Parabola

One of my biggest recent literary discoveries was learning about Parabola Magazine.

Subtitled “Myth and the Quest for Meaning”, it started as a quarterly journal in 1976, exploring traditions and mythologies from around the world, and how these ideas relate to contemporary life.

Each issue is devoted to a particular theme, and I found them all equally interesting. It was difficult to pick only a few back issues to order but I settled on Magic, Initiation, Mask & Metaphor, Animals, and Androgyny. The impressive list of contributors includes Ursula K. Le Guin, Mircea Eliade, Jacob Needleman, Elaine Pagels, Pablo Neruda, Italo Calvino and Joseph Campbell, to name but a few.

Upon opening my first issue, the one devoted to Magic, I found a very interesting article titled Magic, Sacrifice and Tradition: Preliminary Notes by Jacob Needleman, and within it a short tale by P.D. Ouspensky. It has been over a year but the wisdom captured inside this short story still reverberates with me. I find it so profound and universal to many of life’s situations that I just had to share it, so here is the entire story:

Strange life of Ivan of Osokin by P.D. Ouspensky

Ivan Osokin is a young man who has watched himself stupidly take the wrong turn at every crossroads of his life until he is brought to the state of desperation. At the point of suicide, he visits a powerful old magician. In the course of talking to the magician, Osokin pleads for a chance to live his life over again, knowing in advance everything that has happened before.

“It is possible,” the magician says, “but it will not make things better for you… I can send you back as far as you like, and you will remember everything, but nothing will come of it.”

Not believing the magician, Osokin asks to be transported back to his school days. But his life proceeds as the magician predicted.

Osokin knows what will happen, but he cannot bring that knowledge into his emotional life, and inexorably everything takes place exactly as before, down to the last detail, until he even ignores what he knows and imagines it to be only a dream. In short, he is trapped again in the wheel of existence.

Once more he is brought to the point of despair, and once more he finds himself in the magician’s house. But now one thing is different: Osokin realises with horror what has happened. He knows and feels the automatism of ordinary human life. “There is the cold of the grave in this thought. He feels that this is the fear of the inevitable, fear of himself, of that self from which there is no escape…. He will be the same and everything will be the same.”

Then, and only then, does he find it in himself to sacrifice his belief that he knows what he needs and ask for help without dictating the terms. And only then can the magician show him the first step toward the path of escape from the innate automatism of his existence. He tells Osokin:

“…Nothing can be acquired without sacrifice. This is the thing you do not understand, and until you understand it, nothing can be done. Had I wanted to give you, without any sacrifice on your part, everything you might wish, I could not have done it.

A man can be given only what he can use; and he can use only that for which he has sacrificed something. This is the law of human nature. So if a man wants to get help to acquire important knowledge or new powers, he must sacrifice other things important to him at the moment. Moreover, he can only get as much as he has given up for it….”

“Are there no other ways?” asks Osokin.

The magician answers, “You mean ways in which no sacrifices are necessary? No, there are no such ways, and you do not understand what you are asking. You cannot have results without causes. By your sacrifice, you create causes….”

 

If you are intrigued, Wikipedia is a good starting point for learning more about the author: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P._D._Ouspensky

Fascinatingly, Parabola is still being published and new issues are available as hard copies or digital PDF, as well as via subscriptions. Old, out of print editions also available in the “Archived” section of the website that also features podcasts, essays and articles: https://parabola.org

 

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