In the first of three parts, Hugh Graham looks through the prism of Houellebecq’s novels and finds a Gnostic theme for our times.
Deserts creep and sea-levels rise. Populations expand and resources are depleted amid poverty, wealth, and intractable war. Under these lowering skies it seems astonishing that we live in a world void of profound ideas. Religion is weak or on the defensive; Marxism is dead and capitalism is a stubborn, standing ruin. Toward the end of Michel Houellbecq’s novel, The Possibility of an Island, one of the last humans wanders a planet where nothing remains but a technological limbo and its alternative, death. Human mortality and the destruction of the natural world, in short, human nature, seem without a prominent place in philosophy; instead they seem to find their strongest expression in art.
Meanwhile, at the heart of humanity’s most spectacular farce, its degradation of the planet, there endures philosophy’s oldest paradox, that of the whole and the parts. Never has the conundrum of the individual’s responsibility for the whole been so overwhelming; for the whole, now, is the planet itself. The re-making of man as one who is both whole and part has become the elephant in the room – our greatest and least acknowledged task. As philosophy splits hairs about things like democracy, identity and language meanwhile, the individual is reduced to a carbon footprint, a shareholder, a stakeholder, a gender, an abstract holder of rights. The mechanics of the brain and the reduction of existence to biology are the new shibboleths, idols in an intellectual desert. Metrics replace contemplation. Statistics pass for argument. Individual culpability is measured in metric tons of carbon per capita. In the novel, Platform, Houellebecq’s narrator remarks of his father: “I was convinced that he had managed to go through his whole life without ever questioning the human condition”. So too, the postmodern world. Philosophy, conceived as reflection on life, has been professionalized out of existence or diluted and popularized as self-help. The world religions have amounted to little but desperation to stay relevant, hysterical reactions against modernity, platforms for chauvinistic revenge or ludicrous entanglements in identity politics. Where, in the end, can we find reflection on man’s most fundamental dilemma: an animal body endowed with the power to conceive an ideal?
Once, very long ago, yet not far from our own moral circumstances, a kind of thinking loosely called Gnosticism dealt with the lone individual possessed of a spirit in a world of suffering, evil, and an absent god. Gnostic thought had its roots everywhere in pagan antiquity. It re-emerged in philosophies of individual existence in the 19th century and flourished in our own time as existential thought before being effaced by the triumph of the free market. The latter’s masquerade as a philosophy of life has indeed helped to discourage philosophy itself. But the old philosophy of man and his existence in the world is not dead; it is only asleep.
PART ONE: THE UNDERGROUND TRADITION
Our times recall the twilight mood of the late Augustan epoch. The age of the city state was crumbling and with it the Olympian religion and the great philosophies the city state had supported. In its wake grew an intellectual no man’s land. The new wastes turned out to be the seedbed of Roman Stoicism, a philosophy which might, at the time, have seemed provisional for it dealt primarily with suffering. Stoicism held that the body was a prison for the soul, which was a way of saying that the soul was nevertheless, in its essence, free. Around the time of Christ, Stoicism helped to explain suffering as entrapment in a world falling away, indeed alienated from god. God was, literally lost. It was a subversive idea that thrived throughout the Greek diaspora of the Levant in secret, or underground offshoots of Judaism, Christianity and the pagan mystery cults. These heterodox forms of Neoplatonic, Jewish, or Christian belief tended to link up below the surface rather like twitch grass having, in the end, more in common with one another than they did with their counterparts above. Sometimes they even produced syncretistic varieties such as the pagan-Christian cult of the Naassenes. This new form of religion was later named Gnosticism. Gnostic cults drew influence from Plato’s doctrine of a world of ideal forms and the inferior, shadow world of man along with pagan myths in which wisdom, the image of a lost ideal, was acquired through birth, death and rebirth; the result was an essential, radical myth in which the world was the work of a defective or evil god. Here, in antiquity, was an account of a flawed, destructible environment at the mercy of malign powers. Here also was a representation of the individual not as a member of a tribe, religion or caste, but standing alone between world and god.
Condemned by the Catholic Church as heresy, Gnosticism died out; but a powerful underground current of Gnostic ideas survived to work its way into western civilization in art, poetry and philosophy. The idea of man, once pure, falling from a forgotten ideal world into a hostile cosmos has re-emerged in Pascal, Blake, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Beckett, Camus and Sartre. It also re-emerges in the work of Michel Houellebecq. And now, it finds a natural subject in the empty materialism of modernity and the waste of the planet. It is always experienced as a fall from something better and memory of the former ideal. In short, the Gnostic scheme is psychology pure and simple, the structure of the human mind expressed in myth.
The myth has many variations, but the essential markers are clear:
- The Ideal: Primordial, perfect unity in divine fire of the original god which contains a prototype of man, the Anthropos (our ideal, better Self).
- The Fall: A defect develops in the creation and part of it falls away to form the corrupt material world (think: modernity). During the Fall, fire from the divinity showers the into the substance of the fallen cosmos.
- Spirit or Pneuma: The fallen sparks (spirit, whatever drives us) of the lost god.
- Alienation: The sparks of god are imprisoned in matter, clothed in successive shells of a soul, a body, gender, family, society and so on. The imprisoned spark of divinity or pneuma (‘breath’) from the original fire of heaven still bears the imprint of the ideal Self, the Anthropos.
- The Demiurge: The Fall has spawned a lower god as well: the Demiurge, the architect and tyrant of the fallen world (in a modern sense: capitalism, socialism, the system, status quo, world order) maintains the state of alienation. The planets are his ‘guardsmen’ or Archons, who act as fate, restricting human freedom.
- Forgetting, longing: Under the spell of the Demiurge, man has forgotten (in blind material progress) his origins. The original god of divine fire is lost and alien but still, man feels a vague sadness and longing for ‘home’.
- Gnosis: The key to his liberation is consciousness that his divine spark or pneuma is part of the original divinity. By means of strict asceticism or the descent of the Anthropos as saviour, the revelation arrives as gnosis, Greek for knowledge. Aware of his divinity man becomes free, defying the Demiurge by withdrawing from society or breaking the law as a rebel. The motif is simple: fall from the ideal, entrapment, alienation and liberation.
In the novels of Michel Houellebecq, the longed-for ideal is a unity of earthly pleasures in love and the absence of loneliness, an ideal impossible in the contemporary world since pleasure, epitomized as sexual pleasure, is inextricably linked to its absence in loneliness, an ultimate paradox that science will never resolve. Houellebecq was first inspired by the science fiction horror of H.P. Lovecraft. In Lovecraft, the morality of higher unity and worldly separation is inverted but the scheme is the same. The primordial unity is Evil itself and it is better that its original coherence not be discovered; in The Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft remarks, “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents”. For Baudelaire, another strong influence on Houellebecq, the faint shadow of primordial divine unity is positive: the flâneur’s pleasure in rubbing shoulders with the crowd.
In what he called his system of ‘correspondences’, Baudelaire suggested that the five senses have a hidden, higher, poetic unity, for example a colour with a sound. As his biographer, Alex De Jong describes it: “beyond perceived reality lies true reality and its nature may be divined by detecting the analogous patterns which inform the world and tell us of the world beyond”. In the world below, reality is shattered and the artist recovers the shards and restores them, providing a glimpse of the ideal in a work of art. This is not far from the Gnostic idea in which shattered traces of the original divine unity are found in creation itself: the Gnostic Gospel of Philip declares that “truth did not come into the world naked, but it came in types and images”. Even good and evil are merely facets of God before they fall and are refracted into virtue and vice: “O Beauty!” asks Baudelaire, “Do you visit from the sky / Or the abyss? Infernal and divine, / What difference then, from heaven or from hell”.
The divine unity is man’s real home; its essential humanity is expressed in the figure of the ‘Perfect Man’ or the Anthropos. In Gnostic Jewish and Christian ideas the ideal is ‘the Son of Man’, often described as bisexual or asexual: gender unified. Christ is seen as an emanation of the Anthropos. He/she is represented on earth as one’s higher, unified Self, secretly stamped in their spirit or pneuma, an invisible twin or double not unlike the hooded figure on the white road in Eliot’s The Waste Land (“I cannot tell whether it is a man or a woman.”) In his dark novel, Whatever, Houellbecq’s narrator has “for years […] been walking alongside a phantom who looks like me, and who lives in a theoretical paradise strictly related to the world. I’ve long believed that it was up to me to become one with this phantom”. When Houellebecq refers to the “possibility of an island” in the eponymous novel, he means the hope that a specifically human sort of happiness which we have tasted as humans – rather than oblivion or nirvana – exists in the afterlife, much like the Anthropos, in the divine unity beyond death.
The central event in the Gnostic drama is the Fall. In the Naassene rite, the Anthropos himself falls into bondage and is imprinted in matter. In the Egyptian Heremetic cult, the Anthropos, like Narcissus, falls from vanity, in love with his reflection in the material world below. The Anthropos of Ophite Gnosticism falls and is multiplied into the human race. The fall from Platonic divinity to disintegration in blind darkness is well summarized by Baudelaire in The Irremediable:
A Being, a Form, an Idea
Having fallen from out of the blue
Into the Stygian slough
Where no eye of the sky ever sees.
The experience of the Fall is described in the Gnostic tradition as being “thrown” and then of “wakening” abandoned. Wakening to a shock is a leitmotif of the present age: 1945 awakened to a world of nuclear war; in 1989, with the sudden collapse of Communism, the world awakened to a political wilderness; in September 11, 2001 it awakened to rage against the West; wakening to one’s own degradation of the environment. Wakening entails not knowing how one got there. In Beckett’s Molloy, the eponymous hero lives in a room that was once his mother’s: “it is not the kind of place where you go but where you find yourself”. In Malone Dies, the protagonist’s room feels coterminous with a life which seems not to have had any beginning.
Wakening involves lonely disillusionment. In Parisian Dreams, Baudelaire experiences a paradise and wakens to find that ”from the misty sky a gloom / Poured through the torpid universe.” Beckett’s tramps wander a plain with nothing above but a grey firmament, “a frozen world under a faint, untroubled sky, enough to see by, yes, and frozen too”; in the words of his biographer, James Knowlson, it’s an “uncompromising vision of human separateness and loneliness”. Our essential condition is that of the fallen ‘spark’ or pneuma, stripped, like Beckett’s people, of status and possessions save for the attachments, compulsive and symbolic, of hats, overcoats, etc. The divine spark is suffocated in a material world, like Winnie in Happy Days, buried to her neck in sand. Separation and loneliness return at the heart of Houellebecq’s work where women and children especially, are abandoned. Houellebecq’s compassion for women, children and the elderly, marooned in a world of male egotism, stands out in an otherwise harsh, often malevolent view of the world.
But who or what is responsible for this confusion, loss, separation? The Demiurge, the lower god often depicted as Jehovah, ensnares man in the laws of nature and of society, meaning bondage and death. Beneath its occasional pleasures, life is a burden, a sentence. This lower, defective god makes occasional appearances in Houellebecq; in Platform, he writes: “Our genitals exist as a source of permanent, accessible pleasure. The god who created all our unhappinesses, who made us short-lived, vain and cruel, has also provided this form of meagre compensation”. In Whatever, a protest against synthetic sex is conveyed in the pathos of a cow forced to endure artificial insemination: “The breeder of course symbolized God […] The pathetic mooing of the ruminant would prove incapable of swaying the judgement of the Great Architect.” Even in Lovecraft, the outer absolute of death and horror appears to have a perverse designer. A classic document of modern esoteric rebellion is Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground in which the narrator curses the Demiuge as a ‘jester’ for causing a toothache: “a law of nature for which, of course, you feel the utmost contempt, but from which you nevertheless suffer while she doesn’t […] Well it is from these […] practical jokes of an unidentifiable jester”. Since man would rebel if he had knowledge of his divine origin, the Demiurge makes him forget, imprisons him under the authority of the orthodox churches and clothes him in a defective human nature, a reflection of the Demiurge himself. In Beckett’s Molloy, the narrator muses, “What I liked in anthropology was its inexhaustible faculty of negation, its relentless definition of man, as though he were no better than God”. In his Malone Dies random emanations of light recall the Archons – the planets and cosmic forces that keep us in thrall to the Demiurge: “absurd lights, the stars, the beacons, the buoys, the lights of earth”. A world in which reason terminates in dead ends of chaos and illusion.
Indeed, the next shock, after fall and abandonment to the cosmos of the Demiurge, is the absence of meaning: Beckett’s Molloy speaks of “my ruins”, “a place with neither plan nor bounds”, “whether it is not a question of ruins than the indestructible chaos of timeless things”, “a place devoid of mystery, deserted by magic”. In Houellebecq’s Whatever, the narrator remarks, “Maupassant went mad […] because he had an acute awareness of matter, of nothingness and death – he had no awareness of anything else”. In H.P. Lovecraft – Against the World, Against Life, Houellebecq paraphrases Lovecraft: “The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos”. Humanity’s compulsive, minute dissection of matter furthers the process, as Houellbecq suggests in The Elementary Particles: “materialism had a historic importance: to break down the first barrier, which was God. Man, having done this, found himself plunged into doubt and distress. But now a second barrier had been broken down – this time at Copenahgen. Man no longer needed God, nor even the idea of an underlying reality”. As in Eliot’s Waste Land, Beckett’s unspoken concern is religious. It is, as the critic Helene Baldwin remarks, “the territory of the lost, fragmented modern world, uneasily conscious of a missing dimension”. The missing dimension is the higher, unknown god, the divine fire. Nietzsche speaks of that very absence when he says, “God is dead.” It is not just the fallen cosmos but our own machinations that have hidden the divine fire which is why he adds, “and we have killed him”.
The Gnostic traditions express the loss of God as a generalized, amnesiac nostalgia. It appears in the modern world as longing for the past. In The Swan, Baudelaire speaks of “Exiles fallen from memory paradise / And likewise in the forest of my exiled soul”. It is no accident that Houellbecq’s Bruno, in The Elementary Particles finds himself “increasingly drawn to Baudelaire. Here were real themes: death, anguish, shame, dissipation, lost childhood and nostalgia – transcendent subjects”. Elsewhere, he quotes Lovecatft: “There is too much wistful memory […] for the fleeting joy of childhood […] Adulthood is hell” and Houellebecq adds: “given the values of the adult world, how can one argue with him? The reality principle, the pleasure principle, competitiveness, permanent challenges, sex and status – hardly reasons to rejoice”. It is union in intimacy that we somehow remember: “Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction, which is why it is difficult to give up hope”.
Tenderness seems to be somewhere in the past or far away: “What was outside the world?” Houellebecq asks in The Possibility of an Island. One’s home in the ideal has left a longing, diffuse and nagging; his narrator quotes Aristophanes on love, from Plato’s
Symposium: “It is obvious that the soul of each desires something else, what it cannot say, but it guesses, and lets you guess”. In Beckett, an inaccessible omnipresence subsists in a grey, sourceless light. For Baudelaire, in Benediction, it is distorted further
by the senses:
Since it is perfect luminosity,
Drawn from the holy hearth of primal rays,
Of which men’s eyes, for all their majesty,
Are only mournful mirrors, dark and crazed!
The same faint distortion of the ideal appears in Beckett’s Watt: the protagonist works as a servant for the elusive deity, personified in Mr. Knott: “the few glimpses caught of Mr. Knott, by Watt, were not clearly caught, but as it were in a glass, not a looking-glass, a plain glass, an eastern window at morning, a western window at evening”.
The impression is vague and fleeting, for existence is a death-like sleep or illness; in the Gnostic Nassene rite the Self falls from Primal Mind to chaos and into the soul in deep waters, briefly sees the light and becomes emotional before falling into forgetfulness. For Beckett, life itself is less than consciousness: Malone remarks, “Coma is for the living”. Hope in the midst of forgetfulness is the essence of existence, a fact mostly hidden from the well-off. In the desiccated landscapes of Darfur, the eastern Congo and Somalia it is all too present: life at its default like the parched world of Waiting for Godot. There is nowhere to go.
The successive entrapments by soul, body, society, nature, world and cosmos, like so many concentric walls imprisoning the pneuma, form the geography of Gnosticism. The grey firmament of Beckett also imprisons Baudelaire. In The Pot Lid he writes: “The sky above! This wall that stifles him / A ceiling lit by dramatic farce […] / The Sky! Black lid of the enormous pot / Where vast, amorphous Mankind boils and seethes”. The great vaulted prisons engraved by Piranesi are brought to mind, an image that Houellebecq links to the vision of Lovecraft: “The demented cyclopean structures […] shock the spirit […] more so even than […] the magnificent architectural drawings of Piranesi”. In Beckett, Malone’s room is a separate cosmos, cut off from the sun and moon which he suspects to be the property of the outside world. Then there is the confining shell of the body itself. In Whatever, Houellebecq’s narrator confides: “I feel my skin again as a frontier, and the external world as a crushing weight. The impression of separation is total; from now on I am imprisoned within myself” like Baudelaire’s Wretched Monk:
– My soul’s a tomb that wretched coenobite […]
I travel in throughout eternity;
Nothing adorns the walls of this sad shrine.
For Baudelaire, the imprisoned self is faced with nature where forests “howl like organs” and have “damned hearts” and the ocean has “mad laughter, full of insults and of sobs”. The laws of the Demiurge, of nature, are brutal. As Houellebecq remarks in Whatever: “Of all economic and social systems, capitalism is unquestionably the most natural. This already suffices to show that it is bound to be the worst”.
Gnostic beliefs held that reason itself further manacled the prisoner. Dostoevsky’s underground man declares: “reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s intellectual faculties, while volition is a manifestation of the whole of life, I mean the whole of human life, including both reason and speculation”. Faced with the stone wall of reason, the individual is truly free only in his will: “The point is […] not to reconcile yourself to a single one of the impossibilities and stone walls if the thought of reconciliation sickens you”. Freedom in perversity will release you even from the shackles of your own best interests. In the same way, Baudelaire reserves “the right to contradict myself”.
Worldly reason, the dimensions of time and space, the poet and novelist would hold, are an illusion. The adepts of the underground Gnostic tradition would concur: it is from the truth of divinity, not from reason, that we have fallen. Reason and the world are drunkenness or dream. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus “found all of them intoxicated”. In the Apocryphon of James, “Your heart is drunken, do you not desire to be sober?” In the sobering revelation of modern physics, multiplicity, time, space and ordinary reason are themselves illusions masking some underlying unity preceding creation. Dostoevsky’s underground man detects the penetration of his very personality by illusion: “My anger, in consequence of the damned laws of consciousness, is subject to chemical decomposition. As you look, its object vanishes into thin air, its reasons evaporate”.
The kernel of being, at last, is the pneuma, the divine spark, identical with the lost divine unity beyond. In Baudelaire’s profane metapahor, Hymn, an adored woman is a “Grain of musk ineluctably hidden / In the holiest centre of me!” Sex, in Houellebecq, is the heart of the life force and the pneuma’s liberation takes place through the extremes of sexuality. Like its associated cults, however, liberation produces the very loneliness it was meant to end. Love, if separated from sexuality, is blocked and becomes painful. “If you bring forth what is within you,” counsels the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, “it will save you. If not, it will destroy you”.
Rebellion against the Demiurge takes the very modern form of blasphemous perversity in which the serpent becomes the messenger of the lost god. In a Jewish Gnostic inversion of the Book of Genesis, man has a right to the tree of knowledge which is, literally, Gnosis. The Garden of Eden is not on earth but is part of the primordial unity; the tree stands for knowledge of man’s original divinity (not moral knowledge of good and evil, as in the orthodox tradition). In a further inversion, the serpent is a hero for tempting man to eat of the fruit and attain knowledge of his divine origin. As punishment for eating of the tree, for attempting to unlock the secret of his true identity, man falls to the Demiurge, Jehovah and is forced to submit to the Law. Sometimes the good serpent of knowledge is even named Satan. As Baudelaire has it in Prayer: “Glory and praise to Satan, where you reigned / […] may my soul take rest beneath the Tree Of Knowledge with you”. It is the Serpent who rebels against the Demiurge, the familiar God of the Bible; and so Cain too, is a hero for breaking the Law, a moral inversion which will return frequently in modern radicalism.
The pneuma is the internal presence of the eternal. In Baudelaire’s poem The Beacons, the works of the great masters are distant echoes of God, “respoken by a thousand labyrinths, / An opium divine for hungry mortals’ hearts!” Knowledge of its presence is freedom. This is not faith, doctrine, or ritual. It is a knowing beyond certainty. Again, Baudelaire knows it, intuitively, in Parisian Dreams:
No star from anywhere, no sign
Of moon or sunshine, bright or dim,
Illuminate this scene of mine
Glowing with fire from within!
Here we have an intimation of man exalting the ‘god’ inside himself, the modern anthropomorphization of the divine spark. Only a couple of decades later, Nietzsche asks, “Is not the greatness of this deed (killing god) too great for us? Must not we ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it?” In the following calamitous, tragic century Beckett writes in Watt of something like the pneuma, but languishing: “of the dim mind wayfaring / through barren lands / of a flame with dark winds / hedged about / going out / gone out”.
In modern life, the concern is new: not only the weakening presence of the divine spark but its utter solitude and possible death. With knowledge of one’s own trapped divinity comes alienation. As Houellebecq asserts in Whatever: “Maupassant went mad […] because he had an acute awareness […] of nothingness […] Alike in this to our contemporaries, he established an absolute separation between his individual existence and the rest of the world. It’s the only way we can conceive of the world today”. Later, in the same novel, “I get the impression everybody must be unhappy […] There’s a system based on money, domination and fear – a somewhat masculine system, let’s call it Mars; there’s a feminine system based on seduction and sex, Venus let’s say. And that is it. Is it really possible to live and to believe that there’s nothing else?”
Here we have a picture of entrapment. In the Gnostic tradition, release is obtained by breaking upward through the laws of the Demiurge, or by Jesus breaking downward to save fallen man with knowledge. The crucified saviour in The Elementary Particles is a scientist who believed that “love, in some way, through some still unknown process, was possible” and who, at the time of his discovery, disappears and is presumed dead.
Some varieties of Gnosticism held that reunion with the higher god guaranteed the immortality of an individual self. Conceptually, however, reunion implies dispersal. Vague sensations of divine union recur in the work of Samuel Beckett: scarecrow figures, reduced to the most decrepit, elemental existence feel themselves, at moments, indistinguishable from the totality of creation. Houellebecq says as much in The Possibility of an Island: “There is no love in individual freedom, in independence, that’s quite simply a lie, and one of the crudest lies you can imagine; love is only the desire for annihilation, fusion, the disappearance of the individual”. And indeed, his protagonist’s transition to a new life through a technological process of immortalization involves complete disintegration. Here we have one version of reunion with the divine.