A Heresy for the 21st Century: The Gnosticism of Modernity

Pieta or Revolution by Night 1923 by Max Ernst 1891-1976
Pieta or Revolution by Night 1923 Max Ernst

Before progressing further with the study of Gnostic influences in the 20th and 21st Century, we must first consider what elements of a heresy formulated in the 1st Century AD hold relevance today, two millennia later, in an increasingly secular world with an unprecedentedly advanced technology. Obviously a Gnosticism divorced from its ancient and medieval religious milieu is going to be markedly different from the original, indeed on a number of occasions is it avowedly atheist and secular, however this adaptability is a sign of its continued power to haunt the imagination.

  • Paranoia-the worldview of Gnosticism is deliriously paranoid. The whole universe is a vast cosmic conspiracy concocted by a deluded and evil Demiurge, who employs archons to make sure we keep in line and don’t realise the horrific truth. Through gnosis you could achieve awareness that you were trapped inside an immense prison and begin the escape to our true home. Unfortunately the history of the Gnostics suggests that their paranoia was to a certain extent justified, as they were definitely persecuted and were frequently burned at the stake. One of the defining characteristics of the 20th Century onward has been the ever escalating paranoia, though it is the state and ever-encroaching technologies that are the main cause of the proliferating conspiracy theories. However who could seriously doubt that the power structures are out to get us? Paranoia makes sense, though the sense it makes is completely paranoid.
  • Pessimism-the idea that the material world and realm of the senses is corrupt, faulty and inherently, intrinsically evil is a rare case of religious and philosophical pessimism, as is the antinatalism adopted by the majority of Gnostic sects, both ascetic and libertine. It isn’t until Schopenhauer (though a case could be made for Marquis De Sade with his eternal, infernal universe ruled over by a malevolent Nature) that such views found a place within mainstream philosophy. Now such views can be found on a network TV series such as True Detective.
  • Subjectivitygnosis could only be found within, not from objective fact or through the mediation of an organisation such as the Church. It was personal, individual and subjective. Needless to say, ever since Kierkegaard posited his radical subjectivity, objective reality has retreated to such an extent that nobody has any clue as to whether anything actually exists outside of the confides of their own minds anymore.
  • Cosmic Vision-Gnosticism with its bewildering array of emanations, aeons, syzygies and archons is very cosmically trippy and great source of material for Science Fiction, with a few updates of course. Angels and Demiurges cast as advanced alien species or computer systems.
  • The Flight from Reason-The Roman Empire was the civilised world at the time. Outside of its borders lay only savages and barbarians who wanted to be Romans anyway. It was pragmatic, bureaucratic, reasonable and, one suspects, a little soul-destroying. People (on the whole) only paid lip service to the official state religion. The state may have ensured that you didn’t die of hunger, but for what purpose? Reason has only so many answers and even then we can stand only so much reason. Hence the flight from reason to embrace an exhilarating, total vision. A vision that dispels all doubt and means you just know. On this point I think the parallels are clear and apparent without any further elaboration on my part.

With all these factors in mind we can advance, with much fear and trembling, further into the Gnosticism of Modernity, which will form the second half of the series.

A Heresy for the 21st Century: The Original Gnostics

An Image of Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge
An Image of Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge

Gnosticism arose in the 1st Century AD in the crossroads of the Roman Empire and the second most important city, after Rome itself; Alexandria. With a population of around half-a-million inhabitants, it was one of the biggest cities built before the Industrial Revolution. Home of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the Great Library, the largest library of the ancient world, Alexandria was an important centre of Hellenistic culture, the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, as well as being home to the highest urban population of Jews in the Empire (and therefore the world).

Into this mix was added the emergence of a Jewish breakaway sect, the first Christians. Various other Jewish apocalyptic groups had also sprung up in the aftermath of the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Combine all the above with a dash of Persian Zurvanism and you have the ingredients for the syncretic religion of Gnosticism.

Although calling Gnosticism a religion is in itself problematic as a survey of the numerous sects and cults with their bewildering array of competing mythologies and theologies will quickly attest. However there are certain key concepts and figures that re-appear frequently in Gnosticism;

  • Gnosis (knowledge) could only be gained through direct, revelatory experience
  • God, being perfect, had no need to create and therefore did not fashion the world. God dwelt in the pleroma (a term borrowed from Plato), where in his overflowing richness he emanated aeons who in turn emanated (in male/female pairs) further aeons, each one a little further away from the pleroma, until we get to Sophia.
  • Sophia emanated, on her own, the Demiurge, also called Yaldabaoth, Samael (The Blind God), Satanel, etc. The Demiurge was monstrous (frequently portrayed as having the head of a lion and the body of a serpent) and so Sophia hid him away. The Demiurge was unaware of the existence of the God in the pleroma and his emanations including Sophia, and in his blind ignorance and arrogance created the material universe.
  • Matter is, in a certain sense, illusory and inherently evil.
  • To help him in his task of creation the Demiurge made the archons to rule the material universe.
  • God in the pleroma saw the flawed universe that the Demiurge had created and taking pity upon humanity, planted a divine spark inside us, to help us transcend the material world and reach towards the pleroma.
  • In Christian Gnosticism Jesus is sent by God in the pleroma (certainly not the Demiurge, who wants humanity to remain trapped in his creation) to help achieve gnosis
  • The identification of the God of the Old Testament with the Demiurge.
  • Making heroes out of the villains of the Old Testament (and later the New Testament, as per the Gospel of Judas). Hence Eve, with the aid of the serpent, takes the first step towards gnosis by disobeying the Demiurge and tasting the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This is only a partial list, each teacher and sect expanded and refined the core concepts. Also the responses and ethical doctrines varied wildly; many Gnostic sects were notably ascetic, refraining from sexual intercourse (especially reproductive sex) and espousing vegetarianism, while other, more libertine Gnostics sects engaged in sexual sacramentalism and a belief in gnosis through sin (as sin against the Demiurge was actually a virtue).

The 2nd Century AD was the heyday for Gnosticism with many important teachers contributing to its spread beyond Alexandria. However its heterodoxy couldn’t compete against the increasingly organised, centralised and powerful Christian Church that declared it subversive inversion of canonical texts and its identification of Jehovah with an evil Demiurge, heretical. Gnosticism also faced opposition from the schools of Neo-Platonism who attacked the Gnostics wild invention of Byzantine genealogies of emanations, aeons and archons.

By the 4th Century AD it seemed like Gnosticism was little more than a footnote in the history of the Early Church. However it had only gone underground and would erupt later as Catharism, the subject of the next post.

 

Behold the Man

1200px-Albrecht_Dürer_-_1500_self-portrait_(High_resolution_and_detail)[1]
Albrecht Dürer-Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar-1500
Although there are a few instances of self-portraits in Western Art before Albrecht Dürer, most notably Jan Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) from 1433, Dürer was the first artist to prolifically produce self-portraits throughout their career, ushering in a new conception of the artist who could also be the very subject matter of art.

Dürer’s first self-portrait is a silver-point drawing from 1484 produced when he was only thirteen. At the time he was learning the basics of goldsmithing and drawing from his father, however such was his precocious artistic talent that he became apprentice to  Nuremberg’s leading artist,  Michel Wolgemut, at the age of fifteen. Notice the flowing locks of hair and the long, slender, artistic fingers which would be repeatedly emphasised in a number of subsequent self-portraits.

Dürer’s first painted self-portrait is the Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle completed when he was 22 and probably intended as a betrothal present to his fiance Agnes Frey. The thistle was a sign of conjugal fidelity and also thought to have aphrodisiac properties.

The second painting is the Self-Portrait at 26, painted after his first journey to Italy. Here Dürer portrays himself as a man of the world and also a man of fashion. His presence dominates the setting and the landscape seen through the window and his knowing, ironic gaze stares out at the viewer with more than a hint of arrogance.

Dürer’s final and most famous painted self portrait is the powerful Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar from 1500. Here Dürer is unmistakably portraying himself as Christ. The muted tones and the fingers raised in a sign of blessing belong to the traditional depictions of Christ, as well as being half-length and frontal as opposed to the three-quarters length favoured for secular portraits.  It is undoubtedly the most complex and introspective of all his self-portraits with an unprecedented psychological depth.

The rest of Dürer’s self-portraits are mainly confided to cameo appearances in other works. However in 1509 he would draw a remarkable Self-Portrait in the Nude, submitted the whole of his body to a merciless self scrutiny that wouldn’t be matched in art again until the advent of Modernism in the early 20th Century.

durer-self-portrait-at-the-age-of-thirteen[1]
Durer-Self-Portrait-at-the-age-of-thirteen-1484
Durer-Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle
Durer-Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle 1493
Albrecht_Dürer_-_Self-Portrait_at_26_-_WGA6925[1]
Albrecht_Dürer-Self-Portrait_at 26-1498
DURER
Durer-Self Portrait in the Nude 1509

Mirror||rorriM

 

1024px-BELLEVUE-FENSTER-1[1]

All mirrors are inherently mysterious and magical. The moment when Narcissus looked into the lake and realized that what he saw reflected was at one and the same time the self and an image was the moment of a great divide, a second Fall, but as certain Gnostic sects argued about the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden this recognition was a necessary loss of Innocence.  It was the first experience of a mediated reality. All was needed was the technical expertise to manufacture mirrors to disseminate this heightened self-awareness to every individual. And from mirrors it was only a matter of time before the camera and then film which led to the media landscape that envelops and dominates our perception today.

Voodoo mirror 2

Mirrors are mentioned frequently in myth, folk-lore and religion; not to mention in art and literature. In Corinthians Paul says of our knowledge of the divine ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known’. In Vodou, the syncretic religion practised widely in Haiti that combines elements of West African spirit religion, Catholicism and arguably Mesoamerican traditions, the altars of hounfours (temples) are decorated with mirrors as they are  conduits that the houngan use to contact the spirit world. Many cultures at many times held the tradition of covering all mirrors in the house when in mourning, this custom persists today in Judaism. In connection with a heresy held by one of the numerous Gnostic sects Borges states ‘Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.’

In libertine fiction mirrors play a large part as they increase the pleasure of the moment and enables the libertine to view the erotic scene which they are  actively participating in. In the sparkling sophisticated jewel of a tale Point de lendemain (No Tomorrow) by Vivant Denon the artful heroine describes to her paramour the delights of her chamber with its reflective glass covering every wall, when he enters he is enchanted to find a ‘a vast cage of mirrors’ and then states that, ‘Desires are reproduced through their image’.

One of the most memorable mentions in fairy-tales of the deceptive nature of the looking-glass is the Magic Mirror of the Evil Queen in Snow White, which is a good illustration of William Blake’s quote  ‘A truth told with evil intent beats any lie you could invent.’

However for me the supreme moment for the mirror in literature is when Alice steps through to the other side of the looking glass. Ever since the phrase has been used to describe many different and varying experiences; the transfigured absolute reality glimpsed in insanity; the shifting contours of the nightly dreamscape, the heavens and hells of drug use (the John Tenniel illustration was reproduced on LSD blotters in the sixties) the transcendence achieved in sexual ecstasy, and ultimately death, that unknowing inevitable frontier where we hope that the outward appearance will vanish to be replaced for all eternity by our fundamental essence. For although mirrors are just surface and can deceive, distort and warp, they also always reveal something other than just ourselves.

Aliceroom3[1]


The All Seeing Eye

4-Mysterium-Pansophicum[1]
Aurora-Jacob Boehme
No wonder the Surrealist’s found inspiration in old alchemical and occult engravings as its strange symbolism hints toward a deeper reality that cannot be comprehended by reason alone but only in the recesses of the unconscious.

The illustrations to Boehme’s Aurora are a particularly fine example of the early theosophical tradition. Boehme was a German shoemaker and mystic who one day while contemplating upon the exquisite beauty of a beam of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish fell boehme[1]into a visionary state which he believed revealed the spiritual structure of the universe.

His work was a direct influence upon the great English visionary, painter and poet William Blake.