French translation here
Collin Cleary—the enigmatic sage of Sandpoint, Idaho—burst onto the intellectual scene almost ten years ago, with the publication of the first volume of the journal TYR: Myth—Culture—Tradition. Along with Joshua Buckley and Michael Moynihan, Cleary was one of the founding editors of TYR, having a hand in all aspects of the first volume and contributing three substantial articles and several reviews. (Although he is now no longer involved in editing TYR, he continues to contribute to it.)
Who is Collin Cleary? He could accurately be described as a theologian of neo-paganism, specifically of the Nordic variety. He is also a Traditionalist with a capital T, meaning that he falls within the same school of thought as René Guénon and Julius Evola. He is a Tantrika (no mean feat for a Nordic pagan). And he is an anti-modern thinker. Cleary is a polymath who has read widely in philosophy, religion, mysticism, mythology, and literature. His principal influences are a surprising combination of figures: Martin Heidegger, D. H. Lawrence, G. W. F. Hegel, Lao Tzu, Evola (but not Guénon, interestingly), the Indologist Alain Daniélou, and the Nordic pagan theorist Edred Thorsson. All of Cleary’s interests and influences are on display in the remarkable essays collected in this volume.
The Leitmotiv of these essays is the hypothesis that our ancestors possessed a special kind of “openness” which made them aware of the gods—something that we have now lost. In other words, Cleary does not believe that our ancestors “invented” their gods; instead, they were literally aware of aspects of reality now closed to us. Cleary believes that this openness is closely bound up with openness to the natural world (though they are not, strictly speaking, the same thing), and that the loss of this state of mind is the root of most of our modern problems: environmental abuse, the collapse of communities, the breakdown of relations between the sexes, the folly of social engineering, moral relativism, scientism, and much else. In Cleary’s view, therefore, the recovery of this openness would not just be simply a return to belief in the gods, but also an antidote to modern decadence and dissolution.
How exactly can openness be recovered? This is the difficult problem Cleary poses for himself. In one way or another, he deals with it in every essay in this volume. What we find in Cleary’s body of work is not the same ideas repeated over and over, applied in cookie-cutter fashion to a succession of issues, but an approach that develops over time. From the first essay (“Knowing the Gods”) to the last (on the autobiography of Alejandro Jodorowsky), we find Cleary continually elaborating and refining his answer to how we might recover the lost openness enjoyed by our ancestors.
“Knowing the Gods” is Cleary’s first major essay, published in the flagship volume of Tyr. The central feature of the piece is an insistence that we must eschew all attempts to “explain” the gods, or our ancestors’ experience of them. Why? Quite simply because trying to “explain” the gods—trying to say, for example that “Thor is just x” (or “the experience of Thor is really the experience of x”)—reflects the standpoint of modern rationalism and scientism. To approach the gods in such a fashion is therefore to adopt a mindset that guarantees we will be unable to recover the perspective of our ancestors—who most certainly did not reflect on what the gods really were (or what the experience of them really was).
In effect, Cleary proposes a strategy for coming to knowledge of the gods: assume that the gods are a brute fact, and that we have lost our ability to know them. Then address the issue of reconstructing or restoring the state of mind that made possible our ancestors’ experience of the gods. He takes this position, in part, simply because of the gross psychological implausibility of the claim that our ancestors simply “made up” their gods and then chose to believe in them. As he makes clear in a subsequent essay, Cleary is not insisting that we should believe that Thor wielded a literal hammer, or that the gods of the Greeks are literally to be found atop Olympus (a claim the ancients, who had been to the top of Olympus, all knew to be literally false). But he believes that in speaking of the gods, our ancestors were speaking of, again, some aspect of reality of which we seemingly can no longer even conceive. To recover this, Clearly makes a Heideggerean proposal: that we adopt the standpoint of “openness to being.”
Cleary tells us that openness to the gods begins with openness to the being of things as such. He argues that the “flight of the gods” begins not specifically with our disbelieving in them, but in the adoption of a more general attitude—what Heidegger calls das Gestell (translated into English, rather imperfectly, as “enframing”). This is the attitude of regarding all that exists as essentially raw material that waits upon human beings to rework or “perfect” it. This mindset is, in fact, the essence of modernity. In a real sense modern people do not regard the things of this world as possessing any intrinsic being or nature. They are all pure potential, waiting for us to put our stamp upon them. Trees are potential pencils, a mighty river (to use Heidegger’s famous example) is a potential power source, and the men of today are, with proper re-education, the new and improved men of tomorrow. For modern people, therefore, things have no real nature of their own—their nature is always something that has yet to emerge, with our assistance. And so modernity always orients itself toward the future, toward a promise of perfection to come. For Cleary, what causes the flight of the gods is just this attitude, which recognizes no limits on human power and rejects the idea of things having any definite, intrinsic being.
Cleary’s essay “Summoning the Gods” (written for the second volume of Tyr) provides a more expansive answer as to why he thinks this is the case. In this essay, Cleary argues that the experience of the gods just is an experience of wonder in the face of the being of things. Thus, openness to the gods presupposes openness to being-as-such. The experience of a god is man’s wonder in the face of some aspect of reality he has not created, which awes him with its beauty, or power, or dreadfulness. We are struck by the sheer facticity of things; we wonder that certain things should be at all, or be the way that they are. It is like the Zen experience of satori, in which one is suddenly struck with awe before the simple fact that the rose bush is, or that the storm is. For Cleary, this experience is in fact the “intuition” a god. The gods thus might be described (and Cleary toys with this expression) as “regions of being,” which have been personified and assigned iconographies and mythologies.
Clearly has not violated the strictures he laid down in “Knowing the Gods”: the subsequent essay does not attempt to “explain away” the gods at all. In other words it does not reduce the experience of the gods to something else, thereby deflating and invalidating it. Like Rudolf Otto, Cleary is attempting a phenomenological description of divine presence: how the divine shows up to us; how we become aware of it. Cleary’s ideas about how our ancestors encountered their gods are based partly upon the study of classical texts and upon philosophical speculation, guided by a sense of what is psychologically and culturally plausible. They are also partly inspired by Cleary’s own personal experience: the result of following the recommendations he lays out in the original “appendix” to “Knowing the Gods” (published here for the first time).
Though Cleary believes it is impossible to “think” one’s way back into the mindset of our pagan ancestors, he has drawn certain reasonable theoretical boundaries around what would constitute a cogent understanding of divine presence. For instance, Cleary insists, reasonably, that it is condescending and naïve to think that our ancestors took their myths and the symbolism and iconography of the gods literally. (Those who think that Cleary’s phenomenological account of divine presence is, in fact, deflationary are probably those who have somehow assumed erroneously that a “genuine” experience of a god would be, for example, actually seeing a tall, one-eyed, humanoid Odin leaning on an enormous spear.) Cleary argues that myth and symbol are used to explicate or to “fix,” imaginatively, the being of a god—or the nature of a region of being. Such myths and symbols sprang from the imagination spontaneously. There was, further, a “logic” to these imaginative offerings: once established, they allowed man to elaborate his knowledge of the regions of being, and to draw profound connections between one region and another. For Cleary, this imaginative reflection—occasioned by wonder in the presence of the being of things—is the basis for the Tradition extolled by Guénon, Evola, and others.
“Summoning the Gods” is a long and rich essay—the most substantial and important of Cleary’s writings. Cleary supports the points he makes by reference to Traditional sources and even the etymology of words used to refer to the divine. He also draws interesting parallels between his ideas and those of authors like Ernst Cassirer and Hermann Usener. The essay includes a lengthy and fascinating discussion of how Cleary’s phenomenology of divine presence can shed light on Plato’s theory of forms—arguing, strikingly, that Platonism is “polytheism for atheists.” (First time readers primarily interested in neo-paganism could be forgiven for skipping this section—though it contains profound reflections on ancient philosophy.)
“Knowing the Gods” and “Summoning the Gods” can safely be said to be Cleary’s major theoretical works. His other essays fall into the following categories: those that deal narrowly with Germanic paganism, essays dealing with works concerning paganism, and essays dealing with popular culture.
Cleary’s critical but respectful review of Alain de Ben-oist’s On Being a Pagan is significant in that it reiterates his insistence in “Knowing the Gods” that those who would be pagans must reject anything that buys into modern promethean anthropocentrism. Here, Cleary also goes on the attack against relativism (which appears in Benoist’s book as Nietzschean “perspectivism”). Relativism is an ubiquitous feature of our modern world, and is certainly prevalent in the “neo-pagan” movement, and in all aspects of the “new age.” (Ironically, some of those who profess to be “radical traditionalists” also espouse a kind of relativism.) Cleary argues, however, that relativism is not only an untenable position but a thoroughly modern one, incompatible with the perspective of our ancestors. As Heidegger taught us, openness to being is simultaneously openness to truth. If openness to the gods requires openness to being, then would-be pagans cannot recover belief in the gods if they imagine that truth is simply theirs to invent. The essay concludes with Cleary drawing again from Heidegger, and this time also from Lao Tzu. He suggests that what we need is not the prometheanism of Benoist’s quasi-Nietzschean paganism, but Gelassenheit (“letting being be”) or wu wei (“non-action”). Openness to the gods requires that we relinquish the modern desire to control and manipulate—including the desire to manipulate ourselves into belief in the gods—and make a kind of “space” within ourselves, in which the divine might show itself again.
Cleary’s essays on Nordic paganism are grounded in original source materials and in etymology, but they also contain a great deal of speculation. In these essays, Cleary displays a remarkable knowledge of myth and the secondary literature surrounding it, as well as a wide knowledge of the philosophical and mystical traditions, both East and West. Cleary’s essay on Karl Maria Wiligut is daring just in that it attempts to make sense out of the ideas of a man who was not only a member of Himmler’s SS, but also thought by many to be insane. The essay does a remarkable job of making sense out of what often seems like nonsense. This piece and Cleary’s “Philosophical Notes on the Runes” both show his deep immersion in the German philosophical tradition. Cleary originally wrote “Philosophical Notes on the Runes” purely as personal exercise (it was first published in Runa years after it was written). When Cleary sent a copy of the essay to Edred Thorsson shortly after completing it, he was promptly promoted in the Rune Gild from “Learner” to “Fellow.”
Cleary’s essays “What God did Odin Worship?” and “The Missing Man in Norse Cosmogony” also display his fascination with Indian philosophy. “What God did Odin Worship?” is really an attempt to synthesize Asatru with Shaivism, and it is his most daring and speculative essay. Cleary has had a long-standing interest in Tantra and Shaivism, but was troubled by their apparent incompatibility with the Nordic pagan tradition. Feeling a strong affinity for both, for many years he studied the two along parallel tracks. Those finally intersect in “What God Did Odin Worship?” (which appears here for the first time in print). In this essay, Cleary argues that in order to understand the story of Odin’s “self-sacrifice” in the Poetic Edda, we must recognize that the god has dual aspects, which correspond to the Indian gods Rudra and Shiva. Cleary does not stop there, however. He goes on to suggest that Odin’s sacrifice of himself to himself represents a path of self-transforma-tion similar to that outlined by Julius Evola in several of his writings. (In fact, it is this essay more than any of the others which demonstrates Cleary’s careful study of Evola.)
The volume concludes with two essays on “popular culture.” The first deals with The Prisoner television series. This is genuinely one of the great series, and worthy of the attention it has garnered over the years. Nevertheless, a tremendous amount of pretentious nonsense has been written about it. Cleary’s essay is, without question, the most profound and penetrating analysis of The Prisoner that has ever been published. Cleary shows why the series is not really about “individualism” at all, as is frequently asserted. He interprets it as a religious critique of individualism, and as fundamentally anti-modern.
The final essay in the volume concerns the intellectual autobiography of Alejandro Jodorowsky, the creator of the cult films El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973). This essay was written for the projected fourth volume of Tyr (which, as of this writing, has not yet appeared), and it also reflects Cleary’s profound interest in Tantra. Here he comes full circle, back to the concerns of “Knowing the Gods,” arguing that Tantra (understood in a certain way) can be seen as a path to the recovery of Tradition. The conclusion to this essay makes a perfect conclusion to the volume itself, and is some of Cleary’s best writing.
The neo-pagan movement has its share of New Age charlatans, half-educated cranks, and books and websites so bad they invite ridicule. The great virtue of Collin Cleary’s writings on paganism is that they achieve a remarkably high level of philosophical sophistication and profundity. This means that they will appeal only to the most serious-minded of individuals interested in neo-paganism. In other words, they will appeal only to the few. (Many of those who identify as neo-pagans today have been infected by the modern pathologies Cleary brilliantly skewers in the pages of this collection.)
Savitri Devi divided individuals into “men in time” (hapless conformists), “men above time” (those, like mystics, detached not just from their age but from any), and “men against time.” Collin Cleary is most definitely a “man against time,” setting himself not against this modern problem or that, but against modernity itself. Whatever one may think of him, he is without question the most dangerous man in Sandpoint.
May 27, 2011
You can pre-order Summoning the Gods here.
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