Overweening Generalist

Friday, July 15, 2016

Gary Webb, Philip Marlowe, Robert Anton Wilson and Chapel Perilous

Investigative Journalists
I finally caught, on Netflix, Spotlight, this generation's All The President's Men. I had coincidentally been thinking a lot about investigative journalism and journalists and was moved by the story. And how could one not be?

The "Spotlight" group of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe were in the belly of the beast of Catholicism in Unistat. Their footwork, tenacity and courage has seemed to actuate some real change in what seems like an endless run of pedophile priests, with cover-ups going all the way to the Vatican.

The Film Noir Detective Hero
But they were a team, backed by a major metropolitan daily. Woodward and Bernstein: two guys backed by the Washington Post. Still: when I look at ballsy investigative reporting, I keep thinking of some of my favorite characters in my favorite film style: film noir, which flourished in Unistat from 1941-1959, but has never gone away. Some of those films feature the lone private detective who gets hired to do a seemingly simple seedy gig, like finding out if a spouse is cheating. But one thing leads to another, and the detective (Chandler's Philip Marlowe is the best example) finds himself up to his ears in a bigger mystery. Things are not what he thought they were, and he's in great danger.

He's not being paid to solve this big conspiracy - much less report on it for a major newspaper - but he can't help himself: he's the Lone Knight in search of the truth. He takes risks, travels in the labyrinth of The City from the poorest neighborhood to the wealthiest enclaves, trying to piece things together.  Everyone, it seems, is lying to him. But why? He needs to know. He will eventually get knocked out, shot at, drugged, and punched in the solar plexus by hulking meathead gangsters.

He will come out alive, but with the gnosis. The myth of the private detective in films noir: he's a free agent, not well-off, lives by his wits and instinct and street-smart intellect and knows how to talk his way out of a jam and into more knowledge of the situation.

The noir detective drinks, loves beautiful women, and is obviously flawed, and he's no hypocrite. He seems like a profane character, but he's a mostly a man of honor who hates bullshit, who cares about justice in a world that only pays lip service to the idea. In a hopelessly corrupt metropolis, he keeps his integrity. And observes.

It's been noted many times that the Marlowe-type detective harkens back to the Knights of the Grail legends. Which brings us to Chapel Perilous.

Chapel Perilous
I had come across this term when I first tried reading T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland in my early twenties. I didn't follow up on the footnote in the section "What the Thunder said," which tells us to consult "Miss Weston's book." I have since made a study of Jessie Weston's 1919 work of brilliant scholarship, From Ritual to Romance, which studies the Grail legends from primary sources. There are very many variations on Chapel Perilous, with interpolations by later writers. Weston's penultimate chapter covers a few of the versions that involve Chapel Perilous, with Sir Lancelot starring, or sometimes Sir Gawain, and even King Arthur appears.

A generic version of Chapel Perilous: the Knight is riding alone in the forest when a violent storm hits. He finds a chapel in a clearing, often near a cemetery. He'll take refuge from the storm there. He goes in and no one is there, except for a dead knight on the altar, with one long candle lit nearby. There is a window behind and above the altar. Suddenly a Black Hand extinguishes the candle and chapel-shakingly loud haunting voices are heard. The Black Hand looks evil and hideous. Maybe the Knight engages the Black Hand with his sword, and barely makes it out alive.

My favorite version in Weston: King Arthur has fallen off his game: he's a slob and is at risk of losing all fame and prestige he once had. His wife urges him to trek out to the Chapel of St. Austin, which is a very dangerous journey, but may be just the thing to restore Arthur's reputation. He will take with him a young squire, son of (get this) Yvain the Bastard. The squire's name is Chaus. Chaus is like myself: if I have a very exciting and unusual thing to do the next day, I sleep fitfully in anticipatory anxiety.

Chaus decides to sleep in his clothes in the hall, to be ready to roll at daybreak with Arthur. He doesn't want to screw this up. He falls asleep, and then it appears King Arthur has already wakened and left on the journey without him. He immediately jumps up and rushes to his horse, trying to follow the tracks of Arthur's horse. Chaus happens upon a chapel in a glade, near a churchyard. He enters the chapel, but there's no one there, only a dead knight on the altar. There are golden candlesticks burning at the dead knight's head and foot. He takes one of the candlesticks and jams it into one pant-leg, mounts his horse, and goes off searching for Arthur.

Chaus then meets on the road a dark, foul man with a double-edged knife. Chaus asks him, "Have you seen Arthur?" The man says no, but I've met you and you're a thief! You stole that golden candlestick! You're also a traitor. Give me the candlestick! Chaus refuses and the dark man stabs Chaus in the side. Chaus cries out...and then awakens: he'd been asleep in the hall the whole time, yet he has the candlestick and he's been stabbed! Chaus, bleeding out, tells his story, confesses, receives the last rites, and dies.

Weston, after relating many variations of this story, asks what could it all mean? And she's convinced that it is "The story of an initiation (or perhaps it would be more correct to say the test of fitness for an initiation) carried out on the astral plane, and reacting with fatal results upon the physical." (italics in original, pp. 171-172 of the Dover ed.)

Robert Anton Wilson and Chapel Perilous
Robert Anton Wilson uses "Chapel Perilous" as an unforgettable metaphor in his autobiographical book, Cosmic Trigger vol 1 (1977). RAW told Sander Wolff in an interview in 1990 that the "whole book is an account of self-induced brain change." Self-experimentalists and Quantified Self-ies: are you aware that the heritage of your endeavor(s) is brimming with a history of daring, intrepid self-experimentalists like RAW? (I also find Scott Michaelson's take on RAW's self-experimentation compelling: that it was a synthesis of Aleister Crowley and modern neuroscience.) (See Portable Darkness, jacket sleeve, inside cover.)

As I write, there is a group reading of Cosmic Trigger vol 1 going on over at RAWIllumination.net, and if you're reading this at a later date, look for the archives of the reading and the scads of insightful comments and leave your own comments from your reading there, as I sense this is a case in which a "mere blog" will offer up many a nugget for future researchers...

Back to Wilson's take on Chapel Perilous as metaphor:

When researching occult conspiracies, one eventually faces a crossroad of mythic proportions (called Chapel Perilous in the trade). You come out the other side either a stone paranoid or an agnostic; there is no third way. (p. 6, CT1) Wilson describes Chapel Perilous as a mind-state that, while undetectable by any instruments, certainly seems all-too real to the person who finds herself in it. Comparing Chapel Perilous to the human Ego, "once you're inside it, there doesn't seem to be any way to get out again, until you suddenly discover that it has been brought into existence by thought and does not exist outside thought." (p.6)

In reading of Wilson's determination to push his nervous system as far as it can go before it breaks (delving into ceremonial magick, psychedelic drugs, various forms of yoga, a deep research into conspiracy theories, even some investigative reporting on his own, etc, etc, etc...) he finds himself the psychologically functional equivalent of the Knight, alone in the isolated Chapel, with a dead knight before him on the altar, and then the otherworldly Black Hand appears...

What does he do? Read the book!

                                                Gary Webb, investigative reporter

Gary Webb
If you don't know who the reporters/investigators I'm talking about here, you really ought to look into their cases for yourself. (See Michael Hastings and Danny Casolaro too?) There are far too many (luminous) details and I suspect at least half of my readers are familiar with these figures anyway. So I'll try to make it brief: Gary Webb got a line on how the CIA was allowing crack cocaine to flood the streets of Los Angeles, in order to fund their covert war against the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Few believed him, but he was smart, with boundless energy, and he produced a series of reports for the small San Jose Mercury-News that made national headlines. Then, the CIA, with a deplorable amount of help from the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times - the reasons seem complicated: they resented being scooped by a relatively small-town paper and some liked the access the CIA allowed them? - Webb quickly went from award-winner to having his own editor and staff gutlessly retract most of Webb's work. There is much to be learned here, my friends, and it's not for the faint of heart.

Perhaps "mendacious" is too strong a word for these big-time journalists and editors, who, taking the CIA's idea an running with it, decided that Webb's work was shoddy and stoked the fears of an already "conspiracy-theory"- minded African American readership. Webb's own paper took him off the investigation beat and he eventually quit, pursued the story alone, but ended up dead in his hotel room eight years after his breakthrough reporting, with two bullet holes in his head from a .38

I read a lot of the full-frontal assault on Webb in the Big Newspapers. One thing that really troubles me (to this day) is that, apparently, we're not supposed to know that the CIA has been involved with gangsters and thugs and drug smuggling since...before they were even called the CIA! Don't reporters go to the library and read the astonishingly well-documented Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, by Alfred McCoy? How did you miss not reading about the OSS/CIA and their deal with Lucky Luciano and the Mob, the democratic elections in Italy, and the French Connection that flooded the streets of major Unistat cities with heroin?

Another galling thing: many of the "reporters" on the big-city dailies who attacked Webb for stoking conspiracy theories in black communities? Many of them were black themselves. I tracked down a handful and emailed them, politely asking if they've changed their mind about Gary Webb (who turns out to have been right about almost everything, of course). Only one wrote back: Donna Britt, who wrote in the WA Post that the whole CIA/crack cocaine-contra connection "just may not have happened." But still, paranoid cases will go on thinking their conspiracy thoughts. "They know the truth, or one truth anyway: It doesn't matter whether [Webb's "Dark Alliance" series - OG] claims are 'proved' true. To some folks - graduates of Watergate, Iran-Contra, and FBI harassment of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr - they feel so true that even if they're refuted, they'll still be fact to them." (Donna Britt, Washington Post "Finding the Truest Truth," Oct 4, 1996)

Here's what she said in her email to me:

Thanks for your note. The fact is that I honestly don't recall what I wrote about him. That was a long time ago! Sorry to disappoint.....

The boundaries are imaginary. The rules are made up. The limits don't exist....

Apparently she's a book-author now. HERE is her website.

When I think of Gary Webb, I think of his own Chapel Perilous. But: was it brought into existence by thought alone? I think there was more to his. I think Webb's Chapel Perilous somehow has something to do with us.

Other Sources Consulted:
Kill The Messenger: How the CIA's Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Gary Webb, Nick Schou.

Kill The Messenger (2014 film starring Jeremy Renner as Webb: trailer)

Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack-Cocaine Explosion, by Gary Webb

"Managing a Nightmare: How the CIA Watched Over the Destruction of Gary Webb," by Ryan Devereaux, The Intercept

Censored 2016: chapter 7, "Dark Alliance: The Controversy and the Legacy, Twenty Years On," by Brian Covert, pp.227-253

Murder, My Sweet (1944 Edward Dmytryk) with Dick Powell as Marlowe
The Big Sleep (1946 Howard Hawks) with Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe
Lady in the Lake (1947 Robert Montgomery) with Montgomery as Marlowe
Long Goodbye (1973 Robert Altman) with Elliot Gould as Marlowe
Farewell, My Lovely (1975 Dick Richards) with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe
Chinatown (1974 Roman Polanski) with Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes

                                           I personally posed for this photo. The book was
                                           artist Bob Campbell's idea. In reality, the number
                                           of arms is slightly exaggerated.


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. I haven't finished From Ritual to Romance. I enjoyed James Garner and Bruce Lee in the film Marlowe. I suspect you would David Thomson's trippy noir novel Suspects.

I love All the President's Men. Screenwriter William Goldman has had a big influence on me.

michael said...

Thanks, Eric.

I read Weston via her index for a long while, then a point arose when I felt I could hang with her presentation and style. How influential she's been!

The lighting in the James Garner Marlowe never fails to disappoint: that moment may have been the nadir for moody high contrast cinematography.

I suspect the makers of Spotlight consulted All the President's Men more than a few times. From a certain critical view, Spotlight is an epigone of Pakula's film, but the subject matter is the totally compelling thing here. Not the action. Not avant-garde editing techniques, or outstanding acting, etc.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Of course, the prime example of starting out as an apparent crime mystery and then finding yourself in Chapel Perilous would be Illuminatus!

"From Ritual to Romance" is available as an ebook (in various formats) at Project Gutenberg:


It is enormously difficult for reporters not to be "captured" by the government agencies they are trying to cover. Read the AP story on the release of the "28 pages" kept secret for years, and also read the actual report; notice how the journalist's account adopts the government's spin. It is also important, as you note, for the reporter to have the reporter's back.

michael said...

@Tom -

Yes, Illuminatus! may be the example ne plus ultra of this stuff stuff in modern literature - and by the end it's quite "meta-" so what do we make of the events experienced by the characters before they realize they're characters in a book, and after they know?

Bringing this back to Weston's guess: that those Chapel Perilous tales in Grail stories were about "initiation" or something that prepared one for an initiatory ordeal: I think reading Illuminatus! (and really" the HIC - Historical Illuminatus Chronicles Trilogy - are about the "same thing") and also Eco's Foucault's Pendulum - where some of the characters seem quite aware that the "meta" level of pursuing old secret societies increases the potential a given person will get pulled into some sort of Chapel Perilous? My personal experience with these two and a handful of other texts has indeed precipitated at least a 6-8 week-long ontological emergency, and vertiginous thought-patterns, palms abnormally sweaty, etc. I so testify...

With the weight of your own longstanding experience in journalism: Your final paragraph nets you the win here. This was a short passage I thought of all day; I felt dogged all day by a little red demon that kept popping from out from nowhere and nailing me in the neck with a red-hot pea-shooter. And I know: you're merely the messenger.

BrentQ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BrentQ said...

Very interesting piece!

Since I first delved into RAW in my mid 20's, the concept of Chapel Perilous has stayed with me. In the years since, I've come to see the Initiation/Chapel Perilous archetype in the lives and stories of some of my favourite authors. A few of my fave examples:

-Terence and Dennis McKenna's experience a La Chorrera.
-Carl Jung during his Red Book period.
-Philip K. Dick's 2-3-74 (paralleling RAW's own experience at that time.)
-Pretty much all of Thomas Pynchon's novels.
-Many of Jorge Luis Borges stories such Death and the Compass and Garden of the Forking Paths's

I've often had moments after reading about other people's labyrinthine ontological adventures I find that I've entered my own mini Chapel Perilous.

michael said...


Good examples. We're on the same pages. When you write that you've "often had moments" from your own reading? Books have been my trap door into Chapel Perilous, so far.

The theme in Kafka of being stuck in vast impersonal bureaucracy fits here too.

Somehow this riff harmonizes with delving into That Which Ought Not Be Spoken About (taboo subjects in society), but I have to think more on this.

What I didn't add in the article: RAW's not-to-be-taken-lightly warning to "arm" yourself in case you find your way inside. You need the wand of intuition, the cup of sympathy, the sword of reason, and the pentacle of valor.

Similarly, beware the power of psychedelics and ceremonial magick: it is advised that one have a grounding in scientific doubt, logic, some forms of psychotherapy, some background in neuroscience and yogas, etc.

michael said...


Also, RAW and others have noted that a mature, healthy sense of humor and the absurd seems underrated.

Let us beware that that part of us we call "Ego" or "the self" is totally convinced it's running the whole show. When we learn to realize this is not true, the world gets more wonderful. Things become more at play. The Ludic asserts itself.