Thursday, 28 June 2007

Inverting the Impossible

Call it synchronicity or coincidence but I have a theory about books. They come to you at the right time. Sometimes a volume can lie on my shelf, forgotten or neglected, for years on end. Then, when I finally get round to reading it, I realise that if I had opened it even a month beforehand I could not have understood its message with the same profundity.

You might argue that people just leave things until they are interested in reading them. Then, lo and behold, they find their views magically reflected in the pages. But in many cases I simply have no idea - or even the wrong idea - about what a book is really going to be about before I've read it. How often do we buy something because of the back-page blurb only to discover that it bears little or no ressemblence to the content?

Anyway, to preface the remarks that follow I'd like to say I'm not religious in any orthodox way. I don't even have 'a' religion, per se. But I am fascinated by the search for truths, however unpleasant they may happen to be (I'm not afraid of the idea that God doesn't exist, like some agnostics, for example: I would just like to know one way or the other so I can live accordingly).
On a related note, I'm appalled by the relativist idea that all choice, in the end, is arbitrary. It is this idea, I think, that makes atheism so difficult to live with conceptually. Because it implies that nothing we do, say, think, or feel in this life has any intrinsic value. And when life loses its value then human beings find it very difficult to get out of bed. Just ask manic depressives.

Some people think that is nonsense. Indeed, they argue that arbitrary choice is actually liberating since it frees them from guilt, responsibility, and the burden of choosing well. For me, by contrast, free choice of this kind is no choice at all, since it merges into preference which is often no more than a physical response to one's environment. Which is fine, except that it makes me wonder what human beings have such heightened intelligence and emotions for, if they cannot be used for anything greater than improving our personal comfort.

Anyway, in the course of my reflections, I stumbled across a book called Shantaram: the real-life tale of an Australian convict and heroin addict who escapes from his high security prison to Bombay, where he acts in Bollywood, joins the mafia and ends up fighting for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. (I know, it doesn't sound like a real story but just check out this guy's bio). I only decided to read it because I am going to India in a few weeks and someone I know recommended it.

I was expecting something like a memoir-version of The Beach. What I got was very different.
Some passages, in particular, I found highly persuasive and reminded me of conversations and experiences I had in the past with a vaguely sufistic friend at university. Here they are for your edification and critical commentary:

"The truth is found more often in music than it is in books of philosophy...the truth is that an instant of real love, in the heart of anyone - the noblest man alive or the most wicked - has the whole purpose and process and meaning of life within the lotus-folds of its passion. The truth is that we are all, every one of us, every atom, moving toward God...There is no believing in God. We either know God, or we do not". .

Sound like inane spiritual gak of the type Westerners typically go to India to absorb? Read on.

Abdel Khader Khan, the mafia lord and slum baron, notes that certain things are knowable and real without being tangible. And that the opposite holds true for the facts and objects we consider concrete and verifiable.

He says, "the energy that actually animates the matter and the life that we think we see around us cannot be measured or weighed or even put into time, as we know it. In one form, that energy is photons of light. The smallest object is a universe of open space to them, and the entire universe is but a speck of dust . What we call the world is just an idea . and not a very good one, yet . From the point of view of the light, the photon of light that animates it, the universe that we know (ie the things that human beings perceive) is not real. Nothing is."

By contrast, "We can know God, for example, and we can know sadness. We can know dreams, and we can know love. But none of these are real, in our usual sense of things that exist in the world and seem real. W cannot weigh them, or measure their length, or find their basic parts in an atom smasher....there is another reality, beyond what we see with our eyues. You have to feel your way into that reality with your heart. There is no other way":

I share this sentiment. Sometimes, a feeling takes you - I guess love for a person is one example - and transforms your heart, your actions, and your state of mind. It differs qualitively from your everyday understanding of the world, and is so intangible it is easy to believe that - when it drifts far away from you, or fades into your memory - that it did not, could not, exist. And yet when you experience it, it is overwhelmingly and completely real. More real, even, than the world that habitually surrounds us.


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