A Heresy for the 21st Century

Jerusalem-William Blake
Jerusalem-William Blake

Increasingly in the Western democracies there has been a polarisation between the ‘progressive’ left and the emboldened hard right that has resulted in a decay of political discourse. As they hold diametrically opposing views regarding almost everything it seems that no compromise is possible, especially as the one aspect they have in common means each side views the other as deluded at best, if not actively in league with evil. The shared trait that can be gleaned through all the glaring differences is a general Gnostic worldview and a belief in gnosis. Reading writers with progressive views one regularly encounters the term woke and a discussion on a given persons degree of wokeness. A central tenet of Western Esotericism (one directly borrowed from Gnosticism) is to wake up to the true nature of the world, beyond the reality directly perceived by the senses. To be woke means you have been roused from sleep and become aware of the power structures that oppress the vast majority of humanity while controlling all aspects of existence on earth. Conversely the alt-right often speak of being ‘red-pilled’, a term taken from The Matrix, a film of pure gnosticism. Take the blue pill and you stay safe in an ersatz world that is little more that a hologram created by malevolent entities; take the red-pill and you see the world as the prison it really is.

To trace how the progressive left and the hard right came to the same conclusion (though with markedly conflicting proposals for solutions) we are going to have to trace the history of Gnostic thought from 2nd Century AD Alexandria via Northern Italy and Southern France in the 12th-14th Century, detouring to take in the Jewish mystics of the Iberian peninsula during Muslim rule and onto the outpourings of a solitary English genius till we reach the 20th Century when a Swiss psychologist, an American science fiction writer, a French Marxist theorist, the Godfathers of Rap and various occultists, confidence tricksters and cult leaders, amongst others, along with a spectacular discovery in the desert laid the ground for the revival of the most perennial of heresies; Gnosticism. All of which to follow shortly.

A Slice of Cake with the Marquis

Portrait of the Marquis De Sade Aged 19-Van Loos 1760
Portrait of the Marquis De Sade Aged 19-Van Loo 1760

I wish it to be a chocolate cake, and of chocolate so dense that it is black, like the devil’s ass is blackened by smoke.’ Marquis De Sade in a letter to his wife Renée-Pélagie from Vincennes prison, May 9, 1779.

During his many years of imprisonment, the Marquis De Sade would bombard his wife, Renée-Pélagie, a woman who expands the definition of long-suffering, with letters containing requests for books, clothes (De Sade was quite the dandy), prestiges (a code word for dildos, to avoid the prison censors redactions) and food. Especially sweets, all kind of sweets.

A typical letter asks for the following in the fortnightly care package sent by Renée-Pélagie, ‘…four dozen meringues, two dozen sponge cakes (large); four dozen chocolate pastille candies-with vanilla-and not that infamous rubbish you sent me in the way of sweets last time.’  Locked in his prison cell and unable to satisfy his numerous passions, De Sade was very specific indeed when it came to the delicacies he could enjoy, as another letter from Vincennes shows, ‘Please send me: fifteen biscuits made at the Palais-Royal, the finest possible, six inches long by four inches wide and two inches high, very light and delicate.’ Frequently, however, the items sent by Renée-Pélagie failed to meet the exacting standards of the Marquis; yet more infamous rubbish, provoking a torrent of scorn and invective from the perpetually outraged prisoner.

In De Sade’s fiction, the pleasures of the table are inexorably linked to the pleasures of the flesh. His libertines are invariably gluttons that indulge in fantastical meals in preparation for their orgies. As Noirceuil explains to Juliette, ‘Our cocks are never as stiff as when we’ve just completed a sumptuous feast.’ Examples abound in his libertine novels of such repasts, which he obviously planned with some care, as the following extract from La Nouvelle Justine of a meal consisting of eighty-nine dishes shows:

They were served two soups: one Italian pasta with saffron, the other a bisque au coulis de jambon, and between them a sirloin of beef à l’anglaise. there were twelve hors d’oeurves, six cooked and six raw. then twelve entrées – four of meat, four of game and four of patisseries. A boar’s head was served in the middle of twelve dishes of roast meat, which were accompanied by two courses of side dishes, twelve of vegetables, six of different creams, and six of patisseries. There followed twenty fruit dishes or compotes, an assortment of six ice creams, eight different wines, six liqueurs, rum, punch, cinnamon liqueur, chocolate and coffee. Gernande got stuck into all of them. some of them he polished off on his own. He drank twelve bottles of wine, starting with four Volneys, before moving onto four Ais with the roast meat. He downed a Tokay,  a Paphos, a Madeira and a Falernian with the fruit and finished off with two bottles of liqueurs des Iles, a pint of rum, two bowls of punch and ten cups of coffee.’

In De Sade’s most notorious and darkest novel, 120 Days In Sodom, the only characters to escape the four libertines murderous frenzy are the cooks, because they are a protected guild who are indispensable in maintaining the libertine’s lusts.

Yet, as always with De Sade, one must be wary of his intentions: do they serve as the delirious wish-fulfilment of a jailed aristocrat or do they indeed possess a satirical edge? After all the ancien regime was the great age of the gourmand, where the tables of the rich groaned beneath the weight of  absurdly baroque and decadent meals while the price of staples such as bread would fluctuate wildly. However the menus De Sade’s sent the chef of the Bastille, where he was also locked up, show a surprising frugality:

TUESDAY

DINNER
-Soup
-A mouthwatering half chicken
-Two little vanilla custards
-Two cooked apples

SUPPER
-Soup
-A small hash of the morning’s leftover chicken

SATURDAY

DINNER
-Soup
-Two delectable mutton cutlets
-A coffee custard
-Two cooked Pears

SUPPER
-Soup
-a little sweetened omelette made of just two eggs and extremely fresh butter

De Sade was also only a moderate drinker. Yet it is safe to say that his inability to resist a slice of chocolate cake, as black as the devil’s ass, combined with the sedentary life lived behind bars contributed to him becoming enormously fat in later life.

The Law

What is the law?
-The whole of the law is that love is all.
What is love?
-The collision, then the collusion, of wills.
What is the will?
-The power to make desire the living reality.
What is desire?
-The manifestation of imagination.
What is imagination?
-The knowledge of the magical universe.
What is magic?
-The hidden force that enacts the law.

Tyger Tyger

The Tyger, written and illustrated by William Blake
The Tyger-Written and Illustrated by William Blake from Songs of Experience 1794

The Tyger which was first published in 1794 in  William Blake’s Songs of Experience  was later merged with Blake’s previous collection of 1789 Songs of Innocence as Songs of Innocence and of Experience, showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. As with all of Blake’s work it was illuminated and printed by himself.

The Tyger is probably the most famous of Blake’s poems and justifiably so. It is a magical distillation of Blake’s major themes and metaphysics in a short poem of six, four line stanzas with a miraculous melding of form and content. It is in my opinion, the one poem in English literature that comes closest to achieving absolute perfection.

At the time of writing tigers would still have possessed a near mythical status. It is possible that Blake may have seen a tiger cub that was exhibited in a travelling rarity show, hence the childlike and rather cuddly tiger depicted in the plate. The poem is a different matter altogether though. The beauty and the ferocity of the Tyger prompt Blake to question the idea of a benevolent God and leads to a vision of the sublime.

Blake’s Tyger is a Platonic Ideal Form which explains the idiosyncratic spelling. The poem opens with a reiteration, pointing towards the symmetry which plays such an important part in the poem. The rest of the line and the next highlights the duality of the Tyger, who shines with the intensity of the sun (blazing bright) and its nocturnal nature (in the forest of the night). The following couplet that completes the stanza asks what kind of creator could fashion such a violently amoral animal, a question that is reiterated with greater force in the fifth stanza when Blake wonders, Did he who made the Lamb make thee? . The Tyger companion piece in Songs of Innocence  is The Lamb, an animal that has obvious connotations to Christ. The sixth and final stanza repeats the opening stanza with one important difference, dare replaces could in frame thy fearful symmetry.

Blake developed his own personal mythology and his view of God the Creator was idiosyncratic and complicated to say the least. He equated the Old Testament Jehovah with the Gnostic demiurge whom he called variously Urizen and Nobodaddy in his writing. The Ancients of Days is his most famous artistic representation of the Divine Architect of the material universe.

the-ancient-of-days-1794[1]
William Blake-The Ancient of Days 1794

Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted

William S. Burroughs
William S. Burroughs

Attributed by legend to the Old Man of the Mountain, the leader of the Nizari Isma’ilites and the founder of the Order of Assassins (Hashshashin), Hassan-i-Sabbah, the line ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted‘, is first found in print in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, and was later taken up in a book entitled Le Grand Maître des Assassins by Betty Bouthoul, where it was discovered by the hit-man for the Apocalypse, William S. Burroughs, who was very fond of quoting it. From there it has infiltrated into popular culture, via movies and video games, and now appears to be the guiding maxim of 21st Century political irreality.

With its perplexing and gnomic quality, the phrase could be read as merely a particularly nihilistic variant of the Liars Paradox. While I am willing to concede that this approach has claims to validity it also shows a lack of imagination, a certain tone-deafness. One can only echo Nietzsche remarks about the labyrinthine consequences of such a proposition as ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’. So we can safely leave the logical positivists to their sterile linguistic games and pursue an investigation into its meaning and potential implications.

Karl Jaspars warned in 1936 that the statement found in Nietzsche, if removed from its context and taken by itself  ‘…expresses complete lack of obligation; it is an invitation to individual caprice, sophistry, and criminality.’ Hannah Arendt illuminatingly remarked in The Origins of Totalitarianism that, ‘In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.’

However others saw in the statement not a dire warning but the possibility of freedom; after all, if nothing is true then everything is permitted. The idea that the world is illusionary is one of the certain tenets of Gnosticism (see my ongoing series, starting with A Heresy for the 21st Century), and the second part of the maxim could easily have been part of the philosophy of a particularly radical and  libertine Gnostic sect. But then the early Nizari, although not Gnostic, certainly seems to have been one of the more esoteric and heretical of Islamic movements, as the following story of the qiyāma (resurrection) illustrates.

In 1164 on the seventeenth day of Ramadan, Hasan II, a student of Sufism and the descendent of Hassan-i-Sabbah, gathered Assassins from the Nizari territories at the mountain stronghold of Alamut. The crowds are carefully positioned around the pulpit so that are facing away from Mecca. Behind the pulpit are tables covered in the finest silk clothes. When the sun reaches its zenith in the sky, Hasan II enters through the gates of the citadel, dressed all in white. Addressing the audience he states that he is God’s khalifa and declares the qiyāma (which is supposed to only happen at the end of time). As the esoteric aspect of religion has now been revealed and Paradise is actualised in the corporeal world, sharia law is abolished and those that continue to adhere will be punished. As a coup de grace Hasan II has the silk clothes removed to reveal tables laden with dishes of pork and flagons of wine. The crowd, fearing a test, do not make a move until Hasan II helps himself to a glass and a plate. Then they begin to realise that nothing is true and everything is permitted: there are no laws in Paradise.

Burroughs, who would return to the statement time and time again, interpreted it in a somewhat Gnostic and Blakean sense, with special relevance to artistic creation, stating, ‘Not to be interpreted as an invitation to all manner of unrestrained and destructive behaviour, that would be a minor episode, which would run its course. Everything is permitted because nothing is true. It is all make-believe . . . illusion . . . dream . . . art. When art leaves the frame and the written word leaves the page, not merely the physical frame and page, but the frames and pages that assign the categories.

A basic disruption of reality itself occurs. The literal realisation of art. Success will write apocalypse across the sky. The artist aims for a miracle. The painter wills his pictures to move off the canvass with a separate life. movement outside of the picture and one rip in the fabric is all it takes for pandemonium to break through.”

But taken literally in the 21st Century with its hyper-mediated and conflicting levels of reality, where truth has become something of an unknown quantity, depending upon your own personal, subjective point of view, the maxim has become a political tool in the hands of media-savvy opportunists. We expect politicians to lie, but we are far beyond that stage now. Our precarious sense of reality has eroded to such an extent that nothing is true, everything is permitted, is no longer just a verbal paradox but a damning assessment of the situation it which we find ourselves.

As for me, well, I have Gone to Persia.