THE HALLS OF PENTHEUS -- PART ONE
The Empire Never Ended
I just finished reading Emmanuel Carrere's biogroaphy of Phil Dick, I AM ALIVE AND YOU ARE DEAD, and it got me thinking again about how much of an influence Dick is on my writing, in particular vis-a-vis weird-ass religious ideas like Gnosticism. Now I never could reconcile my own atheist materialist existentialist flesh-is-good humanism with that theist spiritualist essentialist world-is-bad escapism, but I was the sort of kid who would ask, in Sunday School, what God had to hide if he didn't want Adam & Eve to have the knowledge of Good & Evil and thus, presumably, acquire the capacity to evaluate him. Or what temptation has to do with the exile from Eden when it's explicitly stated that God's rationale is to get Adam & Eve the fuck out of the garden before they eat of the Tree of Life and "become as us". Or whether Cain was not simply trying to satisfy God's demand for blood sacrifice. Or whether Jesus's cry of "Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?" was not, in fact, a realisation that a cruel divinity had exploited and betrayed him. Anyway, you get the picture; the concept of the demiurge has always appealed to me. The idea that "The Empire never ended" is a recurrent theme in my writing, the tyrannical institutions of orthodoxy as the repressive regime of...
Of what? A Supreme Being, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient? I discarded that notion at an early age. Actually, to be honest, it never took hold; even as a child the idea seemed a sterile abstraction in its divorce of flesh and spirit, body and mind. In the crude anthropomorphism of God as a Father, a Shepherd, a King, I saw only another Zeus, another Jupiter, petty and fickle. In fact, I saw Cronos in his old age and jealousy, the Old King hanging on to power, hostile to the young gods who might challenge his sovereignty, the sons who might usurp him as he usurped his father. Thou shalt have no other gods before me, me, ME! What a prick.
I didn't know I was a son of Sodom, a sexual shaitan in the making, but I was already on the side of the rebels. The myth of Star Wars had given me Luke Skywalker as the Campbellian Hero, Lord Vader, his dark father, as the Jungian Shadow and the Emperor in the first two movies as the Hidden Power, the aged and wicked tyrant -- offstage, unknown and unknowable as God. I understood this modern myth intuitively, I think, got it instantly.
The Empire never ended.
The Empire never ended. But somewhere a young hero, a nascent sun god (blond, named after light itself and as a walker of the sky) had been called to adventure, to fight the tyrant. Just like that other modern god of sun, sky, fire, light, Flash Gordon, in his battle against Ming the Merciless, in the serials they showed every Saturday morning during the summer holidays, the serials that Lucas's movie was a homage to.
The Black Iron Prison
So, far more appealing than any Almighty God were such notions as the Logos and the Gnosis which, of course, become the Force in Lucas's unfinished trilogy. Divinity as something one could experience, bond with, utulise, a "cosmic life force of the universe" -- that seemed infinitely more attractive than a divine autocrat, a sovereign deity ruling over all existence with a rod of base iron. And if the universe was itself alive, might it not simply be born and die like any other living creature, one universe in a lineage of many, evolved over time out of the primordial chaos? The phrase "A long, long time ago" juxtaposed with the imagery of humans in spaceships, does seem to place the action in another strata or cycle of reality in this manner, a previous future long since past. In the Vulcan logic of childhood, an evolutionary cosmology, in which the divine autocrats were late-comers, merely those with greatest mastery over the metaphysical substrate of reality, seemed far more rational than the Sunday School superstitions of a Big Bad-Ass Deity indistinguishable from Nimrod or Nebuchadnezar.
The Bible stories themself unpacked into alternative readings before the heretical interrogation of a kid who relished crazy theories for their novelty. Was the serpent, bestower of ethical enlightenment, really the bad guy? Did Lucifer fall for his rebellion, or was there something to those apocryphal tales in which his true crime is to look upon the face of God, to see this Supreme Being as he truly is? Was his act of rebellion, in fact, not a battle for the throne, but the gift of this terrible new knowledge to humanity? What about those stories where Lucifer as Sammael is credited with creation? If it all kicked off with "Let there be light," wouldn't you think the one who really started it all might just be known as... Bringer of Light? Take all these questions, throw in Isaac Asimov's and Frederic Brown's stories of God as Grand Computer, a cold calculator of reality, add lashings of Phil Dick's illusory realities, turn up the heat of adolescent alienation, and I came gradually to formulate a certain metaphysics as metaphor.
The Empire never ended because myth also is written by the victors and, unlike history, the writing of myth makes it as essentially true as it can ever be. To write the myth, to propagate it, is to reify the metaphysics encoded within it. To write of the serpent crushed beneath Eve's heel is to disempower the wisdom that it represents. To tell of the fall of Lucifer is to bring him down. But those alternative heretical readings remain as more than records. They are not just the fallout of the very War in Heaven that they tell of, but the struggle of stories that continues as long as the stories do. The story of Lucifer as God's right hand man, captain of the Host, greatest of angels, looking upon the face of God and... turning, falling -- this is a story of defeat and a defeated, but not wholly defeated, story. A rebel whisper against the official line which asserts that it is pride and power that drives the "devil", it manifests an ongoing subversion, an insurgency that battles on.
To write of the Black Iron Prison is to show the Empire for what it is, to reveal the reality of repression and rebellion. It is to understand that God rules not with a single rod of iron but with a cage built from many rods, many bars, with chains and manacles. It is to look upon his face and see the slitted steel of his eyes, the face of Palmer Eldritch.
What is this Black Iron Prison of the Empire, what precisely?
The Empire never ended because the Empire is the gestalt ego of society, the lattice of our relationships of status, externalised as power and privilege, internalised as pride and shame. The Empire is the hierarchy of souls that exists within us, among us and between us, through which the legitimate creative force is imprisoned as Dionysus-Satan and/or from which it is exiled as Apollo-Christ. The Black Iron Prison is not the material world; rather it is the spiritual one, metaphysical in the sense of psychological and cultural epiphenomena certainly -- I have no doubt of that -- but... metaphysical also in the sense of trans-spatiotemporal... supernatural, paranormal?
That shadowy, distorted image of the Emperor on the viewscreen in The Empire Strikes back, distanced and obscured from us, like God behind his veil in the Throne Room of Heaven -- is he anything more than an image, a projection? For Dick the Black Iron Prison was our material reality as illusion, the occluding creation of a demiurge, like the nightmarish trap of Palmer Eldritch, but surely it's the material that is real, the spiritual that is illusion?
One very quickly learns that, no matter how hard you try, that toy lightsabre is not going to leap into your hand by the power of will alone. There weren't a lot of talking bushes, water-walking messiahs, or other such miraculous marvels in 70s Scotland. The reality of the Empire is just school pecking orders, Margaret Thatcher and yuppies with braces and wads of cash. Isn't the truth just as mundane, just as banal, as everything around you points at it being? I remember my Spock-like raised eyebrow at a Catholic friend's assertion that God was everywhere around us, watching us, judging us. Hmmmm. Okaaaaaay. And do you still believe in Santa Claus too?
Towards an Anarchist Metaphysics
I have to admit that I like certain fanciful ideas, and some of these I sort of entertain with just a little more than fictive suspension of disbelief for the sake of a good story, despite their being rather more mystical than my materialist instincts. I like the idea of 3D time. I like the idea of a quantum interconnectedness that might just result in such wacky phenomena as "reincarnation", "transmigration", "premonition" and so on, not as supernatural activities and faculties but as... sudden glimpses of sense in the blurred image of a hologram fragment, retrieval of data from the implicate order of an enfolded universe where every part contains the whole. Maybe you don't need the spirits and souls as non-material substances (surely an oxymoron); suppose you can just... tap into the urgrund, datamine it, upload the personality pattern of, say, an early Christian called Thomas, replete with koinos Greek vocabulary... if you're someone like Phil Dick, that is. That urgrund is, I guess, the Vellum of my first book.
And I like the idea of memes not just as ideas but as entities, collaborations of ideas, ideation and action-from-ideation on a cultural level, manifesting psychological systems like the Ego (or Id or the Self) as gestalt agencies at large in the world. I like the idea that we made God in our image and he is, to all intents and purposes, out there now, in our words and our wars, or that other archetypes, other gods, have a similar metaphysique. Maybe there are... things that behave as if they are eternal, essential, but are actually manifest as all themes must be, coded in scriptures and statues, suprasegmental features of dreams and fictions, engaging with each other through us as their medium. That sort of language come alive is, I guess, the Ink of the second book, my own version of the Logos.
What I am tempted by is an anarchist metaphysics that rejects the scientistic model in which apparent anomalies in causality are denied as supernatural impossibilities or rationalised as mere coincidences, but that also rejects the religious model in which such anomalies are taken as proof of supernatural divinities. What I am tempted by is an anarchist metaphysics that allows us to accept, say, Dick's diagnosis of his son's inguinal hernia as factual and non-coincidental without recourse to etherealities.
There is, of course, an element of schizoid delusion here. I've never actually had the full-on psychotic break, but I recognise symptoms of both acute and chronic stages in my own exegetic inquiries from adolescence through my early twenties: apophenia; smearing of meaning; loss of affect; theophanic ecstasy. When Dick styled himself as John the Baptist, I read those words and thought myself his Jesus, my arguments with Christianity that of Christ with the priests or, later, storming into the Temple to reclaim it to its righteous purpose. Dick's fiction was my baptism and it seemed to call me to a divine mission, call me out into the wilderness of madness and prophecy to meet Lucifer, only to find we were one and the same, the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, Christ and Antichrist.
Hey, it seemed logical at the time. And the I Ching seemed to agree.
In the end, I don't think it matters. I'm convinced that many such schizoid delusions are not meaningless invention but metaphoric articulations of the metaphysical; and even if the metaphysical is no more than the epiphenomenal domain of psyche and culture, nevertheless those articulations have a truth and relevance. Deep down, I always knew that I was thinking in metaphors, poetry rather than prophecy, and that the revelatory gifts of gods are no more to be trusted than those of the Greeks; rapture is the Trojan Horse by which the archetypes invade one's idios kosmos and open the doors to Might and Power and Glory, the monomania of religious "inspiration". The trick with archetypes is to change the metaphor, shift the relationships between them; transform that Trojan Horse to a Dionysus brought in chains into the city, a prisoner of Pentheus, the King of Tears, the monomaniac Might and Power and Glory of every King of Gods and God of Kings, already enthroned in the Black Iron Prison of his Empire... waiting to be dethroned. This is the story of The Bacchae by Euripedes, one that Dick made a few references to in his exegesis of his own experiences with the metaphysical.
The Empire never ended? Well, it's about time that it did, mate.
Dethroning the King of Tears
Metaphor or mysticism, we live in a Phildickian world. If the animatronic Ronald Reagan as Talbot Yancy didn't make that clear, the current Ferris Freemont regime should do so. We have a nice perpetual war to keep us in a state of fear, surveillance and security obssessions to rival any of Dick's dystopias, reality shows as our Perky Pats, and, over it all, a Palmer Eldritch under various pious names, the monomaniac God, God as the Gnostic demiurge, God as Pentheus, the King of Tears.
The failure of Gnosticism, to my mind, was that while it found the right metaphoric shift, the right rearticulation of the God-King meme, the gestalt Ego, as a tyrant, it continues to afford this demiurge creator status, casting the material world as intrinsically his domain, an illusory prison from which we must escape. Christ the Paraclete, the Word made flesh -- Dick's homoplasmate -- invades the material world but to redeem us rather than it, to rescue us from our occluded state of sin and flesh. Dionysus the Paraclete, in contrast, the flesh made Word (the Logos as song rather than scripture, as lyrics of comedy and tragedy shaped by and from wild existence), invades the civilised world to bring down the Empire, to restore us to freedom in our flesh.
It should be noted that, in Euripedes's play, in line with Dionysus's fundamentally physical nature, he is referred to as a priest of Dionysus rather than the deity himself and, throughout the play, largely holds to that role, his revelation of his divinity as much an assumption of his rightful lineaments of godhood as a divestiture of an illusion of mortality. Is he Dionysus masquerading as his own priest, or is he the Dionysus within every priest, waiting to be revealed? There is something of the Greek idea of the daimon here, of genius, of enthusiasmos as, literally, "having the god within", and there is something of the Gnostic mystery also, of the promise made by Jesus that his followers would all become as him one day, as gods. Unfortunately that dichotomy of flesh and soul at the heart of Gnosticism makes the Christian promise undeliverable, raising an inviolable wall between the material and spiritual realms. To riff off of Dick's terms: the Head Apollo is always about to return but never actually returns; the Buddha is in the park when he needs to be brought into the city; it's 70 AD, and we're still waiting for the Paraclete's return because we persist in imagining that the Word will be made flesh when it is the flesh that must be made Word.
The Empire never ended because the Paraclete's exile is enforced not just by the Emperor but by his subjugated people, Gnostic or Paulian, who valorise the divorce of flesh and soul, the demonisation of the former in Dionysian Satan and the idealisation of the latter in Apollonian Christ. And, make no mistake, idealisation is as disempowering as demonisation in its marginalisation; prince on the pedestal of Heaven or prisoner in the pit of Hell, beyond the veil or beyond the pale, both forms of the Paraclete are made safe by rendering them absolutes, positive and negative infinities, off the scale, outside the frame.
In less metaphoric terms, the continuing sovereignty of the gestalt Ego, which acts as an agency if nowhere else then at least in the domain of psyche and culture, rests on a separation between the sinful and passion-driven "flesh" and the pure and sanctified "soul", which is to say, perhaps, the Freudian Id and the Jungian Self. As long as these two are kept apart or in conflict, the ego's reign is assured, since without the reconciliation of these two, without the formation of an aesthetically-constrcted identity, the morally-constructed ego presents itself as the only viable control mechanism for maintaining stability.
While Dionysus-Satan and Apollo-Christ bicker, a Zeus Irae called simply "God" rules uncontested.
Supposing, just for a second, that we take these metaphors literally; what we would basically be saying is that God -- that Supreme Being, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient -- is the real evil, while Lucifer and Christ were both good guys, both trying but failing to wake humanity up to its daimonic -- which is to say divine -- potential. If we are to take the metaphors literally this is a devil's advocacy more heretical than any tawdry Satanism which, in accepting the iconography of occultism, becomes little more than a black masquerade, a fetishistic play-acting safely contained within the moral framework of conventionality and co-opted to the preservation of that framework, that cage, the Black Iron Prison, perpetuating as it does the illusion of Id as Evil. Forget the "Antichristian" posturings of the Marilyn Mansons and Aleistor Crowleys; to "fight the Empire" in that way is to become it. The society of the spectacle is the Emperor's court, where those charlatans and showmen are mere dancing bears, pathetic mockeries of the wild and bestial. In the heresy I'm advocating here we must rather picture God as the pitiable spectacle of a wretch, raging Pentheus in his madness, blind to his own humiliation, led dumbly to his slaughter.
The true shaitan is not a posturing pretender to romantic rebellion, not a puffed-up fool in black and scarlet, but a harlequin in ragged motley, dark and light, grinning wickedly but with sorrow in his eyes.
But if we are to take the metaphors literally, clearly I'm putting myself in deep shit with this heresy and blasphemy. I mean, I'm already damned as a son of sodom, but I seem to recall there's a deeper level of hell reserved for religious treason, the deepest level of all. I could be wrong after all, and if I am, well, that's a pretty big gamble.
I'm in the mood for a little wager though.
Next: Part Two -- Pascalus's Wager