“I gather the limbs of Osiris”: Notes on the New Gnosticism
By Henry Gould
But god, I say, is the phantom of writing, it is her pretext and her promise. God is the name of all that has not yet been said. Without the word Dieu to shelter the infinite multiplicity of all that could be said the world would be reduced to its shell and I to my skin. […] God is not the one of religions… [but] the force that makes me write, the always unexpected Messiah […] the returning spirit or the spirit of returning.
— Hélène Cixous (1)
A group of eight middle-aged men, poets and scholars, all employed by universities in some capacity, gather at a conference in Louisville, in 2013, to deliver papers and discuss their shared interest in a rather arcane “gnostic” dimension of American poetry. A year later, their papers are published in a special section of the venerable avant-garde literary magazine Talisman (co-edited by one of their number, Ed Foster). In this venue, the group announces a new movement in American poetry, to be known as the “New Gnostics”, or the “New Gnosticism”.
Not, perhaps, the splashiest or most auspicious debut, amid what is a fairly raucous, various, and youthful scene. Yet the writings of these scholar-poets exhibit a certain flair for myth-making, for the deployment of their own legendary history. Just as the Language Poets, in the late 1970s, eventually assumed the name originally pasted onto them by a journalist’s insult, so the New Gnostics trace their advent to the early 1980s, at the Poetry Project in New York, when arch-Language Poet Charles Bernstein hurled an accusation (perhaps in jest) at Ed Foster : “I know what you are. You’re a gnostic.” This, in a sense, was the primal moment of New Gnostic generation-from-negation. Yet origins have a way of replicating earlier origins. Robert Archambeau describes a dramatic encounter in 1979, between poet-theorist Barrett Watten, and the sage whom Archambeau terms “a kind of godfather of the New Gnosticism,” Robert Duncan. In a brief contretemps over rival claims to the bardic treasure-house of Louis Zukofsky (was he a gnostic Master, or a proto-Langpo?), Archambeau writes that “he [Duncan] did form a deep — maybe a shallow anti-thesis is a better phrase — to the Language Poets. He tended to reject them out of hand.”(2)
Leon Surette, in a groundbreaking study of the gnostic/occult roots of 20th-century writing (The Birth of Modernism), describes one analytical approach to the phenomenon of myth, called “euhemerism” — termed such after its earliest practitioner, Euhemerus, who defined myths as symbolic representations of actual, historical persons and events. If we think of the “mainstream, workshop” American poetry of the 1970s as a mode of domestic mythmaking, then the Language Poets might be said to have performed a sort of euhemeristic operation upon it. They alchemized a theoretical poetics, out of historical dialectics and Russian Formalism, which, by “de-naturing” language — ie., by treating words as material, as “things”, rather than as elements of a communication — projected an implicit meta-message. It was a political stance : a refusal of what they considered the bourgeois, sentimental, a-political, and narcissistic scaffolding of mainstream American verse.
The New York School poets had prepared the ground for this move, with their parodic and self-conscious language games. But the Language Poets broke with the New York School, whose aestheticism they considered frivolous, insufficiently radical. The Language Poets presented themselves as the heirs of avant-garde modernism, while taking cues from the postmodern deconstruction of “logocentrism” (Derrida), the hermeneutics of suspicion (Foucault) — presenting work which “foregrounds language” in order to dismantle the supposedly oppressive ideological structures of Western capitalist society. Their theoretical radicalism, united with an experimental approach to style, garnered support from critics like Marjorie Perloff, and wielded an increasingly important influence. The movement peaked in the 1990s, to be trailed by such phenomena as “elliptical” and “hybrid” styles; yet the meta-discourse of “language poetry” has taken root in literary historiography.
In sum, the Language movement can be characterized as : 1) analytical — a critique of styles it aimed to challenge (mainstream, NY School); 2) materialist — a (post)rationalist approach which subsumes the spiritual or psychological to “objective” historical forces; and 3) relativist — suspicious of claims of individualism or textual autonomy, of any absolute which might deny the inherent mutuality of writer/reader, the collective “production of meaning”.
This is the constellation, in my reductive sketch, with which the New Gnostics find themselves at odds. Joseph Donahue offers his own take on that incipient event at the Poetry Project, when Ed Foster was called out by Charles Bernstein : “Foster’s dispute is not with an emerging theological orthodoxy, but an academic one. The critics, a triumvirate composed of Stanley Fish, Cary Nelson and the Russian theorist V.N. Volosinov, who himself may have been a disguised Mikhail Bakhtin, and appear here to be a covert Charles Bernstein, argue that the text is nothing, the critical community decides what the poem is and what it means. Foster counters: critics are nothing. Not even readers are needed. Readers die, but the text lives on. The poem is an otherworldly presence, an icon, discernible to the senses but ultimately unknowable. In encountering this unknowability, we experience our true origin.”(3)
One way to think of the New Gnosticism, then, might be as the overturning of an analytical negation (Language Poetry). It includes, also, a reversal of the “old” Gnosticism : which was itself a sort of skeptical deconstruction of canonical Biblical texts.
The infinite starry realm of scribbling, scrambling poets every now and then produces a new galaxy, that is, a new movement or school. These emergent phenomena always generate a contradictory mix of enthusiasm and doubt. Here it might be useful to apply the heuristic pliers of Florentine Renaissance Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino, who wrote to his friend Lorenzo de’ Medici, “No reasonable being doubts that there are three kinds of life : the contemplative, the active and the pleasurable (contemplativa, activa, voluptuosa). And three roads to felicity have been chosen by men : wisdom, power and pleasure (sapientia, potentia, voluptas).”(4) Ficino’s tripartite formula corresponds to Augustine’s trinitarian image of the mind, consisting in memory, will and understanding (Coleridge’s imagination, will, intellect).
If we think of poetic schools or movements in this framework, we might consider poetry per se as an activity of the “pleasurable” mode of life. Then, when poets begin to collaborate self-consciously on a critical analysis of their work — a sort of meta-poetry, a “poetics” — we could say they are moving from the purely pleasurable to a new blend of sensibility and contemplation, of imagination and intellect. And finally, when they formulate their position in a public forum, we have an assertion of will — the “active” life. Thus with the jousts of conflicting schools, each with its own theoretical platform, we enjoy the semblance of cultural vitality — an image of human wholeness (contemplative, active, passionate).
These literary stirrings are, needless to say, the bread and butter of critics… they allow for analytical approaches to what originates in sheer pleasure, sensibility (the work of art). Hence our ambivalence: there is always the danger that critical analysis and self-promoting publicity will erode the authenticity of both the poems and our experience of them. Nevertheless, as Edgar Wind points out, the Neoplatonic interpretation of the Greek gods revealed them to be syncretic blends of contradictory qualities, subject to metamorphosis. So when Paris, dallying with the three great goddesses, chose Venus (Beauty) over Artemis (Innocence) and Athena (Wisdom), he ineluctably doomed himself, by isolating one Virtue over the harmony of all three. With poetry, as indeed with science, we inhabit (temporarily, anyway) a realm of possibility — infinite, inexhaustible; there is always another layer of insight lurking beyond our grasp. So if the poets dive into an abstract, theoretical region, seemingly remote from the pleasures of the work itself, it may be a risk worth taking: they might return enriched with a seasoned understanding — “… and know the place for the first time.”
The New Gnostics have two advantages over their more established rival.
First, the New Gnostics are committed to a worldview, not a style. The Language Poets also have a worldview, or set of ideals: one could characterize it politically as Marxist left-progressive, ideologically as rational-materialist, socially as radical-egalitarian. But this worldview is yoked fairly tightly to a set of postmodern linguistic axioms: the Language Poets would never have emerged as a distinct movement without their signature formalist-functional approach to style. Poetic speech, for the Langpos, has been nullified by bourgeois sentiment and commercial manipulation; freedom lies with the materiality of a non-referential signifier: liberation is signified by the negation of the illusory individual, the poetic “I”.
The New Gnostics present a more inconsistent, contradictory set of worldviews: yet they hold to these views with a passionate embrace. The poet bears witness to transcendent/immanent mystery: neither style nor theory can encompass what is beyond expression. This kind of epistemological humility allows for a more open, various approach to poetry. One can certainly argue that the most talented of the language poets — say, Rae Armantrout or Lyn Hejinian — have shown how langpo technique can be stretched and expanded in vital, expressive directions: yet Language Poetry as a distinct school is confined by its narrow theoretical assumptions about the functions of poetic language. In contrast, the apophatic “negative theology” expressed in the New Gnostic writings of Peter O’Leary, Patrick Pritchett, Norman Finkelstein and Joseph Donahue, for example, allows for a dual movement: the poets can make play with their sense of mortal ephemerality and verbal imperfection, while simultaneously pointing toward a mystery, a spiritual source. Thus Pritchett can write : “The new gnostic poetics is not a system then, much less a revival, but rather designates a group of fellow travelers committed to a poetic agon in which the articulation of spiritual values is integral to redeeming the ruins of history and the disjointedness of everyday life through a visionary experimental poetry.”(5) And Peter O’Leary can rhapsodize: “The New Gnosticism, like all the old gnosticisms, avails hidden instructions of deep revelatory insight. These teachings are worked like a mint into a code. A mother lode of knowledge detonated into matter. A gold dust. Fertile as pollen, and as collectible… This body of knowledge anatomizes divine realities; hierophanizes divinity itself.”(6) We underscore the hopeful, ecstatic tone of these statements: how different in kind from the ironic, disenchanted dialectics of postmodern analysis, Conceptualism, Language Poetry!
The second advantage is also, perhaps, more problematic. Compared to the modernist-experimental credentials of the Language School, the New Gnostics (whether they acknowledge the fact or not) have much deeper roots in Western literature, philosophy and religious thought. The essays by O’Leary, Pritchett, Donahue and Scroggins, in particular, delineate a literary genealogy that both draws on the contemporary fascination with the original Gnosticism (see the best-selling studies by Elaine Pagels, etc.), and attempts to distance the “New” from Gnosticism proper. Both O’Leary and Pritchett oppose the Gnostics’ wholesale rejection of the body and the material world (as illusory creations of an evil Demiurge) — and assert a contrary poetics of immanence: for the New Gnostics, bodily existence is a matter both of shared suffering and of shared enlightenment/joy. This results in somewhat confusing and contradictory metaphysics. Ed Foster’s paper, for example (“The Children of Wrath”) presents a poetics which hews very closely to American roots in Dickinson and Thoreau (and thus shows affinities with W.C. Williams, the Objectivists, and others) : ie. poetry is a practice of pure, harmonic empiricism. The poem is a new Scripture, based on the poet’s own absolute “reading” of immediate experience : it is a text on a par with Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards’ primal “two texts” — the Bible and Nature. This seems quite different from the doctrine offered by Peter O’Leary. Though both poets present poetry as a spiritual discipline, dedicated to a sacred mystery, O’Leary seems to read nature as a veil of allegorical icons of a hidden spiritual truth — as lessons in a teaching handed down directly from Eastern Orthodoxy. Foster stems from a more Protestant/American antinomianism : an originary iconoclasm. Yet perhaps Foster and O’Leary meet at a point of negative theology: the iconic, iconoclastic, antinomian/Orthodox gate of silence itself. The poem is a prayer.
Nevertheless, as previously noted, these contradictions may be somewhat incoherent, in a logical sense, but logic is not the most important thing in poetry. As with experience generally, love covers a multitude of sins. The important thing, it seems to me, is that the New Gnostics are not afraid to speak of and express love. In the 19th century, Nietzsche attempted, very successfully, to slander Plato by opposing his dialectic to the Dionysian passion of Greek tragedy. Nietzsche was the 20th-cent. Pied Piper of both artists and murderers. However — as Edgar Wind elaborates — for Plato, divine Love is a fiery dimension beyond and above the human intellect (of Socrates or anyone else). The poet is one who is touched by this divine fire of cosmic harmony. Here I think the New Gnostic attitude, of ambivalent but passionate spiritual despair/enthusiasm, draws us closer to the worldview of those ancient Greeks.
Where I find this second advantage — ie. their deep roots in Western cultural history — to be also somewhat problematic for New Gnosticism, is as follows. Leon Surette has explored, with great acumen, the pervasive occultism of Modernist poetics. I think the New Gnostics need to reckon with some of the ideological baggage that accompanies the tendencies that Surette shows to be so central to the work of Yeats, Pound, and modernism in general. One parcel of baggage involves esotericism, the notion that there is a secret knowledge to which only bands of the elect, of inspired and persecuted geniuses, have access. (Patrick Pritchett’s delightful, witty honor roll of “gnostics” from ancient times to the present nevertheless faintly echoes this attitude.(7)) Another is the assumption of historical pessimism that underlies the otherworldly negations of Gnosticism and occultism. The paradigm of wisdom always lies in the remote past; Paradise is irredeemably lost; the providential optimism of orthodox Christianity is a fool’s errand; happiness lies in personal illumination and spiritual transcendence. The mystic visions of the poet are easily aligned with such subjective detachments, and despite the New Gnostics’ disclaimers, this baggage is not easily shucked off.
Edgar Wind’s irreplaceable, classic work, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, is a gold mine to the understanding of the high-water mark of Renaissance syncretic/Christian Neoplatonism. Wind shows how poets and painters (Botticelli, Michelangelo) produced subtle and sophisticated emblems — allegorical images — representing the Platonic Good in the meaningful gestures of dancing goddesses, the One in the Many. Neoplatonism was not far from either Gnosticism or modern-day occultism and spiritualism, in its assertion of a secret knowledge of spiritual grace which is available to those who diligently search the encrypted imagery of myth and scripture. The goddesses were Janus-faced; contrasting virtues (Mars and Venus) merged; the One is ultimately a logical paradox, the conjunction of opposites. What troubles me somewhat about the position statements of the New Gnostics is their rather a-historical echoing of fashionable contemporary theology (the “death of theology”, the deconstruction of the Logos; the mysticism of the “trace”, etc.). These propositions are perhaps meant to counter-balance the rote dogma of fundamentalism and traditional orthodoxy. Nothing unites the original gnostics with contemporary poets so much as the valorization of freedom of thought, the liberty of iconoclastic imagination. Yet, for me anyway, the catch-words of postmodern theology are symptomatic of a failure of nerve, or a retreat from Simone Weil’s (cruciform) “necessity”. The Welsh poet David Jones, or Londoner John Donne before him, show a firmer grasp of the ultimate paradox of spiritual faith. Donne’s “metaphysical” conceits, his celebrated and fantastical “yoking of contraries” (in both poems and sermons), are examples of the underlying ur-paradox, the ultimate coincidentia oppositorum : that is, the orthodox theology of the God-Man. The supernal, cosmic One-Mind manifests, in one time, in one place, as one, particular, historical, individual Person : human/divine, spirit and flesh. This is the crossroad : the paradox which as St. Paul wrote is “a scandal to the Jews, and foolishness to the Greeks.” It’s possible that the New Gnostics have not yet grappled with the full existential inheritance of their own proclamation.
1) Hélène Cixous, quoted in Elizabeth Anderson, H.D. and Modernist religious imagination, p.5 (Bloomsbury Publ., 2013)
2) Robert Archambeau, “Where and Why” (Talisman #42)
3) Joseph Donahue, “Salvation under the sign of Reagan : poetry, gnosis and New York” (Talisman #42)
4) Edgar Wind, Pagan mysteries in the Renaissance, p. 82 (W.W. Norton & Co., 1968)
5) Patrick Pritchett, “The New Gnostics : an introduction” (Talisman #42)
6) Peter O’Leary, “Seven tenets of the New Gnosticism” (Talisman #42)
7) Patrick Pritchett, “A brief history of gnostic poetry” (Talisman #42)
8) Leon Surette, The Birth of Modernism. McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, 1993
Bio: Henry Gould’s books of poetry include Stone (Copper Beech, 1979) and Stubborn Grew (Spuyten Duyvil, 2000). Essays and reviews have appeared in Critical Flame, Jacket, Lit, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. He maintains a blog called HG Poetics.