Monday, October 22, 2012

An Unknown World



Even though my admiration for Jacob Needleman is boundless, this (his latest) is not his best book: 'An Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of Earth'!

It is a moving meditation on our responsibility towards the Earth and is grounded in a series of haunting dreams that Needleman had of his boyhood friend, Elias, who died of leukemia at the age of fourteen. Jerry was two years younger, poorer and Jewish, Elias was from a wealthy background, Armenian and Christian. They shared a love of science and how it created a deep sense of wonder in and between them about the nature of the world and their place in it. Indeed this evocation of a serious childhood friendship is one of the best parts of the book.

The dreams are marvelous but the commentary they give rise to does not feel sufficiently anchored in the reality and texture of them. They come off as too abstracted: a flawed explanation rather than a commentary.

However, there are very good things here.

Most notably is the defence of consciousness as both the marker of what it means to be human and as a reality that can only be explored from within. In line with this is an unfashionable defence of Descartes and of 'dualism' between mind and matter.  We need to separate appropriately in order to reunite effectively. Descartes wants to know of what we can be utterly certain.  It is that 'I' am conscious and thinking - not as a 'ghost in the machine' but as a conscious 'I am' that moves in parallel to a material body -the evidence for which is less certain than my 'I'! That certainty requires a focused act of inward attention - and this attending to my inner world was a remarkable restatement of a traditional understanding: what you know is dependent on the quality of your attending, the level of your consciousness.

What Needleman wants to restore to us is this mediating level of attention both to our inner and outer worlds - both to the world of value and of fact. This would be a purifier of our habitual way of seeing both worlds - through the distorting mirror of our egotism.

The result would not be precisely as envisaged in the above image that simply equates 'egotism' with separation. We are separate - our particular kind of consciousness makes us so - but that we do not realize our separateness and its obligation is our failure. I always recall that great ecologist and farmer, John Seymour, reminding us that it was only when we ceased to see ourselves 'apart from nature' that we began seriously despoiling it. Arrogance comes from uncertainty and wanting to establish our 'place' not from comfortably inhabiting a different place.

With this purification of a proper attention, we would recognize the value of both worlds and be able to link them meaningfully. Only then would we realize that what the Earth needs, if it (and we) are to survive, is conscious human beings able to love the world and bear truth in it.

The thought world of Gurdjieff is (again) in evidence - we are incomplete, humanity in the making, and our capacity to value and love the world is deeply out of step with our ability to manipulate it. We know this, we know this in our own lives - how easy it is to manipulate and react to others (self-justifying ourselves on the way) rather than love others selflessly. So too with the Earth but that is what the Earth needs: will it get it in time?

This is not a book 'about' the ecological crisis, it is a book about the crisis in humanity - are we capable of bearing the responsibility of loving the Earth? This is no different a question as whether we are capable of bearing the responsibility of love of neighbour. It is perhaps the most important question of all!

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