Lewis Thompson—England’s Great Poet-Sadhu
Lewis Thompson’s extraordinary collection of aphorisms, Fathomless Heart, is a seminal event in the modern encounter of East and West. A work of magical, incandescent genius, it is also one of the twentieth century’s greatest literary/philosophical treasures.by Wayne Owens
The great Englishman, William Blake, in his incendiary collection of aphorisms called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, declared that “Truth can never be told so as to be understood and not be believed.” And while this seems to be an apparently straightforward statement, it is also pregnant with progressive layers of meaning, and luminous with the psychic energy which informs all of his epochal work. It gives to the Truth an inviolate character, one which shuns pretension and serves as an awakening signpost to the Real, which it already Is. It says that the actual Truth, when understood, is like no other fact or state or emotional condition known to man. It is self-clarifying and dynamic, and virtually impossible to mock by imitation. There is nothing like it; and the jolt of recognition which gives rise to Understanding also leads inevitably to a firm belief in the resplendent, spiritual truth of human existence.
We live in a world which is inundated with an ocean of new books and articles and op-ed pieces, as well as a seemingly endless library of first-time writers and poets and bloggers on the ubiquitous internet; we are enveloped by a surrounding screen of video and film and DVD and camera-equipped cell-phones. We have high school football scoreboards that are colossal TV screens, playing back the action on the field to persons who have actually paid to attend an ostensibly “live” event. We are literally consumed with communications media. No culture in the history of the world has had so many facts and opinions and stories at their disposal. And no culture in the history of the world has been so harshly threatened with a permanent, global destruction as has our own.
What is the value, then, that we actually place on the truth of our existence? Would our legion of cultural movements cause William Blake to spin around with anguish in his English grave? Does our fractured, derivative, commercially-consumed postmodern world offer up any unimpeachable truth such as he described? It would certainly serve us to consider such a notion; because it has become more than obvious that only the most profound truths of human existence can hope to light a way through the dark madness which now threatens us all.
It is in this crucial sense that the recent Dharmacafé publication of the work of the English poet-sage, Lewis Thompson, is cause for hope and celebration. Written in the nineteen thirties and forties—stormy decades of Depression and war—these uniquely insightful and profoundly integral writings plumb a depth of emotion and poetic inspiration that conform to William Blake’s exacting standard: it is virtually impossible to read and be touched by these words and not be awakened to a radical spiritual Understanding, to a joyous belief in the undying presence of Love, Truth and Reality shining from deep within the human heart.
Lewis Thompson’s life and work stand as a radically progressive regeneration of what it means to be an artist—in his case a poet—by refining the literary traditions of the West into a deeply immersed practice and understanding of the spiritual traditions of the East. He was in every sense the consummate writer. He was also a genuine sadhu, a wandering spiritual renunciate of the first order. He left England very early in life, when he was just 23, and never returned. He died of sunstroke in 1949 in Benares, India, at the age of forty. In his brief lifetime, he accomplished what almost no other writer of his or any other time has been able to do: to gather the disparate elements of the chaotic literary inheritance of the West and to somehow seamlessly integrate them with the deepest and most purifying spiritual realities of the East.
Thompson was thus a genius of a rare order on both accounts; and thus stands as a radical exemplar for the regeneration of both artist and man. He was uniquely unlike any literary or spiritual genius that we know of. He placed himself firmly in the ranks of The Romantic Reaction to the industrial age and its relentless onslaught of materialistic science. His influences were the great literary madmen—Blake, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Nietzsche—and the most renowned of the Indian sages then resident on that enduring spiritual ground: Ramana Maharshi, Andandamaya Ma, Sri Aurobindo and Jiddu Krishnamurti, as well as constant contact with a variety of wandering mendicants and lesser-known spiritual sadhus. He began his brilliant volume Fathomless Heart when only nineteen years old, and continued work on it until he died. The book went through a perpetual series of evolutions and revisions, and was at one bitter intersection thrown into a fire. But it nonetheless stubbornly continued to arise and develop, until the essential character of Thompson’s creation was at last refined into that ancient and most crystalline of poetic forms, the aphorism.
Published in an immaculately-arranged volume by its brilliant editor, Richard Lannoy, Fathomless Heart extends to the fortunate reader a genuinely transcendent cascade of timeless wisdom. It penetrates the heart with that inviolate intelligence which expresses at once the contemporary and the ancient. These aphorisms rightly ring in the mind and emotions with the clarifying embrace of the Sutra, and thus combine in that matchless fashion which only the deepest and most enduring reality will allow. The genius of Lewis Thompson, combined with a fierce integrity that could not tolerate any compromise with either decadent Western literary trends or superficial Eastern spiritual attainments, seems written for the most sophisticated and contemporary of readers as well as any genuine seeker after the actual realities of human existence. Chapter after chapter draws us deeper into his remarkable life and expression. Thompson’s thoughts on science, on humanism and psychology are bracingly prescient. His treatment of the enduring complexities of our sexuality is as richly wise and precise as any ever written; and his understanding of the human ego is a devastating commentary on human narcissism and its morbid complications. Yet his revelations on Love reveal a heart acutely sensitive to vulnerability and the challenges of genuine relationship.
Love is only the immediate resolution of the endless inconclusiveness of relativities. But before and after this necessity it is not love but—well, you see it in the Tiger and God be thanked he cannot speak…
Thompson was self-educated in the finest sense of the word—his knowledge of the classics, of languages and religions, was as deep and broad as the most accomplished of scholars. Yet his existence itself was mainly his road-map. His unrelenting penchant for self-examination and honesty are uncompromising and, at times, even extreme. He had no desire whatsoever for fame or public acknowledgment. He was as free as an angel from these all-too-human failings. Reading and re-reading these magnificent expressions of actual truth, it is difficult to find any contemporary writer with which to compare him. He shines uniquely alone among the darkly-resigned ranks of twentieth-century literary expression.
The book is graced with a brilliant foreword by William Stranger and an elegant, articulate introduction by Richard Lannoy. Clarifying information regarding Thompson’s life and times are provided, with emphasis on the writer’s distinctive existence, the aphoristic structure he chose for his work, his influences, and much more. Also included is a brief, invaluable preface by the late author himself.
This is a book for one’s life. The full expression of so many aspects of our existence are so immaculately communicated in these pages that one will return again and again to their clarifying integrity. It transcends time and place. On occasion, it seems to have been written yesterday, on others it feels as old as the great scriptures. It is direct and uncompromising and, at times, unsettling:
Egoistic power is evil and inconclusive becausei It can function only so far as it is met by fear. Fearlessness does not need any given power, need not ascribe power to itself, does not need
to “possess” power.
The secret of egoism is that it needs power in order to defend itself. From the point of view of heaven, Satan is simply stupid. Those who fear him still wish to defend their ego.
But true being is self-existent.
These are liberating thoughts for a global culture which elevates egoic competition and economic power above all other human achievements. Thompson’s candor extends from his own relentless self-examination, and at times will, as all truth must, hurt to some degree. But his work is far, far and away a celebration of the loving actuality of human life and the undying joy of existence itself:
The whole world is the play of God—
O, of the Fathomless!
Lovely, in the unending road,
The endless revelations of his Face.
Inimitable each and fathomless like a flower,
Dark marked with lovely colours of grief…
Here in the fathomless heart.
This ever-living intuition is the death-transcending root of all that Lewis Thompson had to say. Fearless, incisive, brilliant, loving, appalled, heart-broken, he arises again and again to illuminate our condition and re-awaken our understanding of God, truth and reality. His spirit was as vibrant as his body was frail. Fathomless Heart is the gift he gave his life to, and he offers it to us as the transcendent triumph that it surely is. That he came and went so quickly makes this epochal spiritual achievement all the more remarkable. It remains a living testament to the vibrant intuition that the actual truth can never be sullied by the relentless but mere passage of the years.