Wednesday, December 5, 2007

John Moriarty's "Dreamtime" Book Review

Like the other two books I've read, the recently reviewed (on this blog and Amazon where this review appeared today) "Invoking Ireland," and the first part of his autobiography, "Nostos," this tends to drone on for hundreds of pages, if less than half the length of the latter book and about half the pages more allotted to the former work. Moriarty's in the tradition not only of Yeats' "Mythologies" or Blake but more contemporary mythopoeic magpies as William Irwin Thompson ("The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light") or Robert Pirsig ("Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.") Blaming Moriarty for his recursive, spiralling, and repetitive style would be akin to hating Philip Glass or Mark E Smith ("Repetition" being an early single) for their musical locksteps.

But, as this is a review, does the content (more a high three stars, but I rounded up reluctantly for effort if not polish) of "Dreamtime" merit another look at his simple insistence, repeated over so many books, that in this one found, a decade before his death but in a 1998 "revised and expanded edition," an early utterance? I'd go back to Mark E Smith, of whom the late John Peel mused every album of his band The Fall sounds different, yet they all sound the same. If you're in the mood for Glass' minimalist waves of melody, or Smith's ranting chants (his new collaboration with Mouse on Mars as "Von Sudafed" gained one review: "like being shouted at by an old man in a bar staffed entirely by robots, but in a good way."), then you listen until you tire of the oracular message.

Similarly, reading Moriarty for long (and I tried it on the bus and subway) puts you into an altered state, at least for a few minutes at a time. Through short chapters dealing with a blend of Irish and Welsh legend, Blake and the Bible, Matthew Arnold and Thomas Traherne, German mystics and St Teresa (of whom I have read twice the past week from Georges Bataille's "Erotism" the same passage that Moriarty also cites, of that piercing in her 'entrails' with that, ahem, angelic dart to bring in B-- I wish Moriarty had discussed Bataille or Foucault or surrealists, and while he may have, no extant sign of them can be traced in what I have studied so far of him) among others, this North Kerry native looks into the wisdom literature of the Australian aborigines (but less than the title would suggest), Native Americans (less than in his later work), ancient Greeks, Norse, Hindu, Buddhists, and medieval Christians (in the same proportions as his two titles referred to above) to find where we got so overeducated, so progressive, so European, so Cartesian, so post-Christian, and so lost on our modern Dover Beach of despair.

He asks that we overcome what Pascal described so well: "The eternal silence of the infinite spaces terrifies me" and counters with an Inuit encouragement: "don't be afraid of the universe," which Moriarty links then with our psyche, as a "psyverse." This process of oneness with all does smack of a stoner's reverie, but Moriarty knows no shortcuts can be hacked out; it's taken him half his life to get to this hard-won truth. Then, thus enlightened, we can grope towards a recovery of our wounded psyches, a return to what the Hindus call Turiya, literally the fourth realm, below those of waking, sleeping with dreams, dreamless sleep: that which means simply itself as it cannot be defined, the place of ultimate truth, that which the Irish knew once as beyond the Well of Connla, when the veil is lifted and the vision reifies.

I basically summed up his own final four decades or so, ever since he left academia in 1960s Canada for his vision-quest or "aisling" (not only a trendy girl's moniker but an Irish term denoting a spirit-woman's poem). He takes a form reminding me both of a commonplace book (or a learned blog) combined with his own tales and thoughts, mixed with long (and sometimes too much information from primary texts quoted verbatim, and a few times a verse or snippet of a poem unidentified-- is it always his own?) from shamans like himself, who have lifted the mists of Connla's Well. What he finds he shares with us, and the work, as will his later shelf of books thick (prose) and thin (poetry, which I have not seen outside of his longer texts) speaks for himself as he wanders the paths again that he blazes here, in this comparatively early text-trek.

It's gnomic, inspirational, chiding, speculative, and often seems in isolation as perplexing as the lyrics of Mark E Smith or the mythology of Blake or Yeats. He knows this, however, and as with Glass, the music takes on a hypnotic quality that with patience attempts glimpses of a transcendent artifice, a human creation that mirrors darkly and faintly a look at whatever lies in the fourth realm for which-- and words fail before music here-- we must meditate rather than rationalize. If you can handle this type of approach, fearsomely learned (that's why a glossary is essential) but intensely heartfelt, then this may be for you.

One can enter Moriarty's aisling at any stage in his books, at least judging from the three I have finished. I do not know, honestly, if such a pilgrim's progress is worth reading many more of his often bulky books. He wrote much in his final fifteen years, and I can see from this comparatively compact (for him) text much that he incorporates verbatim into one of his last books, "Ireland Invoked." (He died in 2007.)

I get the point, you might say, but how to inaugurate his dream of a more genial blend of Celtic and Christian, East and West, into our urbanized and networked mentality remains beyond me. He escaped to Connemara and then his family's Kerry; what of those of his readers who cannot afford such a retreat? What of the Ireland he addresses today, so altered from the land of his childhood? The solutions he gives are more spiritual than practical, but such is the nature of a shaman's encounter rather than a psychiatrist. His final decade or two was spent writing out his struggles, over and over, to wander among the ruins of our hollow land. Like the Fisher King (whom he reminds us was from Ireland), he tries in a similarly imagistic and cosmological striking pose to offer solace and repair for others as troubled as himself by our sound-bite, consumerist, monist, and capitalistically maniacal belief system.

(Image: Guo Xi [1023-85] "Early Spring" is a painting Moriarty praises in his text. The challenge is to find the human figure in the mist. He's there.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"I basically summed up his own final four decades or so, ever since he left academia in 1960s Canada for his vision-quest or "aisling" (not only how you address Bono's wife but an Irish name denoting a spirit-woman's poem)."

Nice try, but Bono's wife's name is Alison. Now on the other hand The Edge's first wife was name Aislinn which is a bit closer.