In the Shadow of Columbia’s Library

This is an extract, provided by the author, from Blame It On Blake: a memoir of dead languages, gender vagrancy, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso & Carr by Jacob Rabinowitz, “a memoir of the Beat generation authors I knew, and my own explorations of Witchcraft, Egyptology, Voodoo, gender confusion and mind-altering drugs, authorized (more or less) by William Blake.” This is part four, the final in this excerpt series, of chapter six, and is a personal narrative about the author’s acquaintance with Hermetic Library Fellow Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey.

VI: Hakim Bey, continued

4: In the Shadow of Columbia’s Library

For my part, I introduced Peter to my New York, the cafés of the Village that were open latest and left you undisturbed for hours at your table to sip your espresso and talk and smoke. My favorite was Di Roberti’s, on First Avenue near Twelfth Street, with black-and-white tiled walls and floors, and a few unrepaired bullet holes by the booth where Louie the Fish bought it back in the forties.

The fare at Di Roberti’s was unsubtle but wonderful Sicilian pastry. Around Easter the window would be filled with marzipan lambs, each holding its cross- banner in the crook of its foreleg. In the wall-covering front mirrors of that brightly lit pastry-shop you saw a miniature infinity of toy-like pink identical animals, a vista of childhood delight, multiplied into a likeness of candied eternity.

They also had Poppe di Monaca (“Nun’s Breasts”), the round dome-like cakes, filled with marzipan, topped with a cherry and glazed with white icing, through which the cherry showed, erect and roseate, an angelic and delectable nipple.

I tried to share with Peter the things that interested me, De Sade, Heraclitus and so on, but the only one he really took to was Nietzsche, whom he’d somehow missed out on. Peter treated Nietzsche like a chocolate-box full of ideas to be sampled.

He took a similar view of my conversation. When I look over the pages of TAZ I see a number verbatim phrases I can confidently claim, but I cannot say that he borrowed any of my ideas. Those didn’t really register.

I was the great beneficiary in our friendship. Peter taught me about Islamic civilization, a vast gap in my education, as it is in that of most westerners to this day. This ignorance forms a particularly appalling chasm, since Middle Eastern politics are now part of ours. Islamdom covered twice the territory (it extended from Spain to India) and lasted twice as long as the Roman empire, and was responsible for such international intellectual projects as medieval philosophy and medicine, modern algebra and chess. Algebra was created when the Arab mathematicians combined Greek geometry and the Indian concept of zero with their own system of writing numbers, which is the one we use today. Chess was an Indian board game not much better than checkers before Moslem merchants carried it across continents.

Typically Peter and I would talk all night. At five the next morning. I would go home to sleep, and then walk up to the Columbia library to get the books he’d mentioned. Thus I obtained a truly splendid education at Columbia, without Columbia’s assistance. It was in effect a graduate tutorial in Islamic {169} civilization from an expert whose knowledge had come from living in the midst of it.

Peter was also the first to tell me about Gnosticism—the antinomian heresy that beset early Christianity. This was just then becoming a modish subject due to Elaine Pagel’s vulgarization, the best-selling 1979 Gnostic Gospels. At about this time Gnosticism was also trickling into the popular culture via the last novels of P. K. Dick: The Divine Invasion, Valis, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Later on gnosticism would tinge such hits as The Da Vinci Code and the movie The Matrix. But when I met Peter, Gnosticism was still a topic largely unknown to anyone outside of academia and, on a deeper level, such it really remains. Although a few people have cashed in on it, it has largely been by citing the rediscovered gnostic scriptures to appeal to anti-Catholic feeling—never a bad bet in a Protestant country. The idea here is that the evil Catholic Church has been hiding the true scriptures so as to protect its monopoly. This ploy has been selling books since Gutenberg printed Luther’s Bible. It’s literally the oldest game in publishing.

Real knowledge of Gnosticism remains an esoteric rarity, and the book Peter referred me to, Hans Jonas’ 1958 The Gnostic Religion, remains the most valuable study of the subject available, though interested persons should now also acquire Bentley Layton’s splendid 1987 The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations, which has for the first time made the primary documents accessible to the non-specialist.

Peter was interested in Gnosticism for the same reason he embraced Islamic heresy, because it was a source of hoary authorities and tragic antecedents to legitimize his homosexuality and anarchism. He had invested far too much of his life in the spiritual path to reject religion wholesale, to be simply irreverently gay and atheistically anarchist. That might do if your only exposure to religion was a crude fundamentalism, but Peter was deeply read in mystical literature, and had considerable experience of spiritual practice.

The Christian gnostics offered a kind of liberation, but because of Christianity’s underlying ambivalence to material existence, their ventures into sacred sex and strange politics took a particularly blasphemous form. In fact, a kind of satanism. They regarded the god of the Old Testament with his list of prohibitions as the evil, stupid overlord of the physical world only, who had invented sexual morality as a further fetter upon the spirit. Thus gnosticism has always had a certain appeal for Christendom’s sexual dissidents. This excerpt from the Nag Hammadi hymn Thunder, Perfect Mind, will give an idea. Here the spirit of Holy Wisdom says {170}

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.

With scriptures like this, it’s pretty easy to see how you could have whatever quantity or character of sex you please and still end up holier than the pope!

Peter wasn’t particularly attracted to the Gnostic path; “gloomy libertines” was how he described them. But he found in them an instructive parallel to Islamic heresies, which offered pretty much the same validation of this-worldly pleasure and total individual freedom, but without the melodrama. The dualism that underlies the Islamic version of gnosticism is largely neutralized by the stricter monotheism of Islam.

Dualism may be a term too concise to be clear. It’s the notion that mater and spirit are opposed principles, forever at war in the cosmos, as light versus darkness, good versus evil, &c. Peter explained to me that, whatever gnosticism’s metaphysical shortcomings—the fact it defines the material world as evil—its dualist ideology provides a splendid tension for a novel’s plotline. Peter was particularly interested in how this appeared in science fiction: here P. K. Dick is the parade example. I would extend Peter’s insight to say that dualism is the only, though crucial, Christian element in Tolkien’s otherwise pagan Lord of the Rings, and that the entire genre of detective novel can be viewed as a secularized version of the same plot structure. The archetype of Saint Michael (the patron saint of police officers) fighting the Antichrist is always somewhere present in the roman policier.

It was through Peter that I rediscovered science fiction. I’d read a certain amount of it while a teenager, but had figured it was one of those childish things one puts away when one becomes a man. Peter made a quite compelling, though somewhat self-serving argument that SF was the modern “literature of ideas,” comparable to the didactic poetry of old, like Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, the great first-century BC epic poem about physics. I wasn’t, and am not, persuaded that the alternate futures and imaginary worlds of this particular genre fiction are really dealing with serious questions. Not even to the same degree as the satiric fantasy Gulliver’s Travels—at least they have not done so yet, to my knowledge. Yet Peter’s insight is to this degree valid: science fiction would be ideally suited to presenting philosophic concepts in narrative form. At present, its exponents seem satisfied if now and then they can propound a grotesque moral conundrum.

Peter would go through bales of SF novels, and refer me to the very best of what he found. In this manner I read a number of intensely enjoyable books which would have otherwise eluded me. Dick’s Divine Invasion was a {171} particular favorite, as was Gibson’s Neuromancer, both of which I read several times. I recall trying to interest Bret in this later. I thought the opening line was rather grabby: “The sky was the color of TV tuned to a dead channel.” Bret, profoundly unimpressed, responded with,

“I suppose that’s the cyberspace equivalent of it was a dark and stormy night.”

Both of these books dealt with gnosticism. Divine Invasion did so very literally, incorporating the myth of a mental breakdown in the godhead which caused the emanation of our universe. Neuromancer, with its visions of cyberspace as a disembodied network of twinkling information extending through the black non-space of pure consciousness, gave a very up-to-date version of the traditional, disembodied heaven of Christianity.

Peter was my psychopomp through all this literature, from Arabic and Persian classics to SF. He had read seemingly everything and could discuss it all in intelligent detail. There was no one teaching at Columbia remotely comparable to him in breadth of knowledge or literary sensitivity. Though Allen and Bill were immeasurably better writers, compared to Peter’s, their literary culture was limited and provincial. I’m not being a bitch: compared to Peter’s range and agility, just about about anyone looked limited and provincial. It was thanks to Peter that my cultural compass points included Confucius, the Tale of Genji, the Mahabharata and Rumi. Peter was the whole silk route (which he’d in fact traveled in person as much as through books.)

Peter also introduced me to food. My parents had taught me nothing about cooking or dining beyond some rather out-of-date table manners. As a boy, I couldn’t leave before the formal end of the meal without saying “may I please be excused.”

My mother didn’t really cook. Her culinary accomplishments were almost encompassed by meatloaf and tuna-noodle casserole. My father’s only participation in dining was grilling steaks. Were it not for our ethnicity, which vouchsafed us delicatessen food once a week, I would never have guessed that food could be good.

Peter introduced me to real dining, which I maintain is usually the same as cheap dining. I haven’t yet been to an expensive restaurant where the food was really tastier than the fare in a good inexpensive one, be it an ethnic establishment or a plain old American diner. There’s no earthly reason to ever pay fifty dollars a plate, unless someone else is paying, and even then, it’s a bore to be beholden while someone literally shoves their success down your throat. {172}

With Peter I learned to frequent the Cuban-Chinese places that were then so common on the Upper West Side near Columbia. I learned how excellent even an ordinary dish of rice and beans can be, and what delight there is in a simple cup of coffee, when it’s Café Bustelo made in an espresso machine and topped with steamed milk to make a café con leche. Henceforth it was with a grimace that I sipped the thin biter stuff Americans like, which even they have to excuse with copious doses of sugar and cream. I ate roast goat and oxtail soup, chicharrones de pollo, deep-fried morsels of chicken, and crispy sweet fried sweet plantains. All of it cheap, all of it excellent, and always served in a relaxed and courteous atmosphere without a trace of “attitude.”

On our forays into Chinatown we usually ended up at Lin’s Garden on Bayard Street. This magnificent hole-in-the-wall closed around 1990. It was famous for its deliciously greasy chow fun (broad rice noodles) which were served with the meat of your choice mixed in. Best of all was the duck chow fun. To my amazement Peter would order half a roast duck on the side to eat along with his. I’d never seen anyone consume such quantities of admittedly savory but quite rich avian fat. Although I never followed Peter as far as he led into gourmandise, it was a revelation to me that fat wasn’t bad. I’d grown up carefully trimming the white from the strips of steak on my plate. Now I realize this had been the carnivore equivalent of scraping all the butter from your toast.

Peter also opened to me the world of botanicas. These are shops that sell religious and magical supplies to practitioners of Santeria, which is West African paganism syncretized with Roman Catholicism. Santeria is the universal folk religion of Latino communities in America. It’s the Spanish and Portuguese equivalent of Voodoo, and no doubt very similar to the popular Catholicism of Europe in the Dark Ages, in its mixture of scriptural religion and uneffaced paganism.

Santeria flourishes throughout the Americas, and is in fact a highly evolved initiatory religion, with its own music, mythology and ecstatic rites. In 1980 few but professional anthropologists had even heard of it, despite there being a botanica on every block in the Hispanic areas of Manhattan. Peter’s apartment, on 107th and Amsterdam, was right on the border of a large Dominican community, and he had a botanica literally on his doorstep.

With Peter I explored these stores, full of holy cards and plastic statues of saints, as well as herbs, tinctures, novena candles in their tall glass jars wrapped with bright labels printed with Spanish prayers for every purpose, from gaining the favor of one’s guardian angel to winning a court case. Among the standard catholic statues were some genuinely odd-looking ones, like Chango, the seated Santeria Zeus, a crowned, bejeweled but mostly {173} naked human figure with shiny ebony skin and a delirious grin, like an occult Uncle Ben. He is identified with Saint Barbara, who holds a sword and a communion cup, in which the Santeros see a symbol of the mortar and pestle with which Chango produces thunder as he grinds out lightning. A storm appears above a castle in the background of St. Barbara’s image, and this seals the identification. An image of Barbara may thus be used for prayers and offerings to Chango, and indeed the two spirits more or less fuse, so no contradiction or inconsistency is perceived. For the believers in Santeria, the gods, on the most profound level, are the saints. Thus they all consider themselves good Catholics and would be horrified to hear themselves characterized as pagans. Their notion of Catholicism is simply a bit more, well catholic, (universal and comprehensive) than that espoused by the Roman Church.

Then there’s Elegua, the equivalent of Janus, god of doorways, beginnings and endings. He’s represented by a grey truncated cone-like head, like what you’d get if you used a child’s sand-bucket as a mold for concrete. Cowries are pressed in with the nubbly slots facing outwards for eyes, mouth and ears. Beyond these details the head is eerily featureless.

Peter was making collages of Santeria deities with holy cards, marbled paper, hand-watercolored gay porn and frames from “tijuana bibles.” I was edified by his appreciation of crude popular religious art, and the way he swept all the ephemera he enjoyed into the artistic mix.

As regards the Santeria imagery and Catholic kitsch, on my own I would have dismissed it as the unskilled and slightly creepy expression of vulgar, ignorant superstition, but Peter would look at the images on the magic candles or the bottles of hoodoo oil and delight in the errors of anatomy and perspective. In fact, the aesthetic shock of an untutored rendering frequently enhanced the power of the imagery. This was artistic information of a kind undivulged at Columbia’s art history classes. Being with Peter seemed to give me new senses.

Peter’s conversation had a certain acrobatic method to it. Whatever the topic, he would take up an opposite, devil’s advocate position. Not one of outright contradiction, but one that encouraged you to define your own position more clearly. The talk was a kind of genial sparring, which no one ever really “won.” Peter always made you feel like you and he were together getting to the bottom of something interesting.

He did however have a consistent theme that goes through his conversation, at least when any really interesting subject is being discussed. In a way it is the very opposite of that which preoccupied Socrates — though Peter’s method was indeed socratic. The Greek was forever testing for an underlying absolute, the ideal. Peter on the other hand always advocated the {174} mongrel and mixed over the pure, and focused on the detail rather than the pattern.

In literature he always preferred the late, the decadent, the mannerist over the classical and golden-age exemplar. In Latin, which was his major at Columbia before he dropped out to wander across India, he had no interest in Virgil or Horace, except as sources of ideas and myths that might illustrate his ideas. The author he admired and has translated is the fifth century AD poet Dracontius, of Vandal North Africa, whose works are generally considered an arid expanse of abstruse Biblical and Classical allusions, varied only by stale rhetorical tricks. Dracontius is typical of a poet of decadence, capable only of scribbling derivative imitations of the masterpieces written centuries before.

Similarly, in Greek, Homer bores Peter and the dramatists mean nothing to him, but he has read with attention the voluminous Dionysiaca, written in Greek by the Egyptian Nonnius in the fifth century AD. I don’t recall what gold Peter succeeded in panning out of that Nile mud.

The point is that Peter is interested in the moment when classical culture is melting into its barbarous surroundings. You can see this in late Roman sarcophagi, where the execution of classical motifs, say a scene from the life of Hercules or the signs of the zodiac, are becoming a crude repetition of visual formulae whose meaning is being lost at the same rate as the visual realism. Yet it has a certain barbaric energy, a power which wasn’t there when it was all still careful and correct. As the imagery yields to pattern, geometry charges the art with an energy unfelt in Classical sculpture for centuries. At the despised margins of culture Peter discerned lawless new forms, just as he fnds at the margins of society, in the dispossessed and naive, a creativity which is lost to society’s respectable circles. From the Moorish Science Temple to the hoboes to trailer trash to the die-hard hippies of failed communes, Peter took a Whitman-like pleasure in culling the fowers that grow in the ruins.

In religion, he was always interested in the heresies, the syncretisms, the crackpots and apostates. The aberrations and the byways Peter considered to be of importance equal to that of the royal road and highway of knowledge.

To give Peter his due, our sense of cultural peaks, progress and purity are rather subjective. A case can be made for everything being a mongrel admixture. The most pristine examples of cultural continuity known to history are in fact streams so polluted they catch fire by themselves twice a year. But the merits of this point of view can be overstated, as I hope I just have.

I once challenged him, “You think the incidental detail as important as the overall pattern. For you, a camel would be as essential to Islam as the {175} Koran.” Peter proceeded to maintain exactly this position, and not by connecting the camel to Ibn Khaldum (the sixteenth-century Arab historian whose great thesis was that civilization is motivated by the tension between the nomadic and the settled). No, Peter maintained the centrality of the camel on purely aesthetic grounds. Did he mean to suggest that the picture on the iconic American cigarette pack was the equivalent of a surah (chapter of the Koran)? In its way, yes!

As a primary intellectual orientation, Peter’s perspective led to some questionable conclusions, particularly evident to me when he ventured on the deep waters of archaeology and ancient history.

It was from Peter that I learned to be a scholarly trespasser, ignoring the signs that said “private property, keep out!” to draw cross-cultural comparisons, and look beyond my own specialty. Peter’s intellectual agility and really remarkable insights can all be traced to one great understanding. From a certain point of view, mutability is the rule, everything flows, fixed forms are an illusion. This is the perception that made Peter take to Nietzsche.

Change is the very life-blood of reality. Transitions and intermediate phases are more common than full development and complete realization, and they’re never neatly separated. The outmoded past survives just under the surface of the present, superstition lives hardily on within religion, repressed impulses contribute to our noblest acts.

It is not by coincidence that a Luddite love of bygone ways, sympathy for naive superstition and a trust in spontaneous desire are key features of Peter’s worldview. Peter is a partisan of the undercurrents which belie the placid surface.

Rabinowitz Blame It On Blake