Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Brief review of two books about William S Burroughs




Books on WSB are getting better. I've just finished two very good ones. My darling bought me The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs by Matthew Levi Stevens  and I just had to go and get what is more or less its unofficial companion volume, David S Wills's 'Scientologist: William S Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult '.' You know how it is with bibliophilia.

The latter is a superb piece of work. Wills puts together a lot of archive material to shed light on WSB's few years of involvement in the Church of Scientology and the enduring effects on his thinking of some of Hubbard's ideas (such as the idea of engrams) and some of Scientology's practice (auditing and the E-meter). Present day readers may be surprised to learn that a lot of people found the auditing technique helpful, that Scientology was not at the time the laughing stock it is now.

But this book is also valuable in showing us aspects of WSB's life and character that led to his being interested in these techniques. Wills argues that Burroughs was the ideal subject, with his emotional problems and his view of life.

I've read a few biographical accounts of William Burroughs but never have I felt his vulnerability so acutely. Wills writes of a deeply troubled man who sought relief from his emotional pain through psychoanalysis, drugs and various other techniques  and eventually stumbled upon a system that made more sense to him than any other because, for a few years, it really seemed to help him feel better.

However, he was alert to the controlling features of Hubbard's org from early on, though his enthusiastic experiments with the E-meter lie detector continued for many years after he was thrown out of the Church of Scientology for criticizing the organization.

This really is a most intimate portrait of a complex and distressed man, and left me feeling that I know him better through these revelations, couched in Wills's sympathetic though unflinching words, than through any others.

The Magical Universe of William Burroughs cites Wills and the author has obviously had a fruitful correspondence with him. This book tracks down an astonishing amount of evidence for WSB living in a full-blown magical belief system, veering through OOBEs, sex magic, cursing, the development of the cut up as a spell casting technique and of course, Scientology (which nicked its best stuff from Jack Parsons)

It was clear to me from early on that Burroughs not only lived in an essentially magical world, as many artists do, but was actually writing about and doing magic. Back in the day, around 1990, I collaborated with Phil Hine on an article called Operation Overload which was published in Chaos International issue 5, (available here http://www.philhine.org.uk/writings/ess_opov.html) . I think this was pretty much the first exploration of Burroughs's magical world on its own terms. Phil has been very active since then in writing pieces about WSB, and is referenced extensively in this book.

William Burroughs' involvement with the IOT is of course recorded, mentioning Bob and Stephani Williams and Douglas Grant (and I even get a name check).

This is a thorough book, and a very readable portrait of a unique magical mind.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Tyr journal, Northern esotericism and politics

This blog started off as a review of Tyr issue 4, and that review arose out of discussions about the (unfortunate) appearance of White Nationalism in Germanic esotericist writings. So the post expanded into an argument that White Nationalism is by no means typical of the Northern mysteries.

Tyr: Myth, Culture, Tradition. Issue 4. 
Edited by Joshua Buckley and Michael Moynihan
Volume 4, 2014, ISSN 1538-9413, ISBN-13: 978-0-9720292-4-7, 6" x 9" perfectbound, illustrated, 430 pages.

Tyr is an extraordinary publication, unlike any other. On the back cover of each edition the journal's mission is outlined: 'TYR celebrates the traditional myths, culture and social institutions of pre-Christian, pre-Modern Europe. It includes in-depth original articles, interviews, translations of essential works by radical traditionalist thinks, as well as extensive reviews of books, films, music, and the arts.'
An answer is given to the question 'What does it mean to be a Radical Traditionalist?'
'It means to reject the modern,.'. materialist reign of  "quantity over quality," the absence of any meaningful spiritual values, environmental devastation, the mechanization and over-specialization of urban life, and the imperialism of corporate monoculture, with its vulgar "values" of progress and efficiency. It means to yearn for the small, homogeneous tribal societies that flourished before Christianity-societies in which every aspect of life was integrated into a holistic system.'
(Full mission statement at http://www.radicaltraditionalist.com/tyr.htm.)

The articles in issue 4 give a good idea of the range of topics covered in Tyr's four volumes (no's 2, 3 and 4 of which are still available).

The theme of religion from a Traditional point of view is taken up by Alain de Benoist, in 'What is Religion?'. He asks 'Do we live in the age of the 'death of God' or the 'return of religion?' He examines various models of religion - its psychological, sociological and biological dimensions, concluding that they are inadequate, and asking what the essential features of a religion are. He concludes with a return to the idea that 'we are quite far from the old gods.'... '"Deserted"' is the appropriate word... the divine has withdrawn from our world... a world where one exploits the Earth, no longer knowing how to honour it.'
Mourning the death of the living world of the old gods, he ends on a Heidegger quote: 'Only a God can save us.'

Nigel Pennick's article on 'Traditional Time-Telling in Old England' is one of those wonderful meditations that cuts across regular cultural lines to show what we have lost from our pre-Christian cultural heritage, and the extent to which we are recovering forms of that heritage appropriate for this era.

Claude Lecouteux is represented by two articles. 'Garden Dwarves' is an inspiring essay on the ways we build magic into our homes. Lecouteux is very worth reading on this topic - see his The Tradition of Household Spirits (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Tradition-Household-Spirits-Ancestral/dp/1620551055). In his other piece, 'Geiler von Kaiserberg and the Furious Army' he retraces the myth of the Wild Hunt.

Steve Harris's 'On Barbarian Suffering' examines the traditional mind-set in which disasters are visited on us by the gods, and traces this thinking into the modern world.

Stephen Pollington reviews 'Germanic Art in the First Millennium', asking pertinent questions about the magical meaning of decorations on brooches, sword hilts and so on.

Contemporary artists whose ways of seeing have been influenced strongly by Northern Tradition ideas are also represented. From Michael Moynihan's essay I learned of the 20th Century American artist Rockwell Kent and how the Northern mythos inspired and sustained him.

Other artist cameos include Cult of Youth's Sean Ragon, and Sequentia's Benjamin Bagby. If you haven't heard Sequentia's Edda [http://www.sequentia.org/recordings/recording23.html] then do make time to do so - it is an extraordinary re-creation of an Eddic recital which you will never forget.

Tyr's production values are stellar and, as you would expect, integrated with the content; even the cover has something important to say about culture. Benjamin Vierling's beautiful, moody painting shows a woman holding a baby warthog. It is executed in classic oil painting style. Vierling's comments on art show that he has no desire to be part of the game of money and fashion that fine art has largely become. The idea that art should be driven by fashion to the extent that it becomes an in joke between an elite of artists and Charles Saatchi is repulsive enough to generate all sorts of responses from art lovers. When her boyfriend resumed proper painting Tracy Emin called his work 'stuck'. Proudly, he adopted the label 'Stuckist'. Vierling clearly opposes the idea that just because something is done in a new style, does not make it intrinsically less susceptible to criticism.

So Tyr amounts to a unique cultural project, unearthing and making vivid the thoughts and feelings of the pre-modern era, some of which underlie the confused layers of modern culture, and seeking glimpses of pre-instrumental views of the world, of cultural layers in which the Earth is not just a 'resource' and people aren't just 'human resources'.

The allusion in the title to the god Tyr is another reminder of the transcendent principles of Tradition: Tyr is the Norse form of the Indo-European sky god. His name resounds thorough the Germanic languages and denotes a principle of justice and rightness. Tyr journal celebrates and demonstrates the breadth and depth of the gnosis that has been nurtured in Germanic cultures and written or sung in Germanic languages.

Amongst the ancient and modern stirrers of the gnosis are the psychedelic sacraments. Of course, the German speaking world was seminal in the 20th century revival of the psychedelic gnosis - one only has to think of Albert Hoffman, the 'father of LSD'. In Tyr 4 we have an article by German psychedelics expert Christian Rätsch on 'The Mead of Inspiration'. The good Doktor, author of numerous scholarly books on the history, ethnobotany and sheer importance of psychedelic plants, turns to the question of the ingredients of ancient sacred drinks, in which 'alcohol is little more than a preservative or a solvent'.

The topic of psychoactives continues with a pair of interviews with psychedelic pioneer Ralph Metzner, one conducted by Carl Abrahamsson and the other by Tyr editor Joshua Buckley. Metzner comes over as vitally interested in using the psychedelic gnosis, not simply indulging in it as a species of private ecstasis. This attitude is of a piece with a major theme in Tyr, and in German esotericism - the necessity of incorporating polar extremes into personal illumination, of exploring the world in order to reach one's own spiritual truth. Metzner also voices an evaluation of the spiritual role of psychedelics I share - that they provide a preview, what I used to think of as a helicopter flight up the sacred mountain. In a world circumscribed by crude, triumphalist philosophies of science such as that peddled by Richard Dawkins, many of us require that helicopter ride to gain the knowledge that experience of one's own truth from within is even possible.

This is the point at which to consider Collin Cleary's Tyr 4 essay 'What is Odinism?' This is a wide-ranging philosophical survey which illustrates how deeply-embedded in the culture of North Western Europe are the qualities ascribed to Odin. The issues covered include the Faustian model of Western culture via Oswald Spengler and the core Left Hand Path idea that a human being is potentially a god, or something even greater. Odin is of course the role-model for the aspiring illuminate in Germanic culture.

Cleary's account is also sensitive to the tragic dimensions of the Odinic myth - that we may, in emulating the god, become obsessed with knowledge and power, and thereby 'lose our souls'. This is of course the dark side of the Faustian obsession that has brought Western civilization its greatest triumphs, and its greatest disasters.

Cleary introduces some of Edred Thorsson's ideas, particularly the notion of Odinic consciousness as encompassing the whole world, in all its extremes. Odin gives us a model to embrace the universe and thereby find our own inner truth. This is a gnosis which does not in any way demand the abandonment of the world and the flesh; indeed, the Odinic seeker arrives at truth at least in part via the world and the body.

However, Cleary does not take this idea as far as Thorsson does with his Polarian Method. This is the explicit notion that we need to seek out extremes in our personal development, integrating the experiences of them into greater consciousness. It seems to me that this strongly implies that reasoning can not always be top-down, starting with general principles and deriving specific guidelines to action. I shall return to this point below.

Cleary's article is well-written and introduces some powerful and important ideas, but he does make a curious attempt at conflating Odinism and Odianism, right at the start of the piece. In a footnote, he justifies this, but he is either missing the point of the distinction, or this is a deliberate attempt to elide that distinction, with no real justification other than that he finds the word 'Odianism' cumbersome.

Cleary's footnote mentions Thorsson's reasoning, kind of in passing: 'by "Odianism", Thorsson means a particular path to which not all Asatruar will be called.'

Surely this is a good enough reason to maintain the distinction? The way of the Rune-Gild, called Odianism, is about self-mastery and higher consciousness. Religions, including Asatru or Odinism, have little space for such concerns because they are mainly there in order to make people feel better about themselves and their circumstances, to cater to a level of consciousness which is about following, belonging and conformity. Development of greater awareness, magic, awakening - these are at best peripheral to religion.

Why would anyone want to blur or undermine that distinction? To pretend that seekers after truth are really just the same as the faithful flocks of Asatruar? In the essay under consideration, he asks 'Is there hope for the Odinic-Faustian West?', and answers with an acceptance of ontological determinism - just admitting what we 'are' according to 'biological, historical, cultural and social' destiny.

This is a tad vague, but looking at Cleary's other writings, it becomes clear that he has a political agenda at least as important to him as his esoteric one. An essay at http://www.counter-currents.com/2012/10/asatru-and-the-political/ plunges us straight into the depths of that programme, with an opening statement:

'I regard Ásatrú and White Nationalism as so inseparably bound to one another that to espouse Ásatrú while rejecting White Nationalism is to involve oneself in a fatal contradiction (fatal, really, in more than just the logical sense).'

By "White Nationalism" he means:
'very simply, a movement which recognizes White people - people of European stock, in other words - as a distinct nation or race, with its own set of national interests, and that seeks to advance those interests.'

That advancement involves resistance to a selection of the lies of the ruling class, those that appear to privilege other 'races' above Whites. The usual is stated, about not hating other 'racial' groups, and Cleary makes some very general statements about differences, but then the mask slips, and another layer of language shows through:
'But so long as there are distinct human groups these [differences] are ineradicable (which is exactly what some Leftists have realized in advocating miscegenation).'

I haven't heard the word 'miscegenation' since I last read a novel about rednecks in America in the 40s-50s. Does anyone not stuck in some ultra-racist timewarp still use the word?

I mentioned the perils of top-down argument above. One of them is that if the conclusion of your argument takes you somewhere that is grotesque on a number of levels, then its premises or its construction must be wrong. It is better to start over again, using insights into one's own visceral prejudices and arguing directly from those rather than trying to cloak dubious political ideas in respectable philosophical clothes. The association of White Nationalism with Asatru, taken with the deliberate conflation of Odinism (Asatru) with the esoteric path of Odianism does just that, and so the motive behind that curious elision comes into view. And to associate the Path of the Mysteries with a political movement, particularly one that is capable of using terms like 'miscegenation' is, to my mind, repellent.

I hope it's clear from the above that while I am criticizing some features of the Germanic revival, I am doing so from the inside. A study of the topics broached in Tyr enriches many a person's magical world, and provides a growing undertow, a sense of belonging to something good, which started long before you were born and will continue, we hope, long after you die.

Currents of world-changing thought, visions of beauty and awakening, traditions of embeddedness in a magical universe that answers to the awakened mind; currents of social and political liberation, the recovery of better ways of living (in Tyr 3 there is an article on the Wandervögeln); these are just a few of the themes that have emerged within Germanic cultures and been written down in Germanic languages.

But there is also the Thursic side. Thurses are the stupid giants in the old Northern tales and they provide, as mythic truths often do, useful tools for thinking about the modern world. Thurses are characterized by stupidity. (See my blog piece Three Thurses For Thee, http://chaotopia-dave.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/three-thurses-for-thee-towards.html). Everything about them stinks of automatism and unconsciousness. They represent the undertow of human consciousness, the forces of habituated, ignorant resistance that lurk beneath the conscious will.

If White Nationalists, despite their attempts to make their ideology respectable, want to ban breeding between different ethnic types, then it is perfectly clear to me that we are in the presence of a Thurs, one powered by the faithful flock's philosophical leaders' encouragement of the flock's most childish fears. On its own level, that conduct looks to me like a dereliction of leadership, but quite aside from that consideration, I, for one, do not want any kind of political game polluting my esoteric worldview.

The main reason for writing this review has been to point out to those who may think that White Nationalism is typical of Germanic esotericism that this is no more the case than any of the excellent other currents given voice in Tyr. The mix of articles in Tyr 4 presents Cleary's views as just one of a richly diverse selection of outlooks. So there is no need to shun Germanic esotericism because of the political programmes of a minority of its writers. The world of Northern Magic is much, much bigger than that.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Review of Wilhelm Reich - Biologist, by James E. Strick

Wilhelm Reich - Biologist, by James E. Strick, Harvard University Press, 2015.

I came of sexual age in the 1960s, when the so-called Sexual Revolution was already well underway. Widespread, reliable contraception had finally detached the sex act from the raw biology of reproduction. Young people were becoming much freer with their explorations of sex; long before I ever had sex with anyone else, I, in common with nearly all my contemporaries, embraced the zeitgeist - the idea of sexual freedom - in a spirit of hopeful anticipation.

A few years later, reading Wilhelm Reich, my friends and I were digging back into the foundations of the Sexual Revolution, a phrase coined by Reich, a movement he hoped would arise and dissolve the bonds of locked-in sexual-emotional energy and lead to a better world. Reich was the erratic visionary who had looked forward to an era we were now living in. He wrote in Function of the Orgasm:

'Psychic health depends upon orgastic potency, i.e. upon the degree to which one can surrender to and experience the climax of excitation in the natural sexual act. ... Psychic illnesses are the result of a disturbance in the natural ability to love. In the case of orgastic impotence, from which the overwhelming majority of people suffer, damming-up of biological energy occurs and becomes the source of irrational actions.'

Wilhelm Reich was a psychoanalyst who studied under Sigmund Freud, but came to treat libido as an actual, physically-detectable energy, an aspect of a universal vital force he called orgone. Reich's life-force has to be physically detectable. His philosophy could be described as 'mechanistic vitalism'; he claimed that it bridges the gulf between the classically-opposed vitalistic and mechanistic philosophies of life. Reich's vitalism demands a very different way of looking at the world; things are not to be understood merely in the ways they commonly manifest.

'What is Bio-psychic Energy?' he asks in a chapter heading in his book The Function of the Orgasm, and admits that he cannot fully answer this question. However, he insists it is electrical in nature, referring to it as bio-electricity on occasion.

Reich's legacy is broadly twofold: he is best known and respected for the founding of an important tendency in psychotherapy. Some of his ideas concerning psychotherapy rest on controversial or unprovable ideas, but the idea of 'character armour' is an amazing insight. According to Reich, the frustration and pain we bring forward from childhood trauma we do so by carrying it in tensions in our musculature. There was nothing like this notion in modern psychology until Reich suggested it, yet it is of a piece with the ancient Germanic concept of the hamr, the soul which imprints a shape upon our bodies, a shape which derives from habitual patterns, patterns which can be dissolved and recast in shapeshifting acts of magic.

Reich's greatest psychotherapeutic legacy is surely Alexander Lowen's Bioenergetic Therapy. Lowen was a patient, then a student of Reich's, splitting from him in 1952. His writings do not emphasize orgone or Reich's dubious physical theories, but give central place to the Reichian concept of character armouring. Despite Lowen's obvious respect for his former teacher, it is not hard to get the impression that their split amounted to Lowen's developing what was useful and leaving behind theoretical frameworks that were useless for therapy and, what's more, may eventually have been harmful to the credibility of therapies stemming from Reich's original and challenging biological microscopy.

That work is his second, and more controversial legacy, and it's what this book examines anew. Wilhelm Reich: Biologist tells the story of Reich's career, from his first stirrings of interest in a biological basis for his patients' emotional suffering through to his most controversial work and his departure for the USA in 1939. His biological work started with observations of amoebae, studying the way protoplasm flowed and trying to relate this to his theory that that basis of organic life is a pulsation formed of alternate expansion and contraction, from protozoa right up to the human autonomic nervous system. In the course of attempts to culture his own amoebae, he observed the formation of vesicles at around a micron in size. Following up this work with sterile preparations based on decaying grass, and then other materials, some of which were heated to incandescence to guarantee sterility, he observed a range of these vesicles, which he called bions. The bions pulsated, and seemed to be associated with larger structures, more like fully-developed cells.

Reich claimed that what he was observing was 'Primary Biogenesis', in other words, the emergence of living forms from non-living matter. This was his dominant theory throughout the period covered in this book, from the first bion experiments in 1935 to the 1939 discovery of the SAPA bions, which Reich observed to affect light-shielded photographic plates, but seemingly under conditions non-one else has yet succeeded in replicating.

Reich certainly observed some previously-unknown or poorly-studied structures that arise in cultures made using all sorts of organic and inorganic substances as a starting point, but his identification of these with processes that generate life where there was none before rests on shaky ground. Reich does seem to be over-optimistic when he claims that the bions possessed "all the criteria of life." Further, the idea of orgone energy is bound to raise the question: Are we in the presence of a scientist who seems in this case to have discarded the first rule of scientific enquiry - Occam's Razor, by which we are enjoined not to multiply entities needlessly?

Maybe, but this possibility does not invalidate his actual discoveries, which this book presents lucidly and with copious references, some from new examination of forgotten archives. What is more, WRB tells the stories of Reich's treatment at the hands of mainstream academic science - men whose worries about tenure occluded their experimental objectivity. This isolation may have been exacerbated by Reich's character, which Strick does not shrink from sketching via key anecdotes.

It is also worth bearing in mind that this is a man who was eventually hounded to his death by fanatics from the US Food and Drugs administration, who were quite possibly infuriated by the fact that Reich was trying to establish a sexually healthy society, and went so far as to burn his books. WRB argues convincingly that Reich was not a charlatan, whatever his character flaws.

Reich is still controversial. You only have to look at reviews of one 2010 book, Adventures in the Orgasmatron, by Christopher Turner, to see how polarized people are about Reich's ideas. The judgments on the book are mostly positive from mainstream critics who found it amusing, few of whom, one imagines, have much background in biology or psychotherapy. However, more than half the reviews from the general public I found were much more critical, more than one of which accused the author of poor research, character assassination and outright lying. WRB has the potential to restore the balance, and honour Reich's discoveries.

In the final section of WRB, we learn of teams who have since repeated Reich's experiments, and conformed his observations - clearly, pulsating vesicle-structures in the micron range do appear under sterile conditions, and these structures can be cultured in sterile growth media. Strick speculates about self-replicating macromolecular structure that have been discovered since Reich's time, such as prion proteins.

This possibility by no means exhausts fresh approaches to Reich's microscopic discoveries. The pulsation of the vesicles suggests some kind of dissipative energy system, for studies of which Ilya Prigogine gained the 1977 Chemistry Nobel. These are self-assembling systems of chemical components that form relatively stable structures which maintain themselves whilst exchanging energy with their environment. A macroscopic example might be a smoke ring, rotating in response to air currents but keeping its form.  

From the point of view of health and personal development, Reich's work gives some interesting crossovers between different descriptions of the experience of sensed-energy, for instance when he talks about the speed at which 'orgone energy' flows: he says it is slow, a few millimetres per second. This is the speed at which a shudder of cold, or of pleasure, or of excitement passes through us when we feel those things. For Reich, this sensation would correlate directly to a measurable energy flow. This is a position which starts and is rooted in embodied wisdom, the recognition of the vast, non-cognitive domains of conscious being, and that position is something our culture desperately needs. After all, any flourishing of individuals which has been aided by inner work with sensed-energy is to be applauded, and what science has to say about such internal processes is surely secondary to the experience of the practitioner. We can do science at one time, and inner work, with whatever models work best for us, at another. There is no conflict, because these things operate in different domains.

This is a  very good book, carefully written and balanced in approach. If you have puzzled about how much of Reich's science is relevant today, then read it.

My thanks go to Dan Lowe, who made me aware of far better informed critiques of Reich than the stupid and sensationalist ones, and at a time when I was researching for my book Life-Force, trying to get a total overview of the area of sensed-energy.