The Womb of World Civilisation

It amuses me greatly when a degree of unconscious direction behind seemingly arbitrary reading choices becomes clear. What is intended to be patternless drifting from one book to the next, loosely following very broad themes, takes on the form of a literary centripetal force pulling towards a single area of study. Even a year ago I felt the pull towards the study of the Vedas, but resisted the tension, mainly because I couldn’t quite grasp where to begin. As Paul Deussen, a friend of Nietzsche’s, wrote in his old (1907) Outlines in Indian Philosophy, “European idleness tries to escape the study of Indian philosophy.” I still feel that inertia, intimidated by the immensity of the task. But, but …

Rereading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves one night, I came across Bernard’s monologue:

I am not one person, I am many people. I do not know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, Neville or Louis – or how to distinguish my life from theirs – ‘we are bound not only to our friends but to the long-long history that began in Egypt in the time of the Pharaos when women carried pitchers to the Nile.’

I started going through The Waves and scribbling notes of instances where Woolf uses metaphors to indicate the relation of one to the many, that Nature is ‘one form in diverse mirrors.’ Both currents of thought were heavily present in my recent readings of Clarice Lispector, Pierre Hadot’s Plotinus and various interpretations of Heraclitus’ Fragments.

For instance, there is the following paragraph from Hadot’s superb Plotinus book:

Since we look towards the outside, away from the point at which we are joined together, we are unaware of the facts that we are one. We are like faces turned towards the outside, but attached on the inside to one single head. If we could turn around – either spontaneously or if we were lucky enough to ‘have Athena pull us by the hair’ [Homer], then all at once, we would see God, ourselves, and the All.

(Incidentally, not that I’ll dwell on the topic here, Plotinus’s notion of deification means the destroying of man, not the modern day religious notion of man living and working in God.)

The philosophical and historical worth of the Vedas has been acknowledged from Voltaire onwards, their influence of Greek culture is certain,  also on most of the major mystical and philosophical traditions, and from there to poets and story-tellers. “The Greeks may have been the cradle of Western civilisation, but the Vedas are the womb of world civilisation.” The more I read on the subject the more I see the influence on writers are diverse as Heraclitus, Plato, Plotinus, Kant, Vico, Woolf, Eliot (clearly), Lispector, Iris Murdoch, Nietzsche, and Emerson.

Please feel free to suggest essential or helpful texts that deal with the influence of the Vedas on Greek culture, or texts that help a curious amateur with the Vedas. This is likely to give some shape to my otherwise arbitrary reading over the next 6-12 months.

6 thoughts on “The Womb of World Civilisation

  1. A few weeks ago I (finally) finished Ulysses and the idea of reincarnation was the foremost obvious thing to me about what the book is really about. From Stephen’s notion of everyone’s umbilical chord leading back to Eve like some kind of organic, temporal octopus creature to Molly’s statement at the end of how “I guess it might as well be him as any other.”

    I’ve been noticing this in a lot of my reading lately. The Recognitions and Beckett’s Trillogy especially. It’s funny you mention it but reading the Gita is on my mind lately as well. Last month I read Near to the Wild Heart as well and I will be reading more of her work in the coming weeks with this in mind. No small coincidence she was influenced by Joyce, too.

    • I agree that reincarnation is an integral theme of Ulysses. Joyce would have been fully informed of the Celtic ideas about reincarnation (one of Yeats’ obsessions) and their distinction from the Greek concept. Stephen repeatedly displays his obsession with ideas of judgement and retribution. According to Ellman, Joyce studied The Book of Invasions, which deals extensively with Celtic myth and ideas of reincarnation.

      Near to the Wild Heart is stunning, and was strange to read after Plotinus, because the latter seems to have informed Lispector. I need to read the recent Lispector biography to understand her influences. A Breath of Life is also superb, as is Agua Viva which I read earlier in the year.

      Thanks for commenting. Please let me know how you get on with the Gita.

      • Will do, though I am unsure when exactly I’ll get around to the Gita. I’ve already tentatively penciled it in for this year nonetheless prior to reading your thoughts on many of the same ideas that have been periodically surfacing in my readings over the past year.

        What’s funny to me is that I made a minor announcement with my friends earlier this month that I would read Ulysses before the year is over and I ended up cheating on it with Near to the Wild heart as a random impulse to stall the effort I suppose. I didn’t know anything about the book other than it being Brazilian and then I found out as I started that the title comes from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Very much in line with what you said about random reading being thematically interconnected outside of your awareness.

  2. Pingback: Remembering Heraclitus: Convergences | Time's Flow Stemmed

  3. Pingback: December: Extended Reading Notes | Time's Flow Stemmed

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