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An Interview with James Cowan,
Australian Novelist and Poet,
about his new book on St. Anthony

Also by James Cowan:

Climbing Mount Toubkal by James Cowan

Towards a Charter for a New Global Philosophy by James Cowan

James Cowan on John of the Cross



Q. You seem to have lived quite an adventurous life, and written about many different things. Is there an inner thread that ties these things together, for example, the paintings of the Aborigines to the book you wrote on Anthony?

A: Much of my work is drawn from knowledge derived from my travels. I have always felt that the intellect is nourished by primary contact. In our age of universal education, we forget sometimes the importance of being stimulated by a painting, a mountain, or a cobbled street. These are the artifacts of the imagination. I am conscious when I write that I draw from this deep reservoir of experience.

Have the Aborigines stimulated my work in any way? Very much so. I spent ten years working on and off in the Australian desert with various Elders. These men helped me to come to terms with the earth as a numinous reality, not as a geological construct. Corbin spoke of ‘Visionary Geography’ as an important adjunct to understanding the ground upon which we walk. The Aborigines are all cognoscente with this view of their sacred land. Over countless millennia they have been able to mould it into a complex mythology and spiritual edifice that satisfies their deepest yearnings. Land becomes an open-air cathedral for them. I took this understanding with me when I went to Egypt to study the life of St. Antony.

I realized at once, when I finally reached his cave on Mt. Colzim, that Antony had been deeply affected by his relationship with the earth. In it he was able to plant his solitude. Over the years this solitude grew into a tree under which he could find shade. It is no accident that anchorites seek out remote places in the desert. They know that there, amid silence, they are able to develop their sensibility for inwardness. They become sensitive to silence as a product of stones, cliffs, and palm groves.

Q: What inspired you to explore Eastern Christianity and the way it expresses the interior life?

A: It happened very early in my life. I made a visit to Goreme in Turkey in 1968 to visit the rock chapels there. I was immediately taken by the work of those early monks who had retreated into their desert. Over the years I made journeys to Greece, to Mt. Athos in particular, where I came in contact with a number of very fine men. They alerted me to the interior life of the East as an ongoing and un-dogmatic adventure.

I then read many books on Eastern Christianity. The Philokalia, for one. I soon came to realize that I was dealing with a subtle knowledge that my Western Christian upbringing had not alluded to. Eastern Orthodoxy does not look to hierarchy, or to Church dogma, in order to bolster its view of the spirit. Rather, it is permeated by a subtle essence that is derived from humankind’s willingness to embrace metaphor as its bridge to the other world. Metaphysics is a real science in the East, I discovered. When I read of Gregory Palamas doctrine of gnosial knowledge in the form of hesychia, or, let’s call it, ‘indwellment in stillness’, I realized that this was what I had been missing all my life. Christianity did have a clear view on mystical knowledge that was not wedded to ethics, as it is so often in Western Christian doctrine. It reminded me of Zen Buddhism and yogi practice.

Q: Did you feel that hesychia offers the modern believer a genuine spiritual practice, or is merely an historical phenomenon?

A: All great spiritual disciplines are timeless. Stilling the mind, developing inwardness, cultivating detachment, these are all aspects of a genuine renovation of the spirit for humankind at any time. Antony of the Desert taught me to recognize that his dilemma lay in giving up an outmoded ideal that was a part of the old Pharaonic culture of the Nile. He understood that it is important to break with old modes sometimes, if one is ever going to get anywhere.

Christianity, at that time, was an un-authorized doctrine, a clandestine doctrine. It had not dogma attached to it, or very little. This obviously appealed to Antony in that it gave him the opportunity to develop his own spiritual stance without recourse to ‘official’ positions since developed by the Church. Hesychia came out of the spiritual practice that he developed in his cave on Mt. Colzim. This in turn lead to Palamas’s ideas of the ‘uncreated divine light’, the so-called Light of Mt. Tabor.

In contrast, Western Christianity is deeply grounded in the legalisms of Catholicism and the reliance on conscience as we see in Protestantism. Nestorianism, the Coptic Church, and Greek Orthodoxy are grounded in a more mystical view of spirituality that to the West may well contain residual heresies, but this is not the point. They work. They allow a person to tap into a more subtle view of things.

Q: But you have also written about St. Francis. Does he ‘break the mould’ in any way?

A: I found in Francis another spiritual renegade! Of course he is viewed as one of the most venerated saints on the Catholic Church. But he also stands outside it. One must remember that his position vis--vis the papacy in those days was always problematic. He was greatly influenced by Troubadour poetry, and had spent time talking with Sufis in Egypt. I have always felt that the stigmata is a product of these contact in that it made him more open to other influences beside that rich scholastic tradition going back to Augustine.

Also, I felt he was a ‘white Aborigine’ in his own way. He loved wandering, and could never stay in one place for very long. There was something deeply transient about his personality. In no way was he very feudal in his habits. His spirituality is about placing oneself in proximity to the asceticism of language. By this I mean that he used silence, meditation, and a denial of learning as his principal weapons against the religious hierarchies that lay like a dead hand on his age. Here was a man, too, who could reach out to song even as he lay dying.

I wanted to portray Francis as a man who was prepared to go it alone in his bid to find news ways to worship. This is his great contribution to the Western canon: he revealed nature to our perview for the first time. He made us accept solitude - eremeticism if you like - as a valid form of spiritual expression. Built into him, I suppose, was something anti-monastic, even if after his death all his values were overturned. The Church simply doesn’t like loners. Francis was one, even if he has given his name to a monastic order. The candle of subversion is always snuffed out before it burns down the house!

Q: Where does your work take you from here?

A: That is a hard one to answer. Right now I am writing a book about a Renaissance prince who happened to have build an Ideal City in the 16th Century. I am interested here in how a man integrated a life of action with that of creating a perfect civic environment. His spirituality is, in a way, secular. Everything he built was with a view to the perfectibility of man through his own agency. Perfection without grace, so to speak. This is an interesting concept: that every action generates its own spiritual possibility, like a meteor its tail.

I cannot say where my work is leading me. All I know that there is a common thread to it all. It is to pay homage to the past as imminently present, a sort of un-recovered jewel. I often feel that history is one long continuous wave that is crashing on the beach – my beach – even as I gaze upon it. Its white foaming breakers are the realization of mankind’s adventure as it crashes to earth. But ah! the patterns it creates on the sand – those cicatrices, these piles of seaweed. My work is about creating patterns that resonate in the soul. Beyond that, I have no answer. As Nietzsche remarked: ‘All truth lies in error.’ I like the idea that I spend my days grappling with error.

Q: Reflecting on what you have just said, I had the same impression, but only clearer this time, of the way in which Christian doctrine - dogma! - weighs heavily on you and many people, Catholics included, and is seen as an obstacle to grappling with mystical realities directly. I really wonder if Anthony and the Greek fathers saw it that way.

A: No, I don't think the Greek Fathers saw it that way. They were enthralled with creating systems, since they were all heirs to Greek thought anyway. Theology was just another system that had to be built up as a replacement for the systems of Plato etc. Since Nietzsche we are against systems, however, as we know them to be human constructs and therefore fallible.

I am not against theology at all. In fact I find it necessary and enthralling. But I am against dogma that imposes a hierarchical restraint upon people. Dogma poses a problematic ethic upon people. This is why the Catholic church is in such crisis today. The church likes dogma, and forgets its mystical underpinnings. There is nothing worse than a church imposing its understanding of contraception, for example, upon a people who are struggling to live in our present overpopulated world. Does Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism impose such constraints? No, of course not. The church has no business entering into such debates. Thankfully, the Orthodox church rarely enters engages in them. It practices what it calls 'economia', the business of allowing certain issues to resolve themselves.

St. Antony was a renegade spirit, even in his own time. His goal was to change - no, to transform himself. Not ethically, not morally, but spiritually, mystically. He saw his task as one of a genuine renovation of his spirit - and by implications all spirits. That the church took him to its bosom was not of his making. In a way, the systematic thinking of all institutions, including the church, subverts original thinking by making it its own. Of course, in the process, some leavening does occur, thank goodness!



James Cowan is author of a number of internationally acclaimed books, including A Troubadour’s Testament and Letters from A Wild State. In 1998 he was awarded the prestigious Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal for his novel, A Mapmaker’s Dream. His work has been translated into seventeen languages.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1942, Cowan attended school in Europe and then, in the 1960’s traveled and worked in Vancouver, New York, and London. Returning to Australia in 1973 he took this opportunity of viewing his homeland as if it were a foreign country. He traveled throughout Australia exploring early European culture and its imprint on the land. This led to a succession of books, namely The Mountain Men, The River People, and Starlight’s Trail.

Cowan then began a ten-year study of the Aboriginal culture which led him to work, study and finally live among Aborigines in the Center, the Far North and the Kimberly region of Australia. This resulted in a series of books that explored Aboriginal themes: Mysteries of the Dreaming, Myths of Dreaming, Letters from a Wild State, Sacred Places, The Aboriginal Tradition, and finally Messengers of the Gods all found their inspiration in traditional cultural perspectives that Cowan found there.

Beginning in the 1990s, Cowan turned to a more global perspective. He was interested in fashioning a new prose - one that is spare, limpid, and devoid of all the old mechanisms of literary realism. This new prose is exploited in his novels A Mapmaker’s Dream, A Troubadour’s Testament, and more recently Palace of Memory. Each of these novels is an attempt to re-affirm the greatness of the European and Near-Eastern traditions. Though steeped in history and imbued with the continuum between past and present, Cowan’s work is thoroughly directed toward the modern.

More recently, Cowan has just returned to Australia after spending three years in Italy where he researched his latest work Francis: A Saints Way. His latest work is Journey to the Inner Mountain, a study of St. Antony of Egypt of the 3rd century is now on sale.

He now lives in Queensland.