Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Fable of the Island

The Gnostic idea is almost never contemplated by modern people realistically, not even by those with a transcendental bent. The chief reason for that, perhaps, is that the organic world is too well made to assign it to a bumbling demiurge. At the same time there is pattern in nature which, alas, suggests the—natural. It is therefore difficult to see Nature as the creation of an all-knowing and perfect craftsman. There is too much reliance in it on chance and circumstance. It is for this very reason that in Catholic tradition, anyway, the Fall of the world is stipulated in order so that we can have it both ways. This tradition envisions the “original” creation as perfect. The “natural” world comes about later as the consequence of the Fall. Concerning the Fall we might paraphrase Voltaire and say that if it hasn’t happened we’d have to invent it. Pick any period in history at random and you will see a clear madness overshadowing human reality. Meanwhile the natural world retains its sanity and innocence while also displaying a maddening ambiguity: unconscious consciousness, unaware wisdom, blind teleology. For a quick capsule of Gnosticism, look here.

Idries Shah offers what he calls a fable in The Sufis (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964) vaguely reminiscent of the Gnostic myth but quite different in thrust. It depicts a fall, but in a different way—as a necessary adaptation. I count myself a friend and admirer of the Sufi tradition—drawn in its direction precisely by such formulations as Shah’s fable of the Island. Shah proposes—not as a factual situation but as a framework for thought—that humanity might be pictured as a community living in a much more perfect state. Its leader foresaw a change coming about which would cause the community’s habitation to be unusable for an extended period of time. In consequence a new place, an Island, is found as the home for the community, but with conditions such that the individuals must undergo a radical transformation to survive in the new environment. These adaptive transformations are so profound that return to the more favorable climes of the motherland requires a long and arduous process. The community moves from a subtle and superior world to a coarser and grainier reality; to make the process easier on people, most members are caused to forget the original country except in the vaguest sort of way; they’re shielded from the past to lessen their pain of loss. There is a good deal more to the fable, but this much will suffice here. Naturally I would suggest that people read the book—at least its first chapter, where the fable is presented.

Unlike most myths, Shah’s fable avoids producing a full-blown cosmology. What he presents (at least as I interpret it) is a picture of large scale interactions between dimensional realms—interactions severe enough so that their inhabitants must adapt themselves to unwished-for events. The fable works as an explanatory framework under certain assumptions. One is that many communities of beings exist, thus a vast concourse of freedom. The communities live in similarly many environments, the environments themselves subject to lawful changes: a realm of necessity. Shah leaves untouched how all of these communities and environments might relate to one another. Suffice it to say, simply, that freedom and necessity, in interaction, can produce major changes requiring adaptation; and some of these will be better than others.

We might call this a modified Gnostic myth—or a modernized, secularized Gnostic tale. Instead of an errant aeon called Sophia, the cause of the world’s fall from a level of subtle sophistication and deep purpose to a much coarser level of materiality and chance is explained in terms of something like climate change (in an era when that phrase did not have modern connotations of global warming). But never mind. This fable also depicts a fall, and that’s really my point: some kind of a fall must be assumed. The negative aspect of the Fall is required by the “natural” arrangement of things; our world is far from perfect. The presumed higher origin (the higher region from which we fell) is required by the presence here of consciousness and intelligence. I myself consider the doctrine of intelligence as an “emergent form of matter” ridiculous because logically insupportable—really a form of magic. For those who can accept the modern Big Bang theory without unease (I myself am very uneasy about it), the Big Bang might actually represent a factual underpinning that weird things happen in the cosmos out there.

This fable-making is really a balancing act. You have to admire nature, meaning organic nature; you cannot go to the lengths Gnostics went and simply dismiss all of it; we know too much to agree with that sentiment. What Shah’s fable does is to introduce a neutral point of departure (disturbance of our habitation) and a creative response to it by an already conscious community. Indeed the “island” might be viewed as a very good symbol for the Earth. Not a lot of places in the material cosmos are suitable for life. The cause for the evil we experience as genuine evil, meaning willful evil, is ignorance produced by the occultations of a new habitation. The price we pay for a reasonable fable is to defer grander explanations to another time. There is no explanation here of how either the community or its environment originated. And even that is justified: Why should we presume total knowledge of everything in our community of being? Especially while, as Shah would have us see, our job now is to make it back again from our temporary abode on the Island to the lands where we originated.

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