Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Breaking the Wheel

A friend asked me if I thought it was good for people to believe in untruths. I believe that it is, and that prophets and messengers of God have specifically taught some of these untruths. But how can this be acceptable? The difficulty in understanding truth is that it owes so much to human interpretation, which is fallible and twists that truth. I also suspect that truth is not, in unalloyed form, susceptible to human reason. Our capacity is outstripped by the complexity of truth and that such truth is only explicable, in the limited forms of human language and experience, in parables (as Jesus argued) or allegory. Think of religious, metaphysical, and/or philosophical truth as the sun. You know it’s there and you can see it, but your eyes lack the ability to look directly upon it for more than a moment. To look too long upon the sun is to invite the possibility of pain and permanent blindness. However, you could reflect the sun’s image in a dark glass and stare upon it without danger. Is this the sun? It is a vision of the sun that we can look upon. But it is not the sun itself, but an image of it altered so that we may study and understand it. Truth rarely, if ever, comes to us in unalloyed form. So to believe in an untruth is not necessarily an evil, provided this untruth is a way of representing a deeper reality.

This philosophy requires believers to shun or at least approach with skepticism purely literal interpretations of, for example, the existence of God. Many truths are fairly incomprehensible and are easily misunderstood and misappropriated to justify terrible things. Hence, it's better for people to believe in untruths that may help illustrate deeper truths (again, like parables). These would be analogous untruths--untruths that point to truths (e.g., the literal vs. figurative understanding of Hell, or of samsara, for that matter).

Hence, untruths may not be absolutely bad, inasmuch as my notions of what is true or untrue may differ from yours. Some people believe in God, some do not. If I did not believe, I would insist on maintaining belief in God publicly. Of course I do believe, so this is not an untruth for me. However, it may be an untruth by your lights. Moreover, I do not believe in the literal existence of God in the "Semitic" sense (the concept of a personal God that looks a lot like Santa but is far angrier)--that is in the sense that Jews, Christians, and Muslims conceptualize God. However, I do not expect that historically Jews, Christians, and Muslims were emotionally or culturally equipped to understand God any differently. Therefore, while this concept of God is a form of untruth, it is better than not believing at all and it is an untruth that has much truth within it. Consider it as a road to a city. The road is not the city, but it will lead you there. Hence, untruth in this sense is not the same as a lie. A lie puts you on a road that claims to lead you somewhere, but in fact does not.

Anyway, I feel fairly confident now, having spent some time working on my next book, that I can reconcile the concept of God as conceived in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism (the latter's apparent agnosticism is no license to consider Buddhism without "Ishvara" or to discount the possibility, in fact the probability, that nirvana is better understood as brahma-nirvana rather than an empty spiritual suicide) with the Semitic religious beliefs already indicated. The particular genius of Eastern religion (Taoism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Hinduism) is for creating a sweetly-subtle concept of God that goes very far but still falls short of denying His existence. This actually complements, rather than contradicts, the Semitic notion of Prophets and Messengers of God (in religions that have far simpler and frankly cruder concepts of God). Imagine the refinement of Mahavishnu combined with the potency of Moses. It makes sense that the war-like, tribal Semites should have intellectually powerful prophets (and yet a war-like tribal God concept), while the long-civilized Hindus should have a refined and civilized God concept (and yet have prophets of much less potency--like a Buddha whose primary claim to fame is to not exist any more).

In any case, I think this is a fertile area worth closer examination and I've only just begun to write my notes for the book. I've finished reading the Ramayana, which is heavy with religious symbolism and have already read the Bhagavad-Gita, and am starting on the Bhagavata Purana (stories of Krishna in Vrindavana). The question is whether these traditions, taken figuratively, complement or contradict the traditions of Semitic faith.

The book will take the form of a fictional narrative involving a conversation between an as-yet-unnamed Muslim conqueror and a vision of Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and closest disciple. This discussion will take place on the grounds of a temple erected for the worship of Hanuman, the monkey-god of Hindu tradition and a servant of Rama, a manifestation of God. The entire vocabulary of Hindu and Buddhist tradition will need to be viewed with a willingness to toss aside much that is cherished within those concepts. Is it even possible to dispense with the literal notion of reincarnation while holding onto such concepts as samsara, moksha, nirvana, and karma? Such an approach will necessarily be met with opposition from traditionalists and fundamentalists. But I must make that approach if I am to resolve the merely apparent contradictions between these disparate religious traditions. If I shrink at the attempt, then my belief that Rama, Krishna, and the Buddha were prophets of God as surely as Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were will be untested and without merit.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Style and Substance

I am guilty of overwriting. It is no coincidence that readers of The End of Reason have assumed the work was old and the author long deceased. Yet I feel the style in which I wrote that book was wholly appropriate to the subject matter. So, to what extent was this style an affectation? And can that style be divorced from the subject? The classical period of Persian literature (roughly from the 11th century C.E. to the 15th century C.E.) provides the context in which my book can be understood—in terms of both style and theme. But I was also aware of the danger of overwriting and struggled to avoid inflating my prose or affecting a style that might become an obstacle to my message rather than a conveyance for it. Consequently, I engaged in frequent editing and re-editing of the material in an attempt to streamline the style without depriving it of potency.

Is my writing style naturally inflated? And if so, did that style dictate, at an unconscious level, what I would choose to read and to write? Or did the subject matter itself dictate that I should develop a writing style appropriate to it? I don't know which came first. I would like to think that the style in which I wrote The End of Reason was not an affectation. I would like to think that I was simply following the advice of E.B. White who cautioned, in The Elements of Style, to avoid overwriting or, if this is not possible "to compensate for it by a show of vigor, and by writing something as meritorious as the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.” I have been vain enough to imagine that I accomplished this “compensation” in The End of Reason. But can I honestly take credit for the result on this basis?

When I was a college freshman (nearly twenty years ago), I began writing my first book. The title was The Lord of the Dawn House and the subject was the life and ministry and death of Ce Acatl Topiltzin, a prince in ancient Mexico who is remembered as Quetzalcoatl. The writing style of this work, like The End of Reason, was somewhat inflated, thanks again to the subject matter. At the time, however, I was reading a lot of Nietzsche, particularly Thus Spoke Zarathustra which I took, in terms of style but certainly not in terms of content, as my model. In one part of the book, I introduce three shamans who counsel Quetzalcoatl during his self-imposed exile. These three were Ivareotl, Tzesinech, and Tzelao (Voltaire, Nietzsche, and Lao Tsu respectively). I purposely mimicked their styles. I’ve excerpted a portion of the book in which Tzesinech (Nietzsche) speaks:

Tzesinech said, “One day a young man said to me, ‘People too afraid of the truth find their solace in simple lies.’ But I replied, ‘Simple? They are satisfied only with the most complex lies.’

“Behold them, the kingdoms of the superfluous, the empires of the all-too-many. When still you had your commanding will you were king of them, the herd animals of Tollan and Cholula. They longed for the mellifluous incomprehensible talk of the Herdsman, grasping out to serve his higher commands; commands so mighty, immutable, unfathomable that they called the commands ‘Commandments’ and the Herdsman they called ‘God.’

“But you were all together too simple for them. You were too just and quiet and thus they secretly despised you who had become their bad conscience. Like ravens they came in black clouds, plucking at your ears and face, wanting a taste of the blood of your virtue, for they were bloodless and hungered for that which they lacked. They worshipped you your blood and stole droplets away while you slept.

“Run from their blood-thirsty idolatry! They destroy what they adore!

“Run from the mud and filth and the sweet stench of their human sacrifices!

“Run into solitude, far from unworthy vermin!

“Do your ears not sting from the noise and the cawing of these sickly birds? Then run into the wilderness for here there is silence that respects silence.

“But the ravens of the cities rant and ramble and think that they are sweet-throated song-birds. Why do they chatter when they should be listening? Don’t they know? Aimless talk is the bastard of thinking. They caw and their cawing poisons you, their thirsty tongues pierce your heart, lapping up droplets of your blood. But you bear it and forgive them and suppress your crying out. Dignified are you, but still the victim of their hunger. Dignified are you, but they bite harder for your dignity.”

The speech goes on longer, but I only wanted to give a taste of it. In English translation, this is what Nietzsche sounds like, good or bad. He himself is guilty of overwriting; few would argue otherwise. But in the same book I also spoke with the voice of Lao Tsu. Here’s an excerpt from a passage in which Tzelao speaks:

“Inexhaustible is the source and the forthgoing.
The source is God. The forthgoing is virtue.
These endure forever.
But that which deviates from the source and the forthgoing,
Dries up,
Is exhausted.
That which conforms to the source and the forthgoing,
Never dies,
But has life eternal.”

Elsewhere, Quetzalcoatl himself speaks in the same voice:

“The sun is not a spark.
Though it came from but the spark.
The sea is not a single drop.
But first came the single drop.
The man is more than seed and egg.
But he came from the seed and egg.
All great things have modest beginnings.
So is great virtue attained by little acts.”

The sentiment is a little off, but the style closely conforms to the English language translations of Lao Tsu’s The Way of Life.

I think the answer for me lies somewhere in between these conjectures. My writing style has never solely dictated the subject matter on which I chose to write. Nor did the subject matter every solely prescribe the writing style. These two worked in collaboration with one another, feeding upon one another to become something better than either were before. I think The End of Reason is the logical and predictable outcome of this process. I may know now where the process is taking me, and how, despite my many shortcomings as a writer, I may yet accomplish something remarkable, not as a writer, but as a human being.

Monday, December 26, 2005

I Blog Therefore I Am

Why am I blogging? I don't assume that this daily, or weekly, or monthly exercise will be of particular value or interest to anyone but me and one or two close friends. I am fully satisfied that my book (available on the web in English and in print in Bahasa Indonesia) has reached as many as 10,000 readers in the time it's been available. Most of them, including for awhile my Indonesian publisher, assumed the work was in the public domain and that the author was long dead. Since I have cherished my anonymity, I was not quick to dispel this notion. However, I wanted control over the work, particularly in published form. A literary resurrection was in order.

I have a friend who is an artist and I've purchased six of his paintings. My favorite, a large painting of sunflowers in a field, hangs in my bedroom. The photograph of one small part of it at the left does it no justice. After he'd parted with it, he told me that he wished he'd kept it because it was a favorite of his. I offered it back to him, but he was on his way to Istanbul and refused. I gave some thought to this and concluded, at the time that as an author I'm lucky that by making my book available I don't necessarily have to part with it. I can pick it up at any time and read it and remember writing it.

More recently I've discovered that it's not that simple. When a portion of the book appeared in print, it was without my knowledge or consent. The book had been published in a language I didn't know and had been taken out of its context. With the help of a translator, fluent in both English and Bahasa Indonesia, I was able to claim my copyright. The publisher apologized and we came to terms amicably.

Here I learned that anyone could make my work available at any time and, by assuming I was dead, would never bother to ask permission for publication. It could be plagiarized and misappropriated. My motives could be misunderstood. By remaining "dead" I could not defend myself. I had no control. Of course these things could happen to any author at any time. But, until I announced that I was the author and the owner of the work, I was powerless and defenseless.

Why am I blogging? Because I want an outlet to exercise some control, to defend my work as I did in my first entry. But this is not the only motive. Although I've completed the book The End of Reason, I am working on another book and plan to use this blog as a means of recording my thoughts during its development. This blog can serve as a literary diary, a way for me to examine my thoughts and my motives as I write. The name of this site is "Thought Akin to Dreaming," and it has this name because I can't remember what drove me to write The End of Reason in the first place or what I originally thought would come of it. I took notes to write the book, as I am taking notes for my next book, but I kept no record and I made no notes about writing the book itself. I "dreamed" the development of my book and I woke up after writing the book to find the dream was real. I think this is an experience shared by many writers, but I am not satisfied merely to have written a book; I need to know why. I can rationalize my various motives now, but rationalizations should not be confused with reasons. Ironically, I named the book The End of Reason, though the title was intended to imply where reason will lead or mislead you. I will never completely understand, during the ten years I intermittently worked on the book, how it came to be what it is today. But the book on which I am working today will, if I continue to use this blog, not be such a mystery and I will consciously direct it according to my specific goals, goals which I will elaborate in future posts.

Why am I blogging? If I am honest and fair with myself, there is yet one more reason. To quote George Orwell, a writer's motives are partly, perhaps even mostly, driven by "sheer egoism" and the wish "to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc." Orwell was right. I am exactly this self-absorbed. I try to balance self-absorption with self-awareness, but at some emotional level I never grew up and I think this is the "original sin" of creativity--perpetual adolescence.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Pustaka Zahra

Pustaka Zahra, an Indonesian book publisher, has agreed and contracted with me to publish the third part of The End of Reason. In August 2004 they published my work The Madness of God. Translated from the original English into Bahasa Indonesia, the work appeared under the title Iblis Menggugat Tuhan (Iblis Accuses God). The Madness of God is the second part of The End of Reason and they have reprinted the work on two occasions since then. In December of 2005 Pustaka Zahra agreed to publish The Men Who Have the Elephant with The Madness of God in a single volume. This publication will likely take place within the next eighteen months. I doubt they’ll have an interest in ever publishing the first part of The End of Reason, which is In Herod’s Keep. This work is the oldest of the three parts and, in many respects, is the least compelling, though the seeds of both The Madness of God and The Men Who Have the Elephant are in evidence within the work.

For those of you with an interest in the development of the book, and I doubt very many of you will have much, here is a brief outline. The End of Reason is not one book, but three. Written over a period of ten years, these three books appear in chronological order. I wrote the first book, In Herod’s Keep, between 1994 and 1998; the didactic or “teaching” stories came first; the narrative framework came after. The Madness of God, a logical extension of the arguments first posed in In Herod’s Keep, was written between the summer of 1998 and the winter of 2000. Unlike In Herod’s Keep, I wrote The Madness of God essentially as I originally planned it. Begun hesitantly in January of 2001, The Men Who Have the Elephant is the third and final book in this triptych. I completed it, and the Apologia that precedes the beginning of The End of Reason in December 2004. While I originally intended at least the first two books to stand alone, these three works are bound together, not merely by style, but also by the questions they jointly pose about theodicy. More importantly, The Madness of God is a potentially dangerous work and must be understood within the context of at least one of the other parts. Pustaka Zahra has agreed to publish The Men Who Have the Elephant, partly to address this danger.

The letter that was written in the last posting below was partly in response to a published review of Iblis Menggugat Tuhan, which although was not critical of the book, nevertheless betrayed a significant misunderstanding of my position as the author in reference to the arguments Iblis (the devil) makes in the work. I wrote this letter also to make very clear my position in opposition to Iblis and his arguments. I had hoped that the work itself made this clear; I still believe a close reading of the work is sufficient to absolve me of all accusations that I am taking Iblis’ part.

If you’re interested in reading The End of Reason in the original English, you can find it at

Shawni's Letter

After businessmen took a portion of my work The End of Reason and published it against my wishes, I was castigated for putting words into the devil’s mouth and accused of acting as the devil’s advocate and partisan. My critics denounced me and abused my name and accused me of terrible faults. For a time I bore this patiently, and remembered that “However often others have called harsh words down upon me, I give thanks to God that they do not know the worst of it.” An ignorant few continued their campaign of vilification and at last I drained the cup of patience and rose to defend the work against which a few fanatics had tipped their swords.

“I've offered you wine and you have become drunk. I've given you the sword of faith, and you have cut yourself on it. I've offered you water for your baptism, and you are in danger of drowning. Yet you accuse me.

"The Philistines tore out Samson’s eyes because they were blind themselves. Did this cure their blindness? Pharaoh couldn't free himself, though the Hebrews were his slaves. How could enslaving them set Pharaoh free? While Joseph waited in the well, his brothers were bondsman to their crime. From whom could they purchase freedom?

"The meaning of these words is this. If I've made the devil seem eloquent, that does not make me the devil or his apostle or his friend. If you've believed his lies, that does not make me a liar. If you've been driven from the field of faithfulness then you have never fought under God’s banner. Yet some accuse me of wrongdoing nevertheless. If the devil’s racket has shaken you, why denounce me? What do you know of my faith when your own is so frail that a few pretty words make you an infidel? O accusers, accuse yourselves! I'm neither saint nor devil. I'm a man like you.

"I've written that book as a mirror. If you're offended, see what has offended you. Don't denounce me for your ugliness, your faithlessness, your harlotry.

"I've given you a gift that you may peer into your own heart. See what you enshrine there. If you fault me, be ashamed and repent for your own sake. Your curses rebound upon you and your slander does you no credit.

"If the music I've played pleases you, then pray for this impoverished one. Yet if in your hand you hold a dirham for my cup, expend it instead in the way of charity for another. Our Friend has paid me already and my coffers burst with the coin of His mercy. Such praise that you bestow upon me feeds only my pride; such payment to me that you make I will waste; such faith in me that you keep I will betray. When the Kaba is in sight, leave the donkey behind. I'm neither saint nor devil. I'm a man like you.”