Thursday, 20 August 2009


I've been a bit silent of late, for which, apologies.

I've just reread Andrew Harvey's luminous, austere A Journey in Ladakh, my favourite Buddhist travelogue, and far better than his later, slightly creepy crypto-Oedipal Hidden Journey, his 'Mother Meera' book. (Meera is the monobrowed lady-guru Harvey later ditched for being a homophobe.) I prefer Harvey in his early All Souls Prize-Fellow mode to his later, flouncier histrionics: the writing is better, more sinewy and beautiful; there's more interest in the world around him and less campy going on about divine light emanating from his boyfriend's cock.

As he writes of the journey:

The journey itself is a rite of initiation. You pass from the lush green valley of Kashmir up the long winding granite sides of the mountains to Zoji-La; then at the heart of the Karakorams, you pass again through ring after ring of mountains, each more spectacular, tortured, brilliantly coloured than the last; then finally, when you are half-frightened and exhausted by the raids so much magnificence makes on your wonder, you move, by slow degrees, into the plateau of central Ladakh, edged and cradled by the Indus, and from that into the long, fertile valley of Leh and its surrounding villages and monasteries. It is an education in wilderness, this journey, a progress into a bareness that at the last moment breaks into the flame of wheat-fields and prayer flags; it is the penetration of an enormous Mandala with Kashmir for its lush and dangerous surround, the Karakorams for its walls, and Leh and its long valley for its inner room, the room in which the creator of the vision of his own inner making is seated in meditation and where the Gods can appear, shielded from cynical eyes, by walls of burning rock and snow.

Maybe I like A Journey in Ladakh best because it's a young man's book, full of searching intelligence and the ironies of the over-educated poseur. But it's also a very honest book, 'bleached' (as Martin Amis described it) 'by a higher light'.

* * *

A friend and I were reflecting the other day on the way that certain historical facts can be hard to focus on: they elude the mental eye, and don't square with our perception of the shape of history. (One of the jobs of the good historian is to keep breaking that imposed shell of expectation, reminding us continually of the unexpectedness of the past.) One of my favourites are the Cathars: who would have expected a full-scale eruption of Gnosticism at the heart of high medieval Christian Europe?! Similarly (and this is my second favourite) the first Catholic Archbishop of Peking was appointed in--wait for it--1307.


Anonymous said...

The term “Cathars” derives from the Greek word Katheroi and means “Pure Ones". They were a gnostic Christian sect of tolerant pacifists that arose in the 11th century, an offshoot of a small surviving European gnostic community that emigrated to the Albigensian region in the south of France.The medieval Cathar movement flourished in the 12th century A.D. throughout Europe until its virtual extermination at the hands of the Inquisition in 1245.

There are an ever increasing number of historians and other academics engaged in serious Cathar studies. Interestingly, to date, the deeper they have dug, the more they have vindicated claims that medieval Catharism represented a survival of the earliest Christian practices.

Thank you!
Brad Hoffstetter
Communications Division
Assembly of good Christians

Some credible historical sources:

Fionnchú said...

I read "Ladakh" before the Net eased the search for hard-to-find titles; it took me ages to find it. I liked it along with "The Snow Leopard" by Peter Mathiessen, also about the Himalayas. What struck me about both books was that educated, elite Westerners found in their encounters an unsettling and undeniable moment of epiphany, breakthrough to the elusive place I have yet to find, and both authors powerfully evoked this mystical awareness on the page.

Bo said...

Fionnchu, have you read Pallis' 'Peaks and Lamas'? Just starting it now.

Fionnchú said...

Never heard of it, Bo, but I have now. Thanks for the tip. Ever check out those Cathar claims sent in above for a future blog entry of erudition and brainy energy? (Word-verification: "Catene" which fits somehow, and reminds me of the Pearl-poet's intricacies too.)

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