There is a big question that is difficult to get at that nonetheless needs to be addressed if I am going to talk about gnosticism. Namely: what is gnosis? I have an answer, but I also have an allusive sensibility, so please pardon me as I make some wide circuits through this question.
Gnosis is the manifestation of the divine in subjective awareness. This is the birthplace of all gnosticism and it is to this crossroad that gnosticism must return again and again. The gnostic must use that medium of subjective awareness as a means to discern and appreciate the divine presences therein, as means toward deeper participation in the sacred order of the world as well as acknowledge that there is a great deal of discussion and debate to be had over what constitutes ‘the world.’
‘My’ subjective states, ‘my’ gnosis remain fundamental aspects of the gnostic work because it is through that personal subjectivity that the gnostic is able to judge the fruit of their undertakings. The careful examination and modulation of those mental states is something akin to Kepler’s examination and modification of his telescopes. The commitment to this work reflects a basic faith in the reality of what is being examined, even if the exact composition of that reality is not certain. Gnosis bears witness to an entanglement of the person in the sacred and the development of that gnosis reveals the nature of that entanglement.
The flowering of gnosis gives expression of that entanglement, reflecting both the divine and what it is entangled with. The examination and modulation of gnosis en route to that flowering derives from a sense that there are better and worse ways to proceed toward this flowering, with the worse incorporating new and troublesome entanglements which hinder full flowering. There is a concern in gnosticism with following the wrong god home and with preparing the proper god an offering appropriate to it, an offering that is constituted out of the person of the gnostic.
There is a potential black hole to the gnostic work, the trajectory of the lotus eaters. These lotus eaters get it a bit backward. The gnostic focus on their gnosis as the joint of the person and the divine. Gnosticism’s discussion of this gnosis provides individuals with the tools to cultivate their personhood in relationship to the divine, treating their individuality as the immanent and lived manifestation of the divine.
By contrast, the lotus eaters become enamored with their subjective experience for its own sake, divorced from both their personhood and the divine. Here they make use of gnostic techniques, but without the overarching goal of joining the human and the divine. Instead, they produce a series of feelings and the quality of these feelings defines the sum total of their work. Among lotus eaters, gnostic discernment turns into mere taste.
We can see the lineaments of this gnosticism in Paul enjoining his fellow Christians to cultivate an inward awareness in prayer rather than outward presentation, simplifying prayers and discouraging repetition for the sake of repetition, encouraging Christians to distinguish how they relate to an outer world of people and how they relate to the divine. I myself have a fondness for the barbarous words and repetition, but it is useful to point out that the practices of early gnostic-inflected Christianity were directed toward the cultivation of affective self-consciousness directed toward the divine.
Gnosis’s origins partially define its content. Gnosis touches upon the beautiful and the terrible, the sublime and the sordid. Within the sweep of gnosis, we discover the divine intertwined with the underside of our personal and cultural experience. The dead relative we could not stand in life and the misogynistic and racist tropes we despise are touched by the divine, too. Gnostics can become enamored of these darker elements, but it is a mistake to identify gnosis precisely with those elements. Gnosis lights up those crossroads, show them to us, but it does not commit us to them.
The gnostic has to learn to separate gnosis from endorsement. Where the divine is entangled, the gnostic must examine where the mode of entanglement, determine what can foster gnosis and what can poison it. This is one of the tricky points around which gnosticism remains cautious about worship, for it is easy to treat whatever manifests through illumination as worthy of worship when in fact some of it is worthy of discipline. This is where critical prophecy makes its appearance, because the gnostic revelation makes the gnostic culpable and negotiating that culpability often brings gnosis into contact with society since the guilt is often that which the gnostic cannot expiate on their own.
There is a compulsive character to this work, and it isn’t always easy to differentiate the point at which criticism ought to be lodged. I have found the figure of Dionysus in Euripides The Bacchae to be a useful model for thinking about the ambiguities of the prophetic corrective. The humbling force that erupts from the earth and humbles the mighty who would stand against it is manifest in a figure whose character seems pettier and more vindictive than their duty would lead us to imagine them.
Gnosis doesn’t manifest in a clearly ordered form of knowledge, but gives birth to them from within the womb of experience. Gnosis runs along an emergent and complex network of unintelligible experiences and the work with it yields more intelligible, crystallized, forms of understanding. Life precedes gnosis and gnosis precedes understanding. This is the point at which art and gnosis are deeply sympathetic to each other because it is often in works of art that we see more clearly the birth of meaning from confusion and of meaning’s dependence upon that confusion.
The reactions to Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade provides a useful framework for thinking about some of this. The initial reception focused on the underlying narrative of a wife working through her husband’s infidelity, often reducing the entire album to a glitzy account of Beyonce’s relationship with her husband. The deeper symbolic reservoirs of meaning were addressed, if at all, only as window dressing for this relationship. Observations about Oshun’s yellow dress made their appearance, but no mention of the underlying ripples of meaning spilling outward from that (there is more out there now; not that I would have found it on my own, so thanks to all the people circulating these links).
There are nests of Oshun stories that focus on her alienation from Shango, her descent into poverty, and of her restoration. The way in which this plays in and out of the album’s narrative gets overlooked. The presence of Shango’s baton in the first scene, fire and all, in a woman’s hands suggests all manner of revolt (and she’s laughing; don’t approach her when she laughs). The video plays with more than Oshun, but with all of Shango’s wives. There is, as I saw Ernesto Mercer astutely observe, a whole flock of the mothers whipping their wings through this video, which once again takes us back to the nature of showing and representation so basic to gnosis.
There is the polyvalent appearance of the members of the Ibeyi (the band) in the latter arc of the album. Though their presence is quiet, they are themselves Ibeyi in the technical sense, twins, and it is the twins who oversee the return of their mother’s prosperity. As unusual births, they are linked to the dangerous movement of the mothers but as doubled children of both the lineage and the mothers they mollify the danger with delight and hope in a future.
The richness is not constrained by the West African frame. As befits the shaking of the American tree, there are Biblical references from the explicit to the subtle. The opening sequence sees Beyonce strolling past ‘Cain’s Butchery’ and in front of the burning house we see her dressed in a shirt winding with serpentine patterns (appropriate to the serpent, this is double-faced allusion at which the Bible and the mothers intertwine; okay, more than double-faced, because as with so much here, there is more, more, more). There is the wide-brimmed hat which plays back and forth across the dual nature of Tamar who cloaks her face to play the prostitute and Tamar whose rape threatens the fabric of the House of David. The implied play of brothers summons up the figure of the slaver and slave-owner who uses up his fellow men and women and whose legacy must be undone.
This makes clear how in summoning forth the reservoirs of religious symbolism, Beyonce also summons forth the historical reservoirs through which those religions have moved and reanimates her personal history as well as the history of a people and a community around that personal history (her grandmother’s lemonade). The relationship of husband and wife does animate the album, but the stories it tells far exceed that relationship, foregrounding spiritual connections with the divine, struggles with the legacies of slavery in the United States, and the relationship between women and men more broadly (and more again; what Bowie explores in his final album, also reappears in Beyonce’s album, in part because in both we see the power of art on full display, but also because there is deep connection with the mothers in both, though they be mothers of a different register; both Blackstar and Lemonade compare well with The Bacchae).
The relationship falls short of being able to encompass all of that, but it is precisely in its reach and failure that the world around these issues is illuminated, that we are made aware and culpable. It may not be ‘gnostic’ in a historical sense, but it is gnostic in its structure. Compare this with my recent encounter with Justin’s Book of Baruch. There is a similar backdrop of misunderstanding in its reception. The author of Refutation of All Heresies criticizes the text for its gossipy qualities because its action develops around the marital strife between Eden and Elohim, ignoring how it might be precisely this human field of action that makes possible a certain domain of gnosis.
And the trace of the gnosis in the telling of its story contains a distillation of gnosis, a triggering potency that energizes and strengthens other forms of gnosis. In engaging with these presentations of gnosis, their resonance with divine forces strengthens and energizes our own attunement to them, though not as strongly as undertaking our own gnosis.
This messiness is what it means to assert that the intelligible criteria are the derived dimension of experience for the gnostics, not the reverse. Or, as Gilles Deleuze puts it:
“It is not a matter of being distributed according to the requirements of representation, but of all things being divided up within being in the univocity of simple presence (the One-All). Such a distribution is demonic rather than divine, since it is a peculiarity of demons to operate in the intervals between the gods’ field of action, as it is to leap over the barriers or the enclosures, thereby confounding the boundaries between properties….Univocal Being is at one and the same time nomadic distribution and crowned anarchy.”—Difference & Repetition (37)
Crowned anarchy isn’t necessarily where you want to live, but it is the source, mater. I take that mater seriously, because it is this matrix that receives the divine and gives it form, that gives body to the divine in the world. It is these mothers of the world, what I have seen some Greek sources identify as the nymphs, who give birth to the gods. And these forces are somehow joined in human life to the realities of gendered human experience. The mothers are mothers because they are allied with actual mothers.
Which gets us to the often gendered character of gnosis. While gnosis makes use of the social context which encompasses troubling inequalities like race, gender seems more fundamental yet to the constitution of gnosis. If I have to speculate after the arche-gnostic moment, it is the cult of the women. You can see some of that in the goos of Sumeria, in their wailing, and in the mourning songs addressed to the underworld on the part of bereaved mothers. You can see it in the figure of Mary, of Eden, of Eve, of Cybele, of Fa, Isis (notice that Osiris, like the gallae, is missing a certain something?), and on down the line.
The figure of the god toward which will preoccupy so many gnostics, is born in the mourning and ecstasy of women. The subjectivity that gives birth to it projects that figure as other than itself. That otherness, that alterity, manifests most easily under the masculine as other to the feminine, and that difference is subsequently modulated by the difference of the stranger, the spouse, the child, or what have you. Too often, the position from which this divine other stands forth is lost, displaced, and elided, pushed down into invisibility as men take on not just the mask of the divine, but its authority. The most active gnostic figures tend to be masculine, but behind that masculine presence are women, living and divine, who cannot be shunned except at great cost.
Some gnostics try to overcompensate by idealizing women, but that only distorts the situation in another direction. It isn’t exactly about some innate woman-ness, though it isn’t exactly separate from it, either. It lies in the risks and possibility of childbirth, of the struggle to nourish in hard times, struggles that are often relegated to the margins despite their essential and fundamental nature. It gets back down to the question of living in all its terrifying mess, which gets us back to the issue of subjectivity and of life. Think of the gnostic Christ, with his close associations to women with quite a range of characters, from his esteemed mother to Mary from whom seven devils had been cast out.
In its boldest health, the skepticism toward the figures of the gods that manifest in gnosis derives from the way in which these figures are so often divorced from their birth, as idolatry, presented only when divorced from the generative mothers that give them birth (which is one way to make sense of Heraclitus’s endorsement of Dionysian practices; since they bring together so tightly the god with his birth, the showing with the making, they are worthy). That isn’t a denial of their existence, and it most definitely isn’t a denial of the reality and necessity of engaging with them as real (at least, beings having a comparable reality to the reality of people).
In less bold health, the gnostic can turn to less healthy forms of skepticism, the sort that characterize C. G. Jung’s published work. Here we find gnosis collapsing into a shallow account of psychological reality. While it makes perfect sense to explore the resonances and rhythms that develop between the figures of the divine in their diversity, the assignments of the divine to a place ‘in our head’ is problematic and results from us from having so ludicrously carved out some ‘psychological’ reality from plain old reality-reality. While subjectivity (consciousness and intelligence) are the only things that make the gods intelligible to us, that gives intelligibility anything remotely like a meaningful context, that does not make subjectivity, personal or collective, primacy.
That said, people are people. Anytime you spend time working with the technical dimensions of something, you can become interested in the techne/technology/technique for itself. Gnosticism is frequently entangled with things like magic and science (yes, including psychology) for just these reasons. The technical exploration of the lens that we are can also turn into an exploration of what can be done with the lens. Take the contemporary ayahuasca scene. At its roots there is a good bit of gnosticism alongside a fairly straightforward bit of practical medico-magical techniques, but there are more than a few in it now for what I heard one ayahuascero describe with affectionate derision as ‘jungle tv.’
The degree to which a specific gnosticism endorses or forecloses certain technical practices has a great deal to do with shaping its character and individuality, its singularity. Some gnosticisms become profoundly interested in subjective states, either forbidding or avoiding things like magical experimentation (e.g., Jung) or becoming so engrossed in the states that they don’t pay attention to the broader network of experience that animate them (our lotus eaters in the psychedelic scene). Some, without drifting into lotus eating, focus on cultivating the divine within rather than the divine without.
To my mind, people get to make their way as they will, but the real work lies elsewhere, with the divine itself. It still benefits to gnostic to remain aware of this horizon of possibility that springs up around the gnostic moment, for each of these practices also illumine something of the gnosis that gives them birth. The magician and the psychologist, the idolater and the self-worshiper, the artist and the lotus eater, remain fellow travelers. We should welcome them to our procession whenever they care to join and wish them well if they choose to depart.