Saturday, November 12, 2011

Four Books Reviewed

"The critic...tells of his mind's adventures among masterpieces"
- Anatole France

A tetrad of loosely interrelated books has been occupying my moments of free time the last couple of months and now that I'm just about finished reading all of them, I'd like to share my thoughts on all four.
Prometheus Rising 
by Robert Anton Wilson

The legend known among fans and followers as RAW first began to interest me a couple of years ago when I discovered the Maybe Logic blog and all the rich brain food that's been roasting over there. I was led to the site through messing around with Google, searching for combos of names like Joseph Campbell and James Joyce until eventually I stumbled upon this incredible audio interview in which Robert Anton Wilson discusses Finnegans Wake and Campbell's Skeleton Key. The raspy voice and thick Brooklyn accent pouring out infinite multifaceted knowledge was very appealing (I grew up listening to mostly Brooklyn/Staten Island accents) but it wasn't until this summer that I finally started looking into Wilson's body of work. The first book I picked up was his collection of essays entitled Coincidance which features a good chunk of Joyce analysis unlike anything you'll find elsewhere, along with some humorously written conspiracy pieces and brain exercises.

I found his writing style so engaging and captivating that I put some of his other books on my future reading list and eventually picked up the highly-regarded Prometheus Rising. The book has been such a great read that RAW has rapidly shot up into my list of favorites and lately I can't get enough of his writings, interviews, and YouTube lectures. The book is primarily a study of the evolution of human consciousness and how most human beings advance only to a certain level (barely half way up the ladder) and remain there all their lives, condemned to view the universe through a narrow "reality tunnel." Using psychology, biology, neurology, mythology, history, and plenty of other elements, Wilson weaves an engaging and entertaining analysis of Timothy Leary's eight-circuit model of consciousness in an attempt to shake the reader's perspective of reality and allow us to elevate to higher levels of consciousness. Each chapter includes exercises at the end to help break out of our imprinted "circuits" or systems of receiving and reacting to the world.

His main goal is to make us think, to shake us free from the shackles of preconceived notions that are constructed during our upbringing and experiences. The end-of-the-chapter exercises often consist of things like "if you're liberal, subscribe to a conservative magazine for a few months" or "if you're straight, pretend you're gay for a week" and so on; the point, of course, is not to turn liberals into conservatives and make straight folks gay but to allow us to understand that we (and everyone else) sees the world through their own conditioned reality tunnel. It is not all about seeing things the way others do, though, a main point made in the book is also the fact that we convince ourselves that we can't change, can't excel, can't elevate. My favorite exercise thus far is "convince yourself that you can exceed all your previous hopes and ambitions."

It's an extremely eye-opening book and really changes the way I look at humanity (and I'm still not even finished reading it). I can't recommend the book highly enough and I will definitely be devoting another blog post to expanding on its material in the near future. For now, if you're interested in getting a taste of what the book is all about, go check out this roughly one-hour lecture in which he summarizes virtually the entire thing. Wilson's work is quickly sucking me in like a blackhole so you can expect plenty more posts about it in the future.

War and Peace in the Global Village
by Marshall McLuhan

Along with Robert Anton Wilson, McLuhan has become someone whose work I can't get enough of lately. After reading a couple of books summarizing his life and philosophies, I finally decided to pick up a few original books by the man himself. I've got The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media waiting on the shelf and I devoured War and Peace in the Global Village over the last few weeks. It looked to be the most appealing of the three books I received, with illustrations and photos on every page, plus Finnegans Wake quotes on just about every page (he provides a fascinating little breakdown of the ten one-hundred-lettered thunder claps that appear in the Wake), and a small stature, small enough to squeeze in one's back pocket. I got an original 1968 edition but it looks barely touched.

The first thing that struck me about it is that I could easily see why McLuhan was often a hated figure among his contemporaries in the 60s and 70s. His style of writing is strange, meandering and very difficult to follow (he calls this style "probing"). Rarely does he write two paragraphs without resorting to quoting some other author, often at absurd lengths (two or three pages). He also doesn't ever explain his ideas in clear terms, usually making opaque assertions and trying to back them up with big quotes or seemingly unrelated allusions. It's obvious he had a very unusual mental structure.

A few flashes of bright insight show that he was also quite clearly a genius. The book is broken up into about 5 sections, some very long and some very short. He opens by circulating around his famous vision of the modern technological world as a Global Village. This was in the late 60s, long before the rise of the internet and smartphones but he was so on point, it's unbelievable. McLuhan speaks of all technology as extensions of the human body. So the telescope is an extension of the eye, the wheel an extension of the foot, etc and this leads to computers and digital devices as an extension of the human nervous system. The entire planet is now covered in an invisible nervous system that connects everybody together so that an event that occurs in New York City is instantly felt in Hawaii, Japan, and the remote reaches of the Russian Tundra.

He goes on for far too long in this first section, starting out by detailing how the advances of technology over the last 2,500 years specialized military and warfare while facilitating the growth of empires (he gets things a bit twisted in the process) and moving to a discussion of the proliferation of psychedelic drugs among young people in the 60s, arguing that it was a response to the rise of technology, comparing the effect of TV and computers to a "high" state that must be replicated or dilated through the use of drugs. He also makes a much more salient point on this last subject (and this starts to bring in what I see as McLuhan's main theme) which is that as humanity moves from the fragmented industrial age to the revival of the tribal atmosphere in a digital global village, the ritual becomes much more important and prevalent among the new generations, and here he quotes drug users lauding the ritual aspect of communal drug use.

It is in the next sections that the book finally gets engaging and truly fascinating as he first talks about "War as Education" and then "Education as War." The former has to do with the rapid advances in knowledge and technology during times of war, the latter with our culture's way of imprinting old and out-dated ideas onto our youth. This discussion of education actually perfectly aligned with what Robert Anton Wilson was saying in Prometheus Rising. As McLuhan writes:
"In the information age it is obviously possible to decimate populations by the dissemination of information and gimmickry...It is simple information technology being used by one community to reshape another. It is this type of aggression that we exert on our own youngsters in what we call 'education.' We simply impose upon them patterns that we find convenient to ourselves and consistent with available technologies. Such customs and usages, of course, are always past-oriented and the new technologies are necessarily excluded from the educational establishments until the elders have relinquished power."
Wilson talked about this exact same thing in his elaboration of the so-called "semantic" circuit or level of consciousness:
"Cynics, satirists, and 'mystics' [McLuhan can be considered something of a satirical mystic, actually] have told us over and over that 'reason is a whore,' i.e. that the semantic circuit is notoriously vulnerable to manipulation by the older, more primitive circuits."
Further exploration of the similarities between RAW and McLuhan will be forthcoming in a separate blogpost, but for now I will stick to the script. Overall, War and Peace in the Global Village is a fascinating and often frustrating book; it's visually pleasing and there are plenty of great insights but for a tiny book it can get boring quickly.

The first two books reviewed here are ones that I've been reading as part of the preliminary process of preparing for the big study of Ulysses I am hoping to begin soon. Both Wilson and McLuhan are obsessed with Joyce and offer interpretations of his work unlike anything you'll find in regular Joyce critiques and analyses so I want to soak up whatever I can from them right now (while also familiarizing myself with their work). The two reviews below are of books that I'm reading more for fun and personal development.

Integral Life Practice
by multiple authors

This book is a kind of instruction manual or school textbook written by a bunch of people. It is a very clear and simple-to-understand exposition of Ken Wilber's Integral Theory and how to apply it to all aspects of life. Back in 2008, while visiting a graduate school in San Francisco I had gotten into a nice discussion with the clerk at the school bookstore. We were discussing Carl Jung, Stanislav Grof, Joseph Campbell and some of my other favorites when he brought up Ken Wilber and started gushing about how he's the best philosopher/writer/psychologist there is right now and his books are the greatest shit ever. Despite his proselytizing, I decided to push off reading Wilber's stuff for the future and picked up Richard Tarnas' latest book instead.

Four years later, I came across this Integral Life Practice book in a used bookstore and finally decided to give it a chance. It's not really written by Wilber; he wrote the introduction and oversaw the book's production but other than that, a group of devotees took his ideas and expanded on them in terms that a layman could understand.

The subtitle for the book is "A 21st-Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity, and Spiritual Awakening" and that just about sums it up. It's more vanilla consciousness-expanding tutorial than New Age, esoteric tome. The whole Integral theory is built from a simple foundation: a quadrant. In the upper left is the individual interior (feelings, emotions, consciousness), the upper right is the individual exterior (physical body and its actions), bottom left is the collective interior (culture, society, morals), and the bottom right is the collective exterior (the planet, the state, community). 

From the base of this very useful quadrant, the reader is taught how to achieve their highest potentiality in four fields: the shadow, the mind, the body, and the spirit. The inclusion of the shadow within the normal "mind, body, spirit" bunch seemed strange at first but the authors stress that it is important for us to confront and assimilate our psychological shadows first before progressing through advancement in other states. Each of the four fields (shadow, mind, body, spirit) include very simple tutorials and directions for practice, the so-called "shadow work" was actually very beneficial in my experience and I'm thankful to have come across such a thing. The other practices were also very rewarding.

It's easy to see what is so special about Wilber and his integral theory; it is a pretty damn admirable attempt at integrating the greatest wisdom and knowledge of all possible fields, presented in a relatively simple manner. The highest advances in psychology, nutrition, exercise, yoga, physics, spirituality, sociology and more are combined to formulate the elevation of humans to their highest potential. It's not too far off from Prometheus Rising in that sense, though with RAW the writing is much more entertaining and often daring. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone trying to elevate their consciousness, mind, body, etc. A consistent approach to carrying out its methods will undoubtedly reap huge benefits.

Pronoia is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings
by Rob Brezsny

In a way, this book combines all three of the other ones. What a whacky and spectacular book this is...

This book sort of found me, I was at the house of one my girlfriend's co-workers and it was sitting innocently on the couch, unnoticed by anyone. It's a large book (thick but also tall) and the huge glowing mandala on the cover caught my eye. I flipped it open and found a mention of Joseph Campbell and thought "okay, it's got my attention." Wondering what else it might have to offer, I flipped through it a bit more and came across a mention of Finnegans Wake and then Robert Anton Wilson and I was officially hooked in. Bought it a few days later.

The message of the book is quite perfectly summed up in its title---the author argues that the entire universe is designed to shower you with blessings (if you can learn to see it that way). It sounds silly and, of course, it is kind of silly but through all kinds of whacky humor and stunning intelligence in this unusual book, the point is made quite strongly. The more I read RAW's work, the more I see this book as a descendant of it, but nevertheless it is still a special achievement. Once again, here is a book attempting to shake you out of your rigid bounds, to burst you free of your shackles.

It looks sort of like a big coloring book or the type of workbooks kids use in elementary school. There are mandalas and every other conceivable spiritual symbol flooding each page while Brezsny jots a handful of personal stories of creative awakening and spiritual liberation in a wonderfully humorous and intelligent manner. He's got a gift for writing and coming up with the funniest-yet-profoundest phrases, very often it seems like he's poking fun at himself and the book itself but he's delivering powerful messages at the same time. A perfect example is in the book's outlined objective on page 7: "To explore the secrets of becoming a wildly disciplined, fiercely tender, ironically sincere, scrupulously curious, aggressively sensitive, blasphemously reverent, lyrically logical, lustfully compassionate Master of Rowdy Bliss."

As funny as it can be sometimes, it's also a book that continually shocks me with how much intellect it contains. As I mentioned, there's discussion of Joyce, Campbell, and RAW but also Jung, Freud, Shakespeare, Dante, and pretty much everything else I've ever been even remotely interested in and then some. Besides the handful of personal stories that are shared, there are 15 chapters featuring great quotes on particular subjects (dreams, the shadow, the universe, etc), thought-provoking collections of (positive) world news & events, and so-called "Pronoia Therapy" which consists of exercises (888 of them altogether) in a similar sense to those presented in RAW's books, except much whackier. Similar to how Joyce's greatest books contain a sort of alchemy or black magic ritual under the surface, Brezsny loads this book up with all kinds of masonic, occult, religious, mythological symbols and twists their axioms to promote the pronoiac, positive aura in the reader. It's been a very nice panacea for me after all the deep study I did on the subject of paranoia for my Dali-Joyce paper, plus it really is a perfect antidote to the cynical, world-renouncing feeling one gets when reading or thinking about the numerous atrocities and abuses of power destroying the planet. It's perfect for those who desperately need to balance their minds from too much conspiracy (Illuminati, world government, evil oligarchy) material.

This is a book that I can't seem to ever stop reading, I imagine it will be in my pile of books for at least another 5 years. It's not quite inexhaustible but flipping it open to a random page any time always yields some bright light and sends me off on some rewarding path. Mounds and mounds of ponderous, positive, and productive stuff in here. To close, here's a selection from the book that quite perfectly ties all 4 of these reviewed books together while also aptly applying to the turmoil of our times.
As much as we might be dismayed at the actions of our political leaders, pronoia says that toppling any particular junta, clique or elite is irrelevant unless we overthrow the sour, puckered mass hallucination that is mistakenly called "reality"---including the part of that hallucination we foster in ourselves.

The revolution begins at home. If you overthrow yourself again and again and again, you might earn the right to help overthrow the rest of us.


  1. Great post. Tons of stuff to read and think about here, and I haven't even clicked on any of the links yet.

    I'll just add the footnote that Brezsny used to be a Santa Cruz local, and I believe it was here that he started writing his very entertaining and thought provoking Free Will astrology columns. He's since relocated north and his columns are syndicated, but he's definitely a Santa Cruz kind of character. I've long been meaning to take a closer look at Pronoia, so maybe this will prompt me to pick up a copy.

    One thing I do wonder suddenly about this stuff, and it hadn't occurred to me before now is, where are the women in all this? It seems like a very masculine enterprise, though for no discernable reason, as the raising of consciousness seems like it has to be a human project, not a masculine one.

  2. Brezsny studied under Norman O. Brown at Santa Cruz; NOB (or "Nobby") wrote a book on Finnegans Wake, Pound, Vico and other things called Closing Time. PQ might like that book...

    Cool blog!

  3. My group might like to read that book as well. One of our occasional visitors took the Finnegans Wake class from Norman O. Brown back in the day. She still seemed to have an amazing retention of it.

  4. Thanks for reading and commenting guys!

    @Seana: I keep hearing great things about Santa Cruz. My girlfriend and I are hoping to move up there in a year or two, once we've worn out our stay here in Austin.

    Your question about women's participation in all of this is a great one and I've thought about it a lot myself. Among my favorite authors and favorite books, the only woman prominently featured is religious scholar Karen Armstrong (she's written extensively about everything from Islam to Buddhism).

    I also have two great books about writing/creativity that are written by women (Gail Sher and Julia Cameron) but, you're right, I'm not sure where the women are in this consciousness movement. I don't think it's naive or sexist to suggest that maybe women just aren't gravitating towards writing books as much, instead they're yoga teachers or (like my girlfriend is becoming) vegan/vegetarian chefs and the like.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that, for the most part, I'm personally still stuck in scanning the works of the past. Two of the books reviewed here are from the 1960s-70s era. I'm sure there must be plenty of prominent female figures in the movement these days.

    @Michael: I'm glad you stopped by, thanks for the kind words. I had never heard of Norman O. Brown but I've been reading up on him and his work (especially Closing Time) is definitely up my alley.

  5. Well, do let us know if you're ever in town. The Wakers in Santa Cruz would welcome you. We're pretty old fogyish, but my friends son has been joining us a bit, and my other friend's parents did, so its pretty all inclusive agewise.

    It's interesting that most though not all of our wakers, regular and occasional, have been women, so I don't think it's a matter of women not being interested in these subjects. And of course women supported Joyce in keeping body and soul together all his life, and I don't think it was just out of either pity or attraction. Maybe women aren't so eager to think out entire cosmologies, but even that may be unfair.

  6. I will definitely come by and participate whenever I get back to that area. I don't care what the age group is, when I first went to a Wake reading group I was the youngest one there but there were people from all over the globe, every walk of life. As long as we'd be discussing that infinitely strange and interesting book, count me in.

    I came across some interesting material on this topic (women in science, society, etc) in an interview with both Robert Anton Wilson and his wife Arlen Riley Wilson. She is an extremely forward thinker and put forth many "controversial" but thought-provoking ideas, I suggest you at least check out Part 3 of the interview here:

    Just as Joyce's most helpful acquaintances were women, my own life has seen a number of special women pop up and help me along my journey. The best job I had when I was in New York was under a female manager who remains the best boss I've ever had, I caught on with a female accountant in San Diego who helped me out a lot, my current boss is another strong woman (the owner a growing business). As for my writing, the most ardent supporters I have are all women as well (yourself included, Seana). And my personal cosmology revolves around the female being the most reverent thing in existence, I'm sort of a goddess worshipper.

    In the field of books, lectures, etc it's almost entirely men who I derive the most influence from, but in real life it's almost entirely women.

  7. Thanks for commenting, Alvin. I intend to dig into Brown's work this year at some point.

    Was planning on starting with "Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis". Which books would you recommend?