Thursday, July 28, 2005

Chico visitor's book promotes a gnostic philosophy of 'Waking Up'


When Chicoan Robert A. "Bob" Mayfield visited me some while ago to present me with a review copy of Timothy Freke's new little book, "Lucid Living" ($12.95 in paperback from Sun Wheel Books), I explained that -- given the content -- it was unlikely this reviewer would have many kind things to say.

Mayfield encouraged me to take the book and read it more carefully. Now that I've done so, I'm more convinced than ever than Freke's little treatise is wrongheaded.

Freke, of Glastonbury, United Kingdom, was scheduled to present his "stand-up philosophy show" at the Chico Women's Club Wednesday night, all part of his U.S. tour promoting his notion of "lucid living" based on his interpretation of Gnostic Christianity. Freke is something of a star of the New Age/Gnostic movement, and, according to one of Freke's earlier books, "Jesus and the Lost Goddess," was an inspiration for Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code."

Freke calls himself a "philosophical provocateur." His little book asks readers to consider that the so-called waking world is really a dream and that, at the very core of reality, we are not separate selves but rather a single "awareness" dreaming the dream of life. This dream of life is not a bad thing as such, so long as we realize it is a dream. We are not in the world but, says Freke, the world (our dream) is in us. There is but one awareness dreaming different selves (why that is is unclear).

And that realization leads to love: "Love is what we feel when we realize we are one. ... When I wake up to oneness I feel a limitless love which is so deep and poignant it embraces life in all its ecstasy and agony." Such feeling will mend divisions between people, stop war and lead to a "selfless desire to end all suffering and create universal well-being."

Who could object to a desire to end suffering? But such a noble goal does not prove that one's philosophy is true.

Freke is a modern-day Descartes, a philosopher looking for knowledge that is absolutely certain. "Can you be certain of the common sense understanding of reality taken for granted by most people in our culture? I don't think so." In good Cartesian fashion he proceeds to ask the reader whether one can be sure of memories of the past, or of things others have said, or even of one's own current convictions. For Freke, as for Descartes, knowledge must be grounded in something totally certain, and that's our "experience of this moment." It's "not a belief that can be questioned. It is a self-evident certainty. Your experience of this moment is all you can be absolutely sure of." Thus -- and this is where the book falls apart for me -- the only thing we can base our lives on is "our own immediate experience of living."

That means, for Freke, that anything else (including the teachings of revealed religions) simply has no place in determining how we should live. Freke moves beyond Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" by saying that since the only thing we cannot doubt is awareness, even the notion of a person, an individual "I," must be dismissed. Freke reasons that since only "awareness" is absolutely certain, that's all there really is. This brings him to a form of Gnosticism which has affinities with Eastern thought.

But why should I deny common sense? Scientists could be wrong about gravity, but I ought to think twice before jumping out of a high building. I may not understand the whole meaning of life, but that doesn't mean I'm sleeping. My editor could be a space alien, but I'm betting he's not.

In an earlier book, "The Laughing Jesus," written with co-author Peter Gandy, Freke maintains that the Hebrew Bible is fiction, that Jesus never existed and that Muhammad was a rather disreputable fellow.

Freke is bothered by the particularity of monotheistic religions which, in his view, are decidedly unholy divisive forces; he favors a philosophy of universal oneness.

But how does he know that his awareness is universal? "We appear to be many separate individuals. But actually we are all different characters in the life-dream that is being dreamt by the one life-dreamer. And that's who we really are. ... That's right, isn't it?"

Uh, no.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Michael Frayn -- "Noises Off" to nuclear secrets


Who is Michael Frayn? A British playwright, to be sure, but one I hadn't heard of until my wife and I saw the hilariously rambunctious "Noises Off" some while ago in Ashland, Ore. (The play was presented locally by Theatre on the Ridge and Paradise Performing Arts Center about a year ago.)

Even then, Frayn's name didn't stick until, just recently, I read the book version of his award-winning play, "Copenhagen" ($12 in paper from Anchor Books), and realized the same hand was at work (a publisher's note helped considerably!).

The joy of "Noises Off" comes only seeing its intricate machinery; the pleasures of "Copenhagen" (which received the 2000 Tony award for best play) are there within the printed page. It must be mesmerizing to watch but it is equally captivating to read.

"Copenhagen" probes the meaning of a strange meeting in 1941 between two giants of physics, Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, at Bohr's Copenhagen residence. History records that the meeting took place; but what was said, and what was meant, is shrouded in ambiguity. Even Bohr and Heisenberg themselves, when they were alive, could not -- or did not want to -- dispel the mystery. "Copenhagen" explores the intricacy of human motivation.

There are only three characters present in this two-act play: the two scientists, and Bohr's wife, Margrethe. (In this edition of the play, Frayn has added a long postscript that helps the reader more clearly see what is speculation and what is supported by the historical record.)

As the first act opens, Bohr and his wife are on stage. In just a few lines the entire play comes into view:

Margrethe: Why did he come to Copenhagen?

Bohr: Does it matter, my love, now we're all three of us dead and gone?

Margrethe: Some questions remain long after their owners have died. Lingering like ghosts. Looking for the answers they never found in life.

Bohr: Some questions have no answers to find.

Margrethe: Why did he come? What was he trying to tell you?

Bohr: He did explain later.

Margrethe: He explained over and over again. Each time he explained it became more obscure.

Bohr: It was probably very simple, when you come right down to it: He wanted to have a talk.

Margrethe: A talk? To the enemy? In the middle of a war?

Bohr: Margrethe, my love, we were scarcely the enemy.

Margrethe: It was 1941!

Bohr: Heisenberg was one of our oldest friends.

Margrethe: Heisenberg was German. We were Danes. We were under German occupation.

Bohr: It put us in a difficult position, certainly.

Margrethe: I've never seen you as angry with anyone as you were with Heisenberg that night.

Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle," formulated in 1927, said that, for a subatomic particle, "the more accurately you know its position, the less accurately you know its velocity, and vice versa." The theme of uncertainty plays out in the meeting with Bohr as well.

In 1928 Bohr recognized that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle was incomplete as a description of a particle. He integrated Schrodinger's wave theory to produce the "Copenhagen Interpretation" of quantum mechanics. But the wartime question for the Nazi government was whether such theory could be turned to practical use, either in the construction of a nuclear reactor -- or a nuclear bomb.

Germany began its research into atomic fission in 1939; by contrast, the Allied program began only in 1942. Why weren't the Germans successful? Heisenberg didn't think developing a bomb was possible, since it seemed tons of U235 would be needed, painstakingly separated from the more common form of uranium, U238. But did Heisenberg do the calculation? If he had, he would have seen that only a comparatively small amount of U235 would be needed. Did he do the calculation, but make a mistake? When he reported to Albert Speer after the meeting with Bohr, did Heisenberg convince Speer that a bomb project had little chance of success?

Why did Heisenberg meet with Bohr? To convince his mentor to join the German effort, or to leak the fact that there was such a program? To find out whether the Allies were working to build a bomb? To explain how he was impeding such development by his lack of enthusiasm? But then why did Bohr become angry? Did he misunderstand his former friend? Did his former friend want to be misunderstood?

Uncertainty abounds.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Literature and activism along the Pacific Crest Trail


For Corey Lee Lewis, who teaches environmental literature at the University of Nevada in Reno and a wilderness survival class at Truckee Meadows Community College, also in Reno, we are in the midst of an ecological crisis: "Today, we are witness to such a rapid eradication of biodiversity, massive disruption of the planet's life-support system and permanent despoliation of natural ecosystems that the very future of biological evolution seems to be threatened."

If this is true, how should higher education respond? What should students be learning?

His answer comes in "Reading the Trail: Exploring the Literature and National History of the California Crest" ($24.95 in paper from University of Nevada Press). The 2,650-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail, part of the National Scenic Trails System, "runs from Mexico to Canada, crossing three Western states -- California, Oregon and Washington -- and five distinct ecological regions." Lewis focuses on three environmental writers associated with California regions of the trail.

Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) explored Southern California in "The Land of Little Rain" (published in 1903) and unsuccessfully "opposed the diversion of life-sustaining waters from the Owens Valley to the city of Los Angeles."

John Muir (1838-1914) is associated with the "high Sierra Nevada to the Yosemite Valley floor. ... And running right through the middle of it ... lies the central portion of California's Pacific Crest Trail."

Finally, Lewis writes of a poet, born in 1930, who finds his home in the Northwest where the trail winds "its way through moss-covered California black oak, Douglas fir, bracken fern and mountain misery, or, as the native Wintu and author Gary Snyder call it, ‘kitkitdizze.’ ... Snyder's poetry has fused ecological insights and Native American wisdom with Buddhist teachings and practice to offer an alternative paradigm for Americans who wish to ‘reinhabit’-- or become native to -- their own home places."

Each of these writers represents another fusion: literature and activism. They are exemplars for Lewis. "An environmental education cannot simply stop after imparting information; it must also alter students' basic worldviews, values and actions if it is to be effective." Since for Lewis human culture is responsible for the environmental crisis, the goal of environmental education must be nothing less than cultural transformation. He hastens to add that, "far from being an authoritarian imposition of the instructor's personal values or political opinions, transformative education promises to liberate students from the chains of apathy and ineffectualism with which our current educational practices bind them."

Central to the kind of education Lewis proposes is a combination of ecological science, field work and what is called "ecocriticism." Scientific quantification alone cannot address "environmental values, beliefs and aesthetics." And too often ecocritics have explicated an environmental text (such as a Snyder poem) without adequate field experience or scientific expertise. As an example, Lewis quotes Snyder's "On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After Thirty-one Years":

Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year.
I am still in love.

In love with what? Textual critics are mystified about the meaning of the last line; but when Lewis and a group of students climb the mountain, west of Bridgeport, looking down on the Pacific Crest Trail, it all comes clear: "As I read the poem again, amid the roaring wind, thin air, and sunlight, all of which seemed to be stretching space and vision out to eternity, the words seemed to come alive in my hand. ... Snyder's ‘love’ refers to the land beneath his feet, to the mountains and forests of Turtle Island's great western shores."

Lewis and his students, venturing in Muir's footsteps, examining individual plants for their field journals, can more readily understand the naturalist's sarcastic observation that the measure of the value of poison oak or mosquitoes is their usefulness to human beings. Lewis sees in Muir "the beginnings of an ecocentric philosophy."

Lewis calls, then, for a new environmental pedagogy, one that teaches students to "love and protect this miraculous planet" by converting not just minds but hearts as well. This is an accessible and thoughtful book, but one sure to stir controversy among at least some readers who will dispute the author's claim that we are living in a human-made global ecological crisis -- and that the only way out is through social change.

For others, though, the book will be a breath of, well, fresh air.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Growing up in Willows -- Writer's columns evoke old memories


"I left Willows after high school, in search of adventure," wrote Shari Edwards. "Now, 40 years later, I find myself where I began. I've come full circle. But where is my hometown? I left a town full of friends, a town of innocence. ... There was time to gossip and drink lemonade, doors were left unlocked and neighbors helped neighbors. That was my hometown -- Willows, in 1956."

But in 1996, when Edwards returned, "I found a town closed to outsiders. ... The few old friends that remained had gone on with careers and families, as I had, and we seemed strangers when we met. Years of football games, parades, Tattler reviews and 13 years of school together -- a faded memory."

Edwards was no stranger to feelings of isolation. "As a Native American, displacement is a way of life. ... I began to seek a path, a path into a community I no longer knew and one that had long forgotten me."

She credits "Down Memory Lane," a Butte College writing class taught by Mary Ann Hansen, with helping her see the path. Then, through the good graces of John Taylor, former manager of the Tri-County Newspapers, "who took a chance with this inexperienced writer." Edwards wrote a column of reminiscences, researching the past and visiting again those almost-forgotten places of her childhood. Those writings are now gathered into book form.

"As I Remember: Collection of Newspaper Columns Volume 1 -- 8/19/98 -- 10/17/01" ($22.95 in paperback from iUniverse) is available on-line -- or from 76 Joy Street in Willows.

This rather unusual name for a gift shop is chronicled in the chapter titled "Bridget Patricia McLaughlin." "Patsy" was born and raised in Ireland -- the family lived at 76 Joy Street -- but came to Willows in 1949 ("the same day the Tower Theater opened"). "I remember our sixth-grade teacher preparing us," Edwards wrote. "She told us we would be getting a new student."

Patsy, Shari and another student, Helen, soon became the best of friends. "We spent one entire summer practicing for cheerleading tryouts. Can you imagine that fall, when an Irish immigrant, a Native American and a beautiful black girl became high school cheerleaders? Patsy's father had been right: America was the land of opportunity."

One year Patsy was chosen Lamb Derby Queen. Later she married John Enos and, wrote Edwards, "Patsy and I gave birth to our first child on the same day at Glenn General Hospital. In 1984 Patsy finally brought 76 Joy Street to America," opening the shop in the old Welzold Building on Butte Street.

Edwards remembered that "in the days I grew up in Willows there was a 'Coat Culture' ... The first 'fad' coat I remember was a Teddy Bear coat." Then came "car coats" and "sweater coats."

One must not forget the tea parties. "I was about 5 when Grandmother decided it was time for me to have my first tea party. Grandmother led me to the big walk-in closet and let me dress up with clothes pulled from her old leather trunk. ... When I was dressed Grandmother applied rouge to my cheeks and I took my place at the table. ... In their places were my brown curly-haired bear with only one eye, Topsy-Turvy, and my baby doll in her best party dress." Edwards connects that tea party with the one given her many years later by her daughter and granddaughter. "After tea I opened gifts. ... When I opened a Nancy Ann Doll I couldn't stop the tears. My treasured doll collection ... was destroyed in an earthquake and I had never stopped dreaming of owning another." This was a bittersweet memory, for there was another kind of earthquake just ahead: The dream-come-true tea party was held September 8, 2001.

Edwards' writing is mixed with joy and loss. Her heart was broken when, after a three-year run, "As I Remember" was terminated for budget reasons. Yet there would be more to come: another newspaper, and another set of columns, and the loss of her father and her husband.

For now, it's enough to cite a line from one of her Father's Day celebration stories: "Memories keep us from unraveling -- but it doesn't hurt to have a little peach ice cream along the way."

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.