Thursday, August 20, 2015

Skillful post person arranging books

Back from a trip to Berlin (seven days) and I find my postbox full with skillfully arranged (and probably rearranged) packages as a result of my book buying mania having overcome the common sense of my approaching departure!

I can only be thankful that the curious nature of airline pricing (the true meaning of which will be one of the things that are revealed in the beatific vision) forced me home for a night before traveling onward to England.

I wish I could say that the cumulative pile offered an inner coherence but, sadly, my magpie nature, as usual, got the better of me.

The thickest book (one has to have some form of organizing principle) is a replacement copy of Diarmaid MacCulloch's 'A History of Christianity'. The previous copy having been lent out beyond hope of return, I thought I should acquire (and re-read) a replacement. It is as judicious and intelligent a study as one could hope for of the global religion which, despite the wishes of the new atheists, continues to grow apace; and, not simply as a reflection of demography.

Next in order of size is a secondhand copy of John Carey's biography of William Golding. Needless to say, I read 'Lord of the Flies' at school but later read his Sea Trilogy (and will again) and found them one of the most moving and deeply imagined of contemporary novels. I liked his resistance to the three modernist 'gods' - Darwin, Freud, Marx and his ability to intimate the transcendent without naming it.

That leads to another of Marx's critics - Isaiah Berlin - and a collection of his essays, 'The Proper Study of Mankind'. I cannot think of a more lucid conveyor of ideas - either his own or that of others and either as a philosopher or an intellectual historian. Together with Walter Kaufman, he has always been the liberal unsettler of my certainties and the guardian of that which truly matters namely the ability to scrutinise, scrupulously and honestly, any and all of my assumptions.

A need that Norman Cohn's subjects needed more than most in 'The Pursuit of the Millenium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages'. This is his classic study of the urge towards the apocalyptic and the willingness of people to sacrifice the present, in all its compromised messiness, on the altar of a hoped transformation to a kingdom of saints. Be careful what one prays for; and, a book, sadly, that preserves its timeliness as we confront new versions of an old malady.

This brings me to a wholly different approach to the transformative other - Ouspensky's 'Tertium Organum'. It was written before his encounter with Gurdjieff and is his careful exploration of the boundaries of possible experience seen in the light of the esoteric or mystical in dialogue with science. It is emphatically aimed at the transformation of the individual. Ouspensky distrusted groups, even, I suspect, his own.

Finally, there is a similar aversion in Hermann Hesse's 'Wandering' which I bought as a replacement copy for one that is literally falling apart. It was published in 1920 and is a series of short essays, poems, and paintings written as Hesse settles into his new home in the Swiss canton of Ticino. It is a beautiful book and the second of his that I bought as a schoolboy, recently besotted. This is a state, though critically deepened, I have retained to this day. There are passages here I know by heart including this one, from 'Trees'.

“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.”

Hermann Hesse, Wandering

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