Monday, January 11, 2010

Notes on the gnostic historian

There is a certain kind of skepticism that nests like an ominous crow in the branches of cultural relativism. It is aimed at all the myths and motifs that are used in the hegemonic strata of Western intellectual life – or, taking the nuts and bolts out of my mouth, by orthodoxy, by everything that cultural relativism, since Herder, has sought to take down – Western superiority, a narrow sense of reason, a vulgar notion of progress, all of it. Thus, in the sixties and seventies, when cultural relativism was particularly strong, there were a number of claims that such diverse social phenomena as the practice of cannibalism or the Mafia or European witchcraft were myths. They didn’t exist. There are powerful reasons to take this point of view, as almost always, the existence of the phenomena in question legitimate various forms of repression by established power.

Those reasons, for those who lived in the twentieth century, fell out of the sky, and sent the trains to the barbed wire camps, all as ‘defensive measures’ against an all powerful, and as we know, mythical enemy. Given this disastrous history, given these non-existent enemy others who were glued to the bodies of millions and incinerated in the furnaces, certain historians – notably Norman Cohn, whose The Pursuit of the Millenium is one of the great books in my life – looked back and traced the pattern of fake conspiracies and fictitious entities in Western life back to the Roman era. In a sense, this was a sort of anti-gnostic history.

The insight here is that the powers that be create magic narratives of danger and threat, that they have magic mirrors on the wall, behind which they operate the switches and buttons, also goes back a long way – back to Machiavelli at least, or perhaps to Gyges. In King Lear, the disabused, perfect Machiavellian, Edmund, a bastard and thus by birth an outlaw, confects, out of little hints, Edgar’s plan to take his father Gloucester’s life. His lucidity – which dissolves all traditional bonds (such as the difference between legitimacy and bastardy) and superstitions, such as the connection of the earth to the stars, is the background against which we see him commit his treacheries with the comic glee of one of Shakespeare’s minor hitmen, those spawn of fairground puppet devils:

“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit
of our own behavior,--we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! My
father compounded with my mother under the
dragon's tail; and my nativity was under Ursa
major; so that it follows, I am rough and
lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing. Edgar--
And pat he comes like the catastrophe of the old
comedy: my cue is villanous melancholy, with a
sigh like Tom o' Bedlam. “

This view of power as manipulated by an absolutely skeptical consciousness that has, as a preliminary to its move, dissolved all pacts with the stars, all differences of birth, has leveled the world to its bare bones and yet – the inexplicable last undissolved illusion – wants to rule over those bones is itself the kind of thing that should prompt our skepticism. Granting that moral panics can be generated in much the way that a movie director can generate a windy scene – using machines that the camera never films – we imagine that those who claim that these fictitious conspiracies and organizations – the Jew, the Witch, the Trotskyite – exist, and work their subterranean evil everywhere, are totally aware of the off-camera machinery. Surely the potter knows his pots. This view, however, is mystifying in its own way. We can find real equivalents for the theatrical cynicism of an Edmund in our history – we can cull statements from Goebbels, Stalin, Mussolini, etc, and take them as sudden illuminations of the arcana imperii – but in doing so, we mirror the tendency we are fighting against, we endow our creatures with a consciousness that has no unconscious, that is impervious to its own mythmaking, that is all machine and no ghost.

I find this interesting because I have come to think of the book I’m writing, the Human Limit, as a Gnostic history. But looking up the current literature on Gnostics, I find a strong current in the scholarship that want to brush the very concept out of our history like a dusty cobweb. Karen King, in What is Gnosticism, my guide to the current scholarship, comes dangerously close to this position. It is understandable in some ways. When you read the exegetes, busy dissolving the texts, it is a wonder and an astonishment. Some postulate a complexity to the making of the texts at Nag Hammadi that would make a a particle physicist proud. Often, the assumptions seem a little, well, non-empirical. I’ve read some of the scholarship about the Gospel of Thomas which takes the fact that it contains ‘doublets”, or passages that repeat each other, as proof that it must have been compiled by many writers. Obviously, these scholars should ask an editor – such as moi – since it is rare that I edit a lengthy manuscript that doesn’t contain doublets.

King does one very good thing, and attempts to disentangle gnosticism from heresy. As the Gnostics were mainly known from the denunciation of them by various hepped up church fathers, it is hard not to think of them through that lens – a lens that seems all their writings as motivated by reaction to orthodoxy. In fact, when we go back early enough, there is no reason to think that orthodoxy is a very good description for what is going on in the spread of the Jesus cult – and its taking into itself other floating notions about salvation – changing one’s life – in the Eastern Mediterranean.

So, what did the Gnostics think, anyhow? One persistent motif has to do with a certain dualism vis-à-vis creation. The world, in this framework, was created by a lesser god, the child of Sophia. Not necessarily an evil one – but certainly lesser, and certainly not all knowing. He doesn’t quite know what he is doing. Lovely Eve discovers this when the helpful serpent suggests eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, which was not a sin – but the first revelation. This gives us the Gnostic historian’s equipment – a suspicion about the framework of matter or appearance, the notion that the fundamental elements are the hidden and the plain, the secret and the truth, sides – in other words, the jagged sense that the world isn’t finished and the glorious delusion that what will finish the world is one’s history of it. The demiurge, for the cool Gnostic, is authority in all its helplessness – weaving violence out of its vulnerability. The Gnostic historian proceeds with a film noir sense of the world, in which the femme fatale is actually Sophia’s embodiment here on earth.

Stevan Davies, in an article about the Gospel of Thomas (1983), made a case for it as a fifth gospel. It is a striking text, in that it takes the important thing about Jesus to be what he said. This way of understanding Jesus has, of course, been displaced – it seems to us that there is no contradiction between the Church being a defender of the family and the son of God that this church worships, even though Jesus is much more scathingly anti-family than, say, Rimbaud – there is no giving and receiving of wives and husbands in the Kingdom, and “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple.” This contempt for the family exhibited in Jesus’ every recorded gesture is simply not considered important. It was, however, before the cult erased the person, and the Gospel of Thomas, while lacking any real sense that the important thing about Jesus was that he was resurrected, is full of the sense that the new life begins by breaking utterly with the old rules.

How to think about these things?

“Thomas preserves at least two parables which almost certainly come from Jesus but which exist in a kind of pre-church purity. They allow one, in all likelihood, to hear Jesus without the whispers of centuries encouraging particular interpretations. Here is 97:

Jesus said, the Kingdom of the [Father] is like a woman who was carrying a jar which was full of meal. While she was walking on a distant road, the handle of the jar broke, the meal spilled out behind her onto the road. She did not know; she was not aware of the accident. After she came to her house, she put the jar down; she found it empty.”

The jar – which she didn’t notice – the crumbs in the road – the empty container. The Gnostic historian is like that woman whose things have slowly trickled away from her, every step she takes, leaving a trail behind her for the birds of the air to eat – all of this without her knowing it. Lose everything.

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