Welcome – sort of
My name is Ptolemy Tompkins and this is my website. A website which, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t want to create, and which I still have my misgivings about, now that it’s pretty much done.
What’s wrong with a writer having a website? Nothing of course. But somehow I’d hoped to avoid having one, for the following (not altogether original) reasons.
To begin with, there’s the matter of mystery – a quality that I, like many people, associate with books more than with just about any other object. For as long as I can remember, reading for me has been not just an amusement, not just a way of gathering knowledge or hearing interesting stories, but a kind of spiritual exercise: a seemingly mundane activity that, when circumstances are just right, becomes something decidedly more than that. A good book, for me, has always been more than the simple sum of its parts: more than the man or woman who wrote it, more than the paper it’s printed on, more than the ink on its pages. Reading a good book in the right way can allow me to switch the gears of my consciousness – to actually inhabit the world in a different way than I was inhabiting it before I picked it up and started reading. It allows me to be able to say, as Sven Birkerts put it in his extraordinary book The Gutenberg Elegies: “I am still contained in the world, but I don’t feel trapped in it.”
So… given that this strange, not always easy to find, but entirely real and entirely essential higher condition of mind is really what reading is all about for me, I can’t help but wonder if the Internet – and the flash-flood incursion it has made into the world of how one buys, reads, and thinks about books — doesn’t more often than not prevent books from doing their job as generators of this larger-than-the-world feeling.
It isn’t just that the Internet jumbles and flattens consciousness, taking away one’s power to focus for lengthy periods and to truly immerse oneself in a text (as books like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows argue so convincingly). By making the author of
a book seem so accessible, so right-there-in-front-of-us, the Internet also deprives readers of a certain sense of the world’s largeness and (in a positive sense) its remoteness. By placing everyone and everything within our instantaneous pseudo-reach, it ultimately makes the universe seem like a much flatter and flimsier place than it really is. A place that’s like a restaurant serving all kinds of seemingly exotic dishes, but where all those dishes actually taste pretty much the same, because each is made up of the same few ingredients.
But like I said, this attitude doesn’t really fly these days.
“What are you doing about your web presence?” an editor asked me pointedly a few years ago, when I was interviewing for a book proposal I’d written. The question immediately made me picture the column of Google-murk that must have popped up when she’d fed my name into her search engine. If I lived in a world where it was increasingly difficult for a person to pick up a book without wondering whether the author had a blog, a Youtube channel or a Twitter feed, then I probably owed it to the occasional web-searcher out there who was curious about something I’d written to provide at least a little accurate information about myself.
So… here we go. I was born in 1962 and grew up just outside Washington, DC, where my father, the writer Peter Tompkins, lived because it was close to the Library of Congress, where he liked to do his research. I went to the Maret School in DC, Vassar College for a few months in the fall of 1980 (as narrated in my book The Beaten Path), and Sarah Lawrence College for a few years after that, until my father ran out of the money necessary to meet the heavy tuition.
I was born into an Episcopalian family, but had a father with strong occult/New Age leanings, and who was in fact partially responsible for the explosion of popularity that New Age thought underwent in the early seventies. My stepbrother, Nicholas Vreeland, is the abbot of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India, and both his thinking and his actions over the years have had a very strong influence on me as well – perhaps as strong in their way as my father’s. I’m also someone who spent close to a decade writing for the single largest Christian magazine in America, and who not once, during all that time, ever felt uncomfortable being there. That’s not to say that I didn’t have to write plenty of stuff that was too corny, too sentimental, too over-written by my boss Edward, or too boilerplate for my tastes. But the basic beliefs that underlay all the stuff I wrote there, and specifically the beliefs of the three million or so ordinary people who read the magazine, made sense to me. That God existed, that Jesus was indeed his representative on earth,
that the earth itself is in a wretchedly fallen state but that another, far better state lies both in the past and in the future, not just for some small elect but for every being alive on earth and in the universe – this was all more than fine with me.
I’ve written eight or so full-length books — what I tend to think of as the “real” ones – and a few shorter, not-so-serious ones that pop up on Amazon if you put my name in. I’ve also written way, way too many articles for the Internet: articles that were in large part written too fast, and which now tend to make my teeth hurt when I look at them.
Then again, some of these articles are okay, and I really shouldn’t complain about their still floating around out there, as they’re about what one would expect from a well-intentioned writer with limited time and finances and who, life being what it is, tends to write something whenever he’s asked to.
To illustrate just how open minded I’ve been in this regard: the first piece of writing I ever received a bona fide check for (a then-staggering eight hundred dollars) was called “My Orgasm in the Ocean,” and appeared, under the pseudonym of Tom Kennis, in the January 1987 issue of a then-popular print journal called Penthouse Forum. I’d studied poetry while I was at Sarah Lawrence, and I still remember the night when, along with Greg Mirhej, one of my Sarah Lawrence literary chums, I walked into a convenience store just outside of Northampton, Massachusetts, and saw the issue of Forum with my piece in it there on the rack behind the clerk (where all the “no browsing” fare was stored). Beside myself with excitement, I slapped my four bucks down and rifled through the pages like a fledgling poet rifling through the literary journal that contains his first sonnet. Greg watched all this with a mix of puzzlement and horror. After all those long, rarefied evenings discussing Rilke and Philip Larkin, this was what my dream of being a writer had let to?
I saw Greg’s point, of course. But looking at those neat columns of print containing my very own (completely fabricated, highly unbelievable, and ridiculously wordy) sentences, and the fabulously absurd double-page illustration that accompanied them, I realized that not only did I really want to become a writer; I wanted to become one sufficiently badly that I was ready to say “yes” to pretty much anything that anyone, anywhere, asked me to write.
So it was that I ended up saying “yes” to all kinds of stuff over the years that followed – some of it for the better, some of it for the worse, and some of it (even) free.
Of course, I’m hardly the first writer to have chosen the path of I’ll-write-whatever-comes-my-way when confronted with this particular fork in the professional writer’s wood. So what?
That’s where the Internet comes in again. One of the main reasons people – me included – look up a writer on the internet is to find out what he or she thinks – what that person’s basic orientations are. And because there’s so much of my stuff on the Internet that was tailored to the demands of whoever had asked me to write it, a web search tends to make it harder, rather than easier, to figure out who I am and whether one would or wouldn’t want to read something I’d written.
If I look up an author, my usual question is: What does this person really think? What’s the core belief system around which that author’s thoughts revolve, and which weaves, sometimes on the surface and sometimes beneath it, through that author’s books?
So… what’s my core belief system? All of my books are on spiritual subjects, and spiritually speaking, I’m a product of my time. And my time is, more than anything else, one in which all the formerly separate spiritual and philosophical traditions are crashing into one another, creating (in Paul Ricoeur’s phrase) a “conflict of interpretations.” If the anchoring realities that in times past kept cultures together are now facing the crisis of relativism, can any of those anchoring realities survive? If my core realities are different from yours, which core reality is correct? Is there even any such thing as a “correct” core reality anymore?
Perhaps most importantly: has the new religion of hardcore materialist science pushed all those old world-pictures off the table, so that we are condemned to live in a world where matter alone is real, and belief in anything beyond that which can be apprehended by our five senses (or their scientific extensions) is just foolishness?
My feeling is that the concept of an “outer,” material world which is real, and an “inner” world of thoughts and emotions which are not (in other words, the core tenet of scientific materialism), is one that has been terminally compromised. The rock-solid pylon of a stable, material, “exterior” world that science has, for three hundred years, based its refutation of the truths of faith upon has turned out to be extremely rickety and, in fact, on the verge of outright collapse. As Bernardo Kastrup points out in his many books, empirical science bases its truth claims upon a material world that serves as an unalterable reference point for establishing what is provable and what isn’t. But… for reasons that Kastrup goes into in fascinating detail, there turns out not to be an exterior, unalterable world of solid fact upon which materialist science can establish its bulkhead. The real bulkhead – as I go into with astrophysicist Bernie Haisch in our book Proof of God – turns out to be consciousness. That most seemingly evanescent, hard-to-pin-down and (until recently at least) overlooked aspect of our world, is, ironically enough, the one Rock upon which we can confidently find refuge as we seek to make sense of ourselves and the universe that gave us birth.
If the globalization of the world has done any good, it’s in forcing people everywhere to come to terms with the sheer multiplicity of human belief structures, and the need to ground one’s own beliefs in a bedrock of tolerance for others, rather than knee jerk denials or blanket condemnations. World history has, in recent years, been forcing us to just such a re-visioning of our belief systems, and it’s a re-visioning we have to respond to not just within groups, but individually as well.
In a way, you could say that the world’s faiths are being called upon to attempt the same basic feat that I’ve been called upon to do myself over the years, as a writer: to accommodate the wishes of others without compromising or destroying the integrity my central, core identity.
So here’s what, given this general situation and all the challenges and ambiguities and potential dead ends it presents, I’ve come to think of myself as, belief-wise:
In a nutshell, I’m a Christian hermetist with some Buddhist/Taoist leanings but Stronger Hindu ones, with a pronounced interest in current ideas about the evolution of consciousness such as put forth by people like Owen Barfield, Ken Wilber, Jean Gebser, Rudolf Steiner, Douglass Fawcett, Michael Whiteman, and (with reservations) Teilhard de Chardin. I believe that we are spiritual beings, momentarily inhabiting physical bodies. I believe that the universe is in transit. I believe that we are going somewhere, that we were created for a reason, and that that reason is to discover our fathomless inner particularity and individuality without sacrificing our sense of unity with, and responsibility toward, all the other beings on our planet and in the universe, both in its physical and its more-than-physical levels.
In the rest of this site, I try to clarify the above through a discussion of aspects of my individual books. I don’t know if it will be useful to anyone, but for the sake of the Internet, I’ve given it a shot.