New troubles – old lessons


A friendly Zoroastrian restauranteur who ran the place I used to go for lunch every day once told me, “You know, Paul, a lot of my customers read – but you actually make love to your books!”

He had me pegged, no question – I have been known to growl and grit my teeth, cry, or even laugh out loud when reading (or writing) an especially great passage – and indeed, I’m always very pleased when I am transported in that way. Says good things both about the writing I’m into, and my own happily persistent openness.

Mind you, I don’t usually read to tickle myself with such thrills, I like to stretch. I’m very fond of history, technique, and grand courageous information models. I especially like to learn big new things about the world that prove the scope of my ignorance and humble me, and thus help remind me that my own dire conclusions, no matter how well supported, are certain to be in error, (and a form of vanity, anyhow).

Lately I’ve been reading and listening – and the confluence is truly fascinating.

About a third of my MP3 player capacity is taken up with the wonderful talks of the great theologian and philosopher Alan Watts – on Buddhism, the Tao, and most recently, a whole wonderful section on Carl Jung.

As Watts does so often (and beautifully), he rejects some common easy criticisms (fascist sympathies) with perfect clarity and humour. But he does not (ever) treat a subject, without also looking at what the perspective of other traditions might have to say about it.

One of his criticisms of the thinking of Jung, Freud and Marx, he attributes to the very widespread misinterpretations of Darwin, due to the Victorian vanities of its (and also our own) time. “Progress” as we understand it, is an inherently racist concept. We have indeed insisted (at the point of a gun) that our unsustainable ways of life must dominate absolutely, displace and convert all who were in better balance.

Having won our way in the end, the entire planet is now in peril. Progress?

The Guardian even supplied me with a huge belly laugh today (and I was literally woken from sleep this morning, by a thunderstorm of political fury in my head, so that was a nice trick).

They ran an article which said (very hopefully) that the technological and economic trends were now so clear, that even without further policy initiatives, the intensity of oil consumption was bound to decline increasingly rapidly, globally. Good news, right?  Almost, but the little flip-side gag (that I am kicking-myself for not having already thought of), is that the value of these resources, their futures and derivatives is so vast, that when demand curves invert and this price-bubble bursts, our financial markets will completely implode! ;o)

So the good news is – we really ought to stop worrying – even in getting it right accidentally, we still doom ourselves quite thoroughly! (It’s like some Kafka-esque Moebius escape plan, that always leads you back into the prison yard again, isn’t it?)  Laugh-riot!

Now – why was I so powerfully struck by Watts’ observation about our vain and unrealistic ideas about our modern superiority of thought and life?

Because this idea of cultural progress has made little sense to me for decades – not, as some might assume, because I’m an angry idealist (though I won’t deny that), but because I keep asking questions about humans that the modern age answers poorly – and other ages spoke to with far more precision, insight, sensitivity and incredibly charming (loving) wit.

For a kid who grew up in a psychologically twisted commune to read a clear and practical description of the sensible way to run such a group – and the correct healthy relationship for it to have with it’s surrounding community, in order to prevent the very problems and abuses you experienced, is bracing stuff. When you realize that these insights come from sources almost eight hundred years old, you start to wonder a little bit about the whole idea of progress. Says who, exactly?

I was fortunate – my father read my brother and I stories from many different cultures when we were young (and he never hesitated to savour the prose as he went, sometimes quite elaborately). We heard the classics from Hans Christian Anderson, but also Babayaga – Ancient Greek and Egyptian tales, Beowulf (YIKES!) as well as more common kid-fare. We also heard plenty of Mullah Nasrudin stories when getting tucked-in at night, which gives us something in common with millions of Muslims who also enjoyed them as kids.  (Zoroastrians too, my greatly-amused friend assured me).

In later years, after delving into psychology, I found myself reading a lot of Sufi material once again, because it’s compassionate and humorously forgiving insights go much further than many of our most modern ideas, and often feel better balanced, (certainly less egotistical self-congratulatory and reckless).

There are many moderns in the West who stumble into the classical Sufi writings and get very excited because there are so many ideas which still have much fertile fruit to offer – not just in the understanding of humans and societies and broad artistic inspiration, but also in terms of science.

The impact of Fitzgerald’s translations of Omar Khayam, and Richard Burton’s “Thousand and One Arabian Nights” on Victorian poetry and story-telling would be very hard to overstate – but that was hardly the first time Sufi masterworks brought rich gifts into our shared Western culture.

Indeed, the critique of previously immaculate Aristotle, a central turning point in the renaissance leading to a vast flowering of culture and science, was begun by the great Ghazali, known in the west, as Algazel (Averroes, and Avicenna were also Sufis). These great Sufis were considered by medieval Christian scholars to be “secret Christians” within Islam – because they were working such a familiar current of intense love and reasoning in combination. (Thomas Aquinas studied Ghazali in depth).

Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowles” owes everything to Attar’s dazzlingly modern “Conference of the birds,” even Cervantes, (our Ur novelist) read and borrowed from Sufi classics for his immortal and Quixotic inspiration.

But there is a second-order problem which enters in, after we first begin to see the ground, and understand the richness and breadth of the tradition. Hard enough just trying to gather English translations of the works of Rumi, Hafiz, Saadi, Ghazali, Attar, Khayam and Ibn Al Arabi (just to name a few luminaries), but once we have and we’ve begun to read them, how do we put them into context?

(Curious note, I have an even bigger problem with James Joyce – because I lack sufficient Catholic insight to peel back the layers of meaning and intention satisfyingly – even though I have enjoyed hundreds of pages of careful and brilliant analysis of his work).

Personally, I answer this question for classic Islamic texts in a way that modern education usually rejects, precisely because we have forgotten the difference between push and pull. The best way to learn anything, is to cultivate a need to know it!

Having read through some of the material for decades, I was eager for a structure in which to set these weighty pieces down, so I could try to observe their relationship more clearly.

I really do love books, and there are quite a few that I have read many times over – but none so often in recent decades as “A Short History of the Arab Peoples.” By Sir John Glubb. This is not at all a perfect book – conveying fourteen hundred years of history in a couple of hundred pages requires extreme concision. But his perspective, as a British General who understood (far earlier than most) that his own empire was now defunct, gives him special insight into what did and didn’t work in many phases of islamic history – and a great sympathy for the periods of triumph power and unity and also for the inevitable phases of tragedy and dissolution which followed. (Along with a few jibes here and there which are hilariously revealing about his own bias).

The book begins in the period just before the birth of the Prophet, and continues until just after the second world war, mixing notable figures, campaigns, cultural and political epochs in a highly engaging way.

My feeling about this book, flawed though it is, is that I would LOVE to memorize every single page of it. There isn’t a single person place or event described in it, that isn’t worth having lodged in my head, for how it can help me to connect this long unfairly ‘redacted’ chapter, back into the western historical picture we more commonly share.

Simply – the dark ages, weren’t – they were a time when Islam held the highest civilized attainments in the world, and the west was behaving more brutishly. The scientific, philosophical and imaginative attainments of the Greco-Roman culture were advanced steadily by Islam, and then gracefully given back to us, when (after a thousand years of barbarism) we were finally ready for them once again.

But the many, very different political empires and smaller dynasties which arose over the long period of Islamic ascendancy were hardly monolithic. In different ages, Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad all served as imperial capitols, each radiating very distinct cultural influences from those centres.

What I find most striking – especially when I put some of my favourite poets into their historical time – is that the greatest cultural achievements were not necessarily related (as we might like to assume) to the most successful periods.

At it’s very height of unity and power – the most sophisticated culture in the world – prizing arts of incredible subtlety and refinement, was faced with the devastating Mongol invasion – and suddenly found themselves bested by and fleeing from relentless culture-disdaining mass murderers. (City after city was completely emptied and the population massacred, even when they had promised that all who surrendered peacefully would be spared).

Baghdad – so wealthy and culturally advanced by then as to have free public hospitals, state managed multi-year medical education programs to staff them, and even regular government retirement stipends for the elderly – was utterly destroyed.

Some of Saadi’s most heartbreaking work is about this – and indeed, Attar famously perished, with a perhaps inescapable teaching-witticism that to me exceeds even that of St Lawrence, when he was being martyred by fire (“Turn me over, I’m done on that side”).  Socratic and then some!

After the coming of the Mongols, instead of a grand contiguous empire of wealth and relative stability stretching from Andalus (Spain) across north Africa all the way to the edge of India, there arose far smaller states and more modestly funded (but still art-loving) courts. It was these lesser (in effect, post-apocalyptic) principalities, that actually nourished many of the greatest Islamic thinkers who ever lived.

With every reason for grief, bitterness, fury and resentment – they produced instead immortal masterpieces of love and warm humour, filled with imagery so fresh, humane and powerful that it can still knock us over (and make us laugh with wonderment and delight) today. Generosity and intelligence we can surely learn from, in this most infuriating (and rhetorically hyperbolic) time.

Not trying to suggest the civilized are facing an existential threat from an implacable horde of illiterate and frighteningly desensitized barbarian political thugs who have risen suddenly from within their midst these days, nothing so emotionalist as that.

But, since my new chum Pris did ask the question (have you got any good reading suggestions, that might help in a time of this much madness?) I figured I might as well give her (and you) a more complete, and hopefully somewhat more useful answer.

Idries Shah on Sufism in general (whether it seems technical or story-based – grab it – there are gems within). Barks and Moyne for beautiful English translations of Rumi – and also exerpts from his father’s famous “Drowned Book”. Daniel Ladinsky is lovely for Hafiz (at last, thank you!), Annemarie Schimmel writes well about the time and culture – and as for the rest – please let me know whatever you can find in print in English! (aside from the older Arberry and Nicholson translations – both of which I have found, and do still gather for second-sourcing, despite their somewhat muted music).

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