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 communicated?
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 MacDonald’s!
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 was large.
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