Why gnosticism? Why now?
One of the most difficult things in writing about the re-emergence of a gnostic poetics is having to continually backspace to override MS Word’s (MS Logos?) auto-correct function, which insists on capitalizing – or is that historicizing? – “Gnostic.” I call it the small “g” problem. Because the new gnostic poetics I’m trying to describe has to do with dethroning the tyranny of the majuscule. Gnostic has become such an elastic term, used to describe such a wide swath of writers, often as different from one another as say, Poe and his evil double, Emerson, that it threatens to lose its usefulness as a meaningful category.
Though Gnosticism’s heretical beliefs about an alien god and the struggle to attain spiritual knowledge was quashed by the 3rd Century C.E., its perturbing legacy continues to speak to a profound yearning for alternate modes of poetic epistemology which neither the pieties of Iowa nor the heterodoxies of the Grand Piano can answer to. It has influenced modern thinkers and writers from Carl Jung to H.P. Lovecraft. For Harold Bloom, modernist gnosis includes writers as diverse as Kafka and Hart Crane, while Hans Jonas finds strong affinities between the Gnostic conception of the world as exile and Heidegger’s existential phenomenology and the thrownness or Geworfenheit, of Dasein. “Gnosis,” as religious scholar Elaine Pagels observes, “is not primarily rational knowledge … we could translate it as ‘insight,’ for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself.”
This trend toward a contemporary gnostic poetics owes its origins to several distinct vectors: the Heideggerian/Derridean Destruktion or deconstruction of onto-theology and its weird quasi -reconstitution through dispersal, differánce, and the trace; the linguistic turn and its emphasis on the materiality of language; and the continuing commitment of poets aligned with the tradition of high modernism and the New American Poetry to an avant-garde aesthetic.
The idea of gnosis persists because it offers a powerful tool for counteracting the disenchantment and alienation of the world. It is a response to a specific historical moment that is less about reviving the tenets of an ancient and problematic heresy then about using the tropological resources of that heresy to produce a modernist gnostic horizon.
What stability the term retains, however wobbly, is still enough, I think, to address a postmodern poetry that contains both avant-garde and spiritual commitments. The idea of a new gnostic poetics derives in part from the recognition that one branch of modernism was all along deeply invested in and reliant on heterodox spiritual systems (Yeats, Pound, H.D.) which have been consciously carried forward by postmodern poets like Duncan and Mackey, and in part on the idea of a post-secular religious turn, or the return of the theological repressed. It subscribes not only to the idea that, in Marjorie Perloff’s words, language has become “the new spiritus mundi,” but to the continuity of a strong visionary mode in American poetry, as outlined by Peter O’Leary in his recent essay, “Apocalypticism: A Way Forward for Poetry.” “Apocalypse and other forms of sacred expression unbind love from material desire, freeing it to embrace the unknown and the unspeakable … apocalyptic poetry, then, is language charged with the kerygmatic power to reveal sacred reality, in history and beyond it.”
Such enthusiasm threatens violence to the Gnostic by trying to recontextualize it within the horizon of gender and the body. It's a kind of anti-Gnostic gnosticism. Or maybe I just like to have my cake and it eat it too.
What’s important here is that small “g” gnosticism strives to reverse the perverse polarities of the Gnostics by reclaiming the body’s centrality for both history and ideas about spirit. In this view, the material is not the site of exile and the soul’s imprisonment, but of messianic intervention.
The new gnostic poetics is not a system then, but revives the idea of spiritual knowledge as a way to contest system. It designates a group of fellow travelers committed to a poetic agon in which the articulation of spiritual values is rooted in the material world and therefore integral to articulating the terms of a redemption worked out solely within the ruins of history and the disjointedness of everyday life through a visionary experimental poetry.