An Interview with William Irwin Thompson, Part 2

January 2, 2021

Part 1 can be viewed here.

Part 2.1: Science, Literature, Philosophy

Alfred North Whitehead

BC: In the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA), there’s a cluster of avid Whiteheadians mining into Process and Reality. This group would take great encouragement from your engagement with Whitehead, who seems to be a touchstone for the nexus you establish to bring the sciences, the humanities, and the contemplative practices together.

WIT: Absolutely right. Whitehead is extremely vital. Bateson is influenced by Whitehead, which shocked me when he told me that, and is there at the lecture with Bertrand Russell on relativity, when I guess it was Whitehead who said, “We have to thank him for not obscuring the inherent darkness of the subject.”

The Whitehead, who is the model for all of us in aging, who is the influential Whitehead, is the Whitehead who retires from the University of London and Cambridge and all that early work on trying to do universal algebra and trying to do what came out of Poincaré and higher mathematics. He comes to Harvard in retirement, and then he writes all these incredible books, Science and the Modern World, Aims of Education, Modes of Thought, Process and Reality, which is his meisterwerk. And this is light-years beyond anything Bertrand Russell is doing.

Having been apocalyptically wounded by the atom culture, suffering from cancer of the thyroid, I had to take a year off between high school and college, after an eleven-hour operation, a thyroidectomy. And I’m reading Science and the Modern World—and Tolstoy, all of War and Peace, because I’m basically infirm and reading. And when I’m reading Science and the Modern World, I like the mix because I’m self-consciously a self-declared adolescent poet starting writing poetry at seventeen, and so I’m interested in his take on Shelley and on Wordsworth, and how he can go back and forth from explication of the text of The Prelude to the theory of relativity. I thought this is wonderful, and I have this little daimonic voice in my head that says, if the twentieth century is ever to put itself back together again—thinking of all the Eliot clichés of dissociation of sensibility and all of that—it will be with this book. And so, I’m totally committed to Whitehead.

And I didn’t like high school, I had A’s and F’s. So I couldn’t get into UCLA or a conventional school, but I was able to talk my way into Pomona as a maverick. The professor said, “We’re allowed one oddball a year. I will make you my oddball for this year if you go back and finish your high school diploma and your geometry course,” which I had failed. So I did geometry in summer school and got my diploma from L.A. and went to Pomona. And then they gave me A. J. Ayers’ Language, Truth, and Logic and logical positivism to read in the philosophy department, and everybody’s into Wittgenstein. And I said, “Hey, wait a minute. What about Whitehead?” Oh, peripheral—forget it! I’ve never had professors who have mentored me. I’ve always been doing something that they didn’t understand. And so I’ve always had to be autopoietic, literally . . .

BC: And autodidactic.

WIT: . . . that’s why Varela was such a friend. But finally—Pomona had this great system of taking retired professors from the Ivy League and giving them emeritus professorships. Herbert W. Schneider had finished his career at Columbia, and he came, and he stayed on and became dean of the Pomona Graduate School. I took a tutorial, and I said, “Look, I just want to do nothing but concentrate on Whitehead.” He said, “OK, let’s do a tutorial. I don’t have time to read it, you just read Process and Reality and come and talk to me about it once a week,” which is what I did. So I worked Whitehead into my honors thesis, and read Process and Reality cover to cover, and the other books. Before I had ever met Lovelock and Margulis, or Bateson, I had already put down this foundation of the philosophy of organism.

And one of the reasons I chose MIT over going to teach at Stanford or Cornell is I just didn’t want to teach James Joyce, and John Millington Synge, and Yeats for the rest of my life. Which is what they said at Cornell: “Oh yes, graduate students will be coming to study with you. They will have read your book on 1916. We have a great Joyce collection here.” And I thought, ugh, this is going to be boring. I said no, I want to go to MIT, which then had no cachet. But it was the right move. I wanted to do that because of Science and the Modern World.

And I kept associating with scientists, all my buddies—As I said in my article on Bateson, he was a repressed mystic and associated himself, surrounded himself with mystics, I was a repressed scientist and surrounded myself with scientists. But it’s all coming from Whitehead. I think the philosophy of organism has a lot to say for Gaian planetary dynamics, and the newer mathematics is trying to do what at some level he was trying to do in creating a universal algebra. But he was just in the wrong century. It’d have been better if he had been more continentally oriented. But I think Whitehead, because he lost his son in the Great War, hated the Germans and wasn’t sympathetic to the Continent. Though he liked Leibniz quite a bit. His understanding and appreciation of Leibniz is basic. I think Leibniz is still an important philosophic figure in all of this. I mean, he’s your first cybernetician, he’s the guy who created the first computer, even before the difference engine of Babbage.

Heinz von Foerster

Heinz von Foerster and Francisco Varela at the 1981 Lindisfarne Fellows meeting at Green Gulch Zen Center

So, I was delighted with your SLSA meeting when I saw people were using Whitehead. Because when we were discussing organism with the Gaia people, I would bring up Whitehead but they hadn’t read him. I don’t think I ever discussed him with Heinz von Foerster. I only met him at the ’81 meeting, I didn’t know him well. I confess that I hadn’t read his Biological Computer Lab work and these early papers that you’ve read on autopoiesis and self-organization.

BC: Well, it’s tricky, and that’s one reason why von Foerster isn’t any better known than he is. Most of his papers are really technical. I can only tackle some of them, and even then I have to skip over, because they’re full of mathematics. The saving grace is that he really wasn’t a dedicated producer of articles, even in his engineering and scientific specializations. But he was a raconteur. He was always invited to give talks.

WIT: He was very funny, very witty.

BC: Before his son arranged the new selected edition published by Springer in 2003, the only easy access to von Foerster’s work was the edition Varela did, Observing Systems. Heinz really didn’t care that much, as we learned because you couldn’t even get a written article out of him for your volume on the ’81 meeting. So I don’t think it was Heinz himself who was that interested in creating an edition of his papers. My assumption is that it was Varela who brought it about, and then wrote the introduction to Observing Systems.

WIT: You know, the problem when you work intuitively, as I do, is that you often don’t realize what you’re doing intellectually at the time. I was just operating like a musician, bringing various people together in a jazz club. I knew those three particular groups I invited to the Gaia meeting in Green Gulch—Lovelock and Margulis, Maturana and Varela, and Henri Atlan—had never met, but I had little sense that the bringing of these three groups together was going to be really critical, and influential. And Stewart Brand was in that meeting, and I’m sure it was influential for him, seeing all these players that he had been working with all together . . .

BC: . . . at the ’81 meeting . . .

WIT: . . . at the ’81 meeting at Green Gulch. That was the first time, and I think Heinz was there simply because he lived up the hill.

BC: Right, he lived in Pescadero, just across from Stanford, so it was an easy trip for him.

WIT: He was very charming, very articulate, even though he spoke with a thick Austrian accent, and he was very conversant, of course. And Bateson had died by this time, so Bateson himself couldn’t be there for the ’80 meeting, or the ’81. So we really needed the connection to the previous generation of systems thinkers to effect the transition.

James Lovelock

BC: This is from Imaginary Landscape: “The parents of the Gaia hypothesis both see our present culture as one that is on the way out.” When the Gaia hypothesis was initially proposed, there was this misconception that it was this optimistic notion that Gaia would just salve the wounds of technology.

WIT: She’s a “tough bitch,” in Lynn’s words.

BC: And she is a tough bitch—but she doesn’t care about us fleas. But Lovelock himself already saw Gaia as pretty exhausted and aged, in the cosmological sense.

Lynn Margulis and Francisco Varela in Italy

WIT: Jim is an interesting contradiction, in the following way, in that he is the more conventional Daisyworld cybernetic engineer, and he flips, rather than into complex dynamical systems and the Poincaré bifurcation, he switches into Romantic personification. In some ways, he is a genius who presented us with planetary dynamics for the first time. That’s at a level of scientific narrative equal to Darwin. But he didn’t make the shift that Ralph Abraham and Stuart Kauffman and the others did into complex dynamical systems, because he didn’t grow up under that sense of complex mathematics. He knew that Daisyworld was nonlinear, but that’s as far as he was going to go. Whereas Lynn, working with bacterial systems—when I introduced her to Cisco and autopoiesis, she was able more to make the next step. But if you look at Jim’s The Revenge of Gaia [2006], it’s Quixotically, literally, fighting windmills. He would rather have nuclear reactors in his backyard than windmills.

BC: It is a frustrating book. But, that resistance is already in The Ages of Gaia. He goes off there on chaos theory as applied to these population models that demonstrate chaotic bifurcation at which point the system crosses the threshold from periodic to chaotic regimes. He sees the strange attractor as this kind of mathematical monstrosity, and he just can’t get with it.

WIT: Yeah.

BC: I shared much more your response, that this whole revelation of form within chaos is beautiful. This is what one was always hoping to find. It came to me as a confirmation of my own—well, I was still very much a professor of Romantic poetry when James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science came out. And to me, I saw de Quincey, Fuseli, I saw Shelley, all that imagery from the Romantic imagination.

WIT: Which is the right thing to think. That’s right on target. You know, for the two of us, as literary scholars, here are two words with such karma—Chaos and Gaia. And Jim chose Gaia and accepted its mythos, from the influence of the novelist William Golding. “Chaos” he could never understand except in its literal rooted way as being a threatening system opposed to the evolution of the universe, straight out of Hesiod. Like Milton’s “Chaos and old night,” he cannot stand the word. He could never understand the Poincaré bifurcation and complex dynamical systems, and chaos as just different structures of the attractor.

And it’s too bad. The next generation of Cisco and Evan and, I hope, I, we were willing to take that step, but Jim kept backing away. And every time I’d bring together these people, trying to encourage the click, it wouldn’t happen. I think he’d reached an age where he was formed—what Varela said of Gregory Bateson: he wasn’t going to make the next paradigm shift.

Part 2.2: Being Mystical in America

BC: This is something you write in At the Edge of History: “The individual’s consciousness in meditation takes him out of history; it gives him a glimpse of the total field beyond his personal location.” In that book you don’t really evoke the fact that you already have this yogic background.  All of a sudden you mention meditation, but it just sort of drops in.

WIT: Yeah, I love to do that. These are what I call my one-sentence throwaways. Especially when I’m lecturing on my feet and going at a rather rapid rate. I’ve slowed a bit in old age.

BC: Of course, in Passages About Earth, the cat is out of the bag.

WIT: Well, you know what happened to me for that. Thereby hangs a tale. At the Edge of History got reviewed twice, with rave reviews. It became a bestseller, only in Manhattan, not in the rest of the country. And Christopher Lehmann-Haupt loved it. Harper and Row took out an ad saying, “So extraordinary the New York Review raves twice.” Then I let the cat out of the bag and actually began to articulate what became the New Age movement, before it got degraded into Hollywood and Shirley MacLaine and Deepak Chopra and all that sort of stuff. The early period was more hopeful, as all revolutionary periods in their early stage are hopeful before people get at it.

And I didn’t serve as the neutral observer of Findhorn. They did not like that, and I think Lehmann-Haupt refused to review the book. Some academic journals—like the Paris or Partisan Review—really attacked me, because they had hoped I would be the New York voice of reason to make the transition from Lionel Trilling without going into Allan Ginsberg and drugs and threatening homosexuality, because people weren’t really out of the closet yet. They had hopes for me of being a voice of reason in a crazy drugged and Dionysian era.

BC: And that really is a striking aspect of your presence. Your account of the events in Big Sur in ’67 is kind of a model of relative dispassion. You already have this profound sense of what you’re about.

WIT: It was exciting. That’s why I quoted Wordsworth: “O in that time it was heaven to be alive.”

BC: But that restraint might go back to your already having meditational self-grounding.

WIT: Yes, I had strong intuitive guidance, not to get into drugs. I only smoked dope maybe, three, four times in my life.

BC: Well, when Alan Watts passes you the joint ...

WIT: And there I am next to this gorgeously beautiful naked woman, and I’m being married and I’m being faithful, and I struggled against all this sex and drugs stuff to hold onto it. So I was being—using the Joycean image, “holding his chalice against a throng of foes.” At all events, I didn’t want to end up like Alan Watts.

But here’s where the Stewart thing comes back. I got written off when I exposed myself in Passages About Earth. From then on I was “sent to Coventry”; the books will not get reviewed. Stewart created his own economy of wealth, and created Global Business Network, and went from success to success. I screwed myself because I had quit the university, and no longer had the academic chair. I was a full professor at 34, I mean I had really finessed the academic world, as you can appreciate living in it. I said no to that. Then I said no to the Rockefellers in power and becoming a Brzezinski/Kissinger type. And then, the economy of trying to support yourself as a writer, of not going the celebrity way, and not going to become the voice of reason in a Dionysian era, I was stranded without an encounter.

I have been turned down for Rockefeller Fellowships in Humanities, the Society for the Advanced Study of Religion, for MacArthurs—even though sometimes they asked me to consult for MacArthurs, Guggenheims, American Academy, every single academic fellowship I’ve ever applied for I have been declined.

BC: After leaving the academy.

WIT: Yeah, but also after being identified as a mystic, because then I was just another scientologist, or a Werner Erhardt. Laurance Rockefeller would support us, because he played by his own rules, and he’s got enough money that he doesn’t care. He chose to support the counterculture. And so he supported the Santa Fe Zen Center, and Joan Halifax, he spent millions on the place in Santa Fe, he spent millions on Lindisfarne. He was the one exception: without him I would have been really sunk. Stewart knew that the only way you could survive is to know how to generate wealth. I knew how to raise millions of dollars to run and support Lindisfarne, but I never could actually support myself. My royalties are like a hundred bucks a year, not enough to buy the paper for my printer.

Countercultural Apocalypse

BC: This is from your memoir of the Lindisfarne Association: “The generation that came of age in the sixties and seventies had an apocalyptic sensibility” [Thinking Together, Prologue]. Early in At the Edge of History, you recount that when you pick up the hitchhiking hippies on the way to Big Sur, a topic of conversation is the Earthquake, or the California Apocalypse.

WIT: I remember in the parking lot at Esalen, there was a VW Vanagon and it was painted “Earthquake Evader.”

BC: And in 1974, from the very first CoEvolution Quarterly through issue 6, they all begin with a section called “Apocalypse Juggernaut, hello.” Then, issue 7 features Gerard O’Neill’s “The High Frontier,” and that’s when this huge debate over space colonies breaks out.

WIT: Oh, that comes out of the Lindisfarne meeting.

BC: And for that issue, the title of that section is changed to “Apocalypse Juggernaut, goodbye?” Then that label lapses, “Apocalypse Juggernaut, hello” comes back in issue 10, but in issue 11, Fall ’76, the opening section is “No apocalypse!?” I’m curious about how palpably that anticipation of calamity or cataclysm was in that moment. Of course, it accords with nuclear foreboding, obviously. But what comes to the front with the ecological movement is all these other grounds for dismay, which have turned out to be perfectly correct, largely speaking, maybe just taking a little longer to actually coalesce in a way that gets broad attention. We seem to just about be there now. What if Jerry Brown could have brought about a green sensibility coming out of this earlier phase when the warnings had already been sounded?

But then, the Whole Earth Catalog was always kind of about—OK, get out of the cities, get somewhere safer for when the shit hits the fan. Be ready to be off the grid because the grid’s going to fry. The California Earthquake rolls into this mindset as a natural cataclysm, which will get here eventually as well. It wouldn’t be a manmade cataclysm, but it would feed into that sensibility. So I was curious to read how the hippies were saying that when the Earthquake comes, Big Sur will become an island. I wasn’t aware of that part of the folklore of the apocalypse right at that moment.

WIT: Yeah, I don’t know if they said that or I said that in response to them, but it was part of the mythos of that conversation.

BC: So you yourself say that without the help of Gene Fairly, Lindisfarne’s initial financier, "I would have pursued a rural vision of escape in a millenarian fantasy of waiting for the edge to become the end” [Thinking Together].

WIT: Yeah, in rural Ontario, in Canada. That was part of the motivation of all of us. Because the friend who lived on the farm with me, we remembered looking over the apartment in the Cuban missile crisis and trying to figure out where to go when the nukes got exploded. And so there was a real sensibility about this. But I want to put it epistemologically. Civilizations run on an intercalary adjustment between a lunar calendar and a solar calendar. The Muslims are lunar and we’re more solar. There’s for our culture an intercalary adjustment between geological time and cultural time.They don’t run at the same rate, so the imagination perceives various phenomena, and then registers it into an image. This is the same way the brain works in a hypnogogic state as we’re transiting from waking consciousness to dreaming consciousness. So when you’re in an invisible environment of saturated events, phenomena, and you’re not privy to being a ruling elite and you know what’s going on, you generate a mythical construct of a conspiracy theory with which to create coherence.

So, you live in West Texas, I lived in rural Colorado, you know there are libertarians all over the place who are circulating 9/11 CDs—the same thing with the JFK assassination or whatever. I grew up in L.A. when there was open-air atomic bomb testing, and the government was lying about it. They were terrified of the Russkies getting the hydrogen bomb. And somehow or other I must have been exposed to hot milk and got cancer of the thyroid, the same way all the Chernobyl teenagers got it.

When your body proprioceptively is getting inundated, you don’t know what’s going on, so you generate a coherent myth of interpretation, which is always fragmentarily based on some discrete phenomenon. Obviously there’s a lot of stuff out there that you can pick on, whether it’s the San Andreas fault or it’s the release of the gas in the tundra that is melting that will affect the environment, or the release of the methane belts in the ocean that affects the climate. The runaway logarithmic progression of global warming is a cataclysmic event that is happening in geological time, but culturally it’s in denial with the industrial league of Bush, and mythically it’s energized by the internal proletariat longing for millenarian movements or mystery cults in the classical Spenglerian/Toynbee formulation.

I read recently—two years ago—in Nature, the number one scientific journal in the world, as you know—and it said, that the stress of the San Andreas fault in northern L.A. is three meters, nine feet, beyond normal, like a rubber band about to spring. Nature said, “It would appear that the interseismic interval is over.” Now, that’s their civilized way of saying what the hippies were saying thirty years ago. But in cultural time, when is that actually going to adjust? We know there are deep fault plates, that L.A. could just drop 300 feet and downtown could be under water in ten seconds. Will that happen?

Prophets come along, but the difficulty, I think, with people like Edgar Cayce, whom I talk about in At the Edge of History, and to put it in the terms of Stuart Kauffman’s new book, Reinventing the Sacred [2008], the imagination sees the quantum probability states, which are multiple. And if you make predictions on those, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen. They are just the quantum probability states. So prophecy is the cultural implications of the present, mythically rendered. But when it collapses into a classical causal linear system, then only one of those quantum probability states will have been chosen.

So the hippies energized one, and Edgar Cayce another. But prophets should never make predictions. Because L.A. didn’t have the earthquake in the ’90s, Manhattan didn’t have the earthquake in the ’90s he predicted. Atlantis didn’t rise. Certainly, I went skin-diving in Bimini, and it’s pretty clear now that’s a natural geological formation like the Giant’s Causeway in northern Ireland, it’s not the top of a wall in Atlantis, that’s just all hippie bullshit. So, those prophecies did not come true.

But there all these other invisible events that even seem more terrifying even than the Earthquake, when you look at the methane generation of the oceans, which is now the scientific explanation for how the Bermuda Triangle happened and how those airplanes just dropped in the water. They were flying low right above these methane vents, and they just gassed the pilots, they were just under water, and that’s why no one knew what happened. Well, it wasn’t a crystal of Atlantis circulating under water à la Cayce, it was the methane gas vents.

And with the melting of the Arctic tundra, I mean, Shanghai and New York and London could just disappear within a year or two, not within fifty years. So who knows? Was I apocalyptic? Yes, because I had been nuked by the government, and they had lied about it. Do I trust my government? No. Like any crazy libertarian in Texas or rural Colorado, I know those bastards are liars. And when I watched after Chernobyl when I was in Europe, in Switzerland, and I could change channels between countries, the Swiss were telling the truth, and the French were lying like crazy. “The cloud did not pass over the French border.” Do you know why? Because the French have got the largest nuclear investment in the world—more nuclear reactors than anybody.

So yes, we were all apocalyptic, and at the same time there was the sense, what do we do if we move to rural Ontario and it’s just boring and we’re stuck and the event never happens? I think it was Yeats who said, “Life is waiting for an event that never happens.” He had all these prophecies from Aleister Crowley and the crazy hippies of his day.

So I ended up working in the middle of the beast in Manhattan, founding Lindisfarne there. And that conversation on space colonies happened at Lindisfarne. In ’76 Gerard O’Neill and I lectured together, with Murray Bookchin the neighborhood anarchist—Dennis Meadows, they were all at Lindisfarne with Stewart Brand.

BC: So that Space Colonies issue was Fall ’75 in the CoEvolution Quarterly.

WIT: OK, so he’s earlier, then. I lectured with Gerard O‘Neill for IBM in Canada, in Toronto, in ’76 or ’77. And then we had the conference at Lindisfarne in April of ’76 with Stewart and Murray Bookchin and Dennis and Donella Meadows. And we had really intense debates with Stewart. And it was sort of the technofix versus the apocalyptic hippies. They were in a kind of hockey face-off. So we were both playing with these ideas at the same time.

BC: Well, it really energized several numbers of CQ. Brand played it for all it was worth. He got everybody under the sun to express their feelings about O’Neill’s proposal. Wendell Berry writes in this long letter, published under the title “Wendell Berry angry.”

in CoEvolution Quarterly 10 (Summer 1976)

WIT: Wendell’s been a Fellow since maybe ’75, so he’s been with us a long time. But they argued it out. The community types were like Murray Bookchin as a kind of urban East Village New York anarchist Jew, and Brand the White Anglo-Saxon Scots-Irish protestant, and Berry is a French name so I guess he’s Norman, in rural Kentucky. And they really went at the space-colonies debate.  Stewart I think was interested in the action, but also interested more in playing with the system. I think he really wanted to be secretary of defense or something. If Jerry had been elected governor and he had offered him, and Amory Lovins had ended up secretary of energy, and Hazel Henderson was secretary of commerce, and Stewart was secretary of defense, and we had this complete radical cabinet, I think that’s what Stewart wanted. But the culture voted no and went for Reagan and not for Brown. And now they’re paying the price.

Part 3 can be viewed here.

Bruce ClarkeBruce Clarke
Bruce Clarke is Paul Whitfield Horn Distinguished Professor of Literature and Science in the Department of English at Texas Tech University, and the 2019 Blumberg/NASA Chair in Astrobiology at the Library of Congress. His research focuses on systems theory, narrative theory, and ecology. Clarke co-edits the book series Meaning Systems, published by Fordham University Press.


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