This is a Paper originally written for an undergraduate class on Gnosticism. (c) 2000 Halsted M. Larsson, All Rights Reserved

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"When you see something like that it's like God is looking right at you just for a second and if you're careful, you can look right back." -Ricky Fitz, American Beauty

American Gnostic: A reaction to and expansion upon the Thomasine resonance with the American ethos posited by Harold Bloom's Article "'Whosoever Discovers the Meaning of these Sayings...' a Reading " 1

In his essay, 'Whosoever Discovers the Meaning of these Sayings...' a Reading " Harold Bloom makes the claim that " The popularity of the Gospel of Thomas among Americans is {an} ... indication that there is indeed 'The American Religion': creedless, Orphic, enthusiastic, proto-gnostic, post Christian," and asserts later in this same essay that many, "varieties of this American religion," that is, such religious sects as the Mormons and Christian Scientists that are somehow natively American, are, in truth, Gnostic churches or, more accurately, "involuntary parodies of the gnosis in the Gospel of Thomas." It is all well and good to make these claims, but in the limited space of this short essay bloom fails to point out exactly how the Mormons reflect this American Gnostic tendency and in the end attributes the American affinity in general for this particular Gnostic text simply to its lack of dogma and rigid paths to salvation. The reader is then left to wonder whether comparing Thomasine gnosticism is merely a convenient vehicle for an interpretive essay, or whether there really is something fundamentally Gnostic about the American ethos.

It is without question that the Gospel of Thomas has little in the way of strict rule and sets the goal of salvation along the path of self-discovery. Sayings such as 36 and 37, which pronounce the dangers of worrying too much about appearance, 64, which tells of those too caught up with their other pursuits to join a dinner party, and 6, which speaks simply, "do not lie and do not do what you hate" in response to questions of how to fast and pray, speak plainly to this very personal form of seeking.2 Likewise it is true that America is founded on the principals of freedom of, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," which is almost a simple rewording of the right to pursue one's own path to salvation. From its beginnings as colonies of religious pilgrims fleeing state religions and other forms of persecution, through its inception in Revolt against tax laws in which it had no say and to its uninvolvment in two world wars until they began to interfere with America itself, the United States and its citizens have always had a fierce streak of independence. Even at this very moment the two candidates to lead America through the next four years are refusing to let even the voting processes outlined in the constitution dictate which one should become the next president. It is for this American dislike of externally imposed systems of belief that Bloom draws the parallel between his American religion and the Gospel of Thomas.

But not all Americans consider happiness to be enlightenment, to be salvation. Indeed, some consider it not to be these things simply because these are the goals of the old Church, of the religious establishment that America's self-righteousness broke the back of. Instead, the most common vehicle of happiness' tenor is the American Dream: that amorphous concept that immigrants landing on Ellis Island saw in the statue of liberty, the pull that drew Americans ever westward, that caused the gold rush of 1849, and that, once the Great Promised Western Continent had been divided among the dreamers, became itself represented by the vehicle of possession, of money, of wealth. Is it possible to reconcile this American obsession with the accumulation of physical things with the Thomasine suggestion for, "the one who has found the world and become rich," to ,"renounce the world?" (saying 110) Before writing the American love of money off as something fundamentally un-gnostic and a point where the American ethos simply fails to match up with Thomasine imperatives, consider the original cause of this avaricious lifestyle. As stated above, the pursuit of material wealth is ultimate result and, indeed, current state of this American Dream. But as was also stated above, the American Dream has not always been solely concerned with the desire for wealth. Originally, it was simply the desire for a better life and America, with all its open land and freedom, provided the perfect canvas for people to paint their dreams upon.
Perhaps the best way to judge just how Gnostic, or at least Thomasine, the American ethos is is to look at its works of art. F. Scott Fitzgerald, an American author who wrote after the first world war, points out the above described perversion of pure dream into pursuit of money in his novel, The Great Gatsby. In this novel the title character changes his life, changes his name, and accrues a massive amount of money through extralegal means simply to achieve the love of a woman to whom he had tied his dream long ago. On the last page of the novel Nick Caraway, the narrator of the story, describes a rather wealthy stretch of Long Island, NY like this:

... as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailor's eyes - a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.3
With this passage, Fitzgerald describes exactly how this process of evolution from the purity of exploration, of the search of one's own dreams, into the worldly concerns of houses, money, and social status occurred. Simply put, the trees that had once beckoned Europeans to explore them, had been leveled and replaced with an idol to mammon in the form of a magnificent gaudy house. By this description America is becoming increasingly non-gnostic in its outlook. After all, not only does Thomas' Jesus suggest the renunciation of the world rather than the embrace of worldly things, he implored his followers to not worry about what they should wear and Gatsby's main concern is his appearance: how the world and, in specific, the object of his affection perceives him.

But at the same time, look closer at the passage from Gatsby. Specifically look at it next to saying 2 in the Gospel of Thomas: "'Jesus said, "Let one who seeks not stop seeking until that person finds; / and upon finding, the person will be disturbed; / and being disturbed, will be astounded; / and will reign over the entirety." What are these Dutch explorers but those who seek, and what is "green breast of the new world" but the thing they find at the end of their seeking. A thing which disturbs them by compelling them, "into an aesthetic contemplation neither understood nor desired," and which finally astounds them by bringing them face to pre-existent face with, "something commensurate to their capacity for wonder." What's more, all of this description is being done by Caraway who, "as ... the inessential houses began to melt away ... gradually became aware of the old island," that was nothing short of the Thomasine kingdom to the dutch sailors. In this last page, Caraway sees, "the old unknown world," in the midst of the everyday world in which he lives. In this last page Caraway sees the kingdom that in Thomas 113 is, "spread out over the earth, and people do not see ...". In the midst of this circus of misdirected seeking, there is a breath of the truth, of the Gnostic seed that managed to hit good soil rather than falling on the stones or among the weeds.

Nearly the same idea expressed at the end of The Great Gatsby occurs at the beginning of Moby Dick, when that novel's own narrator, Ishmael, speaks the words:

Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? ... Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.4
Here Herman Melville uses the metaphor of the water to convey his own concept of gnosis. This passage resonates not only with Thomasine but also with Sethian gnosticism, almost ominously, with Narcissus' attempts to grasp the key to life that is present in his own image, and his subsequent failure. Along more Thomasine lines, Narcissus saw the water, the image in the water, as the thing to be grasped when, in reality, it was merely his own image, his own twin, and he had merely to look at himself, to reach within himself, to get the thing present in the water. Once again this passage illustrates the tragedy of the American displacement of the search for meaning onto the external world. It should be noted that a sometime schoolteacher sometime sailor, a passerby just as Nick Caraway is, tells the story of a man who dies in the failed pursuit of the death of a white whale, a creature of this sea that distracts from the true search for the kingdom, an artificial symbol of the true ultimate goal, just as Gatsby died.

A full paper each could be written on Gnostic readings of these the two traditional contenders for the position of the Great American Novel and, indeed, they would both point strongly to the existence of such Gnostic, or at least Thomasine, undercurrents in American society that it would hold these two books in particular as the best representations of itself. However, there is neither the space nor the practical need to describe either in greater detail than this essay has already given. It would do better to show that these are by no means the two lone examples of Thomasine resonance in the American canon. Ironically, the most Thomasine works of American literature are those that acknowledge the fact that the path to Truth has been lost. That is, they are found largely amongst the works of American Modernism, the writings of the lost generation, the movement that saw the language of classics and of European literature, the established canon of metaphor and complex web of allusions and cultural icons, as something that had become an impediment to understanding rather than a means of achieving it. A movement to which Fitzgerald belonged. The movement's eventual embrace of new, more universal, American symbols and stories to base works upon recalls Bloom's original reason for calling the American Religion proto-gnotic, but once again there is more resemblance than on this single point.

T.S.Eliot's frustration when he finds , "It is impossible to say just what {he} mean{s}!" in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. (ln 104) speaks strongly to the concept that the most important things cannot be told to others, at least using words, and the "overwhelming question" that looms, unanswered, through the poem reminds one eerily of the three sayings in Thomas 13 that Jesus conveys to Thomas and are never conveyed to the reader or to the other disciples, for they would take stones and stone him and be in turn consumed by the fire that came from those stones they threw. The universe itself, contracted into a ball and, "roll{ed} ... toward some overwhelming question."(Prufrock, ln 93) only to be received with the misunderstanding, with stones, with the simple phrase, "'that is not what I meant at all/ that is not it, at all.'"(Prufrock. lns 97-8) This is not the only poem of Eliot's that speaks with a voice peculiarly like that of a Thomasine, if a somewhat lost and struggling one; the sometime male, sometime female narrator in his The Wasteland echoes an attempt to make the male like the female and the female like the male as described in Thomas 22. And, carrying perhaps the closest resonance, is the last section of The Hollow Men which contains the lines "Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow/For Thine is the Kingdom/Between the conception/And the creation/Between the emotion/And the response/Falls the Shadow/Life is very long"(The Hollow Men, sct 5 lns 5-10) which both illustrates the barrier between the preexistent and real that is shown in sayings 83 and 84 and which permeates most flavors of Gnosticism, but also, eerily, talks of "The Kingdom."

While it does not always embrace the Gnostic path, the problems of 20th century Americans and, indeed, pre-20th century Americans, as shown by their literature, are the problems of an aspiring Thomasine Gnostic and, like Thomas, they realize what these problems are. Perhaps they lose their way occasionally, but the artistic voice of America seems to provide a steady guide that speaks with the voice of Thomas' Jesus, even to this day. Having come out of a century of war, the depression and despair that many of the moderns felt, the surety that the path to The Kingdom, however it is described, had been lost, into a time of relative prosperity, or at least perceived prosperity, the mood turns hopeful. The following are the closing lines from last year's winner of the Academy Award for best picture, spoken by the main character as he is dying, remembering the end of his life, after he has described the path that lead to his death, and to his achievement of gnosis - for what else can it have been if, at the end, he sits with a smile on his face, remembering his life, having not tasted his death at all. Here, then, are the final words spoken by Lester Burnham in American Beauty:

I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me but it's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once and there's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst and then I remember to relax and stop trying to hold on to it and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life." You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure.

But don't worry, you will . . . someday.

1 1 Bloom, Harold. "'Whosoever Discovers the Meaning of these Sayings' ... A Reading. from Meyer, Marvin (ed.) The Gospel of Thomas
2 Layton, Bentley (Tr.) The Gnostic Scriptures, Doubleday, New York, 1987. Unless otherwise noted.
3 Fitzgerald, Francis Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner Paperback Fiction, Simon & Schuster. 1995
4 Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Project Gutenberg, May 1991.

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