One wouldn't think it, but for 1,400 years, Islam coexisted quite nicely with both Judaism and Christianity. This is the subject of Zachary Karabell'sOne wouldn't think it, but for 1,400 years, Islam coexisted quite nicely with both Judaism and Christianity. This is the subject of Zachary Karabell's excellent history, Peace Be upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence. We are all too used to projecting the anxieties of the present back into history, just as we like to straight-line our future projections based on present-day conflicts.
Karabell goes all the way back to Muhammad and his early successors and shows that Christians usually suffered less under the Muslim yoke than from their fellow co-religionists. In fact, the reason for Islam's rapid spread is that Christians and Jews suffered less under Muslim rule than under, say, the Byzantines. When Ferdinand and Isabella banished the Jews from Spain, the Ottomans welcomed them in their empire in such cities as Salonika (Thessaloniki), which became a center of commerce and learning.
What really surprised me about Peace Be Upon You is its author's superb summary of the last 150 years , bringing together such diverse subjects as the founding of the Baath Party (by a Christian!), Lawrence of Arabia, the Hashemite monarchies, the Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the founding of Israel, and the rise of Aramco.
The book ends with a look at Dubai as portending (Karabell hopes) the future of Islam -- less concerned with Jihad than with something different:
What are we to make of a Muslim ruling family doing business with a gambling and leisure company run by Jews? Or a company owned by the royal family concluding real estate deals with an American Jewish real estate mogul who makes no secret of his ardent support for Israel? Or a city-state that borders a puritanical Saudi Arabia and acts as an escape valve for the same Saudis who accept the stricture of Wahhabi dogma at home? Or of a burgeoning state that annually draws half a million British tourists who are lured by the prospect of cheap shopping and beaches? What are we to make of Dubai, a city-state that epitomizes the excesses and successes of capitalism in a globalized age?
The book came out in 2007 and is not altogether up to the minute, but it is a valuable contribution in an era when there are all too many treatises that ignore the rich history of the Middle East and North Africa....more
We tend to see the Middle East as one turgid mass of Sunni and Shi'a Muslims who are all at each others' throats. There are, however, a number of isolWe tend to see the Middle East as one turgid mass of Sunni and Shi'a Muslims who are all at each others' throats. There are, however, a number of isolated religious communities that, over the last two thousand years, managed to retain a tenuous independence from the emerging mainstream. These include Mandaeans, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Druze, Samaritans, Coptic Christians, Kalashas, and others.
This is a valuable corrective to many of our widely-held beliefs about this area of the world. Although there is a constant pressure by Muslims to convert, there are some sects, such as the Kalashas, that manage to live together, even in Pakistan's tribal territories....more
This book opened my eyes, not only insofar as its strict subject matter, but also in its applicability to our own times. Christopher Hill was withoutThis book opened my eyes, not only insofar as its strict subject matter, but also in its applicability to our own times. Christopher Hill was without a doubt one of the most knowledgeable commenters on the seventeenth century in England, especially of that period between 1640 and 1660 which he refers to as the English Revolution.
Since the external world is the manifestation of [Gerrard] Winstanley's God, our senses are to be valued because by thm we know this world. Man must live in himself, not out of himself; in his five senses, not in empty imaginations, books or hearsay documents. Then God walks and delights himself in his garden, mankind. We know God by the senses, 'in the clear-sighted experience of one single creature, man, by seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling.' When the five senses act in their own light, this is 'the state of simple plainheartedness or innocency.'
What is missing are the priesthood, the Bible, the theologians ... for these radicals, every man was his or her own prophet, and dogma be damned.
Hill's The World Turned Upside Down was a revelation to me. We tend no to read much about the seventeenth century, but it was a yeasty period which is still affecting us today....more
I read the version of Euripides's The Bacchae translated by Reginald Gibbons and Charles Segal published by Oxford.
Robert Calasso's The Marriage of CI read the version of Euripides's The Bacchae translated by Reginald Gibbons and Charles Segal published by Oxford.
Robert Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and harmony taught me about the dynamics of Greek mythology, and this play by Euripides is a good example. Dionysos comes in person to Thebes, with whose royal family he is related, but meets with nothing but disbelief from Pentheus, the ruler and son of his aunt.
This sets up the play for the revenge of a disbelieved god, at the expense of Pentheus and his entire family. ...more
While there were many religious themes in C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, in Perelandra what we have is a Garden of Eden on the planet Venus (PWhile there were many religious themes in C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, in Perelandra what we have is a Garden of Eden on the planet Venus (Perelandra) on which Eve does not succumb to the tempter and who therefore is not cast out of Paradise.
Lewis's picture of Venus is as close to perfect a description I have ever seen of a Paradise. Elwin Ransom, the hero of Out of the Silent Planet interposes himself between the Eve character and his former physicist associate Weston, who has been taken over by Satan -- the "bent" theistic figure who is responsible for all the wars and sufferings on Earth (Thulcandra).
Not until the novel's coda does the language become too high-flown, as if Lewis were trying to out-Dante Dante in writing the Paradiso of The Divine Comedy. But, for 80% of its length, Perelandra represents a fascinating attempt to show how the principles of Christianity would play among alien worlds and alien races....more
It is interesting, and wholly fortuitous, that I read this book almost immediately after H.G. Wells's The First Men in the Moon. In that book, one ofIt is interesting, and wholly fortuitous, that I read this book almost immediately after H.G. Wells's The First Men in the Moon. In that book, one of the two characters on the expedition attempts to communicate with the Selenites, while is partner is little more than a 19th century conquistador.
In Out of the Silent Planet, author C.S. Lewis has one character -- Ransom -- kidnapped by Devine and Weston, who are interested primarily in exploiting the gold on Mars (called Malacandra in the book). Ransom escapes from them and falls in with one of the three intelligent species on the planet, the hrossa. During his stay on the planet, he alternates between fear and fascination.
There appears to be a planetary leader, called the Oyarsa, who has summoned Ransom to ask him questions about how men on earth have gotten "bent," i.e., gone wrong.
Lewis knows how to create a world that enthralls the reader. He did it in the Narnia series; he did it in Till We Have Faces. Even his autobiographical Surprised by Joy is like another world superimposed upon our own....more
First published in 1898, Karl Mortensen's outline survey of Norse and Germanic mythology serves merely to whet the appetite. A Handbook of Norse MythoFirst published in 1898, Karl Mortensen's outline survey of Norse and Germanic mythology serves merely to whet the appetite. A Handbook of Norse Mythology is perhaps a useful guide to the sources of the various myths it covers, but it is best to tackle the original sources, which have the virtue of being far more interesting. Mortensen frequently quotes from "The Havamal," which is part of Snorri Sturluson's Poetic Edda, and which is perhaps, along with some of the sagas, the most striking expression of the Norse world view....more
I am convinced that most biographies (not all: I am thinking of Boswell's Dr Johnson) would be better if they concentrated on one's early life -- theI am convinced that most biographies (not all: I am thinking of Boswell's Dr Johnson) would be better if they concentrated on one's early life -- the way that C.S. Lewis does in 'Surprised By Joy'. Although one's youth can just as well lead one down the wrong path, it is amazing when one reads about someone who has a fine mind, intellectual honesty, and a basic goodness.
In one sense, Surprised by Joy is about its author's journey toward Christianity. In another, it is the picture of a serious quest, one with many turnings and even a few dead ends, but with a worthwhile end in view. And that is not to mention the inimitable style. At one point, Lewis writes:
The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it "annihilates space." It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from traveling ten. Of course, if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter. Why not creep into the coffin at once? There is little enough space there.
It is probably just as well that Lewis had never -- at least as of the date of this book -- flown in an airplane.
This is in every way a worthy and superior book that I would recommend to any person....more
This short and simple work of stoic philosophy is as valid as when it was first penned two thousand years ago. Epictetus started life as a Greek slaveThis short and simple work of stoic philosophy is as valid as when it was first penned two thousand years ago. Epictetus started life as a Greek slave, but wound up in Rome. His Enchiridion distinguishes sharply between those things we can control and those we cannot:
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
This type of stoicism requires reserves of strength most people do not have, as when they discover they have pancreatic cancer, or their beloved son has died, or they are slandered and have their reputations under attack. He continues:
Work, therefore, to be able to say to every harsh appearance, "You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be." And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.
Who is heroic enough to live like this? If I were, I would be immune to most if not all of the pain that human life is heir to.
Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix is a Chilean priest with literary pretensions. He visits a literary critic by the name of Farewell and is surprised tFather Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix is a Chilean priest with literary pretensions. He visits a literary critic by the name of Farewell and is surprised to see the poet Pablo Neruda there. Although the novel begins with the priest on his deathbed, he is still a young man when we first meet up with him. It is the 1950s, and the priest, writing under the pen name Father Ibacache manages to develop a literary reputation of sorts -- though we never see him in his priestly duties ...
Until two shadowy figures from Opus Dei, the somewhat suspicious Catholic lay organization, enlist him on a project to find out how to best preserve old churches. He is sent to Europe, where he discovers a number of churches which are protected by falcons who devour the pigeons whose guano damages so many of the churches. In Burgos, he runs into an old priest named Father Antonio who, though he has a falcon, refuses to use it against the pigeons:
I have been thinking, he said, maybe this business with the falcons is not such a good idea, it's true they protect churches from the corrosive and, in the long term, destructive effects of pigeon shit, but one mustn't forget that pigeons or doves are the earthly symbol of the Holy Spirit, are they not? And the Catholic Church can do without the Father and the Son, but not the Holy Spirit, who is far more important than most lay people suspect, more important than the Son who died on the cross, more important than the father who made the stars and the earth and all the universe.
Time begins to telescope. Father Urrutia Lacroix returns to Chile, where he is dragooned into teaching classes in Marxism (!?) to General Pinochet Ugarte and the other members of his junta. At the end, he is associated with a salon run by a female writer named Maria Canales who is associated with the junta in some strange way (to be explained in the novel).
By Night in Chile is Roberto Bolaño's first novel to be published in English. I rather prefer the original Spanish title, Nocturno de Chile, with its suggestion of the moral downfall which, to me, is the real tale Bolaño tells in this book:
Chile itself, the whole country, had become the Judas Tree, a leafless, dead-looking tree, but still deeply rooted in the black earth, our rich black earth with its famous 40-centimeter earthworms.
We are typically loath to read any work from four or five hundred years ago that is heavily immersed in theological argument, firstly because there arWe are typically loath to read any work from four or five hundred years ago that is heavily immersed in theological argument, firstly because there are few who could follow a close argument, and secondly, because there are few who would care.
The Jesuits, or Society of Jesus, was founded in 1540 as a result of the efforts of St Ignatius of Loyola. Its history has been checkered, with frequent accusations of "casuistry" (i.e., bending the laws of God to make things easier for the powerful). Many of these arguments are summarized by Blaise Pascal in his The Provincial Letters.
Pascal's sister was a nun at Port-Royal, which was under fire by the Jesuits were acceding to the "heresies" of Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres. Pascal felt, and rightly so, that the Jesuits had no case: Rather, they felt threatened by the puritanical strain of the Jansenists, because it confused men and women of power and wealth who had been following the softer road to Salvation delineated by such Spanish Jesuits as Antonio Escobar y Mendoza and his numerous followers.
The first half of The Provincial Letters is brilliant journalism, consisting of interviews with unnamed Jesuits on various subjects relating to faith and morals. At times it verges on satire, to such an extent that even Voltaire felt it was brilliant. If you read only the first half, it would probably be sufficient. (There I go, sounding like one of Pascal's Jesuits.) The second half, on the other hand, is a bit of a trudge and adds nothing more to what contemporary readers can get out of the book.
There is a brilliant scene in Luis Bunuel's film The Milky Way, in which a Jesuit literally crosses swords with a Jansenist. I don't think Pascal would have approved, because one of his arguments against the Jesuits was that they condoned dueling and even murder for certain reasons.
Think of it as a 20th century continuation of Paul's Epistles, in many ways superior to the original. Although I am a seriously lapsed Christian, I caThink of it as a 20th century continuation of Paul's Epistles, in many ways superior to the original. Although I am a seriously lapsed Christian, I can appreciate -- even praise -- the high sincerity and acuity of C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters.
The Screwtape Letters is a book of letters from a senior demon to a junior demon regarding the activities necessary for the latter to win the soul of an Englishman during the Second World War for "Our Father," by whom he means Satan. The means that Screwtape suggests to Wormwood are often ingenious:
Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them. Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and towards the outer worl, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the "Cause" is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal.
Or, to take another example (noting that the "Enemy" is none other than God):
If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.
Few, if any, essentially religious works ha ve been more entertaining and to the point -- regardless of the reader's own religious belief. This is a truly great book and deserves to be better known in our own time....more
Reading the Biblical Book of Job, one could conclude that God is evil, feckless, or even nonexistent. Not until we get to the Book of Revelation do weReading the Biblical Book of Job, one could conclude that God is evil, feckless, or even nonexistent. Not until we get to the Book of Revelation do we find a book so controversial and open to so many meanings. This is why Mark Larrimore has performed a useful service with his The Book of "Job": A Biography, which examines the different interpretations of the book through the ages and through the eye of the present time.
Consider the framing story we find at the book's beginning: God is making a bet with Satan that Job's prosperity is not dependent on the deity's favoring him. He lets the devil do whatever he wishes to Job to affect his worship of the Creator. In the process, Satan runs off his herds and kills his wife and children, leaving the once powerful man bemoaning his faith in a pile of ashes.
From there, it gets even stranger. He is consoled by three "friends" who essentially say it's all his own fault. Then there is a mysterious character named Elihu who emerges with his own interpretation (a probable interpolation by another writer). Finally, God appears himself and essentially says He is All Powerful, Almighty, and where was Job when God created the world?
Because I am not conversant with the language of theology, I missed some of the terms used in Larrimire's book, but I found it useful enough to want to return to it once I have reread the Biblical book in several translations....more
This is a collection of Greek aphorisms sorted by subject (and by author), translated from the Abbasid texts in Arabic through which they came into thThis is a collection of Greek aphorisms sorted by subject (and by author), translated from the Abbasid texts in Arabic through which they came into the Western world. At the very end is a set of roughly parallel aphorisms from Asian sources presented in a smaller type font -- all of which are excerpted from various Shambhala editions.
While some of the aphorisms are excellent, in both the Greek and the Asian sections, there is not much to tie them together. Granted that the original source comes through the Arabic, it would have been nice to cite the sources of Plato's dialogues and Aristotle's works; but this was not done.
Back in January, I printed a quote from Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or. A Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in NorfoBack in January, I printed a quote from Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or. A Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk (1658). A reader named Kevin Faulkner took me to task for essentially taking the easy way out and not quite coming to terms with the work of the 17th century scientist, divine, and mystic. He recommended that I read the companion piece Browne published in the same year, entitled The Garden of Cyrus, or, the Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered with Sundry Observations.
This week, I finally got around to reading The Garden of Cyrus. When confronting such a powerful mind as Browne’s, with his phenomenal erudition, recall, and powers of observation, I must confess to feeling unworthy. Never before has prose risen to such poetic heights, with a level of difficulty that approaches Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The following comes early in the first chapter:
Wherein the decussis is made within a longilaterall square, with opposite angles, acute and obtuse at the intersection; and so upon progression making a Rhombus or lozenge configuration, which seemeth very agreeable unto the originall figure; Answerable whereunto we observe the decussated characters in many consulary Coynes, even even those of Constantine and his Sons, which pretend their character in the Sky; the crucigerous Ensigne carried this figure, not transversely or rectangularly intersected, but in a decussation, after the form of an Andrean or Burgundian cross, which answereth this description.
Now this is in no wise to be considered as light reading. Yet there is a Greco-Roman sense of majesty in which Browne takes the simple shape illustrated above, inspired by the tree planting pattern of Cyrus in ancient Persia, as one of the basic patterns in nature and art. And ultimately in the mind of God.
Browne goes far beyond the lattice-work in nature and botany to a mystical consideration of the shape and of the number five, which it suggests in the Quincunx pattern, with a tree in the center and one at each of the four points in a lozenge-shape surrounding the central tree. As Browne says in his conclusion in Chapter Five (the last chapter, appropriately): “All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the ordainer of order and mystical Mathematicks of the City of Heaven.”
Sir Thomas Browne is not a writer one can read once over lightly. Each of his powerful essays, including his Religio Medici, begs to be accepted as a vade mecum to which the reader will return again and again.
And what does the reader gain? Actually, the erudition and complex latinate vocabulary by itself is not the reason for a further acquaintance: Rather, it is the way in which the towering speculations of the author are in the humble service of his God. For Browne, there is no conflict between science and Christianity. They complement each other at every turn.
Somehow, I feel as if my dreams tonight will be of rhombuses and quincunxes extending into the heavens, from the smallest parts of creation even unto the stars.
If you are even moderately interested in a difficult and rewarding author, I suggest you read his essays, and also look of Kevin Faulkner’s excellent website entitled The Aquarium of Vulcan, which deals rather more substantially with Browne than I am able to at this time....more
This last novel by the Icelandic Nobel-prize-winning Halldór Laxness is more than a little difficult to classify. In a way, it is similar to the sameThis last novel by the Icelandic Nobel-prize-winning Halldór Laxness is more than a little difficult to classify. In a way, it is similar to the same author's Paradise Reclaimed. In both books, Icelanders are lured away from their beliefs by, in one case Mormon missionaries from Utah, and in the other, a group of New Agers and quasi-Buddhists from California and other points of the compass.
Under the Glacier was originally called Christianity at Glacier. It tells of the Bishop of Iceland sending a young emissary to investigate a strange parish in the area of Snaefellsness in the west of Iceland. Now even in the 1960s, Snaefellsness with its glaciated mountain was considered a center of New Age beliefs. Even in Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, which begins there, it was considered to be a magical place.
The unnamed emissary of the bishop, who simply refers to himself as EmBi and then Embi, is treated to a bewildering array of characters who pretend to be poets, sages, and even, in one case, the Buddha himself. The only one who seems unbothered by the phenomena is the parish priest, who calls himself Jon Primus, and who seems to muddle through by, instead of ministering to his parish, shoeing horses and repairing machinery.
Laxness was, for most of his life, on a spiritual quest of his own. From Icelandic Lutheranism, he became a convert to Catholicism and Communism, Escaping from the attentions of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the United States. Eventually, most of his beliefs fell away from him. In Under the Glacier, we are treated to a charivari of mixed religious beliefs. The book ends with our Embi lost in a bog hearing what appears to be the laughter of Iceland's "hidden folk," or elves.
This is one Icelandic novel which could have been filmed by Federico Fellini. ...more
The literature of Buddhism both attracts and repels. On one hand, it is concerned with a practical response to the suffering of this life. This is seeThe literature of Buddhism both attracts and repels. On one hand, it is concerned with a practical response to the suffering of this life. This is seen in what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the Two Promises:
I vow to develop understanding, in order to live peacefully with people, animals, plants, and minerals.
I vow to develop my compassion, in order to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.
The bulk of the book is taken up with the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which form the core of Buddhist ethics. These are useful and practical, and should form part of our own understanding as how to act in any given situation.
But then there sets in a certain patness, together with a proliferation of Sanskrit names and traits which, to learn, must be something like counting cards in Las Vegas. To wit:
The second name of the Buddha is Arhat, meaning "one who is worthy of our support and respect." The third is Samyaksambuddha, "one whose knowledge and practice are perfect." The fourth is Vidyacaranasampana, "one who is equipped with knowledge and practice." The fifth is Sugata, "one who is welcome." The sixth is Lokavida, "one who knows the world well." The seventh is Anutta-apurusadamyasarathi, meaning "unsurpassed leader of people to be trained and taught."
And it goes on from there. Now can you please repeat all those, and perhaps add a few more ... but it is not my intention to poke fun at something that basically works, but which can lead one to blubbering like an idiot. Mi vida loca, my Lokavida -- the same understanding, but when the mouth opens, all are wrong.
I am still stunned after having read this magnificent essay. It begins slowly as a scholarly discussion of funeral customs of the ancients and, in itsI am still stunned after having read this magnificent essay. It begins slowly as a scholarly discussion of funeral customs of the ancients and, in its culminating chapter, is as profound as Ecclesiastes in denouncing the vanity of wanting to leave behind towering monuments to our former selves. Never in all my days of reading have I seen such deep scholarship wedded to such humility and an overwhelming sense of goodness:
Pious spirits who passed their days in raptures of futurity, made little more of this world, than the world that was before it, while they lay obscure in the chaos of pre-ordination, and night of their fore-beings. And if any have been so happy as truly to understand Christian annihilation, ecstasies, exolution, liquefaction, transformation, the kiss of the spouse, gustation of God, and ingression into the divine shadow, they have already had an handsome anticipation of heaven; the glory of the world is surely over, and the earth in ashes unto them.
I cannot help but think that I will return to this work again, perhaps several times. It is as profound a devotional book as any written by the saints and acknowledged holy men of previous times: "Happy are they whom privacy makes innocent, who deal so with men in this world, that they are not afraid to meet them in the next; who, when they die, make no commotion among the dead, and are not touched with that poetical taunt of Isaiah."
And what is that poetical taunt? "They that seek thee shall narrowly look upon thee, and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms; That made the world as a wilderness, and destroyed the cities thereof; that opened not the house of his prisoners?"...more
I have always found that reading Joseph Campbell on the subject of finding a personal mythology to see one through life to be refreshing and liberatinI have always found that reading Joseph Campbell on the subject of finding a personal mythology to see one through life to be refreshing and liberating. While this book is nowhere as well organized as Bill Moyers's Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, it's still a fascinating read. Campbell is a great raconteur and can carry the interview by himself. Just a few examples:
THE DEVIL. "Our demons are our own limitations, which shut us off from the realization of the ubiquity of the spirit. And as each of these demons is conquered in a vision quest, the consciousness of the quester is enlarged, and more of the world is encompassed."
NIGHTMARES. ""When people have nightmares, it's principally because they have been repressing the biology and it comes up with a vengeance. The deity that is disregarded turns into a devil."
MEISTER ECKHART. "As he said in his sermon 'On Riddance,' the ultimate riddance, and the most difficult, is getting rid of your god to go to God. Wow! That's the big adventure, isn't it?"
RELIGION. "My favorite definition of religion is 'a misinterpretation of mythology.' And the misinterpretation consists precisely in attributing historical references to symbols which properly are spiritual in their reference. What a mythic image talks about is not something that happened somewhere or will happen somewhere at some time or other; it refers to what is now, and was yesterday, and will be tomorrow, and is forever."
Again and again, Campbell takes us away from the restrictions of "thou shalt" and "thou shalt not" and makes us look at what it is to be a human anywhere in the world. He urges us to look around at what other people believe and how they succeed in finding themselves and freeing themselves from what William Blake called "mind forg'd manacles."
Campbell will, I think, be regarded as one of the great teachers of the twentieth century, even from an interview book such as this one, which is one of his minor works.
Back in my time, every incoming freshman at Dartmouth College was required to read John Milton's Paradise Lost. I managed to skip this class due to adBack in my time, every incoming freshman at Dartmouth College was required to read John Milton's Paradise Lost. I managed to skip this class due to advanced placement. As a result, I majored in English without ever knowing the splendor of Milton's verse. Now that I have read, Paradise Lost, I consider it one of the greatest works of the English language. My only regret is, will there be time remaining to me to read it again, studying its magisterial poetry and wisdom.
Here within a couple hundred pages is the best of Christianity. Far from being blind, Milton saw more than most mortal men.After the fall, the Archangel Michael tells Adam:
The rule of not too much, by temperance taught, In what thou eat'st and drink'st, seeking from thence Due nourishment, not gluttonous delight, Till many years over thy head return; So may'st thou live, till like ripe Fruit thou drop Into they Mother's lap, or be with ease Gather'd, not harshly pluckt, for death mature: This is old age; but then thou must outlive Thy youth, thy strength, thy beauty, which will change To wither'd weak and gray; thy Senses then Obtuse, all taste of pleasure must forgo, To what thou hast, and for the Air of youth Hopeful and cheerful, in thy blood will reign A melancholy damp of cold and dry To weigh thy Spirits down, and last consume The Balm of Life.
So is Adam introduced to the concept of death, which he and Eve have earned as a result of disobeying God's commandment about not eating of the Tree of Knowledge he placed in Eden.
There is a strange combination of exhilaration and disappointment when two of one's heroes conduct a correspondence. Will the veil of the temple be reThere is a strange combination of exhilaration and disappointment when two of one's heroes conduct a correspondence. Will the veil of the temple be rent? Will a breakthrough resulting from the greatness of the individuals involved result in new modes of thought? Well, yes and no. Thomas Merton was a French-born Trappist monk who wrote books of poetry, religion, and assorted other subjects. Czeslaw Milosz, on the other hand, was a Lithuanian-born poet who lived much of his life in Poland before coming to the United States to teach at Berkeley. He is a Nobel Prize winner; in my opinion, Merton should also have been so honored.
Both men were Catholics -- Milosz in an anguished and alienated Eastern European sense, and Merton, having bought the farm, so to speak, on an eternal pendulum between the institution of Catholicism and its occasional banality. Yet, both writers come alive, particularly in the earlier letters. Here is Merton writing some words about his belief in God that would never receive an imprimatur from a Catholic censor:
his is the thing that finally hit me. My darkness was very tolerable when it was only dark night, something spiritually approved. But it is rapidly becoming “exterior” darkness. A nothingness in oneself into which one is pressed down further and further, until one is inferior to the whole human race and hates the inferiority. Yet clings to it as the only thing one has. Then the problem is that perhaps here in this nothingness is infinite preciousness, the presence of the God Who is not an answer, the God of Job, to Whom we must be faithful above all, beyond all. But the terrible thing is that He is not known to others, is incommunicable.
Here in one paragraph is my own religious credo, which I have never seen better expressed. Toward the end of the correspondence, the two drifted further apart, with Merton hectoring Milosz for unpublished poems from Polish poets to appear in one of the many journals with which he was associated.
Milosz writes from a different point a view, as a man who has learned to distrust ideologies because he lived where they were so frequently manipulated. One disagreement between the two was over the issue of peace movements. Merton was very involved, while Milosz hung back:
As to the efficacy of calls for peace, picketing etc., they probably rather increase the danger, as I said, 1) by exasperation and polarization of opinion into two hostile camps, which is a boon for right[wing] radicals; 2) by a possible miscalculation over there, in the Kremlin, a possibility of making one step too far in the blackmail.
The letters span a ten year period during the Cold War between 1958 and 1968, when Thomas Merton died of a heart attack in Bangkok while conferring with Asian religious leaders. Milosz died in 2004.
This collection of letters does touch upon greatness at times, but it also shows how events such as the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and Merton's continuing interest in Catholic liturgy affected their friendship. During that time, they met face to face only twice. Would that I were a fly on the wall for either of these meetings!...more
The end of what I call The Januarius had finally come. It is one of my strange, compulsive little rituals: During the month of January, I read only auThe end of what I call The Januarius had finally come. It is one of my strange, compulsive little rituals: During the month of January, I read only authors I have never read before, Since New Year’s Day, I have read Sara Wheeler on Chile, Livy’s Early History of Rome, Herta Müller’s The Passport, Andrei Gelasimov’s Thirst, W. G. Sebald’s Vertigo (no relation to the movie), Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling, The Loeb Classical Library Reader, Deszö Kosztolányi’s Skylark, Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin, Christopher Langley’s Lone Pine, and now Arun Kolatkar’s slim book of verse in English entitled Jejuri.
That’s eleven books in all, tied together only by the fact that all the authors were new to me (except perhaps The Loeb Classical Library Reader, which contained excerpts of mostly familiar Greek and Roman classics).
Jejuri is perhaps the strangest of all. It is a poem cycle, originally written in English, by an Indian poet from Maharashtra. It is a coherent sequence which begins with the poet’s arrival in the pilgrimage city of Jejuri by bus, his desultory and not altogether devout visits to the local shrines and what he saw there, and finally his retreat by train—except we leave him at the station wondering when the train will arrive.
Here is one of my favorites:
what is god and what is stone the dividing line if it exists is very thin at jejuri and every other stone is god or his cousin
there is no crop other than god and god is harvested here around the year and round the clock out of the bad earth and the hard rock
that giant hunk of rock the size of a bedroom is khandoba’s wife turned to stone
that crack that runs across is the scar from his broadsword he struck her down with once in a fit of rage
scratch a rock and a legend springs
Khandoba is the main God of Jejuri.
I am always amazed at how many excellent writers and poets there are in India who can write English with the best of them. Coming to mind are Salman Rushdie, G. V. Desani, and R. K. Narayan, who is probably my favorite.
It is reassuring to know that, even if Europe and America are taken over by drooling idiots, there will be those who can write elegant English from the other side of the world....more
With every book by Patrick Leigh Fermor that I read, I become saddened that there are so few left for me to read, especially as what remains were writWith every book by Patrick Leigh Fermor that I read, I become saddened that there are so few left for me to read, especially as what remains were written so many years ago. Fermor's effortless erudition and flights of verbal fancy are without equal in our time. Take, as an example, this description of a Cistercian service at La Grande Trappe:
In church there was a kind of minstrels' gallery from which the guests, like Moslem ladies in a zenana, gazed down at the Trappists. The Victorian Gothic architecture of the church had none of the Romantic splendour of Solesmes; it was a great, dark north-Oxford nightmare, a grey sepulchre in the depths of which, hour upon hour, the chanting monks stood or knelt. The glaucous light was drained of colour. Fathoms below, columns of beard and brown home-spun, were the foreshortened lay-brothers. Beyond, their white habits and black scapulars covered by voluminous cowls, evolved the choir-monks. Each topiaried head was poised, as it were, on three cylinders of white fog: the enveloped body flanked by two sleeves so elongated and tubular that their mouths touched the ground, flipping and swinging, when the monks were in motion, like the ends of elephants' trunks.
Ostensibly, A Time to Keep Silence is about visits to four monastic communities over a three-year period in the 1950s: St Wandrille de Fontenelle, Solesmes, La Grande Trappe, and finally, the remains of the Byzantine tufa rock monasteries of Cappadocia in present-day Turkey. Fermor provides some interesting comparisons between the Benedictine (St Wandrille and Solesme) and Cistercian (La Grande Trappe) orders of Catholic monks and the former Byzantine monks.
I was astonished when I came to the end of this book in something less than an hour and a half. The concluding "Postscript," which covers the remaining monasteries in Britain, expresses profound regret that so little remained after the ravages of Henry VIII of what Fermor considers to be a profound and viable religious life completely divorced from the noise and distractions of the 20th century.
I had long wanted to read one of Karen Armstrong's many books on religion and decided to start in with The Bible: A Biography. It is always difficultI had long wanted to read one of Karen Armstrong's many books on religion and decided to start in with The Bible: A Biography. It is always difficult to critique a book for what it is, rather than what it isn't. Among the things that I had hoped to see in this book, but didn't, were the following:
 How the Bible came into existence and how the choice was made between the Gnostic Gospels and the official configuration at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. I happen to like several of the Gnostic books such as the Gospel of Thomas.
 How Muhammad in the Qu'ran adapted many of the Biblical books and stories and how those borrowings fared over the years.
 How Martin Luther edited out many of the wisdom and historical books of the Bible to suit his purposes.
 Shakespeare's quotation from The Merchant of Venice: "The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose! An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek."
What Armstrong does try to do, and succeeds in doing, is to study how the Jews and Christians went at using scripture over the centuries. How the Bible was studied, how it was used in the lives of the people at different points in history. I was particularly interested in her discussion how the whole concept of The Rapture crept into Fundamentalist Christian exegesis.
In conclusion, I think that Karen Armstrong is well worth reading. I'll have to look into some of her other books that are sitting on my shelves.
Greek Religion is not a particularly easy read, but it is an enlightening one. In fact, I would have a hard time envisioning a more useful one. The prGreek Religion is not a particularly easy read, but it is an enlightening one. In fact, I would have a hard time envisioning a more useful one. The problem is in the multifarious nature of Greek polytheism: It's way too easy to get lost in the byways of Greek theogony, as Roberto Calasso demonstrated in his excellent The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. When dealing with the tales of the hundreds of gods and heroes, many of which gleefully contradict one another, one comes up against a brick wall.
Walter Burkert points out that Greek religion is based primarily on the work of epic and lyrical poets:
The peculiar quality of Greek religion is ... [that] there is no priestly caste with a fixed tradition, no Veda and no Pyramid texts, nor is there any authoritative revelation in the form of a sacred book.
And yet, the citizens of the Greek polis actively participated in a rich religious life. It is here that Burkert excels, by describing to the maximum extent possible, the way the Greeks actually worshiped and the way they would act as priests for a while and pass the duty on to others after a given time.
Another interesting point is that the moment that prose made its appearance in Greek literature, the whole structure of religious thought changed:
Previously, speaking about gods in public had been the exclusive privilege of poets. Homer and Hesiod had provided the outlines of the divine personalities, and the lyric poets had elaborated ever more ingeniously on the familiar material, presenting it in new colours and shadings; even the reflections of wise men like Solon were put into poetic form, in the language and concepts of Homer and Hesiod. By keeping to the laws of poetry, each formulation is bound to contain a playful element. This falls away at a stroke in prose writing: the supports and predetermined paths of epithets and formulae disappear and literary tradition remains in limbo for a time, while writers attempt to state in a matter-of-fact manner what is the case.
And it is this matter-of-fact manner which gives birth to philosophy, to the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, and all of Western thinking.
If you are interested in the subject of Greek religion, I would recommend beginning with a highly readable classic such as Gilbert Murray’s Five Stages of Greek Religion. Where Burkert is useful is as an advanced text and as a jumping-off point for detailed textual research. There are, after all, well over a hundred pages of endnotes, together with excellent bibliography and indexes in both Greek and English....more
The French are in equal parts anti-clerical and devout. Georges Bernanos and Francois Mauriac are excellent examples of the latter tendency. This is tThe French are in equal parts anti-clerical and devout. Georges Bernanos and Francois Mauriac are excellent examples of the latter tendency. This is the second or third time I have read The Diary of a Country Priest -- and each time I find it has rocked my world.
There is a kind of imaginative religious novel in which a saintly joyful figure moves from strength to strength until he or she is ascended bodily into the heavens. Bernanos is not like that. His unnamed priest, who writes in the first person, is a sickly young man of around thirty who is parish priest in a poor agricultural parish in Northern France whose parishioners are spiteful at best.
He tries to see all his parishioners regardless of the cost to his health. During one such visit on a rainy day, he falls on the ground and vomits blood. The word goes around the parish that the priest is an alcoholic. Actually, he drinks wine in which bread is soaked (very symbolic, that) because he can't digest much of anything else.
When he sees a doctor toward the end, it is a young man who is injecting morphine into his veins so he could have the strength to see his patients -- because he himself is dying of a rare disease.
The end comes to our priest, as it does to all men. His last words are, "Does it matter? Grace is everywhere."
Diary of a Country Priest is perhaps a true study of sanctity in a hostile world. Perhaps Bernanos has given us a sense of reality in a troubled world which is more honest and true than what religious authorities would have us believe. ...more
This is the third time I have read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, and I hope it will not be the last. Written near the beginning of his career, it is bThis is the third time I have read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, and I hope it will not be the last. Written near the beginning of his career, it is by far his best book on the subject of religion. Although he was to return a number of times to the same well, the water was fresher in 1908, some fourteen years before he made his decision to convert to Catholicism. Afterwards, there was an institutional tinge to his writing that vitiated many of his later efforts.
As a lapsed Catholic, I was surprised to have forgotten that he was still an Anglican when Orthodoxy was published: As I followed his arguments, I thought they were equally relevant to Catholic belief:
Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency.
There are few writers as quotable as Chesterton. He deserves to be read slowly, one chapter at a time. It is so easy to lose his train of thought in the succession of paradoxes that is so characteristic of his writing.
And now the Catholic Church has begun the process toward canonizing Chesterton as a saint. Are we ever going to be ready for Saint Gilbert? I already am, as I have always regarded his work as keeping me within hailing distance of my own past of Catholicism (along with Thomas Merton, Francois Mauriac, and a few others).
All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact.
It was the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges who pointed the way to Chesterton. Originally, I read his fiction, then his essays; and now I am reading his religious works.
When I first started reading Chesterton, I was dismayed to find that so few of his works were in print. Now, most of his work is available; and more is becoming available every year. The Ignatius Press in San Francisco has slowly been putting out a set of The Collected Works, of which I currently have all the volumes. It is a mammoth task, because Chesterton was a wildly prolific writer and journalist who appeared in dozens of publications throughout the English-speaking world. ...more
The total oeuvre of Balzac contains some works that are among the greatest penned by mortal men. I am talking about such novels as Pere Goriot, Lost IThe total oeuvre of Balzac contains some works that are among the greatest penned by mortal men. I am talking about such novels as Pere Goriot, Lost Illusions, Cousin Bette, Cousin Pons, and The Wild Ass's Skin. But the same Balzac, when he decides to philosophize, can be stinko to the max. I'm afraid that Seraphita will -- if you try too hard to follow it -- cause blood to flow copiously from both ears.
As I wrote in my chapter summary for the Yahoo! Balzac group:
There is something about how profundity is conveyed in fiction of the time which doesn't work today. I found the same problem with Ossian, whom I found unreadable. And I have not been kind to Balzac's other philosophical studies. It was to take a few decades before writers like Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche could write about ultimate things without launching into the Ultimate Boredom of the Spheres in which abstractions transcend Matter and Spirit, not to mention Word and Number and the Square Root of Minus One.
If I were to quote directly from Seraphita, I'm afraid of repercussions and lawsuits. No, it is best to let sleeping (and soporific) dogs lie.
There can be no spoilers in a story in which nothing happens....more