Waffling Prophet


Waffling Prophet Passages About Earth: An Exploration of the New Planetary Culture By William Irwin Thompson Harper & Row 206 pp $6 95 Reviewed by Richard H. King Assistant Professor of History...

...Waffling Prophet Passages About Earth: An Exploration of the New Planetary Culture By William Irwin Thompson Harper & Row 206 pp $6 95 Reviewed by Richard H. King Assistant Professor of History and Philosophy, Federal City College, author, "The Party of Eros" Since its founding, America has witnessed a host of cultural crises that, in retrospect, turned out to be the clamors of particular ehtes as they were being displaced Puritan divines predicted doom during the time their influence was waning Southern intellectuals announced the departure of grace from the world whenever the South seemed to be losing some contest Henry Adams, who may be our most famous Jeremiah, linked the decline of the Republic to the ousting of his sort of people from political and cultural leadership Perhaps one should see in this way, too, the recent confrontation that pitted the defenders of mainstream art against the "rude barbarians" from the California outlands—which brings us to William Irwin Thompson Thompson's own life history is in many ways emblematic ot a breakup in the old literary establishment and the search for a fresh vision Alter earning a PhD at Cornell, Thompson taught humanities at MIT, and published an excellent study—The Imagination of Insurrection—on the role of myth-making m the Irish struggle for independence Yet at some point in the 1960s a confluence of personal and historical forces prodded him to leave the groves of academe and try his intellectual wings In his engrossing At the Edge o] History Thompson recounted his journey to the West, to Los Angeles and Esalen, where he found that the future offered by the counterculture did not work any better than the unsatisfactory present A stunt in Canada paralleled his growing spiritual estrangement from conventional thought and feeling Now, m Passages About Earth, Thompson explores the materials—Eastern and Western, mystical and rational, ancient and modern—that he argues must provide the basis for a "planetary culture," a global community Specifically, Thompson is in search of a "new Pythagorean science," a union of the discipline of rationality with thought's imaginative and mythopoeic qualities, currently all but lost in the West A lapsed Catholic, Thompson is intrigued, albeit not uncritically, with the ideas of such theorists as Marshall McLuhan, Ivan Ulich, Paolo Solen, and Pierre Teilhard de Char-din, who talk of materializing the spiritual and spiritualizing the material To him, their writings indicate a revolt against what Max Weber called the rationalization and desacralization of the world, unleashed by the twin pillars of modernity?Protestant individualism and Western science Besides these thinkers, Thompson is also fond of quoting Arthur Clarke, the Indian mystic Gopie Krishna, and the German physicist C F von Weizaecker as contemporaries sharing or guiding his pursuit Thompson grounds the new worldview on four premises first, that intelligent, nonterrestrial life exists, second, that we will encounter such life in the future as, he claims, we have done m the past, third, that our history is neither linear nor progressive—extending backwards much further than 6,000 years—and that religious myths are the fragments of a "lost history of earth", fourth, that we must avoid the separation of subject and object, mind and matter, flesh and spirit A constant theme in each of Thompson's books has been the extent to which events of the past v/ere "mythical,' the products of collective fantasies Here he tries to turn the notion inside-out Because what once existed was the result of our imaginings, what we imagine at present could come to fruition Literature, our mythology, may predict the shape of the future Although he is wholly serious about his quest tor a new perspective, it must be said that Thompson is rather less serious m his presentation of evidence and method of argumentation Names and ideas merely come tumbling after one another, as if the author expected a fresh configuration to emerge through sheer quantity He jumps from Tantric yoga to cybernetics to Moebius strips to the indeterminancy principle with scarcely a pause for reflection or consideration Moreover, Thompson's intellectual "decompression' has been accompanied by a deterioration in his writing style Passages About Earth is Thompson's least rewarding effort, tor the exploratory open-mindedness of his previous works has turned from a virtue to a vice Provocative curiosity has modulated into lack of conviction, a vacillation between description and prescription, a waffling between proclaiming the truth and merely pointing to the unusual One is never quite sure whether Thompson is speculating on what will be, what could be or what should be?and neither is he Not ironically detached enough to play the Henry Adams he sometimes wishes he were, Thompson lacks as well the prophetic vision, consequently, his own visions never seem more than peculiar or quaintly eccentric Thompson, apparently, has now stopped his wanderings, at least geographically, and has established the Lindisfarne Association on Long Island A combination school and community, it will study and live the newly emerging culture, presumably attempting to bridge the yawning gap between theory and practice, body and mind, magic and technology, the institutional and the esoteric I hope the experience proves valuable and that his next book will be superior to this one...

Vol. 57 • September 1974 • No. 18

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