BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

It's Greek to me ...

This was one of those books that was described in another book in glowing terms and that I just had to track down. I'm not 100% sure what the referring book was, but I believe it was one those books on Sion and the Jesus blood line … and I was somewhat expecting this to have been more substantially connected to that genre than it is. As it turns out, Peter Kingsley's In the Dark Places of Wisdom has almost nothing to do with that area of investigation, with the sole exception that the peoples involved in this had a colony in what is currently Marseilles, France (which is, of course, where the Magdalene and her daughter Sarah sought sanctuary). Unfortunately, this means that I spent the whole book with one part of my brain waiting for this particular theme to pop up!

No, this does not concern itself at all with that investigative niche, but is a look at something almost as arcane. The subject here is pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, and how the Athenians (especially Plato, it would appear) “screwed things up”, replacing what had been the love of Wisdom with the love of arguing about Wisdom, and thus setting up Western Culture with a generally non-spiritual intellectual system.

The book is oddly composed, reading almost like a fire-side story, with most character and concept introductions presented at the end of long drawn out tellings of things. The main actors are a Greek people living in Asia Minor called the Phocaeans, who were said to be great seafarers and explorers, and closely related to the people of Samos, from whence Pythagoras came. In the sixth century BCE the Persian empire expanded to the coast, and the Phocaeans took to their ships and left spreading out to various colonies around the Mediterranean, among which was the city of Velia, another coastal spot, located towards the southern end of the west side of Italy.

Over the past 50 years or so, much interesting archaeological work has been done at the site of Velia, which appears to be the home of the philosopher Parmenides, founder of the “Eleatic” school, and teacher to the philosopher Zeno made famous by Plato's writings. He was also a priest of Apollo, and what the author describes as a Phôlarchos, which appears to mean something like “lord of the lair”, with “lair” implying something like a bear's hibernation cave. The author connects this, much as in the manner of Orphic or Delphic visionary practices, to a shamanic tradition that involved the elect going into a pit under the shrine or temple and lying still there for extended periods (somewhat like various Native American tribes' “vision quest” practices) to become inspired by the deities.

Again, this is not an archaeological book, nor is it a linearly structured historical book, nor a work of specific philosophy, it unfolds like a long story being told, a myth spun out, and has the hazy bits that one would expect from those modes. The author evidently feels that there was a significant European shamanic wisdom tradition which expressed itself in the pre-Socratic (and progressively, pre-Platonic and pre-Aristotelian) Greek world, which was better, truer, and more whole than what has come down to us. Unfortunately, the dots don't quite connect here (this is, evidently, the first of a series of books, and it's supposedly in the sequel that the “real stuff” gets addressed!). Needless to say, between it not being about what I thought it was about when I got it, and it never quite “getting to the point” with any sort of an intellectual “payoff”, this was a fairly frustrating read. It is interesting that it is published by “The Golden Sufi Center”, which also leaves questions unanswered, as only very peripherally does anything “Sufi” come into this.

There are parts here which really have power, largely those where Kingsley is setting up his story early on:
What's missing is more powerful that what's there in front of our eyes. We all know that. The only trouble is that the missingness is too hard to bear, so we invent things to miss in our desperation. They are all only temporary substitutes. The world fills us with substitute after substitute and tries to convince us that nothing is missing. But nothing has the power to fill the hollowness we feel inside, so we have to keep replacing and modifying the things we invent as our emptiness throws its shadow over our life.
and ...
The only difference between us and the mystics is that they learn to face what we find ways of running away from. That's the reason why mysticism has been pushed to the periphery of our culture: because the more we feel that nothingness inside us, the more we feel the need to fill the void.
I only wish the book hadn't been such a tease. Sure, I know a lot more today about early Greek philosophical schools than I had before, but it toys with the reader more than I like. I also never got a good explanation on one thing that had stood out ever since the book arrived ... the spine has a sun-on-the horizon photo that is upside down ... I can't believe that it's a printing error, so I kept looking for "what it meant", but the best I can come up with is that it's a metaphor for the shamanic underworld and the Apollonic sun entering "the dark places of wisdom". Again the book leaves that hanging, like so much else in the text.

If In the Dark Places of Wisdom sounds like something you'd love to get into (and there are certainly very appealing aspects to this), it appears to still be in print, and has a very low cover price (which Amazon has a discount that makes it about on a par with where the used guys have it, so that's probably your best bet, unless you hit a good sale at your local brick-and-mortar). While this does have a take-away of a long night chat session with your stoned Philosophy PhD buddy (who would no doubt find great meaning in the passage: "The noise of a syrinx is the ultimate password. It's the sound of silence." and want to dig deep into your record collection to prove some point), it is generally engaging and taught me a few things, so might be something you'd want to consider.

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Tags: book review

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