Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Knower and the Known

A few years ago I had a disturbing conversation with an Egyptologist I'd known for many years. I'd mentioned a comment I'd made in public about the Pharaoh Akhenaten, to the effect that his heresy was no longer as unfathomable as it once seemed to be. Then, out of nowhere, my qualities as a scholar were attacked, with arguments which had no foundation at all. She knew me well enough to know that her charges were baseless, but nevertheless, the charges were made, and with force. 

One of the most puzzling experiences I've ever had. Though I'd seen the Egyptologist let fly in such an irrational way at a blameless librarian at the Oriental Institute in Oxford, years beforehand. 

I rebutted the charges on the same day. I wrote the following letter to her a week later, which represents my attempt to understand the nature and origin of the strange exchange we had. I have changed all the names, except my own, and there is nothing in this text which identifies the recipient. I've made a couple of rewordings, but the argument of the letter is as it was. 

This letter has echoes in the text and theme of The Sacred History of Being' (aka SHB), where certain modes of irrationality are discussed. The relationship between the knower and what is known is one of the subsidiary themes of the book. This letter brings that theme to more prominence. 

I received no reply. 

Dear Rachel,

Hi. I've covered a lot of intellectual space over the past eight or so days, which has been a bit like a personal apocalypse. I'll try to keep it short. It will look a bit strange, but please bear with it.

It is one thing to write about a phenomenon: it is another thing to have it happen for real in front of you, and more than that,  to realise what it is.

SHB is about a number of things, but one of the underlying themes is the ancient idea that knowledge is about the union between the knower and the known. This is an idea which exists within the frame of the idea that the divine is the source of all knowledge.

Since within this frame the divine is by definition unknowable as a complete entity, it can be accessed only in part, and through various forms of approach. Hence ritual and liturgy, hence images, etc.

These forms of approach can be through the gods, through the properties they exemplify. Using the Catholic model as an example, it would be via the saints, who are beatified according to their character and quality, etc.

In SHB I have argued that it is the contemplation and worship of the special excellences of the gods, often described in liturgical documents, which allows access to knowledge. Or at least that is how it was understood. I've argued this on the basis of Greek philosophical discussion, and according to Assyrian and Babylonian documents and liturgy.

This is the transactive route, in which the knower starts as separate from what is knowable. It is transitive in nature.

There is evidence from Mesopotamia however that the union of the knower and the known is sometimes intransitive, and not the result of ritual, or any kind of rational or intellectually reasoned process (though it may be built on such things). I'm thinking in particular of an account of a Mesopotamian temple official suddenly falling down and then speaking in another voice. The voice was of a Mesopotamian god. He spoke in the voice of more than one god during the occurrence. So it was understood that there was sometimes a subsurface connection between the knower and the known, and that sometimes there is no process involved - no invocation, no ritual, no inquiry, etc. The god is immanent. At least temporarily.

And the phenomenon doesn't have to be as dramatic as that: it can happen without anyone being aware of it - at least at the time.

One other thing: when this intransitive immanence is in place, the nature of conversation with the individual concerned necessarily changes. It isn't inquisitive. It is authorative. Or at least that is how it plays. Plato wrote about this phenomenon, rather coyly.

You should understand that my background, education, and inclination, is essentially empirical, and that I don't have a natural affinity with these concepts and ways of understanding the world. I'm a child abroad. SHB came about originally through the observation of evidential details which didn't fit the mainstream understanding of ancient ritual, art and thought. I found that close attention to the detail and argument in ancient sources provided a number of alternative ways of framing the  evidence, while doing less violence to that evidence.

This remoteness from the way of thinking sometimes results in a first reading of evidence being in some way faulty. I tend to operate on the basis that this is inevitable. 


You have retained a formal relationship with a religion, unlike me. I took the rather nihilistic approach of abandoning all relationship with religion when I found that none of them provided enough answers to what I assumed were important questions. Yours is probably the smarter choice. Though I have not been immune to religious experience despite having no intellectual affiliation with a formal religion.

I am now guessing. I'm guessing that you have had, at least once, an experience of some kind of contact with the divine (let's call it that here without getting more particular). This might be in one or a number of forms. Maybe by speech, maybe by consciousness of a moment of immanence. Or by a grasp of meaning beyond strictly reasoned thought. The detail of the mode of contact isn't important.

Some people are just better plugged in than others. I never thought of you like that before, though I did get an intimation of it at the time your son Michael was christened. The whole thing seemed to make much more sense to you than I could understand. But I was a million miles away then from where I am now, in terms of capacity to understand what is important. As I said, I am a child abroad.


I can see the trail of thoughts I had during the past few days, and can see now that I was going to get to where I got to last night, if I kept going. I kept going.

I needed to shift to another perspective on our exchange on Christmas Eve, which was maddening on a number of levels. It was as if I was not talking to you, but someone else, who knew more or less what you know. And whoever that was, was not directly talking to me, but past me, without a proper grasp of who I am, or any proper recall of anything I've said, and without any care as to how I would respond.  The order in the exchange was also disturbing. 

I made that shift of perspective yesterday, and saw.

It looked as though I was being distantly engaged in a more or less disorganised discussion about the discipline of Egyptology, conducted in as few words as possible. A discussion not entirely aimed at me, since I am not wholly known by you (of course). But spoken with certain knowledge, as happens when the knower and the known (you and your discipline) have no intellectual distance between them, whether temporarily or permanently. This continued after the initial exchange was over, with (for me) patently absurd advice about going mainstream (heterodox arguments never have that option!).

There are gods of Egypt, and gods of Egyptology. They are not the same. The gods of Egyptology are those of the discipline. The excellences of the discipline that is, as understood.

I seem to have been having an exchange with some of your gods. They brook no quarter. Why should they, since they know?

I've come to the conclusion (slightly unwillingly) that there is more to this idea of contact with, and participation in the divine (temporary and permanent) than I used to think.  And that it explains a lot of curious things. Even in what appears to be everyday life. It is just that there is no rational space for the idea in the modern world.

There is much more that could be said, but I will leave it there for now. Does this make any sense to you?



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