The Contemplative Life -- Pt. II

It took me a couple of weeks to finally paint in all the corners I needed to repost John Reilly's review of St. Teresa's The Interior Castle. Sure, I could have just slapped it up here, but I like to preserve the web of links John made within all of his works. It produces something like a wiki-walk. Maybe when I'm done with the reposting project I will do a network analysis of John's HTML files and see how it matches up with my own impressions.

The reason I wanted to return to John's luminous review of St. Teresa's signature work is that I was struck by the similarities in Scott Alexander's book review of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. I have fond memories of Theravada Buddhism from my college years. I won a writing award in college for an essay, "Inescapable Beliefs," which dealt with my fascination with Buddhism, and my conviction that it could never replace Christianity in my heart. That particular bit of juvenilia should probably stay right where it is, but I look back on it now as a turning point in my life.

My later college obsession with Japanese culture provided an introduction to Mahayana Buddhism that only reinforced my Chestertonian impression that Christianity speaks best to the universal human longing for God that is expressed in multitudinous ways. Which brings me to the contrast between The Interior Castle and Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.

The first thing I noticed was not in fact the differences, but the similarities. John says:

There is a science of mystical experience. The Interior Castle is one of the key sources of its data; so are Teresa's earlier works, including the Life and The Way of Perfection.

He goes on to note:

Even a cursory familiarity with the literature of mysticism will find resonances in this work. This reviewer was surprised to discover how much of this book's advice about prayer and the dangers of the advanced spiritual life is echoed in C.S. Lewis's most popular work, The Screwtape Letters. Lewis was familiar with the literature of mysticism, of course, but that is unlikely to be the whole explanation. Serious spirituality is an empirical enterprise; people who have experienced its effects will recognize them in the accounts of others who have experienced them.

The kinds of experiences described by mystics seem to be somewhat independent of their cultural context. This implies a common psychological/neurological framework within which they occur. I can see a plausible argument to be made that this explains religion. I think it to be false, but I can at least see where people are coming from. 

Following Chesterton, and St. Thomas, I see this is evidence that we are are all looking for something that we lack, something that transcends our human particularities, a something best found in Christianity. Part of what makes me think so is the different impressions I get from St. Teresa's book on mystical experiences, and Ingram's. My impressions here are colored by what I learned about Theravada Buddhism in college, so I would be interested to hear otherwise.

So far as I know, the state of nirvana is the ultimate goal of Buddhists. Mystical experiences brought about by meditation, as described by Ingram, are really just part of the path to achieving release from the self. St. Teresa, on the other hand, says nothing of the sort:

We should note that nowhere does Teresa suggest that the contemplative path is necessary for salvation, or even peculiarly helpful for it. 

Ordinary sanctity is something quite different in Christianity from the ultimate goal in Buddhism. It is far easier to achieve, and accessible to humbler people. This perhaps is why Thérèse of Lisieux, sometimes referred to as St. Thérèse the Little Flower, a nun of the same order as her namesake, is so popular. The heroic spirituality of Teresa of Avila is out of the reach of ordinary people. The severe discipline described by Ingram seems similar. The Little Flower shows us another way.

I sometimes describe myself as religious, but not not spiritual. Reading these parallel book reviews reinforces this in me. The way in which "enlightenment" overlaps with ordinary mental illness is particularly intriguing. Both Ingram and St. Teresa describe things that seem very much like common mental problems, and Alexander is particularly good at identifying these things. It isn't at all clear that the enlightenment Ingram describes is actually desirable. St. Teresa at least does a better job of selling it. However, each path is frankly described in terms that make it seem more than a little crazy.

Furthermore, the things Alexander describes as in his book review as things to be overcome via meditation seem more like features than bugs to me. 

Taken seriously, it suggests that some of the most fundamental factors of our experience are not real features of the sensory world, but very strong assumptions to which we fit sense-data in order to make sense of them. And Ingram’s theory of vipassana meditation looks a lot like concentrating really hard on our actual sense-data to try to disentangle them from the assumptions that make them cohere.
In the same way that our priors “snap” phrases like “PARIS IN THE THE SPRINGTIME” to a more coherent picture with only one “the”, or “snap” our saccade-jolted and blind-spot-filled visual world into a reasonable image, maybe they snap all of this vibrating and arising and passing away into something that looks like a permanent stable image of the world.

In particular, I've never understood the obsession with the saccade among rationalists. This is clearly a feature of our brains that enables sense perception to better match reality than the unfiltered optic nerve data would be be. If you break it, you wouldn't be able to function well, which seems to be what happens if you go too far down the meditation rabbit-hole.

The lesson I took from this is that the spiritual life is not for everyone, and can have some strongly negative consequences for the unwary. Religion, on the other hand, is accessible to everyone. I'll stick with religious, but not spiritual.

The Long View: The Interior Castle

This luminous review of St. Teresa's The Interior Castle finally brings me full circle, back to the mysteries of human experience, and the unity of mystical experience across religions. 

The Interior Castle
By St. Teresa of Avila

Translated by: 
The Monks of Stanbrook, 1911
Spanish Original:
Published Circa 1583
Barnes & Noble, 2005
227 Pages, US$9.95
ISBN: 978-0-7607-7024-5


If someone asks you, "What do you want from life?" all sorts of answers may occur to you. Ancient tradition suggests, however, that you should ask for something like this:

[T]he spiritual marriage with our Lord, where the soul always remains in its center with its God. Union may be symbolized by two wax candles, the tips of which touch each other so closely that there is but one light; or again, the wick, the wax, and the light become one, but that one candle can again be separated from the other and the two candles remain distinct; or the wick may be withdrawn from the wax. But spiritual marriage is like rain falling from heaven into a river or stream, becoming one and the same liquid, so that river and rainwater cannot be divided; or it resembles a streamlet flowing into the ocean, which cannot afterwards be disunited from it. This marriage may also be likened to a room into which a bright light enters through two windows--though divided when it enters, the light becomes one and the same.

The spiritual marriage is an event that occurs in the Seventh Mansions of the seven-region structure of the soul described in this book by Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada (1515 -- 1582), the reforming Carmelite nun. She was later named a saint and a Doctor of the Church; she is best known as St. Teresa of Avila. The state she described is the best thing that can happen to a living human being.

The contemplative tradition of prayer in which Teresa is such an eminent figure prescinds from most late-modern discussions about the reality and nature of the divine. God is not a proposition to be proven; or even an object of faith, at least after the first stage of prayer as self-initiated meditation. Rather, God is known through direct experience, an experience that is prior to any philosophical or scientific glosses that students of contemplation might apply to it. In that sense, contemplative prayer is an existentialist enterprise, rather like Heidegger's study of conscience as the voice of Being. The difference is that modern existentialism appeals to immediate experience on the assumption that experience will always behave itself. In the world of the contemplative, experience does not behave itself at all.

Be that as it may, any class of phenomena that are predominantly mental is going to raise at least some suspicion of insanity, fraud or mistake. Teresa reminds us more than once that she suffers from headaches, and that she sometimes hears a sound like rushing waters. There were points in her spiritual life, she makes clear, when she was simply ill. Critical of her own experience, she offers readers frank cautions about the psychological pathologies to which the nuns of her Order are subject. ("Melancholia" is not a modern diagnosis, but it seems at least as useful as later terms have proven to be.) She has a quite lively sense of the power of wishful thinking. She evidently knows mere silliness when she sees it. She also warns that even the most dramatic psychological event can be a diabolical deception, or may simply have no deep significance at all.

Readers of her book will soon appreciate how disciplined her treatment of contemplation is. They will also appreciate that quite a lot of this discipline is external.

Throughout her career, Teresa's activities were impeded because she was a woman in a society where women had limited legal personality, and, in any case, were not expected to have serious intellectual interests. Teresa was the daughter of a converso family, which also made her an object of suspicion in 16th-century Spain. More important, she and her colleague in the male wing of the Carmelite Order, Saint John of the Cross, were continuing to cultivate a tradition of late medieval spirituality that the Spanish hierarchy of her day strongly suspected, not without reason, to have contributed to starting the Reformation. Teresa was periodically suspected of being one of the alumbrados, a mystical movement whose beliefs shaded into antinomianism.

For a variety of reasons, then, Teresa had protracted problems with the Inquisition and her own superiors. In fact, in 1577, when this book was written, her access to religious texts and even her own earlier works were restricted; when she makes a Biblical quotation, she warns that she may have misremembered it because she cannot look it up. Nonetheless, it says something for her general mental health that she proved to be a formidable bureaucratic infighter. She managed to keep her major works in circulation, and she co-founded the Discalced Carmelites, a branch of the 12th-century Carmelite Order, that remains an important institution in the 21st century.

Teresa's uncongenial historical circumstances created fewer restraints than the system of confession and spiritual direction that can be found in some form in any religious order, but that are especially important to contemplatives. They are not unwanted intrusions, but an integral part of the discipline she describes. She repeatedly urges her readers, whom she assumed would at first be her fellow Carmelites, to keep their confessors informed about their spiritual experiences, and their prioress about their social and psychological ones (sometimes, the best next step in one's prayer life is a vacation, or at least a change of assignments). Of course, Teresa was aware that she knew more about the theory and practice of advanced spirituality than some of her spiritual directors did. The book is sprinkled with passages like this:

The time which has been spent in reading or writing on this subject will not have been lost if it has taught us these two truths; for though learned, clever men know them perfectly, women's wits are dull and need help in every way. Perhaps this is why our Lord has suggested these comparisons to me; may He give us grace to profit by them!

Leaving aside the question of which two truths were at issue, there are several ways to view this passage. Maybe it is a simple expression of humility. Maybe it is a way of deflecting possible criticism from suspicious prelates. There is also some reason to suppose that Teresa was the snarkiest Doctor of the Church since Augustine.

* * *

We should note that nowhere does Teresa suggest that the contemplative path is necessary for salvation, or even peculiarly helpful for it. Neither does she make special claims for her model of the soul as a castle like a translucent crystal. Nonetheless, for those who found the analogy helpful, she suggested that those who wished to advance in the knowledge and experience of God could think of themselves as moving through a concentric system of six rings of rooms or mansions ("moradas") toward a seventh, central set, where God was most perfectly present. Each of these rings of mansions presented its own challenges in terms of personal reformation and the type of prayer that is possible there; also, in each successive ring God affects the seeker in a more dramatic and overwhelming way. After the inner sections, particularly after the Fourth Mansions, God is clearly controlling the advance, but grace of some kind is needed for every step, including the original decision to enter the Castle.

Outside the castle is a dark landscape, where poor sinners are preyed upon by "reptiles," which may be demons, or the temptations, or the sinners' own ill will. Entering on the spiritual life, the penitent comes to the First Mansions. There, with some suffering, he gains self-knowledge. This painful process is necessary, though these mansions are a relatively crepuscular region, where the assaults of the reptiles are still common. The Second Mansions are similarly dark and dangerous, but there the aspiring soul will first learn how to pray. In the Third Mansions there is less danger from the cruder assaults of evil. It is the region of ordinary virtue; continuance in a state of grace becomes easier. Though we are not told this explicitly, one might gather from the text that these are the Mansions where the faithful in secular life might ordinarily expect to spend their lives.

In any case, even in these first three sets of Mansions, one meets here some of the subtle dangers of the spiritual life. Teresa counsels her readers on dealing with aridity and distraction in prayer, and about indiscreet zeal, the temptation to judge and criticize persons who seem less pious than oneself. The denizens of the Third Mansions in particular are tempted to think their lives are saintly because they are irreproachable; such people can actually benefit from the humility that comes with misfortune.

In the first three Mansions, the aspirant soul may sometimes be aware of special manifestations of divine grace, and of peace in prayer. As a rule, though, the divine is experienced only through the ordinary means of preaching and the sacraments, and through the natural satisfaction in a job well done (if you are a contemplative nun, the distinction between liturgy and labor tends to disappear). The Fourth Mansions, however, are the point where "consolations" normally begin to play a large part in the spiritual life. There are moments of the "expansion of the heart" that are outside the normal range of emotions; and indeed, in some manifestations, outside the range of nature.

There is a science of mystical experience. The Interior Castle is one of the key sources of its data; so are Teresa's earlier works, including the Life and The Way of Perfection. Rather than try to summarize the increasingly complex treatment of the inner mansions, let us here simply paraphrase the editor's Note 113 to The Interior Castle, even though it uses some of Teresa's terminology that does not occur in this particular book:

The first three Mansions of the Interior Castle correspond with the first water, or the prayer of Meditation. The Fourth Mansion, or the prayer of Quiet, corresponds with the second water. The Fifth Mansion, or the prayer of Union, corresponds with the third water. The sixth mansion, where the prayer of ecstasy is described, corresponds with the fourth water.

As for the Seventh Mansions, this review begins with a description of the spiritual marriage that occurs there.

The present text assumes that the reader is familiar with these modes of prayer and how they are performed. Meditation, for instance, seems to mean principally the sustained contemplation of the incidents in the life of Christ or of the Passion; the Rosary is a prayer of this type. In the other forms of prayer, some voluntary recollection or other act may be necessary, but the higher forms are events in which the will of the aspirant plays a smaller and smaller role. In any case, this book is less concerned with how to pray than with how to handle prayer's effects.

* * *

The theological subtext of The Interior Castle is Thomistic. Teresa was not herself trained in systematic theology, however, and even by her own account she garbled some points. This text has editorial notes and an interpolated chapter to clarify these points. Thus, they amplify with a venerable Scholastic gloss her distinction between the prayer of Union, which occurs in the Fifth Mansions, from the Marriage that occurs in the Seventh Mansions. The prayer of Union, the monks suggest, involves the accidents of the soul (its senses and cognitive functions), while the Marriage involves a change of its substance. This change is a transformation that identifies the soul with the divine to the degree that Teresa has a vision in which Jesus says to her "that henceforth she was to care for His affairs as though they were her own and He would care for hers." In the spiritual marriage, a human life becomes Christ's life. The editors do not make quite so bold as to call this transubstantiation.

Note that this was an "interior vision." Teresa describes "imaginary visions," which occur when people see images as if they were physical objects. She does not say such things are impossible, but that they do not belong to her experience. She also describes raptures, in which the spirit feels itself to leave the body (the she is professedly agnostic about whether this is actually the case). She also describes "jubilees," which can involve more than one person, and which sound a bit like charismatic behavior. Until she gets to the dramatic (and apparently somewhat dangerous) ecstasies of the Sixth Mansions, she herself is far more comfortable with "intellectual vision," in which knowledge is infused directly into the intellect, without the intervention of the senses. This can involve a direct awareness of an object or person, including the physical appearance. Indeed, one of the greatest consolations in the more advanced Mansions is the repeated and even habitual awareness of the divine presence.

Even a cursory familiarity with the literature of mysticism will find resonances in this work. This reviewer was surprised to discover how much of this book's advice about prayer and the dangers of the advanced spiritual life is echoed in C.S. Lewis's most popular work, The Screwtape Letters. Lewis was familiar with the literature of mysticism, of course, but that is unlikely to be the whole explanation. Serious spirituality is an empirical enterprise; people who have experienced its effects will recognize them in the accounts of others who have experienced them.

This does not mean that all the writers say the same things about the same experiences, or even that it is certain that the experiences are the same. For instance, in The Interior Castle, Teresa speaks of a point where a word, an idea, any small thing will cause an eruption of the divine presence. The divine sends out a flurry of sparks, any one of which could cause the soul to ignite. This sounds a bit like the climax of the anonymous English work, The Cloud of Unknowing, from two centuries earlier. In that book, the prepared soul sends out, at unpredictable intervals, shafts of aspiration that pierce the Godhead. Similar to The Interior Castle, yes: but are these moments identical?

There are certainly points where Teresa takes care to distinguish her views from those of other writers. There are some texts that suggest there comes a stage in the seeker's journey when the whole object of attention is God without qualification; the earlier meditations on Christ and His Passion were necessary, but are no longer relevant to the final stages. That is the view of The Cloud of Unknowing, which demands a preparation of perfect faith and purity of life, but moves to a point where everything, including even the benefits conveyed by God, is neglected in favor of the love of God. Teresa says that this is not her experience; she never ceases to focus on Jesus and the Cross. She never forgets the Saints, who at this level become felt companions rather than merely recipients of prayers for intercession. The Interior Castle presents a world that is less arid and alien than other expressions of advanced spirituality, particularly those of the 20th century. Finally, we may note that the seven-part structure of the Castle makes the journey through it into a history of seven ages, which inevitably calls to mind some of the models of time based on the structure of the week. The spiritual marriage of the Seventh Mansions calls to mind the Millennium, an idea that might have a literal personal application even if it does not have a historical one. More speculatively, one of Teresa's best-known metaphors, that of the caterpillar that spins a cocoon and later dies to be reborn as a butterfly, might have an application not just to the aspiring soul, but also to the Incarnation. The cocoon begins to be spun in the Fifth Mansions, after a long history of preparation. This is not unlike the idea that the Incarnation is the center of history, structurally if not necessarily in terms of the duration of the time periods to either side.

Even if Teresa had any thoughts along these lines herself, she does not mention them in The Interior Castle. They are the sort of notion that made the Inquisition cranky, for one thing. For another, speculation was not Teresa's vocation. She wrote about only what she knew.

Copyright © 2011 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Linkfest 2017-03-26

Tollense Battle

Last summer I posted an article about a battlefield from the Bronze Age. Here is another article about the same archaeological site, with an alternative explanation of what happened. Archaeology always requires interpretation, so it is wise to keep in mind exactly what you found, and how it could have gotten there.

'London Bridge is down': the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death

The end of an era has been planned in advance.

How Aristotle Created the Computer

This is a pretty survey of the developments in mathematics and philosophy that allowed us to develop digital computers. While the article notes that Boole's algebra was seen as spectacularly useless when he came up with it, it also took WW2 and the Cold War to really develop this technology. Also see James Ross' Revenge of the Analysts: Aristotle's Revenge: Software Everywhere.

More evidence for my cocktail theory of science

A long comment at Greg Cochran's blog gets at the cultural difference between East and West that seems to lie at the heart of why Science is a Western thing, via a comparative study of martial arts.

Do Immigrants Import Their Economic Destiny?

Short answer: Yes.

Johan Egerkrans' Balder

© All rights reserved by Johan Egerkrans

© All rights reserved by Johan Egerkrans

C. S. Lewis once said he "loved Balder before he loved Christ". Seeing an image like this, I can imagine why.

Charles Murray’s SPLC page as edited by Charles Murray

Murray said he had fun writing this.

Germany's grand First World War jihad experiment

This sort of thing has been going on for a very long time. I enjoyed the Talbot Mundy reference in the article, since I'm currently reading King of the Khyber Rifles.

'Fallout: New Vegas' Writer Chris Avellone: "Fantasy is Not My Happy Place"

Chris Avellone has worked on many of my favorite games, from Fallout to FTL.

American Indian Firewater Myths Are No Myths

The Pine Ridge reservation may be one of the saddest places in America.

The Long View 2003-09-04: Twilight Phenomena

This is your regular reminder that Gordon Chang is still wrong. He may not be wrong forever. Jean Raspail ended up being extremely right 42 years later. Raspail got some of the details wrong, but the big picture is very right. 

John said a lot of things about Iraq and the Bush administration that were very, very wrong in retrospect, but here is something he got very, very right:

What we see in Islamicism is the hardening and darkening of these mistakes. It is the mark of the products of Winter that they have no capacity for growth. At best, they simply summarize the great creations of the past. At worst, they are bombs, with no power but to destroy the heritage of their civilization. Thus, there is no real hope of victory for the Jihad against the West. Even if Western armies were driven from the Middle East and a new Caliph proclaimed in Baghdad, the effort would turn ruins to rubble. This what the Taliban did to Afghanistan: just multiply it by a thousand.

John's intense interest in Spengler and macrohistory allowed him to predict that something like ISIS would be fundamentally hollow, utterly without any creative spark whatsover, doomed to spend its energies in mindless destruction.

Twilight Phenomena

Here's a headline I've been expecting to see: A Heated Chinese Economy Piles Up Debt. It appears on the frontpage of today's New York Times. While the story is not alarmist, it does point to the big economic story of the next few years: the impending bust of the last and greatest East Asian economy. There is nothing very mysterious about China's enormous recent growth statistics. If a government allocates capital on a political basis, there really is no problem generating export-driven growth of 6% to 10% every year. The problem is that the booming enterprises are literally a waste of money. The huge conglomerates of South Korea and Indonesia used to be capitalized at tens of billions of dollars, but produced returns on capital of less than one percent. The effect of all that manufacturing was just to turn the local currency into dollars. This makes a certain short-term sense, if there are tempting dollar investments to be made. That was the case in the 1990s. It is not the case today.

This is not just an Asian failing. The artificially low interest rates of the 1920s put America of the 1930s into a situation like that of Japan today, but worse. Closer to the current Chinese situation was the American savings-and-loan industry of the 1980s, when politics disabled the regulators but kept federal deposit-guarantees in place. The result was "see-through" office buildings and a lot of bankrupt institutions, for which the taxpayers were responsible. Of course, one of the lessons of the S&L collapse is that these things need not be the end of the world. The depositors got their money back, and the assets of the busted lenders were sold off, without enormous net loss to the Treasury. For that matter, the Pacific Rim countries have pretty much recovered from their own pre-millennial bust. Japan is a special case, but far from a lost cause.

There are people who say that China is a special case that is also a lost cause. So argued Gordon Chang two years ago in The Coming Collapse of China, which is the book that got me looking for those "It's later than you think" headlines about the People's Republic. His diagnosis is both ominous and persuasive. However, it is the nature of apocalypses to be averted by insightful predictions of them.

* * *

Speaking of disaster averted, I see that just a few days ago a reputable source warned that a 1.2-mile-wide asteroid could collide with Earth in 2014. I can easily imagine why there are so many warnings like this. The first observations of an asteroid will generate nothing more precise than a wide sheath of possible future positions. These sheaths are routinely big enough to hit Earth, but the relatively tiny asteroids in them are not. In any case, this latest warning was withdrawn within 24 hours.

Still, no matter how many times this happens, it's hard not to speculate about what would happen if the warning did not go away. That date, 2014, was particularly interesting. It's far enough in the future that we might be able to do something to avert the impact, but close enough that we would have to start doing it immediately. One imagines that steps would also be taken to move people out of harm's way, should deflecting the asteroid prove impossible. In any case, for some time the Rock would be what history is about.

As with nuclear weapons, which flickered in the world of science fiction long before someone actually built one, I sometimes get the sense the world is reaching for an organizing principle like this. That is part of the explanation for the genuine popularity of the idea of global warming. This is not to say that people are longing for some common challenge that would make the world one: far from it. Rather, some such global menace would make the world conceptually coherent for a while.

* * *

The controversy over Mel Gibson's upcoming film, The Passion, continues to grow. It is hard to understand the objection that the film will incite antisemitism. No doubt it will portray the Temple priesthood unsympathetically, but the portrayal will have to be very unsympathetic indeed to be worse than that in Jesus Christ Superstar, which is one Passion Play to which millions of people know the lyrics.

The truly bizarre element in all this has been the behavior of the Anti-Defamation League. For months now they have been trying to alter or suppress the film: now they are complaining about the angry mail they have been getting about their attempts to alter or suppress the film. They have also, under Providence, generated more publicity, for what would otherwise have been a minor art-film, than could have been bought for any money.

I could demonstrate at length that it has never been Catholic doctrine that the Jews are collectively to blame for the Crucifixion. (The Creed says "suffered under Pontius Pilate," not "Caiphas," for one thing.) There has been a popular tradition to that effect, of course, which sometimes found expression in Passion Plays. However, even judging only by hostile accounts of the rough cut, there is no reason to suppose that Gibson's Passion was made with that intent or will have that effect. Surely the ADL has better things to do with its time than pick fights with people who don't mean it any harm?

* * *

Passion Plays provide some insight into the Exploding Martyr phase of the disintegration of Islam. Spengler said, and I think he's right about this, that Jesus was the first great figure of a Culture that reached its spiritual culmination in Islam after AD 1000, and its final political definition in Ottoman hegemony. Spengler's name for this Culture was "Magian," and it includes the ancient eastern Churches, Rabbinical Judaism, and other, smaller communities as "nations."

21st-century Islamicism stands toward the time of Jesus as deepest Winter does toward earliest Spring. There are real continuities. Islamism addresses many of the questions Jesus did: about the relation of the World to the Kingdom, about ideal and practical moral norms, and about the importance of martyrdom. The cult of martyrdom is, in some ways, a fossil form of the Passion. Islam in general gets the answers backwards: it's a Reformation that went entirely off the rails, which the Reformation in Europe never quite did.

What we see in Islamicism is the hardening and darkening of these mistakes. It is the mark of the products of Winter that they have no capacity for growth. At best, they simply summarize the great creations of the past. At worst, they are bombs, with no power but to destroy the heritage of their civilization. Thus, there is no real hope of victory for the Jihad against the West. Even if Western armies were driven from the Middle East and a new Caliph proclaimed in Baghdad, the effort would turn ruins to rubble. This what the Taliban did to Afghanistan: just multiply it by a thousand.

* * *

Visitors to the top page of my site will see that I just did a short review of John Crowley's Little, Big. This is a wonderful "autumn book," a category that does not lend itself to precise definition. It has something to do with esoteric subject matter, at least in my case, but also with woodlands and shortening days.

One of the few books with which I would compare Crowley's novel is Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. It is, of course, ridiculous to think that a small stand of woods might be a gateway to the collective unconscious. It is less ridiculous to think that a wood might be "haunted": there is evidence that some places are uncanny in a replicable, almost objective sense. One of the marks of a good autumn-book is that the author knows when to stop being plausible, however. Holdstock is particularly good at this.

There is a sequel to The Mythago Wood, by the way, even a sort of cult.

A novella that might interest some readers is William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland. The story was one of the products of the Occult Revival of pre-World War One days; so, though it's fiction, it incorporates quite a lot of theosophical doctrine. The story has little in the way of spooky woods, but there is another Occult Revival stage property: an isolated mansion in the darkest West of Ireland. Anyway, I'm happy to see it's been reprinted in an anthology: All Gothic 1: The Boats of the Glen Garrig & The House on the Borderland.

Most items in this category are ambiguously related to Christianity at best, but that need not be the case. Indeed, my favorite book in the autumn-book category remains C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength. As I may have mentioned once before on this site, the book antedates George Orwell's 1984, but one may read Lewis's book as an answer to Orwell's. Plus you get to meet Merlin, and there is some conversational Latin. What else could you ask for on a darkening evening?  

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly


Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site