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


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

It was weird for me to read this, because I just finished pushing the idea, on my blog that everyone should go out and read Robert Shea's "All Things Are Lights," which is all about the Cathar and courtly love; it also features the Templars and hints about Tantric sex and paganism. I wonder if Shea read the Pound book you mention?

michael said...

RAW may infl Shea to read Pound's book, or possibly Shea read the more-famous (for this perennially and unjustly declasse set of ideas),Love In The Western World, by Denis DeRougemont?

Eric Wagner said...

In the early 90's Bob gave me a reading list on the Middle Ages that included Love in the Western World. It might have included Spirit of Romance as well. Bob said he'd given Bob Shea a similar reading list that had help lead to All Things Are Lights

Great work on your blog as usual, Dr. J.