The Novel That Made Karen Armstrong Quit Her Reading Group

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “The Novel That Made Karen Armstrong Quit Her Reading Group”:

“The Cloud of Unknowing,” a 14th-century mystical text by an English monk who reminds us that we have no idea what God is, and the “Analects” of Confucius, pithy aphorisms on which I ponder if I cannot sleep.

“The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity,” by the anthropologist David Graeber and the archaeologist David Wengrow — an enthralling read. On almost every page, you are compelled to revise your view of the past and imagine new ways of organizing the present.

It changed not only my reading experience but my life. I did not find it in a novel, a poem or a philosophical treatise, however. Instead, I came upon it by accident in a dry, scholarly footnote in which the Islamist scholar Louis Massignon describes what he called “the science of compassion” — a knowledge that is derived not from abstruse study but is achieved by feeling with (Latin: com passus) others. When we encounter a spirituality that differs from our own and seems alien, Massignon explained, instead of simply dismissing it, we must ask ourselves how the writer came to have these ideas. We must acquaint ourselves in a scholarly fashion with the social, political, geographical, historical and philosophical context in which he lived and worked. And we must not leave this text, Massignon insisted, until we can honestly say that, in such circumstances, we would feel the same. In this way, he explained, we can broaden our horizons and make a place for the other in our minds and hearts. It is an ekstasis, a disciplined “stepping outside” of the self in a sensitive but informed identification with another — not an exalted trance, but an intellectual process that enables you to open your mind and heart to something that seemed initially alien.

Everybody has heard of the Tao Te Ching, the Taoist classic. Less well known, but equally important and far more accessible, is “The Book of Zhuangzi,” written in the fourth century B.C., which also enables the reader to become aware of the Tao, the sacred reality that permeates every aspect of life. Zhuangzi’s style is energetic, ebullient, bracing, humorous and accessible. The secret, he explains, is to let ourselves go, laying aside the ego that we cherish so diligently. We do this not by abstruse meditation; instead, we must focus on simple tasks so thoroughly and wholeheartedly that we forget ourselves and allow the qi, the sacred force that permeates the whole of reality, to take over. His heroes are not daunting, solitary mystics. Instead, Zhuangzi introduces us to ordinary people engaged in humdrum tasks who lose themselves so completely in their work that, without any great drama, they experience ekstasis. We meet a hunchback catching cicadas in the forest and a butcher carving an ox who have both, in their own way, touched the Tao, the ineffable source of life itself, by concentrating so intensely on their job that they have left themselves behind. This brings not only new insight but a great peace. Zhuangzi tells us that when Taoists quietly and gently discuss the Tao together, they simply look at one another and smile. There is no disagreement in their hearts, and so they become friends.

I think this must be Rumer Godden. She is rightly embarrassed about the film adaptation of her early novel “Black Narcissus,” but she later spent a long time talking to the enclosed Benedictine nuns of Stanbrook Abbey in Worcestershire, England, and thus learned a great deal about the monastic life, which she describes with sympathy and respect in “In This House of Brede.” It is a lovely book, but perhaps a little idealistic. Godden, who could only converse with the nuns through a grille, could not have experienced the inevitable difficulties of monastic life on the other side. Nuns are human beings like the rest of us. Like ourselves, they also experience clashes of personality, loneliness and even the pettiness that inevitably surfaces even in the noblest of people who live in proximity with one another.

I am going to call it “The Book of Paul.” I developed an admiration and affection for St. Paul while making a television series in the 1980s called “The First Christian,” about his life and work. As I got to know Paul, with the help of a distinguished New Testament scholar, he ceased to be an authoritarian, misogynistic figure but became instead a vulnerable, passionate and brilliant human being. Writing only 20 years after Jesus’ death, Paul is the earliest Christian author. But — an important point — he indisputably wrote only seven of the letters attributed to him in the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Thessalonians (but probably not the Second); Galatians; 1 and 2 Corinthians; Romans; Philippians; and Philemon. The other so-called “Pauline” epistles were far more conservative. Written after his death — some as late as the early second century — they were all trying to rein Paul in. Paul had believed that Jesus would return to earth in his own lifetime to establish the Kingdom of God — a new world order in which social distinctions of class, gender and race would be obliterated. “In Christ there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Jesus, of course, did not return in glory, and Christians decided that if they were to survive in Roman society, they needed a more conservative approach. But today, at this time of racial, social and economic inequality, we need Paul’s radically egalitarian voice.

My understanding of religion was transformed nearly 30 years ago by the great Muslim scholar and mystic Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240). Sadly, he is little known in the West. A truly religious person, he insisted in “Fusus al-Hikam,” was equally at home in a synagogue, temple, church or mosque, since no faith has the monopoly of truth:

“Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says, ‘Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.’ (Quran 2:115). Everybody praises what he believes; his god is his own creature and in praising it he praises himself. Consequently, he blames the beliefs of others, which he would not do if he were just, but his dislike is based on ignorance.”

I immediately copied this extract and pinned it onto the bulletin board beside my desk. It has remained absolutely essential to my work. When I am lecturing in Pakistan, for example, my host always tells me to finish by quoting these words and you can almost feel the relief in the room.

Years ago, I belonged to a reading group and on one occasion, at my suggestion, we discussed “A Fairly Honourable Defeat,” by Iris Murdoch, whose work I always enjoy. But the response was explosive. Even close friends were vitriolic in their disapproval, dismissed it as “evil,” and there was an upsetting aura of righteousness in the room. The book may not be a masterpiece, but it did not deserve this response. I have never returned to the book club.

People often tell me that they have read the Quran from cover to cover and found it boring, dogmatic and repetitive. But the Quran was not originally meant to be read — and like any great poetry, certainly not in translation. The word qur’ān means “recitation.” It makes sense only when you listen to it chanted by a skilled reciter; it is indeed repetitive but in rather the same way as variations in a piece of music, which subtly amplify the original melody, adding layer upon layer of complexity; these recurrent themes and images together with the emotive chant help people to slow down their mental processes and enter a different mode of consciousness. The effect is visceral — “a chill creeps over the skins of those who fear their Lord, and their skins and hearts soften at the remembrance of God.” (Quran 39:23) The American scholar Michael Sells describes what happens on a hot crowded bus in Alexandria when someone plays a cassette of Quranic recitations: “A meditative calm begins to set in. People relax. The jockeying for space ends. The voices of those who are talking grow quieter and less strained. Others are silent, lost in thought. A sense of shared community overtakes the discomfort” (“Approaching the Quran”).

I don’t think this would happen if a London bus driver played a cassette of Bible readings during the rush hour.

I have a large library on the third and fourth floors of my London house. (Novels are in my bedroom on the second floor). One whole wall, two stories high at the back of the house, is filled with shelves that tower over the staircase. At the top are my own books in foreign translation (I like to see them, even if I cannot reach or read them). On the lower, accessible shelves are books on ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, mythology, psychology and mysticism. On the top landing are books on philosophy and ancient Greece; my guest room has a whole wall devoted to poetry, biography, psychology, neurology and general history. And finally, in my study one wall is filled with books on Judaism, Christianity, Islam, reference books and dictionaries, and on either side of my computer desk are books on India and China.

This reminded me of an incident at Oxford University, when I was a student nun studying 18th-century literature under the eminent don Hugo Dyson. When I arrived in his study for my first tutorial, clad in my voluminous religious habit, and told him that I had chosen to write about Laurence Sterne’s blatantly erotic novel “Tristram Shandy,” Dyson looked not only surprised that I had this book on my shelf — but horrified: Would he have to enlighten this ridiculous girl on the facts of life? I had, of course, noticed the book’s eroticism, but I argued that to me the incessant digressions for which the novel is famous were a perpetual flight from death, as — day by day, hour by hour — we neurotically try to evade the specter of our mortality.

Dyson gave me an A.

Novels can serve a moral function by enabling us to enter the lives of others imaginatively. It is an ekstasis in which we step outside the self, leaving it behind, and embrace a different perspective — realizing, for example, the attractions of evil at the same time as we are made to recoil from it. Novels force us not only to face but to experience the terror of illness, sorrow, poverty and infirmity. They enhance our compassion by compelling us to feel with others, taking us out of the comforts of solipsism.

My guests would be Confucius, Jesus, the Buddha and Muhammad, because I would like them to tell me what they appreciated in each other’s teachings, what they had in common and what was most needed in our world today.

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