September 27, 2007
Not very long ago I walked into my bedroom and found The Art and Science of Love at the foot of the bed. I dwell in a typical Manhattan apartment, where any book may turn up anywhere without notice. It happens. I didn’t actually recall buying this particular old paperback, but that happens too. Maybe it was a message. If so it had more to do with parapsychology than erotosophy, for a few hours later I was cruising around my neighborhood of cyberspace and found an obituary of bestselling sexologist and self-help guru Dr. Albert Ellis, author of Art and Science among many, many others. My mind went back thirty three years, to the Grand Ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel, now sadly demolished.
I was at a regional gathering of… well, never mind of whom, and for some reason I was seated at the table nearest the podium. Albert Ellis was about to launch himself into a sarcastic denunciation (his specialty) of New Age guruism. “All humans are crazy,” he said, turning a disapprovingly lustful eye on my lovely date, who was dressed in a sari and sported a bindi in the middle of her forehead, “but Asians are crazier than the rest of us.” I married her anyway. (The author of The Sensuous Dirty Old Man was there as well, but didn’t give the keynote.)
I was shocked by the death of Albert Ellis, shocked to realize that he’d still been alive; this was a very general reaction to his death. He was looking very poorly indeed when I last saw him in the ‘80s, soldiering on in his holy war for enlightenment in spite of pain and weakness, and I heard a decade later that he was barely hanging on.
In January the world lost Robert Anton Wilson, co-author of the Illuminatus! trilogy, a work I remember best for it’s sly digs (in-jokes, really) at Eric Voegelin and Ayn Rand. Robert Anton Wilson had recently lost the Governorship of California to Arnold—not that the Guns and Drugs Party had much of a chance, even in California. Not when they called themselves that. Toward the end Bob (I never met him, but everyone called him Bob, or, more formally, RAW) had no money and no insurance and needed 24-hour nursing care. When word of his indigence hit the Internet, the money started pouring in from devotees; his family finally had to ask people to stop sending money—he now had enough to see him into the next world. That tells you two things right away. Wilson inspired enormous gratitude, even in those who only read his books, Prometheus Rising and the autobiographical Cosmic Trigger trilogy in particular, and it would have been unthinkable for anyone to use his last illness as a scam.
Wilson played his own part in the sexual revolution: when Playboy needed a philosophy, he was hired as the philosopher. Unlike Ellis, he was no Ph.D—which was too bad, in a way. Ellis’ credentials led people who should have known better to take him seriously. Wilson’s autodidacticism means that his essays on James Joyce and Ezra Pound will never be seen by those who might most benefit from them. Both Ellis and Wilson seem to have owed a good bit to the enlightened selfishness of Miss Ayn Rand, though Ellis went on to write Is Objectivism a Religion? Actually, Albert and Ayn were pretty much two of a kind. If you disagreed with Ayn—about anything at all, say if you liked to listen to Beethoven —you were irrational and immoral. And if you disagreed with Albert, at least about important things, you were mentally ill. If you would not, under any circumstances, try homosexuality, you were fixated and neurotic. (He got that much from Kinsey and company.) On the other hand, if you were homosexual, you were much, much worse—only a deeply disturbed person would insist on a sexual preference that caused so much trouble. To be sure, Ellis advocated that society should change its attitude to homosexuality; but until it did, homosexuals needed to adjust themselves to it. Easier said than done, for some. Perhaps you can, within certain limits, choose whom you will have sex with; falling in love is not so much a matter of choice.
Now don’t get me wrong—Albert Ellis was himself no totalitarian. Disagree with him and he’d call you crazy, not to lock you up in the loony bin, but to argue you out of your foolishness in that endearing, infuriating Dutch uncle / Jewish mother way of his. And he had a gift for epigram. “Don’t should on yourself” is probably his best. And he could admit he was wrong, even about big things. After a professional lifetime of trashing religious believers as neurotics, notably in The Case Against Religion, Ellis was challenged by a student of his, a Catholic monsignor, to let him do a little research. After looking at the results he had to acknowledge that, although religious beliefs were (in his opinion) entirely unjustified, religious believers are no crazier than the rest of us. I’m sure this finding disappointed many, and it never got the publicity it should have.
The matter of religion came up in an odd and poignant way in the last week of Robert Anton Wilson’s life. Some of those who contributed to his terminal care, and even circulated the appeal for assistance, did so in spite of deep feelings of bafflement, disappointment, hurt, even betrayal over something that had happened years before. You see, Wilson had been a follower of the late Aleister Crowley, or at least he used Crowley’s ideas as working hypotheses in his own practice of ritual magic; many of his warmest admirers are the sort of neo-Pagans who spell Christ, Christian, and Christianity with the letter X as a mark of almost convulsive distaste; and his own writings are an important source for that decidedly rum affair, Chaos Magic and the mock religion of Discordianism. Although a libertine in principle, he was monogamous by inclination, very much a family man. The brutal murder of a beloved daughter caused him unbearable anguish, and that’s when the trouble started. He had a healing experience of what he could only describe as the forgiving love of Christ. It didn’t make a believer of him; he didn’t know what to make of it. But he accepted it with wondering gratitude, and for that, for his refusal to repudiate his own experience, he became a stranger to the community that had grown up around his brilliant, learned, phantasmagoric, sometimes obscene, but always deeply humane body of work.
Albert Ellis and Robert Anton Wilson were but two of the chief apostles of the main Gnostic creed of the late modern period—the others being Werner Erhard, founder of Erhard Seminars Training (est), which is now known as the Landmark Forum, and Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), a school of psychotherapy with some aspects of a cult—such as I suppose all schools of psychotherapy have. (Yes, the Church of Scientology fits in here somewhere.)
The creed in question is that of the General Semantics movement founded by Count Alfred Vladislavovich Habdank Skarbek Korzybsky, the scripture of which is called Science and Sanity. The movement is Gnostic because it claims that the person initiated into its esoteric knowledge gains the secret key to the universe and is thereby saved from the meaningless misery of mundane existence. That is pretty much the definition of the Gnostic heresies well known to the fathers of the Church –leaving aside the Eschaton and its threatened immanentization so feared by a certain Bavarian savant.
The secret of General Semantics is, like the rituals of the Freemasons, no secret at all. It is well known to students of late Medieval philosophy as nominalism, the crackpot notion that only individual things are real—while the general characteristics that make them what they are fictions (constructs, the deconstructionists say), fuzzy generalizations, or, as William of Occam famously put it, farts of the voicebox. After six hundred years, celebrities and liberal arts and social science majors pay out big bucks to be indoctrinated with this bilge water. Not anyone with any knowledge of science—the difference between sulfuric acid and water isn’t just verbal flatulence, as Little Willy in the poem found out.
My first brush with General Semantics came through my connection with the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (ISI), which has since changed its name, though not its initials. In, oh, never mind what year, ISI hosted a summer school at Bard College, known as St. Stephen’s when Bernard Iddings Bell was President. It was a bit like a classic horror movie set in a decaying manor house inhabited by a society of elderly, genteel personages with an indefinable aura of mystery and menace. It was a wonderful week, in which I was introduced to Voegelin’s New Science of Politics by Frederick Wilhelmsen, and rode through the campus in a convertible late at night with a bunch of boisterous adolescents chanting “Catholic power!” to the discomfiture of the Randian Objectivists, who had not yet been purged from the movement as “libertarians.”
I was there at St. Stephen’s, I mean Bard, when a certain Father Miceli, the author of a fine study of Gabriel Marcel, who was reputed to have converted National Review’s Frank Meyer to the Catholic Church, drove up from the City to show Wilhelmsen proofs of the first issue of Triumph. The mysterious and menacing haunters? Not tweedy Anglican revenants, but General Semanticists to whom the college had rented dormitory and classroom space apart from ours, who stared at us, mouths agape, as if we were from another planet. And so we were, so we were. We hailed from planet Weaverville.
Such was my first contact with the vanguard of modern thought. For arguably (but I don’t need to argue it here) the unexamined dogma of nominalism is what makes modernity, for lack of a better term, modern. If the nominalism of Occam is the essence of the modern, is the key to the postmodern to be found in some sort of return to the metaphysical realism of Duns Scotus which came before it? Actually, yes. Such was the opinion of America’s greatest philosopher, no mean scientist himself. Indeed John Deely dates the birth of the postmodern precisely — overprecisely, perhaps — to April 14, 1866, when Charles Sanders Peirce announced his “New List of Categories” to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And the mainstream of American philosophy has followed Peirce in his return to realism — I mean the people doing the real work, not the ones most of us have heard of precisely because they did not upset the opinion-mongers’ apple carts, the Jameses, the Deweys, the Rortys. The latter were richly rewarded for telling us what we already knew — or thought we knew.
General Semantics got its big break after World War II, thanks to Mrs. Roosevelt and her G.I. Bill of Rights. A generation of demobilized veterans, who would have been a plague on the labor market, filled classrooms instead, and there was a sudden need for a small army behind the professorial desks. As with any unanticipated rapid mobilization of forces, training officers (e.g., “faculty”) who had not been a part of the regular peacetime army (e.g., “academe) was a big problem, and they themselves did their own improvising. For such as these General Semantics, which could not survive peer review in any established discipline, was a godsend. Demoralized by the battlefield, the barracks, and the back offices, resentfully eager to make up for lost time, members of the Greatest of all Generations (as some were already thinking of themselves) dutifully learned to repeat that “‘is’ is always a lie,” and to write compositions in something called E-prime, a dialect of English in which all forms of the verb “to be” were strictly verboten.
To close the circle, it is the dialect in which My Life After Death, the concluding volume of Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger was written, and in that book he explains it wittily and well. The danger of the E-prime directive is clear. Once we refuse on principle to draw distinctions between classes of things, we have nothing left to go on but our gut feelings of who is with us and who is against us, which is made the whole of politics by Carl Schmitt and his Straussian (or pseudo-Straussian) successors of Neocondom. Unless you happen to have Wilson’s intellectual virtuosity and self-deprecating humor, qualities in sadly short supply these days.
Weaverville. The ancestral home of Richard Weaver, author of Ideas Have Consequences, a title Charles Sanders Peirce could have used, but also the virtual reality of all who share his conviction that the General Semantics that was sweeping the college scene as he was driven to write, the nominalism that GS so well expressed and lay behind the last sorry century’s descent into the maelstrom of madness, that this metaphysical presumption was, and is now, and evermore shall be wrong, wrong, wrong.
Weaver of Weaverville … postmodern? The mind boggles, though not as much as when that trendy term was recently and convincing applied to our other father in the faith, Russell Kirk. And of course given the definition of modernity above, the term postmodern is entirely appropriate to both men. On the other hand, no, the same hand, who could be more “pomo” than Marshall McLuhan? Marshall McLuhan, the interdisciplinary gadfly and Catholic, devoutly Catholic philosopher, who happened to be in Chicago as Ideas Have Consequences was in the writing, and who downed more than one beer with Weaver in the process. (The once I heard McLuhan in person, at Teachers College, of all places, he even got in a dig at the Novus Ordo Missae, complaining that rubrics dictated by the technology of mass communication now compelled the priest to turn around to face, not “the people,” which is what everyone expected him to say, but “the microphone.” His point was of course that the priest was no longer chiefly addressing God, but performing for the congregation.)
I don’t always like to admit it, but Ideas Have Consequences and I are of an age, and when I was sufficiently schooled to read it with any sort of understanding, few indeed thought it worth the effort. Now I see the foibles, fads, and fashions of my youth fade into oblivion with those who advanced them, but ideas still have their consequences, and I like to think that, however slowly, the world is coming home to Weaverville.