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Robert Wolff – Original Wisdom: Stories from an Ancient Way of Knowing

October 5, 2009

117. Original Wisdom: Stories from an Ancient Way of Knowing by Robert Wolff (2001)

Length: 198 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction

Started: 20 September 2009
Finished: 21 September 2009

Where did it come from? Christmas present.
Why do I have it? It’s been on my wishlist since I don’t remember when… I originally got the recommendation from the “further reading” section of one of Daniel Quinn’s books, or possibly his website.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 25 December 2008.

Summary: Robert Wolff was born and raised in Southeast Asia, and has spent his life living at the border of two cultures. As an adult, he returns to Malaysia and learns from the aboriginal Sng’oi people. The are jungle dwellers and hunter/gatherers, but more importantly, they lead lives of joy and community, and a sense of interconnection to the world around them, free from the anxiety, struggle, and alienation of the modern world. What Wolff learns from them, and shares with us, is not only their story and their way of life, but also their unique way of being fully human.

Review: It was obvious from fairly early on that this book was not written by someone who writes for a living. The prose is simple and uncomplicated throughout, which on the one hand makes it non-threatening and accessible for the layperson, but on the other hand tended to dilute the message – there are only so many ways to say “we don’t have a good word for this in English” before it starts to look like a cop-out, especially when other authors have found good words for similar concepts.

The organization was also less polished than what I would expect from a more experienced author. About half of the chapters read as though they were written at very different periods, and although they were on similar themes, they didn’t have much connection to what came before or after. This in and of itself wouldn’t have been a problem; collections of essays are a-okay by me (although some editing for repetition was needed; I think we heard at least five or six times that raising one’s voice is considered extremely rude in Malay culture.) However, the other half of the chapters were more connected, and told more of a story, leaving the book as a whole to feel a little somewhat discombobulated.

Maybe as a result of the piecemeal approach to the book, there were a few times when it felt like Wolff was being somewhat hypocritical. In one chapter, he’s very down on anthropology and anthropological methods for missing the truth of the people they study, but then in the next, he takes off to conduct what essentially amounts to his own anthropological study. Similarly, in the beginning of the book, he’s very critical of people who go off into the jungle, become shamans, and then come back and try to sell what they’ve learned to other people… and then he tells us about how he went off into the jungle, became a shaman, and oh, by the way, thanks for giving me money to read this book I wrote about it.

The thing was, despite all of the problems I had with its presentation, I actually appreciate and mostly agree with his message. I think that modern culture (Taker culture, in Daniel Quinn’s parlance) does have the effect of completely alienating us from the rest of the community of Life. I absolutely do believe that the people with whom Wolff spent time live their lives full of joy, humanity, and a sense of Oneness the world around them, and I further believe that Wolff did learn to tap into that mindset, that “way of knowing.” My problem is not with the message, it was with Wolff’s means of conveying it. Wolff’s story is interesting and his message important, but he doesn’t ever bring it around to be practical for people who don’t have a tiger-filled jungle available for their vision quest at a moment’s notice, nor is the writing enough to really convey the power and the universality of the point he’s trying to make. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It was certainly interesting, and not as New-Age-y woo-woo as I’d feared, but I think Daniel Quinn’s The Story of B makes a lot of Wolff’s same points but with a better use of the language.

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First Line: Most of us were raised in the Empire of the First World, a world and culture steeped in literacy, certain of the fundamental truth that life’s great goal is to find that niche where we can spend our days working to the larger enrichment of another person or corporation.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2009 8:39 am

    I have a hard time with these sort of New-Age-y books – I don’t know if it’s because our culture seems saturated with them at times, or because I’m too entrenched in my own ideas about spirituality and morality. I did like Ishmael though; if The Story of B is similarly good, I definitely need to read that too.

    • October 5, 2009 9:16 am

      Jenny – The Story of B is my favorite of Quinn’s books, so if you liked Ishmael, then yes, I’d absolutely recommend it. Fair warning: it is a fair bit more about “spirituality” than Ishmael was, but it presents it all in a way that just makes sense to me… if that makes sense. :)

  2. John permalink
    October 5, 2009 10:13 am

    I’d like to borrow this. It sounds similar to a book that I read in my Non-western Civ class called, Shamans, Mystics, and Witch-doctors. Basically, the same “the modern world is disconnected and the aboriginals have a happier more connected life,” motif. I have a bit of it memorized where the author, an anthropologist, speaks to one of the shamen (sp?). They discuss a young girl who is suffering from what we would call an anxiety disorder. The shaman calls it a demon. The shaman describes the demon’s influence in almost word for word the way it is in the DSM-IV. When the author points this out, the shaman basically says, right, it’s a demon. The difference is that S, M & W-d also deals with the ways that aboriginal culture has things very wrong. For example, making a poltice of urine, mud, and herbs to treat cataracts, where a surgery is what is needed.

    • October 5, 2009 10:25 am

      John – For sure; you can get it this weekend if I don’t remember to bring it in sooner.

      Have you read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down? I think you probably have, but if not, you really should; it’s another look at the differences between traditional healing and western medicine, and what happens when they clash. My copy is at my parents’ house, but I could get it over Thanksgiving.

  3. John permalink
    October 6, 2009 5:55 pm

    That would be cool. :D

  4. Jose Luis permalink
    October 15, 2009 3:07 pm

    I think Robert Wolff’s books are the opposite of “new-agey”…
    I’m disseminating this interview with him: raw truth, not fluffiness…

    warm regards

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