Monday, March 02, 2009

U2: Stranger in a Strange Land

On Friday we looked at the strange synchs between U2 and Harpocrates, in the form of the album covers for Boy and War (and in the incarnation of a young boy named Peter Rowan) and the lyrics of "The Three Sunrises."

Now, all of this could be the result of Bono's close relationship with Gavin Friday, the flamboyant leader of goth pioneers The Virgin Prunes, who toyed with occult imagery. The Harpocrates imagery could be the result of some kind of subconscious transference, since I really can't imagine that Bono was boning up on his Crowley (at least not at that point). But we also have to consider that these archetypes were expressing themselves in ways contrary to the intention of the band and their designers.

There is one more fascinating synch I'd like to touch on in this vein, and that's the U2 song, "Stranger in a Strange Land." Bono claimed the song was inspired by an encounter he had with a boy across the Berlin Wall. The title itself comes from a Robert Heinlein novel which had a cult following in the 60s. If Bono was a Heinlein fan in U2's early days, he wouldn't be alone. According to a retrospective in the LA Times:
...Heinlein’s following shows up in unexpected places: He’s the hero of numerous astronauts, Silicon Valley types and those seeking to privatize space travel. He isn’t just their favorite writer; he set them on their life’s course. He generated public enthusiasm for the space race, inspired the genre called “military science fiction.” Tom Clancy, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and countless libertarians are fans. A crater on Mars is named for him.
Strangely enough, many occultists see Stranger as being a thinly-disguised, Crowley-influenced narrative. Indeed, according to Jack Parsons biographer George Pendle, Heinlein was quite close with Jack Parsons, the black magician whom Werner Von Braun claimed was the true father of the American space program. Parsons and Heinlein were members of a group of sci-fi writers and other assorted weirdos called the Manana Society, which met a Heinlein's home in Laurel Canyon.

The free love/mystery cult in the novel "The Church of All Worlds" strongly recalls Parson's OTO scene in Pasadena and was probably influenced by it. Considering that the messiah of the novel, Valentine Michael Smith*, is linked to the space program and Mars (Parsons' favorite character as a boy was John Carter of Mars), and is martyred at the novel's end, it seems that the book may very well have been an homage to Parsons himself, and not to Crowley as many have claimed.

What's interesting as well as that Heinlein predicted the rise of the Religious Right (including a sort of pumped-up version of the Westboro Baptist Church) as well as world government (admittedly a staple of sci-fi from the early 20s on). Speaking of Crowley, British metal legends Iron Maiden (led by Thelemite Bruce Dickinson) also recorded a song called "Stranger in a Strange Land."

A more problematic synch may be how the new U2 video seems sympatico with Heinlein's Starship Troopers, with its vision of world peace through the militarization of society. Heinlein also saw the military as the ideal venue for feminist advancement as well, and the "Get On Your Boots" video is chock full of militarized and masculinized women.

But working all of the memes out in the fictional, archetypal realm is one thing. It's another thing when this kind of authoritarian fetishism leaves the geek hothouse and is put into practice in the physical sphere. Here's another fascinating quote from the LA Times article on Heinlein:
(Heinlein) won admiration from Ronald Reagan, who enlisted his ideas in his “Star Wars” missile shield, and Charles Manson, who was captured with the novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” in his backpack. He predicted the European Union and invented the water bed.
And what do you get when you cross Ronald Reagan and Charles Manson? You get The Family, an authoritarian cult whose present leader openly admires Hitler, Lenin and Mao. Some obscure sect, you may ask? No, it's one of the most powerful pressure groups in America and runs the annual National Prayer Breakfast, which Bono spoke before in 2006.

How interesting and coincidental then that we hear reports that U2 are now hiding their money in a offshore tax shelter. Maybe it's all just a big misunderstanding. Or perhaps it's groups like the Family where Crowley's authoritarian teachings go from being the province of brilliant yet ultimately marginal weirdos like Jack Parsons (who is controversial even within OTO circles) to become part of the State. Certainly we've seen the same control techniques used by 70s cults and 80s New Age groups being imported whole cloth into the megachurch movement of the 90s.

It all just keeps getting bigger and bigger, doesn't it? I think I should watch that new U2 video again. Incidentally, U2 will be performing at Fordham University on Monday morning to promote their new album.

*The more I see the name "Valentine" in these contexts, the more convinced I become it is a reference to the Gnostic sage Valentinus, not St. Valentine. Note that the Church recently remarked on Valentine's obscurity in relation to the holiday named for him.