Sunday, 13 February 2011

Black Sun by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke

We all want to be heroes. We all want to think we fight the good fight, that we stand by our moral principles, that we do what's right regardless of the odds. That's one of the main attractions of genre fiction in whatever medium – while life is full of compromise, defeat and cowardice, in our dreams we are always right and noble and our opponents are always wrong and insidious.

For a little while we can live vicariously as a hard boiled private eye or a brave soldier or a wise-cracking rogue with a heart of gold. That's one of it's chief attraction, and that's where the escape in escapism takes us.

In the pursuit of these fantasies, our own righteousness is guaranteed by the author, of course, who's always on our side, and we are freed to exercise our angry and violent impulses without concerning ourselves with their consequences. Heroic righteousness allows us to kill, main and brutalise our enemies without restraint. There's nothing we can't excuse ourselves if we know our cause is right.

Science fiction and fantasy give us a further out: in these genres our enemies can be literally non-human (rather than the literary inhumanity that more Earth-centred foes in other forms of adventure fiction, the Soviet spies, yellow peril and Middle Eastern extremists). Perhaps most famously, the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings set out a kind of enemy one can kill guiltlessly, as they have no admirable qualities whatsoever, and this has certainly set a pattern in heroic fantasy that's been formalised in the D&D generation of writer with their weird numerical categorisation of racial characteristics and the literal moral compass of alignment.

Norman Spinrad spotted the worrying aspects of all this in the 70s and highlighted it with brilliantly cold clarity in his wonderful novel, The Iron Dream. Spinrad saw beneath the harmless fantasies at the murky longing for power and violence that lay beneath.

The Iron Dream imagines an alternative history, where, instead of getting in to politics, becoming dictator of Germany and all that subsequent trouble, he decides to follow his artistic inclinations. He travels to the USA and becomes an illustrator of the pulps and before long, he's writing his own stories and becomes a bit of a hit. The main text of the novel (after an intro explaining the “history”) is one of Hitler's most highly regarded stories, "Lord of the Swastika", which parallels (of course) Nazi history and Hitler's beliefs. As well as winning the Hugo, the novel becomes a huge cult and the costumes (heavily hinted to be like Nazi uniforms) become a staple of costume shows at cons.

I couldn't help thinking about The Iron Dream while I was reading Black Sun. Not all of Black Sun goes into this fantasy territory – there's a lot of more down-to-Earth and depressing stuff about jumped-up scout masters and paramilitary fantasists having jamborees where they pretend to shoot race enemies in the face, and organise marches in the East End or Brixton or Notting Hill or Barnsley and intimidate blameless kids and grannies, and about the sorts of Christians who can reinterpret Christ's message of love and redemption as one of hate and violence, but what interests me are the whacky ones that basically live in a fantasy world.

Nazism has well-documented roots in elitist, racialist philosophies of the 19th century. The theosophical idea of the cycle of ages – drawn from various strands of Eastern mythology, but not a million miles away from Hesiod's idea of the golden, silver, bronze, heroic and iron ages – definitely lends itself to a racialist reading, and this, alongside its tradition of ancient hidden masters, was a key informant of 19th and early 20th century occultism.

I'm not sure that Helena Blavatsky had quite the same ideas of literalness as many of her followers, and certainly not the sceptical world. The impression I get of her from Madam Blavatsky's Baboon by Peter Washington is that she was the kind of fantasist who was able to simultaneously lie through her teeth and believe every word she said (a common type in occultism, and perhaps a key facet of the occultist mind). But then the Nazis got ahold of it all and tried and literalise it, to turn it from a poetic description of the evolution of the individual soul (as Steiner might have spun it) into a description of the world and a justification of their own utterly fictitious superiority.

These same ideas endure today and continue to influence far right thought. The defeat of the Third Reich is just a temporary set back to them in the great precession of ages outlines in ancient Vedic texts. They understand the trials and tribulations they must go through; in fact it's a philosophy that attracts life's malcontents due to the very impossibility of their dream ever being realised.

Goodricke-Clark does an excellent job of outlining the fantasies and sci fi mythology that sits behind a lot of neo-Nazism. The UFOs and secret bases will be familiar to fans of Hellboy or Indiana Jones, but here the fascist racists are the good guys rather than the bad.

It is a genre view of the world, a world driven by metaphor actualised into reality. The stupider sci fi fans used to say “Fans are slans!” (although in this case they would no doubt have the support of the author, who was a keen early scientologist and a supporter of Hubbard's ideas on what a mind without engrams might be capable of). Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream directly satirises the naturally fascist direction of the golden age sci fi mind, but the modern equivalent is the transhumanist and singularitarian – utopian thinkers who take satirical or poetic ideas of transformation and think that they can be made real.

I am an aficionado of cranky beliefs. It stems from my own youthful enthusiasm for all things weird – UFOs, ghosts, the Loch Ness monster – and maybe the old sci fi and fantasy fans secret wish that the world was more interesting and magical than it really is. For a long time into late adolescence, I kept digging that furrow of the magical world, hoping it would yield its secrets, that there was something real underneath. I went from fairly naïve materialistic saucerism into more more and more esoteric areas, looking for the source of it all, the key that would unlock the secret history of the world and therefore the secret history of myself, starting from Peter Haining true mysteries to Colin Wilson and the jolly Hammer horror theatrical occultism of Crowley and the Golden Dawn, looking for the trace of the real in it, driven by a tiny sliver of hope that the Ancient Masters might be out there somewhere, just waiting for me to find them out.

I was saved – if that's not too strong a word – by literature. Literature attempts to describe the world as it is. The best writers are not just poets and wordsmiths, or tellers of tales (“natural born story teller” always sounds like a euphemism for “complete hack” to me) but wise, clear-eyed observwers of human frailty. Great literature is deflating: it reminds us that we're not heroes, that we have feet of clay, that the other guy actually has a good point. There's a stereotype of a airy fairy, unworldly artsy type, credulous and naïve, but it is my experience – both in life, and in my reading on the topic of unworldy credulity and naivete – that the ones that fall most heavily are those with the most materialistic outlook.

Scientology is perhaps the greatest example of this, a non-religion created by gearheads who felt that Freud's talking cure was overly imprecise. It started as a pseudo-scientific variation on the talking cure – with added technology – that was hyped through the sci fi community and became increasingly unhinged. It's founder – and its adherents – were unable to tell the difference between metaphor and fact, between the poetry of transcendence and a literal materialistic view that tried to rationalise angels and demons of the soul into space aliens that – briefly – had more credibility. Hubbard was a sci fi writer, of course, but was well-known in West Coast esoteric circles, having been part of Jack Parson's OTO derived Crowleyean group, so he was well set to wilfully misinterpret the concepts at the very heart of it, and let the whole shebang be taken over by spivs as he became more and more addled.

The transportative power of art is to break us out of our dull lives and make us remember the particularity of life, it's unique pain and universal misery. Artists of any worth share the kind of scepticism that you find in the better medical and legal types. When you look at the meat and shit and blood of the world, as only doctors, lawyers and artists are forced to do (I might allow for social workers), it's hard to see any purpose in it, and yet from this can come the deepest sort of morality, one that owes allegiance only to oneself and those one holds dear.

It's easier to think that there's a cute conspiracy behind it all than to deal with the messy, ugly, boring truth if it all, especially if one lives in in a bubble or privilege, just as it's easier to write stories about crime and mystery and violent conflict. Conspiracy theorists and esoteric Nazis dwell and mither around because deep down they believe in a world of purposes and reasons, a world where they're continually frustrated by exterior forces that they refuse to own, because to do so would expose their own weakness and powerlessness.

When I look at the history occultism, and certainly occult Nazism, I see the consistent inability to separate the metaphorical from the literal. I went into occultism looking for magical powers – action at a distance, the power of the mind, contact with otherworldly creatures be they angels or aliens or some odd mixture of the two. What I found instead is a complicated, metaphorical system of psychotherapy. The supernatural entities, in fact, are just aspects of our unconscious; magical powers are a kind of self-hypnosis, a willing suspension of your rational mind so that you can plumb the depths and find whatever it is that makes you tick and tinker with it, if you're so inclined, although it seems like a lot of work for not much gain to me.

It's so easy to slip in to a life of illusion, to forget the real things that matter. We build castles in the sky and sometimes, according to my reading of the occult texts, we've got to break it all down, cleanse ourselves to remember what life really is. Fascism - perhaps, in fact all totalitarian regimes - assure us that we can forget all that bother and let someone else think for us. “You must submit to your overwhelming desire to obey,” is what Hitler told his followers, and if that's not a permission to stop thinking, I don't know what is.

Some of the great occultists and gurus got it. I think Gurdjieff pretty much spells it out, although it's well hidden in his own writings because he was unable to stop himself bullshitting, for whatever complicated reason. What I've read of "The Work" tends to remind me of one of my favourite verses from Lou Reed and John Cale's LP Songs For Drella, from the song “Work”:
Andy said a lot of things,
I keep them all up in my head
When I can't decide what I ought to do
I think “What would Andy have said?”
He'd probably say “You think too much
That's cos there's work you don't want to do
It's work. The most important thing is work."
So, if you ever you start thinking that there's a conspiracy of secret zionists keeping you down, or that multiculturism is to blame for racist madness (rather than individual acts of murder and one's own habit of outraging Middle Eastern nations with dubious invasions and resource theft) get back to (the) work!


  1. Well Ned you'll have to keep it more shallow for me and Kath. I'll just have to take Drellas advice and get back to work. Thanks for putting us Drs in the privileged few who see life in its rawness, but that can be pretty variable.
    Good read.

  2. I was thinking of the number of doctors and lawyers that turn their hand to writing. I think those professions turn one's mind in the direction of how people end up how and where they are, starting from the shit and blood and working back, rather than the gear-head's way of thinking up a system and trying to account for the shit and blood with it, which lead (inevitably!!!) to Hitler!!!

    It's not true of all doctors and lawyers, of course... they're only human, too. Or inhuman, some of them!

    I'm just working up my comments on Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which sort of touch on some of this... stay tuned! (In a round about way, I also tackled this in my notes on Red Plenty. I'm like a dog with a bone!!)

  3. And you know, on reflection this one kind of wanders a bit... It could probably have been cut from the bit beginng "I am an afficianado of cranky beliefs...", as that seems to be a separate topic.

    Ah well, that's why it's a blog and not a book review or something, I let myself free associate here...

  4. Hi, stumbled on to this. An enjoyable piece of work

  5. Thanks, anonymous! This post has been getting some hits since Mr Goodrick-Clarke died a few weeks back.


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