Gnosis Manifesto

Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Post-Industrial Society.
by Theodore Roszak.
Doubleday. 492 pp. $10.00.

When Theodore Roszak wrote his popular The Making of a Counter Culture back in 1969, he may have been partial to Gestalt psychology, to guerrilla theater, to Zen; but there was yet an intentional effort to stand away, to keep at least his little finger on what we call “objectivity,” to give all the pieces a historical coherence and identity (“counter culture”—implying, after all, that it bore a distinct relationship to the culture), and to “see them in the perspective of our times.” To understand. Three years ago it was possible, Roszak thought, to consider understanding. But now

We are in for an interlude during which an increasing number of people in. urban-industrial society will take their bearings in life from I-Ching and the signs of the zodiac, from yoga and strange contemporary versions of shamanic tradition. . . . This is the great adventure of our age. . . . It is the reclamation and renewal of the Old Gnosis. . . . Then, perhaps, if the bomb holds off and the environment endures, we will be ready to make the transition to a truly post-industrial society.

Out-and-out advocacy. A Gnosis manifesto! Roszak takes on the exuberant anticipation of the young Marx of 1848 (whose rationalistic humanism he of course rejects), substituting the “apocatastatic” light of the mystic for the “haunting specter” of the working class, and the post-industrial world for Europe. Roszak’s intention in Where the Wasteland Ends is no less than “the devolution of the scientific tradition.” This he regards as “the most important cultural event of our generation”: with Blake, “to cast off Bacon, Locke, and Newton,” and build a “visionary commonwealth.”



Why the change from The Making of a Counter Culture to this new book? Roszak enumerates his reasons: “environmental collapse, world poverty, technocratic elitism, psychic alienation, the death of the soul.” Five horsemen!—all brought to a rampage by the objective scientific tradition. Like the poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Goethe) whom he sycophantically reveres, clinging for rebirth to their every image, Roszak has set out to electrify—electrocute might be more accurate—his adversaries with ferocious shocks. He believes that he is a standard-bearer, that he now possesses “the higher sanity,” that he has seen the magic that was in Wordsworth’s visionary gleam. So he must take on all enemies—in all fields. Clearly, three years of the Mother Earth News, of Richard Alpert become cult-figure Baba Ram Das, of the Hare Krishna kids and the Jesus kids, of the ecological doomsday-sayers and the expostulators of the third-level of consciousness, have had their effect on Roszak. He has now taken sides, unequivocally, and become a true believer.

When Roszak is operating in the area of “the higher sanity” there is no point in arguing. What is one to do, after all, with the assertion that coffee drinking is linked historically to “single vision” (scientific sight), or the discovery of gravity to the religious feeling of fallenness? But Roszak also takes side on more specific and current questions. He states, for example, as part of his indictment of the post-modern industrial urban technological machine, that the urgent question of rural improvement in underdeveloped nations has been entirely overlooked. Yet there are many economists—and they are not the fringe freaks Roszak so fawns upon—who are working on just this problem. One must conclude that Roszak has hardly looked at the literature of underdevelopment, for, if he had, he would have found, with not much digging, the writings of Theodore Schultz and Clifford Geertz, to mention two of the most prominent.

Of course, both Schultz and Geertz are quite rational, objective, and “linear,” hence deadly poison in Roszak’s view. For these qualities, he asserts, are “reductionist.” They reek from having worn too long “the filthy garments” of the scientific revolution. They “thingify” nature. They compartmentalize the world and then worship their own creations. Economists, to follow Roszak’s reasoning (if the term can be used), could not possibly care about the quality of rural life, for to them nature is inconceivable except as exploitable land, a factor of production to be sucked up into the technological works.

Some of this logic is reminiscent of a pioneering and now classic book (to which Roszak does not allude) in the field of economic anthropology, by Karl Polanyi—The Great Transformation (1944). Polanyi argued that the scientific and industrial revolutions—in their passion above all to objectify—combined to reduce what were once man and nature into factors of production: labor and land. Polanyi’s argument was a rational and humanistic one: that classical 19th-century laissez-faire liberalism was no longer viable, and that planning had become necessary. Roszak, of course, is against planning. He sees a National Economic Plan as technocratic politics, as being in restraint of freedom. Yet the final irony is this: that Polanyi had made a point of showing that those very primitive societies which Roszak and others so revere did have plans. “Laissez-faire was planned, planning was not,” was the economic anthropologists’ famous distinction.



It was in his Essay on Bentham and Coleridge that J. S. Mill wrote, “Whoever could master the premises and combine the methods of both would possess the entire English philosophy of this age.” Mill, in his later years, recognized the need for a softening of the hard-headed, utilitarian, hedonistic calculus which characterized early liberalism. A sensibility that one might call poetic was necessary too, a recognition of the irrational, incalculable heart of the human. Perhaps Mill himself came closer than anyone else to representing such a fusion, for it was he who championed the freedom of the individual, not naively, as a mechanistic automaton competing with other self-interested mechanisms, but as a man who stood within society.

Where Mill stepped between Bentham and Coleridge, Roszak, by contrast, disdains to mediate, for example, between B. F. Skinner and Allen Ginsberg. Even anti-behaviorism is beneath him, for it would mean conceding something, however small, to the Western intellectual and humanist tradition, which he sees as resting upon a de-sacramentalized “single (and dead) vision” of nature. Any alliance with this tradition must be spurned.

Reading Where the Wasteland Ends, one cannot help but be struck by the paradox of a man pushing hard with the prod of over-rationalized, reductionist, mechanized analysis at his enemies: excess rationalism, reductionism, mechanism. Roszak rails against the dehumanizing technocracy, but talks hopefully, like a character out of Brave New World, of Human Potentials Growth Centers and National Psychic Development Competitions. And he criticizes (rightly) those rigid repeaters of the ontologies of Marx or Comte or Darwin, but rigidly repeats the cosmologies of Blake, Wordsworth, and Goethe. Indeed, his own brand of exegesis turns out to be no different from the scientific (or false-scientific) reductionism he hates, with the scientific jargon (what he calls “the hocus pocus of social domination”) merely replaced by another kind: “apocatastasis,” “mind-scape,” “symbolic resonance,” “the old Gnosis.” The more he uses words against the intellectual regime of words, the more he reasons against reason; the more he has enlisted reason, the more he has augmented it. For certainly, the Western intellectual tradition is his weapon, the one in which he has been trained, the one “organic” to the society in which he has decided to live.

What intellectual anti-intellectualism causes is a dogmatic kind of anti-dogmatism which burns The Old Answer at the stake while a few yards away on the other side of the town square it is busy building a pulpit to The New Answer. It fails to recognize precisely the doubt, the mistake, the human. It gives up in the face of tensions, in the midst of battles. It rushes off elsewhere to kneel before and embrace an invisible mystical absolutism, while the struggle of life goes on right here.

It is not insignificant that when Roszak lists his enemies, “the terrible systematizers,” he names Bacon, Hobbes, Saint Simon, Comte, Bentham, Marx, Veblen, and Watson—and overlooks men like Mill and Robert Owen and the American pragmatists. Owen, for example, was at once a systematizer, a rationalist, an early industrialist-entrepreneur, and yet had vision: of a society of small communities where gardens grew around the mills and where people cared for one another. And Owen’s influence went beyond the utopian worlds of New Harmony and New Lanark, spreading to the early reform movement that helped temper the crudest edges of early capitalism.

It is from the active tradition of men like Mill and Owen and John Dewey, rather than from Buddha, that real improvements are likely to come. In fact, much of the doomsday fear of technology has been the result of technologically-originated and transmitted publicity about the problem. One hears often of revolutions of rising expectations as cause for political turbulence. Is it not reasonable to suggest that those same rising expectations operate in the scientific world as well, and that apocalyptic trembling is as much a sign of betterment as a consequence of decay? Roszak calls his answer “The Politics of Eternity.” In fact it represents the politics of cultural despair.



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