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Sunday, May 4th, 2008

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12:49a
OK ...
One might think that W.L. Wilmshurst's The Meaning of Masonry is one of those books that's been filling up my "to be read" boxes for decades, but it's really just something that looked interesting and was cheap to add to an Amazon order to get it over the magic $25 (free shipping) level.

Frankly, there is a certain voyeurism involved here, as the book starts out with the rather plain statement that "The papers here collected are written solely for the members of the Masonic Order ..." which I am not (although my father-in-law is a 33rd degree and "all the males" in my Mom's family were for generations). As such, while not coming to the material cold (having read and seen various "Masonic" things over the years), I don't really have the functional familiarity with the ritual/societal aspects which would give this a more solid grounding. The book, however, is aimed at Masons who wish to go beyond the "surface" elements (assuming they are in lodges that don't have a particularly good "theoretical" base), so I suppose that I can assume that I'm hitting this as might a somewhat dense initiate in a rather "surface level" lodge.

Unlike many other "tell all" books, this does appear to be at least a semi-official publication, being a 1980 reprint of the 1927 (5th edition) original, which appears to have been initially written as free-standing essays over time (somewhat past the turn of the century), and features a forward by some then-current (in 1980) Masonic official. The book is in five chapters (plus an introduction), which deal with "The Deeper Symbolism of Masonry", "Masonry as a Philosophy", "Further Notes on Craft Symbolism", "The Holy Royal Arch", and "The Relation of Masonry to the Ancient Mysteries".

Perhaps as an artifact of the time it was written, the book really does try very hard to pull Masonic symbolism into a Biblical mode ... while at the same time taking it into very "non-Christian" zones. Certainly other religions, cultures, and mythic traditions have become much more generally known since this was written, and so there seems to be quite a lot of "skirting around the issue" where things clearly digress from vanilla Christianity. There is, however, some quite substantial material here. Frankly, I was very tempted to quote at length from the "Form of the Lodge" section of the "Further Notes" chapter, but I'm settling for just this bit:

        The four sides of the Lodge have further significance. The East of the Lodge represents man's spirituality, his highest and most spiritual mode of consciousness, which in most men is very little developed, if at all, but is still latent and slumbering and becomes active only in moments of stress or deep emotion. The West (or polar opposite of the East) represents his normal rational understanding, the consciousness he employs in temporal every-day affairs, his material-mindedness or, as we might say, his "common sense". Midway between these East and West extremes is the South, the halfway house and meeting-place of the spiritual intuition and the rational understanding; the point denoting abstract intellectuality and our intellectual power develops to its highest, just as the sun attains its meridian splendour in the South. The antipodes of this is the North, the sphere of benightedness and ignorance, referable to merely sense-reactions and impressions received by that lowest and least reliable mode of perception, our physical sense-nature.
        Thus the four sides of the Lodge point to four different, yet progressive, modes of consciousness available to us. Sense-impression (North), reason (West), intellectual ideation (South), and spiritual intuition (East); making up our four possible ways of knowledge. Of these the ordinary man employs only the first two or perhaps three, in accordance with his development and education, and his outlook on life and knowledge of truth are correspondingly restricted and imperfect. Full and perfect knowledge is possible only when the deep-seeing vision and consciousness of man's spiritual principle have been awakened and superadded to his other cognitive faculties. ...
This brief bit is amazing, as it brings to mind native "medicine wheel" teachings, Gurdjieffian concepts of consciousness and awakening, and even Theravada Buddhism! When The Meaning of Masonry is working on this level, it is gripping reading. Unfortunately, there is quite a lot of the book spent "spinning" Biblical twaddle so that it can be successfully used to represent symbolic structures for spiritual growth, ala:

... To understand the significance of the two Scribes Ezra and Nehemiah it is necessary to recall that, in the Biblical account of the return from Babylonian captivity, these two were leading men. Transposing this historicized narrative into its spiritual implication, Ezra and Nehemiah personify two distinct stages of the mystical progress made by the candidate who essays to renounce the Babel of his lower nature and, by reorganizing himself, regain his native spiritual home and condition. ...
What a pity that serious Masons like Wilmshurst can't simply throw out the Judeo/Christian Biblical mumbo-jumbo and focus in on what is evidently a very strong and clear tradition/system of human development! I must admit, there was enough enticing bits here that it made me think of possibly investigating my "Masonic roots" further, although my timing is not good for that, having had a major HQ for the Scottish Rite just recently moved out of my neighborhood!

If you are interested in taking a look at the theoretical underpinnings of Masonry, I would certainly recommend The Meaning of Masonry (with the aforementioned caveats). It appears to still be in print, with the hardcover having the remarkably low price of $5.99 retail, which makes it a better deal as a throw-in on an Amazon order (how I got mine) rather than racking up the $3.99 shipping from the new/used vendors (and you can get a "new" copy from there for as little as $2 ... making the price a wash).


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12:25p
Pretty pictures ...
Now, here's one of those books that has been sitting around in the "to-be-read" boxes for 20 years ... a classic sort of purchase from back when I "had money" as a P.R. exec and would order just about anything that seemed interesting.

Frank Delany's The Celts is a "companion volume" to a BBC2 series produced in 1986. I don't believe that I ever saw the series, but the premise of the book (I was reading up on a lot of pre-Christian European cultures back then) was lure enough to order it, although it obviously wasn't enough to get it read until I needed a "change of pace" last month!

Because this is a "companion book" to a TV series, it lacks the coherency of a project specifically intended as a book, rather (I am assuming) following the pattern of the various programs in the series. The main sections are "Beginnings", "Nations", "Beliefs", "Expressions", "Credentials", and "Bequests", with brief interludes between each featuring some particular bit of Celtic myth and/or storytelling. The inclusion of these, admittedly, does "buffer" what might be a more disjointed information flow, but it also swings the "feel" of the narrative back and forth between modalities.

I suppose that one of the benefits of this being a book extracted from a TV series is that it feeds off the visual aspect, and includes many very fine illustrations, ranging from maps, aerial shots of ruins, classic art, sketches of archaeological sites, to a vast lot of museum photography giving very clear depictions of such treasures as the Basse-Yutz Flagons and the famed Tara Brooch.

As far as the book itself, it's really "quite a downer", being more a record of the fall (or progressive dilution) of Celtic culture than a celebration of it. This fall is, ultimately, blamed on the socio-political nature of the people, whose small tribal units spent more effort in inter-group warfare than in nation-making, so that when they were threatened by an outside force, be that the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, or Rome, it was almost impossible for them to form a united defensive front. In this theme, Delany traces the isolation (ala Ireland) or assimilation of what was arguably at one point "the Celtic world" (most of Europe) from the earliest invasions to the Irish diaspora to America, etc. He looks at various "Celtic revival" movements over the past 200 years and pretty much dismisses them all (the modern-day Druids, etc.) as rooted in fantasy, and disparages the few "official" attempts made in some areas. Frankly, from a perspective 20 years down the road, I think he might have been a bit off on this last point, at least from what I've seen from Chicago's "Celtic Fest" and the materials there from the Welsh (Cymru) tourist office ... from a few TV and radio programs that were attempting to preserve the (very difficult) Welsh language when this book was being written, there appears to have blossomed a rather robust "Celtic identity", a least in Wales!

While The Celts does appear to be out of print at this point (and, oddly enough, the BBC doesn't seem to have the series available either), the Amazon new/used vendors have "like new" copies of this heavily-illustrated hardback for as little as five bucks, and "good" copies for just $2.28 (plus shipping, of course), should a trip down the years to some possible ancestral culture prove an enticement to you.


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11:16p
I'm glad she wrote this book ...
I finished this a few weeks back, but am only getting around to reviewing it now. I'd been a Republican most of my life (since driven out by the Fundies to the less-stable arms of the Libertarian Party), so I'm one of those guys who actually liked Ronald Regan. As such, there was a certain "preaching to the choir" element in my reading Peggy Noonan's When Character Was King, her heart-felt biography of this iconic figure.

I was amazed, when mentioning this book to a "younger person" the other day that they had no idea that Reagan had been a movie actor ... how odd what can drift down the cultural memory hole in only a decade or so! However, there's quite a lot in this book that's been left out of the "general memory" of Reagan, and it's interesting to encounter it all in a go. Noonan has a very special stance from which to write this, as she'd been a producer with CBS News before becoming a special assistant to Reagan from 1984-86 (and later being chief speech writer for Bush Sr.), and much of the feeling here is that of a memoir of somebody she very much admired, rather than a purely objective biography.

One of the things that our current P.C. culture likes to forget (in its demand for white/black dichotomy) is how much a "despised minority" the Irish were in the half century or more following the Great Famine in the 1840s, and the resulting diaspora. Reagan's father was of a generation which was all too familiar with this prejudice and discrimination and raised his son in what would likely to be considered a rather leftist bent. Reagan grew up very much as an "old labor" Democrat, and remained so even upon finding minor stardom as a Hollywood actor. It was the blatant (and, again, P.C. culture prefers to ignore this) infiltration by Soviet-run communist organizations into the movie industry that began to make him take a different look at the world. At the time he was the head of the Screen Actors Guild and spent a lot of his schedule giving speeches, which eventually got him noticed as a potential political figure.

The rest of his biography is well known, becoming the Governor of California, then running and losing against Gerald Ford for the '76 GOP nomination, and then eventually rolling to victory in '80 and '84. What is less well known, and told as only an "insider" could, were the importance of certain struggles in the global political arena, including how the Air Traffic Controllers' strike was a turning point in how the Soviets perceived Reagan, and how important the "Star Wars" program was in eventually fracturing the Soviet Union. It is fascinating to read Noonan's take on how these various challenges shaped the course of events, and the book is worth the reading just for her perspective on the history being made around Reagan.

Nancy Reagan was so successful at protecting the President's privacy after leaving office that most of us never had the sense of his decline, but Noonan pulls up a corner of that curtain and lets us peek in at some of the sadness of his final years, telling stories of how, several years past his leaving office, he did not even recognize the close friends' house where he'd had get-togethers on every one of his election nights, or, in his final year, not even knowing why people knew him or wanted to speak with him.

When Character Was King is a great book for understanding this pivotal figure of our time. The book is still in print, but you can get "like new" copies from the Amazon new/used guys for as little a 1¢ (plus, of course, the $3.99 shipping), if you don't want to give the business to your local "brick and mortar" book vendor. This is a very special look at a very special man, and I'd recommend it to anybody but the raving Lefties (who could still probably benefit from reading it).


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