Occupy, Anarchy, and the Apocalypse: An interview with Reverend Nemu
Hi Reverend Nemu, thank you for agreeing to answer some of our questions. Science Revealed, part 1 of the Nemu’s End series, has just been published. The whole project is concerned with the apocalypse, but not necessarily the ‘end of the world’ variety filled with fire and brimstone. Could you tell us about what you mean by the apocalypse, and how it is relevant for people today?
Well, thank you for agreeing to publish the result of a ten year compulsive disorder!
The word apocalypse means unveiling (apo- ‘un-’ + kaluptein ‘to cover’). Other cognates are ‘discovery’ (dis-cover), ‘disclosure’ (dis-close) and ‘revelation’ (re- expressing reversal + velum ‘veil’ in Latin). I’m interested in the lifting of veils, and also the nature of veils themselves – what constructs and maintains the boundaries around us and between us. I’m also fascinated by the antics of apocalyptic thinkers, whether they are of the doomy, the loony, or the shroomy variety.
Each book of the series deals with a different area where this process of unveiling happens. Science Revealed focuses on scientific discovery, looking at how groundbreaking ideas have popped suddenly into the minds of scientists via non-rational pathways – in dreams and trances, flashes of inspiration, feverish delirium and psychedelic experience. The veil here is the frontier dividing the known from the unknown, and it begins with simple ignorance; but it is also reinforced by the machinations of scientific institutions, which sometimes settle scientific controversies with entirely non-scientific means – such as censorship, ridicule and the withdrawal of research grants.
Book II, Neuro-Apocalypse, explores the influence of linguistics, psychology and neurobiology on our perception of reality. As individuals we all look out on radically different worlds, with different veils and different vistas; but there are certain conditions, and certain condiments, which dissolve the veils, and the mental capacities which become available to some people when this happens are quite astonishing.
In Book III, Apocalypses Past Present & Personal, the lens pans out from the individual to the collective, and to historical moments where a community goes through a collective apocalypse, such as the Roman invasion of first century Jerusalem and the scientific revolution of 17th century England. During these periodic upheavals, as society cracks and institutions crumble, new philosophies and ideas bubble to the surface, and a new world full of novel challenges and opportunities is born. (There are also some disclosures of a more personal nature as well, but those will stay entirely veiled for the time being.)
Today all three apocalyptic areas are relevant. The pace of technological change and the severity of environmental disruption are unprecedented, and there is an abundance of mind-expanding techniques and substances available. Also, for the first time in history, the entire world is facing an unveiling together. The apocalyptic wave that swept across Europe and beyond between the 14th and 17th centuries had distinct stages, linked but spread across many lifetimes and communities with very limited communication between them – grossly simplified, we can talk about artistic innovations in the Italian city states during the Renaissance, philosophical and personal freedoms gained during the Reformation in German speaking lands, new lands joining the map in the Spanish voyages of discovery, new scales opening up with the microscope and telescope in the 1600s, and new ways of conceptualizing and measuring the world with the Scientific Revolution, centred in late 17th century England. Each stage was accompanied with unprecedented body-counts, but the four decades of slaughter that began in around 1910 were an order of magnitude higher, the first truly global conflagration which scorched civilian populations from the Far East to the Americas, all across Europe, China and North Africa. World War II ended with a bang that had been inconceivable until the turn of the century, but in another sense that was just the beginning of a new era of global tension. Concurrently, developments including the radio and the loudspeaker extended our voices, the new electron microscope and radio telescope opened up new scales, synthetic fibres and frozen food were pioneered, rockets escaped the atmosphere, information theory was inaugurated and the computer was invented. Arguably the two most apocalyptic discoveries of the modern era, the self-sustaining nuclear reaction and LSD, happened within months of each other, against the background of the Nazi ‘final solution’. Since then, in the space of one lifetime, the pace of change has increased massively. Today’s instantaneous media technologies bring daily mind-blowing events to most (if not yet all) humanity, and we engage new worlds as groups that are far freer of the traditional national, class and linguistic barriers that have separated us throughout history.
Science Revealed takes a look at the limits of rationalism in science, and how extraordinary states of experience often give rise to ‘breakthroughs’ as opposed to simply poring over figures and books. Do you think it is possible to cultivate such experiences in society in order to have them play a more integral role in our quest for knowledge? And, if so, how?
One area where individual breakthroughs have a very obvious collective significance is in science; but while the apocalypse itself may be sudden and startling, pouring over books or ideas is still, I think, essential in most cases. For example, Einstein awoke one morning from sleep ‘as if a storm broke loose in my mind’, and scribbled down the special theory of relativity; but that may not have happened if he had not retired the previous night in a state of nervous tension after what he thought had been fruitless brainstorming, or if he had not invested many months of intense effort. As in physics, a break is triggered by tension.
A mysterious process of gestation takes place in the depths of the unconscious mind, but the resulting form may take a long time to emerge into the light of mind. Leowi’s dream revelation, for example, of an experiment to test a hypothesis of nerve transmission, came in a dream 14 years after he first proposed the theory to a friend. Even then he couldn’t understand the notes that he had taken in the small hours, and it was only on the following night, when it happened again, that he managed to decode his scrawl. Once the concept is formed, it may present itself quite urgently.
For those persuing a revelation, whether it is scientific, artistic, personal or religious, it may be important to keep hammering away at it until you exhaust your conscious mind, like the Zen monk ruminating on a koan riddle. As Einstein himself said: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
Combined with appropriate practices, whether meditation or repetitive beats, sex, making or appreciating art, or engaging in ritual (which is my own path), psychedelics can be extremely helpful. A dose of acid in front of the Simpsons might not do you all that much good. It may be a great revelation that you resemble Homer in many respects, but the world is bigger than Springfield, and a pure joint and a rosary works much better for me than a psychedelic experience in an unsuitable place.
Psychedelic is an interesting word, constructed from the Greek words psyche (mind) and deloun (manifesting) – hence ‘mind-manifesting’. But deloun also means clear, and perhaps ‘mind-clearing’ is more appropriate to the process of revelation, because it is when the mind is cleared away that really great revelations happen. We know from brain imaging studies that Huxley’s comment about the mind being a “reducing valve” was perceptive, and that psychedelics inhibit rather than stimulate synapses, releasing the valve, so to speak, to manifest something larger. Funnily enough, one of the brains imaged in the psilocybin study that established this fact was mine – that was a funny way to spend an afternoon, in a soundproof box with my frazzled head in something like a perm machine with a tennis ball on my chin, doing tests and clicking buttons. The most unnerving point was when the doctor exclaimed “there’s a clot!” and started fiddling with the tube buried in my artery, and I wondered if I was going to die in that machine.
It was interesting and novel, but needless to say, there was no great apocalypse there. My mind was all present, if not entirely correct. If your trip is going to take you beyond the confines of yourself, you need to be unconcerned with your self – and that is why I’m sceptical of a lot of neo-ayahuasquero paths. Many seem to begin with stating some intention; and how are you going to achieve ecstasy, and stand (stasis) outside (ex) yourself, if your ‘set’ begins with a definition of what you want to achieve? What about what the cosmos wants to show you? There are certainly degrees of revelation, and if you want to discover something truly extraordinary, it takes a little discipline and humility. So I am very comfortable with my psychedelic tradition, the Daime tradition, which begins not with your intention but with the sign of the cross (the intersection of the physical and spiritual planes), and then with prayers to the prime masculine and feminine forces of the cosmos.
A good few years of meditation practice makes things a lot easier, intense yoga practice, deep and exhaustive study of any field from kabbalah to inorganic chemistry to sui-boku-ga charcoal painting – whatever fans your flames. Anything immersive and absorbing is helpful, as are extraordinary states of love, elation, pain, and psychological stress. My ex-wife was kind enough to furnish me with the latter four, being a truly lovely professional sado-masochist, and a maniac to boot – and so the series is dedicated to her (my Nemu-sis). Life sets us up with opportunities for learning, and in order to penetrate the veil you just need to live it to the full, to absorb all that it has to offer, face-on and at full volume, without succumbing to anti-psychotics, tranquilisers, daytime TV or anything which dulls the experience. That pain and confusion is there for a reason, and there is much to be learned from it – including how to step out of yourself. For the same reason I have also avoided all forms of pharmaceutical medicines since the age of 15, and I have learned a lot from periods of illness, including eight months with a potentially fatal parasitic leishmaniasis infection in the Amazon, which I treated with ayahuasca.
You wrote: “Christ almost universally appears helpless, as a babe in arms, a victim pinned to the cross, or a corpse in the pietà. Otherwise he is being whipped and humiliated around the walls of the church and the stations of the cross”, and then proceed to describe him in anarchic terms. Why do you think he has always been depicted in his way? And could such a radical reading transform people’s approaches to Church and, more importantly, biblical teachings?
Radical is the word, and in order to understand the Bible you need to go back to the radicle, the root, which is the Greek and the Hebrew text. Fortunately, if you are interested in that kind of thing but not a scholar of it, the Blue Letter Bible (dot com) gives you interlinear translations, so you can infer what a word really means. Half of the time the translator is trying to throw you, so just pick a verse from the Bible that really offends you and interrogate it online. Here’s a particularly egregious example:
“Ye resist not evil [sic]: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.”
These words in translation, and the interpretations which come down to us, represent some of the foulest political manoeuvering in the history of mind-manipulation. When you hear someone say ‘turn the other cheek’, for example, they almost certainly mean something like leave it alone, take the insult or abuse and move on; but a little bit of narrative analysis shows that this is clearly nonsense.
To twat someone on the right cheek you have to either hit him with a left hook, or with a roundhouse punch with the right – both of which blows are more suited to Shaolin Temple than first century Jerusalem. The strike in question is a backhander with the dominant hand, given by the dominant party to the subserviant party – a master striking a slave, or perhaps a man striking his woman or his child. It was prohibited in Roman law to deck a slave or a person from the occupied territories, but a backhander was quite acceptable. It is a symbolic strike, reminding any upstart of the hierarchy. So an insubordinate subordinate, having already refused to do his master’s bidding and been punished with a strike which does not injure but humiliates, can flip the script. He refuses to be humiliated, and offers his left cheek to his master, whose right hand is now by his right side. It is not a clear act of aggression, which would be stupid and possibly fatal, but the unspoken meaning is: “if you want to hit me, put aside your law and your hierarchy and hit me as an equal.”
The Sermon on the Mount, from which these lines are taken, actually advises the exact opposite of what most Christians think, and almost all of the common New Testament moral parables have been totally warped “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven [sic]” is another twisted line. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” is almost never analysed any more deeply than as an exhortation to pay your taxes , and “The meek [sic] shall inherit [sic] the earth [sic]” is more honestly translated from the Hebrew as “the poor shall occupy (or seize) the land”. Go the extra mile, give him your shirt also, “ye resist not evil” (which would be better rendered as something like “do not push against force directly”) – all of these pious catchphrases of a foul and floppy Christianity are offenses to a text which is deeply subversive, and which offers intelligent tactics for resistance in conditions of oppression. And the advice remains relevant. Resist without open force. Bring down the arrogant with courage and intelligence. Use the law to wrongfoot those who hide behind it. This is is all unpacked in a talk I gave at an Anarchist conference at Loughborough University, which you can listen to on my website (www.nemusend.co.uk).
My own introduction to the Bible began one day as I was sitting around in my house in Manchester, smoking a joint and thinking about what aspect of the history and philosophy of medicine I was going to write my degree dissertation on. Fortunately, at that very moment a pair of curmudgeonly angels of the apocalypse penetrated the veil and knocked on my door, disguised as Jehovah’s Witness. I took all the literature they had, and asked for more, and ended up comparing their beliefs on medicine, sex and the body to those of apocalyptic Christian cults of the 17th century. There was no way I was going to manage that without reading at least some of the Bible, and so I did, with some suspicion. The only line containing the phrase “the end of the world” is the following, from Matthew:
“So shall it be at the end of the world [sic]: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked [sic] from among the just”.
The first (and sickest) slight of hand here is that the Greek word translated as ‘world’ does not mean ‘world’ at all! It is aeon, and it means aeon, ie. epoch or age. And the end of the age was exactly what many revolutionaries wanted, in those troubled times of tension and impending civil war. In one sense, they sought the end of the diabolical and degraded age of monarchism, and the introduction of the parliamentary era, but the changes were all-encompassing. Puritan apocalyptics invented the scientific method, pioneered statistical medicine, and set sail for New Jerusalem in the unknown continent of North America. They, alongside other apocalyptic heretics such as Isaac Newton and Paracelsus, changed forever the way we engage the world.
Regarding Church, I’d like to think that coherent textual analysis (or just a pair of nuts) might move Church-goers to challenge power. I have been very impressed by some Christian activists, including the members of Christianity Uncut who chained themselves to the gates of the DSEI arms fair last year, and the two anarchist Anglican clergymen who performed an exorcism there (one of whom is currently on a 40 day and night fast for lent to raise awareness about the scandalous rise in food poverty in the UK). The former Archbishop of Canterbury came out in support of those activists, and called for the church to rethink its stance on the arms trade – but the acting Archbishop said nothing, and that silence speaks volumes on the nature of the institutionalised church.
I personally can’t stand church services – the architecture, the art, the songs about ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’ is all designed to make you feel insignificant, and then there are the godawful people you have to talk to most of the time – and I don’t think of myself as a Christian either. The Old Testament has a lot more depth to it than The New Testament, I reject the writings of St. Paul and The Book of Romans, and I consider the Gnostic Gospels at least as important as the fab four (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). My religion, if it may be called that, is Daime, where the churches are not called churches but centres, and the Bible is basically banned from ceremonial space. Sadly, this bastard government has banned our sacrament, despite there being no legal basis to do so, and kept some of my Daimista friends on bail for over two years, though in many countries Daimistas are free to practice.
You took part in 2011 Occupy protests in London. Would you tell us a little about your experience of this movement, what were its benefits/drawbacks, and the extent to which it fits into the apocalyptic world-view?
Occupy was a truly global movement spreading from Egypt to Wall Street, which is something very novel, and it left many people feeling more identity with activists from different countries and causes than with the entrenched elites of their own nations. When activists lit a bonfire in Syria in support of Occupy London, it was a very special moment for me personally, the world felt much more joined up suddenly. The tragic backlash against that upsurge of hope became apparent later, with new laws in some places and massacres in others. But despite the bloodshed, and even because of it in a way (because some of those killed in Egypt were friends of my friends) it feels like something global was born in that moment – and of course, Rome wasn’t trashed in a day, so we should expect consequences to take a little time to come to fruition. I think it was also prefigurative, because many of us may have to live in similarly close and chaotic circumstances, for a time at least, if the inequalities in our society are not resolved.
For me it was a wonderful time, where all sorts of veils dropped on a personal level, as I found myself mixing freely with people previously outside of my circle, homeless people and women in hijabs, addicts, old-school revolutionary Marxists and violent criminals. I arrived on the first day, slept on a groundsheet on the freezing concrete, and awoke to the peals of the bells. I took part in a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral with all kinds of weird and wonderful people, and that was made into a film called The Canterbury Tales, which I narrated in Chaucerian verse. I was writing for The Occupied Times for many months, and gained a lot of experience with journalism, editing and anarchist exegesis. Living, writing and activism came together, and have stayed together with current projects, including Shell Out Sounds [http://shelloutsounds.org] and The Reclaim Shakespeare Company, During that time I also saw very clearly the role of the police in maintaining inequality and marginalising the poor, and the complicity of the media in the affairs of state, which was something of a revelation to me. Theory became fact for me, and I continue to feel that I have, for example, more in common with the blogger Syrian Girl than I do with most of the British news reporters.
One the other hand, I was surprised by the degree to which ideology and tribalism mix, and how quickly we build cliques and erect walls, how we focus on what divides us rather than what unites us. I got kicked out of The Occupied Times because I refused to adopt the same hatreds as most of the people working on it – all of the anarchists were kicked out in a purge, by a closed committee of Marxists with limited talent but good skills in realpolitik. That would not surprise students of history, but again it was a painful shock when theory became fact. Anyway, enough moaning, we all have a long way to go to break through our limitations, and sadly we rarely see things clearly until our eyes are forced open. As Thatcher’s children, we grew up in a crumbling society, and it is no mean feat to build something comfortable from the rubble.
Part 2 of Nemu’s End, Neuro-Apocalypse, is due to be published a little later this year. What sort of subjects will you be tackling in it? And how do they fit into the larger apocalyptic project?
Science Revealed is a introduction to the idea of apocalypse and veils, and a broad attack on blinkered rationalism, but Neuro-Apocalypse goes much deeper, into verbal and non-verbal thought, and the incredible feats that we are capable of when freed from the conceptual frames which our languages construct. Certain conditions and techniques enable the thinker to penetrate this veil and enter into an entirely different world, where he or she may function very differently. These include both autistic savantism and spontaneous savantism (which can result from degenerative brain disease or a knock to the head) as well as psychedelic experience, electro-magnetic stimulation and ritual and meditative techniques which alter brain function.
Neuro-Apocalypse begins with autobiography, as most of my work does, taking examples from my knowledge of the Japanese language and culture, gained during six years I spent in that fabulous country. I draw from cross-cultural studies in the psychology of perception to explore how different languages prime the perceptual apparatus differently, and how that manifests in cultural artefacts – why the gravel in Zen gardens curves round the rocks, why a haiku always has a reference to the season, why Japanese office workers take only half of their holidays, and why the scriptures from East and West are so diametrically opposed in some ways. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God” is quite different to “The Tao that can be named is not the real Tao, the nameless is the origin of all things.”
I also make an argument for a degree of linguistic determinism in thoughtforms. There is something fascinating about how the Judeo-Christian tradition compares with the Zen tradition. The former begins with a story in Hebrew, which is an extremely flexible language, traditionally said to yield 72 translations for each verse of the Bible. Greek, Latin and the other Indo-European languages which carried the tradition forward are rigidly dualistic; so the Judeo-Christian textual tradition moves from flexibility into rigidity. By contrast, the Zen tradition begins in the linguistic soil of the Indus valley, in the Indo-European language Sanskrit, which is as technically precise as Greek. Its branches go through Chinese and it flowers in Japanese, and both of these languages are extremely vague, drawing much of the meaning of a clause from contextual factors. So where the Biblical tradition moves from ambiguous to dualistic, Zen moves from rigid to vague, and its techniques may specifically involve confronting the nonsense of language. The koan, for example, is a riddle designed to exhaust and then blow open the mind.
Broadly speaking, the West is still bound by Aristotle’s either / or rules of thought and the dualisms of classical philosophy, which generates the powerful analytical tools required for scientific reasoning. The cultures of the Far East are generally more adept at discerning relationships, whether in social, physiological or other systems (or at least they were until Western models of science and politics began to dominate). The tradition of inquiry into the natural world is built on totally different perspectives – relational rather than analytical, and dynamic rather than static. Chinese medics, for example, were prescribing hormones isolated from urine over 2000 years ago, revealing an understanding of the complex relationships going on in the body, but Western endocrinology didn’t exist until the end of the 19th century, and no one knew why castration caused such wide-ranging effects on the body. Greek philosophers, however, had accurately calculated the circumference of the Earth before the common era, while Chinese cosmologists thought the world was flat until Jesuits told them otherwise. Today, while Japan produces very few Nobel Prize winners compared to similarly developed countries, it was Japanese primatologists who first perceived the complex web of relationships in a chimpanzee troop, whereas Western observers had focused on the mother-child bond.
Different strategies of thinking, the relational and the analytical, uncover different secrets about the world, but there are further approaches which yield surprising results. One way of examining the interactions of the different parts of the brain is by using The Old Testament as a neurology textbook (which is surely less absurd than using it as a moral code). Strange as it may seem, the behaviour of its main characters, of Adam, Job, Satan, and the various Godnames moving in mysteriously convoluted and contradictory ways, correlate neatly with the functions of the different lobes of the brain. That, however, will take some explaining, and must remain veiled until the autumn.
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