I had been expecting the news for a year, while also holding out hope that he would somehow miraculously recover—but still, despite the mental preparations, it hit me hard when I received word that my longtime colleague and close personal friend, John Anthony West, passed away on the sixth of February, 2018, in a hospital in Albany, New York, at the age of 85 (he was born in New York on July 9, 1932). I cried, and sadness overwhelmed me as I pondered his life and work. (A note regarding names: From the day we first met, we referred to each other by our surnames. I called him “West” and he called me “Schoch.” This was not a matter of formality but, rather, informality and personal affection. For convenience here, I will primarily refer to him by his initials. Some people actually took to verbalizing “Jaw” or “Jaws” as a nickname, but I did not.)
It was in late 2016–early 2017 when John Anthony West suddenly and unexpectedly felt ill and was ultimately diagnosed with stage 4 cancer that, originating in his left lung, had spread throughout his body, including into his brain. During the previous summer, JAW and I had been in Egypt together once again, this time along with my wife Katie (Catherine Ulissey) and JAW’s adult son Zeke, pursuing further research on our mutual interests, including the Great Sphinx. In late 2016, JAW led one of his famous tours to Egypt, but he began to show abnormal signs of fatigue and even illness during the trip. Upon returning to the United States, he consulted a physician and ultimately the cancer was discovered. JAW was scheduled to lead another two-week tour to Egypt in February–March 2017, but he found himself in the hospital instead. Out of friendship, I rearranged my schedule and volunteered to lead the tour in JAW’s place. But the tour was still his. I did my best to represent his points of view and analyses at the various sites we visited, from the Giza Plateau in Cairo to Abu Simbel in the far south. Additionally, I included my own observations and commentary, as well.
I first met JAW in the late 1980s when he came to Boston University to present his work on Egypt at a college colloquium. And it was at the invitation of JAW that I first traveled to Egypt, in 1990, specifically so that I might apply my geological expertise to the problem of the dating of the Sphinx—a topic that has consumed much of my life ever since. As is generally well known (both JAW and I write about this in our various books and other publications), my analyses of the weathering, erosion, and seismic studies performed around the Great Sphinx confirmed that the core body of the statue (the head is a dynastic re-carving) originated thousands of years prior to the date of 2500 BCE, which conventional Egyptologists assign to the statue. Our conclusions created an academic firestorm, and various status quo university colleagues in archaeology, Egyptology, and history departments vilified me. Mind you, the vast majority of my geological colleagues have from the start been supportive of my work and conclusions—but then, they have no personal vested interests in the age of the Sphinx.
JAW always relished the controversy surrounding our work together on the Great Sphinx. On the counterattack, he was at his best. For my part, I have never enjoyed the punches back and forth. I would much rather have experienced immediate acceptance and praise for our findings, but that was not to be the case. Still I am grateful that now, decades later, our work on pushing back the age of the Great Sphinx—and with this work, the logical conclusion that there was an earlier cycle of civilization thousands of years prior to circa 3000 BCE—has found independent support elsewhere. In particular, the incredibly sophisticated site of Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey, dating back to circa 10,000 BCE, confirms our premise that advanced societies inhabited our planet at a much earlier date than has been generally accepted by mainstream archaeologists.
There is much I could say about JAW, but here I will limit myself to a few thoughts as they come to me. The first thing that enters my mind as I reflect back are the wonderful times we had traveling and exploring together. There were many trips to Egypt over the decades (we traversed the country, although the primary focus was usually the Great Sphinx on the Giza Plateau). JAW and I also traveled together (along with my wife, Katie) to such places as Milan for a conference at which we were both invited to speak; there was a trip to Norway (at the kind invitation of, and arranged by, David McCall) where we not only spoke but were able to study ancient petroglyphs; and of prime importance for our on-going collaborative research, we traveled to Turkey together in 2010 to study Göbekli Tepe. Besides the overseas trips, another thing that comes immediately to mind are the wonderful visits to, and long discussions at, “Westhenge” (JAW’s studio-home) in Saugerties, New York.
JAW realized that he would be best remembered for our work on re-dating the Great Sphinx. It was the Sphinx research that brought us to the attention of the world with the first airing of the Emmy-winning documentary The Mystery of the Sphinx on NBC in 1993 (it has been re-aired many times since; JAW once estimated that it has been seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world).
The re-dating of the Sphinx is not just a matter of pushing back the age of what is arguably the greatest and most famous statue on the face of the planet. The implications of an older Sphinx are profound. There existed a cycle of civilization before civilization is said (according to the standard story) to have originated, and we can now date the end of this earlier cycle of civilization to the end of the last ice age, circa 9700 BCE. This, as JAW pointed out in his 1979 book, Serpent in the Sky, raises the issue of “Atlantis”—that is, advanced civilization before civilization is supposed to have existed (JAW was never one to be seeking a specific geographic location for Atlantis). JAW was in agreement with my work demonstrating that the demise of this early civilization was due to a major eruption from our Sun, which occurred nearly 12,000 years ago and snapped us out of the last ice age (see my 2012 book, Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future). In fact, JAW was fascinated by, and found quite compelling, the petroglyph evidence for this that we examined together during our trip to Norway.
Given his work in, and love for, Egypt, JAW sometimes referred to himself as a “rogue Egyptologist.” He espoused the Symbolist interpretation of ancient Egypt developed by R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz (1887–1961). JAW’s best-known book is probably Serpent in the Sky (1979; updated edition, 1993), a magisterial study of the Schwallerian interpretation of dynastic Egypt. In a nutshell, Schwaller argued that the surviving monuments of ancient Egypt, such as the Temple of Luxor (the “Temple of Man,” as Schwaller referred to it), are not only masterpieces of harmony and proportion, but that they incorporated into their designs meaning and symbolism reflecting the ancient wisdom, along with advanced knowledge, which unified the disparate fields we now think of as science, medicine, religion, theology, philosophy, art, and so forth. As JAW would often point out, Schwaller directly, even in English translation (and when JAW originally wrote Serpent, there were no English translations of Schwaller readily available), is virtually impenetrable for most people. Serpent made Schwaller and Symbolist Egypt accessible. But Serpent is much more than simply an explanation and analysis of Schwaller’s work and the “sacred science” of Egypt. Serpent contains many insights original to JAW, and it also discusses such topics as classical numerology, sacred geometry, and the issue of “Atlantis” and a forgotten civilization that preceded dynastic Egypt, as evidenced by the Great Sphinx—for it was Schwaller who noted that the Great Sphinx was weathered and eroded by water, not sand and wind, and therefore the statue must have its origins long before the rise of dynastic Egypt around 5,000 years ago. Many people, among whom I am included, consider Serpent in the Sky to be JAW’s masterpiece. He was very proud of the book, and rightfully so.
JAW was an autodidact, but he had learned well, devoting an immense amount of time to his meticulous studies; it is a shame that he died before a university formally recognized his achievements and granted him an honorary Ph.D., something that he was hoping for. However, he did not begin his career as a scholar. But rather as a writer of short stories, novels, and plays. Above all, he considered himself a satirist and social critic. His books include Call Out the Malicia (a collection of short stories; 1961, 1963), the novel Osborne’s Army (1966, 1967, 1969), The Case for Astrology (1970, coauthored with Jan Gerhard Toonder; revised edition, 1991, with JAW as sole author), and The Traveler’s Key to Ancient Egypt (1985, 1995).
JAW had a love-hate (admittedly primarily hate, or rather disgust) relationship with academia. He despised most academics as rather petty, narrow-minded upholders of the current societal dogmas and standard paradigm. In general, he referred to academics as “quackademics”, and felt that the educational system was primarily a system of propaganda in support of the status quo. Despite his quarrels with established academia, JAW was a true scholar and agreed with me that we must follow the evidence wherever it may lead. To give a straightforward example, we traveled together to Yonaguni (Japan) and studied the submerged formations off the coast of the island, hoping to find definitive evidence of advanced civilization at the end of the last ice age (which would complement our Sphinx work). However, after diving the site, we both agreed that the “Yonaguni structures” are primarily natural.
Surprisingly to some, given various conferences where he spoke and his popularity among certain groups, JAW had little tolerance for unsubstantiated claims promulgated by members of what has been termed the “New Age” movement. He was known to use the term “unicorns” as a descriptor for certain New Agers, fake psychics, uncritical believers, and the like. He did not hesitate to express his opinions about anyone at almost anytime, whether or not it was civil or politically expedient. As he often told the story, by the age of twelve or so he had come to the conclusion that there are major problems with our modern society and its norms. The way he liked to describe it is that we are living in a lunatic asylum. As JAW viewed himself, his purpose and goal in life was to expose the nonsense and hypocrisy, the shortcomings and lies. He compared himself to the story of the little boy who was the only one willing to say, “The emperor has no clothes”. In terms of the Hindu Yuga Cycle, JAW and I agreed that we are in the depths of the Kali Yuga, and it will most likely get worse, much worse, before things improve.
JAW was an adherent of “The Work” of G. I. Gurdjieff. He and I passed many happy hours discussing the teachings, philosophy, and practices of Gurdjieff (as well as P. D. Ouspensky, Rodney Collin, and others). JAW was convinced that The Work descended from ancient traditions and knowledge going back to an earlier cycle of civilization, a concept that I find quite credible. From Gurdjieff’s teachings, JAW learned to live in the “lunatic asylum” (rather than retreat to a monastery, for instance) and to “use everything”—even experiences and circumstances that seem, on the surface, to be negative or setbacks. All experiences, good and bad, are useful to a writer. And he learned the lesson not to allow others to “push your buttons”, for anyone who can emotionally rattle you can control you. But, of course, sometimes when someone seems to be “pushing your buttons,” it allows you to develop insights into your own weaknesses and shortcomings.
Occasionally JAW liked to quote past great writers. Two of his favorites paraphrases were that “a gentleman fights for lost causes” (Jorge Luis Borges) and “there is nothing stronger than an idea whose time has come” (Victor Hugo). Regarding the latter, JAW was quick to point out that the “idea whose time has come” need not be a good idea.
JAW had an abiding interest in many other diverse subjects (too many to mention here), from classic cars to fine art and music. One of the subjects that fascinated him was parapsychology (the scientific study of psychic phenomena), and he was delighted that I take a serious interest in it, too. Another was alchemy, an interest that we shared as well. As JAW liked to point out, Schwaller was an alchemist. Here is JAW’s view of alchemy, which I would contend he applied to his own life:
“The true alchemist was not a deluded proto-scientist out to turn lead into gold for gain. His rituals with lead, mercury, and sulfur served as mnemonic aids in the quest for spiritual self-perfection. As the carnal became the spiritual on the inner plane, so—according to the medieval theory of hierarchy and correspondences—the gross would become fine on the physical plane. Though the method may not wash as science, it is singularly apt when applied to art. All art is alchemical in the sense that it distills the raw stuff of experience into something rarer and finer. Understood metaphorically, every real artist is an alchemist.” (JAW, 1991, foreword to a reprint of The Death Ship by B. Traven. Brooklyn, New York: Lawrence Hill Books, p. vi.)
The last major scholarly and literary project that JAW completed prior to his death was editing, and in part ghostwriting, The Dead Saints Chronicles, a book authored by his friend David Solomon. Solomon died in April 2016, just after The Dead Saints Chronicles was published. Solomon had been working on materials for this book, when he was diagnosed with brain cancer. JAW spent two years (beginning in April 2014) editing and seeing to completion The Dead Saints Chronicles. It is a sad irony that JAW himself would be diagnosed with cancer within a year of Solomon’s death.
As I bring these brief notes to a close, a sentence that JAW wrote, in his afterword to The Dead Saints Chronicles (p. 375), comes to mind and consoles me:
“The Afterlife is real, and every one of us would do well to start preparing for it.”
John Anthony West spent a lifetime preparing. No doubt he is on his way to becoming a star, as the ancient Egyptians believed. I wish him well on his glorious new journey.
Robert M. Schoch, Director of the Institute for the Study of the Origins of Civilization at Boston University, a full-time faculty member at B.U.’s College of General Studies, and an Honorary Professor at the Nikola Vaptsarov Naval Academy, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University. Best known for re-dating the Great Sphinx, he is the author of Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future, and many other books. Website: http://www.robertschoch.com