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.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Butchering the Corpus Hermeticum: Breaking News on Ficino's Pimander

In the spring of 2002, a group of devoted Ficino aficionados met at the home of Prof. Sebastiano Gentile to discuss the need for modern critical editions of the great Florentine Platonist’s writings. One of the young scholars present at this meeting, Maurizio Campanelli, decided to take a closer look at Ficino’s famous translation of treatises I-XIV of the Corpus Hermeticum, first published in Treviso in 1471 as Hermes Trismegistus’ book on the Power and Wisdom of God (De Potestate et Sapientia Dei) but better known by its alternative title Pimander. He was in for an unexpected surprise. Although certainly no beginner in Latin anymore, he notes, ‘the number of passages of which I failed to really understand the significance followed one another at a disquieting pace’. In other words, much of the text just didn’t make sense at all. Clearly something was wrong – but what was it? Since the Greek original is perfectly comprehensible, the initial suspicion fell on Ficino himself: could it be that his famous translation, finished in 1463, had in fact been so bad as the edition would seem to suggest? But no: a crucial manuscript from 1466, heavily annotated with corrections in Ficino’s own hand, showed otherwise. Apparently the problem was with the famous Treviso edition of 1471 itself, on which the great majority of 16th-century editions would later be based.
Now all of this may not seem like such a big deal to general readers. For anyone familiar with scholarship of Renaissance Hermeticism, however, the implications are far-reaching, even bordering on the sensational. Ever since Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), countless scholars and popular authors have been telling us that the revival of the “Hermetic Tradition” began with Ficino’s Pimander of 1471, and that ever since, throughout the sixteenth century and well into the seventeenth, Hermes’s writings had become a very significant factor in the development of Renaissance religious and intellectual life. Presumably, this means that people had actually been reading Hermes’s writings. But if so, had nobody noticed that Ficino's Pimander was, in fact, an incomprehensible muddle? And if they had noticed, what had they done about it? Perhaps most importantly: was it at all possible, for such Renaissance readers, to distill the actual contents of the Hermetic writings from the translations available to them? If not, what did Hermetism actually mean for them? And what about all those modern scholars who have written large books and learned articles about Renaissance Hermetism? One cannot help wondering how many of them ever bothered to sit down and actually read he foundational classic of the entire tradition.
Spurred on by his initial discovery, Campanelli began working on a critical reconstruction of Ficino’s original Pimander, and the final result has been published with an Italian publisher in 2011. It is a very impressive example of painstaking philological scholarship, and a good reminder that, in the world of textual research at least, der liebe Gott lebt im Detail. So bear with me. In the first chapter of his 260-page Introduction, Campanelli analyzes Ficino’s repeated attempts at sketching a profile of Hermes Trismegistus, concluding that he was mostly trying to flatter his maecenas Cosimo de’ Medici by providing him with all the attributes of the ancient Egyptian sage, or the reverse (p. XLI, LIX). Campanelli then gets down to his real core business, analyzing all the editions of the Corpus Hermeticum that were published during the Renaissance. It is important to realize that Ficino himself never tried to get the Pimander published: the Treviso edition, published on 18 December 1471, was the unauthorized initiative of two humanists, the Flemish Geraert van der Leye (Gherardo de Lisa) and his Italian colleague Francesco Rolandello, who seems to have provided the manuscript. And it is here that something went awfully wrong, for the printed version is so corrupt that Campanelli does not hesitate to speak of an ‘authentic textual disaster’ based upon ‘scandalous negligence’ (p. CX-CXI). Most likely, according to his analysis, the printers were working under such heavy time pressure that they made countless errors, and neither van der Leye nor Rolandello ever took the trouble to check and correct the proofs… The troubling fact is that precisely this butchered version of the Pimander became, nevertheless, the basis for the great majority of later editions of the Corpus Hermeticum: the 3rd one (Venice 1481), the 4th (Venice 1491), the 5th (Venice 1493), the 6th (Paris 1494), the 7th (Mainz 1503), the 8th (Paris 1505), the 10th (Venice 1516), the 12th (Lyon 1549), and the 14th (Basle 1551). This does not mean that the text remained unchanged. On the contrary: from one edition to the next, and especially since the 1494 version of Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, successive editors tried to improve the text, thus creating a wide range of variant readings of an original that had been wholly corrupt in the first place. Hence it is hardly surprising that when Gabriel du Preau was preparing his French translation (published in 1549) he admitted being ‘vexed & tormented’ by all the contradictions he discovered between the three Latin versions at his disposal (Mercure Trismegiste Hermes … de la puissance & sapience de Dieu, Introduction).
What then about the other editions, absent from the list above? The 2nd edition (Ferrara, 8th of January 1472: just a few weeks after the 1st) was based upon a separate manuscript of Ficino’s translation; but although it is much more reliable than the princeps, it seems to have remained a “stand-alone” edition without much further influence. The 9th edition (Florence 1513), edited by Mariano Tucci, was again based upon a separate manuscript of Ficino’s translation and became the basis for two later editions: the 11th (Basle 1532, edited by Michael Isengrin) and the 16th (Cracow 1585, edited by Annibale Rosselli, with huge commentaries). And finally (not counting vernacular versions such as du Preau's), we have three editions independent of Ficino’s text: the 13th Corpus Hermeticum edition in succession consists of the first publication of the Greek original by Adrien Turnèbe (Paris 1554); the 15th was a new Latin translation by François Foix de Candale (Bordeaux 1574); and finally, the 17th was yet another new Latin translation by Francesco Patrizi (Ferrara 1591). This certainly suggests that interest in the Hermetica was growing during the second half of the sixteenth century, especially its last three decades; but Campanelli claims that, in fact, none of these three new editions had any success at all, leaving Ficino’s Pimander as ‘almost the only vehicle of the Corpus Hermeticum in Europe’ in this period (p. LXXXIII). One might want to question that point, but it seems clear that van der Leye and Rolandello (and of course their printers) created a mess that would continue to create enormous confusion about the Hermetic message throughout the sixteenth century.
Having established the history of the printed editions, Campanelli proceeds to delve deep into the ‘vast archipelago’ (p. CXXI) of surviving manuscripts of the Pimander (those that were used for the first two editions of 1471 and 1472 are no longer extant). Demonstrating great philological expertise and attention to technical detail, he finally ends up selecting fifteen manuscripts most suitable for reconstructing Ficino’s original translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, published in a meticulous critical edition on pp. 1-111 of his book. In the final chapter of his Introduction, he goes into considerable detail about the nature and quality of that translation. His conclusions are very interesting. Ficino appears to have been much concerned with improving the literary style of the Greek original, trying to make it all more elegant and beautiful. Sometimes he changes the original meaning (see esp. CCXLVIIff for what looks like intentional modifications), and his formulations tend to be far more expansive and dramatic than the wording of the Greek text (not least in cases that reflect his own hostily towards the body: p. CCXXVII). More importantly, he tends to read the Hermetic content through his own lense of Neoplatonic Christianity (p. CCXXXVII); and one can see that, understandably enough, he looks to the Latin Asclepius as a model for his own translation (p. CCXLVII). 
In conclusion, even the most reliable version of Ficino's Pimander turns out to have been quite different from what we find in the Greek manuscript that had been brought to Florence by Leonardo da Pistoia (p. CCL). But what really messed up things for the thrice-greatest was the famous 1471 edition. In the wake of that disaster, and as the number of editions increased, the original meaning of the Corpus Hermeticum was bound to get buried under an ever-expanding number of mistranslations, misinterpretations, and well-meaning but counterproductive emendations. Hence, what we have is a lively Renaissance discourse about Hermes, but no Hermetic Tradition.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Of Essences and Energies

For some reason I am fascinated (dare I say “obsessed”?) by the history of the conflict between “paganism” and Christanity. Some years ago, when I discovered Gore Vidal’s novel about the 4th century pagan emperor Julian and his battle with the “Galileans,” I just couldn’t put the book out of my hands. This summer, sitting in the sun on my balcony and playing with my cats, I experienced a similar sense of excitement and fascination while reading a brandnew monograph about paganism and Christianity in the late Byzantine Empire. Niketas Siniossoglou’s Radical Platonism in Byzantium (Cambridge University Press 2011) is a provocative analysis of the Platonist philosopher / closet pagan George Gemistos Plethon and his battle with the Hesychast orthodoxy associated with Gregory Palamas. According to the Hesychast tradition, human beings are able to experience God’s “energies” in the world but not his ineffable “essence,” which exists beyond the boundary of Nature or the sphere of Being. The “supra-essential,” uncreated Light of the godhead could, nevertheless, be experienced in one’s heart and seen with one’s eyes, through radical psychophysical experiences of illumination (modeled after the experience of Jesus’ three apostles on Mount Thabor) that were supposed to be given by God’s grace in response to intense practice of spiritual techniques such as respiration control, concentration, uninterrupted prayer, and invocations of the name of Jesus. Siniossoglou argues that this perspective clashed with a hidden tradition of Platonic paganism that had been present in Byzantium for centuries and culminated in the writings of Plethon. Hesychasts aspired to a bodily experience of “entering within the uncreated light, seeing light and becoming light by divine grace” (p. 95), whereas Platonists aspired to “intellectual union with the divine, that is to say, the ecstatic ascent of the intellectual part of man alone, a process coinciding with the separation of soul and body (psychanodia)” (ibid.). The Hesychast attempt to keep Creator and Creation apart by distinguishing God’s uncreated essence from his energies was unacceptable for “pagan” Platonists: God’s energies could not be separate from his essence, and hence God could not transcend the sphere of Being but somehow had to be part of it. As such, he was not above nature, and his very essence should be accessible by the human mind or intellect in a state of “rational” ecstatic contemplation. In short, God could be known by the human mind’s natural faculties, whereas the Hesychasts claimed that God’s radically unknowable essence could only be experienced in a sensual but non-rational fashion through divine grace.
But is this distinction between Hesychast Christianity and Platonic Paganism really as sharp as Siniossoglou wants us to believe? Let me emphasize how much I admire the deep learning, penetrating intelligence, and profound analysis that is evident on every page of his book – not to mention the fact, of which I’m very much aware, that Siniossoglou’s knowledge in these domains is vastly superior to my own. The problems that I see do not have to do with his unquestionable expertise but, rather, with the intellectual background agenda that informs his analysis. It seems to consist of two parts: essentialism and rationalism. To begin with the first: surprisingly, and quite courageously given the prevailing climate in academic research, Siniossoglou argues with great passion, throughout his book, for a return to essentialism in the practice of intellectual history (p. xi, and passim): rather than blurring the boundaries between “Christianity” and “paganism,” we are asked to recognize them as “trans-historical paradigms” (p. xi) that ultimately cannot be mixed or combined because each of them answers to an intrinsically different internal logic. And secondly, Siniossoglou sees the paradigm of “Christianity” (here represented by Hesychast mysticism) as ultimately grounded in irrational attitudes and bizarre claims of experiential phenomena without serious epistemological import, whereas the paradigm of “paganism” reflects the kind of rational attitude that would ultimately lead to “modern epistemological optimism and utopianism” (p. x) and anticipates Spinoza and the Enlightenment (see the Epilogue, pp. 418-426).
Siniossoglou appears to think in terms of mutually exclusive binary opposites: it’s either essentialism or historicism (although admittedly he doesn’t use that term), either Christianity or paganism, either rationality or irrationality, and so on. As regards both his “essentialist” and his “rationalist” agenda, I would argue that this leads him to overlook the possibility of intermediary “third term” options. He is right that a methodology of extreme historicist relativism will ultimately leave us blind to fundamental deep structures and categorical distinctions that are at work in intellectual history; but on the other hand, if we take essentialism to an extreme, we end up with no more than theoretical abstractions divorced from historical reality and its messy complexities. To be honest, I suspect that Siniossoglou is too good a historian to be really the essentialist he professes to be: his actual approach seems quite compatible with the kind of history of ideas, or intellectual history, associated with Arthur O. Lovejoy's methodology, which manages to avoid both horns of the dilemma (for my basic line of argument in that regard, see this article, especially pp. 2-3 and 19). In short, Siniossoglou’s basic point is well taken, but I do not think he needs essentialist approaches to make it. As regards his rationalist agenda, I would question the double assumption that Hesychast mysticism had nothing to do with “knowledge” (because it was “irrational”) while Pagan/Platonic philosophy had nothing to do with “mysticism” (because it was “rational”). This simple opposition seems a projection of post-18th century Enlightenment assumptions back onto late medieval intellectual culture. Siniossoglou is certainly right in emphasizing that Plethon’s monist worldview left no room for a “super-essential” divine essence separate from Being, with the implication that human beings are not dependent on divine grace but possess an inborn, natural ability for gaining higher or absolute knowledge. But I’m not so convinced that this “epistemological optimism” is necessary “rational” in a sense that is reminiscent of Spinoza or the Enlightenment. We are dealing here with some form of ecstatic contemplation more akin to Platonic manía, as admitted by Siniossoglou himself. As an alternative to both Christian “faith” and philosophical “reason,” I would range it under a third category that could be referred to as “gnosis.”
Given his agenda of highlighting Plethon’s rationalism, it comes as no surprise that Siniossoglou seeks to downplay the relevance of authors such as Suhrawardi, who has often been mentioned as a background influence on Plethon, but who claimed that the Platonic quest culminated in visions that sound peculiarly similar to those of… the Hesychasts: “let [the philosopher] engage in mystical disciplines … that perchance he will, as one dazzled by the thunderbolt, see the light blazing in the Kingdom of Power and will witness the heavenly essences and lights that Hermes and Plato beheld” (Suhrawardi, The Philosophy of Illumination, Walbridge & Ziai ed. [1999], 107-108). Again, it would seem to be the same rationalist agenda, combined with his essentialist methodology, that forces Siniossoglou to conclude that many later Platonists, such as Proclus, were not really Platonic, and not really “pagan” either! Their “introvert, defeatist and passive late antiquity Neoplatonism bordering on obscurantism” (p. 191) is, again, too close to Hesychasm for his taste, and too different from his idealized picture of a wholly rational Plato. Of course, Siniossoglou knows that there’s a different side to Plato as well, which would seem to imply “that man’s intellectual resources are not sufficient to know ‘the divine and lofty things’ but require ‘some sort of inspiration’ (ἐπίπνοια) that will illumine him and uplift him to that high level” (p. 177). Apparently, however, he seems prepared to draw the conclusion that whenever he falls short of the rationalist ideal, even Plato himself is not “really” a Platonist…
Be that as it may, and regardless of what one may think of its essentialist and rationalist subtexts, Radical Platonism in Byzantium is an eye-opener that deserves to be read and re-read. Apart from Plethon and Palamas, it introduced me to a whole range of deeply intriguing thinkers whose very names I had never heard before, let alone that I knew anything of their work or their ideas. If realizing the extent of one’s ignorance is the beginning of wisdom, then this book is for anyone who aspires to become wise.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Alt & Neumann on Hermetismus

There is a popular stereotype about academics: they spend far too much of their time bickering endlessly about the meaning of terms. Shouldn’t they better dispense with such tedious foreplay and get straight on to their real business, addressing the topics themselves that they are supposed to be studying? It is not so easy to explain to non-academics that this is a naïve request, because those topics themselves are often not there in the first place, but are constructed by the very discourse in which they are being discussed. Take “Hermeticism”, or “the Hermetic Tradition”. Are we thinking here only of the Corpus Hermeticum and its commentaries, or do we also mean to include a whole range of alchemical writings attributed to the legendary author Hermes Trismegistus? Is such authorship essential for something to be “Hermetic”, or do we assume that since alchemy is known universally as “the Hermetic art”, Hermes does not even need to be mentioned? But if so, do alchemy and the Corpus Hermeticum really have that much in common, apart from the name? If so, what is it that they have in common? And what do we do with texts about astrology or natural magic attributed to the Thrice Greatest? Do they suddenly become “Hermetic” too, just because of that attribution, while texts with perfectly similar contents that happen to be attributed to some other author are not? That seems quite arbitrary. But then again, if we conclude that therefore we do not need a reference to Hermes to call something “Hermetic”, then what do we need in order to do so? Presumably something that all of these texts and traditions have in common, setting them apart from all others. But imagine that we will manage to establish some such common features (by which criteria? established by whom? why? with which arguments?), then will we still have any reason to call those common denominators “Hermetic” at all?
And so on, and so forth… I’m afraid that such a seemingly endless string of questions will only add more fuel to the already dim view that outsiders tend to have of academic discourse. And yet we really have no other choice than to deal with these terminological issues seriously. While reading a recent book by Peter-André Alt, Imaginäres Geheimwissen: Untersuchungen zum Hermetismus in literarischen Texten der frühen Neuzeit [Imaginary Secret Knowledge: Studies of Hermetism in Early Modern Literary Texts], I was reminded that the problem gets complicated even further by the contingencies of how scholarly traditions have developed in different disciplines as well as in different countries and linguistic domains. In anglo-saxon research, the legacy of Frances A. Yates is absolutely unavoidable even for scholars (like myself) who disagree with almost everything she said; but for some reason, Yates’ seminal Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) never got translated into German, and neither the book nor all the discussions around it seem to have had much impact on the German debate. An entirely different scholarly tradition has emerged here in the field of literature instead, with entirely different arguments and assumptions, strongly influenced in this case by the pioneering work of Hans-Georg Kemper – who never got translated either, and remains almost unknown to non-German scholars. As a result, instead of an international scholarly debate about “Hermeticism” we have a series of local networks that hardly care to listen to what the others have to say. In the Humanities at least, this kind of provincialism is much more widespread than we might think: the Germans read German, the French read French, the Italians read Italian, the Russians read Russian, and so on – and none of them gets read by the English-speaking world. Of course I’m exaggerating a bit for the sake of argument, but the pattern is a real one.  
In discussing how he plans to use the term Hermetismus in his book, Peter-André Alt, too, appears to think entirely in terms of German academic discourse. He takes his cue mostly from Hans-Georg Kemper and Wilhelm Kühlmann (p. 13, 15), both of them very impressive scholars whose work would deserve to be much better known beyond the German domain. Now Kühlmann appears to understand Hermetismus in a very broad sense, as including more or less everything that tends to be discussed in current English-language research under the label of early modern “esotericism” (see his programmatic article ‘Der “Hermetismus” als literarische Formation: Grundzüge seiner Rezeption in Deutschland’, Scientia Poetica 3 [1999], 145-157), but Alt rejects that terminology because he finds it anachronistic. While he expresses some objections to my way of approaching the problems of definition and categorization, I suspect that my recent work (Esotericism and the Academy, published in the same year as Alt’s book and hence not accessible to him at the time) might perhaps put some of them to rest. Be that as it may, I think that Alt’s resistance against the “esotericism” label has to do not only with a (quite justified) fear of anachronistic reasoning, but at least as much with the simple fact that his own field of specialization is restricted to the early modern period. As a result, he and his colleagues do not need to bother about the longue durée of the traditions they study, and can dispense with the problem of finding a term that covers all of it. In a solid discussion written by Alt in collaboration with Volkhard Wels, published in a multi-author companion volume Konzepte des Hermetismus in der Literatur der Frühen Neuzeit(2010), this point is acknowledged explicitly (p. 8).
What then is Alt’s approach? On the one hand, he wants to use a much more restrictive and precise definition of Hermetismus than Kühlmann: he emphasizes repeatedly that his book will be grounded in ‘a determination of Hermetism based on exact source-philological criteria … based strictly on the Corpus Hermeticum and its topoi’ (p. 21). On the face of it, then, his book will be concerned exclusively with the reception history of the C.H. in early modern literary texts. The reception of alchemical materials, including the Tabula Smaragdina, is strictly excluded (p. 21). However, it would seem that this ambition of applying great philological/source-critical rigour suffers shipwreck immediately, for a simple reason: it just so happens, Alt points out, that we rarely find any ‘direct textual references’ to the C.H. in early modern literature at all (p. 16)! Instead, we are seldom dealing with more than indirect ‘allusions [Anspielungen] and the hidden use of central patterns of argumentation’ (pp. 16-17, cf. 23). If this is the case, then doesn’t it make Alt’s apparently so severe program of a quellenphilologisch exakte Bestimmung des Hermetismus (p. 21) impossible from the outset? It would seem hard to draw any other conclusion, until one realizes that Alt has opened a narrow escape route in the final words of the quotation given above: ‘… based strictly on the Corpus Hermeticum and its topoi’.
So what are those topoi? Alt first mentions three criteria of what he, for reasons best known to himself, considers to be particularly “Hermetic” (the logos doctrine, the central function of inspiration, and the special importance of doxa transmitted from teacher to pupil [21]), and continues by mentioning some ‘specifically literary topoi through which Hermetic traces are passed on: to these belong secrecy, reading the Book of Nature, androgyny, the self-reflection of poetic production or the brooding silence of melancholy’ (p. 23). Judging from such a description, I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that Kühlmann’s wide and inclusive understanding of Hermetismus has silently returned through the back door. For if all these “topoi” are supposed to be “Hermetic” – but unfortunately, Alt never explains what it is that makes them “Hermetic”, or in what sense –, then the term Hermetismus becomes so vague and all-encompassing as to be virtually meaningless. In short, I’m afraid that Alt’s laudable project of a quellenphilologisch exakte Bestimmung based strictly on the Corpus Hermeticum vanishes into thin air even before it is put to the test.
In some other respects, too, the quellenphilologische foundations are less secure than one might think at first sight. I would not dare to question Alt’s expertise in early modern German literature, in which he undoubtedly knows his business, but it must be said that his knowledge of the Corpus Hermeticum and its early modern reception is rather flimsy, and the same goes for his familiarity with non-German scholarship in this domain. Amazingly, Alt never seems to have noticed that the C.H. consists not of ‘insgesamt 18 Traktate’ (p. 25, 26, 27) but of only seventeen (the first editor of the Greek text, Adrien Turnèbe, created a fifteenth treatise out of some Hermetic excerpts from Stobaeus, but this was seen as artificial by later editors, who left it out again but kept the numbering: hence the absence of a C.H. XV). And although Lodovico Lazzarelli (the translator of the final three treatises of the C.H., not included in Ficino’s Pimander) figures prominently in the very title of Alt’s Chapter 2, it seems that all he knows about this figure – who is in fact crucial when it comes to the quellenphilologische foundations of Renaissance Hermetism – is taken indirectly from Hanns-Peter Neumann’s problematic review (in Scientia Poetica 12 [2008], 315-322) of the main contemporary monograph on Lazzarelli, published by yours truly in collaboration with Ruud Bouthoorn in 2005. I really need to set the record straight here, for almost everything that Alt writes about Lazzarelli and my own work is wrong.
Most of Alt's mistakes have their origin in Neumann himself, who, for reasons unknown to me, seemed determined to present our book on Lazzarelli in the most negative light possible. Sitting on a very high horse, he complained first of all about the ‘Lässigkeit und Mangelhaftigheit’ of our ‘incomplete and partly incorrect’ bibliography (p. 318). What was the problem? Well, we appear to have overlooked one title: Alselm Stoeckel’s 1582 edition of Lazzarelli’s Crater Hermetis (attached to his Epithalamion and therefore easy to miss). There is no reason, however, why we should have mentioned all the later reprints of Lefèvre d’Étaples’ famous 1505 edition, although Neumann thinks we should; and most importantly, before accusing us of a mistake as elementary as getting the date of Gabriel du Preau’s French translation wrong, he should have taken the trouble to consult the book itself. It was first published in 1549, exactly as indicated in our bibliography, and not in 1557 as claimed by Neumann on the basis of the French National Library Catalogue. So much for the ‘Lässigheit und Mangelhaftigkeit’ of our bibliography, which then inspires Neumann to express doubts about the quality of our translations as well (but what is the connection?) only to end up concluding, apparently to his surprise, that those doubts are unfounded and we do know our Latin after all... As for Lazzarelli’s Corpus Hermeticum translation, known as the Diffinitiones Asclepii, Neumann’s knowledge of it does not reach as far as the information that, as already noted above, it contains no C.H. XV (p. 316, 319); and if he had read our sloppy and faulty bibliography a bit better, he would have known that the Diffinitiones were published by C. Vasoli in E. Castelli's Umanesimo e esoterismo in 1960. Hence his claim that we have failed to grasp the chance of ‘doing pioneering work’ on these translations (p. 319) rests on nothing. Not a word of appreciation, by the way, about the series of critical editions and annotated translations of previously unavailable texts, including several manuscripts, that we did publish in our book.
Incompetent reviews [sometimes written by competent scholars, as happens to be the case here] are a fact of academic life, and are better ignored in most cases. They become a problem if renowned scholars take them seriously, and rely on them in lieu of reading the book itself, particularly if this happens in a monograph. Unfortunately, such is the case here. A relatively minor issue is that Neumann and Alt both present me as ignoring the “neoplatonic” nature of the Corpus Hermeticum while attributing neoplatonic interpretations only to Ficino (Neumann p. 320; Alt p. 26 nt 39): in doing so, they seem to conflate the well-known middle-Platonic backgrounds of the C.H. with properly neo-Platonic interpretations in the wake of Plotinus. More serious is Alt’s completely incorrect claim that Lazzarelli’s Crater is about ‘the idea of transmigration’ (Alt p. 26), quod non, or his misleading description of Lazzarelli as ‘a pupil of the alchemist Giovanni da Correggio’ (it is only at a very late stage that both men seem to have developed an interest in pseudo-Lullian alchemy: Correggio was essentially a wandering apocalyptic prophet and miracle man). In fact, these few mistaken statements are all that we get to read about Lazzarelli at all. Nothing indicates that Alt ever read our book, and hence he misses quite some information that could actually have been useful to some of his later arguments, for instance about Poimandres as the Logos (cf. pp. 30-31).
I prefer not to go into detail about a range of further statements, later on in the same chapter, about the Corpus Hermeticum and its contents: this blogpost is already getting far too long. The points I have been trying to make are simple. Firstly: Hermeticism is an extremely complicated topic, both historically and conceptually, and the sine qua non in writing about it consists in careful study of the primary sources in their original languages together with equally careful study of the secondary sources in their original languages. And secondly: the imperative of always going ad fontes pertains not only to the former category, but to the latter as well. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Desire for Beauty

This week I have been re-reading Der Tod in Venedig. Thomas Mann has been my favourite German author for several decades now, but my memory of this particular novel had receded almost completely behind the more recent experience of watching Luchino Visconti’s famous movie of 1971. Because I happened to be reading a contemporary novel at the same time – Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (in this case I had seen the movie first) – I was reminded once more that one should never allow one’s standards of quality to be determined by the average level of good and professional writing, but only by the example of truly great authors. No offence intended to Martel, who is competent enough as a writer, but obviously Mann is in a different league altogether. It had been some time since I had read prose of such superior beauty, and the experience brought me straight back to one of my long-term topics of interest and reflection: the nature of beauty and erotic desire. For that, of course, is what Mann’s novel is all about. It tells the deceptively simple story of a famous writer, Gustav Aschenbach, who, following a sudden impulse, decides to escape from his daily work discipline to take a holiday in Venice, where he falls under the fatal spell of an incredibly beautiful teenage boy, Tadzio, who is staying with his family in the same hotel. They never exchange a word. All that Aschenbach does is watching his “idol” from a distance during dinner, on the beach, or during sightseeing tours through the city. When the great man finally succumbs to cholera, while sitting in his chair on the beach, Tadzio is hovering in front of him on the edge between earth, water, and sky, as a luminous figure – Hermes the Psychagoge – beckoning him across the threshold between life and death.
Mann’s lifelong struggle with his homoerotic desires is a key to his oeuvre (see the brilliant biography by Herman Kurzke, which cannot be recommended highly enough, even if it might go just a bit too far in reducing Mann’s Urkram entirely to sexual/erotic repression and sublimation), and his allusions to Plato’s Phaedrus are obvious and wholly explicit. Therefore I decided to re-read that dialogue as well, in a good translation by Robin Waterfield. What I knew best was the famous center part about the four divine frenzies, the chariot of the soul, and its “wings of desire” that start growing in the presence of beauty (cf. Wim Wenders’s movie of that title, known as Der Himmel über Berlin in German). This time I paid more attention to the first parts as well. First Phaedrus recounts a speech by the famous orator Lysias, who argues that an older man who desires a younger boy should take care not to lose his wits by actually falling in love with him, but should keep a cool head and just get what he wants. It’s essentially a cynical argument that highlights the risks and disadvantages of losing one’s reason in the pursuit of sex. Socrates responds by coming up with a speech of his own, which emphasizes that the lover’s erotic passion is disadvantageous and risky to the beloved as well.
Now just imagine. There they are, the older man Socrates and the young attractive Phaedrus, lying in the soft grass under a great tree outside the gates of Athens, far from any prying eyes, and reaching a clear conclusion: one should not give in to the irrational passion of erotic desire! It is precisely at this point that Socrates is interrupted by his inner daimon, who tells him that the tale he has just been telling is utterly false: he has committed a terrible offense against the great God of Love, and should do penance. And so he does, by launching into a speech with an entirely different message, which praises not reasonable restraint but the frenzied state of erotic madness (mania) as a divine condition that leads to true and lasting knowledge. By gazing upon a beautiful human body, the soul is reminded of the absolute beauty that it has once beheld when it was still travelling in the company of the gods along the outer rim of the heaven. From there it could gaze into the region beyond heaven, which “has never yet been adequately described in any of our earthly poets’ compositions, nor will it ever be”: this is the home of absolute unchanging and everlasting beauty, of which the passing images of corporeal beauty in this temporal world can give only a reflection. This beauty is the proper divine nourishment for the wings of the soul: at the sight of a beautiful human body, they spontaneously begin to grow, getting ready to carry the soul upwards back to its divine origin.
It’s a splendid narrative, compellingly beautiful in its very analysis of beauty. Reading Plato’s Phaedrus again, in conjunction with Thomas Mann Tod in Venedig, I couldn’t help musing about the incredible power of ideas. The impact of this relatively short dialogue can hardly be overstated, and regardless of its beauty (or, rather, because of it?) it must be admitted that its effects have been far from just positive. Firstly, Plato’s insistence that we must find beauty beyond the body has given legitimacy to Christian obsessions with sex and sin, at least since Augustine, leading to pervasive mechanisms of repression and sublimation that are the object of psychoanalysis and remain omnipresent in our society to the present day. Secondly, the narrative simply denies beauty to women; and while this would eventually be corrected, when Platonism got heterosexualized into a veritable “religion of beauty in woman” – medieval chivalric ideals of “courtly love”, some currents of Sufism, Renaissance Platonism after Ficino, Romanticism – it remains doubtful, to say the least, whether the masculine gaze can at all be translated into a feminine gaze on corporeal beauty (whether masculine or feminine) – or whether it should. And finally, the Platonic ideal of love has led to an implicit “complicity with death” at least since German Romanticism: perhaps beginning with Justinus Kerner (an underestimated pioneer: see pp. 236-237 here), eros has been implicated with illness and death, because only through dissolution of the body is it supposed to be possible for the soul to reach its true destiny. Nobody knew this better than Thomas Mann himself, for not just Tod in Venedig but also its splendid hetero-erotic counterpart Tristan, and indeed his entire oeuvre – particularly Der Zauberberg and Doktor Faustus, which really diagnose the cultural pathologies underlying World War I and II respectively – can be read as testimony to a persistent struggle with the human, moral, and ultimately political implications of Platonic eros. There is something awe-inspiring (literally numinous) in the realization that, in some very real sense, so much of the essential drama of Western culture may have its origin in a frenzied conversation between two Greek philosophers, lying under a shady tree on a lazy afternoon, talking about love.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Next Generation

Recently I have been making the argument (see here, and cf. my article Textbooks and Introductions to Western Esotericism, Religion 43:2 [2013]) that the academic study of Western esotericism was upgraded around 1992 from its somewhat primitive starting phase (“Western esotericism 1.0”) to a much more professional program (“Western esotericism 2.0”), and that after twenty years it’s now time for a serious new upgrade to “Western esotericism 3.0”. The original program from the 1970s and 80s was inspired by an often implicit and sometimes explicit critique of the “modern world” that reflected a profound nostalgia for pre-Enlightenment worldviews. Hence esotericism tended to be perceived, in highly positive terms, as an enchanted holistic “form of thought” that was dominated, in the influential terms of Antoine Faivre, by correspondences (rather than instrumental causality), living nature (rather than dead mechanicism), imagination and mediations (rather than abstract reason and materialism), and the potential for spiritual transmutation or interior rebirth (rather than the sober assumption that we are just what we are). Among the important advances of Western esotericism 2.0 was that it broke with this anti-modern background agenda by recognizing a wide variety of post-Enlightenment esotericisms as equally important and worthy of investigation as their pre-Enlightenment ancestors. While Faivre’s definition has remained influential through the 1990s and into the next century, there was henceforth plenty of room for the study of “modernized” or (in my own terms of the mid-1990s) “secularized” forms of esotericism. Nevertheless, this process of bringing the study of esotericism “up to the present” still isn’t entirely complete: as argued by Egil Asprem and Kennet Granholm in their important new volume Contemporary Esotericism (2013) there is still a tendency among scholars towards ignoring or marginalizing the popular contemporary scene, along with a tendency of focusing exclusively on historical methods at the expense of the social sciences. They are right that this bias needs to be corrected: after all, if we agree that esotericism as a field of research extends from late antiquity to our own time, then stopping just short of the contemporary scene is simply arbitrary.
Consisting of twenty chapters subdivided into four parts, this 470-page volume covers a wide variety of subjects: from influential and/or controversial currents or topics such as chaos magick, satanism, scientology, deep ecology, entheogenic shamanism, indigo children, Paulo Coelho’s bestsellers, alternative healing, and the new age, to highly relevant but still partly underestimated dimensions of the field such as race, gender, secrecy, politics, the internet, and popular culture. And even that is just a partial sample: it is easy to imagine a sequel covering many additional angles or dimensions, for instance the presence of esotericism or the occult in rock, metal, or avant-garde music, in comics, in role playing or video gaming, in movies, in art, in novels (from high literature to pulp fiction) or poetry, or in popular psychology. The potential seems even more overwhelming if one considers how many new religious movements are grounded in esoteric worldviews, or thinks of additional disciplinary perspectives such as media studies, ritual studies, black studies, cognitive psychology, etcetera. In short, it seems to me that Asprem and Granholm have hit upon a goldmine: the scope of “contemporary esotericism” is almost unlimited.
In terms of my software analogy, the timing of the volume could not have been more perfect: I would argue that it shows how the shift towards “Western Esotericism 3.0” is in fact already taking place, carried by a “next generation” of young scholars with fresh new ideas and unburdened by some of their predecessors’ preoccupations or blind spots (I estimate that most of the contributors to Contemporary Esotericism are in their twenties or thirties). There is a new tone and a new attitude here, and I would agree with Granholm’s suggestion that it reflects what he calls a “post-secular” mindset: ‘the study of Western esotericism itself, and in particular the growing acceptance of it as a legitimate field of inquiry, could be regarded as an expression of post-secular trends. This is the case if the post-secular implies a broadening of academic sentiments regarding what is worthwhile to study in the world of religion, and indeed what can even be accepted under that very label (pp. 323-324).In close connection to this, Granholm points out that ‘Popular culture is an arena in which requirements for the “seriousness of belief” and notions of religion as dealing with “ultimate concerns” must be abandoned’ (p. 324) This is a point that can hardly be emphasized enough. Not only do we need to question the crypto-Protestant bias according to which religion or esotericism must ultimately be about “faith” or “beliefs”, so that dimensions such as practice or experience have to be secondary at best; but with respect to esotericism in popular culture more specifically, we also need to think about the possible relevance of such things as play and humor, irreverence and irony, iconoclasm and blasphemy, sentimentality and provocation, or kitch and commercialism, to mention just a few. Will this still leave room for all those extremely serious elements that have traditionally been highlighted as crucial to “esotericism”, such as the pursuit of gnosis or higher knowledge, secrecy and concealment, worldviews of divine enchantment, or initiatory trajectories? I have no answer to these questions (at least, not yet), but perhaps the next generation does.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


Julian Strube, who is presently working on his Ph.D. at Heidelberg University, recently published a revised version of his M.A. thesis under the title Vril: Eine okkulte Urkraft in Theosophie und esoterischem Neonazismus (Vril: An Occult Ur-Power in Theosophy and Esoteric Neonazism). It is an extremely well-documented and well-written piece of reception history that holds valuable lessons not just for readers who might be tempted to believe in the popular mythology of “Nazi occultism” but, in fact, for anybody interested in the relation between myth and history. The amazing story of Vril begins with The Coming Race, a novel published in 1871 by the Victorian author Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). This pioneering piece of science fiction writing describes a subterranean world inhabited by a superhuman race, the Vril-ya, whose superior technology is based upon a mysterious natural force of unlimited potency. This primal super-power known as Vril became a topic of fascination for many readers who suspected, or believed, that Bulwer-Lytton – the author of Zanoni (1842), the most famous occult novel of the nineteenth century – was in fact a Rosicrucian “initiate” revealing true mysteries of the occult under the guise of fiction. The mnemohistorical fiction of Bulwer-Lytton as a kind of occultist avant-la-lettre seems to have originated in the milieu around John Yarker and the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, and its influence can be traced up even to recent works of scholarship such as Joscelyn Godwin’s The Theosophical Enlightenment (1994). Strube makes clear in precise detail that it has no historical foundation. He continues by describing how the Vril mythology travelled through time and got embellished with ever new and ever more fantastic elements, by theosophists such as H.P. Blavatsky and William Scott-Elliot to the founder of Anthroposophy Rudolf Steiner and, most importantly in view of later developments, two pamphlets published in 1930 by an organization known as the ReichsarbeitsgemeinschaftDas kommende Deutschland” (“The Future Germany”: pp. 98ff). In the final years of the Weimar Republic, these enthusiasts imbued with popular esoteric lore and somewhat influenced by völkisch-nationalist and ariosophical ideas believed they were on the verge of great things: “The Vril power has been re-discovered, the emerald tablets of the great Hermes Trismegistus radiate in the green-blue light of the approaching dawn of uranidian nature-control” (p. 103).
And then, after World War II, the Vril-mythology was disseminated among a mass audience due to Louis Pauwels’ and Jacques Bergier’s bestseller Le matin des magiciens (“The Morning of the Magicians”, 1960), which introduced the idea of a secret “Vril Society”, largely inspired by an article of the German rocket scientist Willy Ley (131ff): “Pseudo-Science in Naziland”, published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1947, and apparently inspired in turn by those 1930 pamphlets of the ReichsarbeitsgemeinschaftDas kommende Deutschland”. Building further on a whole series of French and English authors who, already during the 1930s and 1940s, had published sensationalist books about Hitler as an “adept” and Master of a magical Order, or a medium possessed by demonic forces, Le matin des magiciens laid the foundations for countless conspiracy theories about “Nazi occultism” that have flourished in popular literature and on the Internet ever since. In this remarkably popular genre, the fictional “Vril Society” came to be associated with Rudolf von Sebottendorff’s “Thule Society”, which was now interpreted as a sinister occultist organization that used Hitler as a medium and was searching for the supreme Superpower of Vril believed to be hidden somewhere in the Orient. Eventually, one finds this Nazism-occultism mythology even in mainstream movies such as Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series, the Hellboy series, or computer animation games such as Wolfenstein. In the final parts of his book, Strube does a very good job documenting and analyzing the dissemination and further transformation of these ideas in the context of contemporary far right and neonazi subcultures. One thing the book did for me was making it somewhat more understandable why German academics and intellectuals tend to associate Esoterik so strongly with fascism and antisemitism: the reasons for this connection are complex – among other things, it has much to do with the influence of the Frankfurt School – but Strube’s discussions made me realize that the Esotericism-Nazism link in the wake of Pauwels/Bergier may also have a higher profile in Germany than in most other European countries simply because there is so much popular stuff around that highlights that connection. If so, the irony is that if German intellectuals reject Esoterik as tainted with dangerous political connotations, they may in fact be doing so because they are buying too uncritically into the claims of occultist mythology.
My only regret about Strube’s work is that it remains entirely on the level of descriptive historiography: he traces the reception history of Vril mythology from Bulwer-Lytton to the present, but makes no attempt to reflect a bit more about the theoretical implications of this strange story, or the lessons that may be drawn from it. The Vril story does, however, provide us with much food for thought. Personally, for instance, I would see it as a perfect object lesson about the socio-political implications of Jan Assmann’s opposition of history versus mnemohistory. As I have pointed out in another context, it is a worrying fact that attractive stories about what is supposed to have happened although it never did (i.e. artificially constructed collective memories about the past) may often have a much greater impact on people’s thinking and behaviour than the carefully documented and much more reliable descriptions that can be offered by professional historians. All the more reason for historians to keep trying. By wielding the sharp weapon of critical historiography, with an excellent command of the primary sources, Strube succeeds in deconstructing a whole series of popular mnemohistorical fictions: for anybody who has read his analysis carefully, it will henceforth be hard if not impossible to keep entertaining the possibility that Bulwer-Lytton was an “initiate”, Vril might be a really existing occult superpower, the Nazis were closet occultists, Hitler was an “adept”, and so on. Moreover, I would argue, the very fact that such demystification is possible and convincing should serve to deconstruct yet another myth: the popular poststructural argument, or cliché, that history writing is no more than narrative making, and historians are incapable of establishing “what really happened”. Of course they can. Granted the obvious fact that no historian can reproduce exactly wie es eigentlich gewesen, anybody with even a minimal respect for empirical evidence and rational argument will have to admit that Strube’s account of how the Vril and Nazi-occultism mythology emerged and developed is superior in every respect to the pseudo-historical claims of its supporters. If we give in to the lazy conclusion (more common in popularized versions, I hasten to add, than in the work of the theoretical founding fathers, who are usually more subtle) that the accounts of professional historians are never more than “just an opinion”, because their claims of “knowledge” are in fact just claims of power, we will eventually find ourselves without protection against the powerful seductions of mythmaking in the interest of political goals. In other words: without realizing it, we will have joined the ranks of the believers in Vril.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Grand Theories, Feeble Foundations

When I heard that Dennis McKenna had published a book about his life and that of his brother Terence (deceased in 2000), I ordered it immediately. Terence became famous during the 1980s and 1990s as the most articulate and charismatic "public intellectual" of the psychedelic counterculture - movies of his talks and interviews are spread all over the internet - and I find him particularly interesting as a hyper-radical hippie esotericist steeped in alchemical and other "hermetic" lore (read entirely through the lenses of "Eranos scholars" such as Jung and Eliade) as well as the largely unacknowledged source of 2012 millenarianism (for those who are interested in that story: see my article "'And End History. And go to the Stars': Terence McKenna and 2012").
While McKenna's work was all about the "re-enchantment of the world", The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss: My Life with Terence McKenna has had a profoundly disenchanting effect on me. Intentionally or not (probably not) Dennis exposes the public image of Terence McKenna as little more than a myth and replaces it by a far less attractive picture of the actual person. There is no doubt that his older brother possessed a sharp mind, a delightful "gift of gab", and a great sense of humour; but apparently he was also an extremely egoistic narcissist with little regard for anyone except himself. As Dennis puts it, Terence "seemed not to have an empathetic bone in his body" (95, cf. 86), got angry when someone disagreed with him or challenged his ideas (25), and was incapable of forgiving people (93): "once you got on his shit list, you stayed there; there was no going back" (94). Interestingly, given her current association with right-wing values, he turns out to have been a fan of Ayn Rand's writings, which "validated, for him, his anti-authoritarian stance as well as his belief that it was perfectly OK to be totally selfish" (95).
The McKenna legend revolves essentially around the radical experiences of "the brotherhood" (expanded with a few friends) at a settlement called La Chorrera deep in the Colombian Amazon forest, in 1971: "In some respects, everything in life before we arrived at La Chorrera was a prelude to the events that engulfed us there; and everything afterward has been a reflection of them" (241). Having ingested an extremely potent mixture of psychedelic substances, the brotherhood sincerely believed that, as the first human beings in history, they had found the secret of the philosophers' stone and had opened the way for the entire human race to escape from history and "go to the stars"... Dennis now claims that most of the radical ideas that were central to this Colombian adventure were actually his own rather than Terence's (248; and see also p. 149 about the seminal role assigned to a friend, John Parker), and he reserves the starring role for himself rather than his brother; but apart from this, his rather dry account adds disappointingly little to the brilliantly written descriptions in Terence's True Hallucinations (1993). But even more disappointing is Dennis's inability or unwillingness, even decades afterwards, to draw the obvious conclusion that what happened to them at La Chorrera may subjectively have been very impressive to them at the time, but can quite easily be explained as a monumental psychedelic delusion supported by wild theories that (as Dennis admits himself) may "sound like scientific jargon, but ... are nonsense" (255). I see no good reason to make such a big deal of it all, but Dennis seems determined not to apply Occam's Razor: surely he makes quite some sceptical noises throughout these chapters, but one has the impression that in his heart he still wants to believe that somehow, in some sense, it was all true.
Of course it is hard to let go of an obsession to which one has devoted most of one's life, and perhaps all this wavering can be explained, partly at least, out of simple loyalty to his brother's memory. In my article on McKenna (see link, above) I expressed my respect for Terence's unflinching acceptance of what is known as "the Watkins objection". In their book The Invisible Landscape (1975), grounded in the La Chorrera experience, the two brothers had developed their famous "timewave theory", according to which, among other things, a radical "concrescence" would take place in 2012. When a young mathematician, Matthew Watkins, explained to him that the mathematical foundations of the theory were unsound, Terence apparently accepted the argument and endorsed the publication of Watkins' "Autopsy for a Mathematical Hallucination". As I have discovered since publishing my article, the reality may have been slightly less heroic. According to Dennis, the refutation of his theory affected Terence deeply and shook his confidence (456-457); but more importantly, when Samten Dorje asked him point blank, in 1997, whether he actually believed in the Timewave theory, apparently the answer ("with a twinkle and a smile") was "No. But it pays the bills" (see Dorje, Did Terence McKenna believe his own theory?). One is forced to conclude from Dennis's biography that this was probably the truth of the matter. Terence had "inherited his father's talent, or flaw, for never letting facts get in the way of a good story" (23), and during the last decade of his life he seems to have depended financially on public appearances before audiences that simply expected him to deliver inspiring talks about the "end of time" in 2012. What to do under such circumstances? Perhaps one might say that, by the end of his life, Terence McKenna found himself trapped by his own theory.
At the end of the day, the story of The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss is a sad one: it tells us about fervent hopes and great expectations never fulfilled, grand but feeble theories that inevitably suffer shipwreck on the hard rocks of reality, and two brothers who throughout their life, each in their own way, refuse or are perhaps unable to recognize that truth. Dennis, who pursued a scientific career and became a respected ethnopharmacologist, never seems to have resolved the conflict between myth and science. As for Terence, who rejected science altogether (282): he was finally swallowed whole by the myth of his own making.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Science in virtual reality


Like many Dutch academics, I resisted the idea of buying Diederik Stapel’s book Ontsporing (Derailment), in which he analyzes his descent into systematic scientific deception. I didn’t like the idea of him making money by describing his own fraudulent practices, and I was fully prepared for a narcissistic product filled with subtle or less subtle attempts at self-justification. But the book has surprised me. In the words of Beatrijs Ritsema (who published one of the most thoughtful reviews so far) it breathes an atmosphere of “immeasurable loneliness”, and comes across as an honest attempt at soul-searching, filled with apparently sincere expressions of deep regret and shame. Stapel knows that his actions are inexcusable, and makes no attempt to let himself off the hook: the book has mea culpa written all over it. As some reviewers have noted, it is also an almost desperate plea for some human compassion (see the passage involving J.S. Bach’s Embarme Dich on pp. 268-269), although not for absolution; and outraged as I remain by how Stapel made a mockery of even the most elementary standards of scientific integrity, I do think he has been punished enough. His life is destroyed and he has lost everything: his title, his job, his income, his reputation, his future, and everyone’s respect. He has become a target of near-universal contempt and can no longer show his face in public without inviting ridicule: professor magna cum fraude. His very name has become a synonym of fraud (the expression “een stapeltje doen” – staplerizing – has already entered the Dutch language) and he will go down into history as a liar of the worst kind. Last but not least, for the rest of his life he will have to deal with the guilt of having betrayed and severely damaged everyone around him: his colleagues, his Ph.D. students, and most of all his wife and two young daughters (who have shown impressive love, loyalty, and courage in sticking up for their husband and father in spite of everything).
Although some newspaper reviews would make one think otherwise, there is no room for Schadenfreude in the Stapel affair, only for sadness and embarrassment. But what, if anything, can we learn from it? Although Stapel describes his “derailment” in quite some detail, his attempts at explaining it remain tentative, hesitant, and superficial: when all is said and done, he seems as puzzled and mystified by his own behaviour as everyone else. Hence, at the heart of this book we do not find any clear thesis or conclusion but, instead, a very large question mark.
To get a bit closer to an explanation, it may be useful to read Onsporing in tandem (like I did) with another recent book written by a psychologist, a Belgian this time. Paul Verhaeghe’s Identiteit contains one of the most convincing recent analyses of the currently dominant neoliberal ideology and its inherent pathologies. If one reads Verhaeghe’s analysis of the neoliberal or corporate university (Identiteit, pp. 126-132) next to Stapel’s description of how the academy is working today (Ontsporing, pp. 127-145), one realizes that the Stapel affair is a perfect illustration of Verhaeghe’s argument. If Verhaeghe is a doctor who diagnoses an illness, Stapel’s role is that of the symptom. The patient, of course, is our current university system.
It seems to me that two points are essential in explaining Stapel’s derailment. Firstly: having become a successful professor of social psychology, Stapel seems to have loved the game more than its objective, the means more than the end. It appears that he fell in love with the daily practice of being an academic (teaching, interacting with colleagues, attending conferences, having intellectual discussions with students, supervising research, setting up new research projects, acquiring funds, managing a faculty, and so on) and lost sight of the goal: advancing our knowledge in the domain of social psychology. Many modern academics experience the neoliberal university as a highly stressful, demotivating, and frustrating environment; but judging from his account, Stapel took to it like a fish to water. One gets the impression that what stimulated him was the intellectual excitement of “solving puzzles” and, most of all, the opportunity of playing a central role in a social network of players engaged in the same academic game: a game whose rewards consisted not primarily in the acquisition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake - although nominally this was the case, because support for the game would dwindle fast without that assumption being upheld even by the players themselves - but in the acquisition of social capital (prestige, recognition, applause, power, and so on). In other words: knowledge as a means rather than as an end. For Stapel being a scientist searching for answers became subservient to being an academic professional searching for success.
Secondly, Stapel seems to have loved his theories more than the empirical reality to which they should refer. If there is one refrain that keeps being repeated throughout his book - I lost count of the number of instances - it is how difficult Stapel appears to have found it to accept the messiness, chaos, complexity, unpredictability, and (in his own words) the disappointing ugliness of social reality, and how strong was his longing for (again, in his own words) beautiful, logical, elegant theories. “Whatever seemed logical was true. That gave a feeling of satisfaction and quiet. Had I been smarter, I would regularly have caused my research to fail. That would have been more realistic, more rational and shrewd. But I couldn’t do it. I had become an addict. I wanted it to be brilliant and clear. The more brilliant, the better. My inventions became ever more and more beautiful, and I began to believe in them more and more. See how beautiful the world was. See how orderly everything was arranged” (p. 175). Stapel is a Platonist of sorts, longing to transcend this transient world of chaos to behold the orderly beauty of eternal ideas. If empirical reality failed to live up to his theories, so much the worse for reality.
So we end up with the picture of a man who preferred the academic game of power and prestige over the search for knowledge, and who fell prey to theorizing at the expense of respect for empirical evidence - that is to say, for reality. As such, Stapel is an extreme symptom not just of the neoliberal university and its inherent logic (as analyzed by Verhaeghe) but, moreover, of its vulnerability to a certain kind of postmodern reasoning. For decades now, we have been told ad nauseam that claims of “knowledge” are in fact just claims of power, and that “reality” can never be more than just an ultimately subjective theoretical construct (driven by the Wille zur Macht as well). At the time, these philosophical perspectives originated as important correctives to prevailing naiveties concerning knowledge and reality, and I very much respect the significant core of truth they contain; but anything that is absolutized as the “only” truth thereby turns into an ideology, masquerading (like all ideologies) as “just the way things are”. Combining these two ideologies – neoliberalism and postmodernism – leads to a pathology of which Stapel is the perfect symptom: that of academics who end up confusing their virtual realities with the real world in which all of us are living, to an extent where they begin to doubt whether there is any difference between the two at all. Verhaeghe shows how “the figures” (statistics based on quantitative measurement procedures) are increasingly being confused with “reality” in the neoliberal bureaucracy, in spite of the abundant evidence that nothing lends itself so easily to manipulation as precisely numbers and statistics (especially if one's funding depends on it). That Stapel has been punished for “messing with the data” shows that we have not yet lost touch with what science should be about; but in fact - for reasons explained by Verhaeghe - the management structures of the neoliberal university rely increasingly on precisely such data manipulation (betraying an implicit belief that “as long as it works it doesn't matter whether it's true”). It is time for all of us to be reminded of a perhaps uncomfortable truth: reality exists, it really does!, and it is ultimately qualitative, not quantitative. Yes, this makes it difficult to handle and understand, but who ever said that science should be easy?