Thursday, December 16, 2010

My metaphysical novel

THAT OTHER GOD exegesis. By David Beasley
A few months ago, friends who were reading my metaphysical novel THAT OTHER GOD, written many years ago when I was in my twenties, welcomed my thoughts on it now that I am approaching old age. Possibly what I wrote may interest a general reading public which wonders how authors tend to think conceptually. I do not mean planning or constructing a plot, which is contrived writing and avoided like the plague by writers of the more inspirational mind, who allow their ideas and instincts to guide them as they write into the blackness, as it were.
I wrote the first draft of this novel in the winter of 1958-59 when living in New York City and immediately after writing THROUGH PAPHLAGONIA WITH A DONKEY; AN ADVENTURE IN THE TURKISH ISFENDYARS. I had been curious about the powers of mysticism from when I visited Vienna, Austria in 1954. The city was under the occupation forces. I sensed a mystic quality brought from the east by the Russian forces. I returned in 1956, after the occupation forces had left, to spend two years in the city. I picked up secondhand volumes in English entitled HOURS WITH THE MYSTICS, which led me to other readings on mysticism. Later in New York City I read a book in French on the Atheistic Humanism of Ludwig Feuerbach which influenced my writing of the novel. Atheism, a-theism, away from theism or organized religion—is a minor theme. Also, in a general way, my superficial knowledge of Spinoza’s philosophy may have influenced the writing subconsciously. 
Another question I hoped to probe through the writing of the novel was the mystery of 
massenpsychologie such as Adolf Hitler represented in his relationship with his Germanic peoples. There are individuals who can resist this mass mesmerization and stay removed from the emotion of the crowd about them. 
Looking over some brief notes I made on the novel some years after the first and second or third drafts, I can see some of what I was thinking. “Characters—melding of people and place.” Vienna provides the spiritual impetus, trying to recover from a disastrous war of destruction, betrayal, disillusionment. Austria has become a ‘neutral nation’, caught between the cold war powers. The American mystic poet, Cain Brooks, utopian, spiritual [of New England heritage] needs help in transforming the world from the political and material to bring his message to the public—the political in the figure of Herr Ministerialrat Feind, an Austrian bureaucrat; the material represented by Abel Kingston, an English bohemian artist, an impersonator. The other characters—Henry, an observer, smug in his own righteousness; Grunewald, democratic socialist, opportunist; Ilya Gregor, spy, communist ideologue; Tanya, male-dominated, repressed but defiant; Lisa Bauman, unreachable, repressed and culture-dominated; Ory Baskan, sufi spiritualist, an alternative to Cain’s western mysticism; Alois Wittenborn, industrialist, manipulator; Sophia, pragmatic, symbol of wisdom. The relationship between Sophia and Cain represents that between Sophie and Friedrich von Hardenburg, fashioned after Novalis, the mystic poet and his young love. Frau Bauman, Lisa's mother, represents the victim, as were the bulk of the people.
I wrote: “Struggle between the god of humanity and material power [Cain versus Feind/Wittenborn]. In Austria the battle between the cold war powers——communist vs. capitalist, freedom from want vs freedom of the spirit——takes place... all made superficial by the underlying battle which is for the freeing of the individual soul..... Recognition of the god of humanity frees the individual from domination [religious, cultural, economic, political] and instills in the individual confidence that comes from the knowledge of self-worth. Knowledge is gained through human union.” 
The cosmic significance is symbolized by the Cain-Abel myth, reinterpreted. Mythically the struggle is between Cain and Abel wherein the modern-day Cain sees that the Biblical Cain, who was a mystic, discovered that the god of the altar was the god of the state, of religion, not the god to whom he conversed in the fields. The god of the altar prefers Abel's blood sacrifice rather than Cain's vegetables and fruits of the fields. The modern-day Cain interprets the Biblical Cain's murder of Abel as necessary to stop further bloodshed. Although the modern-day Cain thinks that by persuading Abel, the artist, to help him form a spiritualist movement to save the peoples of the earth and change the course of history to one of peace, the thought of the Biblical curse lurks in the background.
The writer’s task of “suspending disbelief” became difficult, for, at any moment, the 
story could become fantasy owing to its premise. First, was it credible that crowds would congregate on hillsides in mental communion? I was surprised to read in the news in the 1960s that such events were happening about the world. In the 1980s I received a Christmas card from relatives that announced the clustering of thousands in meditation. Therefore, not incredible. Could there be any basis for Cain’s claim that recognition of the god of humanity led to love, peace and understanding as opposed to the repressive, destructive nature that organized religion has promoted? Only in the 1980s, long after I put the manuscript away, were the gnostic gospels, discovered at Nag Hammadi, made available to the public. Gnosis is the intuitive process of knowing oneself, which, at the deepest level, is to know God.
Gnostics see the God of the established Church as the demiurgos or creator, who acts 
as a military commander—setting the law and judging, i.e. the God of Israel—falsely claiming to be the only God. Thus organized religion established the hierarchy based on those who knew this God from whom authority flowed down through the various levels.
According to gnostics, however, the creator was really subservient to Anthropos [humanity]. Humanity created Anthropos and from its own inner potential discovered for itself the revelation of truth. Jesus called himself the Son of Man, that is the son of Anthropos. The Gospel of Philip states “... God created humanity; but now human beings create God. That is the way it is in the world—human beings make gods, and worship their creation.” The gnostics, of course, were overcome by the organized Church which had the army and state behind it, but thanks to a monk who buried some gnostic texts in the sand to be found 2000 years later we know that Christians opposed the sin and redemption message in favor of mutual love and spontaneous helping of one another. 
The Apocalypse of Peter calls those who call themselves bishops and deacons “as if they had received their authority from God...waterless canals.” Gnostics defended the spiritual against the material message of the Church. I quote from Elaine Pagels, THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS, and then leave this subject which I refer to only in relation to the credibility of the views expressed in the novel. “Many gnostics, then would agree in principle with Ludwig Feuerbach, the nineteenth-century psychologist, that ‘theology is really anthropology’ (the term derives, of course, from anthropos, and means ‘study of humanity’). For gnostics, exploring the psyche became explicitly what it is for many people today implicitly—a religious quest. Some who seek their own interior direction, like the radical gnostics, reject religious institutions as a hindrance to their progress. Others, like the Valentinians, willingly participate in them, although they regard the church more as an instrument of their own self-discovery than as the necessary ‘arc of salvation.’” 
In my novel, the weakness of human nature destroys the promise of Spiritual Purism.
But would such a state of connection with all humanity be credible? In the 1970s, I came across a paper on excursus religion—excursus being a religious quest leading away from established religion, and, collectively, it is called excursus religion—which points out the path that such a movement could take. 
Using two basic variables, the grid and group, which are forces in every society in varying degrees of strength and weakness, producing different types of social life, religious symbols to articulate it and different views of divinity and transcendence to validate it, we can define a society’s attitude to sin, cause of suffering, purity and pollution, personal identity and so forth. Grid means the systems and symbols bringing order to experience such as caste in India. Group is social pressure establishing boundaries and constraints on the members’ identities that reveals how one’s place in the caste system shapes the way one lives. 
Since fundamentalist Christianity has been notable in recent years, we can use it as an example and see how its grounding in great revivals shows a strong group and weak grid. I quote: “The crucial importance this tradition places on establishing a boundary between the circle of purity and pollution (that is, between the ‘saved’ and the ‘world’) but through group membership and internal state rather than through ritual or formal roles, and its corresponding insistence on distinction between appearance and internal state, bears that out. So does the tradition’s well-known and sometimes almost obsessive mistrust of anything that smacks of ritual, magic, trance, meditation, or ‘the occult’, and the vociferousness with which polluting persons, things, or ideas are often shunned or cast out. Finally, one sees the cosmological consequence of fundamentalism and evangelicalism in its anthropomorphic and dualistic theology, and not least in its sometimes lively sense of demonic intervention in the affairs of humankind. In the revival situation, of course, both the group pressure, which is its dynamic, and the construction of the alternative world of its cosmology and perception of personal identity are intensified to the utmost.” 
Now, to go on an excursus quest, one must be separated from one’s group, enter liminality [state of transition] and be reincorporated into a new group. Liminality is compared to the status of the novice in the initiatory lodge—ritually naked and downcast, negating all restrictions of structure and opening the doors of infinity, “akin to the mystical experience requiring a stripping away of all worldly garb.” In this state, the transcendent and communitas reality seem close and social realities seem unreal. The passage into another group with a different structure makes one aware of two worlds: an ordinary world and an alternative one of wonder and meaning. One experiences a subjective turbulence and acute self-consciousness which seems to make one more complex than others. “It is related to the Hegelian excursion and return of the spirit—for that is a journey which, like the excursus of excursus religion, is essentially intrapsychic.”
“The overcoming of the problem of two identities is projected in two ways: outwardly, in the search for reification in symbol and social group; and inwardly where voices, visions and states of consciousness seem to validate the world of the alternative identity.” 
My novel parts company at this point with all the interesting discussions on the emergent or intrapsychic transformations which relate to, oppose, or live alongside the world they left. Cain Brooks's Spiritual Purism has a different aim; it transforms the world into a “new” world, which is “new” in the sense that it is born out of itself and from characteristics inherent to it. Through spiritual communion the peoples of the world come to the truth, like gnostics. 
[May I add here, despite a fear of distracting you, reference to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. 
Nietzsche celebrated the past in the doctrine of eternal return, but did not subordinate 
the present to the future, yet claimed a higher state for human life in the future. Can we see ourselves as pregnant with the Ubermensch, with the form of life that will cure our apparent sickness by revealing it as the condition out of which can emerge an affirmative will that at once lives in the present and overcomes it?—in other words, being born anew, as Spiritual Purism claims to do?] 
I should add that the paper on excursus religion addresses “divine madness”, referring to R. D. Laing’s thesis that ordinary reality is in itself schizophrenic, creating distortions of human personality which “work” because they are reinforced by society, but only at great cost in inhibition and pain to individuals. To become mad is the only way many sensitive persons can deal with the greater madness around them, and often the private madness produces a world which is not only better suited to them than the outer insanity, but also gives them a self-knowledge and inner strength that finally enables them to live better in an insane world. By contrast, Spiritual Purism, according to Cain, would make the insane sane and drive the evil-intentioned out of existence. 
When my eldest brother-in-law, now departed, read the novel, he wrote me a long letter of disjointed sentences and incomprehensible thoughts about God. The story had set off the manic religious side of the fellow, who otherwise was a pleasant and charming Burman, and unfortunately churned up fears stemming from his horrific escape from Burma during the Japanese invasion which only an intense devotion to God and Church alleviated. Then the wife of a cousin, somewhat mad on the subject of religion, went off the rails when she read the book. She recovered but caused her relatives some anxious moments, including me. 
One reader told me that he wanted the novel to continue in the sense of relishing it as a story. At one point I did write an addendum in which Sophia and her grown-up child were protagonists, but I destroyed it and cannot remember its content. But is not the physical form of the death of the very spiritual Ory Baskan, in the light of his self sacrifice, symbol enough of the end of Spiritual Purism—at least for the foreseeable future? 
The novel is for sale still from Davus Publishing [] but the subject is wide enough to elicit comment from one who has not read it.

1 comment:

  1. I am not surprised that my essay has provoked no comments as yet. The novel has not been widely disseminated. I sell a copy here and there to the curious and those who like reading out of the mainstream. In my essay I neglected to point to the influence of Zenos Kazantzakis on the technique of That Other God. I had seen the film by Jules Dassin "He Who Must Die", after Kazantzakis's novel The Greek Passion in which the peasants selected to act in the Passion Play find themselves playing the same roles in real life. Thus Cain and Abel in the modern day find themselves acting out their Biblical roles. This gives a sense of predetermination and expectation to the story.
    A word about Ludwig Feuerbach's influence. Coming after Hegel and before Marx, Feuerbach turned Hegel's divine spirit upside down, placing God on earth and emphasizing man's life on earth rather than the afterlife. The eleventh point in Marx's Theses of Feuerbach, which is much quoted—The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it—has tended to distract readers from the preceding points by which Marx demonstrates how he has advanced from Feuerbach's ideas. When I was writing the novel I had not studied Marx's writings; I understood basically that Feuerbach interpreted atheism as a—theism, away from organized religion. I quote other points in Marx's critique of Feuerbach, which, I think, strikes at the weakness of Cain's Spiritual Purism in my novel.
    Point V1: Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.
    Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled: 1. To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment {Gemut} as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract—isolated—human individual. 2. The human essence, therefore, can with him be comprehended only as "genus", as an internal, dumb generality which merely naturally unites the many individuals.
    V11: Feuerbach, consequently, does not see that the "religious sentiment" is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual whom he analyzes belongs in reality to a particular form of society.
    V111: Social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which mislead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.
    For a good introduction to Feuerback, one should read Frederick Engels' Ludwign Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy.
    It was not until I was in my late 30s that I began to study Marx and Engels but if I had known their work in my 20s when I wrote That Other God, it may not have been a metaphysical novel. I recall being asked by Allan MacEachen, at that time a minister in Prime Minister Trudeau's cabinet, on a visit to New York City with my boyhood friend, John Munro, also in cabinet, to explain Feuerbach's philosophy to him [as they knew I was working on the novel] and my angry defensive response to cover over my inability to do so. These idiotic errors in life haunt the conscience of old men, but since this was just one of a great many, it surfaces very rarely.
    As for Feuerbach's influence on English literature, it should be noted that Marian Evans a.k.a. George Eliot translated his The Essence of Christianity and absorbed his message into her novelist's imagination.