I wrote the essay below in 1991 as part of an initiation process into the neo-pagan Church of All Worlds. I had already been a fan of this book. As with Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, I originally read the novel with complete acceptance of it’s message. Later, I found flaws in its logic. The test of great literature is how a reader can grow over a period of years through repeated readings of a single document. The words don’t change but one’s understanding does and the book “changes” with every reading.
Some of the ideas in this novel reflect prejudices of the times in which it had been written. Homophobia and male supremacy are two such ideas which I demolished in the essay of 1991 and won’t bother with now.
One idea in Stranger was, if anything, ahead of it’s time. It appears in New Age thinking in part or in whole. It is frightening, thrilling and challenging. Grokking is an intuitive knowledge of right and wrong that transcends the moral code accepted by society and even logic. When one “groks,” one can act on this superior knowledge unilaterally. Of course, I did think it odd that Michael disappeared cops wielding guns because he grokked the “wrongness” in the guns, tools of killing when he was also killing. Why were guns wrong?
“Thou shalt not kill” is one of the ten commandments in the Bible. Of course, there are oodles of exceptions. Westerners eat meat of animals we have killed. We also kill in war. For centuries, there has been capital punishment. And Western man still believes he is in obedience to that commandment.
I think the real meaning of that rule is one mustn’t kill a fellow citizen except under legally defined circumstances. The real purpose is to promote social cohesion. It wouldn’t do if one could be murdered any time one stepped outside one’s home. Of course, we can kill in self-defense. A cop can kill if there is threat of imminent harm. And, in some places, citizens can be executed.
Michael was spiritually more advanced than the average human being. He had the ability to grok, meaning he had access to knowledge that transcended other forms of human knowledge. This kind of knowledge resembles gnosis. Wikipedia defines “gnosis” as “knowledge of spiritual mysteries.” I define it is “direct knowledge” or knowledge by experience. As a member of OTO, I belong to the Gnostic Catholic Church. Our Bible is called The Book of the Law which is famous for it’s quote: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” which is followed by the less-well-known “love is the law, love under will.” While not quite explicit, this book implicitly lets in the idea that a consciousness that is enlightened enough can be above the law or actually be the law. Murder has existed among humans from Day One but the idea of justifying murder in these terms is newer.
The problem with this is, as I pointed out in 1991, gnosis and grokking are subjective. In a society that depends on some form of consensus, each of us deciding s/he is enlightened and knows when it is ok to kill would open a Pandora’s Box to chaos. I guess that’s why New Age thinkers hint at it rather than enshrine it as doctrine.
The 1960’s was big on individuals acting on their own “conscience” rather than social consensus. The left re-examined the mainstream morality and accused the consensus of genocide and slavery. The war in Vietnam was so full of atrocities, it was criminal according to international law as defined by the United Nations when judging Nazi Germany. Of course, that was the winners of a war judging the losers. When the same criteria was applied to acts of the US and allies, it didn’t sit too well with the national leaders. Left-wing revolutionaries, on the other hand, found it completely logical and consistent to judge the United States by standards of international law.
The Weather Underground Organization declared war on the United States. They claimed the right to replace society’s moral consensus with an alternative system or morality. Unlike Michael Valentine, they, themselves, were a collective. Through criticism/self-criticism, the strove to keep the truest and most ethical standards under which to live and act. They were able, by these means, to judge the United States. Most of the illegal acts of the WUO were mere assaults on property, “armed propaganda,” symbolic. At one point, one of the collectives in WUO decided that everyone who was complicit in the American system, in other words, everyone who wasn’t fighting it, deserved to die just as enemy troops deserved to die. The bomb that killed Diana Oughten, Ted Gold and Terry Robbins has been intended for a military dance. After the accident, the WUO backed away from that position. Today, Bill Ayers says what they did to stop the war in Vietnam was justified but he criticizes himself for being too self-righteous.
What are the rights and responsibilities of the individual in setting a personal standard for morality? As a psychopath, I am a law unto myself (as my mother said of me years ago). I am more “individual” than most people. I don’t really think right and wrong are absolute truths. Of course, a society that hopes to survive must establish rules by which we live together. We can’t just kill whomever or whatever we “grok” is “wrong.” The rules will be broken no matter how much sense they make. They will be broken by empaths as well as psychopaths. Some will kill because they grok wrongness. These people are guided by conscience. Psychopaths can usually see both sides of an issue even if we steadfastly have chosen one side for ourselves.
Crowley stated that “Love is the law, love under will.” The implication is that there is a universal law and everyone doing his “true will” will be automatically in harmony with that law. I think that’s probably true. But is has been my will to go against universal law, to do what is objectively wrong. But does that make my will, not my “true” will? Or is my will as an individual the highest law? It’s my law, anyway.
Some of the Stranger Ideas in
Stranger in a Strange Land
I had already read Stranger when I joined the Church of All Worlds, but as I had enjoyed the book so much the first time and since it is so important in CAW (indeed, are requirement for 3rd circle initiation!), decided to re-read it. It was just as special for me as it had been the first time around, when I was an acid hippy, but not a Pagan. The years have deepened my appreciation of certain ideas and I found myself agreeing with the basic philosophy even more than before.
I was surprised to find some things I had no memory of having read before. I attribute my failure to remember the following to the fact that I was heterosexual when I originally read the book. It is incredible what one doesn’t notice until the shoe pinches. I refer to the homophobia which makes its first appearance on page 303 (Ace Books, 1987):
“Jill … had explained homosexuality, after Mike had read about it and failed to grok and had given him rules for avoiding passes .. .He had followed her advice and made his face more masculine, instead of the androgynous beauty he had. But Jill was not sure that Mike would refuse a pass, say, from Duke-fortunately Mike’s male water brothers were decidedly masculine, just as his others were very female women. Jill suspected than Mike would grok a “wrongness” in the poor in-betweeners, anyhow- they would never be offered water.”
It is a real shame that such a backward idea should find its way into such a progressive book. I realize that these ideas were given to Jill rather than Mike. However, with no disclaimer on Mike’s part, we are forced to conclude that this idea did belong to Robert Heinlein.
Reading most novels, you can usually find a character and say with a great deal of certainty that this is the author. Such is the case with Jubal in Stranger. He is a usually likeable old curmudgeon who is quite chauvinistic. I like him even though I wouldn’t want to be a woman in his household. Goddess forbid that I should be expected to earn respect by “not intrud[ing] into sober talk of men, but [being] quick with food and drink … ” The women in Jubal’s household are nice and perky but the seem to be a cross between nurses and Charlie’s Angels. They are low key and never intrude with any major needs of their own. It is somehow not surprising that Mike sensed that “all young human females had the same face-how could it be otherwise?” So when Dawn was invited to join the household, it was as a secretary (Jubal never asked any of the males if they took shorthand).
It seems that Heinlein had his mystical vision and his chauvinism as well. That’s alright as long as Heinlein keeps his human limitations confined to the character of Jubal. But by hinting that Mike could “grok a wrongness” in gays/lesbians and want to ban them from water brotherhood for that reason alone, Heinlein contaminated the beauty and innocence of that very great character. This viewpoint would affect me personally: by definition, I would not be allowed to join the inner circle.
If CAW is truly a sequel to the CAW in SISL, then I could also be less than acceptable in today’s CAW. Somehow I don’t believe that is possible. But a definite statement from CAW leadership would really help to counteract the ill effect that part of SISL has on all gays/lesbians in CAW. Aside from the way I would be personally affected, the political and philosophical implications contradict the very heart of Mike’s philosophy — or so I grok.
What I find particularly saddening is that I really love the sexual philosophy in SISL except for the anti-gay part. There is great beauty in Jill being “as happily shameless as a tabby in heat” while showing her body to horny men. Indeed, there is no sexual act that occurs between consenting adults which strikes me as wrong in any way, as long as nobody is harmed or exploited. How can someone come to this realization and slam on the brakes the minute same sex relationships are suggested?
Later in the novel I found something even more disturbing in its own way. This is where Michael speaks of killing (or removing) people because he grokked wrongness in them. After the jailbreak, Mike grokked that some criminals were too “vicious” to release with the others:
“So I got rid of them before I got rid of bars and doors. But I have been slowly grokking this whole city for months … and quite a few of the worst were not in jail. I have been waiting, making a list, making sure of fullness in each case. So, now that we are leaving this city—they don’t live here anymore. They were discorporated and sent back to the foot of the line to try again. Incidentally, that was the grokking that changed Jill’s attitude from one of squeamishness to hearty approval: when she finally grokked in fullness that it is impossible to kill a man—that all we were doing was much like a referee removing a player for ‘unnecessary roughness.”
When Jubal asked, “Aren’t you afraid of playing God, lad?” Mike replied, “I am God. Thou art God … and any jerk I remove is God, too.” He “tossed” “about four hundred and fifty” in one night. And then added that this was not really a cure. There was no cure other than “the discipline.”
Holy Shit! Consider the implications! First there is the logical fallacy so broad you could drive a truck through. If everyone is God, what kind of God is each of us? Could you imagine a world of Old Testament Jehovahs, each passing judgement on everyone else’s right to live, and each executing the sentence of death as he finds appropriate? No. If everyone is God, then everyone is sovereign. No one has the right to kill a sovereign being, except in self defense. If the “jerk” Mike “tossed out of the game” was God; too, then that jerk had the same right Mike had to toss someone out of the game; In other words, if Mike has the right to kill, so does everyone else.
Perhaps Mike does not mean that everyone has the right to kill. Perhaps that is the sole prerogative of those who have achieved enlightenment That would make Mike’s society a benevolent dictatorship. Specifically, it would be a theocracy — a kingdom of God, where God is here on Earth, ruling infallibly (like the Pope) but not merely in matters of Church doctrine. God would rule on matters of life and death. The Catholic Church did rule on matters of life and death once before. We call that time the Inquisition, the Burning Times. They “grokked a wrongness” in witches.
If Mike “tosses out” those in whom he “groks a wrongness,” and if he “groks a wrongness in the poor in-betweeners” (gays), mightn’t he toss us out someday? It would be the logical conclusion. I read somewhere that Charles Manson read and liked SISL. It is easy so see how someone like him could get justification for murder from that passage. Anyone can decide that he is the enlightened being high enough to grok the rightness and wrongness in people and decide to remove them from the game.
Sometimes, especially when the people do something incredibly stupid, I feel it would be really nice if an elite of people who think like I do would run things instead of the democratic majority. Perhaps a benevolent dictatorship, run by the right people, would be better than what we have now. The trouble is that the wrong people get control of the machinery of power. Most of the time I wouldn’t even want people whose ideas I like to run things dictatorially. I don’t really like the idea of being made to do the right thing. I prefer to be free to discover the right thing myself.
Perhaps if the inner circle in SISL were more convincing as enlightened beings, I would be more open to the idea of their ruling. However, the characters in SISL remain the same narrow people they were before they learned Martian. Stinky is just as chauvinistic. Miriam thinks the idea of selling her daughter to make room for a son is cute and funny. Jill thinks gays are fucked up. And so on. I am happy to say that the people in the inner circle of our CAW seem to have a great deal more true wisdom and maturity than those who inhabit the inner circle of Heinlein’s CAW.
So where does this leave us? For all its flaws, Stranger in a Strange Land is a great book. Let us cherish it for all its greatness and forgive its weakness. But let us be sure we don’t mistake those weaknesses for strengths. And above all, let us never make a bible out of SISL or any other book. And let us go on sharing water and grokking the God and Goddess in each other.