How to Define Gnosticism: An Interview with Erik Davis

How to Define Gnosticism: An Interview with Erik Davis

What follows is a transcript for the podcast HomeGrown Humans - Erik Davis - Gnosticism - Hosted by Jamie Wheal

Topics include the following:

  1. America Crises of Faith and Direction

  2. The Great Awakenings 

  3. Why Religious Experience is so Important 

  4. Definitional Problem with Gnosticism

  5. What Is The Third-Grade Awakening

  6. What Do We Do?

  7. Existentialism - We Don’t Know

  8. Antinomian Agnosticism

Jamie Wheal: Alrighty. Well, Erik Davis, thank you for joining us on Home Grown Humans and welcome to the conversation. I'm delighted to have you always fun to riff and chat and pick your vast and curious brain. So thanks for joining us.

Erik Davis: It's great to be here.

Jamie Wheal: Absolutely. Well, I'll tell you mate. I mean, you're one of the probably few and best folks I could possibly think of to want to explore this notion, especially these days as in America, we've sort of feel somewhat adrift and potentially even arguably in a crisis of faith, a crisis of direction to really kind of pause and explore what is unique about the American experiment.

Jamie Wheal: And Harold Bloom at Yale wrote a couple of books that I remember loving and reading back in school. One was literally called The American Religion and his other was Omens of Millennium. And I remember them both being so vividly about what a wonderful, weird and wildly wacky thing that spirituality is and has always been in America. From the 17th century all the way to the 21st and everywhere in between, from the outcasts and misfits that hopped on boats and were either chased out of where they lived or opted out of where they lived and populated this mess.

Jamie Wheal: And, and he said something fascinating where he said, "America is and always has been a gnostic nation," but it's forgotten that fact. And that it is in this grand sort of paradox, this irony that it is a nation whose spirituality is all about a deep, gnostic remembering, and that it is forgotten that that's its essential nature. So with that as just a tee up, I'd love to just hear any of your kind of thoughts on this uniquely American spirituality. I know you've been tracking it for decades.

Erik Davis: Oh yeah. Well, I mean, I'm so glad you started with Bloom, who was sort of my introduction to a lot of these issues, too, at Yale and particularly those books. And it's interesting to note that at the time when, when Bloom wrote the American Religion, which is where he makes the main argument about the kind of gnostic character of American religion, there's already an enormous literature on American religion. I mean, American religion is so fascinating, so multi-dimensional, so rich with novelty and tension and all of the kind of democratic experiment of America expressed. And it's the country's unique relationship to religion in terms of its founding documents and et cetera, et cetera.

Erik Davis: So there's already this enormous religion discourse around America. And, oh I should say enormous discourse on American religion, and Bloom comes along and does this argument about the gnostic character of American religion, And it pisses everybody off because it's like, "What is he talking about? He's some literary critic. He's not an American religion scholar. He doesn't know what he's talking about." And yet his argument is for me anyway, clarified, focused the beam and made us look at something that keeps coming up over and over again.

Erik Davis: So it's a remarkable book. It's a remarkable vision and a fun one to read, as well. And some of the resistance has to do... And I think we should stay with it a little bit longer just to go, what does it mean to use the word gnostic in this context? To do that, you need to use this very ambiguous word.

Erik Davis: Again, if we look at sort of more traditional scholars right now or scholars of gnosticism, some of them argue that we can't even use the word. What does it even mean? Who are the Gnostics? What is a gnostic tendency? And you find that the term has been used over and over again, to do different kinds of things in different situations.

Erik Davis: That said, I think Bloom did a really great job of finding a way of understanding gnosis that was both literary and poetic and religious and spiritual. And it's that nexus that makes it so fresh. So for him, some of the great gnostics in America are Walt Whitman, and Emerson and Wallace Stevens. Because of the way that they dealt with the problem, and this is the key point, and then I'll stop kind of nattering on. The key point is the sense of originality that there is something in the self that is sort of before creation. And that if you get in touch with that, then you are both sort of more directly connected to source and you're capable of creating something new.

Erik Davis: You're actually doing something new, rather than just repeating the kind of historical forces along. And this is rooted in Bloom's own sort of melancholic metaphysics. He's not a super religious man by any means. He's one of these American Jews who's burdened by the Holocaust and has no belief in the goodness of history. And yet, he's held out this space, partly through his reading of poetry in particular, for a kind of connection with this aboriginal, deeper-than-mere-creation spark in the self. And so from that perspective, his own perspective, which is also a literary perspective, he didn't look sad and sees traces of this throughout American religion. And I still think it's one of the best ways to pluck out what is distinct and both marvelous and threatening about American religion.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. And then let's actually take a moment here because I mean, this is an unexpected... I had forgotten that your paths had crossed at Yale. So that's even cooler and I'd love to get to your latest chapter at Rice, as well because that's a whole other very interesting community of practice around all things esoteric and weird. But just for any listeners and viewers that might not quite have their footing in this conversation, just briefly, just tell us a little who Harold Bloom is. And then also any kind of his role in the pantheon of 20th century thought. But then also, what is this American religion we're talking about? I mean, feel free to just kind of cover it from the Puritans and Winthrop, and John Winthrop and his famous City on the Hill that Reagan resurrects to great effect later, all the way through Quakers and Shakers. And I think Bloom does a fascinating job with contextualizing Mormons in their non-neutered state, in all of their angelology and wackiness and deep, utterly original mysticism.

Erik Davis: Yeah.

Jamie Wheal: That we don't get. So was just walk us through that first.

Erik Davis: Sure. So, Harold Bloom is one of the leading literary critics or was one of the really leading literary critics in America. And he was I guess you'd call him a bit of a conservative in the sense that he was while he drew some things from post-modernism and post-structuralism, he wasn't interested in what a lot of literary historians or literary critics are doing today, which is to kind of see literature as a battleground of power, where you look at it in terms of political power, identity politics, race, da, da, da. He's interested in some of those questions, but he's a romantic of the old school in the sense that he wants to hold out the possibility that great literature, and he had no problem saying that there is great literature and then there's a lot of literature that's not so great, and there's a huge amount of schlock, including things that other people think are great.

Erik Davis: So, he had no problem with making that kind of claim, but what he was trying to leave space for is a kind of... You could think of it as a kind of spirituality, since we're talking in those terms. He wouldn't put it in those terms necessarily. But definitely in a kind of deep encounter with the imagination and with the resources of the soul. And so from that perspective, he did both very technical literary work and then increasingly became a more popular figure. And again, sort of a conservative in the sense that he's interested in the classics and a lot of the great books and he thinks they're great and better than the other things that people want to replace them with, but it's wrong to see him as just a kind of fuddy duddy defender of dead white men.

Erik Davis: Instead, he sees a more interesting kind of Trixie figure precisely because that he has more than an intellectual investment ultimately, though he was a great intellectual. He had a photographic memory. He could just recite anything. I mean, he was just kind of a monster in that sense.

Erik Davis: But he always had this sort of, again, a kind of melancholic spirituality that held out the possibility that there was something in romanticism that is true, even if we can critique it, et cetera, et cetera. And that's the way he kind of goes through and looks at America. So what are we talking about when we're talking about American religion? I mean, there's so many varieties. And I think the main point that he's trying to say by saying that America is a gnostic country is that whether or not you're an individual... We think about the difference between spirituality and religion is that religion is a collective enterprise. It's a communal enterprise and that spirituality is maybe more of a personal thing, even though there's a whole collectives of spiritual people. It's more about your own individual path. That's sort of a simple way of talking about it, but it's worthwhile.

The Great Awakenings 

Erik Davis: And in general, people look at the history of American religion and they look at in terms of these big collectives, in terms of the Puritans. So how did the Puritans come and what did they do here? And then how do the Methodists come in and how did that deal with America's cultural situation? And why did the Baptists meet the African American tradition in a way that the Puritan tradition doesn't?

Erik Davis: And so you start telling the history of the nation through these large blocks. Within that, for example, there's a great emphasis on what they called the Great Awakenings, and these were a revivalist movements largely centered in New York and New England, first in the late 18th century and then in the early mid 19th century. And these were extraordinary upwellings of altered states, as well as religious conversion.

Erik Davis: And so, here you see something interesting happening, which is that even if you can talk about the collective history of different sects, different Protestant sects, different group identities, different religions in that broad sense, there's this thread of the individual that runs through it. And that's, what's important to, to Bloom.

Jamie Wheal: And the experiential too, right? I mean, there's that sense that...

Erik Davis: They're related. That's the thing is when you're talking about an individual experience, that's where the individual comes forward, not as a single self in that sense of just being an ego, but rather that the individual is a kind of locus point for an experiential intensity. And here's a great example of it. This is again, other people who are dealing with American religion hated this argument, but Bloom would go, look, let's just take standard evangelical, American Christians. Middle of the road, hardcore, Fundamentalists or not, doesn't really matter, but they're evangelists. And so on one level you go, these are precisely not gnostics. In the history of Christianity, gnosticism is always seen as a heresy. That's the unorthodox, the heretics, the Satanists, whatever, the people who are not being true Christians. So, if you take very middle of the road, American Christians, people say the last things from gnostics. [crosstalk 00:20:37].

Jamie Wheal: Sort of doctrinal fundamentalists is what you're saying. It is what it is, and I'm told.

Erik Davis: Exactly, and they'll say, and he'll go, well, yeah, they got those doctrines. Yeah, they have those positions. But if you really listen to them, what do you hear? You hear this idea of being in touch personally with Jesus.

Jamie Wheal: Yes.

Erik Davis: Personal connection with the Holy Spirit with knowing God as your friend, your buddy, you're connected. And he's like, that is what I'm talking about. That is that gnostic spirit. It's not just a position of orthodoxy. It's also an experiential location where I have as an individual, a direct relationship to this kind of profound source. And that kind of feeling is what you see again, also with the Great Awakenings. It's all about individual religious [crosstalk 00:21:29].

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Your own personal Jesus. Right? And I mean, we just kind of... You've named-checked the Greater Awakenings, but again, for folks that aren't deeply familiar with them, let's just unpack it because I mean, Cambridge in Kentucky is a phenomenal example. I mean, I was at Burning Man giving a Ted talk at one of their TEDx events and actually laid out the parallels of Cambridge, Kentucky. Because I mean, it was literally, even in August. It was the same time. It was the end of the summer. At that point, it was at the furthest Western boundary of the country, which is similar to Black Rock City. And the idea that the preachers were up on scaffolding and chanting people into frenzies, not like not unlike DJs at big sound camps. The fact that there was moonshine and music and fornication. And I mean this was like the Woodstock of 1803 or 1802, whatever it was. Right?

Jamie Wheal: So, just I mean, let folks know just a little about what that... What is that movement? What are these awakening movements? And if the first two, right, were 18th and early 19th centuries, I've never seen anybody definitively or successfully pin the third. There've been a lot of efforts and false starts, but it's never quite become canon. So, what do you see as where we are now on the brink of... Are we on the verge of a third? Or is this the fifth or the seventh? What do you think?

Why Religious Experience is so Important 

Erik Davis: Yeah, that's a good idea. Well, I think the main point to take away from the historical grade awakenings was just again, the central role of religious experience. And I wanted to say a little bit more about that category. And again, it sounds maybe a little bit overly-scholarly, but it's really important, which is one of the arguments people make about why religious experience becomes so important for the 19th and 20th centuries in our era today.

Erik Davis: It has to do with the way religion used to be pervasive. Everything was under religion in the middle ages. It's all religious or not religious because it's all religious. So, but then as modernity rolls along and science and reason start to disenchant the world from its religious stories, suddenly it becomes clear that wait, if we're trying to ground religion in the objective structure of the world, we're fighting a losing battle because we can say, well, the Bible says the earth is 6,000 years old. And then the geologists go, well, it's a little older than that. And here I can show you how and et cetera, et cetera, with evolution and dinosaurs.

Erik Davis: And so, there's a kind of recognition among people who are invested in religion, even particularly theologians that uh oh, if we try to ground this in the objective world we're toast. But if we ground it in the subjective world, in the world of feeling, in the world of experience, well, you can't touch that because that's what people are actually... they know that. They having those experiences.

Jamie Wheal: So, so wait, are you saying that at some point in the evolution of American religion, and I think obviously the number of people that define themselves as spiritual, but not religious is vast at this point as Pew and other researchers have found. So, I'd love you to tease apart because I'm hearing you use the word religion and religiosity, but again let's... I'd love to understand how you pass them. But then are you suggesting that at some point, wherever you put the pin, probably in 19th century, emergence of Victorian science, natural history, et cetera, the response to Darwin effectively, Is there a paper trail of that kind of conversation? Like people like ministers, theologians actually going, Oh shit, man, it's the high watermark. We're losing out. We're losing our unilateral authority. Let's carve out the interiority of the congregation because no one... They can't measure it.

Erik Davis: Yeah. Yeah. There's a way you can show how the category of religious experience from the early 19th century develops through theologians over time until it flowers in the great book on religion in America, which is William James's book on the varieties of religious experience. So, what James is trying to do writing around 1900 is to both reflect on the Great Awakenings and the role of experience and altered states and he's interested in altered states. He's interested in different psychologies. He is interested in positive healing, basically new age kinds of ideas. And he's interested in the feelings of dread and despair. And he's interested in mystical experiences, some kind of ineffable direct noetic encounter and he's interested in all...

Jamie Wheal: He's another melancholy romantic what'd you say?

Erik Davis: Yeah, very much so. Very much so. Another melancholy romantic. And so, that's why it's really important to put the idea of religious experience a bit into context because it gives us a sense of why it becomes so important and why it becomes so important for people. And even people today who can go, yeah, you can tell it's tell me everything you want to say, not just about the external world, but also about neurology and sociobiology and evolutionary psychology and all the things that rationalists use to discount religious experience. And say, yeah, you can tell me all that stuff, but I know what I experienced. So that kind of, I still have a place for religion or the spiritual. And I'll talk about that in a second, to make a mark directly on me that none of your disenchantment can take away. And in a way that goes right into the beatniks and it goes right into psychedelia. It doesn't have to be just the counterculture by any means. But the counterculture in that way is conservative. It's just figuring out other ways to explore other kinds of religious experience that produce new cultural moments.

Definitional Problem with Gnosticism

Jamie Wheal: But the idea of the essential Gnosticism has always felt to me like direct, experiential awakening. That's what gets us to Whitman, and Emerson, and the others, because Whitman and Emerson aren't subscribing to the doctrine of historical Gnostics of the first and third centuries, they are aspiring to the initiatory experience. Is that fair to say? Does that track with how you [crosstalk 00:57:16]-

Erik Davis: I would say, I think it actually ... Again, I'm going to take a little bit of a scholarly detour through the past, but I believe that it will illuminate this, and actually will be my attempt for the day to answer this problem of what we do now.

Erik Davis: When scholars look at these currents of Gnosticism in the ancient world, one way of looking at them, and not everybody agrees with this, but this was one of the classic ways of looking at it, is there's really two currents, both of which emphasize mystical experience or experiences of intense interiority with some kind of magical or imaginal cosmology associated with it, some kind of praxis of transformation. But, they divided into a optimistic and pessimistic current, not unlike this question about Christianity in the 19th century and the end times.

Erik Davis: The pessimistic current is the one that we more think about as being Gnostic, that we think about in terms of the Matrix. Where we are sparks of the true light locked in a prison of delusion that is ruled by archons, by lower, political demons. That, if we're lucky, we can wake up, but the waking up is the shocking, shattering alienation from our conventional experience, including the experience of the body, the experience of the natural world. All of that is seen as just like hills of the skeletons of demons, and we're trying to just escape. It's the ultimate escapism.

Erik Davis: A lot of contemporary conspiracy theory can be traced to these ideas. One particular example that's really great is that the ancient worlds, not all of them, but some of them, had a view of the Garden of Eden story. Everybody knew the Garden of Eden story. Some of these guys were Jews. If they're Christians, then they know the story because they've adopted it. Everybody knows the standard Garden of Eden story.

Erik Davis: But, some of these Gnostics would come in and go, "Hey, no, yeah, the story's true, but you got to read it right. The serpent is actually God, and God, Jehovah, is the demiurge. He's a lower being. Actually Adam and Eve are trapped in this false world of Eden. It's the serpent who gives them the knowledge of good and evil, the gnosis of good and evil, and this allows them a chance at Heaven." That's part of the story.

Erik Davis: Now, one of the funny thing ... You look at that and you go, "That's just like a conspiracy theory reading of ... " No, it's actually the inverse. The story we know is the false story-

Jamie Wheal: Except it's except it's in the Nag Hammadi scrolls and not some whacknut on 4chan.

Erik Davis: Right. That's part of the spirit of this pessimistic gnosis, is that kind of reading. But there's also what some called a current of optimistic gnosis, which is more associated with hermeticism, with early alchemy, with a sense of the transformative potentials of the body, and the illuminative capacities of the things and objects in the world. It's a much more body-centered, positive, what we'd almost think of New Age approach. Or an alchemical approach, where the materials of the world and of the body are there to be transformed, to be worked through, and even celebrated. And so-

Jamie Wheal: I must say, if I was ever a part of it I broke with it, with that cynical "this world is illusion" version of Gnosticism, when I had a son. I'm like, "I cannot, will not, choose not to subscribe to any philosophy that diminishes the miracle of this little boy, here and now among me."

Jamie Wheal: The alchemical version ... You just teed this up so beautifully, because that story, that alternate Genesis story of Adam and Eve in the garden, and, in fact, at the moment, the classic moment that tees us up for all of our original sin and suffering, of the biting of the apple, and then Yahweh coming in and going, "Who permitted you to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge?" Right? In the Gnostic gospels, then, at that moment, Sophia pipes in from above, and says, "Who made you, son?" To Yahweh, right? A total feminine smackdown of mansplaining from Yahweh, and gives to humanity the gift of anthropos, the gift of Gnostic initiatory knowledge.

Jamie Wheal: I'd love to ... This is just such a beautiful segue. Which is, as you well know, Elaine Pagels, the scholar of religion at Princeton, wrote that National-Book-Award-winning book back in the day, The Gnostic Gospels. It was from her being on the team at Oxford translating the original Nag Hammadi scrolls, which is straight out of Indiana Jones. In her most recent book, which, I did not know this, she was a faculty brat at Stanford. She grew up in Palo Alto in the '50s and early '60s. In high school, she ran around with good old Jerry Garcia.

Jamie Wheal: We've explored the current shit show. You alluded to the fact that that Gnostic tradition through the 17th through the 20th centuries led us to the doorstep of the Beats and then the Hippies, and now we've got this transitional segue in both life and scholarship of Pagels, dumping us onto the doorstep of 1961, '62 Palo Alto, and a revival of uniquely American experiential spirituality, fueled, ironically, by the CIA, and MKUltra, and [Sando's 01:03:18] finest. Let's go down that path.

Erik Davis: Or not so ironically, as many of our contemporary conspiracy theorists will say, but we'll leave those stories aside for a moment.

What Is The Third-Grade Awakening

Erik Davis: Arguably, earlier you talked about, what is the third-grade awakening? Some people, again, no one's really pegged it entirely, but a number of folks, and I think there's a good case to be made for it, that really, the late '60s, but particularly the 1970s when the stuff from the '60s spread throughout the culture, is an example of that. When everybody had a spiritual practice, everybody had some weird diet, everybody was interested in astrology. All of that comes out of this earlier, more Bohemian explosion.

Erik Davis: We have to see that that Bohemian ... Even though it was very small, the Beats early on, or what's going on in Palo Alto in the early '60s years and years before the Summer of Love, that even if it looks even sometimes nihilistic, or just hip, or poetry, and jazz, that in a lot of ways it was a religious response to the [animi 01:04:25] of the 1950s, both mainstream America, but also the specter of the bomb. Also the spread of existentialism, the sense that life is utterly meaningless, the inability for intellectuals to come up with anything better to do than to become a Marxist. Which also doesn't look so pretty by that point, once we find out more what Stalin's been up to.

Erik Davis: It's really a time of real confusion that felt quite apocalyptic, I think, to many of the people who were participating in it. The route of experience, whether that's hedonistic experience with sexuality or with drugs, but also with religion, and the turn towards meditation, and the turn towards experiential paths within religion. Those all commingled to set up what this third counter-cultural great awakening would be.

Erik Davis: I think that, in that sense, it's actually very much in line with these earlier things that we've been talking about, although it tends to not congeal into the older kinds of orthodoxies. Maybe there's new kinds of orthodoxies. Now what it's led to in many ways is the kind of orthodoxy that has come out of all of those wonders, and all that. I could spend all day talking about how cool things were in the 1960s and 1970s, but what are we left with today?

Erik Davis: I think we're left with a couple of different things. One of the major things that we have to acknowledge is the way that it's gone into maintaining, just, a certain kind of narcissistic consumer capitalism. Earlier you talked about the narcissism in America, and that's the dark side. The gnosis itself is already light and dark, as it can go real south. But, as it just peters out into something banal, it's this narcissism. It's this belief in the self, in taking care of the self, that, "I know," not to humble me. It's about my expression. It's about my self-realization. All of these things which can be seen as very positive are also quickly and easily melted down into a narcissistic self-help bubble. We really see that today. That's part of the legacy of this kind of counter-cultural current.

Erik Davis: But, there's also things that I think provide at least the rocket fuel for the transformation, or opening, or even confusion that then allows a transition to some larger view. But, it's just as compromised as everything else at this point.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. You just skipped over all the fun stuff. I feel like we've been doing the heavy lifting of long-ago, dusty old shit that maybe people haven't heard of or don't care about-

Erik Davis: It's true.

Jamie Wheal: We've been dealing with the grinding gears and sufferfest that is our world, all day, every day, right now. But, that '60s and '70s, I want to go back to this. Because we started with Bloom, and we started with this idea that there is this hidden Gnostic American tradition, and that, in some respects, we've forgotten that we know how to remember. We go back to the '60s, we go back to Palo Alto, we see Ken Kesey famously smuggling government LSD out of the VA hospital. We see the origins of the Warlocks and the Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, and Jerry Garcia and a handful of freaks and misfits getting together and becoming a house band for the Acid Tests. Right? If anybody hasn't read Tom Wolfe's book, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, it's one of the good ones on that field, although Kesey hated it.

Jamie Wheal: There is, to me, something that is wildly mystic, Gnostic, Christic in all of those experiences. Whether you see it in Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with Randle McMurphy as an explicit Christ figure. Literally, he's got lines in there like, "And the 12 of them went to the sea," all those kind of things. He's got his electroconvulsive shock, and he says, "Put on the crown of thorns." The symbolism is repeat and unavoidable. Then he ends up living a version of that himself as he's hounded out of the country, becomes a fugitive down in Mexico, writes a poem called The Tarnished Galahad of his own mystic, Christic persecution.

Jamie Wheal: That's in contrast to Ram Dass and Tim Leary who are in Stony Brook in New York, and they're doing the pious, Oriental mysticism thing of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and sitting and chanting. Meanwhile Kesey, and the Pranksters, and the Dead are like, "Fuck it. Let's be American superheroes. Let's swill down tons of acid and let's take on alter egos, personas, that we haven't ... " The notion, yeah, alternate mythic American personas, and, "Let's go do that, and see what we can do, see how big we can be."

Jamie Wheal: To me, that has been a fascinating thing. Then, as that all was just a wild-ass, untethered carnival in the early to mid '60s, it starts coalescing into a technique of ecstasy, to use Eliade's phrase, and in the Grateful Dead concert. Right? Embodied in Garcia, who, as you say, you said it about Bloom, right?

Jamie Wheal: We're wondering, again, Garcia's melancholy romanticism, his selection of tunes, his bringing in the American Gothic folk tradition, always dark, morbid stories of sisters murdering each other or lovers stabbing each other Romeo-Juliet style, of battles against oppressive forces of the law, of down-on-your-luck card games, the tricksy thing. I love your scholarly use of that term. The tricksy, "What, me, worry? Who knows? Can't quite pin this down, but we keep on keeping on," kind of experience that initiated generations of Americans in what felt like probably the most Gnostic ecumenical service, psychedelic electric logos that I can think of.

What Do We Do?

Erik Davis: That is a beautiful riff you have there. I can't wait to read your book on this stuff. But, yeah, it's absolutely core American religion. I think the part of it that I would want to pull out in light of our question of, "what do we do?" Is to pull out two very positive elements of that, not that American Gnostic "what the fuck" religion.

Erik Davis: One is the body. That I think that one of the reasons that people are losing it these days, or that these narratives, and phantasmic scenarios, and speculations, and codes, and links, and ... is eroding people, is that it's very difficult to be in your body, and to be grounded in your actual physical experience. Meaning the people you live with, the place you live, the weather, the animals, et cetera, et cetera. To really come from that place when we're being bombarded by information, where everywhere you go is the same apocalyptic nexus of news, and memeology, and counterespionage, PSYOPs, or whatever the hell is happening with all of these information streams.

Erik Davis: Though it sounds a bit banal, it feels to me that one of the things that's a saving factor, especially if you look at people who were super blown out, someone like Robert Anton Wilson who's just completely psychedelically open to all these conspiracies, cosmic levels, and extraterrestrials, all this completely crazy stuff. But, if you actually follow how they were able to get through that and enabled a workable life in the midst of all that, is that there's always this sense ... It reminds me of the old Taoists, or Diogenes in the Greek philosophical tradition, where there's something very physical in a almost profane, sloppy, goofy, exuberant way. There's this emphasis on the body.

Erik Davis: The dancing aspect of the Grateful Dead is so key. Indeed it's key to the whole '60s moment. When people now think back, the hate, they think about the bands. "Jefferson Airplane was there." "Oh, my God, I could have seen Janice Joplin." But those bands were mostly excuses for the dance. They were something where people would go in and ... If you see films of this stuff, they are completely dancing. It's full on.

Jamie Wheal: Oh, yeah. Full freak out. That's where Joe Campbell did that, right? Palace of Fine Arts, where he sat down with the Dead. I think it was because Garcia had really loved Skeleton's Key to Finnegans Wake, and they came in through that realm. Campbell famously went to one of their shows, and he's like, "I don't like rock and roll. I think it sucks. It's boring and repetitive. But, holy shit, what you guys are doing, seeing these people with upturned faces, shining and writhing with joy and ecstasy, that is a Dionysian ritual for the modern age."

Jamie Wheal: It's fascinating that you mentioned the embodied nature. By the way, just, again, background, the Grateful Dead pretty much live in either ridicule or reverence, and there's virtually no in between. But for folks that didn't necessarily understand, they conducted a very specific and relatively novel experiment, which was, A, highly amplified music, and they poured all of the money from Owsley Stanley's LSD research into the wall of sound, like the highest fidelity surround sound of the time. They could play minimal volume, no distortion, pristine clarity tones. That's key, especially geared into a psychedelic experience, especially at communal one.

Jamie Wheal: They have a six-string bass player who was a classically trained and modern jazz improvisationalist. Two drummers, two guitars. They were willing to go down into the mud. They were willing to let it all come undone, and then, in the collective group mind, group experience of communitas, then start attempting to play that. They've even got that tune, right? "They're a band beyond description, like Jehovah's favorite choir," right? "People joining hand in hand while the music played the band." That wasn't just a turn of phrase, right? It was the idea that they were simply expressing what was actually a co-created church moment.

Jamie Wheal: I think you're exactly right, that the dance was everything, that Dionysian ritual. And, fascinatingly, I was just speaking with Amy Cuddy at Harvard who gave that famous TED Talk on Wonder Woman, power poses, and all these kinds of things. Then in the middle of our conversation, she goes, "You do know that I'm a total Deadhead, right?" I was like, "What? No. A, why'd you tell me?" I think it was just because of the writing of Stealing Fire. But she then opened up that the entire genesis of her work and her fascination with these psychosomatics of expressive embodiment generated from her experience at shows. Was fascinating.

Erik Davis: That's one side. Then we have a collectivity that's based in the body that's ecstatic, but also has this, whatever, family-like, church-like, collective-like possibility. That's a powerful thing. I think that in some ways modern EDM music is doing that. Festivals kind of do that, although there's a lack of the shared poesis, perhaps, that's partly a reflection of our more dismantled postmodern moment. But, it carries on after the Dead, as well.

Existentialism - We Don’t Know

Erik Davis: The other element I think that I want to pull out that you're talking about is the not knowing in the gnosis.

Jamie Wheal: Yes. It's essential.

Erik Davis: That, inside the Dead, there is ... You actually can go back to Kesey. Let's pick up a little bit from Kesey. Yes, there is a distinct religious element to Kesey. Wolfe himself noticed it. Wolfe who, by the way, also recognized and called the '70s spiritual explosion "the third-grade awakening" before anybody else did. He's tuned in, even though he's a secular guy. He's super tuned into that American religion, and he saw it in Kesey. Of course, Kesey also had this connection with the Unitarians. There is this sense of the unchurched spirituality but still with a Christian tinge that's going on.

Erik Davis: How did Kesey manifest it? They manifested it, or the Pranksters, by not talking about it.

Jamie Wheal: Yes.

Erik Davis: By not talking about it. Those who know do not say. Those who say do not know. That line is from Laozi, but it becomes, in the Hippie zone, the entree to a hip spirituality. Hip not in the negative sense we use it now, but in-

Jamie Wheal: The Beatnik hip.

Erik Davis: Yes. There's a knowingness about not knowing, because if you don't know, then you can never capture it. Then it never congeals into a dogma. It doesn't become orthodoxy. It's impossible to become orthodoxy. But, it also doesn't really give you a really concrete rule to live by. There's an existential quality to it that is profoundly important.

Erik Davis: That's another thing that people never remember, when they look at the counterculture or the '60s explosion and try to understand what was happening, is that the dominant philosophical, psychological mind frame out of which that comes, and this is totally true for the Beatniks directly, is existentialism. Which is like, "We don't know. We're making it up as we go along."

Jamie Wheal: But a transcendent existentialism, not a "Gauloises-smoking, nihilistic frog after the war wishing they hadn't capitulated to the Nazis" existentialism.

Erik Davis: Yeah. It's both a carry over and a rejoinder of that moment, which is usually how these things move, anyway. They're partly in reaction. They're going to say, "The existentialists say there's no magic in the world? We're going to make magic right here. We're going to make magic with ritual, with drugs, with worshiping nature, with the ecstatic dancing." But, there is also the thread within that of that, "We're making it up as we go along." [crosstalk 01:19:26]

Jamie Wheal: Kesey, he has that great line. He says, "The answer is never the answer," right? Once you think you've found it, you've stopped looking. "Plant a garden where strange fruits and mysteries bloom." Yeah, they were absolutely dedicated to that.

Erik Davis: He also has that great line about LSD where he says, "Sometimes it is worse to take it a sacrament." Meaning, if you think that's what you're doing, that is part of not being there.

Erik Davis: We see that with the Dead. That's part of the reason ... There's a lot of things to say also about the Dead in terms of the mythopoetics of America, and bringing in this old, weird America, and this quality of tradition. Particularly it's darkness. Because I think part of the answer is that, just, there's no answer. You're not going to get that. You're not going to get the gnosis that knows. You're going to get a evanescent community or an evanescent sense of some kind of mythopoetics spilling through history that now involves you, but you don't walk out with some kind of system to follow.

Erik Davis: One of the things that is most pernicious about conspiracy theory or most conspiracism ... Which is, I think, in some ways a better way to think about it, because it takes it away from the theory or narrative and puts it more into the mind frame. One of the great errors is that they always literalize. They always know. It's absurd. You have a room full of Q-anon people, and they each have a different story. But, they all know that they know, and they all know that they're all right. It doesn't make any sense.

Jamie Wheal: There is no fervor like the newly converted.

Erik Davis: Yeah. It doesn't make any sense because at the core of it is this, "I know."

Erik Davis: I think one of the great offerings, and it's a bit of a poison fruit because it can go south, and we can talk a little bit about that in terms of the Dead in a moment. But, one of the great offerings of what I think of as genuine psychedelic spirituality is that it doesn't know. There's a mystery that you cannot wrap your head around, and you live in relationship to that mystery that's always going to swallow up your thoughts, and ideas, and narratives, and speculations, and symbols. Yeah, we still need those. We're still going to play with them. We're still going to make meaning out of them. But, there's this fundamental respect for, just, "What the fuck?"

Jamie Wheal: Yes.

Erik Davis: That's a profoundly humbling thing that, when you lose, that's when you get this kind of obsessive, didactic, dull, paranoid kinds of attachments to the stories that so many people fall into now.

Jamie Wheal: There are two what I'm feeling is rich currents right here in this conversation. I'd love to see if we can braid them together and stick the landing. Okay? A, just massively enjoying getting to explore this with you. It feels like this could be an afternoon and several bottles of wine.

Jamie Wheal: One is, you made the allusion that current EDM or electronic dance music is a continuation of that. Sonically, I agree. The ultra high fidelity sound systems and speakers, the otherworldly squitches, and gwiggles, and wobbles, it's like an acoustic water pick for your soul. You're not listening to the music so much as you're standing in front of the sound waves, particularly with any kind of augmented consciousness.

Jamie Wheal: But, you mentioned the mythopoetics. I think that there is something utterly unique and important as far as their place in the lineage, where I would say, I would argue, there are no poetics to the current EDM, even Temple Step, and any of the nominally more sacred sounds that come out of the Burning Man West Coast scene. Temple Bass, and that kind of stuff, because there aren't any lyrics. Or, if there are lyrics, they're subpar, or they're just sampled mashups.

Jamie Wheal: You see the subsequent jam bands, like Phish or the String Cheese Incident, and things like that, and, generally, their lyrics are abysmal. Their musicality is often awesome, but their lyricism doesn't hold a fucking candle to what the Dead offered via both Robert Hunter and Garcia's pairing. Who, famously, I think, Garcia said to Hunter, "Don't write me a line I'm not willing to sing a thousand-"

Jamie Wheal: ... I'm not willing to sing a thousand times. So there was an aversion to the knowing, to your point. There was an aversion to pat answers to trite outcomes. Even their most popular, famous campfire tune of all, Ripple.

Erik Davis: Ripple, yeah.

Jamie Wheal: Right?

Erik Davis: That is always a [crosstalk 01:24:17].

Jamie Wheal: It is. It is. I mean, I don't care if I sound sentimental. It is as clean a testament to the vagaries and mysteries of life. And the final line is, if I knew the way. If, right? I would take you home. And so, my sense is that there is, within the tradition, and I remember my first Dead show back in college, hearing Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad, right? And it being a second-set barn burner. And the first sets were typically melancholy Americana. Sometimes they were acoustic. They were card games, and cowboys, and trains, and robberies, and jail time, and down on your luck.

Erik Davis: That is a beautiful riff you have there. I can't wait to read your book on this stuff. And it was literally the experience of being American, and it not always working out. And then, intermission, space and drums, way out weirdness. And then somehow, out of all that, would come together those second-set anthems. And I remember that song. And for the first time in my 18-year-old life, I had an out-of-body body experience of hooting and hollering, which for an uptight, British kid simply was never done. And I literally was like, "Oh, who did that?" And I looked around and there's no one around me. I was like, "Oh, holy shit, did that just come out of my mouth like pure unrestrained un-ironic joy?"

Jamie Wheal: And I came home listening to that song, and my dad finished the verses. I was playing it on a bootleg tape, and he's like, "Going where the climate..." I'm just like, "Wait, how do you know this song?" How does my dad know The Dead? And he had been in the folk scene in London, picking banjo with Pete Seeger's sister, Peggy. I even have that banjo, still. He gave it to me. That was hers. And so I was like, "Holy shit, these guys weren't just making up their own stuff. They were resurrecting and connecting an entire generation to what, for lack of a better term, feels like the arcana Americana. The gospel-blues-folk-jazz tradition that comes out of slavery, that comes out of immigration, that comes out... And it's all the same. Right?

Jamie Wheal: I mean, Stanley Crouch talks about it. Albert Murray talks about it. The blues idiom Cornel West talks about it. He's like, "Having hope's not enough. You got to be hope. That's the blues, that's Nina Simone, right? That's the Mississippi Goddam, before the worms gets your body.

Jamie Wheal: And those sort of redemption songs, and that antinomian agnostic Gnosticism, right? We've been touched by the light, but who the fuck knows, feels profoundly, profoundly and powerfully American. And our redemption songs. I feel like if where we are right now is, we're rudderless for a scripture that unites us. And, as is often the case, it feels like the answers are in our texts, and that arcana Americana, I mean, there's been the church of Beyonce in that Catholic church, in that cathedral in San Francisco. They've been getting together and singing, I'm a Survivor, and Beyonce anthems. And it's been bringing LGBTQ folks, women, and people of color together, all in a Catholic cathedral, right?

Jamie Wheal: Singing part of this tradition, saying that I've been down so goddamn long, it looks like up to me. And so, just a loving hat tip and shout out to our tradition. All of ours. Forged in suffering, and forged and confusion. And we've all been strangers in a strange land. And that somehow, in the testifying, of the being dropped to our knees, but rising up singing, that feels like our shared legacy. And if we can dust that shit off, and re-anoint and reacquaint in a sort of groove and reconciliation committee, sweat our prayers, that there's something there.

Erik Davis: Yeah. I can totally vibe with that. I mean, for me, that current of history is really, really important. It's an orienting, mytho-poetic echo chamber of tales that are only one step away from the more hardcore historical stories you want to tell about racism and subjugation, and all of this stuff. It's all there, too. So it's not a panacea. And yet, there's these currents in it, these opportunities for encounter, and for affirmation in the midst of suffering, and acknowledgement of suffering.

Erik Davis: It's so far away from the pop consumer world of happy, fluffy pastel, self... And it comes back to suffering. And that's one more thing I guess I would say-

Jamie Wheal: Yes, it does.

Erik Davis: ... about The Dead is The Dead. And that if you're paying attention, and I've laid this line on a few deadheads, and they didn't really know what I was talking about. So there's clearly a way to be just a more superficial hedonistic deadhead, and that's fine.

Erik Davis: But, if you're really paying attention, then you know that the reason you don't know, is not just that because the light is unclear, or because you didn't get the full download, or whatever the other kinds of reasons you might say. The reason you don't know is because you're going to die, and nobody is going to wrap their heads around death. You can't do it. It's impossible. You can't conceive of your own death. You don't know what it means. Any religious person who tells you, "Well, this has what happens when you die. When you die, you go into this other..." No. How do you know? You don't know. Nobody knows.

Erik Davis: So the "nobody knows" around death is a very stern liberator. It liberates you from bullshit. It liberates you from the need or belief that you can ultimately know. And it also brings you back to the collective celebration of here we are on this darkling plane, and rather than fighting like confused armies, let's dance.

Jamie Wheal: Yes. Yes. It's that Alice Walker line I like. Hard times call for furious dancing. It's so...

Erik Davis: And so I wonder... I mean, I know here we're kind of going on here, this is a nice place to end, but just to think about how contemporary festival culture is kind of there, and then kind of not at all.

Jamie Wheal: Dude, I literally think it's the absence of the arcana. I think that that is something that The Dead carried, and other folks do, too. I mean, Dolly Parton. It's the Grand Ole Opry, it's Beyonce, it's Lady Gaga. It shows up. And when it shows up, you feel it. And when there's a symmetrical yes from the community, from the culture around it, it almost always includes that Christic element of a redemption song. First is the testifying to the broke openness. Let's not skip that part. Otherwise, it's just bubblegum, summertime pop. But it's out of the mud, out comes the Lotus, and I feel like there is something so uniquely and powerfully American about it that it is no longer unique. It is the gift to the world.

Jamie Wheal: We've always been that place where people project their hopes. We've always been the Tabula Rasa. And as a result, and in some flukes of history, we've also been the purveyors of pop culture, from Hollywood studios all the way to Silicon Valley and Facebook and Instagram. But that notion that the embrace of grief leads to redemption feels profound.

Antinomian Agnosticism

Jamie Wheal: there's the other thread that I just would love to hear from you on, is the idea of that antinomian agnosticism. We see it in Kesey. We see it in Garcia. And for me, one of the most... And effectively what it is... I mean, you can make a case that what we're seeing is, this plays out in the occult history, but is basically the challenging of high magic in the same way that the challenging of orthodox religion happened. Right?

Jamie Wheal: And so in the same way that the second Great Awakening is a challenge to the Catholic and Protestant churches in favor of something more direct, immediate, and experiential, and the way you said that Kesey said, sometimes the worst thing you can do is take LSD as a sacrament, a.k.a. high magic. Smells and bells and rituals, and this and that. The evolution and the emergence of chaos magic, right? The idea of, dispense with all the high churchy elements, and let's get the thing done.

Jamie Wheal: Talk to me about Robert Anton Wilson, discordianism, chaos magic, and his beautifully agnostic notion of reality tunnels.

Erik Davis: Okay. Yeah. That's a way to kind of bring that thread in in a strong way that, going back to another example of one of these beatnik proto-religions that have these same kinds of features that we've been talking about, is discordianism, another West Coast construction going all the way back to the late 1950s.

Erik Davis: And we've got to remember that we're talking about just a handful of people, well through the '60s. So there's no reason you should know about it, unless you're a fan of Robert Anton Wilson, or read The Illuminatus! But, what's really key about this religion, which also kind of inspires chaos magic down the road, is that it looks to be purely satirical, like it's just making fun of everybody.

Jamie Wheal: Like an elaborate postmodern Taoist joke. A prank.

Erik Davis: Exactly. An elaborate postmodern Zen Taoist joke, with scatological references and bad puns, and the whole thing. And yet, on another level, it was serious. And that blend of serious not serious is incredibly key because it's already, even at this early stage, a solution to the kind of nihilistic irony of postmodernism. Even though in some ways it's very postmodern. It's already saying, look, if you're just ironic, if you're just nihilistic, you're not getting the picture. You don't see what's actually going on here, which is something beyond that, that can't quite be named, but can be played with.

Erik Davis: And so they play this kind of game. Robert Anton Wilson brings discordianism into this great work of The Illuminatus!, Which also elaborates a huge amount of the kind of goofy ideas around conspiracy theory, the Illuminati. In many ways, The Illuminatus! is kind of the origin of a lot of threads that are now manifest as much more banal and claustrophobic kinds of conspiracy culture. Because Wilson was one of the first people that said, "Hey, this stuff's kind of fun. In fact, it has something to do with magic, too. It's actually kind of interesting."

Erik Davis: Except that he was always maintaining that kind of agnostic, open-ended Taoist chaos attitude towards the mysteries. And indeed, that's what he kind of communicates in his books. I mean, in some ways he's sort of the philosopher of that current of playful agnosticism that we're talking about, except for him, it wasn't just a dodge. And that's an important thing. Again, you think about it, "Oh, it's just postmodernism. Oh, I don't believe anything. You can't get me." No, no, no. It's a solution to the problem that has now inflicted itself on tens, hundred-thousands? Who knows how many people have been sucked into Q Anon, and related ideas, but you can just talk about Q Anon. Particularly from the psychedelic, yoga, Burning Man, New Age, alternative medicine kind of world. Why? It's because they didn't get that message. They're holding on-

Jamie Wheal: They abandoned rigor.

Erik Davis: answer.

Erik Davis: And that ironic agnosticism is the bulb for that kind of belief, which ends up being a trap. Because even if it's sort of true, or allegorically true, or true enough to keep thinking about, and I'm not trying to demonize it the way that mainstream rationalists do. But I'm saying that there's a fundamental spiritual error, a kind of a warped or failed initiation at the heart of that, which is that it doesn't go through with its skepticism about the narratives we hear about reality. It disbelieves the surface story, and then simply clamps on to a vast collective understory, with the same kind of, whatever, cow-like idiocy that you once had when you just believed everything that the mainstream was telling you. Instead of going, "Well, why should I believe this weird guy who's doing a YouTube video from Wales about the flat... Why do I believe him?" Instead of [crosstalk 01:37:57].

Jamie Wheal: That's the old, that player thing, right?

Erik Davis: So, once you break through that, and it's even scarier... But it turns out, especially if you're paying attention to your body, if you're being tuned into the actual world you have, the actual relationships you have with animals, with the tree on your block, with your kids, with the people upstairs, that somehow you can actually play this game, even though you know you don't know.

Erik Davis: And so, that's really the line that I like to bring forward from that whole kind of Robert Anton Wilson way, is that it's actually a medicine for people who are in this kind of halfway initiation into the mytho-poetics of reality, including the tremendous darkness that's in reality. All the demons we dance with, and the demons that are part of that Grateful Dead current of death and failure and scary spaces and risking hell. What does it mean to risk hell? It means to no longer know that what you're doing is the good. That's scary. It could go wrong. It could go south. But if we can't make that risk, you can see people just wind up with just claustrophobic forms of darkness and fear within this kind of conspiratorial landscape.

Erik Davis: So that's sort of one of my platforms or planks that I stand on, is this kind of healing power of agnosticism at this point. And it's scary, but I don't really see any other way out.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it feels to me that that agnostic Gnosticism, a sort of a Promethian Christology, is the American legacy. It's there, it's in our text. And again, it is the arcana Americana. It is the sacred secret hermetic living tradition, as Bloom calls it, of anthropos. And anthropos being the mis... Or Adam Cadman, right? I mean, what is known in the hermetic traditions as the fully expressed human, which is the body of Christ, right?

Erik Davis: Right. And that's that positive, gnosis current. That's that alchemical, embodied, dancing, materialized, it's speaking through the world that the... Why the hell do people spend so much time breaking down the secret iconography online, or in Trump's tweets, or the symbolism of some ad campaign when you're fucking surrounded by nature, which is nothing on that level but a world of signs, embodied signs, ancient signs, signs that are ripe for speaking, for whispering, for coming alive with meaning. And the inability of people to recognize that if you're going to give whatever some hip hop guy doing this a lot of meaning, why aren't you giving that meaning to everything around you?

Erik Davis: What makes you think that the dark manipulative symbolism of advertising is the only power at hand? That's a complete collapse of the imagination. And to see it in those terms of that full body, that is also nature, is also in relation to other bodies, and to animals, and to wind, and all of that other stuff, you got to include that. And once you include that, then the balance starts coming through. I'm not saying that there isn't demonic PSYOPs going in. There is absolutely demonic, if you want to think about it that way, manipulative, dark, controlling, psychopathological, et cetera, et cetera, from multiple corners. I'm not denying that.

Erik Davis: It's just that the way in which people try to navigate it, I think, is actually hurting themselves. They're falling into their own trip trap.

Jamie Wheal: Trip trap. That's nice. Yeah. The signs and portents are everywhere, and we are surrounded by omens of millennium. All right, dude.


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