Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Gnostic Diffusion Down Through the Ages

While walking around UC Berkeley recently, I passed the Anthropology building, named in honor of Alfred L. Kroeber, one of the first great Anthropologists in Unistat, who was there at the creation, studying under Franz Boas. Kroeber had a lot to say about how ideas, tools, techniques, etc: spread from one area to another, and he called it diffusion and developed a sort of taxonomy of different types of diffusion.

                                        Alfred L. Kroeber, American anthropologist
                                        who spent most of his career in Berkeley, and
                                        is the father of science fiction writer
                                             Ursula K. LeGuin

As I walked and my thoughts percolated to the rhythms of wandering around a redwood-heavy area, I thought of all the heretical ideas I've been drawn to, and the idea of diffusion: did all the "countercultural" ideas diffuse down through the ages? Or, what seems far more likely, did only some of them diffuse and evolve from say, 3000 years ago? Or, what about a counter-idea about diffusion that we often see, "evolutionary diffusion", which says that all humans have psychological traits in common, and that novel ideas will show up at roughly the same time, in different geographical areas, just because, we were ready for those ideas or inventions? Think of Newton and Leibniz inventing calculus at the same time. Or Darwin and Wallace. Or Priestley and Lavoisier and an obscure Swede named Carl Wilhelm Scheele and oxygen. Or any number of other inventions in which there appears to be zero evidence that information diffused (via spying?) from one area to another.

Charles Fort said something about, "It's steam engines when it comes steam engine time." (I paraphrase from memory here.)

No doubt people take their languages, inventions, techniques, ideas, and wander over the hill, get on a jet, and drop those things in some far-flung area, changing that second area in some way. But I tend to think both types of diffusion are always going on: evolutionary and the other types.

Then I started thinking about Ezra Pound. I'd written about Pound and conspiracy theories a while back. But there I didn't cover one of my favorite Pound conspiracy theories: the goddess cults which were forced underground when the Christians came to power while the Roman Empire began to crumble. They'd probably originated in Greece, Ez seemed to think.

Pound had, at around age 21, traveled to Europe and, while visiting the Ambrosian Library in Milan, had stumbled onto some troubadour manuscripts. He taught himself Provencal and made a terrific study of 12th century southern France, where "courtly love" - a very large part of what we consider to be "romantic love" in the 21st century West - was invented.

From 1208 to 1229 the Catholic Church waged a hellaciously brutal, bloody war against some heretics called the Cathars. (The Albigensian Crusade.) The Cathars were wiped out, their manuscripts burned. Apparently the Cathars were into a religion that was the 13th century's version of pagan sex as a religious thing. But the Church's story was that the Cathars were practicing a dangerous form of Manicheanism, which was an idea that the human body is a prison, and that this world was made by a fake god; the Real God was Out There somewhere. I admit this sounds like a pessimistic take on religion, but if the Cathars thought this, why was it such a threat? (I bet you have more than one good answer for that one!)

Pound thought the Cathars didn't think any such thing. He'd walked Southern France and found it utterly delightful. And he'd done an intense amount of reading in...well, everything. Pound started giving lectures in England on the troubadours and their revival of a goddess-based view of the world, one that saw experience in the natural world as a sacrament, that sensual pleasure was a basic good and in tune with what a true Deity would want for us. We do well to harness our perceptive powers, take joy in sensuous delights and sex and poetry and music and the natural world: all of this leads to a state of ecstasy. Now we can see why it was a threat to the Holy Catholic Church! It was the old pagan-goddess-sex matrix, the obtaining of a religious buzz from outside the Church confines, and the Pope and his soldiers conspired to quash it, always.

Pound made a study of troubadour music and art and found nothing of the Manichean pessimistic dualism in their work; on the contrary, he saw the awakening of the Goddess in their work (what survived the burnings). Pound came out with The Spirit of Romance, which articulated his ideas, in 1910. As to the idea that there could have been a Goddess-worship revival alongside a cult of pessimistic gnostics: Pound seemed to have some serious doubts. Furthermore, the Church had always tried to stamp out neopaganism wherever they saw it; this new Goddess religion had to go.

To be sure, the Manicheans have been considered by many writers on Gnosticism to have been a genuine strain of gnosticism; however, there were other gnostic groups that scholars paint as being far more fun to hang out with. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll - this general spirit - may have started with them. Pound's troubadours - who probably overlapped considerably with Cathars? - seem to fit this bill just fine.

When you read about the Eleusinian Mysteries, goddess worship among the Greeks, Epicurean philosophy and its permutations and coded texts under repressive regimes: these were the earlier version of what Pound thought he'd unearthed in Provence.

Did the valuation and veneration of attuned perception, music, wine, sex, and partying in the fields on a warm summer night ever die? No.

But then neither did the Empire.

                                Supposedly this is Idries Shah, but you never know with
                                  this guy...

Robert Anton Wilson, a Pound scholar but not an academic one, loved Pound's ideas, but never seemed to commit to any one narrative along these lines. RAW's historical ideas about diffusion seem to entertain both evolutionary and the other types of direct transmission. In a letter to Green Egg from 1974 (which I couldn't find at rawilsonfans.com), RAW tries to trace the origin of Wicca, and asserts that Gerald Gardner invented it in the 20th century, with help from Aleister Crowley. Gardner created a history for Wicca that extended back to the Stone Age, and as William S. Burroughs might have said, "Wouldn't you?"

                                                Gerald Gardner, probably the main
                                                brain behind modern Wicca

In 1974 RAW says he's bee trying to trace the true history of Wiccan ideas for "seven years" (so he started around the Summer of Love?), and says, as he often did, that with more and more research and information, "I am more confused and less certain than ever."

He entertains Idries Shah's ideas that the Wiccan tradition was drawn largely from the Sufis in the late middle ages: "Anyone who has remaining doubts can simply attend a Sufi dance and a Wicca festival in rapid succession, whereby it will appear obvious to the senses that the same basic rituals are being used for the same basic purposes." (Or was RAW just trying to get you to go to Sufi and Wicca parties so you'll never be the same again?)

Then RAW admits that Sufism may be merely an "Arabized offshoot of Gnosticism." This gets us back at least 2000 years, wot?

Then, because this was RAW's metier, he muddies things up considerably for us, asserting Crowley wrote some things that Gardner picked up almost word for word, but then Crowley had a "sensitive psyche" and could have picked up his ideas from ESP or witch covens that existed near him. He cites Francis King and Jessie Weston, who influenced Eliot's The Wasteland considerably (and Pound edited that poem, recall). Weston, if you read her From Ritual To Romance closely, she may have "been in contact with a proto-Gardnerian coven circa 1900-1910." This all ties in - maybe - with the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Templi Orientis.

RAW then says if you're trying to research this stuff and looking for earlier and earlier citations of the label "withcraft" you're selling yourself short:

"If we widen our lens and look at the subject of 'Christian heresies' and 'non-Christian heresies' and 'secret societies' etc, if we compare alchemical texts with Rosicrucian pamphlets and early Masonic charters, etc, a great deal begins to come into focus, as I hope to show in my forthcoming book on Crowley, Lion of Light."

[Wilson never did publish a book on Crowley called Lion of Light, but his writings on Crowley are voluminous and...diffuse and diffused throughout his oeuvre. For more of RAW's writings along the lines of this what he's writing about in this obscure letter to Green Egg, see his book Ishtar Rising.]

In the same letter RAW talks about all the various ways "pagan" ideas may have diffused throughout the world over the last 2000 years, although he doesn't use the term diffusion. The reason it's difficult to know for sure about diffusion is that it rarely leaves a trace: you need extensive documentation to make a case, but often Authority/Control burned that documentation. Or, as RAW writes about the many ways heretical ideas diffused: "Many other permutations and combinations are possible, and probable, considering the ferocity of persecution and the need for secrecy."

RAW ends his remarkable letter (signed off as "Mordecai the Foul," his Discordian Society name) by citing P.B. Randolph, a 19th century black American physician, who probably imported the idea of sex magick into North America. RAW thinks - based on evidence - that this amazing character (I want to read much more about this dude!) passed the knowledge of sex magick - who learned it by studying Voodoo! - to Unistatians. The more common notion of transmission of sex magick, in 1974 and according to RAW, seemed to be Templars ---> sufi magicians ---> Karl Kellner of the OTO---->Europe and then Unistat.

Wilson may have, at times, been influenced by the Sufi method of interpretation, ta'wil. The short explanation of this is "esoteric interpretation" or "creative hermeneutics." I said he may have...

An article on Randolph from 2000

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Taking Vitamins: A Quasi-Drug Report

Do you use vitamins? I do, but one part of my brain - the part that's read about what a waste of money they are, that I only need to eat a balanced diet, etc - knows I ought not; another part says, "Hey they're so cheap and you really don't take all that much, what can it hurt? Might even...'help'...err...something do some thing better than it...was optimized to do?"

I do drink zinfandel and massive, hoppy beers. Ethyl alcohol in your gut can kill B vitamins, which we need to help convert our food to energy. Or so some possible quacks have written.

Then again, I like taking pills. It's fun. Somewhat related to my previous post (<------), I like to think, "This pill can do some amazing, magickal things for me! I might even live to the ripe old age of 55 if I keep up this regimen!"

But sometimes I just feel like a damned fool. And, although I assume the readers of OG are at least as smart as me, probably smarter, I also assume there are a few who will stumble in, look around, and maybe happen upon something they ain't nevah hoidda. That eating "antioxidants" in order to get a leg up healthwise, or even live longer... is quite likely a load of crap. Have you heard that one?

Anyone who follows the MSM will hear "experts" talk about how terrific antioxidants are for your health, and they are!, but only in theory. The free radical theory of aging and disease gave rise to eating supplements - vitamins - because they're antioxidating; they fight the tendency of our bodies to "rust" from the inside.

But a few years ago I looked at the Science that was supposed to bolster these omnipresent claims, and ended by taking the bull by the tail and looking the facts in the face...or however that goes. Two bigtime studies did a lot to convince me that, if I'm taking supplements it ought not be for the "antioxidating" qualities of vitamins.


Two Studies On Antioxidants
One study took 30,000 Finlanders who had a high risk for lung cancer (male smokers aged 50-69), and the study was randomized: you got Vitamin E, beta-carotene, both, or nothing. When the trial was over and the researchers looked to see who got what and how they did, the ones who got beta-carotene did worse than everyone else, and had significantly higher rates of not only lung cancer, but heart disease. Beta-carotene was thought by some to prevent lung cancer, but people who took it (not knowing; they may have been taking a placebo for all they knew) died at a higher rate. See "Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention Study Group."

The second study was the Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (CARET, a pun! get it?), and 18,000 smokers who'd been exposed to asbestos were given beta-carotene and Vitamin A or a placebo in a study that was supposed to go on for a long time, but was terminated early because those who were getting the antioxidants were dying at a far faster clip than anyone would have expected. If you turned out to have gotten the Vitamin A and beta-carotene, you were in the group that was 46% more likely to die from lung cancer, and - oddly? - 17% more likely to die from any cause.

These are very hardcore studies: randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled. Why have so few of us heard of these studies? The short answer: the vitamin industry uses the same tactics that the tobacco and (now) the anti-climate change people have used: the creation of doubt. "It's controversial!" That's their main way of keeping their show on the road. And it's relatively easy to muddy the waters and claim over and over, "Experts still disagree."

The thing that had many experts believing antioxidants might help stave off disease was the free radical theory. It seemed like a good idea on paper, but we're more complex beings; lots can happen between the swallow of a pill and...results compared to other at-risk people and some placebos, and some time. We also found out that we lose bone mass as we age, so calcium supplements seemed like a natural remedy. But calcium turned out to not really help. In fact, calcium supplementation seemed to raise the heart-attack risk for older women. Women's hormones cause them all sorts of woe after a certain age, so hormone-replacement therapy seemed like a cracking good idea, on paper. Theoretically. But the actual story was quite unimpressive, even scary. Have you heard of the calcium and hormone studies but not the Vitamin A studies? If so, why? Could it have to do with $$$$?

One thing I've learned from reading guys like Ioannidis and a few others (including, Alfred Korzybski) is that reductionist claims are seductive: they play to our rational sense of cause-effect. But when it comes to health and the human body, I am very suspicious of blood tests (with some exceptions that have proven to be statistical winners/slam dunks), animal studies, flow charts of molecules and interactions, and even aye: "theory."

Let us see many more massive randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled long-range studies done, with lots of sunlight on who was paying for the study.

Do I still take the concoction of "Men's Formula" from Trader Joe's? Yes. Why? Because I'm sorta lame, and besides, I'm scaling back! I can kick, if I just have the Will.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Placebo Effect and Anthropology

My idiosyncratic survey so far of years of reading cultural anthropology tells me the field is sort of a mess, but it's where I live: totally thrilling intellectually and filled with endless epistemological brouhahas, High Weirdness, an ill-defined scope that I find charming, and chicanery among the natives towards the First World intellectuals who are studying them that seemingly knows no end. There's a lot of darkness too. Jeez, when you find out what Colin Turnbull was really up to with the Ik...and all that Yanomami stuff. If you ever get a chance, watch the documentary Secrets of the Tribe, directed by Jose Padilha. It's tempting to look at all the Yanomamo material from Chagnon to now, and say it would be a good way to model the possibilities inherent, of the species we call homo sapiens, were They to come into contact with some more technologically advanced Beings that truly meant no harm, but...

But I won't.

                                        A Yanomamo tribesman. Pic probably taken by
                                        Napoleon Chagnon?

I love the complexity of wildest ethnographic endeavor into Deepest Darkest (even driving five miles away from the university and living with crack dealers for a year) and the sheer audacity of it: if we can just rough it, move in with that wandering band society that lives in the rain forest which still seems to live a High Neolithic lifestyle, figure out their language by pointing at objects and writing stuff down, and just hanging out with them, taking notes, doing their drugs, eating, dancing and hunting game with them for a year or so...we'll write an ethnography and tell the First World who these people are, and maybe learn something about ourselves.

Endlessly ballsy. And yet...

That turned out to be quite naive, but I have had numerous thrills reading ethnographies and, the Walter Mitty type that I am, imagining I'm along for the ride, and let's just "bracket" the idea that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is at work on a macro-level when we try to "study" other peoples. Let's "bracket" the knowledge that the natives will tend to lie to you, pull your leg, and bullshit you. (Margaret Mead fell for a lot of it with the Samoans, it appears, but still: read her!)

Robert Anton Wilson loved to talk about the power of word-magick and belief, and how this worked in the entire nervous system. If a shaman knew that you knew that if he pointed the Death Bone at you, you were finished: no one could survive that! But you had to have fucked up pretty bad to get the local shaman to point the death bone at you; far better to go into exile and see if the tribe over yonder hill will accept you. Bring in a bride price if you can and you just have to leave your tribe. But if exile was too terrifying, and the tribe demanded it, the shaman would get rid of you by pointing the Death Bone at you, and of course, this means you're finished. You'll soon be a goner. And guys did die when the shaman pointed the Death Bone at them. Why? Belief in the Death Bone.

                                         Levi-Strauss in the field, 1930s, Brazil

Now, I have read a lot of stories about seemingly supernatural powers of certain shamans. But the best I've ever read was in Claude Levi-Strauss's Structural Anthropology.

In the early 20th century there was a Canadian Indian (First Nation-person) named Quesalid, who was pretty worldly. He thought shamanism was bullshit. But being a bright young native intellectual, he decided to go undercover and see how the bullshit worked, so he apprenticed himself to a shaman and learned all kinds of...sleight of hand. Magic tricks. He learned to jam some down feathers in his mouth, bite his lip enough so that the blood would mix with the down, then, attending a sick person, go into the act of furiously sucking on the body of the sick person, putting on a real wing-ding of an act, and then dramatically spitting out the bloody feathers: the source of the illness! It was tough work, but I have located the source of your sickness and extracted it! Here! Look at it in my hand! You'll be better soon! Everyone around is blown away by your "powers." If you're good at putting on the Show...

Most impressed by your act is the sick person. Why? Because they do get better. Quesalid had once been summoned by a very sick person's family; someone had dreamed of him as their "savior." He performed his act. They got better. Quesalid was flummoxed.

So Quesalid went on to a long career as a shaman. He was still skeptical about his fellow shamans, though. Why? Levi-Strauss didn't know, and this was as interesting to him as it is to you and me. He wrote that Quesalid takes pride in his work, practices his techniques with great attention to detail, and thinks the bloody feathers technique is superior to other shamanic schools' techniques of healing. "He seems to have completely lost sight of the fallaciousness of the technique that he so disparaged at the beginning."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Promiscuous Neurotheologist, vol.6-ish

[Due to the concurrent State of the Union address on one side of a split-screen, and the real-life film noir shoot-out of a disgruntled ex-LAPD on the snowy mountainside 90 minutes outside Los Angeles, we join another episode of the OG already in progress.]

...about a passage from Tom Robbins's first novel, Another Roadside Attraction:

Jesus: Hey dad.

God: Yes, son?

Jesus: Western Civilization followed me home this morning. Can I keep it?

God: Certainly not boy. And put it down this minute. You don't know where it's been.

Darwin Day From Here On Out: Feb.12: Pass It On!
As I write this, it's a few minutes Pacific Standard Time after Darwin Day has passed. February 12 was Charles Darwin's 204th birthday, and it's the latest volley by those who seek to push-back against the Creationists. (Those of us persuaded by scientific thought may be aware of others who do not - 46% of Unistatians in one poll said they believed in a "Young Earth" theory of creationism: God created the Earth about 10,000 years ago. The article linked to earlier in this 'graph seems mostly about a Creationist from Australia named Ken Ham, who is largely responsible for the rather clueless folk among us seeing pictures of Adam sitting next to his vegetarian dinosaur...in case you are interested in that reality tunnel..)

Karen Armstrong Enlightens Me
As Karen Armstrong wrote in A History of God, "Science has been felt to be threatening only by those Western Christians who got into the habit of reading the scriptures literally and interpreting doctrines as though they were matters of fact." (p.379) Ms. Armstrong then goes on to cover a period of theology I hadn't known much about before: the radical theologians of the 1960s who embraced Nietzsche's "God is dead" idea. In a book I have not read, Thomas J. Altizer's 1966 The Gospel of Christian Atheism, Armstrong quotes Altizer: "Only by accepting and even willing the death of God in our experience can we be liberated from a transcendent beyond, an alien beyond which has been emptied and darkened by God's self-alienation in Christ."

This reads like mumbo-jumbo to me, but then I'm no trained theologian; the lucid thought and prose of Ms. Armstrong unpacks it for me. There had to be a silence around God before He could become meaningful again. Altizer had gone on, mystically, about the pain of suffering and the dark night of the soul. Yes, but...why again? Armstrong: "All our old conceptions of divinity had to die before theology could be reborn. We were waiting for a language and a style in which God could once more become a possibility. Altizer's theology was a passionate dialectic which attacked the dark God-less world in the hope that it would give up its secret." (p.380)

I'll note that this book came out one year before Derrida made his first big splash in Unistat. I mention Derrida here because this Altizer dude, as filtered through Armstrong to my reading eyes, seems well-fed enough of an intellectual to entertain such ideas about "god." Armstrong mentions that the 1960s "death of God theologians" were criticized for their affluent, middle-class white America perspectives.

From my perspective, the idea there were intellectuals with the theology degree who had embraced Nietzsche's "God is dead" idea is marvelous enough. Armstrong also cites Paul Van Buren's 1963 The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, which argued that we can't talk about God acting in the world anymore because science and technology had become a myth that had superseded God. The best we can do is hold on to Jesus, and forget God; Jesus at least taught us liberation, and how to be free.

                                                       Karen Armstrong

Yet another 1960s theologian who embraced God's death was William Hamilton, whose contribution to  a book of essays, Radical Theology and the Death of God (1966), co-written with the aforementioned Altizer, found no God in the world of Unistat in the Sixties. Furthermore, Unistat had never had a great theological tradition of its own, and was always more utopian. Hamilton noted that Luther abandoned his cloister and went out into the world of people, looking for... not God but the spirit of Jesus among them. Hamilton says this was the way to be a theologian in Unistat in the Sixties: find Jesus in the City, among his neighbors and among technology, power, money, and sex.

Easy Remarks: Sure, these guys were white, privileged and steeped in...I'm guessing Heidegger. But they sure make a hell of a lot more sense than whatever sort of "Hate thy neighbor and the poor/Rich Folks are where it's at and by the way science and rational thought is for godless heathens and I can't wait to see 'em fry in Hell" that I see in far too many Unistatians these days.

A Brief Word On Fred N.
Nietzsche's "God is dead" seems to have become his most popular catch-phrase, but the one that's always seemed more interesting - almost zen koan-ish - is his notion and phrase "Will to power." So far my favorite definition of it is from (surprise!), Robert Anton Wilson, who parsed it out thus:

"The spirit of abundance and creativity, which is not One, not a final principle or a God-in-disguise, but the resultant of the forces that make up the mesh of Chaos." - from "A New Writer: F.W. Nietzsche"

[We now join As The World Turns, already in progress.]

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Disparate Remarks on Writers and Other Artists and Their Audience(s)

Walter Benjamin
While recently re-reading Walter Benjamin's essay "The Task of the Translator" ("An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire's Tableaux Parisiens") - I was reminded of Benjamin's counterintuitive idea that Art only confirms our spiritual and physical existence, but doesn't care about its audience. "Even the concept of an 'ideal' receiver is detrimental to the theoretical consideration of art..." This seems to fly in the face of an age-old discourse about writers assuming certain types of readers, and at least two main types: 1.) The "average" reader, who the author can't expect to really get through to; and 2.) The "ideal" reader, who, it has often been expressed, the writer has most in mind when she writes.

But I think here Benjamin is thinking of a third type of mind: the translator, who ought to try to communicate the essence of the piece in a new language, to a new audience. "Any translation which attempts to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information - hence, something inessential." Such an odd idea of the role of the translator! And odd ideas about information, essences, and audiences. I find Benjamin wrong here, but he's one of a small handful of writers who are more interesting to me even when I find them wrong. I am part of Benjamin's audience; when he wrote the aforementioned essay he supposedly did not have me in mind. I think that's about correct.

There are those writers - usually my kind - who develop their private vocabularies, which can scare off ordinary readers, but if the vocabularies contain metaphors poetic and potent enough, they spill out of the private life of the writer and into his more-or-less "ideal" readers' minds...and then they infiltrate the larger society. And change it. 

                                                      Tom Robbins

In Conversations With Tom Robbins he said he can't think of his audience when he writes, that he needs to concentrate, "like a Wallenda."

Glenn Gould, Roman Polanski, Orson Welles
Gould stopped performing live concerts at age 32, saying, "I detest audiences...they are a force of evil." This always has me wondering: how can a nervous system perform so transcendently well, all the while detesting its audience? Clearly, Gould was wired differently than most of us. For every Gould there are a hundred musicians who remark how difficult it is to record in the studio: there is no audience, no mass of Dionysian energy reflecting back from the crowd. No love-radiation from the adoring audience. I wonder how many solo performers have an active dislike for those paying, braying idiots who peer out there beyond the stage lights? Perhaps it's not as rare as I thought; I have heard of some performers who say they get an edge by working up a distaste for those who deign to sit in judgment of their performance, simply because they managed to scrape up the price of a ticket. But few dare to state their feelings so baldly as Gould did.

                                                      Glenn Gould, an enigma

I caught this line from Roman Polanski, one of my favorite directors: "I aim for the public at large, including children, and I'll target the children inside us until the day I die."

Wait, wait, wait: I know what you're thinking, and for today I'll pass on the easy jokes here; that underaged gal has said publicly she didn't want Polanski persecuted by the system as he had been. 

Now, a good lot of Polanski's films are pretty bleak. I just watched Cul de Sac. It's absurd, dark, violent, and oddly funny. But for children? Double that for Knife In The Water, which, like Cul de Sac, presents humans as predatory upon each other, which we as a species seem in active denial about; Polanski's pointing to the primate status-seeking and one-upping that seems built into our characters, unless we try to actively root most of it out. Both of those films present male outsiders competing in some primal way for the attention of a woman. For children, Roman? Maybe Polanski was being sardonic in that quote; I have it in my notes and didn't note the context. But I don't think he meant it sardonically. The quote was made before he did his take on Oliver Twist. It certainly can't have anything to do with Chinatown, can it? 

It's an odd quote, taken from p.123 of Roman Polanski: Interviews. I can't see how Rosemary's Baby, Tess, The Ghostwriter, and especially Repulsion have anything to say to the "children inside us," unless it's that the world can be a terrible and brutal place to be a child. But I can see this quote relating very strongly to The Pianist, because it has so much to do with Polanski's hellish childhood...which seems a terrible and brutish place to be a child. Maybe Roman was high at the moment he uttered that statement, who knows. Still, this is an enigmatic quote for me, and I often think of it. 

In Orson Welles: Interviews there is the idea from Welles that, when he made a film he had no audience in mind (similar to Benjamin's idea?), but when he put on a play the audience was in the forefront of his mind. Orson conceptualized the person watching action on the screen as in a different semiotic world than those watching live humans, without all the tricks that filmmakers have at their disposal. This seems at least part of what he meant.

Gurus and Cult Leaders and Their Audiences
I do not see these cases - gurus and cult leaders and their followers - as all that different from, say, the artists/performers Taylor Swift, Rush Limbaugh, Jon Stewart, Lebron James, and the magician David Copperfield and their relationships to their fan(atic)s. The small difference seems to make enough of a difference though: all of them can go "on" do their Thing, and then be done with their act and move on, as some sort of "entertainer"or gadfly, whathaveyou. Their public acts have a long-time legacy of social authorization and have been thoroughly legitimated by enough of the population that they are taken-for-granted "reality."

In Price and Stevens's provocative book Prophets, Cults and Madness, they take a page from Anthony Storr's 1996 Feet of Clay regarding "gurus," who are "people who believe they have been granted some sort of special life-transforming insight, which typically follows a period of mental or physical illness (which has variously been described as a 'mid-life crisis,' a 'creative illness' or a 'dark night of the soul'). This eureka experience may emerge gradually or come like a thunderbolt out of the sky, in the manner of religious conversion, a scientific discovery, or an intact delusional system of the type that occurs in schizophrenia. As a result, the guru becomes convinced that he has discovered 'the truth,' and his conviction, as well as the passion which he proclaims, gives him the charisma which marks him attractive to potential followers." 

This reminds me of Robert Anton Wilson's take on Timothy Leary's "metaprogramming circuit." Historically, certain odd types have accidentally activated this metaphorical neurological circuit, and fell so in love with the "new" program, new way of looking at the world, that their charisma, infectious enthusiasm, or whatever we wish to label this phenomena as: it becomes a cult, then maybe a religion, with official dogma and official enemies. The same old story from here to eternity, as Burroughs said. Wilson saw the main problem with these types as not noticing that it was their own nervous system that "selected" this vision of the world; they mistook it for a message from "out there," when it was actually from within. And there being a Seeker born every minute, they will have followers. Let's just hope it doesn't get out of hand and that someone develops a healthy sense of humor around this "special" vision of "reality." Wilson says gurus and cult leaders get "stuck" here: too much power too soon, and they don't seem to notice that, if they did it once, they can do it again: some other visions of "reality."That first one was just too awesome, too vivid and such a blast. 

On that note, from Plato's (supposedly he wrote it): Seventh Letter: "For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like lightning flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightaway nourishes itself." 

Now: Plato is saying this happens in a dialectic; it is not Saul's falling off his ass. But it does make me wonder regarding the sulfurous proselytizers. 

                                                    Fran Lebowitz

When Your Audience Dies
Martin Scorsese made a documentary a couple years ago about the hilarious, strident lesbian humorist Fran Lebowitz, and there was a section in which she talked about the cultural aristocracy and connoisseurship of gay men who were her biggest fans in the mid-late 1970s and early 1980s. And then they started dying overnight and it harmed her art, her will to produce sank, her audience dead, and all sorts of 3rd, 4th and 5th raters rose to prominence. While she said all this with a straight face, I do believe she was in earnest...and at the same time the audacity was epic. She'd had a long writer's block. What a grandiose way to explain it! And I still felt very sympathetic to her. I also thought she was basically right: AIDS did take a major toll on the Arts. And I also felt sort of oddly honored: as a hetero male, I loved her two books, Social Studies and Metropolitan Life, as soon as they came out. I knew no other person who even liked her, in suburban Los Angeles. My ego mentally lumped myself in with the gays who survived.

Lebowitz often made me think of her as a reincarnation of Oscar Wilde, who once said that the opening night for his new play didn't go so well because "the audience flopped."


I can't escape the idea that "meaning" in Modern poetry derives in a considerable part from good will on the part of the Readers.

The Audience for Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land
I've been reading on "reception theory" and wondering about this book, which has captured the imagination of Heinlein's readers in a way that baffled him. His readers "made" their meanings and often the writer was aghast. This fascinates me. I got hold of a bunch of books from the library to try to flesh this out, and stumbled onto Carole Cusack's Invented Religions. Cusack says some critics were "disturbed" that The Church of All Worlds and the Fosterites were meant to symbolize the Dionysian and Apollonian in the public mind, but that "the two churches are almost indistinguishable."

"Critics are also uncertain as to whether Heinlein's positive portrayal of Mike and the CAW is parodic; another possibility is that the novel's elusive genre (variously described as novel, satire, anatomy, myth and parable) means that the meaning of the CAW has to be decided by readers, depending on their assessment of the genre of Stranger." -p.59 

I have only read this book once, but have delved into bits of it at other times. When I read it cover-to-cover I thought it a quasi-Ayn Randian book, but better written. This was at least twenty years ago. I had known that some feminists had applauded Heinlein's depiction of strong, rational, independent  women, but I also thought Jubal was a bit of a blowhard; he just wasn't someone I admired, although clearly I was supposed to. My politics were different then, and I want to re-read the book again this year, if only to notice more clearly this problem of "genre," which fascinates me. Cusack compares Heinlein to Robert Anton Wilson: "Heinlein, like Robert Anton Wilson, was a lifelong agnostic, believing that to affirm that there is no God was a silly and unsupported as to affirm that there was a God." 

This notion of not being able to place a book in a genre immediately draws me to the book. It's one of the main reasons why I became such a devoted reader of Robert Anton Wilson. The mercurial, trans-generic, one-off-ness of his books - as I saw them - was an inherent value to me. 

Speaking of Cusack, who seems to be doing sociology of religion in Sydney, her first chapter in the book is on Discordianism, and her citations include not only Principia Discordia and Thornley's Zenarchy, but Conspiracy Theories in American History (2 vols, I hadn't seen these until today); Adam Gorightly's book on Thornley, The Prankster and the Conspiracy; Alan Watts's Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen; Adler's famous Drawing Down the Moon; and my friend Eric Wagner's An Insider's Guide to Robert Anton Wilson, which she cites five times.

Fran Lebowitz on homosexuality:

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Attack of the Illuminoid FNORD!!!

 Can you IMAGINE what's going on here???

I was just playing around with Cornelius Zappencackler's Pulp-O-Mizer dealio

Pretty cool!

hat-tip: BoingBoing (of course!)

Monday, February 4, 2013

William S. Burroughs at 99: Viruses, Memes, Cats, Art, ETC

On Feb 5, WSB would've been 99. What follows is a hodgepodge of Burroughsianiac musings.

For virtually all of his life, WSB was at odds with the trans-societal forces he eventually labeled Control. (On the Wiki page for WSB it says he was turned down by the OSS, and IIRC that was in Morgan's bio, but I digress already.) I've always found it interesting that Edward Bernays, the nephew of Freud who used Freud's ideas to manipulate the masses in the new "science" of Public Relations, had as an early competitor Ivy Lee, who was WSB's uncle via marriage. Lee was the epitome of Control, and just before he died of a brain tumor at age 57 in 1934, Congress had begun investigating Lee's ties to the Nazis and IG Farben.

In Ezra Pound's Canto 74, he mentions the stark fact that the Allies bombed the hell out of Germany, but somehow they missed the Farben plant.

WSB, the grandson of the founder of the Burroughs adding machine corporation, was sent to the Los Alamos Ranch School, a boarding school and college prep for rich kids that was influenced by the Boy Scout code, around 1930. He hated it. Later the US government bought the school and all the surrounding land, for the secretive Manhattan Project. Gore Vidal had also gone to Los Alamos Ranch, and in his autobiography Palimpsest he compared WSB to Pound (p.228) WSB was influenced by Pound (and Joyce). The NY artist/critic Richard Kostelanetz asserted that Pound's The Cantos was the last great poetry collage, while WSB's Naked Lunch was the last great prose collage. (Kostelanetz: ABC of Contemporary Reading, p.53)

Pound and WSB were very much in love with cats. See these photos of writers and their cats. If you know much about these writers - they were all (perhaps?) "weirder" than the average weird great writer. I wonder if it had anything to do with toxoplasmosis, or tiny organisms that get into the brain, which originate in cats?  (They are actually protozoa, these cat-carrying microbes...)

Pound was found "insane" by the US for his very poor use of First Amendment ideas on behalf of Mussolini and "the US Constitution" and other things.

If this had anything to do with explaining the avant aspects of WSB and his art, it seems almost too ironic, as he, under the influence of a course of study with Korzybski, developed the idea that language was a virus that had commandeered humanity's minds; we are language's "host."

[The great Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky on toxoplasmosis. Some of you hardcore Pound and Burroughs exegetes might want to invest 25 minutes of your time to listen to this guy, keeping in mind those writers' love for cats. Has anyone else pointed this out? I wonder if toxo can make someone sort of "half-schizo," where they are really weird, but creative, and not bothered by auditory hallucinations and the complete consort of the full-blown paranoid schizophrenic? Pound went around Rapallo feeding the feral cats despite not having any money; WSB was horrified at the prospect of nuclear annihilation because it would mean his cats would die. If there's something to it, then maybe we can venture that a protozoa has had a huge influence on Literary Modernism. OR: the OG is a cat lover: maybe I'm toxo-infected and what it does is give you grandiose ideas about unforeseen connections?]

This reminds me of an essay called "The Aliens Are Among Us," by Nathan Wolfe, who founded the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative. He's talking about viruses: "Viruses operate along a continuum with their hosts and other organisms they interact with: some harm their hosts, some benefit their hosts, and some - perhaps most - live in relative neutrality with them, neither substantively harming nor benefiting the organisms they must at least temporarily inhabit for their own survival." (p.191 of What's Next: Dispatches From the Future of Science)

The Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris said that Burroughs himself was like a cultural virus: "Burroughs dedicated himself to immortality by becoming what Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene (1976), called a 'meme.' : 'a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation which propagates analogously to the genetic code and the parasitism of viruses, and is more than metaphorically 'alive.' If memes survive by parasitizing human minds, so, reciprocally, can the mind survive parasitic self-replication. The viral programme 'simply says' "Copy me and spread me around." This is Burroughs: 'all poets worthy of the name are mind parasites, and their words ought to get into your head and live there, repeating and repeating and repeating.'" (from Harris's essay, "Can You See A Virus?: The Queer Cold War of William Burroughs")

Speaking of viruses from space, language as virus, cats infecting human brains, and memes: Scientology has been in the news a lot lately. And Burroughs had his fling with it. See here. This is another aspect of WSB that fascinates me.

Still one of the best biographies of WSB is, in my opinion, Ted Morgan's Literary Outlaw. Last year Morgan wrote an article about why WSB hated Morgan's book. In Morgan's book he pointed out that, in Naked Lunch WSB seemed to foresee AIDS, liposuction, autoerotic asphyxiation becoming common, the crack epidemic. I'd add that WSB seemed, very early on, around 1961,  to suspect the CIA would be behind LSD flooding the streets of Unistat, and they would be doing it in an effort to staunch a youth rebellion.

I think WSB also foretold Kenneth Starr sexual fascism, but maybe that's for another day.

Oh yea: there's a wild little book called The Great Naropa Poetry Wars, by Tom Clark. In it he asserts that the antics of Chogyam Trungpa are like WSB's character "Dr. Benway."

Not long ago I went looking for the origin of a line WSB repeated: "And beside, the wench is dead." It looks like he got it from Christopher Marlowe via TS Eliot. (See Lives of the Poets, Schmidt, p.606)

Robert Anton Wilson: two passages around WSB:

"My friend, novelist William S. Burroughs, liked to say that 'anything which can be accomplished by chemical means can also be accomplished by non-chemical means.' I have personally found this to be true. There is no area of new perception and expanded awareness discoverable by peyote (or LSD or similar drugs) that cannot also be reached by techniques well-known to Oriental yogis and Western occultists. The sensory withdrawal techniques pioneered by Dr. Lilly and the new biofeedback machines also duplicate most of this expanded awareness." -pp.32-33, Sex, Drugs and Magick

From a 1992 interview:
Q: And what are some of your memories of that whole scene at Millbrook at that time?

RAW: Well, I'm sorry to sound like an advocate, but my impression was that Leary was one of the most brilliant people that I've ever met. Very much like my impression when I first met Buckminster Fuller and William Burroughs. The three people who gave me the sensation that I am in the presence of higher intelligence.

Q: And would you elaborate a little bit on why you put William Burroughs in that company? What do you see in Burroughs's writing, or his particular brand of intelligence that put him in that company?

RAW: Well, it's the choice of words. I first read Seventeen Episodes From Naked Lunch in a magazine called Big Table, and I felt no writer since James Joyce was able to put words together so efficiently and effectively to create the exact images and emotional overtones that he wanted. And I began to notice that not only was he a great prose poet, but he had a lot of interesting ideas, too.

Q: Had you also had the familiarity with Alfred Korzybski at that point?

RAW: Yes. That's one thing that Burroughs, Leary, Bucky Fuller and I all have in common - we all have familiarity with Alfred Korzybski and General Semantics.
(-from transcript of radio interview for Off The Beaten Path, see near the end. The person that transcribed the interview was quite unfamiliar with names mentioned, so I corrected the gross misspelling of Korzybski's name in the original.)

- In an effort to induce altered states without using drugs, Burroughs, in collaboration with Brion Gysin (the main brain behind the Thing) and Ian Sommerville, they came up with The Dream Machine, which uses flickering light patterns to interact with the eye/brain rhythms. You sit in front of it with your eyes closed and it does things to your brain. See the 2008 documentary by Nik Sheehan. Anyway, here's a brief:

WSB on art and making people aware of what they didn't know that they knew: