Thursday, December 23, 2010

Home on the Range

I have always assumed that my surname, Angsten, was derived from the German Angst, with its negative connotations of fear and anxiety. While not exactly inspiring, it seemed suitable to a writer of adventure thrillers. In researching my latest novel, however, I've discovered a more positive spin on the name. It now appears perfectly--even cosmically--appropriate for an author named Angsten to be writing what I'm currently writing: a contemporary thriller about the origins of eastern mysticism and the age-old quest for liberation.

I've been doing a lot of reading on the ancient Vedic people--the Indo-European or 'Aryan' tribes that swept down into India from the steppes of central Asia early in the second millenium BCE. Like most of the Indo-Europeans, these Vedic nomads were in constant need of fresh pastureland for their cattle and horses. The Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger, in her recent book, The Hindus, describes them as basically "cattle herders and cattle rustlers who went about stealing other people's cows and pretending to be taking them back."In this regard--as well as in their fondness for gambling--the Vedic people resembled the cowboys of the 19th-century American West. They were driven, like their vast herds of horses, "to move on, always to move on, to new lands." This insatiable urge for expansion was supported by their religion and expressed in their collection of spoken prayer known as the Rig Veda--the oldest religious poetry in the world.

Among these poems the word prithu--'expansiveness'--is frequently encountered. Derived from the name of a mythical king who hunted cattle on the broad plain, prithu connoted something like 'the wide-open spaces.' And that's where my surname comes in:
"The opposite of this word prithu is the word for a tight spot, in both the physical and the psychological sense; that word is amhas, signifying a kind of claustrophobia, the uneasiness of being constrained in a small space. (Amhas is cognate with our word 'anxiety' and the German Angst.) In this context, amhas might well be translated, 'Don't fence me in,' since it occurs in a number of Vedic poems in which the poet imagines himself trapped in a deep well or cave, from which he prays to the gods to extricate him."
For these ancient cowboys, then, the term from which the name 'Angsten' is derived was less an expression of fear and anxiety than of the inherent human yearning for freedom.
That yearning went beyond the physical plane; it literally drove these cattle rustlers into the spiritual realm. The ninth book of the Rig Veda celebrates a fiery hallucinogenic plant known as soma, which played a key role in several important Vedic rituals. The following is a typical passage:
We have drunk the soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods. What can hatred and the malice of a mortal do to us now? The glorious drops that I have drunk set me free in wide space. (8.48.3)
The entire book reiterates this blissful theme of transcendence. Professor Doniger concludes: “The feeling of expansiveness, of being set free in wide space, is not merely a Vedic political agenda, an expression of the lust for those wide open spaces, it is also a subjective experience of exhilaration and ecstasy.”

Though today we do not know what the soma plant was, it's easy to imagine its possible influence on history. The Vedic hymns it inspired formed the fountainhead of Indian civilization and the beginnings of Hinduism, the world's oldest living religion. It may just be possible, as many have suggested, that it was soma that spurred those early cowboy/mystics to probe deeper into the nature of reality, to learn how to harness the wild horse of the mind, to whip a galloping thought across the infinite Ground of Being.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Freedom from Fear

David Grann's riveting "The Lost City of Z" is a breathtaking account of the Amazon adventures of the legendary British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett. Fawcett was "'contemptuous' of anyone who succumbed to fear," describing it as 'the motive power of all evil.' This quote from Fawcett's personal notes seems to sum up his Dionysian understanding of life:
"Civilization has a relatively precarious hold upon us and there is an undoubted attraction in a life of absolute freedom once it has been tasted. The 'call of the wild' is in the blood of many of us and finds its safety valve in adventure."
Not so much a 'safety valve' as it finally turned out. On his final
trek into the jungle in search of the fabled city of Z, Fawcett mysteriously disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Author Steven Pressfield (Gates of Fire) has written a brilliant post about the craziness that drives the artist, writer, or entrepeneur:

"But this state of mind isn’t really crazy. It comes from the gods. It’s a species of divine madness. Socrates called the poetic variety of this condition “possession by the Muses” (and rated it superior to technical mastery), though he could have referred with equal accuracy to seizure by any Olympian deity. When this kind of nuttiness grabs us, we are possessed by forces we can’t name and can’t see, can’t measure or quantify, and whose very existence is doubted by much of the conventional world.

But this state of possession is real, as anyone who has experienced it will testify–and so are the forces that inflict it on us. What do these forces demand? First and foremost, they want depth. They require of us passion, authenticity, courage, stubbornness and commitment over time. They want us. They want everything we’ve got."
Read the whole thing HERE.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Secret of the Arts

'Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.'
Francesco de Goya

AVATAR - The Gospel According to James

In a challenging opinion piece written for the NY Times, Ross Douthat asserts that AVATAR is James "Cameron's long apologia for pantheism--a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world."
"...pantheism has been Hollywood's religion of choice for a generation now. It's the truth that Kevin Costner discovered when he went dancing with wolves. It's the metaphysic woven through Disney cartoons like "The Lion King" and "Pocahontas." And it's the dogma of George Lucas's Jedi, whose mystical Force 'surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.'"
An appealing myth, no doubt, and "a form of religion that even atheists can support," but ultimately, Douthat concludes, it offers little solace. Read the whole piece HERE.

The Real Test

"No drug, not even alchohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we're looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn't test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power."
--P.J. O'Rourke

Naked and Conflicted

In her excellent NY Times Book Review essay, The Naked and the Conflicted - Sex and the American Male Novelist, Katie Roiphe contrasts the vigorous sexual explorations of the previous generation of Great Male Authors with the current crop of politically correct, sexually neutered navel-gazers. "Rather than an interest in conquest or consummation, there is an obsessive fascination with trepidation, and with a convoluted, post-feminist second-guessing."
"The younger [male] writers are so self-­conscious, so steeped in a certain kind of liberal education, that their characters can’t condone even their own sexual impulses; they are, in short, too cool for sex. Even the mildest display of male aggression is a sign of being overly hopeful, overly earnest or politically un­toward. For a character to feel himself, even fleetingly, a conquering hero is somehow passé. More precisely, for a character to attach too much importance to sex, or aspiration to it, to believe that it might be a force that could change things, and possibly for the better, would be hopelessly retrograde. Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life."
As an antidote, I know of at least two novels I would highly recommend...