The Mummery Book: A Literary Appreciation
Philip Kuberski, PhD
Professor of English, Wake Forest University
Thirty years ago, as a reader of Adi Da Samraj’s autobiography, The Knee Of Listening, I learned that this extraordinary spiritual master had once taken a writing seminar at Stanford University, as part of a master’s program in English literature. (In retrospect, this was rather like learning that a lion had consented to take instruction from goats.) I also learned that, in the field of literature, he had made a particular study of the works of James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and other modernists and that his fiction was in an experimental mode. And that some years later he wrote, but did not publish, a prose narrative enticingly entitled The Mummery Book. For a young graduate student of literature, it was intriguing. Why had a spiritual adept, recognized by figures as eminent and demanding as Alan Watts and Swami Muktananda, pursued this particular literary path?
I had been picking up and reading bits and pieces of Adi Da’s spiritual teachings for some time. What had always drawn me back to the books—I was no spiritual seeker, let it be said—were the striking titles: The Knee Of Listening, Scientific Proof of the Existence of GodWill Soon Be Announced by the White House!, Garbage and the Goddess, The Dreaded Gom-Boo, or the Imaginary Disease that Religion Seeks to Cure, and The Eating Gorilla Comes in Peace. When I finally began reading his books in earnest I realized that Adi Da is as profound and original a thinker as he is an original and haunting stylist.
Adi Da’s thought was compelling to me for other reasons. His exposition and dismantling of the “self ” and “representation” were in accord with the postmodern philosophers that I was studying at the time. Like Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, and Jacques Lacan, he had shown that the “self ” was an “effect of representation”; unlike them, he had come to this realization, not through critical reflection, but through the discipline of meditation. In writing The Knee Of Listening, Adi Da expressed this understanding through a treatment of the myth of Narcissus, the boy who becomes enraptured with his own image in a pond. Jacques Lacan, the famous Parisian psychoanalyst, had explored this same delusion in his essay “The Mirror Stage”—a work that has had enormous influence in the academic world. To his credit, Lacan realized the limits of psychoanalysis and his own powers. He ends his famous essay with a striking passage that still mystifies many of his academic reader:
Psychoanalysis may accompany the patient to the ecstatic limit of the ‘Thou art that,’ in which is revealed to him the cipher of his mortal destiny, but it is not in our mere power as practitioners to bring him to that point where the real journey begins.
Closer to home, the American philosopher Richard Rorty, in his book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, provided a complementary analysis of western philosophy, showing how it has been entranced by verbal representations of reality. Drawing from a phrase from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Rorty called this recurrent Western illusion of alienated identity our “glassy essence.”
These prominent postmodernists have offered theories, but Adi Da has actually undertaken the journey of self-discovery. His devotees state that Adi Da was discovering precisely what it is to be an “egoic” human being and how it was possible to go beyond its frustrating confines. As he explains in The Knee Of Listening, Adi Da set forth as a young man on a path of intensive self-interrogation that occupied him throughout the Sixties. A radical way of knowing and writing emerged from these experiments in consciousness. By 1969 he had written the first version of The Mummery Book, “what I called a ‘prose opera,’ or really, a theatrical ritual, or liturgical drama.” By 1970 he had achieved “the end of all seeking” and begun his teaching and writing work as a realized adept. Dozens of books followed, including the remarkable Dawn HorseTestament (first edition 1985; expanded third edition 2004). During the 1990s, The Mummery Book was adapted to the stage and performed as a gargantuan drama lasting some eight hours, reminiscent of Peter Brook’s staging of The Mahabharata. And now, after twenty-five years and further revision and amplification, Adi Da Samraj has allowed his legendary work to be published.
Given the immensity and thoroughness of Adi Da Samraj’s published writings—more than sixty volumes—one might wonder what role or function a “prose opera” or “liturgical drama” could play in his canon. One might also wonder what role a work of experimental, modernist or postmodernist, fiction could have in the exposition of Adi Da Samraj’s teachings. After all, modernist experimental literature is usually thought to be an esthetic response to the death of God—the transcendental signifier—and a cold-eyed recognition of the strictly physical and psychological reality described by modern science. Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses, for instance, tell of Stephen Dedalus’s break with the Roman Catholic Church and his discovery of a new field of ultimate concern in the practice of art. The same could be said of the other great modernists: they dramatized the modern movement from the absurdities of conventional religion to the spiritual potentials of art. And yet, in the end, none of them were able to make of art a satisfying substitute or a significant successor to the exhausted power of spirit. By contrast, The Mummery Book puts literary “experimentation” in the service of a “realized” representation of experience.
Since the earliest times, the great teachers of mankind have leavened severe expressions of knowledge with story and parables. The Buddha teaches his followers the technical law of dependent origination, but he also tells the parable of the great rain cloud. Plato’s dialogues are sometimes interrupted by the allegories of the cave, the myths of Atlantis, and the narrative of Er, fallen on the fields of Troy. And the hard paradoxes of Jesus, as dense as the gnomic utterances of Heraclitus, are interleaved with domestic parables.This alternation between abstraction and narrative is not simply a way of keeping the slower students up with the rest of the class: stories, myths, and parables strike all of us at a profounder level of understanding than argument, however moving or eloquent it may be. The abstractions of philosophical discourse appeal to our conscious ability to retain and repeat; the sensual symbols and rhythms of poem and parable require that the whole of our being respond and complete the work of understanding.
Plato’s famous allegory of the cave tells of a prisoner who escapes from a shadowy den into the world of light. He realizes that he, and his fellows, had mistaken a study of shadows for a knowledge of reality. While this allegory teaches us Plato’s metaphysics—we are prisoners of dark matter but can have knowledge of the sunlit realm of the Ideas—it also demonstrates how parables work. In providing the allegory, Plato’s spokesman Socrates presumes that all of us will be able to see that it is more than a story: the story evokes knowledge not contained in words. A parable presumes that we know more than we think we do: in presenting its mummery of forms, a parable or myth brings us to the point of realizing, for ourselves, its informing spirit.
Adi Da’s parable insists that the “real” world is in truth a “mummery.” It’s a word that some readers will not know. Mommy? Mummy?Murmury? Memory? Is it describing the life-giving, the tattered gauze of an embalmed corpse, some murmured message, a memory mistaken for reality?
A mummery is a masked performance by mummers, a traditional pantomime that goes back to the middle ages. One can still see troops of mummers in Irish country villages dancing their morrice dance and delighting everyone with their costumes, masks, and tomfoolery. The point, of course, is for the rest of us to realize that we are all playing. That is why mummers are delightful: they free us for a moment from pretense. To see that social life, the “real life” lived on this planet, is a mummery, is to see as Shakespeare does that “all the world is a stage and we but players in it.” Shakespeare, whose theatre was called the Globe, knew that the play is all too real for humankind. In order to dismantle this fiction, he played constantly with words, costumes, and masks, perhaps thinking that to play with these elements of the mummery could free us of its power. So too did his admirer James Joyce.
Early in Ulysses Buck Mulligan rebukes Stephen Dedalus for refusing to pray at his dying mother’s bedside, murmuring to himself, “a lovely mummer . . . the loveliest mummer of them all.” Mulligan sees all of life as a mummery, as a charade, so he can only believe that Stephen’s sincere rejection of religion is an act, a performance meant to enlarge his reputation as a freethinker and bohemian. But Stephen sees deeper than his friend and betrayer; he sees the mummery of words, of mathematics, of philosophy, of religion. Later in the morning, while helping a student with his algebra, Stephen recalls Buck’s mockery:
Across the page the symbols moved in grave morrice, in the mummery of their letters, wearing quaint caps of squares and cubes. Give hands traverse, bow to partner: so: imps of fancy of the Moors. Gone too from the world, Averroes and Moses Maimonides, dark men in mien and movement, flashing in their mocking mirrors the obscure soul of the world. . . .
While Joyce, a master of language, realized that words can become our masters, his fictional double Stephen, a mystic without a practice, an artist without a craft, cannot live up to the great charge of recovering the “obscure soul of the world.” Stephen, like Joyce, frets with language without breaking free of its nets.
In recasting his own life in The Mummery Book, Adi Da Samraj is in a very different position: he knows exactly what he wants to accomplish. This “Parable of the Divine True Love, Told by Means of a Self-Illuminated Illustration of the Totality of Mind” deconstructs language in order to show us the possibility of complete surrender to and enlightenment by the Divine Person. Modernist and postmodernist writers pride themselves in having seen through and dismissed apocalyptic revelations and mystical enlightenment. Adi Da Samraj, in direct contrast, has joined the modernist assault on the habits of ordinary language to his own visionary capacities. Opening this extraordinary text, the reader is drawn into a translucent, crystalline realm where the ordinary rules of reality are transformed by a new syntax, grammar, and orthography. Herein lies the most striking formal achievement of the book: by undoing and unmasking the mummery of words, Adi Da makes words crackle and swoon, pound and console with an endless suggestiveness guided by a desire to open up the reader’s heart and imagination to the possibility of transformation. If the “realist” style of popular fiction reduces language to cliché in order to present the reader with a readily consumable repetition of the mummery of this world, the protean flux of Adi Da’s sacred parable returns us to the symbolism of the world’s great mythologies. From the flatland of egoic realism, we are lifted into a polyphonic, choral symbolism operating on at least four levels: the literal, formal, mythological, and anagogic.
The literal level is an apparently naïve, guileless narrative of the wondrous child Raymond Darling, born into suburban America. Living with an ecstatic awareness of the brightness of pure being, Raymond is nevertheless overshadowed by the lives and tales of his parents. In consequence of the crisis in a barbershop—a kind of initiation into the bogus status of manhood—Raymond is thrown from the bliss of selfless bright-ness into the mirror world of the ego, the world of mummers who live out empty lives far from any knowledge of their true nature. Once in this world, Raymond encounters a series of characters—Meridian Smith, Moode Thom, a Great Fish, Pascoe Moon, Bue Ma—who aid in the recovery of his true identity. This great recognition is achieved through a rapturous encounter with Quandra Mai Bliss,“his Very and True Heart.” But no sooner is the idyllic love-gnosis enjoyed then it is lost, as Quandra flees “into the only forest of the world.” Going in pursuit of her, Raymond wanders deep into the mummery of this world, where he is captured and exploited by Evelyn Disk, a supposed acolyte, who wants to transform his knowledge and being into a brand-name religion. The climax of the narrative deals with this conflict between the self-evident power of true spiritual knowledge, represented by Raymond, and the mummery of institutional religion, represented by Disk.
At the level of form and style, The Mummery Book is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, and Joyce. These writers were interested foremost in the sensual and substantial body of words, although critics disagree what purposes their polysemic discourses serve.
Adi Da’s words are elements of a sacred play, a liturgy in which rhythm, repetition, and dream-like imagery release us from the familiar mummery of “realistic” discourse and evoke the world of myth. Ritual or liturgical language is meant, not to convey information, but to transform our minds, to turn us away from ordinary consciousness to the perennial and timeless realm of the sacred. Adi Da’s formal, ritualized, yet simultaneously whimsical and devastating liturgy transforms our attention, evokes long-forgotten sensations, desires, fears, and hopes, and makes us ready to encounter the archetypal myth of the spiritual hero.
The myth of Raymond Darling—his name suggests “the beloved light of the world”—is a contemporary enactment of the timeless pattern of the hero. At the primordial ground, myth is, as Joseph Campbell puts it, a “cosmogonic cycle”: it dramatizes, under various guises, the splitting of the primordial One into Duality and the ultimate recovery of unity through the coincidence of opposites: male and female, subject and object, time and eternity, light and darkness. At the human level, this cosmic drama concerns a hero’s experience of originary wholeness, a fall into time and duality, and a redemptive transformation of consciousness represented by an heroic journey, confrontation with a principle of egotism, and a recovery of wholeness, represented by a lost treasure, a maiden, a goddess, a grail. According to the “mythic round,” only unique human beings—heroes and demigods—can undertake this symbolic journey for others and so become the founders and sustainers of societies.
Raymond’s mythic journey—from the brightness of whole mind to the mummery of this world, from the mummery of this world to the unity with the goddess Quandra—follows the pattern of the great spiritual heroes, but with a difference. Raymond Darling does not achieve a redemption of mankind such as, for instance, Jesus is said to have accomplished through his death. He loses Quandra and is destroyed by Evelyn Disk, a figure of the obstructor—or diabolus—who represents the aspect of consciousness that clings to words, signs, and symbols. Raymond’s originary “light” and “brightness”—the essence of his realization and teachings—is eclipsed by Evelyn’s “disk.” Yet this metaphorical eclipse, like solar and lunar eclipses, is passing. In the end, Raymond realizes that the Bright is never lost: “He saw the Midnight Sun—the Un-centric Sphere of Boundless Bright. He saw the room Is Consciousness. The One and Bright—Itself.” Raymond thus discovers his inherent unity with Quandra—the inherent unity of consciousness and energy—and the folly of all seeking, questing, and journeying toward what is always and inevitably present.
It is the function of the fourth and last level of a spiritual text, the anagogic, to lead the reader onward (ana + gogy)—from the levels of plot, form, and myth to transcendent knowledge. The Prologue to The Mummery Book prepares us for this anagogy in a sustained lyrical address:
Purifying Fire, of
all-illuminating Brightness, That
Living Light within
your incendiary heart
And the Epilogue concludes the parable by warning that true seeing, hearing, and knowing can occur only through radical perception, not through disembodied thought:
This Hard Parable of Me Cannot, by thought and self,
be Truly Understood
As Perfect, True, and Truth. To Understand Me,
You must Hear, and See, Me—With your
Always Listening-to-Me Feeling-heart.
The anagogic, then, should not be confused with some immaterial, “spiritual,” or remote level of reality, far from the sensory world. The four levels of interpretation fashioned by medieval scholars are nothing more than models for deepening our understanding of complex texts—they fall away in the moment of insight, when selfless observation overtakes the habits of egocentric perception.
Adi Da’s work, so similar in form and style to the most radical kinds of postmodern writing, is, of course, not confined to the postmodern moment. Shining through this radical, disruptive, and multi-leveled narrative is the tradition of wisdom to be found in The Upanishads, The Bhagavad-Gita, the Heart and Diamond Sutras, Dogen’s Shobogenzo, and other works that retain, after many centuries, a disconcerting contemporaneity and time-lessness. As playful as it is profound, as heart-breaking as it is consoling, The Mummery Book is an absolutely unique literary occasion.