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Posts Tagged ‘The Renaissance’

It’s fatal when I’m left to wait with time on my hands near a book shop, especially with three book tokens burning a hole in my wallet – well, it’s perhaps more accurate to say they were making it too thick to fit comfortably into my pocket. I had nearly half-an-hour to kill within one hundred yards of a Waterstones. I gravitated first towards my usual ground floor book-stacks – Smart Thinking, hoping I’d learn how to do it one day, and Biography. Zilch. History was tucked into a corner to my left. I usually don’t bother. History books bore me as a general rule.

Not this time. For some reason one book I wasn’t remotely looking for leapt out at me: The Islamic Enlightenment. I pulled it down and skimmed the inside of the dust cover. I saw the words ‘brave radicals like Iran’s first feminist Qurrat al-Ayn.’ I flipped to the index. ‘Baha’ism 144-147.’ 

Having declared the redundancy of the Muslim clergy, Bahá’u’lláh and his son and successor, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, proposed one of the most enlightened social systems of the time.

I quickly Googled for reviews and came across this one from the Guardian. There were clearly many other good reasons to buy this book, which is lying on my desk at this very moment along with several others, waiting its turn to be read in a rather long queue. Below is a short extract from the review: for the full post see link.

A celebration of an age of reformers in Istanbul, Cairo and Tehran provides a powerful corrective to lazy, prejudiced thinking.

Fifteen years ago, I sought out the oldest surviving folios of Plato’s philosophy. My hunt took me first to the Bodleian library in Oxford, and then past vats of indigo and pens of chickens in the souk in Fez, through the doors of al-Qarawiyyin mosque and up some back stairs to its archive storeroom. There, copied out and annotated by the scribes of al-Andalus, was a 10th-century edition of Plato’s works: in my hands was evidence of a Renaissance, in Islamic lands, three centuries before “the Renaissance” was supposed to have happened.

The jibe too often heard today that Islam is stuck in the dark ages is simplistic and lazy – as evidenced by this vigorous and thoughtful book about Islamic peoples’ encounters with western modernity. One of the pertinent questions Christopher de Bellaigue asks is: did a rational enlightenment follow on from Islam’s deep-rooted interest in the works of Plato and other classical philosophers? The answer he gives is: yes, in certain places and at certain times.

The author has a keen eye for a story, and our companions as we follow his argument are those vivid heroes (and occasionally heroines) who had the vision and the guts to bring about reform. The narrative takes us through Napoleonic Egypt, Tanzimât Istanbul and Tehran in the 19th century, and the swirl of nationalism and counter-enlightenment beyond. De Bellaigue makes it clear that in the Islamic east, after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, a lot happened – in some cases reformation, enlightenment and industrial revolution – in very little time. The telegraph appeared within a heartbeat of the movable-type printing press; trains arrived at the same time as independent newspapers. Many of the challenging concepts being gingerly embraced by Islamic pioneers were also being given a name for the first time in the west – “human rights” in the 1830s, feminism in the 1890s. The tsunami of modernity was both thrilling and fearful.

On occasion, as with the Albanian-born Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt and the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II, the enlighteners were “both modernisers and martinets”. Often they died for their ideas. The story of the Persian feminist-martyr Fatemeh Zarrin Taj Baraghani [Qurrat al-Ayn], who read too much, wrote too much and, veil-less, promoted the social vision of the Bahá’ís (a united, anti-nationalist, monolingual world), is poignantly told. As well as big history analysis there are delightful incidental details. Egyptians, for instance, were horrified to discover that Napoleon’s troops trod on carpets with their boots and didn’t shave their pubic hair – at a time when Egypt was instituting such hygiene reforms as the fumigation of letters before delivery.

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Dream GameNow that I appear to have made some progress in developing a closer relationship with my Parliament of Selves, it seems a good time to try and talk to them in more detail about learning to reflect more effectively. The trouble is I can’t find them in dreamland anymore. Since they faded away after our encounter with Indira Pindance, they have been conspicuous by their absence, both in meditation and sleep. Part of the reason for this may be that my dreams in general are more elusive. On waking I seldom remember more than a rapidly evaporating fragment.

That’s why I have pulled my battered copy of The Dream EaswaranGame by Ann Faraday off my dream book shelf. If Eknath Easwaran’s book is my Tao Te Ching on meditation, then The Dream Game is the Analects of my dream world. I decide to follow her advice (page 43):

People frequently complain that dreams are not coming to them as much as they would like, and when I ask are they writing them down, they plead that other obligations have been too pressing – to which I answer that your dreaming mind knows very well how seriously you are taking it and reacts accordingly.

She’s nailed it. I’ve been far too busy to pay attention to my dreams, let alone go to all the trouble of writing them down. Part of the problem is unavoidable. I have commitments to keep. But part of it is self-inflicted. I have so many interests. I am constantly beset by the fear that if I don’t keep reading new stuff on a favourite topic I’ll not KUTD – sorry, keep up to date – so not only do I fail to go deeply enough into what I’m reading about, but I also distract myself constantly from things that are probably more important.

Ring and BookSo, straightaway, after reading Faraday’s words, I promise my dreaming mind I will really listen tonight, and write down what I see and hear. To help, as I settle in bed, I pick up my copy of The Ring & the Book, Robert Browning’s novel in verse, a breath-taking and brilliant exploration of a series of dramatic historical events in 17th century Rome.

The last time I was reading it some days ago, I had just finished Book VI of the twelve, which is Giuseppe Caponsacchi’s movingly sympathetic account of the events that led to the mortal wounding of Pompilia, and the stabbing to death of her adoptive parents. I have put off reading Book VII till now. It is the dying Pompilia’s version of events. I thought a bit of previously avoided heart-rending reading might stir me to pay more attention to my unconscious mind’s creativity.

I am just seventeen years and five months old,
And, if I live one day more, three full weeks.

As usual, right from the first words, Browning’s empathic magic has captured me in his narrative grip. Even so I eventually become too tired to read more. I switch off the light and remind my dreaming mind of my sincere intentions.

It doesn’t take long. Soon, I find I am walking with Frederick Mires, my psychology-mad alter ego, and William Wordless, my poet manqué persona. The others are nowhere in sight right now.

Redwood Grove

We’re on a path in Queen’s Wood, I think, near the stand of California Redwoods, except that their trunks are purple and the needles of their leaves orange. We’re heading for the cafe at the car park.

‘You’re looking a bit upset,’ I say to Mires who’s been walking silently with his face twisted into a two-year-old’s sulk.

‘You’re throwing books away again,’ he spits, facing me fiercely as he says it.

‘Why would that worry you,’ I ask. ‘You’re always rushing from one book to the next, never going back once you’ve squeezed all the juice you can find at the time into the blog.’

‘You never know when you might need to go back to a book again to check a point or fill out the argument.’

‘What are you going to do with your poetry books?’ Wordless asks with a worried expression on his face. ‘They’re the only ones worth keeping. You can read them over and over again and still find new meanings in them. Novels and text books – once read and completely digested, chuck ’em away.’

‘It’s hard going, but I am slowly working out which books are worth keeping because I really will need them again, and which books were a one-time only read. It’s often a question of whether there are any highlights or scribbled notes in the book at all. If not, and I’ve obviously read it, I’m not likely to read it again. I just don’t have the space to hold all my books accessibly. Some of them are double-stacked.’

I don’t mention my feelings of guilt at being a bookaholic hoarder.

‘You’ll live to regret it,’ Mires warns. ‘You’ve done this before remember, and wished you hadn’t when you needed a book you’d discarded.’

‘The point is,’ I insist, ‘that even if I live another 15 years or more, with over a thousand books, I’d have to read at the rate of over a book a week, just to savour all my old ones all over again. And many of them would take more than a week to read. And what about the new books I’ll find that I want to read?’

‘You’re not understanding my point.’ Mires has the bit between his teeth. ‘You won’t need to re-read the whole book if all you require is to check out a reference in it. But if you haven’t got it you’ll waste a lot of time chasing it up again.’

‘Why don’t you simplify things and just do what I suggest. Keep all your poetry books and throw away the rest.’ A massive grin spread over Wordless’s face. ‘My gift for rhyme is returning!’

Broad and Deep01‘Now you’re the one who is missing the point. Look, both of you. The issue is this. I have a broad range of interests – mind, nature, science, literature, art, history, religion, mysticism, near death experiences, politics, biography, music, to name only the most obvious. It’s almost too broad, as I want to explore most of these topics in depth. To really go deep I have to narrow my focus and specialise. To cover a broad area of interest, which is what I really want to do, I have to be relatively shallow. So, I keep rushing from book to book most of the time, never really taking the time to savour any of them properly. But I don’t like narrow or shallow. I want broad and deep. I want to have the best of both worlds. I want to have my cake and eat it too, I guess.’

‘The days when that was possible are long gone,’ Mires retorts. ‘Goethe was probably the last great poet who could also be a real scientist. Knowledge has expanded too much. There’ll be no more Renaissance minds from now on, I think. If you try, you just end up a Jack of all trades and master of none. And let’s face it Goethe was a genius, and you’re not. That’s one of the many reasons I keep focused on psychology and try to forget the rest.’

‘And why I concentrate only on poetry,’ Wordless can’t resist chipping in.

‘But you’re both a part of me and that’s the problem, don’t you see?’

They glumly have to agree and they don’t like it. To please them both, I have to spread myself too thin and do broad and shallow. Very frustrating!

‘And when we finally meet up with Emma and Chris it’ll only get worse. She’s into social action and politics, and Chris is fixated on mystical states. I’m not sure about Indira. I don’t know her too well as yet.’

I pause for breath, trying to let my mouth catch up with my mind. ‘This is why we need to find another way of experiencing things. That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to learn how to reflect better, so I can extract every possible drop of meaning from every moment, whether it’s from a book, a conversation, a new place or whatever.’

‘Here we go again. Back on the reflection bandwagon,’ Mires mocks.

Just at that point we join the main path back to the cafe, with the games and picnic area on our left and the redwood grove in the middle distance on our right. It’s a cold day for the picnic area, which must be populated only by those with Scandinavian ancestry. As we look ahead we see Indira Pindance, our vulnerable new friend, and Emma Pancake, activist and pamphleteer, huddled at a table near the cafe wall, out of the wind, using steaming cups to warm their hands. They appear to be waiting for us.

(To be continued next Monday)

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