Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Book Review: The Perennial Life (La vida perenne) by José Luis Sampedro

The Perennial Life (La vida perenne) (2015)
José Luis Sampedro (1917-2013)

189 pages

The Perennial philosophy (Latin: philosophia perennis), also referred to as Perennialism, is a perspective in the philosophy of religion which views each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, universal truth on which foundation all religious knowledge and doctrine has grown.
Agostino Steuco (1497–1548) coined the term...
The term was popularized in more recent times by Aldous Huxley … in his 1945 book: The Perennial Philosophy.
Wikipedia; opening lines of the article on Perennial philosophy
In the prologue to Spanish economist and author José Luis Sampedro’s The Perennial Life (La vida perenne), published posthumously earlier this year, his wife Olga Lucas notes that in an earlier novel, October, October (Octubre, Octubre), Sampedro wrote “I began to lean on a very well-known work of Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy.” (“Empecé apoyándome en un obra muy concida de Aldous Huxley, La filosofía perenne.”) Sampedro pays homage to Huxley both in this latest book’s title, and through the inclusion of several passages from Huxley’s work.

The Perennial Life serves as an encapsulation of Sampedro’s life-long immersion in the philosophy of humanism, a pursuit that was clearly guided by the concepts of Perennial philosophy.  In his book he integrates together thoughts and ideas from a broad range of Eastern and Western spiritual and religious traditions, as well as passages in which he presents his own thoughts on the texts, his own interpretations and conclusions. Collectively the text represents a bequeathal of what he learned about how one might most appropriately live one’s life.

The passages range from a few lines to a couple of pages, and are grouped into fourteen chapters, each reflecting a particular theme. The opening chapter Quiet the Voices, Awaken (Aquietar las voces, despertar), for example, considers how one might best turn away from hectic, quotidian concerns, to truly see and comprehend the reality of the world. Here he quotes Huxley’s observation that the
... one [divine] Reality is such that it cannot be directly and immediately apprehended except by those who have chosen to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart and poor in spirit. Why should this be so? We do not know. It is just one of those facts which we have to accept, whether we like them or not and however implausible or unlikely they may seem.
Already in these early lines, it becomes clear that true understanding first requires a willingness to open ourselves to, and make ourselves vulnerable to the world beyond our immediate concerns.

In another chapter, Die to Live (Morir para vivir), Sampedro notes that “we live in a society that skirts around the problem of death as much as possible,” (75) (“vivimos en una sociedad que escamotea el problema de la muerte todo lo que puede”). He quotes lines from Chuang Tzu (as translated by Thomas Merton) that conclude “[A man’s] thirst for survival in the future makes him incapable of living in the present.” (79), and he himself observes that in striving for immortality, human beings become “vain” (“endiosarnos”), which leads to a belief
... that we are the kings of creation, that the world is for little more than our pleasure, for our enjoyment, for our exploitation.” (81)

(... que son los reyes de la creación, que el mundo poco menos que está para nuesto goce, para nuestro disfrute, para nuestra explotación.”)
Thus, again, what prevents human beings from becoming more aware of the reality of our world is a blindness of the spirit.  In this context, it is a blindness resulting from a willful desire that lies outside the realm of nature's possibilities (immortality), and which impels us to subjugate or ignore the natural world instead of opening ourselves up to it.

In the concluding chapter, Sampedro portrays our lives as being “no more than the spark of a grand bonfire” (163) (“no es más que la chispa de una gran hoguera”). It is within our lives, ourselves, that he says we must look to understand reality. He includes a story from the Sanskrit text Chandogya Upanishad, in which a teacher leads a student toward an understanding of his place in the universe, concluding:
The spirit of the entire universe is an invisible and subtle essence. That is reality. That is truth. YOU ARE THAT.” (171)
(“El Espíritu del universe entero es una esencia invisible y sutil. Ésa es la Realidad. Eso es Verdad. TÚ ERES ESO.”)

Sprinkled throughout the book are wonderful photographs by Chema Madoz, an example of which can be found on the book’s cover, pictured above. Madoz takes common, everyday objects, both man-made and from nature, and creates subtle, yet striking images that can perhaps best be described as visual poetry. These photographs form an ideal accompaniment to the themes in the book's passages, in that they reinforce the notion that, for those prepared to learn how to seek them out, rich and unexpected wonders exist in the world around us.

In The Perennial Life, Sampedro adeptly blends selections from Eastern and Western philosophical traditions with his own thoughts summarizing what he has learned from studying these texts, and from integrating aspects of them into his own life. The result is a coherent and deeply engaging meditation on how one can approach the critical and rewarding task of living a conscious and fulfilling life. Centered around the concepts of perennial philosophy, Sampedro’s work provides a view that inherently sidesteps the (often violent) disagreements that develop between followers of particular religious dogmas, by embracing instead a broader outlook, one that seeks out the unifying principles that lie behind these varied traditions.

This is a work that you will find richly rewarding to read carefully, from the first page to the last, as Sampedro crafts his beautiful and hopeful invitation to turn away from one's daily concerns to instead behold the beauty of creation.  There are, however, also rewards to be found later, by simply turning to a random page and considering the particular reflection on life and nature that presents itself.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Book Review: "California" by Edan Lepucki

California (2014)
Edan Lepucki (1981)


393 pages

In apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, the event that precipitates the apocalypse often occurs over a short period of time; it may be minutes, say in the case of an asteroid, or hours or days, in the case of a nuclear war, but a clear and evident before and after exists that separates the normal world from its dramatically altered future. What if, however, no such single, evident triggering event stands out? Suppose only in hindsight, looking back over a series of apparently unconnected events that may have spanned years, could one say “there, that was the final straw, since then everything’s been different.” Do the words “apocalypse” and post-apocalyptic” still apply?

Edan Lepucki’s novel California, set in the mid to late 21st century United States, has many elements of post-apocalyptic fiction --- but constitutes the apocalypse has played out through an extended series of natural disasters. Some of these disasters were apparently random, such as earthquakes that stagger a number of cities, such as Los Angeles, while others have the implication of human causes, such as devastating superstorms and flooding in the northeast. In Lepucki’s telling, no one of these events represents the moment marking the clear onset of a country (and by extension a world) that has succumbed to an ineluctable decline, but she clearly imagines a U.S. population and economy that has not had the capacity to overcome an escalating rash of calamites of the natural world. How many among us, observing the growing acrimony and fractionalization in what passes for public and political debate these days, and the resulting inaction and feelings of disenfranchisement, might not believe that such a dystopian future could result?

Set in the California wilderness west of Los Angeles, Lepucki’s story follows a young couple, Cal and Frida, who have fled the city in search of a better life. As the economy has collapsed, LA --- and seemingly the whole of the U.S. --- has devolved into secured enclaves of wealth called Communities, surrounded by large swaths of impoverished masses struggling to survive. Cal and Frida find that the wilderness has its own challenges, however, from bands of pirates rumored to be terrorizing the countryside, to the unsurprising but still stark reality that none of the infrastructure of modern life they grew up with, frayed though it may have become, exists to support them: no stores, no doctors, little more than what they can wrestle from the land around them.

As the story opens the pair have survived their second year in the wild, living in a small, unoccupied shed they discovered in the woods. They grow food in a small garden, supplementing it with some hunting and gathering in the surrounding forest, and items from a trader who occasionally passes by; life is difficult, but they have made a go of it.

When Frida realizes she is pregnant, however, an already solitary and arduous existence becomes overwhelming for her. Eager to find a more hopeful situation in which to raise her coming baby, she convinces her husband that they should seek out a settlement that they have heard lies just a couple of days walk to their west, and ask to be taken in. The two know little about this settlement except its general location, and that it has a reputation for being unwelcoming to strangers. Frida is undeterred by their sketchy knowledge, however, and the couple soon depart their shelter of two years in the desperate hope of find a larger group of people to join up with.

Upon reaching the settlement they are shocked to find themselves welcomed by the townspeople, though this is only the first surprise of many for them. The breakdown in authority throughout the country, and so in formal law and order, has created new norms, and vying political and philosophical outlooks on how to survive in the unstable new reality. As they build relationships and take on responsibilities in the settlement, Cal and Frida must not only come to grips with how much they value independence versus security for themselves as well as for their future baby, but also how they will balance their individual desires and fears with their love for one another.

A significant portion of the novel involves flashbacks by Cal and Frida to the time before they left LA, or had even met, years in which the crisis in the US was well underway, but had not yet reached the levels that would eventually drive them from the city. This part of the story, as well as the couple’s initial introduction to the settlement they seek out, worked best for me. A subtle yet unnerving tension fills the otherwise bucolic setting, potential danger lying around every corner, lurking in every interaction.

The final part of the novel, on the other hand, felt too compressed, as though Lepucki made a sudden decision that the story had to be wrapped up in a relatively few pages. The conclusion of the novel would perhaps seem less abrupt if the reader knew there was a sequel waiting for them to turn to, however that’s not immediately clear. In an interview Lepucki suggests that she has “an inkling of possibly writing a sequel to California, but not in a way that even really picks up where I left off."

The focus of the story in California remains tightly drawn to the immediate world within walking distance of Cal and Frida, to what they can see and hear and feel. The details of the situation in the larger, outside world remain ambiguous, no one quite certain exactly what, if any, political and legal authority still exists. This uncertainty for the pair, as well as for the reader, subverts any attempt to make sense of the rules and expectations of the wider world --- every encounter becomes potentially fateful. In the quotidian details of the couple’s lives becomes clear the harrowing reality of what it would truly mean to live without the infrastructure of goods, services and safety we, particularly in the U.S., often take for granted.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf