William Gibson on 12th century heresy and the speed of trauma

August 10, 2008 at 4:26 pm (reading notes) ()

Well, everybody’s reading Dinshaw these days, and as much as I want to be on that wagon, I’m neck-deep in Bynum’s The Resurrection of the Body in an effort to save my disaster of a Crashaw draft from oblivion before the semester begins.

For a mental break, I started William Gibson’s Spook Country last night as I waited for my Benadryl to kick in.  I’ve been a big Gibson fan since I read Neuromancer in ’86 or ’87.  I had these long periods as an adolescent writer where everything I wrote was just mimicry, because I couldn’t get the voice of a poet out of my head. I had Dylan Thomas mimicry, an early, short and horrid period of Poe mimicry, Plath mimicry (which earned me ten bucks once), Sexton mimicry. Gibson may have been one of the earliest prose writers to get stuck in my poet-head (“poet” is not a label I’m comfy sticking on myself, really, but…). Not until Margaret Atwood, I think, did I get so utterly ruined, as a poet, by a novelist. Prior to Gibson, my fiction hero was probably Frank Herbert, whose Dune series I’d finished reading by about ’86 (though Herbert had my adolescent brain kicking long-term on Sufism, the role of chemicals in religion, temporal loops and trans-galactic trauma, and how to move the tiniest muscle in the little toe of my left foot).

Gibson changed everything.

In any case, here’s an excerpt from Chapter 23, “Two Moors,” from Gibson’s new Spook Country:

As he ate, he thought about the twelfth-century heresy of the Free Spirit.  Either God was everything, believed the brethren of the Free Spirit, or God was nothing.  And God, to them, was very definitely everything. […]

And insofar as everything was equally of God, they taught, those were most in touch with Godness in every last thing would make it a point to do anything at all, particularly anything still forbidden by those who hadn’t yet gotten the Free Spirit message. […] Someone like Manson, for instance, simply wouldn’t have been able to get any traction, had he landed among the brothers and sisters of the Free Spirit.  Probably, Milgrim guessed, Manson would’ve hated it.  What good it would be to be Charlie Manson in a whole society of serial killers and rapists… ? […]

But the other aspect of the Free Spirit that fascinated him, and this applied to the whole text, was how these heresies would get started, often spontaneously generating around some single medieval equivalent of your outspoken homeless mumbler.  Organized religion, he saw, back in the day, had been purely a signal-to-noise proposition, at once the medium and the message, a one-channel universe.  For Europe, that channel was Christian, and broadcasting from Rome, but nothing could be broadcast faster than a man could travel on horseback.  There was a hierarchy in place, and a highly organized methodology of top-down signal dissemination, but the time lag enforced by tech-lack imposed a near-disastrous ration, the noise of heresy constantly threatening to overwhelm the signal. (116-117)

This is a very good book. I’ve been in grad school for an embarrassingly long time, college an even more embarrassingly long time, but the past few years, as happens to us all at points, I’ve spent more time reading journal articles and books about other books than I have actually reading stuff  that someone created as art, to tell a story (of course the best books about books manage to be art and to tell a story too, but I digress).  I’d kind of forgotten how a book that has nothing to do with one’s own research can suspend time and reality for an entire weekend, if it’s well-written and one allows it ingress.  This is probably the first “not for research” thing I’ve read in years, and the only “not for research” thing I’ll manage to read this summer, but I’m glad this is what it happened to be.

This coming fall, I’ll be taking an(other) Arthurian Traditions class, which is going to involve a lot of Marion Zimmer Bradley (much to my dismay), so I am supremely grateful for a chance to read good fiction before I have to read Zimmer Bradley (shudder).  Unfortunately, when one is reading The Mists of Avalon, the speed of trauma is agonizingly slow.


Gibson, William.  Spook Country.  New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007.



  1. Cliff Burns said,

    God help you if you have to endure reams of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s godawful prose–good reading is an antidote for such shite but will also reveal Ms. Bradley’s shortcomings as an author (or sentient human being) all the more glaringly. A tip? Try out the funky fiction of Jack O’Connell or dive into LAND OF LAUGHS by Jonathan Carroll. Your brain will thank you…

  2. Karma said,

    God is gonna have to help me. I don’t have the patience of Job.

    Thanks for the tips, and thanks for dropping by!

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