I’ve had many ideas rolling around in my head this past week or so. I’ve at least mentioned most of them in my recent blogs, but there are still some I’ve been meaning to get around to.
Even though I’ve mentioned Ligotti, I haven’t ever written about the one nonfiction work (besides textbooks) that I’m aware of him writing. Only an excerpt of it has been published so far and its in a recent volume of Collapse journal which also included some nonfiction by the well known fantasy writer China Mievelle. Anyways, he writes about the philosophy known as Pessimism in relationship to suffering.
He uses as one of his primary inspirations the ‘The Last Messiah’ by Peter Wessel Zapffe. Zapffe called his type of thinking biosophy and its my understanding that he had major influence on the deep ecology movement. The basic idea is that humans have certain over-developed functions, specifically consciousness, which cause humans to not easily fit into their environment. More importantly, for my purposes, are the problems it causes with a hyper-sensitivity to suffering, and hence the necessity to counter it with various methods that Zapffe puts into 4 categories: isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation. Zapffe was actually a rather life-embracing guy who liked to climb mountains (for the very reason that it was pointless) and wrote humorous stories, but Ligotti takes his ideas in a much more cynical direction.
I get the sense that Ligotti is a failed idealist. My idealism has likewise failed in many ways but not entirely (and maybe correspondingly my faith has increased in certain ways). I think I’ll always have some of the hopeless idealist in me. Its hard to tell what Ligotti’s personal experiences or views are as he keeps his philosophizing mostly on the level of the abstract. He claims this is intentional because his arguments aren’t based on his moods, but he does admit that the experience of horror is something most people will never understand. He seems to accept that he is in the minority and that his writing will probably never be widely read (despite the fact that he is one of the better writers alive today and is highly respected by other writers).
I can agree with Ligotti in many ways. Humans are naturally optimistic and we avoid the experience of suffering as if our lives depended on it… because our lives probably do. I imagine that most people would go insane or kill themselves if they ever felt suffering fully. In all actuality, I doubt humans are capable of experiencing suffering without various psychological filters and buffers limiting our consciousness. Its the double-bind of being human… the inability to either fully avoid or fully face suffering.
The problem is that Ligotti seems to leave this Existentialist insight on the level of biological horror. I don’t know that he has never had any experiences that he’d deem “spiritual”, but if he has he leaves them out of the equation. I’ve had experiences that went so far beyond (or within?) suffering that my experience was transformed… or, if not exactly transformed, I did touch upon something that felt entirely Other.
Because of this, I prefer to go the route of something like Gnosticism. So, in this way, I can accept that the world is filled with suffering and yet not simply resign myself to it. Gnosticism is also a way I can give meaning to why the deep experience of suffering is so rare. Some have criticized Gnosticism as elitist, but I think that Gnosticism was simply observing the rarity of true gnosis (maybe similar to some early forms of Protestantism).
Its not an attitude of judgment because I wouldn’t claim true gnosis for myself as I’m way too confused for all that. But I will say that I feel there is much superficiality and falseness in most claims of spirituality… and I can sense this even in myself whenever I try to speak of spirituality. I don’t believe gnosis is about being saved and so its not that the unworthy are left behind. Gnosis is just an insight and that is all and serves no greater purpose beyond that. Unlike the Gnostics, I have severe doubts about the notion of escaping suffering and prefer something more akin to Buddhism. Suffering, when felt deeply enough, can open one to understanding and potentially compassion.
As far as pure rationality goes, I consider Pessimism to be one of the most objectively accurate assessments of human experience that we are capable of coming up with. For sure, its at least as reasonable as any other philosophical or theological position, not that reasonableness is the primary standard by which people choose their beliefs.
In light of Pessimism, there are the criticisms towards mainstream notions of freewill which interests me very much. Its without a doubt, in my mind, that the lack of freewill is the more scientific hypothesis given the scientific standard of parsimony. Rationality is important because all discussion (ie shared understanding) is of almost no use or merit without it, but when it comes to personal experience I don’t limit my understandings to mere rationality. Even someone like Ligotti with his very rational arguments is fully aware of the extreme limits of the human intellect.
I may have lost most of my audience by now with this dreary philosophizing during this time of “holiday cheer”, but I shall continue with another set of ideas.
When I think of Gnosticism, it automatically brings to my mind Jung… probably from whose writings I first learned about Gnostic-type of ideas. Also related to Jung are theories such as Myers-Briggs typology and Campbell’s Monomyth, but most Jungians dislike it when Jung’s ideas are systematized. The type of books that often reference Jung usually won’t reference the MBTI or the Hero’s Journey. This is the case with the books of Victoria Nelson and Eric G. Wilson.
I, of course, consider all of these to be related. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the Monomyth in how Jesus fits the typical Hero’s Journey and thus the corelation to the Gnostic interpretation of the Christ figure.
Even with the vastness of the internet, its still hard to find much writing about these connections. The best source I always seem to come back to is Tim Boucher in his extensive blogging. He has lots of interesting thoughts, but here are just a few quotes from his site that I found relevant:
The Hero With A Thousand Faces
the hero is basically synonymous with the ego. the ego is sort of the main part of the mind that we identify with as a culture. the “hero’s journey” to me seems like a story about what happens when the ego encounters parts of the mind besides itself. looking at how various cultures portray the archetypal “hero” can shed a lot of light on how their minds work, and the values they cherish. alternatively, i think that looking at the types of heroes and stories that you personally are drawn to can shed a lot of light on what’s important to you, what you’re struggling with, and possible symbolically encoded outcomes that could be achieved.
Demiurge and Ego
The Jungian concept of ego/Self dovetails nicely with gnostic theology as well. In it, the Demiurge is a false god who brashly and wrongly believes that he is the creator and most powerful being in the universe. Usually associated with the Judeo-Christian Yahweh, he is a jealous, egotistical god who is violent, capricious and authoritarian. Consider the first of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt have no other god before me.”
The Joseph Campbell of Conspiracy Theory
I’ve wondered before why Campbell didn’t talk more about “pop culture as mythology”. I mean, he did, but it wasn’t the focus of his work. I only realized very recently the sleight of hand that he really pulled. What he did was use pop culture as a vehicle. I think he realized that traditional religions were essentially dead in the water, or if not dead then at least declining in people’s lives. Certainly they still play a role, but nowadays the real grunt-work is done by pop culture. It provides us with a story-system which binds us as a culture, and which acts as a vehicle or vessel for the symbolic contents of our subconscious minds.
I think he realized this, but he also realized that there was a danger here. Namely, that our archetypes were being clothed in pop culture, and we didn’t even know it. Since it was happening mostly outside the context of organized religion, with traditions of ritual and symbolism, most people were missing out on the important lessons learned in those traditions. So what he did, the real genius of his work, was to strip out the symbolic messages out of all world religions, and inject them directly into the bloodstream of the new religion, pop culture. And he essentially trusted that through the chaos of the mediasphere, these messages would ultimately find their place on their own and go right to where they were needed.
His speaking about pop culture returns me to the genres. Ever since Star Wars, the Monomyth has become a standard model for making movies in Hollywood… a model that even mainstream religion has had to come to terms with, however reluctantly. Parallel to the Monomyth, Neo-noir has brought Gnosticism into the public view. These two strains have come together in many movies such as The Matrix. So, I’m back in the territory of Philip K. Dick and the cultural analyses of Victoria Nelson and Eric G. Wilson.
What I was thinking about is the narrative structure of Gnostic films. They often end with the door in the sky. The narrative must end there because that is where rationality ends. Is there something beyond that door? What might it be? Any answer given won’t satisfy. We’d be disappointed if we followed Truman to the world beyond the Demiurge’s false reality.
This makes me wonder. The Monomyth is circular without any apparent escape. The traditional hero leaves just to return, but the Gnostic hero leaves without returning… or, if you prefer, his leaving is his returning to the real world… or in Jungian terms to his real Self. His boon is self-transformation (or else ananmesis) which is rather intangible.
This is where my personal sufferings and doubts come in. I recognize the limits of rationality. At its best, fiction can (potentially) at least point beyond itself in a way that philosophy doesn’t seem as capable of doing.
Nonetheless, the narrative ends with the Gnostic hero’s accomplishment and yet we the audience are stuck in this endless loop of Monomyth’s repetition. Stories can be just as much distracting entertainment as mode of insight. The Monomyth is a circle, but traditional religion offers us the hope of either escape from the enclosing periphery or otherwise to bring us deeper to the center around which it all revolves.
Can we only worship the hero as most Christians do or like Gnostics can we become the hero? Or is identifying with the hero part of the ego’s trap of endless misery? How does the story truly end? Does the story ever end? Will people still be telling ever new versions of the Monomyth far into the distant future (assuming we’re still around)?
The whole finger pointing at the moon comes to mind. What is the point of studying stories? What is the point of worshipping the Monomyth hero even if you believe him to be the Son of God? Does turning to religion offer us any further insight or guidance?
I don’t know the answer to all of that. My questioning here is partially in response to similar thoughts that Eric G. Wilson writes about which I might go into more detail about sometime. For now, I’ll just end with my wondering about all things archetypal.
What are the archetypes? Mere biological mechanisms of Darwinian evolution? A good case can be made for that, but it doesn’t satisfy me personally. I’d like to believe that archetypes, if not the moon the finger is pointing at, may at least be the trajectory of the finger pointing. If I follow the archetypes in contemplation, where shall they lead me?
To use the sea as a metaphor for the vastness of suffering, is there any reason to leave the shore?
Filed under: Gnosticism, Philosophy, Psychology, religion, Spirituality | Tagged: Carl Jung, Eric G. Wilson, Gnosticism, monomyth, pessimism, Peter Wessel Zapffe, Thomas Ligotti, Tim Boucher, Victoria Nelson | Leave a Comment »