Selected Non-Fictions

No, i haven’t bought it yet (as the extra discount only kicks in on the first of each month,) but i smuggled it out of the bookstore, as i had to skim some of the essays that caught my eye last night. Borges should have invented hypertext and blogging, as i’d swear that i’ve read someone else assert. It’s bending the gears of my brain to shift from book and film reviews, to the nature of Hell, obscure details of mystic texts, and national character. He doesn’t slip from voice to another between his different subjects, addressing everything with equal familiarity and no condescension to his reader. There seems no dividing lines for any discipline. It’s overwhelming.

Archaeologists to seek “Kyrgyz Atlantis”

Found this one on Archaeology News (another daily check-in) but cannot see any hint in the original story that lends to the assertion that this would be a medieval city. This “Kyrgyz Atlantis” label is a little silly, and i doubt whether this is one of those fantastic lost advanced civilizations that i wish that would turn up, but it’s certainyl older than just a few centuries. I know almost nothing about Kyrgyzstan, other than it being part of Tamerlane’s old stomping grounds. Betcha this predates this one by far. Those bronze cauldrons used in sacrifice seem to point to that.


I made it further into Hedin’s book, to find that the major episode in which he nearly died in crossing the Takla-makan desert. The lost city that he found there later was the one where Aurel Stein later discovered manuscripts in the lost Tocharian language. This town submerged beneath Lake Issyk-kul could be a remnant of the Kushan empire. Then this page turned up, describing great cities there in that desert, and the great clashes between the Tibetan and Chinese armies in the 9th century. Maybe the Lake Issyk-kul town is medieval. Sorry. Still, it mildly surprises me that the Hedin book is covering this exact territory.

The Library of Sir Thomas Browne

Just a little more pointless Borges fandom.

In clicking about the Wikipedia (where i’ve been hanging out all too often online, even though i contribute absolutely nothing to it,) I stumbled on this entry. The library itself no longer exists. The only reason why we know what it consisted of today is because its contents were auctioned off in 1711. It was not that large of a private library, 1500 titles, and it was not the most exotic one to exist, but it serve as an exceptional example of a well-balanced mind.

The entry says that Borges was an admirer of Thomas Browne.

I think that i’ve only heard of a third of the authors (and never knew or heard the titles of the books that they wrote) and have read only a handful of those… and have no great comprehension of anything beyond Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Milton. Ouch.

yet another reason to bristle at the smugness of NPR

A bad habit that i’ve developed since NPR has gone to an all specialty show format is actually listening to it all day. It’s a more middlebrow version of talk radio, i know. Sometimes there are even discussions that actually interest me, but most of the time, i’m just paying attention to which way a story is being spun. I’m not going to forget for a long time just how uninformed Neal Conan was when a caller stated that Cheney was supposed to head a task force on terrorism that never met before 9/11, but Conan shut him down, saying that this was not true, as it would have come out before now… except this had always been out in the open. Conan was just utterly unprepared to lead any discussion on such a topic.

Yesterday, Conan was scoffing mildly at how silly sci-fi fans could believe that anything that goes through a black hole could wind up in another universe. Fine, that’s his opinion, but he managed to hinge it on Hawking’s pronouncement that information can be transmitted from black holes, that the matter is not destroyed, or shunted off into those other universes, but just trapped. He even said that one cannot argue with a statement by Hawking, so it must be true. Was that fucker paying attention? Hawking was announcing that for thirty years he had been wrong. Why should anyone take anything Hawking says as an absolute truth?

At least Hawking has more credibility than Conan. I never heard him do a followup on his rejection of the existence of the Cheney terrorism task force. Why do we trust these guys?

Black Madonna

I read on a few websites that the Chartres Cathedral was built on a shrine to the Black Virgin. Umberto Eco even has one of his characters mention this in Foucault’s Pendulum. Who is she? What is she? I don’t believe for a moment that she is Mary, mother of Jesus, or Mary Magdalene either. She’s certainly pre-Christian. Some people suggest that she is a representation of Isis brought back from Egypt by the Templars, but that seems unlikely, as that does not fit inside the time frame either. A few people even childishly pretend that they were originally white, but have been blacked by smoke and grime over the years.

This page seems to be balanced well enough, without veering into flakiness.

Invisible Cities: a review

I read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in Venice. The book is short and the concept is rather abstract, so the environment I found myself in lent itself quite well to Calvino’s flights of fancy.

I have heard Calvino referred to as “the poor man’s Borges”. I think it was Anthony Burgess who called him “Borges on a bad day”. I find these comparisons rather harsh. Calvino and Borges, while both writing fiction that deals with the fantastic and the abstract, have totally different styles. Borges was more of a minimalist than Ray Carver and his stories dealt with concepts like time, eternity, and myth from the perspective of the interested but aloof (and skeptical) observer. Calvino’s fictions are full of whimsy and wonder. They have the feel of fairy tales where Borges’ stories read like wonderfully erudite newspaper articles. Perhaps that is going too far, but to suggest that Calvino was the lesser writer because he was unable to grapple with the “Big Questions” as authoritatively as Borges did is nonsense.

Before I get to the actual review, I would like state that Borges is certainly my favorite of the two, but this is not due to any percieved superiority of craft. With Milorad Pavic, I assert that Borges was the best reader of the last hundred years. A reader who happened to have the ability to succinctly and capably share his interests, much to the benefit of all readers.

Invisible Cities is a book with only two characters. Well, three. The bulk of the text sees Marco Polo recounting his travels to various fantastic cities to the emperor Kublai Khan. The emperor eagerly listens to the foreigner describe cities that are by turns appalling, wonderful, unbelieveable, and tragic. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Polo is in reality describing only one place.

The chapters are all quite short, and each chapter consists of Polo’s recollection of a single city. These recollections in turn fall under one of several headings, including “Cities and Memory”, Cities and Desire”, “Cities and Signs”, “Thin Cities”, “Trading Cities”, “Cities and Death”, “Cities and Eyes”, Cities and Names”, “Cities and the sky”, etc. etc. Many of these headings are repeated throughout the book, with each city described shedding new light on the theme. Interspersed throughout are the thoughts of the Emperor, who is presiding over a dying Empire. He debates whether Polo is humoring him with these fantastic tales or if the foreigner wishes to illustrate something more meaningful with his memories. The reader, however, soon learns that Polo (Calvino) is trying to tell us all something. The Khan’s empire is our planet, and both appear to be dying out. The final passage is key:

And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

Lost Christianity: A review

Lost Christianity by Jacob Needleman served to occupy me on the agonizingly long plane ride to Europe and throughout my stay in Rome. The book is wonderful. When I finished it, I wished that I had read it before I devoted years of my young life reading texts on mysticism and “inner Christianity”, often without context. The book is accessible, cogent, and even somewhat exiting at parts. Needleman manages to infuse his writing with a sense of intellectual tension, and as a reader, that often translates into something akin to suspense. I’m a little leery of using words like “tension” and “suspense” in this review, because I do not want to mislead someone into thinking that the book is some sort of intellectual adventure story. It is not. Neither is it a dry, academic affair that reads like a monograph. It manages to strike a readable balance between the two, and this balance makes it the perfect introduction (that I have encountered thus far) to the subject of an inner or esoteric dimension to Christianity.

Needleman, it must be noted, is not a “crackpot”. The danger one encounters when reading books of this kind is that, more often than not, some loopy author is trying to prove that this or that heretical sect was the TRUE Christianity and the evil institutional Church violently and mercilessly supressed them for material reasons, thus snuffing out the TRUE Christian message. Many works dealing with Christian mysticism (especially today, given the recent boom in interest about gnosticism due to the popularity of The Da Vinci Code and the works of Elaine Pagels) fall into the “pseudo-scholarship/conspiracy theory” category. It is important, therefore, to recognize a dependable, readable, and balanced introduction to the subject. This, my friends, is it.

Needleman begins with an overview detailing his entry into the subject (interesting in itself since he is Jewish), then proceeds to profile three Christians whom he sees as living the “Lost Christianity”. The first is Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, an Orthodox bishop whose own book Beginning to Pray I highly recommend, the others are a Catholic priest named Fr. Vincent and an Orthodox monk named Fr. Sylvan. The latter receives the most attention, as he wrote extensively on inner Christianity in manuscript and posthumously sent these writings to Needleman. Needleman uses these men to elucidate the characteristics of his “lost Christianity”. The book continues with a discussion of the “lost doctrine of the soul”. Other Christians are profiled, including Thomas Merton and Fr. Thomas Keating. Gurdjieff even shows up.

Overall, I think the book is an excellent introduction to the subject. The one gripe I have is that there is no bibliography that the interested reader may use to follow up on some of the themes discussed .