Solid ground for philosophical explorations.

The Nomads' Labyrinth

In an attempt to understand the shamanic drum, primarily as used by the Siberian Sami culture, this philosophical tome dives into theories of ontology, epistemology, art history and ethnology.

A brief anthropological overview describes the drum as a tool for communication between nomads and the reindeer that were critical to their survival, as well as the knowledge a skilled shaman could use to develop wisdom and healing techniques for his community. But Gomez’s analysis becomes theoretical and essentialist as he compares the ontologies of Martin Heidegger and Gilles Deleuze to those of Plato, Aristotle and René Descartes in order to formulate an idea of the drum as a piece of equipment—“ready-to-hand,” as Heidegger might call it—that exists in the context of a world with structure and language. This type of discussion continues through dozens of great thinkers and ideas, yielding a grand analysis of the human condition and of Western versus nomadic thinking, as if a theoretical understanding of it all were necessary to put the shamanic drum into its proper context. Gomez rejects both a Freudian explanation of the shamanic journey as a psychological process occurring purely in the shaman’s mind and an Eliadian explanation based in visual imagery of the shaman’s ascension into the sky. Gomez’s frame for the journey is that of the shaman traveling through an information-rich, tactile soundscape of overtones and assumed animal identities, experienced by shaman and the nomadic community as a smooth transition between different worlds related by their proximity to one another rather than a striated jump between inner and outer worlds. Gomez’s style is lucid, well-organized, linear and academic, and his guide could serve well as a textbook for a graduate seminar. But for most readers, the wait for these insights may be too long, and the path is burdened by the volume of its proof as much as it is grounded by it. Spiritual seekers hoping to find a firmer conceptual grounding for modern shamanism—stronger, perhaps, than that provided by New Age favorites like Michael Harner—might find this reading much too difficult for the reward. Similarly, the Western academic focus, the relative dearth of information derived from actual discussions with modern Sami and the lack of photographs of real drums or analysis of their specific designs will disappoint readers looking for a more robust understanding of traditional shamanic culture. Nonetheless, deep thinkers who crave a real-world example around which to contemplate the nature of human existence will find ample food for thought.

Solid ground for philosophical explorations.

Pub Date: May 4, 2013

ISBN: 978-1480064751

Page Count: 606

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2013

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.


A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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