William Irwin Thompson is a former college professor (he taught cultural history) who now heads up the Lindisfarne Association in New York, which is described on the cover of his new book, Darkness and Scattered Light (Anchor paperback, 189 pp., $3.95), as “a contemplative educational community devoted to the study and realization of a new planetary culture.” That is the sort of description that normally makes me reach for my Sex Pistols album, if not my revolver, but I find Thompson quite interesting, even admirable. Though there’s more than a hint of guru-ism in Darkness (subtitled “Speculations on the Future”)—his tone is lulling, as if he’s already in touch with the higher truths he claims to be groping toward—Thompson doesn’t seem to be angling for a consultancy with Jerry Brown or a Time cover.
Thompson’s a thinker, not a self-anointed avatar or a mind-manager like Werner Erhard. He’ll talk about dolphin intelligence, but as metaphor, to illustrate hard-to-grasp possibilities of thought—and you can’t figure out if Thompson believes dolphins think or not. Criticizing our linear, narrow-range sense of time, he’ll describe the “Long Count” of the ancient Mayan calendar, by which, he says, the Mayas plotted the positions of stars back in time millions of years—not because he wants to discover “the secret of the Mayas,” but because he’s interested in the idea that ancient peoples knew important things about astronomy, architecture, religion and biology that we don’t: that they lived in a different relationship with the world, not only because they were more primitive but because in some ways they were also more advanced.
Basically a skeptic, Thompson is willing to talk like a crank. He believes in a prehistoric ur-civilization with a highly developed, esoteric science (i.e., Atlantis) because such an idea speaks to his yearning for cultural unity: if all known cultures flow from this one lost source, then all are linked, if not “one.” Thompson tries to see culture, and the human place on the earth, not as, say, a cube, with different, discrete sides, but as a sphere, with different aspects, or phases, given one’s perspective. To Thompson, all myth contains not merely a kernel of historic truth (as the Biblical Flood and the flood that happened in ancient Sumer): rather, all myth is a version of history, and the problem is to learn to think in terms of what sort of “facts” (ascertainable knowledge) myths offer. If the Mayan Long Count contains a built-in prophecy of world disaster around 2000 A.D., the question is not quite “Will there be disaster,” but “In what way should we understand this prophecy?” Literally? Metaphorically? As an opportunity to think in terms of endings—regarding terminal pollution, say—on a very large, long scale?
Thompson appeals to me, I think, because as a futurist, he always goes back to the past, and compares, for example, prehistoric Britain of the Stonehenge period with contemporary China as others might compare the U.S. with the Soviet Union. His reach wildly exceeds his grasp, but unlike other contemporary mystics, that doesn’t lead him to dismiss those things he can grasp. Darkness and Scattered Light is nowhere near as sharp as Thompson’s earlier book, At the Edge of History (a study of holes in the modern mind and anomolies in the modern version of history), but it too can make you think. We will hear more from Thompson.
EDMUND WILSON AND THE MOVIES
→ Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912-1972, by Edmund Wilson, selected and edited by Elena Wilson (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 768 pp., $20, illustrated). One could say many things about this cantankerous, magisterial, wise and funny collection—which is, ultimately, about friendship, decency, and common sense—but perhaps the strongest praise that can be offered is this: Wilson’s letters, like few others, make one want to turn oneself into a correspondent. If you could bring yourself to write letters like these, you might even get letters like these!
→ Growing Up in Hollywood by Robert Parrish (Harvest/HBJ, 227 pp., illustrated, $3.95 paperback). A wonderfully frivolous anecdotal memoir of the movies by a man who started out trying to be Douglas Fairbanks, played one of the mean newsboys in City Lights, won an Oscar for editing Body and Soul, and ultimately became a mediocre director. Parrish writes cleanly—his is the only dry sense of humor I’ve ever come across that might be described as running rampant—and there seems to be not a speck of pretense in him; his stories are simply too good not to be true. My favorite has to do with his forced attendance at one of the faith healings held by Aimee Semple McPherson, L.A.’s top evangelist of the Twenties, but in Parrish’s hands the craft of editing, the legend of John Ford or the Hollywood Red hunts of the Forties become no less funny and no less revelatory. One classic touch:
When I was working for Harry Cohn [at the time of the Red scare, head of Columbia Pictures], my agent had asked me to sign a loyalty oath.
The next day, I asked Harry Cohn if he was suspicious of me. He said, “I’m suspicious of everybody. What have you done?” I told him that my agent wanted to know if I was a Communist, that he wanted me to sign a loyalty oath.
He said, “Tell him to go fuck himself. It’s none of his goddam business. Ask him if he’s a Jew.” I said I didn’t care if he was a Jew or not. He said, ‘Ask him anyway.” He got up from his desk and went to the bathroom adjoining his office. When he came back, he said, “By the way, are you a Communist?”
I said, “No. Are you a Jew?”
Rolling Stone, February 23, 1978