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 I’d hoped to avoid the process anyhow, 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 just 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 is 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 book TheGutenberg 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, 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 computer. 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 Googler out there who was curious about something I’d written to provide at least a little basic accurate information about myself.
So… here we go. As Wikipedia could tell you, 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 money to pay for it.
I’ve written five full-length books – what I tend to think of as the serious or “real” ones – a few shorter, not-so-serious ones that pop up on Amazon if you put my name in, and way, way too many articles for the Internet 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 any of them as they’re nothing but what one would expect from a well-intentioned writer with limited time and abilities who’s decided to simply start typing, for better or worse, whenever he’s asked to do so.
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 was called “My Orgasm in the Ocean,” and appeared, under the pseudonym of Tom Kennis, in the January ’87 issue of Penthouse Forum. I’d studied poetry while I was at Sarah Lawrence, and I still remember the night when, along with one of my Sarah Lawrence literary chums, I walked into a convenience store just outside of Northampton, Massachusetts, and saw the issue with my piece in it on the rack. I was stunned and excited, my friend horrified. After all those long, rarefied evenings discussing Rilke and Knut Hamsun, this was what my dream of being a writer had let to?
I saw my friend’s point of course, but looking at those neat columns of print containing my very own (completely fabricated, highly unbelievable, and rather wordy) sentences, 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) for 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 stuff on the Internet written by me with varying levels of commitment, 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.
My latest book is called The Modern Book of the Dead – a title that pointedly raises the question of my personal spiritual leanings. It’s pretty obvious that they’re spiritual leanings of some kind, of course – that the writer of a book with a title like that isn’t a straight-up materialist, and that he must have opinions of one kind or another about what, if anything, awaits us beyond the physical world. But what are those opinions? What’s the core belief system around which they (inevitably) revolve? Am I a Buddhist? A Christian? Perhaps – given my name – an ancient Egyptian?
I personally read more books on “spiritual” topics than any other kind, and if there’s one thing in spiritual literature that puts me off, it’s writers with hidden agendas. UN-hidden agendas are fine. I’m happy to read a book by a writer with light or heavy Buddhist leanings, by a Christian, a Sufi, a Wiccan, or whatever else. But I don’t like it when a writer starts out by coyly pretending not to have any leanings at all, only to reveal three-quarters of the way through that he or she is actually an ardent, die-hard Roman Catholic, or Gurdjieffian, or whatever else, and all of the book that I’ve read so far has really only been a thinly or not-so-thinly veiled attempt at bringing me into the fold. Tell me early, not late, what you believe, I ask of such writers, unless you have very good reasons for doing otherwise.
So… once I realized that I WAS going to have a website – once I got past all my reservations about the not always good things the Internet is doing to people, me included — it soon enough became obvious that one good use I could put such a website to was stating outright what I really believe in.
The only problem is that this is not a completely easy thing to do. In fact, all of my five “serious” books (the ones that tend to pop up first on Amazon, before the coloring books and the nature trivia book and the coffee table book on the dog museum) have been devoted – for my own benefit more than anyone else’s – to a) trying to answer the question of what my real beliefs are and b) showing why in my case this is such a particularly difficult thing to do.
But… to state quickly what I spend much, much more time on in my books (in particular TheModern Book of the Dead): I feel that spiritually speaking, I’m a genuine product of my time. And my time is, more than anything else, one where all the formerly separate spiritual traditions are crashing into one another, creating a situation in which all the members of all the world’s faiths are being called upon to rewrite themselves WITHOUT compromising their core integrity. And not only that, but to do so quickly, before what’s left of the planet breaks down and we are thrust back into living situations that might be strongly conducive to what Ken Wilber calls “mythic membership” belief models. That is: we over here are right in what we believe, and you over there are wrong. 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, 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, my 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:
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 is a Buddhist monk, 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 like I didn’t belong there – like I was being forced to say things I didn’t really believe in. (That’s not to say that I didn’t have to write plenty of stuff that was too corny, too sentimental, to Christian boilerplate for my tastes. But the basic beliefs that underlay all the stuff I wrote there made sense to me. That God existed, that Jesus was 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.)
So… what am I?
If a label must be produced, then “Reicarnational crypto-Christian 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, who also believes very much in the Persian/Islamic metaphysical model of the personal imagination as outlined by Henry Corbin” will do as well as any. I believe that we are spiritual beings, momentarily inhabiting physical bodies. I believe that the universe is in transit, but NOT in simple flux. I believe that we are going somewhere, that we were created for a purpose, and that that purpose is to discover our 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 it 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 hope that at least some of it will be of at least some use to that odd and occasional Googler or Binger out there who, for whatever reason, typed my name into their search box.