February 19, 2008
I went to a program at my local library. It dealt with the paranormal (the occult). The presenters were Keith Johnson, his wife Sandra Johnson, and his twin brother, Carl Johnson. The hall was packed; there’s considerable interest in this subject, and many people in the audience had seen the Johnsons on TV. There’s a growing number of TV shows that deal with the paranormal. The Johnson brothers became interested in the paranormal because the house in which they grew up was haunted — various paranormal phenomena occurred. As teenagers, they bought a Ouija board, hoping to communicate with the spirits in their house. They say that the spirits communicated with them through various words and signs, but the communication became hostile (profanities, etc.), so they laid aside their Ouija board. They warned the audience that, while anyone can call up a spirit, it can be difficult to get rid of a spirit, and some spirits are evil. I’m reminded of a passage in Vergil:
facilis descensus Averno;
If people believe that their house is haunted, they hire the Johnsons to cleanse their house. The Johnsons invoke God and angels to assist them, just as Professor Van Helsing, in the novel Dracula, uses Christian symbols in his struggle with the evil count. The work of the Johnsons, like the work of Van Helsing, may well be seen as lending support to traditional religion. Can an unbeliever perform such work?
One of the Johnsons’ first jobs was to exorcise a demon. They seem to have considerable experience with demons, and considerable respect for their power, but they think that they can overcome demons with their Christian faith and their exorcism techniques. (The Johnsons complain that cleansing/exorcising isn’t a lucrative business. One wonders if the Johnsons could sell their services to people who aren’t haunted, as a preventive measure, just as pest-control companies sell their services as a preventive measure. Perhaps the Johnsons could start a joint venture with a pest-control company: “Protect your house from both termites and ghosts for one low price.”) One of the exorcists mentioned on the Johnsons’ website is Scott Peck, author of the bestseller The Road Less Travelled.
The Johnsons claim to have captured spirits on audio recordings, photos, and videos, and they showed these media during their library presentation. Often the presence of a spirit can’t be detected when the Johnsons are examining a house, it’s only apparent later, when the Johnsons examine their audio and video.
There seems to be a moral order in the universe. Evil — such as we find in Hitler, Stalin, Macbeth, etc. — eventually comes to grief. On the other hand, evil often brings many innocents down with it; one might say that the moral order punishes evil, but doesn’t always reward virtue. Furthermore, if we look for the source of evil, we find that the universe itself produces Hitlers, Stalins, and Macbeths; in other words, the universe produces the very evil that it later destroys. Evil is almost as much a part of the fabric of the universe as good.
Evil allies itself with death and disintegration, while good fosters life. Evil is one-sided, extreme, monomaniacal, while good is balanced; “evil entails being swept away by one-sidedness, by only one single pattern of behavior.”1 According to Freud, the great man is also one-sided. Evil figures, like Macbeth and Kurtz, often have a touch of greatness, and the great man often has a touch of evil. One who was acquainted with André Gide said, “There is no one more courtly... charming... amiable than Gide, and yet suddenly... he shows himself, just for an instant, as a real demon.”2
Dracula is an example of an evil character who has a touch of greatness. Professor van Helsing says,
I finally finished Dracula. I enjoyed it, it has some memorable scenes, but I can’t recommend it without qualification. Let’s apply The Ruskin Test to Dracula, let’s ask, “what was the author’s motive in creating this work?” One suspects that Bram Stoker was trying to write a popular book, he wasn’t dealing with topics that meant a lot to him personally.
[Spoiler Warning: If you think you might read Dracula, you should skip the rest of this paragraph.] The Norton Critical Edition of Dracula is mediocre. Its numerous footnotes distract rather than enlighten. There is, however, an interesting footnote at the end of the novel, an alternative ending that Stoker later abandoned. In this version, Dracula’s castle collapses at the moment Dracula himself dies; there’s a “volcano burst... a terrible convulsion of the earth.” Here we have a synchronistic link between nature and man, between the castle and Dracula.
I read an essay about Treasure Island; the essay was written by a prominent critic, the late William Wallace Robson. Robson says that Robert Louis Stevenson was preoccupied with moral ambiguity: “the co-presence of good and evil qualities in the same person.”4 Moral ambiguity is found in Proust and other modern novelists; in older novelists, on the other hand, characters tend to be black or white. Moral ambiguity is characteristic of modern fiction, perhaps characteristic of the modern worldview in general. Was Stevenson the first English novelist to emphasize moral ambiguity?
The most obvious example of moral ambiguity in Treasure Island is Long John Silver. Though Silver is violent and treacherous, he has some attractive traits, and he saves Jim from a crowd of toughs. Another example of moral ambiguity is Billy Bones, the aging pirate who appears early in the novel. Despite his rough appearance and dark past, Billy Bones earns praise from Jim Hawkins: “I really believe that his presence did us good.... There was the sort of man that made England terrible at sea.”
The most dramatic example of moral ambiguity in Stevenson’s fiction is the split personality, Jekyll and Hyde. But the works that Robson regards as Stevenson’s best are The Master of Ballantrae and Weir of Hermiston.
One of the major works of Stevenson criticism is Robert Kiely’s 1964 study, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure. Kiely observes that if we combine Billy Bones and Blind Pew, we have Long John Silver; Silver is a fusion of the amiable Billy Bones and the merciless Blind Pew. But Kiely argues that Silver isn’t a fully realized character: “There is no basic personality from which he may derive strength when challenged or to which the reader may assign responsibility when Silver himself is doing the threatening.”5
Kiely insists that Stevenson isn’t trying to plumb the depths of character. Perhaps there’s a certain wisdom in not being wise. “To try to speak seriously of good or evil in Treasure Island,” Kiely writes, “is almost as irrelevant as attempting to assign moral value in a baseball game, even though a presumable requisite to enjoying the contest involves a temporary if arbitrary preference for one side or the other.... We learn precious little about the psychology of evil from Long John Silver and nothing of real consequence about nineteenth-century morality from reading Treasure Island.”
The success of Treasure Island, according to Kiely, stems from Stevenson’s “early conviction that, with respect to certain areas of experience, the child’s amoral view was perfectly valid. In ‘A Gossip on Romance,’ Stevenson wrote: ‘There is a vast deal in life and letters... which is not immoral, but simply a-moral... where the interest turns [on] the problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure, the shock of arms or the diplomacy of life.’”
R. H. Blyth, an authority on Zen, found a lot of Zen in Stevenson, especially in his Fables. Blyth quotes and discusses several Stevenson fables in his book, Zen in English Literature. Zen is amoral, as Stevenson is. I predict that Stevenson’s stock will rise in the coming decades, as the Zen element in his work is better understood. In addition to writing fiction, Stevenson wrote numerous essays, mostly about literature.
Stevenson died at 44, and was buried in the Samoan Islands. He wrote his own epitaph — a poem with an affirmative, Zennish tone, a poem that affirms both life and death:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Has a writer ever achieved more with such simple language?
A. I signed up for Netflix, and downloaded a documentary, No End in Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq. It criticizes the Bush Administration for poor planning, for permitting looting and anarchy, for having too small a force, for disbanding the Iraqi Army, for removing Baathists from all positions of authority, etc. Much of this criticism is, in my view, valid, but nonetheless it can still be argued that to stay there in force, and try to make the best of the situation, is a better policy than to retreat in haste. Furthermore, the documentary doesn’t mention The Surge, and it doesn’t seem interested in exploring ways to improve the situation, it prefers to be negative. On the whole, I think the documentary is worth watching, a good historical work, if somewhat tendentious. If you want to read a book about the Iraq War, consider Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Tom Ricks.
B. As I was exploring Stevenson, I came across a novelist and critic named C. P. Snow (not related to Edgar Snow, author of Red Star Over China). Unlike other modern novelists, C. P. Snow was also a scientist. In a 1959 lecture called “Two Cultures,” Snow lamented the split between the sciences and the humanities: “the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.” Snow’s 1981 book The Physicists is a short summary of modern physics.
C. I found a Cicero quotation that sums up Proust’s early years: Omne ignotum pro magnifico (Everything unknown is regarded as magnificent). Before his first visits to Balbec and Venice, Proust constructed all sorts of romantic fantasies about those places.
The views of the Straussians are strikingly similar to those of Pope Benedict, as expressed by the Pope in a speech delivered on September 12, 2006. The chief organ of the Straussian school, Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard, hailed the Pope’s speech as “astonishing.... moving and heroic.”6 Like the Straussians, the Pope believes in reason, and admires the rational Greek philosophers. The Pope argues that God Himself is rational. The Pope quotes the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Pope notes that “Word” is logos in the original Greek, and “logos means both reason and word”. The Pope applauds John for underlining the importance of reason: “John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God.”
The Pope says that the goal of theology is to correlate faith and reason, and he says that most Western theologians have worked toward this goal. The essence of European civilization, according to the Pope, is the convergence of Greek philosophy and Christianity. This convergence wasn’t the result of chance, says the Pope; doubtless he thinks that God arranged this convergence.
According to the Pope, we must approach religion and morality as the Greek philosophers did — in a rational way. Otherwise, morality becomes merely subjective, and this is a dangerous situation. Like the Straussians, the Pope thinks that morality must be rational and objective, and that without such a morality, civilization is vulnerable to the worst excesses of decadence and despotism.
Strauss’s work was a response to Hitler and Stalin; Strauss tried to build a “philosophical firewall” against nihilism and genocide. He felt that modern philosophers had failed to build such a firewall — indeed, Heidegger had even supported the Nazis. Strauss argued that modern philosophy had gotten on the wrong track, so we must go back to Plato and Aristotle.
Strauss didn’t realize that we can go forward instead of backward, we can develop new approaches to religion with the help of Eastern philosophy, Jungian psychology, and the Hermetic tradition. Strauss wouldn’t admit that, if subjectivity can lead anywhere, so too reason can lead anywhere. Who respected reason more than the French revolutionaries, more than the Russian communists? “’Tis not contrary to reason,” said Hume, “to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”7 As Kierkegaard said, “‘On principle’ one can do anything.”8 The Philosophy of Today is a better firewall against nihilism than Plato, Strauss, or Pope Benedict because it strikes a chord with modern man, it strikes a chord with the man on the street, not just the professional scholar, it speaks to the soul, not just the intellect.
Still enjoying Jack London’s White Fang. Good style, exciting story. London was an American adventurer who was born in California in 1876. He spent much of his life on the fringe of civilization, and many of his books deal with Alaska and Hawaii. His fiction struck a chord with contemporary readers, and he became rich by writing for magazines. As he grew older, he began to write for money, he stole material from other writers, and the quality of his work declined. He died at age 40. Among his best-known works are The Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf, White Fang, and the autobiographical Martin Eden.
White Fang opens with two men transporting a coffin through the Alaska wilderness, during the winter. The coffin sits on a sled, which is pulled by a dog team. The men are pursued by ravenous wolves. One of the men, Bill, says “They’re goin’ to get us. They’re sure goin’ to get us, Henry.”9 Henry responds, “They’ve half got you a’ready, a-talkin’ like that.... A man’s half licked when he says he is.” Sure enough, the wolves get Bill. Did Bill’s negative thinking bring about his death? Or was his thinking an anticipation of his death? In other words, is this a case of the power of thought/attitude, or is it a case of precognition? The vast field of the occult is divided into different categories, these categories often overlap, and it’s often difficult to tell which category a particular phenomenon belongs to.
Bill’s situation resembles that of a soldier who anticipates death, and then dies. For example, the Civil War soldier, Sullivan Ballou, whose letter to his wife figures prominently in Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. In this letter, Ballou anticipates death:
Ballou died a few days after this letter was written. Is this a case of precognition, or is it a case of negative thinking bringing about a negative result?
Much of White Fang is about animals (especially wolves and dogs), much of it tries to get inside the head of an animal. Chapter 7, for example, tries to see the world as a wolf cub sees it. Through some sort of telepathy or intuition, the cub senses trouble:
When Greco-Roman orators wanted to memorize a long speech, they sometimes constructed an imaginary house, with images in each room. The images were linked, in their memory, to parts of their speech; as they delivered the speech, they would move through the house, and the images would help them remember their speech. The Hermetic philosophers of the Renaissance, such as Giordano Bruno, expanded this ancient mnemonic device into a way of committing the whole universe to memory. Bruno constructed “memory wheels,” which used images to remind him of stones, metals, plants, animals, planets, and also to remind him of 150 historic figures, who in turn reminded him of world history, scientific knowledge, and the history of ideas.
In Bruno’s memory system, everything in the world was linked to everything else. Thus, Bruno’s memory system symbolizes the basic Hermetic teaching that All is One, that the universe is an organic whole, that everything is connected to everything else. Not only are objects inter-connected, but also ideas, philosophies, religions; the Hermetists subscribed to a “perennial philosophy” that tried to synthesize various philosophies and religions. In 1486, at the age of 23, Pico della Mirandola went to Rome with 900 theses drawn from various philosophies and religions, and offered to prove, in a public debate, that they were all compatible with each other. A later Hermetist, Athanasius Kircher, attempted an even grander synthesis; in 1652, Kircher attempted a “synthesis of all mystical traditions,”10 including even Mexico and Japan.
The Hermetic philosophers of the Renaissance believed that positive images would lead to positive thoughts; positive images possessed a kind of magical power, they were talismans that could mold personality. If we surrounded ourselves with Jovial and Venereal images, we could escape the influence of Saturn, and escape melancholy. Frances Yates argues that Botticelli’s Primavera was a talisman designed to “transmit only healthful, rejuvenating, anti-Saturnian influences to the beholder.”11 Yates believed that an understanding of Hermetism and Hermetic magic was “necessary for the understanding of the meaning and use of a Renaissance work of art.” Early Hermetists, like Marsilio Ficino, were content to use images to chase away melancholy, but later Hermetists, like Bruno, tried to use images to bring the whole universe into their mind, and develop various kinds of magical power:
Bruno’s art of memory was a magic art that aimed, like other forms of magic, to bring about results.
Another Renaissance Hermetist, Tommaso Campanella, aimed at developing an ideal society rather than an individual Magus. In 1602, Campanella described this ideal society in a book called City of the Sun. In the middle of Campanella’s ideal city was a temple that contained a map of the heavens, and another map of the world. On the walls of Campanella’s city were depicted all plants and animals (and the stars that influenced them), and all arts and sciences (and the heroes who developed them). Campanella’s religion is, like Bruno’s, a religion of the world, a religion that views the universe as an inter-connected organism. God is everywhere, life is everywhere.
The Renaissance attitude toward images has analogues in our own time. Jungians speak of images that represent wholeness. A Tibetan mandala, for example, or a Navajo sand painting, may depict psychological integration in a way that has beneficial effects for both the observer and the creator. Images of wholeness may come to us in dreams. Bruno admired the book On Dreams, by the Hellenistic writer Synesius; Synesius believed that “divine and miraculous images [were] impressed on the imagination in dreams.”13
Are images more effective than words — more apt to enrich the personality, more easily stamped on the memory? Bruno and other Hermetists seemed to think so. Bruno thought that the best writing systems were image-based systems, ideogram systems — like Egyptian hieroglyphs, or Chinese characters. These ideogram systems (in Bruno’s view) are in direct contact with reality (since they consist of pictures of actual things). Compared to these ideogram systems, sound systems (phonetic alphabets) like Greek, Latin and other European languages, are (in Bruno’s view) a step backward.14 Here, as elsewhere, Bruno (and many of his contemporaries) had a high opinion of the ancient Egyptians.
The Hermetic texts were ascribed to an ancient Egyptian, Hermes Trismegistus. The antiquity of Hermes enhanced his authority. The Bible and Greek philosophy were regarded as later, derivative works.
Turkish military power was a factor in popularizing the Hermetic texts in the West. Turkish military power prompted the Byzantine empire to seek help in the West, and to resolve their religious differences with the West. At the Council of Florence in 1439, Byzantine scholars met Italian scholars, and they began lecturing on Plato, the Neoplatonic writers, and the Hermetic texts. In 1453, Constantinople finally fell to the Turks. Ficino began translating Plato into Latin. In 1463, Cosimo de Medici, Ficino’s patron, asked him to lay aside his translation of Plato, and focus instead on the more important Hermetic texts.
The Hermetic texts remained influential for about 150 years. In 1614, a scholar named Isaac Casaubon demonstrated that the Hermetic texts weren’t as ancient as people thought, they were later than the Bible, later than Greek philosophy. Casaubon’s work undermined the authority of the Hermetic texts; philosophers like Descartes and scientists like Kepler further reduced the influence of Hermetism. But Hermetism didn’t die out completely, and the debate between rational philosophy and non-rational philosophy continues to this day.
|1.|| Marie-Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairytales, Part II, ch. 2 back|
|2.|| Conversations With Gide, by Claude Mauriac, 7/1/39 back|
|3.|| Ch. 18 back|
|4.|| “The Sea Cook: A Study in the Art of Robert Louis Stevenson,” by W. W. Robson, in On the Novel, edited by B. S. Benedikz back|
|5.|| Ch. 2, section 2 back|
|6.|| “Socrates or Muhammad? Joseph Ratzinger on the destiny of reason,” by Lee Harris, 10/2/2006 back|
|7.|| Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, Sect. III back|
|8.|| The Present Age back|
|9.|| Ch. 2 back|
|10.|| Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, ch. 21 back|
|11.|| Ibid, ch. 4 back|
|12.|| Ibid, ch. 11 back|
|13.|| Ibid, ch. 18. This is a quote from Yates, not from Bruno or Synesius. back|
|14.||Ibid, ch. 14 back|