Saturday, 15 September 2018

'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' and the Grecian gnosis

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig; back in the 1970s, this book was a must-read, seen on the housebrick-and-milk-crate shelves of every well-read stoner. I read it, was deeply moved, realised there was something very important about its main thesis, but did not by any means understand all of what he was saying. I bet hardly anyone understood it all. (The copy in the photo was also enjoyed, as you can see by the tooth-marks, by a much-loved and long-departed dog of my girlfriend.)

I came back to this book over 40 years later via a chapter-heading quote in Kingsley's 'Reality' (My review of that book here).
'And the bones of the Sophists long ago turned to dust and what they said turned to dust with them and the dust was buried under the rubble of declining Athens through its fall ... buried so deep and with such ceremoniousness and such unction and such evil that only a madman centuries later could discover the clues needed to uncover them, and see with horror what had been done.'   

What I now understand of Pirsig's book is down to the fact that I have studied the works of Peter Kingsley and the pre-Socratic Greek gnosis he reveals, the luminous vision of those who are now called philosophers, who were so much more than the dry-as-dust academics that term now evokes.

The madman in the above quote is the author. The book is a story of a road trip, a man and his son, and some old friends. He had what was called a serious psychotic breakdown some years before, and he is on a kind of pilgrimage now, to recall and understand the fragmentary memories he has of the man he used to be, who was burned away by a lot of electro-convulsive therapy. The story is underpinned by Pirsig's tragic relationship with his son, which develops a glimmer of hope when the author finds the courage to be honest with the boy about his mental illness.

That previous man was a teacher of English and Rhetoric who became obsessed with a philosophical problem which arose from considerations of the ugliness and stupidity of much of modern life. The ghost-self he is searching for, whom he calls Phaedrus, Greek for 'wolf', was building a philosophy based on what he called Quality. I shall try to explain what he meant by that.

He starts out by talking about how everyone knows what Quality is, everyone recognizes it, but where it is addressed in, for instance Aristotle, in his writing on rhetoric, it is considered to be the result of a tedious and unimaginative set of style-rules, which Pirsig shows are totally unhelpful to the rhetorician. Rather, Quality should be, according to Pirsig, right at the centre of any scheme of thought based on what life really is like. It does not need defining or limiting - it is the core value of everything we are trying to achieve in life. So he tracks back, via Plato, to the pre-Socratics, to ask where Quality went. 

The pre-Socratics and older Greek culture had a core notion of arête - excellence. This is Quality. Everyone recognizes it. Plato then takes this idea of arête and calls it the Good, but in so doing divides it from the True and the Beautiful. At a stroke, arête has been demoted from the core value to merely one of three.

Aristotle then decides that the True is more valuable than the Good or the Beautiful, so arête is completely deposed. And our entire culture is based on the result of this dismal decision. Sure, that decision gave us what would become science, with all the material power that developed, but it gave us an ugly world which is horribly out of balance and in which few of us ever want to be where we are, doing what we are doing.

That quote above illustrates how passionately Pirsig pursued this concept and its philosophical elaboration. Peter Kingsley's works have a similar passion, and in a sense continue Pirsig's thought beyond what he was able to achieve. Kingsley points to an ancient gnosis that travelled from Hyperborea in North-East Eurasia, via Anatolia to Greece, descending through Parmenides, Empedocles, Zeno and the Sophists, whom Plato so roundly condemns.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is part of a current that is just breaking the surface again after twenty six centuries. It has been concealed because of Plato's politically-driven sleight of hand and his student Aristotle's embrace of dull and ugly systematization. And like it says in the quote above, all of that radiant gnosis has been buried so deep that it is almost as if it never existed. Which is of course what Plato and Aristotle and a lot of people in academic philosophy would rather be the case.

But it is rising again, a true system of initiation which is not borrowed from any other tradition, but lies right at the heart of the West. It is as if a parallel timeline has been spotted, dimly at first, but coming increasingly into focus as these ideas are researched, developed and applied to initiation by Kingsley and those who are following after him, such as Alan Chapman. Pirsig died last year; the work he did is now part of a new view of the origin of our culture, what it means, how it went so horribly wrong and how we might set it on a better track by reawakening the gnosis of our forebears, our birthright of spiritual and worldly wisdom.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Northern Dawn: Vol 1. By Stephen Edred Flowers

Stephen Edred Flowers is of course better known in the esoteric world as Edred Thorsson, highly productive author of books on esoteric runology and leader of the Rune Gild. Dr. Flowers has done an enormous amount towards getting the practice of Germanic magic on a sound historical and spiritual footing, partly by making use of the mainstream academy's research into runes, language and culture in the pursuit of initiation. So it is not hard to get the impression that before he did that, there was academic runology and occultizoid nincompoopery and ne'er the twain did meet, that nothing much of interest happened in the world of Germanic magic between the millennium-old suppression of the ancient ways and the recent runic revival.

But of course it is not as simple as that, as Dr Flowers points out in this excellent book. In the wake of the cultural destruction of the ancient world there wasn't just a yawning void, but some very interesting things happened in the world of Germanic culture.

Flowers sets the scene with a thorough exposition of the methods of study he will be applying in the book. He writes that the book 'concerns the most fundamental aspects of what we call culture, and defines 'the Germanic cultures as those that speak a dialect of the Germanic branch of languages.'

Volume 1, 'From the Twilight of the Gods to the Sun at Midnight' covers the history from the end of the ancient world to the peak of Christianity's ascendancy in the Middle Ages. Flowers lists the elements necessary for the current reawakening of Germanic cultural awareness and explores the religion, art and cosmology of the elder tradition via historical records and material culture. This volume then leaves us in the age of darkness that came with Christianity, the mediaeval period - which is actually astonishingly rich in Germanic culture; we can see clearly how the tradition never died.

This book was originally published in 2003 under Thorsson's own imprint, Runa-Raven Press. This is a revised, expanded and more robust volume. Strongly recommended for anyone who wishes to take a serious look at what the current reawakening of Germanic esotericism is actually rooted in.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Amorphous Albion, by Ben Graham

I'll start with a declaration of interest: Ben is one of the founders of Festival 23, so I got to know about this book on the Discordian grapevine.
But it shouldn't stay in that particular community (or echo-chamber). It's too good for that, and it's needed out there!

Amorphous Albion is an heroic tale set in an impoverished future England in which a group of magical people called the Hove Space Programme take on, against overwhelming odds, a militaristic government, themselves lackeys of evil Illuminati-figures. This dystopia is underpinned with magic - on both sides. We are in the realm of earth energies as materiel, magical concepts as strategy.

We are also in a ream of shameless fantasy and a glorification of freak lifestyle: heroes that survive a battle check to see if they can still roll a joint. (Yes, it's 'freak', not 'hippie'. The latter words always stank of newspaper-ink. Welcome to True Freakdom!) Another main character made me think of the Mutoid Waste crowd. The realm of gods is occupied mainly by pop culture deities -  old KLF items as power objects, the Beatles as immortal magicians.

There is quite a bit of enjoyable satire on countercultural magical scenes: Leeds as a foggy city of steampunk chaos magicians, Liverpool as home of the archetypes, Sheffield as a fine Discordian high-tech ruin.

The satire is mostly tender, but a bit less so when it comes to the smugness of Glastonbury. Kept happy and subservient to dark forces, the inhabitants live in a land of sweet meadows and abundance, which is down to life-energy being siphoned away from the rest of England. I read it while there for the Occult Conference early this year, a lovely clash of levels.

This is a lighthearted tale, but with dark bits. The characters have bad pasts and inner pain. And the satire makes it ultimately a serious book - all dystopias are reflections of the evils of current culture, and this is no exception; except that the battle for the world has shifted onto the level of magic.

Verdict? If you are a Discordian, magician, art-as-resistance person, counterculture enthusiast or freak, buy it. If you don't really get what I am talking about, buy it anyway, and experience the VR of a different dream of culture. A very different one. At the very least you will never again see Glastonbury High Street in the same way.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Psychedelic Press Journal, Issue #23

Psychedelic Press Journal, Issue #23.

Nikki Wyrd writes a beautiful intro to a superb collection of historical, poetic, magical and fantastical offerings. The contents are carefully framed between the opening item, the first published account of mescaline intoxication, by Havelock Ellis in 1898 and a mescaline trip record by Discordianism founder Gregory Hill.

Next up is John Constable on '23 and Me'. John is a man whose work proves that one man's vision can change the world for thousands of people, resulting in an extraordinary injection of wisdom about death, celebration and magic into counterculture. He tells a story which takes in his early connections with the Discordian world via Ken Campbell, his life-changing acid-soaked night with the spirit of the Goose, and some very sound advice on living magically.

Ben Graham's 'Is This For Real?' is a great survey of the Discordian scene and the creation of Festival 23. It also checks a bit of cultural philosophy: thank you Ben for the concept of Metamodernism. I had been wondering for a while about when the corpse of PoMo was going to be dragged out and given a decent burial.

Adam Gorightly's 'Sex, Drugs and Discordia' is another precise fit for this issue - a history of the psychedelic involvements of early Discordianism and how those stories played out over subsequent decades.

The article that had the biggest effect on me is Catherine Kneale's 'Don't Be A Hero', an exploration of alternative narratives to the Hero's Journey. This isn't the first time I've heard people criticize that archetypal structure, but it's the first time I've been able to make useful sense of the argument. Kneale points out that our identification of the transformational power of some experience may only happen a long time after we originally assigned some kind of significance to it. In other words, we cannot expect our lives to conform to narratives that always demand closure. This approach makes space in your life for what some would call Chaos (and others Grace?). It suggests a relationship with experience in which you accept that you cannot force every single significant event into a straitjacket of heroic meaning. The significance is there - you know something important has happened, but you can't relate it to a conscious idea of yourself and where you are going. None of the narratives you already know and are practiced in will help in assigning meaning to it. Some of the experiences I have had on psychedelics are of this kind - I know something exceptional has happened, but afterwards I cannot parse the experience into any form that does not strip it of its primal irreducible significance. In fact, I cannot even recognize it among other kinds of experience until I encounter it again, which may be years later, and then there is an undeniable ring of familiarity.

My brief history of how Chaos Magic, Discordianism and psychedelics are all mixed up together is followed by Adrian Reynolds's 'We Flirted With Muses'. This is a highly personal take on some wonderfully leftfield, non-corporate-style applications of NLP and how they linked the author up to Eris. I also enjoyed being reminded of that London show in 1996-7, where Richard Bandler was accompanied by Robert Anton Wilson, who got to sit in Marilyn Monroe's chair.

The penultimate piece, 'Hold On 2.0' starts off with a pun on the Sam and Dave lyrics of the title, then erupts into a narrative which eluded me completely until I realised that it must be an allegorical blow-by-blow account of the JAMs Welcome to the Dark Ages Liverpool event of Summer 2017.

No.23 is a fabulously freaky issue of this fine journal, from the beautiful Pete Loveday cover, with its affectionate caricatures of counterculture stereotypes to the rich variety of ideas so thoughtfully assembled inside. A feast for the mind, buy it now!