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John Robert Colombo reviews: Charles Upton’s latest book

with 3 comments

‘Vectors of the Counter-Initiation’

The Wikipedia entry for the author Charles Upton identifies him (somewhat starkly but no doubt truthfully) as “a poet and metaphysician.” He was born in San Francisco in 1948 and raised a Roman Catholic. Apparently he attended the University of California at Davis “for four days.” He enjoyed a period of association with the Beat writers of the city, and he had a collection of poems published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books, no mean achievement.

Like many another war resister, he immigrated to Canada, to the wild interior of British Columbia, where he had a series of jolting, counter-cultural experiences, before he returned to the United States. The entry notes: “In 1988 he joined a traditional Sufi order. Under his wife’s influence, Upton became interested in the metaphysics of the Traditionalist or Perennialist School … He continues to be partly identified with this school,” where his teacher or “pir” was presumably the psychiatrist and author Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh. Later he wrote, “Traditionalism has given me a way to distance myself from the errors and excesses of the Left without polarizing with it.” Upton and his wife Jennifer Doane now live in Lexington, Kentucky.

What they do there, I do not know. On the off chance that Upton is employed as an academic, I searched the directories of the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University, but his name does not appear on their faculty rosters. (Note: “Transylvania University” is indeed the name of a small liberal arts college in Lexington, founded in 1780, a century before Bram Stoker began to write about the vampire-infested region around Borgo Pass and Bistritz.)

Upton is a prolific writer. Sixteen of his twenty or so books have been issued by Sophia Perennis, including the current book, which is titled and subtitled “Vectors of the Counter-Initiation: The Course and Destiny of Inverted Spirituality” (2012). The title sounds a little odd, as does the subtitle: What precisely is a “vector”? Whatever is “counter-initiation” and “inverted spirituality”? A curious note is that on the author’s Wikipedia site, the subtitle of the present book reads “The Shape and Destiny of Inverted Spirituality,” but on the cover of the book reads: “The Course …. ” This may be an insignificant detail, but it is details of this nature that catch the author’s eye. It seems the current book is a sequel to an earlier one, “The System of Antichrist: Truth and Falsehood in Postmodernism and the New Age,” a book of metaphysics and social criticism, published by the same house way back in 2001.

Sophia Perennis, the publishing house, is an imprint that has an informative website. From the site one learns nothing at all about the people who operate the press – the publishers and editors seem to be a self-effacing lot, but they are very able group, and they produce a fine product (one that I will describe a little later). But from the site one may acquire basic information about the movers and shakers of Traditionalism and Perennialism. It appears in the institution’s mission statement, which discusses the main metaphysicians who identify with this school of lexis and praxis.

“Sophia Perennis is dedicated to publishing the best contemporary writing on the world’s wisdom traditions, largely from a Traditionalist or ‘Perennialist’ perspective, as well as reprinting recognized classics. We have tried to remain faithful to Traditionalist core principles – notably the Transcendent Unity of Religions – while exploring new applications of these principles, as well as returning to the great Revelations themselves for fresh insight.”

I have yet to read other books by Upton, so I approached “Vectors” cold-turkey. Well, not quite. Well before I discovered the literature of the Fourth Way, about the time that I learned about the “powers latent in man” identified with The Theosophical Society, which was then an institution only seventy-five years old, I found a copy in a second-hand bookstore of René Guénon’s “The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times.” I read it from cover to cover with a modicum of understanding and a quantum of fascination, so much so that I thereafter sought out publications of the Primordialist, Traditionalist, or Perennialist persuasion. I have yet to encounter any other soul so interested or inclined.

For some years I subscribed to that excellent, semi-annual journal called “Sacred Web,” not because it is published from Vancouver, British Columbia; not because its honourary patron is HRH the Prince of Wales; not because it is close to appearing to be a scholarly publication in a highly polemical and disputatious field; but because it did and does offer valuable insights – issue after issue, again and again. Eventually I found that its content was becoming repetitious and its tone increasingly peremptory … but because I am not reviewing “Sacred Web,” I will offer no telling instances, though one of them has to do with the bitchiest book review that I have ever read – the anathema invoked against Mark Sedgwick’s “Against the Modern World” (Oxford University Press) which bears the subtitle “Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century.”

Instead, I will mention in passing a few of the impressions that my wife Ruth and I had of the Traditionalists in action at the two-day colloquium “Tradition in the Modern World” sponsored by members of the Ismaili communities of Edmonton and Vancouver and held on the campus of the University of Alberta at Edmonton in September 2006. It was a joy to hear Jean-Louis Michou and Huston Smith and realize they were carrying their years with grace. Harry Oldmeadow was given to hectoring (in the manner of Nietzsche). James S. Cutsinger presented a somewhat brilliant paper called “The Noble Lie” that went well over the heads of most of the people in the audience, including my wife and myself.

My biggest disappointment was listening to the keynote address of Seyyed Hossein Nasr. I did not say my disappointment was hearing the speech of Dr. Nasr, for he does speak with surpassing fluency, authority, and scholarly acumen. My disappointment was listening to what he had to say because he took a number of pot-shots at easy targets, like the one on Pope Benedict XVI’s speech in Regensburg, Germany. I expected more equanimity; my fault, I guess. (Query: Can someone be a former Sufi?) I found fellow members of the audience to be warm and appreciative, especially as Ruth and I were among the few non-Muslims present, whereas most of the academic presenters were aloof and edgy if not chilly.

For what they are worth, my impressions are recorded in a long and detailed account of the proceedings in “Fohat,” the journal of the Edmonton Theosophical Society, X, 4, Winter 2006. For present purposes, let me add that “the perennial philosophy” that was celebrated by Aldous Huxley in his notable book of that title published in 1946 has nothing at all to say about Guénon and Traditionalism proper, though three of the French metaphysician’s books are listed in the bibliography. So it is misleading and mistaken to identify the so-called the “philosophia perennis” or perennial philosophy itself with Traditionalism per se, especially as the former implies eclecticism, ecumenicism, syncreticism, interfaith initiatives, “one world religion,” “new age,” etc., whereas metaphysicians of the latter camp abhor such movements and despise them as heretical and diabolical if not satanic.

Now to the book at hand. “Vectors” is a handsome and sturdily manufactured trade paperback, 6″ x 9″ with viii+336+ii pages. There is an informative introduction, then twelve interesting though densely written chapters, followed by five appendices of related material. There is no index but the footnotes and endnotes are quite detailed. The text must exceed 140,000 words in length.

There is not a page of the text that is badly written; there is not a page of the text that is easy to read. Upton has a rigorous prose style, in common with that of Guénon, as well as the spirit of “parti pris.” I managed to understand much of Guénon’s “Reign of Quantity” before I chose philosophy as my college major, so I assumed that all philosophy was written in this steely fashion. Then I discovered one could write philosophy in other styles – with the ease of R.G. Collingwood, the apocalyptic energy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the disdain for “bad faith” of Jean-Paul Sartre.

What had animated Guénon’s prose was a contempt for the false values of the Western world. The position that he took is what distinguished his writing from philosophy per se, and it also led to his prose being characterized as metaphysics. In his Weltanschauung, there is a “hierarchy” of values – accompanied by the “lowerarchy” (an amusing coinage of C.S. Lewis used by Upton) of deceptions – so his metaphysics is indistinguishable from theology – in this instance, Islamic theology. There is no more thorough-going critique of the values of the Western world in the twenty-first century than the writing of the Guénonian school. Upton follows in Guénon’s footsteps; Upton’s book is worthy of the master’s. There is a cultural jihad being waged in the pages of these books.

When I review a book, I try to refrain from reprinting the copy that appears on the back cover of that book, on the principle that I should be able to summarize its arguments at least as well as any publicist. But in this instance, the copy on the back cover of “Vectors” is so pertinent, I will reprint part of it here in a slightly shortened form:

“French philosopher René Guénon, who spent many years searching for a true esoteric Way, crossed paths with many false and subversive spiritualities before arriving at the threshold of Islamic Sufism. In his prophetic masterpiece “The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times,” he classed the worst of these spiritualities as examples of the Counter-Initiation. Anti-Tradition – secularism and materialism – opposes religion; Counter-Tradition inverts it; and the esoteric essence of Counter-Tradition is the Counter-Initiation. The author expands on this concept, recognizing the action of the Counter-Initiation in such areas as the politicizing of the interfaith movement, the anti-human tendencies in the environmental movement, the growing interest in magic and sorcery, the involvement of the intelligence communities in the fields of UFO investigation and psychedelic research, the history of Templarism and Freemasonry, and the de-Islamicization of the famous Sufi poet, Jalaluddin Rumi.”

“The Counter-Initiation has six main features: syncretism; inverted hierarchy; deviated esoterism; the granting of the temporal transmission of spiritual lore precedent over the vertical descent of Revelation; the reduction of religion to utilitarianism (magic) and esoterism to a purely technical knowledge (Promethean spirituality); and the misapplication of the norms of the individual spiritual Path to the supposed spiritual evolution of the collective.”

“This book brings together two schools of thought: the Traditionalists or Perennialists (writers on comparative religion and traditional metaphysics) and the conspiracy theorists who are investigating the origin, nature, and plans of the New World Order. The NWO researchers can throw a penetrating light on the social and political dangers presently threatening the Perennialists, who the Perennialists can provide these researchers with a deeper and wider spiritual context for their vision of human evil.”

Those three paragraphs excellently summarize the convoluted arguments of the book, better than any that I could supply. What follows are some responses and reactions to the text chapter by chapter.

Chapter 1 has the title “What is the Counter-Initiation?” The author restates his thesis any number of times, changing the emphasis to match the contexts. I take it that his thesis is as follows: “Anyone who bases his critique of the Darkness of This World on the orthodox doctrines of a single God-given revelation, if he has sufficient courage and insight, will see far; the solid fulcrum of that orthodoxy will allow him to lift a great weight of error into the light. But this perspective will _not_ allow him to see how the other religions are menaced by the same Counter-Initiatory forces that threaten his own.”

Sceptics are anti-traditional and likely secularists or materialists. Among people who accept the notion of religious or spiritual initiation are the following: deluded people and gullible adherents to the principles of the New Age who are misled by the spread of Pseudo-Initiation; people intent on attaining or wielding power who embrace the anti-principles of Counter-Tradition and Counter-Initiation; people desirous of embracing and expressing spiritual values who attain one form or another of genuine Initiation. “Falsifications of the Transcendent Unity of Religions and the Primordial Tradition include syncretism; inverted hierarchy; deviated esoterism; dominance of history over Revelation; Promethean magic; and spiritual evolutionism – the six-fold falsification of the Transcendent Unity of Religions and the Primordial Tradition.”

Upton gives numerous instances and examples of how the élites of the world over the centuries and particularly in our own time have sought and to a great degree have undermined the integrity of the world’s great religions, especially their esoteric hearts, notably Kabbalah, Catholic monasticism, and Sufism. He does not hesitate to brand these people “satanists.” The satanists sabotage structures regardless of the orthodoxy or the heterodoxy of the doctrines of these religions, establishing their own Counter-Initiations, their own competing cults and sects. About True-Initiations, little is said, and nothing is revealed. So it is understandable in the absence of details that readers are inclined to imagine a succession or transmission through the ages of grace or of superstitious practices.

Perhaps I can help here. About a decade ago, introduced to the subject of “pretenders” to thrones and “false popes,” I latched onto the word “sedevacantism.” Its literal meaning is “the seat is empty,” suggesting that it is vacant in the sense that the occupant is unqualified for the position or that the occupant acquired the position of power through illegal or immoral means. Is there a person in a position of power in the world today who has not been accused of being a usurper, an illegitimate power-wielder? (Think about the “birther movement” and U.S. President Obama, etc.) There is a Traditionalist truism that runs like this: “A bad king is preferable to a good president.”

Chapter 2 is called “Vigilance in the Interfaith Arena” and it examines diverse subjects including the characteristics of Neo-Paganism, how Annie Besant (a Fabian Socialist) was granted control of the Theosophical Society, and the nature of “social control systems.” I have always been queasy about the notion that one should support the convergence of the world’s religions, viewing the movement itself as destructive of the integrity of each of those faiths as well as harmful to the individual and to society as a whole. Upton condemns these social forces: the movement towards “global governance”; the movement toward One World Religion, United Religions Initiative, and New World Order; the movement towards secular control of the world’s religions. Upton is not beyond making ridiculous statement like “Mikhail Gorbachev … is an avowed atheist who claims to worship the earth” but he generally sticks to the subject at hand.

This chapter is a mass – close to a mess – of detail; as such it is difficult to summarize. So here is part of an interesting footnote concerning The King Abdullah Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue to be based in Vienna: “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – not to be confused with the King of Jordan – may nonetheless see the Center named after him as a way of slowly introducing religious freedom into his kingdom ‘from outside.’ Before he took the throne, he was reputed to have said that he wanted to get rid of both the Wahhabis and the Americans.” Notice the scorn.

Chapter 3’s title is a mouthful, as befits a lengthy chapter: “Traditional vs. Counter-Traditional Perspectives on The Divine Feminine & The Sacredness of Nature.” The chapter begins well: “Wars inevitably produce three things: profiteering, domination, and a curtailment of human rights – and the war to save the Earth from environmental catastrophe is no exception.” It focuses on the “Divine Feminine” and the earth and the environment, first from the perspective of the Traditionalists and the Perennialists, second from the perspective of the Greens and the Neo-Pagans.

The “shadow-side” of environmentalism is “nature worship” which leads to human sacrifice “when overpopulation is seen as threatening the integrity of the environment.” Interesting insights follow on Abraham and his son Isaac and on “the anti-Islamic crimes of the Wahhabi terrorists.” There are basic conflicts: “Gaia vs. Kali” and “naturalistic vs. supernaturalistic nature-worship.” Technology is embraced by the worshipers of nature. There is an intriguing footnote about what drives serial killers: “The elites have the power to destroy whole nations and economies and ecosystems, but the sociopaths are out to rival the ruling class by proving that the ‘little guy’ can also contribute his share to the general destruction.” Serial killers and mass murderers are only doing on a micro scale what one-worlders and globalizers are doing on a macro scale.

Numerous pages are devoted to quotations about the earth from the Noble Qur’an. The basic position is as follows: “If there were no Divine Transcendence, all entities would be purely material, sealed into themselves, totally cut off from living participation in anything ontologically superior to them – like the parts of a machine.” There are intriguing insights: “Sleep during the night is life in death; sleep during the day is death in life.”

One would have to have a hard heart to read these pages without being charmed by the insights of the Qur’an into “the sacredness of nature,” but the reader wonders how much of this is shamanstvo, for notions coterminous with these may be found in the songs, stories, and beliefs of the Inuit of the Polar World. Indeed, Alan Dundes wrote one book about folklore in the Qur’an, and another book about the Holy Bible as folklore.

Chapter 4 is titled “Magic and _Tasawwuf_” and it brings into play the ideas and expressions of Guénon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon, and Baron Julius Evola, to name four founders of Perennialism. The performance of magical practices is not limited to magicians or illusionists, for theurgy and thaumaturgy are present as practices in all the world’s religions, from Bön to Scientology. Upton is uneasy with this fact. Aleister Crowley used to describe magic, whether black or white, as practices that cause “change in conformity with will,” whether malign or benign. There is no discussion of terms like these in this chapter.

Instead, the author writes as follows: “Tasawwuf” is identified as “the essence of the spiritual Path in every tradition. Everything else, every political strategy, every psychological manipulation or evasion, every buy or sell order on the stock market, every twisting of, or letting yourself be twisted by, occult forces, is in some sense magic. That’s why must I reiterate, and insist: Sufism and magic are poles apart. Where there is Sufism, there is no magic. Where there is magic, there is no Sufism.”

That may be true, but saying it is does not make it so. Elsewhere the author identifies the six major or “fixed” religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. He finds exclusivity in Hinduism (one must be born a Hindu) and Taoism he finds “closed” (for unstated reasons). Earlier he noted that Buddhism is inherently atheistic (even Guénon was initially uneasy with it as a vehicle), so that leaves Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is debatable to include Judaism (after all, one needs to be born Jewish). The first two religions certainly have aspects that are thaumaturgical. Is Islam the only one of them that is untainted by such entrapments or encroachments? Or is it only Islamic Sufism itself that is free – or is it merely Islamic Sufism’s Perennialism that attains this goal? These are questions the reader is likely to ask – if only to himself or herself.

Chapter 5 is titled “The Fall of the Jinn” and it tries to make sense of the jinn, leftovers from “The Arabian Nights” one would assume, who are mentioned in the Noble Qur’an. The jinn are equated with angels, fairies, demons, spirits, ghosts, and “the psychic powers of man.” They are discussed in light of philosophy, folklore, legend, myth, scripture, and psychic and telluric powers. These creatures or creations are long-lived, but are mortal only in the sense of not being immortal. Some of them believe themselves to be gods of some sort or other. All of this is quite lively though how much of it should be taken seriously is another matter entirely.

Chapter 6 has the intriguing title “UFOs, Mass Mind-Control, and the Awilya al-Shaytan.” I find it the least effective part of the book, but in one way it is the book’s most interesting section. It is the least effective chapter because in it the author, while widely read in the literature of ufology, seems to have sidestepped entirely reading the literature that critically considers the available evidence for such aerial phenomena. It is the most interesting chapter because in it he takes pains to embrace no end of contradictory conspiracy theories, paying no heed to such matters as social and psychological expectation and fantasy-prone personalities.

Nothing at all is known about the nature of Flying Saucers and Unidentified Flying Objects, or even about their existence, so it is easy to philosophize (or perhaps metaphilosophize) about them at great length. (Circular reasoning: If there is no evidence for the existence such vehicles, there must be conspiracies to suppress the knowledge of such devices.) For instance, Carl Jung described the aerial craft as objects of contemplation, which he called “flying mandalas.” Early in his career the Swiss psychologist argued they were entirely subjective in nature, whereas later in his career he decided they had in some instances the powers of exteriorization. Jung is wavering, but not Upton: “Demonic manipulation,” “social engineering,” “saints of satan” (Awilya al-Shaytan of the subtitle) … here we are in the realm of X-Files and Matrix.

Chapter 7 is called “The Real Rumi” and is deals with the fact that the immense popularity of the Persian poet and his works in the West – the “Rumi industry” – occurs at the expense of the man’s true beliefs, Islamic and Sufic. Upton writes, “He was a contemplative, saint and spiritual master first, and only secondarily an artist.” I agree with the author, as I too find the denatured verses attributed to him that appear in English translations to be about as authentic as poetry as the standard version of “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” (which at least has the merit of being lively and quotable verse). The author says that Rumi’s “only peers in the West” are Dante, Blake, and Shakespeare. (Despite their many differences, I would opt for likening the works of Rumi to those of Walt Whitman.)

Chapter 8 has a long title “A Chink in the Perennialist Armor – Uncertainty as to the Principal Unity of Knowledge and Love.” Is it true that “Intelligence emits straight rays, whereas love sends forth wavy or flaming rays”? What about “The synthesis of Love and Knowledge is, in fact, Wisdom, without which love must remain sentimental, knowledge theoretical … “? Whoever has an interest in the Courtly Love tradition of poetry and song will find the author’s ruminations here to be both thoughtful and heart-felt.

Chapter 9 consists of an interview with the author conducted by Samuel Bendeck Sotillos. (The interviewer, otherwise unidentified, serves as a mental health clinician who writes book reviews for “Studies in Comparative Religion.” ) The chapter is titled “Drug Induced Mysticism Revisited.” Here the author is hard-pressed, despite the fact that an argument proceeds on a conversational level, to distinguish between the transpersonal experiences that are the product of psychedelics and those that are the fruit of religious devotion and discipline.

The term “entheogen” is noted, possibly to suggest that psychedelic substances need not be ingested because the body in the right circumstances is able to produce these on its own. Anyway, it is difficult for Upton to distinguish between the differences in causation, whether molecular or eremitic, but this fact should not be held against him, for it was equally difficult for William James to do the same in his landmark study “The Psychology of Religious Experience” published more than a century ago.

In passing, Upton notes that it may have been the occultist Aleister Crowley who introduced mescaline to Aldous Huxley, not Dr. Humphry Osmond of the Weyburn psychiatric hospital in Saskatchewan. Also in passing, Upton finds an odd parallel – in the first half of the 1960s there was a psychedelic “explosion” of psychic content among the youth of America; at the same time there was a rationing of it resulting from reformers of the Second Vatican Council. The author refers to Vatican II a number of times; in this chapter he characterizes it as “the Masonic coup within the Catholic church” – the ill-effects of which are being felt to this day.

Chapter 10 looks at the Templars and the Freemasons as instances of Counter-Initiations intent on the restoration of brotherhoods, crafts, secret societies, gnosticism, etc. These forces assume such forms as Vatican II, Wicca, the Club of Rome, and the “global élites.” (Ted Turner, Maurice Strong, and George Soros are three named members of the élites. (I must admit to a smidgen of superbia that the middle one is a Torontonian! Who says Canada is a dull country?)

Masonry is denounced as a “parody” of the true initiatic way. In this chapter, as well as in other chapters, it is difficult to separate conspiracy theory from conspiracy fact, if indeed the word “conspiracy” in the sense of “cabal” is the appropriate one to employ. A substitute might be “prevailing ideology,” particularly views that are liberal, permissive, progressive, etc.

Chapters 11 and 12 are titled “The Fall of Lucifer” and “Luciferian Transhumanism.” These chapters consist of expositions of themes already discussed. These short chapters could best be summarized in the following sentence: There is “the metaphysical truth that limitation is necessary for divine manifestation.” Limitation is seen in the sense of respecting natural and spiritual boundaries and traditional, time-honoured initiations. “No salvation outside the church” is a familiar form of this traditionalist principle.

The five appendices are interesting in their own right, but as they add little to the sum and substance of the argument of the book, I will overlook them here. Over all, I had three unexpected responses to reading this work. Despite the fact these responses may be dismissed as shallow, or beside the point, they are my own and I offer them for consideration.

First response. While I admire the author’s erudition and concern for humanity, I find his range of sympathy and understanding to be – while deep – narrow. I suppose if someone is intent on digging a circular trench to secern or separate the circle of the temenos from all the rest of creation, one has to dig ditches that are deep but narrow. The result is that the argument of the book is expressed in such a perfervid fashion that it “preaches to the converted.” It is unlikely to win many if any uncommitted readers, though it may sharpen and strengthen the convictions of those readers already intent on conversion or yearnings of Muslims anxious to return to their origins. Yet I recall St. Augustine’s assertion that all of creation is greater than merely the best parts of creation.

Second response. The structure of this work, like the structure of other perennialist books that I have read, is not so much an inquiry or an argument as it is a collection homilies – in point of fact, twelve homilies, each chapter being its own homily. I know nothing about the order of service in a masjid, but in a Christian church the Reading of the Gospel is followed by the sermon, otherwise known as the homily. The homily applies the principles of the biblical text to the intrigues of the world and to the perversities of man’s nature, and it informs congregants “what must be thought, felt, and done.” In this book the biblical text is a verse chosen from the Noble Qur’an – or in some instances a passage from “The Reign of Quantity” – followed by an elucidation of the consequences of the application or non-application of the principle.

Third response. I expect the value of “Vectors” lies in the vast amount of information and insight that the author supplies and offers. The form it takes is that of the “anatomy,” the literary term for a work that schematically organizes knowledge in a practical way. The “anatomy” is not to be confused with the “encyclopedia.” The encyclopedia presents knowledge alphabetically, in a non-literary way, making no connections, whereas the anatomy does so through conventional and cultural categories with loose-knit or tightly-knit connectives to illustrate diversity or depth.

“The Anatomy of Melancholy,” compiled and written by the 17th-century Oxford don Robert Burton, is the best-known anatomy in English. Another instance, in our own day, is “Anatomy of Criticism” by the 20th-century professor Northrop Frye of Victoria College, University of Toronto. Both of these “anatomies” are – like “Vectors” – well-organized repositories of recherché information, valued as much for their insights as for their overviews or surveys.

It seems to me best to regard “Vectors” as a member of “anatomy” class of books. Its structure implies that there is, inarguably, a divine order and that there is a divinity that “shapes our ends,” ignore it as we may. That is the assumption, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” and based on that assumption, Upton’s tome orders the world of fact and fancy as best to approximate that design.

John Robert Colombo, an author and anthologist of many books about the lore and literature of Canada, lives in Toronto. He has a special interest in arcane subjects. He contributes occasional reviews to this blog. His website is  www.colombo.ca

YALE UNIVERSITY: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR RELIGIOUS STUDIES

Yale University Department of Religious Studies

intends to make a tenure-track appointment in the field of religious studies beginning July 1, 2012, at the rank of Assistant Professor. Applications are invited and welcome from scholars with research specialties in the anthropology, history, philosophy, or sociology of religions or a tradition-specific field of study, who also possess demonstrated teaching proficiency in methods and theory in the study of religion.

Yale University is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer. Yale values diversity among its students, staff, and faculty and strongly welcomes applications from women and underrepresented minorities. A letter of application describing your research, a c.v., a two-page dissertation abstract, a chapter-length writing sample, a syllabus for an introductory undergraduate course, “Introduction to

Religion,” and three letters of reference should be submitted on-line at

https://academicjobsonline.org/ajo/Yale/RLST

Materials may be sent to:

Methods and Theory Search, Religious Studies, Yale University, P.O. Box

208287, New Haven, CT 06520-8287

or by e-mail to

rosemary.carrion@yale.edu

The review of applications will begin October 20, 2011. Preliminary interviews will be held at the AAR annual meeting in San Francisco, Nov 19-22, 2011.

THE CYNICAL IDEALIST: A Spiritual Biography of John Lennon

JOSEPH AZIZE BOOK REVIEWS

Joseph.Azize@googlemail.com

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Book Review:
: A Spiritual Biography of John Lennon, by Gary Tillery (Quest Books, 2009, 6” x 9”, 169 pp. plus chronology, notes, bibliography and index.)

The cover photograph of a wintry Lennon, with the Statue of Liberty ghostly in the background, is appropriate and eloquent for this excellent book. Its subject, John Lennon (1940-1980), was one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, and, beyond any sensible argument, one of the most profound songwriters ever known to us. Its author, Gary Tillery, is intelligent, well-informed, sympathetic, and writes very well indeed. I could have greedily finished it in one day, had I had the leisure.

The contents are methodically laid out in four parts: the first three mix biography and philosophy in a readable blend, while the fourth part weaves all the philosophical strands together. This way, we’re introduced to the concepts in a narrative setting before they’re briefly reprised in a more abstract manner. So, although the last section is more recondite, the ideas are familiar. The effect of Part 4, then, is not of density but of convergence.

Reading it, I entered into Lennon’s world. I couldn’t help but engage with the issues Lennon engaged with: life in society, life as a child and as a parent, wanting and giving love, our responsibility to use our influence and power constructively (we all have these, to various degrees extents), religion, politics and art. It’s a book to make and to help you think, thanks in no small part to the quotations from Lennon.

Tillery’s thesis is plausible: Lennon correctly saw himself as a philosopher (as well as a rock’n’roller, a writer and an “artist”). His philosophy was more a developed outlook, based on his experience, than it was an academic philosophy drawn from reading and University discipline. It was not expressed in treatises, but in music, a few short books, some sketches, and perhaps most importantly, his life. Yet, as Tillery notes, Lennon did some serious reading, especially in English nonsense, literature and poetry (and, we should note, history). So far as I know, he didn’t read philosophers like Plato, Aristotle or those in the Western tradition subsequent to Descartes.

Lennon never sat down to work out a consistent system, the way a modern academic like, say, D.M. Armstrong does. Nor did he develop his philosophy by reference to classic problems such as materialism, or the problem of universals. The issues he dealt with were delivered to him as he rose from the lower middle class to the privileged caste of super-wealthy celebrities and tried to make sense of his multiple worlds. Having said that, Tillery finds five principles in Lennon’s philosophy:

(1) it was fundamentally humanistic and secular (p.50),
(2) with a faith in individuals to find their own best natures,
(3) through their love to combine,
(4) through their power to change the world, and
(5) through their altruistic aim to give life meaning (p.101).

That is Lennon’s philosophy in a nutshell, and along the way we have a fascinating account of his life and intellectual development. I could have started with the three principles on pp. 7-8, but they come to the same thing. The account is necessarily brief, but Tillery has a spaniel’s scent for the essential, and the very conciseness of the biography brings out some critical features in sharp relief. Lennon realised he was responsible for his actions, in fact responsible for his influence, and struggled to becomingly discharge that responsibility. Tillery is not the first to grasp this, but his understanding of it is extremely clear and well put (“we owe it to ourselves …”, p. 7; and “Lennon came to see it … as their responsibility to make a positive contribution”, p. 56, see also pp.100-101).

I am most impressed by Tillery’s ardent desire and ability to sum up large issues in pithy statements, e.g. in speaking of how Lennon came to rock’n’roll, Tillery says “he was groping to define himself” (p.23). At p.80, in respect of the Maharishi and Janov, he summarises Lennon’s conclusions by saying: “Leaders were substitute fathers” (p.80). At p.130, he observes that Lennon learnt, from his “lost weekend”, that “… freedom without a foundation is an abyss”. These lapidary phrases don’t come about by accident: a writer has to work to coin them. It is so much easier to just throw words at your subject. Tillery can be justly proud of his achievement, especially in this respect. It is one of the engagingly Lennonesque features of his style. It’s almost a book to hold a conversation with, and the comments below can be taken as my side of the discussion.

Tillery coins a Lennonesque phrase, “cynical idealist”, to describe Lennon (see the explanation at pp.71-4). Personally, I would have said “street-wise” or perhaps “hard-nosed”, and described Lennon as a “songwriter-philosopher”. There is something harsh or dismissive implied in the word “cynical”, and, for me, importing that nuance is rather a high price to pay for the pleasure of the paradox.

Overall, I would be inclined to see Lennon as “sceptical” rather than “cynical”. Yet neither word is really correct, because, whether sceptical or cynical, he was also, by turns, trusting, extraordinarily optimistic, and even gullible (as with some of his advisers). Steven Stark quotes an unnamed critic as saying that of all the celebrities interviewed in a series of t.v. shows in 1969, only Lennon had “a gospel, a hope and a belief” (Meet the Beatles, p.272).

He was all of those things on a cinemascope scale, and as Maharishi experienced, the turn from suggestibility to hostility could come very quickly. In that instance, Lennon had surely been seeking a father figure whom he could trust (p.80), and when Maharishi disappointed him, he lashed out. Is this cynicism, scepticism or something else? Henriette Lannes once said that no one can be adequately described by reference to one characteristic. Such as we are, we’re too divided, too psychologically diverse for that. Shortly before he was murdered, Lennon said that he knew that he wasn’t always positive, but that when he was, he tried to project it (p.155). Lennon’s insight and frankness is touching, and because he saw his fluctuations, it meant that he had the possibility of becoming more consistent.

So although the title is witty, I would quibble with it. Even the sub-title: “A Spiritual Biography of John Lennon”, raises an issue: while Tillery does deal very well indeed with Lennon’s attitude to religion, his use of meditation, and his approach to the book Mind Games, the emphasis in this book is on philosophy rather than spirituality. That is, the primary thrust of the book is with Lennon’s ethical and political philosophy. Spirituality is really the secondary stream here, as the five points of Lennon’s philosophy show.

While Tillery’s approach to Lennon is not at all like mine, neither is it inconsistent. I think that, by comparison, I probably pay more attention to what I hear in the music. The difference in methods is, I often found, stimulating. Tillery looks at what Lennon said in his songs and elsewhere, and deduces a philosophy from that. I am oversimplifying a little bit, because Tillery is quite aware of the need to consider Lennon’s life as an expression of his philosophy: he even quotes Lennon as saying: “Our life is our art” (p.100), referring to Yoko and himself, but also, perhaps, to every human being. To me, this is critical. As Gurdjieff showed, one cannot really divorce a person’s philosophy from their life. They are two related aspects of the one larger reality: their being. I shall return to this below.

Tillery nicely brings out how Lennon was concerned to be able to reach people, all people, and not just a large audience. Lennon did not see himself as over and above the working people he had come from. He never lost his sympathy. I recall an anecdote from the Beatles years, where he was being driven in London, and they’d stopped at traffic lights. Some girls who noticed him perversely scratched the paintwork of the car (I think it was the Rolls). The driver got angry, but Lennon calmly said: “It’s alright, they paid for it”. That is impartiality. Lennon was also his own most perceptive critic. I hope to get to this in the forthcoming blog on “Memory” and “Living on Borrowed Time”.

Lennon was an extraordinary mix, and this book is so interesting partly because Tillery communicates his own broad interest in Lennon’s life and work. This sympathetic interest provides many incidental reading pleasures. For example, I appreciate the story of how Lennon told the students of a university, who were protesting the University’s refusal to turn a vacant lot into a “People’s Park”, that there was no park “worth getting shot for”. Although they had sought his opinion, they rejected it, and in the event, one hundred were injured, one fatally and one blinded. Lennon’s response was equally incisive: the students had been used by an administration which had provoked them into protesting so that it could come down hard on them (p.103)

Not only was Lennon an “extraordinary mix”, he also had something of the English eccentric about him, a type Tillery may not have mixed with, but which is far more benign than the American version which becomes obsessed with conspiracy theories and the Federal Government. This English eccentricity showed partly in Lennon’s faddishness, his love of the exotic (I think this partly explains his fascination with Maharishi), and in his puzzling willingness to entertain weirdos and weird ideas.

One of these was fads, and a weird one, too, was the book Mind Games. I did read it a few years ago, but I can’t say I found anything deep or even interesting in it. Despite Lennon’s quondam enthusiasm for it, I am unpersuaded that it had any lasting effect on him. I thought it might shed light on the powerful song, but it didn’t. The imagery of “Mind Games” the song is not at all drawn from the book, from what I could see. I suspect that Lennon projected into the pretentious volume things which weren’t there, and then lauded what he saw in his fertile brain. So, although Lennon once said that it ranked with Yoko’s Grapefruit and another book, perhaps Janov’s, he seems to have moved beyond it by the time he wrote the song of the same name ( see pp.144-8). The excellent Lennonism which I quote below from p.148 did not need Mind Games, it is a well-known idea which he could have deduced for himself, and would have heard from Maharishi and, especially, from Yoko Ono. As pellucidly expressed by Mr Lennon, it reads:

If you speak, what you say doesn’t end here. … vibrations go on and on infinitely, and therefore every action goes on and on infinitely and has its effect. If you think carefully about the effect you’re going to create, there’s more chance for all of us. It’s hard to think of your every move. But your attitudes to life will have an effect on everyone – and thereby, the universe.

This, of course, dovetails with Lennon’s philosophy as expressed in “Instant Karma”, “You Are Here”, and “Imagine”, to name but some.

At this point, I should mention a matter which can be corrected in future editions: Tillery often cites Lennon interviews, but rarely dates them. For example, the above quotation is referenced, and so I can check the date if I can find the book he drew it from. But the deeper point is that Tillery does not seem to think that the interview dates are important. As a historian of some feeble description, I think that they are: when did key themes emerge, and how did Lennon’s philosophy develop? What twists and turns did it take? It isn’t so easy to conceive things in a sound historical perspective and to soberly evaluate one’s sources. But Tillery is not an amateur writer, he has all the intellectual tools, and wrote the first three chapters in chronological order. As stated, I hope that this book sees a second edition where Tillery can revise the book upwards, so to speak.

Another example of Tillery’s sometimes ahistorical approach to Lennon, is his reference to fasting, prayer and meditation, without noticing (or so it seems to me), that Lennon’s fondness for them was sporadic (p.70). I am unaware of any evidence that Lennon fasted in his Dakota years, although he did to some degree follow a macrobiotic diet (and yet, he also smoked and drank coffee). The question of meditation and prayer is trickier. Lennon referred to meditation in Skywriting by Word of Mouth, but I know of no evidence that he did more than endorse meditation at that time (pp.69-70), or that he ever meditated consistently, except when he was in India. And if he did meditate in the 1970s, how did he do so? Did he use a method, no method, or a mixture? Did he continue to use TM?

As for prayer, Lennon redefined it in pantheist, almost occult terms (as David Katz uses that word in The Occult Tradition). Also, as I mentioned in the “Beautiful Boy” blog, prayer is an important concept in that song, and impromptu prayers turn up, for example, in “Grow Old With Me”. But Tillery refers to prayer in the context of Jesus, Buddha and Milarepa and “time-tested methods of inspiration”. I do not think that that sort of prayer was significant to the mature Lennon, much as I might like to think it was. Indeed, as Tillery notes at pp.4 and 11, Lennon had tried prayer as Jesus recommended, and nothing productive came of it. (As Gurdjieff said, Jesus was speaking to his apostles, people who had been prepared. The effectiveness of prayer depends upon who is praying and how, and the attitudes of certain people upstairs.)

I don’t wish to make too much of this, it’s maybe a good fault to have, but a conscientious reviewer should mention it: Tillery seems to me sometimes to be too positive about Lennon, almost excusing his faults. Thus he downplays the self-indulgence of Lennon’s impertinent letter to the Queen returning his MBE because among matters “Cold Turkey” was slipping down the charts (p.106). I cannot credit, when the short letter is read as a whole, that Lennon was really trying to “lighten” its tone. The tone of that letter was all of a piece. Further, however Lennon may have rationalised the full frontal on Two Virgins, it carried eccentricity to a point which was bizarre, despite Tillery’s best defence advocacy (p.94). Lennon’s modesty before Mintz establishes nothing: he may have changed, he may have been shy in person, or had some personal reason for being apologetic before his friend – anything. Again, it is ahistorical to take incidents separated by the years and say that that was Lennon, as if he were a monolith. And one cannot seriously say of Lennon, by any criterion, that “perhaps he was a Buddha we can all relate to …” (p.137). Yet to be fair, Tillery does mention Lennon’s notorious violence to women (p.115).

As I said above, I don’t wish to make too much of this, because it is only a minor aspect of the book. But precisely because of the extraordinarily high opinion I have of Lennon, I feel that we must be careful not to lost perspective and slide into idolatry and identification.

The true point of my study of Lennon is that sometimes, perhaps very often, it is easier to see reality in the lives of other people than it is to see it in our own. Because of the depth of his insight, and his candid expression of what he learned at each step, Lennon’s life is the richest field I have come across of any figure in the second half of the 20th century. One of the things we see clearly in Lennon’s life is that simply wanting to love is not enough: we cannot love on demand. Something else must come first before the commandment to love can be reliably fulfilled. Just before his death, Lennon himself said:

The hardest thing is facing yourself. It’s easier to shout ‘Revolution’ and ‘Power to the people’ than it is to look at yourself and try to find out what’s real inside you and what isn’t, when you’re pulling the wool over your own eyes. That’s the hardest one. (p. 124, and that interview is dated!)

Earlier in the book, Tillery sums up this attitude, saying how Lennon came to realise that we have to act both “individually and in concert”, but that the “first key … is self-transformation. When considering how to improve the world, people almost always focus their attention outside themselves, which too often leads to resistance, confrontation, frustration and defeat. Actually, the only thing over which we have control is our own attitudes and behaviour” (p. 7).

This is true, at least as I see it. I mean both that Lennon’s insight is true, and that Tillery has correctly formulated Lennon’s view. So Lennon saw that we must begin with self-transformation, and he made some sterling efforts in this direction. It is an art which is expressed in and over a lifetime. But how can this insight be made practical? Tillery suggests meditation, prayer and fasting. Apart from the question of whether Lennon did use these methodically and consistently, it would be even fuller and more practical to say as Gurdjieff did, that if this is our aim, then our being must change before we can achieve that aim (what Gurdjieff calls “doing”).

To change our being, we need to transform negative emotion (a major part of the second conscious shock). That transformation begins not with a direct attack upon hatred, or a direct incitement to love, but with self-consciousness, with the first conscious shock, which comprises: “Efforts to remember oneself, observation of oneself at the moment of receiving an impression, observation of one’s impression at the moment of receiving them, registering, so to speak, the reception of impressions and the simultaneous defining of the impressions received …” (In Search of the Miraculous, p.188). And Lennon had one of those rare glimpses of the reality of self-remembering: I referred to this in the first Lennon blog.

That Lennon did not come up with a practical system like Gurdjieff’s is not a criticism. That he had so many elements of reality in his philosophy is stupendous. Lennon’s insights were astounding. But we cannot without violence separate a person’s philosophy and their behaviour: both express their being. Some of these issues are difficult, and I don’t raise this to condemn Lennon, but I feel that his apparent cruelty to Cynthia and Julian should not be swept under the carpet. It seems to me that Lennon’s cool and aloof paining of Cynthia is typical of someone who knows that he has acted unconscionably, and, incapable of making amends, transfers the blame to the other. No one behaves so maliciously as someone with a guilty conscience.

What Lennon knew and even what he felt, he could not always put into practice. This is one of the morals of Lennon’s life, rather like the lessons of Aesop’s fables.

Along the same lines, Lennon was almost fanatically competitive, especially with Paul McCartney first, and Bob Dylan second. Tillery’s comments at pp.32, 57 and 155 seem to me to be much understated. I think that it’s in MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, where Lennon’s sabotage of McCartney’s music on what became the Let It Be album is documented. If I remember correctly, MacDonald called it an “act of bastardry”. The first time I read it, I didn’t want to believe it. After all, the motive was clear enough. I think few would dispute that Paul’s songs on that record (especially the title track, “Long and Winding Road” and “Two Of Us”) far outshone John’s. No, I think that if one is going to give an overview of Lennon’s life by way of background to his spirituality, his treatment of his first family, his insecurity and egotism, should probably be acknowledged.

Another possible example of being overkind to Lennon is the way that Tillery mentions philosophers like Descartes, Kant, Hegel and Wittgenstein. Is that praise by association? I am not quite sure. Tillery doesn’t mention Nietzsche, so far as I recall or as the index discloses. But if any philosopher should be mentioned in the company of Lennon, I think that it’s Nietzsche. Of course, he was not so respectable a philosopher as Kant, but then neither was Lennon. Even if it is right to mention Hegel and so on, yet I feel that Tillery pays disproportionate attention to those academic philosophers, as compared with others of an artistic variety like G.B. Shaw, Tennessee Williams (whose work Lennon idolised, see my “Tennessee” blog) and, of course, Bob Dylan.

A few books are missing from the bibliography. Goldman’s book is dirty, but it should be read, even if only to critique it, which, incidentally, I would like to do, but I lack the time. If you are a John Lennon fan, and know Yoko One, persuade her to pay me a stupendous amount of money to write a critique of it: she will be so satisfied she’ll wish she’d paid me more (and I won’t knock it back). Similarly, Dakota Days by John Green should be considered (from fallible memory, Green was one of Goldman’s sources, but he is not responsible for that). Green may have exaggerated certain matters, but I am by no means convinced everything he wrote was inaccurate. His diagnosis that Lennon had a sort of writer’s block during most of the Dakota period may be at least partly correct (see p.130). Once more, I don’t think he should be ignored.

Cynthia Lennon’s book John, is much fuller than A Twist of Lennon, which Tillery does use, and was, I would have thought, available in time for Tillery’s research. It presents a decidedly less flattering picture of Lennon, but my sense is that she has been scrupulously honest. Julian Lennon made some important points in the foreword to his mother’s book. I did not notice them here.

When books present negative images of Lennon one can try and maintain a dignified silence, lest they be given undue credibility by paying attention to them. Or one can answer them, squarely and analytically. I think that given Lennon’s fame, and the nature of the world, the first option is, finally, counter-productive. People will be coming back to Goldman (and even that weird book by someone who’d interviewed him once, and whose name I thankfully forget). If their views of Lennon are not answered, later critics will take this as a sign of their unassailable veracity. Sometimes silence can encourage, or at least facilitate, shouting.

But then, May Pang is positive about Lennon and the “lost weekend”, and I don’t recall that she’s even mentioned in this book. I find that odd, because she was an important figure in Lennon’s life. As I recall, she says that the LA period “wasn’t so lost”, and I found her memoirs intelligent and sensitive. Of course there was a personality clash (if that word is not too weak) with Yoko.

Another book which was missing, is Steven Stark’s Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band that Shook Youth, Gender and the World, published in 2006. It could have added another dimension to Tillery’s treatment, because it shows, to an extent I had never appreciated, how the Beatles’ popularity was related to their fresh approach to youth and gender, an approach which Lennon developed as he grew older. Which reminds me that the role of the female in Lennon’s spirituality, as opposed to his politics, seems to me to be missing from Cynical Idealist. Stark could also have helped Tillery to an increased appreciation of the importance of the Lennon/McCartney rivalry.

By the way, Quest Books please take note: I performed a spot check of the index, and found an error one of the 30 tests: where the index has p. 172 for the film Hard Day’s Night, it should be 170. That error was the only one I found, but the index should be revised if you go to a second, revised edition.

And I hope you do, because this book, deep and thought-provoking as it is, was a damned good read (to use a phrase Americans gave to the world).

Joseph.Azize@googlemail.com

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Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.

The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.

“Maronites” is pp.279-282 of “The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia” published by Cambridge University Press and edited by James Jupp.

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