Seeds, Spheres (and an Egg)

“But where does it all get you in the end?”
The Consul sipped his strychnine that had yet to prove its adequacy as a chaser to the Burke’s Irish
(now perhaps in the garage at the Bella Vista).
“The knowledge I mean.  One of the first penances I ever imposed on myself was to learn the philosophical section of War and Peace by heart.  That was of course before I could dodge about in the rigging of the Cabbala like a St Jago’s monkey.  But then the other day I realized that the only thing I remembered about the whole book was that Napoleon’s leg twitched – “

Under The Volcano – Malcolm Lowry (1947)

After goodness knows how many years, this summer I finally managed to pluck up the nerve and get stuck in to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano.  It was well worth the effort, although I did need to read some of the chapters twice to get to grips with them and when I finished the book I went straight back to the beginning and re-read chapter one, by which time it almost made sense to me!  But it’s just that kind of a book, a phantasmagorical voyage through realms of dream and reality, where you can never be totally sure which is which, or where you are in the story or the characters’ psyches. I’m glad in a way that it took me so long to get around to reading it, as I was able to look back at my own life through the uniquely-shaped and tinted lens of The Consul, which proved illuminating to say the least! Don’t be fooled by his alcoholic stupor, the man has the insight of a mage!

I couldn’t have got as much out of the book as I did without the textual support of the Otago website, an extension and development of A Companion to ‘Under The Volcano’ by Ackerley and Clipper, Douglas Day’s biography and Perle Epstein’s The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry, a fascinating study of Malcolm Lowry’s interest in the Kabbalah and its all-pervasive influence upon the text of Under the Volcano. Epstein’s book set me off along another path, via Lichtenstein’s and Sinclair’s Rodinsky’s Room and Weiner’s 9½ Mystics to end up on the verge of attempting yet another book that I have put off reading since I was in my twenties, namely The Family Mashber by Der Nister (The Hidden One). This tome appears to be Dostoyevskian in scope and with the Yiddish flavours of an I.B. Singer; whose Collected Stories I have been rereading through the autumn, and what a delight that has been! I am hoping that my tentative glimpses of the mystical orchard that is the Kabbalah will help me to comprehend some of the more complex aspects of this masterpiece as well. My latest read in that field (orchard, field: make your mind up!) is The Essential Kabbalah, by Daniel Matt, which I have only just begun but have already found a juicy apple of a quote to add here:

An impoverished person thinks that God is an old man, with white hair, sitting on a wondrous throne of fire that glitters with countless sparks,
as the Bible states:
“The Ancient-of-Days sits, the hair on his head like clean fleece, his throne – flames of fire.”
Imagining this and similar fantasies,
the fool corporealizes God.
He falls into one of the traps that destroy faith.
His awe of God is limited by his imagination.
But if you are enlightened, you know God’s oneness; you know that the divine is devoid of bodily categories – these can never be applied to God.
Then you wonder, astonished: Who am I?
I am a mustard seed in the middle of the sphere of the moon, which is itself a mustard seed within the next sphere.
So it is with that sphere and all it contains in relation to the next sphere.
So it is with all the spheres – one inside the other – and all of them are a mustard seed within the further expanses.
And all of these are a mustard seed within further expanses.
Your awe is invigorated,
the love in your soul expands.

Abraham Abulafia (13th Century),
from The Essential Kabbalah
Daniel C. Matt
HarperCollins 1995

Daniel Matt’s book reminds me of those of Coleman Barks and Stephen Mitchell. After a knowledgeable but straightforward introduction, which demonstrates his passion for the subject as much as his erudition, he proffers a carefully chosen, hand-picked selection of the choicest fruits of mystical wisdom. These are presented without dates or authors or texts or other references which may distract your ‘accounting mind’: all the relevant information is to be found at the back of the book. It is here perhaps where the main difference between Barks/Mitchell and Daniel Matt are to be found: their playful and ebullient style of notation is missing. But overall one is left with the same sense of having been lifted into the higher spheres of emotional and intellectual experience as one enjoys by reading The Essential Rumi, say, or the Tao Te Ching.

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