The Spiritual Transformation of Humanity

A Review of Hans Thomas Hakl’s, Eranos: an alternative intellectual history of the twentieth century


This is a marvelously fascinating book documenting the history of Eranos, a yearly, interdisciplinary meeting in Ascona, Switzerland that started in 1933 and continues on in different forms to the present day. Hakl’s book is balanced, while sympathetic to the underlying spirit of Eranos. It is very well-referenced, with almost one hundred pages of 8 point font notes. Eranos was the life work of Olga Fröbe, who brought together an interdisciplinary group of speakers for an exploration of the spirit in history, philosophy, psychology, science and mythology. These speakers included: Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, James Hillman, Henry Corbin, Mircea Eliade, D. T. Suzuki, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Heinrich Zimmer, and innumerable others. Hakl’s work is detailed and exhaustive as well as broadly connected to larger societal themes. While the topic is very different, it is worth comparing it to Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, by Greil Marcus.

After an in-depth exploration of the people who participated in Eranos as well as the controversies surrounding the meetings and the individual lecturers’ lives and works, Hakl gives an interesting summary of subsequent organizations that sought to combine the scholarly and the spiritual, perhaps using Eranos as a prototype. Most notably, for an American audience, Hakl cites a discussion he had with Michael Murphy discussing the role that Eranos played as an inspiration for Esalen, in California, which has played such an important role in the human potential movement and fostering personal growth.

As well as a history of a specific place and organization and specific historical individuals, Hakl also explores broader tensions between science, spirituality, objectivity, subjectivity, modernism, esotericism, individual and the collective. Hakl discusses the tensions between the rational/scientific world view and the esoteric/spiritual world view. His argument is that Eranos was a third view point which sought to integrate both science and inner spiritual experience. Here are a couple quotes that Hakl cites regarding the goal of Eranos as seeking a “rationality that does not reduce or fragment what it sees, but which enriches, synthesizes, and evokes responses,” (Charles Scott, 258). Eranos’ aim was “indeed to bring about more than an understanding but rather a knowing through direct experience,” (Ira Progoff, 258-9). And lastly, Henry Corbin, “we in Eranos never had the intention of adapting ourselves to some given model, we never paid heed to any orthodoxy, and we were concerned with only one thing, namely to press on into the innermost part of ourselves, pursuing that truth until we reach its farthest limits, (261). In summary, “Eranos was thus not exclusively concerned with learned scholarship but equally (although not in the case of all participants) with the spiritual transformation of humanity,” (Hakl, 11).

I highly recommend this book for those who are interested in the “spiritual transformation of humanity,” as well in the history of this organization that brought together such influential thinkers as Carl Jung, James Hillman, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade and Henry Corbin. The book offers glimpses into the lives of these different figures who lectured at Eranos, where they could try out new ideas and find a source for inspiration and companionship in a place whose goal was the synergistic integration of inner and outer knowing.

The Tension Between Outer Religion (and Psychology) and Inner Mysticism: Jung, Buber and Gnosis

A Review of Alfred Ribi’s, The Search for Roots: C. G. Jung and the Tradition of Gnosis


Gnosis is one of those terms that seem to mean many different things to many different people. Ribi defines it as, “Gnosis is not a ready-made system…It is the undeveloped potential of Christian myth…Developing this myth is a task for people of our own time. It is an introverted task, a personal task,” (ix). Through his study of Gnosis, as well as of Jung (even collecting the same books that Jung referenced in his own writings on Gnosis and alchemy), Ribi sees Jung’s goal as an example of the Gnostic introverted quest for divine understanding of self and God. Jung, himself, near the end of his life said that the main “interest of my work is not concerned with the treatment of neurosis, but rather with the approach to the numinous,” (7).

Lance Owens’ foreword to the 2013 English publication of the book, gives a nice summary of Jung’s inner life and writings, taking into account Liber Novus, The Red Book, published in 2009. This foreword is important as Ribi’s book was originally published in German in 1999 and thus did not have access to The Red Book at the time it was written. This personal journal of Jung’s connects the dots between Jung’s professional work in psychotherapy, mythology and alchemy with his own personal journey. The Red Book traces Jung’s inner development and experiences, from ages 38-54, which can be seen as the source material for his later works. The book itself takes the form of an alchemical or Gnostic text, a sourcebook of dreams and visions, illustrated with fantastic images. Ribi further describes Gnosis as “a spontaneous, creative phenomenon…always a fresh creation, a processing of material that to some extent is already known, but now newly organizing in novel ways and contexts,” (39). Thus The Red Book can be viewed as a Gnostic text, arising from Jung’s inner mind and spirit, a new creation, but also a reprocessing of age-old myths and material. There is no doubt that Jung studied the Gnostics and that he was sympathetic to the spiritual process of Gnosticism.

Ribi begins his book by examining the disagreement between Martin Buber and Jung over Gnosticism and ultimately, inner mystical experience. Whereas Buber considers Jung a Gnostic, and that this is a “bad” thing, Jung himself found in Alchemy and Gnosticism a link to a living, spiritual, inner experience that was the very meaning and purpose of life. For instance, Jung writes, “when I began to understand alchemy I realized that it represented a historical link with Gnosticism, and a continuity therefore existed between past and present. Grounded in the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages, alchemy formed the bridge on the one hand to the past, to Gnosticism, and on the other into the future, to the modern psychology of the unconscious,” (133). For Jung, Gnosticism is one example, as is alchemy, of the individual’s inner search for Self, the inner path to God. Ribi does resort to a form of “psychoanalysis” of Martin Buber’s childhood to explain his opposition to Jung, Gnosis, psychology, and inner, mystical experience. This personal analysis is worth considering, even though it does not always come across as balanced, but in the end is not the most important point. Ribi illuminates the rift between Jung and Buber as part of a larger debate between inner and outer experience, which can be cast as an example of the debate between the tradition of organized religion and the experiences of the individual mystic. To someone within a religious tradition, the individual mystic’s journey often appears heretical, as it is by definition, individual, new and creative, rather than being defined in terms of tradition and orthodoxy.

Through the remainder of the book, Ribi traces Jung’s life’s work through different phases and highlights the role that Gnostic beliefs played, for instance in the writing, in 1916, of  The Seven Sermons of the Dead, Septum Sermones ad Mortuos, with its Gnostic imagery and terminology, it is a mythopoetic text, more spiritual than psychological. Ribi’s examination of this text takes up the remaining 120 pages of his book and it closes somewhat abruptly, without a summing up of the overall book. Still, this book is a very interesting and rewarding read of Gnosticism; the personal relationship between Jung and Buber as it mirrors a larger spiritual/philosophical debate; and as an exploration of the role of Gnostic thought in Jung’s work. In the end, it is probably more true that Jung was not simply “a Gnostic,” as it was that he studied Gnosticism as one of the ways to strive after inner Truth. As Jung writes in the Seven Sermons, “At bottom, therefore, there is only one striving, namely the striving after your own being,” (210).

The Imagination at Work: A Review of Henry Corbin’s Avicenna and the Visionary Recital

The Imagination at Work: A Review of Henry Corbin’s Avicenna and the Visionary Recital


This is the second book by Henry Corbin that I have read, the first being Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, with its beautiful cover. I came to Corbin via James Hillman and Carl Jung, and was thus interested in Corbin’s concept of the imagination. Corbin goes to great lengths to distinguish imagination from fantasy, and sees “active imagination” as a creative force, that creates the reality, and even matter of ourselves and our worlds. “Each of us carries in himself the Image of his own world, his Imago mundi, and projects it into a more or less coherent universe, which becomes the stage on which his destiny is played out. He may not be conscious of it, and to that extent he will experience as imposed on himself and others this world that in fact he himself or others impose on themselves,” (8).There is a correspondence between what is within the individual and what the individual experiences in both the external material and spiritual worlds.

Corbin’s thoughts revolve around Avicenna, a Persian philosopher and physician (980-1037). Corbin studies three “visionary recitals,” or as he sometimes calls them, “spiritual romances.” Corbin is a dense writer and I cannot claim to have a full understanding of his writing, nor an in-depth understanding of Persian and Arabic culture and terminology that Corbin explores his ideas through. He seems to be focused on a turn in Western culture with Avicenna being a pivot point. Corbin draws a distinction between rational, objective, materialist Western thought and a form of thinking that includes “active imagination” in which the imaginal is as real as the material, in fact possibly more real as it precedes and gives rise to the material. This leads to an in-depth discussion of Avicennan angelology and the ‘alam al-mithal (world of Images), where “spirits are corporealized and bodies spiritualized,” (35). The loss of this intermediary realm of the ‘alam al-mithal leads to a severing of the connection between spirit and matter and to the dualism inherent in much of Western thought. Corbin argues that we “must cease to separate the history of philosophy from the history of spirituality,” (16). While Corbin is interested in history and scholarship, his underlying drive is to illuminate a spiritual quest.

I’ll just touch on a couple of the themes in the book, as it winds its way through various Gnostic and Islamic mystical visions and encounters. There is the recognition that the individual is a “Stranger” in the world, i.e. comes from somewhere else and that “the soul must find the way of Return. That way is Gnosis, and on that way it needs a Guide. The Guide appears to it at the frontier where it has already emerged from this cosmos, to return-or better, to emerge- to itself,” (19). There is the “quest for the Orient,” or discernment of proper orientation toward the truth, that is the ta’wil, or the return “to restore to one’s origin,” (29).

I find it difficult to summarize the philosophical arguments of this book, but I found it immensely interesting and I read it as much as poetry and as mystical imagery as spiritual philosophy. Jacob Needleman describes Corbin’s work as “visionary scholarship” (foreward to Corbin’s The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy). I like the idea of a visionary scholar and it reminds me of Juan Mascaro’s work translating the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, scholarship that is historical, linguistic, yet motivated by an underlying search for Truth. For one new to Corbin, this would most likely be a difficult book, but if you read it as you would a dream, albeit a dream with complicated technical and foreign terminology, it can be a beautiful and rewarding experience.

For a reader, like myself, coming from a familiarity with the works of Jung and Hillman, Tom Cheetham’s book, All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings is a good introduction to Corbin’s thought and explores the relationships between these three men’s thought as well as their meetings, but reading Corbin’s original works is a must.

The Man Behind the Words: A Review of The Selected Letters of C. G. Jung, 1909-1961

A Review of The Selected Letters of C. G. Jung, 1909-1961

Published through the Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press 1953, this edition 1984
Selected and edited by Gerhard Adler in collaboration with Aniela Jaffe
Translated from the German by R.F.C. Hull


I picked up this book intending to just read through a few of the higher profile letters to people whom I recognized and was interested in, such as Henry Corbin, Sandor Ferenczi, Herman Hesse, James Joyce, Erich Neumann, Heinrich Zimmer and Upton Sinclair. I found myself, however, drawn into replies to anonymous writers concerning questions about God and spirituality as well as letters to religious figures. In general, the longest letters are those that discuss God and religious and spiritual themes. Jung, himself in the letters, states that in his published works, the “language I speak must be ambiguous, must have two meanings, in order to do justice to the dual aspect of our psychic nature. I strive quite consciously and deliberately for ambiguity of expression,” (108-109). This is often what I first felt reading Jung’s work, “Does he mean this, or that, is this ‘real’ or symbolic?” When he would write about “archetypes,” “the self” and the “God-Image,” I was never sure in what sense Jung thought these “things” existed. He obviously thought they were important unconscious influences and that they were involved in therapeutic processes.

It has become clear to me after reading Jung’s recently published journal, The Red Book, that Jung was primarily a mystic who strove to translate his experiences into the scientific and objective language of psychology. In addition to trying to write to the unconscious as well as consciousness of his readers, he was trying to create a language and science that was more objective than his subjective, but deep and meaningful inner experiences. In his letters, he is more open, and doesn’t seem to strive for ambiguity in his language. The letters take many forms: consoling a woman with terminal cancer and talking about his own near death experience after a heart attack; giving therapeutic advice to other therapists; giving tips on how to interact with difficult influential people; clarifying to curious (or in the case of the orthodox religious, irritated) comments about his writing and theories; trading books and thoughts with other writers; discussing dreams; and sharing his professional and spiritual dilemmas with confidants. What comes through in the letters is a devout man, exploring what is of utmost importance to him while trying to help others on a similar path. Jung had many unusual experiences and used his inner life as the template for his lifelong quest to understand the unseen forces within us that shape our lives: the unconscious and God.

I’ll just give a couple quotes in closing from the letters. This is from a letter to an anonymous woman, “our proper life-task must necessarily appear impossible to us, for only then can we be certain that all our latent powers are brought into play,” (16). And this, a longer quote from a December 18, 1946 letter to Father Victor White, “Yesterday I had a marvelous dream: One bluish diamond, like a star high in heaven, reflected in a round quiet pool—heaven above, heaven below. The imago Dei in the darkness of the earth, this is myself. The dream meant a great consolation. I am no more a black and endless sea of misery and suffering but a certain amount thereof contained in a divine vessel. I am very weak. The situation dubious. Death does not seem imminent, although an embolism can occur anytime again…It seems to me as if I am ready to die, although as it looks to me some powerful thoughts are still flickering like lightnings in a summer night. Yet they are not mine, they belong to God, as everything else which bears mentioning,” (69-70).

The Search for Unity Underlying Hinduism and Islam

Review of Majma’ Ul Bahrain or The Mingling of Two Oceans, by Prince Muhammad Dara Shikuh, translated and edited by M. Mahfuz-Ul-Haq


I found the reference to this book while reading Henry Corbin’s book, The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy. Corbin describes Shikuh as “the short-lived Emperor of India. His profoundly mystical soul was completely absorbed by his desire, based on his own inner experience, to realize an exegesis which would be common to Hindu and Islamic mysticism,” (86). While Shikuh’s book, translated to English as The Mingling of Two Oceans, or sometimes as The Confluence of Two Seas, is of historical interest, perhaps, as an early attempt at illuminating the underlying unity of different religious traditions, I did not find it very interesting from the perspective of mysticism or inspiration. The book is largely lists comparing different conceptual topics, for instance, in Islam, there are considered to be five elements, which have names, similarly, in Hinduism, there are five named elements; the Sufis consider that there are four “worlds,” similarly, in Hinduism, there are considered to be four worlds. These correspondences are perhaps interesting from a historical perspective, but Corbin’s books focus not on the historicity of religion, but rather the inner essence of experienced spirituality. There are some interesting passages that are more poetic and mystical, such as “The inter-relation between water and its waves is the same as that between body and soul or as that between sarir and atma,” (45). Dara Shikuh considered the Vedas to be “revealed books,” thus establishing a hidden unity between Hinduism and Islam, at least Sufism, (28). The introduction by M. Mahfuz-Ul-Haq is of interest in the discussion of Dara Shikuh’s life, Wikipedia also has an entry on him as well that is quite readable.

The physical book, itself, is quite beautiful, with images of rocks and oceans waves, gold lettering, a nice feel to the book. It also has the original text, in I believe Persian script, at the back of the book. The book is surely of great historical value, but, personally, I had to work to get through the book, even though it is not long, 75 pages in English. I appreciate the search for unity between religions. This seems to be a characteristic of Sufism, as Fadiman and Frager state in their Essential Sufism, “According to many Sufis…the essential Truths of Sufism extend to all religions,” (2). If you are looking for more visionary and mystical writing, I also followed the reference from Corbin to Carl Ernst’s translation of Ruzbihan Baqli’s The Unveiling of Secrets: Diary of a Sufi Master. This book has many amazing visionary passages and is quite readable as short diary entries.

The Imaginary World of Nebraska: Coniunctionis.19


I used to live in Nebraska, Omaha, from 1997-1999.

Last night, instead of watching the Oscars, I went with my friend, Don, to go see the movie, “Nebraska,” featuring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb and Bob Odenkirk. It is directed by Alexander Payne and written by Bob Nelson. While it was nominated for 6 academy awards, it appears not to have won any, which is actually fitting as it is a subtle film about very small, but very important accomplishments. (Quotations used in this blog are paraphrases from my memory of watching the movie).

This morning, I started reading a book on Yoga Nidra by Richard Miller. The movie had been percolating away in the back of my mind. I have been working on a blog on listening to music and inner transformation, and I have been thinking about some writing that I was doing shortly after leaving Omaha, when I had returned back to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois and was writing the “Coniunctionis” column. An idea for a blog came to me as I read Miller’s words.

“During waking consciousness, we perceive the world to be made up of solid and separate objects. We believe that our waking thoughts and the objects around us are real. But, could it be that waking-state thoughts and objects are also fabrications and projections of the mind, as empty of substance as our dream-self and dream-world?” (Richard Miller, Yoga Nidra, 18).

This reminded me of a topic that I wrote on years past in “Coniunctionis,” entitled, “Is Reality Real?” That was a focus on the movie, “The Matrix,” as well as Eastern philosophy. Now all these things come together in my mind this morning, thinking about Nebraska, a state often referred to as “The Heartland,” being in the center of the country and an agricultural state.

The movie is in black and white, which is very fitting for the bleakness of the soul and loss of hope that it portrays in small town America. The plot hinges around Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a mean, demented alcoholic who mostly lives in his own world and his fixation on having won a million dollars in a magazine mail scam. He insists on going in-person to Lincoln, Nebraska, and he continues to set off walking there, appearing as a demented old man. His wife Kate (June Squibb) is another heartless and unappealing character. Crass and unsympathetic to Woody, she talks about how worthless he is and that if she had a million dollars she “would put him in a home.” The “hero” of the movie is David Grant (Will Forte). He stands in two worlds, the hopeless and loveless world of his parents and the “real” world of trying to adapt to his life in Billings Montana after his girlfriend left him and his job selling home audio and video equipment. His life seems bleak and purposeless as well, even though he is socially adapted in having a job and being able to see the narrow-mindedness of his parents. David is the predominantly likeable character in the movie, who keeps trying to tell his dad he didn’t win anything and that this is all a fantasy, but at the same time he searches for a deeper truth in Woody’s quest, realizing that the old man is just searching for something to live for.

David gradually comes to believe that the only way to get his father to see the truth of his fiction is to actually drive him to Lincoln, Nebraska, slowly and carefully, it turns out, because David is a cautious character who tries to play by the rules. In a way, his life is a fiction too, passionless, disconnected and empty. They slowly make some good time across the empty vistas between Billings and South Dakota. He convinces his dad to stop and see Mt. Rushmore, which his father dismisses as being badly done, as if the creator got bored and stopped part way through (a fitting comment about the lives of so many in the film, bored and not committed to a greater creation of a life).  They move along until Woody sneaks out of the motel at night, gets drunk and falls and opens up his head with a laceration. This “fall” is important, as is the opening up of the head because it is the point where David’s somewhat naive attempt to humor the old man and get out of Billings for a few days becomes quite serious, the quest to prove the truth of the false belief seems on the verge of failure. David proclaims the quest to be over, instead the family will meet up in Woody and Kate’s home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska.

What follows is a depressing look at the roots of where Woody and Kate grew up. Illusion after illusion is shattered for David as he hears his mother’s reminiscences of all the men who wanted to get into her “bloomers,” how Woody’s sister who died at 19 years old was a “slut,” all the while, she ignores the presence of Woody, who in truth is not fully there as he is single-mindedly focused on claiming his false million dollars. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but all the friends and family are presented as small-minded, ignorant, isolated, cut off from the world. In a sense their “reality” is a fantasy as well, yet it is a fantasy of “old wood and weeds” as Woody proclaims about the old family homestead that his father built, but is now abandoned and in disrepair. There are small moments of dark humor, as when David asks his dad how the old place looks, as they push aside abandoned items and dust and Woody says, “pretty much the same.” Kate then agrees, but takes the passive, disconnected comment and turns it into another putdown of others, when she says something like, “I’ll say, this is pretty much how his mom used to keep the house!”

At first the town welcomes Woody, particularly when he lets slip that he is going to Nebraska for the million dollars he won. He is hailed as the town hero, one of us who got out and made good, he thus brings “fortune” upon the town. But then people slowly start to turn mean and petty, threatening and intimidating David, wanting him to “share the wealth” with them for “helping” Woody in the past.  Even though Kate and Woody’s lives in Billings seem bleak and insular, it becomes clear why they left Hawthorne and they seem like successes in comparison to the world they left behind. They belong to a bigger world, but they still carry the smallness, meanness and despair of Hawthorne within them.

David begins to drink with his dad, hanging out in the generic, small town bars of middle America. He tries to have a heart to heart conversation with his dad about how to know when you are ready to get married. Woody just says, “Well, your mom wanted to get married.” David replies, “Well, were you in love.” Woody considers a moment and says, “I don’t believe that ever came up.” David asks further, “Well, did you talk about if you wanted to have kids and how many kids you wanted to have?” Woody again replies in a dismissive negative way, it never really came up, he “liked to screw, and your mom was Catholic, I figured we’d have a couple kids sooner or later.” David asks if Woody ever loved someone else or thought about being with someone else. Woody replies, “I just would have ended up with someone else who would have made my life miserable, so what’s the difference?”

The one bright spot in Hawthorne is Pegy Nagy (Angela McEwan) who runs the newspaper and turns out to be Woody’s former girlfriend. She appears as a compassionate angel in the film, comparatively to the others. She tells David about how kind and compassionate Woody was, sure he drank even before Korea, but people always took advantage of his kindness, he couldn’t say “no.” David always thought that his dad was “just” a mechanic in the war, but Pegy shows him an old newspaper photo of the brothers in uniform and tells him that Woody was shot down when his plane he was being transferred. She says that Woody never said much, but after the war the drinking got worse and he hardly talked. When David tells her there is no million dollars, Pegy says she can’t print that he won, but she kindly won’t “print that he didn’t win.” Her love for the kind Woody of old leads her to be the only other person besides David (and the doctors who stitch him up and the police who pick him up off the streets) who extends compassion to Woody and sees something in him other than the surface “truth” of a mean old drunk. Pegy’s compassion opens further compassion in David for his father.

While David always has a degree of compassion for his father, this increases as the movie goes on. He helps his father find all the things he is losing, his false teeth near the railroad tracks when he fell down drunk, and later even the “million dollar letter,” the only thing Woody cares about or for. Woody tells others that the first thing he is going to do is to buy a new truck and an air compressor. Eventually David asks his dad what the reality is behind these apparently capricious choices, particularly as he lost his driver’s license and can’t drive. Woody says, “Well, I always wanted to own a new truck.” It doesn’t seem like this is just a status symbol, but rather a dream of Woody’s as to what being successful means, maybe even what being a Person means, a dream of the heart that reveals the inner person (this is of course my extrapolation, the surface of the film is not as sentimental as I am, but I think there is a truth at a deeper level here). The reason Woody wants a new air compressor is that it is an old loss, his old partner at the mechanic shop “borrowed it” forty years ago and never returned it. Again, David seems to sense that there is something about Woody’s humanity behind this obsession with an old air compressor. When David asks, “Well that is just a little bit of the money, what would you do with the rest?” Woody replies, “the rest of it is for you boys, I always wanted to leave you something.”

I will reveal a plot spoiler as it is important to this essay as to a possible meaning of the movie. The quest seems to end in just another sad, small disappointment. Woody and David arrive in Lincoln and go to the office. Woody is summarily told by the employee that his is not one of the winning numbers, as an afterthought she says he can have a free gift. He chooses a baseball cap that says “prize winner” on it. He slumps into the car, David looks at the tired, old man, and says that they need to make a few stops on the way back home. First David trades in his Subaru for an “almost new” 5 year old pick-up truck, and he puts his dad on the title as well. Woody can’t believe that David could get this truck for his trade in and asks if the prize people had something to do with it, David passively agrees. Next they stop and buy a new compressor and it is loaded into the back of the truck. Then, the last thing is that David offers that Woody can drive the truck down the main street in Hawthorne. He does this, seen by all the important people, his old partner Ed (whom David, connecting to his own passion and sense of righteousness punched out after he was publicly humiliating his dad), and perhaps most importantly, by his former girlfriend, Pegy, who tears up (I imagine with a sense of pride and maybe even a validation that no matter how deeply buried the goodness and kindness is, it will persist and be rewarded in some way). Thus it appears that Woody did win the million dollars after all…

However, if that was the story, the creation of an illusion over another illusion, it would be a meaningless and hopeless tale. The true winning of the million dollars, from my perspective, is not the image of winning that the other people see. It is a small and subtle moment. David is driving his and his dad’s new truck, and for the first time, Woody sneaks a glance over at David, and he sees his son, David glances over and sees his father seeing him and Woody quickly looks away. I imagine that Woody sees the compassion in David for him, despite all the surface mistakes he has made in his life. There is a sense of continuity of the compassion that the young Woody had, always giving to others. His success is that he “got out” of “Hawthorne” and even though his life does not appear to be a success, his son has heart, compassion and right action…there is hope for his son in his life, a better life than the people of Hawthorne or of Woody and Kate, or of David’s previous life before the quest. A brief mention, David’s brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is the one who seemed the even bigger success, appearing in a fill-in TV anchor role. There is probably something significant in the appearance of success of Ross, based on his appearance and presentation, he is a success in a profession that is often thought of as being based on falseness, rather than an emergence of the true self.

I see David as the “hero” of the story. While Woody goes through a transformation and redemption, he is still mostly in a fog. It is David who has his whole second half of his life ahead of him and he has the opportunity to choose between the passive isolation and hopelessness of the men in his family, or to actually live passionately (one could almost imagine a Wizard of Oz like transformation from black and white into color, however this is not that kind of movie). One could apply Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” from The Hero With A Thousand Faces to this movie. David and Pegy are the helpers on Woody’s quest, which involves a fall into a “special” world, in this case the past, he is seeking the boon, the million dollars, but he receives a different boon, the love and compassion, being seen, by David and Pegy. Woody, like a true mythological hero, drives in his resplendent chariot (a 5 year old Ford pick-up) as a King of Hawthorne, with his magical machine that can inflate what has become deflated. However, looking at David as the hero, he is the one who stands in the liminal space, half-way between worlds. In a sense, even though he has a moment of redemption, Woody is living mostly in that liminal state, a failed hero who never fully returned to the “real” world. Yet for David, his compassion for his father also transforms him. He is the only person who treats the old demented drunk as a human being. When the employee at the prize office asks David if his father has Alzheimer’s, he simply says, “No, he just believes what people tell him.” In a sense this is a commentary that he accepts the world that is given to him by society rather than creating his own reality, his own life.

As a hero, David has a kind of divine birth. His mother tells him, as a child, “you were so beautiful that people didn’t know if you were a boy or a girl.” And a former neighbor says to David, “You were like a little porcelain prince.” Hero myths often have an unusual birth and in this case, David stands between masculine and feminine. People notice his beauty, but he has not done anything with his beauty, now people don’t recognize him. As Sathya Sai Baba said, “If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character.” Or, a similar common quote on the internet is, “If there is light in the soul, there will be beauty in the person.” This is not just the superficial beauty of physical appearance, but something deeper, and it is this essence that David reveals that had been hidden and forgotten within him.

One of the disillusionments that David has of his parents is when his dad’s old business partner, Ed tells him how Woody had an affair with a “half-breed” down at the reservation. Ed brags how Woody “thought he loved her,” but Ed convinced him to stay with Kate. Ed continues that if he hadn’t intervened, David wouldn’t have even been born, because that was before he was born. For David, he is disillusioned with his father, but it also reveals that the old Woody was capable of love and that he could look beyond the small-minded racial prejudices of his society.

David’s transformation is the rekindling of his heart of righteousness that leads to a revelation of beauty in his character. He sticks up for his father, he protects him, he loves him enough to create a momentary false reality, an illusion that at the same time means something quite profound to Woody, to Pegy, to Ed, and to Woody’s family, as for a brief moment they see the Kingly beauty and righteousness of a man who always was giving to others and yet lost himself in a fog of alcohol, disappointment and regret. The appearance is of course an illusion, but as the visionary scholar, Henry Corbin has written, we can only experience that which we have already within us in some germinal form.

So, why do I call this the “Imaginary World of Nebraska?” I would again like to appeal to Henry Corbin in his discussion of the imaginal, he argues for a state of being that is not a false illusion, but rather a true imaginal realm, that is perceived through “active imagination.” While this is a complicated topic, as reality always is, the gist of it is that Corbin writes about the Sufi and esoteric Islamic view that there is a true and existing imaginal realm, a visionary realm that the mystics visit, that stands between surface reality and spiritual reality, and which acts or determines what happens here (it is difficult to know where to recommend starting to understand Corbin, one place is Tom Cheetham’s book All the World an Icon, his paper, “The Prophetic Tradition and the Battle for the Soul of the World: An Introduction to the Spiritual Vision of Henry Corbin,” as well as his blog on Corbin,  As Amit Goswami, the self-described “quantum activist” and physicist, writes that consciousness is the ground of being, rather than consciousness arising from matter, matter arises from consciousness. By consciousness he does not mean the ego, but rather the Self, (see Goswami, The Quantum Doctor). Similarly, Corbin is not speaking of the fantasies of the ego, but of a higher order of consciousness in which what is imagined corresponds to what appears in reality.

I think this movie, with its work on themes of what is real and what is false is a rich ground to explore using some of these concepts about reality and imagination from Islamic and Hindu perspectives. Buddhist perspectives, too, speak of the world as illusion. The dilemma that I have always found is that if the world is illusion, what is real and why are we here. The author Philip K. Dick, in his explorations of “what is real?” and “what is the truly human?” came to the conclusion that compassion is the hallmark of a human being. We could then say that compassion is real, regardless of the degree of “reality” within which someone is living (and it could be argued that we all live in our own experiences or creations of the world). It is possible to see the bleak realities of many of the characters in the movie as manifestations of a lack of imagination, a lack of vision and ultimately a lack of compassion. Compassion cuts across false realities and compassion creates reality and it gives others the space for their true selves or true essences to unfold. In the movie, “Nebraska,” it is compassion that changes David, his relationship with Woody, creates a momentary reality that redeems Woody in the eyes of his past, creates a connection of love between David and Woody, and, ultimately holds the potential for David to be transformed and changed when he returns to his old life. One imagines that he has the possibility of creating a new reality for himself.


A Modern Upanishad, Review of Pritish Nandy and Sunandini Banerjee’s Isha Upanishad

Amazon Book Review

Isha Upanishad

The inside of the dust jacket of this book cites Gandhi as having said, “that if all scriptures happened all of a sudden to be reduced to ashes and only the first verse of the Isha Upanishad was left in our memory, Hinduism would live forever.” The jacket description continues, “But this Upanishad goes beyond all faith, all religion to help all people look within and without themselves to answer the questions that have swirled in and round them since the dawn of civilization.” The poetic presentation of Pritish Nandy’s translation and Sunandini Banerjee’s visual imagery of nature, symbolism and icons from various religions does seem to capture the universality of the “immanent, transcendent.” There is another anecdote regarding Gandhi and the Isha Upanishad. When a journalist wanted to know his secret of life, Gandhi replied with the first verse of the Isha, “Renounce and enjoy!” (cited in Eknath Easwaran’s translation of The Upanishads, p. 53).

The Isha Upanishad is the shortest of the Upanishads (Easwaran translates the meaning of Upanishad as “sitting down near” the feet of an illumined teacher), yet Pritish Nandy’s translation stretches out the 468 words to 54 pages of text (although there are, fittingly, no page numbers in this book). Easwaran uses 4 pages, and Mascaro’s translation fits it all in 2 pages. Comparing these three translations, Nandy’s is the most modern, the least “religious text-like” and is presented more as universal divine poetry. Sunandini Banerjee’s collages incorporate Buddhist, Hindu and Christian iconography, along with drawings and paintings of flowers and birds and stylized symbols of stars and circles. The collages call to mind a more coherent and spiritual Max Ernst, the surrealist and Dadaist artist. The use of collages of photographs, iconography, drawings, paintings and symbols captures the multi-dimensional truth of the text. The text appears within circles, usually white text emerging from the blackness of the circle. While you could read the text quicker than the time it takes for your cup of tea to cool, it is well worth lingering over and returning to “again and again and again,” as the text itself states. It is a beautiful book that speaks to the depths with simple words and complex imagery. It almost has the feel of a children’s book, yet it doesn’t have a “story” the way that Peter Sis’ The Conference of the Birds does (which has a similar message of the unity of all things and is a nice companion to this book). Still, all ages can appreciate the art work and the message of unity of the Self that is “everywhere and in everything.” Juan Mascaro, in the introduction to his translation of The Upanishads, writes that, “In theory, an Upanishad could even be composed in the present day : a spiritual Upanishad that would draw its life from the One source of religions and humanism and apply it to the needs of the modern world,” (p.8). Nandy and Banerjee’s work offers such a modern Upanishad, through a new translation and presentation of the old.