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River of Gods

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews River of Gods [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Ian McDonald

McDonald River of Gods

The “river” of this amazing work of science fiction is not merely Ganga Mata–the goddess who is the river Ganges–but also the flow of human life and experience on which the god-like artificial intelligences of the novel are borne. The human characters begin as separate tributaries, and their stories twist and merge with each other as they rush down into the watershed of an imagined history of the mid-21st-century. These characters inhabit niches throughout the spectrum from the absolute top to very nearly the bottom of Varanasi society, with a couple of American academics and an Afghani-Swedish journalist thrown in for good measure. Although the book takes place on the eve of the centennial of Indian Independence from Britain, its political situation describes a balkanized subcontinent in which independent Bharati and Awadhi states are on the brink of war for control of water resources. (It goes without McDonald’s saying, that the epochal drought is a function of climate change and the exhaustion of Himalayan glaciers.)

The futurological scenario of this book doesn’t feel at all dated, despite the fact that it was first published seven years ago–a long time at today’s pace of cultural and technological change. The two tiny clinkers naturally relate to personal electronics: McDonald’s “palmers” failed to anticipate that everyone’s pocket computer would be subordinated to the concept of a phone, and his use of “the Tablet” to denote a unique piece of espionage data hardware falls a little flat in the wake of iPads and their competitors.

The novel’s setting presupposes an assortment of post-human types, in addition to great masses of “ordinary” humans with virtual-reality headsets and nanotechnologically engineered pharmocopoeia. There are genetically enhanced “brahmins” who age at half the ordinary human rate, with immunity to many degenerative diseases. The oldest of these are in their early twenties, all with great influence, money, and native intelligence, but they look like ten-year-olds. There are “nutes,” who have “stepped away” from masculine and feminine gender identification into a third sex, surgically created, with erogenous cues tied to subdermal buds on their forearms. And there are artificial intelligences (“aeais”) beyond generation 2.5, the point where they are smart enough to pass a Turing Test, and to know when it is in their interest to fail one.

This is a big book: a 600-page doorstop, but it reads fast like a rushing river. Where the events of McDonald’s lovely debut novel Desolation Road take place over three human generations, the course of River of Gods spans a mere three weeks. And into that it packs political intrigue, edge-of-the-envelope scientific speculation, love stories, violent deaths, profound disillusionment, and, gosh, other stuff besides. The plot is full of semi-surprises; McDonald is an artful stylist who provides enough information to sometimes create dramatic irony by giving the intelligent reader an edge on the characters, but often stuff just happens in ways that are jaw-dropping at the time, but seem inevitable in retrospect. 

Anyone who can enjoy thoughtful science fiction should love this book.

Mysticism East and West

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism by Rudolf Otto.

Rudolf Otto Mysticism

This book was developed from Otto’s lectures presented at Oberlin College in 1923-4. It principally consists of a detailed attempt to compare and contrast two prominent mystics: Śankara from the Indian East and Meister Eckhart from the European West. In so doing, Otto proposes to demonstrate that there are distinct forms of mysticism which reach across boundaries of religion, culture and geography, and also that any mysticism will be essentially inflected by its particular religious basis—the soil in which it grows, to use Otto’s recurrent metaphor.

“Part A” of the text emphasizes similarities between Śankara and Meister Eckhart, and Otto manages to detail many of these. First, he points to their shared orientation to ontological ideas, and develops the technical and theological parallel
Śankara:Brahman:Isvara:Ātman::Eckhart:Godhead:God:Soul (14, 77-78). He also compares Śankara’s “Maya” to Eckhart’s “creare” (95). Otto emphasizes the religious, salvific, and theistic qualities of both thinkers’ systems, and points out that neither prescribes a “method” of attainment (29). He proposes a couple of idealized “schemas” of mystical experience, claiming that Śankara and Eckhart each engage both schemas (52).

In the process of comparing Śankara and Eckhart to each other, he distinguishes their type of (speculative) mysticism from other usual sorts: affective mysticism (72-73) and nature mysticism (73-74). Then, in the “Transition from Part A to Part B,” he uses specific schools of Indian mysticism to demonstrate the “differentiation of mystical experience in general,” showing that the similarities between Śankara and Eckhart are not common to all mysticism. Other individual mystics who play supporting roles for contrast include Plotinus and Hallaj.

Finally, in Part B, Otto provides some contrasts between Śankara and Eckhart. In these (generally shorter) chapters, the difference is usually expressed as a valuable quality or sensibility that is present in Eckhart but absent in Śankara. According to Otto, Śankara’s mysticism lacks dynamism, vitality, religious conscience, sense of righteousness, positive regard for the world, agape-love, and pastoral sensibility. In this portion, Otto remains engaged in the sort of “comparative religion” that he produced in Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy, 1923) : he creates a basis for comparison in order to conclude which is better, and it is no surprise that a German Christianity is better on the scale of this theologian from the University of Marburg.

Otto notes that Mysticism: East and West presupposes ideas and positions that he advanced earlier in Das Heilige (vi). That work has become especially identified with “the discourse of sui generis religion,” which has been criticized (e.g. by Russell McCutcheon) for setting arbitrary boundaries between “religious” phenomena and other spheres of personal and/or social activity and ideas, as well as a tendency to abstract religions into essences. Such problems remain evident here, e.g. in the hypothesized/ hypostasized doctrinal conflict (82), the valuation “peculiar to all religion” (94), and the elision of economics and politics from caste doctrines (120).

The “soil” metaphor persists in this book’s efforts to characterize the source of differences between instances or types of mysticism—apparently, the “seed” is mystical capacity or aspiration, and the soil is the religious and cultural context. Otto claims, “the very different ground upon which mysticism rose in Europe also colors the highest mystical experience in a way which is Christian and not Indian” (162). But he does not demonstrate a relevant, describable difference between “the soil of Palestine” and “the soil [of the entire subcontinent!] of India” (206) I don’t doubt that this trope is either a conscious or an unconscious invocation of the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:18-23. Note also: Eckhart had been a poster-child of the ‘German mystique’ since the early 19th century, and Alfred Rosenberg called him a paragon of the “new, reborn Teutonic man” in 1938.

Otto insists, “The difference between [Brahman mysticism and Atman mysticism] is not to be reproduced in intellectual conceptions and is only comprehensible in the mystical experience itself.” (146) I find myself dubious that he has experienced all of these diverse mystical attainments among which he professes to discriminate for scholars! If “intellectual conceptions” cannot effectively communicate the differences between various mysticisms, what possibility is there for scholarship to assert or explain such differences? Ultimately, I must suspect Otto of using a globe-spanning erudition to reinforce his own metaphysical prejudices. [via]

The Mysteries

The Mysteries: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, edited by Joseph Campbell, the 1990 fifth paperback printing of Bollingen Series XXX Vol 2 from Princeton University Press, is part of the collection at the Reading Room.

Joseph Campbell The Mysteries from Princeton University Press / Bollingen

“Since 1933, the Eranos Conferences have been held at Ascona in southern Switzerland. Distinguished scholars from Europe, Asia, and America have been invited to a ‘shared feast’ (eranos) and have lectured on themes chosen by the Director of Eranos, the late Olga Froebe-Kapteyn. The lectures originally appeared in the Eranos-Jahrbücher (Zurich) and selections translated into English have been published in Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, of which this is the second volume. Thirteen scholars—including C. G. Jung, C. Kerényi, Walter F. Otto, and Hugo Rahner—are represented in this collection, which is drawn from the years 1936, 1939m 1940–41, 1942, and 1944. The volume is edited by Joseph Campbell and translated by Ralph Manheim and R.F.C. Hull.” — back cover

Essays included are:

  • Paul Masson-Oursel, “The Indian Theories of Redemption in the Frame of the Religions of Salvation”
  • Paul Masson-Oursel, “The Doctrine of Grace in the Religious Thought of India”
  • Walter F. Otto, “The Meaning of the Eleusinian Mysteries”
  • Carl Kerényi, “The Mysteries of the Kabeiroi”
  • Walter Wili, “The Orphic Mysteries and the Greek Spirit”
  • Paul Schmitt, “The Ancient Mysteries in the Society of Their Time, Their Transformation and Most Recent Echoes”
  • Georges Nagel, “The ‘Mysteries’ of Osiris in Ancient Egypt”
  • Jean de Manasce, “The Mysteries and the Religion of Iran”
  • Fritz Meier, “The Mystery of the Ka’ba: Symbol and Reality in Islamic Mysticism”
  • Max Pulver, “Jesus’ Round Dance and Crucifixion According to the Acts of St. John”
  • Hans Leisegang, “The Mystery of the Serpent”
  • Julius Baum, “Symbolic Representations of the Eucharist”
  • C G Jung, “Transformation Symbolism in the Mass”
  • Hugo Rahner, “The Christian Mystery and the Pagan Mysteries.”

I Make Myself Invisible in Articles by Aleister Crowley.

“A curious thing happened on one occasion. At Madura I went into a temple and sacrificed a goat. Soon after I completely cut off my trail by a sea voyage—a great storm was raging, and I was the only person to board the ship.

Some time afterwards I returned to India and visited some friends, who knew nothing about my activities in Calcutta.

They told me that their servants were excited about a queer tale that I had sacrificed a goat at Madura, the most sacred city of South India.” [via, also]