Tag Archives: books

“Those Who Don’t Believe in God Believe in Everything” by Umberto Eco

We live in a strange time, where large numbers of people are putting their faith in conspiracy theories, believing false information, and fervently defending lies that have been proven to be such. It causes one to pause and wonder why this is. In this essay, included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, Umberto Eco explores the phenomenon.

Eco asks why it is that bogus information continues to reproduce itself, even after it has been refuted.

Because people are hungry for mysteries (and plots). All you need do is offer them another one. Even when you tell them that it was all cooked up by a couple of con men, they’ll swallow it right away.

. . .

When people stop believing in God, as Chesterton used to say, it’s not that they no longer believe in anything, it’s that they believe in everything. Even the mass media.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 300 – 301)

If this were not enough, Eco goes on to demonstrate that proving something to be false often has a reverse effect, where belief in the fiction actually increases. As an example, he talks about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The story of the Corpus came to mind some time ago, when Will Eisner’s The Plot was published (New York: Norton). Eisner, one of the geniuses of the modern comic strip (who died while the book was still in the proof stage), uses words and images to tell the story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The interesting part of his tale is not so much the story of the creation of this anti-Semitic fake as what happened afterward, in 1921, when the London Times—followed by serious scholars everywhere—demonstrated that the Protocols were a fake. The circulation of the Protocols began to increase worldwide at exactly that moment, and they have been taken ever more seriously (just surf the Net a bit).

(ibid: pp. 305 – 306)

Eco concludes by stating that “the difference between true and false holds no interest for those who start from prejudice” (ibid: p. 306). This really sums up the problem, in my view. Too many people approach a subject with preconceived notions of whether it is true or not, and then any subsequent research is only done to affirm what has already be decided. “Facts” are only believed when they validate and support what an individual already believes. And this is one of the reasons we find ourselves in the situation we are in now.

I hope you found this post interesting, and I hope that it inspires readers to keep an open mind and to ask questions, always seeking truth and not just affirmation.

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Thoughts on “Winter Dream: to… Her” by Arthur Rimbaud

One winter, we’ll take a train, a little rose-colored car
Upholstered blue.
We’ll be so comfortable. A nest
Of wild kisses awaits in every cushioned corner.

You’ll close your eyes to shadows
Grimacing through windows
This belligerent nocturnal realm, inhabited
By black demons and black wolves.

Then you’ll feel a tickle on your cheek…
A little kiss like a crazed spider
Fleeing down your neck…

Bending your head backwards, you’ll say: “Get it!”
―And we’ll take our time finding the beast
―While it roams…

(Translation by Wyatt Mason)

The footnote to this poem states: Written on a train, 7 October 1870. With that in mind, I interpret this poem as an expression of a sexual fantasy experienced while riding alone on a train. I picture a young Rimbaud, gazing out the window as landscape streams by, imagining himself lost in a loving embrace.

What strikes me as most interesting about this poem is that it seems to blur the distinction between fantasy and physical sensation. The fantasy does not seem to be limited to the mind but is experienced throughout the body. It is like Rimbaud has taken sexual fantasy to a next level where the thought turns to feeling.

The last two lines of the poem I find particularly interesting. The metaphor of the roaming beast can be interpreted in two ways. First, it could represent the mind lost in fantasy. What is intriguing about this possibility is that Rimbaud imagines that fantasy would be taking place during the physical encounter. This is a boldly honest observation, because Rimbaud is essentially admitting that he can get lost in fantasy, even during his most intimate moments. The other interpretation is that the roaming beast symbolizes our primal sexual drive, an animalistic urge which cannot be controlled, and which will roam freely, regardless of however hard we try to rein in our desires. Personally, I feel that both interpretations are valid, which adds richness to the closing stanza of this poem.

I hope you enjoyed this poem and found my interpretation helpful. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section. Cheers!

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Thoughts on “The Western Canon” by Harold Bloom

This is one of those books which was an impulse buy over 20 years ago, which I bought while wandering the aisles of a Borders Bookstore (that should put things into perspective). It has sat on my shelf all this time, waiting to be read, and I finally got around to it. One of the benefits of COVID for book nerds is that it forces us to read what we have and not wander aimlessly in search of more books.

While I was in college, Professor Bloom came and held a lecture at the community college I was attending; quite a coup for a small campus to get a speaker of his eminence. Very few people attended, but I of course showed up early and got to sit with him and have a one-on-one discussion about literature. His knowledge was formidable, to say the least.

In this book, Prof. Bloom addresses what he sees as a dilemma for readers: “What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?” (p. 15) He strives to answer this question by focusing on 26 writers that he feels are representative of the 3 key ages of literature: the Aristocratic Age, the Democratic Age, and the Chaotic Age. Understandably, Bloom places Shakespeare at the center of the canon, arguing that all writers who followed Shakespeare are either influenced by his work, or seek to distinguish themselves by trying to contradict his work. He makes a good argument, and as a Shakespeare buff, I am OK placing Shakespeare at the center of a literary canon.

Since this book is essentially literary criticism, it is probably not something a casual pleasure reader would find enjoyable to read; but if one is a lit-nerd, such as myself, it becomes easy to get absorbed into the pages of this book. But again, as Bloom points out in the beginning of the book, it causes one to ask: What else should I read in my limited time here on Earth? I already had a “to-be-read” list that I could never complete, and after reading Blooms book, that list has grown three-fold. But at least I had the satisfaction of having read a good number of books which he references. That gave me a little boost.

Although Bloom was an eminent literary scholar, he stresses that this book is not intended for academics.

This book is not directed to academics, because only a small remnant of them still read for the love of reading. What Johnson and Woolf after him called the Common Reader still exists and possibly goes on welcoming suggestions of what might be read.

(p. 518)

If you are a deep lover of literature, then you may want to give this book a read, or at least refer to the long list of books and writers at the end which Bloom considers canonical (I believe you can find the list on the internet). While I may not agree with all of his choices, it is a good list of stuff to choose from.

Thanks for stopping by, and may you find lots of books to interest and inspire you.

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Thoughts on “The Peaceful Shepherd” by Robert Frost

Painting by Gerard van Honthorst

If heaven were to do again,
And on the pasture bars,
I leaned to line the figures in
Between the dotted stars,

I should be tempted to forget,
I fear, the Crown of Rule,
The Scales of Trade, the Cross of Faith,
As hardly worth renewal.

For these have governed in our lives,
And see how men have warred.
The Cross, the Crown, the Scales may all
As well have been the Sword.

Season’s Greetings, fellow readers.

2020 has been a challenging year, for sure, and I think this poem reminds us of something important.

We have experienced a lot of tension resulting from differences in religious beliefs, social ideology, political leadership, and feelings of fear and inequity. At this time of the year, Frost’s poem reminds us that the spiritual values which are supposed to guide us all too often become twisted and distorted into something destructive.

I have one sincere wish for 2021, and that is that we collectively lay down the Sword and begin to treat our fellow humans with… well… humanity. It really is high time we abandoned our habits of vilifying those who do not agree with us, of harboring fear and distrust of others simply because the news media tells us that they might do something that could possibly cause us some imagined inconvenience.

May you and your loved ones have a safe and happy holiday season. Thank you for sharing my reading journey this past year. Keep reading interesting stuff, and help spread some much-needed kindness.

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“Psychonaut” by Peter J. Carroll

Psychonaut is the second text in this book (click here to read my thoughts on Liber Null, the first text). While Liber Null primarily focuses on individual uses of Chaos Magic, Psychonaut focuses on group practices, or what Carroll calls shamanistic work.

Rather than examining the ritualistic practices described in this text, I decided to instead write about the connections and contrasts between the mystical arts and conventional science, as addressed by Carroll in his book. Carroll begins by asserting that science is returning to magic, in a sense.

After some centuries of neglect, advanced minds are turning their attention to magic once more. It used to be said that magic was what we had before science was properly organized. It now seems that magic is where science is actually heading. Enlightened anthropology has grudgingly admitted that beneath all the ritual and mumbo-jumbo of so-called primitive cultures there exists a very real and awesome power that cannot be explained away.  Higher psychics now suggest that the universe runs on something more akin to sorcery than clockwork.

(p. 111)

Carroll follows up by positing that the next leap forward in human evolution and understanding will be in the realm of the psyche, an idea that I agree with. The new frontier for humanity is that of consciousness.

Science has brought us power and ideas but not the wisdom or responsibility to handle them. The next great advance that humanity will make will be into the psychic domain. There are many encouraging signs that this is beginning to occur. In this new field of endeavor we shall rediscover much of the magical knowledge that the ancient shamans once possessed. Of course, we shall know it under different guises and will eventually expand on their knowledge immensely.

(p. 113)

When exploring consciousness, the scientific method essentially fails, since consciousness is linked to perception and therefore cannot be observed in the traditional manner in which scientific observations are made.

Many scientific disciplines begin by not observing any sort of vital spark or consciousness in material events and proceed to deny that these things exist in living beings, including themselves. Because consciousness does not fit into their mechanistic schemes they declare it illusory. Magicians make exactly the reverse argument. Observing consciousness in themselves and animals, they are magnanimous enough to extend it to all things to some degree – trees, amulets, planetary bodies, and all. This is a far more respectful and generous attitude than that of religions, most of whom won’t even give animals a soul.

(p. 151)

Since the time of Carroll’s writing of this book in 1987, science has made many advances in the exploration of consciousness. Researchers using MRI imaging of the brains of people who meditate shows that meditation affects brain function. There has also been discovery in quantum physics that perception and consciousness have a direct effect on subatomic particles. Where will all this lead? Not sure, but it is certainly food for thought.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings.

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“I Was Cleopatra” by Dennis Abrams

My friend Robert sent me this book, knowing that I am a bit of a Shakespeare buff. It’s a work of historical fiction intended for a young adult audience. The story is a fictional memoir of a boy actor, John Rice, who assumed the female roles in performances during the rule of King James I.

Similar to what the world is experiencing now with COVID, the plague was rampant in the Jacobean period, and this led to the closing of theaters as a way to control the spread.

In 1603 the plague once again struck London with a terrible ferocity, bringing about the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children. To help stop the spread of the dreaded disease, which at its height was laying more than thirteen hundred innocents dead from one Sabbath to the next, it was ordered that theaters in London be closed.

(p. 17)

As John begins his apprenticeship and is groomed to transform himself into female roles on stage, he must confront questions of gender identity and seems to accept the idea of gender fluidity.

This was, or so it seems to me, at the heart of the questions that has haunted my thoughts and even my dreams throughout my life on stage. What exactly is it that makes one a man? Or a woman? Or is it possible to be composed of elements of both? Is there a difference between how you are seen by the world and how you see yourself?

(p. 50)

Some of the more interesting aspects of this book, for me anyway, are the fictional dialogs between Shakespeare and John Rice, as Shakespeare provides insight into the plays and various roles to help John better embody the role. One in particular stands out, where Shakespeare claims that the Guy Fawkes conspiracy helped inspire the themes he would explore in Macbeth.

“What concerns me, John, now that all involved in the nefarious Gunpowder Plot have been given the justice they deserved, is how and why it could have happened. Not merely the specific political and religious reasons for the plot, but in a larger sense how does a seemingly normal if ambitious Scottish nobleman become a murderous tyrant and perform such truly unthinkable and unutterable acts of violence? What sort of lies and stories and pretended reasons do such men tell themselves to justify their actions? Is the source of evil within themselves, or are they being acted upon by outside forces?”

(p. 115)

These are questions that are just as important today as they were in the 1600s. People somehow convince themselves that the cruel and violent acts they commit are somehow justified, even heroic. Is this a part of who we are as a species, or do we allow the words of others to enter our ears and poison our thoughts?

As always, thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you are well, and please stay safe and sane in these turbulent days.

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“Liber Null” by Peter J. Carroll

Many years back, I picked up a copy of Peter Carroll’s introduction to Chaos Magic which includes two texts: Liber Null and Psychonaut. Since it is my goal to start reading the books that have been accumulating on my shelves, I figured I would read the first text in this book and then the subsequent one later on.

Carroll begins by offering a definition of magic (similar to Crowley’s) and states the importance of mental focus when performing magical work.

Magic is the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will. The will can only be magically effective when the mind is focused and not interfering with the will. The mind must first discipline itself to focus its entire attention on some meaningless phenomenon. If an attempt is made to focus on some form of desire, the effect is short circuited by lust for result. Egotistical identification, fear of failure, and the reciprocal desire not to achieve desire, arising from our dual nature, destroy the result.

(p. 15)

By silencing the mind, one enters into an altered state of consciousness, which is requisite to successfully performing works of magic.

Altered states of consciousness are the key to magical powers. The particular state of mind required has a name in every tradition: No-mind. Stopping the internal dialogue, passing through the eye of the needle, ain or nothing, samadhi, or one-pointedness. In this book it will be known as Gnosis. It is an extension of the magical trance by other means.

(p. 31)

Having read James Gleick’s excellent book on the science of Chaos Theory many years ago, I found Carroll’s application of the scientific model to magical practice interesting.

Space, time, mass, and energy originate from Chaos, have their being in Chaos, and through the agency of the aether are moved by Chaos into the multiple forms of existence.

Some of the various densities of the aether have only a partial or probabilistic differentiation into existence, and are somewhat indeterminate in space and time. In the same way that mass exists as a curvature in space-time, extending with a gradually diminishing force to infinity that we recognize as gravity, so do all events, particularly events involving the human mind, send ripples through all creation.

(p. 52)

In conclusion, this is not a book for most readers. It’s very heady, demands a lot from the reader, and also includes some darker aspects of the mystical arts. But as with most books of this nature, there are some valuable insights to be gleaned.

Thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “The Angels” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Gustave Dore – artist

They all have weary mouths,
bright souls without a seam.
And a yearning (as for sin)
often haunts their dream.

They wander, each and each alike,
in God’s garden silently,
as many, many intervals
in his might and melody.

Only when they spread their wings
they awaken a great wind through the land:
as though with his broad sculptor-hands
God was turning
the leaves of the dark book of the Beginning.

(translation by C. F. MacIntyre)

I read this poem a couple times and struggled with it. There is a tension here that is tangible but not easy to identify. I did a little research online about Rilke’s ideas concerning angels, and he would go into deeper exploration of the topic in his Duino Elegies.

Throughout the Duino Elegies, Rilke explores themes of “the limitations and insufficiency of the human condition and fractured human consciousness … mankind’s loneliness, the perfection of the angels, life and death, love and lovers, and the task of the poet”. Philosopher Martin Heidegger remarked that “the long way leading to the poetry is itself one that inquires poetically”, and that Rilke “comes to realize the destitution of the time more clearly. The time remains destitute not only because God is dead, but because mortals are hardly aware and capable even of their own mortality.” Rilke explores the nature of mankind’s contact with beauty, and its transience, noting that humanity is forever only getting a brief, momentary glimpse of an inconceivable beauty and that it is terrifying.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So Rilke appears to be grappling with the contrast between the fragmented human condition and our divine nature as manifested in angelic beings. What is particularly interesting in “The Angels” is that the angels appear sad and lost, just as humans are. Additionally, within each angel is the possibility of sin. It is like every angel recognizes that it has the potential to follow the same path as Lucifer.

Like humans, the angels in Rilke’s poem wander aimlessly, lost and searching for meaning in a reality void of meaning.

Finally, we have the image of an angel taking flight, which causes a “great wind through the land.” This image conjures the myth of Icarus, who tried to escape the world but flew too close to the sun. Do the angels also long to escape from their limited existence, to ascend to new heights? In doing so, are they destined to fall, like Lucifer? Are we as humans, trapped in our reality, fettered to this broken world, and if we attempt to transcend, do we have that brief moment of exaltation before we crash into oblivion?

This poem leaves me with more questions than answers, but that is good. It is important to ponder questions about our existence and our place in the universe, and this poem succeeds in eliciting the deep questions which all of us should be asking.

I hope you enjoyed the poem and my thoughts about it. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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“The Crucifix, Its Uses and Customs” by Umberto Eco

In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco discusses whether it is appropriate to display religious iconography, specifically the crucifix, in institutions of public education. I found this to be particularly interesting, given that there seems to be a growing tension between religion and state institutions in the US. Heated debates have erupted over the inclusion of texts in schools, or the display of the Ten Commandments at government buildings, and there does not seem to be any abatement in this tension.

Eco uses examples from his home country of Italy to make his point.

In Italian universities there are no crucifixes in the lecture halls, but many students are members of Catholic groups like Communione e Liberazione. However, at least two generations of Italians spent their youth in classrooms where the crucifix was hung between portraits of the king and Mussolini, and out of every thirty students in every class some became atheists, others fought with the resistance, and others again—the majority, I believe—voted for the Republic. All anecdotal evidence, if you will, but of historical importance, and this tells us that the presence of religious symbols in schools does not affect the spiritual development of the students.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 274 – 275)

Eco makes a great point here. The exposure of young people to religious iconography and doctrine in no way ensures that those individuals will internalize the ideas, and conversely, the lack of these symbols does not mean that individuals will not develop along spiritual pathways. But what Eco adds later in the essay, which to me is the key point, is that tolerance of others is what must be taken into consideration in this issue, and that in a diverse society, if religious topics are to be taught in school, they should be inclusive of all religions.

School curricula of the future must be based not on the concealment of diversity but on teaching the techniques that lead youngsters to understand and accept it. For some time now people have been saying it would be nice, along with religious instruction (and not as an alternative for those who aren’t Catholics), if schools devoted at least one hour a week to the history of all religions, so that Catholic kids might understand what the Koran says or what Buddhists think, and so that Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists (and even Catholics) might understand how the Bible came into being and what it says.

(ibid: p. 276)

I agree with Eco. Personally, I enjoy reading religious texts from diverse traditions and faiths. The idea that one tradition has a monopoly on the truth has led to centuries of warfare and hatred. I feel that every spiritual or religious text has valid insights to share.

Anyway, I think I’ve said enough on this topic. Thanks for stopping by and reading my rambles. Have a great day and keep on reading interesting stuff.

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Filed under Literature, Non-fiction, Spiritual

Thoughts on “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft

This is a great short story to read for Halloween. In fact, some of the events in the story take place on Halloween.

That Hallowe’en the hill noises sounded louder than ever, and fire burned on Sentinel Hill as usual; but people paid more attention to the rhythmical screaming of vast flocks of unnaturally belated whippoorwills which seemed to be assembled near the unlighted Whateley farmhouse. After midnight their shrill notes burst into a kind of pandaemoniac cachinnation which filled the countryside, and not until dawn did they finally quiet down.

Essentially, this is a tale about the crossbreeding of a human with a creature from another dimension of existence, the result of which was the birth of something that could no longer be classified as human.

“Inbreeding?” Armitage muttered half-aloud to himself. “Great God, what simpletons! Shew them Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan and they’ll think it a common Dunwich scandal! But what thing—what cursed shapeless influence on or off this three-dimensional earth—was Wilbur Whateley’s father? Born on Candlemas—nine months after May-Eve of 1912, when the talk of queer earth noises reached clear to Arkham—What walked on the mountains that May-Night? What Roodmas fastened itself on the world in half-human flesh and blood?”

When attempting to describe beings or forms of consciousness that exist beyond our realm of reality, one must rely on symbols because the ineffable nature of these manifestations cannot be captured using the limited means of communication with which humans rely. Communication with divine beings are therefore non-verbal by nature. What Lovecraft does in this tale is express the ineffable sounds produced by a being from another dimension, which cannot be comprehended or duplicated by beings in our plane of existence.

Without warning came those deep, cracked, raucous vocal sounds which will never leave the memory of the stricken group who heard them. Not from any human throat were they born, for the organs of man can yield no such acoustic perversions. Rather would one have said they came from the pit itself, had not their source been so unmistakably the altar-stone on the peak. It is almost erroneous to call them sounds at all, since so much of their ghastly, infra-bass timbre spoke to dim seats of consciousness and terror far subtler than the ear; yet one must do so, since their form was indisputably though vaguely that of half-articulated words. They were loud—loud as the rumblings of the thunder above which they echoed—yet did they come from no visible being. And because imagination might suggest a conjectural source in the world of non-visible beings, the huddled crowd at the mountain’s base huddled still closer, and winced as if in expectation of a blow.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, so I will end the post here. I’ll conclude by saying this is a very creepy story which also has some interesting social criticism woven in, as well as occult references to texts and mythologies. But most importantly, it is extremely well-written and can be enjoyed by anyone who likes to curl up with an eerie tale at this time of the year.

Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your reading.

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