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.
Earthseed, the religion founded by Lauren Oya Olamina, the heroine who narrates Octavia E. Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower, resembles other faiths (including the Baptism of Butler’s upbringing) in its evangelical cast. Lauren spreads the word and seeks converts, her church being a kind of mutual aid society. Together, she and her followers form a traveling, changing community — a “team” or “tribe” of sorts, decisions made organically based on the group’s capacity to survive amid thieves, murderers, cannibals, junkies, wild dogs, and arsonists. Lauren’s view of the world is paranoid, but it’s a paranoia borne out by lived events of trauma. She “experiences” and “shares” the pain of others due to what she calls “hyperempathy syndrome.” She has an ability that makes her vulnerable, and thus cautious of who she can trust. We needn’t think of this as mere delusion. The reactions to bodily harm sometimes manifest physically, another’s pain sometimes drawing blood. However we view this aspect of Lauren’s experience, it leads her to seek followers. She wants others to believe her, offering in exchange a path toward survival.
One senses other voices — distractions from the work we’re here to do. “Ascent” and “descent” seem to be top priority for esotericists. Others call for reparation, insurrection, revolution, loving-kindness. Some speak of Babylon, purgatory, Tartarus. Beware the spooky ones and the trolls — the paranoids who think everything’s a plot. Get one’s house in order, noting daily the interplay between psyche and cosmos. Remember, too, that Butler’s heroine in Parable of the Sower writes a book of the living rather than a book of the dead.
An old friend and I smoked together a few evenings ago in his beautiful downtown LA penthouse. As the weed kicked in, the friend mentioned Milton Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti: a book-length psychiatric study of an experiment of dubious ethicality involving a group of men suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. As the title indicates, Rokeach’s experiment brought together three patients with seemingly incompatible belief systems, each man convinced he was Christ, in the hope that these confrontations would cure them of their delusions. In the minutes and hours that followed in this friend’s penthouse, some sort of spiritual-metaphysical mythos or meaning-system crystallized for me around that detail. Next thing I knew, I had tumbled down a rabbit hole into a paranoid fantasy: a weird, apocalyptic tale woven around my soul, and thus discernible only by me, with plot points borrowed from The Stand and Miracle Mile — stories this friend and I encountered together and bonded over as teenagers. Milton’s Paradise Lost figured in there as well. Sarah was present through all of this, pleading my case with me, but I couldn’t shake the intuition that I was in the presence of some high-stakes decision tree. There I was like Adam, lacking the knowledge of good and evil needed to discern friend from foe, but convinced (because of what? the weed? my economic condition? my Catholic upbringing? my fear of dying?) that someone must be a foe, someone must be scheming to steal my happiness. Given this conviction, it seemed inevitable that I was damned either way, buckling under the strain of an impossible choice, an impossible demand. Perhaps, though, I’ve tried to tell myself afterwards, it is by this conviction and it alone that Satan is hypothesized and granted being. Or as Sartre once said, “Evil is making abstract that which is concrete.” Once we choose, of course, the paranoid condition evaporates. We become whole again, the psyche no mere compromise-formation Jerry-rigged by characters installed through socialization, the ones Freud called the Superego and the Id. The Real in which these characters are nested needn’t be defined as a tragic one. Behave lovingly and one is saved.
Foreknowledge enabled by weed weirds me out, burns me bad as I hear a metaphor I trance-scribed Sunday night, one I thought my inner voice invented, echoed the following evening in an episode of Atlanta. Perhaps the voice that speaks to me is merely a friendly neighborhood Poltergeist. The unconscious behaves uncannily. I find it helpful in such situations to think on my feet. I discover a profound moral fear stimulated by love of another. I am awestruck by its power. The belief in the concept of the “unconscious wish” is a terrible responsibility to bear, because the moment the unconscious spends time around pain, it evolves intricate panics, fearful blind alleyways of thought. But the desire to remain centered as a person also awakens in this moment — the moment one encounters paranoia. The bad trip is to be shown one’s greatest fear, and it inevitably leads toward panic. Reason takes over in this instant. One feels an intense need to search for it, to posit it. Find it in oneself: the experience of self-confidence and self-love — and through these, the capacity to love others. I need to be able to trust myself. Ride this out and we will go back to normal. Between guns and roses, I say to myself, I choose roses. Between “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City,” I choose “Paradise City.” Better yet, I choose the goddess in the garden.