The Science of Myth
“The history of the soul is always the history of the voicelss, the opressed, the repressed….”
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 private spring.
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 intellectual.
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 community.
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 Canada.
Rebecca: Who were the original people you worked with in setting up Lindisfarne?
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