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Tag: gnosticism (page 3 of 4)

Hans Blumenberg: Former Reflections Enduring Doubt

The Legitimacy of the Modern Age covers a lot of ground, but one of the central theses, and the one that bears little resemblance to most prior theories of history, is this one:

The modern age is the second overcoming of Gnosticism. A presupposition of this thesis is that the first overcoming of Gnosticism, at the beginning of the Middle Ages, was unsuccessful. A further implication is that the medieval period, as a meaningful structure spanning centuries, had its beginning in the conflict with late-antique and early-Christian Gnosticism and that the unity of its systematic intention can be understood as deriving from the task of subduing its Gnostic opponent.

Legitimacy, p. 126

The first issue is what exactly Gnosticism is. It’s a term that’s been held up over a lot of heterogeneous (and usually heterodox) doctrines, and the closest Blumenberg comes to defining it concisely in the Christian context (for that is his major concern here) is that it is the thesis that knowledge is salvation. But in the larger scope of the book, the conflict between Gnosticism and its enemies–first through Augustinian-derived Scholasticism, and then through secular, scientific modernity–is best summarized as a conflict between hermeticism and worldliness.

That is to say, Gnosticism challenges the ability of a person to make meaning out of anything on earth, arguing that God’s sheer unknowability and the ultimate contingency and unreality of this life make meaningful action in this life not just difficult, but impossible. As with other hermetic doctrines of the past, and here Blumenberg not only invokes stoicism, but also skepticism and Epicurism (all of which, he maintains, preach a turning away from worldly curiosity because such things will never provide happiness for humans), knowledge of the world such as that provided by science is not real knowledge. The real knowledge is gained through turning inward and seeing through the illusions of our reality.

In turn, Augustine and the ensuing Scholastics say no, our actions do matter: we are given free will to sin or not sin, and those actions are of a consequence beyond anything in this world. This is a limited form of re-engagement with the world, as it does not provide a mandate for full engagement with the world, but only for behaving according to specified rules. The fissure left between virtuous behavior and the rest of reality is where the problems with the medieval “solution” arise. The problems of theodicy–those of justifying God’s ways in this world, including the presence and purpose of humanity–have not been solved, and so the seemingly arbitrary ways of the world cause a retreat to Gnosticism.

Gnosticism returns within Scholasticism in the form of nominalism, that is, the idea that God is beyond all explanation and law. As Aquinas, Ockham, and Nicholas of Cusa try to make their cases for Catholic doctrine, the ultimate lack of explanation reasserts itself. No law is sufficient to capture anything that God may or may not dictate, and so the guarantee of salvation is put into question.

Now, modernity, and specifically a secular scientific curiosity, begins to emerge to fill in the gap. In the absence of a justifiable mandate or explanation from God as to humanity’s presence in the world, the idea of secular self-assertion originates, carefully using the space created by shunting God far, far away from this world to justify an incremental, trial-and-error ideology and methodology for gaining mastery over the world for their own benefit. The problem that Gnosticism posed that the Scholastics could not satisfactorily answer–what is the meaning of the suffering and evil in this world?–gets a new answer: it is for humanity to master and overcome.

[I am being a little loose with the terms “world” and “earth” here, for Blumenberg makes the Copernican abandonment of geocentrism and the ensuing shift in the conception of the “heavens” the fulcrum point that tips the Middle Ages into modernity. But leave that aside for now.]

Here is Odo Marquard’s summary of this basic sequence:

Marcion believed that the only way for humans to be saved from the evil world was by an entirely different, unworldly redeemer god, a god who, battling with the world’s evil creator, destroys it in a redeeming eschatology. As a world-conserving age, the modern age opposes this: It is (as Hans Blumenberg says) an “overcoming” of Gnosticism, the “second” overcoming, in fact, because the first one–the Middle Ages–proved unsuccessful. The first, medieval refutataion of Marcion was the discovery of human freedom by Origen and Augustine, by which (as God’s alibi) all the world’s evils are imputed, morally, to man, as his sin, so that the principle that “omne ens est bonum” [all being is good] can continue to hold in respect of God. This first refutation of Marcion is finally retracted by nominalism’s intensification of the theology of omnipotence and by Luther’s doctrine of the servum arbitrium [subject will]. In this way, the creator god is again burdened with the world’s evils. He evades this burden…so that human beings have to dispute–ultimately in a bloody manner–about questions of salvation…The schatology of redemption has to be neutralized. This neutralization of the eschatology of redemption is the modern age. For if the modern age is to be possible, the urgency of redemption must be removed by an attempted demonstration that this world is endurable, even in the absence of the saving end, thanks to many a “rose in the cross of the present”; in other words, its creator was not a wicked god, and the world is not an evil world.

Odo Marquard, “Unburdenings”

This is ultimately a rather Whiggish argument, and there’s no question over the course of the book that Blumenberg believes that on balance such self-assertion is a good thing. He opposes it to conservative polemics that things used to be so much better when religion was around, implicitly arguing that things were so inexplicably awful during such superstitious times that modernity at least offers the will to overcome that wretchedness. And consequently, if theodicy had been so successful at countering angst over the world, why has it never provided an adequate answer? (To these inadequate answers, he adds those of Heidegger, Schmitt, and others like Levinas.)

The hermetic impulse persists today in the myriad new age trends that pledge distance from worldly affairs, assorted Pyrrhonist and stoic philosophies, and the general fear that the paths of self-assertion have not quite worked out as their early proponents (Bacon, Diderot, etc.) had promised. One particularly bizarre variant is transhumanism, which promises an entire new world achieved through technology. (Is this perhaps an echo of Eduard von Hartmann, who urged the elimination of the evil Schopenhauerian Will through technological advancement?) It’s an understandable impulse. Blumenberg repeatedly cites the failings and failures of what he terms modernity, but beyond legitimate, worldly modernity reluctantly seems to be preferable to the alternatives.

Hans Blumenberg’s Dichotomies

Having just finished The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, I made a list of some of the dichotomies he treats. There are a lot of them, and the major headache of the book came from trying to keep their shifting relations in mind all at once. Blumenberg isn’t the sort to ever claim a definitive sequence or priority of concepts and their interactions, so the various ideologies treated in the book, from Platonism all the way to Feuerbach and (briefly) Freud, each create their own correlations between these concepts. Occasionally, some of the dichotomies collapse entirely, as with Nicholas of Cusa’s attempt to reconcile the finitude of the Incarnation with the infinity of God.

  • Gnosticism vs Scholasticism (especially voluntarism)

  • Holism vs subject/object duality

  • Immanence vs transcendence

  • Progress vs stasis/circularity

  • Perfection vs imperfection

  • Infinite vs finite

  • Knowledge vs morality

  • Knowledge-seeking vs happiness

  • Curiosity vs resignation

  • Geocentrism vs Copernicanism

  • Completeness vs incompleteness

  • Public vs private/secret/invisible

  • Autonomy vs indifference

  • Platonic realism vs nominalism

  • Form vs substance

Some disparate philosophies get combined on one side or another at times. Skepticism, stoicism, and Epicureanism, contra Hegel, are all treated as forms of resignation against pursuing knowledge.

Bessie Head: A Question of Power

I own a first edition of this book (thank you Roanoke City Public Library), and though it has an excellent cover painting which is strikingly apt, the jacket text and two blurbs (by Alice Walker and Nikki Giovanni) are terrible at giving any idea of what the book is actually about. The jacket text makes it out to be an uplifting work of social realism, while the blurbers are just vague. What they all avoid mentioning is that the book’s main character, a half-white/half-black South African single mother refugee in Botswana (as Head herself was), is schizophrenic and her hallucinations make up at least half of the novel. The hallucinations evade easy explanation as well as specificity; their achievement is to make A Question of Power transcend any easy classification as an “African” or “feminist” novel while still dealing with those very issues in specific terms. The hallucinations keep the book expansive and confounding.

The book is divided into halves called “Sello” and “Dan,” named for the main hallucinated figure during that section. Nonetheless, each appears in each other’s section, there is a much larger cast of characters, and “Sello” and “Dan” do not fall into any easy opposition. Each section alternates between these hallucinations and short, controlled descriptions of real life encounters between the main character, Elizabeth, and the others in her farming village, both natives and Peace Corps workers. Again, there are no blatant parallels. Elizabeth’s alienation from her surroundings, her race, her son, and men manifest themselves in the hallucinations, but so do less personal issues of human mythology (Buddha makes a few appearances), good and evil, gnosticism, and other things.

Of the two main visitors, Dan is the more straightforward. He appears as a kind of pan-African overman, parading an endless (73, actually) series of women before Elizabeth, taunting her by having sex with them and praising them while ridiculing her. He is a demon, but a lesser one; Elizabeth comes to realize that “She was being killed by Dan, but Sello had started it. The story had begun with Sello and Medusa.” The grand war between Sello and Medusa occupies a large chunk of the first half of the book, and it’s far more puzzling than Dan and his women. Amidst strange symbols and images and a recounting of the story of Osiris and Isis, there is this passage, which suggests the struggle of the book itself:

The wild-eyed Medusa was expressing the surface reality of African society. It was shut in and exclusive. It had a strong theme of power-worship running through it, and power people needed small, narrow, shut-in worlds. They never felt secure in the big, wide flexible universe where there were too many cross-currents of opposing thought.

The antagonisms between Sello and Medusa, and later between Dan and Elizabeth, seem to both stand in some way for that opening up of one’s self to the greater world and the abdication of power and the struggle around it. Yet Sello is hardly unalloyed goodness; he makes things very difficult for Elizabeth, scares the hell out of her, and exposes her to a good deal of evil. The ultimate result, though, seems to suggest that Elizabeth views the process as one of working through, that her hallucinations have a substantive reality that bring her closer to the world in its entirety, and that for all her pain and suffering, the journey was invaluable.

The novel does have a uplifting end, with a seeming rapprochement with Sello and the cosmos that he comes to represent, but it is a qualified optimism. The universe that is revealed to Elizabeth is a very scary place and the struggles that she endures are torturous, yet Head resists any suggestion of triumph or resolution, suggesting instead that what Elizabeth has gained is understanding. It is, as I read it, an understanding that is private and specific to her, and so I think the exact meaning of some of her hallucinations is not for a reader to be certain of, as they represent one person’s individual mythology. Nor do they yield concrete results for the many political, economic, and racial issues that they raise. So among the intense imaginative fervor of the book’s hallucinated scenarios and the difficult life of Elizabeth, there still remains an intimidating sense of intractability, and that is the challenge to readers that the book presents.

David B.: Two Stories

The Armed Garden and The Veiled Prophet appeared in the Winter and Spring/Summer issues of MOME, Fantagraphics’ otherwise unremarkable comics anthology. David B., though, is perhaps the greatest living comics writer/artist, and certainly the most mystical. His work draws heavily on portraying visual representations of internal and metaphysical states. He deployed these techniques at length in Epileptic (L’Ascension du Haut-Mal in French), his three-hundred hundred page chronicle of his brother’s severe epilepsy and his family’s life with it. At some point in the future, I will attempt to come to terms with the scope of David B.’s achievement of creating a visual weltanschauung as universal as that of any of the old masters. Here, though, are two little religious fables about crossing the gap between the human and the heavens, and the horrors therein.

“The Armed Garden” is the more straightforward of the two. Jog describes it in detail here, but in brief, it concerns a Prague blacksmith, Rohan, who is subject to visions of Adam and Eve urging him to lead humanity back to paradise before the fall.

This he does, setting up camp in a verdant garden and descending into debauchery. One defiled woman under his reign asks, “You claim to be men of God, yet you commit the most abominable crimes,” and Rohan responds:

We are now one with God; we are no longer held to observe the commandments! We have the right to satisfy all our desires! If you refuse me, I shall kill you but you will be the one at fault!

Then the twist. Eve now appears to the militant Ziska, telling him, “Your brother Rohan has lost himself on the road to Paradise.” Ziska takes up arms and invades the garden, where they have regressed to a pre-human state of existence, having been absorbed into the trees, rocks, and ground. Rohan himself has undergone some kind of false apotheosis into a sun, and Ziska is able to destroy him with the aid of a talking goose.

Though the mythos is Christian, the story uses a more ancient mode of divine-human interaction that is closer to Greek and Norse mythology. Rohan loses the approbation of the gods even as he embraces their words and leaves humanity behind; it’s Ziska, who remains human, who comes out the victor, along with the backing of Eve.

“The Veiled Prophet” (also described by Jog) is very much the complement of “The Armed Garden”: this time, the divine intrudes on the human instead of the other way around. Set in a vaguely Arabic milieu, A veil falls from the sky onto an average man and transforms him into an all-purpose religious leader, appearing as any and all former prophets to others and inspiring an immediate and immense following. He amasses an army and sets about conquering all around him, until the Caliph marshals a large army against him. The prophet holds forth with rhetoric reminiscent of Rohan:

This world does not exist! It is an illusion! The real world is behind this veil. But you cannot see it without perishing! Here, there is neither law nor religion. The violation of every law is the first step toward the real world.

But unlike Rohan, the prophet is divine. He unleashes a literal flood of the skeletons of the victims and martyrs of injustice from all of history. The Caliph fights wisely and bravely, but he doesn’t have a chance. He’s only human.

The tenors of both stories are similarly folklorish, but the differences in setting and outcome are salutary. Reading “The Veiled Prophet” after “The Armed Garden,” I expected the prophet to come to grief, led astray by the intrusion of a piece of eternity–the veil–into the human world. But no, the prophet is now eternity (or the “real,” as the prophet would have it), and he is as destructive to the world as paradise was to Rohan’s sect. Humans touching eternity and eternity impinging on humans. David B.’s cosmology in these two stories has the same axioms:

  1. The eternal world is more real than the human world.
  2. It is hostile to humans in its very nature.

This cosmology is a gnostic one in that the eternal world reveals itself subjectively and in pieces. Yet David B. seems ultimately concerned with the idea that it is precisely the illusory world that allows we as people to exist and to survive. Every incursion of the Real destroys us. Merely to touch the Real, as Ziska does at the end of “The Armed Garden,” is enough to blind one. People exist in the space between the Real and nothingness, condemned to see the world in lies and misunderstanding, and it is those fictions that form our very existence. Fictions keep the Real at bay, though it remains a constant presence. Hence the theme of compulsory, obsessive creation that underlies Epileptic.

In addition to gnosticism, it’s also a Hermetic metaphysic. Hermeticism thrives or dies based on the ability of its advocate to enthrall the aesthetic appreciation of the reader, and David B. is sublimely skilled in this regard. Hermeticism is particularly suited to the comics medium, just as Lull and Bruno communicated more intuitively and persuasively in their charts and graphics than they could in their writing.

As for the source of David B.’s inspiration, I can’t say, not being a gnostic or a hermeticist myself, but I cannot deny the overwhelming reaction (illusory or real) that his world (illusory or real) is more freestanding than those of most artists, requiring less support from the shared assumptions of his culture, and that this is a crucial aspect of at least one sort of genius.

Gnostic Children’s Books

What with this talk of gnosticism, and John Crowley’s linking of it to the tropes of fairy tales and fantasy, I wanted to put in a plug for my favorite two books of mine as a child that display a metaphysical conception close to that of the gnostics, that of there being a “world behind the world,” or rather, something more real than the physical.

Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars, by Daniel Pinkwater. Not only does Pinkwater leave the whole Mars business mostly unexplained, but the central device in the book is that famous “lost” places like Atlantas and Mu exist in the same physical space as our world, and through various techniques, the two fat Jewish teenagers who are the stars of the book can travel between them by tuning out our world and tuning in the other. There’s a wildly psychedelic scene where they’re halfway between one and the other and everything in our world becomes transparent and permeable.

Figgs and Phantoms, by Ellen Raskin. This one went completely over my head when I read it as a kid. Raskin did the far more normal Westing Game, but this one, about a family of eccentrics who have had their own personal afterlife (Capri, they call it) for hundreds of years, bears little similarity to it, or to anything else I read as a child. You do get to see Capri–sort of–but the ultimate message is that we make our own afterlife. Haunting.

Needless to say, these both read well at any age, and they’re far easier than Finnegans Wake.

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