Sunday, May 23, 2010

All Kinds of Magic: A Quest for Meaning in a Material World by Piers Moore Ede

Piers Moore Ede, an atheist suffering from a vague spiritual emptiness, rejects the materialism of the west and travels to the Himalayas, India and Turkey in search of something "numinous", holy and transcendent. The journey eastwards in search of enlightenment is a well-worn trope that this book does little to revitalise.

The mystics Moore Ede encounters respond wearily to his requests for magical knowledge. "Many foreigners wanting this, actually," one sadhu observes. "Always asking jadoo, asking miracles." Moore Ede spends all his time asking jadoo. He watches with interest as a woman, claiming to be an incarnation of Kali, wails and gnashes her teeth, and he is revolted by another female oracle who appears to suck a bucketful of black liquid from the stomach of an unruly boy. There is an uncomfortable, freak-show element to these encounters.

"Many young people I spoke to seemed to resent the continual string of western seekers following the well-trodden path to the east," Moore Ede notes. "And who could blame them? They were lifting themselves up by the bootstraps, finding economic freedom their parents could never have dreamed of. That all these westerners should come here asserting the need to leave the material world behind was both patronising and faintly hilarious." Had Moore Ede developed this point further he might have given his book an edge, but he misses the real story for a rehash – almost a parody – of the hippy dream.

All Kinds of Magic is most reminiscent of the bestselling books by the controversial anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, whom Moore Ede discusses in a chapter on shamanism. The style of this passage, for instance, when Moore Ede's head is touched by a blind Sufi master, is pure Castaneda: "In that instant a warm heat began to pulse across my crown. For a second my mind began to ripple with surprise, and then it quietened. I felt a great slackening of pressure, and a sense of a wise awareness passing through me. It was like an electric current travelling through circuits, or a warm liquid flushing out a blocked-up drain."

Moore Ede comes across as somewhat credulous at times and his analysis is shallow, but the writing is energetic and compelling. His description of taking ayahuasca or yagé is a worthy climax to his quest. It begins with "snort[ing] what felt like a jet of battery acid into each nostril" and ends with him "travelling to cyber realms, through fantastical worlds made up of DNA strands and stardust". As William Burroughs observed of this drug: "Yagé is not like anything else. It produces the most complete derangement of the senses."

In these postmodern times there is something rather quaint about setting out in search of "truth" or "meaning", but with the aid of a powerful hallucinogen Moore Ede gets his answer. At the same time, one senses that the "raw spirituality" he seeks in the east has long gone. A sadhu tells him in broken English of "one temple in Ahmadabad where Hanuman statue is granting anyone who asks visas for America", while an Indian phone company offers free talk time for sadhus.

Distracted by supernatural sideshows, Moore Ede misses the chance to really engage with the political reality of the places he visits. In India, for instance, the supernatural is political. Moore Ede doesn't have much time for the Indian rationalist Prabir Ghosh, but as Ghosh observes: "By exposing these god men we are shaking the very foundations of power. Many of them have political affiliations and entreat their devotees to vote one way or the other." Moore Ede is enjoying his spiritual tourist trail too much to think about politics, but I sympathised with the Tibetan waiter in Darjeeling who tells him: "I am not having much time for miracles. For me, a real miracle would be if the Chinese announced immediate withdrawal from our country."

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