Matt Cardin: The Book I Would Like To Be Buried With…

June 7, 2010 by
Filed under: Bury Me With This Book, Interviews 

hierarchy-bookThe thirteenth entry in the Bury Me With… series. This week, Matt Cardin, in my humble opinion a uniquely philosophical voice in horror and weird fiction…

“The book I would like to be buried with is the unabridged facsimile edition of the late British philosopher Douglas Harding‘s frighteningly outsized and terrifyingly brilliant über-tome The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth – which I haven’t read in its entirety and almost certainly never will.

Let me explain.

The idea of a book that you’d like to be buried with differs significantly from the familiar challenge of choosing your “desert island book,” the single book that you’d like to have with you if ever you find yourself stranded on a desert island. The proper choice for that challenge is a book that you wouldn’t mind reading over and over again, one that you’d be perfectly happy to have as your sole and perpetual literary companion, so dearly do you love it and so inexhaustible do you finds its contents.

For a burial book, however, the proper choice has more to do with how you would like to be remembered. After all, you won’t be reading the book as you lie there returning to the earth in your coffin. You won’t be enjoying it yourself, except maybe in the satisfaction you feel during the run-up to your death as you reflect that this book and no other will serve as a kind of appendix to your epitaph should anybody ever happen to exhume your mortal remains. “Hm,” the grave robber, court appointed or otherwise, might muse as he looks at the durable leather book lying atop a mass of rotted pages, which are in turn piled atop the nastier rotten stuff below. “So he was a Stephanie Meyer fan.” Or some such thing.

So the choice of a burial book requires some careful thought, because it’s not the same as, although it’s related to, choosing a favorite book.

What, then, would I myself choose? Various reasonable options suggest and then dismiss themselves. Lovecraft’s complete fiction, for example. I mean, after all, it’s gloriously available today in a single Barnes & Noble hardcover volume, and in the corrected texts, too, thus blowing away the lovable but suspect Ballantine paperbacks that I was weaned on. But that book would only go properly with an epitaph like “He loved cosmic horror” or “Lover and Dreader of the Great Gulfs Beyond.” And that’s a bit too bounded to encompass my entire sensibility, despite my enduring love for and personal emotional connection to HPL.

What about Ligotti’s The Nightmare Factory or Teatro Grottesco, or maybe even his The Conspiracy Against the Human Race? Good candidates all, supremely important to my emotional, intellectual, and artistic development. But again, they would say more about Tom than about me.

What about the Bible? That’s another viable one to consider, since this library of religious texts is crucially implicated in my deepest life patterns, both inner and outer. I was raised in a cultural atmosphere of “high” biblical regard, where the Bible was unquestioningly regarded as inerrant and authoritative. Then I broke through into a more nuanced view – or perhaps it broke through into me – and have spent my life wandering around ever since in a deepening daze at the wonders of this ancient record of archetypal spiritual encounters interacting with bloody pre-modern moral, political, and cultural codes, all tending toward a cosmic revelation of shattering scope. So that’s all wonderful stuff. But, on the other hand, being buried with a Bible might send the wrong message, so impenetrable is the thicket of presumptions surrounding this book. My hypothetical gravedigger might think I was a typical “Bible thumper” from the religious-cultural backwater that Alan Watts used to refer to in inflammatory (but very memorable and accurate) fashion as the lunatic Protestant fringe. And that wouldn’t do at all.

Speaking of Watts, he’s a candidate with his The Way of Zen, Psychotherapy East and West, Beyond Theology, The Supreme Identity, and The Book: On the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are. And if he’s in the mix, then why not Eckhart Tolle with The Power of Now? Or Huston Smith with Forgotten Wisdom? Or Shunryu Suzuki with Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind? Or Jan van de Wetering with The Empty Mirror and A Glimpse of Nothingness?

This could quickly turn into an impromptu imitation of Colin Wilson’s The Books in My Life. How many more books and authors suggest themselves in passing fashion because of their deep, deep significance to me? Robert Pirsig and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Allan Bloom and The Closing of the American Mind. Theodore Roszak and Where the Wasteland Ends. Wise and Fraser’s Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed. Henri Amiel and his Journal. Pretty much everything Robert Anton Wilson ever wrote. And on, and on.

Douglas-HardingSo why reject them all and choose Harding’s The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth? It’s partly because this massive magnum opus, which offers a philosophical vision and explanation of the entire universe (and as such presents a kind of respectable alternative or counterpoint to the New Agey Urantia book), intersects at a billion points with my other books, authors, and passions. C.S. Lewis, for example, was dazzled when a young and unknown Harding sent him the manuscript. Lewis insisted on writing the preface to the original edition. Harding was friends with Alan Watts, a circumstance arising out of their respective prominences in the heady countercultural spiritual stew of 1960s and 70s Britain and America (a period that has long glowed with a mythic significance for me). Huston Smith has spoken approvingly of Harding’s work, and even wrote the preface to Harding’s brilliant little book, On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious. Crossing over into my horror interests, I introduced Tom Ligotti to Harding’s work circa 2001, and not long afterward the idea of headlessness began showing up in some of Tom’s output. Obviously, Harding resonates with him, too.

But what about the fact that I haven’t actually read the Hierarchy? That’s an interesting story in its own right, and it gets to the heart of my choice.

A few years ago Harding’s estate published for the first time the complete version of the book, composed of facsimiles of the actual pages Harding typed, wrote, and drew during the eight-year span of the Hierarchy‘s daemonically driven composition after his original mid-1930s mountain top experience – literally, not figuratively; he was actually climbing a mountain when it happened – of awakening to first-personhood. The original edition, published in 1952, was drastically abridged. The new version was a long-awaited publishing revelation. When I saw it announced and read of its ultra-limited-ness, I immediately preordered a copy, and thus became one of only a handful of people on planet earth to own it.

And, to repeat, I have never read it. The book has sat on my shelf almost untouched. Why? For one thing, because it is forbiddingly huge, which means it will inevitably eat up literally years of my life if I dive in, since I know I’ll be helplessly hooked for the duration.

Harding-mapBut more importantly there’s the almost perverse fact that, well, I kind of prefer to keep it a mystery. Having read many of Harding’s other writings, I know that he really did hit upon the key to understanding everything, most especially the ontological place of humanity in the cosmos. And he made the special contribution of crystallizing this key, which is so often stated in difficult or opaque fashion by other philosophers and gurus, in an astonishingly straightforward and accessible guiding concept with accompanying practical applications. Notice, he says, that you can never see your own head, that you are actually, in your first-person experience, headless. Use this recognition to extrapolate – experientially, not theoretically – the wider fact that you really are, as a phenomenological fact, not the burdensome, positively existing self that you’ve always thought you are: a vulnerable subject that’s constantly threatened with danger and want. You are verifiably a far wider identity than that. In fact, you are nothing more nor less than pure awareness, pure capacity for experience. This explains everything, including the doctrines all of the world’s great religions.

In short, Harding boiled down the basic nondual insight into easily statable and confirmable form, and he stated it far more easily than I just did. This much I know from reading some of his other work. But in his Hierarchy he laid out the full ramifications of the insight for human life, and for the macrocosmic and microcosmic levels of the universe. I’ve browsed enough in there to be thoroughly dazzled.

And that’s why I prefer in the end to let it all remain sealed up between the book’s covers, safely sheltered from my understanding, or vice versa. As a writer, musician, and thinker, I’m constantly skirting the boundary between mystery and knowledge. I find a bottomless reservoir of energy in the tantalizing interplay between the two, especially as they figure into works of supernaturalism and cosmic dread. Harding, I think, really has said what there is to say about the deep knowledge of heaven and earth, not just partially but completely, as a fully formed statement. It can be said other ways, but he’s one of the few who have said it comprehensively. Therefore, I cherish his book – and choose to leave it tantalizingly unread.

So this is book I would like to have buried with me. I think fondly of it lying forever atop my motionless breast, this literary embodiment of intertwined mystery and knowledge. And I imagine a day when it may greet a would-be grave robber with a suitable coda to the epitaph I hope to have carved on my stone, if I’m worthy: “He honored the mystery.””

Matt_CardinAbout Matt Cardin:

Matt Cardin is the author of Dark Awakenings and Divinations of the Deep. He’s a staff reviewer for the horror journal Dead Reckonings, and his stories, essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Dark Faith, Cthulhu’s Reign, The HWA Presents: Dark Arts, Cemetery Dance, The Thomas Ligotti Reader, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and elsewhere. He blogs about everything at The Teeming Brain and about consciousness and creativity at Demon Muse. He has an M.A. in religious studies and works as a college teacher in Central Texas, where he resides with his wife.


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