The Esoteric Tradition of Ezra Pound in “Canto I”

         The emergence of modernity marked an urge to break with the conventions of the “old world.” Traditional systems of thought and literary composition were suddenly challenged by the emergence of new models, and movements such as Futurism advocated the complete abandonment of the past. Amid the clamor of rising ideologies and artistic movements, though, were voices which stressed the value of tradition as a vital component of national, even global cultural heritage. One such voice was that of T.S. Eliot. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot emphasizes the importance of the “historical sense” in artistic production. This does not amount to the “antiquarian” historicity of which Nietzsche speaks in “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life.” It is, rather, a prerequisite to achieving an adequate consciousness of the present, as every epoch is ultimately defined by its relationship with the past. Thus, the artist is expected to appropriate tradition and, to use a Poundian expression, “make it new” by infusing it into modern culture, reinforcing its “timelessness.” That Ezra Pound himself was a typically “traditional” artist is demonstrated in his Cantos, which are thematically inspired by what Pound would term the “celestial tradition.”
        But what is the “celestial tradition?” When T.S. Eliot writes that “the mind of Europe […] abandons nothing en route” (153), we take it to mean that there is a certain ethos that courses through the veins of European culture, ever-present throughout the radical, often tortuous transformations that have shaken the continent. Some might call it “humanism” or “democracy,” both of which find their origins in Hellenistic thought. Ezra Pound, however, is among those who point to another, more secretive undercurrent that runs through European history – the spiritual gnosis perpetuated by the initiates of the “Mysteries,” shielded from the eyes of the “profane.” There is ample evidence to suggest that Pound possessed a profound interest in esoteric thought. According to Demetres Tryphonopoulos in his article “Ezra Pound’s Occult Education,” one of the main reasons for which Pound traveled to London in 1908 was to further his acquaintance with occult teachings through William Butler Yeats, who is well-known to have been involved in esoteric circles (76). Although skeptical of Yeats’ theurgical practices, Pound nonetheless valued the wisdom that could be obtained from their discussions, as is demonstrated by his relationships with other like-minded individuals, notably the theosophists Alfred Richard Orage, founder and editor of the journal The New Age, and George Robert Stowe Mead, personal secretary to Helena Blavatsky and founder of both the Quest Society and the literary journal The Quest (82). Through his interactions with these individuals, Pound developed a theory of continuity between the different esoteric schools that have appeared throughout the ages. In his work The Celestial Tradition: A Study of Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, Tryphonopoulos writes that this was “a tradition which at various points in history emerges as a light that energizes and determines the nature of exceptional human achievement” (17). It appeared, for example, in the Pythagorean, Orphic, and Eleusinian mysteries of the Greeks, in the songs of the Troubadours of medieval Provencal culture, and finally in the gnosis of the Alchemists and the Rosicrucian and Masonic brotherhoods of Europe.
        The modern age, with its industrial revolution and the birth of consumer culture, witnessed the growth of a materialistic paradigm which Pound and his companions saw as a direct threat to the survival of the “celestial tradition.” In his work The Birth of Modernism, Leon Surette cites a lecture which Pound gave at the Quest Society in which he stated “‘one must consider that the types which joined these cults survived, in Provence, and survive today – priests, maenads and the rest – though there is in our society no provision for them’” (136). The activities of the Golden Dawn and other theosophical off-shoots constituted a reaction against this tendency, attempting to bring about a spiritual revival that would reinvigorate the human spirit and breathe new life into modern society, leading to the birth of a “New Age.” It was along these lines that Pound composed his historical epic The Cantos, reconstituting, in a sense, the lost fragments of tradition that had been scattered throughout history in the hopes that they could contribute to this imminent “rediscovery” of esoteric wisdom.
        “Canto I” is modeled on the section of Homer’s The Odyssey in which Odysseus descends into Hades to invoke the prophet Tiresias and seek his advice. On an exoteric level, this is a perfectly legitimate classical model on which to base an epic poem. Some critics, however, claim that Pound made use of the myth as a palingenetic model: “the importance Pound attaches to the ‘mysterium’ points to one of his primary topoi in The Cantos, […] the topos of palingenesis or rebirth” (Tryphonopoulos 3). The notion of palingenesis is central to the ritual initiations of the “Mysteries:” neophytes would pass through a series of trials which often included being secluded in a dark chamber – this constituted the symbolic “death” of their profane identity. When successful, the candidates would re-emerge into the light, symbolizing their rebirth into a state of perfection, or spiritual enlightenment. Towards the beginning of the poem Pound writes:

Sun to his slumber, shadows o’er all the ocean,
Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,
To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever
With glitter of sun-rays (l. 10-14, p.62)

This passage can be read as an account of initiation in many ways. The simple fact of Odysseus and his crew’s epic journey, for example, can be interpreted as an allusion to the spiritual voyage of the initiate. The fact that they have travelled to the ends of the earth, to a “mythical realm,” according to Rainey’s note (62), symbolizes that they have passed beyond the physical world and have entered a spiritual dimension – a locus more suited to the reception of metaphysical revelations. The “close-webbed mist,” in addition, constitutes a reference to the disorientation of the neophyte as he undergoes his trials; the latter are meant to destabilize him, causing him to lose his bearings in relation to the world. As a consequence, he becomes a tabula rasa, a blank sheet on which the wisdom of the mysteries can be inscribed, endowing him with a new, spiritual identity. Their entrance into Hades, finally, is a literal rendering of the symbolic death to which the initiate is subject, a notion which is echoed by the passage’s repeated references to “shadows” and to the absence of sunlight.
        The next passage of the poem is a detailed description of the nekuia – or ritual raising of the dead – which Odysseus and his crewmen conduct:

Here did they rites, Perimedes and Eurylochus,
And drawing sword from my hip,
I dug the ell-square pitkin; […]
As set in Ithaca, sterile bulls of the best
For sacrifice, heaping the pyre with goods,
A sheep to Tiresias only, black and a bell-sheep.
Dark blood flowed into the fosse (l. 19-21, 25-28, p. 62)

This vivid description of ritual sacrifice to appeal to the spiritual knowledge of the dead is consistent with the pagan practices of the esoteric organizations with which Pound was so fascinated. Despite the fact that Pound himself remained skeptical of the reality of such interactions, the possibility of direct voluntary communication with the spirit realm remains essential to esoteric thought, which supposedly draws much of its knowledge from the practice of “divination” or “automatic writing,” as in the case of Yeats’ A Vision, Carl Jung’s Liber Novus, or Emmanuel Swedenborg’s Arcana Coelestia.
        Surette discusses the significance of such a ritual in relation to the Cantos as a whole, writing that it “serves as a paradigm for ritual enlightenment. The poem as a whole can be thought of as a long nekuia, cataloguing in a seemingly random manner the struggle of enlightened individuals to bring their wisdom into the world” (68). Thus, throughout his epic, Pound is “raising the spirits,” figuratively speaking, of those historical representatives of “exceptional human achievement” who are singled out, in Pound’s mind, by their supposed custodianship of the “celestial tradition.” Another aspect of the poem which reinforces this notion, according to Surette, is the fact that “the order of appearance of these heroes is out of historical sequence because they appear in the unpredictable and unstructured manner of ghosts in a séance” (68). Indeed, immediately following the libations, a seemingly chaotic stream of spirits begins to harass Odysseus and his men:

Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and of the old who had borne much;
Souls strained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
These many crowded about me (l. 29-34, p. 62-63)

In his work The New Word, Allen Upward (another artist with occult interests with whom Pound was acquainted) describes the “whirl-swirl”—a vortex-like force that expresses the sensation of mystical experiences: “It has this deeper magic that it will show you, not only the thoughts you knew about before, but other thoughts you did not know of, old drowned thoughts, hereditary thoughts; it will awaken the slumbering ancestral ghosts that haunt the brain” (198). This sequence in the “Canto,” then, can be seen as evoking the confrontation of one’s “inner ghosts” or “demons” during initiation, or as one experiences the supernatural. The non-linear sequence in which these figures appear throughout the Cantos, in addition, can be interpreted as a rendering of the cyclical – rather than teleological – perception of time that characterizes esoteric philosophy. The unanticipated manifestation of spirits preceding Tiresias, then, is highly consistent with the occult thematic which dominates the poem.
        The figure of Tiresias is also significant in relation to the “celestial tradition.” According to Surette, “his residence in the underworld and his complete sexual experience make him a suitable hierophant for an initiation into the mysteries” (278-279). Indeed, both his gift of prophecy and the fact that he dwells in a spiritual realm reinforce the notion that he possesses deep esoteric knowledge. But this is not all: Surette mentions Tiresias’ “complete sexual experience,” which refers to his experience of both sexes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Tryphonopoulos maintains that “Pound read Ovid’s Metamorphoses as an account of initiations, of palingeneses of the soul” (4), advocating “the application of a similar hermeneutics to Pound’s epic” (4). This suggests that Pound included Tiresias due to the thematic relevance of his androgyny. Interestingly, Alchemical illustrations often depict the hieros gamos or “sacred marriage,” which symbolizes the attainment of spiritual perfection, as a visibly androgynous figure – the soul has merged its “dark” and its “light” sides or its “male” and “female” aspects, becoming complete through the refining process of the “Great Work.” Thus Tiresias represents the archetypal esoteric instructor, initiating Odysseus (or the reader) into the “Mysteries.” It is no coincidence, in this respect, that Tiresias’ parting words to Odysseus are to “lose all companions” (63), alluding to the transformative process of ritual enlightenment which one must ultimately face alone.
        There is no shortage of material that could be used to further demonstrate the importance of the “celestial tradition” to Ezra Pound. His essay “Vortex,” for example, which was featured in Wyndham Lewis’ periodical BLAST 1, is replete with references to the “celestial tradition” – as is the symbol which stands at the heart of “Vorticism.” Despite the prominence of esotericism in Pound’s work, though, many critics refuse to recognize the centrality of this theme to his oeuvre. They leap at the opportunity to deny its relevance by appealing to correspondences in which he dismisses the credulity of occultists such as Yeats. The exegesis of texts such as the Cantos, however, and the consultation of biographical accounts which illustrate the poet’s fascination with the occult, furnish undeniable evidence to the contrary. It shows that despite his skeptical attitude towards the “spirits” which students of the occult attempt to contact in their séances, the palingenetic doctrines of esoteric schools were nonetheless “real” enough for him to construct his magnum opus around them. To accord excessive importance to such “outside forces” might have, after all, represented a digression from that which stood at the heart of Pound’s “celestial tradition” – Man, and that human will-power which alone could elevate the human race beyond its deplorable condition and into the heavenly spheres of enlightened consciousness.

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The Coming Spiritual Revolution: Esoteric Organizations as Agents of Change

There is much talk of “change” these days.  Whether it’s Barrack Obama’s famous presidential campaign slogan, calls for radical socio-political and economic upheavals on behalf of environmental activists, or increasingly popular internet rumors about impending global doom, the world seems abuzz with the idea that some inevitable, cataclysmic shift is about to overtake us and thrust us into a new era. Has the collective unconscious finally had it with the status quo? Is there a desire, a need, even, bubbling beneath the surface of our consumer society, to witness the collapse of global capitalism as we know it? Or is there something more to this phenomenon – could we say, for example, that this growing feeling is being nurtured, encouraged in the populace – manufactured, perhaps, like all the rest of our opinions, in what Herbert Marcuse has so aptly named our “one-dimensional” society? Are we witnessing yet another moment of “containment of subversion,” another triumph of “the system,” or does real change await us – and if it does – what can we expect to find once we’ve crossed that dreaded threshold? 

The majority of Westerners scoff at the apocalyptic predictions of their peers as so much sensationalist nonsense. The doomsayers have been wrong before, they say, and will be wrong again many times over before any real “end of the world” occurs. The eschaton, in their wishful, optimistic minds, has been relegated to some distant future as an abstraction which does not concern modern man. It lies far off, like an island hidden in the mist of time, delayed by the passage of millions, billions, trillions of years, if ever. Let us return to real problems, they say, the flimsy assurance of their scientific materialism propping them up like a bunch of marionettes.  In One-Dimensional Man Marcuse writes that “[society’s] sweeping rationality, which propels efficiency and growth, is itself irrational” (xiii), and this is true, for such confidence requires the very thing against which such reason so ardently militates, faith: faith in government, faith in capitalism, faith in the global elite which controls both, and most dangerously and foolishly of all, faith in Man himself. Over the course of the past two years we have watched world leaders scrambling to preserve the vestiges of a dying system, desperate to convince us that the current crisis is nothing but a “recession” in the long, happy, eternal life of global capitalism. They need us to stick our heads back in the sand, after all, so the cogs can keep turning peacefully. But the word is out, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that their so-called “solutions” are nothing but cursory attempts to delay an inevitable collapse that could easily cast us back into the Dark Ages.

But this is where it gets interesting. As stated earlier, we are in a highly ambiguous moment – a time when the contradictions of our capitalist society are revealing its underlying insanity. We have, on one hand, the likes of the current American President, who dishes out hope for genuine political transformation like he’s at a soup kitchen, wins over the heart of a nation, steps into the shoes of the “most powerful man in the world” with messianic grandiosity, and gives us one of the most underwhelming presidential performances in decades. This is an example of what Marcuse calls “containment of subversion,” channeling popular desires for change into dead ends. But is this all we have to look forward to, a series of deflationary disappointments? For better or for worse, this is highly unlikely for two reasons: first, such a perspective fails to take into account the fact that there is real growing discontent with the current order of things. Second, such a perspective fails to examine the long-term projects of the secret societies which, whether we like to admit it or not, are the true forces behind the movements of global politics. This statement will, of course, be met with cries of protest for a number of reasons, the most frequent of which (and weakest, I might add) is that our postmodern consciousness is naturally incredulous towards any such “simplistic” metanarratives as conspiracy theories. A far more educated reason to be skeptical towards this idea would be to argue that such secret societies are by their very nature what Edward A. Tiryakian calls “esoteric” in his article “Towards a Sociology of Esoteric Culture.” This term signifies both the secret knowledge circulated among initiates of such organizations and the fact that such organizations bear a conflictual relationship with the mainstream or “exoteric” cultures behind the scenes of which they operate. As Tiryakian writes:

[O]ne might argue that a function of occult practices is to provide a position against what is perceived as “Establishment” mentality with its structural apparatus of modern societies: The oppressive “technocracy,” “reductive rationality,” and “objective consciousness,” to borrow terms from Roszak. Occult practices are appealing, among other reasons, because they are seemingly dramatic opposites of empirical practices of science and of the depersonalization of the industrial order. (494)

This makes a great deal of sense, as the tenets of secret societies, from what it is possible to glean from writings that are made accessible to the public, are founded in “ancient wisdom” which is of a distinctly spiritual nature. As such, it logically entails a type of philosophical resistance to the predominantly materialistic mentality of modern capitalistic society. Paradoxically, however, it is the very elite itself, which is responsible for maintaining the capitalistic system, which makes up the membership of these so-called “esoteric” societies. Describing their leadership, Tiryakian writes:

[a]t the top echelon is a very small elite designated variously as “Magi,” “Grand Masters,” or other appropriate terms, and a council responsible for ultimate internal and external policies of the organization. The council […] may include, as notably in the case of Freemasonry, persons holding high ranks in exoteric society, even including heads of state. (500-501)

This is by no means an exaggeration, as it is possible to observe from the membership of the Skull and Bones society at Yale University (including the Bush, Rockefeller and Harriman dynasties), the Bohemian Club in California (members include the most prominent names in Hollywood and U.S. government who, at their annual “Cremation of Care” ceremony, gather around a stone statue of the Canaanite owl god “Moloch” making mock burnt offerings), or Freemasonry (whose ranks have been filled by a number of influential individuals including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and every King of England since George IV, to  name but a few). In her work The Aquarian Conspiracy, Marilyn Ferguson discusses the widespread collaboration between professionals in a variety of fields who are working to bring about deep-seated change on a global scale, including “politicians, stewards of corporate or private wealth, [and] celebrities” (20). Their goal, according to the author, is to bring about a “new paradigm” (28) in which esoteric principles shall condition a new global economic, social, political and religious order.

Indeed, many of the great socio-political transformations that have now entered the canons of history as revolutionary turning points in the narrative of human social progress bear the marks of these elusive organizations. The most famous, or most visible, is on the Great Seal of the United States which decorates both sides of the dollar bill. In The Secret Destiny of America, Manly P. Hall, one of the most celebrated Masonic writers of the 20th century, writes: “[o]n the reverse of our nation’s Great seal is an unfinished pyramid to represent human society itself, imperfect and incomplete. Above floats the symbol of the esoteric orders, the radiant triangle with its all-seeing eye” (174). Another case of such symbolism being used is on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in the wake of the French Revolution. Above the two tablets which echo the Ten Commandments floats the same all-seeing eye, representing the Masonic “Great Architect,” and beneath it sits a snake biting its own tail. This symbol is known as the ouroboros, an alchemical symbol representing the universal cycles of creation and destruction. The urban landscapes of the world’s largest capitals are in fact littered with such symbols, further demonstrating the hidden influence of “the Mysteries” on exoteric society. We could go on listing them for pages, but this would constitute too great a digression.

So what, if any, is the ultimate goal of these initiatic brotherhoods? Manly P. Hall speaks of the “unfinished pyramid” of human society as if it were a progressively implemented project, and this may be the key to understanding the method of his fellow Masons.  In this respect it might be relevant to mention a popular Masonic motto; ordo ab chao, which signifies “order out of chaos.” Some might contest that this is simply an innocent philosophical formula expressing the inner workings of the cosmos, which formed the material universe out of a primeval nothingness – but it may be much more, expressing, rather, the process by which the “Great Work,” or the Masonic utopian project, is to be realized. The “Great Work,” or Magnum Opus, is in fact an alchemical term that is exoterically referred to as the transformation of base metals into gold. Esoterically interpreted, some say, it symbolizes the spiritual transformation of man from his “fallen” state into a divine, or super-human, being. According to Hugh B. Urban in his article “Elitism and Esotericism: Strategies of Secrecy and Power in South Indian Tantra and French Freemasonry,” “[t]hrough the process of Masonic initiation, the individual is progressively ‘dissolved’ and ‘transmuted’ into a new spiritual being” (28). An alternate or additional interpretation might be that this transformational process has in fact been applied to society itself, and that these brotherhoods, by penetrating key strategic institutions and organizations within exoteric culture, are able to direct and manipulate it along a course towards what they perceive as “perfection.” This is confirmed by Urban, who writes that “the final goal of the Masonic initiations is to return to the world, to reenter the realm of social action, and to infuse it with the esoteric power achieved through initiation” (29).

To fully understand the strategy by which this transformation is successfully achieved requires comprehension of the concept of dialectic, which functions through the interaction of two apparently opposed principles that enter into a relationship, create a dialogue, and eventually come to a type of “synthesis.” Describing the Masonic concept of divinity, Urban writes that “[c]ontrary to the ‘limited’ and ‘simplistic’ Catholic view of the Deity, the Masonic view suggests a dynamic and dialectical Godhead, which does not transcend the cosmos […] but rather pervades [its] entire hierarchical body” (16). This bears parallels to Hegel’s concept of divine immanentization, in which humans are expected to carry out any existing “divine plan” through their actions, bringing it to fulfillment by constructing the perfect society. Hence the term Freemasons, a fraternity of “builders.” Now, if we understand dialectic to be at the heart of the process by which the Great Work is completed, it becomes much easier to grasp the apparent contradiction of prominent “capitalists” being engaged in a fundamentally spiritual undertaking. According to the esoteric perspective, the average man is hopelessly “profane.” Left to himself, he will never seek out spiritual enlightenment, and if he does, will debase whatever knowledge he comes across by literalizing it. As Ferguson writes, “[f]orty-four per cent of the Aquarian Conspirators polled considered the greatest threat to widespread social transformation to be ‘popular fear of change’” (123). Circumstances must be created, therefore, in which change is no longer optional, but becomes imperative. It remains the responsibility of the esoteric orders, therefore, to create a social and political context in which the masses will willingly accept their teachings. This is discussed at length by Alice Bailey, the founder of Lucis Trust (originally Lucifer Trust when it was founded in 1922), a publishing company and think tank which remains, to this day, a member of the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The influence of her thought on the global elite is attested by the fact that Robert Muller, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations for forty years, developed an educational “World Core Curriculum” the contents of which were directly inspired by her writings. In her work The Externalization of the Hierarchy, Bailey writes:

The creative process […] will be brought into objective expression by the right direction of thought, the inspiration of right ideals, and the education of the usually unthinking masses […], so that humanity as a whole will appropriate these ideals. […] [T]he whole aim of the present crisis is to shift the focus of human awareness out of the form and the material aspect of living, into the consciousness of the soul. (327, 221)

This, in turn, will allow the orders to exotericize their esoteric knowledge and utilize it as the basis for a global “utopia.” According to Bailey, “one of the things that will eventuate – when the new universal religion has sway and the nature of esotericism is understood – will be the utilization of the banded esoteric organisms, the Masonic organism and the Church organism, as initiating centers. […] [O]ccultism will be the theme of world education in some modified form” (513, 322).  The first step towards the successful completion of this project, it seems, has been to create a spiritual yearning within the masses of the world – this, in fact, is the true purpose of our world’s current materialistic paradigm; to create a global system of people lonely, alienated from one another, and desperately superficial. In other words, a world in which men are starving for something, anything to give them meaning in their lives.

As cruel and manipulative as it may seem, then, from a dialectical viewpoint the only reason why the esoteric orders would have allowed, even abetted the spread of global capitalism, is to tear it down in a moment of apocalyptic crisis. As Ferguson writes:

We know that stress often forces sudden solutions; that crisis often alerts us to opportunity; that the creative process requires chaos before form emerges; […]. Any time a perturbation is greater than the society’s ability to ‘damp’ or repress it, the social organization will (a) be destroyed, or (b) give way to a new order. (179, 180)

This, it would seem, is the stage which we have finally entered; when corporate and individual greed have reached such a level that the entire system is ready to collapse like a house of cards. This also allows us to comprehend the true reasons behind “containment of subversion;” while the prevailing stability of capitalistic consumer society absorbs the aggressive impulses of the masses, there is, nonetheless, an increasing popular awareness that has begun to challenge the status quo. The blatant partiality and hypocrisy of the mainstream media, the highly visible corruption that takes place among members of the elite, the aggravation of religious, racial, and international tensions, the growth of unemployment, the financial pressure exerted on populations by increasingly harsh “austerity measures” and the deliberate dissemination of musical and cinematic entertainment that encourages violence and rebelliousness: these are not simply accidental fissures in the fabric of modern society that are to be perpetually swept under the proverbial carpet; they allow, rather, the creation of energetic reservoirs that can be tapped into at any moment, allowing the puppet-masters of the world to trigger a global revolution at will. Indeed, when we attain the inevitable moment of crisis in which all this pent-up anxiety explodes into open hostility, the unprecedented scale of destruction that ensues will surely prove a catalyst for the demand for a “sustainable,” “peaceful” and “spiritually-oriented” world order. New institutions will inevitably be called into existence to promote these new values, endowed with international authority to enforce national and individual conformity to them. The world shall witness the creation of the first truly transnational political and religious apparatuses.

Perhaps the writer who most fully understood the Machiavellian nature of this phenomenon was René Guénon, a French traditionalist philosopher who was active during the first half of the 20th century. In his groundbreaking work The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, he presents a deeply insightful analysis of modern culture in which he denounces its rampant materialism, describing it as a process of “solidification” through which “quantity” comes to dominate social, political, and economic values. He writes, “[n]owadays people commonly think and say that anything that cannot be “put into figures,” or in other words, cannot be expressed in purely quantitative terms, for that reason lacks any “scientific” value; […] this outlook involves losing touch with everything that is truly essential, in the strictest interpretation of the word” (85). Guénon thus establishes a dichotomy between “quantity” and “essence” or “quality,” which he considers equivalent to spiritual and philosophical values. He is, however, very specific about the type of spirituality which he advocates, for he claims that another mark of modern culture’s inherent corruption  is its tendency towards religious syncretism – the belief that there is a common thread running through each of the world religions which, analyzed from an esoteric perspective, can be seen to incorporate identical spiritual principles. Indeed, throughout the 20th century the notion of religious syncretism increased in popularity due to the influence of various movements such as Theosophy and what has come to be termed the New Age movement, ultimately looking forward to a synthesis of the world’s various religious traditions. This may at first seem perfectly innocent and even desirable, but when placed in the context of a global empire, can be seen as a tool for controlling the masses through their different cultural and religious affiliations. Bailey, whose activities were linked to Theosophical organizations, writes that “[t]here are certain fundamental truths which lie behind all revealed religions. […] [These] must be discovered and recognized as the new world religion takes form on Earth and conditions human thought  and consciousness in the coming New Age” (288). As a traditionalist, Guénon is opposed to this idea, arguing that each religious tradition should retain its uniqueness rather than being assimilated into a universal religious system. Adding to the bankruptcy of the syncretist impulse, in addition, is Guénon’s conviction that the widespread materialism which characterizes modern industrial society has in fact been purposely engineered by what he called the “counter-initiation” – forces wishing to foist a synthesized spirituality onto humanity. He saw “solidification,” therefore, as but one stage in an ongoing dialectical process:

It may be observed […] that the ‘counter-initiation,’ although it invented and propagated for its own purposes all the modern ideas that together represent the merely negative ‘anti-tradition,’ is perfectly conscious of the falsity of those ideas […]; but that in itself indicates that the intention in propagating them can only have been the accomplishment of a transitory and preliminary phase, for no such enterprise of conscious falsehood could be in itself the true and only aim in view; it was only intended to prepare for the ultimate coming of something different, something that should appear to constitute a more ‘positive’ accomplishment, namely, the ‘counter-tradition’ itself. (324-325)

Despite the fact that he was writing this work in the 1940’s, therefore, Guénon was able to detect tendencies in Western culture that were indicative of  a manipulative agenda that seems only to be coming to fruition over half-a-century later. Needless to say, if this plan succeeds the new society which emerges in the wake of the current order will be dystopian rather than utopian. As Guénon foresees, there is a high probability that the egalitarian ethics of liberal democratic society will be done away with, leading to the instauration of a highly stratified social system in which “philosopher-kings” rise to supreme positions of authority.  Bailey confirms this, describing the spiritual leaders of the ideal society as adherents of religious syncretism: “only those will remain as guides and leaders of the human spirit who […] know no creedal barriers; they will recognize the onward march of revelation and the new emerging truths” (202). Guénon, however, takes his vision a step further, speculating that amid these radical social, political, and religious transformations, one individual will arise who will demand the worship of his fellow men. He defines this eventuality as the “reign of Antichrist:”

His time will certainly no longer be the ‘reign of quantity,” which was itself only the end-point of the ‘anti-tradition;’ it will be marked, under the pretext of a false ‘spiritual restoration,’ by a sort of reintroduction of quality in all things, but of quality inverted with respect to its normal and legitimate significance. After the ‘egalitarianism’ of our times there will again be a visibly established hierarchy, but an inverted hierarchy, indeed a real ‘counter-hierarchy,’ the summit of which will be occupied by the being who will in reality be situated nearer than any other being to the very bottom of the ‘pit of Hell.’ (326)

Bailey, in fact, corroborates this in her writings, describing a man who, she believes, will constitute the embodiment of this new order, and who will make use of his global influence to reinstitute the power of the “Mysteries” over mankind: “He will be largely instrumental in producing those conditions which will permit the reappearance of the Mysteries of Initiation” (299). The dramatic transformations that will follow the disintegration of the current world order, then, could constitute the deepest, most traumatic change that humankind has ever seen. The world will, in a sense, have ended. But all shall not be entirely hopeless, for with the dissolution of our smug, materialistic confidence will come the possibility of a return to a spirituality that transcends our current humanistic world-view.

These developments, if they come to pass, warrant extreme caution on the part of the populace. Looking at the present circumstances from this perspective, we can obtain an understanding of the underlying purpose beneath the current widespread talk of “change,” and the increasing pressure exercised by the international community to abandon “unsustainable” and “irrelevant” cultural institutions in favor of “new models.” Should the world suddenly slip into chaos, we must be careful not to embrace the first “solutions” that present themselves, even if they should deceptively promise “world peace” and “universal understanding.” We must remember that words are weapons too, and that the manipulation of rhetoric, which has allowed countless millions to be enslaved by the ideological constructions of our leaders in times of peace, shall be all the more dangerous when the populace is disoriented and confused by a global crisis. That said, the world might just keep on turning. But if it doesn’t, we must be careful not to accept the first “truth” that presents itself to us, and like the wandering Israelites, poison ourselves at the bitter waters of the well at Marah.

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Nietzsche: Prophet of the New Age

          It is an indisputable fact that the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche have exerted a powerful influence on modern thought. What is more controversial, however, is the exact nature or purpose of his philosophical message. There is a considerable amount of critical debate, for example, about whether Nietzsche’s ideas have justifiably been associated with the tenets of National Socialism, or whether Nietzsche was a nihilist, or whether his philosophy was compatible with Buddhism or Hinduism. Legitimate arguments have been made in defense of all of the above. One aspect of Nietzsche’s thought which has not been explored in depth, however, is its relation to a movement that has become increasingly popular over the course of the twentieth century, purporting to resurrect ancient pagan wisdom in order to produce a global paradigm shift: we mean to speak of the “New Age.”

          The relevance of new age thought to the development of modernism, let alone Nietzschean thought, might at first be met with skepticism. A comparison of the neopaganism that forms the core of New Age doctrine and some of the central notions of Nietzsche’s philosophy, though, discloses some remarkable similarities between the two. Both, it will be observed, are deeply embedded in “esoteric” culture, which is opposed to “exoteric,” or mainstream, culture. In his article “Towards the Sociology of Esoteric Culture,” Edward A. Tiryakian defines exoteric culture as “the cultural paradigm which is manifest in public institutions, a set of cognitive and evaluative orientations publicly recognized and legitimated in the network of social institutions […]. [It] provides the ground of meaning and orientation for the everyday social world” (498). Tiryakian considers esoteric those movements which strive to dismantle the exoteric cultural paradigm by attacking its ideological, social and moral foundations. Nietzsche is well known for having placed himself in direct opposition to the exoteric culture of his day, attributing what he perceived as the mediocrity of modern democratic society to the “slave-mentality” which he saw as inherent in Judeo-Christian philosophy. In a deliberate act of heresy he turned to the old gods of pagan antiquity as the source of his philosophical inspiration, invoking Dionysos, symbol of flux, destruction, and revelry; simultaneously the antithesis of modern culture and its cure. Alfred Richard Orage, an influential British thinker in modern avant-garde culture and founder of the popular magazine The New Age, writes in his work Friedrich Nietzsche: Dionysian Spirit of the Age of Nietzsche’s belief that the dialectical struggle between Apollo, or static form, and Dionysos as described in his analysis of ancient Greek culture entitled The Birth of Tragedy, was about to be repeated in modern Europe: “Dionysos, he thought, had come to Europe. […] [W]e were already on the threshold of the new era. […] He would transform Europe, and deliver men’s minds from the dull oppression of Apollo. He began from that time the enormous labour of turning the Dionysian criticism on the whole fabric of European civilization” (40-41). Thus Nietzsche dedicated himself to dismantling European exoteric culture. Similarly, one of the central themes of the New Age movement is its rebellion against the modern status quo, challenging the dominant perspective of scientific materialism and what it perceives as its rigid social conventions and morality. In her work The Fraternity of the Builders, an exposition of the beliefs of Freemasonry (the esoteric teachings of which are the fountainhead of New Age thought), E. Valentia Straighton affirms that “[f]rom the ashes of the past a transcendent science is arising, changing human thought, and certainly destroying much irrational and false teaching” (99). This perspective is confirmed by Marilyn Ferguson, a New Age thinker and proponent of a benevolent global “conspiracy” to overthrow the old order through the dissemination of philosophies favorable to the creation of a new world order in which the ideologies of Judeo-Christian civilization will no longer hold sway. Like Nietzsche, Ferguson advocates exposing the supposed fallacies of exoteric culture in order to bring about its eventual collapse: “[l]ong after an old paradigm has lost its value, it commands a kind of hypocritical allegiance. But if we have the courage to communicate our doubts and defection, to expose the incompleteness, the rickety structure, and the failures of the old paradigm, we can dismantle it” (The Aquarian Conspiracy 36). The desire to destroy the cultural foundations of mainstream modern society, then, is a powerful point of comparison between Nietzschean thought and the New Age movement.

          Analogous with this strong antipathy towards the current order is an appeal to ancient wisdom which is distinctly pagan (or heretical in the case of Gnostic Christianity). To substantiate the claim that the New Age movement does this is hardly necessary, as its entire ethos is founded on the premise that the “perennial philosophy” at the heart of all religions is the key to unlocking a paradisiacal Golden Age for all mankind. How Nietzsche’s thought relates to such a notion is more obscure. Nonetheless, Orage assures us that “there was in Nietzsche’s conception of the Superman a good deal of mysticism” (Nietzsche: Dionysian Spirit of the Age 73). Later on, in the same work, Orage proceeds to explain just how this is so, stating that one of the distinctive features of the Superman will be his acquisition of superhuman powers akin to those of a Hindu  guru, an oracular prophet, or even a demigod: “[i]t is probable, indeed, that new faculties, new modes of consciousness, will be needed, as the mystics have always declared; and that the differencing element of man and Superman will be the possession of these” (75). But this is not all. Indeed, Nietzsche’s very conception of the universe is thoroughly mystical, viewing it as an impersonal, chaotic force that cyclically destroys and re-creates itself, mirroring the never-ending struggle between Apollo and Dionysos: “[t]his world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end […], eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence […]: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery-world of the twofold voluptuous delight… my ‘beyond good and evil’” (The Will to Power 549-550). This vision of the world is practically identical with the meaning of a well-known mystical symbol called the “ouroboros,” which is the image of a ring-shaped snake eating its own tail. The Encyclopedia Britannica Online defines ouroboros as such: “[a] Gnostic and alchemical symbol, [it] expresses the unity of all things, material and spiritual, which never disappear but perpetually change form in an eternal cycle of destruction and re-creation” (“ouroboros”). As stated earlier, New Age paganism is linked to ancient mystical practices associated with Gnosticism and Alchemy, so we have here yet another striking parallel between Nietzschean philosophy and New Age thought.

          It is possible, therefore, to draw several parallels between the thought of Nietzsche and the ideas espoused by the prophets of the New Age. To be sure, there are several notable distinctions that must be maintained between the two, for while Nietzsche remains skeptical of any kind of spiritual reality, the New Age movement, for example, claims explicitly that the spheres beyond man’s ordinary field of perceptions are peopled with living spirits. Ultimately, however, both herald the collapse of an old world defined specifically by its Judeo-Christian tradition, and look forward to a coming new age, a Golden Age of paganism, in which a new man and a new society can arise.

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Carl Jung’s ‘Red Book:’ Science or Revelation?


Carl Jung has entered the canons of history as one of the founding figures of modern psychology. One aspect of his career which is often overlooked, though, is his development of theories which contributed to the resurgence of mysticism as a driving force in modern thought. Originally a student of Freud’s, Jung eventually broke with his mentor due to Freud’s theoretical rigidity – he refused to ackowledge the possibility of meaning beyond humanity’s repressed sexual and violent drives, seeing man, rather than a being with purpose, as an amalgamation of conflicting impulses. For Jung, however, there was more to human nature, and he parted ways with his predecessor in order to develop his own conclusions about the nature of the unconscious.

          What awaited the disillusioned psychologist, though, was, to say the least, unexpected. Towards the end of 1913, at the age of thirty-eight, Jung experienced what he terms in his autobiographical work Memories, Dreams, Reflections his “confrontation with the unconscious.” Exactly how he triggered this phenomenon or whether it arose spontaneously remains unspecified. Beginning as a series of vivid dreams and visions, this period in Jung’s life provided him with the original source material from which he would later develop his ground-breaking theories. What is most special about this experience, though, is that, rather than a specifically scientific revelation, this “confrontation” belonged to the order of the mystical or the spiritual, bearing remarkable similarities to what one would traditionally understand as contact with the realm of the supernatural, or even demonic possession. As words and images flowed into his consciousness, Jung felt compelled to transcribe the information he was receiving in the manner of modern-day “channeling:” “Sometimes it was as if I were hearing it with my ears, sometimes feeling it with my mouth, as if my tongue were formulating words; now and then I heard myself whispering aloud. […] I had conceived my voluntary confrontation with the unconscious as a scientific experiment which I myself was conducting. […] Today I might equally well say that it was an experiment that was being conducted on me” (202). Jung describes how these thoughts took hold of his mind, driving him to the brink of insanity – ultimately, though, he allowed himself to be overtaken, realising that resistance to their influence could be more damaging than to succumb to them: “in order to grasp the fantasies which were stirring in me ‘underground,’ I knew that I had to let myself plummet down into them” (202). Rather than abandon his project and attempt to return to normal, though, Jung embraced the forces that were assaulting his consciousness. This led to further revelations, culminating in direct contact from spiritual entities during his sleep. Three beings appeared; an old man, initially identified as “Elijah” but who eventually developed into “Philemon,” a young blind girl named “Salome,” and a black snake. Jung makes it clear that it is the old man who fascinated him the most: “Suddenly there appeared from the right a winged being sailing across the sky. I saw that it was an old man with the horns of a bull. […] He had the wings of the kingfisher with its characteristic colours. […] Philemon was a pagan and brought with him an Egypto-Hellenic atmosphere with a Gnostic colouration”  (207). Initially Jung identified each of these figures as “archetypes,” or symbols of primordial concepts dwelling within the hidden realms of the unconscious; the Elijah/ Philemon figure represented “intelligence and knowledge,” identified also as logos, while the young blind girl, he felt, symbolized the “anima,” or the eros principle. He perceived the snake as a motif which suggested the theme of the “hero-myth,” failing to develop the significance of this in relation to his inner state.

          Following the attempt to categorize each figure, though, Jung makes some startling revelations. As a psychologist and a scientist, one would expect him to be satisfied by the explanation of these apparitions as pure products of his subconscious mind. But Jung goes further than this, conceding that from his perspective these beings, particularly Philemon, were independent of his mind and will, suggesting that these were indeed living spiritual entities: “Philemon represented a force which was not myself. […] he said things which I had not consciously thought. For I observed clearly that it was he who spoke, not I” (207). Jung eventually developed a relationship with this being, becoming his student by absorbing his mytical teachings: “At times he seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality. I went walking up and down the garden with him, and to me he was what the Indians call a guru” (208). Jung recounts that some years later he had a conversation with an elderly Hindu Indian during which they discussed the idea of gurus. When the man interjected that he had once studied under a long-dead Hindu scholar, Jung asked if he was in fact referring to a spirit. The other man confirmed, very matter-of-factly, that some individuals had the special privilege of benefitting from the tutelage of a non-human entity: “‘Most people have living gurus. But there are always some who have a spirit for a teacher'” (209). The benevolent nature of Jung’s spirit guide, though, came into question after he metamorphosed for a second time, displaying what Jung describes as characteristically demonic traits: “Later, Philemon became relativised by the emergence of yet another figure, whom I called Ka. […] Ka’s expression has something demonic about it – one might also say, Mephistophelian. […] Ka represented a kind of earth demon or metal demon” (209). Surprisingly, this discovery did not startle Jung or cause him to question the nature of his experience. He continued to receive information from these beings and to obey their demands.

          Jung’s interaction with these entities resulted in a series of “automatic writings.” It eventually became clear that there was a definite purpose to their relationship – Jung was to be the vessel through which these beings would manifest their knowledge, providing the psychologist with the prima materia that would form the basis of all of his subsequent speculations on the realm of the “unconscious.” In 1916, Jung was impelled to transcribe what he called Septem Sermones ad Mortuos, or “Seven Sermons to the Dead,” an act which was accompanied by a panoply of supernatural occurrences experienced not only by Jung himself, but by his entire family:

I was compelled from within, as it were, to formulate and express what might have been said by Philemon. […] It began with a restlessness, but I did not know what it meant or what “they” wanted of me. There was an ominous atmosphere all around me. I had the strange feeling that the air was filled with ghostly entities. Then it was as if my house began to be haunted. My eldest daughter saw a white figure passing through the room. My second daughter, independently of her elder sister, related that twice in the night her blanket had been snatched away […] The whole house was filled as if there were a crowd present, crammed full of spirits. (214-215)

          When Jung finally succumbed to this irresistible pressure, taking the pen into his hand, he relates that the tension in the house was immediately relieved. The first words that came to him were “‘We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought'” (216). This phrase is understood by some as an indication of the specifically pagan nature of the message communicated by these spirits – disillusioned by the tenets of traditional religious belief (i.e. Judeo-Christianity) the dead have left “Jerusalem,” the holy city, and seek a new revelation to satify their longing for peace. The implication is that esoteric religions like Gnosticism, the Kabbalah, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism and Freemasonry are preferable to the rigid doctrines of Western theology, communicating a “higher truth” than the Christian “slave-mentality” (to use a Nietzschean term). While the latter rejects the idea of spiritual enlightenment, demanding submission to the current order of things and faith in the divine promise of eternal life in a world to come, the former encourage humans to develop their “divine” potentialities, acquiring a “perfect inner balance” and, in some cases, superhuman faculties through the practice of various techniques like meditation, tantric yoga, “sex magick,” the use of mind-altering substances and a host of other ritualistic practices. These themes can also be observed in the numerous paintings that Jung included in his work, establishing him not only as a talented psychologist but as a highly accomplshed artist. One in particular stands out as a representation of Hindu “kundalini yoga,” in which a sacred serpent, winding up the spinal column, eventually explodes into the mind, igniting man’s cosmic consciousness.

          The process of automatic writings that followed these bizarre events resulted in Jung’s composition of his mysterious Red Book or Liber Novus, a process that extended over a period of sixteen years. Jung, in fact, kept this work secret for fear that its contents would destroy his reputation as a psychologist – his heirs, in accordance with his wishes, didn’t even allow scholars to examine it until 2009. And from this material, obtained directly from the “spirit realm,” Jung constructed his theories. He compared the contents of his work with previous studies he had conducted on gnosticism, perceiving a direct link between the two. This, in turn, led to an interest in alchemy, which he saw as possessing similarities with the ancient Gnostic religion and his theories: “Between 1918 and 1926 I has seriously studied the Gnostic writers, for they too had been confronted with the primal world of the unconscious […]. [F]or a long time it proved impossible to find any bridge that led from Gnosticism – or neo-Platonism – to the contemporary world. but when I began to understand alchemy I realised that it represented the historical link with Gnosticism, and that a continuity therefore existed between past and present” (226-227). From the information he uncovered during his research, Jung came to the conclusion that he had been called upon to resurrect the ancient wisdom of the past and present it to the world under the form of a modern psychology of the unconscious. Not only had the spirit-world singled him out as its prophet, but Jung also possessed a strong conviction that it was a task which he had inherited from his ancestors, notably his grandfather, who was “an ardent Freemason and Grand Master of the Swiss Lodge” (259). Later on he writes:

When I was working on the stone tablets I became aware of the fateful links between me and my ancestors. […] It often seems as if there were an impersonal karma within a family, which is passed on from parents to children. It has always seemed to me that I had to answer questions which fate had posed to my forefathers, and which had not yet been answered, or as I had to complete, or perhaps continue, things which previous ages had left unfinished. (260)

          Jung embraced his task. Among his numerous treatises on the psychology of the unconscious, one can instantly recognize alchemical and Gnostic influences. The idea of the “transference,” for example, or the integration of the “dark” side of the mind, represents a unification of the mind in a type of hieros gamos (the mystical “sacred marriage or union of opposites) that can be traced to the teachings of medieval alchemists. Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, that cosmic repository of archetypal images, is none other than a modern reformulation of the Gnostic conception of the universe in which “all is one” and man’s mind is understood as a microcosmic reflection of the vastness of the cosmos. From this we obtain the idea of the world as maya, or illusion, and the teaching that through knowledge man can shatter the barriers of the material universe and reunite with the Source, the center of the universe. Jung’s archetypes, therefore, can be accounted for as living entities within the cosmic mind, of which man, breaking the rules of his everyday reality, can occasionally obtain a momentary glimpse.

Jung therefore readily accepted his task as the ambassador of the occult to the modern world. Using his depth of insight into the working of the human mind, he was able to formulate a system in which concepts that had long-since been dismissed as so much superstition and nonsense could be re-integrated into the human experience. Modern man, alientated in an age of industrialization and consumerism, could finally turn away from the dominant paradigm of materialism and search for a new spirituality that had been legitimized by the research of a leading figure in the world of psychology. At last, he could rediscover his soul.

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