gnosticism and mccarthy’s blood meridian

The (in)famous and gnomic epilogue of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in The West: 

In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly inthe light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again. 

Leo Daugherty’s essay is one of the best explications of the Gnostic underpinning of Blood Meridian, since, unlike so much of the so-called critical exegesis of the novel, it manages to account for the presence of the epilogue in an inclusive way, both structurally and thematically.  

Gravers False and True:
Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy
  

Leo Daugherty 

I want to argue here that gnostic thought is central to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I will go about this by discussing four of its characters—the judge, the kid, the graver and the mysterious man of the epilogue—and the particular sort of world they inhabit. I am aware at the outset of the difficulties involved in establishing a relationship between any two things (in this case Blood Meridian and Gnostic thought) when some readers may have a working knowledge of only one of them (in this case, I hope, the novel). While it is impossible to provide more than an introductory sketch of Gnosticism here, I believe that its dualistic core can be simply and briefly shown, and that it can then be understood well enough to make clear its connections with McCarthy’s book. 

I. The Gnostics 

No one knows exactly how or when Gnosticism originated, but it is generally agreed that it came about as yet another answer to the question, How is it that the world is experienced as so very evil and that so many people’s central response to it is alienation? The Gnostic answer took two basic forms, the Syrian-Egyptian and the Iranian, the latter of which probably stemmed from Zoroastrianism and found its principal exponent in Mani (215277 AD). Because Blood Meridian exemplifies the latter, I will use it almost exclusively here. 1

In the beginning, there was a “pleroma,” a condition of perfection and thus of literal plenitude, in the divine realm. This realm was made up of God and the lesser divinities, themselves called aeons. Then, somehow, this unity was sundered, either from within or without. In the Iranian version it was riven from without, by some sort of opposing “dark force.” (This presupposes, as Hans Jonas has noted, some yet more primal dualism [“Gnosticism” 338].) In the words of one scholar of this (Manichean) version: “All existing things derive from one of these two: the infinite light of spiritual goodness or the bottomless darkness of evil matter, coexistent and totally opposed to each other” (Greenlees 167). A state of affairs ensued which is termed the “crisis in the pleroma,” one result of which was the “falling” or “sinking” of some of the aeons, including (in Mani’s system) “primal man.” Of these, some became the archons (lords), who took charge of the various lower realms. The characteristics most typically found in them are judgment and jealousy, and their “creative” energies are spent in satisfying their “ambition, vanity, and lust for dominion” (Jonas 338).

One of the archons’ works was the creation of the world. A second was the creation of man, who would contain some of the original divine substance. Their motive for making human beings is unclear, but Jonas argues convincingly that it was either simple envy and ambition, or the more calculating “[motive] of entrapping divine substance in their lower world by the lure of a seemingly congenial receptacle [the body] that will then become its most secure bond” (339). As Robert Grant has noted, “The Gnostic, like the Platonist, regarded his body as a tomb” (327). To him, it is this, then, that is the imago Dei of Genesis, and in Manicheanism the imago is that of the original fallen “primal man.” Yet the spirit within humans is not from the archons. Rather, it is from the great original god of the pleroma, and it is imprisoned in humans by the archons—in Mani’s version through a violent victory of the archons over the real, good god of the pleroma—and the result, on the earth, is obviously a state of affairs in which the good and the light are eternally trapped inside the evil and the dark.

The spirit imprisoned within matter is called pneuma—the “spark of the alien divine,” in the familiar Gnostic phrase—and its presence naturally causes some humans to feel alienated, although they are for the most part comatose. The spirit within is, however, capable of learning, and the alienation it feels is its clue that there is indeed something to be learned. In the various Gnostic systems, knowledge is the key to extrication. It is thus a central task of the archons to prevent the human acquisition of liberational knowledge at all costs. To this end, they have established heimarmene—Fate—which is, in Jonas’s words, a “tyrannical world rule [which] is morally the law of justice, as exemplified in the Mosaic law” (“Gnosticism” 339).

Humans are comprised of flesh, souland spirit. Of these, the first two are from the archons and the third is from the original, good god. This god has nothing to do with the world the archons made, and is in fact as alien to it as the spirit of humankind. But he feels something akin to incompleteness, and he is thus moved to “call his spirit home.” He does this by means of messengers, who go into the world with the “call of revelation.” This revelation is the ”facts of the case—”the knowledge necessary to enable humans to overcome the world and return to their true home with him. God’s revelational messenger “penetrates the barriers of the [lower spheres, including the world], outwits the archons, awakens the spirit from its earthly slumber, and imparts to it the saving knowledge from without” (340). These salvational Gnostic envoys—those in possession of gnosis—called (and still call) themselves “pneumatics.” Their work necessarily entails assuming “the lot of incarnation and cosmic exile”; moreover, in Mani’s system, the revelator is “in a sense identical with those he calls—the once-lost parts of his divine self[thus giving rise] to the moving idea of the ‘saved savior’ (salvator salvandus)” (340).

Manichean Gnosticism is easily confused with nihilism, as the latter is commonly understood. The reason is that the Gnostic god, being totally not of this world, generates no nomos, no law, for either nature or human activity. The law, instead, is the law of the archons, and justice is theirs as well. And so is vengeancethe “vengeance that is mine.” God’s only activity with respect to matter is his attempt, via his suffering-servant pneumatic messengers, to rescue the spirit within humans—the truth of them—out of matter. So, while Jonas is right in arguing that Gnostic “acosmism” makes for the worldly appearance of nihilism, the mere fact that the Gnostic god has a rescuing function makes Gnosticism and nihilism differ importantly (Jonas, Gnostic 332). In Gnosticism, because of this difference, there is conflict and drama. Its human drama takes place within and is a microcosm of its larger cosmic drama which pits spirit against matter, light against darkness and the alien god (and the alien pneumatic spirit within sleeping humankind) against the archons. It is precisely a war. For humans, it is a war against the archons’ heimarmene, but this is merely part of the larger war in which the fate of the original god is the primal stake. Mani taught that the cosmic drama amounts to “a war with changing fortunes [in which] the divine fate, of which man’s fate is a part and the world an unwilled byproduct, is explained in terms of captivity and liberation ” (Jonas, “Gnosticism” 341). And in his teachings, the primal man, the ”knightly male figure, the warrior, assumes the role of the exposed and suffering part of divinity” (341).

With respect to this warrior-knight, Wilhelm Bousset, who was perhaps the most esteemed nineteenth-century authority on Gnosticism, held that he represents god in the form of a hero 

who makes war on, and is partly vanquished by, darkness. He descends into the darkness of the material world, and in so doing begins the great drama of the world’s development. From [god] are derived those portions of light existing and held prisoner in this lower world. And as he has raised himself again out of the material world, or has been set free so shall also the members of the primal man, the portions of light still imprisoned in matter, be set free. (156)

The practicing Gnostics naturally saw themselves as such heroes, as such messengers of god or “primal men.” And in this fact, Bousset concludes, is to be found the obvious meaning of the primal man figure in some Gnostic strains, including Mani’s; for it provides a simple (and self-serving) answer to the question, “How did the portions of light to be found in the lower world, among which certainly belong the souls of [us] Gnostics, enter into it?” (156).

So, whereas most thoughtful people have looked at the world they lived in and asked, How did evil get into it?, the Gnostics looked at the world and asked, How did good get into it? This was of course a very sensible question, and remains so. After all, the Satan of Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox Church and the Protestant Reformation is a strikingly domesticated, manageable, partitioned-off personification of evil as the Gnostics saw evil. They saw it as something so big that “evil” is not really an applicable term—because it is too small. For them, evil was simply everything that is, with the exception of the bits of spirit emprisoned here. And what they saw is what we see in the world of Blood Meridian.

II. The Archon and His World 

Early in Blood Meridian, the reader comes upon this passage: “The survivors slept with their alien hearts beating in the sand like pilgrims exhausted upon the face of the planet Anareta, clutched to a namelessness wheeling in the night” (46). Anareta was believed in the Renaissance to be “the planet which destroys life,” and “violent deaths are caused” when the “malifics” have agents in “the anaretic place” (OED entry, “anareta”). Because McCarthy has not placed a comma after “pilgrims,” it is likely that his simile includes the entire remainder of the phrase; yet it is easily possible to read the passage as if a comma were present, thus producing the reading: this is Anareta. Either way, the implication is clearly that our own Earth is Anaretic. And in Blood Meridian, the Earth is the judge’s.

Even so, on our own evil planet Judge Holden’s power is not yet complete, since his will is not yet fulfilled in its passion for total domination. He is working, as he implies to Toadvine, to become a full “suzerain”one who “rules even where there are other rulers,” whose authority “countermands local judgements” (198). Yet this was also necessarily true of the Gnostic archons, just as it was true of the Old Testament Yahweh, whom they saw as evil. And, like those archons, Holden also possesses all the other characteristics of Yahweh as the Gnostics saw him: he is jealous, he is vengeful, he is wrathful, he is powerful and—most centrally—he possesses, and is possessed by, a will. And he is enraged by any existence or any act outside that will. At one point, he places his hands on the ground, looks at Toadvine, and speaks:
This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation. (199) 
In Holden, the stressed archonic element is of course judgment. Yet, like Yahweh, he judges things simply according to the binary criterion of their being inside or outside his will. In one of the passages most crucial to an adequate understanding of Blood Meridian, he tells David Brown, “Every child knows that play is nobler than work,” that “Men are born for games” and that “all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all” (249). We are reminded here of the novel’s epigraph from Jacob Boehme: “It is not to be thought that the life of darkness is sunk in misery and lost as if in sorrowing. There is no sorrowing. For sorrow is a thing that is swallowed up in death, and death and dying are the very life of the darkness.” Indeed, war is the ultimate cause of unity, involving as it does the “testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will [i.e., war itself] which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god” (249).

And it is the warrior judge’s work to achieve dominion—to be the realized territorial archon of this Anaretic planet—through becoming the totalizing victor in all conflicts, real and perceptual, involving his will. The corollary is to show no mercy to those others whose wills have led them to be outside one’s own: as Holden tells the kid late in the novel, “There’s a flawed place in the fabric of your heart. You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen” (299). And because the kid has shown them mercy, the judge must not show him any—and does not. Ultimately, a person serves the god of war, as Holden tells Tobin, in order to be “no godserver but a god himself” (250).

III. The Name of the Gun

The Earth is the judge’s, and, when he names his gun, the judge makes ironic comment upon the fact that not only is the earth his, but also that it is an anti-pastoral, anti-Arcadian world. The gun’s name is Et in Arcadia Ego (125).

This is a familiar late Renaissance proverb, dating back at least to Schidoni (c. 1600). It was a commonplace memorial inscription for tombs and representations of tombs, it was scrawled as graffiti under pictures of skulls, and it was conventionally employed by painters such as Poussin and Reynolds as a verbal/visual icon. It means, “Even in Arcadia there am I [Death].” The more interesting, least sentimentalizing pastoral poets had stressed this all along, of course, and had accordingly positioned death prominently in their Arcadias—Marguerite of Navarre in her Heptameron, as well as Shakespeare in Love’s Labors Lost, for example, and most importantly Sidney in the seminal Arcadia.

Blood Meridian centers upon what can be reasonably thought of as a fraternity of male shepherds who kill the sheep entrusted to them. One of the shepherds is the kid, who feels the “spark of the alien divine” within him through the call of what seems to be conscience. He thus “awakens” a bit, attaining in the process a will outside the will of his murdering shepherdic subculture and the archon who runs it. The kid reminds us here of Huckleberry Finn, who, in the crucial act of saving his friend Jim from slaveholder justice, similarly defies the will of a pernicious subculture, but who is judged only by his own cultural conscience, saying to himself at the novel’s turning point, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” Both these boys are a little bit awakened by the spark of the divine, and both extend acts of fraternal mercy when they are “not supposed to.” In the Mark Twain world, Huck gets away with it; in the McCarthy world, the kid is killed by the judge for it in an outhouse. The kid has “awakened,” but he is not progressed sufficiently in wisdom much beyond mere awakening and thus has no chance at survival, much less at the victory of Gnostic liberation.

Even so, it would be a gross understatement to call Blood Meridian a “pastoral tragedy,” or even to term it “anti-pastoral.” The point of the gun’s name is not that because of its appearance in the landscape, or by synechdoche the judge’s appearance, death has been introduced into an idyllic Arcadia: the entire novel makes clear (primarily through the judge, who continuously emphasizes the point in his preachments) that the human world is, and has always been, a world of killing. This is surely the point of the book’s third epigraph, a quote provided by McCarthy from a 1982 news release: “Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.” Rather, I would argue that the name suggests the judge’s awareness of, and his enthusiastic endorsement of, the reality that the world has been a place of murder ever since the first victorious taking of a human life by another human. The judge’s name Et in Arcadia Ego stands not for his gun and not for himself, but rather for murderous humankind on this very real killing planet.

Blood Meridian is a study of power relations within what, to the habituated expectations of our “received culture,” ought by all rights to have been a pastoral setting. But McCarthy’s long-meditated observations, coupled with his reading of the relevant southwestern history, have led him to other conclusions, and he extrapolates from what he knows of the Glanton gang’s exploits to make a narrative about a world-program seemingly set up by something like a gnostic grand demiurge and enjoyed by him as proprietor, with earthly power being that of judgment sprung from will (the judge’s judgment, the judge’s will, both perhaps signifying the author’s as-above-so-below—and vice-versa—notions), untempered by mercy and wisdom: this is Yahweh’s programmatic power (as the Gnostics saw it), exercised by his archonic overseer. A good “alien” god exists somewhere, as is always the case in Gnosticism, and he is the god of the epilogue who put the fire in the earth and part of himself in the souls of humans, including the kid—to which we will return. But: with respect to these southwestern doings on this southwestern set, so what?2

 

Continue reading

Advertisements

harold bloom on the visionary in cormac mccarthy’s blood meridian and all the pretty horses


They rode out on the north road as would parties bound for El Paso but before they were even quite out of sight of the city they had turned their tragic mounts to the west and they rode infatuate and half fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.

 

 

Bookseller Photo 

 

Blood Meridian (1985) seems to me the authentic American apocalyptic novel, more relevant even in 2010 than it was twenty-five years ago. The fulfilled renown of Moby-Dick and of As I Lay Dying is augmented by Blood Meridian, since Cormac McCarthy is the worthy disciple both of Melville and of Faulkner. I venture that no other living American novelist, not even Pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian, much as I appreciate Don DeLillo’s Underworld; Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Bound, Sabbath’s Theater, and American Pastoral; and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon. McCarthy himself, in his Border Trilogy, commencing with the superb All the Pretty Horses, has not matched Blood Meridian, but it is the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed.

My concern being the reader, I will begin by confessing that my first two attempts to read through Blood Meridian failed, because I flinched from the overwhelming carnage that McCarthy portrays. The violence begins on the novel’s second page, when the fifteen-year-old Kid is shot in the back and just below the heart, and continues almost with no respite until the end, thirty years later, when Judge Holden, the most frightening figure in all of American literature, murders the Kid in an outhouse. So appalling are the continuous massacres and mutilations of Blood Meridian that one could be reading a United Nations report on the horrors of Kosovo in 1999.

Nevertheless, I urge the reader to persevere, because Blood Meridian is a canonical imaginative achievement, both an American and a universal tragedy of blood. Judge Holden is a villain worthy of Shakespeare, Iago-like and demoniac, a theoretician of war everlasting. And the book’s magnificence—its language, landscape, persons, conceptions—at last transcends the violence, and convert goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to Faulkner’s. When I teach the book, many of my students resist it initially (as I did, and as some of my friends continue to do). Television saturates us with actual as well as imagined violence, and I turn away, either in shock or in disgust. But I cannot turn away from Blood Meridian, now that I know how to read it, and why it has to be read. None of its carnage is gratuitous or redundant; it belonged to the Mexico–Texas borderlands in 1849–50, which is where and when most of the novel is set. I suppose one could call Blood Meridian a “historical novel,” since it chronicles the actual expedition of the Glanton gang, a murderous paramilitary force sent out both by Mexican and Texan authorities to murder and scalp as many Indians as possible. Yet it does not have the aura of historical fiction, since what it depicts seethes on, in the United States, and nearly everywhere else, well into the third millennium. Judge Holden, the prophet of war, is unlikely to be without honor in our years to come.

Even as you learn to endure the slaughter McCarthy describes, you become accustomed to the book’s high style, again as overtly Shakespearean as it is Faulknerian. There are passages of Melvillean-Faulknerian baroque richness and intensity in The Crying of Lot 49, and elsewhere in Pynchon, but we can never be sure that they are not parodistic. The prose of Blood Meridian soars, yet with its own economy, and its dialogue is always persuasive, particularly when the uncanny Judge Holden speaks (chapter 14): 

The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.

 

Toadvine sat with his boots crossed before the fire. No man can acquaint himself with everything on this earth, he said.

 

The judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

Judge Holden is the spiritual leader of Glanton’s filibusters, and McCarthy persuasively gives the self-styled judge a mythic status, appropriate for a deep Machiavelli whose “thread of order” recalls Iago’s magic web, in which Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio are caught. Though all of the more colorful and murderous raiders are vividly characterized for us, the killing-machine Glanton with the others, the novel turns always upon its two central figures, Judge Holden and the Kid. We first meet the Judge on page 6: an enormous man, bald as a stone, no trace of a beard, and eyes without either brows or lashes. A seven-foot-tall albino, he almost seems to have come from some other world, and we learn to wonder about the Judge, who never sleeps, dances and fiddles with extraordinary art and energy, rapes and murders little children of both sexes, and who says that he will never die. By the book’s close, I have come to believe that the Judge is immortal. And yet the Judge, while both more and less than human, is as individuated as Iago or Macbeth, and is quite at home in the Texan–Mexican borderlands where we watch him operate in 1849–50, and then find him again in 1878, not a day older after twenty-eight years, though the Kid, a sixteen-year-old at the start of Glanton’s foray, is forty-five when murdered by the Judge at the end.

McCarthy subtly shows us the long, slow development of the Kid from another mindless scalper of Indians to the courageous confronter of the Judge in their final debate in a saloon. But though the Kid’s moral maturation is heartening, his personality remains largely a cipher, as anonymous as his lack of a name. The three glories of the book are the Judge, the landscape, and (dreadful to say this) the slaughters, which are aesthetically distanced by McCarthy in a number of complex ways.

What is the reader to make of the Judge? He is immortal as principle, as War Everlasting, but is he a person, or something other? McCarthy will not tell us, which is all the better, since the ambiguity is most stimulating. Melville’s Captain Ahab, though a Promethean demigod, is necessarily mortal, and perishes with the Pequod and all its crew, except for Ishmael. After he has killed the Kid, Blood Meridian’s Ishmael, Judge Holden is the last survivor of Glanton’s scalping crusade. Destroying the Native American nations of the Southwest is hardly analogous to the hunt to slay Moby-Dick, and yet McCarthy gives us some curious parallels between the two quests. The most striking is between Melville’s chapter 19, where a ragged prophet, who calls himself Elijah, warns Ishmael and Queequeg against sailing on the Pequod, and McCarthy’s chapter 4, where “an old disordered Mennonite” warns the Kid and his comrades not to join Captain Worth’s filibuster, a disaster that preludes the greater catastrophe of Glanton’s campaign.

McCarthy’s invocation of Moby-Dick, while impressive and suggestive, in itself does not do much to illuminate Judge Holden for us. Ahab has his preternatural aspects, including his harpooner Fedellah and Parsee whaleboat crew, and the captain’s conversion to their Zoroastrian faith. Elijah tells Ishmael touches of other Ahabian mysteries: a three-day trance off Cape Horn, slaying a Spaniard in front of a presumably Catholic altar in Santa Ysabel, and a wholly enigmatic spitting into a “silver calabash.” Yet all these are transparencies compared to the enigmas of Judge Holden, who seems to judge the entire earth, and whose name suggests a holding, presumably of sway over all he encounters. And yet, the Judge, unlike Ahab, is not wholly fictive; like Glanton, he is a historic filibuster or freebooter. McCarthy tells us most in the Kid’s dream visions of Judge Holden, towards the close of the novel (chapter 22): 

In that sleep and in sleep to follow the judge did visit. Who would come other? A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents, he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon

his commencing.

I think that McCarthy is warning his reader that the Judge is Moby-Dick rather than Ahab. As another white enigma, the albino Judge, like the albino whale, cannot be slain. Melville, a professed Gnostic, who believed that some “anarch hand or cosmic blunder” had divided us into two fallen sexes, gives us a Manichean quester in Ahab. McCarthy gives Judge Holden the powers and purposes of the bad angels or demiurges that the Gnostics called archons, but he tells us not to make such an identification (as the critic Leo Daugherty eloquently has). Any “system,” including the Gnostic one, will not divide the Judge back into his origins. The “ultimate atavistic egg” will not be found. What can the reader do with the haunting and terrifying Judge?

Let us begin by saying that Judge Holden, though his gladsome prophecy of eternal war is authentically universal, is first and foremost a Western American, no matter how cosmopolitan his background (he speaks all languages, knows all arts and sciences, and can perform magical, shamanistic metamorphoses). The Texan–Mexican border is a superb place for a war-god like the Judge to be. He carries a rifle, mounted in silver, with its name inscribed under the checkpiece: Et In Arcadia Ego. In the American Arcadia, death is also always there, incarnated in the Judge’s weapon, which never misses. If the American pastoral tradition essentially is the Western film, then the Judge incarnates that tradition, though he would require a director light-years beyond the late Sam Peckinpah, whose The Wild Bunch portrays mildness itself when compared to Glanton’s paramilitaries. I resort though, as before, to Iago, who transfers war from the camp and the field to every other locale, and is a pyromaniac setting everything and everyone ablaze with the flame of battle. The Judge might be Iago before Othello begins, when the war-god Othello was still worshipped by his “honest” color officer, his ancient or ensign. The Judge speaks with an authority that chills me even as Iago leaves me terrified: 

This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. 

If McCarthy does not want us to regard the Judge as a Gnostic archon or supernatural being, the reader may still feel that it hardly seems sufficient to designate Holden as a nineteenth-century Western American Iago. Since Blood Meridian, like the much longer Moby-Dick, is more prose epic than novel, the Glanton foray can seem a post-Homeric quest, where the various heroes (or thugs) have a disguised god among them, which appears to be the Judge’s Herculean role. The Glanton gang passes into a sinister aesthetic glory at the close of chapter 13, when they progress from murdering and scalping Indians to butchering the Mexicans who have hired them: 

They entered the city haggard and filthy and reeking with the blood of the citizenry for whose protection they had contracted. The scalps of the slain villagers were strung from the windows of the governor’s house and the partisans were paid out of the all but exhausted coffers and the Sociedad was disbanded and the bounty rescinded. Within a week of their quitting the city there would be a price of eight thousand pesos posted for Glanton’s head.

I break into this passage, partly to observe that from this point on the filibusters pursue the way down and out to an apocalyptic conclusion, but also to urge the reader to hear, and admire, the sublime sentence that follows directly, because we are at the visionary center of Blood Meridian. 

They rode out on the north road as would parties bound for El Paso but before they were even quite out of sight of the city they had turned their tragic mounts to the west and they rode infatuate and half fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.

Since Cormac McCarthy’s language, like Melville’s and Faulkner’s, frequently is deliberately archaic, the meridian of the title probably means the zenith or noon position of the sun in the sky. Glanton, the Judge, the Kid, and their fellows are not described as “tragic”—their long-suffering horses are— and they are “infatuate” and half-mad (“fond”) because they have broken away from any semblance of order. McCarthy knows, as does the reader, that an “order” urging the destruction of the entire Native American population of the Southwest is an obscene idea of order, but he wants the reader to know also that the Glanton gang is now aware that they are unsponsored and free to run totally amok. The sentence I have just quoted has a morally ambiguous greatness to it, but that is the greatness of Blood Meridian, and indeed of Homer and of Shakespeare. McCarthy so contextualizes the sentence that the amazing contrast between its high gestures and the murderous thugs who evoke the splendor is not ironic but tragic. The tragedy is ours, as readers, and not the Glanton gang’s, since we are not going to mourn their demise except for the Kid’s, and even there our reaction will be equivocal.

My passion for Blood Meridian is so fierce that I want to go on expounding it, but the courageous reader should now be (I hope) pretty well into the main movement of the book. I will confine myself here to the final encounter between the preternatural Judge Holden and the Kid, who had broken with the insane crusade twenty-eight years before, and now at middle age must confront the ageless Judge. Their dialogue is the finest achievement in this book of augmenting wonders, and may move the reader as nothing else in Blood Meridian does. I reread it perpetually and cannot persuade myself that I have come to the end of it.

The Judge and the Kid drink together, after the avenging Judge tells the Kid that this night his soul will be demanded of him. Knowing he is no match for the Judge, the Kid nevertheless defies Holden, with laconic replies playing against the Judge’s rolling grandiloquence. After demanding to know where their slain comrades are, the Judge asks: “And where is the fiddler and where the dance?” 

I guess you can tell me.

 

I tell you this. As war becomes dishonored and its nobility called into question those honorable men who recognize the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance, which is the warrior’s right, and thereby will the dance become a false dance and the dancers false dancers. And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?

 

You aint nothin.

To have known Judge Holden, to have seen him in full operation, and to tell him that he is nothing, is heroic. “You speak truer than you know,” the Judge replies, and two pages later murders the Kid, most horribly. Blood Meridian, except for a one-paragraph epilogue, ends with the Judge triumphantly dancing and fiddling at once, and proclaiming that he never sleeps and he will never die. But McCarthy does not let Judge Holden have the last word. 

The strangest passage in Blood Meridian, the epilogue is set at dawn, where a nameless man progresses over a plain by means of holes that he makes in the rocky ground. Employing a two-handled implement, the man strikes “the fire out of the rock which God has put there.” Around the man are wanderers searching for bones, and he continues to strike fire in the holes, and then they move on. And that is all.

The subtitle of Blood Meridian is The Evening Redness in the West, which belongs to the Judge, last survivor of the Glanton gang. Perhaps all that the reader can surmise with some certainty is that the man striking fire in the rock at dawn is an opposing figure in regard to the evening redness in the West. The Judge never sleeps, and perhaps will never die, buta new Prometheus may be rising to go up against him.

All The Pretty Horses

If there is a pragmatic tradition of the American Sublime, then Cormac McCarthy’s fictions are its culmination. Moby-Dick and Faulkner’s major, early novels are McCarthy’s prime precursors. Melville’s Ahab fuses together Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists—Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth—and crosses them with a quest both Promethean and American. Even as Montaigne’s Plato became Emerson’s, so Melville’s Shakespeare becomes Cormac McCarthy’s. Though critics will go on associating McCarthy with Faulkner, who certainly affected McCarthy’s style in Suttree (1979), the visionary of Blood Meridian (1985) and The Border Trilogy (1992, 1994, 1998) has much less in common with Faulkner, and shares more profoundly in Melville’s debt to Shakespeare. 

Melville, by giving us Ahab and Ishmael, took care to distance the reader from Ahab, if not from his quest. McCarthy’s protagonists tend to be apostles of the will-to-identity, except for the Iago-like Judge Holden of Blood Meridian, who is the Will Incarnate. John Grady Cole, who survives in All the Pretty Horses only to be destroyed in Cities of the Plain, is replaced in The Crossing by Billy Parham, who is capable of learning what the heroic Grady Cole evades, the knowledge that Jehovah (Yahweh) holds in his very name: “Where that is I am not.” God will be present where and when he chooses to be present, and absent more often than present. 

The aesthetic achievement of All the Pretty Horses surpasses that of Cities of the Plain, if only because McCarthy is too deeply invested in John Grady Cole to let the young man (really still a boy) die with the proper distancing of authorial concern. No one will compose a rival to Blood Meridian, not even McCarthy, but All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing are of the eminence of Suttree. If I had to choose a narrative by McCarthy that could stand on its own in relation to Blood Meridian, it probably would be All the Pretty Horses. John Grady Cole quests for freedom, and discovers what neither Suttree nor Billy Parham needs to discover, which is that freedom in an American context is another name for solitude. The self’s freedom, for Cormac McCarthy, has no social aspect whatsoever.

I speak of McCarthy as visionary novelist, and not necessarily as a citizen of El Paso, Texas. Emerson identified freedom with power, only available at the crossing, in the shooting of a gulf, a darting to an aim. Since we care for Hamlet, even though he cares for none, we have to assume that Shakespeare also had a considerable investment in Hamlet. The richest aspect of All the Pretty Horses is that we learn to care strongly about the development of John Grady Cole, and perhaps we can surmise that Cormac McCarthy is also moved by this most sympathetic of his protagonists.

All the Pretty Horses was published seven years after Blood Meridian, and is set almost a full century later in history. John Grady Cole is about the same age as McCarthy would have been in 1948. There is no more an identification between McCarthy and the young Cole, who evidently will not live to see twenty, than there is between Shakespeare and Prince Hamlet. And yet the reverberation of an heroic poignance is clearly heard throughout All the Pretty Horses. It may be that McCarthy’s hard-won authorial detachment toward the Kid in Blood Meridian had cost the novelist too much, in the emotional register. Whether my surmise is accurate or not, the reader shares with McCarthy an affectionate stance toward the heroic youth at the center of All the Pretty Horses.

—from Cormac McCarthy, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (2009)

 

 

  

 

“even the most spiritual of autobiographies is necessarily a song of the self”: harold bloom

harold bloom on gnosticism, poetry, knowing the self and our contemporary religion:


SELF−RELIANCE OR

MERE GNOSTICISM

 

I am to invite men drenched in Time to recover themselves and come out of time, and taste their native immortal air.

 

—RALPH WALDO EMERSON

 

If you seek yourself outside yourself, then you will encounter disaster, whether erotic or ideological. That must be why Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his central essay, “Self-Reliance” (1840), remarked that “Traveling is a fool’s paradise.” I am sixty-five, and it is past time to write my own version of “Self-Reliance.” Spiritual autobiography in our era, I thought until now, is best when it is implicit. But the moment comes when you know pretty much what you are going to know, and when you realize that more living and reading and brooding will not greatly alter the self. I am in my fortieth consecutive year of teaching at Yale, and my seventh at NYU, and for the last decade I have taught Shakespeare almost exclusively. Shakespeare, aside from all his other preternatural strengths, gives me the constant impression that he knows more than anyone else ever has known. Most scholars would call that impression an illusion, but to me it seems the pragmatic truth. Knowing myself, knowing Shakespeare, and knowing God are three separate but closely related quests.

 

Why bring God into it?

 

Seeking God outside the self courts the disasters of dogma, institutional corruption, historical malfeasance, and cruelty. For at least two centuries now most Americans have sought the God within rather than the God of European Christianity. But why bring Shakespeare into all this, since to me he seems the archetype of the secular writer?

 

You know the self primarily by knowing yourself; knowing another human being is immensely difficult, perhaps impossible, though in our youth or even our middle years we deceive ourselves about this. Yet this is why we read and listen to Shakespeare: in order to encounter other selves; no other writer can do that for us. We never encounter Shakespeare himself, as we can encounter Dante or Tolstoy in their work. Whether you can encounter God himself or herself depends upon yourself; we differ greatly from one another in that vital regard. But to return to the self: we can know it primarily through our own solitude, or we can know representatives of it, most vividly in Shakespeare, or we can know God in it, but only when indeed it is our own self. Perhaps the greatest mystics, poets, and lovers have been able to know God in another self, but I am skeptical as to whether that possibility still holds at this late time, with the Millennium rushing upon us.

 

Even the most spiritual of autobiographies is necessarily a song of the self. At sixty-five, I find myself uncertain just when my self was born. I cannot locate it in my earliest memories of childhood, and yet I recall its presence in certain memories of reading, particularly of the poets William Blake and Hart Crane, when I was about nine or ten. In my instance at least, the self came to its belated birth (or second birth) by reading visionary poetry, a reading that implicitly was an act of knowing something previously unknown within me. Only later could that self-revelation become explicit; Blake and Hart Crane, like some other great poets, have the power to awaken their readers to an implicit answering power, to a previously unfelt sense of possibilities for the self. You can call it a sense of “possible sublimity,” of “something evermore about to be,” as the poet William Wordsworth named it. Emerson, advocating self-trust, asked: “What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?” His answer was a primal power, or “deep force,” that we discover within ourselves. In the eloquence of certain sermons, Emerson found his deep force; for me it came out of exalted passages in Blake and Crane that haunt me still:

 

God appears & God is Light

To those poor Souls who dwell in Night,

But does a Human Form Display

To those who Dwell in Realms of Day.

 

– WILLIAM BLAKE,

“Auguries of Innocence”

 

And so it was I entered the broken world

To trace the visionary company of love,

its voice

An instant in the wind (I know not whither

hurled)

But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

 

– HART CRANE,

“The Broken Tower”

 

These days, in our America, so many go about proclaiming “empowerment,” by which actually they mean “resentment,” or “catering to resentment.” To be empowered by eloquence and vision is what Emerson meant by self-reliance, and is the start of what I mean by “mere Gnosticism,” where “mere” takes its original meaning of “pure” or “unmixed.” To fall in love with great poetry when you are young is to be awakened to the self ’s potential, in a way that has little to do, initially, with overt knowing. The self ’s potential as power involves the self ’s immortality, not as duration but as the awakening to a knowledge of something in the self that cannot die, because it was never born. It is a curious sensation when a young person realizes that she or he is not altogether the child of that person’s natural parents. Freud reduced such a sensation to “the changeling fantasy,” in which you imagine you are a faery child, plucked away by adoptive parents who then masquerade as a natural mother and father. But is it only a fantasy to locate, in the self, a magical or occult element, older than any other component of the self? Deep reading in childhood was once the norm for many among us; visual and auditory overstimulation now makes such reading very rare, and I suspect that changeling fantasies are vanishing together with the experience of early, authentic reading. At more than half a century away from the deep force of first reading and loving poetry, I no longer remember precisely what I then felt, and yet can recall how it felt. It was an elevation, a mounting high on no intoxicants except incantatory language, but of a rather different sort than contemporary hip-hop. The language of Blake and Hart Crane, of Marlowe and Shakespeare and Milton, transcended its rush of glory, its high, excited verbal music, and gave the pleasures of excited thought, of a thinking that changed one’s outer nature, while opening up an inner identity, a self within the self, previously unknown…

 

We live now, more than ever, in an America where a great many people are Gnostics without knowing it, which is a peculiar irony…  

 

I recall that the ancient Gnostics denied both matter and energy, and opted instead for information above all else. Gnostic information has two primary awarenesses: first, the estrangement, even the alienation of God, who has abandoned this cosmos, and second, the location of a residuum of divinity in the Gnostic’s own inmost self. That deepest self is no part of nature, or of history: it is devoid of matter or energy, and so is not part of the Creation-Fall, which for a Gnostic constitutes one and the same event. . .

 

Our current angel worship in America is another debased parody of Gnosticism…

 

Gnosticism… in my judgment rises as a protest against apocalyptic faith, even when it rises within such a faith, as it did successively within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Prophetic religion becomes apocalyptic when prophecy fails, and apocalyptic religion becomes Gnosticism when apocalypse fails, as fortunately it always has and, as we must hope, will fail again. Gnosticism does not fail; it cannot fail, because its God is at once deep within the self and also estranged, infinitely far off, beyond our cosmos. Historically, Gnosticism has always been obliterated by persecution, ranging from the relatively benign rejections of normative Judaism through the horrible violence of Roman Catholicism against the Christian Gnostics throughout the ages, wherever and whenever the Church has been near allied to repressive secular authorities. The final organized Western Gnosticism was destroyed in the so-called Albigensian Crusades, which devastated southern France in the thirteenth century, exterminating not only the Cathar Gnostic heretics but also the Provençal language and its troubador culture, which has survived only in the prevalent Western myth and ideal of romantic love. It is yet another irony that our erotic lives, with their self-destructive reliance upon the psychic disease called “falling–or being–in love,” should be a final, unknowing heritage of the last organized Gnosticism to date…

 

Our rampantly flourishing industries of angel worship, “near-death experiences,” and astrology–dream divination networks–are the mass versions of an adulterated or travestied Gnosticism. I sometimes allow myself the fantasy of Saint Paul redescending upon a contemporary America where he still commands extraordinary honor, among religions as diverse as Roman Catholicism and Southern Baptism. He would be bewildered, not by change, but by sameness, and would believe he was back at Corinth and Colossae, confronted again by Gnostic myths of the angels who made this world. If you read Saint Paul, you discover that he was no friend of the angels.

 

There is his cryptic remark in 1 Corinthians 11:10 that “a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels,” which I suspect goes back to the Book of Enoch’s accounts of angelic lust for earthly women. In the Letter to the Colossians, the distinction between angels and demons seems to be voided, and Christians are warned against “worship of angels,” an admonition that the churches, at the moment, seem afraid to restate. The “near-death experience” is another pre-Millennium phenomenon that travesties Gnosticism; every account we are given of this curious matter culminates in being “embraced by the light,” by a figure of light known to Gnostic tradition variously as “the astral body,” “the Resurrection Body,” or Hermes, our guide in the land of the dead. Since all of life is, in a sense, a “near-death experience,” it does seem rather odd that actual cases of what appear to be maldiagnoses should become supposed intimations of immortality. The commercialization of angelology and of out-of-the-body shenanigans properly joins the age-old history of mercantilized astrology and dream divination.

 

As mass-audience omens of Millennium, all of these represent what may be the final debasement of a populist American Gnosticism. I am prompted by this to go back to the great texts of a purer Gnosticism and their best commentators.

 

The anarchistic Brethren of the Free Spirit in the fifteenth century, like the Provençal Cathars in the twelfth, join the Manichaeans as the three large instances of Gnostic movements that transcended an esoteric religion of the intellectuals. Ancient Gnosticism, like Romantic and modern varieties, was a religion of the elite only, almost a literary religion. A purified Gnosticism, then and now, is truly for a relative handful only, and perhaps is as much an aesthetic as it is a spiritual discipline.

 

—from Harold Bloom, Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams and Resurrection (1996), pp 13 – 33

el hombre invisible as gnostic seer and ufo contactee . . .

“Even the so-called science fictional elements of his books were not intended as satire or metaphor. Burroughs could very well have been introduced to the Nova Express model of invading extraterrestrials (and/or intrusions from alternate dimensions) at a very young age. In various interviews, for example, Burroughs has recounted one of his earliest childhood memories.

When he was four, he woke up early in the morning and saw little gray men playing in a block house he had made. ‘I felt no fear,’ he said, ‘only stillness and wonder.’ . . . Burroughs was so convinced of the reality of invading extraterrestrials that in 1989 he wrote a letter to Strieber asking to visit him and his family in their cabin in upstate New York . . .”

“William S. Burroughs, 20th Century Gnostic Visionary”

By Robert Guffey

In 1984, in Boulder, Colorado, an interviewer asked William S. Burroughs (1914-1997), “What religious persuasion would you consider yourself?” Without hesitating, Burroughs replied, “Gnostic, or a Manichean.”1

Upon reading those words, suddenly everything made sense.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that the above conversation occurred in 1984. In many ways, Burroughs was a far more lucid and accurate analyst of twentieth century politics than even George Orwell, whose speculative concept of “newspeak” in his 1948 novel 1984 was quickly overshadowed by the real-world machinations of post-WWII Madison Avenue advertising techniques and Washington D.C. public relations firms.

Superior to Aldous Huxley’s brilliant 1958 collection of essays, Brave New World Revisited, Burroughs’s 1974 book The Job is a must-not-live-without essential guide to charting the opaque labyrinth of obfuscation and lies regularly constructed by the Reality Studio to protect itself from the light of scrutiny. Unlike his more naïve contemporaries among the Beat literary movement, Burroughs never took his eye off the twitchy sharpshooter in the corner, the wild card in the deck known as Control.

With the analytical eye of a surgeon (Burroughs studied medicine at Harvard, specialised knowledge that would eventually serve him well in his novels), Burroughs performed an autopsy on the body politic in a multitude of bleak and humorous novels, foremost among them Junky (1953), Naked Lunch (1959), The Soft Machine (1961), Nova Express (1964), and The Place of Dead Roads (1983).

But Burroughs never limited his vision to merely charting out the intricate connections that make up the system of control. Like Huxley before him, who eventually followed his dystopian novel Brave New World with a Utopian counterpoint titled The Island, Burroughs himself attempted to construct his own vision of a Utopia in such novels as The Wild Boys (1971) and Cities of the Red Night (1981).

In both cases, Burroughs seemed to suggest that a Utopia was not possible except within an isolated oasis, what Hakim Bey would call “a temporary autonomous zone.”2 In the first case, the autonomous zone takes the form of an all-male enclave in the jungles of North Africa; these commandos, trained in combat for defensive purposes, can reproduce without the aid of women and travel through the trees on prehensile hemorrhoids. In Cities of the Red Night, Burroughs’s Utopia is based on historical fact and manifests as an island settlement established by Captain Mission, an actual pirate who lived in the eighteenth century.

Mission explored the Madagascar coast and found a bay ten leagues north of Diego-Suarez. It was resolved to establish here the shore quarters of the Republic – erect a town, build docks, and have a place they might call their own. The colony was called Libertatia and was placed under Articles drawn up by Captain Mission. The Articles state, among other things: all decisions with regard to the colony to be submitted to vote by the colonists; the abolition of slavery for any reason including debt; the abolition of the death penalty; and freedom to follow any religious beliefs or practices without sanction or molestation.3

In both Wild Boys and Cities of the Red Night, Burroughs celebrates the notion of an autonomous zone kept separate from the madding hordes through potentially violent defensive measures, where a human being is allowed to pursue life free from the constant surveillance of overly authoritarian social structures. In Burroughs’s hands, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies would no doubt have a very different outcome.

Burroughs’s libertarian brand of morality was based on Jack Black’s notions of the “Johnson family” as chronicled in Black’s 1926 autobiography You Can’t Win. The impact this book had on Burroughs when he was still a young man can’t be overestimated. In Burroughs’s own words, the Johnson creed can be described as follows:

“The Johnson family” was a turn-of-the-century expression to designate good bums and thieves. It was elaborated into a code of conduct. A Johnson honours his obligations. His word is good and he is a good man to do business with. A Johnson minds his own business. He is not a snoopy, self-righteous, troublemaking person. A Johnson will give help when help is needed. He will not stand by while someone is drowning or trapped under a burning car.4

Surely in Burroughs’s world this would be the only mandatory social stricture established for his personal temporary autonomous zone.

Burroughs’s vision of a Utopian autonomous zone could be seen as a metaphor for the Gnostic concept of “the pneuma,” an infinitesimally small fragment of the divine that exists in all human beings.

Gnosticism, an early form of Christianity, flourished in the Middle East until approximately the second century CE when the movement was violently suppressed by Roman Catholic authorities. Dr. Stephan Hoeller, the current bishop of the Gnostic Church in Los Angeles, distinguishes Gnosticism from traditional forms of Christianity in this way:

[Gnosticism is] much more orientated toward the personal, spiritual advancement and transformation of the individual, regarding figures such as Jesus as being helpers rather than sacrificial saviours. It is a form of religion that has […] a much more ecumenical and universal scope in terms of its relationship to spiritual, religious traditions other than the Christian.5

According to literary scholar Gregory Stephenson:

…the attitude that characterises all the Gnostic systems is that the world, the body, and matter are unreal and evil. They are illusions that are the products of malevolent powers called Archons, chief among whom is Sammael (the god of the blind or the blind god), also called Ialdabaoth or the Demiurge. These creator-gods are not the Deity of the Supreme Being, though they make claim to being so. The Deity is completely transcendent – absolutely distinct, apart, and remote from the created universe. However, a portion of the divine substance, called the pneuma, is enclosed in the human body – within the human passions and the human appetites […]. The aim of Gnosticism is to liberate the pneuma from its material, delusional prison and to reunite it with the Deity. The Archons seek to obstruct this liberation and to maintain their dominion.6

This basic theological structure applies to almost all of Burroughs’s work. Burroughs’s strong sense of morality, of the distinct difference between right and wrong, is often lost in the lurid morass of details concerning his personal life. His heroin addiction, his homosexuality, his arrest in Mexico for the accidental death of his wife, his early experimentation with yage in South America and his later fascination with Wilhelm Reich’s unorthodox theories regarding orgone energy – all of these unusual aspects of his life, though admittedly intriguing, are often reduced to gossipy anecdotes that threaten to diminish the importance of the workitself.

Burroughs was never the star of his own novels, not even in his highly autobiographical debut, Junky. The central figure in all his novels is war – a continuous war between Freedom and Control, what Burroughs himself might very well refer to as “good and evil.”

The conflict between good and evil is considered to be a hollow theme by most literary scholars. After all, is this not the purview of Tolkienesque sword and sorcery epics and four-colour superhero comics? Surely no major literary figure of the twentieth century ever bothered to waste his time on such silliness.

But that’s not quite true. In the work of no other American writer do we find this theme explored in as complex and harrowing a manner as in the novels and essays of William Burroughs. At the beginning of this essay Burroughs described himself as a “Manichean.” Burroughs defined this term as follows:

The Manichean believe in an actual struggle between good and evil, which is not an eternal struggle since one of them will win in this particular area, sooner or later. Of course, with the Christians there was this tremendous inversion of values where the most awful people are thrown up as this paragon of virtue for everyone to emulate…7

The Manichean sect of Gnosticism spread across three continents over the course of eleven hundred years beginning, approximately, in CE 240. It was founded by the Persian prophet Mani, who was eventually imprisoned at the age of 61, tortured for 26 days, and assassinated. According to Dr. Hoeller, Mani is among “two of the great luminaries of the Gnostic tradition.”8

Dr. Hoeller sums up Mani’s basic doctrine as follows:

In the beginning, said Mani, the kingdoms of Light and Darkness coexisted in uneasy peace. While Light had no quarrel with the existence of Darkness and would have remained content existing side-by-side with it, Darkness would have it otherwise. Darkness was in a state of agitation and wrath and decided to attack and invade the realm of light.

As the legions of Darkness approached the realm of Light, the primal light needed to defend itself. It called upon the Mother of Life to bring forth the Primal Man (a cosmic figure, not related to Adam or other human beings except in an indirect way). The Primal Man in turn had five sons, and together the six expelled the Dark forces from the kingdom of Light and pursued them onto the battlefield of the lower aeons. Unfortunately, on the battlefield the chief demons of Darkness overpowered the Primal Man and his five sons and devoured them, incorporating their luminous essence into their dark forms. This is how the first terrible intermingling of Light and Darkness occurred […].

In the course of the rescue efforts the Primal Man is freed, and he gloriously ascends to the Godhead. The souls of the human beings, however, have been left behind, along with Light particles that derive from the captivity of the Primal Man and of his sons. It is only at this point that the material world as we know it comes into being. The Earth is created as an alchemical vessel of purification and transformation where the Light can be extracted from dark matter. The Sun and the Moon are both vessels of Light that serve as vehicles to transport Light upwards out of earthly darkness.9

In Burroughs’s world, evil disguises itself as good and good disguises itself as evil. The Archons are Christians and politicians and “jus’ good folk.” The Gnostics are roving bands of criminals and thieves known only to themselves as “the Johnsons.” The visionaries, the ones who have attained genuine gnosis (i.e., “knowledge”) can see through the illusions forged by control, identify the face of the enemy, and from that point begin the quest for true freedom.

These visionaries regularly employ unorthodox and seemingly “insane” methods to overthrow the hypnotic bonds of control: opiates, orgone energy, tape recorders that are used to cut up, analyse, and reconfigure the endless barrage of shallow mass media used to keep the masses docile, astral travel through time and space, hermetic magic, telepathy, etc. These are the tools of the twentieth century Gnostic in Burroughs’s revitalised Libertatia.

The goal of these latter day Gnostics is to establish an autonomous zone, a physical approximation of the pneuma, while having as much fun as possible trying to “wise up the marks,” a paraphrase of a key sentence in the third chapter of his 1964 novel Nova Express: “And you can see the marks are wising up, standing around in sullen groups and that mutter gets louder and louder.”10

The Archons are represented on Earth by parasite-infected control-freaks Burroughs aptly calls “the shits”: “…my contention is that evil is quite literally a virus parasite occupying a certain brain area which we may term the RIGHT centre. The mark of a basic shit is that he has to be right.”11 The shits will use all the power they have on this planet in order to prevent the Johnsons from waking up the marks.

This conflict between good and evil is played out in Burroughs’s fiction over and over again, perhaps most prominently in Nova Express. In this novel the Johnsons are called “The Nova Police” and the shits are called “The Nova Mob,” or simply “The Board”: “All right you board bastards, we’ll by God show you ‘Operation Total Exposure.’ For all to see. In Times Square. In Piccadilly.”12 Operation Total Exposure represents an attempt by the Nova Police to pull back the illusory curtain that protects the parasite-infected Reality Studio from being seen in its true form, to induce gnosis in the madding hordes, to transform the “marks” into “Johnsons.”

In chapter one of Nova Express, Inspector J. Lee of the Nova Police addresses the human race:

What scared you all into time? Into body? Into shit? I will tell you: ‘the word.’ Alien Word ‘the.’ ‘The’ word of Alien Enemy imprisons ‘thee’ in Time. In Body. In Shit. Prisoner, come out. The great skies are open.13

Chapter two, titled “Prisoners, Come Out,” is an open letter addressed to the “peoples of the earth” and is signed by Inspector Lee. In this letter the Inspector explains that the purpose of his novels are

…to expose and arrest Nova Criminals. In Naked Lunch, Soft Machine and Nova Express I show who they are and what they are doing and what they will do if they are not arrested. Minutes to go. Souls rotten from their orgasm drugs, flesh shuddering from their nova ovens, prisoners of the earth to come out. With your help we can occupy The Reality Studio and retake their universe of Fear Death and Monopoly.14

In his 1978 collaboration with Brion Gysin, The Third Mind, Burroughs wrote in reference to Nova Express:

A new mythology is possible in the space age where we will again have heroes and villains with respect to intentions toward this planet.15

The central villain of Inspector Lee and his Nova Police is a Demiurge-like figure named Mr. Bradly-Mr. Martin who leads the extraterrestrial Nova Mob, and through this Mob he has kept the Earth enslaved for thousands of years. In The Third Mind, Burroughs describes Mr. Bradly-Mr. Martin in terms that are overtly Gnostic:

Mr Bradly-Mr Martin, in my mythology, is a God that failed, a God of Conflict in two parts so created to keep a tired old show on the road, The God of Arbitrary Power and Restraint, Of Prison and Pressure, who needs subordinates, who needs what he calls “his human dogs” while treating them with the contempt a con man feels for his victims – But remember the con man needs the Mark – The Mark does not need the con man – Mr Bradly-Mr Martin needs his “dogs” his “errand boys” his “human animals” – He needs them because he is literally blind. They do not need him. In my mythological system he is overthrown in a revolution of his “dogs.”16

Throughout the novel, Inspector Lee explicitly warns the people of Earth about some of the most insidious tools the Mob is using against them:

Their drugs are poison designed to beam in Orgasm Death and Nova Ovens – Stay out of the Garden of Delights – It is a man-eating trap that ends in green goo – Throw back their ersatz Immortality – It will fall apart before you can get out of The Big Store – Flush their drug kicks down the drain – They are poisoning and monopolising the hallucinogen drugs – learn to make it without any chemical corn – All that they offer is a screen to cover retreat from the colony they have so disgracefully mismanaged. To cover travel arrangements so they will never have to pay the constituents they have betrayed and sold out. Once these arrangements are complete they will blow the place up behind them.17

The succeeding chapters introduce us to members of Mr. Bradly-Mr. Martin’s Archon-like Nova Mob:

‘Sammy the Butcher,’ ‘Green Tony,’ ‘Iron Claws,’ ‘The Brown Artist,’ ‘Jacky Blue Note,’ ‘Limestone John,’ ‘Izzy the Push,’ ‘Hamburger Mary,’ ‘Paddy the Sting,’ ‘The Subliminal Kid,’ ‘The Blue Dinosaur’.18

In a section eerily redolent of current events, a chapter titled “Coordinate Points,” the Inspector does us the favour of outlining the Mob’s plan to bring about global destruction:

The basic nova mechanism is very simple: Always create as many insoluble conflicts as possible and always aggravate existing conflicts – This is done by dumping life forms with incompatible conditions of existence on the same planet – There is of course nothing “wrong” about any given life form since “wrong” only has reference to conflicts with other life forms – The point is these forms should not be on the same planet – Their conditions of life are basically incompatible in present time form and it is precisely the work of the Nova Mob to see that they remain in present time form, to create and aggravate the conflicts that lead to the explosion of a planet that is to nova – At any given time recording devices fix the nature of absolute need and dictate the use of total weapons – Like this: Take two opposed pressure groups – Record the most violent and threatening statements of group one with regard to group two and play back to group two – Record the answer and take it back to group one – Back and forth between opposed pressure groups – This process is known as “feed back” – You can see it operating in any bar room quarrel – In any quarrel for that matter – Manipulated on a global scale feeds back nuclear war and nova – These conflicts are deliberately created and aggravated by nova criminals – […] In all my experience as a police officer I have never seen such total fear and degradation on any planet – We intend to arrest these criminals and turn them over to the Biological Department for the indicated alterations.19

Jack Kerouac once wrote, “Burroughs is the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift,” but the truth is that Burroughs never wrote a word of satire in his life. He was writing about life as he saw it, exactly as he experienced it. The Nova Mob and the virus parasites from outer space were not metaphors for him. They were real.

Burroughs, perhaps more so than F. Scott Fitzgerald or even Ernest Hemingway, was the prime mimetic writer of the twentieth century. He never wrote anything other than realistic novels. Marshall McLuhan, author of Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy, might have been the first to catch onto this subtle but significant point when he wrote in 1964,

It is amusing to read reviews of Burroughs that try to classify his books as nonbooks or as failed science fiction. It is a little like trying to criticise the sartorial and verbal manifestations of a man who is knocking on the door to explain that flames are leaping from the roof of our home.20

Indeed, Burroughs wasn’t trying to satirise modern culture, nor was he trying to create a hypothetical, science fictional representation of it. He was simply explaining his society within the only context that seemed appropriate to him, and that context was undoubtedly a Gnostic one.

Even the so-called science fictional elements of his books were not intended as satire or metaphor. Burroughs could very well have been introduced to the Nova Express model of invading extraterrestrials (and/or intrusions from alternate dimensions) at a very young age. In various interviews, for example, Burroughs has recounted one of his earliest childhood memories.

When he was four, he woke up early in the morning and saw little gray men playing in a block house he had made. “I felt no fear,” he said, “only stillness and wonder.”21 When asked about this incident in 1987, interviewer Larry McCaffery offhandedly referred to such experiences as “hallucinatory.” Burroughs replied, “I wouldn’t call them hallucinatory at all. If you see something, it’s a shift of vision, not a hallucination. You shift your vision. What you see is there, but you have to be in a certain place to see it.”22

This image of “little gray men” evokes more recent, popular conceptions of extraterrestrials as seen on the mass market covers of any number of books by Whitley Strieber, the author of Communion (1987), Transformation (1988) and several others in which his ostensible contacts with alien beings are delineated. Burroughs was so convinced of the reality of invading extraterrestrials that in 1989 he wrote a letter to Strieber asking to visit him and his family in their cabin in upstate New York. The 1996 revised edition of Victor Bockris’s With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker contains an in-depth interview about this meeting:

I was very interested in his first books and I was convinced that he was authentic. I felt he was not a fraud or fake […]. I wrote a letter to Whitley Strieber saying that I would love to contact these visitors […]. His wife, Anne Strieber, wrote back saying, “We, after talking it over, would be glad to invite you to come up to the cabin.” So we spent the weekend there. I had a number of talks with Strieber about his experiences, and I was quite convinced that he was telling the truth […].

Burroughs follows this comment by exploring the idea of “invasion” on all levels. He genuinely believed the human race was, and is, being infected by hostile intelligences on a regular basis:

When I go into my psyche, at a certain point I meet a very hostile, very strong force. It’s as definite as somebody attacking me in a bar. We usually come to a standoff, but I don’t think that I’m necessarily winning or losing […]. Listen, baby, I’ve been coping with this for so many years. I know this invasion gets in. As soon as you get close to something important, that’s when you feel this invasion, and that’s the way you know there’s something there. I’ve felt myself just marched up like a puppy to go and do something that would get me insulted or humiliated. I was not in control […]. There are all degrees of possession. It happens all the time. What you have to do is confront the possession. You can do that only when you’ve wiped out the words. You don’t argue […]. You have to let it wash through. This is difficult, difficult; but I’ll tell you one thing: You detach yourself and allow this to wash through, to go through instead of trying to oppose, which you can’t do […]. The more you pull yourself together the further apart you get. You have to learn to let the thing pass through. I am a man of the world; I understand these things. They happen to all of us. All you have to do is understand them or see them for what they are, that’s all.23

John Lash, co-founder of Metahistory.org, a website that concerns itself with Gnosticism and related topics, has many Burroughs-like perceptions regarding the Gnostic model of spiritual “intrusion.” Lash states:

It might be said that Gnostics believed that only by confronting what is insane and inhumane in ourselves, can we truly define what is human. In essence, to define humanity is to defend it against distortion. Gnostics asserted that the capacity for distortion of humanitas, or dehumanisation, is inherent in our minds, but this capacity alone is not potentially deviant. Since we are endowed with nous, a dose of divine intelligence, we are able to detect and correct distorted thinking […]. In a practical sense, Gnostic teachers in the Mystery Schools instructed the neophytes in how to face the Archons both as alien intruders, comparable to the Greys and Reptilians of contemporary lore, and as tendencies in their minds. The detection of […] intrusion in both these modes of experience seems to be unique to the finely nuanced noetic science of the [Gnostic] Mysteries.24

And it is this “finely nuanced science” that Burroughs attempted to keep alive in the form of fiction. Burroughs’s many readers were all potential recruits, “marks” who had “wised up” just enough to see a hint of light behind the illusion. His sincerest hope was that at least some of them were paying attention, would pick up the tools he left behind within his books, and use them to storm through the mass of Nova Mobsters whose unenviable job is to surround and protect the ramparts of the fragile Reality Studio until its dying day.

Footnotes:


1 Gregory Corso Interview, “Attack Anything Moving.” Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs 1960-1997, Ed. Sylvere Lotringer, New York: Semiotext(e), 2000.

2 Bey, Hakim, T.A.Z., Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1991, p. 99.

3 Burroughs, William S., Cities of the Red Night, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981, p. xii.

4 Burroughs, William S., The Place of Dead Roads, New York: Henry Holt, 1983, p. ix.

5
Robert Guffey Interview, “The Suppressed Teachings of Gnosticism.” Paranoia Magazine,

6
Stephenson, Gregory, The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation, Carbondale: Southern Illinois U P, 1990, p. 60.

7
Gregory Corso Interview.

8
Hoeller, Stephan A, Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing, Wheaton: Quest, 2002, p. 135.

9
Ibid, pp. 140-41.

10
Burroughs, William S., Three Novels: The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Wild Boys, New York: Grove P, 1988, p. 196.

11
Burroughs, William S., The Adding Machine, New York: Seaver, 1986, p. 16.

12
Three Novels, p. 197.

13
Three Novels, p. 186.

14
Three Novels, p. 189.

15
Burroughs, William S. and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind, New York: Viking, 1978, p. 97.

16
Ibid.

17
Three Novels, p. 188.

18
Three Novels, p. 236.

19
Three Novels, pp. 235-36.

20
Murphy, Timothy S, Wising Up the Marks: The Modern William Burroughs, Los Angeles: U of California P, 1997, p. 145.

21
Bockris, Victor, With William Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996, p. xx.

22
Hibbard, Allen, Conversations with William S. Burroughs, Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1999, p. 182.

23
With William Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker, pp. 242-46.

24
Lash, John, “A Gnostic Catechism: Encounters with Aliens in a Mystery School Text.”

 

First appeared in New Dawn No. 99 (Nov – Dec 2006)

 

—from http://www.newdawnmagazine.com/Article/William_S._Burroughs_20th_

Century_Gnostic.html