For white English or American readers of this blog, a question.
Who went to church this morning? Go on, own up. Nobody?
Coming home on the bike I passed the Catholic church on the corner of my block (West Earlham). Everyone was of Indian origin, speaking Indian languages! In white Norwich! Not a white Caucasian in sight.
This morning I was up extremely early, and at first light I was worshipping at the church of my allotment, delighting in the alchemy of all life. Yes really! Just enjoying it.
Then, I went scrumping windfall apples, and gathered 150lb of different varieties, which I moved on my bike trailer in an old plastic cistern back to my friend Ruth’s place. I am so knackered now that I have to go back to bed. I’ve been up since 4am, and I’ve had three hours’ sleep. What the hell. Sleep it off, baby. It’s a Sunday!
I rang a friend, a local poet, and he put me in touch with a local cider maker with a press, out in rural Norfolk, in Old Buckenham. My friend John and I plan to turn the apples into ten gallons of cider and sour the cider to make ten gallons of cider vinegar.
Religious views are a very tricky area, aren’t they? The two things you are not supposed to discuss in polite English society are religion and politics. It is clear that I do not have the manners of an Englishman, since I talk about both.
My nom de guerre Abiezer Coppe gives his views on the Christian religion at the end of the piece.
I have been at times an Marxist atheist, an Marxist agnostic, and a Marxist with Christian leanings. In the next phase of my life I shall settle for a Marxist gnosticism, marrying the rational materialist dialectic of Marx, to the otherworldly insights of the Christian Gnostics, starting with Valentinus (3rd Century AD). I am in good company. Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) was also a kind of Marxist gnostic. True, he was a Stalinist, too, but Stalinism is not the main thrust of his remarkable magnum opus on Hope, Das Prinzip Hoffnug, or of his biography of the 15th Century revolutionary peasant leader, Thomas Munzer, which I found in French translation.
Spiritual search: should I give it up entirely? I have tried the Cheshire Cat Buddhists at the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (I swear they all had the same smile) but they gave me the creeps, as every religious group does.
Experiential spirituality is the only type I can connect to: I learned Vipassana meditation once. Ten day silent retreats in Herefordshire, no speaking, no eye contact: it takes a lot to discipline a wild mind. I’ve always been poor, and even the poor can afford it: I gave service instead of cash, and went back and worked in the kitchens on another retreat.
Vipassana was good, and it works, but who wants to spend two hours a day sitting on their arse meditating? It certainly chills you out like nothing else does, the ten day retreat. You come out feeling clean, really clean. A good friend of mine called L–a came on a Herefordshire retreat with me (I drove my totally illegal French taxed, French MOT’d and French insured Citroen BX from Norwich to Herefordshire and back, and around on the roads of the UK for 2 years, and the police never stopped me once). She’d smoked dope and tobacco, and drank alcohol all her life. After the 10 day retreat she just stopped, without even a struggle. No alcohol, no drugs, no tobacco. She just didn’t want them anymore.
Buddha was really onto something, then. Buddhism is a practical spirituality centered on the practice of compassion, and the meditative practices of Buddhism actually renders one more compassionate. It can’t be a bad thing.
I’ve met atheists and Marxists who are – or seem – spiritual, and plenty of Christians who are not. It’s about the being, the beingness of the person, the kind of love they put forth into the world. I’ve met Muslims with a spiritual energy to die for.
Spirituality is? – taking the risk in every moment to be honest, to connect with other beings (it might be a frog, my favourite amphibian) and live and love from my deepest sense of whom I am, from my wild and untamed self. And damn the consequences. It’s difficult. We are English. We are fairly shy. We like dissimulation and subterfuge; it is what, as a nation, we are more comfortable with. At least the chattering classes, the bourgeois, the middle classes. I can only speak for my own class, and I am not Jay Griffiths, though I admire her guts. I am more comfortable with Latins, personally, than the emotionally repressed public school Englishman (I did that. I went to a small private boarding school in Suffolk for six years).
WYSWYG: What You See Is What You Get, in my experience with people of Latin extraction.
If they don’t like you they come straight out with it. I respect that. In fact, seriously, who would WANT to live any other way once the inner wild being in each of us is brought to light? Who then would settle for the psychic equivalent of suburbia?
Read Wild: An Elemental Journey, by Jay Griffiths, to get an idea of what we have lost touch with, our mammalian, our animal nature, our inner wild being. Once we were wild beings, too.
Wild: An Elemental Journey is a magnificent book, and the woman has bags of courage, lots of cojones, as the Spanish say. Maybe we need to “re-wild” ourselves a bit (if a return to barbarism is all that’s in the offing, barring a socialist revolution: Socialism or Barbarism, Rosa Luxemburg), like Jay, sing from the rooftops, dance naked, and masturbate on a rock in the sun, as Jay describes doing in her book: she was doing a bit of Deep Ecology that day, connecting with nature, worshipping the sun and giving her all to the big O. Her account is in the book.
People are rarely so frank. In fact she was intensely lonely, in a wild place, far from human company. The orgasm brought her back to her sense of self, and reconnected her with her surroundings. Orgasm as sacramental act; I like it. Spirituality is not about going to church, it is not about which imaginary friend you have: it’s about love, love and respect for yourself, love and respect for your neighbours too, even the little frogs who come and visit me when I am harvesting vegetables I have grown.
Social revolutions are carnivals of bacchanalia, festivals of the spirit and festivals of the oppressed (Lenin), explosions of creativity and joy (it is not nice being oppressed, is it? It is often fearful, too): or they are boring barracks socialism, and end in Five Year Plans, the Fulfillment of Quotas, the Meeting of Production Targets, and the ruination of nature. And ultimately, a return to capitalism, consumerism, conformity and fear: China now. So revolutionary politics must include this spirit, as it will inspire the people of this land to rise against their oppressors.
Leftist political parties can be hard work emotionally! I didn’t see much joy and revolutionary fun in the 1970’s British Communist Party: it was a bit dour, a bit too serious, and very English. Yet there was also a real warmth among the comrades. We were en route for a better future, or so we thought…And when we stood up at District meetings and sang Jerusalem, by William Blake, it warmed my heart to sing the words of the greatest English gnostic poet, just as singing the Internationale in French to anyone who will listen does now.
Which Communist country kills 600,000 workers a year from overwork, and has a flexible working day of anything between 20 and 35 hours? China, the West’s new slave empire that produces all our electronic goodies. Someone died of exhaustion on a production line somewhere in China making my laptop…that thought does cross my mind (more here on Chinese workers).
I still identify as a Marxist, but as a Marxist Feminist Gnostic, which is totally unacceptable to the comrades! I’ve done the Communist Party (CPGB, PCF), done the Socialist Workers (SWP), but I couldn’t hack it, organised male Marxist politics (yawn…), so these days I work for the Green Party, campaign for them, but I won’t join. I’ve stopped being a joiner.
At least the UK Green Party do not have the one thousand hang-ups about the Soviet Union that the Communists had, and all that bloody coded language… They mean the things they say, too….it’s prefigurative politics, of the type I’ve always believed in. You carry the changes you want to see into your personal life. If you’ve rubbed shoulders with Stalinists for several years, as I have without ever being one of them, you’ll know how refreshing that is.
Where’s the Libertarian Marxist Feminist Gnostic Party?
That’s what I want to know. I haven’t seen one yet. When I do I’ll sign up.
I struggle with the materialist epistemology of Marxism. I have had a go at being a philosophical materialist, read the books (back in the day it was Maurice Cornforth, now completely and deservedly forgotten, and Emile Burns) but found it kind of miserable…back in the day I read a lot of Marxists. The only ones I could go for were the outliers, the non-conformists like Ernst Bloch, a German Marxist who wrote a thousand page book about dreams, day dreams, hope and the place of utopia in the human imagination (Hope The Principle, 3 vols). Bad Marxists, utopian dreamers. William Morris and his News From Nowhere. Nowhere is where I live – the name of Utopia!
Philosophical materialism, in the forms in which I have encountered it, rules out as nonexistent that which palpably exists!
I have yet to meet a Marxist, for example, who takes homeopathic medicine at all seriously, and I trained as a homeopath, so I know it works! They parrot the standard line. One would think that a revolutionary would have had a little more insight than that. If I had breast cancer, for example, a homeopath would be my first port of call. See Dr A U Ramakrishnan’s work in that area: consistent success across many types of cancer, with five year follow-ups, and none of the extreme toxicity and immune devastation of chemotherapy.
Mr Abiezer Coppe was, I imagine, a Christian gnostic sans le savoir, and inspired William Blake, who I think knew he wrote in the gnostic tradition (see historian E P Thompson’s last book, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, which is a brilliant study).
That is why I identify with Blake, too, and especially with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), a text on the dialectic before Marx and Hegel. It is a lot more fun to read than Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, too!
The English Ranters rejected all forms of spiritual, sexual and religious authority, and insisted that the only church was the human body. They were good chaps, religious anarcho-communists before communism, and more libertarian than Gerard Winstanley’s more puritanical Diggers, the only other Commies on the block at the time.
The Ranters had a endearing habit of preaching naked (if their enemies are to be believed) in the open air, on heaths, and drinking ale and fornicating at religious meetings. Very endearing. The Ranters did not believe in sin. Ranter women are said to have looked for sin in men’s codpieces, and on being unable to find any, declared there was none. That’s a kind of healthy materialism I like. So they didn’t believe in that superstitious shit the Church teaches, either, the Virgin Birth, Original Sin, or the sexual perversions resulting from the Christian, especially Catholic, strictures on the priesthood.
The Ranters were not feminists, but you can’t have everything, and in any case, who was a feminist in 1650? Ranters believed everything should be held in common, including women; they weren’t keen on the legal union of marriage and, I guess, just as in the 1960s, these 17th Century anarcho-hippie Ranter men enjoyed their sexual revolution and their sexual libertarianism while Ranter women got pregnant, had the babies, and were left holding them on the heaths of England, bereft of the men who had sired them. Maybe the Ranter males were indeed “only around for the conception”. Nothing new there, then!
So much for sexual liberation in 1650s England. Did they know about satisfying a woman in bed?
Funnily enough a feminist historian (Alison Smith) of early modern England told me that that there was a generally held view at the time that if a woman did not have an orgasm during sex with a man, then she could not conceive. So, in the beliefs of the time, no female orgasms equaled no babies…Quite progressive really, but did condoms exist then? I doubt it – condoms came in later…18th century, I think. Any condom historians here?
English Ranterism and the Digger movement represented a political dead end. With the Cromwellian Thermidor of the English Revolution after 1649, and the general persecution and ostracism of the Ranters, a lot of them recanted their beliefs, including Abiezer Coppe, stopped railing against the rich (one of their specialties!) and settled down to become Seekers, or Quakers (who are very much in the Gnostic lineage – no priests, no service, no dogmas, no crap, just the Inner Light of Not-God, etc…) or even Muggletonians…see E P Thompson’s book on William Blake (1993) for more. He interviewed the last surviving English Muggletonian. How about that?
More on the Ranters below:
Discussion of the Ranter historical context, and Ranter views.
- Extracts from the writings of Abiezer Coppe
My comments, writing as Abiezer Coppe, on Christianity and gnosticism: