The Science of Myth
"The history of the soul is always the
history of the voicelss, the opressed, the repressed...."
with William Irwin
He spends his time contemplating such nuances of thought as the
relation ship of birdsong to light changes in a sunset, the mythic levels
of meaning in the fairy tale of Rapunzel, the relationship of oral sex to
the development of consciousness, and the rain dances of chimpanzees. He
is a cultural historian, poet, and mystic, weaving his imagination deep
into the fabric of scientific theory.
William Irwin Thompson received his doctorate from Cornell and has
taught at Cornell, MIT, New York University, and the University of
Toronto. In 1972, feeling the needfor a more improvisational forum, he
established the Lindisfarne Association, an intellectual community where
artists, humanists, and scientists can share their ideas and insights,
beyond the con fines and agendas of academia. A meeting of minds and
friends, Lindisfarne is a modlel for the realization of a planetary
culture. Over the years, it has attracted some of the most
envelope-pushing thinkers of our day, such as Bucky Fuller; Marshall
McLuhan, Gregory Bateson, and more recently, Ralph Abraham, James
Lovelock, and Lynn Margulis.
Thompson is known for his staggering trapeze acts of thought.
Performing without the safety net of empiricism, he spans the subjects of
sexuality, cultural origins, science, and mythology in giant sweeps,
grasping them in metatheories of poetic grandeur He is completely at home
at the hearth of his intuition, where his rational intellect can sit and
warm its hands. He received the Oslo International Poetry Festival Award
in 1986 and is the author of fifteen books, including the classic At the
Edge of History, which was nominated for the National Book Award. He
brings a mythic perspective to just about everything, from homosexuality
to Darwinian theory. His beef with sociobiologists centers on what he
perceives as the arrogant assumption that their theories, with terms such
as evolutionary momentum, are free from the flights of imagination that
characterize the language of the mystic. Thompson prefers "to take my
mysticism neat. "
Every fall and spring he serves as the Lindisfarne Scholar in Residence
at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. In the winter he is
the Rockefeller Scholar at the California Institute of Integral Studies in
San Francisco, where this interview took place on June 11, 1994. He
declined to be photographed, so Victoria Sulski, an artist and friend of
mine, came along to sketch him. I think that the drawing captures the
spirit of this inteview better than any photo could.
A strong upholder of European standards of excellence, William Irwin
Thompson seems a trifle out of place only two blocks from the corner of
Haight and Ashbury. It 's hard to imagine him with flowers in his
hair--bur then, his Celtic soul is already decked with the garlands of his
David: What was the source of your inspiration for becoming a cultural
historian, and how did you gain your mytho-poetic perspective?
Bill: It was from Stravinsky. Before I knew how to read my mother took
me to my first experience of a public theater. I was a four year old
child, seeing the creation of the solar system, set to Stravinsky's Rite
of Spring in Disney's Fantasia.
While I was watching the camera's point of view approach the planet
from the outside, I had a shockingly familiar experience and it triggered
a deja vu in my mind of, "yeah, that's exactly how I got here. Finally,
here is a human experience that makes sense!" The rest of the time, when
you're a child, you're surrounded by stuff that doesn't make any sense,
whether it's cribs, punishment or whatever, and you wonder, "what is all
this? How did I get here?"
When I was in the theater, Stravinsky's music was so overwhelming and
uninterrupted that it had something of the effect of an Eleusynian mystery
rite. It imprinted my imagination with visual mythopoeics and I became
fascinated with cosmology and the story of the universe.
Then I went home and discovered that I could turn the dial on the
radio. I would turn on the classical music station and lie down on the
couch and go into Samadhi.
David: I'm curious about your formal educational process.
Bill: Well, grammar school and the nuns were a little after the fact.
They were trying to teach me Roman Catholicism when I had already
discovered yoga! (laughter) But I was a good boy and I won lots of medals
and I got A's, but I didn't find Catholicism spiritual enough.
The movie theater seemed to be a really sacred space but the church
seemed just to be filled with images of mutilation and torture - with a
mangled Jesus on the cross. When I went to church mass on Sunday, Father
Quinn would just scream at us that we weren't giving enough money to the
church. So religion was very unappealing.
At age seven and eight I was sent to a Catholic military school. There,
if you were bad, you were punished by having to stand to attention for
five hours, and some children would faint in the sun. Today they would be
sued and charged with child abuse. (laughter)
I remember one time I went into a library and opened up a children's
encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge. There was a picture of a spiral
nebula and it told the story of the creation of the universe. It connected
me back to my original Mind. I realized once more that there was this
larger universe out there that wasn't controlled by nuns.
The Catholic military school was a double whammy because the headmaster
was a shell-shocked major from WW II. He had a paddle that had holes put
in it so that it would scream through the air as it came down.(laughter)
The patron saint of the school was St. Catherine who, as Ralph Abraham
points out, is actually Hepatica. She was tortured and killed by the
Catholic mob. Even the namesake of the school was a figure of torture! So,
as soon as I had the opportunity to get out of all that stuff I did.
David: So your primary orientation was spiritual rather than
Bill: Oh totally. And also artistic. From the very beginning I was
writing poetry. The Europeans have the understanding that a writer doesn't
have to be a specialist. In America, if you're a poet you're Robert Bly,
if you're a philosopher, you're Dan Dennet and if you're a scientist
you're Gerald Edelman.
In America they're always trying to figure out what it is you're trying
to sell and how you can put it in a sound-bite. This explains why I've
spent a lot of time out of the country. I've lived in Canada and Ireland
and for twelve years in Switzerland.
Rebecca: You got disillusioned with academia after a while and in your
books you describe how you went on to explore other modes of learning in
Bill: But I liked academia in some senses because since I came from the
working class, it gave me a chance to move up and get out of that kind of
life. So I had a good career in terms of going from instructor to full
professor in seven years and being promoted every year at MIT.
I didn't leave academia because I failed, but I went through it so fast
that suddenly I was a full professor at thirty-four. I thought, am I
supposed to keep doing this for the next thirty years? - I'm bored so I'm
leaving. In the seventies, a lot of people were doing the same and trying
to create new institutions.
Rebecca: Tell us about the community of Lindisfarne. How did it begin
and what goes on there?
Bill: Lindisfarne has been going for 23 years, and every year it's
different. It's more of a distributive fellowship and a concert rather
than an institution, although at various times we've had functions and
courses and things.
I had been really impressed with Michael Murphy's work at Esalen, but
it was too wild, sloppy, Dionysian, psychedelic, American and
consumer-oriented. It wasn't really disciplined enough for my sensibility.
I didn't want to do it in California because I felt that California would
encourage those qualities, so I decided to set it up in New York.
It started out as an alternative to academia and as another way of
doing the humanities in a technological society. Originally I tried to
cross religion and science at MIT and create an honor college within M.I.T.,
but the president didn't want to do it. It was during the Vietnam war and
they had another political agenda. So that's when I quit and went to
Rebecca: Who were the original people you worked with in setting up
Bill: A lot of it was inspired by the Mother and Sri Auribindo, and
Findhorn, and the whole spiritual evolution of consciousness movement of
the late sixties and seventies. I had gone through the training of
Yognanda and did the whole seven year program of Kriya yoga. My approach
has always been yogic and I always had this interior yoga that was in
conflict with the institutions I was in.
For example, when I was at LA. High they sent the cops to get me
because I would never go to school on Friday. I wanted to stay at home and
read Melville and Dostoyevsky instead. They got really tough because it
was during the McCarthy era. Being an intellectual in America at that time
was kind of like being a Darter snail - you're really a vanishing species.
The father of my best friend came out in a drunken rage and called me a
commie homosexual and warned me to never darken his doorway again. I was
being really kosher actually and just talking about Thoreau and very
literary things, but even this was considered really subversive and "pinko."
So my relationship with institutions was always something of a fight.
But being Irish and working-class I was very tough. In the Catholic
Mexican culture I was with in L.A., if you excelled they would try to kill
you. There were times when I couldn't go out into the school-yard because
there was a hit squad that was out to get me for being too smart.
Rebecca: So Lindisfarne was a step beyond where you could generate your
ideas with like-minded people.
Bill: Yes. I was looking for those who were actually trying to
articulate the crossing of art, science and religion for a planetary
culture, and I found them in people like Gregory Bateson, James Lovelock
and Lynn Margulis.
Rebecca: How did you all come together?
Bill: From my travels and wandering. I tend to approach things through
the back door rather than coming in with trumpets blazing. I spent a week
at Esalen during which Michael Murphy and I became friends for life. I
would travel around the world and meet various people. Marshall McLuhan
had read one of my books. I forget how I met James Lovelock. I think I
just invited him to a Lindisfarne gathering and he came.
So it's kind of like a musical ensemble where you get together with
people. You begin to jive and like can recognize like, creating
friendships which have lasted twenty years. There was a charisma to the
period of 1967. There was a sense that there was a new evolution of
consciousness, a new possibility, a new zeitgeist or angel of time in the
ether and that doing the same old thing was just intolerable.
I went out to the Hopi reservation and started checking out all these
different communities and cultures to see what I could learn from each of
them for setting up Lindisfarne, which I did in 1972. I set it up thinking
that it would be a place for students to drop into once they'd dropped out
of college, and study the new planetary culture. Communes and ashrams were
anti-intellectual and universities were anti-spiritual, so I wanted to
create a place that was intellectual and spiritual at the same time - a
place where I could be comfortable and find other people like me.
Rebecca: And it's still going on today?
Bill: Yeah. As it happened, it didn't work so well for students. It
became more like All Souls College in Oxford attracting the fellows and
the scientists and creating bonds of friendship. Jim Lovelock said once
when we were in a fellows conference in Italy, "I'm a fellow of the Royal
Society and that's nice, but it means much more to be a fellow of
Lindisfarne." I'll take that to my grave. (laughter)
It's basically a distributive lattice. There have been times when we've
had thirteen acres in Southampton, four buildings in Manhattan, eighty
acres in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, but it's basically just software
now. There's a Lindisfarne symposium in the fall and once a year the
fellows come to the Crestone Mountain Zen Center, and from time to time we
have concerts or art exhibitions.
Rebecca: It's a great concept - an intellectual neutral ground, free
from the pressure of fulfilling a predetermined curriculum.
Bill: It's also a place to share experiences with people from different
fields, like when Gary Snyder went for a hike with Jim Lovelock to the top
of the Sangre and shared his vision of nature. When I had the first Gaia
meeting in 1981 in California I brought the Santiago school of
epistemology together with Humberto Maturana and Fransisco Varella from
Chile, Henri Atlan from Paris, Lovelock from England, Lynn Margulis, Heinz
Pagels and Elaine Pagels. These people had never met before.
The composer Paul Winter was there and he got so inspired by Lynn
Margulis' presentation, which was just intoxicating, that he wrote the
Missa Gaia. So it was a fugue of art and science.
Rebecca: You have said that "intellectual respectability must come from
its unavailability and resistance to communication," but information is
the currency of thought and what is the good of a good message if it isn't
Bill: If you're going to have a great restaurant, you want a cook who
loves cooking and some quality control. America tends to want to
mass-produce everything and just have fast food. If everybody knocks on
the door and says, "I'm your wife," then it would be pretty hard to relate
in any serious way.
Part of protecting the integrity of a tradition or an art-form is to
learn how to say no, and to love to say no, to be in charge of the process
from beginning to the end. Most people on a certain level lose control and
get involved in over-presentation in the media.
David: You mean that their message gets diluted?
Bill: Yes, and they also get too many projections from
celebrity-psychosis in the culture. You'll get crank mail from
fundamentalists and love letters from psychotics, and your life just gets
torn apart. But beyond that, it's simply just a question of protecting the
integrity of what it is you want to do.
If you're using your work in order to gain fame or money or power or
political leverage, then that's a whole different strategy and you can do
that with almost anything - being a sports figure, a movie star or simply
being famous for being famous.
But because the intellectual in America is such an endangered species,
we don't really have a strong intellectual tradition. For the most part
the things that really work in America are diluted forms of European
ideas. Joseph Campbell isn't as strong as Carl Jung or Erich Neumann. Ken
Wilbur isn't as strong as Jean Gebser.
Rebecca: But even weak tea can perk some people up.
Bill: But if you're a chef you're not going to want to work for
Rebecca: So you're not in a hurry to see the `Bill Thompson's Reclaim
your Mythic Imagination in 60 minutes' workout (laughter)
Bill: When I had my fifteen minutes of fame in the seventies, I had a
chance for that and it was so appallingly inappropriate that I just
slammed the door on it. It made my publishers angry though. But I think
it's just a question of aesthetics. The formation of my psyche from the
very beginning was aesthetic and there are just certain things which to me
are vulgar, distasteful and ugly; like Amercan pop culture, like being a
celebrity and going on Good Morning America.
When I was younger I watched Bucky Fuller, Alan Watts and Marshall
McLuhan all become victims of the media. Alan ended up an old drunk - he
wasn't a Zen master, he was a very tragic figure at the end of his life.
Bucky Fuller was incredibly vain. I remember being with him at a
conference and he was throwing snits because this wasn't right or there
wasn't enough attention, and he would run to see if he was on the evening
news or in the morning newspaper.
When I met Marshall McLuhan I thought, well here's a guy who's written
brilliantly about the media but he ended up as its sacrificial victim.
There's a beautiful moment in a film about McLuhan where he's being
interviewed at his daughter's wedding. He begins to go on a riff about the
meaning of the ceremony. He's upstage with the camera and his daughter is
standing farther away standing in her wedding dress.
All of a sudden her eyes begin to change. She's getting really tense,
and you can tell that she's thinking, "Goddam it Dad! Even at my fucking
wedding?" And he's beginning to sense that he's packaged her; she's just
become a resource colony to his imperial imagination.
But he can't stop because the medium is the message and he's captured
by it. He becomes its victim rather than its artist.
So when you're in your twenties or thirties and you see these people
going out before you and getting mowed down, you rethink your strategy.
Rebecca: Are you accused of being elitist?
Bill: Oh, all the time. And I don't mind because I think that you have
to be elitist. If you were going to study the guitar would you pick the
worst guitar teacher? I think that elitism is precisely what America needs
if we're going to have fine wines, good cooking and good philosophy.
But remember, I'm working-class. I did this all on my own. My parents
didn't have an education beyond the 8th grade. At the economic level I'm
anything but elitist, but at the levels of commitment to excellence I'm
totally elitist and anything else I find reprehensible.
One of the reasons that I've changed over the past twenty years is
because the technologies have changed. When the media technologies came
out in the 60's they were all very intrusive. You were small and the media
The business manager at Lindisfarne wanted to videotape an entire
fellows conference. There were these incredibly bright floodlights and
they had wired the room so you could barely get around. I simply told them
to get out. The same thing happened with my publisher when
At the Edge of History was nominated for the National Book
Award. They wanted me to go on Dick Cavett and David Frost and I said,
"I'm sorry, I don't want any part of that world."
If I hadn't done that then the Lindisfarne fellowship wouldn't exist,
because the fellowship is a collection of life-long commitments to people.
If people just end up getting used for some other agenda, they're not
going to make that level of commitment. But now you have these hand-held
devices as big as a Kodak. I'm not a luddite - I love my Apple Powerbook -
and all my mystical experiences as a child were with LP's and radio and
even Disney, so I'm not at all opposed to media. But there has to be an
appropriate scale of relationship. Anything out of scale gets evil.
I love the idea that this course of mine that's being taped in San
Francisco could be taken by someone working on an oil-rig in the North Sea
during a tough winter. At the same time, I love that I can walk down the
street and nobody is going to recognize me. I feel sorry for Jane Fonda
and those people who don't own their own face.
David: I'd like to hear about what myth means to you and
the four different levels of mythic interpretation.
Bill: Oh no, I don't want to do that. It's all written up
on page 5 in The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light. The meta-level
of this question is more interesting than the content if we actually
attend to what's really going on here rather than to your agenda. This is
precisely the difficulty of the media.
If a writer is to stay alive, you don't want to just continually repeat
yourself. What America demands in the media is sound-bites and having a
certain trip. Joseph Campbell says, "follow your bliss," and then
everybody memorizes it and it goes out into the culture and becomes an
icon. That is the kind of fossilization that I resist.
Bucky fuller became a holographic recording of himself. The time I
introduced him to the audience in Toronto he said, "Well I don't know what
I'm going to say, and I would just like to make it up on the spot." He
went into this rap and it was practically word for word the rap he gave in
Utopia or Oblivion. There's something disingenuous and not really
sincere about what he was presenting.
David: I completely understand and I admire your
integrity but I would just like to learn more about what your perspective
is on the subject of myth. You define mythology as being the `history of
the soul'. I'm curious about when you say that, whether you see mythology
as being history from the genetic code's point of view?
Bill: No, that's too concretized. Myth is much larger
than just crystallized DNA.
David: No, not crystallized DNA, but could myth be the
story of evolution from the point of view of DNA - that physical
part of us that is passed on from generation to generation?
Bill: The whole metaphor is wrong. If you read
The Ontogeny of Information by Susan Oyama, she says, DNA
doesn't carry a message or a unit. DNA is a topological crystal and the
shape of it has a lot to do with the sequencing. It's also influenced by
thousands of enzymes in the cytoplasm, so it isn't even just in the
nucleus. The whole cell is such an incredibly complex ecology of
consciousness that it's inaccurate to say that information is just being
carried in DNA like it's a Chevy pickup.
What I said in those lectures back in 1976, is that history is written
by elites which are the ego of a civilization. If it's written by men in
England, it's not about women and slaves in Athens or Semites with hooked
noses who created the alphabet and the Mediterranean trading culture. The
kind of history you learned in classics was a white, male, patriarchal
narrative. That's the history of the ego. The history of the soul
is always the history of the voiceless, the oppressed, the repressed: the
marginal people, the artists, the women, the African.
To reconstruct the larger evolution involves the study of fairy tales.
Grimm called his stories `housetales.' It's the story that the maid with
the wrong accent would tell the upper-middle class children. It's
information being smuggled in by marginal people who connect with the oral
peasant culture. It's not what the Reverend would be teaching the children
Myth also records the events that happened before we were even around.
The Christian metaphor of the
Eucharist - `take and
eat for this is my body and my blood,' is a way of describing the
supernova that exploded and scattered information throughout the solar
system, inseminated our earth with heavy metals and made life here
The myth of St Michael the archangel, forcing the demons down into the
underworld, is a description of the
where the new cyanobacteria who were breathing oxygen and creating the new
atmosphere, forced the anaerobic bacteria down into the slime at the
bottom of lakes. I'm a Celtic animist so I think that we were the
anaerobic bacteria and the dinosaurs. I believe that Gaia, the whole
biosphere, is really our collective body politic.
Rebecca: What does that suggest about the nature of mind?
Bill: That it's more immanent and diffused throughout the
system than commonly thought, and that the mind isn't just epiphenomenal
and located in the brain. Varella and
Maturana have this
biology which says that when you really study the whole dynamics of life,
you find that the mind is "the realization of the living."
That's the opposite of the American cognitive model that says
consciousness is just in the brain and that information is just encoded in
your DNA. In 1972 Varella and Maturana talked about mind as the
realization of the living and took it down to the level of the cell. That
was really far out then but now people are beginning to wonder if that
actually makes a lot of sense. But there are other people who are really
hard reductionists and would just find that too European and fancy.
Rebecca: So let me just clarify. You think that myth is
the memory of the whole history of the universe?
Bill: Yes. For example when you begin to unpack the
cosmology in the Rapunzel fairytale, you can show just how much
information is in that.
David: You say that this universal memory is not stored
in the DNA. So where is it stored?
Everything in quantum
physics now is rejecting the notion of storage and locality.
David: But wouldn't it be stored in the nucleus of the
atom? Without localization points how can information be distributed?
Bill: Well, wave functions aren't localized.
Bell's theorem is
all about non-locality and when you're dealing with ten dimensions then
where's the location?
who is a colleague of mine talks about how if you draw a circle and you
move to a second dimension of a sphere, it's possible to move out of that
circle without crossing a boundary. If you have a sphere and you go from
the three-dimensional to the four-dimensional you can also do that without
crossing a boundary. So at three dimensions you can say I'm Euclideanly
located here, but in the multi-dimensionality of my subtle bodies I'm
involved with Andromeda.
Part of the yogic thing is to shift from what's called the fu chi.
There's the anamayacosa and then there's the pranamayacosa,
which is the energy body that you use in T'ai Chi. The anamayacosa is
sometimes called the astral body, but it keeps shifting to the
pranamayacosa and back again, and at each one of those you're adding
dimensionality. It's getting vaster and vaster and at the same time it's
recursive and enfolded so that each point prehends a larger point.
The whole notion of what is location and what is the body gets really
dicey. What I break with in American culture is the notion that things are
located in elementary particles, or in genes or in brains, and that by
manipulating them through elite minds at Harvard or MIT, you can control
I'm much more involved in a diversity and an ecology of consciousness
where an individual flame can't exist if there's not an atmosphere, that
we can't exist if there weren't bacteria in our guts taking care of the
poisons. The new theory about bacteria is that they're actually a
planetary bioplasm and that we're inside them, they're not inside us -
it's like a sheath around the earth. So the whole notion of location is
becoming much more complicated - and much more interesting.
David: So the problem you have with location is similar
to the problem you have with the idea of representation?
Bill: Yes, that's a good connection. That's why Varella
has rejected the whole representational theory of the nervous system and
wants to deal with concepts like participation instead.
Rebecca: Can you describe the connections that you see
between science and myth?
Bill: If you ask three questions: Who are we? Where do we
come from? Where are we going? Any answer to those will give you a myth.
You can give a Marxist answer, you can give a sociobiological answer, you
can give a Christian fundamentalist or Moslem answer. So myth is basically
macro thinking. Technical thinking is micro. It's saying, I'm a
neuroscientist, I'm a geneticist and I'm not interested in answering the
big questions. That was originally why I left M.I.T, because if kids asked
questions the professors would say, forget it and do your problem sets.
If you step back and ask the big questions then you're beginning to
think mythopoeically. If you look at the narratives of Darwin or even
Leakey - all these are constructed narratives that are inescapably
mythic. The whole notion of explanation falls into mythic structures.
There's a wonderful book on narratives of human evolution by
She says if you go back and study the structure of the folktale about
how the hero leaves a safe enviroment, is then put through a sequence of
challenges and is then confronted by someone who gives him a gift to be
able to go forward and resolve the challenge and then settle into a new
steady state. You can take that structure of folkloric motif and apply it
to all these different theories of human evolution. Science is inherently
When I was saying this stuff in lectures in New York in the 70's, it
was kind of against the grain, but that way of thinking began to come up
much more in the `80's, because
in Paris was giving a similar sequence to the whole nature of mythic
thought. So now it's not quite so radical.
Rebecca: I could see how some scientists might have a
problem with their work being described as mythic not only because the
popular understanding of the word myth is something that's false, but also
because mythic ideas evolve whereas scientific truth is seen as permanent
Bill: I interviewed Heisenberg before he died in the Max Planck
Institute in Munich. He said that scientists today are just stonemasons
putting one block next to another and they don't have a view of the whole
cathedral. There's always been a difference between scientists who have
just been trained and read textbooks and just pass on received opinion,
and someone who is a creative scientist like Heisenberg.
If you're talking to serious philosophers in science, they don't have
any problem with that mythopoeic quality. It's just if people are ignorant
and think that myth means something is false like there isn't a Santa
Claus, then yes, they would have problems with that, but I wouldn't
necessarily regard them as heavies in the philosophy of science.
There was a wonderful book in the thirties called
The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact by Ludwick
Fleck which is actually the source of T.S Kuhn's
Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Everybody's read Kuhn's
book, but Fleck's book is more brilliant and deeper and more inspiring.
There's always this kind of Marx-Lenin relationship in the popularization
Anyway, when Fleck first came out with the book people said, wait a
minute, a fact is a fact. But he said no. He was one of the first
constructionists to say, a fact requires a theory the way a flame requires
an atmosphere. He showed the construction of "disease" with the Wasserman
test and the history of syphilis. He mapped the various images of this
disease over three or four centuries to describe the paradigm shifts by
which syphilis and bacteriology became reconceptualized.
Rebecca: Do you think that even scientists of the caliber
of Lovelock and Margulis sometimes miss the full experience of their
discoveries because they need to spend so much time in the intellectual
Bill: No. I think those two are good examples of three or
four dimensional people. Lynn Margulis raised four kids herself and has
led a full life, is fluent in Spanish and is involved in culture on many
different levels. Lovelock was a tough working-class kid from Brixton and
used to sell his blood to get money to do his doctorate. He was clever
enough to ask why a scientist should have to live in a big, impersonal
bureaucracy rather than like a composer or a poet. Then he moved out to
the countryside and converted a mill into a laboratory - so he's extremely
Rebecca: You experience scientific truths in a different
way to a scientist though.
Bill: I've found more scientists are actually into poetry
and culture than poets are into science. Often they're superb pianists or
jazz musicians - Heisenberg was a pianist and
Einstein was a violinist. Most of all the scientists I've met are
full, fleshed out, complicated, interesting and sensitive people.
Rebecca: You are in the minority in that, as a poet and
writer, you have a strong intuitive grasp of scientific concepts. Do you
feel frustrated in your lack of scientific understanding because intuitive
knowledge is largely seen as less valuable than linear knowledge?
Bill: No. I just feel frustrated with my own stupidity.
(laughter) I'm really not as good at mathematics and science as I'd
like to be and I can only come at these ideas from the intuitive
Rebecca: Aren't you looked upon with some suspicion
though, being someone untrained in the sciences presuming to write about
scientific theories that even many scientists are having difficulty in
Bill: The surprising thing is how often scientist's eyes
have lit up and they have become affirmative, because I would expect an
attack. But it's kind of self-selecting, because at M.I.T it was a very
aggressive, competitive, violent kind of environment and I certainly have
had experiences of being attacked by
Morton Smith. But in general I've had positive experiences with people
like Margulis or Lovelock. Most of those people are intuitive types
themselves, so we are all weirdos getting together for our own mutual
Rebecca: So you're not viewed terribly differently then
in a gathering of your scientific friends - you're not seen as somewhat of
an odd fish?
Bill: It's funny, I think they like it, whether as Irish
bullshit or blarney, (laughter) but I'm always a bit afraid. Last
summer at the Lindisfarne meeting I didn't want to embarrass my son who is
in the academic world. He had invited some people from the University of
Chicago and Stuart
Kauffman was there who is a heavy from the
Santa Fe Institute.
I was trying not to be too far out and mystical and Stuart was saying,
"relax, Bill, it's okay."
It tends to be a self-selecting and self-organizing process where like
attracts like and you get into this chamber music ensemble. I've
experienced both ridicule and humiliation and also flashes that have
actually inspired people to go out and do scientific work from suggestions
that I've given them.
David: Could you give an example?
Bill: Ralph Abraham and I are working on trying to do a
canon on the proportional system for the paleolithic statues of the Great
Goddess because my intuition was that the ratio of the head to the breasts
to the hip etc.. is a mathematical sequencing. If that were worked out
with musical analogs that could be interesting. So at the gathering of
Lindisfarne fellows in Colorado this summer, I expect that he will share
with us what he's done on the computer.
David: I'm curious about your ideas on the evolutionary
process, and I'm wondering why do you think that sexual frequency and
genital size have increased over time?
Bill: That's an interesting question. Part of it is in
the shift from the estrus cycle to menses. The process of hominization
involves the eroticization of time as the very foundation of
consciousness. A lot of myths deal with the point where language and
sexuality come together and make us human, where there is this crossing
between the two.
I think there is a recognition that sexuality is an acceleration of
time. If you take half your genetic endowment and throw it away to receive
a new half from another partner, then what you're getting is a process of
innovation so that the children are not like the parents. So, inherently,
sexuality is an acceleration of time, a speeding up of evolution and a
consciousness of intensity, of orgasm and ecstatic time. Time and sex are
inherently part of the architecture of consciousness and incarnation.
What's interesting is to realize that the most erotic organ is the
mind. I think there's also a relationship between - not just genital size
- but the bottom and the top of the spinal column. If you look at the
spinal cord you see that the brain and the genitals are really one organ.
But it's also what we share with whales and dolphins because they too have
elaborate courtship rituals. Dolphins particularly are open to sex at all
times and also have a huge brain - so dolphins and humans seem to be
sharing this evolutionary experiment.
Steiner predict that in the future sexuality is going to shift from
the genital chakra to the throat chakra and that there will be a kind of
logos spermaticos, a pure vibrational quality by which the erotic is
connected through speech and sound. It may be something that young people
are inherently recognizing through the eroticization of pop music.
David: The cultural link between sex and death was
foreshadowed by their simultaneous biological arrival, but I'm wondering
if you on some level see an even deeper link between sex and death;
something in the universe's history prior to that which connects them.
Bill: Sex and death is basic to the structure of myth,
Freud. Death is really a definition of individuation. If you don't
have a discrete cell with a nucleus that dies, if you just repeat cell
division ad infinitum, then the process is plasmic and universal and
extended, but like bacteria that don't have a nucleus it's not highly
individuated. It's so collective that it's not a discretely located
One of the things that I'm fascinated with in myth is how every
structural transition within cultural transformation is characterized by
loss and a dark age. Then after that there is an opening to the
unimaginable. Something else happens like Crestacean extinction and the
occurrence of mammals after the dinosaurs. This is one reason why I don't
buy into cryogenics and the ego's cry of, I don't want to die! Death is
part of what enables individuation to be possible.
In a Greek tragedy it gives it poignancy. What is opera about? The guy
is about to die and the woman sings an aria, "Addio vita!" Goodbye life!
So the whole nature of romantic art, poetry, opera, Greek tragedy, is all
about the intensity of death and its linked opposite of sex and orgasmic
I think that on some level this is an evolutionary commitment to
energizing the universal by energizing the unique. It's a kind of
Mobius strip where the unique and
the universal cross in more interesting ways than with bacteria where it's
the unit and the uniform. So fascist states that try to compress with a
single center like the old Soviet Union, tend not to carry much
The reason that America was able to win the race was that we somehow
tripped into this experiment - maybe partly inspired by jazz and art - of
self-organization from noise. Notice that we have a high tolerance for
crime. I can tell you from living in Canada and Switzerland that Americans
will put up with more crime, more noise and more disorder than these more
Nobody else can understand it. The Chinese can't figure out what the
hell we're doing; the Russians, who are imitating us now and are having
their own Chicago in the `30's in Moscow, are flirting with us, but I
think they're going to say, we can't take it let's go back to Stalin.
David: Do you think that's related to the extraordinary
cultural diversity in America?
Bill: Yeah, I do. I think it has a lot to do with black
jazz, with Jewish intellectuality, Irish poetry, this whole gene pool of
ecological diversity. The greatness of America is that there's no center
that carries the whole thing. You have Paris in France and Moscow in
Russia, but New York doesn't call the shots for the whole of America.
You've got all these different places with different styles and
bioregional cultures which really add something to the mix.
So I think that there's a universal quality that's energizing the
unique. How far can it go before the collective breaks down? We're right
at this edge, and I really don't know how America is going to handle the
Rebecca: In avoiding institutionalized thought, tribes
and subcultures are popping up all over the place. Sometimes they seem
even more dogmatic than the institutions they are supposedly freeing
themselves from and other times they are free-form experiments in
community. Do you think that the increase in tribalism, especially in a
country like America, where public unity hides such underlying diversity,
is an evolutionary advance or a regression in your view?
Bill: I don't think it's either one - I think it's
experimentation. I don't think that evolution is so planned and managed.
It deals with mistakes and mutations and accidents and things get infolded
in sloppy ways. So it isn't the linear program of Chardin or Darwin of
moving from chaos to the Omega Point, it's something more complicated.
Definitely suprise and chatoic processes are all part of it.
Rebecca: Do you see the increase in tribalism as a
Bill: Well, we might blow it and it might just move into
a catastrophe, but even catastrophes tend to be, over the long haul, spurs
to evolution. We might even end it for human beings and not be able to
keep this experiment going, but the biosphere will not cease to evolve. If
you're mystical, you don't necessarily identify just with a momentary
piece of meat call hominoids.
Rebecca: There's been much debate about the robustness of
complex ecological systems such as the rainforest. Is greater evolutionary
momentum, driven by diversity, always going to create instability in the
long run in your view?
Bill: It's equal and opposite energies going on at the
same time. At the one level you get homogenization of the suburban
culture, so other people start marking themselves out and retribalize,
they start tattooing themselves and diversifying their sexuality. That
reaches a point where it energizes the fundamentalists to say, "now we've
got to go back to family values and kill them all."
So it's a question of how those two extremes are going to balance out.
America is arming to the teeth because they basically distrust government
and are preparing some different scenarios of Armageddon. There are all
kinds of scenarios out there that could be pretty frightening where
America could just lose it and implode.
China probably believes that that's what's going to happen. One of the
reasons they keep selling us these cheap AK47's is that they think, "why
should we bother to invade and have a war to see who is going to be the
master of the Pacific Rim in the twentieth century? Why don't we just sell
them the guns, make the money and let them kill themselves?" (laughter
all round) I don't think I'm being paranoid - it just might work!
When humanity reaches this evolutionary catastrophe bifurcation or
cusp, some people can't handle the recycling of the noise into new
information and just check out. It's like when industrial cultures hit
third world or tribal cultures their suicide rates go up and their
fertility rates go way down and they pull the plug on themselves.
I think in places like Los Angeles, you're really getting a kind of end
of the world psychosis. You're getting drive-by shootings on the freeway
and people are worrying about whether the San Andreas fault is going to
crack or whether the air will become too polluted - it's just end time.
Rebecca: But at the same time as the cry of the
individual seems to be getting louder and louder, there's this New Age
take that we're all merging into one. Which do you think is the most
powerful force operating on the planet at this time, unity or diversity?
Bill: Marshall MacLuhan had this whole Dantesque vision
of the future as the fragments of humanity gathered together in a kind of
evolutionary Mystical Body of Christ, but that's a holographic universe
where the unique and universal energize one another - it's not compression
Rebecca: I've been hearing a lot about the new planetary
culture which is a term being thrown around quite loosely these days. But
isn't the diversity of lifestyles and language and mythos part of the
artistry of what humanity is and what keeps it interesting and surprising?
Bill: Well, the term `planetary culture' is a phrase of
mine from almost thirty years ago and was meant to contrast the
internationalism of the M.I.T multi-corporate elite that I was trying to
counter. I was saying that there's this new form of globalization with a
crossing of Indian yoga and science and electronics that is creating a new
planetary culture. But it didn't work because the planetization seems to
just be apologetics for the American empire in a new form.
Rebecca: Could it be that instead of leading to more and
more cultural homogenization, planetary culture could be achieved by
individuals within each culture beginning to gain a planetary
perspective which would then lead to environmental sensitivity and a
decrease in violence?
Bill: Planetary culture isn't a mono-culture. Planetary
culture is basically saying that in internationalism, the governing
science is economics. A planetary culture suggests a shift to ecology
as the governing science. It energizes diversity, it requires a larger
gene pool and it deals with the new sciences of complexity rather than
linear reductionism. We're not all becoming one. We might be going in
hyperspace to a level of integration in which we all participate in this
multi-dimensionality, but it's high in individuation.
Going back to your question about sexuality, sexuality for somebody who
isn't mystical is the most intense way of experiencing the vividness of
your own body and your own ecstatic existence. It's about being both
intensely alive and yet webbed to another and participating with the
encounter in a romantic dynamic. It's a Zen koan in the sense that it's in
you and not in you.
In terms of parenting, there's a whole discovery of love. I
participated in the birth of my son and experienced the consciousness of
the subtle bodies of my children entering into the room at their
conception. If you're psychic, then the whole process of being a parent is
much more multi-dimensional than people talk about.
Rebecca: What do you think about the idea that we're
actually evolving beyond sex altogether?
Bill: We are tending to deconstruct sex. For example, the
woman's movement is taking apart seduction and romance. Flirtation is now
against the law in some colleges. So there's a massive assault on the
whole quality of courtship and seduction and, by feminists, on the beauty
myth and advertising. Medi-business is taking apart reproduction the way
the family farm got usurped by agribusiness. Sex has become a mystery
school, and in certain groups it's become a whole way of life - way beyond
the goals of reproduction.
Rebecca: Some archetypes seem to have an eternal quality
to them, especially the male and female archetypes. But do you think that
these archetypes are evolving in keeping with the changing self-image men
and women and if so, then in what ways?
Bill: I don't want to say that they're eternal, I'll just
say that their melting temperature is higher so that it takes longer for
them to disappear. They tend to last for a couple of hundred thousand
Balzac wrote this alchemical novel called
Seraphita where a man and woman fall in love with the same
figure. The woman falls in love thinking Seraphita is a man and the man
falls in love thinking it's a woman, and this love is just beyond any
sexual definition. So even back in 1830 Balzac was playing with these
themes that got played out in the culture of rock music in the sixties.
I saw a picture of an Indian guru in Hawaii and you could not identify
the sex; it looked totally androgenous. I think there is a quality of
fascination with the androgen and sexuality is on its way out. But in some
parts of the culture people are getting into natural childbirth and
natural death and recovering biology as the sacred. But it seems to be
romantic, like writing poems to trees before the industrial revolution or
talking about handicrafts when factories were taking over. What its real
future is and how it's going to stand up to this double assault will be
David: You've said that when a way of life is vanishing
then people tend to try and hold onto it even tighter. Do you see the rise
in fundamentalism as being indicative of that kind of phenomena?
Bill: Oh, that happens all the time. You get the
Renaissance and then you get the Inquisition.
Rebecca: Do you think we are in a period of initiation?
Bill: I think we've definitely been in a period of
initiation since 1967. Something really weird happened on December 31st
1967. I'm a firm believer in the
that this is a myth that has an
ontological reality to
Rebecca: Did you believe that we would use the
opportunity in better ways than we have?
Bill: Yeah. I suppose I was more optimistic and I think
we could have done better,(laughter) but I don't know. If one has
the big picture - which is one good thing about myth - then you don't have
to be optimistic or pessimistic in a quarterly report. You can look at
something like the Crestaceous extinction and say, well, that wiped out
86% of life on the planet. But a forest fire can actually trigger seeds
that otherwise wouldn't spread.
So, on one level I think we're up against a really big catastrophe
humanity, but as death is part of the architecture of individuation then
it's just part of a larger story. I think we're moving towards a
collective shared death which is maybe one reason why we are invoking a
catastrophe. Otherwise evolution might continue in this slow way and we'd
be locked into hell for a longer period.
Actually by raising the heat we're really destabilizing the planet.
Look at what we've done in the past fifty years to the biosphere. We're
raising the ante. We don't quite know what the risks are, but we're
totally committed to it; we're not going to put it into reverse.
Everybody's committed to whatever their trip is - whether it's gay or
lesbian or fundamentalist or skinhead. They're all turning up the heat and
no one is moving towards comfort and steady state. We're calling down some
evolutionary transformation but we don't quite know what it is.
David: What do you think happens to human consciousness
Bill: I think that when you're alive, you weave a subtle
body and that it's composed out of all of your thoughts - the collective
ecology of your consciousness. When you die, you've actually woven your
next form of incarnation, and you move into that subtle body which you've
constructed throughout your life.
It isn't punishment, like going to hell, but it is remorseless. When
you live in your subtle body in the bardo realm, you begin to meditate on
weaving the flesh that will be the carnal form for your next incarnation.
You're not alone because you're actually inside (this may seem flaky, but
indulge me) an angelic body that is a collective neighborhood interacting
I talked to Nechung Rinpoche who was the abbot of the largest monastery
in Tibet before the communist invasion. He said that when people come
together in practice they actually constellate a form of consciousness
that is larger than them. The bodhisatva sends a beneficent being that
takes an energy from a higher dimension, steps it down and makes it
available to the people in the meditation practice. It's like when you go
to a great concert and you suddenly feel that something has happened, that
everybody has suddenly thrown a switch and turned on another reality.
So, our subtle bodies are woven into this larger angelic formation. I'm
happy with the concept of angel but there are different words for this in
different traditions; it's a transcultural phenomenon. These angelic
bodies are like midwives to your own rebirth, and so when you interact
with them when you die you actually go into that bardo. The paranoid way
of thinking of this is abduction and flying saucers, that you're taken up
into a tin can which is going to carry you to the stars. Well, all of that
is misplaced concreteness for what is really angelic multi-dimensionality.
David: What do you think happens at the moment of death?
Bill: It all depends on what you've been doing in your
meditation practice. If you're a yogi, you die consciously every night -
you can stop your heart and go into bardo at any time during meditation.
At the moment of death, if you're really advanced, you could just stop
your heart and go out through the top of your head and not have the
process just inflicted upon you.
David: And when you say "go out," you mean going out in
the vehicle of thought that you wove together throughout your entire
Bill: Yes. And you're not alone. When I quit M.I.T., I
gained a whole new fellowship of friends - and in the subtle dimension you
have your colleagues too.
Plato discusses this in the myth of Er at the end of the Republic
which is one of the first descriptions of the death experience. If you
examine your dreams at night, you'll often find yourself at airports or at
college campuses or at places with a lot of other people and if you start
doing dream practice you notice that this stuff is already coming up.
Rebecca: You spoke about planetary culture not being a
mono-culture, but isn't the culture largely controlled by who controls the
media? America is the media-tzar of the world.
Bill: Well, but multi-nationals control the media. This
is not really about nations, this is about multi-national or
trans-national corporations. Nafta is not about nations, it's about cheap
labor to destroy Canada to get their water so we can get the water we need
to run the economy threatened by China, because if we have Canadian water
and cheap Mexican labor and Europe and China are competing with us, we
have a market large enough to survive at the economy of scales that
American corporations require.
But, if you look at the Crusades, we Europeans thought that we would
invade and get the holy land, but what happened was that we uncovered the
platonic manuscripts, Indian algebra and created the Renaissance. In the
culture of Europe, the father is Islam and the mother is Dark Age Europe -
the child is the Renaissance which then moves to America and the New
World. So these things aren't really under anybody's conscious control.
David: Do you see any teleology in the evolutionary
Bill: No. I think that innovation is non-linear, that
it's a complex, dynamical system. It has certain parameters - you can't
play tennis without a net - but it's definitely not a system moving
towards a linear goal. The human imagination tends to envisage that
evolution is going to hit higher and higher stages and that the next
evolutionary step is going to be an animal like us but just a little
better, with a bigger brain and maybe with technology embedded in it - I
think that is a total failure of imagination.
If we have this catastrophe bifurcation where a billion people die at
once then they all share an imagination and they all share a definition of
an event. Look at what the holocaust did to the Jews, for example; that
shared event formed their identity, their whole experience of history and
time. So, if human beings experience a collective catastrophe they will
share an imagination in the collective subtle body.
Rebecca: What is your intuition of how this catastrophe
Bill: I think it's actually a change in the position of
the solar system relative to the galaxy that happens periodically and that
mystical elites have kept records of these over long periods of time. When
the earth comes into a new position, it exposes it to more comets like the
one hitting Jupiter on my birthday July 16th.
So, I think that we'll get swept into some kind of asteroid belt and
that there'll be a subsequent variation in the geological stress on the
planet. That will effect the reversal of the earth's magnetic field and
it's orientation and rotation creating stress on the tectonic plates. We
might get a lot of volcanoes going off which will begin to affect the
albedo. With our high population, if we get one dark summer then there
will be massive shortages in the food supply. Also socially, when pension
funds get to be bankrupt with hurricanes and earthquakes and floods and
AIDS, every single year, then pretty soon the economy of capitalism won't
be able to sustain all the demands being made on it. It implosively forces
a redefinition of healthcare much larger than the one that Clinton has in
That's going to force capitalism to change, because you can't deal with
such a collectively shared catastrophe with the concept of private
property. Even if you have an AK47, you're not going to be able to defend
yourself. It forces people to share an historical space.
If they go into this catastrophe space of bardo and the angels are
kneading their consciousness - like making bread and throwing it back into
the oven in the next incarnation to bake again - then I think it can
accelerate evolution. I think it might be quite possible to come up with
something where the biosphere generates a new evolutionary form as
different from us as say the mammals were from the dinosaurs.
Rebecca: So you think that humans are the end of the line
on this particular evolutionary track?
Bill: That's what Auribindo and the Mother said - that
man is a transitional animal and we've reached the end of the road. But
ultimately, as the story and the cosmos is so vast, it's not really the
end, it's just the closing of a chapter. And it's really far-out, as far
as any sci-fi imagination can take you. What's the next step going to be I
wonder? But, I'm not a prophet.
Rebecca: You're not a prophet?
Bill: No, I'm not.
Bill: (laughter) By definition an open-ended
system is not predictable and to think that it is, is an ego trip.
David: But from your study of cultural history, do you
see certain patterns of transitions in the past from which you could
extrapolate to where we might be going now?
Bill: All the metaphors of different changes are relevant
in a sense because you can say it's a paradigm shift, but it's larger than
that because you're dealing with evolution. It seems to be larger than
something like the neolithic revolution because it's not just a change in
technology - it's a speciation.
So, it seems that when we look at the myths of hominization and the
emergence of humanity, there are some biological lessons about what
happens when a species enters a new ecological niche like when our
ancestors went from forests to savannah. Generally, when there's one of
these evolutionary changes, the dominant institutions don't carry the
explanation. The church is not going to imagine a Renaissance - they
couldn't imagine that it would be the end of their trip. So what you get
are small groups arising and reimagining the world and coming up with a
more effective explanation. That's why Lindisfarne was more attractive to
me than staying at M.I.T.
But with these small groups, I think it's possible to expand
imagination and release one's control so that you don't concretize into a
premature interpretation fundamentalists do and try to clamp down
violently. You learn to have more faith in the transformational quality.
So, I tend to be more attracted to people who have the biggest possible
picture imaginable, like Rudolph Steiner, rather than technological
magazine in the 80's they dragged out all the predictions of the `70's
and they were all wrong. All the smart guys had said that we would be
taking helicopters to work in 1984. I think that futurism tends to be just
a description of the present and it's never prophetic. Artists tend to be
much more sensitive to it.
David: Have psychedelics had any influence on your
Bill: No, none whatsoever. It's totally yogic. Again, I
have an aesthetic orientation. Psychedelics are too much American
consumerism - it's fast food. Also, a couple of my friends went psychotic,
so I've seen some casualties. In my particular case, I had a mystical
vision that said I shouldn’t go that way, that I should become a yogi.
I've always been naturally psychedelic since a child.
Gregory Bateson's grandfather
who created the science of genetics had a theory that the reason the Celts
were more psychic was that the witch trials that selectively killed all
the people with second sight never penetrated to the Celtic hinterland of
Ireland and Scotland. It's certainly true that second sight and visions of
elementals is still alive in the Celtic tradition. If you combine that
with drugs you run a really good risk of becoming psychotic - you just get
I've been with many who have been influenced by psychedelics such as
Ralph Abraham and
Joan Halifax. I think it tends to create a hole in your aura like the
ozone hole and yeah, that can open you up to stuff, but the intermediate
realms are full of noise and things that are traditionally called demons.
Ramayana there's this wonderful story about how the demons would go
out to yogis who were meditating on their own and eat them alive. People
go out into the astral, but not really prepared for dealing with it, open
themselves up to psychic inflation - or worse.
There's a certain kind of autism in my psychedelic friends where
they've gotten into their own private Idaho and their eyeballs gleam with
a personal ecstasy and they lose the compassionate sensitivity to the
Other. I've never really found anyone in the psychedelic movement who is
as translucent or radiant or as charming as the
Dalai Lama or the yogis I've met. There's a good friend of mine who's
a neuroscientist here at UCSF and he said, "man, if it wasn't for acid I
just wouldn't be open to any of this stuff." But that wasn't my case.
I've also noticed that sometimes there's a seductive self-delusion
where people get stoned and write crappy poetry. There's a certain level
of psychedelic kitsch that I'm aesthetically repelled by.
David: It seems that you really are naturally
psychedelic. In reading your books my first thought was, these are all LSD
Bill: But they're all literal descriptions of experiences I've had.
I've noticed that there's a certain loss of discrimination among the
psychedelic crowd. Can we point to psychedelic art that's really as great
as Bach or Goethe or Yeats? When I come to San Fransisco I find this
strong commitment to the psychedelic sub-culture and I feel that if I
stayed here all the time there would be a real loss of complexity and
David: Isn't that the case if you stay anywhere too long?
Bill: Yes, absolutely. The Parisians can get enfolded
into themselves and can become anaerobic intellectuals. I don't belong
anywhere. I'm here on the edge of the Haight Ashbury, but I'm about the
most un-Haight Ashbury person you'll ever find or probably ever interview.
I'm the real freak in your collection.
Rebecca: Tell us about your work with the solar village.
Bill: In Colorado there is a hands-on attempt to create a
solar village. We brought people together to develop appropriate
technology that would lead to the rediscovery of planetary villages and
decentralization. It was an attempt to do something political at the
ecological level. Maybe in the long-run it's beginning to work but we've
run across a lot of setbacks. I wonder if perhaps we were too purist in
our strategies. In going to Crestone we encountered fundamentalists who
tried to burn us out. Everybody had a bazooka in their pick-up truck -
these guys were serious! It made New York look like a loving and caring
Rebecca: And what was their problem?
Bill: Oh, they thought we were creating a one world planetary culture
which was apologetics for the Rockefellers who together with the Council
of Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission were going to create a
nuclear war and create their world headquarters in Crestone, Colorado, and
we were there as the shock troops. Real Robert Anton Wilson conspiracy
I tend to be more of a contemplative than a political activist, I'm not
a new-left-radical. I'm obviously not a Republican, but I'm not a hands on
Rebecca: Tell us about your electronic stained-glass
Bill: It hasn't happened yet because of the funding, but
it was an attempt to put an embankment of liquid crystal displays on the
wall of a the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and render the
sub-visible and invisible realms, like the bacteria in the atmosphere,
visible to people. At the same time there would be a mimetic level where
programs would be stored in the computer as films.
There would be interactive arts where composers would compose music and
the chaotic attractors of the interaction of your own breath would go
through various software transforms. Using the technology developed by
James Lovelock, the electron capture device, you could see the trace of
your walking through the forest of the trees and your perfume interacting
with it and it would play it back as music.
So it's attempting to tell the story of the biosphere from the
sub-visible level the way that stained glass told the story of the Bible
to people who couldn't read. It's a nice collaborative process. Santiago
Calatraca's architecture designing the physical structure, Lovelock with
his electron capture device and atmospheric chemistry, the bacteriology of
Lynn Margulis and the botany of Paul and Julie Hankiewicz and the
bioshelter concept of
and the visual mathematics of Ralph Abraham.
David: What are you working on now?
Bill: I'm doing a series of talks in New York called tentatively Mind
Jazz on Ancient Texts. The metaphor is that if you take Miles Davis and
the song My Funny Valentine, I'm taking the Rig Veda or the Tao te Ching
or the Baghavad Gita and I give a rap on it and just take off. My
relationship to the text is like that of Miles to the song. You can hear
the melodies coming back and you can sense that it's still about the Rig
Veda but it's about a lot of other stuff too. It's going from the
homination of the primates to the planetization of humanity so it's taking
about six or seven years. So, I'm doing a lot of reading!
Rebecca: I'm interested about what you think of Virtual Reality.
Bill: I think the main problem with Virtual Reality is that it's a
toxic technology, a rape of your frontal lobes. I think it's going to give
people health effects like early Alzheimer’s. When I was a kid I used to
go into shoe stores and stick my toes in x-ray machines. What seemed to be
progress and groovy was actually giving people cancer.
I think that there's going to be a lot of these extremely low-frequency
vibrational fields which are bad for your immune system. When you have the
glove on, what's enabling the computer to read you is that you're in a
densely saturated magnetic field. Part of the meltdown of sexuality and
the body is that we're all pieces of meat in a Mulligan's stew of
planetary noise. The qualities and interactions that this is having on the
immune system and physiology are just toxic to how the human body works.
The latest theory is that AIDS is a DNA disease and not an HIV viral
infection. Every time we come into a new ecological niche in evolution,
like the New World, there's also new information that comes in the form of
a disease. Now we're into this post-biological electronic new world, and
the fear is that the autonomy of the immune system is being eroded from
the noise. If you add up quartz watches, microwave ovens, power lines, the
wiring in the house and then you add in Virtual Reality - we're playing
Russian roulette with evolution. This is my intuitive feeling which I
always trust. It's just this wild, Irish druid radar.
David Spangler and I went in with totally good faith to the Human
Technology Interface Lab in the University of Seattle and experimented
with Virtual Reality. First of all I was put off by the hype and the
politics. Everybody was saying, this is going to cure cancer and they were
trying to get megabucks from the department of defense saying, this is the
new cutting edge for the defense industries and medi-business.
Why, when we've seen time after time in the history of science the
positive predictions of technology fall short? Thalidomide does this and
the DDT does that. Why can't they say, everything we are going to do will
have side effects and a shadow side? They can't because they're
fund-raising. If they even mention one tenth of one-percent of the
problem, everybody's going to be terrified of litigation and say this is
the new John Mansville, and the industry will collapse before it's even
So, I took the trip and I thought the visual quality was pretty tacky,
it was like being inside a Pac-Man game. Anyone who does T'ai Chi or any
kind of yoga is a little more sensitive to the etheric sheath of the body,
and I could feel a sort of violation and I didn't like it.
David: You've said that every society that creates a class of people to
protect them, ends up having to protect themselves from the protectors.
How do you see that happening in America today?
Bill: That's the first criticism of Plato's Republic. How do you guard
yourselves from the guardians? Who polices the multi-national corporation
if its scale is beyond direct responsibility to the nation-state? We don't
really have laws to deal with that. Part of what we have to figure out is
the relationship between the global economy and the global ecology - and
the membrane between the two. China is just racing ahead to industrialize,
but it's really doubtful that they'll have the water and the air to do it.
There's nobody to enforce controls over that.
Rebecca: So is it just down to individual responsibility now?
Bill: But it's at a scale where individuals can only make a small
difference. There's no way of leveraging China to change. They've bought
into the myth of progress and they want to have atom bombs and freeways
and be just like us - or buy it from us and then compete with us which is
the Chinese way. They get cement factories from the Soviet Union and five
years later ask them, "would you like to buy any cement?"(laughter)
Rebecca: What do you predict for humanity in 100 years from now?
Bill: I think the catastrophe bifurcation we've been talking about is
closer than that - I think it will happen in your generation. The UN has a
list of problems that need immediate solution. It's about 22,000 items.
Just stop for a moment. Think of Rwanda, Bosnia, the biosphere, Chiapas,
gangs and kids with uzies, the ozone hole and the greenhouse effect, low
frequency electromagnetic fields that may cause cancer, air-borne viruses
from deforestation that come to large cities, antibiotics no longer being
Just add it all up and then imagine how much the human social unit is
capable of responding to and dealing with it. It's just too much. I think
that that's why some people get so frightened, especially if you don't
have a mystical base in your consciousness where you have this resource
Rebecca: If you see humanity as the center of the show then it's a lot
more frightening too.
Bill: Yes. It's also frightening if you've grown up with a growth
economy and suddenly you're not going to have it. I remember the first
shock I had when I first came onto the New York streets as a writer in
1971. I was being interviewed by a black reporter for CBS radio. He got
really angry and said, "you're basically telling us that now that you
whities have made it, it's all over and we're not going to have a chance
to get our piece. We don't want this talk of a new paradigm, new
consciousness, mysticism, ecology, living lightly on the earth - fuck it!
We want park avenue, we want stretch limos." That's basically the whole
third world scene. I think we're really committed and hurtling towards
some major event. Maybe somebody sticking out their arm can make a slight
detour of the planet but either way, we're in for the ride.