An Interview with William Irwin Thompson, Part 1

December 30, 2020

Bruce Clarke interviewing William Irwin Thompson, Santa Fe, New Mexico, July 29, 2008

Thanks to Evan and Hilary Thompson for checking the text.




The founder of the Lindisfarne Association, William Irwin Thompson, died peacefully on November 8, 2020, with his daughter Hilary and her partner Belinda beside him, at his home in Portland, ME. On the Winter Solstice, December 21, 2020, at 12:21 that afternoon, Hilary  and Belinda scattered his ashes on the Maine seacoast. The family suggested that well-wishers take that moment to think of him and raise a glass of spirits in his memory. Here is my toast to Bill. 

In my book Gaian Systems: Lynn Margulis, Neocybernetics, and the End of the Anthropocene (Minnesota 2020), Part 2, “The Systems Counterculture,” includes a chapter on “The Lindisfarne Connection.” I introduced Bill Thompson there with these words: “Cultural historian, essayist, and poet are some of the ways to indicate the intellectual and creative personae of Lindisfarne’s founder, but planetary visionary does more justice to the spirit of his efforts. Thompson brought literary and anthropological depth as well as cybernetic acumen to the mythic resonances of the Gaia hypothesis” (140).  

My introduction to Lindisfarne was itself a gift from Lynn Margulis. In the summer of 2007, Lynn invited me along to a Lindisfarne Fellows meeting, newly revived after a decade’s lapse, at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I sat toward the back at that gathering, absorbing the Upaya mystique and stunned by a predominance of luminous personalities. Then Bill put me on the following year’s program, next to Lynn. This interview text is redacted from tapes recorded at one of Bill’s favorite spots, The Teahouse on Canyon Road, just before the 2008 meeting began. He said he wanted the new Lindisfarne generation to know more of the earlier history. He turned my research on systems countercultures to that end.

My work has concentrated on one particular facet of the Lindisfarne Association of the 1970s and 80s, its status as a culmination of the American systems counterculture. This is my phrase for an informal grouping of systems thinkers coalescing on the West Coast in the later 1960s around a concerted set of social and philosophical ideas lifted away from mainstream cybernetics. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and its periodical successor, CoEvolution Quarterly, dedicated to “understanding whole systems,” document all these developments from the inside. The systems counterculture takes off from the work of Buckminster Fuller and Gregory Bateson, from whole systems thinking keyed to models of homeostatic self-regulation. In my account, it crests in the early 1980s with a dedicated Lindisfarne reception of the Gaia concept keyed to the autonomy of self-referential systems.

CoEvolution Quarterly occasionally notes Thompson’s seminal books At the Edge of History (1971) and Passages About Earth (1974) and reports on activities from Lindisfarne’s first years at Fishcove in Long Island and the Manhattan campus. The young Chilean neuroscientist Francisco Varela arrives within this bi-coastal milieu as a protégé of the émigré cyberneticist Heinz von Foerster, director of the Biological Computer Laboratory, the academic seedbed of second-order cybernetics. Heinz introduces Cisco into Brand’s Whole Earth circle around Gregory Bateson. Concurrently, in summer 1975, CQ publishes one of Margulis and Lovelock’s early papers on the Gaia hypothesis, which hypothetical entity they think of precisely as a biological cybernetic system. A year later, CQ starts to circulate Varela’s cybernetic principles of formal and biological autonomy. Varela counters a materialist orthodoxy focused on environmental determinisms with operational embodiments of autopoietic self-productions.  

Observing these developments in their widest planetary implications is Bill Thompson, who will soon invite just this roster of Whole Earth luminaries to Lindisfarne meetings. He establishes an especially strong bond with Varela. The Bay Area’s Green Gulch Zen Center hosts the first of two Gaia-themed Lindisfarne Fellows meetings. Bill’s edited collection Gaia: A Way of Knowing (1987) documents that seminal 1981 meeting with incisive contributions from Lovelock and Margulis alongside the co-authors of the concept of autopoiesis, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Margulis’s neocybernetic strand of Gaian systems theory starts in earnest in this intellectual nexus. 

Sorting all this out was on my own agenda for that day in 2008. Even as Bill gamely addressed my questions, however, he set out an account of his own spiritual quest and its Lindisfarne vicissitudes, as grounded in a prior West Coast subculture centered on esoteric traditions and Eastern spiritual practices. What Bill could see more clearly than others is the hinge that links the domains of emergent connectedness in systems thinking and the psychic and social ligatures of religious ideas. On the secular side, at Lindisfarne the scientific Gaia concept congregated with its systemic and mythopoetic familiars. On the esoteric end, Gaia joined Bill’s visionary suite of imaginary landscapes, in which science, art, and spirituality merged within a meta-discourse around Bill’s noetic polity for a planetary culture.


Part 1: The California Countercultures

BC: As I was putting the story of “systems countercultures” together, I noticed that your name pops up every now and then in Lynn Margulis’s books. And I recollected it from having read The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light way back when. But I didn’t previously know about the wider breadth of what you had accomplished. And if you just look around, what is out there is Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and CoEvolution Quarterly.

WIT: They were important for me, too. What unites Brand and me is that matrix of the counterculture, Michael Murphy’s Esalen and also the Zen Center at Tassajara, right over the Big Sur range in the Carmel Valley. I think I first met Stewart because we were all coming out of this matrix from Michael Murphy, who is a very charming charismatic person in a very private way. You have the feeling that he’s like an E.T. walk-in from some other star system on a mission of Bohdisattvic compassion, and he’s not really one of us. He’s amazingly non-judgmental and he collects in a non-judgmental way everything and everyone gathered at Esalen.

When Michael inherited Esalen, he, because he had studied comparative world religions with Frederic Spiegelberg at Stanford, got turned on to Sri Aurobindo, went and lived at Auroville, and had a close darshan relationship with the Mother, and stayed there about a year and a half going through intense yogic practice. And this is earlier than the Beatles and the Maharishi, this is coming out of an earlier wave.

The real mystical counterculture starting in the ’50s or even earlier is there with Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, the Vedanta group, Ojai, and Yogananda in L.A. It doesn’t start in the ’60s—it goes pop and gets vulgarized in the ’60s. But all the ingredients of the planetization of the esoteric are back there, and again they’re being led by prophetic artistic figures like Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood, who worked with the Swami Prahbavananda on translations of the Bhagavad Gita that I read as a high-school kid.

So I grew up in that counterculture as a high-school kid going to occult society to occult society, being very impressed by the yogic presence of some of the speakers in Yogananda’s ashram, a Brother Bhaktananda, who clearly spoke from a contemplative center of having experienced these things. And I as an Irish apostate Catholic was sick and tired of priests and nuns who just had a punitive approach to religion and had never had any religious experiences in their life except emotional hysteria. And so to meet someone who had an echt authentic quality, coming out of their own inner experiences, who literally knew what they were talking about, whereas the priests and nuns didn’t know what they were talking about, magnetized me to Yogananda as a source of genuine teachings.

And so I grew up in L.A. in that mix, and I read the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao te Ching. In L.A. then, you had Bruno Walter, Thomas Mann, you had Aldous Huxley. A lot of the refugees from WWII were there for a brief period. And then it got captured by TV and Hollywood and became a single-industry town and became really what it is today. I grew up as a kid who had moved at age seven from Chicago, longing for real cultures, longing for Europe and Ireland, and I had no sympathy with the beatniks or degenerate vulgarized culture. I was looking for the real thing.

So by the time I went to Pomona College, when the Beats hit, the whole bohemian Buddhism thing began to be the counterculture. It was Gary Snyder, it was Ferlinghetti, it was Allen Ginsberg, that whole crowd. I went to poetry and jazz readings at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop in San Francisco in ’58 and ’59, but it was degenerate by then, it was bohemian culture. It was pretty much into dope, and it was moving from the dope culture of the blacks of the ’50s, from Miles Davis and Monk, into a new thing, and that wasn’t what I wanted. 

Leaving Academe

So I took an orthogonal shift and decided to tool myself as an intellectual interested in philosophy, so I majored in philosophy, anthropology, and lit, finished Pomona, got a graduate fellowship to Cornell, did my Cornell thing, wrote my book on the Irish Revolution, Imagination of an Insurrection, and then came back to MIT. I chose MIT because I wanted to do interdisciplinary work. I didn’t want to teach English majors how to teach English majors how to be English majors.

BC: That seems like a fateful decision, because you had other offers.

WIT: When I graduated from Cornell I was offered jobs at Cornell, Stanford, MIT, and Pomona College, which were top-ten institutions.  And I chose MIT because I wanted to redesign humanities curriculums for engineers and scientists. I had been influenced by reading Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World in high school. So out of that I went to MIT. And then it was time, with my faculty fellowship, called the Old Dominion Fellowship, to do my second book to ensure getting tenure, and I thought the usual academic thoughts of going to London and sort of doing some follow-up on my first book.

And then I thought, no. History is happening now. If I’m interested in imagination and history, Ireland provided me with the mythic edge of the mythic reconstruction of the past as the horizon for inspiring revolutionary cultural transformation. I’m interested in the myth of the future as an inspirational horizon for transforming culture now. And we’re in the middle of the Vietnam War and the Watts riots and it’s pretty clear that history is happening, and it ain’t happening in London and the British Museum. It’s in California. So I decided to do a complete 180º turn and waste my fellowship by going back to where I was trying to escape from my whole life. So I went back. And in the context of that, I knew Esalen was an important place. And there I met Michael Murphy, and he’s still a friend. And Dulcie Murphy.

Stewart wasn’t there, I met Stewart later, but Stewart and I were both enmeshed in that culture. Our cultural divergence is interesting, I think, in what happened to American culture in that period of my life. So, out of all that experience, I wrote At the Edge of History. And when the Vietnam War got so polarized at MIT, you either had to be a Marxist with Chomsky, sentimentalizing Maoism—and we now know he was just as much of a homicidal maniac as Hitler, or Stalin, but they were sentimentalizing him—or be with the hawks, who were trying to modernize Viet Nam and were in the project of the American empire. And I said these are not my people, I’m getting out of here.

McLuhan had come to MIT and given a talk. The faculty really hated him, and I loved him. I loved the way he riffed: his mind worked like Monk playing common tunes but doing different things with them. I thought,this guy thinks in a kind of fugal, hieroglyphic manner. I was walking out of the hall with a colleague, and they had attacked him, especially, because they were engineers, and he said, “The bomb is information.” And the guys who built the bomb said, “How dare you call the bomb information, it’s irresponsible!”

BC: (satirically) “The bomb is energy!”

WIT: Yeah, and I said, no, he’s got it. Because we have been living in a cultural medium, a noetic polity that structured by the atom bomb. It is information. Only two have been exploded in terms of conflict, as opposed to testing. And when I was talking to the colleague, I said, “What’s going on? This guy is really smart and gifted.” He said, “Yeah, you think that crazy way.” And I thought,yeah, I guess I do. And another colleague, who knew McLuhan, talked me into joining this Canadian creation of a new university. York had just been created, as an imitation of Santa Cruz. So I went up there with the same idea, that I would not be in a department, I would design my own curriculum. I met McLuhan at the Coach House, and got very much interested in that. And that’s where I finished the book, At the Edge of History

Stewart Brand

When it got nominated for the National Book Award in New York, there began to be this kind of divergence between New York, which was beginning to be the city I was working with and where I would found Lindisfarne itself, and what Stewart was doing in California. I’m coming out of academe and mysticism, and he’s coming out of the Army, a sort of more conventional program, and he got into Kesey, the electric kool-aid acid test gang and more the acid counterculture. And I was coming out of the yogic tradition.

BC: But he did study biology as a student of Paul Ehrlich, which is important . . .

WIT: For the green movement, sure.

BC: But then, he was this paratrooper, which was something I had no idea of when I began trying to get a fix on why the Whole Earth Catalog was the way it was. I was struck by how the Catalog classically opens with all of these images from books of aerial photographs, of looking down on the Earth from above. And of course the ultimate shot is Earth from space, which I guess is the paratrooper’s ultimate dream.

WIT: Which is the talk he gave at Lindisfarne in ’74, “Why Haven’t We Seen a Picture of the Whole Earth?” When I went to Toronto and wrote the book, and it got nominated for the National Book Award, the other short-listed book was the Whole Earth Catalog. And this division continued, of the literary essay, a kind of sensibility that can talk to the literate culture of New York, which was evolving out of Lionel Trilling and the Jewish intelligentsia into something that hadn’t yet formed. So Time and Harpers and the New York Times latched onto me as the voice of reason with which to try to understand this new culture. Because here I was, an Ivy League Ph.D. andan MIT professor, so I was safe. And Stewart was coming out of this raw mix of paratroopers and the environmental movement and interested in maverick thinkers like Bateson and Ehrlich and making his own mix.

But he read my book, and when Richard Baker-roshi came back from his training in Japan to take over the abbotship of San Francisco’s Zen Center, he met him on the tarmac in San Francisco and handed him my book At the Edge of History and said, “Welcome back to American, this is the book you need to read.” With that, Richard invited a whole bunch of people to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center: it was a scene—Huey Newton, Sim van der Ryn, who became the green architect that I worked with, we all met at this meeting. And that’s when I met Stewart Brand.

BC: In 1973 at Tassajara.

WIT: Or it might have been early in ’74, it was in that region, because I invited them all to Lindisfarne in Southampton in ’74. And so I organized the first Lindisfarne conference in the Hamptons in 1974, so what you’re participating in now is 34 years later. And there was Baker-roshi because he made Zen Center a really charismatic center for what was happening. We grokked with one another right away and realized we would be doing this bicoastal thing. I would be working with New York, I had the media interested in me, I had Rockefeller funding, I had a scene going in the Hamptons that was hot for the moment. And his was the scene in San Francisco. I would go there quite often and participate in his meetings, which was setting up for what became the’81 meeting with Heinz von Foerster. And I met Stewart, and Stewart was really interested in all the Lindisfarne people like John Todd in ecology, and Tyrone Cashman, and Rusty Schweickart. And then he went back and talked to Jerry Brown, and these people began to have appointments in California’s executive branch. So it’s like, we were becoming a green think tank. 

Jerry Brown

BC: That’s a really fascinating part of what you find in CoEvolution Quarterly, this moment about which one could wax terribly nostalgic, that the governor of California was hanging out with people who really knew what needed to be done. And it all kind of came crashing down.

WIT: And Jerry would come to Lindisfarne meetings in 1980 at Green Gulch, the San Francisco Zen Center. But the appointments of Tyrone Cashman, and Sim van der Ryn, the state architect and Rusty Schweickart, as the energy czar of the state of California, those were coming out of the Lindisfarne meetings. So much so that I began to get . . . because I have this kind of Druid radar that can sense a rotten stage before it’s even gotten to ripe,and I disengage and back away, which is how I’ve handled intellectual celebrity in my life. After my appearance on Bill Moyers’ TV show, I just put it into reverse and disappeared from the media. Stewart didn’t, he knew how to surf the media. We’re opposites that way. I have enormous respect for him, but he’s muchmore, what I feared was a sort of countercultural Brzezinski. He’s not a countercultural Kissinger, which is what I was afraid he was going to become. But he is a countercultural Brzezinski. And Brzezinski’s a smart guy.

William Irwin Thompson speaking at the Whole Earth Jamboree, 1978

BC: OK, tell me what that means, exactly.

WIT: He has more of a lust for power than I have. I had been approached by the Rockefellers to serve on Nelson’s Critical Choice commission on his run for the presidency. I was invited to lunch personally with Laurance Rockefeller. And I said, no. You have to understand, you have to separate authority from power. So the Lindisfarne Association cannot be power-y. If I had wanted that, I would have stayed at MIT. MIT or Harvard is the right subway, the Metroliner down to Washington. And so Laurance, being the most rad of the Rockefeller brothers, was actually more interested by my refusal than if I had accepted, because then I would just be a conventional guy on the make, and they’re surrounded by those people all the time.

So what was offered to me, was what defined mylife, by saying no. But I hadn’t the confidence that Stewart would say no. He really wanted to make a countercultural elite into a cabinet for a Jerry Brown presidency in 1980. And, you know, he might be right, it might have been stupid to disengage. But it’s hard to say, a lot of people who lusted for power, like working for the Shah, they’re gone, and in my humble way, I’m still here. So it’s an argument on how one engages with culture, and when one doesn’t—when to engage and when not. It’s a tricky business. But Stewart is very different from me. He goes for wealth, and money, power—he’s comfortable with it, he does it well, he gets reviewed in Nature magazine, he is a cultural force to be reckoned with. So in the long run, who knows who’s right?

To tie a knot onto all of this, Stewart and I engaged with Baker-roshi and Michael Murphy in this East Coast/West Coast thing, with the roots in the systems stuff of Gregory Bateson and the ecological movement. And the meetings on both coasts began to be actually a part of a kind of larger ecology of mind, to use the name of Gregory’s bestseller. And so we knew about one another, we worked together, and a lot of the same players are all in the same meetings. So there’s a lot of overlap. Even though the styles of Lindisfarne and the Whole Earth Catalog are so different, I still published in the Whole Earth Review, and there is a commonality that we’re participating in, but we’re articulating very different styles. And it came to a head over Jerry Brown. That’s why I had one meeting called “Evil and the Contradictions of Power,” to confront the shadow of Stewart Brand and to deal with the lust for the Jerry Brown presidency before it happened, in 1978 I guess, I had that meeting at Lindisfarne in Manhattan. So that’s how, in what you’re studying in the roots of systems, we are both participating in the same process.

Part 2 can be viewed here.

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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