July 29, 2021

The Gnostic Hotel

My next book of poems, The Gnostic Hotel, will be published by Littlefox Press, with any luck before the end of this year. Here is a quick excerpt and the full text of the introduction.

The Errant Knight

It’s in the name: all wanderers will stray, 
the errant knight commits his share of bads—
it’s not all pricking horseback o’er the plain.
Shit happens, things go wrong, so much awry.
Illusions dupe the eye, enchantments throw
cream pies as well as glams across the room,
barbs and bouquets, thumps and wind’s caress.
From time to time his path admits a grace,
entirely unsought for, fair and free,
until the chained events throw him again.

The proper hero learns the shrugging off
of life’s humiliations.  These can teach
if looked at squarely—never mind your blush
of pure chagrin for that quixotic splat.
The trick of it is learning to avoid
the same old, same old pratfalls, jars and jeers.
Repeated jokes grow lame, and, from the wings,
the orchestrators of your vaudeville act
seem never at a loss for jolly japes
to keep the whole show flying when you flag.

So carry on, keep smiling, never mind
how often you get stretched upon your back,
while dust drifts slow across your sprawling limbs
and from the pit the brassy trumpeters
wave hats in front of wawing descant laughs.
One day perhaps they’ll get your fanfare right,
tarantara-ing you through heaven’s gates.

Cover mock-up that I lashed together to give myself something to write to. My son Jon will do the proper cover for the Littlefox Press edition that should appear later this year.

Introduction to The Gnostic Hotel

            The poems that follow pursue a long fascination with the thought-worlds of Gnosticism and Anthroposophy. The latter is recent, both the word itself and the psychospiritual orientation it names. The former is at least as old as Christianity. “Anthroposophy” is the name given to a mode of “occult science” by its founding figure, the German philosopher, lecturer, and polymath Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Its bearings are both wide-ranging and subtle. Many of its principles and practices calmly offend modern habits of thought and have attracted both dedicated followers and equally determined sceptics and debunkers. In the broadest terms, it understands the human as a primarily psychic phenomenon, a gradual process of incarnation, across multiple lifetimes, through which our pre-existent spirit-selves immerse themselves ever more deeply into the world of matter, space and time. Spirit precedes matter and informs all its manifestations (see, for example, “’The Ensouled Rock” below). Over the past century and a half we have reached a turning-point in our long evolution, at which this immersion of the human has cut off our view of the spiritual dimensions out of which we have condensed.

            This juncture is critical and its possible outcomes by no means certain. The assumed materialism of most modern thinking is both a stage in our legitimate evolution and a pathological vector that besets it. If not redressed by a reawakened consciousness of our spiritual genealogy, it will descend further into a quasi-autistic fugue of self immured in its own well of self-consciousness, unable to apprehend or relate to a cosmos it perceives as wholly foreign. The many ramifications of Steiner’s thought, which have by turns eluded, infuriated, and intrigued me for decades since I first encountered them in the late 1980s, cannot be reduced to tidy prose summary, so I won’t try. What little I’ve said here should serve to illuminate those aspects of these poems that draw on anthroposophical inspirations. 

            For a collection that stands under the title The Gnostic Hotel, a brief word about Gnosticism is in order as well. The term names a turn of thought that rose like a pervasive scent in the centuries immediately on either side of Christ’s advent. Its teachings are diffuse and varied, inflecting the thought of Judaism, Christianity and, later, Islam, as well as the Neoplatonic philosophy that was a more or less default posture for anyone engaging with big questions about life, the universe and everything in the Mediterranean world around the time of Christ. Gnosticism remained a fringe phenomenon, declared a heresy by Christianity’s doctrinal authorities and formally rejected by the heirs of Platonic tradition, among them the most famous of late-classical philosophers, Plotinus.

            It’s not hard to see why. Gnosticism was naturally contrarian, declaring, in effect (and well in advance of Groucho Marx), “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” It turns traditional texts and doctrines on their heads. The gnostic perspective reads the god of Genesis as a cosmic gaoler, casting spirits into limiting bodies of clay, and reveres that story’s serpent as a bringer of saving wisdom. It sees life on earth as a botch, a catastrophic detour onto which human souls were lured from their original station in spiritual realms, down into the lower material reaches of creation by an agency it names in Greek as the demiourgos, the “demiurge.” The word commonly means “maker” or “craftsman” but was transvalued by Gnosticism to suggest something more like “counterfeiter,” “trickster,” or “con-man.” An intelligence “on the make,” as it were. In Gnostic-Christian terms, the demiurge is a fallen angel in whom pride has fostered the delusion that he in fact is thecreator, like someone today declaring himself Napoleon or Jesus. To prove it he “creates” a world (our world, thank you very much) but gets it hopelessly wrong, like a five-year-old’s rough sketch of the Taj Mahal. Evil, disease, death and predation, along with everything else that makes characters like Job, Ecclesiastes or Melville’s Captain Ahab denounce their worlds as monstrous affronts to both reason and virtue, are all attributed to the demiurge’s malice or simple incompetence. Ever after he remains preoccupied with keeping the rest of us from noticing his fraud, like the Wizard of Oz bellowing that we “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” The valiant Gnostic is a freedom fighter, seeking to bat away the veils of illusion cast by the demiurge. Fans of The Matrix will immediately recognise its gnostic inspiration. Steiner himself was sympathetic to the insights of Gnosticism, though he did not subscribe to them in their entirety, and Anthroposophy has often been mistakenly dismissed as a revival of the old gnostic heresy.

            Anyone who’s experienced the kind of disillusion or devastation that stings us to exclaim, “stop the world, I want to get off,” has reached the gnostic brink. Most of us will have a good cry and then just get on with things. In our default modernity, walled off from the spiritual realities that might afford alternative perspectives, what else can we do? Everything that makes us recoil from, say, a terminal disease as an existential error, as something wrong with the world rather than mere biology or physiology, is an echo of the Gnostic’s resistance to the givens of this world. I’m not having it. Gnostics believe they have seen through the world’s shoddy pretences. They “know” the score, hence the name given their tendency, gnosis, a Greek word that means “knowledge.”

            The etymological roots of “hotel” give us other words as well: “hostel,” “host” (both master of ceremonies and armed force), “hospice,” “hospital,” “hospitality,” and “hostile.” The guest can be a ghost that leaves you aghast. A visitant, not from around these parts. No one “belongs” in a hotel: workers and guests alike lead their “real” lives elsewhere. Their paths cross fortuitously in a space built only for passage through. Home lies somewhere beyond the visible horizon. The disgruntled child may take refuge in a fantasy that he or she was adopted and is, unbeknownst to all, genuine royalty fallen on fairy-tale hard times. Sufficiently provoked, we’re all closet Gnostics. 

            We hope you enjoy your stay . . .

6 comments on “The Gnostic Hotel”

  1. I am sure that I will “enjoy my stay” when reading your new book of poems, Bob

    My son attended a Steiner secondary school. As a parent I was exposed to some of the philosophy that was shared with the students by the way that the teachers lived the ideals of Steiner.

    Your book will bring joy and introspection to many.

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