Thursday, September 27, 2012

Readings: When Lessing is More


At the time of the death of Norman Mailer, a writer under whose influence, both in terms of literature and in terms of culture, I came of age, I posted this angry piece on Rodak Riffs. I thought at the time that the Nobel Prize committee had made a terrible unforced error in choosing Doris Lessing over Mailer for the literature prize. I am no longer so sure of that.

The reason for my tentative change of heart is that I have begun reading Lessing’s Canopus in Argos:Archives, a sequence in which the first novel is Re: Colonised Planet 5 Shikasta. I have begun reading Shikasta as a result of a conversation on Facebook involving my reading of Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis. This led me to Lessing’s novel sequence. I am about one-third of the way through the first book, having borrowed the first three from the library, and I am very impressed. The following brief excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Lessing will give you enough background on the nature of the sequence to save me the trouble:

When asked about which of her books she considers most important, Lessing chose the Canopus in Argos sequence. These novels present an advanced interstellar society's efforts to accelerate the evolution of other worlds, including Earth. […] Using Sufi concepts, to which Lessing had been introduced in the mid-1960s by her "good friend and teacher" Idries Shah,  the series of novels also owes much to the approach employed by the early 20th century mystic G. I. Gurdjieff in his work All and Everything.

So what we basically have in the Canopus sequence is a “chariot of the gods” scenario, with Shikasta—the fallen planet—representing Earth; Canopus standing in for “heaven” and the evil planet Shammat and its agents representing “hell” and the demonic forces.

It has been insights like the one below concerning the evolution of religion that have made Shikasta so rewarding for me, thus far:

            During the entire period under review, religions of any kind flourished. Those that concern us most here took their shape from the lives or verbal formulations of our envoys. This happened more often than not, and can be taken as a rule: every one of our public cautioners left behind a religion, or cult, and many of the unknown ones did, too.
            These religions had two main aspects. The positive one, at their best: a stabilization of the culture, preventing the worst excesses of brutality, exploitation, and greed. The negative: a priesthood manipulating rules, regulations, with punitive inflexibility; sometimes allowing, or exacerbating, excesses of brutality, exploitation, and greed. These priesthoods distorted what was left of our envoys’ instruction, if it was understood by them at all, and created a self-perpetuating body of individuals totally identified with their invented ethics, rules, beliefs, and who were always the worst enemies of any envoys we sent.
            These religions were a main difficulty in the way of maintaining Shikasta in our system.
            They have often been willing agents of Shammat.

This passage expresses succinctly and precisely what I had already come to believe concerning the nature of professional priesthoods and organized religion.

So I have reevaluated Lessing’s contribution to literary culture and her body of work. If my enthusiasm for this series continues to grow, I intend to go back and read more of her work. I read The Golden Notebook way back in my Ann Arbor days and liked it. And I have read a few of her novels—The Fifth Child comes mind—since; but not many. That may now change.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Readings: Recalling Reality

One of the characters in one of the novels of Philip K. Dick’s great Valis Triology, recommends to one of the other characters that he (or she?) read the work of Hayyim Nahman Bialik. Because of the nature of Dick’s preoccupations, this endorsement interested me greatly and I made note of the name. Unfortunately, I did not make note of which character in which novel made this recommendation, so I can’t make that citation here.

Although Bialik was, and still is, considered to be the modern master of Hebrew poetry (see the Wikipedia article linked in the opening paragraph above), my library (the one I work in) did not have a book of poetry by Bialik available. But it did have a volume containing three stories in English translation. Below are two excerpts which appear eight pages apart in the first and longest of the stories. I found them to be both true and very beautiful. See what you think:

~ from the story, “Aftergrowth” by Hayyim Nahman Bialik:

It has been said very truly that man sees and grasps only once in his life, during his childhood. Those first sights, virgin as when first they left the Creator’s hands, are the embodiment of things, their very quintessence. What comes later is no more than a defective second edition. It is done after the fashion of the original, to be sure, and is faintly reminiscent of it, but it is not the same thing. I have found this to be true of myself. Whatever I have seen and deemed worthy of blessing in the skies above or on earth in the course of my life has been enjoyed only by virtue of that original, that primal seeing.


And it is clear to me that when the lot of all men befalls me and the portals of the world open wide for my departure, in that final hour all the sights and the visions of my childhood will troop out once more from behind their veil and will muster around me. All of them will come, down to the very last one, bringing their charm, their love and their pristine brightness, as they were shown to me in the very dawn of my day. Then suddenly the light of all seven days will gather about them, and be extinguished forever with the light of my soul…

~ translated from the Hebrew by I. M. Lask

Once again I am amazed at the breadth and depth of PKD’s knowledge and interests.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Readings: My Discovery of a Quirky Poet

I was recently prompted by this post on the (rather liberal) Catholic blog, Vox Nova, to borrow two books from the library containing writings by English poet and novelist, Stevie Smith. I had heard the name before, but don’t remember ever reading any of her works, unless it was by random chance in some anthology, or another, long ago.

At any rate, I found the blog post interesting and have enjoyed reading some of her quirky, entertaining, often humorous poetry. I borrowed a collection put out by New Directions (New Selected Poems of Stevie Smith), and the book Me Again, which is a collection of reviews, articles, poems and letters published by Smith herself. Below is a poem from the New Directions selection that I particularly liked:

To Dean Inge Lecturing on Origen

Listen, all of you, listen, all of you,
This way wisdom lies,
To reconcile with the simplicity of God
His contingent pluralities.

Oh, the wise man sat in his chair,
And oh, the people they would not hear,
They said, It is much too deep for us,
And they turned to the Differential Calculus.

Oh, if the people had only heard
Oh, if that wise man’s word was not blurred,
Not dimmed.

I recommend a perusal of Stevie Smith’s writings to anybody looking for something different to read.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Readings: Contra Fate

I have recently finished reading the concluding novel of Philip K. Dick’s fascinating Valis Triology. The final book is titled, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. The novel is based on the strange history of Episcopal Bishop, James Pike, whose son Jim was a friend of Dick’s. The words quoted below are the musings of the novel’s narrator, the character Angel Archer. Angel is the widow of Jeff Archer, the son of the title character who is based on Bishop Pike. Jeff Archer commits suicide, as did Dick’s friend, Jim Pike.

The novel is much concerned with the concept and workings of fate. It is also concerned with the role of religion in attempting to counteract the power and effects of fate.

This is probably what we mean by the term “fate”; were it not inevitable, we would not employ that term; we would, instead, speak of bad luck. We would talk about accidents. With fate there is no accident; there is intent. And there is relentless intent, closing in from all directions at once, as if the person’s very universe is shrinking. Finally, it holds nothing but him and his sinister destiny. He is programmed against his will to succumb, and, in his efforts to thrash himself free, he succumbs even faster, from fatigue and despair. Fate wins, then, no matter what.


The ancient world had seen the coming into existence of the Greco-Roman Mystery Religions, which were dedicated to overcoming fate by patching the worshipper into a god beyond the planetary spheres, a god capable of short-circuiting the “astral influences,” as it had been called in those days. We ourselves, now, speak of the DNA death-strip and the psychological-script learned from, modeled on, other, previous people, friends and parents. It is the same thing; it is determinism killing you no matter what you do. Some power outside of you must enter and alter the situation; you cannot do it for yourself, for the programming causes you to perform the act that will destroy you; the act is performed with the idea that it will save you, whereas, in point of fact, it delivers you over to the very doom you wish to evade.

We can see the validity of Dick’s thinking on the origins of Christianity in the attempt to counteract inherent destructive tendencies that are beyond our control in the formative writings of St. Paul, such as:

Romans 7:15 “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.”


Galatians 5:17 “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.”

Our death-trip is built into us. And only by a power outside of us, that is, by grace--so says Christianity--is there any possibility of our overcoming the hand dealt to us by fate in order to become truly free.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Reflections: "9/11" Again...and again...and....

I'm getting pretty sick and tired of all this boo-hoo-hoo over "9/11". The United States has been reducing buildings to rubble -- and killing innocent civilians in the process -- all over the world throughout this century and the last. Then one time -- ONE TIME -- we get paid back in some small measure and it becomes an event of biblical proportions. Grow up, for God's sake. What goes around comes around. Be happy that it doesn't come around more often! (I won't even mention that we've wasted more than double the number of American lives taking our "revenge" for "9/11" than we lost that day. That's fucking brilliant -- isn't it?) 

You never want to see people killed or injured by any event. But it happens every day. Put a little perspective on it, please.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Reflections: BUSTED!

Sitting alone in my new apartment, to which I was driven by the dissolution of my third marriage, wondering vaguely in the pain of separation why it is that I can’t seem to make it with anybody—all three of my wives left me; two of them after a considerable number of years—even though I seem to be trying, I came across the following excerpt on page 78 of a book club edition of Philip K. Dick’s novel, Valis:

In his study of the form that masochism takes in modern man, Theodor Reik puts forth an interesting view. Masochism is more widespread than we realize because it takes an attenuated form. The basic dynamism is as follows: a human being sees something bad which is coming as inevitable. There is no way he can halt the process; he is helpless. This sense of helplessness generates a need to gain some control over the impending pain—any kind of control will do. This makes sense; the subjective feeling of helplessness is more painful than the impending misery. So the person seizes control over the situation in the only way open to him; he connives to bring on the impending misery; he hastens it. This activity on his part promotes the false impression that he enjoys pain. Not so. It is simply that he cannot any longer endure the helplessness or the supposed helplessness. But in the process of gaining control over the inevitable misery he becomes, automatically, anhedonic (which means being unable or unwilling to enjoy pleasure). Anhedonia sets in stealthily. Over the years it takes control of him. For example, he learns to defer gratification; this is a step in the dismal process of anhedonia. In learning to defer gratification he experiences a sense of self-mastery; he has become stoic, disciplined; he does not give way to impulse. He has control. Control over himself in terms of his impulses and control over the external situation. He is a controlled and controlling person. Pretty soon he has branched out and is controlling other people, as part of the situation. He becomes a manipulator. Of course, he is not consciously aware of this; all he intends to do is lessen his own sense of impotence. But in his task of lessening this sense, he insidiously overpowers the freedom of others. Yet, he derives no pleasure from this, no positive psychological gain; all his gains are essentially negative.

If Reik had been using my case history as his model for this theory it would not be necessary to alter a word of Dick’s description of it. This is me, to a tee. I have seen bits and pieces of these truths about myself in flashes of insight over the years -- particularly since my daughters have been college age and out of the house and I’ve been forced by default to spend more time contemplating myself – but here it is, laid out stark and bare in a novel. I recognized myself in it instantly, and without a speck of doubt, as I read it. Now it has become a fully conscious insight into my predicament, my pathology, my existential angst. Will that make any difference?