As a thought experiment, let us take seriously a current of twentieth century thought that regarded Marxism and Utopianism as “political religions,” and more specifically as “Gnostic heresies.” This current arose in 1930s Germany among thinkers of the right like the philosopher Eric Voegelin. It also found articulation in the work of the Martinican surrealist sociologist Jules Monnerot. I write as a Marxist or some derivation therefrom — yet upon my first encounters with these writers, I admit recognizing something of myself in their accusation. “The shoe seems to fit,” I reasoned. “Perhaps I’m a Gnostic!” The term had been applied as a slur when used by Voegelin, but the qualities of thought that he linked to this alleged heresy against church orthodoxy were in my book virtues, not vices. What it comes down to, basically, is suspicion of the system. It’s a heresy that persists, says Voegelin, well after the suppression of the OG Gnostics of late antiquity. Gnosticism is perennial; it reawakens to haunt Christendom every few centuries. Movements that purport to be secular like Marxism and Nazism, argued Voegelin, are in fact upstirrings in the twentieth century of this same ghost, this same spectre, this same political-religious “archetype” or “mytheme.” For these movements all share the same goal, Voegelin warned: they want to “immanentize the Eschaton.” What happens, however, when we read Voegelin’s hypothesis in concert with Black and Indigenous authors: figures like Leslie Marmon Silko, Russell Means, and Ishmael Reed? Each of these authors narrates a secret, “occult” history of the West similar to Voegelin’s. Yet unlike Voegelin, the writers of the left recognize that capitalism, too, is part of the Gnostic current — as is Western science.
Secret history: like the one Greil Marcus tracks in Lipstick Traces. That’s what a friend sees me working toward in these trance-scripts. The “Gnostic” in me is drawn to the detective role entailed by such a tale: the “postmodern sleuth” who explores the maze of the contemporary, ever-skeptical of the machinations of the simulation, the Spectacle, the construct. The Gnostic responds to History with cosmic paranoia. History is a Text upon which one exercises an hermeneutic of suspicion. Or in the best versions of Gnosticism, as in the work of philosopher Ernst Bloch, an hermeneutic of hope, with dream or Imagination the absent Messiah deconcealing itself across time. The conservative philosopher Eric Voegelin warns that hope of this sort prompts a reckless utopianism, a desire to “immanentize the eschaton.” For a Christian like Voegelin, the eschaton is a day of judgment, whereas for the Gnostic, it’s the resurrection into joy and the dawn of a New Age. The Catholic trembles while the Gnostic revolts. I think of Allen Ginsberg on the back cover of his book Kaddish, asserting the “triumphancy of Self over the mind-illusion mechano-universe of un-feeling Time.” By “Self,” Ginsberg means the defenseless, open, original self we all share in common, not the mere individual of liberal ideology, the monad disaggregated from the whole. Time is revealed as mind-illusion as we conduct our secret history. Events share affinities and those affinities arrange themselves into stories. The best Gnostics are the ones who become bricoleurs.
Gnosticism is a theology with which I was already grappling before I’d heard the term — for there was a “gnostic current” in the culture of my youth. One receives gnostic teachings, for instance, in the works of Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, and Jean Baudrillard. Similar teachings appear in the “edge-of-the-construct” films of the late 1990s — movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show. These works spoke from a period of political paranoia — the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, with widespread fears of conspiracy around the turn of the millennium mixed with anxieties about technological transformations, “New Economy” dot-com bubble newly burst. Computers were suddenly “virtual places” to which many of us migrated for many hours each day. Computers housed places we showed up to for work and play. And of course, all of this seemed interlinked with prior screen cultures like TV and cinema. One spent a lot of one’s time in what Situationist Guy Debord called “The Society of the Spectacle.” It’s not a fun place to be. The Spectacle intervenes in one’s relationship to one’s body. Marxism says all of this is happening within an economy. Workers must unite and seize control of the means of production, wrest them from the clutches of the capitalists. And so I believed — as I do today. But Eric Voegelin reminds us that Marxism is itself a brand of Gnosticism. One can’t escape one’s latin roots.