2 out of 4 stars
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The first page of Codrin Stefan Tapu's slender book "Teachings on Being" is a surprise. The book is composed in aphorisms, or brief sayings, rather than paragraphs, a style reminiscent of the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, Jean-Paul Sartre, the Proverbs, Blake, or Nietzsche. The unconventional prose prepares readers for an unexpected book: a decidedly metaphysical series of reflections about life, death, pain, and the nature of being. “Teachings on Being” sways on the edge of typical self-help manual, but never quite abandons its hold on the tradition of 19th and 20th-century psychological and philosophical literature.
Tapu wields other forms of traditional philosophic writing as well, including a miniature Platonic dialogue near the end of the book. His decidedly modern language makes these lesser-known styles accessible to readers unfamiliar with Western philosophy, but sometimes his prose descends to the folksy, as when he uses “OK” to describe the human situation.
Tapu’s theme is human suffering, but he wanders from this theme to consider many topics, such as children and women, potential, love, strength, and God. Some of his aphorism are disappointingly trite, such as "If you don't love yourself truly... you are nothing." While potentially interesting in the scheme of a book about Being, Tapu lets this statement stand on its own and does not help his reader connect the dots from love of self to Being as a universal concept. He calls repeatedly for being true to self, knowing one's own mind and soul, and not forcing others to live their lives as you live yours. One section of sayings called "Don't Tell Me You Can't" feels particularly stale. But midway through the section, he writes, "God created the world through will and words, remember?", an unexpected fallback on traditional religion. Other aphorisms also surprise, as when he says, "Some truths do hurt. Some truths don't suit us. Some truths are like drilling a hole in the top of our heads." The forceful poetic language itself is fresh and vivid, and Tapu’s recurring belief in the existence of urgent external truths sets “Teachings on Being” apart from more popular metaphysical self-help books that are completely relativistic.
Tapu expands on his understanding of God in the section called "She Is With You," where he recounts an experience of a miraculous vision after his mother died. His realization is that God—and therefore Being—is always good, even as loved ones die around us. Tapu borrows heavily from Christian theology in this section and seems poised to make a genuine contribution to religious dialogue about suffering, but then backs off when he declares that God loves us too much to enslave us to eternity. This section is the introduction of a new theme; many of Tapu’s reflections grapple with the inescapable reality of death of loved ones. Near the middle of the book he writes poignantly that "our whole life is nothing but a series of misses. We miss and are missed." But he does not believe that life is endless suffering. Rather, Tapu believes firmly that pain, all pain, can be brought to an end by coming to know Being fully in ourselves. "In fact," he says, looping back to the early sections of the book, "you miss yourself. So if you find yourself, you don't miss them anymore."
The most important thing for Tapu is to "kill the pain," be it physical pain, mental pain, or emotional pain. This is the thread that runs throughout the whole book, raising a fascinating question: what is the relationship between Being (the titular matter) and pain? Tapu does not address this question, leaving the reader hanging. He does assert that God cannot be blamed for any of the pain in the world, and continues to affirm his previous statement that the soul is not eternal. Tapu’s book belongs firmly in the philosophic tradition of existentialism, as he writes, "The great revelation is that it's not the continuation that is important, but the "Existence" as a whole." He writes that our desire for an eternal life is real but misguided, as we are living an eternal life right now by participating in a Being that is eternal.
“Teachings on Being” is more thoughtful than many of the books it will share shelf-space with, and infinitely better written. The book’s best moments are the poetic ones; in fact, perhaps Tapu should publish an entire volume of poetry. The finest example from “Teachings” may be the section “The Strength of a Woman,” which includes, "There is no stronger being than the woman who says: "This will not kill me... I will go on," while gently sweeping up, with the back of her hands, the lonely tears on her cheeks." Unfortunately Tapu ends this brief, beautiful section abruptly to continue his rather scattered exposition of metaphysics.
Tapu is clearly well-read. He references pillars of Western thought like Muhammad, Job, and Hamlet with facility, but sometimes his treatment of great thinkers is one-dimensional. For example, he incorporates a single quote from Job to illustrate an aphorism about death and birth, but for readers familiar with the book of Job, his use of the quote is unsatisfying. Many of Tapu’s references feel cursory, rather like a college freshman’s attempt to elevate his own writing by reference to authorities. By the time Tapu writes in the second half, “There is no need to be a religious person,” and begins to expound on the Great Secrets of universal Humanity, the book feels like a rip-off of Tolstoy’s reflections on religion. Tapu’s book is frequently poetic, occasionally piercing, but in the end, a less elegant version of philosophic and religious musings heard before. I rate this book as 2 out of 4 stars, largely because of the specialized subject matter. Anyone expecting a traditional non-fiction book will be thrown off. Within the field of 21st-century metaphysics, this book offers a different take on older wisdom, though Tapu’s premise that relationships, not individuals, are the basic units of being is intriguing. For students of philosophy, poetry, or psychology, this book is worth the read.
Teachings on Being
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