Saturday, December 26, 2015

Perspective 2016

The world is changing. At this end of the year, with Christmas coming up and a New Year just around the corner, I feel a need to gain some perspective on what is happening all around us, and how it is affecting our very ways of thinking, our very ways of living, our very conceptions of what is possible, our very expectations of where we are going, and most importantly, our very ways of imagining where we should be going.
The reflections that follow have had a long gestation period. For years now, the realization has been slowly dawning upon me that we are living in extraordinary times of irreversible transformation for which there is no historical precedent. We are entering uncharted territory and have no script to predict, or even begin to understand, what might be ahead of us. Of course, as a historian I know very well that the world has always been changing: creative innovation is the rule, stasis is an illusion, and unheard-of events may happen any time. That’s how it has always been. But something larger is happening now. Until rather recently I still felt that as an academic and intellectual, I was playing my little part in a great story that might be described (for better or worse) as the story of “Western Culture” – and I saw no reason why it wouldn’t last. Let me hasten to add that I don’t mean this in a provincial manner: I’ve always been extremely interested in the rest of the world, in different cultures and different ways of life, because I’m a curious person who likes to look beyond the boundaries of his familiar world. Nevertheless, my identity and guiding values have been formed by the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual history of Europe. That has always been my world.
And now it is changing. In my darker moods I fear that very soon – sooner than I used to consider possible – a time may come when (to paraphrase Galadriel at the opening of the Lord of the Rings movie) much that is of great value will be lost forever, because “no one will live who still remembers it”. Yes, I feel a bit like the Elves… Increasingly, I fear that the culture that I love and care for is disintegrating and vanishing around me, and the leaves are falling. Winter is coming.

I don’t mean to stay with such a dark and pessimistic mood. Towards the end of this text I will be looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. But first I want to take a few steps back to try and gain some perspective. What are the essential changes happening around us, that might explain my feelings of decline and loss?

1. The Reign of Neoliberalism

Firstly we have seen the global ascendency of what, for lack of a better word, I will call neoliberal capitalism. I don’t mean to go into any deep analysis here, because I think most of us have a pretty good idea of what it is. Since the Thatcher/Reagan era of the 1980s, slowly but surely our minds have been taken over by the idea that everything in the world can be described in terms of “markets”, and that the only ultimate values are economic values. The result is a systematic reversal of the normal relation between means and ends. We used to think that money was the means to achieve desirable ends: you obviously needed money to create good systems of healthcare, you needed money to create good institutions of learning, and so on. Money was a means that served non-economic ends that we valued in and for themselves. That logic has been reversed. Healthcare and education (to stay with those examples) are now defined as products on a market. As such, they are no longer desirable ends that are considered intrinsically valuable, just for what they are, but have become the means to achieve a new and different end: that of maximizing profit. Healthcare and education are now sold for money. The internal logic of this system says that we do not really care that much whether people are actually healthy or well educated: what counts is whether they are buying healthcare or education, at minimal costs and for maximum profit. In short, health and knowledge are no longer basic values. The only true value left is monetary or economic value.
We are seeing this dynamic everywhere, including, of course, the universities. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, and kick-started by the most extreme right-wing government in Dutch history (Rutte I), I watched it spiraling wholly out of control. Like many of my colleagues, I began to feel that if I was still doing my work (trying to teach my students something real, trying to focus on content, trying to keep my eye on the ball), I was doing so not thanks to the University system but in spite of it. The institution had been turned into a factory, designed to produce a product for profit: although administrators and politicians keep invoking “excellence” and emphasizing the need for “quality” in education, the truth is that (like everywhere else in the neoliberal economy) quality has become irrelevant to how the system works. It recognizes only quantifiable data that lend themselves to statistical analysis and can be translated into economic and financial terms. As a result, universities are no longer institutions devoted to “higher learning”: they are now running on an operating system that subverts the very ends (goals, objectives) they were once supposed to be promoting. Last year, at the University of Amsterdam, students and staff revolted against the systemic financialization and corporatization of the academy. They occupied the administrative center of the Faculty of Humanities, and after they got expelled, they occupied the Maagdenhuis, the University’s administrative center. Similar protests are happening at other universities around the world, and I very much hope that these grassroots revolutions will have a positive effect. However, I’m afraid that real and lasting change will prove to be impossible as long as neoliberal capitalism remains in place as the operating system of higher learning in Europe. An upgrade of that system is not enough. On the contrary: by perfecting its functionality even further, we will only make matters worse. We need a new operating system grounded in the very principle that is anathema to the current one: that quality in education and research cannot be quantified and translated into financial terms, but is an irreducible core value entirely independent of (and incommensurable with) the logic of economic calculation.

 2. Information Overkill

The second major change I observe in our world is information overkill. The information revolution has been gathering steam roughly since the early 1990s, in perfect parallel with the ascendency of neoliberal capitalism. Of course, the basic facts hardly need to be stated here: we all know how incredibly powerful the new information technologies are, how much we are benefiting from the miracles they accomplish, and how utterly dependent we have become on them. But while the benefits are very real (of course, like everybody else, I’m profiting from them every day and would hate to miss them) they come at a heavy price. In this case the problem is not the reversal of means and ends, but the ever-increasing impossibility of distinguishing between reliable, less reliable, and unreliable information. There is another way of saying this: it gets harder and harder for all of us to draw the crucial distinction between information and knowledge (in fact, I have found that more and more people respond with profound puzzlement to the very idea that there is a difference at all). We have unlimited amounts of information at our fingertips, but just cannot tell anymore what is true and what is not. This goes even for highly specialized fields of knowledge. There was a time when I could gain a reasonably complete and accurate overview of the scholarly literature on a given topic; but nowadays I am overwhelmed, even in areas that I know very well, by a daily tsunami of publications online (which, by the way, almost inevitably tend to be given preference over offline materials, simply because it’s already far too much to handle anyway). Nobody can keep up anymore, and the situation is aggravated by the fact that traditional selection criteria no longer have much of a bearing on the actual quality of publications: truly excellent stuff appears online for free, while too much that makes it into peer-reviewed “top journals” is of unremarkable or even mediocre quality. This in itself can be explained largely through the two developments under discussion here. The impact of neoliberal capitalism on academic publishing means that selling the product (in this case: getting your stuff published in a peer-reviewed journal) has become much more important than the actual quality of that product. And moreover, authors need to anticipate what the market seems to want from them: if your work is too daring, original, or creative, too “out of the box”, that may lessen your chance of acceptance. As for the dynamics of information overkill, it results in journal editors and anonymous peer reviewers receiving far too many requests, resulting in hasty and superficial reviews, processed hastily and superficially by journal editors, who do not have the time either – all in the context of an increasingly impersonal bureaucratic machinery of editorial decision-making. As a result of all this, scholars are no longer working the way they used to work. The really good ones among us used to be studying a given topic thoroughly and systematically, attempting to get to the very bottom of things because we still felt there was a bottom to be reached. But that illusion is gone, and so we find ourselves “mining data” instead, or just cherry-picking more or less at random. Too often we feel we just don’t have the time for deep and concentrated study of just one particular source, or one particular scholar’s work. For what about all those countless other sources? What about all those other scholars whose work is still waiting in line to be read too? Are we sure we are reading the right article at this moment? Perhaps we should be reading one of all those countless others out there… But how should we choose? How can we possibly know which ones deserve our attention and which ones are just a waste of time, if we haven’t at least “scanned” them first? And so we keep “mining”, hastily and superficially; or otherwise we resign ourselves to the inevitable and just start picking selectively, more or less at random.

It seems to me that these two core developments are intimately related to four further new developments. These, too, are irreversibly changing our world at present. They might be seen as a second level built upon the first.

 a. Disempowerment

To begin with, we are witnessing a systematic disempowerment of citizens, resulting in a huge democratic deficit. Neoliberal capitalism has created a situation where international banks and corporations run by unelected CEOs and managers are much more powerful than national states, so that the results of democratic elections lose most of their relevance. Ordinary citizens feel in their guts that it doesn’t matter anymore what political party they vote for, because politicians have no other choice than pursuing “business as usual” anyway (see, for instance, the recent Greek Drama): what little power we used to have to determine our fate has been taken away from us. Deep resentment and frustration over this fact is then channeled towards convenient scapegoats such as “the immigrants” or “the Muslims”, diverting attention away from those who are actually responsible (for instance, although it is evident that the financial crisis is product of neoliberal capitalism, the Dutch neoliberal capitalists won the next election and remain in the driving seat!). This dynamics has been analyzed endlessly, but perhaps there has been less attention to the disempowering effects of the second element highlighted above: that of information overkill. Even where we still have something to choose, we no longer know what to choose, because we no longer know how to select reliable information from the staggering amounts of online disinformation, mythmaking, fear-mongering, propaganda, “spin”, and sheer nonsense. 

 b. Brain Change

A second and very different development could be described as brain change. The rise of information technology and its omnipresence in our daily lives – the fact that all of us are spending more and more of our lives gazing at computer screens or portable devices – means that we are using our brains to do things that are very different from what they used to be doing. We are continually training them to excel in those kinds of tasks that we need to handle our computers efficiently, but the flip side is that we are no longer training those skills that are needed for different but equally important tasks. We are especially good at switching our attention quickly from one thing to another, but we are losing our ability to concentrate on one single thing and stay concentrated for a long time. We are very good at “scanning” information quickly, but we are losing the ability of deep thinking and the sustained reflection required for converting data into actual knowledge. Having a lot of information available says absolutely nothing about how well we understand what that information really means. But such understanding requires muscles in the brain that are being trained less and less.  

c. Historical Amnesia

A third development I would describe as historical amnesia. For me, as a scholar in the Humanities, this one is particularly painful, because it undermines the very foundations of what my own work has always been about. Over the last decades, education reforms have been dominated by the idea that students need to learn skills rather than acquire knowledge: what you know is not so important, as long as you can find the information you need at the moment you need it. This educational philosophy is based upon a fundamental mistake. We have overlooked the fact that in the absence of knowledge, information becomes meaningless, and data selection (informed choice) becomes impossible. Having placed the cart before the horse, we find ourselves helpless in the face of information overkill. As for my second element, the logic of neoliberal market capitalism: within that context, historical knowledge has no practical utility or economic value and is reduced essentially to the status of a “hobby” (more specifically: a left-wing hobby, as right-wing politicians in my country like to add). It is perceived as an object of mere private interest or leisure activities, like going to the Opera, so why should society support it with taxpayers’ money? The results of these ideas have become obvious in recent years. In so far as we are still learning history at all, we tend to focus on isolated episodes from the modern and contemporary period (with World War II as an all-time favorite) and on social, political, and economic history. Ancient and pre-modern history is becoming irrelevant (“it’s all over, isn’t it?”); and most importantly, we are losing sight of the general storylines of Western cultural and intellectual history (not to mention non-Western history, in spite of all the talk about globalization). Over the last ten years or so, I have seen my students become ever more clueless whenever I referred to such things as “Late Antiquity”, “the Middle Ages”, “the Renaissance”, “the Scientific Revolution”, “the Enlightenment”, “Romanticism”, and so on and so forth. Most of them have only the vaguest ideas about when that was, what it all meant, where it all came from, and why they should care. In short, we are rapidly losing our sense of orientation in historical time. But if we no longer know where we come from, this means we cannot tell where we are; and as a result, we will finally lose our sense of who we are. This is because human beings are wired to define their identity through memory: individual amnesia means we no longer know who we are and what we’re all about, and historical amnesia does the same for society as large. We become clueless, disoriented, directionless.

 d. Evaporation of Values

 Which brings me to my fourth point. At the risk of sounding a bit dramatic, there’s no better way to describe it than as a fundamental evaporation of values. In a way, this brings me full circle, for I began by highlighting the fact that neoliberal capitalism recognizes no other values than those that lend themselves to economic calculation. The notion that something has value in and for itself – intrinsic quality, not measurable in terms of quantity – is literally impossible to consider or even imagine within the neoliberal/capitalist paradigm. It’s like asking a mechanic to take account of the color of a machine: he won’t see the point. He will tell you that it runs just as well, regardless of whether the cogwheels are painted green or blue. And he is right, of course. But colors do have value for us as human beings, and so do values. Color doesn’t matter to the machine, but it matters to us: we attach value to it. Now where will we get our values under conditions of historical amnesia? This is not a matter that can be figured out by “finding the right data, getting the right information”. Beyond some very basic values grounded in animal biology (e.g. “pleasure = good / pain = bad” – but even those can be reprogrammed, as anyone knows who has studied the history of martyrdom), we basically get them not from information but from culture and memory: values are literally “cultivated” from one generation to the next, on the basis of what is remembered. We used to pass on values derived from European culture, notably classical antiquity, Jewish and Christian religion, Enlightenment rationality, and modern science; but instead of living traditions, these have all become mere options of consumer choice, available to us as a bewildering mass of unassorted data that come without criteria or guidelines for selection and evaluation. Please note: none of this implies that values are necessarily good. For instance, Islamic State is currently cultivating a set of values that not just condone but actually advocate the murder, rape, and torture of “infidels”. But horrible as they may be, these are values, part of a much larger and functional valuation system for which these people are willing to sacrifice their lives. So we have no reason whatsoever to sentimentalize “values”; but we should recognize their incredible power of motivation, of bestowing a sense of meaning and direction, of telling people what things are worth living and dying for. What I’m claiming here is that our reigning paradigm of neoliberal capitalism combined with rampant information overkill and historical amnesia leaves us clueless in that regard. We are deeply insecure about our values, because neither “the market” nor “the data” can provide them. This makes us incredibly weak in the face of cultures or ideologies that know perfectly well why we are here and where we should be going.


So where should we be going, and why? I began by admitting that, these days, I often feel like the Elves. Winter is coming. But perhaps I’m too much wedded to the past. Perhaps I’m in a state of mourning, simply because I’m too much in love with European culture. In spite of all its horrors, crimes, and tragedies, I still love and admire it. I hold it dear for its incredible beauty, wisdom and – not in the last place – its profound ambivalences and never-ending struggles. At the end of the day, I prefer to see the history of Europe as a hero’s story, a story of how we have been trying to improve ourselves in spite of ourselves, setting ourselves goals that might be impossible to attain but that we tried to reach anyway - often at great cost to ourselves and to others. I don’t want to believe that this struggle has been pointless. 
So where is the light at the end of the tunnel? I don’t presume to have the answer, and I surely cannot look into the future. I’m just trying to gain some perspective here. One thing seems clear to me: surely the only way forward is by setting our sails precisely towards what we are currently lacking. To discover what that is, we might ask ourselves what the two basic factors of neoliberal capitalism and information overkill share in common. It seems to me the answer is very simple: the absence of quality. Neoliberal capitalism is incapable of handling quality and therefore converts it into quantity; and the replacement of knowledge cultivation by information overkill requires that quality be sacrificed to data accumulation.
So what we need to do is ask ourselves the question that Robert Pirsig asked in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974): what is quality? Don’t be fooled by appearances or first impressions: this is not just an abstract or philosophical question, suitable for polite discussion with a glass of red wine in the evening. It’s an existential pursuit, inseparable from the search for true values. If taken with full seriousness, and if deeply understood (and I don't pretend that I'm so successful in doing either, for it’s very hard to do) it will claim the whole of our lives and determine all that we do. We might ask this question explicitly, or just implicitly, perhaps using different terms, or expressing it through action rather than through words. But it will still be the pursuit of quality.

So that is my suggestion for a light to guide us towards the exit of a long tunnel that, admittedly, I have been painting in very dark colors. Perhaps it’s not much, but it’s the best I have to offer. It is not an answer but a question – not a fixed goal to be reached, but an open path towards the future. If we stop asking this question – because we have lost interest or just don’t see the point – then I’m afraid it’s all over with us. But I don’t think that will happen. Even with “brain change” working against us, I have to believe that the search for quality is just too deeply ingrained in what it means to be human. Even with the daily attacks of hypnosis by the popular media, to which we are all exposed, human beings will keep looking for values and meaning – simply because we cannot help ourselves. So I guess that’s my message for the New Year: Stay awake! Let’s refuse to be fooled. Let’s not allow ourselves to be lulled into compliance with a meaningless world made of markets and data, for though it dominates the present, it literally has no future: nothing to strive or hope for. Let’s keep using our imagination to look for what’s real.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Theosophy in Secret Germany

Melchior Lechter, Panis angelorum (1906)

In my very first blogpost on Creative Reading (2012) I wrote about the German poet Stefan George and his "hidden church of the spirit." At first sight, this elite cult of refined esthetics and homo-erotic spirituality might seem to have pretty little in common with madame Blavatsky (ridiculed by George himself as “die dicke Madame”, “the fat madam”) and the popular movement of Theosophy that was making headlines in the same period. However, in his excellent recent monograph Der George-Kreis und die Theosophie, mit einem Exkurs zum Swastika-Zeichen bei Helena Blavatsky, Alfred Schuler und Stefan George (The George Circle and Theosophy: with an Excursus about the Swastika symbol in Helena Blavatsky, Alfred Schuler and Stefan George) Jan Stottmeister shows that by making the comparison nevertheless, we can learn  much that has been forgotten about the cultural climate of the early twentieth century. The book begins with well-documented overviews of modern Theosophy and the esthetic milieu of the fin-de-siècle. What these networks had in common, in spite of all differences, was their counter-culturalism: “From 1889 ... to the turn of the century ... George moved in counter-cultural milieus that, by communicating knowledge about secrets, constituted themselves as the esoteric Other to the outside world. The outside world was the bourgeois society of the late 19th century, experienced as disenchanted, rationalized, dominated by mass culture, and hopelessly ugly. Estheticism and occultism, the esthetics and hermeneutics of secrecy, symbolist art programs and secret teachings, the intermingling roles of artist and visionary, artistic/religious and other alternative religious constructions of meaning – all belonged inseparably together within this milieu. Whether "the secret" meant the essence of a poetry that, following Mallarmé, should remain linguistically aloof and beyond the public gaze, so as to be revealed only to "âmes d'élite" (elite souls) capable of understanding it; or whether it meant the knowledge claimed by charismatic leaders of Orders that promised to initiate their pupils into the secrets of the world – such distinctions were subordinate to the general desire of demarcating oneself, socially, intellectually, and habitually, from the dominant culture of materialism (p. 91).
Melchior Lechter, Shambhala (1925)
However, as George began establishing his circle after 1900 – by demarcating his vision from that of competing groups such as the "Cosmic Circle" of Munich (dominated by Alfred Schuler and Ludwig Klages), staking his claim of ultimate and undisputable authority, and instituting his cult of the "divine boy" Maximin – it became intolerable to der Meister to think that his pupils might show allegiance to any other "Masters" (such as the Theosophical Mahatmas) or to any other boyish vehicle of divinity (such as Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Indian boy elected by the Theosophists as their future World Teacher). As Stottmeister shows, the central figure in George's competition with Theosophy was the nowadays forgotten artist Melchior Lechter (1865-1937; for the only collection with full-color prints of his paintings, glass-paintings, prints and designs, see the catalogue Melchior Lechters Gegen-Welten of 2006).
Lechter turns out to be a fascinating character. He admired J.-K. Huysmans’ famous novel of extreme fin-de-siecle decadence, A rebours, and followed the example of its protagonist, Des Esseintes, by turning his house and atelier into a private artistic “Counter-World” (Gegen-Welt) against bourgeois society: a place where everything breathed a refined atmosphere of sacrality more reminiscent of a Catholic church than a living space. It became the favourite meeting place of George’s circle in Berlin; and among all George’s friends, only Lechter was recognized by Der Meister as a “Master” in his own right. Most notably, all George’s volumes of poetry first appeared in limited bibliophile editions designed by Lechter, who thereby dominated the visual imagination of George’s religion of art. However, Lechter was not just an extreme fin-de-siècle esthete, but also a great admirer of Madame Blavatsky. In his mind, these two perspectives seem to have gone perfectly together; and so it is not suprising that hidden references to his Theosophical beliefs are omnipresent in his artistic production, including his works commissioned by George. Stottmeister’s analyses of this discreet Theosphical presence in works of art are precise, detailed, full of interest, very well informed, and last but not least, written (like the whole book) in excellent prose with a fine sense of subtle humor whenever the occasion calls for it.
Melchior Lechter, Sacred Tower in the Mountains with the Four Sources of the Streams of Life (1917)
The fascination with Theosophy among members of his circle did become a problem for George. Sometimes he seems to have tried making opportunistic use of it for his own purposes, as in an intriguing conversation reported by Herbert Steiner (no relation of the founder of Anthroposophy Rudolf Steiner, discussed at length elsewhere in Stottmeister’s book), who claims that George described himself as a messenger sent by the Mahatmas (p. 199-200). But in the end, there could be only one Master in George’s universe. In October 1910, Melchior Lechter made a trip to India, together with another central member of the George circle, Karl Wolfskehl. Both had becomes members of the Theosophical Society briefly before (p. 254). They paid no less than five visits to Adyar, had a private meeting with Annie Besant, accompanied her and her followers on walks, listened to lectures, and met the young Hindu “vehicle of the world teacher” Jiddu Krishnamurti. Back home, Lechter published an account of his trip to India as Tagebuch der indischen Reise (Diary of the Indian Journey, 1912) and sent it to George as a Christmas present. This proved to be a fatal miscalculation. George refused to answer and cut all ties of friendship with Lechter. They had a few awkward meetings in later years; but as usual with George, the break was final and irreversible. Henceforth, George’s books were published without Lechter’s designs. For Lechter himself, the break was deeply painful.
While Melchior Lechter is the central figure in Stottmeister’s analysis, separate chapters full of fascinating information are devoted to other figures relevant to the relation between George and Theosophy, notably the composer Cyrill Scott; the poet Karl Wolfskehl (the true “inventor of the George cult”, according to Stottmeister, p. 254); the writer, spiritualist, Theosophist, and alchemist Alexander von Bernus; and even the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. Finally, Stottmeister shows that Friedrich Gundolf’s deeply apologetic book George (1920) is permeated not only by an agenda of hero-worship premised on George’s unique spiritual superiority (he is described, in biblical terms, as “The Way, the Truth, and Life”, p. 287) but also, simultaneously, by an urgently felt need to demarcate him sharply from the competition of Theosophy, “the worst idea of modernity” (p. 290).
Henceforth (and this is a familiar story in the study of Western esotericism) the dimension of Theosophy and occultism was written out of standard scholarly treatments devoted to Stefan George and his circle. Just as (to mention just one parallel) Swedenborg was reduced in academic Kant scholarship to no more than a ridiculous Spirit Seer without serious philosophical import, Theosophy got reduced to no more than the flaky brainchild of “die dicke Madame”. In a sharp and perfectly justified critique of the dominant academic trend in Germany after World War II, Stottmeister remarks (with obvious reference to Adorno’s famous definition of occultism as “the metaphysics of the stupid guys”) that “from an academic perspective, the occultist interests of the smart guys – Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin, to mention just those closest to Adorno – are no longer noticed. In the decades after World War II, henceforth historians of modernity just know about one type of occultists: Nazis” (323). The deep irony is that such notions of “Nazi occultism” have been embraced as historically correct by generations of German academics, in blissful ignorance of the fact that they were thereby lending credence to occultist pseudo-histories themselves (largely originating from Pauwels & Bergier’s bestselling Morning of the Magicians, but given credence, as demonstrated by Stottmeister, by the authoritative work of George Mosse).
These concluding remarks about the question of National Socialism – inevitable in a book like this, given the oft-debated question of how George’s “Secret Germany” is related to the Third Reich – prove to be the upbeat for a truly impressive Appendix of more than seventy pages, devoted to “Helena Blavatsky, Alfred Schuler, Stefan George, and the Western History of the Interpretation of the Swastika Sign” (pp. 327-398). This appendix should definitely be translated into English as soon as possible. The Swastika sign was not just adopted by the Nazis as their symbol, but also appears prominently in the seal of the Theosophical Society (as well as in Blavatsky’s private seal), on Melchior Lechter’s designs of books from the George Circle, as well as in the work of Alfred Schuler (the central figure of the Munich “Cosmic Circle” that originally overlapped with George’s circle). As such, it looks like a red thread among George and Theosophy that requires interpretation. Stottmeister has excellent things to say about what he calls the “Swastika effect”, which makes it psychologically impossible for us to see the swastika without being reminded of the Nazis. In fact, however, the sign became popular first “in apolitical contexts: as the sign of an occultist society that actually promoted the brotherhood of races and nations, as a favourite ornament in Jugendstil and Art Deco design, and as a profane business logo for products of all kinds (p 330). Ironically, from our present-day perspective, it was seen as a sign of good luck. Against the background of popular 19th century theories of race and evolution, including antisemitic argumentations for Aryan supremacy such as Emile Burnouf’s La Science des Religions (1870), Stottmeister provides a sterling analysis of how the swastika symbol adopted from India functioned in the context of Blavatsky’s “race-theoretical anti-racism”, followed by equally impressive discussions of Alfred Schuler’s obsession with the symbol and, of course, its appearance in the circle around Stefan George. Any further non-political use of the Swastika became impossible after World War II, of course, for as Stottmeister notes, “historical contextualizations were powerless against this reconditioned visual perception. The Good Luck sign had been transformed irreversibly into a sign of Horror” (p. 344).
Still, powerless or not, what is the point of historical scholarship if we do not insist that fiction can be distinguished from fact and that it is important to do so? Like all good researchers in the modern study of Western esotericism, Stottmeister gives us a careful deconstruction of ingrained academic myths that have been taken for granted by scholars for generations and have obstructed and distorted our view of historical reality. This pars destruens is necessary in order to clear the ground for the pars construens that should follow in its wake: that of reconstructing our standard ways of imagining Western culture from the bottom up.
Melchior Lechter, Orpheus (1896)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

On the Death of Khaled Asaad

This week, IS tortured and killed Khaled Asaad, the antiquities chief of Palmyra. He was decapitated at a public square, and his body was hung from a Roman column in one of the ruins to the restoration of which he had devoted more than fifty years of his life. He was 81 years old.
After having neglected my blog for a year, this news hit me so hard that I felt I needed to write about it. But what is there to say? As with all the previous news about the atrocious horrors perpetrated by IS, my overwhelming feelings are grief and fury, combined with a debilitating sense of powerlessness. The Nazis have returned in our midst, only this time they do not do their torturing and killing behind barbed wire fences or prison doors but proudly display them on the internet. We are watching it on TV and reading about it in the newspapers, and then move on to our daily business. Because what can we do?
Just one thing. Speaking out about the values that we represent, or should represent, and mustering the courage to fight for them in word and deed, wherever we have a chance of doing so. This goes for everybody, anywhere in the world. But having been raised in a European country and devoting my life to studying, writing, and speaking about its cultural traditions, I may perhaps be excused for focusing on Western civilization. We are told that Khaled Asaad was murdered for the crime of "overseeing 'idols' in the ancient city" and "attending 'infidel' conferences as Syrian representative". This makes him one of the most recent casualties in a culture war that has been raging for thousands of years: that of exclusive monotheism against its mortal enemy, "pagan idolatry". We should not delude ourselves: historically, our "own" dominant Western culture has not been on Khaled Asaad's side but overwhelmingly on the side of his murderers. The idea that paganism and idolatry is the ultimate abomination that must be rooted out and destroyed, along with anybody who practices or sympathizes with it, goes to the heart of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic identity (though it should be added that while Christianity and Islam gained the power to put the idea into bloody action, post-biblical Judaism never had that chance and rather found itself on the receiving end of atrocities, as we know all too well). Moreover, (pace Peter Gay c.s.) it goes to the heart of Enlightenment rationalism as well, which inherited the Protestant view of paganism and idolatry. This story is not well known, precisely because our dominant cultural institutions are grounded in the very same bias and therefore prefer to tell the story differently. But the painful truth is that, culturally and historically, we are hardly in a position to mount our high horse and condemn IS for continuing our very own battle against the religious culture of the ancient world and everything it stood for. "We" have been every bit as brutal and cruel as they are being now, and until much more recent times than we care to remember.
But here is the paradox. In spite of everything, I deeply care about this same Western culture, for it has richly provided us with all those ultimate values that IS is trampling upon. In spite of all its horrors, a deep commitment to the Good, the Beautiful, and the True runs through the story of Western civilization as well - and this tradition is deeply indebted to the very culture of classical antiquity and Hellenistic civilization that IS would like to destroy. But I'm afraid that during the last couple of decades, we have rapidly been losing touch with these foundational values on which our very culture and civilization were built. Most of us no longer know who we are, what we are supposed to stand for, or why we should. The Good has been made subject to the laws of the marketplace (economic value trumps moral values: the question of what we should do is irrelevant if it cannot be paid for, right?). The Beautiful has been reduced to esthetics and leasure time activities (likewise for sale, of course). And as for the True - the province of science and scholarship, my own domain of activity - well, that is just a matter of opinion, isn't it? This is why the Humanities are declining, and too many of us (academics included) find it hard to see any difference between knowledge and information. This is why we have lost our ability to explain what we are all about. I don't mean to be cynical, but I'm afraid that this is the point of history at which we have now arrived as a culture and a society: we are in decline, and we know it. No wonder that we feel so vulnerable. No wonder that for so many people (not just "elsewhere" but at home as well) "Western civilization" no longer inspires admiration and respect but is becoming an object of hatred, contempt, or simple indifference. I hate to say it, but IS has a story. We don't.
Back to Khaled Asaad. From all that I can tell, I think that he was "one of us". By this I mean that he belonged to all of us who want to devote our lives to real values: knowledge, understanding, generosity, love, beauty, awe. It won't do to respond to his death only with some academic reflections on culture and civilization, although that must be done too (after all, those were the values he deeply cared about and that ultimately cost him his life). We must take our stand next to him, for his horrible death has made him a symbol of everything that is being threatened today and needs to be defended by us, at whatever cost.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

On Reading Email (Once a Week)

I remember it very well. One day in the early 1990s I was reading the weekly journal of the University of Utrecht, where I was a student, and came across a small column that announced the invention and introduction of a brand-new way of communication. It was called “e-mail” (that stands for “electronic mail”, the note explained), and was extremely cheap because it used the telephone line to transmit entire text messages in just a fraction of a second. I was impressed. Could it really be true that instead of incurring expensive telephone bills for calling my friends at the other side of the Atlantic or of Europe, I could tell them everything I had to tell them for almost nothing? It seemed too good to be true. Surely there was a catch, and the telephone companies would find some other way to make us pay.
That is now more than twenty years ago, and I have forgotten what those early emails even looked like. Email has become so normal and omnipresent that we find it hard to imagine how people got anything done before the nineties. What did you do if you were organizing an international conference, for instance, and needed to communicate with your colleagues about all kinds of tiny details, correct misunderstandings, create
consensus, and so on? Well, there is an answer. We sat down to write letters. And having finished them, we had to go out and put them in a physical mailbox, or find a fax machine somewhere, in cases of great hurry. Or we made a phone call, in spite of the costs, and it all took a lot of time. Didn’t we have anything else to do than wasting hours and hours on such laborious and time-consuming procedures? Well, there’s an answer to that too. We could find the time, for a very simple reason. We did not need to spend hours every day reading email and responding to it.

When email was first introduced, its benefits seemed a bit similar to those of voicemail. Instead of having to deal with phonecall interruptions all the time, you could quietly read your messages at a moment of your own convenience. If people wanted to speak with you right away, well, bad luck for them, they just had to wait. But as email took over as the dominant means of communication, along with the introduction of visual and auditory cues ("you got mail!" - nowadays abbreviated as "bleep" or "boink" or just a number, for of course you got mail!) this quickly proved to be an illusion. Nowadays, email looks more like a wide open door that gives direct access to your home, with a large invitation over it: 

WELCOME! Everybody, known or unknown, may enter here at any moment, day or night, twenty-four hours a day. Feel free to walk straight into my study whenever you feel like it, and start talking to me about anything that’s on your mind, important or unimportant. I might be busy trying to concentrate on something when you enter, but no need to worry about that. Just start talking anyway. I’ll do my best to interrupt everything I’m doing right away, I'll listen to whatever you have to say, and will do what I can to answer immediately.

How normal is it, really, that we now find this normal? Should we even be surprised when scientists find that email increases mental stress and decreases our ability to concentrate? Or that our continuous exposure to internet, twitter, or texting cues causes our brain to get addicted to them, for straightforward chemical reasons based upon dopamine? As a result of that mechanism, known as a dopamine loop, the stream of interruptions gets even bigger: for if we are left in peace for a little while, this very fact makes us so nervous that we start interrupting ourselves.  
In his important and predictably controversial book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr begins with an observation that I trust will sound familiar to many of us:

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in
the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. [...]
I think I know what’s going on. For well over a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web’s been a godsend to me as a writer. [...] The boons are real. But they come at a price. [...] [W]hat the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it [...].

Carr provides hard neurological evidence. Our brain is very flexible: it quickly learns in response to whatever we ask it to do – and unlearns what we neglect to ask it. At present, we continuously train ourselves to get better and better at those skills that allow us to use the Internet quickly and effectively. And boy do we get good at it! But it goes at the expense of other skills that the Internet just doesn’t require, or even discourages. Notably those skills of deep and prolonged concentration on one single piece of text – without continuous hyperlinks that move us instantaneously to another text, full of other hyperlinks that again move us elsewhere, and so on. The fact is that we are systematically training our brain not to concentrate on a line of thought, an argument, a narrative. We are training it in the art of breaking our concentration.

Reading Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle (yes, that's a hyperlink! Please stay with me anyway) made me aware of another dimension of email: that of guilt and social pressure. It is already bad enough that my concentration gets shattered whenever a new visitor walks into my study and issues a beep to interrupt what I’m doing. And it is even worse that when nobody walks in for five minutes, my dopamine compels me to get up and walk to my door to check whether anyone is coming yet, and that when I’m back at my desk, I am distracted because my brain keeps wondering why nobody is there to disturb me. 
- When will the next beep come? 
- Have they forgotten me? 
But the process does not stop there. When new visitors come in, as they invariably do, they expect me to answer quasi-immediately and are likely to take offense if I don’t. 
- I have received the email, haven’t I? 
- I have the technical means to respond, don’t I? 
- So then why the f@#$%^&! do I not respond? What is it that’s keeping me? 
And even this can get worse. Similar to what happens in the dopamine loop (first you get interrupted by others, but eventually you don’t need them anymore: you’ve started doing it all by yourself), even if nobody is blaming me for being slow with my answers, I end up feeling guilty all by myself. I don't want them to think I’m impolite and egoistic. They might think I’m some arrogant ass (those professors, you know...) who finds his own stuff so important that he just can't be bothered to take an interest in others and respond to their needs. 
Too busy? What nonsense! They get as many emails as I do. No cause for me to complain, as if I’m in some special category. If they can answer their emails, so can I. 

I have been thinking about these problems for a long time and have come to a clear decision. I refuse to be manipulated and disciplined into conformity with the logic of The Circle, and most importantly: I reserve the right to protect my own brain. I don't want to expose it systematically to conditions that limit my ability to do what I do best: concentrate. From now on (July 2014) I will therefore be reading my email once a week, and will disable it entirely during the rest of the week. I know that many people will find this incredibly radical, or preposterous, and some will get angry with me - so let me explain. It is really very simple. My core business as a scholar in the Humanities requires the ability of deep “concentration and contemplation” (as formulated by Carr). That is what I need most when I'm studying books, articles, or primary sources. I have a responsibility, to myself and to society, to protect and cultivate those skills, for if they wither and decline then the quality of my work will suffer. I know very well that even this brief explanation sounds like a justification or even an excuse. Perhaps it is. But if so, it nicely illustrates the very point I've just been making: like everyone else, I'm by no means immune to the guilt-inducing magic of The Circle.
Now I’m well aware that, even though these general problems of concentration/interruption, dopamine loops, or social pressure by the internalization of guilt are real and universal, something that doesn’t work for me might work better for others. Different people have different mental constitutions, not everybody responds in the same way to stress, and quite some friends and colleagues do not experience email as a problem the way I do. Some people are able to switch quickly from one task to another, and that's great for them, but I have never had that ability: I just happen to be a deep concentrator with a long and slow curve. Some people enjoy digital socializing, and that's great for them too, but I don’t: I find it empty and superficial and prefer meeting people face to face. Some people like to focus on information, and that's fine too, but my interest is in knowledge, which is not the same thing.
Am I too naive or optimistic in thinking that this could actually work? I’ll have to see how it works out in practice, especially as the new academic year begins. But one thing is clear: reading email once a week means that once I sit down to do it, I will be concentrating on it. 100%.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Exterminate all the Idols

The Fall of the Hermetic Idols
I’ve been reading a lot of different things lately, and not everything will find its way into this blog. But I definitely need to write about my experiences with a somewhat older book by two French scholars that I bought second-hand and devoured from cover to cover: Carmen Bernand’s & Serge Gruzinski’s De l’idolâtrie: Une archéologie des sciences humaines (Of idolatry: An Archeology of the Humanities, 1988). I have long been puzzled by the fact that whereas one can easily fill a library with academic books about “magic”, there are so few systematic studies of “paganism” as a category in the study of religion and even less that focus on what was traditionally seen as the core practice of pagan religion – “idolatry”. The rare exceptions to this rule, such as Moshe Halbertal’s & Avishai Margalit’s Idolatry (1992), focus mostly upon Judaism. One searches practically in vain for authoritative monographs about the notion of idolatry and its significance in monotheist religions generally.
And yet, that significance is enormous. If Jan Assmann is right, as I think he is, then monotheism defines its very identity not so much by its focus on One God (after all, it shares the focus on one deity with many “pagan” religions, and normative Christianity believes in a triune deity, not to mention angelic hierarchies and so on) but by its radical and uncompromising rejection of pagan “idolatry” – the worship of gods incarnated in images or statues – as the unforgivable sin par excellence. The history of how idolatry has been discursively constructed as monotheism’s “other” in the history of the three “religions of the book”, and the real-life effects of that discourse, should be a major concern for scholars. Anybody who finds such a statement too radical will perhaps change his mind after reading Bernand’s & Gruzinski’s study of the 16th-century colonialization of Mexico and Peru.
Garcilaso de la Vega
One learns from these authors that the Spanish conquerors used the “paganism” of late antiquity as their model for understanding the beliefs and practices they encountered in the New World. The cults of the Indians represented a phenomenon that seemed universal to them, since it appeared to exist in the Americas just as it had existed in the Roman Empire: that of a “natural religion” born from an inborn human desire for knowing and worshiping God (homo religiosus), but deprived of divine Revelation and hence an easy prey for infiltration by the devil and his legions of demons, who are always busy trying to convince human beings to worship them in lieu of the true God. The central reference for Bernand & Gruzinski is Bartolomé de Las CasasApologética Historia sumaria (1550), but they discuss a range of other major authors as well. I was particularly fascinated by the cases of Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616), nicknamed “the Inca”, whose perspective on the Amerindian religions (in his Comentarios reales, 1609) appears to have been strongly influenced by the Renaissance Platonic Orientalist tradition of prisca theologia in the wake of Marsilio Ficino and Leone Ebreo; and by that of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl (1568/1580-1648), who seems to have taken a somewhat similar perspective, describing the philosopher, poet and ruler Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472) as “a sage even wiser than the divine Plato, and who alone managed to raise himself up to the knowledge of a single ‘creator of visible and invisible things’” (p. 136).
If I understand Bernand & Gruzinski correctly (I’m not always sure, for unfortunately their writing is sometimes less than clear), the relevance of the “ancient wisdom discourse” of the Renaissance – a major fascination of mine: see Esotericism and the Academy ch. 1 – reaches even much farther than European culture alone. The early modern European discourse about “paganism” seems extremely relevant for understanding the attempts by intellectuals to justify the brutal realities of colonialist expansion; and moreover, it is crucial for understanding the emergence, in early modern culture, of “religion” as a general and universal concept born from the encounter and hence the comparison between Christian and “native” cultures.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Triumph of the Eucharist over Idolatry
Chapter 6 of De l’idolâtrie is titled “Extirpations” and discusses the systematic campaign of exterminating pagan idolatry in the New World. It starts with a reference to Peter Paul Rubens’ “Triumph of the Eucharist over Idolatry”, which once again shows that Europeans were incapable of thinking about Amerindian “idolatry” otherwise than through the prism of Hellenistic paganism. It is impossible to discuss the shocking effects of the conquests – by 1625, only 5% of the indigenous Mexican population had survived! (pp. 146-147) –  separately from the conquerors’ ideological conviction that idolatry in all its forms had to be destroyed by any means necessary, together with anyone suspected or potentially capable of practicing it. In the canon De Haereticis of the 3rd Mexican Council (1585), indigenous idolatry was discussed as equivalent with “apostasy” and “heresy” (p. 156): not as a rival form of religion, therefore, but as an intentional rejection of Christian truth. 
The penalty was death.
Sven Lindqvist
In parallel with De l’idolâtrie, I was reading Sven Lindqvist’s brilliant travelogue “‘Exterminate All the Brutes’”, an impressive attempt at understanding the origins and foundations of that famous sentence from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Lindqvist does not discuss idolatry, but he reveals in chilling detail how the doctrine that “primitive peoples” and their cultures must be exterminated was a necessary and integral part of the “progress of civilization” as understood by mainstream 19th-century popular and intellectual European culture. If anyone might think that “necessary and integral” is a bit of an exaggeration here, Lindqvist’s analysis may come as a shocking revelation. I will give just two examples, although Lindqvist gives many more, showing that such statements were not the exception but the rule. Herbert Spencer claimed that “imperialism ha[d] served civilization by clearing the inferior races off the earth” (Lindqvist, 162): “the forces which are working out the great scheme of perfect happiness, taking no account of incidental suffering, exterminate such sections of mankind as stand in their way ... Be he human or be he brute – the hindrance must be got rid of” (Social Statistics (1850). Eduard von Hartmann’s formulations were even more brutal: “As little as a favor is done the dog whose tail is to be cut off, when one cuts it off gradually inch by inch, so little is their humanity in artificially prolonging the death struggles of savages who are on the verge of extinction. ... The true philantropist, if he has comprehended the natural law of anthropological evolution, cannot avoid desiring an acceleration of the last convulsion, and labor for that end” (Philosophy of the Unconscious, vol. II, 12). These theoretical convictions were taken quite literally by the conquerors who took it upon themselves to advance the noble cause of civilization by “exterminating the brutes” – with such thoroughness and cruelty that one cannot but assent to Lindquist’s controversial comparisons with the horrors of the Nazi genocide. We all know about the Holocaust, as we should. But how many of us are familiar with (to give one more example, not covered by Lindqvist) what happened during the “rubber boom” of the decades before and after 1900, when the Amazon Putumayo region was transformed into a “death space” (as formulated by Michael Taussig in his Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man) of random torture and murder where the lives of “Indian savages” were worth less than nothing?
Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us (1897)
De l’idolâtrie ends with a demonstration of how the religious campaign against idolatry was taken up and continued by the Enlightenment (rather similar to my argument in ch. 2 of Esotericism and the Academy), and one might say that Lindquist traces the same story of “extirpation” or “extermination” forward through the history of colonialism and far into the 20th century. Extirpation of idolatry in the name of Christianity, and extermination of savages in the name of progress and civilization: isn’t it obvious that the two are intimately related both conceptually and historically, as the former created the essential ideological foundations on which the latter could build its deadly mission of civilizing the globe? If there is just a grain of truth to this comparison, then isn’t it time for scholars to start taking a serious look - and I mean a very serious one - at the history of the Western campaign to “exterminate all the idols?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Fatima's Knight

One of the most interesting books about religion that I’ve read in recent years came from an unexpected angle. Michael Muhammad Knight’s Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writings is a brilliantly written and highly intelligent piece of autobiographical literature, from the pen of an author who combines deep personal involvement in Islam with an off-the-charts heretical attitude, profound familiarity with academic research and theory in the study of religion, and most of all, a truly original, independent, and passionate mind. The troubled son of a white supremacist and paranoid psychotic rapist, Knight was raised as a Roman Catholic by his mother but converted to Islam at age 16, after reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X. He went on to study Islam at Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, and came close to joining the Chechnyan war against Russia. Having become disenchanted with Islamic orthodoxy, he started experimenting with a range of alternative Muslim identities, including the Nation of Islam (he is fascinated by its mysterious founder Fard Muhammad) and the Nation of Gods and Earths, also known as the Five Percenters (who proclaim the divinity of human beings and therefore address one another, amusingly enough, as “god”). Parallel to this, he also embarked on a semi-professional wrestling career, subjecting himself to grueling training routines and diets and finally getting beaten up seriously (fifty stitches!) in a fight with a notorious wrestler named Abdullah the Butcher.
Tripping with Allah (an “adventure book for academics to chew on”, p. 30) is the most recent of a series of nine volumes that document Knight’s continuing search for his personal, religious, and (not in the last place) masculine identity. Right from the outset, we encounter him at the intersection of various overlapping cultural contexts and discourses, including traditional Islam (both Sunni and Shia), the cool hip hop Muslem culture associated with the Five Percenters, Religious Studies as practiced at Harvard Divinity School, superhero video games and TV comic series such as the 1970s series Transformers, the parallel universe of American wrestling and, last but not least, the (neo)shamanic practice of drinking ayahuasca. Having heard about the spectacular visionary and healing powers of this famous psychoactive brew from the Amazon forest, Knight decided to try it – hoping perhaps to see visions of “Muhammad on a flying jaguar” (p. 4) or perhaps, far more seriously, to find a way of healing his traumas and find answers in his spiritual quest.
A major theme in Tripping with Allah is the acute conflict between Knight’s quest for religious meaning and belonging, and the implications of his academic training in the study of religion. In the first chapter (“Cybertron Kids”) we find the author and his friend Zoser watching and “building” (in Knight’s delightful rendering of Five Percenters’ lingo) on an early Transformers episode called “Dinobot Island”, in which some kind of time warp phenomenon opens up portals through which life forms from other time periods enter and start messing with our world. In Knight’s narrative, Dinobot Island becomes a metaphor for contemporary religion and the pervasive phenomenon of decontextualization in a globalized media context: for young Muslims like Zoser and himself, and whether they like it or not, Islam has essentially become a reservoir of traditional materials and stories to pick and choose from at will, and available for being combined creatively with anything else that is available, whether it’s hip hop, science fiction, wrestling, shamanism, or popular comics. In Knight’s words, “‘Muhammad’ is a superhero template, his sunna functioning as a How to Be the Perfect Human kit that you’ll never finish: Muhammad as M.H.M.D., or Masters His Motherfucking Devils.” (p. 9).
And that, of course, is what the book is ultimately all about. While building up a narrative to prepare the reader for his encounter with ayahuasca, Knight offers erudite and sometimes brilliant reflections on a variety of relevant topics, such as the popular depiction of both drugs and Islam as the demonized “other” of white American identity (“Civilization Class”), the history of Islamic attitudes towards drugs, including coffee (“Islam and Equality” - “equality” being a code for hashish - ; “Coffee consciousness”), prophecy and visionary consciousness according to Avicenna and al-Ghazali (“Avicenna and the Monolith”), and the intellectual and existential dilemmas of studying religion academically at Harvard while also practicing it as a Muslim (“Jehangir Allah”, “Scholars and Martyrs”). Last but not least, there is the conflict between his emerging identity as a professional scholar of religion and the primal forces that drive him as a writer. Identifying with one of his heroes, a brutal wrestler known as “Bruiser Brody”, Knight is worried that the politically correct attitudes and pseudo-intellectual language (for some edifying examples of mindless cultural studies lingo, see pp. 134-135!) that seem to dominate American academia might finally end up killing his soul:
“Two years have passed at Harvard, and now I try to picture Bruiser Brody obsessed with explaining himself, apologizing for himself, justifying his existence through the use of a larger tradition and perhaps a grounding in theory, trying to find legitimacy as a public intellectual. I see Bruiser Brody understanding himself through Roland Barthes, wearing a corduroy blazer and tying back his hair and insisting, “I’m so much more than just a psychotic chain-swinging freak, if you read me in my proper context,” dipping out of the personality game while he’s still ahead and focusing on pure scholarship from this moment on – Bruiser Brody with his forehead full of scars disappearing into the quiet soft darkness of those Widener Library stacks and never coming back out” (p. 145-146).
Eventually, Knight has an intake meeting with an American member of the Brazilian Santo Daime church, which uses ayahuasca as its sacrament (“Bumblebee”; for the origins of the church, founded by a Brazilian rubber tapper after his visionary encounter with the “Queen of the Forest”, see his informative chapter “Church Fathers and Mothers”). He finally gets to drink ayahuasca at a Santo Daime meeting in a private home, but I will not spoil the book for you by describing how that experience turns out for him. Let me just note that Knight’s mind and subconscious, filled with Islamic imagery, does not match very well with the predominantly Christian Catholic setting. It is only at his third attempt, in a “Western shamanic” setting, that he has a full ayahuasca experience.
Verbal depictions of entheogenic experience are notoriously boring, but Knight’s account is an exception to that rule. The 17th chapter of his book (“Al-Najm”, “the Stars”: see the account of Muhammad’s ecstatic ascent/descent described in the Quran, Sura 53:1-18) contains a uniquely precise, impressive, and moving description of visionary therapeutic healing through ayahuasca – more convincing and instructive than any similar account that I know from the literature. Clearly it is not enough to have a powerful experience: to bring it across requires a powerful writer as well. Again, therefore, one needs to read this in the original, but given Knight’s biography it will perhaps come as no surprise that this decisive visionary sequence was grounded in Islamic imagery and mythology and went straight for what he needed most: “Out of nowhere, the drug interrupted my book about drugs and spoke instead about broken masculinities” (p. 257). Traumatized through extreme male violence, Knight’s life had been one desperate quest for masculine role models, from the frankly demonic exemplar that had raped him into existence, through the caricatural “He Men” of American wrestling, to the supreme male superheroes of his religious imagination: Muhammad the prophet, Ali the warrior, Husayn the martyr (p. 206). But by the time he drinks ayahuasca, he seems to have reached the end of that road: “It feels like I can’t go anymore; I’m like Macho Man at the end of his run” (p. 186, referring to Randy “Macho Man” Savage, the greatest professional wrestler of the 1980s: see chapter “Macho Madness”). And so it is fitting that the divine saviour/healer and psychopomp (“guide of souls”) who meets him in his vision and shows him the source of true power is not yet another muscle man, but a woman: Fatima, the daughter of the prophet, wife of Ali, and mother of Husayn.
In an interview with Deonna Kelli Sayed, Knight remarks that his Al-Najm chapter is “possibly the most heretical, blasphemous, challenging stuff that I’ve ever written. I don’t spare any of the details”. And that is true: the visionary episodes are sexually explicit, and put an intensely personal spin on traditional Islamic myth and imagery. In other words, the entire healing process would seem to happens on Dinobot Island, through a remarkable collaboration between Santo Daime’s Queen of the Forest and the Islamic Daughter of the Prophet - bien étonnés, no doubt, de se trouver ensemble... And yet, in the same interview, Knight continues by noting that the experience “leads me to this somewhat conservative place, because where I’m at right now, I pretty much just want to read hadith all day”.
Perhaps this will prove to be just a phase in Knight’s continuing story. But then again, he might well be in the process of leaving Dinobot Island, with Fatima’s help: “You can deconstruct Islam, but at some point you have to put it back together. Get your readings grounded in something” (p. 7). In what? The answer seems clear: Knight finds it in an intensely personal experience of divinity, or gnosis, mediated or facilitated by a “tradition”, with all the stories and images that it can provide. He does not find it in the intellectual practice of Quranic exegesis, so attractive and seductive “for the boys” (p. 224, 226, 238), but in a direct encounter with divine Otherness - with a presence, in other words, that is so different from his own identity that it can speak to that identity with unquestionable power and authority. Tripping with Allah may be all about Islam, Drugs, and Writing - but first and foremost, I would suggest, it is a primary source of Islamic mysticism.