A review of Charles Upton’s The Science of the Greater Jihad: Essays in Principial Psychology.

The book-cover of The Science of the Greater Jihad: Essays in Principial Psychology.

Charles Upton’s The Science of the Greater Jihad: Essays in Principial Psychology.

This is a review of a book I think is insightful, and valuable, but that doesn’t yet seem to have caught on with many readers. Charles Upton’s ‘The Science of the Greater Jihad: Essays in Principial Psychology.’  I titled my Amazon review ‘Beyond transpersonal psychology, towards principial psychology. Exploring a science of the self and psyche, based on metaphysics,’  because in a real sense that’s exactly what this book is about.

Charles Upton’s ‘Science of the Greater Jihad,’ seems to be an overlooked or neglected gem in today’s metaphysical and spiritual scene. But it deserves to be read more widely.

I found the book a rare pleasure on two fronts; aesthetically, and intellectually. Aesthetically it’s simply a lovely book. The book cover design, with its theme of spiritual combat, is marked by an elegant simplicity. The physical finish Sophia Perennis chose was lovely in a tactile sense. The book cover has a matte, satin like finish that simply feels better than standard glossy book finishes. All of this, however, is trite of me.
Where Upton’s work really shines is in his treatment of ideas.

This is, foremost, a book about the notion of a operative Sacred Psychology; a science of knowing the self, and of the path that leads from self-transcendence to self-knowledge. In a sense it covers the idea of an inner and spiritual warfare, but it goes much further. It’s informed by Upton’s perspective, as long-time seeker on the Sufi path, as well as a past (but increasingly critical) engagement with the Traditionalist branch of the Perennial Philosophers, and is also coloured by his lifelong work as a poet and practitioner – in a sense – of mythopoeia, and an active yet critical engagement with various contemporary schools of metaphysics.

The book covers grounds from Psychotherapy and Exorcism, to a deeply informed and compassionate critique of Carl Jung, to the place of acesis and struggle, love, and knowledge, in the spiritual path. He covers the psychological aspects of traditional alchemy, examines the notion of evil itself and moral privation from the perspective of gnosis, and relates all of these themes and more to a lucid discussion of a true Spiritual Psychology, a Science of the psyche, a science of the Self, and of the many traps it faces in seeking out a spiritual path.

I think this book it should be necessary reading for anyone whether from a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or non-Abrahamic Faith background, who is interested in personal struggle to find meaning on the spiritual path. The readers who may feel the most challenged by Upton’s discussions may be adherents of transpersonal or Jungian psychology, or readers coming from the perspective of contemporary new spiritual and metaphysical movements, broadly speaking the New Age. It is these readers whom I would encourage to give the book a fair reading, to at least consider Upton’s words.

Words have emotional and intellectual resonances, shades of meaning, power. The word “Jihad” simply has immensely negative connotation in contemporary Western Societies. I think the choice of the word for this book was apt, not in spite of, but because of its semantic But the doctrine of the “Greater Jihad” in traditional Islamic Esotericism and Spirituality, and even in conventional and normative Shia and Sunni Traditional Islam (outside of the ‘extremist’ non-Salafist/non-Wahhabi streams financed by Gulf Petro-Dollars) concerns inward combat of the self against the inner forces that drag it into the mud of bestial and gross negative tendencies. It has a lot in common with Orthodox Christian (and Catholic to a degree) understandings of Spiritual Warfare.

But where Upton goes from that is territory little examined. But where Upton goes from that is territory little examined. The notion of ‘Spiritual Warfare’ has been covered excessively by many authors of many faith and religious varieties. What Upton tries to do is go beyond the notion of a transpersonal psychology, towards a truly principial psychology, of which Spiritual Warfare, the “Greater Jihad” in Islamic terms, is understood in its place in a wider context.

The artwork on the book cover reflects this, because on the surface it calls to mind distinctly Christian notions of wrestling with the passions, married to the title itself, calling to mind a “Science” and the Islamic notion of the “Greater Jihad.”

I think the book should be read by anyone with an interest in psychology, spirituality, metaphysics, or religion.

More on Charles Upton, his work and writings, can be found at charles-upton.com , and the publisher, www.sophiaperennis.com.

Non-Fiction versus fiction in an apocalypse culture, Adam Parfrey, the essay, and the novel.

In the Introduction to the second edition of his anthology, Apocalypse Culture, Adam Parfrey muses as follows;

“..reality has taken on such a dire and phantasmagoric cast that fictionalizing has become superfluous. The essay form has superseded the novel as the vehicle that best suggests the prevailing apocalyptic gestalt, and as the talisman that is most able to repel the onset of paralyzing dread.””
-Adam Parfrey, 1990.

The form of written language best able to convey a sense of, and indeed help make sense of, this age along these lines, would be the non-fiction essay. Some may disagree, it’s a perspective worth considering however. Truly paradigm shattering novels along dystopic lines are rare; 1984, A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, the crop of current dystopian narratives seem to simply deepen the mood and spit it back at us while we, un-reflexively, watch and scratch our heads over The Hunger Games.

What the essay has that the novel or fictionalized narrative lacks is it’s ability to not be completely reduced to entertainment, and thus to a soporific, inducing dreams, but not waking us. Film fiction narratives, like The Matrix, being partial and useful exceptions that sort of prove the rule.

Where to find the language to express ideas? Indeed what is language in all of this? “All language is at once the ‘sensualization of the idea’ and the ‘idealization of the sensuous’. Language is, therefore, the most distinguishing characteristic of man..” notes C. Nisbet and D. Lemon in their 1892 Everybody’s Writing-Desk Book. Noting further that man can be defined, in quotations, as the speaking animal. A pity they didn’t note the origin of that quote, being the Classical Arabic definition of al-Insan, The Human, as ‘al-Hayawan al-Natiq‘ or the speaking, articulating, animal.

The theme of the Book of Eli, another fictionalized narrative, is interesting here; what obsessed Garry Oldman’s character was obtaining the word. At all costs. The overly biblical cast of the movie might distract a more skeptical viewer from the vital urgency of its core message, which is that the word, language, is all important in either controlling humanity, or saving humanity, Oldman’s character, though a villain, was in a way a flawed and tragic hero, stuck in a particular paradigm that gave him an edge, but only the sliver of an edge, in a world gone mad. It was an edge that he grasped without justice. And hence his undoing.

Words, language, are vital. And though Parfrey wrote those words something like 25 years ago, I think with the increasing popularity of Creative Nonfiction he was onto something.

Hanif Kureishi’s effective admission of being a failed teacher

(Photo linked from the guardian)

The Guardian ran a recent piece on Britain based novelist, and Kingston University writing professor, Hanif Kureishi‘s claim that creative writing courses are a waste of time, and that most of his students are able to write sentences but incapable of telling an actual story. Hence, of course, taking a creative writing class is a waste of time. Writing is, in his view, something one either has or does not have.

(on the side, Hannah Jane Parkinson in her Guardian Books Blog response takes a somewhat different course than I am about to. This is, of course, fine..)

So, here is the irony; what we have is essentially a case of projection. Kureishi, author of The Black Album and My Son the Fanatic, is effectively admitting to being an ineffective teacher. Why call yourself a shitty professor in one of Britain’s most read papers? My mind boggles. This, in effect, makes him sound like a pretentious ass. Given that he is one of Britain’s more talented authors, in his generation at least, this is a bit dreadful.

I think, to some degree, Kureishi may be purposefully exaggerating, for the purpose of being provocative.

Something can be said about the long term value of many creative writing courses, or MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programs. Indeed some people have said certain things, some positive and others not so positive, about them. Some people defend both wholeheartedly; and the entire Anglosphere literary establishment more or less requires an MFA for entry.

In reality, though, there have long been multiple routes, formal and informal, through which people learned the craft of writing. There is, moreover, a long history of people tutoring and teaching the craft, and if you look deeply into the biographies of some of our most noted writers in history, there is always a learning phase. Sometimes in Journalism school, sometimes by excessive reading and self-taught practice after such reading, sometimes of course by creative writing classes, or reading and writing circles and groups.

No writer is born knowing craft. Every writer, be it of prose or verse, has to learn the craft of writing. As for storytelling, I couldn’t give a damn about it. Literary writing is far broader than making up fables read by a recondite small circle of literary critics. Let me put it a bit differently; being a good writer and a good storyteller are two separate things. Since I am neither, I feel no compunction regarding pointing this out. I simply have no dog, cock, or monkey in the fight.

What people like Kureishi forget is that the novel’s tyranny as the epitome of literary production is recent. In fact, to snidely plagiarize a turn from Matt Taibbi, one could almost call the novel a vampire squid, sucking with fanged chitin beak the very life out of modern literature. History lesson; at the turn of the 20th century English letters on an academic level had only recently conceded the novel a literary status of serious merit. The greatest novelists of the 19th and 18th centuries were seen, by the literary world’s doyens, much like genre novelists are today. At best, talented but not quite engaged in serious pursuits, say like William Gibson, Anne Rice, Steven King, or even J.A. Konrath (I do put him on the same line, he’s that good actually.) At worst, they saw novelists as hacks who pandered to the marketplace.

Literary fiction was viewed exactly like genre fiction is today. In fact our division between literary fiction and genre fiction is, in itself, a bit recent. It’s roots go back, of course, to the division between primarily market motivated, and artistically motivated, writing that predates even pulp fiction, and goes back to the division between dime novels, and cloth novels (the ancestors of our paperbacks and hardbacks). Of course there were authors who crossed over, just as today paperback editions exist of serious literary fiction.

In reality all of these divisions are contingent, and ignored in practice though not in cant and rhetoric. People read what they enjoy reading, and do not read what they do not enjoy reading, and today’s classics were yesterday’s disposable yarns. Nothing essential changes, only forms and names.

Back then the non-fiction essay and poetry held supreme sway as literary modes of production. To be respected as a literary figure (as modern English readers respect Hanif Kureishi for example) one would not write novels, rather one would write serious essays, critical ones at that (some essayists of course were critics of novels, ironically) and one would write verse. French letters held novelists and the novel in far greater respect, but it was only from the 1880s to the early 19teens that the novel fully emerged as something worthy of not just enjoyment but actual literary respect.

Today we conflate the concept of “writer” and “novelist.” This conflation is even more recent, really not only stemming from after the second World War, but from the late 60s and early 70s. With this in mind Kureishi’s claim should be rephrased. His students are bad fabulists, bad storytellers perhaps, but not bad writers. And frankly since storytelling itself is a craft, or has craft like aspects, that exist independently of the ability to produce good prose (or verse, for as people forget long form storytelling in the form of Romances, Romans, the very ancestors of the novel, were all in verse).

In this light, really, all that Kureishi is claiming is that he’s a bad teacher. This is hardly something one would want to claim in public, unless one was exceedingly honest and blunt. He is being blunt, but he is not being honest. Or, at least, that’s my opinion. Perhaps you disagree.

Novels, Romance, and Romans, oh my !

I’ve long kicked around the idea of writing a novel in Iambic Pentameter, the idea isn’t as nutty as it sounds. For one a few contemporary writers have written verse novels, like the late David Rakoff, whose “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is mostly in anapestic tetrameter, or Vikram Seth, whose novels are infused heavily with verse. His “The Golden Gate” is in iambic pentameter.

The idea seems funny, aren’t poetry and novels supposed to be separate?
Well, ask yourself, why?
Where does this assumption come from? Doubtless, few people in today’s world feel like wading through, say, Milton’s Paradise Lost but at one time verse, and poetry, were the queens of the literary world, both high and low. Broadsheet Ballads were the original English news papers, decades or perhaps even a century before the true rise of gazettes and journals.

Let’s consider this. The prose novel, as we know it today, is a rather new thing.
This is why, in fact, it’s called a novel in english, for it was a new and novel thing. They were also called Romances, a word that only survives today in Bodice and Panty Rippers churned out like candy, and devoured eagerly by educated and accomplished women all around the English speaking world as a naughty or guilty pleasure.

Originally all novels were Romances; or rather I should say and the Romance didn’t just deal with love, it dealt with war, adventures, all sorts of things. This notion survived on a bit even up until the 1960’s and early 70’s. Frank Yerby’s Gothic Romances were very much Male books. They could be read by women, and often were eagerly read by women, but the perspective of the central character was Male. The adventures were rugged, and he didn’t get one girl, rather he typically got two or more, of whom one would either survive (literally, death counts were a bit ghastly in some of these pulp paperback Romances) or be left as the one true love and right choice in the end.

The Romance in English is the Roman in French. The French prose Roman did inspire the first generation of English novelists, along with the translation of 1001 Arabian Nights, which in many ways more or less prefigured and inspired the Fantasy, Weird and Supernatural Tale (Lovecraft, and before him Poe, and even Lord Byron and others going before him were fascinated and heavily influenced by the 1001 Nights..)

Now the original Roman was in verse, they were poems, going back to the Roman de Rou and the Roman de Brut, in the earliest dim echos of Anglo-Norman literature. It is the Roman de Brut, which heavily borrowed from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Histria Regnum Britannia, which was responsible for popularizing the legend of King Author both among the French and English at the close of the Dark Ages and dawn of the High Middle Ages in the West.

All Romans at that time were poetry, often in an octosyllable meter, though sometimes in Alexandrines, at times rhyming, that new poetic device borrowed from Arab poetry, whose cultural influence gradually wafted North from Andalusia during the time of Muslim rule in Spain. But sometimes eschewing rhyme, Romans were crafted in a sort of blank verse.

A novel in Iambic Pentameter, in a way, is a return back to it’s origins. Or let’s say that stories, rather, narratives, when told in verse, are a return back to the origins of literary storytelling.

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5 Principles of Conflict, from Saul Alinsky

Conflict is a constant in this world; it has intellectual, physical, and indeed metaphysical dimensions. Authors who distill life experiences – and past archives of pragmatic principial knowledge – in the arena of conflict for the benefit of one audience may be extremely useful reading. Books are tools and potentially weapons, take for example Curzio Malaparte‘s old book on the Coup. Businesspeople, students, and intellectuals alike can find useful principles, for managing their own fields’ conflicts, in books more narrowly dedicated to Political, Memetic, or Armed Conflict

Aristotle once said ; the mark of an educated person is the ability to entertain an idea without agreeing with it. Doubtlessly there are some people out there who would regard that as devil’s speak. I don’t think we need bother with them, because while they are usually sincere, and quite nice, they also can be inveterate idiots.

Being able to read and consider books by people you disagree with, or hate, is a nifty and useful skill. It’s not just a cliche that you can learn something from everyone, if you doubt this then you haven’t looked far enough. “Educated” need not mean well schooled or credentialed. There are erudite high school drop-outs, tremendously self taught, well read, and self motivated. People with humble formal educational accomplishments who made themselves, by will and motivation, more educated than some University graduates. What is important is the mindset you bring to seeking knowledge, and whether you are or are not a life-long learner. Formal credentials, in our society, are vital to being our being taken seriously by others, and considered a credentialed and qualified commentator on things. However this is how others see you, not how you see yourself. Knowledge is power, and you can leverage it to your benefit.

So here are 5 principle quotes from leftist organizer Saul Alinsky, that can be useful to anyone in a sphere of conflict, irrespective of politics, and may even have some usefulness in the world of business, or love and romance, or family life. Only your imagination can limit how you understand principles. With these 5, here also are some practical examples from history you may not have seen referenced..

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