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'An Unknown World' perpetuated by unclear, mystifying arguments

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FEBRUARY 06, 2014

Only once we are able to conceive of the Earth as a living being can we begin to truly understand her. Author Jacob Needleman, professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, sees the planet we live on as a literal living being.

In his latest book, “An Unknown World,” Needleman encourages all human beings to strive to be “conscious in the deepest sense of the word.” This entails a deeper sense of consciousness and social responsibility that involves widespread peace and, most importantly, dissociation from one’s ego.

 Needleman claims that as a philosopher he has truly experienced cognitive egotistic dissociation. During an out-of-body experience, he felt that “(he himself) was a world. An unknown world.” While the average reader is willing to believe Needleman’s story, such lines read as cliched and thus lose their emotional and semantic effects.

 What Needleman does well, however, is his brief discussion of human conditioning. He articulates that it is the rational mind that is the offspring of a “conditioned personality,” or ego. He addresses this issue as the cause of human selfishness and lack of regard for others, stating that a “conditioned personality” is cultivated from one’s cultural influences and upbringing. He suggests, perhaps too gently to have an impact, that all people should question what they have been conditioned to believe.

Needleman sees “sleeping human beings” — those who are unenlightened as to the irrelevance of issues such as politics and war in the grander scheme of the universe — as self-absorbed and living in a human-centered bubble. He asks his readers to see beyond the human constructs, to see beyond one’s “self” and to try to connect with the living being who sustains us and whom we mutilate in return. Needleman reminds us that like all living things, even Earth can die.

 Through a generalized spiritual outlook, Needleman philosophizes about things most human beings already know. He tells us we need to look after the Earth and care for others. Unfortunately, his epiphanies are not revelational, leaving the reader unsatisfied and wanting more.

The author keeps a safe distance between himself and his readers in order to maintain a palatable image all can agree with. “An Unknown World” does not push boundaries, demand action or even generate much new philosophical argument. Instead, the book runs superfluously with excessively harped-upon dream sequences that leave the reader feeling unengaged.

For the first six chapters, Needleman tries to lure the reader in with mystifying, vague dream recollections and open-ended questions he never answers. This lengthy, plotless exposition fails to intrigue. The omission of important character information, such as the identity and significance of Elias — the prominent figure in Needleman’s dreams — persists for too long, almost taunting the reader. The author withholds his knowledge and assertions from us, and this makes it difficult for one to keep reading when the introduction lags on and keeps swimming in generalities. When Needleman asserts, “I understand my own words,” yet doesn’t articulate with due precision, his reticent writing style leaves the reader in need of further understanding.

 As the novel progresses, Needleman slowly feeds us a few more of his realizations. The book reads like a disorganized journal or a train of thought with too many questions for lost readers seeking answers, however. At the end of the book, the author finally reveals that Elias is akin to God. Because of this, Needleman portrays himself as a sort of prophet figure. This conclusion, coupled with didactic final paragraphs about “Man,” contradicts Needleman’s earlier desires for “Man” to not think of himself as the center of all things. The author agrees with spiritual teacher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff that man is “an unfinished animal.” Likewise, “An Unknown World” poses copious unanswered questions.

Kate Irwin covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].

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FEBRUARY 06, 2014


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