Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Exegesis: Knowledge and Escape

Gnostic to the bone

It's very difficult to determine what exactly the scattered and disorganized groups we now look back on and call the Gnostics believed, but certain broad strokes can be drawn. It goes like this: the world is a prison, an inferior hellhole created by an sadistic celestial being called the Demiurge. The result of a kind of cosmic abortion, the Demiurge anointed himself as the god above all gods. Human souls are trapped here to be tormented by this demon, who was often named Ialdabaoth.

It gets considerably more complicated when you look at all of the different sects, but the means of deliverance from this cosmic insane asylum was acquiring gnosis- the knowledge that would grant you the means of escape. In Christian Gnostic sects Jesus was the deliverer, who had the keys to break out of the Black Iron Prison.

This is the kind of belief system that a people living under a great deal of stress and oppression gravitate towards. In the early days of the common era, radicals and free thinkers gravitated toward the Gnostic sects, seeking to escape the new world order of their time, the rapidly-expanding Roman Empire. For Rome threw centuries- millennia, really- of spiritual and cultural certainty in utter chaos.

Former world powers such as Greece, Egypt and the various nations in Palestine were especially fractured. They had seen their place in the world as ordained by God, whether they called him Jehovah, Zeus or Amun-Ra. And here was this rampaging horde of uncultured thugs smashing their universe to pieces.

As always happens, the colonized would eventually become the colonizers, but things were pretty dicey for quite some time. And so the sour grapes of Gnosticism offered a kind of comfort to the dispossessed. If the Romans were in charge it could only mean that God had himself been usurped as lord of this world. The only solution was escape.

I'm not really that big on a lot of the ancient Gnostic teachings and sects when you get to the detail stage. The reason being is that the knowledge they claimed to possess was often just another kind of faith. But I've always been captivated by this idea of gnosis as the means of deliverance, since that's an entirely sensible conclusion. If you know how to change something you can change it. And it's why I began to see the most powerful and resonant science fiction as the new custodian of this gnosis.

The reason why we find a lot of the sci-fi heroes (and superheroes, certainly) so alluring is that they know the world doesn't work at all like we're taught in school. They experience it. They work with it. And more often than not, they pay for it. And even so we all want to be like them because deep in our hearts we all know this world is a prison, albeit one with varying degrees of comfort in its cells.

Sarah Connor has a knowledge of destruction and deliverance that separates her from the people who she's trying to save, and she is made a criminal for it. Skynet in this context is the ultimate Demiurge, it means to wipe out the previous one's work and start from scratch. Same goes for Fox Mulder and the alien Colonists. The Black Oil aliens are literal Demiurges as well, in that they seeded life on this planet for their own purposes.

John Murdoch and Thomas Anderson are more obvious and widely-cited examples- they are both subjects of lesser creators who kept a more literal kind of prison. Luke Skywalker must learn to use the gnosis of the Force in order to deliver his people from the Empire.

But all of this has been seen as "escapism," which is a dirty word in America. Never mind that this country is entirely made up of people who escaped their previous worlds for whatever reason. If you're unjustly imprisoned, then a desire to escape is a virtue (soldiers are ordered to attempt to escape if captured in wartime). The alternative is existential malaise, something that seems to be spreading like a virus.

I'm always a bit suspicious when I notice people looking down on escapism, because in my experience they're usually people who've never had anything bad happen to them. For anyone who has ever found themselves trapped in a situation where they have been hurt- really hurt, "escape" is the most beautiful word in the English language. Escapism has undoubtedly kept a lot of miserable kids alive and sane, just as it can for adults as we all become targets for the schoolyard bullies of the world.

Of course, we have to do what we can to change our world for the better, which means we're going to have to learn to compromise and sacrifice. But in real terms, that kind of big 'C' Change itself is an escape, from a bad situation to a better one. Escape shouldn't mean shirking or running away from a problem- it should be solely reserved for deliverance from an intolerable situation.

Kind of like the one we're drifting into every single day. Ignorance seems to becoming a virtue in some quarters - it's certainly celebrated in the media. But only knowledge, real knowledge- gnosis- is going to grant us the tools to make our lives better. The problem becomes figuring out what exactly that knowledge is, a process that should be our first priority.