I have a short list of books--the books themselves are mostly short too, as it happens--which have informed not just my mind but my soul. I'm not speaking of novels here, which are in a separate category, but the spiritual guide, the book of quiet wisdom. I and Thou by Martin Buber; Wittgenstein's notebooks; Three Poems by John Ashbery; the collection of Simone Weil's writings called Waiting for God; these are a few of these.
When I travel, at least one of these volumes comes with me. They are for me what The Way of the Pilgrim was to Salinger's Franny Glass, what the Diamond Sutra was to Kerouac's Ray Smith and Japhy Ryder, what Tolstoy's The Gospel in Brief apparently was to Wittgenstein himself; what Franny and Zooey and The Dharma Bums have been to countless people in their late 'teens and early twenties.
None of these titles are all that surprising; I and Thou probably figures on many people's similar lists; so too with Simone Weil; and I have bonded almost immediately with the few, the sensitive and wise few, who meet my eyes with an "Ah" of understanding upon the mention not just of John Ashbery but of Three Poems. But there is one book in my private canon that I am consistently surprised to find almost unknown.
Mirror to the Light by Lewis Thompson is a spare volume of a little more than 130 pages (plus a preface by editor Richard Lannoy, from which I lift a number of facts for what follows). The book is one of the great under-appreciated spiritual classics of the 20th century. I know how overblown, how "pretentious" that can sound--who the Hell am I to grant a work such accolades?--and, the answer is, I'm no one, but the work is what it is. Thompspon had been at work on this slim masterpiece for two decades when he died suddenly at the age of forty, from the effects of sunstroke, in Benares. He had been a wanderer and an ascetic poet for most of that time, the last seventeen years more or less penniless in India. I have sometimes wondered, idly and without any real evidence that it could be the case, whether Thompson inspired Somerset Maugham's character Larry Durrell in The Razor's Edge, published about five years before Thompson died. I might add, speaking of J.D. Salinger, that the figure who seems to me to resemble Thompson the most is Franny and Zooey's older brother Seymour--who was also a poet, was also drawn to the East, and who also died young. There is a passage in Salinger's "Seymour: an Introduction" which resonates strongly with how I read Thompson:
I'll champion indiscrimination till doomsday, on the ground that it leads to health and a kind of very real, enviable happiness. Followed purely, it's the way of the Tao, and undoubtedly the highest way. But for a discriminating man to achieve this, it would mean that he would have to dispossess himself of poetry, go beyond poetry. That is, he couldn't possibly learn or drive himself to like bad poetry in the abstract, let alone equate it with good poetry. He would have to drop poetry altogether. ...it would be no easy thing to do.Some poets do manage to drop poetry altogether. In George Oppen's career there is a lacuna of twenty-eight years. Laura Riding turned her back on poetry entirely; so, notoriously, at twenty-one, did Rimbaud. When Thompson was around the same age, he too went through a profound crisis over the paradox of poetry--the drive to articulate the truth, and the inevitable falling-short of any effort of articulation. At one point during this struggle, Thompson burned a manuscript on which he had worked for five years--the first drafts of what would become Mirror to the Light. Yet the writing inexorably, Thompson recounted, "always grew up
again from its roots." What Thompson did entirely renounce was a "literary life." Though he continued to write to the end of his life--poems, journals (which have now also been edited and published), and his extensive notes for his book--and referred to his writing as a yoga, he was on the other hand almost hostilely indifferent to public "success"; when he died, two poems were all that had appeared in print; there are 102 in the edition Black Sun: the Collected Poems of Lewis Thompson, including "Black Angel," a poem of which Lawrence Durrell said he would give five years of his life to have written it. And yet, Thompson insisted, "somewhere between eighteen and twenty I believe I too experienced all that is implied in Rimbaud's rejection of literature."
Yet he knew his roots were in the literary, artistic and religious culture of Europe. He had been raised a Protestant in England; he was a sensitive pianist who loved Debussy, Chopin, and Bach. Though he read translations of Chinese, Japanese and Indian classics, he never learned any Asian language, and his poetic idiom remains lyrical, in tune with the work of Wordsworth and Keats, and with Valéry, Mallarmé, and Rilke, who he translated. His was also a self-consciously modern mind--more than once he cites Rimbaud's injunction to "be absolutely modern"--but he had also schooled himself in the philosophia perennis from an early age and he went to India intentionally seeking to immerse himself not as a tourist but as a real seeker. His meditations and aphorisms are the distillation of critical modernity and ancient asceticism each fired in the crucible of the other. He was fierce and unsparing, most of all with himself, but Mirror to the Light betrays no tendency to castigate himself, no abstinent recoil from life's allure; there is simply a calm disinterest in being distracted. He reminds one of Simone Weil in his uncompromising insistence on truth, of Laura Riding in his care with the precision of words. There is an unaffected earnestness that cannot be reduced to the caricature of "earnest youth," and a ferocity that belies his apparent resemblance, in the brevity of his remarks, to the moralist tradition. He belongs in the company of those he considered his models: Pascal, Blake, Nietzsche, Villon, Eckhart, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud.
He was absolutely indifferent to ordinary comforts, whether of the body or of sociability, and endured the everyday life of subsistence begging in India and the loneliness of one who may travel shoulder-to-shoulder with friends but who is ready, at a moment's notice, to struggle with them to the death. He traveled for a long while with Ella Maillart, the Swiss ski champion and travel writer; he stayed with Earl Brewster, the American painter who had traveled with his friend D.H. Lawrence in Sri Lanka (Brewster told Richard Lannoy that Lawrence and Thompson were the only two men he had known who he considered to have been giants, and that "physically the two could have been brothers"); he had a long period of devotional study under Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon. Yet he was uncompromising, and these relationships could be painful. To Brewster he wrote,
I am not your friend or anybody's friend. I have no more use for 'friendship' than has--let me modestly say, a cat. The fault is mine, you understand. I let myself be confused by undisciplined good nature.... good nature in itself, of course, is purely a matter of individual rebirth...and to be confused by it is spiritually self-betrayal. ...I have no motive of 'goodness' and no belief in it. In any case, if I am good at all and goodness is real, I am good without it. On the contrary, I consider moral adjustment to others a weakness harmful to both. I find you almost suffocated in the coils of such virtue--either a deep lie or a painful stupidity. ... You have been brought up to think everybody needs it. Or do you, like most in this world, project your own need upon others and half consciously try to suborn them? In this way you make whatever goodness and sweetness I actually have false, poisonous, finally explosive! Just because it refuses to be falsified! I believe for respect of each others' essence two friends--any two men--should be prepared, if necessary, to kill each other. Short of this, 'love' is sentimentality, self-indulgence, a conspiracy of confusions or weaknesses.One might be rather taken aback after receiving such a letter. But Brewster, in the context of the relationship, was able after all this to say to Thompson, "I feel a relation with you one seldom feels--a kind of chemical affinity, quite without barriers."
I quote this letter from Thompson (it is cited by Lannoy in his introduction) to underline the strong disregard for social niceties that runs through his work and character. He was most seriously bent upon one thing only, the nature of realization, and like his models--Nietzsche and Rimbaud stand out--he was utterly unconcerned with anything else. His unconventional "discipleship" under Sri Atmananda is a case in point. Thompson undoubtedly considered this man--who he knew by the name Krishna Menon, but who he always referred to simply as "the Jnani"--a great teacher and a realized soul; yet in a letter, he spelled out to him unambiguously his nuanced and agonistic critique of discipleship:
As a conception, a dogma, a considered possibility, a proposed means, or something separately sought, the guru can only be a superstition.Sri Atmananda accepted this abrasive disciple and even eventually said of him that he needed no guru. There is a report that one day as Thompson reclined with his head in his teacher's lap, the latter spontaneously entered samadhi. Such an unconventional relationship between master and disciple inevitably aroused the envy of the more traditional students, but the real tension seems to have arisen from Thompson's forthrightness, which would not let him silently pass over perceived inconsistencies in the Jnani's teachings. This was no mere rationalistic insistence on the excluded middle; Thompson was a poet before all else, and keenly appreciative of paradox--but he was willing to question and question and question. At a certain point, Sri Atmananda unilaterally withdrew from the relationship and dismissed Thompson. The abandonment left Thompson "like a beaten dog," according to Ella Maillart, but he made no attempt to gain readmittance, though he dedicated his last poems to the Jnani and only a year before his death--six years after his dismissal--wrote that "my whole existence is in suspense until I can recover, or find, my true relationship with him--with all that that implies." But, he added, "it is too deep and important, to me, to be forced or hurried."
What then is my attitude to those who seem to me realized men and why am I not indifferent to them? Of course one feels love and respect for, and delight in, anyone or thing that for one's consciousness is a convincing expression of the Fullness one would realize.
But otherwise I question men who appear realized in order to find out why I question them. --Because they can by definition offer the spiritual resistance that one can nowhere else find.
One would go wrong if one read Thompson as a chaser after the "mystical east." His roots are in the west, and particularly in the western poetic tradition, the tradition of Dante, Villon, Blake; of Rimbaud, Yeats, and Rilke. "The only thing that interests me in this world is Poetry and all that serves it," he told Ella Maillart. For him, Christ was "the supreme poet," and his own last written words were an account of why poetry was his path:
The discipline of fidelity to the non-mental in poetry...is for me an immediate and congenial means of beginning to 'go beyond the mind'--of attaining and establishing a purely transmental vision and speech.Two days before he wrote these words, on June 20, 1949, Thompson had been found by a friend wandering in the blazing high summer noon near the Ganges riverside in Benares, dazed with sunstroke. His impoverished dwelling was an attic with a corrugated metal roof. His friend brought him home, but sunstroke had already set in. Thompson died on June 23; he was cremated and his ashes scattered over the Ganges.
Mirror to the Light is the book Richard Lannoy edited from Thompson's notes, a book Thompson clearly envisioned himself--the notes were found in two large cardboard boxes of pages, meticulously organized by topic and by alphabetical order. (Thompson's only long-term employment in India seems to have been his job as librarian at the Rajghat School just outside Benares.) My patient reader has doubtless observed that, so far, I have cited a few letters and journal entries by Thompson but nothing from Mirror to the Light. Doubtless this betrays a "biographical fallacy" in myself, but I find I cannot separate the force of personality I feel in Thompson's aphorisms from their wisdom and their quest. I am loathe to offer here at the end a kind of "sampler" of his thought, but I know how hollow must sound the rationale that "his work is all of a piece," or that it "must be taken as a whole"--deeply though I have felt it as I make these few selections. And indeed, Thompson labored to shape his thoughts into a form that was memorable, brief, and unified. There are passages of considerable simplicity and beauty, and notes that are remarkable as much for their brevity as for their insight--most were written on small slips of paper, and probably the size of the paper was meant in part as a constraint upon the expression. He wrote, he says once, in order to forget his thoughts, to not be ruled by them. He also warns his readers to not forget what sort of book they are reading:
My aim in this book is to overcome the mind even on its own ground--completion of Hypocrisy. It is organized only as a poem. the whole synthesis, the integral interpretation, intellectually, critically, and in experience, is made by Poetry."to overcome the mind even on its own ground"--one of the most succinct and apt accounts of the methods and aims of philosophy--what I mean by philosophy, anyway. Thompson meant very seriously this crossing of poetic symbol and rigorous intellect, a tool that had to be mastered, not discarded:
Those who most concretely and consciously intend the Real are in their minds, to the confounding of the sentimental, absolutely analytical. The mind cannot be surpassed or put in its proper place without being fulfilled. "He who is not faithful in little, who will give him much?"Or again:
You can entirely dissipate yourself in intelligence. It is a pure and may be a very athletic life. But because you must continue to live it it represents a premature, and thus essentially a tragic, surrender.There are observations on the political forms of mid-20th century life, which immediately render implausible any reading of Thompson as a reactionary or naïf:
Intelligence must be entirely employed, it must be spontaneous not for its own sake, but in being limited by what surpasses its conditions. And then alone has it its own full and proper flexibility, and a promptitude free of accident.
...now only a world-culture is possible. The undifferentiated mass, formerly controlled within limits or hierarchically, has now to be dealt with as a whole on the ground of its own overflooding of cultural order.... There are no longer priests and kings of quite another order from the slave, as a man is different from an animal.... Now the lowest common factor rules--the modern abstract brutishness. There is only this actual material democracy or mere reaction from it into fascism or communism.Thompson draws an interesting corollary:
This fact also prepares a truly universal recognition of spiritual values. For since they are themselves universal there is no question of a universal religion: no limited cultural form can any longer be dynamic here.There are observations on the economic situation of the rich, the poor, and the actually free:
Most people mean by work--slavery: they have nothing to do, and are not inwardly free enough to play. In fact they can conceive 'play' only in complement with work. Thus they are either wage-slaves or unemployed--in either case slave of the modern 'historical situation.'... What is the historical situation of a leopard, or a man who lives first and 'begs' of those who are afraid to? ...The man who lives first is the reverse of the parasite. those who are afraid have created standards by which he is indistinguishable from the parasites produced by their own state. And this is the measure of the whole evil.These remarks on politics and economics are somewhat surprising in the context of a book of apparently "private," "spiritual" observations, but always they are tied back into reference to what Thompson considers the root questions, the questions of what is Real and who one is.
Thompson is ruthlessly abrupt sometimes with those who see only partway. He is equally brusque with 'Humanism'--"the romantic sentimentalism of the ego"--as with all forms of "occultism": "modern magic is perverse or sentimental and like Faust's only an extreme of romanticism."
Our 'common humanity' is, after all, our common fatigue and imperfection, common evasion, confusion, compromise, hypocrisy. The Buddha, the Christ--all Liberators--have been 'inhuman.' We consent together to flatter them. It is like flattering fire, lightning, or the Sun.His remarks on sexuality--"this accidental joy"--are sane, gentle and uncompromisingly ascetic.
Sexuality in itself, like everything relative, is entirely destructive. In this, as in general, it has a direct polar correspondence with the brain. Thought completing itself in its own sense destroys itself. It is only so far as sexuality, incapable of exceeding its [own] limits falls short of this, that it continues the endless process of relativities: what it perpetuates is not life, but old age and death. In itself it is a powerful expression of life, but of life divided.Again:
The sexual problem exists only so long as we have not first of all discovered how very small a part of ourselves sexuality can engage--so long as we have not perceived its limits, so long as it is still psychological, with overcharged confusion, Anguish, dreams--so long as we are not disinterested and realistic in this sphere.Or again, perhaps most succinctly:
There is only one way to be chaste if chastity is not to be negative, that is, to love deeply.Thompson never ceases being a poet:
Solitude is resonant with a music as remote and vivid as the tremor of the stars. Out of all dream Athene arises, grave, clear-eyed, forever youthful. About her a void tuned beyond all music, crossed by speedless intimation, threads of sound, of force, of light, more oure than frost.And he never stops being concerned with what Poetry means:
All disinterested expression is poem.This disinterestedness is not easily attained; it is only painfully wrested from the acknowledgment that (as Thompson frequently reiterates), "the truth cannot be told." His was a quest "towards an Unknown Real." This emphasis on the incommunicability of truth is of a piece other of Thompson's concerns: his indifference to social niceties, his dim view of "morality," his emphasis upon solitude, his interest in the limits of poetry, and on the utterly instantaneous nature of realization:
He meets me exactly who offers me complete resistance, who allows me to retain my silence.And, finally:
Poetry is the dance of truth among limits and which it explodes....
Poetry is the speech of love, universal by its perfect particularity. Love is the key to it all.
Love absolutely does not need to be recognized.
No one is capable of love who has not first been capable of his own spiritual solitude.
The 'Real' is--what is perceived with perfect disinterestedness--what does not need to be real.
Reality is first achieved as the exhaustion of every possible sentimentality.
Our language contains one word whose power is directly magical: NOW. But first it will bring us face to face with the complete agony of our own incapacity and our ignorance.
You can escape in a moment, but only in a moment.Mirror to the Light was published in 1984. I think there may have been only one printing. For a long time I have wondered what was amiss with the world that this jewel of a book received so little attention. Then two Sundays ago I was in one of the last few local independent bookstores that seems to be making a go of it, and there on the shelf was Fathomless Heart, by Lewis Thompson, edited by Richard Lannoy. This is a much expanded edition of the Thompson's masterwork, and Lannoy must be praised for his long labor in the effort to make known the work of this remarkable English "poet-sage," as Thompson is called in the subtitle. Lannoy has expanded his Introduction, and there is a fine Preface by William Stranger (from which I have also gleaned a few items for this post). The book may herald the long-overdue widespread appreciation of Lewis Thompson.
Nothing would have displeased Thompson more than to become a cult or a cause célèbre, but if one reads him with his warning in mind, one may not go far wrong:
Do not believe what I say, any more than you believe a poem: only see the intention, what it means spiritually. There are enough theories and dogmas as it is.This fundamentally provisional nature of his work, his flawed articulation of spiritual intention, is summed up for me in an anecdote Lannoy rightly characterizes as almost Zen-like. Though Thompson was very interested in the work of J. Krishnamurti, he met him only once, by chance, in a narrow hallway. Neither man said anything. Thompson only met Krishnamurti's smiling and silent gaze with his own, in quiet composure. After several moments of silence, Krishnamurti slowly lifted his hand and quietly pointed to a place in white cotton garment Thompson was wearing. There was a small hole torn there. Still smiling, still meeting Thompson's eyes, he pointed to his own, similar garment. There in the corresponding spot was an identical tear. The two men parted, neither having spoken a word. He meets me exactly who offers me complete resistance, who allows me to retain my silence.