Monday, January 25, 2021

The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God & the Beginnings of Christianity

After finally reading The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God & the Beginnings of Christianity, one can gain some insights into how Philip K. Dick combined his philosophic interests in idealism and metaphysics with Gnostic and Christian themes that predominate in his later works. While I am not entirely certain of this, one cannot help but feel Dick read the work of Jonas on Gnosticism. The timing works, mid-1960s and all. And Jonas wrote a nice overview of Gnosticism but I think more contemporary scholarship has benefited from more complete access to the Nag Hammadi finds and other sources. 

One also thinks some are ready to jettison the concept of a singular "Gnosticism' since it consisted of so many different groups and sects which did not necessarily share much. The church fathers who dismissed them as heretics or Plotinus the neoplatonist may have grouped followers of Valentinus and others together as heretics, but that does not necessarily unite the followers of Valentinus and Mani with the Mandeans or followers of the Corpus Hermeticum. Hans Jonas himself admits this several times in various chapters on Valentinians, Macrosians, Manichaeans, Mandaeans, etc.

However, they all shared some similar core concepts that can ultimately be traced to what he sees as three important influences: Iranian dualism, Babylonian astrology, and Jewish monotheism, within a Hellenistic framework. One cannot discount the context of the Roman Empire and the shift from the polis to imperial governance. Despite this Hellenistic framework, there was nonetheless very different cosmogonies and biblical exegesis in the various schools of 'Gnosticism.' Manichaeanism and Mandaeans seem very distinct from each other, with various sects being more overtly anti-Jewish, equating the demiurge with the Old Testament God. The Babylonian astrology sources enter through Hellenistic astrology in Egypt and the rest of the Mediterranean world, with the various planets/celestial spheres and stars becoming associated with various names of the Old Testament God or aeons. 

It's a sometimes bewildering hodgepodge of various schools of thought in religion, mysticism, and  but as Jonas says, some Gnostics would have been horrifying to Christians for their vastly different interpretations of Scriptures (sometimes equating the Edenic serpent as a positive force, for instance) as well as rejecting works or or the moral "laws" of the false material world. Furthermore, by rejecting the celestial spheres and the cosmos as the imprisoning world of a lesser being, Gnostics would have been heretical or rebellious to the earlier Greek notion of the cosmos and Neoplatonists like Plotinus or the Stoics. Either the "Gnostics' became libertines or ascetics, rejecting the physical world as a creation of the Darkness/Demiurge/lesser god. 

In the epilogue, Jonas tries to connect Gnosticism and existentialism, but I don't see much of any connection besides what he calls a shared "anthropological anticosmism." But the comparison is revealing nonetheless, since some of the parallels in the world ancient world he draws may have influenced science fiction writers like Dick. For example, the rise of the Roman Empire and the the post-WWII US hegemony (or US and USSR "Empires" as Eastern and Western halves of the same imperial power) may have appealed to Dick's sense of the post-WWII global "empire" of the US/USSR, and the need to escape the totalitarian/all-encompassing "fake" world of the 20th century with its false reality that binds us to this realm. I cannot say for certain that Dick read Jonas, but it is certainly possible his own theophany and interests in Zoroastrianism and Gnosticism were informed by him. The influence of astrology and ancient astronomy on Gnostic thought could have also appealed to writers of science fiction, which may contribute to the omnipresence of Gnostic themes in various forms of SF from Dick's novels to anime series like Ergo Proxy.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Gao and Pre-Imperial Songhay

Sometimes YouTube contains useful videos pertinent to the random interests of this blog. In this case, early Gao and pre-imperial Songhay history, this video discusses the various insights gained from archaeological excavations at Gao-Saney and its contributions to our understanding of early Songhay history. Known in some of the early external Arabic sources as Kawkaw, the early Songhay polity centered at the area of Gao was one of the most powerful kingdoms and most important trading centers in the "Western Sudan," contemporaneous with Ghana and Kanem to the west and east. One day, this blog will attempt to cover this period in the history of Gao and the Songhay peoples, particularly the useful details that can be recovered from external Arabic sources and the trans-Saharan contacts of this region of Mali. I hope to come to some deeper conclusions about pre-imperial Songhay that can be shed light on the role of trade, statecraft, and, if possible, relations between "Kawkaw" and its "Sudanic" neighbors. For example, al-Bakri or one of the other Arabic sources alludes to conflict between Kawkaw and Ghana and Kanem. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Thomas Madiou, le père de l'histoire d'Haïti


I am really enjoying the videos on various figures in Haitian history and literature from Haiti Inter. This one discusses one of the major historians of 19th century Haiti, Thomas Madiou. I often find him to be more impartial than Ardouin and, at least politically, more agreeable. I still need to get my hands on the later volumes of his vast series on Haitian history...

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Theme of Love


Revisiting my roots as a fan of the Final Fantasy series these days, and I think the fourth entry in the series is the first great one. By the time of its release, RPGs developed more fleshed out plots or narrative structures, adding elements of romance and character development tied to class changes (Cecil's transformation into a paladin). While still not as great plot-wise as Final Fantasy 6 or 7, there will always be room in my heart for IV.

Friday, January 8, 2021

City of Illusions

City of Illusions is a far more ambitious novel than the previous entries of the Hainish novels. Significantly longer and more ambiguous in its ending, it features a descendant of Agat from Planet of Exile who travels to an Earth under the rule of aliens known as the Shing. After living among the decentralized, "primitive" and divided Terrans for years due to his memory being wiped, he eventually recovers his past identity and must find a way to thwart the Shing and ensure the survival of humanity on Earth and his home planet, Werel. Most of the novel follows the journey of Falk/Ramarren across the desolate post-apocalyptic US to the singular city of Es Toch, where the Shing hope to find the coordinates to Werel after restoring his former personality of Ramarren. Earthlings are living in isolated hamlets, nomadic tribes, Kansas enclaves, and have lost most of the ancient knowledge and technology of their ancestors. If they begin to form large cities or rekindle too much ancient knowledge, the Shing put a stop to it.

Instead of the typical space opera which would have consisted of far more action and perhaps a violent uprising against the alien Shing, this novel asks more of its readers. It is unclear who is lying or who is telling the truth for much of the story, as it is not exactly clear what happened to cause the downfall of the League of All Worlds and if the Shing were human or alien beings. They appear to resort to deception and likely caused the fall of the League by turning its various members against each other through manipulation and deceit.  Our protagonist, knowing the Shing are not to be trusted, eventually succeeds in escaping from Earth, but takes a Shing hostage and a fellow Werelian survivor of his expedition back to Werel, to present their 3 versions of the truth to his homeworld. 

As to be expected with Le Guin, one finds strong inklings of her anthropological interest in the various human societies or cultural groups populating the US thousands of years into the future. Moreover, references to Taoism and the Way hint at the greater interest she developed into Taoism for a greater subsequent novel, The Lathe of Heaven. In City of Illusions, the influence of Taoism can be found everywhere in the Canon, the character(s) of Ramarren/Falk, and the search for balance for humanity in the several centuries after the fall of the League and the isolation of Werel. Only when reconciling their opposite natures within the League can they succeed in expelling the Shing. This makes for an entertaining read, bringing to mind some of the post-apocalyptic US landscapes of Philip K. Dick's myriad novels yet featuring the superior prose of Le Guin. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Planet of Exile

Le Guin's next novel in the Hainish Cycle takes place at an indeterminate time after the events of Rocannon's World. Indeed, the mindspeech or telepathy of that former novel appears in Planet of Exile as a widespread power among descendants of humans who have been stranded on Werel for centuries. Fortunately, Le Guin sheds the fantasy tropes here to tell a story of exiled humans eventually adapting to and coming to a greater symbiosis with the less advanced humanoid natives. Predictably, Agat drops the sense of doomed exile, finding hope for humanity on Werel lies in their future relationships and crossbreeding with the locals, who, though human-like, are fair-skinned, technologically "primitive" and divided into various clans. 

Thus, through their centuries-long adaptation to their new environment and the overly long Winter season and attacks of the Gaal (inspired by the Huns or Central Asian steppe nomads?) invaders from the north, a "primitive" Other and the remnants of an advanced space-traveling people overcome their difference. While it is certainly romantic and perhaps utopian, the novel offers a realistic call for overcoming difference. After all, the survival of both human groups relies on their coming together to respond to natural and personal aggression. There is no suggestion of primitivism either, but simply human acclimatization to their harsh environment through collaboration. It almost brings to mind The Dispossessed and Annares. 

One can also find interesting insights into the commonalities of both populations and their rituals, practices, and reckoning of their past. After centuries on Werel, not knowing if the League of All Worlds survived, the descendants of those left on the planet rely on half-understood theories and records of their origins, forgetting the use of past technology like spaceships and aircars, and restricted by long-gone League protocol forbidding their technological influence on the native population. Indeed, it is after witnessing their troops defending their town settlement succumb to similar wounds as the natives that their doctor understands fully that they are now adapting to the planet. With a combination of the remnants of their technology and the local Tevarans, humanity will survive, expand, and, perhaps, one day bring the Gaal into the fold. All in all, this makes for an entertaining and worthwhile early novel from Le Guin. 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Rocannon's World

Le Guin's first novel is not great. However, it already displays some of the maturity one comes to expect from her work. In its blend of science fiction and fantasy elements it intriguingly introduces the world of the Hainish Cycle while exploring time dilation and the impact of technology and intra-galactic conflict on a backwards planet settled by humanoids with feudal and "primitive" socioeconomic structures. Truly the child of an anthropologist, Le Guin uses an ethnologist for the protagonist of the novel. Along the way in his journey to end attacks on the planet by an aggressive member race of the League, Rocannon learns more about the understudied aboriginal populations of the island. What particularly stood out for this blog was the prologue, "Semley's Necklace," for an evocative short story about one native woman's encounter with advanced alien technology and the time dilation from her trip to another planet and back. Le Guin convincingly captured the wonder of advanced technology to someone from a "feudal" or fantasy-inspired setting, while also exploring the ethical dilemmas of maintaining galactic peace. Definitely a worthy read for a more intelligent example of 1960s anthropological science fiction.