Sunday, November 25, 2007

A trail of thoughts to India

Conversation over our Thanksgiving dinner turned to Christopher Hitchens. I'm not sure where I stand on the guy - admiring the easy facility of his brain, his ability to down tumblers of neat Scotch while addressing large audiences, and perhaps the audacity of skipping across to the right in moodswings against his former liberal stances, though I weary of the bellicosity of his war rhetoric. The dinner table admired him though.
Particular thankfulness came from Hope Cook. From her years as the Queen of Sikkim Hope often has a refreshing and informed take on events. She was thankful for Hitchens spiking Mother Theresa's legend in his book The Missionary Position. Her own impression came from Mother Theresa's visit to the court of Sikkim. The nun was in hot pursuit of orphans. 'There are no orphans in Sikkim,' Hope explained. Apparently the extended family is such that children are always taken in. They may be left to do menial work, they were not first-class citizens, but they had a home. This was not good enough for the holy missionary. Hope screwed up her face and stamped her feet to portray Theresa's anger at being thwarted. 'I want orphans. I must have orphans. Give me my orphans!'
A human rights' lawyer at the table had her own tale of being sent around Calcutta by Mother Theresa on an orphan hunt. We do have a tendency (addressed in my own In Search of the Divine Mother) to ditch our reason and common sense so as to laud spiritual figures from the East.
On Friday we climbed to the top of Waterstone's on Piccadilly for a private launch of Manuel Schoch's new book Bitten by the Black Snake. Manuel is Swiss, but his German publisher confessed he would never have accepted the book if it had come in as a German language manuscript. Being an American publication gave it the imprimatur of success. Manuel is a Swiss mystic but recognizes that such a being has little commercial play. What he does, he explained, is channel his own wisdom then head out in search of ancient Indian wisdom to back it up. For this book he has found an ancient sutra to work as a suitable commentary on his own philosophical path. It's a canny commercial move.
I was reminded of all this while reading Gustav Janouch's Conversations with Kafka last night. 'Indian religious writings attract and repel me at the same time,' Janouch reports Kafka as saying. 'Like a poison, there is something both seductive and horrible in them. All these Yogis and sorcerers rule over the life of nature not because of their burning love of freedom but because of a concealed and icy hatred of life. The source of Indian religious devotions is a bottomless pessimism.'
It's not true of Buddhism of course. I wonder what job Manuel Schoch's German publisher would have made of editing the rather doleful Kafka. 'Bitten by the Black Snake?' he asked of Schoch. 'What sort of a title is that?' The book came out in Germany as 'The Tao of Happiness.' Under which title, it's proving much more successful.

Picture by Asjborn Lonvig


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