It’s the way of great writing to bend the world to its own shape. And so, having spent yesterday lunchtime sketching out thoughts for a review of Erik Davis’ ‘Nomad Codes’, I found myself last night at the Tallow Chandlers’ Hall, watching a combined Bollywood lecture / series of clips / song and dance extravaganza. I can’t think of anything that could have more convincingly brought some of his key themes to life.
First of all, a little background. ‘Nomad Codes’ collects essays and articles written over the last twenty years or so. And the Tallow Chandlers is one of the oldest social networks around. It’s one of the Livery Guilds of the City of London, originally formed to regulate the city’s tallow candle trade.
Founded in about 1300, it received its grant of arms in 1456. The hall we were sat in last night was built in 1672, after the original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. Alas, tallow chandlery is no longer the profitable business it once was; the Tallow Chandlers are now mostly a charitable and social organisation, though some trade links remain.
The Tallow Chandlers Guild is a deep, ancient structure that remains vividly present and dynamic in modernity; an effective metaphor for much of the religious thinking that Davis excavates in ‘Nomad Codes’. His easy, confident familiarity with Gnosticism, Manicheism, Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhism, and many other more or less occult religious traditions rings through the book, bringing each to life in a way that both respects their deep roots and acknowledges their modern relevance and (in many cases) vitality.
But that sense of separate religious structures isn’t what’s at the heart of the book. Davis is animated not by separate histories, but by colliding narratives. In one of the book’s central perceptions, he confronts our current problem of multiplicity and steps beyond it, defining a ‘networked spirituality’ as an emergent property of the multicultural barrage that is modernity. He describes how:
‘the mix-and-match spirituality derided by traditionalists is only the surface of a far more supple and dynamic synthesis in the making, one that demands a form of being we have only begun to intuit: open-ended and integral, embodied and viridian-green. This path is a matrix of paths, with no map provided at the onset, and no collective goal beyond the tenacity and grace of our step.’
(from ‘Meditating in Sensurround’, Nomad Codes p.187)
The solution to multiplicity is a kind of dynamic synthesis; the following of an interstitial path that acknowledges and respects all spiritual achievement, without finding itself locked into single mode of engagement with the eternal. Eternity, after all, is infinite; it seems entirely reasonable to look for it by stepping beyond the finite.
That sense of dynamic synthesis struck me forcefully as I listened to last night’s music, and watched last night’s dance. Each was a series of collisions that again and again locked themselves into ferocious, miraculous grooves.
Synthesisers, electric bass and electric guitars throbbed over sitars and tablas; Western and Eastern musics combined, with no critical judgement of either being made beyond one immensely practical question. ‘Will this work?’ you could hear musicians asking, again and again – and then, joyously, again and again the music roared back ‘YES!’.
The night’s three dancers had a similar, resplendent spontaneity to them. Chatting with two of them, Ash Mukherjee and Showmi Das, at the end of the evening (the third, Khavita Kaur Rendhawa, had alas left) I discovered that they’d only met for the first time that afternoon, and had improvised much of the evening’s dance in response to the unusually long, narrow space they had to work in.
That sense of surprise explained the immense exploratory freshness that animated their performances. It’s also at the heart of the spirituality that Davis advocates in his book. I know it works, because I saw it danced last night, and I’ve lived it myself, improvising music out of terrified on-stage ecstasies with the Stella Maris Drone Orchestra. It’s alive in ‘Nomad Codes’, too, leaping joyfully out of each new essay, each new perception.
Then, there’s Davis’ sense of technology. That’s fundamental to his understanding of religion; in fact, ‘Techgnosis’, his first book, dealt at length with the collision between the two. I’m not sure if he’d agree that the medium is the message; but he’s certainly very aware that the medium contains the message, and thus plays a fundamental role in defining both what’s transported, and how it transports.
And one final point worth noting; Davis’ awareness of the way that (as he quotes Philip K. Dick) ‘the symbols of the divine show up in the trash stratum’. Davis brings this out in his discussions of Dick, H. P. Lovecraft, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and other driven pulp visionaries. It’s a great description of Bollywood action, too; melodramatic pulp madness that contains and creates great, deep and very genuine emotion, wonder and awe.
So, in summary – I’m going to spend the next few months exploring Bollywood movies. Last night’s talk was given by Rachel Dwyer – her ‘100 Bollywood Films’ should be an invaluable guide. I’m going to try and see some Indian dance on-stage. And it goes without saying that I’d strongly recommend picking up a copy of ‘Nomad Codes’ – a rich, fascinating and hugely rewarding read.