I am to invite men drenched in Time to recover themselves and come out of time, and taste their native immortal air.– RALPH WALDO EMERSON
If you seek yourself outside yourself, then you will encounter disaster, whether erotic or ideological. That must be why Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his central essay, “Self-Reliance” (1840), remarked that “Traveling is a fool’s paradise.” I am sixty-five, and it is past time to write my ownversion of “Self-Reliance.” Spiritual autobiography in our era, I thought until now, is best when it is implicit. But the momentcomes when you know pretty much what you are going to know, and when you realize that more living and reading and brooding will not greatly alter the self. I am in my fortieth consecutive year of teaching at Yale, and my seventh at NYU, and for the last decade I have taught Shakespeare almost exclusively. Shakespeare, aside from all his other preternatural strengths, gives me the constant impression that he knows more than any- one else ever has known. Most scholars would call that impression an illusion, but to me it seems the pragmatic truth. Knowing myself, knowing Shakespeare, and knowing God are three separate but closely related quests.
Why bring God into it?
Seeking God outside the self courts the disasters of dogma, institutional corruption, historical malfeasance, and cruelty. For at least two centuries now most Americans have sought the God within rather than the God of European Christianity. But why bring Shakespeare into all this, since to me he seems the archetype of the secular writer?
You know the self primarily by knowing yourself; knowing another human being is immensely difficult, perhaps impossible, though in our youth or even our middle years we deceive ourselves about this. Yet this is why we read and listen to Shake- speare: in order to encounter other selves; no other writer can do that for us. We never encounter Shakespeare himself, as we can encounter Dante or Tolstoy in their work. Whether you can encounter God himself or herself depends upon yourself; we differ greatly from one another in that vital regard. But to return to the self: we can know it primarily through our own soli- tude, or we can know representatives of it, most vividly in Shakespeare, or we can know God in it, but only when indeed it is our own self. Perhaps the greatest mystics, poets, and lovers have been able to know God in another self, but I am skeptical as to whether that possibility still holds at this late time, with the Millennium rushing upon us.
Even the most spiritual of autobiographies is necessarily a song of the self. At sixty-five, I find myself uncertain just when my self was born. I cannot locate it in my earliest memories of childhood, and yet I recall its presence in certain memories of reading, particularly of the poets William Blake and Hart Crane, when I was about nine or ten. In my instance at least, the self came to its belated birth (or second birth) by reading visionary poetry, a reading that implicitly was an act of knowing something previously unknown within me. Only later could that self-revelation become explicit; Blake and Hart Crane, like some other great poets, have the power to awaken their readers to an implicit answering power, to a previously unfelt sense of possibilities for the self. You can call it a sense of “possible sublim- ity,” of “something evermore about to be,” as the poet William Wordsworth named it. Emerson, advocating self-trust, asked: “What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?” His answer was a primal power, or “deep force,” that we discover within ourselves. In the eloquence of certain sermons, Emerson found his deep force; for me it came out of exalted passages in Blake and Crane that haunt me still:
God appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night, But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of Day.
“Auguries of Innocence”– WILLIAM BLAKE,
And so it was I entered the broken world To trace the visionary company of love,
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
“The Broken Tower”– HART CRANE
These days, in our America, so many go about proclaiming “empowerment,” by which actually they mean “resentment,” or “catering to resentment.” To be empowered by eloquence and vision is what Emerson meant by self-reliance, and is the start of what I mean by “mere Gnosticism,” where “mere” takes its original meaning of “pure” or “unmixed.” To fall in love with great poetry when you are young is to be awakened to the self ’s potential, in a way that has little to do, initially, with overt knowing. The self ’s potential as power involves the self ’s immortality, not as duration but as the awakening to a knowledge of something in the self that cannot die, because it was never born. It is a curious sensation when a young person realizes that she or he is not altogether the child of that person’s natural parents. Freud reduced such a sensation to “the changeling fantasy,” in which you imagine you are a faery child, plucked away by adoptive parents who then masquerade as a natural mother and father. But is it only a fantasy to locate, in the self, a magical or occult element, older than any other component of the self? Deep reading in childhood was once the norm for many among us; visual and auditory overstimulation now makes such reading very rare, and I suspect that changeling fantasies are vanishing together with the experience of early, authentic reading. At more than half a century away from the deep force of first reading and loving poetry, I no longer remember precisely what I then felt, and yet can recall how it felt. It was an elevation, a mounting high on no intoxicants except incantatory language, but of a rather different sort than contemporary hip-hop. The language of Blake and Hart Crane, of Marlowe and Shakespeare and Milton, transcended its rush of glory, its high, excited verbal music, and gave the pleasures of excited thought, of a thinking that changed one ’s outer nature, while opening up an inner identity, a self within the self, previously unknown.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, shrewdest of modern Catholic writ- ers, warned, “[T]hat Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.” Mere Gnosticism badly needs to be distinguished from such large self-worship; Bloom does not wish to worship Bloom, that after all not being much of a religious experience. Our contem- porary debasement of Gnosticism goes under the name of the New Age, a panoply wide enough to embrace Shirley MacLaine and Mrs. Arianna Huffington, in which Ms. MacLaine worships Ms. MacLaine (with some justification) and Mrs. Huffington reveres Mrs. Huffington (with perhaps less). There have of course been major Gnostic ecstatics, such as the Shi’ite Sufi Al- Hallaj, who was executed in Baghdad in 922, supposedly for his grand outcry: “I am the Absolute Truth!” But mere Gnosticism, as I conceive it, is rather more modest, and can be less ecstati- cally conveyed. Return again to your own earliest memories, not of your contexts nor of your empirical self, but of your deeper self, your sense of your own individuality. What I recall must be close enough to what many others doubtless recall: a kind of awakening in which both the world and the self seemed more attuned to one another, so much so that appearances took on a kind of radiance, though only for a time. Transcendental experience of this kind can be reduced by psychoanalysis, or by other modes of explaining things away, but why should we feel obliged to reduce? The reductive fallacy is best exemplified by those persons (we all know them) who ask us the question con- cerning someone to whom we are close: “But tell me what he or she is really like.” We tell them, and they reply: “No, I mean really like,” and we suddenly understand them to mean: “What is the very worst thing you can say about him or her that is true, or true enough?” No manifestation of the human spirit could sur- vive that kind of reductiveness.
These days, in the United States, we live surrounded by a religiosity that pervades our politics, media, even our sports events. Kierkegaard fiercely insisted on the difficulty, the near impossibility of “becoming a Christian” in what purported to be a Christian society. What Speaker Gingrich denounces and the New York Times defends as “counterculture” essentially is a diffuse religiosity, heretical more in its implications than in its overt affirmations. The New Age, an endlessly entertaining sat- urnalia of ill-defined yearnings, is less a product of counterculture than it initially seems to be; its origins are in an old mixture of occultism and an American Harmonial faith suspended about halfway between feeling good and good feeling. Rock music, the authentic mark or banner of counterculture, is something that once was a new variety of indigenous American religion, however brief or secular, momentarily akin to the outflarings that have engendered permanent beliefs among us: Mormonism, Pentecostalism, Adventism. The moment passed, probably in the winter of 1969-1970, when spiritual intensity was at a brief height, and when some of my most sensitive stu- dents would assure me that the Jefferson Airplane, in concert, provided them with a mystical experience. Doubtless it did, since they attended in high condition, heirs to what William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, called the “Anes- thetic Revelation,” provided for the pragmatic philosopher- psychologist by nitrous oxide. The sorrow of the Anesthetic Revelation is that the music stops, the drug wears off, and there is no spiritual aftermath, or at least no awareness that can be put into words. That however is preferable to New Age prose, which is of a vacuity not to be believed.
A transcendence that cannot somehow be expressed is an incoherence; authentic transcendence can be communicated by mastery of language, since metaphor is a transference, a carrying-across from one kind of experience to another. The failure of rock criticism, except of a purely technical sort, is another indication of the retreat from intelligence in the purported counterculture. But my own profession, literary criticism, is currently even more of a failure. Literary experience necessarily has its own relation to transcendence, but who could know that from what now calls itself “cultural criticism,” for which there are no selves, whether in writers or readers, but only pol- itics: gender, racial, class, ethnic. Since my own version of self- reliance would be impossible without a sense of the deep self, and since transcendence for me began with the wonder of read- ing great poetry, I am compelled to testify that literary works can communicate transcendence.
What, very strictly, is transcendence? As an attribute of God, it means a climbing beyond the material universe and ourselves, insofar as we are nothing but units of that universe. As a human attribute, it is dismissed as an illusion by materialists, yet it has an uneasy existence in many of us, and a more secure hold in a scattering of individuals through the ages: mystics, vision- aries, sages, men and women who have a direct encounter with the divine or the angelic world and are able to convey something crucial in that encounter to us. Aldous Huxley, introduc- ing his beautiful anthology, The Perennial Philosophy (1945), observed that
… it contains but few extracts from the writings of pro- fessional men of letters and, though illustrating a philosophy, hardly anything from the professional philosophers. The reason for this is very simple. The Perennial Philosophy is primarily concerned with the one, divine Reality sub- stantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds. But the nature of this one Reality is such that it cannot be directly and immediately apprehended except by those who have chosen to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit. Why should this be so? We do not know.
Huxley’s principle means that Saint John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart make their way into his book, while Dante, Emerson, and Kierkegaard do not. Neither does William Blake nor any of the great Gnostic speculators, whether the Christian Gnostic Valentinus, or the Muslim Sufi Ibn ’Arabi, or the Jewish Kabbalist Isaac Luria. Self-abnegating spirituality has an an- cient and honorable lineage, and always has been compatible with dogmatic orthodoxy in all the Western religions. Self-affirming spirituality has a lineage at least as ancient and as honorable, and has never been reconcilable with institutional and historicized faith. I think it no accident that the spirituality of the strong self has close affiliations with the visions of poets and people-of-letters, so much so that Gnostic and literary writings could and should be gathered together in an anthology that would rival Huxley’s fine The Perennial Philosophy. Such a book might be called The Spiritual Arsenal, because its authors are as aggressive as they can be loving, are divided in heart, and are rich in spirit. Why should this be so? We do know, because the issue precisely is knowing. Gnostics, poets, people-of-letters share in the realization of knowing that they know. That brings me to the crucial distinction between Gnosis and Gnosticism, a pragmatic difference that underlies my own experiential path to mere Gnosticism.
C. S. Lewis, concluding one of my least favorite books, Mere Christianity (revised edition, 1952), shrewdly associates the Christian surrender of the self with not seeking literary origi- nality:
Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self. … Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. …
Setting aside all questions of merely personal distaste, I am fascinated by this passage, because it is the point-by-point reversal of the program of knowing the deep self that is the Gnostic (and literary) quest for immortality. Gnosis depends upon distinguishing the psyche, or soul, from the deep self, which pragmatically means that any strengthening of the psyche depends upon acquaintance with the original self, already one with God. Originality is as much the mark of historical Gnosticism as it is of canonical Western literature; that Lewis simultaneously deprecates both the self and originality con- firms the Gnostic negative analysis of those who assert that they live by faith rather than by knowledge. Christian “faith” is pistis, a believing that something was, is, and will be so. Judaic “faith” is emunah, a trusting in the Covenant. Islam means “submission” to the will of Allah, as expressed through his mes- senger Muhammad, “the seal of the prophets.” But Gnosis is not a believing that, a trusting in, or a submission. Rather, it is a mutual knowing, and a simultaneous being known, of and by God.
I cannot pretend that this is a simple process; it is far more elitist than C. S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity,” and I suspect that this elitism is why Gnosticism always has been defeated by orthodox Christian faith, in history. But I am writing spiritual au- tobiography, and not Gnostic theology, and so I return to personal history to explain how I understand Gnosis and Gnosticism. You don’t have to be Jewish to be oppressed by the enor- mity of the German slaughter of European Jewry, but if you have lost your four grandparents and most of your uncles, aunts, and cousins in the Holocaust, then you will be a touch more sensitive to the normative Judaic, Christian, and Muslim teachings that God is both all-powerful and benign. That gives one a God who tolerated the Holocaust, and such a God is simply intolerable, since he must be either crazy or irresponsible if his benign omnipotence was compatible with the death camps. A cosmos this obscene, a nature that contains schizophrenia, is acceptable to the monotheistic orthodox as part of “the mystery of faith.” Historical Gnosticism, so far as I can surmise, was invented by the Jews of the first century of the Common Era as a protest against just such a mystery of faith which, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “bleats to understand.” Yet “Gnosticism” is an ambiguous term; even “the Gnostic religion,” Hans Jonas’s suggestion, creates difficulties, as he acknowledged. There were, so far as we can ascertain, few, perhaps no Gnostic churches or temples in the ancient world. And yet Gnosticism was more than a tendency, more even than a party or a move- ment: I think it is best to call it a spirituality, one that was and is a deliberate, strong revision of Judaism and Christianity, and of Islam later. There is a quality of unprecedentedness about Gnosticism, an atmosphere of originality that disconcerts the orthodox of any faith. Creativity and imagination, irrelevant and even dangerous to dogmatic religion, are essential to Gnosticism. When I encounter this quality, I recognize it instantly, and an answering, cognitive music responds in me.
In the middle of the journey, at thirty-five, now thirty years ago, I got very wretched, and for almost a year was immersed in acute melancholia. Colors faded away, I could not read, and scarcely could look up at the sky. Teaching, my most character- istic activity, became impossible to perform. Whatever the im- mediate cause of my depression had been, that soon faded away in irrelevance, and I came to sense that my crisis was spiritual. An enormous vastation had removed the self, which until then had seemed strong in me. At the suggestion of my Yale psychi- atrist, I went abroad, but found myself so depressed in London that I went to see an eminent Pakistani psychoanalyst, at my Yale doctor’s recommendation. An instant hatred sprang up between the London analyst and me, so that I refused to see him again after three visits, but my fury was therapeutic and partly dislodged me from my dark night of the soul. I tell this story only because the dislodgment was, at first, so very partial. What rescued me, back in 1965, was a process that began as reading, and then became a kind of “religious” conversion that was also an excursion into a personal literary theory. I had purchased The Gnostic Religion by Hans Jonas when it was published as a paperback in 1963, and had first read it then, assimilating it to William Blake, upon whom I was writing commentaries, and to Gershom Scholem’s studies of Kabbalah. But Jonas’s book had a delayed impact upon me; it did not kindle until I began to read endlessly in all of Emerson, throughout 1965-66. I still remem- ber the passages in Emerson that retrospectively linked up with Jonas, in my mind:
That is always best which gives me to myself. The sub- lime is excited in me by the great stoical doctrine, Obey thyself. That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen…
In the highest moments, we are a vision. There is nothing that can be called gratitude nor properly joy. The soul is raised over passion. It seeth nothing so much as Identity. It is a Perceiving that Truth and Right ARE. Hence it becomes a perfect Peace out of the knowing that all things will go well. Vast spaces of nature, the Atlantic Ocean, the South Sea; vast intervals of time, years, centuries, are annihilated to it; this which I think and feel underlay that former state of life and circumstances, as it does underlie my present, and will always all circumstance, and what is called life and what is called death.
… Those men who cannot answer by a superior wisdom these facts or questions of time, serve them. Facts encumber them, tyrannize over them, and make the men of routine, the men of sense, in whom a literal obedience to facts has extin- guished every spark of that light by which man is truly man. …
For Jonas, as for Emerson, the moment of Gnosis is the mind’s direct perception, a pure movement and event that simultaneously discloses a divine spark in the self, and a sense of divine degradation even there, in the inmost self, because the Gnostic Fall is within the Godhead. What integrating Jonas and Emerson did for me was to find the context for my nihilistic depression. Jonas gives a catalog of affects that accompany the Gnostic sense of having been thrown into this existence: forlorn- ness, dread, homesickness, numbness, sleep, intoxication. The transcendent stranger God or alien God of Gnosticism, being beyond our cosmos, is no longer an effective force; God exists, but is so hidden that he has become a nihilistic conception, in himself. He is not responsible for our world of death camps and schizophrenia, but he is so estranged and exiled that he is powerless. We are unsponsored, since the God of this world, worshipped (as Blake said) by the names of Jesus and Jehovah, is only a bungler, an archangel-artisan who botched the False Creation that we know as our Fall.
As Americans, we are now post-pragmatists; we acknowledge only differences that make a difference. It makes a con- siderable difference to believe that you go back before the Creation; that you were always there, a part and particle of God. Self-reliance is a solitary doctrine; it disagrees strongly with Marx’s contention that the smallest human unit is two people. Mere Gnosticism does not lend itself to communal worship, though doubtless that has been ventured, at one time and place or another. What should a Gnostic prayer be? A call to the self, perhaps, to wake up, in order to be made free by the Gnosis. Emerson, American prophet, says it for us: “That is always best which gives me to myself.”
We live now, more than ever, in an America where a great many people are Gnostics without knowing it, which is a peculiar irony. When Newt Gingrich tells us that our national economic future depends completely upon information, then I recall that the ancient Gnostics denied both matter and energy, and opted instead for information above all else. Gnostic information has two primary awarenesses: first, the estrangement, even the alienation of God, who has abandoned this cosmos, and second, the location of a residuum of divinity in the Gnostic’s own in- most self. That deepest self is no part of nature, or of history: it is devoid of matter or energy, and so is not part of the Creation- Fall, which for a Gnostic constitutes one and the same event. If Gingrich is an unknowing American right-wing Gnostic, we abound also in a multitude of unaware left-wing Gnostics, who like Gingrich seek salvation through rather different information. Gingrich is much under the influence of the future-shock maven, Alvin Toffler, whose vision of a New America is not co- herent enough for me to apprehend, except that the way to apotheosis lies through ever more advanced information technology. I myself, in an ironic moment, once characterized ancient Gnosticism as an information theory, but I little realized that every possible parody, even of Gnosticism, would be available all around us in our Gingrichian nation. Enemies of Gnosticism have confounded it with every kind of modern ideology, yet its supposed friends do it more damage. Our current angel worship in America is another debased parody of Gnosticism, though here I will have to go rather a long way back to explain how curious our angelic rage truly is, and why it is here to stay, at least until we are into the twenty-first century.
There are angels throughout the Hebrew Bible but they rarely are central concerns, and frequently they are editorial re- visions, surrogates for Yahweh whenever the priestly redactors felt the early J writer was being too daring in the depiction of God. Angels become dominant figures, replacing an increas- ingly remote God, only in the apocalyptic writings of the Jews in the third and second centuries before the Common Era, in a Palestine under the rule of the Hellenistic successors of Alexander the Great. Indeed, angels were not a Jewish invention, but truly returned from Babylonian captivity with the Jews. Their ultimate source is the angelology of Zoroastrian Persia, which may go back as far as 1500 B.C.E. Zoroaster (the Greek form of his actual name, Zarathustra, which was much preferred by Nietzsche) is a shadowy figure for most of us, but he seems to have invented our religiously based sense of apocalypse and Millennium, ideas that did not exist before him. Sometimes cu- riously refracted, Zoroaster’s original ideas reappeared in late apocalyptic Judaism, in Gnosticism, and in early Christianity, and surfaced again in the Shi’ite branch of Islam, which domi- nates Iran until this day. The scholar Norman Cohn, our great authority upon the Millennium, recently has argued that what binds together post-biblical Jewish apocalypses like the Books of Enoch and some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the New Testament, is the Zoroastrian vision, which posits a dualistic struggle between supernatural forces of good and evil, a strug- gle ending with good triumphant, and the Kingdom of God established upon earth. Such doctrines as the existence of the Devil and the other fallen angels, and the resurrection of the dead, besides the entire world of supportive angelology, seem to be Jewish, Christian, and finally Muslim importations from Zoroaster’s Iranian spirituality. The ironies of such an inheritance are palpable, and are particularly accented right now, when the doomsday scenarios of informed American and Israeli analysts emphasize the threat of Iran acquiring its own atomic bombs within five years, just in time to greet the Millennium with hellfire. The fall of the Soviet Union into another wretchedly imperial Russia has deprived our American Protestant diviners, like the Reverend Pat Robertson, of an apocalyptic rough beast, which the Iranian juggernaut now can replace. American Christian Fundamentalism, and the Islamic Shi’ite fundamentalism of Iran, are rival heirs of the Zoroastrian imaginings of the Last Things. Norman Cohn points out that the Book of Daniel’s symbolism of four metals representing the four ages of the world culminates in the fourth and last age (ours) being symbolized by “iron mixed with [Adam’s] clay,” a direct borrowing from a Zoroastrian apocalyptic work.
But what has all this to do with Gnosticism, or with anyone’s personal Gnosis, such as my own? Gnosticism, then and now, in my judgment rises as a protest against apocalyptic faith, even when it rises within such a faith, as it did successively within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Prophetic religion becomes apocalyptic when prophecy fails, and apocalyptic religion becomes Gnosticism when apocalypse fails, as fortunately it always has and, as we must hope, will fail again. Gnosticism does not fail; it cannot fail, because its God is at once deep within the self and also estranged, infinitely far off, beyond our cosmos. Historically, Gnosticism has always been obliterated by persecution, ranging from the relatively benign rejections of normative Judaism through the horrible violence of Roman Catholicism against the Christian Gnostics throughout the ages, wherever and whenever the Church has been near allied to repressive secular authorities. The final organized Western Gnosticism was destroyed in the so-called Albigensian Crusades, which devastated southern France in the thirteenth century, exterminating not only the Cathar Gnostic heretics but also the Provençal language and its troubador culture, which has survived only in the prevalent Western myth and ideal of romantic love. It is yet another irony that our erotic lives, with their self-destructive reliance upon the psychic disease called “falling–or being–in love,” should be a final, unknowing heritage of the last organized Gnosticism to date.
I need to modify or amend that, since Gnosticism is alive and well (perhaps not so well) in our America, and not just in New Age parodies, though I am delighted to be told by the New York Times that Speaker Newt keeps Arianna Huffington’s treatise, The Fourth Instinct, in his office bookcase. Most intrepid of readers, I have attempted it, only to be driven back in defeat by its inspired vacuity. Our authentic Gnosticisms are scattered wherever our new southern and western Republican overlords worship: in Salt Lake City and Dallas and wherever else Mor- mon temples and Southern Baptist First Churches pierce the heavens. Our American Religion, whether homegrown or ostensibly Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant, is more of a Gnostic amalgam than a European kind of historical and doctri- nal Christianity, though very few are able to see this, or perhaps most don’t wish to see it. Some alarmed Catholic priests trying to hold on against the angry feminists of Woman Church–a fierce, huge coven that threatens to seize the church in many places–have become aware of their danger, and there are a handful or so of mainline Protestant ministers who now un- derstand that their neo-orthodoxy is yielding to a populist neo-Gnosticism. But the major manifestations transcend the churches, and are far larger than even the legions of New Age fellow travelers. Our rampantly flourishing industries of angel worship, “near-death experiences,” and astrology–dream divination networks–are the mass versions of an adulterated or travestied Gnosticism. I sometimes allow myself the fantasy of Saint Paul redescending upon a contemporary America where he still commands extraordinary honor, among religions as diverse as Roman Catholicism and Southern Baptism. He would be bewildered, not by change, but by sameness, and would be- lieve he was back at Corinth and Colossae, confronted again by Gnostic myths of the angels who made this world. If you read Saint Paul, you discover that he was no friend of the angels. There is his cryptic remark in 1 Corinthians 11:10 that “a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels,” which I suspect goes back to the Book of Enoch’s accounts of angelic lust for earthly women. In the Letter to the Colossians, the distinction between angels and demons seems to be voided, and Christians are warned against “worship of angels,” an admonition that the churches, at the moment, seem afraid to re- state.
The “near-death experience” is another pre-Millennium phenomenon that travesties Gnosticism; every account we are given of this curious matter culminates in being “embraced by the light,” by a figure of light known to Gnostic tradition variously as “the astral body,” “the Resurrection Body,” or Hermes, our guide in the land of the dead. Since all of life is, in a sense, a “near-death experience,” it does seem rather odd that actual cases of what appear to be maldiagnoses should become supposed intimations of immortality. The commercialization of angelology and of out-of-the-body shenanigans properly joins the age-old history of mercantilized astrology and dream div- ination. As mass-audience omens of Millennium, all of these represent what may be the final debasement of a populist American Gnosticism. I am prompted by this to go back to the great texts of a purer Gnosticism and their best commentators.
The anarchistic Brethren of the Free Spirit in the fifteenth century, like the Provençal Cathars in the twelfth, join the Manichaeans as the three large instances of Gnostic movements that transcended an esoteric religion of the intellectuals. An- cient Gnosticism, like Romantic and modern varieties, was a religion of the elite only, almost a literary religion. A purified Gnosticism, then and now, is truly for a relative handful only, and perhaps is as much an aesthetic as it is a spiritual discipline. But, as the Millennium approaches, with the remote yet real possibility of a virtual Gingrichian America, we may behold a mass Gnosticism of protest rise out of a new Brethren of the Free Spirit, compounded of an urban dispossessed without federal welfare, and the sorry legions of Generation X, the middle-class young who will resent laboring all their lives to pay off the deficits of the Reaganite and Gingrichian revolu- tions. It is a dismal prophecy, but 1996–2004 could continue to be the reign of Speaker Gingrich, and thus become a future shock indeed, a Christian Coalition (with some Jewish neocon- servative camp followers) that could repeal much of the Bill of Rights through constitutional amendments, while returning us to the America of the late nineteenth-century robber barons.
Envision a United States of Virtual Gingrichia paying for its balanced budget with a high national sales tax, burdensome in particular upon the poor, black and white. With institutional Christianity–whether mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, or American sectarian (Southern Baptist and Mormon in particular)–part and parcel of the Gingrichian Establishment, we might see a Gnostic heresy rise up as a mass movement among the exploited, perhaps even pulling Pentecostalism away from its present reactionary alliances. An America of welfare riots, of an enforced contractual Gingrichian Virtual Gospel, founded upon an informational monopoly, might well provoke a large- scale Gnosticism of the insulted and injured, rising up to affirm and defend the divine spark in themselves. If an unregenerate Gingrich triumphs, then the only self-reliance left to the dispos- sessed might be a religiously inspired resistance. Like everyone else, I would like to dismiss all that as mere fantasy, rather than as future-shock mere Gnosticism.
BLOOM, Harold, Omens of the millenium: the gnosis of angels, dreams, and resurrection. New York: Riverhead books, 1996.