Book Review: The Art of Losing Control by Jules Evans.

Ecstasy is vital to life! Philosopher advocates losing control with humility. 

4 star

In The Art of Losing Control, A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience,  Jules Evans is concerned with ecstasy – ”Can we learn to lose control safely,’’ he asks, ”or is it always dangerous?‘’ In 10 chapters and 250 pages of compact type, he makes a clear case for this basic human need and concludes that without it, we, as a species, are in danger.

This is Evans’ second book after Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations about Ancient Greek philosophy; and as a modern day philosopher and stoic with a high profile (he runs The London Philosophy Club, and is a Research Fellow at the University of London), he has some considerable authority in the field, which is not immediately apparent as I plough my way through the first half. This is partly because he can be dismissive of views he cannot understand: ”all sorts of nonsense, from horoscopes to…”, and partly because it is a mixture of formal and informal writing where one minute there is a first hand account of an orgy, and the next, the author is getting to grips with deep intellectual debate.

It is not that this is a tricky academic tome or too choc-full of dense language, but that there really are very many references, and its scope is grandiose, covering as it does, all of civilisation. In fact, as I move from a chapter on psychedelic drugs to a chapter on rock music through the ages; from The Contemplation Zone to The Tantric Love Temple at an imaginary festival (which is his device and thence his structure), I become increasingly persuaded that Evans is an authority and by the Mosh Pit – chapter 8 about war being an ecstatic experience – convinced also that this is a vital book and ecstasy is something we should indeed all be concerned with. He gets closer than most in identifying why we have not yet attained the nirvana we are searching for, and makes a good stab at how we might go about getting it.

It is a work of far-reaching research, both literary and personal: He attends a Vipassana meditation; an Alpha Christian course where the ensuing community support means a lot to him; as well as often referring to his teenage NDE (‘near death experience’. He has the ability to sum up huge bodies of work (eg. CBT) and human movements (eg. Romanticism) in pithy understandable phrases, and though he does increasingly state his own view: ”We need to worship less, consume less, and play more.’ ‘ p. 90, and repeats that finding peace is hard work and can only be learned gradually, the book trips along and is very entertaining.

The Art Of Losing Control is published by Canongate.

Jules Evans own website with very popular blog.

Richard Holloway – Waiting for the Last Bus, reflections on life and death

Book Review *****

How do I sum up Richard Holloway’s Waiting for the Last Bus, Reflections on Life and Death in a few 100 words when it tackles the broadest subjects imaginable? This octogenarian is so insightful and informed, his text so littered with erudite quotes, and his advice so spot-on, that I am tempted to simply say, you must read it!

Part personal musing on living, and part teachings on ageing and the reality of decease, Waiting for.. is brutally honest and pragmatic: “A death well faced can be redemptive of a life that may not have been well lived.” “We want to make it (life) more just and abundant and joyful for everyone.” states the author, thus he forces the reader to be as thorough as he has been in his thinking. His writing tone is crystal clear: “there is no escape from anguish…. Accepting the reality of… our death …might save us from the greater unhappiness of trying to ignore or hide from these realities…It takes fortitude,…the ability to endure the reality of our condition without flinching.”

Holloway is an ex-Bishop of Edinburgh and former Episcopalian, past Chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, and writer of divers volumes including the 2012 Leaving Alexandria, his biographical enquiry into faith and doubt. This background goes some way to explain his expansive knowledge: the bible, the liturgy in its complexity, poetry, music and art, all of which he plunders and delves into for apposite sayings to back-up his theories and assist in his expositions. “..let Me live to my sad self hereafter kind, Charitable” from GM Hopkins’ Poems.

Whether sermonising on the meaning of the universe, on jealousy versus envy, loss, sexuality or forgiveness and compassion (“Wherever it comes from, one of the paradoxes of compassion – forgiveness is that it can release the sorrow of offenders at their own action.”) even John Wayne! most aspects of death are given an equally rigorous treatment. Medical intervention and the tendency towards avoidance of our mortality is tackled in detail, but the quantum approach is not. More recent understandings of time and the consciousness of matter are not alluded to and might offer a different perspective to the “naked silence and profound stillness” (Leopardi) which he believes will come inevitably after the universe ceases. Perhaps he would tell me that that was my compulsion to find an alternative to this nihilation.

Published by Canongate

Canongate page on this book

Richard Holloway was at the Edinburgh Book Festival speaking about this book. Here is my review of that event.