[More revisiting old ideas while I work through others. Notebooked to indicate this is a first draft toward a conception of gnostic that provides the means of differentiating but also clarifying a broad family of practices, the ol’ Deleuzian disjunctive synthesis.]
I have talked about a gnostic sensibility of discontent as a way to think of gnosticism from a ‘big tent’ perspective. That’s useful for discussion, but the movement toward practice demands a somewhat narrower articulation of the term. Still, that practice can be articulated in a way that leaves the term with a wide but meaningful community of practitioners capable of communicating with each other (as long as we don’t presume communication to entail too much agreement).
Practice requires that the discontent acquire some goal, some potential sense of resolution, even if that resolution is only partially realized. As the discontent begins with alienation, the resolution must confront that alienation. The alienation provides the irritation and motivation to undertake the gnostic work and determines some of its shape.
In taking discontent and its potential resolution as a central element, gnosticism presumes that there are other ways of being than existence in a state of alienation. There is the potential to change how one exists and so overcome some portion of the discontent with the world.
This can be small, simple improvements in character and behavior that would modify the tenor of one’s experiences (making pleasure or satisfaction more common than dissatisfaction, perhaps). This can also be sweeping, as with efforts to separate the soul from the entirety of creation and achieve access to another plane of existence.
The illumination is already present in the discontent, because the substance with which one is discontented provides the medium through which contentment is contrasted. A sense of the confinement provides a hint of what liberation might entail, just as a sense of separation provides a hint of what unity might entail.
The slipperiness of gnosis derives from this as well. The degree to which gnosis can be separated from its discontent is difficult to discern. Often the discontent is so intense that gnosis is sensed to be radically other than the world, at other times it is sensed more as modulation of it. In all cases, it seems like any experience of it is in danger of being usurped by the discontent that motivates it. The effort to seek freedom falls into a pattern of rebellion, the quest for unity turns into destructive forms of self-abnegation, clarity drifts into abstraction and illusion.
Okay, so this is somewhat abstract itself, no? A little down wind of this discussion, though, is the discussion I want to have about the natural tension between gnosticism and practical concerns. Once we start talking about the discontent that animates gnosticism, we have to come to terms with the inherently critical attitude that embodies toward the status quo. There is a restlessness to gnosticism wherever it emerges that strives for a better way of being, which presumes that what is isn’t quite good enough.
There are many ways to do that, we can define a gnostic ethos by its critical attitude and its valuing of reform and transformation. While the gnostic directs that toward and how they pursues it will come to define the character of their gnosticism at a given moment, that ethos all but guarantees that the concrete forms that accrete to any gnostic practice will be subject to change and transformation as a consequence of its ethos, not just as an accident that happens to befall it through corruption.