Saturday, October 22, 2016

Essay on Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood published

The new DVD and Blu Ray from Artificial Eye/Curzon of Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood contains a piece of mine in the accompanying booklet. This isn't a new article, but is derived from my book Andrei Tarkovsky. A review of the Blu Ray can be found here. I really must get a Blu Ray player at some point...

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Talk on Old English Charms

If you're in Edinburgh tomorrow, and also happen to be interested in Old English charms, feel free to come along to a talk hosted by the Traditional Cosmology Society. Details below:

Friday, October 14, 2016

1066 and All This

Today is the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman famously lampooned history with their classic 1066 and All That, but I think it's a turning point in history whose after effects we are still feeling.

For fear of seeming to add a few paltry ha'pence worth of ire to an already full field of it, I've not written here about the appalling political situation in the UK, a fiasco entirely brought upon us by the Tories and their chums the media moguls, the bankers, the corporate CEOS, all those nice Arab despots wanting to order more UK-made arms, &c, &c, &c.

But the EU referendum got me thinking about the British People, if I may use capital letters. David Cameron spoke a few years ago of Britain's 'remarkable political stability', and in this I think we should give the pig-interferer his due - he was right about this (the list of things he was wrong about is, of course, somewhat longer than my arm). Britain is very stable country. Or at least, that's what the media tell us. (Britain has the most right-wing media in Europe, by the way.)

When the Panama scandal broke, Cameron was grilled, but he remained in office. In Iceland, the people forced their tax-dodging PM out.

Why did that not happen in Britain? Could it be anything to do with 'remarkable political stability'? Or is that just another word for apathy? If so, why are the majority of the British so seemingly apathetic?

A recent study suggests that trauma can be inherited. I began to wonder, could apathy be inherited in a similar way? And could that apathy have anything to do with the fact that the ruling classes in Britain have been brutalising, terrorising, imprisoning and executing the populace for centuries, on a scale unmatched by other European countries? That would appear to be one of the conclusions of Douglas Hay et al's study of crime and punishment in C18 Britain, Albion's Fatal Tree. Britain was routinely treating its populace with far more savagery than happened in the Great Terror that followed the French Revolution.

So it made me wonder, if this thesis is correct - even partially so - where did this savagery start?


The Norman Yoke didn't start on 15th October of that year; indeed, there was a period of two months after the battle when Harold II's successor, Edgar Atheling, tried to rally support and get himself crowned. But that didn't happen, and William the Conqueror became king on Christmas Day 1066. He then set about brutalising the country, most notoriously in the Harrying of the North.

Whilst Harrying the North, the Normans also stole Saxon land on an enormous scale. Around 90% of Saxon land was taken and parcelled out to William's nobles.

It's perhaps typical of Victorian myopia that C19 historians routinely held that nothing much happened in 1066, it was business as usual, carrying on in the typically British way of muddling through. (I'm all for muddling through; in fact, I do it on a daily basis.) However, such Victorian attitudes are still with us, as the former director of the British Museum, the great Neil MacGregor, recently pointed out. They are views frequently held by those in government.

But it was not business as usual in 1066 and the years that followed. As well as stealing most of the land and practicing the C11 form of state terrorism, the Normans also brought with them the feudal system. This gave us an inequality of wealth which persists to this day; to say nothing of the class system.

I can't help thinking that the Norman Yoke never ended; likewise, the feudal system is still here, making Britain a strange anomaly in Europe. Naturally, certain people want to maintain this anomalous status. For them, it is a matter of pride, of business as usual.

These reasons are why I think the Battle of Hastings is still relevant, and why we are still feeling its consequences today. It was a catastrophe that Britain, and England in particular, never recovered from. We are still under the Norman Yoke. We are told that leaving the EU will be good for Britain, but that is of course industrial-scale bullshit. It will lead to more deregulation, among other things, and things will get worse for the majority of the population. But with 950 years of being trodden on by the elites, surely we're used to that by now? George Orwell's remark that totalitarianism was 'a boot stamping on a human face forever' is in fact an apt description for the way the British ruling classes have treated the population since 1066.

Although the Saxons were not perfect - they had slaves, for starters - they couldn't compete with the Normans on the great scale of bastardy that has become some kind of benchmark for subsequent British rulers. I may of course have a touch of Dark Age nostalgia about me, but anyway, raise a glass for Harold. Me, I'm rooting for an independent Wessex. Perhaps the Heptarchy wasn't so bad after all. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

New poem in latest issue of Butcher's Dog.

I have a poem, 'On Tealham Moor', in the latest issue of Butcher's Dog magazine. More info on where to get a copy can be found by clicking the link. This is the second poem publication this year. The latest issue of Northwords Now (no. 31), which was published last month, contains my piece 'Broadside'. 

Sunday, April 03, 2016

New poem in Northwords Now

My poem 'Broadside' (AKA The Anarcho-Oneiric-Quietist Manifesto) is published in the new issue (no.31) of Northwords Now.

The brotherhood have asked me to point out that their call to arms respectfully borrows lines and phrases from The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen (out on DVD next month!), Bob Dylan's 'When I Paint My Masterpiece', John Burnside's Gift Songs (his best collection?), and Paul Éluard, by way of Chase Twichell.

What is anarcho-oneiric quietism? I hear the man on the Clapham omnibus ask. Well, read the poem and find out.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

David Lindsay and Easter

The Anglo-Scottish novelist David Lindsay (1876-1945) has a fair claim to being fantasy literature’s first great Gnostic of the 20th century. As Lindsay’s biographer, Bernard Sellin, comments,
Any list of the analogies between Lindsay’s ideology and the Gnostic cults would be a long one... it would be necessary to cite the importance attached to spirit, the systematic depreciation of the body and the flesh, man as a stranger in the world, the conception of an evil world, indeed an evil God, the cult of the Mother and the Eternal Female, and the condemnation of sexuality.
  Lindsay’s first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), is an interplanetary odyssey that is effectively a Gnostic Pilgrim’s Progress. Two men, Maskull and Nightspore, travel to the planet of Tormance and one by one have their illusions stripped away from them. The novel embodies Lindsay’s view that the world is a ‘vast sham’:
One must not regard the world merely as a home of illusions; but as being rotten with illusion from top to bottom; not a sound piece anywhere, but all springs, glasses and traps throughout.
  The novel exerted a profound influence on CS Lewis, whose own views on matters of faith and spirituality were far more orthodox than Lindsay’s. A Voyage to Arcturus is gnostic, but with a strongly Calvinist flavour.
  Another Lindsay novel CS Lewis might have been interested in is The Violet Apple (written 1924-6, published 1976). This novel is perhaps Lindsay’s most ‘Christian’ novel - in other words, not very Christian at all. It conflates the stories of the Garden of Eden and Easter, becoming Lindsay’s thoroughly Gnostic take on the idea of resurrection. The Violet Apple could be seen as a turning point for Lindsay, almost a ‘resurrection’, a new direction in his writing.
  When playwright Anthony Kerr and the free-spirited Haidee Croyland eat the apples said to be descendants of the fruit of the Tree in Eden, they can see people’s true nature and the true nature of reality, which is ‘a common coffin’. Lindsay describes Adam’s and Eve’s eating of the fruit as the gaining of knowledge, ‘an eternal symbol of the first resurrection from the dead – of the first rising of man and woman from a world of unconscious animals.’ This is in perfect accord with the Gnostics of antiquity, who regarded Eve as the first human to attain gnosis once she had eaten the fruit from the tree. In Haidee, Lindsay introduces a powerful female character who, Sophia-like, who is able to mediate spiritual truths. (A similar figure would recur in Lindsay’s two final novels, Devil’s Tor (1932) and The Witch (almost finished on his death in 1945, but not published until 1976).)
  The theme of resurrection is further stressed in that the novel is set over Easter. The final chapter sees Anthony and Haidee meeting in placed called Wych Hill on Easter Day itself. A wind is blowing; the chapter is called Spring Gale. It is a wind that blows all dust out of their eyes:
A new amazement seized him that he had deliberately elected during all these precious, irrecoverable years to turn his back on the beautiful, open, blowing world of God… it seemed to him that this sweet-smelling spring hurricane was trying to blow everything deathly and sepulchral out of his perception...   
  Haidee has experienced the same ‘transformation into newness’ that the Gnostic Treatise on the Resurrection speaks of. When Anthony meets her on Wych Hill, she has been ‘considering the lilies of the field’ (actually wild daffodils, whose beauty stops her mind). Anthony understands. He asks her, ‘And probably your heart is even lighter for it?’
A silence followed, not of embarrassment, but simply because neither had anything further to say immediately. And if the marvellous experiences from which all these changes had arisen remained unreferred to [their eating of the violet apples], that also was not on account of any delicate reluctance on the part of either to introduce an awkward topic. It merely meant that both felt there was nothing to be said about it. The high, sacred hour was past, and to analyse it, even between themselves, would be profanation. It was always in their hearts.

A Gnostic Easter

The Gnostic view of the resurrection, as we might expect, differs markedly from the orthodox position. The Nicene Creed states that Jesus ‘suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again’. This resurrection is bodily, which will one day be experienced by all, as the Creed states ‘we look for the resurrection of the dead’. The Gnostic text known as the Treatise on the Resurrection, however, regards the Resurrection as something that is not physical at all, something ‘which is better than the flesh’. As with Paul’s interpretation of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, which was written to offer the only true understanding of it, so the Nag Hammadi Treatise was likewise written to a Gnostic who did not know what to believe. The anonymous author tells his recipient, a man named Rheginos, that the resurrection is a necessary experience for the Gnostic believer to undergo, but it is a raising from the death of ordinary consciousness to the life of gnosis:

"What, then, is the resurrection?... It is the truth which stands firm. It is the revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into newness."

The Gospel of Philip is quite explicit about what the resurrection actually is:

"Those who say that the Lord died first and then rose up are in error, for he rose up first and then died. If one does not first attain the resurrection he will not die."

The idea is reiterated later in the gospel, making it clear that the resurrection happens before death, not after it:

"Those who say they will die first and then rise are in error. If they do not first receive the resurrection while they live, when they die they will receive nothing."

from The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Harrowing of Hell

According to Christian tradition, Christ descended into hell after the Crucifixion and freed all the righteous who had lived before his advent, including Adam & Eve. This is known as the Harrowing of Hell. The story didn't originate with the Gnostics per se, although the gnostic teacher Marcion (2nd century AD) is known to have discussed the notion that Christ descended into hell into order to free those who had lived in earlier times. For without hearing Christ's message, according to the church, it was impossible to gain salvation. Therefore, without the Harrowing of Hell, countless good souls would be condemned.

The story first appears in written form in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, written in the 3rd century, and included by MR James in his The Apocryphal New Testament. It's a fascinating text, describing Christ's appearance in hell as a light, and his presence there sends Beelzebub, the prince of hell, and his demons into a frenzy:

Who art thou, who hast no sign of corruption, but that bright appearance which is a full proof of thy greatness, of which yet thou seemest to take no notice?

Who art thou, so powerful and so weak, so great and so little, a mean and yet a soldier of the first rank, who can command in the form of a servant as a common soldier?

The King of Glory, dead and alive, though once slain upon the cross?

Who layest dead in the grave, and art come down alive to us, and in thy death all the creatures trembled, and all the stars were moved, and now hast thou thy liberty among the dead, and givest disturbance to our legions? (XVI-3-6)

It's easy to imagine a Gnostic hearing this story and interpreting hell as the material world, and the light that cometh into the darkness being that of the gnosis Christ brought. The Harrowing of Hell is, in Gnostic terms, an account of liberation from the darkness of materiality and ignorance, a song of spiritual release, but also one that seems to have a provocatively antinomian element, such as in this conversation between Beelzebub and Satan:

For behold now that Jesus of Nazareth, with the brightness of his glorious divinity, puts to flight all the horrid powers of darkness and death;

He has broke down our prisons from top to bottom, dismissed all the captives, released all who were bound, and all who were wont formerly to groan under the weight of their torments have now insulted us, and we are like to be defeated by their prayers.

Our impious dominions are subdued, and no part of mankind is now left in our subjection, but on the other hand, they all boldly defy us. (XVIII-3-5)

Indeed, the Gnostics would like to see everyone released from hell. And where might we find the domain of shades? It is all around us, a product of society, culture, politics; and inside us also, what Blake dubbed the 'mind-forged manacles'. Or, as Christopher Marlowe's Mephistopheles reminds us, 'Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.'

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Gnostic Interpretation of Good Friday

Following the Round Dance comes a section [in the Acts of John] known as the Revelation of the Mystery of the Cross.When Jesus is crucified, the disciples ‘fled all ways’, with John hiding in a cave on the Mount of Olives.While he is there, Jesus appears to him and shows him a cross made of light around which a multitude stands. The cross is the Word which unites all things and only when people hearken to it will all the light particles scattered within humanity be gathered back together again and be taken up. Jesus also tells John that he is not ‘he who is upon the cross’ at Calvary, reflecting the common Gnostic belief that Jesus was a divine being, not a human one.

Furthermore, Jesus informs John that:

‘You hear that I suffered, yet I suffered not; that I suffered not, yet I did suffer; that I was pierced, yet I was not wounded; hanged, and I was not hanged, that blood flowed from me, yet it did not flow.’

The Nag Hammadi Apocalypse of Peter takes the image of a Christ who does not suffer during the crucifixion one stage further, portraying Jesus as ‘glad and laughing on the tree’. Jesus explains to Peter that:

‘He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him, and look at me.'

The idea of a fleshy Jesus being crucified while the real Jesus laughs would be more than enough to have the Church Fathers reaching for their smelling salts; it completely subverts orthodox doctrine. Subversion, however, was not the Gnostic intention. Rather, they held that the crucifixion – like the rest of Jesus’ ministry and teaching – can only really be understood through paradox, poetry and startling images. The concept of the laughing Jesus is perhaps best understood this way.

Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy point out that, while the world is full of beauty, it is also full of suffering and death. The way to free oneself is through gnosis (which they term ‘lucid living’), which in turn enables one to both rise above suffering and empathise with those who are experiencing it: '…when we live lucidly we find ourselves loving all and suffering willingly with all. This is the state of gnosis symbolised by the sublime figure of the laughing Jesus.'

from The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics

You can avail yourself of a copy here.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A Gnostic Maundy Thursday

The Acts of John, a Greek version of which was discovered at
Oxyrhynchus in the 1890s, could have been composed some time
in the second century,with some traditions holding that the Gnostic
chronicler Leucius Charinus was its author, although this attribution
isn’t certain. Leucius was said to have been a young disciple of
the aged St John, from whom he received secret teachings and
stories about Jesus. The Acts of John is an account of the activities
of the apostle in Asia Minor some time after the crucifixion, its most
celebrated passage being the so-called ‘Round Dance of the Cross’.
This scene takes the form of a sermon delivered by John to a crowd
of people, probably in Ephesus, where much of the Acts of John
takes place. John recounts the events of the night before Jesus was
arrested. In canonical accounts, Jesus prays in the Garden of
Gethsemane, but in the Acts of John, he instead commands them
to dance and respond with an ‘Amen’ to his praises to God:

He then began to sing a hymn, and to say:
‘Glory be to you, Father!’
And we circling him said, ‘Amen’
‘Glory be to you,Word! Glory be to you, Grace!’
‘Amen’ […]
We praise you, O Father.We give thanks to you, light, in whom
darkness does not abide.’

As the disciples continue to respond to Jesus, he begins to dance and
instructs them to do the same:

‘The whole universe takes part in the dancing.’
‘He who does not dance, does not know what is being done.’

Jesus’ hymn now becomes a series of paradoxes, stating that he will
flee and stay, adorn and be adorned, unite and be united.The hymn
ends with some beautiful mystical statements:

‘I am a lamp to you who see me.’
‘I am a mirror to you who perceive.’
‘I am a door to you who knock on me.’
‘I am a way to you, wayfarer.’

Jesus then encourages the disciples to understand the dance by
seeing him within themselves, which echoes the Gospel of Philip’s
statement that those who have achieved gnosis are ‘no longer a
Christian, but Christ,’ and also the Gospel of Thomas, in which
Jesus declares:

‘Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me.
I myself shall become that person,
and the hidden things will be revealed to that one.'

The similarity with the mystery schools is made explicit in the very
next line, in which Jesus enjoins the disciples to ‘keep silence about
my mysteries!’ Jesus explains that, through the mystery of the
suffering that he is about to undergo, the disciples will have the
chance to become moved and, in doing so, will be ‘moved to become
wise…Learn suffering and you shall have the power not to suffer.’

from The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics

Buy a copy here

Sunday, February 28, 2016

All Quiet at Holyrood

I will be introducing a screening of Lewis Milestone's classic film All Quiet on the Western Front next Saturday, 5th March 2016, at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. The film starts at 1300, and we will be having a short discussion of the film afterwards. (The whole bash should end around 1600.)

More details about how to book a ticket can be found here.