Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics and the Sixties
Profile Books, 288pp, £14.99
"It was in my first year at Oxford that I decided that I wanted to be a Muslim saint. I wish I could remember more." With these deceptively simple sentences, Robert Irwin begins one of the most delightfully diverting explorations of the byways of memory to have appeared in many years - and one of the most profound.
The subtitle suggests that this is an attempt to recapture the spirit of the Sixties, and Irwin recounts what it was like to be young at the time with playfully surrealistic humour. Yet he has no special fondness for the years that shaped him, during which, he confesses, he was "lonely, unconfident, sex-starved and somewhat mad".
Irwin reserves his tenderness for an era in which he never lived. "I feel nostalgic about Britain in the Second World War," he writes, "even though I was not born then." Nor does he pretend to unravel the tangle of events and influences that occurred in the Sixties. As he writes, "I did not understand what was going on in the Sixties and I am no wiser now."
At certain points, Irwin presents the book as an exercise in cultural retrieval, but Memoirs of a Dervish tells a story that is more personal and at the same time more universal. An expensive private education had left him adrift in the world with no idea of what to do with his life. Like many others at the time, he looked for meaning in exotic religions, but it was not Zen or Vedanta that attracted him. Weeks after arriving as an undergraduate in Oxford in 1964 he joined the Buddhist Society, only to find that most of its members were "much more interested in anarchism, drugs and Sufism than they were in Buddhism".
It was to Sufism that Irwin was drawn, and in the summer of 1965 he set off for Mostaganem, a small town in Algeria that contained a zawiya, or Sufi lodge, which, according to the Guide Bleu that he consulted on his journey, commanded over 100,000 adherents. He believed that the Islamic mystical tradition embodied the "perennial philosophy", a notion popularised by writers such as the Swiss guru Frithjof Schuon, which holds that all the great religions contain the same primordial wisdom.
Rightly, Irwin came to distrust Schuon and to view the ancient esoteric tradition that thinkers of his kind claimed to have recovered as a fraudulent modern invention. Later, he dabbled in various secretive cults, mostly the preserve of well-heeled flâneurs, and for many years dutifully recorded his dreams, without ever learning anything useful or inspiring.
Despite these disillusionments, he has never renounced the belief that, in Mostaganem, he "found the truth".
If he was confused during a decade of delusion, Irwin shows that he was at the same time one of the sharpest observers of the Sixties. Lindsay Anderson's iconic film If . . . , a fantasy of violent upheaval at a public school, captured the dreamtime in which many of Irwin's undergraduate friends passed their days. He reports that when he went to see the film in December 1968, "the audience was packed out with ex-public school boys" who "cheered the massacre with a Gatling gun of the assembled teachers, parents and boys".
A hot topic of debate among Irwin's friends at Oxford was the value of the public schools' Officer Training Corps, some maintaining that the true revolutionary must scorn military discipline and others urging that marksmanship and orienteering would be useful skills once the revolution erupted. Irwin notes, running parallel with these fantasies, a submerged sense of pessimism:
It is striking how many of the pop lyrics were set in the future and looked back to the present from a position of compromise and defeat . . . Defeat, the sellout to maturity and "the toad work" were almost universally anticipated by the lyricists.
In many ways, the feeling of despair was as self-indulgent as the fantasy of revolution. I much preferred the gritty realities of the Seventies. The Sixties were a time of incoherent dreams. But most of those who were caught up in the excitement suspected it would come to nothing, and even at the time it was apparent that many were banking on just such an outcome.
Irwin's story is only incidentally one of collective self-delusion. The core of the book is a sincere spiritual search, recounted with rare candour and arresting insight. Though a copious literature exists on the "dark night of the soul", few of those who have written about the spiritual life have noted how boring it can be. During many of Irwin's long days of prayer in Mostaganem, nothing happened at all. Then, sometimes for days or weeks at a time, sometimes for minutes, ecstasy came. This was nothing like drunkenness (to which many Sufi poets have compared it): it was a hollowing out of the soul - "like being eaten out from the inside". When Irwin returned to England, he was "a walking flame", "possessed by a horrible energy, but going nowhere". Similar states would recur in later years, but he confesses that he has "no idea what ecstasy is for".
The author tells us in the preface that he has written this memoir in order "to give my youth a retrospective artistic shape". Memory, he believes, is not a passive process of retrieval, but rather the active construction of a life in retrospect. What emerges here is a tale as fluid and as finally mysterious as the life it recounts.
There is sadness in what Irwin remembers - his Sufi teachers being arrested and tortured as Zionist agents in the course of Algeria's savage internal conflicts, for example. His greatest regret, however, is that he resisted his mother's pressure to go to dancing classes as a schoolboy.
After Algeria, he continued to drift, struggling for years with a doctoral thesis that was never finished, but as he aged, "the world seemed to become more solid". Under "the vast gravitational pull of every day, of work, of marriage", he fell to earth. Along the way, he became an accomplished novelist and turned himself into an expert on orientalism and its critics.
Now in his sixties and starting to think of death, Irwin looks back on his zigzag journey without any of the faith in personal autonomy of which liberal humanists - unknowingly promoting a Christian myth - make so much.
A character in a novel may behave as if he or she has free choice, but that is not the reality, for his or her actions are determined by the creator, the novelist . . . It may well be that the universe we inhabit is like that and our sense of being free to will what we do is merely an illusion.
He believes in an afterlife, though one so utterly different from anything we know that it is impossible to imagine: "the universe is stranger than we can think".
Citing Keats on negative capability - the ability to remain in "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" - he tells us he can only explain "why Islam is true for me". Then he goes a step further. "But even granting Islam to be essentially true, as I believe it to be, how does that solve the Meaning of Life? Frankly, I have no idea." Here, at last, Irwin may have found a truly perennial philosophy. l
John Gray is the New Statesman's lead reviewer. His latest book is "The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Defeat Death" (Allen Lane, £18.99)