“Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
“The pungent stench of burning flesh wafts across the town square as smoke billows from the cleansing fires. White robed figures are being dragged towards the scorching pyres; some whimper, some beg, most go with a calm defiance and unbending trust in their faith. The men and women gaze out over their executioners; their shaven heads and austere countenance in stark contrast to the bejewelled gloves and soft robes of their judges. Men in scarlet robes with pointed hoods, their anonymity amplifying the terrible scene before them, sprinkle Holy Water over the damned. Murmured Latin incantations purify and mingle with a random crack of the wood as the screams of the condemned are slowly silenced for eternity … ”
This horrifying Grand Guignol image is a gaudy Hollywood version of the historical outcome of heretical belief; notions that have been burrowed deep inside the very kernel of Christian culture since its very conception; but here is a question that I would like to ask you, dear reader :
Has the heretical impulse really been extinguished in some kind of spiritual Scorched Earth policy?
And if not, where in our cultural lives are such ideas conceived and given such a weary, yet subtly subversive birth?
In answer to the first question, I cheerfully whispereth, “Oh, those bastards have certainly tried, but nay, nay and thrice nay, by the Holy crowing rooster head of Abraxas!”
The church may have steamrollered its way against its many opponents, but expressions of heresy have always been, and continue to emerge, as a counterculture, and the cries of those dissenting voices echo under the floorboards of history and onto the movie screen, the comic, the canvas, the novel and the MP3.
Yet, it is not only the realm of religion that has inspired such closed thinking and vehement opposition to ideas. Modern scientific dogma has its own ever-growing militant inquisition and virtual pitchfork wielding mobs, fighting against various associated heresies and for beliefs that might appear, at first glance, as merely political, or at the very least one might suspect that people on both sides seem to have far too much invested in being “right” to be trusted.
The objective truth of equality; the illusion of race, but reality of character qualifying racism; the belief that science inevitably leads to progress; the positive uses of psychedelics and other psychoactive drugs on patients; the supremacy of the philosophy of materialism over idealism; the theory of evolution versus intelligent design, etc.; these ideas have become the modern intellectual and scientific battleground and just you try to obtain a grant to investigate a subject that is not on the approved list. Not gonna happen, Sonny Jim.
The next thing you know, even your TED Talk has been censored.
So much for freedom of speech, ideas and iniquiry.
When we look out at the barren landscape of the 21st Century mind with its endless obsession with remakes and recycling, one could be under the impression that nothing much has changed since the times of the Albigensian Crusade; Islamic fundamentalists were crucified last week in Syria by men who thought them to be too “moderate”. It would appear that the world is turning into a liberal’s nightmare. “It could never happen here,” they whisper reassuringly to each other in wee small hours under their clean ethically manufactured cotton sheets. It appears that a long period of relative peace has fooled the spoilt West into believing that war is something of an anomaly, as opposed to the historical norm. Calling attention to this fact only seems to have people thrusting a limp, manicured and fashionably multicoloured artistic nail in one’s face and yelping, “CONSPIRACY THEORIST!”
There are new names for those who dissent from following the organised narrative in this post-9/11 age.
But what of the heretics; those flying squid in the sea of dogmatic underwater dwellers?
Heretics walk the razorblade between piety and irreverence; between tradition and blasphemy. They entertain new and threatening perspectives, and for this they have been at the very least dismissed and ridiculed; at the worst, persecuted down through history by those who have invested needs in whichever orthodox world-view is in vogue. They are the ones who could accept the idea of evolution, as the work of a flawed deity who created an imperfect universe, not beautiful and certainly unintelligent (or ignorant) design. They are the ones who would dismiss the literalist point of view and consider myth to be a stronger indicator of truth than fact, and see the numinous as a form of altered perception. They are the ones who felt, and still feel the existential problem of suffering and the dread feeling of the spiritual exile. They are the strangers in a world not of their making.
The feeling of being in exile – a misfitting into a society and culture – is one that has perfumed my life since before I can remember.
While at school in the heart of the Welsh countryside, I was surrounded by a mixture of uncouth but honest country kids; a smattering of the children of sixties hippies, their parents escaping to the countryside as their idealism was as blasted by their failed conscious revolution as their brains; and the offspring of factory workers from the Black Country across the border. I was an imported kid with an Evangelical Christian ex-postman father who bizarrely let me, no, encouraged me to read the supremely subversive British Sci-Fi weekly comic 2000AD, superhero rags and his small library of books on religion and mythology, including his collection of the classic occult “Man, Myth And Magic“. It was in that collection of odd magazines and imaginative books that I first read the words Gnosticism, Cathar and Bogomil.
My father, with his thoughts of The Second Coming in a UFO, and I would watch sixties series, such as The Invaders, The Avengers and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), as well as Karloff/Lugosi/Chaney Jr. RKO horror and classic Sci-Fi movies. Gothic horror and mind-bending speculative fantasy all mixed into an Apocalyptic worldview; the perfect psychic incubator for a would-be heretic.
There was one more love that my father would pass on to me. The passion for music. Bible thumper, he may be, but my old man used to be the drummer in an R& B band in swinging sixties London named The Vampires who played parties with coffin-shaped amps. While the other children at my primary school would be singing along to the soundtrack of Grease, I would have Hey Joe whistling around my furtive imagination. Every Sunday my father would watch Songs Of Praise, switch the TV off and then, we would immerse ourselves in minor-keyed Blues, the desperate existential crisis of Pink Floyd, the manic wide-eyed howl of Little Richard and the funky soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar.
Songs of rebellion, suffering and redemption.
Yet while my father saw the light in it all, I saw the darkness. His Christ was a fluffy feel-good saviour on a Silver Surfboard, the speaker of divine self-help strategies; whereas mine was a tortured Manichean man-god – Jesus patibilis – the suffering Christ, nailed to the cross of existence with the rest of us sentient beings; forsaken by his jealous and despotic Father.
Exiled from the light above in a fallen and essentially Film Noir world.
These schismatic and dangerous ideas, with their often complex mythology and reliance on an imaginative change in perspective, are very much alive and lurking on the edge of, what has been derogatorily dubbed, genre. These much maligned forms of folk art, with their ingrained rules, are perfect places for such subversive ideas to propagate and infect; for without rigid commandments there can be no heresy.
I will be delving into a joyfully Manichean celebration of heresy and Gnosticism in music, movies, TV, literature and art. Time to grab yourself a piece of that damn fine cherry pie, pop the red pill, and jump down the rabbit hole with me.
As I believe Jhon Balance of COIL once said :
Why be bleak, when you can be Blake?