Archive for May, 2012

The Esoteric Significance of “Brave New World”

For whatever reason, the two dystopian novels always chosen out to be compared and contrasted with one another are George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It is true that they project fairly dissimilar visions onto the future (for them) of human civilization. Orwell’s take was one of a Western Plutocratic Fascism and an Eastern Communism joining political forces behind the scenes in order to produce an indefinite Cold War scenario, all the better for both sides to maintain iron-fisted social, cultural, and economic control over their populations. As Orwell himself puts it, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” Orwell’s is a future of tight social control and inhumane oppression upon what it means to be a thinking, feeling being.

Orwell’s dystopia has one major factor in common with Huxley’s: the suppression of rational thought and promotion of irrational emotionalism is used as the means of undercutting any possibility of escape or revolution. In Orwell, the overriding emotional factor is, of course, terror. In Huxley’s, it is quite different: it is pleasure.

In point of fact, neither one has come to pass in full, but both have come upon us in different ways. Whether or not it is entirely intentional, it is quite clear that we are being manipulated by our fear-responses. This seems to be the basis, however, only of foreign policy and international economic policy. Within countries, at least in the West, Huxley appears to have largely won the day. Again intentionally or not, people largely keep themselves in place by way of unquestioned consumption, unconscious absorption of endless streams of advertising, and psychological infantilization in the guise of “self-actualization” and by way of “self-esteem”. (An important documentary on this topic by Adam Curtis of the BBC may be found, for free, here. If you cannot download from this link for any reason, just do a search for “Century of the Self” by Adam Curtis.) In point of fact, though, and as strange as it may now sound, this particular post is not a political one.

As I have stated before, my approach to political question is essential moral rather than political in the usual sense. As such, I have no interest at all in merely dissecting various political ideas and then arguing over my own preferred version of them. I would rather discuss Huxley’s ideas within their own context: the Perennial Philosophy. Huxley was himself of a Perennialist persuasion; he even wrote a book about it, and a very good book at that.

You see hints all the time in Brave New World (BNW) that Huxley was not just lamenting the decay of liberalism (though he was indeed so lamenting); he was simultaneously lamenting the loss of Traditional values. Let’s be clear: Huxley’s values, though Traditional, were not at all narrow. No, the Perennial Philosophy permits of no bigotry, certainly no sexism nor racism. Homophobia is a dangerous byproduct of “family values” tribalism which passes under the name of “tradition”, but really has no place in Tradition. Where any of the Revelations mention it, it is generally for a very specific purpose that they do so, one which unfortunately has become obscured by time and the unfortunate human tendency to utilitarianism. I do not know what Huxley’s personal feelings were on homosexuality, but given his own friendships and acquaintances in life I would very much doubt if he took other than a neutral, disinterested view of the topic. But that is, really, neither here nor there; it is merely an important aside to make, given the present day’s social climate.

Huxley laments, in BNW, the loss of Christianity. This he does not because of the prejudices of exoteric Christian theology, but because of Christianity’s perennial sense of morality (karma-yoga), its salvific sacramentalism, and its rich and inspiring hagiography. What Huxley misses from Christianity in his dystopian vision is not “churchianity” but rather the living, operative core of the religion, the very fact that it, like all of the revelations, has something to it which hasdescended to us that we might become liberated from the shallow, the fragile, the meaningless. BNW illustrates this in narrative fashion by pointing to a sort of sacramental parody practiced by the citizens of the “one-world” society in the book.

The Twelve Apostles are replaced by the twelve participants around the table during the pseudo-religious service known as the Solidarity Service. Christ is Himself replaced by Henry Ford, whose prominence is assured as the one who perfected the concept of the factory assembly line and, thus, of efficiency over humanity; it is also dryly remarked that in his inscrutability, “Our Ford” referred to himself as “Freud” when discussing matters of psychology. (Again, see the documentary linked above.) All of the crosses of the world have had their heads cut off to make them capital Ts, after the Ford Model T. The hymns to God Almighty, the pre-existent Reality, are revamped into songs invoking the mere “Greater Being/Social Friend”, an egregore of the society itself rather than anything higher or deeper than itself. The Holy Sacrament is nothing but a narcotic/hallucinogenic/aphrodisiac drug cocktail called (in another nod to Traditional religion) soma after the Hindu mythology’s equivalent of manna or ambrosia. The whole affair is wrapped up with, well, an affair called “Orgy-Porgy” in which the twelve participants, alternating male and female, give in to mere lust and conduct a soporific orgy around the periphery of the circular chamber. Even this last detail is symbolic; given his knowledge of the esoteric dimension of the world’s religions, Huxley was fully aware that the Altar of the Divine Mass, no matter where it is actually situated in the church building, represents the Center where, if the metaphor will be permitted, Heaven and earth conjoin and Heaven makes Herself manifest in a way that permits of participation by unregenerate human individuals. Orgy-Porgy, on the other hand, takes as its position the periphery of the “worship” space, representing a moving-outward from Essence to form rather than the other way round.

It is often said that Huxley spent much of his intellectual life trying to reconcile “passion” with “rationality”; this seems to me to be a rather shallow interpretation of Huxley’s actual aims. Brave New World, along with many of Huxley’s other fictional works, certainly presents passionate feeling as a counterpoint to a stifling sort of rationalism. Those qualifications, however, count. It was not rational thought itself to which Huxley made himself an enemy; how could he have? No, it was the mechanizing rationalism of the modern movements he saw around him which troubled him, and whose fruits we are now eating today in blissful ignorance of the diseased tree from which they have fallen. Just as Aldous predicted. (And, now, another documentary from Adam Curtis: All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.)

As all of the Revelations attest, passion-as-such is not necessarily a good thing. More often than not, it is intensely destructive and tends to act as one of the primary imprisoning forces in our lives. After all, when we are passionate about something, we are unduly attached to it and will tend to go to absurd lengths to obtain our ends, or at least make certain that nobody else will be able to get it away from us. In the face of oppression, however—especially the sort of oppression which dissipates even healthy emotion—it may well be passion which allows us our first real contact with something other than the controls put in place to maintainstatus quo. Emotion is a lot like plumbing for a shower; if the pipes are kept too wide, we will likely not even get a trickle, as gravity will not permit the water to rise beyond a certain base level. If, however, the pipes are made more and more narrow, capillary action draws the water up the pipe by way of its own surface tension and, fwoosh!, you get a nice, hot shower with plenty of water pressure. Likewise with emotions; if the channels for their expression are wide, the emotions remain shallow and soft, while if the channels are tight, the emotions will naturally tend to burst forth by the power of their own tension. If we are permitted to determine our own emotional channels and our own mental focus (the tightness of the pipes), we might be able to use the resulting force to burst out of our selfish prisons. In order to ensure liberation, rather than reincarceration in a higher security prison, this process requires intense discipline; hence the difficulty of authentic Yoga, Tantra, Alchemy, theurgy, contemplative prayer, and other forms ofsadhana. Still, if passion is not permitted at the outset, any and all of these methods are immediately closed off from all but the born contemplative, a rare enough breed in any case. So the tension, here, is not between rational thought and emotion, but rather between the misapplication of rational thought over against a deeper mental discipline which uses the passions as its fuel without being overwhelmed by them.

Huxley’s Brave New World still seems somewhat far off to many people. To those with eyes to see, however, we are living in the thick of it, albeit in a modified form. Rarely is a prophet correct on specifics, even where he is deadly accurate on the overall trend. But it is this bird’s-eye-view that is most dangerous to the powers and principalities of this world. As Huxley wrote barely into the first chapter of Brave New World: “For particulars, as every one knows, make for virtue and happiness; generalities are intellectually necessary evils. Not philosophers but fretsawyers and stamp collectors compose the backbone of society.”

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A Rock and a Hard Place: Politics & Spiritual Commitment

I seem always to be caught in a bit of a bind as far as ideological commitments go. On the one hand, I am a religious Traditionalist which, assumptions have it, ought to incline me toward social and economic Conservatism; on the other hand, I am a political Liberal. “Liberal” is, in my case, certainly not to say “secularist” as I am far from convinced that non-spiritual values can in any way serve as a firm foundation for an authentically ethical society.

I recently made known in a social medium my enjoyment of David Berlinski’s latest book, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, an amusing and well-argued dismantling of the “new atheist” movement’s claim to scientific objectivity. I purchased, read, and enjoyed most of the book before discovering that Berlinski is a senior fellow of the conservative “intelligent design” think-tank “The Discovery Institute”, and his friendship with neo-con talking head—and professional bigot—Ann Coulter. Well, this just illustrates my point. I still agree with much of what Berlinski writes in The Devil’s Delusion. As long as he and I stay away from politics, we could have a rather fruitful friendship.

Yes, I am a religious Traditionalist or, to use my preferred terminology, a Perennialist. I see something inherently, even absolutely (in the “relative-absolute” sense of Schuon), valuable in the sacramental forms of the world’s great Revelations—a category, I hasten to clarify, which is not limited to the three major Abrahamic monotheisms. Somehow, though, my moral obligations within this framework have gone askew of those of many of my cohort. Or, just maybe, theirs have gone quite seriously askew.

Modern Conservatism has gone off to the impossible geography of the land of Ayn Rand-and-some-few-selective-readings-of-Leviticus-and-Paul and left us (not to mention Jesus) in a dust cloud wondering what the hell happened. Politics, at its best and at its core, is not a matter merely of convenient policy-making, nor of unscrupulous deal-making; an authentic political system is moral to its very soul, and is thus founded on the moral assumptions of those who create and recreate it. This being the case, the Conservative fairy-tale becomes, like an unvarnished Grimm story, quite disturbing: we see a narrative of blood and tears, God’s Justice and Mercy belonging only to a select few supermen who have managed effectively to invent a god in their own image. (“[S]o also in this world people make gods and worship what they have created. It would be more fitting for gods to worship people.” The Gospel of Philip) This free-market-god is a total inversion of the God spoken of by the Prophets and God-men; he is not the God of the Logos but, if the expression will be forgiven, the god worshiped by the devils and archons. But what more should we expect of the Age of Iron?

It is certainly not practical to enforce the same scheme individually and locally as on a very large national scale, and this is sometimes the excuse given (when any is proffered at all) by the more thoughtful among this sort of history- and doctrine-ignoring neo-Conservative for their extremely un-Christ-like political and economic ideals. The extremes to which this excuse is stretched, however, make a veritable non sequitur of what would ordinarily be a common-sense observation. Local and individual charity, whether helping people with their chores, donating blankets to homeless shelters, setting up a soup kitchen in your church, or whatever it happens to be, is absolutely vital, andall charity—in the sense of the biblical Virtue—manifests first and necessarily out of the individual’s deepest commitments. But there is no magical ring-pass-not at which, suddenly!, spontaneously!, Mercy must give way entirely to Justice and our judgments of people who are not ourselves need kick in at their very harshest. We may need to soften certain personal moral requirements in order to relate them to society—pacifism being a good example—but that is not the same thing as abandoning them as irrelevant at a certain numerical threshold of living human bodies, land measurement, or—most damning of all—dollar value.

Religion not only does not demand of us that we turn the unfortunate, diseased, orphaned, widowed, or even just irresponsible, out to the unkind elements, it outright condemns any such tendency inherent in earthly human nature. And let us not be coy on this point: “original sin”, at least in the sense of selfishness and schadenfreude within the human psyche, is an observable phenomenon whether or not we choose to attribute it to a primordial event or simply to a naturalistic evolution. To accept fiscal conservatism, then, is simply togive in entirely to the “fallenness” of the world.

Social conservatism is equally problematic, despite the seeming strength of the “religious” argument in favor of it. As fiscal conservatism turns people materially out into the cold, social conservatism does so psychologically and spiritually. If fiscal conservatism casually (or gleefully, as in the case of Ron Paul supporters) condemns people to disease and death from exposure or starvation, social conservatism forces them to despair and the brink of suicide. Combine the two, and you have a kenomic cocktail—a samsaric Screwdriver, if you will—of which Old Scratch himself would be proud.

Let us take the social-argument-du jour—homosexuality—as our example. And, let us say for the sake of argument that homosexuality is, in fact, sinful by its very nature. Well! How does it differ in kind from the sort of sex which produces children? Christianity, to mention the religion most commonly seen as vocally opposed to any sort of “gay civil rights”, has no traditional claim to a positive view of either reproduction or heterosexual sex-as-such. The idea that Christianity is all about “family values” is an entirely modern development, and one quite at odds with its theological and ethical roots. This is not to say that Jesus was totally anti-family, but He certainly taught that family is of secondary importance (at best!) when compared to our deeper (that is to say, non-biolgically-dependent) commitments. The body, in Christianity, is not to be intentionally harmed, but is also not meant to be venerated; what is family, really, but a biological commitment? Family is very important, biologically, but what makes members of one’s family morally and spiritually important is not the shared DNA, but the brute fact of their humanity. If we happen to share values and interests with them, more’s the better! So, it is hard to make a case for homosexual sex being significantly worse than heterosexual sex. What needs to be placed front and center in both cases is simply this: human love is a lower-order analogy (in the esoteric sense of the word) to Divine Love and, at its best, sex is a specific flowering of love (vide traditional—non-fundamentalist—Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish teachings about sex). And this flows nicely into the other common “Christian” argument made in favor of homophobia: It just isn’t natural!

An “argument from nature” can hold no water with a Christian for the simple fact that “nature” is fallen. Nature is not morally evil, so let’s not be throwing any “world-hating Gnostic” accusations around, here, but it is broken and flawed from the perspective of the relative-absolute (which is to say, the personal God to whom most religions turn when they pray). So, while it is possible to draw metaphysical/esoteric/symbolic conclusions from Nature-as-Scripture, this is a process of higher-order epistemic sublation, of intellectual adequation, or of out-and-out Revelation; it does not follow from this essentially intellectual-intuitive process that nature-as-form is completely good and, thus, useful as a standard of moral guidance. If that were the case, we would have ample examples to follow in eating our own babies, or at least just taking craps wherever we happen to be when we feel the urge. In other words, moral arguments-from-nature simply do not hold in the Christian mind (when that mind is sincere and well-informed, that is). This is all, of course, leaving well aside the fact that homosexuality and bisexuality are quite well-attested and frequently observed in the natural world. If arguments-from-nature do not work in the puerile “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” intellectual miscarriage, they cannot work the other way round, either.

What are most important in both arguments are the points of Love and of Humanity as Archetypes, as platonic Ideals. Whether or not homosexuality is a sin (to return to my initial assumption in service to the greater point), it is nevertheless an infinitely greater sin to assume that we are then in a position to devalue the central humanity and love which is being expressed by it. If it is incumbent upon me to not be gay, well, I’ve already succeeded; but it is in any case far more pressing that I stop caring so much about who a person loves and care more about Love Itself.

The Revelations place great, not to say exclusive, emphasis on morality. This is in part because we are fallen; we require, to some extent, rules to abide by. That is, until we are more fully able to live from the Real—that which is not and cannot be touched by the Fall, by samsara, by kenoma—at which point, morality falls away not because it is wrong within its own limits, but because the Love which lies at the heart of Justice-oriented morality may live through us more spontaneously. The law is transcended by the Law; the spiritual Torah floats above the written Torah. In just such a way, our own psychic narrowness must give way, sooner rather than later, to God’s Fullness.

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