Never did I imagine that I would one day be writing about the intersection between gnosticism and canola oil, but it seems that my hand has been forced, so here we are.
Permit me to explain.
I was perusing the most recent issue of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, with its estimable contributions from Christopher Rufo, Theodore Dalrymple, Glenn Loury, and others, when I came across Malcolm Kyeyune’s essay on “The New Gnostics,” which promised to explain how “from neopaganism to cryptocurrency, the Internet today is full of strange quasi-faiths.” The title certainly piqued my interest, as gnosticism seems to be omnipresent these days. Digital technology, social media, and the embrace of what the philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls “non-things” all threaten to turn reality into something colloquially referred to as mere “meat space,” a gnostic turn of phrase if ever there was one. James Poulos at the American Mind has darkly warned of how the “posthumanity at the heart of woke religion and technology” will inevitably result in a “new techno-gnostic regime trying to assert mastery over us,” while the jurist Alfonso Ballesteros has likewise bemoaned the “predominant Gnosticism” inherent in post-humanism — the view that “human nature is something imperfect or incomplete that has to be enhanced by human selection or machine-hybridisation.” The discourse surrounding neo-gnosticism is not limited, however, to purely technological considerations. Ethan Peck at Human Events has argued that “gnosticism is the ancient heretical ideology behind today’s transgenderism and abortion movements,” and Curtis Yarvin has blamed most of our political ills on the decidedly gnostic practice of “acting in the real world, while thinking in an imaginary world of dreams.” According to the investor Marc Andreessen, “the theme of our era is uncashed checks suddenly popping up. Absurd pretensions, wistful fantasies, and pretty/ugly lies called by reality,” and what can explain this state of affairs better than our destructive tendency towards gnosticism?
These anxieties are hardly new. It has been 30 years since the cultural historian Christopher Lasch’s “Gnosticism, Ancient and Modern: The Religion of the Future?” appeared in the quarterly magazine Salmagundi. Gnostic movements, Lasch wrote, traditionally “take shape only in a climate of the deepest moral confusion, when old faiths were dying,” and that is precisely why this “gnostic impulse” now “finds expression in our time,” whether “in the scientific dream of solving the mysteries of the universe,” in “New Age spirituality,” or “more generally in a mood of extremity and existential nostalgia.” His conclusion was characteristically pessimistic: “as the common world, sustained by traditions now under attack as hopelessly parochial, recedes from view, our grip on the world around us weakens — our sense of it not just as ‘the environment’ but as our human home…. Gnosticism, the faith of the faithless, suits the twentieth century as well as it suited the second, and it may turn out to suit the next century better still. Its greatest opportunity, perhaps, still lies ahead.” How right he was.
Lasch’s prescient critique of gnosticism was inspired in no small part by the writings of Wendell Berry, the poet and environmental activist who, in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977), cautioned against the dire effects of deracination and disembodiment:
You cannot devalue the body and value the soul — or value anything else…. Contempt for the body is invariably manifested in contempt for other bodies — the bodies of slaves, laborers, women, animals, plants, the earth itself. Relationships with all other creatures become competitive and exploitive rather than collaborative and convivial. The world is seen and dealt with, not as an ecological community, but as a stock exchange, the ethics of which are based on the tragically misnamed “law of the jungle.” This “jungle” law is a basic fallacy of modern culture. The body is degraded and saddened by being set in conflict against the Creation itself, of which all bodies are members, therefore members of each other. The body is thus sent to war against itself. Divided, set against each other, body and soul drive each other to extremes of misapprehension and folly.
Such is the existential threat posed by modern-day gnosticism, and it was therefore with considerable interest that I began to read Kyeyune’s disquisition on the “new gnostics.” Imagine my surprise, upon finishing the piece, to learn that I myself am a member of this new gnostic community. Since this accusation goes against every minute fiber of my being, I feel it deserves a response, though I will proceed deliberately in the interest of fairness.
Lasch described gnosticism as a “religion seemingly made to order for the hard times ahead,” and Kyeyune follows suit: “monumental shifts in economic reality invariably produce dramatic shifts in people’s social reality, as old expectations and beliefs no longer match up with the way things are. In earlier eras of American history, major crises, as well as the ideological and religious revivals that often followed them, played out in streets, churches, tent meetings, and lodges. Now the process takes shape primarily online, where the new Gnostics preach.” The internet, Kyeyune observes, is awash with “itinerant prophets, holy fools, hustlers, fraudsters, and soothsayers.” This is more a consequence of the human condition than anything else, and there have always been pretenders like Perkin Warbeck, quacks like Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, perjurers like the Tichborne Claimant, snake-oil salesmen like Clark Stanley, and fraudsters like the televangelist Jim Bakker, but I will concede that the internet may very well reduce their barriers to entry. So far, so good, but are these prophets, fools, and fraudsters actually gnostics?
Kyeyune himself provides a passable definition of gnosticism: a belief system “that postulates that humans contain a piece of God or the divinity inside themselves, to which they then lose access because of the material world’s corruption. Through proper spiritual knowledge, or gnosis, that connection can be rekindled, and the enlightened person can then break free from the corruption that surrounds him.” Kyeyune’s discussion, curiously enough, is then limited to the following two categories: (1) traders in non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and other forms of cryptocurrency, and (2) health-conscious seed oil disrespecters.
As for the first category, I am barely conversant in crypto-related matters, and I readily admit to being skeptical of the idea of purchasing glorified jpegs of “Bored Apes” or anything else, even if the images are “trackable by using Ethereum’s blockchain as a public ledger.” That said, if the mere act of possessing or consuming a work of art in a digital format is enough to qualify a person as a gnostic, then anyone with a Pinterest or Spotify account is on the road to gnosticism. Kyeyune’s real problem with the crypto community seems to be the ever-present
ethos of social awareness and anger at an unfair system, coexisting with a sort of dog-eat-dog philosophy, in which the light at the end of the tunnel, the “exit,” is always a personal one. The system is rigged, yes, but here’s your chance to make a ton of money without lifting a finger—just buy the right stock, the right NFT, the right crypto, at the right time. You deserved that money from the start anyway, until someone—the “system,” the government, the bankers—kept you from getting it.
I don’t doubt that there are ideologically motivated cryptocurrency traders, NFT purveyors, and GameStop short-sellers who imagine that they are nobly upending a rigged, predatory banking system, or democratizing the art world, or undermining the unlimited power of the state — grandiose things like that — but a great many others are attracted to those markets for the same reasons that investors were attracted to tulpenmanie in the 17th century, shares of the South Sea Company in the 18th century, the Railway Mania of the 19th century, or the more recent Japanese asset price and dot-com bubbles. Not every popular delusion is an instance of gnosticism, nor is every act of resistance against a preexisting system increasingly perceived as a gigantic confidence trick.
Kyeyune’s treatment of seed oils is even more provocative. Perplexed by the (admittedly pretty bizarre) imagery of “a half-naked man shoot[ing] a high-caliber rifle at a bottle of canola oil” included in Tucker Carlson’s Fox News special “The End of Men,” he wonders:
Why is the muscular man shooting at canola oil bottles, rather than something more practical—an actual target, say? The answer: because “seed oils” are one of the prime villains for a new quasi-faith popular on the Internet. As the story goes, seed oils (canola oils, sunflower oils, and so on) are inherently unnatural; humans were never meant to consume them. That they’re found in everything these days is a disaster, helping to explain why people (including young men) are so unhealthy—and another reason society is so fundamentally damaged. The “science” here is secondary. Seed oils are not merely bad on some empirical level; they are evil on a spiritual level. Seed oils corrupt the body. By eliminating them (and by preaching such elimination), one cleanses oneself of impurity and helps others achieve salvation, as well. In this narrative, which the Carlson special echoes, many contemporary young men have been robbed of their true potential due to an environmental toxicity. If the toxicity is removed, a higher, more natural state of being opens up.
So avoiding environmental toxicity and preferring a “more natural state” now makes you a “new gnostic.” I suppose that gnostics do take environmental toxicity seriously, in a sense — they view the material world as essentially flawed and evil, something that can be left behind through esoteric insight. But does avoiding seed oils make you a gnostic? As someone who generally abstains from consuming seed oils, I am allegedly one of these gnostics, seeking salvation from earthly impurities by, well, mostly by cooking with butter, coconut oil, olive oil, and avocado oil instead of canola oil, preferring raw milk to pasteurized milk, and consuming free-range and organic meat and eggs as opposed to their factory-farmed, pale, soft, and exudative counterparts. In doing so, it would seem that I have embraced a “quasi-faith” that is leading me down the dark path towards gnosticism, except that I have done nothing of the sort.
The use of term “quasi-faith,” together with the scare-quotes around the word “science,” are doing a lot of heavy lifting in the above passage, given that there is indeed a growing body of scientific evidence regarding the dangers of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) like those contained in seed oils. PUFAs are pro-inflammatory, and can damage mitochondria while blocking mitophagy. Researchers are realizing the “remarkable estrogenic properties of GM and non-GM plant-derived edible oils,” and are finding that “n−3 PUFAs enhanced activation induced cell death in T cells” and “inhibit T cell activity,” which may in turn help explain why COVID-19 patients with severe pneumonia have “a higher level of polyunsaturated NEFAs (mainly linoleic and arachidonic acids).” These assertions are hardly esoteric, but are drawn from studies published in Science, Nature, and The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The fact that something like canola oil, which was once used primarily as an engine lubricant, is found in everything from white bread to Sunny D, and that 80 percent of Americans’ fat calories (and therefore as much as 30 percent of their overall caloric intake) come from PUFA-laden seed oils should be a matter of profound concern, even if personally I’m not about to remove my shirt and start blasting away at barrels of the stuff. (Or maybe I should?)
READ MORE from Matthew Omolesky: The Virtue of Weeds
Kyeyune evidently finds it incomprehensible that anyone would consider seed oils, or “micro-plastics, soy, hormonal runoff in the water supply due to birth control,” which are his other examples, to be “a great malevolent force.” But something is causing skyrocketing obesity, generally poor metabolic health, rapidly declining sperm concentrations, and biodiversity loss, and I fail to understand how identifying things that have gone haywire during our transition to modernity — increasingly terrible diets, ubiquitous xenoestrogens, and rampant pollution among them — and then working to counteract them, or partake of them as little as possible, can be chalked up to gnosticism. Was the arch-Catholic Nicolás Gómez Dávila falling prey to the heresy of gnosticism when he remarked that “civilization is in agony when agriculture forsakes being a way of life in order to become an industry,” and that “the industrialization of agriculture is stopping up the source of decency in the world”? The “Bronze Age Mindset” neo-pagans whom Kyeyune criticizes are greatly influenced by the “sun and steel” ideology of the nationalist Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. Was Mishima a gnostic? Mishima’s 1969 play The Terrace of the Leper King follows the attempts of King Jayavarman VII to construct the Bayon temple while battling the effects of leprosy, concluding with an unforgettable conversation between Jayavarman’s body and soul:
Soul: Clarity and sharpness, the ability to see to the end of this world, to the bottom of this world — that was the power that built the Bayon. The Body doesn’t have that power. You’re merely a slave imprisoned in the cage called the Body.
Body: Are you trying to say you’re freer that I? Are you trying to say you are free because you can’t run, can’t jump, can’t sing, can’t laugh, can’t fight?
Soul: I run through time, a thousand years. You merely run through space.
Body: Space has light. Flowers bloom; honeybees buzz. One beautiful summer afternoon is eternal. In comparison, what you call time is a wet, dark underground path.
The king’s Soul then perishes, “like a kingdom,” leaving the Body triumphant:
Body: Look. The Soul has died. Dazzling blue sky, betel palms, birds with beautiful wings, and Bayon protected by these! I rule this country again. Youth never perishes, the Body is deathless…. I’ve won, because I am the Bayon. Curtain.
Whatever ideology this is, surely it is the polar opposite of gnosticism.
Let us set aside for a moment the surprising and no doubt disturbing revelation that I prefer popcorn popped with coconut instead of cottonseed oil and am not particularly fond of emulsifiers, which apparently opens me up to condemnation as a heretic. But what if I also harbor a visceral hatred of, say, modern architecture, and particularly the exploitation of reinforced concrete — which is the third-largest industrial contributor to carbon dioxide emissions, which represents a third of all landfill waste, which is almost impossible to recycle, which looks absolutely hideous, and which begins to rust and rot from the inside out in a matter of decades, unlike more natural building materials — does that also make me a gnostic, because I have identified another “great malevolent force” abroad in the world? Have I joined yet another “quasi-faith”? Others have their own bêtes noires. Tucker Carlson, during a January 2022 interview with the Spectator’s Freddy Gray, discussed how
I hate drywall. I really don’t like unnatural building materials. I really believe in wood and I’m an extremist on the subject and I won’t live in or spend any time in a room whose walls are covered with drywall, which is like paper covered gypsum. And it’s a very conventional building material because it’s cheap and easy to install. But it’s disgusting and it sucks the life out of you. It’s just enervating to be in a room covered with drywall. So I just won’t. I won’t. It’s not more expensive to panel the room with, say, pine boards like the one I’m in right now, and so I do. I’m not spending any time in a room with drywall or overhead lighting or anything fluorescent. Like, why would I do that? I really believe in natural building materials. Aesthetics are really important to me. Nature is really important to me.
This, Gray wryly responded, was just another instance of Tucker’s “fascistic ethno-nationalism.” It isn’t, of course, nor is it an example of gnosticism. Again, it is probably the exact opposite. Whether it comes from realizing that industrial food is insalubrious, or that contemporary architecture is grotesque, or that modern medicine can be misguided or overly reductive (obsessive-compulsively injecting yourself with spike proteins might not be the key to immune or overall health, the serotonin theory of depression is demonstrably incorrect, etc.) — more and more people are picking up on the perils of so-called progress. Accusing these people of rank heresy is an egregious intellectual sin, and one altogether unworthy of a serious conservative intellectual.
It seems worth noting that the Swedish think-tank with which Kyeyune is associated, Oikos, takes its name from the Greek word for “home,” a concept popularized by the traditionalist, conservative philosopher Roger Scruton. I don’t know what, if anything, Roger Scruton thought about seed oils, but here is an apposite, and rather wonderful, extract from his 2004 book News from Somewhere: On Settling:
Down the road from my flat in London was a health food store which sold real wholemeal loaves, brought round from some central point of manufacture and sold at vast expence to those who needed their bread to taste of bread. That is where, in my unsettled urban days, I bought my bread, since a loaf, for me, must pass the meat test: does the bread of your sandwich out-taste the meat? The MacDonald bap is designed to fail this test. It is a gustatory softness, against which the burger stands out like a pile of dog-shit on a satin cushion. Real bread is never background but always foreground in the battle for attention. It is both a staple and a luxury, a means of survival, and a cause of celebration. It is a universal food and also a universal symbol of food and of the earth’s kindness in providing it. Bread, like wine, is a sign of settlement, the first and most important result of the agricultural way of life. Hence its significance in the Old Testament, and its final apotheosis in the Christian Eucharist, in which bread becomes the sacramental presence of God Himself.
Was Scruton gnostic because he rejected modern, industrial, ersatz, overly processed slop? Of course not. Gnosticism is about unreality, asceticism (or libertinism, depending on the sect), escapism, atomization, and contempt for nature in all its beauty and bounty. Preparing food with real ingredients instead of engine lubricants; drinking raw, probiotic milk instead of pasteurized, dead milk; getting out into nature, absorbing some vitamin D, and taking in the greenery away from the concrete sprawl of the modern metropolis; and above all recognizing “the earth’s kindness” — these have nothing at all to do with the very real phenomenon of the new gnosticism.
The French writer and politician Maurice Barrès (1862–1923) described the whole world as being “enclosed in a divine network, and I would not like to see any of the innumerable links broken,” and as for the landscape of his native Lorraine:
The churches of the village, the French countryside, dark forests, living springs, ponds in the depths of the woods, how it all sounds harmoniously together! May we piously piece together these pieces, organize our relationship with these foggy truths, and witness the return of the poor local gods to the ark of the divine, their purification and their salvation; may we reconcile them with the One who presides over our civilization, and create in us the most splendid unity against the vulgar barbarians.
That is precisely how actual conservatives should view the world. And on the other side are those “vulgar barbarians,” the ones “in conflict against the Creation itself,” as Wendell Berry put it, who are progressively losing touch with nature and with humanity, and thereby casting us into a world of cultural impoverishment, a world of dysnutrition and micro- and phyto-nutrient depletion, a digitalized, etiolated, spiritually drained, contaminated, morbid, post-human garbagescape. Gómez Dávila once mused about “whether, in another world, the devil punishes an irreligious society.” That he could not answer, but he knew that “it is soon punished here by aesthetics.” In an age of precipitous cultural decline, caring about aesthetics may amount to a heresy, but certainly not of the gnostic variety.