contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Contemplative inquiry

REBLOG: SCIENCE IN SERVICE TO MOTHER EARTH

Science is, after all, an endeavor of humans and our machines. What would it mean to put this endeavor at the service of Mother Earth? Presumably, our efforts must always be guided by human discernment, in all its fallibility. Who decides what best serves this vision of the Greater Good?

via [A Pedagogy of Gaia] Science in Service to Mother Earth, by Bart Everson — Humanistic Paganism

CONTEMPLATING TIME

“The most widely accepted notions about the universe are central to how we view reality. One striking example links birth and death. In the age of faith, religion existed to reassure believers about a higher plane of reality. On this plane, the everyday experience of birth and death was negated. Souls were immortal aspects of being human. Depending on your religion, the soul either went to Heaven, if one were good, after death or existed perpetually in a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

“Ironically, science has stuck to these possible scenarios with the universe, even though what science is supposedly famous for is its defeat of religion, or to be more specific, its defeat of metaphysics and the whole notion of a higher plane. If you look closely, the way the universe was born in the big bang and will one day, presumably die, is pure metaphysics. In fact, the big bang and expansion of the universe was first proposed by Georges Lemaitre, a Catholic priest, who was an astronomer and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Leuven. Many have pointed to the agreement of the big bang view with Biblical accounts in the book of Genesis. Unwittingly, the public that accepts a casual idea about the universe being born and dying is adopting a metaphysical position about human birth and death, not simple, unvarnished, provable facts.

 

…..

“If you drop every model, something surprising happens. They are not needed. For example, you can view your daily life as occurring entirely in the present moment. The present moment is not a clock phenomenon. Clocks measure intervals–seconds, minutes, hours–while the present moment has no interval. It’s always here, endlessly renewing itself, unmeasurable, and fleeting. Because the instant you try to capture it, it’s gone. This implies that the ‘now’ is outside time. It can be defined either as instantaneous or eternal. Both are valid as verbal descriptions but in the end invalid, since the vocabulary of time doesn’t apply to the timeless.

…..

Without settling the vexing questions of “What came before the big bang?” “Where did time originate?” and “What is the timeless like?” we only want to point out that time has no meaning outside a specific frame of reference. There is no “real” time, only models of time constructed in human awareness. Once we realize this simple fact, the capacity to move beyond all models, to truly lose our fear of death, comes alive. The spiritual concept that we were never born and will never die then becomes viable, too.”

Deepak Chopra & Menas Kafatos, discussing their new book in a recent Science and Non-Duality newsletter

 

  • Deepak Chopra and Menas Kafatos You are the universe: discovering your cosmic self and why it matters Globnet, 2017

 

POEM: GREEN MAN

William Anderson’s classic Green Man poem has thirteen verses of four lines each, and follows the wheel of the year from the Winter Solstice. As I write we have just reached the sixth verse, which has an off with my head theme. The honey of love is over and speaking through the oak is yet to come.

Like antlers, like veins in the brain, the birches

Mark patterns of mind on the red winter sky;

‘I am thought of all plants’, says the Green Man,

‘I am thought of all plants’, says he.

The hungry birds harry the last berries of rowan

But white is her bark in the darkness of rain;

‘I rise with the sap’, says the Green Man,

‘I rise with the sap’, says he.

The ashes are clashing their bows like sword-dancers

Their black buds are tracing wild faces in the clouds;

‘I come with the wind’, says the Green Man.

‘I come with the wind’, says he.

The alders are rattling as though ready for battle

Guarding the grove where she waits for her lover;

‘I burn with desire’, says the Green Man,

‘I burn with desire’, says he.

In and out of the yellowing wands of the willow

The pollen-bright bees are plundering the catkins;

‘I am honey of love’, says the Green Man,

‘I am honey of love’, says he.

The hedges of quick are thick will May blossom

As the dancers advance on their leaf-covered king;

‘It’s off with my head’, says the Green Man,

‘It’s off with my head’, says he.

Green Man becomes grown man in flames of the oak

As its crown forms its mask and its leafage his features;

‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man,

‘I speak through the oak’, says he.

The holly is flowering as hay fields are rolling

Their gleaming long grasses like waves of the sea;

‘I shine with the sun’, says the Green Man,

‘I shine with the sun’, says he.

The hazels are rocking the cups with their nuts

As the harvesters shout when the last leaf is cut;

‘I swim with the salmon’, says the Green Man,

‘I swim with the salmon’, says he.

The globes of the grapes are robing with bloom

Like the hazes of autumn, like the Milky Way’s stardust;

‘I am crushed for your drink’, says the Green Man,

‘I am crushed for your drink’, says he.

The aspen drops silver on leaves of earth’s salver

And the poplars shed gold on the young ivy flower heads;

‘I have paid for your pleasure’, says the Green Man,

‘I have paid for your pleasure’, says he.

The reed beds are flanking in silence the islands

Where meditates Wisdom as she waits and waits;

‘I have kept her secret’, says the Green Man,

‘I have kept her secret’, says he.

The bark of the elder makes whistles for children

To call to the deer as they rove over the snow;

‘I am born in the dark’, says the Green Man,

‘I am born in the dark’, says he.

 

From:  William Anderson Green Man: archetype of our oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990

SOPHIA AND GUANYIN

 

The Moon rising on the indigo sea,

A pearl like a seed.

Open your heart to compassion and change:

The protector will blossom there.

 

Sophia journeyed along the Silk Road to the wild west of China and became the Bodhisattva Guanyin*. In Mahayana Buddhism, a Bodhisattva vows to wake up and work for the happiness of sentient beings. At the point of entry to nirvana, or ‘no-wind’, where the hot winds of desire and compulsion are forever stilled, you choose to remain in the world of samsara, the world of illusions that we all inhabit, and fulfil your promised role. This pledge is inaugurated by the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, in which the Buddha’s disciple Avolokitesvara addresses another disciple, Shariputra. Guanyin emerges in history as Avolokitesvara’s female manifestation some hundreds of years later. Her emergence may well be owed to the influence of Sophia, who in that time and place is looked to as a Gnostic redeemer. I am grateful to Stephen Karcher for taking me through the history (1).

“Between 400-600 CE, various sects associated with the ‘great heresy’ of Gnosticism entered Northwest China, driven out of the Mediterranean area by the violent persecution of the Orthodox Church. Gnostics were not really heretic Christians; they were pseudo-Christian just as they were pseudo-Jewish and pseudo-Pagan. They represented an ancient strain of thought that attached itself to various symbol systems and ‘deconstructed’ them to orient us towards the gnosis or direct ‘acquaintance with the spirit’, a practice that may have originated in an old, pre-Rabbinic form of Jewish worship. This Gnostic stream flows through Manichean and Mandaean thought into the great melting pot of North West China, the beginning and end of the Silk Road. …  The Gnostic figure of Sophia the Redeemer who reaches out to awaken the divine spark in each being may have been the catalyst that produced Kuan Yin, the compassionate one, out of her male form Avolokitesvara”.

Once born, Guanyin takes on non-Buddhist characteristics local to the region, including powers such as that of the Mare associated with the K’un Field in the I Ching. She has strong Dragon associations. “These animal powers are still with us in dreams and visions as representatives of the sources of life. They speak with gigantic voices, the movers of the world”. She is also “clothed in the mystery of the Tao, the Taoist valley spirit or ongoing process of the real that nourishes all the myriad beings. … There are many images for this: flowing water, the uncarved block, child, female, mother, valley spirit, dark door, empty vessel, for it is the womb of creation. We can open this space within ourselves and return to the source of all things … [When] we have become empty within, we can return to the source and … watch the Tao shaping the universe out of chaos, while yin and yang continually transform it. When we grasp this process, our whole identity becomes fluid. We become like a spirit, a shen”.

Karcher concludes: “Born from this great spiritual melting pot, partaking of its many traditions, Kuan Yin, the One Who Sees and Hears the Cries of the World, walked forth among the beings she vowed to cherish and enlighten, breaking all sectarian boundaries. She is equally at home with Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans and Gnostics. The stories of her miracles of healing, deliverance and enlightenment have proliferated in East and West. Her compassion and wisdom offer an exit from the compulsive worlds of greed, lust and power and a return to the true thought of the heart.”

One of my attractions to this story is that it identifies the spiritual traditions that have at different times, and indeed the same time, influenced my heart and imagination: Gnosticism, Buddhism, Paganism and Taoism. By implication, it excludes the ones that haven’t: the essentially God fearing Abrahamic traditions and God drunken Vedic ones, including their ‘non-dualist’ presentations. This is a matter of feeling and attraction, not of cosmology or belief. Although I can’t make a complete assimilation of Sophia and Guanyin, their iconography does, for me, help to bind these influences together. “Return to the true thought of the heart” is not a bad summary. I have bought a statue of Guanyin, as a birthday present to myself for later this month. In this statue she sits on a crescent moon, playful and androgynous. It is the note that I am looking for.

  • I use the form Guanyin. Stephen Karcher uses Kuan Yin.

(1) Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Chronicle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009

 

HEADLESS ZEN?

“Let go of emptiness and come back to the brambly forest. Riding backwards on the ox, drunken and singing, who could dislike the misty rain pattering on your bamboo raincoat and hat.” Chan Master Hongzhi.

Recently I came across Susan Blackmore’s Zen and the Art of Consciousness (1). Blackmore, though not a Buddhist, works experientially within the Chan tradition (Chan being a Taoist influenced form of Chinese Buddhism, and the precursor of Japanese Zen). It’s how she does her first-person, subjective lifeworld inquiry into consciousness, which she also studies as a cognitive scientist. The book shows her working through ten questions, starting with: ‘Am I conscious now’?

Question 3 is ‘Who is asking the question? Here she brings in Douglas Harding of the Headless Way* and uses some of his experiments. I worked with these last year. I didn’t maintain an ongoing connection with the Headless family for long, mostly because of Harding’s tilt towards self-identification with/as the One cosmic consciousness, as the means dis-identification from ‘self’ at the human level. I’ve discovered that I can’t align myself with it. I don’t want to be God. Yet the ‘headless’ experience and its value have stayed with me. After completing my first Headless Way* pointing experiment, I reported: “pointing out – ‘curtains, folds, blueness, a crack showing light. Right arm. Flesh, tattoos, patterning. Pointing in: nothing: a relief, really, and a joy.” As that work continued, the joy only grew when the exterior view rushed in to fill the space. I say ‘view’ rather than ‘world’ because the world I perceive is a co-creation of the (presumed) outside world and my own (presumed) senses. A bat would have a completely different experience. Still, there was a sense of ‘everything’ filling my nothing at the centre.

Blackmore’s version is this. She describes meditating and looking towards a flower bed. “I paid open attention to everything I could see and hear, and in the space at the top of my shoulders I found no head, only forget-me-nots. I looked for the self who was looking at the forget-me-nots, and simply became them. It was very simple; very obvious”. Blackmore’s subsequent understanding – “what I see is what I am’ – does not as I read it make ‘I am God’ cosmic consciousness claims. Indeed, she is influenced by the philosopher Dan Dennett, who thinks of ‘consciousness’ itself as not just a reification (turning a process into a substance) but an altogether redundant idea. He’s the opposite kind of monist to Douglas Harding.

Some people like to have a line to follow. I like openness, and the possibility of multiple perspectives. I like the gleeful return to the commonsense world indicated by the 12th century Master Hongzhi above. It’s in Blackmore’s book, as part of feedback from her own Chan teacher at a time when she was in relentless pursuit of the problem of consciousness, and may have needed some rebalancing and lightening up in her role as sentient being. I also like the Interbeing approach mapped out in Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary on the Heart Sutra (2) and more recent works such as his Love Letter to the Earth (3), with ‘We are the Earth’ as its first section and ‘Healing Steps’ as the second.

I will give the last word to a member of the Headless Way community. This is in the form of a poem by Colin Oliver called the Oneness of Things (4), which for me captures the ‘headless’ experience seamlessly, and – as only poets can – finds room for all of the above:

The sun low over the beach:

shining wires of dune grass,

stones and the shadows of stones.

On the shoreline, the rush of foam

mirrored in the wet sand.

In the oneness of things

I am nowhere in sight.

 

* www.headless.org/

(1) Susan Blackmore Zen and the Art of Consciousness, Oneworld Publications, 2014 (ebook edition)

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1988

(3) Thich Nhat Hanh Love Letter to the Earth, Berkeley, CA: Parallex Press, 2013

(4) Colin Oliver Nothing but this Moment: selected poems London: Shollond Trust, 2013

TEMPLE OF SOPHIA

My ‘Temple of Sophia’ recollects the active imagination work I did when practising Druidry and the Way of Sophia as a fusion path. The Temple keeps the work alive for me, though its presentation lacks the dynamism of the original set of practices when I was working them. The Temple structure owes something to the ‘art of memory’ of the ancient Greeks This was a system of impressing ‘places’ and ‘images’ on the mind, which continued into the dawn of modernity. Late practitioners included Giordano Bruno and the English alchemist Robert Fludd (1).

Here is how the visualisation goes.

“[I am] …on the water of a lake, in a rowing boat … mooring on the western shore … walking eastwards on a path between carved stones … on the left hand a Pictish ‘dancing seahorse’ … on the right hand, a Levantine image (a pomegranate tree, serpent coiled around the base, dove at the top) … moving up to the western door of the Temple of Sophia, a domed stone building, half hidden in extensive tree cover … basically round but with arms extended in each of the 4 cardinal directions to create an equal armed cruciform shape.

“I enter the temple through a porch at the western end, over which are written two lines from Primary Chief Bard, in the Book of Taliesin (2): I stood at the cross with Mary Magdalene; I received the Awen from Ceridwen’s cauldron. I find myself facing the eastern wing. Its most striking feature is a rose window at the back. It also has an altar whose white cloth is embroidered with a golden gnostic cross, and strewn with white and red rose petals. At the centre stands a chalice, white candles on either side. Looking around me I see steps spiraling downwards to a crypt, left (northern extension) and steps spiraling upwards to an upper room, right (southern extension).

“The main body of the temple is lit by chandeliers hanging from the ceiling as well as natural light from the windows. On the floor is a large mosaic given definition by the golden outline of a circle, crossed at the cardinal points by golden lines which merge at the centre within a fully golden circle, which includes 3 white seed pearls in a triangular cluster at the centre.

“Just outside the outer circle, around the wheel of the year, are depictions of 16 trees: yew, north-west; elder, north-north-west; holly, north; alder, north-north-east; birch, north-east; ash & ivy, east-north-east; willow, east; blackthorn, east-south-east; hawthorn, south-east; beech & bluebell, south-south-east; oak, south; gorse, south-south-west; apple, south-west; blackberry & vine, west-south-west; hazel, west; rowan, west-north-west. Each representation of a tree on the mosaic offers a portal for further communication with the tree. If I visualize myself standing on the image, then I may enter another imaginal landscape for a fuller experience – whether through sensing or communicating with the tree in question, or indeed becoming it.

“Moving in to the delineated quarters of the main circle, I find: north, a seated white hart in a yellow square; east, an eagle with wings outstretched, in a blue circle; south, a mottled brownish adder in a red triangle; west, a silver salmon over a silver crescent moon. These positions, too, are potential portals into an Innerworld landscape. If I visualize myself standing on an image, it has the power to take me to another imaginal landscape, and to forms of engagement – whether simply connecting, communicating or indeed journeying there. At the golden centre of the circle, the cluster of three white pearls recollects the three drops of inspiration distilled from Ceridwen’s cauldron and the visionary power of Awen. There are also other trinities – the triple goddess; the orthodox Christian trinity; or the divine mother, father and child; or the singularity of Tao becoming the two, three and 10,000 things. This is more a place for simple contemplation.

“Spiraling again out of the circle, and exiting north, I descend into the crypt. Here I find an empty sarcophagus dimly lit by candles. Two or three steps below the sarcophagus is a small, warm pool, lit by night lights – a ‘birthing pool’, perchance a re-birthing pool. There is an image of a coiled serpent at the bottom of the pool and a red ankh painted at the centre of the ceiling. I can spend time lying within the sarcophagus, contemplating change, death and dissolution. I can also move on to the birthing pool, and taste the experience there.

“Leaving the crypt and moving across the temple, I climb the steps to the upper room, which has a meditation chair at its centre, with a chalice, or grail, on a small table in front of it. There is a white dove painted on the ceiling; otherwise the room is plain. If I centre myself and drink from the chalice, saying, my heart is home to Sophia, I may find myself in a Garden. It has a fountain at the centre, surrounded by four flower beds of alternating red and white roses. There are fruit trees, apple, pear and plum, trained around the walls. Sometimes, full bright sunlight shines on the scene and strikes the dazzling water of the fountain, warming an illuminating each drop as it falls. At other times, I am in moonlit or starlit night, and I hear as much as see the fountain. Either way, I open myself to the experience of the Garden. Sophia herself as psychopomp may or may not appear. Indeed, there is no ultimate distinction between Sophia, the Garden and me.

“On coming back from the vision of the garden, I sit and rest for a while. Eventually I leave the upper room, and, descending into the main body of the temple. I walk to the south point of the circle and from there move, spiralling, into the centre. I face the altar at the east, bowing and giving thanks before I leave the temple.”

(1) Frances A. Yates The Art of Memory London: Pimlico, 1966

(2) John Matthews Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland London: The Aquarian Press, 1991

ORDINARY ECSTASY

You do not need to leave your room …

Remain sitting at your table and listen.

Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait,

be quite still and solitary. The world will freely

offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice.

It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

 

Franz Kafka

SOPHIAN MYTH

“A Gnostic creation myth said that Sophia was born from the primordial female power, Sige (Silence). Sophia gave birth to a male spirit, Christ, and a female spirit, Acamoth. The latter gave life to the elements and the terrestrial world, then brought forth a new god called Ildabaoth, Son of Darkness, along with five planetary spirits later regarded as emanations of Jehovah: Iao, Sabaoth, Adonai, Eloi and Uraeus. These spirits produced archangels, angels and, finally, men.

“Ildabaoth or Jehovah forbade men to eat the fruit of knowledge, but his mother Achamoth sent her own spirit to earth in the form of her serpent Ophis to teach men to disobey the jealous god. The serpent was also called Christ, who taught Adam to eat the fruit of knowledge despite the god’s prohibition. Sophia sent Christ to earth again in the shape of her own totemic dove, to enter the man Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan” (1).

For me, Sophian myth is dream like. Consciousness experiences itself as stressed and divided, moving into the trance of duality and multiplicity. Yet there is also a strong counterbalancing drive towards reintegration and wholeness.

Culturally, Sophian stories are a cry against newly developing orthodoxies. They are a creative mythology, and affirm the emancipatory potentials of knowledge and freedom. They also maintain the strong ancient world link between Goddess and wisdom, a link that was coming under threat from the religious revolutions of late antiquity.

My personal Sophian practice has stabilized in recent months and is very simple. With the mantra ama aima, I connect with cosmic motherhood, or source, both in the sense of origin and of eternal now. This connection establishes my sense of home, and of the emptiness that becomes fullness. Sophia in the apparent world stands for an interweaving of wisdom, compassion, creativity and freedom. These can only be defined and expressed in the effort to live them. Subjectively, Sophia first came to me with the force of an inner guide or patron. Now she is more of an enabling personification – less numinous perhaps, but more firmly established in my psyche.

I no longer look back so much to the older history and literature for direct inspiration – not even as far as Jung, who met his unconscious God in dreams and felt validated by ancient gnostic texts. The Gnostics themselves believed in ‘continuous revelation’ and I like the word ‘continuous’ whilst not connecting so much with ‘revelation’. I am not a person of faith, or now part of any tradition, and I have got what I need from the myth. My inquiry focus now is with finding my own language where it helps, holding silence where it doesn’t, and learning to know the difference.

(1) Barbara G, Walker The women’s encyclopedia of myths and secrets Harper San Francisco: San Francisco, CA: 1983

BUDDHA AND MARA

Stephen Batchelor is my favourite Buddhist writer. He is also a model of spiritually grounded atheism. The passage below is from his Confession of a Buddhist atheist (1). I’m not Buddhist, yet I resonate with what he is saying and feel encouraged on my own path.

“For traditional Buddhists, the Buddha has come to be seen as the perfect person. He is an example of what a human being can ultimately become through treading the eightfold path. The Buddha is said to have eliminated from his mind every trace of greed, hatred and confusion, so that they are ‘cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, so that they will never arise again’. At the same time, the Buddha is believed to have acquired faultless wisdom and boundless compassion. He is omniscient and unerringly loving. He has become God.

“Yet the many passages in the Pali canon that depict the Buddha’s relations with Mara paint a very different picture. On attaining awakening in Uruvela, Siddatha Gotama* did not ‘conquer’ Mara in the sense of literally destroying him. For Mara is a figure that continues to present himself to Gotama even after the awakening. He keeps reappearing under different guises until shortly after the Buddha’s death in Kusinara. This implies that craving and the other ‘armies of Mara’ have not been literally deleted from Buddha’s being. Rather, he has found a way of living with Mara that deprives the devil of his power. To be no longer manipulated by Mara is the equivalent of being free from him. The Buddha’s freedom is found not in destroying greed and hatred, but in comprehending them as transient, impersonal emotions that will pass away of their own accord as long as you do not cling to and identify with them.

“In Pali, Mara means ‘the killer’. The devil is a mythic way of talking about whatever imposes limits on realizing one’s potential as a human being. As well as physical death, Mara refers to anything that wears you down or causes your life to be reduced, blighted or frustrated. Craving is a kind of inner death because it clings to what is safe and familiar, blocking one’s capacity to enter the stream of the path. Yet other kinds of ‘death’ can be imposed by social pressures, political persecution, religious intolerance, war, famine, earthquakes, and so on. Mara permeates the fabric of the world in which we struggle to realize our goals and reach fulfillment. Siddhattha Gotama was no more exempt from these constraints than anyone else.

“If Mara is a metaphor for death, then Buddha, as his twin, is a metaphor for life. The two are inseparable. You cannot have Buddha without Mara any more than you can have life without death. This was the insight I gained from Living with the Devil (2). Instead of perfection and transcendence, the goal of Gotama’s Dhamma* was to embrace this suffering world without being overwhelmed by the attendant fear or attachment, craving or hatred, confusion or conceit, that come in its wake.

“A clue to how this might be done is found in the parable of the raft. Gotama compares the Dhamma to a raft that one assembles from pieces of driftwood, fallen branches and other bits of rubbish. Once it has taken you across the river that lies in your way, you leave it behind on the bank for someone else and proceed on your way. The Dhamma is a temporary expedient. To treat it as an object of reverence is as absurd as carrying the raft on your back even though you no longer need it. To practice the Dhamma is like making a collage. You collect ideas, images, insights, philosophical styles, meditation methods, and ethical values that you find here and there in Buddhism, bind them securely together, then launch your raft into the river of your life. As long as it does not sink or disintegrate and can get you to the other shore, then it works. That is all that matters. It need not correspond to anyone else’s idea of what ‘Buddhism’ is or should be.”

  • Stephen Batchelor Confession of a Buddhist atheist. Spiegel & Grau: New York, USA, 2011
  • Stephen Batchelor Living with the devil: a meditation on good and evil Riverhead Books: New York, USA, 2004

 

  • Batchelor uses Pali forms rather than the more widely known Sanskrit ones – hence Siddhattha Gotama rather than Gautama Siddhartha and Dhamma rather than Dharma.

WORD POWER

“In Hebrew, the word davar … means word and thing. No distinction. We see and hear the world with our minds, with words, in categories, not in raw sensory data.   I believe in holiness because I experience it. I don’t view it as a personal presence, but holiness is as vivid as sexual pleasure or hunger.”

The words are spoken by Malkah, the central and anchoring figure in Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1) and one of two given prominence as a point of view character. The other is her granddaughter Shira. Their spiritual lens is Jewish and they live in a 2059 imagined by the author in 1991. This world has experienced social breakdown, massive population loss and partial desertification due to the co-arising phenomena of corporate oligarchy and unchecked climate change.

I read this book again last week because I half remembered it and wanted to refresh myself. I had no other agenda. But as I went on it seemed to be contributing to my inquiry about the meaning of ‘creativity’ and ‘magic’  (Druidry’s Awen) in a context where material and social forces need to be addressed at their own level. For me, He, She and It also shows how speculative fiction may itself be a creative cultural force.

Malkah asserts that, “in fascination with the power of the word and a belief that the word is primary over matter, you may be talking nonsense about physics, but you’re telling the truth about people.    A person reacts and decides what’s good or bad. For us the word is primary and paramount. We can curse each other to death or cure with words. With words we court each other, with words we punish each other. We construct the world out of words. The mind can kill or heal because it is the body.”

Hence, the creative word is always “perilous”, giving true life to what has been inchoate and voice to what has been dumb. “It makes known what has been unknown, that perhaps we were more comfortable not knowing.” What we cannot name, we cannot talk about. When we do name something, we empower it, and the naming has consequences – “as when we call an itch love, or when we call our envy righteous”. More creatively, “we may empower ourselves” for if “we can think about and talk about what is hurting us”, then “we may come together with others who have felt this same pain,” and try to do something about it.

Malkah likes to tell the story of the Maharal of Prague*, who in 1600 defended the Jewish Ghetto there against anti-Semitic attack through the creation of a golem, a man of clay, large and strong, animated through Kabbalist magic. It becomes a second timeline in the book, though always in the form of Malkah telling the story. She describes the creation of Joseph, the golem, with relish.

The face of the Maharal is pale with ecstasy. He feels the power coming through him. It is the power of creation. It is always dangerous, it is lightning striking the tower and the world set on end. Word into matter and everything born again. He feels the energy of something strange and new and terrible and focused to a spear piercing through him and into the clay before him. He sees his own hands shining with a blue-white radiance. His hands are crackling. His hair stands up with electricity.

All the combinations of letters and vowels he chants, and the hidden name of G-d he speaks, and the sacred numbers that built the atoms of the universe. He has become transparent with power that is pouring through him. His flesh is blackened like glass that has stood in a fire. His eyes are silver as the moon, without pupils or iris. He knows in that moment more than he has ever known in his life and more than he will know in five minutes.

But we also know that power like this, even within the mythos,  is a rare and precious gift. When the assault on the ghetto comes, developing out of a Good Friday procession, the strong but simple Joseph says to the Maharal, “’your prayers as strong as my fists’”. The Maharal demurs. “’Prayer doesn’t work that way’, the Maharal says quietly and sadly. ‘It makes the heart and mind strong in belief, but it doesn’t keep one leaf falling from the tree. Still, I will pray’”. The ghetto defence is successful, though with many losses and much destruction. The aggressors are turned back. This is partly down to Joseph directly and partly because he inspires the community to rally. The Christian state levies reparations on the Jewish community for all the trouble that’s been caused, and life goes on. Survival – but with no change in underlying conditions. Joseph, who has an inbuilt tendency to violence, is put to back to sleep (though not destroyed) by the very magician who made him that way.

The same is true of 2059. The people there are vulnerable and have enemies. They live in harsh physical conditions, though without losing the capacity to recognise and create beauty. They too wrestle with the ethics and politics of what we now call artificial intelligence, which in their world has become, and in our world is becoming, a realistic proposition.

Malka’s conclusion seems to be that we can sometimes access resources beyond our little selves, though we don’t really own them, and can’t rely on them to exempt or rescue us from things we don’t like or want. But they do have a role to play and can at times make a difference. “We partake in creation with ha-Shem, the Name, the Word that speaks us, the breath that sings life through us. We are tool and vessel and will. We connect with powers beyond our own fractional consciousness to the rest of the living being we all make up together. The power flows through us just as it flows through the tiger and through the oak and through the river breaking over its rocks, and we know in our core the fire that fuels the sun.”

(1) Marge Piercy He, She and It (Kindle edition). First published in 1991 (as Body of Glass outside the USA). 1993 Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

*The Maharal was an historical figure, the title being the Hebrew acronym of Moreinu Ha-Ra Loew, used for Judah Loew be Bezalel,1512/26? -1609) and widely known to scholars as the Maharal of Prague. In 1592, he was granted an audience with Rudolf II, the mystically inclined Holy Roman Emperor. This was probably to discuss Kabbalah. The legend concerning his creation of a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks is thought to be a German literary invention of the early nineteenth century.