of ingenious explanations: that, as expert astronomers, the Chaldeans were uniquely equipped to navigate to Bethlehem by celestial observation, or that there had been a supernova whose light reached Earth for the first time shortly before the Nativity, or the like. None of them quite made sense. How could something outside the orbit of the moon indicate a specific town on Earth?