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A Brief History of Everything

By Ken Wilber

The best thing about this book is the title: I mean, it would be great if someone actually did write a brief history of everything. Instead we have a work which will take its place in the ‘Mind-Body-Spirit’ section of your local bookshop. Although Wilber distances himself from him, much of the blame for the popularity of this kind of pyschobabble (‘genre’ is too grand a word here), must be taken by Robert Bly, whose Iron John was so successful among nervous and threatened males. Again, although Wilber would argue that he has nothing to do with it, his work reeks of the American ‘New Age’ movement, which is essentially philosophy for the brainless.

One of the reasons put forward for the rise in interest in this kind of material is the decline in traditional religious belief. But if this is the only alternative, give me that ole time religion any day. A devout atheist myself, I would still rather sit in a cathedral staring at the stained glass windows, listening to the organ and inhaling the incense, than dance naked around a fire in a forest trying to get in touch with my primal self.

Of course, the transcendentalist strain in American culture is nothing new, and wasn’t even new during the hippiedom of the sixties. It stretches back to Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, all of whom are worth studying. But, like most original writers or artists or thinkers, they are cursed with and embarrassed by their followers. ‘Do not create anything,’ counselled Bob Dylan, ‘it will be misinterpreted’, and didn’t take his own advice. ‘Don’t follow leaders,’ he also cautioned, and fans turned him into a guru.

Wilber knows his Kant and his Hegal, his William James and his Bertrand Russell, but fails to ‘integrate the partial visions of specialists into a new understanding of the meaning and significance of life’, as the jacket tells us he does. He blames the decline of spirituality in the West on the French Enlightenment, which seems to me to treat as a cul-de-sac something which was bound to happen anyway. He defines existentialism as ‘never let them see you smile, or that will divulge your inauthenticity’, which is rather reductive. He is very down on irony, which he cites as the chief characteristic of the post-modern mind. Like many Americans, he suffers from irony deficiency.

The book is written in a dialogue format, and many sentences begin with exclamations like ‘gosh’, ‘um’, ‘ok’, ‘wow’, ‘yikes’, ‘pow’ and ‘well, duhhhhhhh’. There are also lots of ugly neologisms, like ‘aperspectival’, ‘equalitarian’, ‘egoic’, ‘fallibilist’ and ‘absolutizing’.

At the end of the Monty Python film The Meaning Of Life, the secret is revealed to be: ‘Try to be nice to people, and read a good book once in awhile’. A Brief History of Everything is not one of those books.

First published in the Irish Independent


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