Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Book of Contemplation by Usama ibn Munqidh

The Book of Contemplation was published in 2008, around the same time as Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travelers in the Far North (the original of which was the source of Michael Crichton’s fictionalized Eaters of the Dead) and a few years before The Ultimate Ambition in the Art of Erudition (2016) and Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange (2017).  Like those texts, it is a terrific addition to the Penguin Classics collection of Islamic/Arabic works in translation, and I can only hope that others will follow. 

Usama Ibn Munqidh was a 12th century Syrian nobleman and man-of-letters who was turned away from his family estate, by his uncle after his father’s death, leading him into a life of intrigue and adventure.  Rather than a straightforward memoir, his text is a series of incidences, mostly from the time of the Crusades, which by Usama’s reckoning exemplify the mysteriousness of – and merit the contemplation of - the ways of God. For us, their obvious value is the light these tales shed on the Muslim experience of the Crusades and their attitudes towards the “Franks” (i.e., western Europeans) who initiated them.  The descriptions of military encounters, often mere skirmishes, are vivid and come alive in Paul M. Cobb’s translation, which conveys an intimate, conversational tone to the memoirs.  This translation supersedes that of Philip K. Hitti, an eminent Arabist who published his version in 1929, and which is incidentally available on Internet Archive here.  Cobb respectfully updates and corrects some of his predecessor’s errors.

In addition to acts of valor, there are descriptions of the inscrutable ways of the Franks, glimpses of the lives of the nobility in medieval Syria, humorous vignettes, and enough accounts of gruesome injuries to keep the text interesting. It is the immediacy and vividness of these tales that fascinates, bringing to life the thoughts and reflections of a person who died almost a millennium ago.  Usama was apparently in his nineties when much of this was written, and he laments in the closing pages (perhaps coyly) that God has given him a long life descending into irrelevancy rather than an earlier, glorious death on the field of battle.  

Supplementing the main text is a long digression on hunting, usually with reminiscences of Usama’s father for whom hunting was a pastime that he pursued with apparently fanatical enthusiasm, and a selection of anecdotes on holy men and healers as well as selections of other works of Usama.

Cobb’s introduction fills in the biographical blanks in Usama’s life, and fleshes out some of the intrigues that Usama perhaps chose to downplay.  A valuable edition.

Monday, July 22, 2019

With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple by Dr. Susie J. Rijnhart

Dr. Susie J. Rijnhart, a spunky Victorian-era Canadian missionary, spends a few years (1895-1899) in Tibet, being spectacularly unsuccessful in converting the heathen and complaining about Tibetan hygiene.  Still, her notes on Central Asian lifeways and record of political unrest make interesting reading.  Her recollections of her baby boy, who is born and dies in Tibet and is buried in an unmarked grave, are tender, as are her memories of her husband, a displaced Dutch ne’er-do-well who was, apparently unknown to her, on the run from a rape charge.

Rijnhart’s frank notes on Tibetan culture are in decided contrast to Blavatsky’s fanciful Theosophical view of the plateau as the abode of floating lamas bathed in eternal celestial light.  You can almost smell the rancid butter that is generously offered to her by poor villagers at every turn and which she, to her credit, graciously accepts. On an ill-fated attempt to reach Lhasa, her small expedition is turned back and, abandoned by her guides, she and her husband are beset by bandits.  He goes off to reconnoiter and is never seen again.  Whether he is killed by the bandits or simply decided that this was a good opportunity to skedaddle is never established, but he was never heard from again.  Desperate, she puts her fate in the hand of some decidedly unsavory characters and, in veiled Victorian language, describes her stressful efforts to evade sexual assault (the pistol comes in handy) as she attempts to reach some outpost of civilization.

She eventually did reach safety and, after a period of recuperation, returned to China a few years later to continue her missionary work. She remarried (another missionary) and bore another son: she died soon after childbirth, in 1908.  In this adventurous memoir, she shows immense fortitude, bravery and compassion for the people she encounters, despite her biases against Lamaism, the Tibetan world-view, and disregard of basic hygiene.  My copy is the 1902 edition published by the Fleming H. Revel Company, via the Bible School Library of the Congregational Church in Binghamton, New York. My copy warns that “This book is on loan to you – it is not yours!” I suppose that, in the broad scheme of things, this is quite true.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The World in a Book: Al-Nuwayri and the Islamic Encyclopedic Tradition by Elias Muhanna

If you are a bookish-minded person with an interest in Middle Eastern history and culture, you might likely find The World in a Book: al-Nuwayri and the Islamic Encyclopedic Tradition (Princeton, 2018), to be a good introduction to the medieval concept of adab (i.e., wide ranging literary works reflective of the author/compiler’s cultural cred).  We are fortunate that  the Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri the enormous work that is the subject of this study, compiled in thirty-one volumes in the early 14th century, survived intact so that a modern edition, published over many years (alas, seemingly only in Arabic), could be prepared in the twentieth century.  Al-Nuwayri, an official of the Mamluk court, whose duties largely had to do with financial and real estate management for the sultan al-Nasir Muhammad, decided at the end of his career to embark on an enterprise not uncommon to cultured members of high Islamic society, the preparation of a vast compendium of universal knowledge encompassing natural history (zoology, astronomy and the like), history (secular and religious, although the distinction was not likely made), instructions for court officials (particularly scribes) and whatever else piqued his interest. 

In addition to preparing this study, Elias Muhanna is also the translator of the only English edition of the original text, translated as The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, a volume in the Penguin Classics series published in 2016.  I won’t go into that edition too much except to say that, for most, the introduction to that work is quite adequate in introducing al-Nuwayri’s work, without the scholarly apparatus.  I’m delighted that this translation has been made, and the selection is interesting enough (the other night I read several selections relating to the Islamic version of the story of Adam and Eve), but when you consider that this is the winnowing down of a thirty-one volume work, it seems quite inadequate, and I believe that it would have benefitted from an enlargement with a taste of some of the more esoteric selections.  But then, this is my issue with other works of this sort, such as the Pliny’s Natural History, also published by Penguin (among other editions).  I have a personal animus towards abridgements (although there’s no way in hell I would have ever gotten through al-Nuwayri’s work anyway, it would be comforting to know that it’s there).

For The World in a Book, Muhanna has prepared a study that seems to be aimed more towards the scholar than the general reader.  Clearly well researched, Muhanna tends to write in an academic vernacular that can be grating (elide? [p.108], really?).  I’ve heard him on a podcast, and he seems to speak this way too.  Further, he seems more often than not inclined to pass off to future scholars questions that require a bit deeper consideration.  Still, for a committed biblio-enthusiast, this is an absorbing study that digs into the origins and context of a fascinating and forgotten work.  If you share my interest in Middle Eastern/Islamic history and thought, I’d say this is well worth reading.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Robert Graves Interview

I've been enjoying reading the last volume of Richard Perceval Graves's unnecessarily gentle biography of his uncle, the poet Robert Graves.  Graves was certainly an eccentric, and rather manipulative to boot, which the younger Graves seeks to downplay. It occurred to me that I don't believe I've ever heard Robert Graves speak, so I went looking for an interview and found  this piece from 1965 with notable British prick Malcolm Muggeridge, whom Graves admirably tolerates.

By the way, despite my near total lack of media savvy (I still blog, for God's sake) I now post to Twitter: just photos of my books and other curiosities, under the name Bibliophilia Obscura.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Penguin Classics)

My presumption is that when he published a portion of these key texts in 1927, W. Y. Evans-Wentz chose this title to mirror that of Wallis-Budge’s 1895 translation of the Papyrus of Ani, now and forever known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead.  It turns out that the document we know as The Tibetan Book of the Dead (a more accurate title of which is The Great Liberation by Hearing) is but a portion of a larger corpus of materials discussing Tibetan Buddhist concepts of death, and the passage from this plane of existence into that intermediate state.  Penguin’s extraordinary volume, published in 2006 and available not only as a trade paperback but also as a volume of their Penguin Classics series (2008, reprinted with corrections in 2017), rectifies the omission with a new and lucid translation.

Counting the Evans-Wentz translation and others by Robert Thurman (Quality Paperback Book Club, 1994) and Francesca Freemantle/Chogyam Trumpa (Shambala, 1975), this is the fourth version of this work I have acquired over the years, and, despite my fondness for Evans-Wentz’s weird and wonderful translation and commentary, published as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane by Oxford University Press (with The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, or the Method of Realizing Nirvana Through Knowing the Mind as a companion volume), this is now my favorite.*
An excellent feature of this volume is the introductory essay by the Dalai Lama, which places this material in context of the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the self and its relationship to existence.  This is a thoughtful piece of writing that merits close attention in preparing the reader for the different texts included in this publication.  As explained in the general introduction, this translation was vetted and deeply informed by consultation with masters of Highest Yoga Tantra, the preferred name of the tradition to which these documents belong.  This lends a value and credibility to this translation, which I’m sure will become the standard one.
Now, having said that, get yourself ready for some strange, sometimes difficult, sometimes enlightening reading (and be sure to read Book 5 out loud, for merely by saying the names of the deities listed within “one will avoid rebirth in the lower existences, and Buddhahood will eventually be attained”).  The perspective here is clearly not of the West, and that may require some getting used to – but no worries.  Maybe the best approach is to read each section through with an open mind, awake to the possibilities of the esoteric perspectives being expounded.  A return for a more close reading would then likely be in order.
The preliminary books consist of prayers, supplications, acknowledgement of the peaceful and wrathful deities, acknowledgement of the power of those deities, requests for forgiveness for having strayed from the path, prayers of gratitude, enumeration of some of the omens of impending death, guidance on how to know what form of existence one is likely to pass on to, the means of knowing when death is imminent, and rituals which might assist in averting one’s death.  The essence of the text, of course, is the chapters on consciousness transference and the great liberation by hearing.     By the guidance of one’s associates (which would typically be other monks, because, due to their complexity and degree of personal investment, these are essentially monastic rituals), one’s consciousness is guided and comforted as it passes through the intermediate or transitional states (usually translated as the bardo states, with the guidance text referred to as the Bardo Thodol, however that nomenclature is not used here).  From here, one may pass into one of the innumerable heavens (or hells), rebirth on one of the physical planes, or, much more rarely, some version of nirvana.  One seeks, through these rituals, to pass through to the highest state of which one is capable of in this existence.
The texts are repetitive and trancelike, meant to be spoken out loud and presumably, through their repetitiveness, inductive of a trancelike and opened state of consciousness.  Bear in mind that some of these texts are meant to be repeated literally tens of thousands of time.  Ultimately, the teachings, through contemplation and repetition become internalized and one acquires great merit through diligence and understanding. This is not a task for the dilettante, and in the cultural context of Tibetan monasticism there is significant preparation required before one is even exposed to these texts. 
Still, by reading the texts, and giving oneself over to them, a rewarding experience may be had – a change of awareness or a change of perspective that is expansive.  The experience can be an immersive one if approached with the correct frame of mind.  Maybe, like me, you’ll find yourself drawn back again and again for a taste of a different reality and a means to gain a transformed perspective of the world.
*You may be interested to know that Evans-Wentz also wrote a volume entitled The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, which was recently republished by The Lost Library, Glastonbury (n.d.)