“It’s just a little book,” said Paulo Barone. “They’re charging only 250 rupees!” I could already imagine his mischievous smile. For it’s a little book only in dimensions. It’s big, in truth, drawing on diverse strands of philosophical, religious, and literary learning. Vast in is scope. It is poetic, philosophically dense, and maximalist in style. It is enormous in its implications for how we live and dream, or better put, how we might live and dream today and in the future. Barone’s subject? He inquires after the human condition in the here-and-now, while well aware that he, like each of us, comes from somewhere, brings knowledge and experience, perhaps brings faith, from somewhere. This is searching, with compassion and concern and without fear.
Following his own learning and yearning have made Paulo Barone a purposeful wanderer. He’s a spiritual cartographer who declares, early in the book, that we – human beings — need an atlas, a map, some kind of mental “laboratory,” to orient our minds and bodies.
On Barone’s map, the protagonist sails East, engages the East, while always recalling and re-animating the West. He is as interested in points of contrast as in points of convergence. Our author is ancient and new, expansive and focussed. He knows that excellent maps for living are often old and of diverse provenance, and that it is a joy to linger lovingly in the world’s histories, amidst the inherited, plural wisdoms of people. But he is also traversing the modern and contemporary world, venturing into our present condition, with questions and compassion
We require a map because, at a certain point in each of our mature lives, singularly exquisite memories from our childhoods, spotlit illuminations from deep in our subconscious experience, moments we thought were nothing but what Joyce called “crumpled throwaways,” will press forward, whispering for our attention. Things are only known when they are on the point of vanishing, he contends. Barone believes that we need to find a way through to these “remainders,” to climb back within them, for they motivate our thoughts and lives still.
Above all, Barone explains, we need a map because of what life, for so many, has become and is becoming. He refers to “a turbid and blurred present” (84); to too many humans huddling contentedly beneath “the umbrellas of convention,” keeping back the creative chaos that would refresh and that could bring originality and invention (66). We inhabit, he proposes, “a dot-like condition,” by which he means a subject position in which the “’individual’ [is] suffocated by enjoyment [quite “saturated” in fact],” an “autostic” and “obtuse consumer,” “denuded and uprooted a vanishing subjectivity on “a mediatised landscape of reality,” often dominated by technologically-produced and –presented portals and communication strategies. It’s all so alluring (especially for our children?), with the internet as its webby pinnacle, but it is also “interminable.” The modern condition flows and flows, it never stops, it never sleeps. It doesn’t need to stretch its back, crack its neck, or fill its lungs with air. It pretends to be wise, to be offering up answers, and fast, fast, but it regurgitates clichés and conventions, it is really rather slow, just “turning around and around on itself,” so much “re-shuffling” reality disguised as the meaning of life.
What a surprise when Barone suggests that our “dot-like condition,” while clearly so dangerous, might also bring a kind of deliverance, a freedom.
Paulo Barone calls out to any of us who are modern escape artists, shedding past selves, hiding within ourselves while hiding from ourselves. Where are you going, what are you doing out here without a map?! He writes that many of us moderns have reached a point at which “we must hesitate. It may be a door into emptiness, a precipice . . . maybe only a way to forget senseless lives, suppressed lives, and along with them, to forget also the senselessness of certain amputated, violated moments, which are to be found in every life” (89).
“If we are a dot and the world has vanished, the vanishing has become our present: and it is, then, to the vanishing, the remoteness of what is past, the loss of what has faded away that we must address ourselves, interrupting this mournful work that is the passing of time.” (89-90) Addressing, attending to, the very “vanishing.”
To find hopelessness or despair or disorientation in Barone’s writing would be a mistake. Barone is neither lost nor forlorn. And he does not wish any of us to be so. He is telling us of his journey. His “thought-atlas” is partly about a “de-activation” of the fullness of his Western cultural heritage, but more essentially also of its re-generation and interaction with India, and Indian knowledge traditions. He seeks “authentic fraternity,” and in this respect, his map-making, his track-seeking, is in the here-and-now.
He is saying that although the contaminating haze of modern life seems to thicken and blind us – can seem to envelop us in a daze of downward distractions, anxiety and deceleration of our best intellectual and sensuous energies — we are in fact facing opportunity. The eroding world, crumbling past ruins, falling away, might leave us be. Might leave us free. We can find in the semi-darkness, in the very “vanishing,” new thresholds, purposes and feelings to explore. Yesterday morning, delivering his paper before the conference, he spoke a sentence that might well have fit into the book. He said: “we are here to tell things.” To pay attention to what Barone calls “reality in detail (35).” express ourselves, to converse with and to open up others. As W.G. Sebald put it: “One could not see before.”
What we choose to tell about, the nomad stories we narrate, the dance we summon — this is up to us. Leading by example, Barone seems to be saying in this book: shut out the noise, reflect on yourself, on others and the world, but don’t expect to complete your task. Enter and embrace our never-ending human thicket, with its many circuitous tracks and paths, it many ways in as opposed to out. My enthusiasms and perplexities will not be yours, your strengths and strangenesses will enlighten me, just as mine may teach you. Languages, words – spoken, written, and most importantly, shared – are our medium. Our process of writing ourselves and the world involves precise observation of much which once seemed insignificant, a remnant. Our process of telling each other is a permanent state of being, of inexhaustible elaboration. “We are here to tell things.” “One could not see before.”
Paulo Barone knows there have been other thinkers, other spiritual cartographers who have trodden West-East paths related to his own, including Carl Jung himself. Barone has studied them. Raimon Pannikar looms perhaps largest, as does Pannikar’s temptation to juxtapose the West and the East, the West as closed, finished and circular, India as an infinite point. I see the point of Pannikar’s characterization. In my own way, I have gazed into the soulless eyes of Western Modernity, and sought escape, to run for the hills. And yet, for me, Pannikar partakes of the very same kind of dualism, the very binary opposition-making, and “principle of non-contradiction” that he pins on “the West.” I much prefer Barone’s more expansive view.
There is a moving passage in the book in which Paulo is in the monsoon in Benares, by the Ganges. He admires the East, and India in particular. But he is pondering the fact that some in the West experience “radical dissatisfaction with their cultural affiliation,” they have noticed their own culture’s slippage, the forgetting, the “falling away from focus,” the “violent fragmentation,” (20, 21). They have paid heed to “creative cues,” he notes, sought to address the divide. They make an “effort to bear out what occurs in the middle-between . . . the interpenetration of both.” (54) Barone’s incline towards a new “middleness” needs words to describe it. He writes of a “reassembly”, a “re-unification,” (21) humans moving with the practice of their minds and bodies towards a renewed interculture. “Shape may be given to the new” (100).
Travel, study, reflection, listening, practice, all flows into the “thought-atlas” of our bodyminds, and grants perspective: mobile, but not frenetic, we arrest the falling away. We begin to see ourselves as the size of dots, we begin to notice details, strident memories re-surface. Dot-subjectivity can find its way to breath, its meaningful language. “Daily life is mysticism,” asserts Barone, building on the illuminations of Proust, Pannikar, Benjamin, among others. We don’t simply survive. We savour, he continues, “the astonishing quiet of absolute permanence in the present.” (71)
Some books one can summarise neatly and smartly. This one? I am certain I have missed out huge swathes of what he is saying. When I read the book again, I will apprehend new thoughts and layers, a different book entirely.
I can do no more than make an astonished pass. This is what I have noticed. My words are an invitation extending outwards, stirring your curiosity, that you might consider Barone’s delvings for yourselves.
My presentation of Mystical Survival: The Geography of the Infinitely Near, by Paulo Barone (Varanasi, India: Pilgrims Publishing, 2012)
– 2 February 2013, Somaiya Vidyavihar, Mumbai, India