John Langan is a professor, a literary scholar, and the author of the superlatively excellent supernatural horror collections Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Tales and The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, as well as the equally excellent supernatural horror novel House of Windows.
In 2010 I interviewed him for Demon Muse. Then in 2013 I shut that site down after a four-year run because of repeated bot hacks, and because most of its aspects had basically been incorporated into The Teeming Brain anyway. But that meant John’s interview was lost.
This regrettable situation is now remedied and reversed, because as of this moment, John’s interview is republished here to join the ranks of the other Teeming Brain interviews that I’ve conducted over the years.
Here’s an illuminating and illustrative excerpt:
JOHN: As I see it, weird fiction is shot through with a deep ambivalence about human knowledge, which may well encode a kind of skepticism towards the Enlightenment’s general faith in rationality. After all, the figures of learning in these narratives are just as likely to unleash the supernatural threat as they are to contain or expel it. The anxiety over epistemology that lies at the heart of what may be my favorite Lovecraft story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” is something that the academy has been struggling with for the better part of the last four or five decades, in the wake of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Deleuze, etc. So it’s another level of convergence that I’m only too happy to exploit.
. . . One of my favorite quotations about human consciousness comes from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature; in it, Lawrence, arguing with Ben Franklin, asserts that his self is a clearing in a dark forest into which strange gods come and go. I can remember sharing this with a particularly brilliant friend who said that if you could live as if this were true, your life would be remarkable. I can’t say that I’ve succeeded in living such a life, but I’ve remained convinced of the importance of that occulted part of ourselves.
FULL INTERVIEW: “That Occulted Part of Ourselves: A Conversation with John Langan“
Photo courtesy of Ellen Datlow
The updated/remade version of the classic Carl Sagan series Cosmos has been drawing lots of attention in the past few weeks, both positive and negative, and one of the areas that has come under the most scrutiny is the show’s inaccurate portrayal of Giordano Bruno, the sixteenth-century philosopher, occultist, mystic, and proto-scientist whose life and death (he was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600) have been exalted to legendary status in the Western cultural narrative of the war between religion and science. (This is despite the fact that the man’s name and memory have remained relatively obscure in mainstream popular awareness.)
Bruno held and taught a heliocentric view of the universe whose scope exceeded even Galileo’s attempt to build on the Copernican model, and the story that is commonly told today — including by the new Cosmos — is that he was a martyr for science in an age of benighted and militant ignorance, when religious authorities waged a merciless campaign against freedom of thought.
Many observers have weighed in on the problems with this approach to Bruno in the past few weeks. The chatter has been extensive enough that it has even drawn a response from one of the series’ co-writers.
One entry in the conversation that I find to be especially astute and important comes from the pen/word processor of Daily Beast writer and editor David Sessions, who argues that the Cosmos portrayal underscores our tendency to rewrite the past to conform to currently fashionable biases, ideologies, and cultural narratives — in this case, the very narrative of the “war between religion and science” itself, with religion framed as the villain and science as the hero:
Bruno, according to Cosmos, wandered around Europe, arguing passionately but fruitlessly for his new explanation of the universe, only to be mocked, impoverished, and eventually imprisoned and executed. Catholic authorities are depicted as cartoon ghouls, and introduced with sinister theme music. [Host Neil Degrasse] Tyson explains that the church’s modus operandi was to “investigate and torment anyone who voiced views that differed from theirs.”
What Cosmos doesn’t mention is that Bruno’s conflict with the Catholic Church was theological, not scientific, even if it did involve his wild — and occasionally correct — guesses about the universe. As Discover magazine’s Corey Powell pointed out, the philosophers of the 16th century weren’t anything like scientists in the modern sense. Bruno, for instance, was a “pandeist,” which is the belief that God had transformed himself into all matter and ceased to exist as a distinct entity in himself. He believed in all sort of magic and spirits, and extrapolated those views far beyond his ideas about the infinity of the universe. In contrast to contemporaries who drew more modest conclusions from their similar ideas, Bruno agitated for an elaborate counter-theology, and was (unlike the poor, humble outcast portrayed in Cosmos) supported by powerful royal benefactors. The church didn’t even have a position on whether the Earth orbited the sun, and didn’t bring it up at Bruno’s trial. While the early-modern religious persecution certainly can’t be denied, Bruno was killed because he flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”
Cosmos’ treatment of Bruno as a “martyr for science” is just a small example of a kind of cultural myth we tell ourselves about the development of modern society, one that’s almost completely divorced from the messy reality. It’s a story of an upward march from ignorance and darkness, where bold, rebel intellectuals like Bruno faced down the tyrannical dogma of religion and eventually gave us secularism, democracy, and prosperity. Iconoclastic individuals are our heroes, and big, bad institutions — monarchies, patriarchies, churches — are the villains. In the process, our fascinating, convoluted history gets flattened into a kind of secular Bible story to remind us why individual freedom and “separation of church and state” are the most important things for us to believe in.
The real path to our modern selves is much more complicated — so complicated that academic historians still endlessly debate how it happened.
. . . [T]hat Cosmos added an unnecessary and skewed version of Bruno — especially one skewed in this particular way — is a good miniature lesson about our tendency to turn the past into propaganda for our preferred view of the present. There are cultural, religious, and even political reasons that the story of scientific progress and political enlightenment are [sic] so attractive, and filter down even into our children’s entertainment. It allows us to see ourselves as the apex of history, the culmination of an inevitable, upward surge of improvement. It reassures us that our political values are righteous, and reminds us who the enemies are. The messy, complex, non-linear movement of actual history, by contrast, is unsettling, humbling — even terrifying.
For more on the subtle history of the relationship between religion and science, and also the whitewashed/propagandistic mainstream secular narrative about it, I recommend David Metcalfe’s Teeming Brain column De Umbris Idearum, whose title is in fact drawn from the work of Giordano Bruno. See especially “Humility and Silence: Where True Science and True Spirituality Meet” and “Science, Philosophy, Theology: If the Mirrors We Make Are Monstrous, So Too Are We.”
Sounds of Apocalypse, Part Two
“The Walls of Jericho Fall Down” by Gustave Doré
This is Part Two of contributor Dominik Irtenkauf’s four-part essay “Sounds of Apocalypse.” Before reading it you may want to read Part One, “Roar of Creation and Destruction,” in which Dominik lays the explanatory groundwork for the theme he is pursuing.
The word “apocalypse” derives from the Ancient Greek language and originally meant “the unveiling of secrets.” But since the canonical Christian document by St. John refers to this revealing as the overture to the end of the world as we know it, the idea of the apocalypse became colloquially linked to this very idea: the end of the world. Human beings are able to predict events to a certain degree, and even more, they can imagine worlds and states they haven’t experienced before. However, the mash-up network of fiction and truth, real experiences and second-hand representations (either in personal experience, films, or books), doesn’t really entail different levels of fear, because fear erodes any distinguishable borders. It’s the sheer will to survive which remains intact.
Augmenting this with a term from Georges Bataille, we see that we can almost reach the reality of imaginary events by means of “inner experience”:
I call experience a voyage to the end of the possible of man. Anyone may not embark on this voyage but if he does embark on it, this supposes the negation of the authorities, the existing values which limit the possible. By the virtue of the fact that it is negation of other values, other authorities, experience, having a positive existence, becomes itself value and authority. (Bataille, p. 7)
So can we experience the apocalypse as living beings simply by imagination? The cultural products of the apocalypse meme tell us that it is very possible. Read the rest of this entry
From an engaging discussion of Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind theory by writer and philosophy commentator Jules Evans, at his website Philosophy for Life:
I’m particularly interested in the link between voice-hearing, dissociation and creativity, and in the incidence of voice-hearing among creative individuals like novelists Marilynne Robinson (who occasionally hears a voice inspiring her novels), comedians Graham Linehan and Jonny Vegas (both of whom hear or have heard voices), and musicians like Lady Gaga and David Bowie (the former says she heard voices and started to act them out as personae, while the latter likewise embodied and acted out radically different personalities and has a history of schizophrenia in his family).
Not to mention the dissociative capacity of gifted actors to become other people (Le Carre called Alec Guinness’ ability to become someone else a ‘complete self-enchantment, a controlled schizophrenia’); or all the many poets and song-writers who say their poems came to them from a voice / presence / spirit / muse.
What Jaynes fails to address, I’d suggest, is the value of these ‘vestiges of the bicameral mind’. When we seem to feel or hear messages from the beyond, it’s not just a primitive throwback to Homeric times. These messages sometimes tell us something useful, beautiful and wise, something our ordinary consciousness does not know. They are often sources of moral inspiration or consolation. I’d suggest the right hemisphere is still not entirely accessible to our ordinary consciousness, and there is a value in learning how to access it through things like meditation, trance states or techniques of ecstasy (though of course there are risks as well, particularly if you end up with an inflated or Messianic sense of self).
To go a step further into the mystical, if we do receive inspiration through the right hemisphere, does that mean the origin is definitely purely material or neurochemical? Could we not consider William James’ hypothesis that the right hemisphere / unconscious is the door through which the divine speaks to us? Such has been the suggestion of various spiritual critics of Jaynes’ theory, from Owen Barfield to Philip K. Dick.
Still, the voice-hearing network is fascinating, from a theological perspective, because in some ways it suggests a very modern attitude to the gods. We hear their commands, and yet we don’t have to obey unquestioningly. We relate to them less as a child to their all-powerful father, and more like a friend to their equal, rather like Lyra’s friendship with her daemon, Pantalaimon, in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials. Happiness, then, is eudaimonia: having a friendly daemon to keep one company in life and through death.
Very well, says my daemon, looking over my shoulder as I write. But who made the daemons?
Image: “The Fury of Achilles,” 1737, by Charles-Antoine Coypel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Yes, I talk a lot about the damnability of the Internet’s inbuilt capacity for destructive distraction, but damn, sometimes the whole thing is hugely useful for circulating a dose of pure fun. And if this mashup of nearly 70 movies featuring a vigorously dancing Christopher Walken, set to a very familiar and appropriate song, isn’t pure fun, then I don’t know what is. It also integrates a smattering of archetypal Walkenisms — various verbal intonations, facial expressions, and bits of body language — that any consumer of movie and media culture in the past 40 years will find familiar. (Note: Beware a few faint, fleeting moments of NSFW imagery.)
Kudos to Ben Craw, video editor at The Huffington Post, for this wonderfully conceived and created slice of entertainment. You can see a full list of the movies he used here.
It looks like we can forget about “collapse fatigue,” the term — which I just now made up (or maybe not) — for the eventual exhaustion of the doom-and-collapse meme that has been raging its way through our collective public discourse and private psyches for the past decade-plus. I say this based on three recent items that have come to my attention spontaneously, as in, I didn’t go looking for them, but instead found them shoved into my awareness.
ONE: Just a couple of weeks after James Howard Kunstler asked “Are You Crazy to Continue Believing in Collapse?” — and answered, in sum, “No” — we now see that
TWO: a new collapse warning of rather epic proportions and pedigree has begun making its way through the online doom-o-sphere, starting with a piece in The Guardian:
A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution. Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.”
. . . By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.
These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”
. . . Modelling a range of different scenarios, Motesharri and his colleagues conclude that under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today . . . we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.”
The study highlights, in a manner reminiscent of dystopian science fiction, the specific way this division into Elites and Masses not only might play out but has played out in the histories of real societies and civilizations: Read the rest of this entry
It’s lovely to see one of my formative philosophical influences, and a man whose dystopian critique of technology is largely unknown to the populace at large these days — although it has deeply influenced such iconic cultural texts as Koyaanisqatsi — getting some mainstream attention (in The Boston Globe, two years ago):
Imagine for a moment that pretty much everything you think about technology is wrong. That the devices you believed are your friends are in fact your enemies. That they are involved in a vast conspiracy to colonize your mind and steal your soul. That their ultimate aim is to turn you into one of them: a machine.
It’s a staple of science fiction plots, and perhaps the fever dream of anyone who’s struggled too long with a crashing computer. But that nightmare vision is also a serious intellectual proposition, the legacy of a French social theorist who argued that the takeover by machines is actually happening, and that it’s much further along than we think. His name was Jacques Ellul, and a small but devoted group of followers consider him a genius.
To celebrate the centenary of his birth, a group of Ellul scholars will be gathering today at a conference to be held at Wheaton College near Chicago. The conference title: “Prophet in the Technological Wilderness.”
Ellul, who died in 1994, was the author of a series of books on the philosophy of technology, beginning with The Technological Society, published in France in 1954 and in English a decade later. His central argument is that we’re mistaken in thinking of technology as simply a bunch of different machines. In truth, Ellul contended, technology should be seen as a unified entity, an overwhelming force that has already escaped our control. That force is turning the world around us into something cold and mechanical, and — whether we realize it or not — transforming human beings along with it.
In an era of rampant technological enthusiasm, this is not a popular message, which is one reason Ellul isn’t well known. It doesn’t help that he refused to offer ready-made solutions for the problems he identified. His followers will tell you that neither of these things mean he wasn’t right; if nothing else, they say, Ellul provides one of the clearest existing analyses of what we’re up against. It’s not his fault it isn’t a pretty picture.
. . . Technology moves forward because we let it, he believed, and we let it because we worship it. “Technology becomes our fate only when we treat it as sacred,” says Darrell J. Fasching, a professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of South Florida. “And we tend to do that a lot.”
. . . “Ellul never opposed all participation in technology,” [says David Gill, founding president of the International Jacques Ellul Society and a professor of ethics at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary]. “He didn’t live in the woods, he lived in a nice house with electric lights. He didn’t drive, but his wife did, and he rode in a car. But he knew how to create limits — he was able to say ‘no’ to technology. So using the Internet isn’t a contradiction. The point is that we have to say that there are limits.”
FULL STORY: “Jacques Ellul, technology doomsayer before his time“
A bottle of LSD from a Swiss clinical trial for end-of-life anxiety in cancer patients, circa 2007, conducted by Dr. Peter Gasser, sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
Ladies and gentlemen, the ongoing incursion of the new psychedelic research renaissance into the mainstream American mediasphere has officially reached critical mass. Behold NPR:
Today, psychedelic drug research is coming back, and scientists are picking up where Leary and other researchers left off, conducting experiments on therapeutic uses of these drugs. But the research still faces stigma, and funding is hard to get.
. . . Stanislav Grof was one of the leading researchers on the therapeutic applications of LSD in the 1950s and ’60s. He studied the effect of hallucinogens on mental disorders, including addiction. Grof says LSD seemed to accelerate treatment of mental illness exponentially. “It was quite extraordinary,” Grof tells NPR’s Arun Rath. “This was a tremendous deepening and acceleration of the psychotherapeutic process, and compared with the therapy in general, which mostly focuses on suppression of symptoms, here we had something that could actually get to the core of the problems.”
But the pervasive image of LSD was that it was not an acceptable treatment. The Schedule 1 classification of LSD and other hallucinogenic substances in 1970 was a huge blow to research. Grof abandoned his experiments on alcoholism. Through the “Just Say No” campaigns of the 1980s, no researchers were willing to jump through all the hoops necessary to study stigmatized drugs.
But by the ’90s, attitudes had begun to change, and there was a flurry of studies on psychedelic drugs. By the 2000s, a small but growing research community was picking up where Grof and others had left off.
. . . [Charles Grob of the University of California, Los Angeles] has been approved to begin a new study next month on social anxiety in adults on the autism spectrum and the drug MDMA. He says the country needs to recognize that the ’60s are over and that Timothy Leary is gone and no longer on the stage. “I believe we are on the threshold of some very exciting discoveries,” he says, “that the health field can only benefit from.”