Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics and the Sixties by Robert Irwin:
“In the autumn of 1966 it seemed to me that I had no destiny, for my future was blank. Now, as I write, it seems to me that my destiny is already mostly in the past” (122).
Robert Irwin is one of my favorite novelists, the author of such wonderful works as The Arabian Nightmare (his first), The Limits of Vision, and Satan Wants Me, and that would have been enough to interest me in his memoir. And indeed, this book discloses to a reader of Irwin’s fiction many of the crypto-autobiographical vectors in his writing. But the the promise of accounts of his experiences in the emergence of English counterculture in the 1960s and of his own involvement in Algerian Sufism made the memoir irresistable.
Irwin expresses nostalgia for his experience of the hippy sixties, while powerfully deglamorizing the counterculture. He is disenchanted and strikingly contemptuous of his younger self. In addition to drugs, mysticism, music, and romantic love, he recounts his academic odyssey and encounters with intellectuals such as R.C. Zaehner, Bernard Lewis, and the Perennialist school of religious scholarship.
Irwin professes his abiding faith in the message of Islam and the value of Sufi praxis, despite the horror with which he regards conspicuous portions of the global Muslim community. His respect for the ‘Alawi tariqa in which he was initiated has not been effaced. But the book almost reads as though it might have been entitled “Memoirs of a Failed Dervish,” because he confesses his own lack of attainment and inability to derive consequence from his mystical strivings. Still, he provides details of the perplexing effects of his aspiration. “Like body odours, ecstasy is something that nice people don’t talk about, but the hell with that” (78).
There is certainly a significant dose of melancholy in Irwin’s retrospection. “I cannot think of anything useful I have learned from dreams, or any instance in which a dream has served as valuable inspiration,” he writes (215). In a highly enjoyable reflection on his youthful interest in science fiction, Irwin remarks: “I have lost the capacity to be astounded and I am sad about that” (19). For me, his memoir was like summer sunshine filtered through browning autumn leaves. [via]
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