Sunday 25 September 2016

Review of the Geoffrey Ashe novel The Finger and the Moon (1973)

Cadbury Castle
This novel was given me by John Fitzgerald; and I took it with a feeling of curiosity as to why he had specifically wanted me to read it; but the reasons are clear enough since the theme includes a sort-of Albion awakening movement, and the venue is Glastonbury in Somerset not far from where I was living at the time.

Geoffrey Ashe, the author, was then very well known for having excavated Cadbury Castle hill fort and claiming it was the site of 'Camelot' - i.e. the presumed historic King Arthur's headquarters. I have read a couple of his books on Arthurian themes - this is his only novel, although it is really a set of essays and set-pieces linked by a loose plot with his fictional self at the centre, surrounded by some 'representaive' albeit sketchy characters (indeed, the author states this in the introduction in describing the book's history).

My interest in this book was focused on the insights it gave into why the 'romantic revival' of the late 1960s and early 70s (the theme of this book) went wrong, and failed to achieve anything significantly valuable in spiritual or religious terms.

Ashe was clearly a very intelligent and well-informed man - and the 'diagnosis' of the spiritual ills of modernity seems spot-on. But he also shows why the Glastonbury-type of spiritual movement (eventually becoming 'New Age') proved incapable of providing an effectual answer to the problems of modernity.

The novel is set in a Glastonbury based spiritual community called Allhallows - and the experiences of Geoffrey in writing a piece of investigative journalism about the place, and what they are doing. The impressive and insightful 'guru' leader is called Martin, who turns-out to be using an experimental drug that provides apparently genuine spiritual insights and visions.

Martin offers courses of lectures, and experiences, designed to pass on his wisdom - and at Allhallows he is surrounded by an assortment of the kind of people that I would expect to find in any such venture.

Although my attention was mostly engaged throughout, I nonetheless found it difficult to read this book; because I disliked the people and the milieu. It was unpleasant to spend time in their company! I have come across so many of these types in life and print; and find that (usually sooner rather than later) they drag me down with their sordid pretentiousness.

Such characters have over the forty years since this book become very dominant in the modern Glastonbury, and by now made the town a place of quite strongly negative spiritual atmospheres and energies:

The reasons why the Hippie/ New Age romantic revolution so utterly failed to reverse our civilisational decline, and instead worsened it, can be seen in this novel.

They can be boiled-down to three errors:

1. Anti-Christianity

The general spiritual attitude of "Anything But Christianity" was bound to sabotage all efforts. When the central claims of Christianity are actually true, to build a spirituality around the denial of its truth and a gut level hostility, inevitably created a damaging spiritual distortion.

For example, William Blake is oft quoted and mentioned in this book, and was a major influence; the fact that Blake was intensely and pervasively Christian was set-aside.

2. Dreams and Drugs

The spiritual diagnosis of alienation was addressed by the attempt to heal it by moving back to the immersive, passive spirituality of childhood and hunter-gatherers.

This led on to a focus on dreams, trances, and intoxication: there was, at this time, a genuine (albeit bizarre) hope that psychedelic and hallucinatory drugs might actually cure the modern malaise, might actually heal the state of alienation.

This error was based on a misunderstanding of what was required; of what the romantic movement was supposed ('destined') to achieve. The error was to suppose that Romaticism was a reaction to modernity, intended to provoke a retreat and a return (hence the primitive, ethnic, regressive interests); when Romaticism was in fact pointing the way forward and through the materialism, reductionism, scientism of modernity and out of the other side to something new and different from anything that had existed so far. 

What actually happened was The Drug Culture; which included a few people who claimed that they had been spiritually enhanced by drugs. But objective evidence seemed to point in the opposite direction: that drugs had simply lowered their standards, muddled their powers of discernment, and pointed them in almost exactly the wrong direction towards mentally-clouded passivity rather than alert, clear purposiveness.

3. Sex - and the sexual revolution.

This novel depicts how the lack of a real Christian frame, exacerbated by the consciousness-reducing focus on dreams trances, rituals and drugs, subverted the spiritual aspirations and impulses of such people and communities as depicted in Allhallows.

The fact is that the Anti-Christian eclectic perennial spirituality of the Hippy/ New Age type - which nowadays is epitomised by various Wiccan, Druid, Shamanistic and Neo-pagan groups - is weak and feeble by comparison with real religion. 

Furthermore such spirituality has a fatal blind-spot relating to sex; indeed, the specific and visceral rejection of Christianity among such folk is often primarily, albeit covertly, a rejection of Christian guidance on sexuality. Thus Christianity is rejected for sexual freedom; spirituality becomes weak and feeble; and sexuality (more sex, with more people, in more kinds of different ways - always pushing at boundaries...) expands to fill the gap.

When the spirituality is weak, and the power of sexuality is simultaneously unacknowledged and untrammelled; then sex takes over - in many ways and at many levels. This is depicted clearly in the description of Allhallows - the positive spiritual aspirations are feeble, incoherent, malleable; the sexual undercurrents and experiments are strong and dominant; the drive for power and status and pleasure is ascendant; and the outcome is a rapid descent into corruption, darkness, dishonesty, mutual exploitation, hatred and passive misery.

For me, The Finger and the Moon provides a chilling exemplar of the way that sex and drugs and 'Anything But Christianity' doomed the spiritual revolution, and twisted it around to do harm rather than good.

A kind of fascination kept me reading it, but I found it mainly unpleasant. I read it in a strange sequence because although I found much of the analysis (the 'diagnosis') to be very useful, I could not get-through the set-piece descriptions of drug trips and visions, nor a play about the Holy Grail - so I read nearly halfway, then skipped to the end, then went back and skimmed the middle section selectively.

I also found myself unsympathetic to the basic stance of the book, confirmed in the Introduction; which was that the spiritual efforts described in Allhallows were broadly what might be described as 'a good and admirable thing' which had led-onto other good things; and that therefore these people were spiritual pioneers worthy of respect and gratitude.

By contrast I found them self-deceiving, self-indulgent and spiritual cowards - who knew enough to know what they ought to do, but chose instead an easy path of short-term gratification, self-indulgence, hedonism.


William Wildblood said...

I haven't read this book (though I enjoyed some of the non-fiction books by Geoffrey Ashe years ago) but this is an absolutely bang on the nose correct analysis of why the alternative spirituality movements of the '60s and '70s mostly fizzled out into nothing. It seems to be almost axiomatic that when Christ is rejected, or his centrality diminished, by people pursuing what can broadly be described as paths of Western esotericism any real spirituality is also lost. You are left with attempts to expand the self rather than go beyond it by which I mean not just in terms of consciousness but also, and primarily, character.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I should point out that the above is my interpretation of the implicit message in Geoffrey Ashe's book - it isn't what he says himself. Indeed, my impression is that - with some reservations, especially concerning drug use (his later annotations state that he regrets having used this device in the novel) - Ashe continues to regard the Hippie -> New Age spiritual movement favourably, and believes it led to good (and that modern Glastonbury is a place of innately beneficial 'vibes'). In sum, I don't think he personally learned the lessons I believe his novel embodies.

David Stanley said...

Sounds like my cup of tea. I will try to get a copy. Are you familiar with Phil Rickman? His books feature these themes of new age/ christian conflict from a standpoint of sympathy to both outlooks. " The Chalice" is his Glastonbury book with lots of references to Cowper Powys, Dion Fortune etc. I don't know if he is a christian but I think he has been through the new age scene and emerged with some wisdom and respect for the C of E in the end.

On another tack, do you know of a novel that features Stonehenge ( other than Tess obviously?)

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - To clarify - Finger and the Moon is not explicitly about New age/ Christian conflict - Christianity is only mentioned to dismiss it, e.g. a few sentences where characters explain what is wrong with Christianity.

I don't know Phil Rickman's work - and I can't think of any novels with a significant role for Stonehenge - although there is a visit to Stonehenge in one of Colin Wilson's 'Lovecraftian' novels - maybe The Mind Parasites?

360 Decrees said...

But what is one to expect from a novel with a title that contains the names, at least in American slang, of two disrespectful gestures?

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

360, I assume the title alludes to the Buddhist metaphor of the dharma as a finger pointing to the moon (i.e. reality), not to be mistaken for the moon itself.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - You are right, and 360 was making a joke.