Who Am I to Judge?

As David Gates seems to have been forced to note in last week’s Newsweek, Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road was published fifty years ago, and that has engendered a fair amount of activity from the book’s original publisher, Viking. Despite the apparent involuntary nature of his effort, David has done an admirable job of sorting out all of the ideas and attitudes that surround the book, separating them to the extent possible from the book itself, and evaluating the books that Viking and others will be offering in the next few weeks. Having read the article, I’m inspired to go back to Kerouac and see what I may have missed, an inspiration that has been forming for a few months.

I read On the Road for the first time well into my thirties, which is probably far past the age at which one is most susceptible to its charms. Just as when I read The Catcher in the Rye in my mid-twenties and The Stranger a decade or so later, when I read On the Road, I was disappointed aesthetically, philosophically, and any other way one can be disappointed in a book, and I lamented what it said about our culture that this book was not only taken seriously, but often revered. The writing seemed to be simultaneously mannered and sloppy. It betrayed, I thought, a labored carelessness. But more than anything else, I resented following him through page after page of disappointment and misery, relieved only by the occasional episode of joy that, by its nature, couldn’t be adequately conveyed, all the while his interactions with others apparently governed solely by what he could get from them. The narrator, and presumably the author, wasn’t simply self-absorbed, he was virulent.

It would be easy for me to wrap this up with a little lecture about how all of our suffering is caused by this impulse to comfort ourselves to the detriment of others, along with whom we just end up suffering anyway, and until a few months ago I would have done just that. I would have spoken of the insight behind the Bodhisattva Vow that the only rational response to our own suffering is to use it as a tool to understand the suffering of others and thereby seek to free us all together from the beginningless and endless cycle of that suffering. And that would have been correct, as far as it went, but it wouldn’t have been the truth behind my reaction.

My reaction was more primal and more emotional. I was raised by parents whose dealings with others, even their own children, had a bit too much in common with those of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, leaving my brother and me to clean up the mess toward which our lives tended. The impulse toward personal happiness that young children I’ve met since seem to display naturally isn’t one I can ever remember having myself. From a remarkably early age (five? three?), I had to worry about the consequences of my actions because I couldn’t rely on anyone else consistently doing so on my behalf. And that’s what the adults around me came to value more than anything else, that I didn’t require any effort on their part. So I found On the Road less glamorous or exciting and more sad or pointless.

But then, some time ago, my meditation instructor lent me Kerouac’s The Scripture of the Golden Eternity. I regarded it with a great deal of suspicion, but eventually started reading it, and I was shocked. It was lucid and profound in all of the ways that On the Road was irksome. And so I learned once again that all judgments, if not simply useless, must be provisional. We can divide the world into good and bad on any basis we wish, and we can even justify those distinctions with great intelligence and authority, but ultimately, those distinctions are distortions. And as I’ve had to forgive my parents to get on with my life as it unfolds in the present, I’ve begun revisiting Jack Kerouac. I just read Satori in Paris, in which I found this:

My manners, abominable at times, can be sweet. As I grew older I became a drunk. Why? Because I like ecstasy of the mind.

I’m a Wretch.

But I love love.

Kerouac wrote as clearly and as truly about the experience of humanity from the inside as anyone. That so many of his readers choose to read his work as normative rather than descriptive is a testament both to the conviction of his portrayal and to the depth of our need for guidance. But he doesn’t mean to assume a position of superior understanding to tell his readers how to live. He just wants to show, really show what it’s like to be him, to be human. And that clarity can be the basis for the wisdom of The Scripture of the Golden Eternity and for the life and premature death of a drunk.

In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World

Ingmar Bergman died last week, and I don’t think that he or his heirs need my assessment of his genius added to the pile that’s been rightly accumulating since then. But I do feel the need to note that he was, at the time of his passing, one of perhaps two or three living artists who had achieved such a sense of import in my life. At the moment, Thomas Pynchon is the only rival I can think of, and I fear we may have seen the last of his published work as well. I’ve been catching up on some of Bergman’s earlier movies (I saw the brutally simple, but somehow still religiously complex The Virgin Spring yesterday, and I hope to see Persona in the next few days), and they’re brilliant, but it’s his later work that sets him in an artistic realm that’s very nearly his own: Scenes from a Marriage (along with its sublime coda from a few years ago, Saraband) and Fanny and Alexander.

These works were originally done for Swedish television, and were then edited down (with the exception of Saraband) and released theatrically in the United States and elsewhere. But the complete five-hour versions of Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander are available on DVD, and that’s how I saw them. Aside from Pynchon’s novels, I can’t think of any contemporary artistic efforts that are as grand, profound, and accomplished. And it’s worth noting too that, though he is largely remembered as a movie director, Bergman was also importantly a writer and a theater director. The scope of his great later works is literary (especially Fanny and Alexander), theatrical (all of them), and even musical (especially Saraband), as well as cinematographic. So if the appreciations pouring forth in the last week haven’t overwhelmed you, but have perhaps moved you to see some of his movies, I urge you to see these final summations.

I’m a Author

The Interdependence Project has posted the first issue of their dharma arts magazine, Sentient City, and in it they’ve published an essay I submitted called “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Dreaming).” This is the first time I’ve ever been published, yet in the one-line bio at the end they call me a writer. In truth, this is the only thing I’ve written this year, and observant readers of this Weblog will notice that much of it isn’t new. But I’m still proud of it, and the magazine really looks beautiful.

Anarchy Now!

It took a few weeks longer than I had hoped, but I finished Against the Day this week. To attempt any summary or assessment of Pynchon’s novels, given their complexity, is daunting. That this one runs more than a thousand pages only makes any such attempt that much more ambitious. I saw a few brief reviews before reading the book, and they could have been written without having read the book, for all of the depth and detail they offered. I admire anyone who actually did read the book and wrote a review of it on a deadline. Liesl Schillinger, whose reviews have puzzled me before, was one of those few. She concludes:

The only prescription for salvation [Pynchon] offers is the same one a sheriff’s wife gives to the dynamiter’s troubled daughter midway through the novel: flight from reality. “Let go,” the sheriff’s wife explains. “Let it bear you up and carry you, and everything’s so clear because you’re not fighting back anymore, the clouds of anger are out of your face, you see further and clearer than you ever thought you could.”

This is at least partly incorrect. This advice, which could be a simplified Mahamudra or Dzogchen instruction, is about not flight from reality, but about radical acceptance of reality. Its central insight is that suffering isn’t inherent in reality–it’s the result of our reaction to reality (our stance “against the day”). And Tibetan Buddhism, admittedly a hobbyhorse of mine, isn’t out of place here. One of the central themes of Against the Day is the search for the lost kingdom of Shambhala. Pynchon has incorporated Buddhist ideas into his work, consciously or not, at least as far back as Gravity’s Rainbow:

“A market needed no longer be run by the Invisible Hand, but now could create itself–its own logic, momentum, style from inside. Putting the control inside was ratifying what de facto had happened–that you had dispensed with God. But you had taken on a greater, and more harmful, illusion. The illusion of control. That A could do B. But that was false. Completely. No one can do. Things only happen, A and B are unreal, are names for parts that ought to be inseparable…”

Besides serving as a neat rebuke to Richard Dawkins’s simple-minded hubris thirty years before the fact (though an anonymous character immediately dismisses it as “more Ouspenskian nonsense”–a handy reminder of the risk in inferring the author’s thoughts from those of his characters, or even his narrator), this message from a seance is a reasonable summary of the indivisibility of Buddhist emptiness.

What Schillinger doesn’t address, aside from its Buddhist ideas, is the novel’s title. What does it mean to be “against the day”? Who’s against the day, and what’s the result of assuming such a stance? The day, in this case, seems to be light and time, and the novel is a thorough exploration of the ways in which we’re all threatened and afflicted by them (it contains the first compelling descriptions I’ve encountered of my own experience of being afflicted, physically and emotionally, by light). As such, it joins at least two grand literary traditions: the rebels against the light, from Don Quixote to Milton’s Satan to Winston Smith to Dean Moriarty; and the victims of time, from Stephen Dedalus, who suffers history as a nightmare from which he seeks to awake, to countless railers against our mortality. One version of this conflict is summarized by a grandson of the Kieselguhr Kid, an anarchist dynamiter (or perhaps terrorist) in Colorado around the turn of the twentieth century, in a schoolboy essay on “What It Means To Be An American,” a complement to the sheriff’s wife’s advice:

It means do what they tell you and take what they give you and don’t go on strike or their soldiers will shoot you down.

For the anarchists–North American, European, and Asian–throughout Against the Day, their opposition to the very notion of government, the only position they can understand and hold, costs them dearly. Yet the message of that suffering isn’t simply that opposition to the reality of government must end in suffering, for those who aid, embrace, and impose government suffer just as surely. The anarchism expounded here isn’t nihilistic or satanic. It rests, as the social movement of anarchism of the time did, on a belief in the shared decency and compassion of ordinary people. (I’m deeply indebted to an episode of In Our Time on anarchism that aired while I was reading this novel for my greatly enriched understanding of historical anarchism. Fortuitously aired episodes on the speed of light and the history of hell were also very helpful.) This is the common human decency that George Orwell referred to in his essays, and it’s what Winston Smith is referring to in Nineteen Eighty-Four when he realizes that “If there is hope, it lies with the proles.” Living under a nominally socialist or communist government already, Winston isn’t wishing for the rise of the proletariat. Instead, he seems to be seeking a life outside of government control, a position already occupied by the largely ignored proles in the novel.

The anarchism of the day of Pynchon’s novel understood the state as a mechanism imposing the will of the minority on the majority, and the political processes of the state as the means by which that minority would be chosen for power. To engage in those processes is to have already lost the possibility of liberation (all of which lends a deeply ironic meaning to “Vote or Die” as a slogan of empowerment). The current political struggle between left and right is a fight over only what the government will do to and for us. Any empowerment that might be gained by engaging in that process will necessarily be limited. Given that fifty percent of the world’s wealth has been concentrated in the hands of two percent of its population, it would be naive to believe that governments (along with corporations, the mechanisms of that concentration) will somehow resolve that, or any other, injustice. Yet this anarchism’s reliance on our shared compassion distinguishes it from any sort of cheap libertarianism. We aren’t free from our dependence on and responsibility to each other, and we’ll be liberated in inverse proportion to our need for a state to mediate that relationship. As Neil Young sang, “We’re finally on our own.”

Except that we’re not finally on our own. We’ve always been on our own. There is no Invisible Hand, no primal parent, no supreme judge, no benevolent power that will ultimately resolve our contention and end our suffering. And without that God, we mustn’t take on the harmful illusion of control. Until we all form an adult relationship with reality–that is, understand that we cannot long thrive at the expense of others and stop seeking protection from the consequences of our choices and the choices of others–we will all suffer. There’s not some other realm or group of beings with which we can hope to live in peace and harmony someday. If we want peace and harmony, we’ll have to find it here with each other. Dividing ourselves into left and right, elect and preterite, sacred and profane, governing and governed and seeking to impose our wills on each other only makes matters worse. This is the secular meaning of karma, the reality we’re best served by accepting rather than standing against, and it suggests an anarchism that cannot be furthered by bomb-throwing and assassination.

Pynchon clearly wrote much of this novel (if not all of it) after the commencement of our hopeless Global War on Terror. It includes poignant and uncanny descriptions of what seems to be the the World Trade Center and its destruction rendered in very different contexts. It speaks of our time as much as it does of any other, including the time in which it’s ostensibly set, so it’s tempting to view current events through the lens of the novel’s themes. Just as I was finishing it, I read this in Gary Hart’s review of Barack Obama’s new book:

He listened to countless people’s stories and came to a Roosevelt-like epiphany: “Government should help.”

This seems naive to me. Hope is indeed audacious, but placing it in the benevolence of government is just misguided. More interesting is this from John Edwards’s announcement of his presidential candidacy:

“We want people in this campaign to actually take action now,” Edwards said, “not later, not after the election. We don’t want to hope that whoever’s elected the next leader of the United States of America is going to solve all our problems for us. Because that will not happen.”

I’m curious to see how Edwards will run a campaign from this position. I don’t expect that he’ll ultimately be any more successful than an atheist in the pulpit. I would guess that he’ll either revise his stance or be picked apart by opponents portraying that stance as hypocritical. His insight is valid, but it’s not the basis of a presidential campaign. I hope, though, that many are inspired by it and take responsibility for our reality, regardless of the outcome of the campaign itself. Become a philanthropist, a volunteer, or a sage. Live the day as you would like it to be lived. In the end, there is no other viable choice. We cannot stand against the day, any more than we can stand with it or for it, because we are not separate from it.

Orphans Against the Day

Two events, rare in my adult life, occurred yesterday: a new Tom Waits album (all 56 songs of it) was released and a new Thomas Pynchon novel (all 1,085 pages of it) was published. I had a very busy day at work, so I didn’t get a chance to listen to the album, but I did get a chance to read the first ten pages of the novel before going to sleep last night. It seems to be written in another new voice. Gone is the raw colonial voice of Mason & Dixon, replaced by a very accessible and playful narrator from the turn of the (twentieth) century. He begins in what seems to be the midst of an ongoing telling of the tales of the Chums of Chance, one of whom he describes as “picklesome.” I do hope that’s a real word, because I could really get some use out of it. I have almost all of the next two weeks (after today) off to explore further–I can’t wait.

Well, I’m Baffled

A couple of weeks ago, I read Liesl Schillinger’s review of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics in the New York Times, which begins as follows:

Whoever coined the phrase “everybody loves a winner” probably wasn’t one. When the news came out that a distractingly pretty actress, playwright and Barnard College graduate named Marisha Pessl, only 27, had sold her first book (which she also illustrated)–a “Nabokovian” thriller about an intellectual widower and his precocious daughter–for a substantial sum, the pick-a-little, talk-a-little publishing blog brigade went into conniptions. “She’s the latest in a long, long line to suffer from ‘Hot Young Author Chick’ Syndrome,” one blogger grumbled; another wrote in a headline, “It’s Not About Marisha Pessl’s Looks and Money–Is It?’ and asked if the book would have been snapped up so quickly if Pessl hadn’t had such a “drool-worthy author photo.” But don’t hate her because she’s beautiful: her talent and originality would draw wolf whistles if she were an 86-year-old hunchbacked troll. And in Pessl’s case, Nabokovian doesn’t need scare quotes. Her exhilarating synthesis of the classic and the modern, frivolity and fate–“Pnin” meets “The O.C.”–is a poetic act of will. Never mind jealous detractors: virtuosity is its own reward. And this skylarking book will leave readers salivating for more.

Like Alan Bennett’s delectable and brilliant play “The History Boys,” now on Broadway, “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” tells the story of a wise newcomer who joins a circle of students who orbit a charismatic teacher with a tragic secret…

Excited by the prospect of such a book, I ordered a copy. Since then, Gawker has been having fun debunking the drool-worthiness of Pessl’s author photo. And tonight, after returning from an afternoon performance of The History Boys (which really is delectable and brilliant) and sitting down with Pessl’s book, I’m here to debunk her talent, originality, and virtuosity. I wish Pessl no particular harm, and wouldn’t have anything to say about her book if I hadn’t read such laudatory reviews. But having read them and the first forty-five pages of her book, I’m puzzled.

Pessl is certainly an enthusiastic writer, but enthusiasm shouldn’t be confused with ability or accomplishment. She writes as though English is not her native language and she is using a thesaurus in a misguided attempt to conceal that fact. She sounds sort of like Alex, the Ukranian part-time narrator of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, but unlike Alex, she’s not funny and I don’t think her style has been adopted for literary effect. And as jarring as her word choices and metaphors can be, her allusions can be even more inept. I’m left wondering not at the range of her references, but at whether or not she has actually read, seen, or heard the works to which she refers in sentence after sentence. I’m also left wondering if Liesl Schillinger has ever read Nabokov. And finally, I’m left wondering whether or not I should trust today’s review of The Emperor’s Children.

Make-Your-Own Heart Sutra

Tomorrow night is the last meeting of my class on emptiness. At last week’s meeting, the instructor suggested–I’m not quite sure how ironically–that we each write our own Heart Sutra. Several of my fellow students encouraged me to actually try it, but I didn’t think I’d have the time (spending the weekend basting in my own anger as I was). But I found that, in the midst of my mindfulness of my anger, it was nice to have something else to ponder occasionally. I kept coming back to the sutra, thinking about what it said, what it seemed to mean, and how I might say it, and I finally decided to give it a try.

I wanted to see if I could render the sutra entirely in English, and entirely in English that could be understood by someone who hasn’t studied Buddhism. All of the translations I’ve seen tend to be frustrating to the lay reader for two reasons. First, there are several terms (skandha, nirvana, bodhisattva, karma, and so on) that translators generally don’t translate from the Sanskrit, either because the terms are already widely used in English or because there’s no ready equivalent in English. Second, many words are translated into English words or phrases that are either unusual or not being used in their usual sense (mental formations, warrior, emptiness, and so on). Ignoring the vast accumulated wisdom of all those translators, I’ve eschewed those approaches, with one exception. I couldn’t find a way to translate emptiness any more directly.

Since I don’t actually speak Sanskrit, I started with Red Pine’s translation and commentary, stealing his structure whole, and changed anything that wasn’t, as Molly Bloom would have it, “plain words.” I’m happier with the results than I thought I’d be. There are only two lines that I really couldn’t get to work (can you guess which two?). What do you think?

The Mother of All Buddhas
based on a translation by Red Pine

Avalokiteshvara, Awakened One–
reincarnation of Maya, Mother of Shakyamuni–
while practicing the Perfection of Awareness,
looked upon the aspects of reality mistaken for a self
and seeing they were empty of self-existence,
said, “Here, Shariputra,
matter is emptiness, emptiness is matter;
emptiness is not separate from matter, matter is not separate from emptiness
whatever is matter is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is matter.
The same holds true for energy and emotion, thought and spirit.

“Here, Shariputra, all reality is defined by emptiness
not started or finished, natural or artificial, sacred or profane.

“Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no matter,
no energy, no emotion, no thought, and no spirit;
no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no hand, and no mind;
no image, no sound, no smell, no taste, no feeling, and no idea;
no perception, from visual recognition to abstract understanding;
no causation, from ignorance to decay and death,
and no end of causation, from ignorance to decay and death;
no symptom, no cause, no cure, no treatment;
no wisdom, no achievement, and no failure.

“Therefore, Shariputra, without achievement,
awakened ones know Perfect Awareness
and live without cave walls.

“Without cave walls and so without fears,
they go beyond delusions and even Paradise.

“All buddhas past, present, and future
also know Perfect Awareness
and realize unsurpassed, simple enlightenment.

“You should therefore know the great spell of Perfect Awareness,
the spell of great magic,
the unsurpassed spell,
the spell containing what cannot be contained,
which resolves all suffering and is true, not false,
the spell of Perfect Awareness said this way:

“‘Gone gone, beyond gone, entirely beyond gone, awakening is so.‘”

3 Russians Walk Into a Bar…

This is one of the funniest jokes I’ve heard in a while:

Two men meet on the street and one of them asks the other, Is it true that you formed a musical group? “Yes, a quartet.” How many? “Three.” Who? “Me and my brother.” You have a brother? “No.”

Ten Questions and Some Answers

Dick started this, and Anne continued it, so I thought I’d join in as well.

  1. The Bible or Shakespeare: Both Anne and Dick mention the King James Version, but I’ve just started investigating Tyndale’s slightly earlier translation (his New Testament in particular), and it’s fascinating. Many people who know a lot more about these things than I do (which is to say pretty much anyone who’s even considered the matter seriously) suggest that Tyndale’s translation is the basis not only of the later King James Version but also of the English that we speak. And he was martyred for his translation, so that automatically makes it cooler

    But having said all of that, I’d have to go with Shakespeare. His plays, profound as they inarguably are, were written as entertainment, and they succeed as such first and foremost. Reading the Bible isn’t nearly as much fun.

  2. A word you like: Thanatotic, because of how it sounds and what it means, and because you can’t find it in most dictionaries.

  3. Most romantic moment in fiction: The few moments of genuine intimacy that the narrator achieves with Albertine in Proust’s The Prisoner, wherein the narrator’s name is mentioned for the first and last time in the whole of In Search of Lost Time:

    Now she began to speak; her first words were ‘darling’ or ‘my darling’, followed by my Christian name, which, if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would produce ‘darling Marcel’ or ‘my darling Marcel’. From that moment I stopped allowing my relations, at home, to call me ‘darling’, so as not to destroy the unique charm of the words Albertine used in speaking to me. As she said them, she formed her lips into the shape of a kiss, which she soon turned into a real one. She had fallen asleep in an instant; now she woke up just as quickly…

    Before Albertine, obeying my wishes, had taken off her shoes, I would open her nightdress. The two high little breasts were so round that they seemed not so much integral parts of her body as two fruits that had ripened there; and her belly (hiding the place which, in men, is made ugly by something like the metal pin left sticking out of a statue when it is removed from its mould) was closed, at the meeting of the thighs, by two curves as gentle, as restful, as cloistered as the horizon when the sun has disappeared. She took off her shoes and lay down beside me.

    That these passages come after hundreds and hundreds of pages of the narrator’s various unrequited desires makes them quite powerful. That they’re written by a gay man makes them quite ironic.

  4. Overrated writer: I don’t know… By whom? I suppose James Frey would be the topical answer. The writers in whom I’ve personally been most disappointed, given their reputations, are probably Albert Camus and Jack Kerouac.

  5. Favorite translation: Either Sophie Wilkins’s translation of The Man Without Qualities for this sentence (my favorite in all of literature) alone: “Automobiles shot out of deep, narrow streets into the shallows of bright squares.” Or William H. Gass’s Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, which is both an excellent translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies and a lengthy, insightful essay on, as the title suggests, the problems of translation. Or Joyce Crick’s translation of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, which frees our version of it from the pseudo-scientific lingo with which James Strachey had saddled it, setting an example that has since been taken up by Adam Phillips and Penguin to render Freud in English as the great writer he is purported to have been.

  6. Best meal in English literature: I don’t know that English literature is particularly well populated with good meals. A meal that, reading about it, I wish I was there for is Dedalus’s and Mulligan’s breakfast in Ulysses, but that’s Irish literature, as is the dinner in “The Dead.”

  7. Underrated writer: Again, by whom? I don’t think that Pat Barker or A. R. Ammons get anything like the attention they warrant. I’m tempted to add writers like Elmore Leonard and P. G. Wodehouse because they’re looked down upon in some circles, but probably not in the circles that matter (whatever those might be).

  8. Favorite children’s book: Not that I knew it when it was being read to me as a child, but That Noodle-Head Epaminondas by Eve Merriam (who probably didn’t know this either) is a perfect little Buddhist parable illustrating the relative nature of our conventional experience and the boundless compassion that’s always the appropriate response to that experience. I just knew that it was very comforting, and it has the word “noodle-head” in its title. What’s better than that?

  9. Books by your bedside now: The “small” stack on my night table includes, from top to bottom, The Dhammapada, translated by Gil Frondsal; In the Buddha’s Words, edited by Bhikku Bodhi; Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin; Taming the Mind and Walking the Bodhisattva Path by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche; Finnegans Wake; In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek; Flow Chart by John Ashbery; In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust; Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn into Gold by Taitetsu Unno; Either/Or I by Kierkegaard; Iliad, translated by Stanley Lombardo; River of Fire, River of Water by Taitetsu Unno; Buddhist Practice on Western Ground by Harvey Aronson; Dylan’s Vision of Sin by Christopher Ricks; Plato Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper; and Rising Up and Rising Down by William T. Vollmann. Then there’s the larger a stack on the floor a little further away, but this isn’t so much an indication of my ambition as it is of a storage problem.

  10. Sexiest book: There are passages from In Search of Lost Time and Gravity’s Rainbow that are erotically outrageous, along with parts of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, Lolita, Zola’s The Kill, and Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony, but what makes them all sexy is that the reader is made an intimate, almost matter-of-fact party to that outrageousness. That’s sexy.