Book Review: The Cloud of Unknowing by David T. Hanson

Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Aztec, New Mexico, 2011. © David T. Hanson, from The Cloud of Unknowing (Taverner Press, 2019)

First things first: I feel irresistibly drawn to the cover of this tome without being really aware what I’m looking at for I’m not thinking, or so it seems, I simply surrender to the simplicity of colour and form of this photograph. I only later learn what it shows: a shrine in David. T. Hanson’s residence in Fairfield, Iowa.

“The Cloud of Unknowing,” the press release informs, “showcases 133 photographs made between 1998 and 2011 at Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jain, Sikh, Parsi, Jewish, Christian, Native American, shamanistic, and New Age sites. This volume features famous temples, cathedrals, and synagogues as well as anonymous temporary shrines and ancient sites still in use that are monuments to the human spirit and all that it holds most sacred.”

Sri Ramakrishna’s birthday celebrations, Ramakrishna Math, Nagpur, Maharashtra, India, 1999. © David T. Hanson, from The Cloud of Unknowing (Taverner Press, 2019)

After twenty years of investigating and documenting the contemporary North-American wasteland, “the hazardous remains of our industry and technology,” David T. Hanson felt “that I needed to try to find what Wallace Stegner called ‘a geography of hope.'” This book represents “monuments to the human spirit and all that it holds most sacred.”

Although spiritually inclined (by this I mean to believe – and sometimes experience – that everything is connected) but not into organised religion, shrines and other sites of worship, I mainly saw photographs of rather strange objects when glancing through the pages of this formidable work. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not anti-religion and do recall my time in a Catholic boarding school (also but not only) with, in hindsight, mostly positive feelings. Yet the older I get the stranger I find the variety of human beliefs – strange in the sense of incomprehensible (to me, that is).

Photographer Hanson notes that “the early pictures in this series began as an ironic critique of institutionalized religion” yet over time he became “increasingly fascinated, and moved, by the ritual spaces that humans create to express what they hold most sacred”. It intrigues me that my development was somehow the other way ’round: Where I once longed to experience the sacred, I now see mostly superstition.

That however does not mean that I do not sense “the specialness” of sacred spaces. I see them as invitations to meditate about what is important, about life and death. And, this is perfectly illustrated in “The Cloud of Unknowing” for we are shown the interiors of the spaces, most of them devoid of people. “The photographs in this book were made between 1998 and 2011 as I traveled throughout the United States and made seven extended trips to India and Nepal.”

Caption: Neem Karoli Baba Ashram, Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2006. © David T. Hanson, from The Cloud of Unknowing (Taverner Press, 2019)

I thought especially the variety of forms displayed in this tome fascinating. If you take the necessary time to be in the presence of, say, the “Yancey Tire Chapel, Hale County, Alabama, 2011” or the “U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2003” or the “Mausoleum, Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, California, 2011”, you will immediately pause and become still. At least, in my case it was like this for I felt reminded of the psalm: “Be still and know that I am God.”

Needless to say, this is good advice also to non-believers. Diana L. Eck cites T.S, Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’ (1942):
You are not here to verify
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

David Foster Wallace comes to mind, who, while at Granada House (a place for people in recovery) was astonished to find people going down on their knees and saying the Thankfulness prayer. He tried it once but it felt hypocritical. At the same time he liked to quote one of the veteran recovery members, who told him, “It’s not about whether or not you believe, asshole, it’s about getting down and asking.”

To approach this book in this spirit of modesty, I think to be helpful.


The Cloud of Unknowing
By David T. Hanson
Foreword by Mark Holborn
Introduction by David T. Hanson
Essay by Diana L. Eck
Taverner Press, Fairfield, Iowa 2019

About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland., Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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