I haven’t blogged for a long time. I was busy wrapping up my new book, and reading, reading, reading.
I binge read. I go through a period where books fly off the shelf, into my hands, at a dizzying pace, and then, I let everything simmer gently inside my mind, until the information I ingested starts to absorb my own perspective–funny most people would say that it’s the other way around–and finally, when the new knowledge has soaked everything up, I can taste a new understanding.
One of the ways I like to sample this fresh understanding–make certain I didn’t under cook it, or burn the essence out of it–is to write about these new notions.
I have read three major books in the last weeks. Three distinct works, with very different positions on Universal Themes. One of my favorite subjects is of course: Man’s place in his own mind. This to me, is the essential questioning in all Great Philosophies.
What is Man’s idea of himself ?
How does Man define himself ?
The three books I read explore (or answer) this question in three different ways.
First, L’Alchimiste, by Paulo Coelho, tells the tale of a young shepherd boy who is adventurous and curious. He also has a recurrent dream and seeks counsel with a fortune-teller. The gypsy woman tells him that he will find a treasure. The young man sets out on a long journey through the desert, across the border, into Egypt, to find this treasure, which is supposed to be buried near the Pyramids. On his way, he meets various people, and these characters represent certain Archetypes of our modern society. For example, the glass merchant could easily be any man or woman of a certain age, who has reached a comfort zone in their life and have become apathetic. The merchant dreams of the Mecca, but he prefers dreaming of it, than actually making the pilgrimage, because, as he asks, “what will I do once he has fulfilled this dream ?” Through the story, the shepherd is constantly pulled between the desire to see his dreams to the end, and his “responsibilities” as a shepherd. Should he pursue this wild course, or go back with the money he has earned to live a comfortable life in his home village ? At last, when he is about ready to give up on his dream, he meets the Alchimiste, a man who is a temple of sweet, unpretentious wisdom. This man can turn led to gold, and holds the key to interpreting the Language of the Universe. He tells the shepherd boy about the philosopher stone, and Life’s Exilir. But, really, his simple message is this one: when one is on the right track, signs come to this person. There is only one language in the world and all creatures, alive or inert, speak it. There is but one Hand. As one pursues his own Personal Legend, one faces many obstacles, but if one listens to this Voice, this ultimate guide, one will hold the secret to changing led to gold.
The philosophy here is, we are not here to bend to other people’s expectations. We are here to fulfill our own Personal Legend. Nothing should come between us and that quest. Man is therefore, on an individual path, though guided by the Hand ( which some call Karma, or Destiny ), and can only find the answers to his questions by tuning in to this Universal Voice. By watching out for signs. By connecting himself to everything around him, though, his journey is a lonely one.
In the second book, Ebene, by Ryszard Kapuscinski ( A wonderfully gifted Polish journalist and writer ), the same theme is explained in a very different way. Quite the opposite actually. Ryszard Kapuscinski spent decades traveling through the Great continent of Africa, and in his book, he recounts his experiences. Recounts is not the right word. He basically impregnates the pages with scents, images, and emotion. Each word is carefully chosen. Each sentence is an homage, a testament of his GREAT love for the people of Africa. From Coup D’états, to battling rattle snakes in the Sahara desert, to simple rice meals shared with “ordinary” families, Ryszard Kapuscinski breathes Africa into the reader. No one can walk away from this marvelous book unaffected. Now, to come back to the philosophical aspect of his work. Ryszard Kapuscinski explains that Africans ( and he uses the term very loosely, as he doesn’t believe there is a homogeneous Africa, therefore, the term African is simply an easier way for us to define or understand whom we are speaking of ), live in the constant fear of being ostracized, or excluded from their group. May that group be a family unit, a clan, a tribe, a church group etc. The African cannot fathom the idea of wanting to separate from the fiber of his unit. Collectivity is CRUCIAL. Why ? Because there is no possibility of survival without it. It is the very land that dictates the African’s relationship to his fellow-man. How can one man travel across arid deserts, or feed his family without the support, emotional and physical, of his brother, friend, sister, etc ? This way of life, this simple philosophy is all about a collective effort. One is part of the chain, and every single person, old or young, is NECESSARY. So as opposed to the Alchimiste’s thinking, this philosophy is not about individuality. It is about finding one’s place among others in a very challenging environment, where every day could be your last. In a sense, the “fulfilling your personal legend” philosophy almost feels like it is only accessible to a higher cast of society. Because, how can Man be asked to leave his village, his support system, to go on his personal journey, when the only chance he has of surviving is the relationship he has with the very people he is asked to leave ?
The last book is Israel et Judaism, by Yeshayaho Leibowitz ( a radical thinker, Zionist and firm believer in the separation of the State and religion in Israel ). In these memoirs, Leibowitz puts forth his ideas on God and Man, and though the essence of his thinking is turned to Judaism and the current state of Israel, his philosophy is more a humanist one, though he refuses to be called that. He believes that Man can only live a “good” life if Man is in servitude to God. But not the God of the bible, Torah, but the God that is communicated orally. He firmly believes in the practice of mitzvah, and following the Word, but really– at least what I understood of his deep analysis of this subject– is that Man doesn’t need the artifice of interpretation. He only needs to consolidate his life into the Word. To breathe and live it. Leibowitz is sometimes radical in his comments, but never, is he gross or malicious. In this philosophy, Man is therefore at his place when Man is serving God. Salvation, happiness, and personal fulfillment come through this relationship only. It is a way of relieving the pressure of finding clues to your own personal path, because God is the Path. Leibowitz is an amazingly intelligent man, he has multiple doctorates in various areas, and can easily discuss Quantum Physics, Art, and philosophy in dept, and with a sharpness of mind that left me in awe. Thus, though I tend to shy away from “prophets” , I read every one of his words with an open mind and respect. This idea that Man can find his individual contribution through God’s Word is appealing in many ways, but I believe Man must have Faith, if not, the deal is void.
Here we have it, three distinct roads. Three very different understandings of Man’s place.
Man as an individual, in search of his own personal treasure, with the guidance of Universal Laws, Languages, we know as Karma, or Destiny.
Man finding his contribution through the collectivity of a necessary group. The absence of individual legends, but the agglomeration of many, forming a tight web in which Man can survive and progress.
Man finding his place in the servitude of God. Leaving his life in the hands of Divinity.
Where am I ? And you?