Recently re-reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, written over sixteen hundred years ago, I was struck by one aspect that had previously eluded me: the authors he refers to are, for the most part, still known to us today. Whether consciously or not, he was already contributing to building the Western canon. The Aristotelian-Euclidean-Cartesian-Newtonian-Darwinian/Spencerian canon by which the Western world operates to this day has been in the making for millennia. Along the way, there were death blows to the possibility of at least one other canon, for example the Platonic Academy, which was first destroyed by the Roman dictator Sulla in 86 BCE. Then, having been revived centuries later, was closed once and for all by Justinian I in 529 CE. The Church had/has its Canon Law and was, for centuries, a strict enforcer of it, with anything beyond it being perceived as heresy and vigorously stamped out.
While the Western world in the 21st century is free from alacritous canon-enforcing enterprises such as the Holy Inquisition, it nevertheless operates by a canon which remains very much the mentioned Aristotelian-Euclidean-Cartesian-Newtonian-Darwinian/Spencerian one, inculcated into us all from kindergarten to the grave, echoed not only by schools of all levels, but by governments, the media, official institutions and nonofficial entities and, last but not least, by the entertainment industry.
Judging from the history of mankind, the simple reality is that people both need and like dogmas. Concepts that to an uninvolved and level-headed mind seem grotesque, evil and everything in between, at a certain time and in a certain place looked just right. Customs that appear barbaric today were the norm once, and vice versa. The Holy Inquisition is the obvious target, as is the Nazis’ Final Solution. But what of Stalin’s Great Purge? The Khmer Rouge Killing Fields? Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans?
And then there are many less obvious examples.
In his book Los Invencibles de América, Spanish author Jesús Á. Rojo Pinilla maintains that, far from committing genocide against the Aztecs in what is today Mexico, Cortés and his conquistadors saved them from a self-inflicted holocaust. Animal husbandry being unknown to the Aztecs, they and their neighbours were essentially eating each other to the brink of extinction. Not only did they commit tens of thousands of human sacrifices every year for religious motivations, and thereafter ate the thighs of the sacrificial victims, but their cannibalism was widespread because of the scarcity of food. The contemporary Western canon, still a staunch supporter and propagator of the Leyenda Negra (the British/American propaganda that demonises Spain and all things Spanish), in the face of historical and archaeological evidence teaches us the opposite: that pre-Columbian Mexico was the Garden of Earthly Delights and that the conquistadors proceeded to exterminate everyone. DNA testing on the contemporary Mexican population reveals that 30% of them are of pure Aztec or Maya descent; 60%, mestizo; and only 10%, white. If the alleged holocaust had in fact taken place, wouldn’t the DNA of contemporary Mexicans indicate an overwhelmingly white descent?
One should think of dogmas or, in their combined puissance, of the canon as an inescapable force not dissimilar from gravity. Can it, in fact, be escaped at all?
Some readers of my books have sent me e-mails asking for suggestions about what they might read in order to break out of the Western canon. I’ve been thinking about that request for some time and, while a complete list of books would be impossible and at any rate well beyond the scope of this piece, I suspect that a small list, to begin with, could be of help to those curious minds that are contrarian by nature, or disillusioned with the current Western canon and the all-pervasive propaganda that reinforces it. Here follows my (drum roll) eye-opening, assumption-challenging, horizon-broadening list.
The I CHING, not only mankind’s first (known) book, but a very thorough dissertation on accidentality in juxtaposition to Western man’s obsession, i.e., causality, that self-evident and asinine nexus between cause and effect on which Western philosophy nevertheless built entire systems. Moreover, consulting the I CHING as a divinatory tool can be as infuriating as it can be enlightening.
Skipping thousands of years, Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living. Lin Yutang was a philosopher of life, translator of Chinese classics into English, novelist and an inventor. He is the one who finally solved the riddle and, in 1946, succeeded in producing the unthinkable: a workable Chinese typewriter! Amid his writings he left many epigrams, lustrous exercises in witty prose as well as in non-linear thinking. You would think that the Dude, from the film ‘The Big Lebowski’, has metabolised his teachings, for example: “It is amazing how few people are conscious of the importance of the art of lying in bed.” “It is characteristic of play that one plays without reason and there must be no reason for it.” “A good traveller is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveller does not know where he came from.”
Jesus Lived in India: His Unknown Life Before and After Crucifixion by Holger Kersten. To reconfigure Jesus as a Buddhist does the world the great favour of releasing him from the Abrahamic tradition. Also, his not dying on the cross is explained with such abundance of telling details (often in plain sight in the various gospels), I tend to be convinced of their veracity. And Paulinism being smuggled and imposed as Christianity – that has caused not a little trouble down the centuries.
A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation by Rupert Sheldrake. It opened my eyes, many years ago, and since then Rupert and I have become friends. Darwin (and, by extension, Herbert Spencer, that great co-opter): Goodbye. The first chapter magisterially sums up biology as it’s taught to this day in all schools; from the second chapter on, welcome to a new world. When first published, the prestigious journal of science Nature attacked it with the editorial A Book for Burning? (as it dared to go against the strongly-held convictions of the scientific priesthood). Echoes of the Holy Inquisition from the mainstream scientific world.
Of the trinity of essential, prescient works that describe the decadence of the West – Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, René Guenon’s The Crisis of the Modern World, and Julius Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World – I would pick the latter, with Hermann Hesse’s warning that it is a “really dangerous” book. And so it is. It’s difficult not to be swept away by this radical rethinking of history. Its Wagnerian scope and intrinsic power make it one of the most disruptive books ever written, particularly because it’s so well constructed and so profoundly erudite. I would recommend it, but with the caveat: to be read cum grano salis by a mature, Apollonian reader, not by an impressionable, Dionysian youth.
The less heady but equally central The Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset may well provoke the ire of contemporary progressive “thinkers” and the joy of those who don’t digest their propaganda. Compare and contrast the very well-established concept: “Everybody is entitled to their opinion” (grammatically incorrect in deference to feminist sensitivities) to “The sovereignty of the unqualified individual, of the human being as such, generically, has now passed from being a juridical idea or ideal to be a psychological state inherent in the average man.” The masses, maintained Ortega y Gasset, are the rabble; only the individual counts, if (s)he goes through a process of initiation, which is life-long.
Very valuable is Aldous Huxley’s anthology The Perennial Philosophy: An Interpretation of the Great Mystics, East and West, an excursus across space and time in search of the same matrix.
Weren’t St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua a bit peculiar – and extreme? Where did Cervantes draw inspiration for many of the adventures in his Don Quixote? Idries Shah’s The Sufis explains how much the West owes to Sufism and its teachings, and introduces the fundamental practice of non-linear thinking.
For a touch of India from a Western perspective, and limiting it to a single book, I would pick Paul Brunton’s A Search in Secret India. His sensible approach, unwillingness to be credulous, and nevertheless slow transition from being a non-believer to becoming open to wonder, is a wonder in itself.
Julius Evola wrote various books that deserve mention. But having to choose, in addition to Revolt, I would signal The Hermetic Tradition, praised even by C.G. Jung, whom Evola disliked for obvious reasons, chiefly the former’s insistence on the “lowly” unconscious.
Which brings us to Carl Gustav Jung who is not an author but a voyage. He touched upon just about everything, and his most gifted disciple, Marie-Louise von Franz, was as insightful, as well as possessed, unlike her teacher, of the art of concision. The reader who wants to depart from what
(s)he has been taught since the crib could start with Jung’s exceptional Answer to Job. And for a touch of early ufology, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies.
While on the subject, George Adamski’s Inside the Spaceships is a great read; should the story not be true, it would still be highly engaging, eye-opening science fiction. For a more level-headed treatment of the subject, Patrick Harpur’s Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld remains one of the best works on this elusive theme (while I would stay away from anything written by Whitley Strieber under the pretence of being true).
Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods was written, as a successful breakthrough, with the technique of fiction, rather than nonfiction. As a result, it’s an engaging read. Some of its claims are… odd (Atlantis in Antarctica!), others, for example the actual occurrence of the Great Flood, have been confirmed by various other open-minded scholars.
I like anything either written or published by David Hatcher Childress, the real-life Indiana Jones. The back-covers of his books are full of bombastic tidbits, but in fact his writing is well-researched and careful, and he tends to present unusual facts and findings while consistently trying to strike a balance between enthusiasm and plausibility.
David Conway’s Complete Magic Primer begins with an excellent, if condensed, history of magic and mysticism, and slowly morphs into an instruction manual. In other words, it teaches hands-on magic. Only for the stout of heart; I would not be toying with any of this, especially if I were not a believer.
Forbidden Archaeology by Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson is useful in revealing in a very methodical and indeed scientific way to what extent mainstream science has gone in suppressing the evidence pointing to the reality that humans have inhabited this planet for much longer than we are told. In Chapter 1.11, for example, there is a very lucid explanation of the “Phenomenon of Suppression”: the different stages by which an anomalous finding is either ignored, explained away, ridiculed, dismissed, or suppressed. Quite an enterprise from an activity – science – that originally set out to explain the unexplained or seemingly unexplainable. While the ponderous tome of 914 pages doesn’t make for the liveliest reading, it is nevertheless an impressive contribution.
More on the wacky side, and far more entertaining, is Terence McKenna’s True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author’s Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil’s Paradise. For those who will never try “heroic doses” of psilocybin mushrooms deep in the Colombian jungle, this is a wild, vicarious ride, an amalgam of science, literature, myth and exotica from an adventurer whose genuine inquisitiveness in things psychedelic goes hand in hand with mythomania – what an exuberant explosion of literary and philosophical high kitsch! If not persuaded, there follows the endorsement from The New York Times: “The polysyllabic sentences he lards with intellectual references are an attempt to lend credibility to the otherwise debunked subject of drugs.” Yes, a hatchet job from The New York Times could not make for a more valuable endorsement.
Equally wacky and even more wide-ranging is The Morning of the Magicians: Secret Societies, Conspiracies, and Vanished Civilizations by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, quite an international bestseller down the decades. Inter multa alia, the reader will find a description of how hands-on alchemy actually works; a parallel between the Mayans and the Nazis; and then some. As ever, the nagging question is: What if even a fraction of this were true? What have we been told instead, and why?
With scholarly discipline but also with a decidedly English sense of humour, The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena 2 by John Michell and Bob Rickard, takes a path along that shadowy territory between the known and the unknown, between the dogmas of mainstream scientists and the reality of phenomena that happen regardless of such dogmas. Much as, in a dramatic reversal, Galileo said centuries ago, after being forced to recant his claim that the Earth moved around the immovable sun: “And yet it moves.” (Back then, science, in its nascent state, was based on unbiased inquiry and rejected dogmas de facto. Today, mainstream science has morphed into a scientific priesthood.) The late John Michell was the author of, among others, View over Atlantis, one of the cult reads of the 1970s; Bob Rickard is the founder and editor of the Fortean Times.
My friend and co-author of two novels, Joscelyn Godwin, has written, translated, and edited many books that could be on this list. One of them, Artkos: The Polar Myth, explores a different origin of mankind in conjunction with various other occult myths. I should remind the reader that while I do not necessarily adhere to any of the beliefs expounded in these books, I am interested in learning about alternate versions of the same reality, which some (at times lunatic) fringes were, or are, convinced of. The level of scholarship is very high, as in all of Joscelyn’s works.
Finally, and possibly shockingly, I would include a few instalments from George MacDonald Fraser’s outrageously entertaining Flashman saga – take your pick. That’s because his masterful portrayal of Flashman is too close to what man’s nature really is once stripped of all its phony, superimposed veneer of civility. In fact, should man be “re-wilded” (and all it takes is a catastrophe, natural, nuclear or otherwise), Flashman’s outrageous trespasses would, in comparison, seem benign.
This is far from an exhaustive list, which did not set out to be complete in the first place; lastly, please remember that the following caveat applies to its every book: to be read cum grano salis [‘with a grain of salt’].