A BRANCH OF WISDOM

- R E V I E W S -

A Branch of Wisdom is simultaneously an autobiography, a fictional personal odyssey, a portfolio of computer generated conceptual art, and a philosophical treatise. Integrating all these elements into a text that is comprehensible to general readers is a daunting task for any author. Christopher, the author without a surname, certainly succeeds. The result is an engaging and accessible meditation on the unity that underlies the apparent division of the world around and inside of us.

It is this world inside - the psychological world - that is the key to this book's success, for Christopher has suffered the worst possible form of emotional division. As a national serviceman in the South African Apartheid army, he was hospitalized after a psychotic breakdown, and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. This severe psychological disorder occurs when the mind seeks to protect itself from unbearable experience by severing the connecting links between thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. The horrifying result is emotional turmoil, bizarre behavior, and a rupture with the shared reality that most people take for granted. For many people this diagnosis condemns them to an impoverished life of subnormal psychological functioning. Not so the author, who used his own experience of internal division as an extraordinary metaphor for exploring the ordinary pathological divisions that bedevil our social, political and spiritual landscape.

Christopher's detailed account of his psychotic breakdown - and recovery - is a fascinating account of a disordered mind. However, it is the use to which he later puts his disordered thoughts and images in the quest to heal both himself and the rupture at the heart of our general everyday experience, that makes Christopher's story admirable and intellectually stimulating. The close relationship between madness and creativity is evident in the author's fertile associations to the thoughts, words and images that assailed him during his mental collapse. Christopher is a master of word play, and coaxes fresh meaning out of stagnant language, following glittering semantic threads to philosophical revelations of wholeness implicit in an apparently divided world. If nothing else, this book reminds us to delight in language, to play with its possibilities and not take it for granted.

Christopher's quest takes him through western philosophy, eastern mysticism, psychology, word origins, and the history of the alphabet. The conclusions he reaches will not be new to readers familiar with popular literature on Buddhism and quantum physics. But it is how he reaches his conclusions, and the passionate and personal nature of his quest, that makes this book stand out. It is a pleasure to watch the acrobatics of an agile mind, but the reader's appreciation is sharpened by a constant awareness that the author's intellectual searching was born in pain and turmoil. His playfulness and creativity are evident in the many conceptual art illustrations in the book, but one never loses sight of the fact that Christopher's insights are hard won psychological achievements, attained in the context of the struggle to make sense of who he is, where he has come from and who he may yet become. Readers will understand and relate to this struggle because, ultimately, it is a universal one.

Gavin Ivey (Ph.D.)
Senior Lecturer
Department of Psychology
University of the Witwatersrand