The Etheric Double by A. E. Powell: pointing the way out of the cave

The Etheric Double: The Health Aura of ManThe Etheric Double: The Health Aura of Man by Arthur E. Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first in what would come to be a series of primers on the nature of man and the universe according to the clairvoyant investigations of members of The Theosophical Society, this little book, originally published in 1925, delivers a lot of information in a short space. The author, A. E. Powell, combed through 40 different texts written mostly by the prominent Theosophists Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, and arranged the information in a concise, orderly way by topic. (While there are three texts by H. P. Blavatsky, Powell confesses that it was beyond his scope to include all of her works in his survey.) The result is a dense but readable introduction to the key findings of the Theosophists, complete with a number of diagrams.

If you’re not familiar with the findings of Theosophy, the Theosophists were and are clairvoyants who used their talents to investigate and document the unseen realms beyond our world of the five senses. If you’re used to navigating only in this world of the five physical senses, this is mind-stretching stuff. For, according to them, we are all composed of much more than the physical body (with attendant mind) that we associate with ourselves. Our physical body is composed of what they call dense or coarse matter; but the organization and vitality of this body depends on other bodies made of finer kinds of matter that are mostly undetectable with our coarse senses. The densest of these other bodies is the so-called etheric body or etheric double: a body made of finer-grade matter than our dense physical body, but otherwise mirroring it closely in form and occupying the same space. It is slightly larger than our dense body, generally having its outer border about a centimeter beyond our skin. It has the function of connecting our dense body to our higher-order bodies, and channeling vital energy or prana into our body, which is what keeps us alive. For it turns out that while food is essential for us to live, prana is even more essential. Its source, for us anyway, is the sun.

The etheric body is organized around the chakras, seven energy centers that receive and redirect prana from the outside world. It enters at the 3rd chakra, the spleen center, which then sends it on to the others via particular channels. Each chakra has its own structure and functions. If we activate and develop our chakras, we acquire new powers, notably the ability to relate consciously with the higher-order parts of ourselves. Many occult and magical phenomena are accounted for by the activities of the etheric and higher bodies.

The author has done a great service to the student of reality in the widest sense. I feel a little like the prisoner of Plato’s cave who has been released from his chains, and is starting to squint at new and unimagined surroundings, moving instinctively toward the light at the cave’s entrance. What lies out there? The world he has truly lived in all along, but without knowing it.

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lots of evils to choose from

A few days ago I drafted most of a blog post on the coronavirus pandemic now swarming over Earth. I worked on it over two sessions and wrote 1,400 words. But I’m not quite happy with where I got to. The problems that it presents are complex, and I’m trying to sort out my thoughts. My blog should be the perfect place to do that, so maybe I should have just posted and then altered my thoughts with subsequent posts. But from an early age I have learned to do my thinking before I speak; and in the main this habit has served me well.

The gist of the draft post is that I’m concerned that in our desire to save lives in the pandemic we are destroying both our economy and our political culture. Thousands of businesses are being shuttered, surely many of them for good, and millions of people are being prevented from earning a living; and, at the same time, we are being accustomed to the swift enactment of harsh laws punishing us for such things as breaking quarantine. We are being schooled to accept authoritarian government as normal. My thought was that, since the virus is not especially deadly—I’m quite sure I had it myself a month ago—should we not take it on the jaw, as it were, and let it run its course? Most of the millions put out of work, while many might have caught the disease, would recover from it soon enough, as I did. They might lose a week of work, but then they would be back at it—and indeed would still have a job to return to.

But this “taking it on the jaw” approach would result in a much higher death toll, much of that due to the overwhelming of medical facilities. It would probably not reach the heights of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1919, but it would still be traumatic, and there would surely be widespread anger if people thought that the toll could have been lessened. This too would create a social cost. However, under the current circumstances, the problems we’ll be facing will be compounded by the efforts of governments to compensate businesses and individuals for lost revenue, for the governments in question do not have the funds to provide this compensation, and after 20 years or so of everyone’s bingeing on debt, there are no savings anywhere to be tapped for borrowing. Trillions of dollars are going to be created ex nihilo to send out compensation checks. Few people yet suspect what the consequences of all this are going to be; I am among those who think that the consequences will be grave indeed.

Creating all that money is going to be hugely inflationary. That means prices are going to start rising faster than they have been—and if you do any shopping, then you know that prices have been rising much faster than the official inflation figures, which I believe are deliberately understated in order to hold down governments’ borrowing costs and other costs, such as raises to index-linked pensions. With large amounts of money being poured into economies, combined with a severe slowdown in productivity caused by social distancing, we are likely to face the perfect storm of an economic disaster: the inflationary depression. This is a time of low production, high unemployment, and quickly rising prices. In contrast, the Great Depression of the 1930s was a deflationary depression: a time of falling prices. People who held dollars, which were then backed by gold, found themselves getting richer and richer, since their dollars could buy ever more as prices fell. In an inflationary depression, holding dollars will be of limited use, since they will buy less and less as time goes by.

The worst-case scenario is hyperinflation: a condition in which government, in order to meet its ever-rising obligations, must create more and more paper money, which causes the value of the money to fall ever faster. Hyperinflations have happened repeatedly in history, and appear to be the natural climax of a so-called fiat currency: a currency that is not backed by any asset but is simply issued by a governing authority, as all the currencies of the world now are. I greatly fear that we are staring into the barrels of an inflationary depression and hyperinflation. If these things come about, the amount of personal suffering and social damage will be great.

But it would be wrong to blame the coronavirus for these disasters. It is acting as a pin, but the bubble that it is popping has been blown up by the deliberate and consistent actions of human beings in positions of power. All bubbles eventually pop, so if the coronavirus had not acted as the pin, then something else would have.

So, in these circumstances, what is the right thing to do? What is the right response to the emergency of the coronavirus pandemic? In a healthy, normally functioning society, there would be a strong push to minimize suffering and death. This would imply emergency measures such as providing extra medical facilities and enacting procedures for quarantine and social distancing.

But these things are costly. It is one thing to order people to stay home from work in order to minimize the spread of a disease, but such people must be compensated, for no one has the right simply to terminate your livelihood. That compensation must come from the government—the authority that has terminated your livelihood. If the need for compensation is very large, where are the funds to come from? The government will not have that much cash on hand, and will not be able to raise it quickly enough through increased taxes; it will have to borrow.

And what if its credit is no good? What if, for whatever reason, the debt markets are tapped out and there is no one to lend to the government at the scale needed?

That’s more or less the situation that the United States, and no doubt other countries, finds itself in. There the central bank, the Federal Reserve, has declared that it will create as much money as necessary. And this adding of money to the economy is exactly the process of inflation.

A small price to pay, you might think. But is it? If you do any shopping, you already know that the official inflation rate (currently 2.25% in Canada) is far below the real rate. Between price increases and shrinkflation, you’re paying much more for, say, groceries than you did 5 years ago. This process will increase dramatically as large amounts of money are injected into the economy while the production of goods and services is reduced due to the pandemic. And if it should turn to hyperinflation, things will get very bad indeed—just ask Zimbabwe or Venezuela. In the words of Wikipedia:

Hyperinflation effectively wipes out the purchasing power of private and public savings; distorts the economy in favor of the hoarding of real assets; causes the monetary base, whether specie or hard currency, to flee the country; and makes the afflicted area anathema to investment.

And how does it end? Again Wikipedia:

Hyperinflation is ended by drastic remedies, such as imposing the shock therapy of slashing government expenditures or altering the currency basis. One form this may take is dollarization, the use of a foreign currency (not necessarily the U.S. dollar) as a national unit of currency. An example was dollarization in Ecuador, initiated in September 2000 in response to a 75% loss of value of the Ecuadorian sucre in early 2000.

In the case of the United States, “dollarization” is not an option: it is the dollar that will be hyperinflating. What other currency could take its place? Probably the closest thing would be the euro, but the euro might be in bad trouble too, and in any event there aren’t enough euros to serve the needs of both Europe and the United States—to say nothing of all the other users of dollars in the world. We would be entering a time of unprecedented global monetary instability. How it might play out is anyone’s guess, but there would be major disruptions almost everywhere.

He even looks like Viktor Orban

Am I an alarmist? Not by temperament. I tend to be sober, rational, and reflective. I know that worry and panic make for bad decision-making, and do my best not to let them play any part in my own decisions. But world economic conditions, the result of irresponsible and foolhardy policies for the past several decades, point in the direction of disaster. It pains me to say that when the smoke clears on the current crisis of pandemic and its aftermath, the world we see is likely to be much poorer, more authoritarian, and considerably less populated with Homo sapiens.

I circle back to the idea that was troubling me when I wrote the first draft of this post: even if the drastic measures designed to slow the advance of the coronavirus have all their desired results in reduced infections and reduced fatalities, will they be worth the economic, political, and social carnage that seem to be their inescapable consequences? On Monday, March 30 (today, as I type these words), the government of Hungary has passed a law that effectively suspends parliament and gives its prime minister, Viktor Orban, the power to rule by decree indefinitely. Hungary is now an out-and-out dictatorship—and the change has been justified by the need to fight the pandemic.

Contrast Sweden. In Sweden, unlike the rest of world, you can still see people meeting in cafes and dining in restaurants. Businesses and stores are open. The citizens are informed about the pandemic and left to make their own choices based on their own assessments of their risks and needs. They have tried to impose some restrictions, but Sweden’s state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, says that “people find ways around the rules.” So far, Sweden appears to be suffering less from COVID-19 than neighboring Norway in terms of infections (but not deaths), but of course that could change.

Will Sweden be leveled by COVID-19? At this stage, nobody knows. But my thought is that the Swedes are living as free citizens, while most of the rest of us are being turned into livestock to be penned, moved, and employed at the behest of the state, ready to be led into the political slaughterhouse of authoritarianism.

Life is an important value, but to paraphrase William Wallace in Braveheart: “All men die; not all men truly live.” I may be speaking out of turn as one who has already had the disease, but for my own part I would rather catch it again, and again and again, before living under the tyrannical rule of a Viktor Orban. And I greatly fear that other would-be tyrants will be looking at what he has done and licking their chops.

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Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry: still good after all these years

Under The VolcanoUnder The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This one-of-a-kind landmark of 20th-century literature stands up to multiple readings.

I have a somewhat more intimate relationship with Under the Volcano than most readers, due to the circumstances of my growing up. In 1961, when I was age two, our young family moved in to a waterfront cottage in the then remote community of Cove Cliff in North Vancouver, and my parents became friends with Harvey and Dorothy Burt, who lived two doors down. It would come out that Harvey and Dorothy had been close friends of Malcolm and Margerie Lowry, and indeed had rented a squatter’s shack close to theirs at Dollarton beach in 1951, only a couple of kilometers away. For Harvey and Dorothy this was a love shack, for they were married to other people and were engaged in an illicit affair. The four became a bohemian cadre at Dollarton, drinking and talking about literature and art. The Lowrys left Dollarton and Canada in 1954. In 1957, when Malcolm died by asphyxiating in his own vomit in the village of Ripe, England, Harvey was the only one of his friends or family to attend the inquest.

Dorothy Burt was a passionate lover of literature, and a great fan of Under the Volcano. It was no doubt because of her that we came to have a paperback copy of the book at our house. I first read it in 1978, when I was 19. My response was something between being mystified and bowled over. On the one hand, it was strange to read a book in which so little seems to happen; on the other, it was a fascinating labyrinth of striking and sometimes grotesque imagery, and also a poetic work shot through with ideas and symbolism. I had had a major awakening to literature in 1977 by reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and I felt that Lowry’s book was another stepping stone on this engrossing path, even if I could not make out much of it.

The work does bear comparison with Joyce’s Ulysses in being an experience in depth of a single day. The day in question for Volcano is November 1, 1938: the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Indeed, Lowry’s day is shorter, running barely 12 hours of clock time, ending at only about 7 p.m. In brief, the story concerns Geoffrey Firmin, 42-year-old British consul to the Mexican city of Quauhnahuac (now Cuernavaca), a loner and an alcoholic. Two people unexpectedly arrive to join him this day: his younger half brother Hugh, who hopes to join a ship carrying supplies to the partisans in Spain, and his ex-wife Yvonne, an American actress with whom he split up the previous year, and with whom he has dreamed of reconciling. Geoffrey is making a show of trying to quit drinking, but it soon becomes plain that it is only a show; like his creator, Lowry, Geoffrey is a hard-bitten drinker who doesn’t, in his heart of hearts, really want to quit.

There are interactions between these three characters, and also with Jacques Laruelle, a French filmmaker and boyhood friend of Geoffrey’s, and Dr. Vigil, a local physician who is sympathetic to the consul’s plight. There is also a bus ride which is interrupted by the appearance of an Indian lying unconscious on the road (I don’t think this is too spoilerish)—an episode that Lowry first wrote as a short story in the 1930s. But the physical action in the book is slight, and mostly quite true to life (Lowry had spent much time in Mexico); Lowry’s interest is in the inner world of Geoffrey, and, to a lesser extent, Yvonne and Hugh, who also have chapters devoted to their points of view. One of the great strengths of this book is its detailed and authoritative portrait of the mental workings of an alcoholic who is also a genius. For Geoffrey is a would-be author himself, and an educated and well-read man, but he lives from drink to drink, and spends time titrating his nerves with alcohol to keep the DTs at bay and to make existence bearable for another few minutes. He is paranoid and suffers with a persecution mania. He is not a well man.

But Yvonne, a lovely 32-year-old woman, still loves him and yearns for their reunion, so there appears to be hope for Geoffrey. They both want to be together, so what’s stopping them? There are issues of guilt and forgiveness—and of course the demon tequila, and, beyond that, mescal.

I had already read the novel twice when I bought a copy of my own in May 1990. I got the Penguin Modern Classics edition, which includes, as an introduction, a famous exchange of letters between Lowry and the publisher Jonathan Cape in London. Cape wrote to Lowry in November 1945 offering to publish Volcano on condition that Lowry made changes according to suggestions made by Cape’s reader. Lowry responded with a 40-page letter defending the manuscript as it was, and going through it chapter by chapter to demonstrate how all the elements were organically chosen and interlinked. The letter is not a work of complaint; it is fun and self-deprecating, and it provides tremendous insight into the author’s intentions and the systems of imagery within the work—for there are several. If you have not read the novel yet, I would recommend reading the letter after reading the book, for it contains spoilers aplenty.

So I read the novel again in 1990, and have not reread it again till now. What are my impressions this time, on a fourth reading at age 61, an age that Lowry never even approached, dying at 47? I am still impressed with the book, although slightly less so than on previous readings. Sometimes I found the writing self-indulgent and undisciplined; and Lowry is not so powerful a stylist as, say, Joyce. This time I became tired of all the Mexicans speaking faulty English to Geoffrey, which seems to be intended mostly for comic effect, as well as providing some symbolic double entendres. Now it feels a bit like watching “funny foreigners” in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 40s. In reality, everyone would have been speaking Spanish, including Geoffrey. There is also having to put up with the endless rationalizations and self-seriousness of the addict, his absurd feelings of triumph for resisting a drink for an extra few seconds, or whatever.

But I have just opened my copy of the book at random to page 165, and I promised myself to type whatever I found there. Here is a bit of the action:

‘But wait a minute.’ Hugh looked up at the sky of New Spain. It was a day like a good Joe Venuti record. He listened to the faint steady droning of the telegraph poles and the wires above them that sang in his heart with his pint-and-a-half of beer. At this moment the best and easiest and most simple thing in the world seemed to be the happiness of these two people in a new country. . . .

There’s a taste drawn at random. I think we can say that Lowry can write.

Golly, I meant to talk about more here. For the real importance of this book lies not so much in its characters and their situation, as in how it all seems to stand for the situation of humanity on the threshold of World War II. And, deeper than that, there is something of the powerful poetic motif of what Robert Graves called the White Goddess—the great theme of his 1948 book of that title (it came out the year after Under the Volcano). According to Graves, all European poetry, from most ancient times, is underlain by the myth of the Great Goddess and her two lovers: the reigning priest-king, and the younger man who will kill him and replace him. Here I will just say that the Great Goddess appears here in the form of the volcanic Earth, and also as Yvonne, and there is a question of whether Hugh will replace Geoffrey in relationship with her. This theme also lies deep under Ulysses, in my opinion.

But that’s all material for another place. For now it’s enough to say that Under the Volcano is a major literary work with lots going on in it, possibly even more than its author consciously realized—and he realized plenty. Would I read it a fifth time? Quite possibly. Yes, quite possibly.

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circumnavigating a literary world

I have talked a bit about my project to read the Bible as though decoding the genome of Western Christendom (that is, Western civilization). I am treating the books of the Bible as “chromosomes” of the genome, with the individual episodes in those books representing the actual “genes” or units of sense.

I’m currently reading the Book of Joshua, or Chromosome 6, but I thought I would illustrate my project a bit more by “decoding” some more of Chromosome 1, the Book of Genesis. In my last post I summarized the first two genes or episodes, which stretch from Gen 1:1 to Gen 2:9. To show you my method in more detail, I’ll “decode” the next couple of episodes as well.

Episode (gene) 3 is also contained within chapter 2, and comprises verses 10–14. Let me quote the exact text from the King James Version:

10 And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.
11 The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold;
12 And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone.
13 And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia.
14 And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.

This is a bit of geography that is simply inserted in the narrative at this point; it stands alone, and therefore, in my view, constitutes a separate episode. This is how I summarized the episode in the relevant column of my decoding table:

A river from Eden that waters God’s garden divides to form 4 important rivers of the world.

Next to that column I have a discussion column, in which I make any observations or questions to myself about the episode. Here is what I wrote in that:

Eden and its garden are the source not only of humanity and agriculture, but also of world geography, in the sense of a structured way of understanding the physical world.

The final column is labeled “Implied Rules,” but this episode is one of the few in which I left this column blank. I couldn’t see how the “episode” produced a rule beyond its authoritative description of the geography of Eden and its world.

Want to try another episode? Yes, let’s! Episode 4 is just 3 verses long, Gen 2:15–17. Here is the text of the KJV:

15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Here is my summary of the episode:

God makes the man the gardener of Eden, and gives him leave to eat of any plant in the garden—except of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, saying that on the day he does so, he shall surely die.

Here is my own commentary:

God has given man work to do, and freedom with limits which are backed by the threat of death.

And here are the “rules” I extracted from this episode:

God is man’s master, lawgiver, judge, and punisher. God makes rules for man and man has a duty to obey.

These are pretty significant rules, but I believe that they are indeed the rules that this episode implies.

“Can we still be friends?”

Still with me? Let’s do one more: Episode 5, Gen 2:18–20:

18 And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.
19 And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
20 And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

My summary of the episode:

God, taking pity on Adam’s solitude, determines to find a “help meet” for him, and to this end creates all the animals of the world, and presents them to Adam for naming; but none serves as a help meet for Adam.

My commentary:

The animals were created as potential companions for man, and were named by him (not by God), but none completely fills that role.

And, finally, the implied rules for Western Christendom:

Animals were created for man’s benefit and for no other reason.

Again, a most significant rule, especially in light of the environmental crises that face the Earth of today. But, here again, I think the rule is fully implied by the text.

I hope you can see why I find this project so interesting and involving. I have more than one motive in doing it. One angle was sparked by reading The Great Code by Northrop Frye. In this fascinating book Frye notes that all of English literature is heavily influenced by the Bible, so much so that to read this literature without a good knowledge of the Bible is to read it blind. I recently read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, and this novel was certainly replete with biblical allusions.

In all, my Bible-reading project may be big and slow, but it feels very worthwhile. In doing it, I really feel that I’m spending my time well—rather like a man who is circumnavigating the world on foot.

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mapping the Bible, gene by gene

In my last post I was talking about reading the Bible as though decoding a genome—the genome of Western Christendom (to use Arnold J. Toynbee’s label for our Western civilization). I am currently making my way through Chromosome 6 of that genome: the Book of Joshua.

But if the books of the Bible constitute the chromosomes of Western civilization, then what are the actual genes—the individual active components of the genome, its working parts? My hypothesis is that the genes are represented by the individual episodes of the Bible’s books.

I use the word episode somewhat loosely. My basic idea is that the episode is a relatively self-contained incident or story, one that has its own point to make. This point, which forms the moral or theme of the episode, constitutes a kind of principle or rule—a biblical truth, if you like. I’m suggesting that these points or rules form the “instruction set” of Western civilization: the spiritual warrant for the basic ideas that underlie it.

Reach out and . . .

Let’s take a look at one. Let’s start at the beginning, at Chromosome 1 (the Book of Genesis), episode 1. I have identified the episode (gene) 1 as running from Gen 1:1 to Gen 2:3—a stretch of 34 verses that begins with: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. . . .” and concludes with: “And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.”

This is a distinct episode; it has its own beginning, middle, and end. It also has its own point or points to make, which I have summarized thus:

God, a bachelor male, is the ultimate and all-powerful reality, and the final answer to all questions about the world. The institutions of the 7-day week and the Sabbath are holy.

I’m suggesting that this is a basic rule for Western Christendom. Any institution that is established in defiance of this rule is violating a fundamental spiritual principle of the civilization, and is in disharmony with it to that extent.

And what about Gene 2 = Episode 2? What is that? This gene is much shorter: it is the stretch of 6 verses running from Gen 2:4 to 2:9. Instead of quoting them I’ll give my own summary:

God has created every plant, but nothing grows because there is no water for the seeds, and no man to till the soil, so God causes the ground to be watered, and forms a man from soil, and places him in a garden in Eden, which contains every plant good to eat, plus the trees of life and of knowledge of good and evil.

And what is the point or theme of this episode? This is what I came up with:

Man is God’s creature and servant. His original and proper place is not in nature but in an enclosure devoted to the cultivation of food plants.

I hope it goes without saying that these are all drafts; they don’t represent my final determination of the content and meanings of the Bible’s episodes. Indeed, I think I’ve improved in my ability to summarize the episodes and to isolate their meanings as I have continued on. But these still give a pretty good picture.

Now one more step. When I finish a book of the Bible—a chromosome—I try to summarize its meaning as a whole. For it seems logical to me that each chromosome will have a meaning of its own that arches above the meanings of its individual episodes. When I finished the Book of Genesis, a book of 50 chapters, I found that it contained 118 episodes. What story are they telling? What is the meaning of Genesis as a whole, from a storytelling perspective?

This is what I came up with:

Genesis is the story of beginnings, from the world as it was fashioned by God, through the foundation of Israel in Jacob, to the formation of the perfect Israelite in Joseph. God’s chosen people now have their epitome and their paragon.

Personally, I think I’m on to something here. The Bible, of course, has already been extensively studied; indeed it is surely, by far, the most studied document on Earth. But an encounter with a work of literature, including sacred literature, is always a personal matter. Its quality is unique to the parties involved, just like a meeting between two people. I’m not a Jew or a Christian, and was not raised as either of these things, but I am a citizen of Western Christendom, and so I have as much skin in the game here as anyone. Purely by virtue of my place and time of birth, I have a stake in the Bible, and it has a stake in me, whether I wish it so or not. I have every reason to come to my own understanding of this document.

So that’s what I’m doing—and I’ve found my own way of doing it. It’s got me reading deeply and carefully, and I will be happy to share my discoveries along the way.

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chromosome 6—and other biblical topics

And now my flu is all but gone. I am in the long tail in which my lungs are gradually clearing themselves, and I’m building my strength back up. In all, it was not severe; it was mostly done in 7 days.

One blessing was that I was mostly able to continue my daily reading. It was somewhat curtailed, but I think every day I was able to read at least something. And as long as I can read, I feel that I’m living life more or less at the fullest!

In the Great Books section of my reading period I’m currently reading the Old Testament, specifically the Book of Joshua. I have my own code name for the Book of Joshua: “Chromosome 6.” And why might I call it such a peculiar thing, you ask? Well, that will take a little bit of explaining. Here goes.

Colored chromosomes, used to illustrate the idea that the books of the bible are analogous to chromosomes in the genome of western christendom.

Civilizations have genomes too.

The original inspiration lies in the writing of Arnold J. Toynbee, specifically his 12-volume masterwork, A Study of History, published between 1934 and 1961. I have not yet read the whole series, although I have read its 2-volume condensed version compiled by D. C. Somervell under Toynbee’s supervision—enough to be intrigued and inspired by Toynbee’s ideas. Toynbee had entered the rarefied field explored by such other thinkers as Ibn Khaldun, Giambatista Vico, Karl Marx, and Oswald Spengler: the field, namely, of seeking to explain how the overall pattern of human history unfolds. He was writing not history, but a kind of science of history. Toynbee, surveying the whole sweep of what is known of human history, found that the same events keep replaying themselves in similar patterns enacted by similar players, regardless of what period or continent might be involved in any given case. It’s a striking and amazing thesis.

The key, for Toynbee, was to isolate and identify the true subject of history: to whom, exactly, did these repeating cycles of history occur? Toynbee felt that most historians were led astray by looking at nations as the basic units of history. In his view, the true, natural unit of history is not the nation but the society or civilization. Ordinarily this is a bigger unit than the nation, and embraces several separate nations. The civilization is defined by a number of things, but, broadly speaking, it is a shared culture embracing a number of shared ideas and, in particular, a shared spiritual nucleus, or what Toynbee calls a church. It is this which gives a society its own individual stamp and its underlying sense of purpose.

Early in his work Toynbee makes a inventory of all the known civilizations to have existed on Earth, and comes up with the figure 21. He admits that this number can only be approximate, partly for the reason that records become scarce as we look farther back in the past. But as a provisional figure it gives us an idea of how many civilizations we’re talking about. And, in any case, only a handful of these still exist today.

The civilization we call “Western” Toynbee labels “Western Christendom,” underscoring his view that the core of a civilization is spiritual. For him, our “Western” civilization is, first of all, a product and extension of the Christian Church—specifically in its Western or Catholic form. For there is a parallel “Eastern Christendom,” based not on Catholic but on Orthodox Christianity, and this Eastern civilization embraces such nation states as Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Belarus, and Russia. In Toynbee’s view, if you were to travel through the various countries of Western Christendom (and these will now include Protestant countries as well as Catholic), you will be traveling through societies that, in a certain broad and deep sense, are similar to each other, despite superficial differences of language and custom. But when you pass from one of these countries into a country of Eastern Christendom, you will feel yourself passing into a more truly foreign regime: a place where the fundamental spiritual outlook is different.

I found all this to be exciting and provocative stuff while I was reading Toynbee. I had already determined that, as a writer of epic, my proper subject matter was no other than my civilization. For, according to the authors of The Epic Cosmos, this is exactly what epic is about: the birth and transformation of civilizations. And what civilization am I writing about? Well, surely, my own: Western Christendom. In fact I’m writing about its antecedents, the “Hellenic” and “Syriac” societies—but only because I’m dealing with beginnings. And in the beginning was the Word: the Word of God, in the form of his religion, his Church—and his Bible.

I had this thought: if a religion or Church forms the nucleus of a civilization, then that nucleus must house the “DNA” of that civilization, for, at the cellular level, that is what a nucleus does. And in the case of Christianity, its “DNA” will be contained in its canonical text, the Word of God: the Bible. The Christian Bible, comprising Old and New Testaments, runs to (let’s say) 66 books. If the Bible is the DNA of Western Christendom, then those 66 books start to look, to this poet’s eyes, anyway, temptingly like chromosomes: separate units of DNA, each with its own history and purpose.

Yes! I thought. I can decode the genome of my civilization by reading the Bible!

This was my idea. There’s more to this idea, of course, and I will talk about that in due course. But for now, I have explained how I have come to call the Book of Joshua “Chromosome 6”: for Joshua is the 6th book of the Bible.

Chromosomes, as we know, are made up of genes. Can the books of the Bible be looked at this way too? I think they can. These are the separate units of sense within each “chromosome.”

But that’s enough to start with for now. I am mapping the genome of my civilization by reading its sacred text. Doesn’t that sound like an interesting task?

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the cycles of life

I’ve got the flu. It’s had me out of commission for the past 6 days, but I am much better.

A view to lift the convalescing spirit

And today, Leap Day, is a perfect one for feeling better, since it is a gorgeous early-spring day. I’ve just taken a photo out my office window; that’s our patio out back, stuck with sunshine. I have not seen it thus for some time now. But this is my little corner of the world.

I’ve been lucky: my flu has not been severe enough to prevent me from reading, so I have been able to carry on with that (second?) most precious of activities. Last night I finished reading The Lunation Cycle, an astrology text by Dane Rudhyar (with a supplementary section written by his fourth wife, Leyla Rael Rudhyar).

One of the things it’s got me thinking about is the phenomenon of so-called secondary progressions: this is a technique of forecasting that looks at your life, treating each day after your birth as the equivalent of a year of life. The Moon, the swiftest of the planets, is the most important factor here, completing a full revolution every 29 to 30 days and thus illuminating a portion of one’s life extending 29 to 30 years. If you find the moment of the New Moon after your birth, then you have the beginning of a natural cycle of life—a true starting point for a 30-year cycle of development that will go through the archetypal phases of a cycle, as represented by the Moon with its changing phases.

I was born in 1959 under a Full Moon. The first progressed New Moon in my life happened in 1973 when I was 14. The seeds of my future were planted then. One thing that happened near that time, in 1972, was reading the novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which introduced me to literature as a higher art form. It wouldn’t be too strong or too poetic to say that it planted a seed. But, maybe even more than that, I got into film-making at around that time as well. Here too, the earliest experiments were probably in 1972, with my friend Brad and his 8mm Eumig home-movie camera. And it is quite possible that my progressed New Moon actually happened in 1972 rather than in 1973, which was the date I arrived at only by rough reckoning. Indeed, thinking about it, 1972 feels much more like a pivotal, “seed” year in my life.

Taking that as my New Moon year, then the following progressed Full Moon happened in 1988, which was the year that Warren Easton and I got our first television script produced: “What’s Wrong with Neil?”, a half-hour comedy for CBC’s Family Pictures anthology series. That fits very well with the symbolism of the Full Moon: a time of the full flowering of the seed planted at the New Moon. The boy playing with his friend’s family’s home-movie camera had turned into a professional in the TV industry.

And what about the next New Moon in my life? That would arrive in 2002. And what was happening then? Well, that was the year I went away to Gampo Abbey to study the Buddhist teachings. It was at the same time that I became committed to The Age of Pisces as my next major project. A ruptured Achilles tendon sent me home 6 months ahead of schedule—but eager to dive in on this new, vast project.

It was also close to that time—late 2003—that my friend Harvey Burt died, and my mother took on the project of transcribing the letters he had exchanged with his then lover, later wife, Dorothy. This project has now also become central to my writing enterprise.

The Rudhyars take care to emphasize that astrological progressions are not to be interpreted in the same way as so-called transits—the current movement of planets over sensitive points in one’s chart. Progressions are not so much about events as about the significance of events.  It’s more about the inward process of coming to understand one’s life and its purpose. One and the same event might mean very different things at different times.

Now I’m again in a “waning” period, progressed-Moon-wise. It’s a time of harvesting meaning from the cycle(s) thus far. As to that, I can only say I’ll do my best.

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enough to make the angels weep?

It’s a rainy Saturday morning here in North Vancouver, and I have just completed my morning typing session. Yes, typing, not writing—I start each day by typing the text I highlighted in the previous evening’s reading, or as much of it as I can. It’s my way of processing books.

Mosaic image of Dionysius the Areopagite

“I have but one head to give for my faith—or do I?”

The last thing I typed from this morning was the Leopold Classic Library edition of The Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius the Areopagite. It’s a large-ish, floppy, paper-bound print-on-demand facsimile edition of a book translated by the Reverend John Parker and published in 1894 by Skeffington & Son of London. The photocopy includes librarians’ markings here and there. I bought the book online last month as part of what I think of as my ongoing spiritual education. In case you don’t know, Dionysius’s Celestial Hierarchy is the main source of what knowledge we in the West have about angels. In this work he sets out to explain, from a Christian perspective, what angels are and how they are organized in the heavens.

I say “Dionysius,” but if you look up this work you will find that it is attributed to “Pseudo-Dionysius,” for it has been the scholarly consensus for centuries that the works attributed to the 1st-century saint was actually written by an unknown monk in the 5th century. On Goodreads, for example, the author of my book is given simply as “Pseudo-Dionysius.” I myself know nothing about the debate as to the authenticity of Dionysius’s works, but I was intrigued to discover that the translator of this edition, John Parker, is emphatic that the work is genuine, and he lays out a well-informed and, to this reader, strong argument in support of the notion that the works were written by no other than Dionysius the Areopagite, a distinguished and prominent Athenian who was personally converted to Christianity by the apostle Paul when he was in Athens in AD 49. Dionysius was baptized on October 3 that year, at age 44, and went on to become a priest and a trusted and valued confidant of Paul, Timothy, and other key Christians of the time. The epithet “the Areopagite” was due to the fact that Dionysius was a member of the 51-member Court of the Areopagus in Athens, a court of justice whose members were citizens distinguished for their birth, wealth, intelligence, and character. Among these, Dionysius appears to have been preeminent, or at least as one of special distinction. He was known as an author of philosophical works, and became entrusted with teaching new converts to Christianity.

Dionysius had a long and action-packed career that took him to Egypt, Gaul, Spain, and Asia. He attended, along with Paul, Peter, James, John and other apostles, the funeral rites of Mary mother of Jesus in Jerusalem in AD 54. For a long time he was stationed at Paris, teaching. After Hadrian became the emperor of Rome in 117, he sent the prefect of Gaul in 119 to bring Dionysius back to paganism—or to bring back his head instead. It’s reported that Dionysius, now aged 114, refused to convert, and thus lost his head. Montmartre in Paris is named for his martyrdom there.

Dionysius’s surviving works are all in the form of letters, the longer of which are addressed to Timothy, with others being addressed to Titus, Polycarp, and St. John. He states that the teaching on angels is from Paul. As Parker lays it out, the evidence against Dionysius being the author of the Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy is weak. Here, the simplest assumption is that the stated author is the actual author. Dionysius certainly appears to have been an extraordinary man, one who was intimately involved with the early formation of the Church and who was on close terms with some of its leading players. He is known to have spent time in Ephesus with John of Patmos, the author of Revelation. Is it really so hard to believe that he might be the author of a work on the angelic hierarchy?

I’m no expert, but to me it sounds perfectly credible. I wonder whether Dionysius has achieved a further feat: that of undergoing not one but two martyrdoms. His head was severed from him by Hadrian, and his works have been severed from him by a hostile posterity. Yes. Just as his namesake, the god Dionysus, was known as the “twice born,” St. Dionysius might be thought of as the “twice killed.”

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Heaven and Hell by Emanuel Swedenborg: what gives?

Heaven and HellHeaven and Hell by Emanuel Swedenborg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A one-of-a-kind work setting out the discoveries of an 18th-century Swedish scientist’s extended forays into the spirit realm. Swedenborg gives detailed descriptions of what happens to us after we die, and the process that leads to our being drawn to either heaven or hell as our ultimate and permanent destination.

Swedenborg, the son of a Lutheran bishop, presents an eschatology that is consistent with his faith. According to him, if you’re a Catholic you face serious obstacles to gaining entrance to heaven, even though God’s—or the Lord’s, to use Swedenborg’s preferred designation, apparently referring more especially to Jesus Christ—intention is for all people to be saved. You’re also in for an unpleasant surprise if you’re a Muslim, since you will discover that Muhammad can do nothing for you after all. You will be reeducated by angels who themselves were Muslims in earthly life, and will thus be able to gain entrance to heaven.

And what about other religions? What about atheists? According to Swedenborg, the way to heaven is open to all who practice a true religion—that is, one that embraces belief in a (the) supreme god. I couldn’t help but note that this appears to exclude Buddhism, which is not based on belief in a creator god. And yet Buddhists (and other atheists) are as capable of ethical behavior as anyone, and it is our behavior, or, rather, the intentions behind our behavior, that is key in determining our ultimate destination. It’s just that, according to this author, all loving acts stem from the Lord, since the Lord is love, and so apparently ethical behavior that does not come from faith in Him is actually hypocritical, since it is based on love for oneself or love for the world—perverted types of love that are the cause of all evil.

Against this, I note simply that loving-kindness and compassion are attitudes and practices that are taught by Buddhism, especially by Mahayana Buddhism, and are held to arise from the fundamental nature of mind and not due to one’s relationship with any god. As a Buddhist, am I in for a rude awakening after I die? Will I find that my face after death is turned not toward God, but away from him, and that I accordingly will have self-selected my fate to the underworld of the hells? There, because I am not especially aggressive or cunning, I would certainly find myself enslaved by those who have those traits, and there I would remain until . . . well, forever.

Sobering thoughts.

Personally, I have no doubt that Swedenborg is reporting real experiences. I believe that he did indeed make extensive tours of the spirit realm and have interactions with many spirits and angels (and angels, by the way, were all once human beings; it is a mistake to think that they were created by the Lord as a separate class of being—and the same goes for demons). There is consistency and profundity in what he records. The question then is about the status of his experiences: is he describing an objective reality, and, if so, is it the only objective reality?

If he is, then it seems to contradict, or at least differ from, the experiences of at least some other people who have also made forays to the spirit world. The American businessman Robert Monroe, in his book Journeys Out of the Body, describes journeying in at least three distinct astral realms. In one of these he experienced the presence of a great “Lord,” someone that all the people there bowed down to—as he did himself while he was there. But my sense here was that this Lord was more of a tyrant, someone who needed to be worshipped. But Monroe himself seems to have been basically a secular man, and his experiences were mainly secular ones.

Another traveler to the beyond was Betty J. Eadie, who, in her book Embraced by the Light: The Most Profound and Complete Near-Death Experience Ever, describes a days-long sojourn in the postmortem state after dying in a hospital. She is a Christian, and in the spirit realm she encountered Jesus. If I recall correctly, there are many points of similarity between her account and Swedenborg’s, but also many differences.

The Buddha himself is said to have had extensive visions of the cosmic order. In particular, shortly before his enlightenment he was able to see all of his previous births: each one individually, hundreds of thousands of them. He was also able to see the mechanism of karma: how people are propelled by it from one life to another, again and again, like balls in a pinball game. This was samsara, the endless round of birth, death, and rebirth: the endless round of suffering.

For Swedenborg there is no rebirth; our lives are one-shot deals. What about children who die? They are lovingly attended to by female angels and raised to adulthood in heaven. Since they spend so little time on Earth, and have a sure pass to heaven due to their relative innocence (although Swedenborg does discuss at length the difference between childhood innocence and true innocence, an adult quality that enables one to become an angel), their lives are among the most blessed. This should be a comfort to parents who have lost a child.

But is it true? I don’t know, and I have no way of checking it until I have astral experiences of my own—or until I die. Most of us are in this situation; we have to use our best judgment to prepare ourselves for whatever exists above and beyond the physical reality that we know, and after our present life. What is least prejudicial to our long-term welfare?

Swedenborg offers a comprehensive picture of the spiritual world, which includes many authentic-sounding details. If you ordered your life according to his vision, you would be a devout Christian, a Protestant, scrupulously ethical in your conduct and exhibiting high personal integrity—for he emphasizes this above almost anything else. In the spirit world, there are no hidden agendas and there is no hypocrisy; it is impossible to think one thing and say or do the opposite. There, for better or for worse, your heart is always on your sleeve, and can never be anywhere else. Everyone knows where everyone else stands. Indeed, this is why heaven and hell exist: they are the natural destinations of people whose motives are good and bad, respectively. In the spirit realm, our true inner selves are laid bare and we go to live among others like ourselves. So here in earthly life, it’s best to say and do good things because you really value God and really value your neighbor. That is the surest path to heaven.

Swedenborg’s book is well worth reading. At the very least, it will challenge your spiritual beliefs and assumptions, which to me seems inherently healthy. Whatever your beliefs about the afterlife are, why do you hold them? How strong is that basis? Here we have a man of integrity, a man of science, telling us plainly the results of hundreds or perhaps thousands of his own experiences with the spirit world, a place where he had much dialogue with angels and with the spirits of people he knew and people he didn’t. He saw the vast array of the heavens, and glimpsed the equally vast and dark array of the hells. The picture is consistent and detailed. It’s hard to ignore.

For my part, I will trust to whatever spiritual experience of my own that I have been able to have, which has been within the context of Buddhist practice. Unless the Lord sees fit to give me a clear vision to the contrary—as he apparently gave Swedenborg—this is my path. I intend to keep my mind open, along with my eyes and ears, and, moving forward thus, hope for the best. If there is a Lord in charge of it all, I’m hoping he’s a reasonable guy.

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the hermit (crab) comes out of his shell again

Today I finally caved and bought some new writing software. After spending a few days acquainting myself with a trial version of Scrivener, an all-purpose rough-draft-generating application produced by a writer-turned-developer (or vice versa) named Keith Blount in 2007, I decided to take the plunge today, paying $62 to turn my 30-day trial version into a lasting commitment. (One beef: I never found out the price of the product until I started the transaction to buy. I hate it when online vendors conceal the prices of their products.)

Scrivener screenshot

The next big thing (for me)?

To some extent this is an act of faith, since I can’t be sure that this product will work out for me and my specialized and large-scale needs. I may be a far-seeing visionary, but when it comes to the tools of my trade, or indeed to products and possessions generally, I tend to hang on to what I’ve got and keep using it while it is still serviceable. This minimizes my costs while also keeping my environmental footprint small. And it is efficient, for I am always using stuff that I know works; I also become adroit with it through long habituation. For me, it’s an arrangement that makes total sense: convenient, reliable, low-cost, low-stress.

But just as hermit crabs reach a point when, outgrowing their existing shell, they must abandon it and find a new one discarded by some bigger neighbor, so I too arrive at moments when I feel the need to upgrade.

Looking back, I see a life history punctuated with definite upgrades. Probably the first one was graduating from pencil to ballpoint pen. My little sister Mara and I were forbidden to use pens. The wild Schmidt boys across the street were allowed to use pens, and they wrote all over the walls. That wasn’t going to happen in our house. I don’t remember exactly when I graduated to a ballpoint pen for writing, but I expect it was in grade 4 (age 9), when I entered the hothouse school program called Major Works.

Next upgrade: a typewriter. I had wanted to be able to type for as long as I could remember, and enjoyed playing with the old manual typewriter at my father’s place. My aunt Jackie let me have the use of her portable manual Olivetti Underwood, and eventually gave me a little desk to put it on. When I entered grade 8 (age 13), I took a 5-month typing course and became a touch typist. I became proficient and eventually attained a speed of over 70 words per minute. It’s a skill I make use of every day.

Next: an electric typewriter. The year was 1984 and I was 25 and had a job at the Insurance Corporation of B.C., which paid quite well. I had also become a stringer for Cinema Canada, a magazine based in Montreal. I was submitting articles there and also wanted to do serious writing of my own; in my mind I was definitely a career writer. So I went up to Polson’s, a large office-equipment store on Broadway at Cambie Street, and bought myself a big, smooth-working typewriter, an All AS300 (it still rests under a dust cover on a nearby shelf). I paid about $640 for it—a substantial sum in those days. But I could afford it, I regarded it as a mark of my seriousness of purpose, and I never regretted it. It was and is a fine machine.

But it was the 1980s and a revolution was happening in computing: the personal computer had been born. I remember being sent on a training session at ICBC for a product called Microsoft Word. I loved being able to type onto a big, TV-style screen, to backspace, correct, cut, and paste. Wow! Now this was living! Between the corporate exercises I tried typing sentences from my own creative works; it was exciting to see  them appearing in white type on the black screen. When Warren Easton and I got our TV series The Odyssey into development in 1989, we bought a PC together, which lived in my home office, since that was where we worked. It contained a copy of Word much like the one I had been introduced to at the insurance corporation. Yahoo—I had upgraded again! That PC (I forget the brand) took us through The Odyssey.

I became accustomed to writing with a word processor. The 1990s came, and with them a strange new phenomenon called the Internet. People starting “surfing” something called the World Wide Web. By 2000 Kimmie and I decided that we wanted to see what all the fuss was about; we bought a new, Internet-capable computer, this time from Dell. I ordered it over the phone and it was delivered to my house—sweet! I plumped for the biggest monitor they offered, a 16-inch Trinitron, figuring I would get the biggest and the best (it cost around $1,000, as I recall) so that it might last while technology kept advancing around me. And it has—I’m staring into it right now as I type these words in 2020. No regrets. The computer came with Office 97, the latest offering by Microsoft at the time. This represented another writing-technology upgrade, but it was incremental rather than a game changer.

A few computers have come and gone since then, mostly boxes assembled from components in local computer stores, the most recent one a brand-new Hewlett-Packard offered by a generous friend who was winding up a computing business (thanks, Daniel). But I have installed my old copy of Office 97 on all these machines, because I was familiar with the software and because I could do so for free. My writing has rumbled on, powered by this technology. My magnum opus, The Age of Pisces, exists as a legion of Word documents in a Byzantine array of folders within folders. I keep track of it all in my head.

I first heard of Scrivener a few years ago, and had given it a couple of cursory looks online. I had tried a couple of other software packages, attracted by the idea of a single application that would help me manage all aspects of my writing projects, but these proved unsatisfactory and I retreated back to Word, which I know so well. The experiments cost me some lost time and effort. I decided to forget about “writing software,” thinking it to be perhaps a solution in search of a problem.

But my same tech-savvy friend Daniel gently suggested that I might want to give Scrivener a closer look, so I did. And I have decided to buy. Will this prove to be another technological upgrade for my personal writing craft—or another dry well which I will have to abandon? I’m guardedly optimistic. I think Scrivener is going to help me bring together my creative and organizational talents so that I can get my projects built and out the door.

Watch this space!

Full disclosure: the links on this page to Scrivener are affiliate links. That means whenever you click on one, you’ll be taken to the Literature and Latte website. Then, if you decide to buy Scrivener, I receive a small commission.

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