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.
Travel isn’t quite the remedy I’d hoped it would be, though it rarely is. It rained — and I was still working throughout the day grading papers. Plus the laws, the policies of the state, make it hard to conduct Dadaist and surrealist walks. Urban excursions. Those are the practices that thrill me as a traveler: resolutely following a lack of itinerary. The surrealists called these practices déambulations, their results appearing in works like Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris (1926) and André Breton’s Nadja (1928). Strange encounters: a kind of “weird fiction,” though infused more with romance than with horror. An experimental approach to cartography and cosmology, becoming revolutionary (at least in the everyday of a collective reality — tiny, temporary, but at least not boring) with subsequent groups like the Lettrists and the Situationist International. These groups amp up the emphasis on “scientific study” and “rigorous analysis.” There was not among Debord’s circle enough dancing and loving, not enough romance in the group’s theory of the dérive. I prefer the surrealist emphasis on the authorial agency of the unconscious. Prior to all of these figures stands the original urban saunterer, the Parisian flâneur. Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness.” In the 1940s and 1950s, the Beats reinvented this practice for the postwar era, the art of flânerie set on the road, flâneurs now palling around with one another, driving, hitchhiking, freight-hopping: the artist-poet as ecstatic world-tourist and pilgrim.