David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: gnosticism (page 1 of 4)

Lucan’s Civil War: Erictho the Witch, the Necromancer, etc.

Oh Erictho, where do I even begin? Driven seemingly by a desire to top what had gone before, Lucan continues to astonish as the poem goes on, and Erictho is his trump card. Erictho is a witch—the witch, in fact—and her underworld sequence at the end of Book VI has been called both the worst and the best section in the book. It’s definitely one of the most extreme, if only because Lucan comes off as exceptionally self-conscious, piling on the gratuitous horrors far beyond the point where most anyone would stop. But because Lucan is inspired, he pulls it off. What he pulls off is uncertain, but even in translation, the section bears its weight.

As a description of Erictho’s excess, I can’t do better than W.R. Johnson, who terms Erictho a hero of Civil War alongside Caesar, Pompey, and Cato:

She is enormously pleased with the satanic discors machina. She knows exactly how to operate it, and her prayers to it, unlike Lucan’s prayers to more traditional numina, are invariably answered in her favor. For her, doing bad things to good people, or even to bad people, or to any one at all—virtue and vice do not engage her imagination—is fun.

She shows an inexhaustible fullnes of life and an unwearying zest for malicious and purposeless activity that remind me of two of my other favorite characters: Stendhal’s DR. Sansfin and the early-middle Donald Duck. She is something fairly rare outside, say, the dark farces of Ben Jonson or the savage and surreal animated cartoons of the 1930s and early 1940s: a living caricature of wickedness, a pure distillation of frenetic immorality.

W.R. Johnson, Momentary Monsters: Lucan and His Heroes

Two points he makes bear repeating. The first is that Erictho has no particular ulterior motive, but is more just a animistic force, so much like the universe. The second is that where other seers and pythia claim to have power and knowledge but can’t make good on it, Erictho occupies a place above the gods and even above Caesar, blithely in control of the forces of the universe. Not that Erictho does all that much with her power. Indeed, we hear more about Erictho than we see her doing anything.. She’s not an influential force on the poem’s plot per se, just a envoy of the horrific universe surveying the action.

See here for some fascinating background on the myths behind Erictho. It also appears that Neil Gaiman appropriated Erictho’s techniques in the Sandman’s A Game of You serial.

Pompey’s undercharacterized son Sextus goes to Erictho in Thessaly in the hopes of finding out the future. A long and very theatrical setting of the scene occurs:

Whenever black storm clouds conceal the stars,
Thessaly’s witch emerges from her empty tombs
and hunts down the nightly bolts of lightning.
Her tread has burned up seeds of fertile grain
and her breath alone has turned fresh air deadly.
She doesn’t pray to gods above, or call on powers
for aid with suppliant song, or know the ways
to offer entrails and receive auspicious omens.
She loves to light altars with funereal flames
and burn incense she’s snatched from blazing pyres.
At the merest hint of her praying voice, the gods grant her
any outrage, afraid to hear her second song.

She has buried souls alive, still in control
of their bodies, against their will death comes
with fate still owing them years. In a backward march
she has brought the dead back from the grave
and lifeless corpses have fled death. The smoking cinders
and burning bones of youths she’ll take straight from the pyre,
along with the torch, ripped from their parents’ grip,
and the fragments of the funeral couch with smoke
still wafting black, and the robes turning to ashes
and the coals that reek of his limbs. But when dead bodies
are preserved in stone, which absorbs their inner moisture,
and they stiffen as the decaying marrow is drawn off,
then she hungrily ravages every single joint,
sinks her fingers in the eyes and relishes it
as she digs the frozen orbs out, and she gnaws
the pallid, wasting nails from desiccated hands.

Civil War VI.579-606

Sextus flatters her, and she eats it up, happily resurrecting a corpse to report the news of the future. We are far from what the scene’s obvious antecedents, the underworld scenes in Book VI of the Aeneid and Book XI of the Odyssey, both of which come just before the midpoint of each epic and both of which result in auspicious findings for the heroes. (It’s not certain that the Civil War was to be twelve books long, but Books VI and VII feel very much like the heart of the poem, and general consensus has it at twelve.)

Here the underworld is not so mysterious or helpful. Erictho overshadows it completely. Erictho even tells Sextus that there’s nothing scary about her necromancy.

“If indeed I show you swamps of Styx and the shore
that roars with fire, if by my aid you’re able
to see the Eumenides and Cerberus, shaking
his necks that bristle with snakes, and the conquered backs
of Giants, why should you be scared, you cowards,
to meet with ghosts who are themselves afraid?”

When the corpse fails to resurrect, though, she throws a tantrum, and threatens the entire heavans and underworld at length. For me this is her greatest moment:

“And against you,
worst of the world’s rulers, I’ll send the Titan Sun,
bursting your caverns open and striking with sudden daylight. 830
Will you obey? Or must I address by name
that one at whose call the earth never fails to shudder
and quake, who openly looks on the Gorgon’s face,
who tortures the trembling Erinys with her own scourge
and dwells in a Tartarus whose depths your eye can’t plumb?
To him, you are the gods above; he swears, and breaks,
his oaths by waters of Styx.”

So who is this evil beyond evil whom Erictho has on quick-dial? Braund translates “that one” as “Him” (the Latin is just ille) and suggests as possibilities Demiurgus/Creator, Hermes Trismegistus, or Osiris or Typhon/Seti. I would love to know more about this when time permits, but it’s worth noting that, as explained in this old 1907 definition, Demiurgus was to become the evil Gnostic god himself in early Christianity:

Demiurgus, a name employed by Plato to denote the world-soul, the medium by which the idea is made real, the spiritual made material, the many made one, and it was adopted by the Gnostics to denote the world-maker as a being derived from God, but estranged from God, being environed in matter, which they regarded as evil, and so incapable as such of redeeming the soul from matter, from evil, such as the God of the Jews, and the Son of that God, conceived of as manifest in flesh.

I digress. Erictho is in touch with the genuine puppetmaster: not merely abstract Fortune, but the celestial watchmaker of the evil watch himself. She is unique in this regard.

Needless to say, the gods accede to Erictho’s threats and the corpse reanimates, but his report to Sextus is not especially helpful, hinting at the future but giving, ultimately, a shrug:

Don’t let the glory of this brief life disturb you.
The hour comes that will level all the leaders.
Rush into death and go down below with pride,
magnanimous, even if from lowly tombs,
and trample on the shades of the gods of Rome.
Which tomb the Nile’s waves will wash and which
the Tiber’s is the only question—for the leaders,
this fight is only about a funeral.

Fortune is doling out tombs upon your triumphs.
O pitiful house, you will look on nothing
in all the world safer than Emathia.”

Civil War VI.898-915

The future, then: you and your father and Caesar and everyone else will die. The Book ends without Sextus so much as responding. The corpse goes to rest, as promised by Erictho. So all the pageantry and drama, only to find out what we have known from the beginning, which is that all rulers and empires fall and die. In se magna ruunt: all great things crush themselves.

Erictho’s wickedness, in tandem with her lack of agency, make her a peculiar figure, simply because she is one of the very few characters in the book without much of an agenda in any direction. Even when she rails against heaven and hell, it’s on account of a “favor” she’s doing for Sextus, not any particular wish of her own.

It fits with the poem that the one character who may actually have some influence over the world’s events would be the character who never exercises that control in any meaningful way. (Her favor doesn’t amount to much, and she does explicitly say that she can only tell the future, not alter it.) Erictho is diabolical, but also oddly innocuous, at least within the poem. Stay far away from her, and she won’t cause you much trouble. Far less than the world, and Fortune, and Demiurgus will.

And as for the corpse’s predictions, I think not of Donald Duck, but of the Simpsons:

Psychic: [phone rings] Hello, "Radio Psychic"!  You will die a terrible, terrible
  Marge: [on the phone] [gasps]
Psychic: Ooh, I'm sorry!  That was our last caller.  OK, I'm getting
         something now.  Hmm.  OK: you will die a terrible, terrible
  Marge: But I --
     DJ: Thank you for calling "Radio Psychic".  Do you have a song

Christianity in the 3rd Century: Gnosticism and Worldliness

Peter Brown writes in his great (and short) The World of Late Antiquity of the years leading up to Christianity’s big break, when Constantine converted in 312:

The Christian Church differed from the other oriental cults, which it resembled in so many other ways, through its intolerance of the outside world. The cults were exclusive, and, often, the jealously guarded preserve of foreigners; but they never set themselves up against the traditional religious observances of the society round them. They never enjoyed the publicity of intermittent persecution. While the oriental cults provided special means to salvation in the next world, they took the position of their devotees in this world for granted. The Christian Church offered a way of living in this world. The skillful elaboration of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the sense of belonging to a distinctive group with carefully prescribed habits and increasing resources heightened the impression that the Christian Church made on the uncertain generations of the third century. Seldom has a small minority played so successfully on the anxieties of society as did the Christians. They remained a small group: but they succeeded in becoming a big problem.

For men whose confusions came partly from no longer feeling embedded in their home environment, the Christian Church offered a drastic experiment in social living, reinforced by the excitement and occasional perils of a break with one’s past and one’s neighbors.

The suggestion, with a nod to Hans Blumenberg, is that Christianity grew in part through a cultish, gnostic mentality that allowed it to offer a niche, elite appeal. This mentality then had to be discarded by Augustine and the Church itself once the movement had reached a critical mass of acceptance. Yet by Brown’s account, the preparations for such a prioritization of this world were there from the beginning, which is what enabled it to make the transition successfully.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Chaos

These thoughts are a follow-on to the points I made in The Mythology of Laszlo Krasznahorkai and to a lesser extent in my comments on his Animalinside, which it seems will finally be released in the US in April by New Directions.

Krasznahorkai’s work tends to revolve around an intrusion onto order by chaos. In some of the early work like Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance, the order takes a form of a recognizable socio-political situation: a small town, perhaps with echoes of the Communist era in it, though those echoes are never more than secondary associations. In other works, though, it just becomes what’s familiar by definition: the ideas and concepts we use to structure reality. The chaos comes as a pollutant. It’s some force that leaks into the known world and rips it to shreds. The world does recover, and I think this is because it must. Order will not disappear except with the death of every last human being. The chaos is an irruption.

Now, the order/chaos dichotomy is one that I do take fairly seriously. I think that it resists easy dismissal because, as Blumenberg says, it is primordial. The chaos is defined via negativa: it’s whatever our minds and concepts can’t get around. You can use other terms for it, like “infinite” or “other” or “transcendent,” but these are all misleading because they all imply (at least to me) a degree of access that, were it to exist, would domesticize the chaos and make it, well, non-chaotic, non-infinite, non-other, non-transcendent. Kierkegaard is always bizarre to read because he acts like he is on a first-name basis with the infinite, palling around with it and chatting over that crazy character Abraham. The same goes even moreso with Levinas: you can’t bow down to the Other in the way that he wants everyone to do so. This I think is one of his mechanisms for how the Other and the worldly tend to merge at certain points, when such a merging should not be possible, leading to twisty bits of logic like this:

Religion and religious parties do not necessarily coincide. Justice as the raison d’etre of the State: that is religion. It presupposes the high science of justice. The State of Israel will be religious because of the intelligence of its great books which it is not free to forget. It will be religious through the very action that establishes it as a State. It will be religious or it will not be at all.

Levinas, “The State of Israel and the Religion of Israel”

I do not find this objectionable; I merely find it incoherent.

But all this confusion has something to do with the falseness of Gnosticism. For any gnostic worth his salt is not going to come out and start talking about how much he (or she, but usually he) is a gnostic. Any real knowledge of that raw chaos, the way it is manifested far more honestly in Krasznahorkai’s work, causes insanity. By insanity I mean a form of disconnection from the world that no longer allows dialogue with the “order” of the known. Did Daniel Schreber have it? Did Antonin Artaud? (Louis Sass takes these two as studies in schizophrenia in his excellent book The Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind.)

Perhaps Cassandra is another case of this sort of intrusion, given more logical form as befits Greek culture, but there the joke is that she actually knew better. They thought she was insane, but really, she was right! It’s an inexact example. In Krasznahorkai’s cases, such as with Korin in War and War and the grandson in From the North by Hill, as well as (I think) the narrator in Animalinside, the chaos is dehumanizing in that it removes the person from the realm of the human. It overruns them with non-sense (not nonsense). In contrast, the gnostic sages that claim secret access to the Truth are false prophets, since they speak our language too well.

In contrast, I think the real sense of what that confrontation with chaos might feel like is partly captured by the ending of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which starts off as beauty and then turns very very frightening, perfectly accompanied by the shift from Bach to Artemiev’s electronics:

(For all the differences between Tarkovsky and Stanislaw Lem, Lem’s focus on human knowledge encountering its limits and being forced to recognize those limits certainly provided a common ground between them, as much as Lem may have loathed admitting it. I wish Tarkovsky had made it clear that Kelvin’s gesture of falling to his knees is pointless, as good a reaction as any to the planet. Tarkovsky may not have thought that, though I know that Lem did. Bach is playing, the day is lovely, you feel in perfect harmony with the universe and in touch with God or whatever, and then you realize everything is wrong.)

And also with this excerpt from Kafka’s The Castle, which I quoted in the article and which still holds as an example of the announcement of that which is beyond you:

The receiver gave out a buzz of a kind that K. had never heard on a telephone. It was like the hum of countless children’s voices—but yet not a hum, the echo rather of voices singing at an infinite distance—blended by sheer impossibility into one high but resonant sound that vibrated on the ear as if it were trying to penetrate beyond mere hearing.

Franz Kafka, The Castle

So, likewise but without the religious apparatus, chaos appears in Krasznahorkai’s work as a threat, a breach upon what is safe and orderly, the violation of Hume’s riddle of induction that requires that we take our predictions to be reliable though we have no guarantee that they will be. It is an antagonist, like the Prince and the angry mobs he foments, or a corrupted trickster figure like Iremias in Satantango.

It spreads as well. I think of it a little like Ice-9, except that the process is reversible through the brutal reassertion of order. The infringing agent is destroyed in some manner or reassimilated into the greater orderly whole (remember, despite his seeming power, the Prince is a frail figure who needs the assistance of a factotum, among others). Iremias seems to display both aspects, both chaotic and order, since he rips up the social fabric of the town just as easily as he informs on the townspeople to the authorities, and I take this to be a sign of his malevolent madness. His mystical experiences are not total fabrications, but he is utterly unable to share them with the others; he merely inspires them with high-minded rhetoric to destroy their lives.

I do not think that Krasznahorkai paints an end or resolution to this sort of intrusion and countermeasure. He portrays it as far more imminent and pressing than most people are likely to experience, since we don’t usually suffer such irruptions, and when we do, there are carefully coded social mores and institutions to try to regulate and control them. This provides a feeling of safety and insulation, until it doesn’t. The chaos is something we live with.

Habermas on Derrida

Last one, I promise. This is just a great passage  that identifies a more general gnostic/transcendent tendency among Derrida and a certain stream of predecessors who all tend to attract fervent, single-minded followings:

As a participant in the philosophical discourse of modernity, Derrida inherits the weaknesses of a critique of metaphysics that does not shake loose of the intentions of first philosophy. Despite his transformed gestures, in the end he, too, promotes only a mystification of palpable social pathologies; he, too, disconnects essential (namely, deconstructive) thinking from scientific analysis; and he, too, lands at an empty, formulalike avowal of some indeterminate authority. It is, however, not the authority of a Being that has being that has been distorted by beings [i.e., Heidegger], but the authority of a no longer holy scripture, of a scripture that is in exile, wandering about, estranged from its own meaning, a scripture that testamentarily documents the absence of the holy.

Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity VII

Habermas’ larger argument here is more abstruse and a bit more suspect (his strategy of accusing Derrida of recidivist foundationalism is probably accurate, but I’m not sure if his particular methods are accurate), and I won’t try to summarize it here. What I want to remark on is the part in bold, the appeal to empty, indeterminate authority. It’s not that “science” (that vague term that has so many pejorative associations in either direction) is its opposite; a better term would be public and discursive. The notion of the authority is that of a gnostic one to which access cannot be rationally assessed. So I agree with Habermas that it is fundamentally religious, and so the affinity between Derrida and Levinas is not surprising at all. (Habermas discusses that as well.) The line of thinkers appealing to this sort of authority goes back to the beginning of time. Here are some figures that I find indisputably in this corner: Parmenides, Pythagoras, Plotinus, al-Ghazali, Malebranche, Jacobi, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Schmitt, Strauss, Levinas, and Derrida.

There is something of a conservative tilt to many of these figures; I attribute it to the general desire to want to bow down to something otherworldly. That old grouch Schopenhauer complained of Malebranche’s tactic of “explaining something unknown by something even more unknown.” As a certain well-known continental philosopher (one who was very fond of Derrida, Kristeva, Adorno, and Butler but disliked Heidegger and loathed Levinas) said, “Watch out for those Levinasians. They always want to bend at the knee.”

Leo Perutz: The Master of the Day of Judgment

Perutz was an Prague-born, Jewish Austrian writer who wrote a number of short books. He emigrated to Palestine in 1938 and lived there until his death in 1957. His background only shows up indirectly in this novel, which falls under the “metaphysical mystery” category. It shows in the foreign background of our narrator and protagonist, the Baron, who has had an affair with the wife of a famous actor named Bischoff. Bischoff commits suicide under mysterious circumstances shortly after the book begins, after telling the Baron and a few other guests of the mysterious suicides of a soldier and his cousin. The Baron is accused; he is innocent, but the suicide does not seem to have been of Bischoff’s own volition either. The Baron then accompanies an engineer (another outsider) in his investigations into the murder.

This all plays out rather glacially, and the Baron contributes a cryptic introduction that reveals that the engineer too will die in his pursuit of the solution to these (induced) suicides. Before long we are in the realm of gnostic doings and a frightening, long-dead painter who claimed to have been able to bring people to their final judgment. The solution is not supernatural, though it is a bit untenable, but Perutz then undercuts that explanation itself with a coda that places an entirely different interpretation on what has gone before. I won’t give too much away if I say it jumps from gnosticism to Freud.

The asymmetry of these two accounts, and how each is incommensurate with the other, is the most unique point of the book. It does not leave a sense of satisfaction, but it did leave me impressed with what Perutz had managed, as well as wondering exactly what his intent had been. The two accounts really don’t mesh; they could come from different centuries.

The book reads like an antecedent to Borges, especially “Death and the Compass” (with a little of “The Aleph” thrown in), and also to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ early novels like The Invention of Morel. Borges praised Perutz, so I gather he and his friend Bioy Casares must have read this book and appreciated its attempt to mix the gothic, the gnostic, and crime. The admixture is compelling precisely because it is so awkward. The crime aspect, in particular, always seems to jut out. I’m not at all a reader of mysteries, and when the heavy stuff is introduced in Master, it makes the crime seem rather trivial in comparison.

The tradition continued with Carlo Emilio Gadda’s works, where the crime really does get smothered by Gadda’s own philosophical obsessions. Stanislaw Lem took it up from Borges (his admitted idol) in his mystery novel The Chain of Chance, which, bizarrely enough, features a solution quite similar to one of Perutz’s two resolutions in The Master of the Day of Judgment. Lem’s thematic, metaphysical concerns (science, probability, technology) are completely different from Perutz’s eschatological ones, yet the forms of the two novels are the same: the concerns are piggybacked onto the narrative until they overshadow it.

Umberto Eco also took the blueprint for his entire career in fiction from this tradition. The latest exercise of this sort that I can think of is Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching, in which Rembrandt places the solution to a covered-up murder in the details of a painting. The difficulty, to me, still seems to be keeping the elements in balance without the whole work turning trivial.

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