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Thoughts on “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

I’ve had my eye on this trilogy for a while. Everyone I know who has read Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy has raved about it. I’m just always hesitant to commit to a trilogy. But at last, I bought the first book and read it, and I have to say that it certainly lived up to all the hype.

Basically, Grossman takes aspects from some of the best fantasy books and weaves together a tale that is unique, yet seems familiar. I had impressions of Harry Potter, Narnia, Game of Thrones, and Lord of the Rings. But there is also a modern edginess to the book, which works well in my opinion.

There is a lot that can be explored in this text—addiction, power, corruption, escapism—just to name a few. But since brevity is the soul of wit, I’m just going to focus this post on the topics of magic and the multiverse.

Early in the book, Quentin enters a school of magic, and one of the professors offers an interesting definition of magic.

“The study of magic is not a science, it is not an art, and it is not a religion. Magic is a craft. When we do magic, we do not wish and we do not pray. We rely upon our will and our knowledge and our skill to make a specific change to the world.”

(p. 48)

This definition resembles Aleister Crowley’s, which states that magick is “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” And as Quentin continues his studies, he learns that the actual practice of magic is quite difficult, and is not something that comes easily, which is how magic is often depicted in books.

One thing had always confused Quentin about the magic he had read about in books: it never seemed especially hard to do. There were lots of furrowed brows and thick books and long white beards and whatnot, but when it came right down to it, you memorized the incantation—or you just read it off the page, if that was too much trouble—you collected the herbs, waved the wand, rubbed the lamp, mixed the potion, said the words—and just like that the forces of the beyond did your bidding. It was like making salad dressing or driving stick or assembling Ikea furniture—just another skill you could learn. It took some time and effort, but compared to doing calculus, say, or playing the oboe—well, there really was no comparison. Any idiot could do magic.

Quentin had been perversely relieved when he learned that there was more to it than that.

(pp. 148 – 149)

As a writer, I understand that words are just symbols intended to represent aspects of our reality. Which is why I was intrigued by a passage that asserts that magic somehow dissolves the boundaries that exist between language and reality, that it merges the symbol and that which the symbol represents into a single form.

“But somehow in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.”

(pp. 216 – 217)

After graduating the school of magic, one of the young magicians, Penny, discovers a way to access parallel dimensions of reality, or what theoretical physics would call the multiverse. He terms this portal to the other dimensions the City (also Neitherlands), which seems like a type of matrix that allows one to pass from one reality to another. Penny goes on to explain to his friends what this means to our limited view of reality.

“The thing is, the more I study it, the more I think it’s exactly the opposite—that our world has much less substance than the City, and what we experience as reality is really just a footnote to what goes on there. An epiphenomenon.”

(p. 250)

Penny proposes exploring an alternate world (Fillory), which was described in a book that the other young magicians had all read. Quentin is reluctant, but Penny pushes the issue, stressing that the exploration of hidden dimensions is truly the greatest quest that humans can embark upon.

“So what?” Penny stood up. “So. What. So what if Fillory doesn’t work out? Which it will? So we end up somewhere else. It’s another world, Quentin. It’s a million other worlds. The Neitherlands are the place where the worlds meet! Who knows what other imaginary universes might turn out to be real? All of human literature could just be a user’s guide to the multiverse! Once I marked off a hundred squares straight in one direction and never saw the edge of this place. We could explore for the rest of our lives and never begin to map it all. This is it, Quentin! It’s the new frontier, the challenge of our generation and the next fifty generations after that!”

(p. 260)

As Hamlet so eloquently put it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I strongly suspect that there are multiple universes existing beyond our current scope of perception, and just maybe, ancient mystical arts once provided glimpses of these hidden realms. It certainly warrants further exploration. If we dismiss ideas and potential knowledge because they conflict with our present paradigms, we are doing so at our own risk.

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“The Way of Zen” by Alan Watts

This book has been on my shelf for a really long time (price on cover is .60¢). In fact, this was my dad’s book, and I suppose I somehow came to possess it. Anyway, I reached the stage in my life where I felt now was the time to read it. I am a firm believer that we read books exactly when we are supposed to read them.

I have been maintaining a daily meditation practice for a while now, and I feel that this book has re-centered me on the path. There is a wealth of insight in this book, and regardless of where you are on your individual journey, I am certain that you will benefit from reading this book. That said, I want to share a few of the many quotes that I connected with.

Every positive statement about ultimate things must be made in the suggestive form of myth, of poetry. For in this realm the direct and indicative form of speech can say only “Neti, neti” (“No, no”), since what can be described and categorized must always belong to the conventional realm.

(p. 45)

The spiritual experience is ineffable. For this reason, we can only express an approximation of the experience through the symbolism of myth, poetry, and other art forms. I personally find music to be one of the best vehicles for expressing the mystical or spiritual, because it conveys pure emotion and energy, without the baggage of words and the associated interpretations. Although, there is no shortage of poetry that does an amazing job of expressing the inexpressible.

Another passage that I found deeply interesting discussed nonduality as defined by Buddhists and Hindus.

Thus his point of view is not monistic. He does not think that all things are in reality One because, concretely speaking, there never were any “things” to be considered One. To join is as much maya as to separate. For this reason both Hindus and Buddhists prefer to speak of reality as “nondual” rather than “one,” since the concept of one must always be in relation to that of many. This doctrine of maya is therefore a doctrine of relativity. It is saying that things, facts, and events are delineated, not by nature, but by human description, and that the way in which we describe (or divide) them is relative to our varying points of view.

(p. 50)

This was like a bolt of lightning for me. In everything that I had read which mentions nonduality, I always associated it with One. Now I understand that this is just another layer of illusion, essentially my mind using my limited set of symbols to try to grasp something that is well beyond the reach of my conventional thinking. Just as the yin cannot exist except in relation to the yang, so my concept of a divine One can only exist in contrast to my concept of many, and both fail to express the entirety of reality, which is the nondual. I can see that I will be spending a lot of time contemplating this in days to come.

The state of heightened awareness is something that is equally as impossible to describe as the One, but Watts includes a quote from Sokei-an Sasaki that does a great job in describing that indescribable sensation that one occasionally experiences while meditating.

One day I wiped out all the notions from my mind. I gave up all desire. I discarded all the words with which I thought and stayed in quietude. I felt a little queer—as if I were being carried into something, or as if I were touching some power unknown to me . . . and Ztt! I entered. I lost the boundary of my physical body. I had my skin, of course, but I felt I was standing in the center of the cosmos. I spoke, but my words had lost their meaning. I saw people coming towards me, but all were the same man. All were myself! I had never known this world. I had believed that I was created, but now I must change my opinion: I was never created; I was the cosmos; no individual Mr. Sasaki existed.

(p. 122)

Reading this reminds me of the quote from William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. Everything, including ourselves, is infinite, and therefore, part of the nondual, and beyond our ability to express in this constructed reality.

To sum up, Zen, like all spiritual paths, is a journey, without beginning and without end. But the joy of being on the path is in the traveling of the path itself.

. . . Zen has no goal; it is a travelling without point, with nowhere to go. To travel is to be alive, but to get somewhere is to be dead, for as our own proverb says, “To travel well is better than to arrive.”

(p. 190)

Enjoy your journey!

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Triple Entendre in “The Sandman, Volume 10: The Wake” by Neil Gaiman

It would be impossible to talk about this book without mentioning what occurs at the end of Volume 9. For this reason, if you want to wait until you read the books and thereby avoid any spoilers, now would be the right time to stop reading this post.

Since all things, even the lives of divine beings, move in cycles, Gaiman presents us with the death and rebirth of the Dream Lord in a tale that Frazier would approve of. This installment in the saga explores the wake following the passing of Morpheus. And this brings us to the first meaning of “The Wake,” which is the literal meaning in the context of the story.

The mourners took their seats, one by one, without hesitation or question. No one directed them, but they walked to their own seats and sat down, as quietly and efficiently as if they’d been rehearsing for this moment all their lives.

The second meaning of the wake in this book is its representation of awakening. The passing and rebirth of the Lord of Dreams results in the awakening of people from their dream states, a kind of awakening of the collective consciousness that ripples through the collective psyches of all sentient beings.

… and then, fighting to stay asleep, wishing it would go on forever, sure that once the dream was over, it would never come back, …you woke up.

Which brings us to the third meaning of the wake, which is hidden a little deeper and hearkens back to “The Sandman, Volume 8: World’s End.” For this bit of symbolism, we need to picture a boat moving through the water, water being a symbol for the subconscious and the boat representing an event that affects the subconscious realm. As the boat moves, and the event transpires, the boat leave behind a wake in the water. These wakes symbolize the “ripples in the fabrics of things” mentioned in Volume 8. The death and rebirth of the divine causes ripples across all dimensions of reality, a sort of cosmic wake, if you will. Hence, the wake following Morpheus’ death and the awakening of the collective consciousness combine to create a wake of ripples through the fabric of the universe, which is the hidden symbolism in this story.

I really loved this entire series, and highly recommend it to all readers. There are a couple more Sandman books which I will be reading and reviewing soon, as well as a new arc which Gaiman just started (The Sandman Universe – I have first issue waiting to be read). Definitely check back for my thoughts on these, and keep reading cool stuff.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 9: The Kindly Ones” by Neil Gaiman

So I finished this book a couple days ago, and have been digesting it and trying to decide how I will approach writing about it without spoiling the ending (Note – do NOT read the introduction to this book unless you want to know how it ends). And also, how do I write about something that contains so many layers of complexity? After stepping away, then going back and reviewing my notes, I decided I will focus on the theme of responsibility, and how that is tied to an individual’s nature.

The first scene I want to examine is when Delirium visits Dream and tries to convince him to join her on a search for her lost dog. The Dream Lord tries to explain to her why he cannot leave the dream realm at the present time.

Delirium: So can you come with me? And look?

Dream: Sister, I have responsibilities. I cannot leave the Dreaming at this time.

Delirium: You use that word so much. Responsibilities. Don’t you ever think about what it means? I mean, what does it mean to you? In your head?

Dream: Well, I use it to refer to that area of existence over which I exert a certain amount of control and influence. In my case, the realm and action of dreaming.

Delirium: Hump. It’s more than that. The things we do make echoes. S’pose, f’rinstance, you stop on a street corner and admire a brilliant fork of lightning — ZAP! Well for ages after people and things will stop on that very same corner, and stare up at the sky. They wouldn’t even know what they were looking for. Some of them might see a ghost bolt of lightning in the street. Some of them might even be killed by it. Our existence deforms the universe. THAT’S responsibility.

This is profound. Not only do our individual actions affect the universe, no matter how small (think the butterfly effect), but our consciousness molds reality and existence on a cosmic level. Nothing we do, nothing we say, and nothing we think is trivial. Everything we do has consequence. Every individual is responsible for the direction that reality takes. Our thoughts and actions ripple across the universe, forming and “deforming” the very fabric of being. The fact that I am writing this, and the fact that you are reading these words, will have an impact on the unfolding of future events. We must, as sentient beings, never take anything for granted.

In the realm of Faerie, the Lady Nuala asks the trickster Puck why he is the way he is.

Nuala: Why do you take such joy in confusion, Robin Goodfellow?

Puck: Because I am true to my nature, Lady Nuala.

This echoes the words of Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.” Puck knows he is an incarnation of the trickster archetype, and it is his responsibility to accept his true nature. We are all responsible for acknowledging our nature and adhering to it. It is when we deviate from who we are, when we pretend to be something we are not, that we create disharmony in the universe. Honest self-evaluation is requisite for living a genuine life. Do not deny your essence—embrace it, as Puck does.

And this leads us to the final passage I want to share, in which Dream accepts his true responsibilities, understanding that he must make sacrifices in order to fulfill his responsibilities and embody his true nature.

Dream: Rules and responsibilities: these are the ties that bind us. We do what we do, because of who we are. If we did otherwise, we would not be ourselves. I will do what I have to do. And I will do what I must.

We are bound by our natures, by our responsibilities, and by our thoughts and actions. We are intrinsically tied to existence, and all we can do is do what we have to do. So once again, I will repeat the words of Shakespeare:

To thine own self be true.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 8: World’s End” by Neil Gaiman

In his introduction to this book, Stephen King praises the complexity of Gaiman’s work and ranks him among some noteworthy writers.

This is challenging stuff. I’m not saying it’s so challenging that my old be-bop buddies wouldn’t have dug it, reading our comics up in a sweltering storage space above Chrissie Essigian’s garage on a rainy summer afternoon, but it’s challenging – sophisticated storytelling on a level practiced by Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, or (and perhaps this is closer to the mark) John Fowles.

I concur. This is very deep reading, with layers and layers of symbolism woven in, but it is also wonderful storytelling, which makes it enjoyable without having to understand the levels of complexity.

This book is structured like Chaucer’s The Canturbury Tales, where an unusual cast of characters find themselves riding out a reality storm at the World’s End inn. They pass the time telling stories, which often have nested stories within the stories.

In one of the tales, the storyteller shares an account of a meeting he had in an alternate reality. The old man who he met and talked with shared some interesting ideas regarding the possibility of places having consciousness.

“Perhaps a city is a living thing. Each city has its own personality, after all. Los Angeles is not Vienna. London is not Moscow. Chicago is not Paris. Each city is a collection of lives and buildings and it has its own personality.”

“So?”

“So, if a city has a personality, maybe it also has a soul. Maybe it dreams. That is where I believe we have come. We are in the dreams of the city. That’s why certain places hover on the brink of recognition; why we almost know where we are.”

This is a concept I have often pondered, whether consciousness exists in all matter, not just higher forms of animated species. I look at trees and wonder if they have consciousness. I have thought about whether stones or mountains or water have a form of consciousness that we are not able to perceive. If the answer to any of these possibilities is “maybe,” then maybe cities also have consciousness.

In another of the tales, a story is shared about a person’s apprenticeship in a necropolis. The speaker recounts a lesson regarding the purpose of the ceremonies for the deceased.

She was a wise woman. She told us that what we do is not for the dead. Death is not about the disposal of the client.

“What do the dead care about what happens to them? Eh? They’re dead. All the trappings of death are for the living. It is the final reconciliation. The last farewell.”

As I get older and seem to be attending more funerals and memorials, I recognize the truth in this. I remember my mom’s service. I was still fairly young and it was extremely painful. But it was important. I had to see her one last time, touch her once more, before I could start the long healing process. Ceremony is important. It reminds us of what it is to be human.

The last passage I want to share is the innkeeper’s explanation of what a reality storm is.

“Well, sometimes big things happen, and they echo. These echoes crash across the worlds. They are ripples in the fabrics of things. Often they manifest as storms. Reality is a very fragile thing, after all.”

We all want to believe in the stability of the reality we inhabit. But the fragility of the construct which we call reality is something we should consider. How certain are we that what we perceive as reality is really that? Just because our senses make us think it is that way? Our senses can deceive us. In fact, some of these very questions are being explored in the realm of physics right now.

I will close by saying that I found the end of this book to be somewhat, unsettling. It stirred a lot of internal questions for me, which I cannot divulge without spoiling the ending (something I hate to do). I encourage you to read this book, to grapple with the ideas, and contemplate. It would be a worthwhile exercise.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 7: Brief Lives” by Neil Gaiman

In this installment in the Sandman saga, Neil Gaiman explores the brevity and impermanence of existence, both human and divine. We all accept the ephemeral nature of human existence, but do not want to believe that gods and the universe are also transitory. But if we accept that we are a reflection of the divine, and our lives are temporary, then it stands to reason that divine existence is also temporary, with a beginning and an end, as part of a cycle that is beyond our ability to understand.

Early in the book, Death comes to claim a man who lived an unusually long life. He asks Death whether he had a long life, and Death responds:

“You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less. You got a lifetime.”

Death’s answer is sobering. We are prone to compare our lifespan with others, but time is really just an illusion. We all have exactly the same amount of time on this plane—one lifetime. Even if you believe in the doctrine of reincarnation, the fact remains that for this incarnation, you only have a lifetime.

Later in the book, Dream has an encounter with Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex. Ishtar is working as an exotic dancer, and after meeting with Dream and Delirium, she decides to perform her sacred dance at the club. But before she begins, she shares with the club manager the secret of the birth and death of gods, knowing that he will not survive the dance to pass the secret on to others.

“I know how gods begin, Roger. We start as dreams. Then we walk out of dreams into the land. We are worshipped and loved, and take power to ourselves. And then one day there’s no one left to worship us. And in the end, each little god and goddess takes its last journey back into dreams… and what comes after, not even we know.”

What Gaiman is asserting here is that gods manifest from the collective unconscious, that the realm which the human psyche can only vaguely glimpse through myth and symbol is the birthplace of all things divine. And as long as these gods are nourished by our spiritual and psychic energy, they thrive; but once humans cease to feed a god or goddess the requisite energy, they wither and pass, returning again to the formless source.

Throughout the book, Dream and Delirium are on a quest to find their brother, Destruction. After they find him, there is a great scene where Destruction takes his brother and sister out under the stars, and uses the stars as a metaphor for the ephemeral existence of all things, divine and temporal.

“I like the stars. It’s the illusion of permanence, I think. I mean, they’re always flaring up and caving in and going out. But from here, I can pretend… I can pretend that things last. I can pretend that lives last longer than moments. Gods come, and gods go. Mortals flicker and flash and fade. Worlds won’t last, and stars and galaxies are transient, fleeting things that twinkle like fireflies and vanish into cold and dust. But I can pretend.”

This speaks volumes about the human condition. We move along the paths of our brief lives, pretending that we are a part of some grand, eternal thing. But it is an illusion, just like time. All lives, all existence, everything that is, is in reality just a fleeting twinkle, a flash that will ultimately fade and be forgotten. Knowing this does not make me feel disillusioned with life, but grateful for every moment that I am blessed with. Knowing that my life is but a flicker makes me want to cherish and make the most out of it. For me, this concept is not crippling, but empowering. I hope it has the same effect on you.

Cheers and blessings.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections” by Neil Gaiman

In his introduction to this volume, Gene Wolfe beautifully sums up why reading Gaiman is so important.

What is important and central is that, time after time, the stories themselves are true. I don’t mean simply that Neil Gaiman’s history is good history and that his myth is good myth – although they are. I mean that you will understand yourself and the world better for having read them, and that you will have been both ennobled and troubled by the experience; that this is not just art – all sorts of ugly and foolish things are art – but great art.

I completely agree. The stories and myths that Gaiman presents in this book convey truths that can only be expressed through symbols and metaphors. And because Gaiman is such a master of his craft, the stories come to life in a way that feels authentic and personal. While I probably connected with the tale of Haroun al Raschid the most, I also found his interpretations of the Orpheus myth and the Adam and Eve myth to be powerful and inspiring.

Not surprising, but the importance of dreams and the subconscious is a theme that runs through all the tales in this volume, so rather than look at the specific tales, I figured I would share some of the dream-related quotes that particularly stood out for me.

Value’s in what people think. Not in what’s real. Value’s in dreams, boy.

While this statement seems paradoxical, the more you think about it, the more truthful it appears. So often, people place value on tangible things and material possessions. But these things are ephemeral. Eventually, all our material stuff turns to dust, or we die and then our material things are useless to us. But our dreams are internal. They make up who we are on a spiritual level. This is what matters in the end, whether we lived our lives in accordance with our dreams. Additionally, it is from dreams that our creativity grows. Without dreams, there can be no imagination.

Ah. Many dreams come through the Gates of Ivory, Lycius, and they lie. A few dreams come through the Gates of Horn, and they speak to us truly.

Have you ever woken from a dream and had the feeling that some deep truth was conveyed to you through the dream? I have. Usually, I wake up and even if I have had a vivid dream, I know it is just my subconscious processing thoughts. But on those rare occasions, the dreams do seem to come through the “Gates of Horn.” It’s like, while in the dream state, your psyche connects with some divine intelligence. I cannot think of any other way to describe it.

Let’s go and find somewhere comfortable to wait until we wake. It’s so rare to realize that you’re dreaming when you are.

I’ve experienced this phenomenon, also, where I was dreaming and somehow knew I was dreaming. It is a very strange feeling. It is almost like the threshold between the dreaming state and the waking state dissolves, and you are essentially embodying both states of consciousness simultaneously. I recall feeling disoriented after waking from this type of dream.

Time at the edge of dreaming is softer than elsewhere, and here in the soft places it loops and whorls on itself. In the soft places where the border between dreams and reality is eroded, or has not yet formed… Time. It’s like throwing a stone into a pool. It casts ripples. Hoom. That’s where we are. Here. In the soft places, where the geographies of dream intrude upon the real.

I am fascinated by the space between the conscious and the subconscious, between ordinary and non-ordinary realities, the threshold between what we assume is real and what we assume is illusion. How can we really know what is real? Our reality is a construct. And time? I think somewhere, deep inside, we all feel that time is an illusion, that there is a deeper reality which exists beyond time and space. Sometimes I think that during states of deep meditation, during profound mystical experiences, or in this case, during certain dream states, we enter the “soft spaces” where the world we perceive dissolves and the ripples of hidden realities flutter across our consciousness.

I am only halfway through this series of books (there are 12 volumes of Sandman, not including the Overture, which I read in serialized form), and already I feel like my life has changed as a result of reading these works. There are some books that you cannot read without having them affect you on a deep level, and I think the Sandman series falls into this category. I highly recommend that you read these books, and be prepared to have your beliefs challenged.

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