Every once in a blue moon, because I am a nerd, I get the bug to think about putting together a reading list of books for would-be gnostics, a canon if you will. The few times I have actually started to pull that together, it’s not long before I shelve the whole mess in disgust. I am never satisfied with the list and I am never satisfied with my reasons for including material on it. I have tried to figure out why and I finally put it together when I was reading that interview with Allen Ginsberg:
Very oddly a lady saint Shri Matakrishnaji in Brindaban, whom I consulted about my spiritual problems, told me to take Blake for my guru. There’s all kinds of different gurus, there can be living and nonliving gurus—apparently whoever initiates you, and I apparently was initiated by Blake in terms of at least having an ecstatic experience from him. So that when I got here to Cambridge I had to rush over to the Fitzwilliam Museum to ﬁnd his misspellings in Songs of Innocence.
I could put together a list of books that meant something to me, that had effects on me along the scale that Ginsberg is talking about in regards to Blake (just skip through that interview using find to locate Blake references–you won’t regret it), but it wouldn’t be anything more than anemic autobiography.
Most of the people on that reading list would not have been helpful to me at just any point in my life. They often opened up to in startlingly concrete ways, like when I stumbled upon a used copy of Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s Inferno while looking for a good copy of Ginsberg’s Howl. Opening that book up, flipping through it, I found myself face to face with intimations of my own spiritual experiences. I bought it, chuckled my way through the introduction where we are asked to wonder what relevance Dante has for us now that the spiritual world he lived has no sway over us, and then held on tight as Dante went on a rolicking tour of the spirit world. I suspect at some point I will be making my way through the rest of the Comedia, but that time isn’t quite now.
‘Not right now’ is an important thing to keep in mind. The world is full of gnostic bombs waiting to blast away some bit of giant sludge from our soul, but they need to find us at the right time, when the hold of the tyrant over that part of us is weak, ready to be released. I had read Dante before, but I was too firmly entrenched in habit and expectation to see the Inferno for what it was. While Dante slid over me without impact, it was Maxine Hong Kingston with her eye-opening fusion of history, autobiography, and supernaturalism that was working me over, levering me out of the morass.
Which I guess is a longish way of saying that you should listen to the little accidents of your life and work hard to figure out which ones have the hand of heaven on them, which ones are reaching out to you, right now, to help you find your way to higher ground.