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A Celestial Telephone Exchange

Evil and World Order

by William Irwin Thompson, edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen
Harper & Row, 116 pp., $7.95

With Evil and World Order Mr. Thompson develops the line of thought begun in At the Edge of History (1971)1 and continued in Passages about Earth (1974).2 Perhaps “line of thought” is not quite the most suitable expression, for it is hard to extract from his work any extended argument. This isn’t in itself a condemnation, for the work of many powerful contemporary thinkers is dense and complex, and impossible to state crisply. Neither Hannah Arendt nor Wittgenstein is clear in the way Professor Ayer (for example) or Bertrand Russell is clear, but we are free to think such dense complexity a sign of philosophical depth.

What makes it hard to approach Thompson’s work seriously is, in part, his frequent name-dropping; throughout the texts we find references to the great mystagogues of our time—Teilhard de Chardin, Sri Aurobindo, Peter Caddy, David Spangler…. This last sage, Thompson tells us, “simply attunes his consciousness to the cosmic wave-length—that’s all.” That’s all. The message of all the mystagogues is that “the next stage of human evolution is the emergence of a human collective consciousness.” How disappointing, how banal, this seems, like the answers of mediums to questions put to them about what goes on in the spirit world. “Uncle Harry wants you to know he’s very happy.” No wonder that those who take the mystagogues seriously are inclined to encrust what they say with rich stories about flying saucers, extraterrestrial androids in government, worlds in collision, Stonehenge and Glastonbury, Chaldean astronomers and Pythagorean sages. Thompson’s ear is too hospitable to such stories.

Thompson has developed from a teacher of history, and (one would think) an enlivening one, at several North American universities into the founder and guide of the Lindisfarne Association, a body occupied with the making of a new culture and with preparing for the coming of the collective consciousness of the planetary community. It is altogether understandable that a man should be repelled by much that went on in the university world of the Sixties and scared—who isn’t?—by the way the world seems to be going. Thompson taught at York University in Toronto, one of the new universities, like Essex or Kent or Sussex in England, Nanterre in France, that grew in the warmly sympathetic atmosphere of the Fifties and early Sixties. There is a symptomatic observation in Passages about Earth; his disgust and despair come through it. The new university buildings

are slums where sullen bodies sprawl along the floor and pass a joint among themselves. Like Indians on a reservation or the poor in public housing, these students treat their physical surroundings with a contempt for the facile condescension built into the forms of their incarceration. They put out their cigarettes in the carpets, steal the paintings from the walls, strew their trash everywhere, bring their barking dogs into the lectures, and leave their old [sic] condoms in the elevators of the coeducational dorms. If the students must study, they cut out the assigned section of the book…or…they steal it altogether. If that is too much trouble, then they buy a term paper from a company organized for the purpose.3

This is a caricature, and an out-of-date one now, but the subject may be recognized. Thompson’s own queasiness comes through the texture of the writing (“old” where he means “used”). What in the general drift of his thought makes this landscape with sprawling bodies a special sign is that it is the introduction to apocalypse. After such affronts to rationality and the good, what can await us but catastrophe, possibly benign catastrophe (the cosmic intelligences are at work and may save us)? It is this that the ashrams, the contemplative communities, the small groups who communicate with devas and sprites and strengthen the plants with love and conversation, and Thompson’s own Lindisfarne group, are expecting in fear and hope. Lindisfarne? This name was presumably chosen because of one of Thompson’s analogies, present in all three books, between our age and the European Dark Ages; from the fall of the Roman Empire to the renaissance of the twelfth century the monastic communities cherished the seeds of civilization.

Quite early Thompson began to think certain features of the educated world picture puzzling. About this he may well be right. There are difficulties over accepting the conventional account of the development of civilization, with the civilizations of the Mesopotamian river basins and the Nile valley thought to be the earliest achievements. Doesn’t the sophistication, the extraordinary naturalism, of the wall paintings of Lascaux and Altamira presuppose an account of history different from that commonly assumed by the scholars? Can we accommodate within the conventional picture the archaeological information about the early American civilizations? All these are reasonable questions. Much more doubtfully (here one of Thompson’s characteristic weaknesses—a gluttonous appetite for the wonderful—shows itself), what about Atlantis? the Bermuda triangle? wall paintings and carvings of cosmic astronauts in conversation with the priests and kings of the archaic cultures…?

Again, there seem difficulties for neo-Darwinian theory in explaining cortical development in human beings, given the relatively short time that can be assigned to it. There are deep theoretical puzzles in the biological and psychological sciences studying animal life, especially human life. Modern physical theory expounded in the vernacular by Heisenberg, Weizsäcker, and others seems perplexing and suggests that in some (very elusive) sense the Pythagoreans (Thompson usually says Pythagoras, a man about whom we have very little reliable information) rather than Archimedes, perhaps Parmenides rather than the physicists of Asia Minor, had the right hunches: form is basic, matter is not.

Any educated man may well be puzzled by some of these matters, and it would be a good idea if Thompson were to pursue a related group of problems with single-minded industry. But he is too captivated by the idea of a total explanation. The great cosmic truths are beginning to come through the minds of David Spangler et al. Old myth is the clue to planetary history. We are all plugged in (we don’t all listen) to the celestial telephone exchange. The anomalies of quantum physics are smoothed away once we come to know that “as in the world of the Hopi Indians, Matter, Energy, and Consciousness form a continuum.”

This total explanation has a rubbery quality, its elasticity has virtually no limit, it adapts itself readily to the contours of any problem. This is why it is, as hypothesis, just vacuous. There is, of course, a public for such stuff and America has always enjoyed or suffered an abundant supply of it. The silly side of Transcendentalism was justly parodied by Dickens. “Mind and matter glide swiftly into the vortex of immensity. Howls the sublime, and softly sleeps the calm Ideal, in the whispering chambers of Imagination.” Mary Baker Eddy dissolved matter into thought, proclaimed pain to be an illusion. The Book of Mormon exposed the secrets of America’s early history. The present vogue of the writings of Teilhard de Chardin exemplifies the perpetually renewed appetite for the marvelous. Teilhard, the Maharishi, Uri Geller, pyramids to improve hockey skills and keep cheese from corrupting, talking to the flowers; tomorrow, perhaps, we shall dance and offer sacrifice before computers.

In Evil and World Order Thompson has some intelligent things to say, and it is therefore sad to see him struggling, as it were, in a viscous medium of his own making. This isn’t how it strikes him, for he argues that

to understand contemporary culture you have to be willing to move beyond intellectual definitions and academic disciplines. You have to be willing to throw your net out widely and be willing to take in science, politics, and art, and science fiction, the occult, and pornography.

There is a kind of rough truth in this but much depends upon the discriminations of the man with the net. Thompson has good aphoristic comments on such matters as technology, plans for global development, systems analysis. For instance:

Whether it is the Club of Rome, WOMP, the United Nations University in Tokyo, or the United Nations Institute for Training and Research…in New York, it is much the same thing: the confident assumption that the paradigms and methodologies of social science are adequate to create a planetary culture with a built-in system of global management.

This seems a sensible beginning; but it isn’t followed up. Instead we have vague remarks about the inevitability of the “routinization of charisma.” We may see (he argues) promise in “the music of Stockhausen, the novels of Doris Lessing, the poetry of Gary Snyder, and the sculpture and architecture of Paolo Soleri”; but once these portents of a new order are followed by something like “a planetary renaissance,” this renaissance will be taken over by politicians and the movement will then become “a linear extension of the old liberalism of McGovern, McCarthy, or Kennedy.”

What we should be doing, in place of entertaining these false hopes, is to think about how to live outside our present forms of industry, to scatter the great cities, and to “explore a global convergence of the thought of Jefferson, Gandhi, and Mao.” Since we have been told a few pages earlier that “we must take our counsel from The Tibetan Book of the Dead” and since we are to be told a few pages later that “any Planetary Constitutional Convention will have to recognize the simultaneous truth of the opposed ideologies of a free-market system and a planned economy,” the lines from Martin Chuzzlewit return upon the bruised reader: “Howls the sublime, and softly sleeps the calm Ideal, in the whispering chambers of Imagination.”

Thompson is so busy with his net and so pleased with what he lands that he doesn’t care about consistency. His historical accounts—these ought to be his strength—are sometimes overwhelmingly whimsical. He writes of the Celtic Church before the Synod of Whitby that it “was no outpost of an imperial ecclesiastical Roman legion, but the continuation of archaic religious forms derived from pagan Ireland and syncretistic Egypt…. As Pythagoras had outmystified the hierophants of the mystery schools of Egypt, so St. Columba outdruided the druids.” This may surprise the scholars, but no matter. What is harder to take is that when we turn the page it is to discover that “the Irish monks miniaturized Greco-Roman civilization.”

The wretchedness of so much of the world’s life and the vast problems that seem so resistant to piecemeal solutions have driven Thompson to the point where he has come to believe in the existence of a great pattern of events, a pattern that goes far beyond anything that could conceivably be established, a pattern that is written in the stars, cries out from the hitherto mute ruins of the Central American jungle, comes out of the mouths of gurus, and is spoken about in the rhapsodies of shamans, sounds in the sacred silence of the contemplative communities: a pattern of salvation and rebirth.

The unity of these diverse phenomena comes, I suggest, from something we are all familiar with. A minute example is when we look idly and without specific intentions at a wall covered with patches of damp or at a particular grouping of clouds. We see therein ships and men and women and beasts and daggers and hieroglyphs and faces that smile and faces that frown. If the imagination warms we combine them all into a story. But this seeing of patterns is the fruit of our idle lookings and musings, not of passionate thinking. Certainly, the damp patches or the clouds sustain these patterns; and the patterns we see may even be sources of knowledge about ourselves when they are scrutinized by a skilled interpreter. But they don’t tell us how things are with the world and human life and the constitution of matter and God.

How such things are is some of it solidly known prior to all philosophy and natural science, known through the experiences of unaccommodated men—as, for example, that it is better to suffer evil than to inflict it; some of it is to be won through serious work by poets, philosophers, historians, theologians, natural scientists. Much of it we most likely can’t know about, though we shall go on trying. In all this I presuppose that great Pan is dead and that the oracles are silent forever and that this is a—perhaps the—liberating fact about the Christian era. Of all the wild vicissitudes of intellectual taste in the opulent societies of the West, the belief that great Pan is after all alive and the oracles back in business strikes me as the most horrid and debilitating.

  1. 1

    William Irwin Thompson, At the Edge of History (Harper and Row, 1971).

  2. 2

    William Irwin Thompson, Passages about Earth (Harper and Row, 1974).

  3. 3

    Passages about Earth, p. 12.

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