Thursday, 17 April 2014

A Response to Tim Pendry’s Review of The Treadwell’s Papers, Vols. I & II

By Guest Contributor - Stephen Alexander

[Editorial Introduction - I am honoured by Stephen Alexander's agreement to provide a response to a somewhat old (2010) review of his Treadwell's Papers. Although there are places where he encourages a further response, I think it more honourable just to let his opinion stand and let the reader come to a view. It has been unedited by me but I have added a factual note for clarification. To permit a personal note, I rather liked this riposte - it scored some hits.] 

Firstly, I’d like to thank you Tim both for the review and for affording me an opportunity to make a few comments in response.

Perhaps I may begin by providing a brief contextual history to the series of talks given at Treadwell’s in 2005 and 2006. Back then, Christina [1] was still making a concerted effort to appeal to a spectrum of people and not just occultists and those of an esoteric bent. Philosophers, poets and intellectual provocateurs from a wide range of backgrounds and with a broad range of interests were made welcome and whilst the shop always had the look of an enchanted grotto, it never felt like a magical ghetto
I had previously given a six-part series of papers at Treadwell’s in 2004, entitled ‘Visions of Excess’, which traced out a libidinally material tradition of philosophy running from Sade and Nietzsche to Bataille and Foucault. ‘Sex/Magic’ was, however, the first series written specifically for Treadwell’s and attempted, as you rightly say, to bridge the worlds of modern European philosophy and modern pagan witchcraft. I now recognise this project to be in vain: ultimately, philosophy (like science) only begins where all religious superstition and stupidity ends. However, at the time, I naively hoped that the interesting practice of witchcraft could be divorced from its untenable (and conservative) metaphysics and coupled to a more radical politics of desire.

It’s already apparent, I think, that by the time I came to give the ‘Thanatology’ series, just twelve months later, I had pretty much abandoned any hope of this and my own brand of literary-philosophical paganism (informed by D. H. Lawrence and Nietzsche) was being replaced with a more sceptical form of nihilism as my hostility towards those who sacrificed intellectual integrity on the altar of romantic religious fantasy intensified. Things reached a breaking point in 2008, when I gave my final six-part series of talks at the store entitled ‘Reflections beneath a Black Sun’. This not only effectively marked the end of my relationship with Treadwell’s, but also a decisive move away from my own youthful follies in the dangerous zone where politics meets paganism; i.e. half-a-dozen nails in the kind of thinking that can quickly become fascistic and lead to terror.
Having said this, I can now turn directly to your remarks and comment on one or two specific issues. Firstly, let me explain why D. H. Lawrence was so central to my thinking in The Treadwell’s Papers (and has remained an important reference and point of departure). For one thing, it needs to be understood that I am primarily a Lawrence scholar – and not a philosopher. So, for example, whilst my Ph. D. was on Nietzsche’s project of revaluation, it was nevertheless mediated via the poetry and prose of Lawrence.

Secondly, I still think that Lawrence forms the perfect point of interface not only between English literature and European philosophy (Deleuze describes him as one of the four great heirs to Spinoza – the other three being Nietzsche, Kafka and Artaud), but also between philosophically-informed literature and paganism. For Lawrence was a profoundly religious writer familiar with occult works by the likes of Mme. Blavatsky, James Pryce, and Frederick Carter.
Thirdly, my thinking at the time was that more of the Treadwell’s audience might be familiar with Lawrence’s work (or able to get hold of it from the library or in cheap Penguin editions) than they would be familiar with works by Heidegger or Deleuze (available only in more expensive academic editions). Indeed, Christina stocked many of Lawrence’s books at Treadwell’s, as she was herself a great Lawrence devotee.
Looking back, there was doubtless an overreliance on Lawrence and the reading I gave of him was far too generous and uncritical. Ironically, these days some members of the Lawrence Society regard me as a renegade or traitor.

As to your contention that ‘Sex/Magic’ was far superior to ‘Thanatology’, I’m not sure I’d agree with that, but, yes, maybe you’re right: this is just a matter of preference really. I certainly don’t think the latter series lacks the intellectual vigour or interest of the former, though it is rather different in tone and subject. That said, an argument could be made that all the papers presented at Treadwell’s are attempting to do the same thing; namely, deconstruct metaphysical dualism and the binaries it erects.

Thus, in ‘Sex/Magic’, I was trying to dissolve gender distinctions (as well as genre distinctions). In ‘Thanatology’, on the other hand, I was more interested in interrogating the categorical distinction made between life and death (arguing that the former is only a rare and unusual form of the latter). In the ‘Zoophilia’ series that followed in 2007 – the most successful series I think, certainly the one I enjoyed writing and presenting the most – the goal was to dissolve the distinction between human and animal.

This remains, it seems to me, a crucial project; but one which very few of the Treadwellsians dared to take seriously or carry forward. You say I was a bit cruel on them, but, actually, I was far too kind and generous and because I said things with a smile they mostly thought the work could be considered humourous (and that I was basically just a clown there to amuse them). When I did tighten and harden things up a bit all that happened was that people would shake their heads, wag their fingers, or leave and then email Christina demanding their money back. As one greatly offended early leaver told Christina: ‘The talks are neither about sex nor magic and the speaker is an idiot.’
It’s not a case of my wanting the people who come along to the talks to believe the things I tell them; it’s not even relevant to wonder whether I believe the stuff or not. I don’t believe in belief and sometimes I say things not because they are what I think, but so as not to have to think them any longer. Further – at all times – I insist on my right to be transpositional; that is to say, to move between ideas wilfully and whimsically, paradoxically and perversely. I don’t care about the spectre of logical consistency any more than I care about building consensus.

I’m not sure this betrays philosophical confusion, however, as you claim, or that it means I allow personal factors to dictate and determine what I say. I would be particularly disappointed if the latter were true, as I strive hard to eliminate all personal qualities and to effectively disappear within the text (to become-anonymous and clandestine).

Sorry you didn’t much like ‘Thanatology’. But, Tim, you’re a bit of a vitalist and full of a certain (I won’t say put on) joie de vivre so I don’t imagine topics such as suicide, deicide, and necrophilia will hold much appeal.

Too much Lawrence, you say, well, I’ve addressed (and conceded) this. Too assertive, you say, well, that’s an unusual criticism as often people complain I’m vague, ambiguous, and always slightly hesitant about saying anything (thus fond of using terms like ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’ to constantly qualify statements).

I don’t think the opening to ‘Thanatology’ – in which I simply presented the facts of life and death – was dark; or that we can (or should) move on from these facts. On the contrary, I very much think people should remind themselves of these on a daily basis and never seek any kind of false comfort in fantasies of a personal survival of death or immortality. Where, pray, have you moved on to? And do tell me where (and how) you imagine Nietzsche’s Übermensch comes into this. I mention the overman as the one who can teach Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence in the final paper of the series; how exactly do I misuse or misunderstand things? I also develop a practice of joy in the fourth essay, so things aren’t really quite so bleak or joyless as you suggest.

If Heidegger’s thought of Dasein as a being-towards-death [Sein-zum-Tode] is also too dark for your tastes it’s hardly my fault. But again, I’d greatly appreciate it if you could indicate why my reading of this is so poor. It’s obviously somewhat compromised by the limitations of both paper and audience, but I don’t think it is bad (in terms of being mistaken) even if a bit banal.
You’re right to find the Aztec stuff disconcerting; particularly Bataille’s and Lawrence’s ‘sulphurous-politico-theological’ speculations to do with human sacrifice and the need for cruelty etc. I don’t, in fact, advocate Nazi neo-paganism or even Nietzschean Dionysianism, but, yes, I probably could have and should have offered more of an objection to this kind of thinking. In fact, this comes in volume IV of Book II of The Treadwell’s Papers – ‘Reflections beneath a Black Sun’ – which I mentioned earlier.

I agree (and it was Lawrence’s position post-Plumed Serpent) that there has to be more than merely sensational blood lust and a desire to palpitate to murder, suicide, and rape, for these things result at last only in complete inertia and a reactionary form of nihilism. Still, in order to better counter these things we need to understand them. Further, it’s important I think to show the pagan-minded where their romantic celebration of irrationalism and primitivism and noble savagery etc might lead them. It irritates me when they tell me about the ancient Egyptians, or Native Americans, and don’t also talk about female genital mutilation or a whole range of other forms of religious cruelty and cultural violence.
Moving on ... I know that the actual dead do not actually resurrect. I was clearly talking about ‘symbolic’ death and resurrection in the final paper (virtual, but nonetheless real). Obviously, I’m performing a philosophical reading of novels and poems – but not sure I share your ever-so-slight (but always evident) contempt for literature as for other forms of intellectual labour. And I certainly don’t subscribe to the dualist notion of theory/praxis, as if thinking were not itself a form of action and a very important form at that!
A world that is more-true-to-itself, you say, as if there ever could be such a thing (and as if ever there were such a world it wouldn’t be a form of hell). It is in the closing paragraphs of your remarks, Tim, where you disappoint: it’s you (not me) who suddenly lurches into the most depressing idealism and becomes a defender of Truth – the true world, the truly transhuman, the truly Real, etc. You even start to talk about love! Don’t you see, after 2000 years of this, that love is simply hate on the recoil?

One might politely suggest you return to volume one, page one and start again ... 

Stephen Alexander (11 April 2014)

Editorial Notes
[1] Christina Oakley-Harrington, owner of Treadwell's, now in Store Street, London. Treadwell's is the centre of a vibrant community of neo-pagans, magicians, esotericists, academics, collectors, artists and intellectuals, offering a certain equidistance between the practice of beliefs and the study of beliefs with respect to the core values of both. The lecture programme she organises is one of the treasures of London intellectual life.