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.
Robin D.G. Kelley carries forward a remarkable defense of fantasy in his book Freedom Dreams — one I might consider as I design a course on fantastic literature for the year ahead. Kelley quotes from Paul Garon’s book Blues and the Poetic Spirit. “Fantasy alone,” writes Garon, “enables us to envision the real possibilities of human existence, no longer tied securely to the historical effluvia passed off as everyday life; fantasy remains our most pre-emptive critical faculty, for it alone tells us what can be” (as quoted in Kelley 163-164). Garon sees the blues as revolutionary in nature due to “its fidelity to fantasy and desire” (164). Fantasy is one’s remembering of the past on behalf of the future through a kind of dreamwork, in accordance with a desire that draws reality toward the “as if” and the “can be.” Others have called this desire Eros and the Spirit of Hope. In his retelling of the story of surrealism in light of anticolonialism, Kelley reveals a side of Jules Monnerot that was unknown to me. I’d known him before as a member of Acéphale, a secret society formed by Georges Bataille in the 1930s. After WWII Monnerot drifted to the right and denounced Marxism as a political theology akin to Gnosticism. What I learn from Kelley, however, is Monnerot’s prior involvement with surrealism. Martinican by birth, Monnerot arrived to France in the early 1930s. By 1933, he’d published a critique of the “civilized mentality” in the Surrealist periodical Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. Monnerot was one of several black intellectuals attracted to surrealism. Kelley argues that these intellectuals “found in surrealism confirmation of what they already know — for them it is more an act of recognition than a revolutionary discovery. […]. Aime Césaire insisted that surrealism brought him back to African culture. Ted Joans wrote Breton that he ‘chose’ surrealism because he recognized its fundamental ideas and camaraderie in jazz. Wilfredo Lam said he was drawn to surrealism because he already knew the power of the unconscious, having grown up in the Africanized spirit world of Santeria” (184-185). For the abovementioned figures, and for others like Watts poet-activist Jayne Cortez, “Surrealism was less a revelation than a recognition of what already existed in the black tradition” (187).
“For my next act” I think as I stare at trees, their upper branches bathed in the orange light of the setting sun. I feel like a magician having built boxes, four wooden raised beds, conjured them in the midst of a field of clover here in the yard behind our home. In these beds, we’ll plant our garden. Yet the utopian in me (or the Faust in me? the Gnostic in me? the “slow sick sucking part of me”? same difference?) is already restless, ready to set sail (as per Wilde), ready to walk away (as per Le Guin), wishing for something other than what is here, wanting in its stead some other bower of bliss (this not that): a vertical garden, say, in the midst of a food forest.
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.
On our final day of class, in concluding discussion of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (a novel, as the title suggests, involving scanning and surveillance), I introduce Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and Michel Foucault’s theory of “panopticism,” applying the latter to the architecture of the digital classroom, the Zoom environment in which we’ve worked this past year due to pandemic. After ascent from Plato’s Cave in search of higher states of consciousness (Plato’s text being the one with which the course began), we lay bare the medium of our being-together as a class. I speak as one there in a cell with others. Here we are, I say: “Gallery View.” I call awareness to the Zen saying, “Before enlightenment, carry water, chop wood. After enlightenment, carry water, chop wood.” Through Dick’s title, I then trace us back to 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul stresses the importance of “charity” or love. Without it, he writes, one is but “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” In its final moment, then, the course ends thus: with a synthesis of Zen and a kind of gnostic-psychedelic reimagining of agape. One must accept the prison, or at least return to it willingly, despite knowing that one will likely be misunderstood and crucified — but only so as to impart through the medium of one’s being the words “Love one another”: a message of congeniality and goodwill.
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.
Language hails us, places us in the position of the Receiver, identifies us as its subject. Thus we return to the matter at hand: the construction of subjectivity via language. Reality is a text adventure: “In the beginning was the Word.” Unless language is the usurper, the gnostic demiurge, the map that overlays itself atop the territory, in which case Gaia is the true creator. Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Perhaps I should watch Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis. Each of us, as in the Cavaliers song, a slave to a beautiful game. The Babylonian system, always replacing one form of slavery with another. So thought those who brought me here.
My teachings, I decide, draw heavily on Freud, though mainly by way of the Freudo-Marxists and their rebellious late-60s successors, combined with touches of Psychedelic Utopianism and Jungian Gnosticism. Worlds are always readied for one by presumptuous church fathers. For fear of some savagery, they say — just as local ecosystems have been modified, subdivided into units of practico-inert matter, a socially-constructed objectivity, leaving one little space by which to live. By which I mean something like “self-actualize,” so long as that also entails recognition of a coherent narrative or at least arrival into a meditative garden, a temple of sound, in companionship with others. Whereas everywhere under capitalism, the land unadorned awaits the fall. Neither happy nor splendid. At which point His Master’s Voice (by which I mean the Stanislaw Lem novel) begins to speak to me. “What can be done,” asks the novel’s narrator, “when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors, and the voice of truth becomes drowned out in an ungodly din? When that voice, though freely resounding, cannot be heard, because the technologies of information have led to a situation in which one can receive best the message of him who shouts the loudest, even when mostly false?” (22). This is our predicament in that moment in the history of capitalism known as the era of Trump, is it not?
A character on a TV show speaks to me. “They have forgotten who and what we are,” she explains. “Make them remember. Absorb without preconception or distortion. Finish the mission. Unlock the box that needs unlocking.” A cartoon squirrel attempting to crack a safe eyes me over its shoulder and says, “Tell me you have some experience with this sort of thing. Tell me you’ve done this before.” After several false starts—car horns, permutations of notes plucked casually from the strings of a banjo, the vibrations of a bouncing spring—I swell, I advance, I invent for myself the finale to Rossini’s William Tell Overture.
The ignorant are down on another level. They hoard matter, gathering it up behind walls and gates (“no trespassing!” they shout), claiming as theirs the means of subsistence so as to harm those on whom love redounds. Houses offer themselves as compromise-formations made of ticky-tacky. To deflect, I imagine myself penning an essay titled “From Hosers to Gozer: Rick Moranis and the Spazz Sublime.” Thus we bear the ills we have, man-child archetypes making cowards of us all. “Oh come let us…this word,” says Alex Trebek. “What is ‘adore,'” replies the contestant. “Correct for $1000.” Helicopters, government assassins hunting small-town stoners: ’tis the season. “Such behavior,” a woman objects, “makes no sense.” One’s angel, I conclude, is a bit like one’s handler. We acquire gnosis via allegory, but the drones are on their way.