The Quest for Ultimate Truth

a Book Review by Abe van Luik

Recent Good Reads

What a treasure a good book is! I have run into several that were so good, in my view, as to cause me to send a note to the author to thank them for their work. Two that fell in that category were "The Sparrow," and "Children of God," by Mary Doria Russell, a first-time (and now second time of course), author (Fawcett-Columbine Publishers). Her work I would place into the realm of mystical science fiction. Her work will definitely not have universal appeal, but to those attracted to her topic it will be a memorable read, a haunting one.

Several other new sci-fi books I have also enjoyed, especially two, a fairy tale and a historical-revision sci-fi piece by Orson Scott Card, and two fantasy books also by a first (and now second) time author, Elizabeth Haydon. But Russell's works stood out, for me.

The Object of This Review

Then I came across this book just before a trip: "A Troubadour's Testament" by James Cowan (Shambhala, 1998). I picked it up in the bargain section of a local bookstore. I bought it just because of its title, didn't even read the rest of the cover or the jacket.

How could I resist? Troubadours were still an enigma to me, even though I had written on the region of Oc's Courtly Love and its largely male, but also female poets, the Troubadours. I had written about Cathars and Catholics of the same time and region. And I had traced the fallout of Courtly Love far into the future, with Dante Alighieri's life works.

But though I have read, written, even visited, the lands of the Troubadours and Cathars, I still have a hunger for more from this strange, wonderful, beautiful, and at the same time bloody and terrible time and place.

So, any book that even hints at added insight into this constellation of historical or religious, spiritualist ideas is meant to become mine, and may have been written just for me. And the title alone made this promise.

[In case you would like to read my previous writings on the Cathar/Troubadour/Catholic enigma in the south of France, please see the following website: and see the link under the opening picture of that site's first page for pictures of Montsegur, and follow the links to My Historical and Other Musings on that same page.]

Did the Book Keep What I Felt To Be Its Promise?

Yes, and I had high expectations. Was it a history? No, it reflected on snippets of history to draw out enigmas and hint at insights. And it conjured up many of the contradictions of the time and place, reflected in the contradictions inside persons from the times and places the book ranges over. A fascinating weaving of personal and collective history and insight.

The book is a great read on the topic of the interior journey of a self-aware human being who was, historically, very real, as reflected in the words of contemporaries (real or fictional contemporaries? I suspect mostly the latter, but it does not matter).

The Historical Marcebru or Marcabru

That Marcebru, or Marcabru, was a historical person and poet of some fame is attested to by this website offering a book for sale on his life and work: has the following:


One of the earliest troubadours, Marcabru was a remarkable artist and entertainer, and a figure of crucial importance to the development of the European courtly lyric. His blistering attacks on contemporary court society reveal an intellectual insider's view of the clash between clerical morality and the emerging secular ethics of love and courtesy. His fervent, often acerbic engagement with contemporary events also provides a unique southern perspective on political upheavals and crusading movements in twelfth-century Occitania and northern Spain. This new critical edition, the first for nearly 100 years, makes his complete corpus accessible to a wide readership, supplying translations, full critical apparatus, and copious textual notes, with a substantial glossary of Marcabru's extraordinarily inventive vocabulary. The introduction supplies historical information, discussion of the poet's language, and an analysis of the manuscript transmission. It also raises fresh issues of troubadour versification techniques in this formative period, and engages in a new way with the current debate about editorial methodology and medieval textual criticism.

622 pages, ISBN: 0 85991 574 3, First published: 2000 , Price: 170.00 USD, 95.00 GBP, STATUS: Available.

So, he is a real historical figure, and elsewhere on the web I found a description of him as a peasant foundling raised by a noble, as described in Cowan's book [see: ].

So I trust that much of the historical detail is accurate. The practice of collecting thoughts of friends and advisors on a scroll after the death of a loved one was also attested to as being customary in another review of this book on the web, a review by Ann Skea that I will turn to shortly and will provide a link to as well, below.

The contemporaries allegedly consulted by Marcebru are described as writing their words on a scroll he carried from place to place to collect those thoughts. He was asking them to help him deal with the death of the woman who was his partner in a distant but very intense love, a courtly, idealized love like Dante's love for his Beatrice. His lover from a chaste distance? The Catholic nun Amedee de Jois, who probably was, as it turned out, secretly a Cathar Perfect one. The book leaves a reasonable doubt, barely, about her status as a secret Cathar, and in the book review (by Ann Skea, see link below) I will come to shortly I believe it was wrong to label her a Cathar nun, a contradiction in terms since Cathar Perfecti were itinerant preachers and administered ordinances like priests, whether male or female. They were not cloistered.

It would not be right to retell the whole tale here. So I won't.

A Meaningful Coincidence?

Here is a coincidence. A woman sitting next to me for over four hours on my flight to Baltimore, as I was reading this book, looked to be a Mormon judging by her reading material. So, I asked her if she was a Mormon, just a few minutes prior to landing. She asked me about my story when I said my wife was Mormon like her. She asked rather pointed questions in very well crafted words. I was impressed with her precision of thought and language.

She listened to my tale, one easily teased out of me, of rising from high-school dropout to PhD because of my entering the military, where I learned self discipline, and at the same time joining the Mormon faith, where I received guidance from those sincerely wanting me to expand into my potential. Then she listened to my tale of falling away. She made a judgement: falling away is what happens to people who live cerebrally, who live in their minds and not in their experience and connected-ness with others. These persons, and she assumed I was one of them, confuse the myriad of facts and contradictions and words of a religion with the religion itself, and lose sight of the religious experience. In the case of Mormonism she alleged that experience to be that of a unique community based on cooperation, on mutual helpfulness. That uniquely cooperative and helpful community, she says, is the true Mormonism. That experience is all there really is. The rest is all words and intellectual concepts.

A profound truth, one I learned some years ago, but a bit late for me in terms of my falling away. But as she hinted, who knows how or where I will turn next? I may yet return to this community, she hinted. Could be, but not as a true believer, and that seems dishonest to me. But, she is right, it could be.

Since I was reading the book we are discussing on that flight, it occurred to me that I had come to a conclusion about Catharism that was eerily similar to her view of what Mormonism was all about. Catharism was an unattractive theology for me, making a person wish for the end of life intellectually since this was the realm of the evil one(s). But its attractiveness, I believed, lay in its creation of a community that chopped down the strictures of feudal society, class was done away, cooperation was made the way, because all that could be done to make life more comfortable for each other on this earth was a blow against the author of evil and misery, the evil god of this world.

Very similar to my view of Mormonism. And here this true Mormon says the same thing! Had I had these insights a decade earlier, I am sure my history would be different, in terms of religious affiliation, than it is now. But history is history and cannot be undone. Changes take place in the present.

In fact, even though I find Mormon (and by extension Christian, Judaic and Islamic) theology unbelievable, I had actually, just a few days ago, recommended the Mormon faith to someone. It was in a note written to a young woman, and what I said was relevant to this conversation. It was a note responding to a message left on a Compuserve religion discussion forum, on the internet, where she posed questions about life direction, said she felt confined by her current life, felt like a victim, and was sometimes despondent, sometimes wishing to escape from life into death. She wondered about Mormonism, the faith of her boyfriend, and whether it could be good for her.

I suggested that when I was in a similar state, at roughly the same age (she 18, me 19), my joining the Mormon faith, and coming to truly believe in it, snapped me out of melancholies of this sort. Mormonism taught me, together with the self-discipline of the military (a great combination, purpose and motivation from one, discipline from the other!) that I could and should take control of my life and direct it. I was the director and main character, and I was in control.

Once I came to not just believe that, but be that, it was a great feeling! Empowerment! A real liberation from the fatalistic victim mode I had been in as a youth.

So, given these recent ruminations, and the talk with a neighbor on an airplane, imagine my pleasure at shortly thereafter coming across this passage, from the lips of a mystery woman who appears at just the right time to author Cowan. She speaks, and adds a piece to the tapestry being woven around him, and gives him a key to another piece. She says, among other thought-provoking things:

The Cathars were our last hope, monsieur. They chose a form of belief they had chosen for themselves. Of course, to many theologians, its doctrine was not particularly original. We know that it had traveled from afar on the lips of merchants and so became garbled en route. We know too this gnostic doctrine was discussed around village hearths, in the secrecy of family hovels, and was never subject to critical thought as it was with Church dogma. It was, after all, a furtive doctrine, a renegade jostling for the hearts and minds of men and women bent upon breaking with the power of the pope. Though it may not have been subtle, and encouraged certain extreme forms of behavior, at least it brought people together in the spirit of fraternity and love. Rome could never take this away from the Cathars, monsieur. It never did, and never will. (p. 124)

The gist of this is almost exactly the conclusion I had come to some years ago, and why I thought it a rough parallel to the Mormon appeal and experience: fraternity and love in community! The creation of a supportive community in a harsh environment led to the success of both. They were both persecuted, but one escaped and flourished, the other died a bloody death (but lives on in the bones and hearts of some, like this imagined [?] mystery woman that Cowan met).

To the Heart of Cowan's Book

Cowan's book is a delight to read, and not just to read, but to savor in small bites. At least that is how I feel about it. It touches all my favorite bases, historically and mystically. And the speech by this mystery woman, and other mysterious informants that serendipitously pop into his quest to retarce the steps and thoughts of the Troubadour is well balanced by the written contributions to Marcebru's scroll from Catholic believers whose words are also pregnant with truths and meanings. All the faiths of the region, including the Muslim, are treated respectfully in this book, and the mystical insights from all are needed to create the tapestry of the story and its many-faceted messages.

It seems a fitting enigma that there is a fundamental unity within the mystical vision of religious traditions engaged at the same time in killing each other. Catholics were killing Moslems and Cathars to allow them to dominate both lands and minds, and Moslems and Cathars were fighting back. At the very same time, the mystics of each tradition (at least of the Catholic and Islamic traditions, there is no written mystical treatise remaining from the Cathars) were turning inward and finding, in my opinion, the same Deity at each of their roots of Being.

Shows the wisdom of separating church and state, does it not?

Another Review of the Cowan Book and Why I Disagree

There is a review of this book by Cowan on the web that I refeered to several times, above, by a person named Ann Skea. I will only cite a few paragraphs, but it can be read in its entirety at

Skea does not share my affection and enthusiasm for this book:

I thought this book was a fairly straightforward re-casting of the old questing journey: highly imaginative and full of poetry, but presenting the usual journey pattern and the usual "secret" knowledge about the search for Truth. But the end surprised me, although it should not have done so, for it was exactly the traditional completion of the quest--"In my beginning is my end" as T.S.Eliot put it.

My review copy of this book was accompanied by a transcript of an interview with James Cowan. . . . "Who do you think A Troubadour's Testament will appeal to?" Cowan is asked. His reply: "Thoughtful people. People who are not content with the way things are. People who enjoy reverie. I think a writer must have the courage to create his audience not have it created for him."

Well yes, the audience for this book will be fairly limited, but I am not sure that this is James Cowan writing at his best anyway. And perhaps that does have something to do with the limitations of language for the testament he is trying to affirm.

So, she was unimpressed with the literary brilliance of the work and thought the ending so predictable that it was unexpected! This is even though it is hinted at several times throughout the book, as Skea herself notes. Cowan, on the other hand, seems to have realized that the book is going to have limited appeal. It would appeal to thoughtful malcontents who enjoy reverie. And that's me!

So, what about the end of the book? I haven't told the story itself, on purpose, so it would be really silly to tell the ending. But this much I can say, expounding on Skea's observations, without giving it all away.

The book does, purposely and predicatbly, come full circle. But it is the kind of full circle you experience in screwing an auger into the ground. You turn the handle until it is in the same position as when you started, you have returned the handle to the same place, but you are much deeper than you were at the start unless you are hopelessly inept at auguring.

Having returned the handle to the position you started with, you pull the auger out of the ground, and either get a cohesive core for study, or a pile of sand and gravel, depending on the "soil" you are sampling. Cowan definitely sunk us into a lossely aggregated mess of rock, sand, and silt. When we return to where we started we are deeply into many conflicting yet true-sounding things. Perhaps we feel like Marcebru felt: disillusioned and disappointed. The truth we aspired to discover is a pile of shiny truth-rubble at our feet rather than the coherent unified single Truth that Troubadours spent their life approaching with their words: the quest for the Perfect Poem seems to have eluded Marcebru.

Marcebru was a practitioner, a wholehearted devotee, of Courtly Love of the most noble and ideal kind. This involves loving an idealized person at a chaste distance. Distance, in the case of his beloved, was provided by a habit and a wall, she was a cloistered nun. But the evidence also points to her being a Cathar at heart. Did Marcebru know that? Likely so, but we can't be totally sure. It was perhaps her very stature as a Cathar Perfect one, decidedly celibate, and vegetarian, that added to her distance? Maybe so, likely not.

Why not? Well, Marcebru's reaction when she died hints to me that this was a shock to him. If she had been a Perfect, and he had known it, he would also have known and accepted that a hastened death should be the expected outcome of her station. But when she died, Marcebru seems to have gone to all who knew him and her, and a few who did not, to gain insight to allow him to cope. And as the evidence unravels in the testimonies he collects after her death, it becomes more and more likely to us, and I believe this was also new knowledge for Marcebru, that she contributed wilfully to leavng this life, as was the ultimate ideal for Perfect ones once they were no longer engaged in aiding the movement with preaching and performing its ordinances. As a Catholic nun outwardly, and a Perfect one secretly, it is a foregone conclusion that she was not engaged in building up the Cathar community.

But was she really a Cathar and a Catholic at the same time? That is mind boggling, to me, given the radical diffferences betwen the two religions, and their bitter strife ending in an all out war that sees the Cathars floating out of history on a river of their own blood.

Did she take her own life as a Perfect one might? Doubt is cast in some testimonials, and positive assertions are made in others. In the end, we don't know for sure.

Marcebru and Amitee Are Not Like Dante and Beatrice

Can I be perfectly frank and very unromantic? In my opinion, although I love the essence and ideals of Courtly Love, it was best practiced with either a dead or else essentially unknown woman (or man, there were female Troubadours, as I have written about lesewhere on my sites, whose love objects from afar were either idealized men or women).

Dante's salvation through Beatrice is something that happened after her death, and was all in Dante's mind, soul and heart.

Marcebru is not Dante, and he took the loss of his idealized lover as a serious blow to who he was. Finding she was not living up to some of the perfections he had projected onto her was a great disillusionment to him. Apparently. This reminds me of the book "The Denial of Death" wherein the Pulitzer prize winning author alledges that anyone seeking salvation through a romatic relationship will over time become dissappointed and disillusioned, because the object of our hopes and love cannot possible live up to the Deific ideals being projected upon him or her. Amen. And a key to understanding Marcebru's heartbreak: the perfect, almost deified woman he loved with all his mind, might and heart was perhaps a heretic, or at least committed a grave sin aginast life and good sense by taking a hand in assuring her untimely death? Of a sudden, she was not at all the person he celebrated through his words. She was instead very different. He had created an ideal woman with his words that she did not resemble. He was crushed.

Contrast this with Dante and Beatrice. Beatrice died from disease, an act of God, hence could remain perfect forever. Dante's 'love at a distance' or Courtly Love, was safe from being contradicted by the actual life of a real woman. If you will recall, Dante was a married man, but as Cowan reminds us, the moral sensibility of today is not transferable to these times when marriage was a political alliance and love was not expected to be coincident with the married state.

Anyway, Dante was smitten by the glimpses he had of a living woman who acknowledged his existence by looking at and greeting him, once. The second sighting of her was accompanied by neither a look nor a word. He was crushed by the rebuke, but waxed eloquent concerning her divine nature in his poetry. True-love, but only at-a-distance! Then she died.

Her death affected Dante terribly, he was distraught and tried to fixate on a woman that looked somewhat like the first one, his Beatrice. But perhaps because he actually got to know this woman, the magic wasn't there and he repented and returns to Beatrice by deciding, in words, to go to the land where she now lives, and as he enters hell, she sends someone to look out for him and guide him toward her, and she continues to guide him, eventually in person, through all the places that make up the afterlife, until she has prepared him to endure and survive the Presence of God. That is the subject of Dante's life's work, and its underlying motif is his love affair, extremely chaste and pure, with Beatrice, ever at a distance, a distance guaranteed by her death.

My speculation is that, had she never died, the Divine Comedy would not have been a hit and we would not have known it in this time. To me, it is the romantic under-current or subplot of Beatrice and Dante's (imaginary) love relationship that makes the Divine Comedy a really good and engaging read. All of the physical descriptions of prominent contemporay Catholics and political figures burning in hell are cute, but do little for me. The underlying love story, and the obtaining of salvation through that love, that is what grips me in the Divine Comedy.

Final Thoughts on Cowan's Book

But what happened inside Dante after Beatrice's Death is not what happened inside Marcebru after the death of his Amitee de Joie. He seems to have become so disillusioned that he stopped writing altogether! He lost faith in the word's ability to capture and describe Ultimate Truth! Cowan comes to some rather mildly stated conclusions concerning the nature of Marcebru's disillusionment. He is taken aback by the very Catharish taking of one's own life as a sacrament. That violates his idealized-love-based notions of what life is all about. So he is disillusioned with the person he has idealized for years as his love object, she fails to live for love. He never knew the real Amitee, he only knew his imagined Amitee.

His words could not create her. His words would perhaps never be able to capture Ultimate truth. The perfect Poem Quest of the ideal Troubadour was doomed. Words lacked power. That is the ultimate disillusionment experienced by the man of words, Marcebru.

Cowan's book is an exploration of why this may have been, and comes up with some possibilities that, to me, are interesting because they in effect explore the enigmatic relationship between Catholicism, Catharism, Islam, and the religion of love, or Courtly Love (also declared a heresy by the Catholic church).

Since exploring those same relationships is something I have also tried in my readings, contemplations, and writings, Cowan's exploration was of great interest to me. His using a tired and predictable formula wherein to present his explorations of ideas helped me be able to focus on what was interesting to me, rather than on expecting unexpected twists in the plot. So the very thing that disappoints one reviewer, Skea, pleases me. It again shows the book to be just right for a very specific audience.

Had I been writing this book, I would have had considerable difficulty in weaving in the fine thoughts finely crafted into the book by Cowan. I was impressed. But I definitely would have woven into the tapestry a particularly fitting excerpt from a Catholic mystic. An excerpt that holds out a testimony to Ultimate Truth, testifies to its having been experienced, and testifies to its reality. But point-blank says that it is utterly impossible to convey in words. Any attempt will fall woefully short. Think on this, and especially its last lines in the context of Amitee's unfortunate action, from a Sister Catherine or Katrei cited in Martin Buber's "Ecstatic Confessions" (Harper and Row Publishers, l985, pp. l55-l56):

She said: "I had concentrated all the faculties of my soul.

When I looked into myself, I saw God in myself and

everything God ever created in heaven and on earth. . . .

I have nothing to do with angels or saints or anything

that was ever created. More: I have nothing to do with

anything that has ever become word. . . . I am confirmed in

naked divinity, in which never image nor form existed. . . . I

am where I was before I was created; where there is only

bare God in God. In that place there are no angels or

saints or choirs or heaven. Many people tell of eight

heavens and nine choirs; where I am that is not. You should

know that all that is put into words and presented to

people with images is nothing but a stimulus to God. Know

that in God there is nothing but God. Know that no soul can

enter into God unless it first becomes God just as it was

before it was created.

You should know, that whoever contents himself with what

can be put into words--God is a word, the kingdom of heaven

is also a word--whoever does not want to go further with the

faculties of the soul, with knowledge and love, than ever

became word, ought rightfully to be called an unbeliever.

What can be put into words is grasped with the lower senses

or faculties of the soul, but the higher faculties of the

soul are not content with this; they press on, further and

further, until they come before the source from which the

soul flowed. . . .

You must understand this thus: The soul is naked and bare

of all things that bear names. So it stands, as one, in the

One, so that it has a progression in naked divinity.... So

you should know that as long as the good person lives in

time, his soul has a constant progression in eternity. That

is why good people cherish life."