The Queerness of Gnosis

It’s probably not very surprising that I find myself trying to write a reflection on how Queerness and Gnosis intersect given the importance they both play in my life. My blog posts, and the book A Gnostic’s Progress, bear witness to my attempt to explore the complexity of human life and how we utilize experiences of direct knowing in our attempts to manage the dilemma of existence.

While others may view the conflating of Queer experience and Gnosticism as being a personal eccentricity or indulgence on my part, I would ask for your patience as I try to unpack some of the resonances that I experience. For me the starting point for both the Queer-identified and the Gnostic is a sense of discomfort and dislocation in response to binary attempts at classification.

While the Gnostics are often typified as dualists, for me a large part of what lies at the heart of gnostic exploration is dissatisfaction with attempts to divide our experience of the world along binary lines. An orthodoxy that seeks to classify things in terms of the works of God or those of Satan made little sense to those religious free-thinkers who wanted to embrace complexity more fully. Rather than being satisfied with the simple answers of faith, the Gnostic sets out into deep space in order to explore  the tension, complexity and contradiction that seems to lie at the heart of life’s mystery.

The Gnostic is the sacred scientist in the truest sense in their attempts to openly explore; question and pressure test their findings. Their metaphysical insights may fail to meet the rigour of the strict reductionist, but their attempt to map the weird cosmologies experienced through inner perception still provide us with much of value. These strange inner landscapes had a clear resonance with depth psychologists such as Carl Jung as he felt that they provided insight into the nature of human experience and how we might work with the process of personal transformation.

Somewhere over the Bifrost

Early Gnostic cosmologies such as those mapped out by early groups, for instance the Sethians and Valentinians, contain a wide variety of spiritual couplings (or syzygies) that seek to convey the dynamic dance at work in the process of creation. For the Gnostic, the numinous realm is full of a wide array of beings such as Aeons, Archons, Powers and Principalities, all vying for expression and manifestation into both matter and the realm of human consciousness. While diagrammatic attempts to depict such systems usually come off looking quite linear, in reading the oft-confusing description of them in primary Gnostic texts, the heavenly host often feels far more fluid, over-lapping and multi-directional.

For me the Gnostics embody a type of heretical free-thinking that seeks to challenge a form of certainty that relies on blinkered tunnel-vision.  Neat delineations that require us to ignore the messy complexity of our deepest longings are challenged by the heretics’ brave act of choosing. While the pedlars of certainty proclaim loudly that their polarised, black and white world is either the result of natural order or God’s will, the heretic is listening to a quieter inner voice.

The awakening to Queerness can of course happen in a whole host of ways. It might be an internal awareness of the complexity of desire or (as was in my case) communication from the straight world of the demi-urge that my way of presenting was not working for them! These realisations may happen suddenly or in a more slow-burn fashion in which you become increasingly aware of dissonance. Whichever speed it happens at this is a profound unfolding of who we sense we are and for me it definitely had a Gnostic dimension. If the admonition to “Know Thyself” was to have an authenticity then it needed to account from the outsider experience that I experienced as a Queer person.

Gnostic explorers of most stripes are usually willing to question what we mean by the natural. In trying to grapple with the discomfort associated with our experience of living, they sought to question the narratives about this transmitted by both Church and State. These organs of authority have been keen to get us to believe all sorts of ideas, in the name of their being natural. Whether it’s the inevitability of reproduction, the subjugation of Women or the exclusion of Black people, both Church and State have the potential to become archonic in their restriction of personal expression and liberty. In their attempt to control and contain they seek to minimise the complexity of our life experience and to present a dominant narrative that limits the possibility of a deeper connection based on a truly rich diversity.

The syzygies so loved by the Gnostics often sought to embody a richer story in which the binaries experienced were held together as they moved through a process of reconciliation. Manifestations of this unification often pop-up in androgynous figures such as Adam Kadmon or Abraxas, but I think that we risk losing something crucial if we see them as fixed icons and fail to appreciate the Queer dynamism that they embody. Queerness often presents a disruptive challenge to our attempts at neatness. At best it moves beyond mere hip theorising and compels us to enact, perform and intensify the often blurry reality of who we are.

In this fluid dance, Queerness can be experienced as identity, mood and the dynamic that exists in the interactions between people, objects and organisation. For me it provides a way of knowing that provides not only a space for inhabiting the present, but also a lens for viewing the past.  In asking us to stay awake to sensitivity to context and process, Queerness provides a necessary challenge to the type of brittleness that can come when we get overly invested in fixed identities.  In my view, such a dynamic creates a type of optimism as I see glimpses of the type of human creativity that Jose Esteban Munoz refers to as “Futurity”.

I have already spoke of the inspiration that I have gained via Nema’s description of N’Aton as an embodiment of our future magical selves, and part of my attraction to this figure is in the way it manifests a type of magical optimism and Futurity. Depictions of N’Aton often hold together the individual and collective perspectives and for me such images embody a type of spiritual awakening that allows for a multiplicity of perspective. When we step away from the tunnel-vision of either Christian or Orthodox Thelemic eschatology, we can begin to explore the Queer possibility of our aeonic utopias overlapping, blurring with and potentially strengthening each other as they balance and inform each other’s insights.

This is a tightrope walk in which we try to balance the reality of both our individual and collective struggles with the need to explore the possibility of what hope might mean. When the Archons shout their “truth” so loudly, we must dare to keep the richness of our stories alive! I’ll end with this great quote from Sara Ahmed in which they discuss the possibility of what we might create when we radically reappraise the type of future we might have:

To learn about possibility involves a certain estrangement from the present. Other things can happen when the familiar recedes. This is why affect aliens can be creative: not only do we want the wrong things, not only do we embrace possibilities that we have been asked to give up, but we create life worlds around these wants. When we are estranged from happiness, things happen. Happiness happens.
The Promise of Happiness p.218

SD

To Duality, and Beyond!!!

When my children were very small, they were supplied with a set of cards by a well-meaning relative, of ‘Opposites’. Up Down, In Out, Hot Cold, Dark Light, Soft Hard, etc. The pairs were illustrated so that the concepts could be appreciated by pre-reading minds, and locked together uniquely.

We spent many happy hours with these cards, discussing carefully how they were misleading and that most adjectives/adverbs indicate relative qualities, on a far wider spectrum than could be depicted by two sample points. Take temperature; ‘hot’ was illustrated by a sunny summer day, ‘cold’ by snow. However on a cosmological scale, a sunny day (say 25oC) and a snowy day (about 0oC) are incredibly close together, with ‘naturally occurring’ temperature ranging from close to the absolute zero, a nebula at -272oC, up to 99,999,999,725oC in the heart of a newly formed neutron star.

Looked at in relation to this scale our instructive ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ examples appear ridiculous.

However!

Please, do not think I mocked the examples given in the set of cards, nor derided their usefulness and practicality. As comparative terms, ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, ‘up’ and ‘down’, ‘in’ and ‘out’ are vital to the functioning vocabulary of a growing child.

My objection was the forcing of these terms into a concept of ‘opposites’.

Of course, when addressing my babies, I used different terminology and examples. They had inadequate knowledge of the universe to talk of neutron stars and nebulae (unlike our far more educated readership here at the Blog).

So, now we have had a nice easy access lead-in story, the moral of this blogpost is, that we have choices we can make when presented with apparent ‘opposites’.

As with the trite example of temperature, we can opt to see things as points on a scale. Degrees of difference. Even adding a third axis of comparison, where the setting of a thing defines how it gets conceptualised; a nice recent example of this comes from marketing research.

This research tells of how people in high arousal states prefer simple, clear messages, presented as statements. “This laundry detergent gets clothes very clean.”

People in states of low arousal were more engaged by messages presented as questions, leaving room for them to add their own thoughts to the product the company wished to sell. “Does your laundry detergent get clothes as clean as this one?”

And thus, we have context dependant meanings of comparatives, which can even reverse their effectiveness under certain circumstances.

In this example, the different methods of addressing the audience are not just different in themselves, but are effective dependent upon the audience’s state. (Which state are you in right now? Would you prefer me to ask you philosophical questions, or give you pre-processed facts and opinions?)

Other options are always available

Other emoticons are available

Storytelling, as I began this blogpost, neatly provides us with the option to take either perspective. We can go along with it as ‘fact’, whilst if we have the inclination, we may reflect upon the tale and ponder ‘questions’ it raises within us. Perhaps storytelling points towards another alternative to the binary options of ‘fact vs opinion’?

Moving out of the confines of dualistic binary choice thinking, can result in some wondrous creativity. Try it for yourselves; here are a few starter pairs of words which often get presented as if they are exclusive, oppositional, and/or absolutist:

Me Them

Internal External

Personal Communal

Good Bad

Active Passive

Right Wrong

Happy Sad

WARNING! Listing ‘pairs’ of words like this produces what I shall refer to as the Lévi-Strauss effect (this has nothing to do with jeans, check out Wikipedia if you need to know who Claude L-S was…).

One could argue that listing things, especially visually like this in columns, can create artificial categories, associations, and links in the human mind, which is largely geared towards seeing patterns (even when they don’t really exist). So by placing a certain one of each pair first as we read, we privilege that information, as position implies to our narrative constructor that these ‘first column words’ are in some way similar… and even, more important and therefore valuable.

Meditating upon such matters shows us ways to navigate the simple, childish version of reality we are encouraged to inhabit. It takes time and some effort, as do many worthwhile things. Consider other points on the linear scale that each pair indicates, wonder how the 3D version of comparatives might appear as well. Austin Osman Spare’s exercise which urges one to consider the ‘opposites’ of black and white, to imagine their combination (grey), and then the ‘opposite’/pairing to the combination; this can propel the mind into non-duality quite rapidly. The instruction is then to apply the same methodology to other ‘extremes’, in order to escape standard patterns.

These distinctions between pairs, opposites, comparatives, scalar quality identifiers, are incredibly relevant to our concepts, definitions, and behaviours of self. A basic distinction between the duality of Self and Other is key to most lifeforms, else how would anything know what to eat? Sensorial perception of the external environment tends to go pseudopod in tentacle with a rudimentary mental map, which can model constructs of that environment internally, and base behavioural decisions upon that internal map.

This is not to be confused with self-awareness in the sense of consciousness, btw.

This Self/Other construct is deep. Whatever arbitrary markers we might be provided with in order to distinguish between Them and Us, alters all our emotional (and hence behavioural) responses to those marked.

Within any relationship we tend to define ourselves in contrast to the Other. Ramsey Dukes wrote an excellent essay on this topic in What I Did in My Holidays: Essays on Black Magic, Satanism, Devil Worship and Other Niceties.  He uses the way couples tend to split into paired traits/behaviours, so one takes on the fiery more provocative role, while the other is calmer, cooler, and shows restraint instead of rushing into things. Such stereotyping of roles gets enhanced, as each partner acts more extremely in type, one desperate to provoke some, any, kind of reaction, while the other becomes ever more glacial and reasonable in the face of irrational anger.

As Mr Dukes points out, this process is not always helpful to a continuing healthy relationship. Each of us has fiery and icy aspects (as well as others), which need expression to allow for a rounded complex of personalities.

I would suggest, that one could imagine cases where a person stuck feeling mainly one emotion continuously for years is likely to present with health issues, both mental and physical (another ‘pair’ of ‘opposites’, which I like to spend much time and effort blurring the boundaries of in my writings).

A healthier couple then, might deliberately play at switching being the stronger, the desired, the ideas person, the carer; remembering throughout that these too will pass, and that other options (including both acting the same role) are always available.

To sum up; much of magickal thinking/perception relies upon removing received linguistic categorisations from the world, perceiving directly what is there/here (gnosis), and then returning to a state of ‘normality’ slowly enough to reassemble those linguistic categories in a potentially novel way which might allow for fresh emotional responses to existing environments, and hence affect behaviours. Also, magickal thinking allows us to play with altering shifting these concepts along linear or other shapes of scales, within the confines of a smaller area (the magic circle), which we can successfully get our heads around a subset of what the universe has to offer, before trying out such engineering on the wider world.

Using the chaosphere as our scale we can try to expand greatly upon the simplistic duality line, attempting to find eight ways of measuring/comparing e.g. the physical quality of temperature, or moods of various flavours. These could, or could not, correspond to the existing conventional eight colours of magick (which are the conventional planetary groupings). As with many spurs to creative thinking, going beyond a single solution into multiple answers creates further outside-the-box imaginings. (So, eight here is arbitrary, chosen merely for sake of familiarity, and to provide a starting pictorial symbol. You can of course make up your own, which could be 3D in nature, like the tetrahedral arrangement; which for me always brings to mind the ancient defensive weapon, the caltrop.)

Next, I would like to extend the microcosm to the macrocosm, and ask if our tendency to compare and contrast applies on this wider stage. And if so, does that help anyone?

As groups, we identify and think in analogous ways to those described above for an individual person. The process is less localised, and often slower to emerge, but broadly speaking similarities can be observed.

This insight has great power.

Magick, the act of changing the environment in accordance with one’s Will, has no more important aim than this, the amazing ability of our species to be thoroughly self-aware, as individuals, and as groups.

Could magick, the act of changing the environment in accordance with one’s Will, have any more important aim than this, to use the amazing ability of our species to be thoroughly self-aware; both as individuals, and as groups?

NW