The Hard Part of Talking about Gnosis

This last turn here has been a doozy and I find myself returning to this blog frequently, writing lengthy posts, and then setting them aside because it just doesn’t quite feel like I am hitting the notes I need to with them. This turn into the face of gnosticism proper that I have been taking is a hard one; it heads straight down into some complex, deep, and unpleasant places. I’m unsure of the ability of the blog format to address these well, but I want to try to address them, especially in the current climate where we are seeing the occult-magical scene re-encountering its relationship with psychoanalysis and modernity.

While gnosticism is a movement with a historical trajectory that roots it in a broadly Levantine antiquity, gnosis opens onto  field of universal human experience. That interplay of the singular and the universal is part of why gnosticism has traveled well, because it is constantly reopened to the singular life of the individuals who undertake its work even as it remains rooted.

I have considered that some of this difficulty is personal, about my own relationship to the material, that talking about this will actually be easier and simpler than I imagine because my own resistance is what gives it the appearance of depth and complexity. Maybe, but I guess the only way to find that out is to head straight into it and see.

My point of entry for this post is Gordon’s recent post on animism and gnosticism in which he maps them onto the well-trod comparison of the map and the territory. He suggests animism is the territory while gnosticism is the map, with the implication that follow (e.g., the map is not the territory and so on). There is something to that, but the comparison of map and territory remains a crude approximation of that something. My personal dislike of the term animism notwithstanding, this has to do with my fundamental disagreement with what constitutes the fundamental element of gnosticism and what the content of gnosis really is.

So, let’s start with defining animism. Animism, simply put, is the sense that the world is ensouled, that there are other souls out there besides our own and that the implication of this is that these other souls are like us in some way, that they can be entreated or offended something like persons. These souls, like our own, have relationships to bodies, those bodies being the other things in the world like rocks, animals, natural phenomena, trees, mushrooms, and so on. I can live with that as a framework for talking around this stuff, even if I have some complaints about it.

If we are going to follow the trail of psychoanalysis for a bit, we need to go deeper than ideas like animism mollifies neuroses. If we are going to make a proper joint between the psychoanalytic insights that can be rescued from Freud’s tangle, we need to think about what it means to be neurotic, what it means to be enlightened, what it means to say that there is a relationship between our unconscious, our language, our magic, the manifest world around us, and our cosmo-ontologies. If we want to follow that road, the contrast between animism and gnosticism ought to be better articulated and I would start by rephrasing the contrast between animism and gnosticism:

Animism is the symptom and gnosis is the (incurable) disease.

Gnosis, not gnosticism, because gnosticism is the set of practices and ontologies that developed around a specific set of encounters with gnosis. Gnosticism is a specific transformation of animism, what happens when we become aware of the symptomatic nature of animistic intuitions. Gnosticism self-consciously addresses itself to the symptoms as having a basis in a deferral or displacement of gnosis. The various gnosticisms are forms of spiritual hygiene, addressing itself toward finding the best way for an individual to live with gnosis.

Gnosis is a troubled and troubling form of awareness, one that inheres in the symptoms. The practices of gnosticism are bound up with bringing the individual from an implicit awareness of gnosis to an explicit awareness of it and then with providing them with the tools to deal with that awareness within their life.

And, yes, the disease-symptom comparison is a metaphor, but it is a very useful one, one that rests in their being a genuine analogue between the concepts. The analogue is what made it possible for psychoanalysis to develop within a medical framework, but we are better served if we preserve the distance of metaphor. While we can talk about spiritual health, it is not quite the same thing as health in a medical context and I think many of the failures of psychoanalysis derive precisely from attempting to pursue gnosis on the wrong terrain.

(Okay, technically, I would say that medicine diverges from gnosis and explores the possibilities it unveils in a different terrain, but that’s a subtle distinction which I don’t want to belabor too much here.)

To cut to the chase, what is the content of this gnosis? Well, I’ve talked about this a bit lately, but it comes down to this: gnosis is the awareness of the fundamental difference between our awareness of the world and the nature of that world, as well as of the fundamental binding of the one to the other. In more poetic language, it is the union of life and death. This union is a point of both possibility and terror, of magic and annihilation.

The way in which it becomes manifest in animism as symptom, animism as a means of concealing gnosis? It operates by attempting to erase the difference between life and death, subject and object, awareness and object of awareness. The most common means of doing so are cynicism, which is the denial of life and awareness, and animism, which is the denial of death and the world’s obdurate resistance to awareness.

Gordon shares an allegory from William James by way of Jeffrey Kripal:

“James wondered if our relationship to the otherworld of the spirits and the dead was not like that our pets have in relationship to our world. He wrote the following stunning lines in A Pluralistic Universe: In spite of rationalism’s disdain for the particular, the personal, and the unwholesome [the modern debunker’s anecdotal], the drift of all the evidence we have seems to me to sweep us very strongly towards the belief in some form of superhuman life with which we may, unknown to ourselves, be co-conscious. We may be in the universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the meaning of it all.” (emphasis in the original)

This allegory performs the animistic denial in high style. It acknowledges the gnostic gap manifested in our lack of understanding by positing that gap in entirely human terms, in terms of life and awareness. The two elements against which humans are contrasted (pets v. these others who built the library) only become intelligible within this allegory if we treat them as varieties of humanity. Their alien-ness is mere window-dressing, reduced to the presumptive priority of the human library. While promising to hint at the reality of others, it only reveals them as others already like ourselves.

Let me point out, too, that the library itself is a cultural object, which is here subtly naturalized, as the world itself becomes a library. The challenging materiality of a library is elided in favor of presenting a transparently subjective world. The difficulties of communicating between humans is elided, too, once again distracting us from the inescapable failures and declines that fill our lives.

Remember the superego in Freud? We can see the birth of superegoic structures within this allegory. The projection of superhuman order (James’s librarians, but also the Engineers of Scott’s Prometheus as well as the precursors of so much myth) allows us to acknowledge  our limitations while asserting that, in spite of those limitations, the structure of the world nonetheless follows a pattern that mimics our limitations. Whether beneficent or tyrannical, these figures are comprehensible as a human analogue. Rene Girard affirmed the corollary to the commonplace that a king is a living god, namely that a god is a dead king. The power that a king lives is born out of the fear of confronting the king’s death.

This is why I read things like the Headless Rite (also the Book of Job) a bit differently, as situated against the vultures around the headless bodies portrayed at Çatalhöyük. This is the effacement of the person and their reduction to a dead thing, an encounter with the collapse of meaning, and an effort to pass beyond that collapse into a state in which a living awareness of that becomes possible. If we talk about the Sefer Yetzirah, note the play of the doubles and the elementals. The doubles form the head, while the elementals constitute a body, but also its insides, which are precisely the things that the vultures reveal.

The danger is that you come back from that with another, more entrenched fantasy, that in a flash of terror or awe or despair the process is interrupted and you latch onto another shadow. Like one who in the midst of abuse latches onto a sign and uses it to defer or displace their suffering. Or there is the danger that you don’t come back at all. This is why there is a relationship between illumination, despair, delusion, and brainwashing.

The point of the process is that it takes you down to the wound, to the cut, to the breakdown, and, if it works right, when you are there you start to hear the scratching and the scrabbling, the whispers of something on the other side of that, of the something else besides you. Stripped back to that, you invite that through the door and start your way back out of the mess, except now whatever you are is growing back with this something else alongside it, the personal piece of the chittering world that you welcome back into yourself.

Except it isn’t something other than you, but your own being as a thing, an object, a dead object, revealed to be something else, something both alive and alien to our awareness, something integrated with the whole of the world, something through which we can tap out our desires into the cold world. It also reveals the world to be something more than dead, it shows the dead as living an other sort of life alien to our own, one that isn’t driven by subjectivity like ours except by way of an infection or contagion that flares up around our own.

We can cultivate gnosis and its attendant animisms only peculiarly, alongside the jagged ridges of history into which we are fused, through tremors and whispers rippling through the rock, by becoming a living skull. To become as gods, sure, if you want to be the alien remnants of kings.

That isn’t nearly as grim as I fear this sounds, because there are deep reservoirs of life within the bowels of this rumbling substance. These bones shall live.

Truly, I am the most cheerful of witches.

I’ll probably try to start turning back to more concrete matters soon; there is only so much one can say about obscure matters like this.


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