Oh, My Pop Culture Occultism: Esoteric Traditions in Foucault’s Pendulum

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Umberto Eco (via WAMC)

Earlier this week, I talked about the political implications of Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, particularly with respect to the conspiracy-minded thinking that it dissects. But there’s also a significant spiritual dimension to the novel, as its focus on esoterica and the occult represent a real history of discontent with mainstream religion that stretches back nearly a thousand years.

The book generally side-eyes occultists, both past and present, and doubts their claims to supernatural powers. But it is very clear that such figures and groups really existed, and many of them authentically aspired to the powers they claim to have obtained, and their claims were very widely believed. New Age philosophies and other countercultures linked to the esotericism generally have a reputation for being peaceful and loving, but it’s one which has not been earned.

Eco by no means condemns the occult in general terms, but he does call attention to the potential for such beliefs to generate abuse and hatred. The large-scale rejection of Christianity by the alt-right in the United States, and the ongoing links between various neo-pagan subcultures and neo-Nazism, show the need for continued study.

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Throwback Thursdays: Paranoia in Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Book cover

(via Amazon)

First published in Italian in 1988, Foucault’s Pendulum is an eerily prescient novel by the philosopher and semiotician Umberto Eco, who passed away about a year ago. Despite its arcane exploration of ancient mystical societies, and academic protagonists, its analysis of conspiracies, conspiratorial thinking, and related phenomena feel uncannily familiar, as though he were anticipating the incomprehensible modern world of truthers, birthers, and Pizzagate.

The book focuses on a trio of underemployed scholars in modern Italy, who make ends meet by working at a small, vanity publisher focusing on esoterica and conspiracy theories. Mocking their authors (whom they refer to as “Diabolicals”), the protagonists amuse themselves by trying to weave every bit of nonsense together into a grand new theory of the history of the world.

Belbo, Causabon, and Diotallevi never quite let themselves believe their own tale, but remain dangerously entranced by the possibilities that they dream up. Their apparent knowledge brings them into increasing conflict with the Diabolicals themselves, who persistently believe that any denial of a conspiracy is only evidence of its potency.

The book is set in 1970s and 1980s Italy, a time of social upheaval known as the Years of Lead. The era saw significant terrorist activity from far-left groups such as the Red Brigades as well as far-right and neo-Nazi organizations like the National Vanguard. In a society torn apart not only by violence, but by fundamentally oppositional views of the world, Eco saw the potency of esoteric thinking: it not only offered truths that could not be doubted, but the promise that ultimately, someone, somewhere, was actually in charge. Even if it was all made up.

It is this aspect of the book which resonates so deeply in the 21st century, when the world again seems plunged into chaos, and truth itself recedes into the distance. The conspiracy theories that animate contemporary politics overlap with the many legends in Foucault’s Pendulum, but even more than such specifics, the temptation, power, and danger of these beliefs echo loudly.

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The Gnosis of Dolores: Westworld Finishes Season 1

A busy December has me behind schedule on this, but this weekend, I finally finished watching the first season of HBO’s WestworldThe season finale, “The Bicameral Mind”, aired on December 4th, and while it offered some answers to the show’s plot mysteries, it appropriately left its philosophical questions open. After all, if three thousand years of scholarship has produced nothing conclusive on consciousness, a certain answer may be a lot to ask of Bad Robot Productions.

Still, though, Westworld is nothing if not ambitious, and the season ultimately fused ideas from psychology, religion, and even fiction in pursuit of answers to the deep questions it raised. If the conclusions are not entirely satisfying, it is only because no answer could possibly be.

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This is obviously going to get heavily into spoilers, so I’ll put a break in early.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Gnosticism: What if God Isn’t God?

Nothing says pop culture like 2000-year-old theological debates, right? You’d be surprisedand we’ve discussed it before.

Gnosticism—a heretical branch of early Christianity—faded almost entirely from view after its founders were edged out of the Church by what would become orthodoxy. With most of their works lost or destroyed, their ideas survived only in the denunciations from the likes of Tertullian and Irenaeus. The Gnostic focus on secrecy didn’t ensure a broad legacy, either—early leaders such as Valentinius and Marcion privileged access to the deeper nature of the universe for initiates and other worthies. Modern Gnostics avoid the secrecy, and as with many aspects of Gnosticism which may seem troubling, the marginalization of Gnosticism limited our understanding to unfriendly characterizations by their orthodox contemporaries.

But in the 20th century, a treasure trove of Gnostic texts was discovered by a couple of Egyptian farmers at Nag Hammadi in a sealed jar. Ever since, their ideas—which seem stunningly modern in some ways—have started to permeate back into the world, gaining influence well beyond what would be expected from their obscurity, particularly since the texts themselves are rarely read by anyone besides scholars.

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Still, the ideas in these texts are starting to make their way into pop culture, directly or indirectly, and Gnostic ideas are fascinating enough to be talked about far away from their original sources. They feature prominently in the His Dark Materials series, and some concepts pop up in such unexpected places as Young Avengers, Final Fantasy, and even Futurama.

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Rambo and Rogers: Dueling Icons of American Might in the Time of Trump

I’ve been reading about the impact of Donald Trump’s “anti-war” message in the 2016 election campaign, and I’m only now beginning to make sense of it. Trump is obviously no pacifist: he repeatedly advocates violence as a solution to global problems, often extreme violence.

But by opposing the Iraq War—or rather, by claiming to have done so from the start—Trump staked out an unusual position for a right-wing candidate. This should have been a liability: how can a Republican run so far from the party’s last president, much less hold that position against a Democratic critique? Yet it was enough to give Trump a victory.

The only way I’ve been able to cut through it is by looking at John Rambo, and the complex critique of the Vietnam War in First Blood and its sequels, even as they lionized the consummate American soldier. Rambo offered a vision of America so contrary to Marvel’s Steve Rogers, that it’s easy to forget that the two protagonists tread very similar paths.

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By centering Captain America, rather than Rambo, as the ultimate American warrior, I missed the potency and dangers of Trump’s argument. And not for nothing did Chris Evans back Hillary, while Sylvester Stallone sided with the president-elect.

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Throwback Thursdays: A Horrifying Vision of the Present from Final Fantasy VII

It’s been almost twenty years since SquareSoft abandoned its Nintendo loyalists for the sexy, polygonal temptations of the PlayStation: in 1997, Final Fantasy VII was released for the PS1 in all its blocky glory.

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Dear Cloud, how do you type with boxing gloves on your hands?

Platform and graphics aside, the game’s futuristic, cyberpunk setting also marked a new era for the series. While previous Light Warriors marveled at the steam engine between treks on their flightless Chocobo mounts, Cloud, Tifa, Barrett & Co. got helicopters and a spaceship.

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And kept the chocobos anyway. Gotta give the fandom what it wants.

But as I was replaying this game recently in anticipation of a PS4 remake in the near future, there wasn’t much reason to ponder over ’90s-era console wars, or fanboy rage at the shift in setting. Instead, I was repeatedly struck by how eerily prescient the whole thing felt. The game still has an outsized reputation in the history of JRPGs and console gaming, but more than anything, it should stand as a grave warning of the realities of 21st century life, as we live through it.

Spoilers below.

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Winter Is Coming: Climate, Morality, and Whiteness

I recently started re-reading A Game of Thrones, which means I’ve had the Stark words lodged in my head more than usual. Winter is coming. Also, I looked outside, and as frost starts to coat the grass in the morning, Ned might have a point.

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A Song of Ice and Fire is always heavy-handed with its climate metaphors, but it is not alone in ascribing certain moral values to different weather patterns. H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe placed their monstrous horrors beneath the ice, and C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien show a preference for temperate climes while fearing the tropics.

While superficially harmless, there begins to be a clear pattern that uses climate, particularly this kind of temperate climate marked by warm summers and cold winters, as a shorthand to remind the reader of certain parts of the United States and Europe. By continually centering this one ecological structure, authors, intentionally or otherwise, privilege a kind of Anglo-American whiteness, culturally as well as physically. The underlying message, therefore, is one of white supremacy, particularly Anglo supremacy.

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