The Free Spirit Proposition
The “Free Spirit,” considered in its recurrent historical manifestation – as term and concept, as idea and ideal, and as elusive attainment in some singular instances – offers the possibility of radical liberation from societal constraint. Its history is admixed with the history of religion, since its attainment is connected to higher experience, and its liberties and license have often been given sanction by mysticism; indeed, the Brethren of the Free Spirit (later condemned as the Heresy of the Free Spirit, or Cult of the Free Spirit) was a lay Christian religious movement during the late Middle Ages. Beyond Cult or Heresy, with reference to its expressions both secular and spiritual in the realms of art, thought, and life, this radical liberation of the individual in connection with higher experience for me gives rise to the idea of a Canon of the Free Spirit – in this space I hope simply to give a suggestion of the possibility of this Canon: writings, philosophy, and life instances marked by freedom preserved or attained in spite of societal or existential hampering. Often such are marked by the ecstasy of the unleashed; here, the aesthetics of liberation have a relation to “the poetic,” which at a certain standard of definition combines thought and sense, feeling and language, and life-blood, into moments of cruel beauty – at least that’s the way Antonin Artaud would have it, as a mad Free Spirit and damned poet. The upward spiraling of spirit seeking liberation corresponds to the mystic interpretation of “To the pure all things are pure”: such can yield the licentiousness and charlatanism of figures like Rasputin and the false messiah Sabbatai Zevi, and yet even a saintly person like Marguerite Porete – author of The Mirror of Simple Souls – gets burned at the stake. When applied to secular life, notions of the Free Spirit devolve into mere lifestyle, as with the hippies and beat wannabes; yet, a living Free Spirit is the essence of inspiration – and remains rare and refreshing. In life beyond lifestyle, radical freedom associated with power has given us some of the worst tyrants ever; and yet, Akhnaton once ruled. Perhaps it is best manifested in freedom of thought, and lived thought/lived poetry: Blake, Artaud, Nietzsche, Heraclitus, as a start.
In fact, my start has been with the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, whom I’ll focus on here, along with ancient Roman emperor Heliogabalus: two extremely different and distinct figures, extreme personalities, and each in their own way exemplary of what I mean by the Free Spirit. I entered into their worlds at separate times and for separate projects, and out of the tension of “unapparent connections” (with reference to Heraclitus fragment 54 according to the Diels-Kranz ordering) between the two of them, came first inklings of a broader orientation to the Free Spirit proposition, from historic heresy to ahistoric ideal, from Cult to Canon.
Spirituality, Mysticism, and Monotheism
Allow me to course over history for a moment, as the Free Spirit itself courses over history, and cull from millennia some key associations connected with its emergence: Spirituality foremost, remembering that the term “Free Spirit” includes the word spirit, and keeps focus on it, as distinct from – though often related to – mental and intellectual freedom, political and economic emancipation; also, Mysticism, practices towards Union with God, which can be experienced as identification with God, with God’s will, along with perilous implications of such; and finally, Monotheism – although the Free Spirit has substantial qualities and pathways compatible with pantheism, and paganism, the Dionysian for sure, and other Mystery religions, I find it repeatedly and drastically associated with Monotheism.
Akhnaton [c.1351–1334 BCE, Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt]
The Egyptian pharaoh (14th century BCE) has been described as the first individual, the first romantic lover, and the first scientist, or, free thinker – this last due to his correct and corrective knowledge of the solar system developed in connection with the controversial imposition during his reign, in a proto-monotheistic manner, of his Sun God Aton. This sun worship type of monotheism prefigures what went on with Heliogabalus, as will be conveyed; Heraclitus, too, mentions the sun more than once. Notably, Freud’s Moses and Monotheism links Akhnaton’s reign and religion to the Judaic tradition. Akhanaton can’t be mentioned without his consort, Nefertiti, her beauty immortalized by the sculptor Thutmose. Her name means “the Beautiful one has come,” and her royal name in full, Neferneferuaton Nefertiti, means “Beautiful are the Beauties of Aton, the Beautiful one has come.” The Free Spirit heralds the first famous, real-life, beautiful couple, Akhnaton and Nefertiti, and brings love and the beauty of love into marriage – erotic beauty – and, with it, the possibility and actuality of true male-female partnership. Nefertiti ultimately stood equal to and alongside Akhnaton, and she inaugurates the strong feminine component evident throughout the history of the Free Spirit, woman as human and spiritual being.
Indeed, a woman is the central figure of the actual medieval Heresy of the Free Spirit, Marguerite Porete, of martyred intellectual integrity.
Marguerite Porete (by Hans Memling, c.1470)
The complete title of Porete’s book can be translated as The Mirror of Simple Souls Annihilated and Who Abide Only in Will and Desire of Love. Clear-sighted with the probity of her own soul, she distinguishes Seven Stages of Grace, and indicates a mystic process by which one’s own life, self, and will dissolve into divine love, until one wills only God’s will. A French bishop publically burned her book before her eyes, but she rewrote – and expanded – the work and continued to propagate her beliefs; before long, the Inquisition caught up with her, found her guilty of heresy (also declared her a pseudo-mulier for good measure, a “pseudo-woman” or “fake woman”), and in Paris on June 1st, 1310 CE torched her for her refusal to recant, cooperate, and confess. Aside from the challenge to ecclesiastical authority represented by any doctrine of direct access to the divine, Porete’s book in particular upholds some ideas intrinsically problematic whether or not in confrontation with powers-that-be: once at the stage of being one with God’s will, whatever one wills is God’s will, and anarchy enters the equation (what Artaud finds in Heliogabalus), mystical anarchism through human identification with God’s will. Of course, with Porete, Soul does as it pleases, in Love; and with Porete, of course, the love is pure. “…permission to do all that pleases him, by the witness of Love herself, who says to the Soul: My love, love and do what you will.” (Ellen Babinsky translation)
Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin (1869-1916)
Deeply intriguing along the line where true religious practice spills over into anarchic affirmation of volition, howsoever spontaneous, strategic, or self-serving it may be, Grigori Rasputin’s energy, charisma, and power seemed to have come out of the ecstatic binary of his well-documented oscillation between extreme licentiousness and extreme prayerful repentance. Here, as elsewhere with the Free Spirit, the ethical becomes an outside category. “Love has freed the Unencumbered Soul from the Law of the Virtues,” wrote Marguerite Porete, and although centuries and geography separate her from Rasputin’s Russian Orthodox context, her context of Christian millennialism corresponds to some of the teachings of the secretive Khlysty sect associated with Rasputin, its rumored ritualistic self-flagellation and orgies notwithstanding.
So, here are a few points of reference for now, that’s all: key figures, key associations, leaving on the table many possibilities, leaving open a potential comprehensive list for the reader to help populate according to her or his affinities, in alignment with this developing orientation towards a free – and never final – Canon. To be noted about the three figures touched upon above: each has been an attractive subject for art and literature, and yet we find no definitive masterworks on any. Heliogabalus, too, figures similarly. Strange treatments on Akhnaton include the joyous Son of the Sun by the severely compromised, questionable, and disturbing Savitri Devi, along with an unproduced play by Agatha Christie and a minor novel by Allen Drury; at least we have Anne Carson – in her Decreation, with an essay and accompanying libretto – upturning, overturning any easy instinct regarding the realness and “fakeness” of our absolute Marguerite Porete; and there has been as many or more artists making dramatic attempts on a Life of Rasputin as there had been enemies plotting attempts on his life. Are Free Spirits such as these too elusive, layered, and complicated in the paradox of their human-divine liberation to be decisively pinned down? In other words, are Free Spirits bigger and weirder than Art? A challenge to artists and writers everywhere, for all times.
This is my take on the Free Spirit. As in, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.” – Groucho Marx
In proffering my own free-spirited take on the Free Spirit, I’ll gladly admit to departures from earlier instructive sources of my pursuit, interpretations inspirational even in divergence to how I now qualify the notion, and whom I qualify for it, impressionistic as such may remain.
It’d be understandable for purists to keep strict hold of the term in its historic sense, maintaining academic rigor, exacting correct usage through accurately and punctiliously sticking its understanding to the actual movement and heresy: all other uses of the Free Spirit are – too free! Nevertheless, Norman Cohn’s book will continue irrepressibly to excite and to fascinate with the revelations produced by its scholarship for decades to come, and The Mirror of Simple Souls itself, as unfathomable looking glass, will never cease – to the shock of any new receptive (or susceptible) reader - its unpredictable sudden shattering from the inside. C-crr-raaaaack!
As well, I can’t help appreciating the hooks of Lipstick Traces, deep history by way of music journalism, in which a safety pin in the cheek of punk fastens a dangly makeshift chain of fetishistic influences from the Situationist International and Lettrism, to Dada, and on back – as might be suspected by now – to the Brethren. The linkages are brutal, and certainly I discern a Dadaist “canon” (as contradictory in principle as the prospective one currently in question, albeit towards wholly other topics, poetics, and aesthetics), but as much as I love the Situationists, I don’t consider them Free Spirits. Maybe a few Dadaists were. As much as the personalities delineated by Greil Marcus were free thinkers and pranksters, they lacked the Grand Style of life, action, and personal stamp I’m finding essential to the designation. They weren’t bigger than Art, and for the most part there was smallness to their acts of subversion, deliberately so, since their commitment was to the field of endeavor of everyday life. Détournement, as a weapon of revolution, is a gun that merely drops out a flag that reads “Bang!” In short, they lacked Spirit (as would make sense for dedicated anti-authoritarian Marxist materialists). Yet, May ’68 wasn’t clowning, and it’s amazing a few theoreticians ignited widespread uprisings, factory and university occupations, and the first wildcat mass strike in history, involving greater than 22% of the French population.
In contrast, I wonder myself at the instinctive distinction-making here where I tend to include TAZ personalities and scenarios with the truly Free-Spirited (Hakim Bey, AKA Peter Lamborn Wilson, has his book title in full as: T.A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism). Pirate Utopias, glorification of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s takeover and artistic dictatorship in Fiume – quick indicators of Free Spirit in the Grand Style. Maybe it’s because, despite the Autonomist cultural context and background TAZ shares with SI, the spiritual isn’t anathema here, and Bey feels free to employ terms like “sorcery,” “anarcho-mysticism,” and “revolutionary HooDoo” – also “radical aristocratism,” in frank moving away from an egalitarian ethos. (One of Heraclitus’ fundamental words: aristos, ἄριστος). There again the ethical gets left out when spirit revives its spiritedness, and claims the privileges of the untamed. Yet, forever, the Free Spirit is accessible to anybody; that is, no one is disqualified from it intrinsically, however unlikely or prohibitive a given social-economic situation might be to its attainment.
“Reason, you’ll always be half-blind.” – Marguerite Porete
Nietzsche, the Dionysian, Sartre
It’s impossible to mention the Grand Style, along with D’Annunzio as a first wave Nietzschean superman-poet, without turning to Friedrich Nietzsche himself for immersion in ecstatic insight – the Dionysian current. I don’t neglect the Apollinian when considering Nietzsche’s work as a whole, but to get at pagan elements of the Free Spirit – associations with Monotheism aside – I’ll pour libations to the leopard-riding god. Rites of Dionysius unleashed feminine frenzy, his female worshippers liberated by music, wine, and dance; bands of these women, known as Maenads, brought disorder to the countryside, ready to tear apart and eat raw any seeming temporary incarnation of their deity they happen to come across, whether animal or man. Euripides had them bare-handedly dismember King Pentheus, who got in the way of their faith; and it is said they similarly and orgiastically tore apart the founder of their own Mysteries – form-generator Orpheus – limb from limb. This is myth and imagery perhaps too violent for purposes of spiritual elevation, this “rapture of the Dionysian state with its annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits of existence” as described by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, his first book. “…life is at the bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable” (both quotes translated by Walter Kaufmann). Not exactly heights, but chthonic depths – and “at the bottom of things,” Life! By the way, nothing here to oppose Heraclitean unity within Heraclitean flux. Human, All Too Human, an intermediate book of Nietzsche’s, carries the subtitle “A Book for Free Spirits,” and it’s necessary to keep in mind that for Nietzsche freedom is likewise an intermediate phase, to be superseded by the Will to Power (as drafted in his later thought). To put it more precisely, will to freedom is a guise of the Will to Power’s seeking escape from others’ power, escape from oppression; once secured as “freedom,” the will naturally moves on to seek its own power – over things, over circumstances, over others.
To the contrary, Jean-Paul Sartre treats human freedom as an end in itself, and an existential given. It is inescapable, and best be confronted as such. In the section “Why Write?” from his What is Literature?, Sartre suggests that we must as writers and thinkers generously address ourselves to human freedom for the sake of our own aspirations towards success and real excellence. Only through reliance on readers’ highest human capacity to respond – in freedom – to whatever’s written does the writer allow the writing to be truly realized in every sense, creative realization of the work being dependent on the reader; and only in that entrustment (generosity as the character of the relationship between writer and presumed reader), can an implicit reciprocal demand for the highest make itself manifest: an upward spiraling of the human spirit. Aesthetic joy emerges as a possibility from this profound and heightened respect for human freedom, since to understand and be understood at that depth and height is to meet and be met there, where the particular is universal; according to Sartre, there’s a sameness to understanding at the highest human capacity – for all of humanity is present in its highest freedom.
If this is so, might the problem of the externality of the ethical to Free Spirit sway be resolved through discernment, in that highest human freedom, of a universal imperative making itself particularly known? But the generosity required would have to be godlike.
“Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads
“The soul of sweet delight can never be defil’d”
Raphael chose Michelangelo as the model for Heraclitus in his fresco The School of Athens (1509-1510 CE), here in detail, and thus – intuitively, spiritually, ahistorically – bridged a gap of two millennia through Art: again, through the spirit, and against timid strictures of historicism, we can access people across the ages. Getting into the spirit of the men. Raphael chose brilliantly. Michelangelo and Heraclitus are well-matched temperamentally, red-blooded and robust as each of them were; however, I don’t really consider Michelangelo a Free Spirit the way I do Heraclitus. A terrible genius, yes – but probably not a Free Spirit. I don’t find in him a certain quality perceptible in the brooding philosopher’s sallying, surging manner of thought. I’ll have to re-read his sonnets after all these years, and discover in-person the resident energy of his paints, in Rome, to know for sure. I did enter ekphrastically into the immeasurable, his face as Raphael painted it, as part of my entering into the spirit of Heraclitus’ thinking for my book, Heraclitean Pride.
The Countenance of Heraclitus
“One will never discover the limits of the soul,
Heraclitean Pride treats fragment 86 in a manner apropos to Free Spirit aspirations and difficulties, with a passage giving the book its title:
Through contemplation, and thinking one’s own thought: ascertainment, connection to the divine. A philosophical path taking one through stages similar to those of mystical Union with God, Identification with God’s will, to – is it Pride, or Hubris? – exalted states of human deification, ecstatic self-deification, which brings me to…
Heliogabalus, teenage pansexual Roman Emperor, high priest of Sol Invictus, the unconquerable Sun. My in-progress book to be titled: Heliogabalus, Priest of the Sun, Emperor of Rome.
The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema in his painting, The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), depicts one of the most fantastical, absurd, sadistic, exquisite, cruel pranks ever ascribed to anyone. Interpretations of Heliogabalus’ decadence abound, and it’s true he’s a figure on par with Caligula and Nero for accusations of extreme licentiousness and out-of-control autarchy. Whether apocryphal or no, it’s crucial for integrity’s sake to true the revealing legends, and so Alma-Tadema had blossoms sent to him weekly from the Riviera during the months of his working on the painting – to get it right. Of like loving detail are the rose petals on the cover art of John Zorn’s album, Six Litanies for Heliogabalus, the soundtrack for my musings, which incorporates classical musical structures, serene medieval chanting, and punk rhythms with stylized screaming – three elements I consider applicable to my Heliogabalus book, and to my work in general: the classical, the truly religious or spiritual (for the medieval chanting), and as well contemporary artistic disruption, postpunk postmodern, postlangpo exuberance.
Roses of Heliogabalus
Decadence, excess, the fascination of all the facts and myths pertaining to him – how much are lies and libels dated after his death and Damnatio memoriae, official erasure from history of disgraced persons (including the trashing of public records)? I do wish to affirm, from facts, conjectures, and calumnies alike, the mythic essence of the Heliogabalus “true tale” in all its transgressive glory.
For someone so supposedly vile and degenerate, quite a few interest groups claim him as their own, and not only hedonists, sex positive culturists, and gay-lesbian-bi communities, descendants of 19th century Decadents in appreciation of his flagrancy. Heliogabalus can be considered the first youth hero, of rock star proportions, flaunting his lust, luxury, and consumption of intoxicants; he was the first transgender person in the public eye (although hermaphrodites were prized in underground sex trafficking), cross-dressing on the dais of the throne, and consulting physicians on the feasibility of a sex change operation; and he was a feminist, and product of matriarchy, allowing women into the Senate – his mother and grandmother. Free Spirit can’t be pinned down.
Incisively, Artaud wrote about him as the Anarchist Crowned. But again, he was a priest of the sun, and I take him seriously in his fanatical identification with his sun God, and understand him in his primary goal of imposing, in a proto-monotheistic manner, Sol Invictus on the Roman Empire. Heliogabalus doesn’t exude wisdom as Akhnaton does; he was a madman, given absolute power at the age of 14, and did whatever he wanted to do. Yet he did it all for the sun. I delve into the nature of his ecstatic devotion in 8 Phases of Staring into the Sun, available in Eccolinguistics 2.1, a free pdf download. Be that as it may, Heliogabalus was divinely impolitic, lavish, and debauched, spread orgies and anarchy wherever he went, and had to be stopped.
A Gaze Free from Constraint
Heliogabalus is Hypersigil
Magus Magnus is the author of The Re-echoes (Furniture Press 2012); Idylls for a Bare Stage (twentythreebooks 2011); Heraclitean Pride (Furniture Press 2010); and Verb Sap (Narrow House 2008).
Several of Magnus’ poems and an idyll have been anthologized in the 10th and 11th editions of Pearson Longman’s university-level English textbook, Literature.
His Poets Theater work has been presented in Washington D.C., Alexandria, Baltimore, New Orleans, and New York – highlights include Boog City Poetry, Music, and Theater Festival 7.0 and 7.5, two years in a row at Washington D.C.'s The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Happenings at the Harman” at Sidney Harman Hall, the Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage Festival, and a “Must-See,” 5-Star, “Best of the Fringe”-rated run for the 2013 Capital Fringe Festival.
He is curating the Boog Poet's Theater Festival to be held in New York in August 2014.