Stepping Out of the devine: B. J. Muirhead reviews ‘The Niquab and the Mumkin’ by David Foster

The Niquab and the Mumkin by David Foster. Puncher & Watermann 2014

The_Niqab_and_the_MumkinThe title essay of this collection, according to its author, is “effectively a thesis on mysticism” that makes no claims to originality.

Although it is very thoroughly and effectively researched, the truth is that it is not a thesis in any traditional fashion. There is little to no argumentation and few explanatory asides that link and explain all of the information made available to us.

Rather it is a complex blending of the personal and the academic, of images and stories which centre around a set of central ideas: tawid, or the recognition of the sole reality of God; the relationship between God and creature (hahut) experienced as relationship with the Divine Female (Shakti, shekhina, Quan Yin, Fatima, the daughter of the prophet, and more); the nature of the primacy of vision and its relationship to the Clear Light seen at the moment of death, as described in the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of The Dead).

Linking these, and much more, is the notion of the veil (niqab) behind which the mumkin (possibility) awaits, behind which we may see possibilities which both go beyond and defy reason.

For anyone interested in the “light” that is the “Face of God” and the manner in which we may experience this “light”, The Niqab and the Mumkin is a compelling essay which opens with its own instructions on how to read what follows.

…if born sighted, we favour vision, for when we dream—so to create a meeting place with hungry ghosts and angels—we deploy what we have seen, remixing imagery to suit oneiric need… (p. 11)

It is this remixing of what we have seen which is important for what follows. The novel, Foster says (p. 15)

…demands imagination, the summoning up of visual imagery from heard sound. The words we read on a page pass through the auditory centres of the brain, so that we always hear a voice when reading: there is no such thing as silent reading(.)

This is more than fair notice that we need to listen to our inner voice whilst reading and engage our imagination in order to pass through the veil and reach the realm of possibility. And a goodly part of this listening is imagining what Foster interjects about his own life at regular intervals in the essay.

We are not merely provided with illustrative, autobiographical snippets, however. There are some sixty pages of information about mystical experience, with diversions into Foster’s life and views, which we are intended to hear and imagine as commentary on mysticism before he announces that he should recount his own experience, which gave him “food for thought and motivation for reading.” (p. 70)

The efficient cause of his experience, as recounted by Foster himself, was the realisation that his work was being eclipsed by the work of David Foster Wallace, that the coincidence of their names even resulted in his being mistaken for Wallace. On realising this he asked:

What was I to do over the next six weeks? Venture on the spiritual journey of a lifetime? (p. 72)

It began with a nightmare, followed by prayer and a cessation of drinking. The niqab, he says, slipped from the mumkin and he could sense his Lady—the feminine aspect of God—take him by the hand. He was experiencing a direct, immediate relationship with the Female aspect of divine manifestation through which God’s presence is felt. (It is this which informs some of his comments on homosexuality, that is, the old and patriarchal notion that God is experienced via the feminine, thus rendering homosexuality less than attractive, especially when coupled with his own personal experiences of homosexuality, mentioned but passed over quickly in the text.)

There is more, so much more to this essay, from his apparent acceptance of his experience, and then his apparent dismissal of it as a “breakdown”, to the always always accompanying detail and questing into the nature of mystical experience and all that the various religions have had to say about it. At one point Foster comments on the way the experience would be described from different positions, saying that a psychiatrist would likely make a note saying “manic-depressive moving from customary clinical depression to stress induced mania,” whilst Sufi comment may be that “few can remain within the limits of proper conduct in expansion.” What the secular psychiatric viewpoint leaves out is everything Foster talks about in this essay, everything which makes it a profound springboard into experience beyond Foster’s personal story.

The other six essays in the book are smaller in size and breadth, but each of them asks us to peek behind the veil of our preconceptions, producing ideas and statements that are bound to offend those who don’t want to be challenged. In ‘A Plea on Behalf of Eros’, for example, Foster bluntly states that

We deny equality and fraternity to those we perceive as different to ourselves, preferring to offer them liberty instead—the liberty to call themselves anything they like. (p. 97)

He then makes it clear that, in respect of race, that we passionately object to words like half-caste, quadroon, mulatto, preferring instead to call them black and encourage them to call themselves black, thus reinforcing the issue of race and ongoing racism in the most subtle of ways. As he says later in the book (p. 116), “you need to train yourself to see the white, not just the black, in men like Colin Powell,” a statement which holds true for anyone of any non-white race living in a contemporary Western society on a permanent basis.

Foster’s comments on race in these essays hold an anger that is broad and based in his, I think accurate, awareness that so much of what is taken to be “aboriginality” is a white, Western myth that does little to remove racism from the Australian social agenda. I don’t know how correct he is—I don’t know if we can apply notions of truth and correctness to this subject— but much of what he says rings true to me.

I hope I sound as impressed by this book as I am. Foster has taken a set of impossible situations and experiences and turned them into essays that challenge our assumptions and preconceptions. “We read,” Foster writes (p. 107), “in order to learn how to live and die…”

Frequently politically incorrect, the ideas in these essays invite us behind the niqab to see Foster himself, to imagine what we may not wish to hear about Foster’s own experience which, none the less, hold together opinions which are difficult to ignore once heard.

– B. J. Muirhead

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BJ Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) and Flesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com

The Niquab and the Mumkin is available from http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/the-niqab-and-the-mumkin

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Rochford Street Review relies on donations to cover costs. Any funds left over are used to pay reviewers.

One thought on “Stepping Out of the devine: B. J. Muirhead reviews ‘The Niquab and the Mumkin’ by David Foster

  1. Pingback: Issue 13 October 2014 – March 2015 (Special Double Issue) | Rochford Street Review

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