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Books: Mysticism & Manners

3 minute read

BALI AND ANGKOR—Geoffrey Gorer— Little, Brown ($3).

Last year, with Africa Dances, Geoffrey Gorer wrote an unusual travel book based on a trip he had taken through West Africa with an educated Parisian Negro who was doing research on the dances of blackamoor tribes. The book was notable for its blunt and sometimes angry descriptionsof the consequences of bad administration on the natives, as well as for its account of some of the extraordinary ritual dances that Gorer witnessed. It contained a few passages on native magic that suggested the author possessed a streak of mysticism that he had difficulty in communicating.

In Bali and Angkor Author Gorer’s forthright denunciations of some of the abuses of Far Eastern Imperialism make spirited reading. But his latent mysticism, barely called into being in Africa, flowered under the influence of the gentle Balinese, the witches of Java, the monstrous ruins of Angkor Wat. Hence the book is less one of description of far places than an exposition of the author’s theories of the nature of the mystical experience, its social and spiritual significance.

Geoffrey Gorer expected to find Bali ballyhooed to the point of tedium. Instead it turned out to be so fresh and attractive that he was convinced that he had seen the nearest approach to Utopia on earth. Java for the most part left him cold, as did Sumatra and Siam. He says that “never having been to California,” Bangkok is the most hokum place he has ever seen.

The ruins of jungle-covered Angkor, lost from the 15th to the 19th Century, impressed him deeply, inspired him to serious study of their artistic achievements, their magnificent, detailed bas-reliefs and sculptured towers. The central buildings of Angkor Wat, a mile square, rising almost as high as the tower of Notre Dame in Paris and built about the same time, he decided must be one of the loveliest pieces of architecture in the world, the most perfect building, except for Christopher Wren’s Greenwich Hospital, that he had ever seen.

Author Gorer’s social theory of mysticism is less convincing than his observation. He believes that there are certain manifestations that are inexplicable in terms of mechanistic or materialistic philosophy—the experience of mystics, “psychic phenomena,” telepathy, African witchcraft. He explains these by suggesting that man is a sort of combined radio-phonograph, i. e., capable of making music with things or picking it out of the air.

Europeans are normally “phonographs,” rational, scientific, dealing with measurable things and treating the phenomenal universe as the only real one. Mystics, mediums, the natives of Tibet, are “radios,” treating the phenomenal universe as supremely unimportant, the creations of their inward visions as realities of the same quality as things in the objective world. “If we are sane, they are mad,” says Author Gorer, who suggests that the mind may be a source of energy, that this mental energy may be very pronounced in great religious teachers, that possession of it may be, like inborn musical talent or genius, developed with training and practice.

Balinese ethics are dictated by the benefit or harm that would affect the community as a whole if certain acts were performed. Private behavior which does not injure other members of the community is regarded with complete indifference. Geoffrey Gorer thinks that the West has nothing to teach the East except the use of labor-saving machinery, that the East has a great mission in teaching the Wrest the rudiments of good manners.

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