There was a time in the 1970s when physics and Eastern philosophy began overlapping. Blame the Beatles/Maharishi convergence or how Einstein quotes sounded guru-esque and ashram-friendly. One quote often attributed to Einstein—“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”—took hold of author J Joseph Kazden. Kazden explores Einstein’s and others’ ideas in his two cosmological books, TotIs (2015) and Gita: Between the Unknowable and the Unreal (2018).
Both of Kazden’s novels use conversation among characters as a vehicle for instruction. TotIs imagines classic thinkers discussing life, the universe, and everything. Gita is more plot driven, but it does put philosophical principles to work. Gita, a mythic warrior-queen, prepares to battle upstart members of her own royal family. Facing her doubts—with aid of a special guest philosopher—she ruminates on her situation, dharma, and quantum dimensions in a free-ranging conversation that enthusiastically embraces anachronisms. Kazden thus transfixes and conducts readers through the revelations of Eastern mystic thought and modern physics but without the college-course syllabi.
Thematically, Gita, which Kirkus calls “imaginative and thoroughly stimulating,” might remind readers of physicist Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics (1975)—a book Kazden said he enjoyed but does not aspire to imitate. “It was at Brooklyn Technical High School in New York City where my love of math and science was ingrained.” He tried mathematics at City College of New York, but, he says, “I simply couldn’t see myself living in such a culture.” After spending a sabbatical working on a kibbutz, Kazden found himself back at CCNY, involved in chemistry, physics, and, ultimately, the psychology department.
“My interests led me to ideas from people such as Carl Jung and R.D. Lang, and the field of phenomenology as it relates to human consciousness. During this time, I also became interested in Eastern philosophies and ideas.” Kazden’s quest encompassed yoga, shiatsu, martial arts, tai chi, Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and authors as ancient as Lao Tzu and contemporary as Carlos Casteneda.
Kazden says, “Being a rebellious lad I ended up leaving CCNY without a degree as, at the time, I cared little for accredited titles (I still don’t). I knew I had to find my own way, which path led through the world at large, a world resplendent with teachers and knowledge hiding in plain sight.”
Both books rely on dialogues between disciples and masters. His framework makes a literary bow to Hinduism’s Bhagavad-Gitaand Mahabharatasagas. Gita must rally followers to fight her own uncles’ armies in a battle for the kingdom. Spirit failing, she receives solace and renewal via someone not in the original Indian text—Socrates. As Merlin is to Arthur, Socrates is to Gita. Kazden describes his creative, time-fluid take on the founding father of Western philosophy: “An ancient Greek character…talking about relativity theory and quantum mechanics while sitting on a couch, probably in his toga, drinking wine and leading a symposium with his friends.”
Buddha, it’s claimed, attained enlightenment while meditating under a ficus plant. Of his own conceptual breakthrough, Kazden says, “One night in early 2012, I sat bolt upright in my bed from a deep sleep. This, of course, awoke my wife, who startled, asked me if I was all right. I said to her, ‘I have to write something down.’ I didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of my book TotIs. What had come to me was an ephemeral yet graspable epiphany of the nature of the ‘persistence’ of the illusion Einstein was talking about. It was literally at this point that I became a writer, for I knew it was the only way I was going to be able to express these ideas which had been germinating within me my whole adult life.”
Kazden says his initial drafts grew “unreadable” as he tried to expound on point after point. Then he realized that using iconic characters to debate and share complicated philosophical ideas not only made the ideas easier to absorb, but also lent themselves to a narrative arc. “Suddenly that semester of reading and dissecting Plato’s Republic in high school had meaning for me! Starting again from the beginning, I let Socrates and his friends lead the way.”
“You speak,” Gita said, “of the nature of prime reality, of what actually is, as opposed to any experience or interpretation of that reality using three different definitions, to wit, totIs, Brahmin and the Tao. These three, though similar, are yet different from one another. How can this be so if you’re describing this one reality in the universe?”
Socrates and Gita’s exchanges touch on East-West dichotomies of determinism (dharma) versus free will and current arguments over “Quantum Entanglement.” If two particles appear to be interacting simultaneously, are they communicating faster than light? Or were they just fated to act so? Is Gita truly master of her destiny or doomed slave to inevitability? Reading TotIs to grok Gita is advised; ideas in the first reappear in the other.
Gita may not have had control over circumstances bringing her to a game-of-thrones moment. But she can temper her attitude and experiential reactions—a message of practical resilience that just about anyone could find beneficial. And who wouldn’t want Socrates, Einstein, and Lao Tzu to bend their ear now and then?
While the wartime setting enables Kazden to indulge in battlefield heroics, he says the teachings apply in less sanguine endeavors: “If we ask ourselves, ‘What makes me happy?’ we almost universally look to things outside of ourselves—going on vacation, getting a raise at work, a new car, etc….What TotIs makes clear and Gita exemplifies in the reality of a conscious being is that what makes us—all of us—happy is an internal biological process, a bio sensory process. A new car does not make us happy. We make ourselves happy. And if we understand that, then we are free to make ourselves happy or unhappy at will.”
Author/critic Charles Cassady Jr. writes on film, literature, true crime, and ghosts from somewhere in Ohio.