This week’s guest is one of my greatest inspirations: the historian, poet, and mythographer William Irwin Thompson. Author of sweeping works of synthetic insight like At The Edge of History (a finalist for the National Book Award in 1972), The American Replacement of Nature, and Coming Into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness, Bill Thompson’s greatest work may not have been a book but a community: The Lindisfarne Association, a post-academic “intellectual concert” for the “study and realization of a new planetary culture,” which anchored in various locations across the United States as a flesh-and-blood meta-industrial village for most of its forty years.
Lindisfarne’s roster reads like a who’s who of influential latter-20th Century thinkers: Gregory Bateson, Lynn Margulis, Ralph Abraham, Stuart Kauffman, Paolo Soleri, Francisco Varela, David Abram, Hazel Henderson, Joan Halifax-Roshi, James Lovelock, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Maurice Strong, and Michael Murphy were among them. In his latest and last book, Thinking Together at the Edge of History, Thompson looks back on the failures and successes of this project, which he regards as a “first crocus” budding up through the snow of our late-industrial dark age to herald the arrival of a planetary renaissance still yet to come.
Bill’s wisdom and humility, vast and inclusive vision, and amazing skill for bringing things together in a form of freestyle “wissenkunst” (or “knowledge art”) made this and every conversation that I’ve had with him illuminating and instructive.
For anyone who wants to know what happens after universities and nations lose their dominance and both economy and identity “etherealize” in a new paradigm of ecological human interbeing that revives premodern ways of knowing and relating – and/or for anyone who wants to help build institutions that will weather the chaotic years to come and help transmit our cultural inheritance and novel insights to the unborn generations – here is a conversation with one of the master thinkers of our time, a mystic poet and professor whose work and life challenged our assumptions and proposed a powerful, complete, and thrilling view of our emergent role as citizens of Earth.
We talk Trump and our future-shocked need for charismatic strongmen, digital humans and the tragicomedy of the smartphone takeover, technocracy versus the metaindustrial village-monastery and “counterfoil institutions,” the “necessary exercise in futility” of dealing with rich and influential people to fund important work, how the future arrives unevenly, and how to get involved in institutional work without losing your soul…
Also, cryptocurrencies and universal basic income as symptoms of the transition of the global economy from a liquid to a gaseous state;
“Austin is, of course, an air bubble in the Titanic…”
“The counterfoil institution is a fractal…it’s the individual and the group, kind of like Bauhaus…it had an effect, but it was very short lived. So I argued in Passages [About Earth] that these entities [including artistic movements like Bauhaus, but also communities like Auroville and Fyndhorn] were not institutions, but ENZYMES – they effected a kind of molecular bonding and effected larger institutions, but they themselves weren’t meant to become institutions. And so Lindisfarne, which was a temporary phenomenon of Celtic Christianity, getting absorbed by Roman Christianity, was my metaphor for this transformation.”
“When you’re getting digested and absorbed [into the system], it can either be thrilling because you really WANT to become famous and you want to become a public intellectual, and you want to namedrop and be part of the power group…but if you’re trying to energize cultural authority, then it’s difficult in America. You can get away with it, I think, more successfully in Europe, where there is this tradition of Great Eminences, and in Paris, once you’ve done something of value as an intellectual, then you’re part of it for your life. It isn’t like, ‘What are you doing next? Do it again, do it again, do it again.’ So American culture, based on this kind of hucksterism and boomerism and success culture, is very resistant to that sensibility.”
“We’re always a minority. If we look at The Enlightenment, we’re talking about, what, twelve intellectuals in all of Europe? If you’re an extraterrestrial and you flying-saucered into Florence in the 15th Century and said, ‘Hey, I hear you guys are having a Renaissance?’ And they said, ‘What?’ What do three painters mean? It’s still the Middle Ages for them. And so everybody’s in different times’ laminar flow. Some are faster and more ultraviolet and high energy, and others are very wide, slow, and sluggish. And that’s how nature works.”
“Each person makes his own dance in response to the laws of gravity…if we didn’t have gravity, we wouldn’t have ballet.”
“If you’re running a college, or a dance troupe, or an orchestra, or ANYTHING – someone in the group has to learn how to deal with money. And I think I failed, even though I succeeded in raising millions, by being a 60’s kind of countercultural type who was suspicious of money. I crossed my legs and was afraid of violation. And I didn’t come fully to understand the importance of money. But now that we bank online…”