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[The following review was originally posted to Louis Proyect's Marxism Mailing List as part of a message with the subject line "God & Bhaskar." It is archived here with the permission of the author, who retains the copyright. The author is not, however, responsible for the hyperlinks in the article. The links were added by the WSCR webmaster.]
From East to West - A book too far?
By GARY MacLENNAN
Review of Roy Bhaskar, From East to West: Odyssey of a Soul (London: Routledge, 2000).
The publication of Roy Bhaskar's latest book From East to West: Odyssey of a Soul has been greeted with fairly widespread dismay by many of the followers of Critical Realism, the philosophical movement that Bhaskar founded and led. On the Bhaskar list--always at the cutting edge of intellectual response to what Critical Realism is up to--the book has been variously described as 'evil', 'bad' and 'salacious' (there are two fairly oblique references to oral sex). Bhaskar himself was said to be 'off with the fairies'.
Proposals emerged to split the list. The true-blue Critical Realists were to camp off and leave the rest to pore over the 'sacred texts' with their 'guru'. This proposal almost sparked off a flame war. The list moderator then emerged from a fairly lengthy silence with a 'heavy heart' to announce that he thought the list should be renamed. At the time of writing, all proposals to change the name of the list have suspended until the book has become more widely available. However, it seems fair to say that for many critical realists From East to West is a book too far.
Why the depth of reaction--the anger and the despair? Part of the explanation lies in the fact that the Critical Realist movement had started to consolidate and get a vision of itself as consisting of four canonical moments associated in turn with four of Bhaskar's books. These were A Realist Theory of Science, The Possibility of Naturalism, Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom and Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom
The early doubts about the turn to the dialectic announced in Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom had begun to fade. A new textbook of key readings was at hand (Critical Realism: Essential Readings) and the long march through the disciplines was under way. Postmodernism had seemingly imploded into the ground zero of its own irrealism. The only alternative available, namely neo-positivism, was easy meat to those of us reared on A Realist Theory of Science. There was a world to win and a movement increasingly confident of its ability to win it.
Then the leader did the unthinkable. He found God. Worst of all, it was a very down-market god, nothing more than your common or garden New Age variety, the type readily available at any incense saturated shop frequented by a Shirley MacLaine or Nancy Reagan.
Thus theophobia and what amounts to something like Orientalism have combined to produce a very strong reaction. The search for explanations as to where 'Roy went wrong' has begun. A consensus seems to be emerging that From East to West is an 'idealist' text and that the seeds of Bkaskar's idealism can be located in Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom.
From East to West and Its Critics
From East to West consists of two parts. The first is a defence of the new philosophical paradigm. Bhaskar endeavours to show how his new philosophy of Transcendental Dialectical Critical Realism is a logical extension of the earlier Critical Realism. The second section is a novella which details 15 reincarnations of a soul. This is obviously a semi-autobiographical and indeed Bhaskar explicitly acknowledges that the account of the lives comes from Mike Robinson, who is apparently a New Age psychotherapist.
Possibly because of the origin of the material in the novella section of From East to West, there has been very little said about it on the Bhaskar list. To date, attention has been concentrated largely on the firs and most explicitly philosophical section. Thus, at the recent Bhaskar Conference in Lancaster, a series of what were undoubtedly brilliant and incisive papers by Mervyn Hartwig (the editor of Alethia) and others concentrated on dissecting the basis of Bhaskar's idealism.
For these critics the key section of From East to West would appear to be that on categorial realism (33-9), which in turn leads to an attempt to prove the existence of God (39-50). Bhaskar asserts here contra Kant that categories such as causality, substance, process, totality, agency and so on are essentially constitutive features of the world, defining precisely its most basic properties or ingredients (33-4).
The arguments advanced in this case are quite technical and complex. I believe though it helps to see Bhaskar as advancing a position close to classic objective idealism where spirit is held to precede matter. This of course puts him in the company of Plato and Hegel. Before dismissing this position we would do well here to recall Lenin's remarks about how intelligent objective idealists were often more interesting than crude materialists.
What form does spirit take within the Bhaskarian schema? As already mentioned, this is God. The crucial question though is, 'What sort of God?' Thankfully, he is not the often sadistic brute of Judaic-Christian tradition. Bhaskar's God would seem to be one of infinite patience. He or She or It has created a species of essentially god-like creatures (you and me!) who one day through the process of reincarnations will learn this truth and then shall rejoin the absolute. There is no hell here or ever-lasting punishment. It is never too late.
In the meantime, we live lives of deep alienations and splits. We are divided from our souls and from the totality that is the universe. Our lives are shrouded in ignorance, and reality is hidden from us by the veil of ideology. To discover the truth and to be free, we have only (!) to recognise our true natures as partially divine beings. Freedom, then, like Brecht's version of communism becomes "the simple thing so hard to achieve".
The Politics of Unconditional Love
There are of course serious political implications for such a philosophy. If we regard everyone as being essentially godlike, then everyone is capable of redemption. This it seems to me leads automatically to the politics of unconditional love, non-violence and Gandhiism. Indeed From East to West ends with a ringing call for us to begin the age of unconditional love. Such calls are far from new. An early Mesopotamian text, for instance, urges us to love our enemies. In more recent times, Kierkegaard has called for such love.
Some have argued that calls for unconditional love indicate an unwillingness to fight that which should be fought. There are even some on the Left who have argued for what might be called the necessity of hatred. The classic expression of this surely was Lenin's own response to music in a letter to Gorky:
But I cant listen to music often, it affects my nerves, it makes me want to say sweet nothings and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. But today we mustnt pat anyone on the head or well get our hand bitten off; weve got to hit them on the heads, hit them without mercy, though in the ideal we are against doing any violence to people (Lenin, 1970: 247).
The truth about many of us on the Left is that while the poor stay poor we will like Lenin hug our hatreds a little longer. Moreover, those of us who long to play the role of "L'ami du peuple' may yet get our chance. Who is to say? The wheels of the tumbrel may once more sound throughout the land. Whatever the case, I am inclined to the position that in the present conjuncture calls for spiritual renewal, of a healing of a split world and a summons to unconditional love are more likely to provide us with the antidote to the necrophiliac excesses of late capitalism.
A Defence of From East to West on Aesthetic Grounds
It seems to be that From East to West harks back to an earlier time in the history of the Left when it formed part of a very broad progressive movement, which included socialists like Edward Carpenter and William Morris. This was a deeply liberatory, artistic and spiritual movement that, I would argue, was taken and turned into the sterility of Stalin's Diamat. It is this genealogy that leads to my fundamental characterisation of this as a beautiful book. I have chosen the word with care with the full knowledge that Bhaskar's approach to the aesthetic has at best been cursory. In part the influence of Terry Eagleton's The Ideology of the Aesthetic has been the dominant factor here. Yet there has always been something of an ambivalence to Bhaskar's stance. The assertion of the ideological function of the aesthetic has sat uneasily, it seems to me, with the frequent condemnations of the McDonaldisation of contemporary culture. Implicit within these critiques have been I would argue a conceptualisation of the fall from grace of the aesthetic and also an echo of the Schillerian notion that the aesthetic, if not actually the primary source of, is vital to the development of the rational and moral being.
One must of course say that From East to West does appear to repeat the sublation of the aesthetic into the ethical as outlined in Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom and Plato, Etc. However, against this is the fact that the novella section of From East to West re-enacts the drama of the conflict between philosophy and art. As Adorno pointed out, philosophy is at a loss when called upon to convey the nature of suffering. Accordingly, it is not surprising that faced with the need to reconcile and heal the splits that plague humanity Bhaskar has been forced to turn to the aesthetic. So there is a sense in which the turn to the fiction of the novella asserts that the path to the truth lies through the aesthetic. With From East to West we have the return of the repressed aesthetic function. Beauty comes into his own.
Of what else does the beauty of this book, which has been said by very bright people to be 'poor', consist? The answer lies most obviously in the experiences that the book, especially in the novella section, offers to us. Linking the 15 lives or reincarnations of the wandering soul are the phenomena of child abuse and paternal rejection. This most terrible experience of the primary denial of love has in turn been aggravated by racist reactions to someone who was born between cultures. Yet the dialectic never dies and out of the torment of primal rejection has come the search for wholeness. From East to West is nothing less than the announcement of the achievement of oneness.
It would be a mistake however to see this book only in terms of the journey to wellbeing of the author, interesting and moving as that is. From East to West is also a challenge to us to undertake the same task or if you like quest. The soul that has struggled so hard to be one, having been healed would heal others. A mahatma wants to be born.
This is linked to the most fundamental level of beauty in the book. This is the attempt to enunciate a human essence and thereby restore teleology or meaning to being. The book argues that despite all the evidence that humanity will learn that somehow somewhere the splits and divisions that have produced the awful happenings that we see all around us will be brought to an end. Humanity will learn non-attachment and will be reconciled with the Divine.
A Defence of From East to West on Religious Grounds
With From East to West, Bhaskar has crossed over the boundary between theology and philosophy. It is moreover a theology which owes much to the work of the Theosophical Society. Blavatsky, Olcott, Besant and Leadbetter would find much in this book that they could identify with in that it preaches the essential unity of all religions and attempts a reconciliation between western philosophy and Eastern mysticism.
I want in the remainder of this review to concentrate on just two aspects of this attempted synthesis. In the novella section of the book, which outlines 15 reincarnations, life nine deals briefly with the life of a Chinese philosopher. Here the emphasis is on the reconciliation of opposites or dualities. Bhaskar has often been criticised for the obscurity of his writing but in his contemplation of the meaning of enlightenment his style reaches and achieves a level of what can only be described as sublimity. Thus:
Enlightenment for L9 (Life Nine) is to see the being of non-being (the void, emptiness, absence) and beyond or within it, the creative void or the great ultimate, the dynamic being of the most pure non-being which is the source of all the forces and energies, the seasons and elements and the world of ten thousands things just in that world of the ten thousand things, of change, of flux; to see emptiness in the whole of manifest creation and to see it immediately as well as everywhere. (From East to West 129)
In Dialectic, the Bhaskarian ontology was broadened to include absence. Here in From East to West that notion is extended to a definition of God as Nothing or Absence. It is moreover an ontology which seeks through the dialectical move of the interpenetration of opposites a view of the world which sees flux as the guarantor of unity. There are more than echoes here of the Hegelianism which so attracted the young Marx. Interestingly, Bhaskar is also I believe close to the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism, whose founder Eli Siegel defined beauty as the reconciliation of opposites. If we substitute goodness for beauty in the Siegel formulation, then, I would argue, we can grasp some of the significance of the synthesis that Bhaskar is attempting.
The final point I wish to discuss in this section of my review comes in Life Eleven. Here the soul has been reincarnated as a Hindu philosopher and teacher (guru). This teacher begins to sketch out a plan for the renewal of Indian philosophy. This philosophy of renewal will have a horizontal and a vertical dimension. The horizontal takes in an orientation to the social and the natural world. The vertical dimension extends towards unity with the soul.
For someone reared in the Christian tradition, Bhaskar here is outlining what arguably is the meaning of the cross and Christ's sacrifice. On the cross Christ's arms extend to embrace all humanity, while his agonized questioning and ultimate acceptance of his destiny asserts the personal or vertical dimension.
Any conclusions about the impact of From East to West will have to be tentative. I myself think that it will be seen as a turning point and that its significance will be enhanced by future contributions. Whatever the case, I would like to close this review with an appeal for an openness of response. I would like to urge Leftists not to pre-read the book as the decline of a philosopher into mysticism. Rather, I would maintain strongly that it is a text that signals the absolute necessity for the renewal of liberatory thought. With its spirituality and commitment to changing the evils of the world, From East to West shows us a way beyond the sterility and inflexibility of contemporary Marxism. With its stress on the essential unity of all religions, From East to West attempts to lead us beyond the scandalous sectarianism of established religions. I wish both the book and the author well in their quest.
Bhaskar, R., A Realist Theory of Science. Second Edition. Brighton: Harvester Press, 1978
-----. The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences. London: The Harvester Press, 1979.
-----. Scientific Realism & Human Emancipation. London: Verso, 1986.
-----. Reclaiming Reality: A Critical Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy. London: Verso, 1989.
-----. Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
-----. Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom. London: Verso, 1993.
-----. Plato, Etc.: The Problems of Philosophy and Their Resolution. London: Verso, 1994.
-----. From East to West: Odyssey of a Soul. London: Routledge, 2000.
Lenin, V.I. Lenin on Literature & Art. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970.
Copyright © 2000 Gary MacLennan
Hartwig, Mervyn. Re: God & Bhaskar.
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