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This review is taken from PN Review 50, Volume 12 Number 6, July - August 1986.

MYSTICS, SHAMANS AND SHAMS The Rider Book of Mystical Verse, edited by J. M. Cohen (Hutchinson) £5.95 pb.
Technicians of the Sacred, edited by Jerome Rothenberg (University of California Press) £37.95, £14.25 pb.

Both these books are anthologies of poems that question or subvert or simply ignore what can for shorthand purposes be called the official Western version of the nature of reality - the scientific or materialist version, that received its first and most triumphant expression in the works of Aristotle; the belief that reality is not what is hidden, but is various and lies to hand, and that observation, reason and logic are adequate tools with which to categorize and understand it. In the West an alternative notion - that reality is one, that it is hidden and inexplicable, that it can be revealed or intuited but not rationally understood - has been associated, perhaps erroneously, with Aristotle's teacher Plato, but received its most distinctive and influential exposition in the works of Plotinus and the neo-Platonists. Western science has seemed to say we are all Aristoteleans now, but the neo-Platonic version refuses to go away.

The mystics' vision is firmly neo-Platonic - what we see is an illusion, the hidden One is the Truth which can be approached by the loss of self, a literal ecstasy, and can be defined by remotion and analogy but not by logic. J. M. Cohen's anthology of mystical poetry shows just how widespread such notions have been and continue to be, particularly in the ancient cultures of Asia. Neo-Platonism was quick to claim Eastern antecedents; the appearance of its beliefs in Islamic mystical poetry - which has led to contentious scholarly arguments ...


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