The Essential Writings
Of Hazrat Inayat Khan
H.J. Witteveen, Editor
(Shambhala)Some of us want our religious masters to be a bit touched. For example, the New Testament gives us an obviously potty carpenter so convinced of his divinity that he carries himself and his followers to extremes. Anyone who blesses whores, hides out in the desert for six weeks eating cactus and wrestling with snakes; anyone who tells people to renounce violence at all costs, then walks willingly into the jaws of a nailed-to-the-tree agony --- has to be a bit off. Later, they watered down his revolutionary ideas to make them more acceptable, but, even so, a quarter of humanity has taken on his mad path to a supposed divinity, and gone bonkers in the process.
The Sufis, we've been told, share these seeds of religious madness; indeed, some say that the lost years of Christ were spent with the dervishes --- so many of his tenets are similar to their own. Even so, the Sufis have an edge. Peter Brook, in his new autobiography described elsewhere in a recent issue of RALPH, tells of seeking out a dervish in Afghanistan many years ago:
I wished to ask my eternal question: how to respond to the obscure intimations one has that there is a "something else" beyond the everyday world. So, preparing my poetic imagery, I leaned toward the dervish, "In my House," I said, trying to give a special symbolic resonance to the word, "there are many rooms, crammed with a jumble of unnecessary objects."
He nodded and I felt that he was following my metaphor.
"Occasionally," I went on, "I seem to hear sounds. I don't know where they come from, nor what they are..."
He was clearly interested and interrupted me. "What sort of sounds? Could they come from the pipes? Have you called in a builder?"
§ § §
If you are looking for such wise madness in the writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan, forget it. He came to the United States early in the century and knew that the wealthy ladies of Chicago, New York, Boston and Detroit were not interested in the latest lunacies from The East. His lessons --- and there are some seventy-five presented here --- are very much attuned to Christians who may be looking for a dib and a dab of Oriental religion, but want teachings that are tame, well within the limits of their small world.
The lessons given here are broken into twelve categories --- "Aspects of Sufism," "The Mysticism of Religion," "Sufi Metaphysics," "Art and Symbology," etc. But rather than the quirky insights which we think of as true Sufism, we get such hoary chestnuts as:
By this he means that my notebook must not be the storehouse of my knowledge. There is a living notebook, and that is my memory, a notebook which I shall carry with me all through life and through the hereafter.
There is no mystical cult in which the breath is not given the greatest importance in spiritual progress. Once man has touched the depths of his own being by the help of the breath, then it becomes easy for him to become at one with all that exists on earth and in heaven.
If you are interested in how one careful Sufi reached early 20th Century Americans, this may be your meat. But if you are interested in the fascinating world of what we once called The Mystical East, presented by those who want to shake up the well-fed and obviate the tedious, you are better off studying Vivekanada, or Suzuki, or Watts.--- A W Allworthy
Sojourns in the
Land of Memory
"Everything about Mrs. Beranek ---the elaborate subterfuge of her hospitality, the dark bunker of her watchful brown eyes --- should have told me she harbored a secret."
The elaborate subterfuge of her hospitality....the dark bunker of her watchful brown eyes...
There are times when everything seems slightly skewed, right? You listen to the music, but either it --- or your ear --- is slightly out-of-key. You drive the car but the motor has turned flakey; it still runs, but don't know if you'll make it to the Bon-Ton before it wheezes into an untimely death. You wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and start insulting the people you think you should be loving.
Reading Hampl is like that. Her subjects are all out of that East Coast closed literary society: stories of how she started writing, how she did her first review (on Sylvia Plath). There are some thoughts on Anne Frank, or Augustine's Confessions, or the Holocaust. But something is screwy here. Her writing --- it's very structure --- seems unformed. Like her name. Shouldn't it be Hemple? Or Hample? Or Hampton?
There is too much there there. On book reviewing, "If nobody talks about books, if they are not discussed or somehow contended with, literature ceases to be a conversation, ceases to be dynamic."
Somehow contended with...Ceases to be...ceases to be... Why somehow? Why not just contended with? As one reviewer said about one of my own books, "there are too many words here." And literature, whatever Hempl wants to believe, is not conversation, for pity's sake. It's monologue. If she wants it to be a conversation, does she have to keep on rattling down the road so noisily with her out-of-tune motor --- taking unwilling us along with her, in the back seat? Myrtle Herlong, my beloved but strict 8th grade English teacher, would write AWK over the whole ceases to be mess. And probably my response to it.
On Augustine: "The frets and feuds of other people with the endless middle management of his bishopric nibbled his day away." O stop it. This, and "the dark bunker of her watchful brown eyes" are words of one who has yet learned to handle words.
If it isn't too late, we would like to see if we can't cook up a NEA award to give Ms. Hempl a three month working vacation in, say, the Maldives --- supplying for her a reading list of the known masters of our beloved English language --- the likes of Nabokov, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Richard Wright, Sherwood Anderson.
She may get something out of her studies because, as a special bonus, we'll have NEA ship out our old teacher Ms. Herlong --- bless her soul --- to rap Ms. Hempl's knuckles whenever she strays, as she so often does, into the realm of conversational chaotic literary redundancy.--- Lolita Lark
History of Zero
(Oxford)h, it's puzzling, this nothing. Nothing is puzzling. Zero, zilch, nada, the absence of all and everything. Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his name is "Outis" --- Nobody. So that when he screams at the loss of his single eye, leaving him with nothing, and the gang his fellow Cyclops come running, he says, "Nobody's killing me by treachery or violence." They go away.
This is but one of the many stories that Kaplan cooks up to remind us that nothing has many meanings. His references are classic and modern, including this from George Gershwin,
I got plenty of nothin'
And nothin's plenty for me...
For Western Culture, the great divide was not only creating the image of oh oh oh ..."O" ... but taking it beyond being a mere spacer, giving it the power of being a number itself. The first to use the Zero? Probably the Sumerians. The first use of the sign "O"? Perhaps the Indians. Maybe even the Mayans? Why not, says Kaplan,
Why should this idea not have sprung up in different cultures, perserved and passed on here, flaring up and dying out there in the minds of many a mute, inglorious Newton?
(The Mayans, by the way, represented zero as "a tattooed man in a necklace with his head thrown back.")
Kaplan is a facile and , at times, a captivating writer. He has the ability to make quick summaries of some of the lively puzzles of mathematics:
Let's face it, the retrograde motion involved in subtraction makes counting, which was hard enough, thoroughly confusing, as you will know if you've ever been tricked into believing you had 11 fingers (5 on your left hand, and --- counting backwards --- 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 on your right, so 6 + 5 = 11). Yet without subtraction we wouldn't have this excellent riddle: four people are in a room and seven people leave it. How many must go in before the room is empty? Answer: three.
His recounting of the tale from the Lalitavistara of young Buddha counting tells us much about not only numbers, but the ability to encompass infinity that is so key a part of the Indian culture, with their surprisingly modern concepts of space, time, numbers, for Buddha
names all the atoms in a yojana (a league roughly three miles): seven of the finest atoms make a grain of very fine dust, seven of which make a little grain of dust. Seven such grains make a mote you can see in a sunbeam, seven of these a rabbit's grain, seven rabbit's grains a ram's grain, seven ram's grains an ox's grain, seven ox's grains --- a poppy seed!...he continues on to mustard-seed and barleycorn and knuckles, twelve of which make a span, two spans a cubit, four cubits a bow, a thousand bows a cry in the land of Magadha.
In other words, the Indians had in their very religions micro and macro concepts that didn't make it into the the west until the 20th century, with physics, and astronomy, and the Hubble telescope which suddenly invented for us the 20,000,000,
000,000,000,000 galaxies each of which contain 20,000,000, 000,000, 000,000 stars.
At times, Kaplan's words boggle, viz.: "Any five-year-old will tell you that negative numbers aren't numbers at all, and phylogeny recapitulated ontogeny in taking its time to recognize negatives." But mostly, he pleases with tales that are at once poetic, mathematic, and ontological. Overall, it's better than nothing.--- Ignacio Schwartz