Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"The Dhammapada": Book Review

These verses come from the earliest surviving Buddhist texts. Attributed to the Buddha himself, orally transmitted in simple stanzas, they may preserve what Siddhartha Gautama taught to his followers. Under themes as varied as “The Elephant,” “Flowers,” “Rust,” and “Twins,” these direct, pithy, and lively four-line (sometimes six-line) instructions proverbially capture the essence of letting go of the things and passions and delusions of this transient world.

“Dhammapada” means the “teachings of the dhamma,” the ancient Pali (Middle Indian) language version of what we know from the older Sanskrit as “dharma.” This is the core Buddhist message of how to divorce one’s self from mundane and mental suffering. Valerie J. Roebuck endeavors to convey the colloquial energy of these sayings. She replaces the Penguin Classics translation by Juan Mascaro, although no reference to this 1973 version can be found in her new edition. She argues that the text expresses the rich culture of its Theravadin, South Asian origins, and that what some scholars have supposed as clichés instead show easily grasped and vividly rendered instructions on ethics and good conduct to prepare the hearer for renunciation of the pleasures of this life so as to reduce their accompanying pain.

Her extensive introduction, cross-referenced glossary, and detailed commentary enrich the slender corpus of these 400 verses. Their inflected, intricate Pali may sharpen what in English threatens to drift. She relies upon commonsense as well as scholarship to express their packed meanings in a free verse, yet compact, rendering. She opts for vernacular equivalences rather than professorial stiffness, but her volume can be relied upon by academics as well as a wider readership wishing for an accessible entry into these accessible snippets of advice.

Examples will introduce readers to what may not be well-known by Western audiences. In the chapter on “Fools,” we learn: “Even if lifelong/ A fool attends upon a wise man,/ He no more knows dhammas/ Than a spoon knows the flavours of soup.” Then, the next verse, as is common in these interlinked sections, reverses a pattern from negative observation to positive recommendation: “Even if for a moment/ An intelligent man attends upon a wise man,/ He quickly knows dhammas/ As the tongue knows the flavours of soup.” (#64-65)

Common comparisons frequently emerge. “Irrigators lead the water;/ Fletchers shape the arrow;/ Carpenters shape the wood;/ The true control themselves.” (#145) Other verses reinforce doctrines. In “Hells,” one notes of miscreants: “They are ashamed of what is not shameful/ And not ashamed of what is shameful:/ From taking up wrong views/ Beings go to a bad destination.” (#317) While condemnation is found in Eastern as in Western teachings, the subtle difference that the “beings” constitute a wider array of wrongdoers and that they bring their suffering upon themselves by making others suffer infuses this non-theistic instruction.

An insistent, yet gently repetitive rather than hectoring or grating tone eases these admonitions. Roebuck as a practitioner as well as a scholar of Buddhism may be better placed to share her inner sensibility of how these verses sink into memory. Over a hundred pages of notes, as long as the space allotted to the verses themselves, provide commentary gleaned from scholars about these sometimes deceptively simple patterns of poetry.

For instance, in “Happiness,” one gains insight into the backstory of this verse: “The victor breeds hatred;/ The defeated sleeps in pain./ The calmed one sleeps happily,/ Leaving behind victory and defeat.” (#201) Dr. Roebuck’s annotation explains how Kosala’s king, after being defeated three times in battle by his own nephew, refused to eat and stayed in bed. The Buddha spoke to him the verse above, to console him.

Consolation and determination to seek the Buddha’s Middle Way between asceticism and indulgence permeates these words. Roebuck strives to capture their relevance for a world far removed from their origins in the third century B.C.E. They address any being wishing to contemplate the more lasting satisfactions beyond the distractions and cravings that ensnare us no less than the monastics of Sri Lanka, who collected what they remembered from the preaching and teaching of the Buddha, a short time after his passing.

“The monk who, while still young,/ Applies himself to the Buddha’s teaching/ Illuminates this world/ Like the moon freed from a cloud.” (#382) Penguin, by commissioning a new translation of this venerable text, has found a skilled interpreter in Roebuck. Beyond the mountain monastery or forest hermitage, as the dhamma or dharma attracts attention from those outside of universities and retreats, this compact volume expanding on compressed verse should reward readers who need direction, and meditators who desire guidance. (Posted in briefer form to Amazon US on  Nov. 30, 2010 & Lunch.com Dec. 5, 2010;  Featured as above at the New York Journal of Books Nov. 30th, 2010. P.S. I have since reviewed Glenn Wallis' complimentary translation and compared it to Roebuck's.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Julián Ríos' "The House of Ulysses": Book Review

A leading Spanish postmodernist novelist paraphrases, summarizes, and cites James Joyce’s modernist “mistresspiece,” most-loved of all that Irishman’s works. Ríos imagines a trio who meet to converse about Ulysses. The first is a mature reader, A; he is joined by a younger woman, B; third is an elderly critic, C. They gather in “The Ulysses Museum” and enter eighteen rooms as if in an academic library. Chaperoned by Professor Ludwig Jones, they wander through the book’s eighteen dense chapters. They study under the tutelage of a silent guide, the "man with the Mackintosh” whose computer projects overviews of the schemata used by Joyce in integrating Homeric correspondences into his tale of one day and night in the lives of three Dubliners and those whom they meet, dream of, contend with, and wonder about.

Immediately, in this first section, one must halt. If you have read Ulysses, then you recognize this enigmatic figure, the “man in the mackintosh,” whose identity still baffles scholars today. If you have not read the original book, you may need, as with a listener needing explanation of an insider’s joke, a brief commentary.

This places any reader of Ríos’s novel in a pleasurable bind. If you have made your way through Joyce’s verbal labyrinth once, or especially if more often, you may not need this fictionalized tour. If you have not read the original, this secondary narrative may leave less of an impact, as an echo of that compendium’s force. Its 260,000 words resist reduction into the few thousand words that Ríos summons in homage to that fictional classic’s major and minor characters and to the boundless imagination of its creator.

Even if it is difficult to recommend this when rival, if totally factual, introductions to the fiction of Ulysses more efficiently offer a complete guidebook to its Dublin labyrinth, there may be entertainment in this little novel. It offers an easy pace and conveys information with an affectionate tone. Nick Caistor’s smooth translation reveals few quotable lines from Ríos in what for English-speakers becomes a tertiary source, but the structure of first a summation of each chapter’s contents and then “passageways” that list a few observations made by the four (or one silent, five) observers in the Museum do allow, in relatively few pages, a quick guided tour through its contents. Especially for those fearful of more scholarly treatments of Ulysses, Ríos provides a neat compression of much academic insights, crammed into a small, portable, and accessible companion.

Not only beginners may benefit with Ríos as a guide. Study of this novel, as I was warned in college, can happily consume one’s spare time over a lifetime. In House, I learned a dozen fresh insights about the novel. Ríos reminds us that Joyce along with his protagonists Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus was baptized at the Church of the Three Patrons. Ríos pithily shows how “The Laestrygonians” within its passages of eating, its “peristaltic prose,” reverses King Midas’s touch. Ríos defends half-Spanish Molly Bloom’s “virago” and Madonna-whore tensions as necessary contradictions rather than binaries to be reduced to neatly drawn characterizations. He compares, if very briefly, Velásquez and Unamuno, as Iberian forces of the arts, along with an aside to Cervantes in tribute to the origins of his own novel. More Spanish references, in fact, would have been welcome to reflect the response of a novelist continuing Joyce’s own reinvention of prose; the Irishman’s influence enters the fiction of Ríos and his contemporaries.

This book failed to rise or fall to parody. While marketed as a send-up of the scholarship surrounding Joyce, it serves rather to document and transmit its findings efficiently. Ríos does adapt, as with “Aeolus,” “Nausicaa,” “Eumaeus,” and “Penelope,” the styles of the prose that Joyce celebrated and caricatured. Ríos’s own take on the Joyce industry may be less “slapstick” than the promotional material promises; I found its delivery rather steady. As any critic of Joyce without a sense of humor has found the wrong text to explore over a lifetime, the offhand remarks made sporadically by Ríos’s team of academically bent visitors were rather anodyne, on par with anyone who has lived and slept with, as one does, this text over any period of time.

Therefore, this fictional conceit fits better as a friendly, if a bit garrulous, companion. Any work that reminds us of the mastery and mystery of this modernist masterful “mistresspiece” succeeds in this measure. The essential function of The House of Ulysses is to direct our gaze away from its own pages. Holding a guidebook, we learn. Then we put it down, to look up (or down) again at its own inspiration.
(Featured at New York Journal of Books 11-9-10 and in shorter form at Amazon US and Lunch.com 10-28-10.

Friday, November 19, 2010

"Brewer's Dictionary of Irish Phrase & Fable": Review

Six thousand entries on language, folklore, history, and myth enliven these 800-odd pages, edited by Seán McMahon from Derry and Kerry-born, Dublin-based Jo O'Donoghue. The regional balance attests to the need, in such a compendium, to include pithy, sometimes wry, brief, but informative entries. The scope of this 2004 (published in 2010 in the U.S.) work rivals its parent Brewer's, the Dictionary of Phrase & Fable's 1300 pages, which first appeared in 1870. Other works from other presses focus on Hiberno-English derivations, history, culture, or literature, but this version tries to combine these fields into one volume.

The panoramic scope of such a volume even on such a small island demands a narrower focus. So, I spot-checked one letter's section. I opened it at random to "S," a promising section for variety.

Scanning its contents, I found the following among hundreds of selections. "Salt Monday" commemorates when this was sprinkled on bachelors and spinsters to get them married during Shrovetide; "Scrap Saturday" was a satirical radio show. "Save Ireland from Sodomy" as an entreaty from the Reverend Ian Paisley was met with in Ulster the inevitable transversion as graffito: "Save Sodomy from Ulster." "Sapphira" as the pen-name of a protege of Swift and "Speranza" as that of Oscar Wilde's mother appear.

As for another writer's merit, "Seamus Heaney" enters 1) "Seamus Famous" and 2) as neo-Cockney rhyming slang for "bikini," while "Segotia" as a Dublin derivative of who knows why to indicate a "dear friend" can be distinguished from "sonsy" as an epithet for all that beauty can bear. The early saint "Senan" is not to be confused with the plastic explosive "Semtex," taken from a Czech village near its manufacture. War and division, no more than invective, hyperbole, and derision, characterize many names found here. "Slag" as in ridicule appears, and so does "slán" for health, if oddly not "sláinte " as a crucially common version for a toast. "Shin shin" separates from "sin-é " for those untutored in Ireland's ancient language. By the way, the NYC bar of the latter name in its third incarnation closed three years ago, whereas the entry speaks in current tense of its existence.

The past of an Irish culture confronted by shortcomings that were forgotten in drink appears. "Sky farmer" refers to one too poor to command for his cow but the roadside verge next to the land he has lost. "Seven Drunken Nights" as the English-language version of a traditional Irish ballad gets its lyrical transcription; even though the English version in 1967 for The Dubliners got but five of its seven verses, it was still banned by the Irish radio station. The Irish-language version escaped censorship. The lines about the hairy tin whistle merit your own scrutiny.

Some entries merited more clarification. That on the "Swastika Laundry" which surprised with a "certain cognitive dissonance" the British who visited it in Dublin during WWII doesn't do justice to the fact that it was founded around 1912 when the crooked cross was but a benign sun symbol-- and good-luck charm worn by the laundry's own black cat mascot. "Servant boy" earns a sixteen-word definition that young folks went into domestic or agricultural service, but this seems not to deserve even a sentence stating the obvious.

Spot-checking, any reviewer may not be able to match the broad command of lore needed to do this book's critique justice. Still, I caught a few places where improvements would have helped. I wish a few illustrations could have been included, as in "Sniper at work" as a sign mimicking the triangular road warning notice in south Armagh during the Troubles needs its visual equivalent to do justice to the meaning. Seeing the "Starry Plough" again would assist comprehension of how its shape imitating the constellation as a logo for a working class rebellion. Under "SAG" for the "Saint Anthony Guide" entry that explained how these letters once graced the back of an envelope that a pious sender wished to guard from vanishing in the mail, the attribution to "a Dominican of Padua" errs. This patron of lost items, second to the Order's founder in terms of popularity among the Friars Minor, was a Franciscan.

However, inevitably these are minor flaws for this vast reference. If consulted as a guide for the casual inquirer needing a one-stop source, or a first-stop as a stimulus to more research, McMahon and O'Donoghue have succeeded in providing a welcome, and affordable, source. It makes a fine armchair companion to lose hours in, too. For pub quizzes ("Quiz": see the entry as won as a wager, perhaps), this may rival that Guinness volume for those Hibernians who claim to know it all. (Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 11-5-10. Appeared slightly edited Nov. 30, 2010 in the New York Journal of Books.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Trevor Byrne's "Ghosts & Lightning": Book Review

This "spirited" shaggy-dog tale takes its time. Storytelling's central, even if episodes wander genially. Denny's a nonchalant narrator, conveying drug-dealing, score-setting, and a gradual coming-of-age-- however delayed-- on downscale Dublin's fringes. Denny drifts, estranged from his home where his brother charges the rest of the family rent after the death of their mother.

His home turf of Clondalkin, once a pretty village, gets sucked into Dublin's "giant smoky gob." Heritage dwindles. The Salmon of Knowledge of Irish myth converts into Fishsticks. The Hellfire Club site in the mountains south of the city conjures up a history of those who wondered the same thoughts about what lies beyond, Denny and his mates, while wandering, find.

A Neil Jordan film, pro wrestling videos, "The Simpsons," and PlayStations serve as memory for Denny's generation. Perhaps this is a sort of sequel to Roddy Doyle's "Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha," as suburban sameness surrounds the fields and chokes off the "gyppo" camps and caravans; compare Paul Murray's "Skippy Dies" (see my review) for another recent take on growing up with drugs and drama, old rambles and new dangers, on the fringes of expanding Dublin.

The conflict between the travellers and the settled folk's not one over age-old prejudice, but a cocaine shipment that's been stolen; Byrne's Denny navigates a newer Irish society that replace traditional sources of tension. More multicultural, more multiculturally criminal? His sister's a lesbian with a Dublin-born black partner, and antagonisms flare in one scene that is drawn, as is a boxing match and a revenge on a pair of horse-killers, powerfully. But beneath the violence, the toll of being on the drink and dole darkens these lives.

A loss of meaning sinks in for him and his friends, as they fear ghosts and lightning, both of which "cast no shadow, man!" They try to figure out where his mother went after her demise. While the beginning of the novel seems to set up more development than transpires about the supernatural, early on, a night convention of the curious conjures up effectively the mystery by simply including ellipses as it transcribes the report of a seance.

In today's Ireland, Catholicism dwindles, but pagan echoes of ancient figures such as Emer and Cúchullain, Maeve and Fionn endure in the landscape and the tales told, at least haltingly by their descendants. "I wish we lived in ancient f[--] times, so I could worship the sun or the moon or somethin...somethin that's actually there, actually worth-[f--]-while." (194) His pal, Pajo, mixes football coaches with a wobbly Buddhism in his insistence upon an alternative to "sufferin and that, yeh know like?" Denny searches too, and finds his own redemption.

Byrne seeks to add his own folklore, mixing the city full of chain stores and bustle with a clear backwards glance. Very late in the novel, at a Donegal wake, Denny watches the father of the deceased maneuver around the mourners at the pub. "He nods at us and walks back over to the bar, where the priest and his brandy and the two God groupies are standin. The priest pats Mr Cassidy on the shoulder and the two oulwans look up at him and shake their heads, two pious vultures, their eyes filled with gleeful sorrow." (295)

The plot does not drive this casually told novel, but the moods linger. Without show, Byrne sums up the condition of a lower-class single mother with a hopeless man for her child's father in one sentence: "Bernadette taps her cigarette into a Bob the Builder mug." (68) Later, Denny idly watches as a "young woman with a red scarf scurries from her garden and across the green, her hands in her pockets and her head down, like somethin from a Christmas card." (167)

Characteristic wit and sharp barbs attributed to Dubliners are rarer here than in novels by his peers, but Byrne gets a couple in about a character's ex-girlfriend. "She'd a head like a melted wheelie bin," and "the f[--] tide wouldn't take Sarah Jones out."

Transitions from intimacy to indifference also lurk, as Dublin expands and Clondalkin dissolves. Mrs. Kinsella opens up a cornershop that soon will close, thanks to the supermarket down the road coming in as Dublin keeps expanding northwards. On his way to Donegal very early one morning, Denny stops in to buy milk and make small talk, although he has not done so for a long time. As he leaves, she winks at him: "--God, I'd better hurry up and sort the milk before the ravening hordes bate the doors down, she says, the wind drivin the rain across the gravel in the empty yard." (274)

This novel holds such quiet moments, for all of its vigorous speech and vehement sparring. Byrne appears modest in his ambitions, and the novel tends to roam rather than move forward. But, in this lateral rather than linear movement, Denny and his mates evoke an Irish need not to hurry. They resist the pressures of the modern world even as they glory in its pop culture. Family, friends, and fields still matter more than materialism.

For, the story itself remains: "There has to be meanin. It's not just all f[--]in... like... evolution or wharrever. Cells and impulses. There's got to be stories as well. This happened and then this happened. And it all meant this." (234) A tale about Down's syndrome so warped that it deserves to be twice-told, another of a white monkey, a third recounting a dream of bloody footprints: dream-like and silly anecdotes enrich these pages. In them, readers may look beyond Celtic Tiger stereotypes to glimpse an evanescent, but enduring, Ireland. (Posted to Amazon US 11-4-10 & Lunch.com 11-5-10. To be revised for The New York Review of Books.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

An bheirt acu ar an ardán

Is Leon, ach 18, a bhí mar Seoirse ina "Ca bhfuil faitíos eagla Virginia Woolf roimhe?" Is Niall, ach 15, a bhí mar "Seamie" ina "An nádúr mo cluiche." Is dráma sin é ag scríobh Leon as lámha a chéile leis a stiúrthóir seantriailte bheirt drámaí seo, Broderick Miller é.

Bím i mborr le teann mórchúise. Siad úillín óir na muintire againn. Bhreathnaigh mé mo dhá mac carachtair a dhéanamh chomh má raibh duine fásta tnáite agus goilleadh.

Bhí príomhpháirt Leon ann, agus tá sé páirt ró-dheacair air. Tá páirt a ghabháil Leon go raibh dúshlán mór ann. Bhí páirt géar agus mealach iad araon é.

Rinne Niall go páirt aisteora mór go raibh ag curtha go tapaidh go bPurgadóir. Bhí cigire gardaí é. Tá sé fear gníomhartha. Ach níl fhios aige cad ba chóir dó a dhéanamh de ghrá an dualgais go díreach.

Ar bhfuil ábalta tú feiceáil an beirt ghriangraf os cionn? Caitheann Leon (ag caint agus gothach ar lár níos ard os cionn) geansaí liath; chaith Niall (ag seasamh suas ar dheas) culaith liath le páirt air. Is deartháireachaí an-fhiúntach siadsan féin iad, go cinnte!

The pair of them up on stage.

Leo, just 18, played the part of George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Niall, just 15, played "Jimmy" in "The Nature of My Game." That is written by Leo in co-operation ("hand in hand") with this pair of plays' veteran director, Broderick Miller.

I'm puffed up proudly. They're "golden apples" (~"the pride") of our family. I watched my two sons playing characters as if jaded, wounded adults.

Leo had a starring role, and a very difficult part. Leo took a part that was a great challenge. It's a part tart and honeyed both.

Niall had a big acting part that was him suddenly put in Purgatory. He was a police inspector. He's a man of action. But he does not know how to act correctly from a sense of duty.

Are you able to see the pair of photos above? Leo (speaking and posing at center highest above) wears a grey sweater; Niall (standing above to the right) wore a grey suit for his role. They themselves are very worthy brothers, for sure!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tetsu Saiwai's "The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography": Review

Inspired by non-violence and inked as a story of Tenzin Gyatso's struggle as he matures within a homeland under Communist invasion, this simple depiction illustrates the tensions. Idyllic panoramas heighten the contrast with the massacres of innocents, for this Tibet's filled with resistance to Chinese genocide, and Mao's reprisals after he fails to manipulate the Dalai Lama and the second leader, the Panchen Lama, into being puppets for a utopian ideology that masks cultural and political and religious extermination. The style is in the "manga" manner of large faces, not a lot of subtle detail, and direct linear expression of emotions and action.

This could be used to teach younger readers; I gave it to my teenaged son, given a curiosity about Buddhism (he's never read about it) and a love of graphic novels. There's a lot of attention to the diplomatic dissension during the 1950s, and this provides the main plot. Those expecting a broader look at the Dalai Lama's life in exile will not find as much here, but for an introduction to what Tibet faced after Mao's triumph spread his ambitions towards Tibet, this is a swift, and effective primer that sets out the challenges of what happens when arms are taken up and world attention sought, but when both fail against a massive occupation.

Saiwai credits Martin Scorsese's "Kundun" among his sources, and the cinematic nature of this book shows in juxtapositions of the backs of the heads of praying monks with the face of a benevolent giant, triple-faced Buddha, or the last glimpse of the Potola palace by the fleeing Dalai Lama as he disguised hastens into exile from a Lhasa bombarded by an army that claims to be the people's liberators.

I found this an effective reminder of the difficult message of the Dalai Lama that violence no matter how "moral" as intended sparks further reprisals, and often deadlier repression. All options are explained, the violent as well as the pacifist, and the complexity of options and the futility of rebellion darken the tone. There's not much about Buddhism itself, but citation of teachings on peace gain effective placement at key points as the Dalai Lama reminds himself of them.

Saiwai takes pains to be fair to all sides in this saga, but he emphasizes the Buddhist reminder "how anger and hatred can grow inside and cloud people's vision." He shows the Dalai Lama trying to bring about peaceful reform for Tibet, and how this effort was ruined by the imperialism that was foisted upon his countrymen and women as if an anti-colonial opportunity to overthrow feudalism. The factions bicker, the CIA hovers, the Cold War uses this land as its staging ground and as its ignored entity, for Nepal, India, England, and America all turn away as Tibet faces attack.

Today, the situation does not differ much. The Dalai Lama for most of these panels, first round-eyed and happy, later bespectacled and bereft, is shown trying to guide his people as China outwits and outnumbers them. Later, he travels the world preaching his appeal to find harmony with one's foes, and this entreaty widens as Sensai portays the need for progress in a China shown in need, post-Tienanmen Square, of the same hopes for its people as those that Tibetans try to achieve.

The main story begins as the Dalai Lama in 2009 tells of his coming of age. A coda recaps his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1989, with his hope for Tibet's survival, appending an update on the arrival of the rail line to Lhasa that allows further weakening of Tibetan traditions as the Communist regime seeks a "sinicization" of the vast plateau, as migrants already outnumber the six million Tibetans there.

Saiwai shows the Dalai Lama talking to crowds, finding room for orphans who have fled the same homeland as he had, and attempting to convince a world where few leaders hear what many ordinary folks in his audiences may come to accept: the restoration of Tibet as a natural park, the arrival of peace to its people, and the autonomy of their homeland. Meanwhile, the Chinese import their people, strip its resources, and crush its resistance. Whether this tale has a happy ending remains ambiguous. Impermanence remains. (Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 11-12-10)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Buddhist Anarchism: In search of?

"Never mind," by Carolita Johnson appears 11-1-10 in "The New Yorker." I scanned it in from my hard copy as a subscriber, but the publication's limits of my reproducing this cartoon themselves lead to fun.

I like the sober, parenthetical caption at the magazine's Cartoon Bank, where a legible version can be seen, bought ($195-$445), but not copied. (A guru is sitting outside a cave with two naked ladies and money floating around him, talking to a man with a backpack hanging on the edge.) 

I found this cartoon the same day I read the article that gives my entry its title. How else do an image search under these two titular keywords? Doing so now to double-check: nada, shunyata, void.

At night, home after teaching in a day that has me off to work to beat traffic at 6 to teach 9-12 and then teach from 6:30 at night to 10, two large classes totalling nearly sixty students, I find it lately difficult to sleep. Awake in the dark, I happened to read about the theory of "dependent origin" in Buddhism, summarized well by Jason Siff as "nothing arises in isolation;" this led me via My First Smartphone to Wikipedia on Buddhist Anarchism connecting two terms that I'd never joined, however haywire my synaptical fusions.
But, as I'd caromed off of this in naturally separate sections of Thomas Pynchon's "Against the Day," it should not have surprised me. Gary Snyder reflected back in 1961 and again a bit revised in '69 about "Buddhist Anarchism." He rhapsodizes but he also reflects. Here are two of his nine pithy paragraphs:

The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both. They are both contained in the traditional three aspects of the Dharma path: wisdom (prajna), meditation (dhyana), and morality (sila). Wisdom is intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one’s ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into the mind to see this for yourself — over and over again, until it becomes the mind you live in. Morality is bringing it back out in the way you live, through personal example and responsible action, ultimately toward the true community (sangha) of “all beings.”

This last aspect means, for me, supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world. It means using such means as civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty and even gentle violence if it comes to a matter of restraining some impetuous redneck. It means affirming the widest possible spectrum of non-harmful individual behavior — defending the right of individuals to smoke hemp, eat peyote, be polygynous, polyandrous or homosexual. Worlds of behavior and custom long banned by the Judaeo-Capitalist-Christian-Marxist West. It means respecting intelligence and learning, but not as greed or means to personal power. Working on one’s own responsibility, but willing to work with a group. “Forming the new society within the shell of the old” — the IWW slogan of fifty years ago

I pondered "defending the right of individuals to smoke hemp" that night, after the election in California when the fate of legalizing marijuana had at last been put before the voters who'd been since '69 (see our Wobbly-inspired Pynchon's "Inherent Vice") if not '61 musing across the Golden State what a golden state it would be if this passage to earthly nirvana came to a legal pass. While two-thirds of voters under 35 approved Proposition 19, predictably (I have not seen a breakdown on older voters or the entire electorate), they made up 20% or less of those casting ballots. As with the controversial Prop 8 two years ago legalizing same-sex marriage, I predict in time and with a better-written law, that this measure will succeed. While the Mexican cartels and the Humboldt County growers both opposed it, even if the legal weed carried a 50% tax, it'd still be 25% the price of what it sells for nowadays.

It was opposed by prison guards, alcohol & tobacco companies, and naturally most police (if not maverick San Jose chief Thomas McNamara). I heard of a flyer with an overturned school bus and a car crash combined. This impact depicts the effect many may associate with any Buddhist and/or anarchist who, like the stoner kid Otto (homage to "Repo Man," I wonder, or palindromes and infinity) on "The Simpsons," might cause if he got behind the wheel of the big yellow vehicle that mythically (if not practically much these school-budget crunched days when no fieldtrips happen) would transport your own pride and joy. The fact that no less than the DUI laws we already enforce would be imposed upon such miscreants was forgotten, as such fine print is. Also, drivers take drug tests as it is, and presumably school bus drivers are kept from pot by fear if not ethics if they want to keep their job in these recessional or depressional times anyhow.

Snyder's brand of anarchism would insist, I imagine, on principles of no harm, key to Buddhism and morality. He asserts earlier in his manifesto: "The traditional harmlessness and refusal to take life in any form has nation-shaking implications." Post-election, much as she and I differ, my wife and I reflected on how since we had grown up in the wake of what Snyder, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and dharma bums (see my review of Jack's novel), that despite the promises of whomever we elected (or opposed), that wars still were fought in our nation's name, the rich pilfered, the poor suffered, the sprawl increased, the earth weakened, the literacy wobbled, the prisons grew, the schools lurched, and the middle classes stagnated.

Today's Armistice Day, Veteran's Day, the 'war to end all wars' commemoration nearly a century after that war and now after hundreds of millions more deaths, casualties, walking wounded in body and mind. I know some of them, in my classes, a few miles away from the VA hospital. They signed up for four, eight, fifteen years to get money to make a living, to raise a family they were often far away from-- and to pay for college where I teach. We spend nearly half of the military expenditures globally, a figure no politician mentions in his or her campaign speeches. I note on Facebook today a flurry of patriotism. Only one commenter, a "liberal-hating liberal" English journalist, critiques what he sees as jingoism; another, a U.S. veteran, notes that this is one day when "liberals" must acknowledge the sacrifices others make on their behalf, but he doubts if many will do this. I've reflected at length about my evolving reactions to war and peace here: Pax Christi-Passover.

War is over if you want it? Snyder's still alive, dreaming in his Japanese-transplanted hot tub of whatever his generation led our generation to expect would turn out differently, high up there in the Sierras north of where my wife's niece lives-- on the Nevada County ridge which he and Ginsberg bought for their retreat (as Kerouac writes about in "On the Road"). Snyder settled, Kerouac published, Ginsberg marched, and so many hippies, New Age practitioners, and pot growers and consumers flocked. Some trekked into the Himalayas as the caricatured cartoon above riffs upon. Others drove off to California. Snyder speculated:
The conditions of the Cold War have turned all modern societies — Communist included — into vicious distorters of man’s true potential. They create populations of “preta” — hungry ghosts, with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles. The soil, the forests and all animal life are being consumed by these cancerous collectivities; the air and water of the planet is being fouled by them.

This Gold Rush redoubt filled with its own pretas, but spirits hungry for their own freedom rather than a Mother Lode glittering at the bottom of a sluice pan. They left the same cities that the dharma bums did, and they stayed rather than wandered. They parked their VW buses and VW bugs. They survived, if they could, as they do now by yoga studios, message therapy, and organic farming of some crop or another. I wonder how their own guru's deep ecological views have evolved? I wrote about a lengthy (of course) article on Snyder in "The New Yorker" two years ago, of which (that magazine's limits elude even subscribers who try to retrieve material-- it's on pdf and an e-reader that can't be copied) only an abstract's free. But see my own piece for context and citations.

That blog entry on "Gary Snyder, Tree Canopies & Suburbia" expands familiar themes on "Blogtrotter." The loss of open space from my Los Angeles vantage point as most of last decade has witnessed the endless construction that even today leaves one house half-built on my street where the domiciles doubled and the hills became entombed beneath concrete. We are all guilty by our own existence, if you take a radical environmentalist view, but I am not sure if this is a healthy outlook for one such as me, guilt-ridden by upbringing and it seems my inherited nature as well as nurture.

Does a Buddhist anarchist detachment from "structures of this earth," by builder or State, proposition or edict, stock investment or ballot measure, pay off? Snyder wrote in a passage I suspect reflects the '69 revision:
No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge himself in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics and social orders. The national polities of the modern world maintain their existence by deliberately fostered craving and fear: monstrous protection rackets. The “free world” has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself, the persons one is supposed to love, or the revolutionary aspirations of pitiful, poverty-stricken marginal societies like Cuba or Vietnam.
I tell my students that capitalism, in a way unimaginable even for me as an adult pre-'89, has triumphed. What alternatives are there? Nobody tries to hijack a plane to Cuba anymore, brandish the Little Red Book, or to jump off a refugee boat to return to a "re-education" camp in the People's Socialist Republic of a liberated Vietnam. Anarchism's what's spray painted on a wall by teenagers in those Exploited "Punks [sic] Not Dead" jackets commemorating a song I swear nobody listening to punk from when I started (I never stopped), the end of the '70s/early 80s, ever heard of.  As Brad Warner noted in "Hardcore Zen," spray-painting the letter "A" on a wall teaches nobody about true anarchy, and only makes more work for the poor schlub stuck cleaning the building up. While taking on the evils of the world may help, what needs to be done before that is to clean up one's own act.

Responsibility rather than blaming the Man, the System, the boss, the wife, the kids, the dog: you know this don't come easy, I suppose even if you live on a retreat on 160 acres in the mountains. Snyder, Warner (a punk bassist turned Zen monk in the world and eager encourager of open-mindedness towards the overthrow of what we don't need even in the way of Zen or Buddhism or any other construct), and their ilk remind us of the need of a true anarchist to accept what Buddhism shows as "no order"", that is, no fixed substance to the seeming solidity of this room where I type, the guidelines under which I must labor, the taps that create letters here that you receive as the workings of my own thoughts, however far you sit across the sea.

That makes our own fate all the more crucial. I tend to grouse and brood. I have a habitual mental groove of fatalism, and reacting against my own needle-on-a-warped record metaphor may not last another generation, but for me and Warner, we're old enough to keep it revolving! Snyder urged his readers and us to overcome violence, contradiction, and repression: by "taking a good look at" our "own nature through meditation. Once a person has this much faith and insight, he must be led to a deep concern with the need for radical social change through a variety of hopefully non-violent means." 

As I transcribed this, a package arrived. Two books from Penguin."The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography" (see my review) by Tetsu Saiwai in graphic art form telling of the saga from 1933 to the flight from Chinese violence, with a quick coda about His Holiness's efforts to spread the message of non-violence. As the narrative shows in the 1950s as the Communists invaded, so in the sixty years since: how can a people survive without self-defence? The crackdowns on Tibetan militancy, for some of his fellow citizens in exile and in their homeland, cause this lama to be resented by some younger compatriots, as the nation becomes increasingly monitored, surveilled, and stifled. Yet the Dalai Lama insists that rebellion worsens reprisals.

In my review of "The Verso Book of Dissent" last week, I quoted Woeser, a poet-blogger from Lhasa, in "The Fear In": “Where the fear is now minutely scanned by the cameras that stud avenues and alleys and offices, and every monastery and temple hall;/ All those cameras,/ Taking it all in,/ Swiveling from the outer world to peer inside your mind"

Murder of millions, cultural genocide, decimation of traditions, destruction of heritage, imperial railroads, in-migration by the occupiers, elimination of the native language in the schools, discrimination against the indigenous holdouts in favor of their assimilated cousins: to an Irishman this story sounds too familiar.How far can non-violent means go to save Tibet? The 14th Dalai Lama insists: "Because violence can only breed more violence and suffering, our struggle must remain non-violent and free of hatred."

The other book, the outlier, Mark E. Smith of The Fall's "autobiography" (hungrily ghosted by Austin Collings, one learns) "Renegade" may appeal to my musical anarchism, in this band that is really now as it has been for decades, the sole surviving member turned not punk comrade but reigner of terror in his long march. Maybe parallels to Mao may be instructive, as another Cultural Revolution turns a sort of Institutional Revolutionary Party in that PRI Mexican memorable if contradictory phrase.

About the time The Fall started to make a name for themselves as still a semi-stable line-up, I saw a double feature: Nick Bloomfield's "Soldier Girls" (speaking of "Nevermind,") long before his documentaries "Kurt & Courtney" & "Hollywood Madam: Heidi Fleiss" b/w "Anarchism in America." The latter intrigued punk-era me to review it for my college paper. Not sure if MES mentioned Buddhism in a song, but I listened to an early record yesterday to hear "Californians love sex and death."

The blissed-out trio in the cartoon above seem to agree, at least to #1. Odds are at least 1:4 of those depicted live in (if not as natives) of my state. As to residents mentally, musically, or geographically amidst gloomier locales, The Fall's kept the uprising of '77 alive, however convoluted, maddening, and repetitious their music can be and is-- under their enigmatic, curmudgeonly, crazed leader.

I asked Professor Laurence Cox at Maynooth, an Irish sociologist who's studied such fringe movements in the time of MES and a century before his take on Snyder (who's even older than MES, only four years my elder but doesn't look it I insist in even my most ravaged encounters with the mirror and the ego's reflections). Prof. Cox suggested I look into Snyder's "Practice of the Wild" and a "Best of" collection.

A forthcoming issue of Contemporary Buddhism will feature his article (see an earlier version) alongside scholars Thomas Tweed, Alicia Turner, and Brian Bocking. [See YouTube video by Prof. Bocking; he hosted a UC Cork Dhammaloka Day conference Feb. 19th 2011.]  It highlights their research on U Dhammaloka (?1856 - ?1914). "A migrant worker from Dublin, Dhammaloka was an autodidact, atheist and temperance campaigner who became known throughout colonial Asia as an implacable critic of Christian missionaries and a tireless transnational organiser of Asian Buddhists from Burma to Japan and from Singapore to Siam." Pursuing rumors of Hibernians on the prototypical hippie trail a century before the Beatles and the Maharishi, he'd learned of this Irish emigre who in late Victorian times changed his name, having "gone native" in whatever passed as a predecessor for Goa, Katmandu, and Benares today. He explained to me:

With two others, I've been doing more research on Dhammaloka, and we've located him within a broader context of "beachcomber bhikkhus". More on this in a forthcoming special issue of Contemporary Buddhism, but the basic thing is that imperial Asia was full of sailors and other working-class whites who had dropped out, including our man.  It turns out that he was by no means the only one to become a bhikkhu...

In other words the image, propagated by 1970s and 1980s Buddhist Studies academics in the face of their post-Beat, post-hippy students of the foundational period of western Buddhism as one of conservative gentleman scholars is rather self-serving ... and the first western Buddhists were often rather more like Snyder and Kerouac (down to the battle with the demon drink) than has previously been suggested.

Certainly a smooth way to wrap up this far-ranging entry. But Snyder as with many survivors of the counterculture in the wake of beachcomber bhikkus and dharma bums may have matured, at least five or six decades on! To think that the same time passed between Snyder and Dhammaloka as between the Beats and now. There may not be enough old codgers or young dudes to sway even Californians to legalize hemp or grow weed, but perhaps Buddhist anarchism moves in spirals defying Western linearity.

The Dalai Lama may insist that he's onto a path where Tibet may vanish. Impermanence comes to pass. Will its peaceful, non-violent, enduring wisdom come to us, as prophesied by Padma Sambha in the 8th c. CE? "When the iron bird flies, and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the world, and the Dharma will come to the land of the red faced people.”

These days, as part of this prediction's fulfillment, Westerners take teachings that U Dhammaloka and Gary Snyder went east to find. Anarchism may drift to Tibet, but perhaps they had a name for it in the times of "termons," hidden "treasure-texts" to be unearthed centuries after the warlords had passed over their lairs.

I grew up wishing for an Aquarian age of personal liberation, ecological healing, and an end to the wars and protests that filled the evening news. I now talk to students who come in on artificial limbs and crutches after tours of duty. They embody what Great Leaders wish for us as our only fate, as consumers and debtors and conscripts. Once two or four years, these politicians appeal to us. Then they vanish. My great-grandfather was found murdered agitating for a cause he believed in, Irish land reform, the simple right of a farmer to claim his plot for his family. In a city today, I cling to a bit of land; I hope that the banks let us hold on to it. Restless in this decade, as tumultuous as any I suppose, I reflect and seek guidance from a patient tradition.

Wes Nisker quotes Snyder in the 1998 collection of essays "Buddhism in America" : "Wisdom is the intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one's ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into that mind to see it for yourself over and over again until it becomes the mind you live in."

For more about Buddhist Anarchism, see Wikipedia. I took a FB quiz when I did such things and found out Bukunin was "my 19th century anarchist" match, or was it Kropotkin, but they're both intrigued and irritated by much of "organized religion" as opposed to an arguably non-Tibetan, non-deistic, non-hierarchical version of "hardcore Zen" a century previous. There's a small "Religion, Ritual & Spirituality" site with articles on Islamic and Christian anarchism as well. From there, for a nuanced French view, a learned, witty essay that those schooled in Zen and its wry wordplay will particularly enjoy:  Max Cafard's "Zen Anarchy."

(I'll expand this topic into its anarchist contexts after I study Peter Marshall's history of the movement, "Demanding the Impossible." I hope to make that/this into a "RePrint" article for PopMatters.com. Today's post, re: cavorting gurus amidst (nearly) naked dakinis, may show a tangential connection for the open-minded with my entry two years ago-- maybe in need of revision-- Buddhist Erotic Art: in Search of?)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Dzogchen Ponlop's "Rebel Buddha": Book Review

Can we strip a gilded statue, or blow away incense? Ponlop, raised in Sikkim of Tibetan parents, educated at Columbia and in Canada, living in Boulder and now Seattle, represents a teacher who may be more comfortable smoking outside a Starbucks, chatting with a passerby about personal fulfillment, He’s no guru expounding from a shrine room upon esoteric doctrine. He argues for Buddhism removed from the Asian decorations that cloak its power. He presents an accessible program of self-liberation from mental constructs and religious dogma. He expands upon two lectures that present dharma teachings with nearly no Buddhist vocabulary or Tibetan references. He explains how Buddhism in a globalized era demands freedom from exotic rituals, colorful trappings, or hidebound formulas that hold back both jaded Easterners and gullible Westerners from the essence of what the rebellious Buddha taught as a science of the mind.

Coming from the Himalayas, Ponlop finds that his northeastern Indian childhood prepares him as another global citizen. As a younger lama, he enters the diaspora that has spread Buddhism far from its homeland, and he advances it as a practical method to ease modern anxieties. Distrusting outmoded forms of outward conformity to Buddhist tradition that may have exhausted their initial energy, Ponlop looks to the mind as the place to overcome confusion.

He re-orients the path to freedom, the way that follows Buddha’s ancient and time-tested map, as aligned with samathi-vipassana (calm abiding-insight) meditation grounded in analytical forms of philosophical training. Self-discipline, meditation itself, and a shift to higher knowledge characterize his model. No easy solutions arrive. For practitioners “have to ask all the questions and find all their own answers.” Unlike religious methods, Buddhism as a non-theistic approach demands that one observe, test, and verify the truth of what is suggested before a deeper understanding within one’s mind arrives.

Ponlop makes the analogy with a prisoner finding liberation; analytical meditation reveals insights “because we’re seeing into what we’re examining at the same time.” Logic and reason, contrary to what many may think Buddhism advocates, serve as the foundation for self-inquiry. Undoing the causes of one’s suffering makes this self-analytical and then self-dissolving meditation a rigorous, recuperative therapy rather than an indulgent, navel-gazing posture.

He keeps his readers centered in the everyday realm, not the monastery or temple. He insists, after fifty years of an emerging Western Buddhism, that the imitation of Eastern postures and prostrations need not remain the norm by which Asians or Westerners judge their application of the dharma to contemporary reality. He moves one’s attention to the mundane, where true enlightenment waits. He admonishes readers not to expect wisdom to dawn only in a sylvan retreat. He tells his audience to seek opportunities for advancement whenever they arise.

“Look at your mind when you wake up in the morning and discover that there’s no milk for your coffee, it’s raining again, the car needs gas, and your kids have the headphones on and are refusing to speak to you. In that moment, where is your equanimity, your compassion? If you need reminders that will urge you toward practice, you can easily find them in your own life.”

Later, Ponlop recounts a lecture which confronted the necessity of shifting the boundaries of what his listeners conceived as acceptable Buddhist practice. He started this narrative promising “a culturally stripped-down version of the Buddhist spiritual journey,” and he ends it dismantling a “scarecrow dharma.” That is, the symbolism of the tattered garments of a culture too caught up in outward appearance rather than internal dynamics risks paying homage to a stuffed simulacrum of what once was a vibrant, energetic message of renewal.

His book fills with comparisons. He speaks about working on an assembly line, visiting Disney World, and “hiring a bad hitman.” He suggests moving the dharma teachings through another reboot, to refresh the tired system and to purge it of malware and viruses. He seeks to reclaim the living tradition behind the ornamentation, the mantras, and the distractions.

The results told here can be uneven. Cultural adaptations for Western Buddhism are assumed more than discussed, and the conflation can be awkward of the two lecture series as appended and revised here. Ponlop fails to elaborate upon as much of the cultural and especially political renewal that the original Buddhist ideals encouraged as he indicated at the outset. This book may, as its contexts show, work better for those already grounded in basic dharma teaching, although given the lack of “Buddhist” terminology throughout, contrarily it may be more accessible to those uneasy about a more explicitly stated conventional primer. An appendix offers brief advice about meditating; this overview may motivate hesitant or brave readers to try out Ponlop’s down-to-earth, non-dogmatic, and gently encouraging strategies.

Ponlop recalls how the original Buddha dared to reinvent and remodel what were revolutionary teachings for his era. He suggests that his listeners start by reducing the pressure of culture, of the “clothes and paraphernalia of another time and place.” Ponlop steps away from a tradition he respects, as he does not worship it blindly. He tells his readers to begin “throwing out our cultural cushions” and to stop “clinging to our identity as Buddhists.” Why not, he wonders, “begin again by simply sitting in an empty room with completely white walls?”

His editor sums up Rebel Buddha as “a precise rendering of the spiritual journey that focused on the internal experience of the traveler rather than its philosophic underpinnings.” While the text may appeal more to Buddhists than skeptics, the even-handed approach that Ponlop takes toward dismantling the structures of Buddhism to let their original force emerge speaks well for his mission. He brings from his Asian upbringing into his Western livelihood a relevant interpretation of Buddhism that anybody can understand. This may be a version of the dharma less recognizable by its lack of incense and gilt, but it may prove far more applicable by its minimalist, portable, and commonsensical ideas rooted in urban life, and in self-analysis. (Featured 11-9-10 at the New York Review of Books. Posted in shorter, edited form to Amazon US & Lunch.com 10-30-10.Book website. Warning: David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" blasts when you log in there.)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fáilte, Bráthair Aistil!

Chonaic mé bronntanas ag an leac dorais faoi deireanach. Thug ár chairde dílse Crios agus Bob é orainn. Bhí ómós ag thabhairt do mhathair na Léna ann. Fuair sí bás an mí seo caite.

Thóg mé an bosca isteach. D'oscail mé é. Bhain amach mé an crann is lú. Bhí sé 'bonsai' é ann.

Bheul, ní fhaca mé ceann ach ina fearann dílis na Dánlann agus Leabharlann mór, an Huntington. Tá méara sliopacha agam.  Is cuma. Bhí breá liom é láitreach.

Ar ndóigh, d'ainmnigh mé é Bráthair Aiteal. Níl sé go an-leithleachas ann. Tuigim. Is maith liom ag leanúint loirg mo pátrún Naomh Proinsias ar an nádúr.

Cheangail Aisteal leis Bráithre Mionúra is luath. Bhí dílseacht leo agus dílis do an spiorad Proinsiasacht ann. Bhí sé cócaire go scanrúil fosta ann.

Chuir mé an planda suas an staighre amach de madraí agus as baol. Níl dhá cat ar nós na réidhe ann ar an póirse. Tú ábalta feiceáil sé ina an grianghraf seo. Suíonn chun boird amuigh ach síos na sceimheal. Caithim an ghrian na gCalifoirnea a chonneáil ó Aisteal maoth.

Welcome, Brother Juniper!

I saw a gift on the doorstep recently. Our faithful friends Chris & Bob gave it to us. It was given in honor of Layne's mother. Death took her last month.

I took the box inside. I opened it. I pulled out the tiniest tree. It was a bonsai.

Well, I never saw one but at the landed estate of the Art Gallery and Library, the Huntington. I have slippery fingers. It doesn't matter. I loved it instantly.

Of course, I named it Brother Juniper. It's not very original. I understand. I'm pleased by the example of my patron St Francis in regards to nature.

Juniper joined with the little brothers (Friars Minor) very early on. He had loyalty and he had conviction in the Franciscan spirit. He was also a terrible cook.

I put the plant up the stairs away from dogs and out of danger. The two cats are indifferent to it on the porch. You can see it in this photo. It sits on the table outside but under the eaves. I must keep the California sun away from tender Juniper.

Friday, November 5, 2010

"The Verso Book of Dissent": Review

Commemorating four decades of radical publishing at Verso, whose name comes from the “left” side of the page, Andrew Hsiao and Audrea Lim gather hundreds of contrarian voices “from Spartacus to the Shoe-Thrower of Baghdad.” The currency of their effort extends their coverage past these two markers. It begins with an anonymous “Tale of the Eloquent Peasant” ca. 1800 BCE. It ends with Swedish mystery writer Henning Mankell’s judgement on the flotilla he boarded that challenged Israeli forces to end the Gaza blockade this past May: “I believe so strongly in solidarity as an instrument to change the world, and I believe in dialogue, but it’s the action that proves the word.”

Such activism, chanted, muttered, televised, spat, or reasoned, characterizes the tone of the rebels and protesters from four millennia. Tariq Ali’s preface admits that to “preserve a geographical and historical balance,” much had to be excised. This collection, therefore, serves more as a compendium than a book to be read straight through. The editorial effort to ensure fair representation from all over the globe does allow stodgy recitals of platforms and policies. Some leaders rallying resistance lack memorable rhetoric . Speeches by politicians and monologues from theorists drag down the livelier utterances, often spoken from jail cells or at the stake, for many of these revolutionaries died for their courage.

Familiar cries by Socrates or Marx join protesters otherwise unknown to the common reader. St. Basil of Caesaria, a bishop who gave away his own wealth in the 300s, preaches what will become a frequent plea: “If each one would take that which is sufficient for his needs, leaving what is superfluous for those in distress, no one would be rich, no one would be poor… The rich man is a thief.” Lenin a hundred pages later urges in 1917: “From each according to his ability, from each according to his needs!” 

In between radical early Christianity and later communism, the discontented rumble. Some overcome their foe: Le Loi in the 1400s inspired Ho Chi Minh: “Today it is the case of the grasshopper pitted against the elephant. But tomorrow the elephant will have its guts ripped out.” Some lose to their conqueror. In 1781, the final Inca rebel, Tupac Amaru II, spoke his last words to the general who would execute him: “There are no accomplices here but you and I. You the oppressor, and I the liberator. Both of us deserve to die.” His namesake, 2Pac, earns his own place in this anthology with 1998’s “Changes.”

Women’s rights, and those of wage-slaves and chained slaves, earn coverage as the nineteenth century arrives. Anti-colonial and working class uprisings increase, and the entries become pinpointed to rebellions, names, and manifestoes as more of the downtrodden learn how to read and write, so their recorded defiance is not left to those who will persecute them. That century’s causes of feminism and abolition combine in Sojourner Truth. In 1851, she addresses the Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio: “Why children, if you have women’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble. I can’t read, but I can hear.” 

For some, less polite entreaties dominate their practical discourse. Lucy Parsons, a former Texas slave of Mexican, black, and Native American heritage, joined with her anarchist husband, who would be executed as a Haymarket riot conspirator. She went on to help start the IWW, the “Wobblies,” and her 1884 address “To Tramps” concludes: “Learn the use of explosives!”

Mother Jones speaks to striking coal miners in 1912 about the hypocrisy of the “robbing class.” How to make out of those whom workers must serve an honest nation? “You can’t be honest today. A girl goes to school, to church, and prays to Jesus. On Monday she acts like the devil when she sells to you. The whole machinery of capitalism is rotten to the core.” Social frustration turns palpable, and bloody.

Brief notes by Hsiao and Lim accompany each entry. They inform the reader of the context in which each passage was produced, and give a sentence or two about what is known of the speaker or writer. One pleasure of perusing this collection is finding a familiar author in a surprising context. For example, Helen Keller explains “Why I Became a Socialist.” She sided with the IWW, opposed WWI, and campaigned for birth control, women’s suffrage, and workers’ rights. In our generation, when “socialism” has been discredited and is used as an insult over much of the developed world, her arguments remind us of a hundred years ago, when the idea promised hope and change. Keller muses how her mooted work on the movement would be titled “Industrial Blindness and Social Deafness.”

What sustains so many dreamers turned fighters against the odds?  In 1925, Peruvian Marxist thinker José Carlos Mariátegui notes how the power of the revolutionary comes “not in their science; it is in their faith, their passion, their will. It is a religious, mystical, spiritual power. It is the power of myth.” Later theorists will struggle to generate a proletarian, organic sensibility of opposition to the bureaucrats, the bosses, the empire. They also, as Theodore Adorno and Isaac Deutscher lament, warn of the bias instilled within workers against radicalism, and the tendency for most laborers to side with their employers against those who wish to tear down the system in order to level it and start all over.

A few students and soldiers resist, as totalitarianism of the left and the right dominates much of the twentieth century. The White Rose clandestine anti-Nazi group’s fourth leaflet challenges the silent majority. “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.” The editors explain that in 2006, Raed Jamar, an “anti-Iraq war blogger,” was stopped from boarding his flight until he changed a t-shirt reading in English and Arabic “We will not be silent.” Such juxtapositions enhance the relevance of the messages anthologized.  Many connections can be made by the alert reader, in between the lines.

Eduardo Galeano in 1986’s Memory of Fire retells the surrender by the Dutch of Manhattan. “New Amsterdam, the most important slave market in North America, now becomes New York; and Wall Street is named after the wall built to stop slaves from escaping.” Three centuries later, Fannie Lou Hamer confronts the Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention.  “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Lyndon Johnson derides her as “that illiterate woman.”  Hamer will later run for Congress and criticize the Vietnam War.

About half of this volume covers the past sixty years. That war, and others against imperialism, jolt dissenters to take over the streets, and perhaps to take up arms. The mainstream media enters, and those interviewed seek to be heard clearly by those who might distort their voices. Central in this coverage, radical debates between non-violence and self-defense escalate in the 1960s. Dom Hélder Cámara, a Brazilian archbishop, sums up the dilemma. “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” 

Guy Debord, a founder of the Situationists, in 1958, ponders how to achieve “authentic direct communication.” He craves sincerity rather than consumerism. “The point is to produce ourselves rather than the things which enslave us.” He figures that “victory will go to those who are capable of creating disorder without loving it.” 

The Situationists would inspire the late Malcolm McLaren. While no punk lyrics enter this edition, musicians and poets march alongside policy makers and armed rebels. Verso also sells a spoken word and song anthology. It ranges from Langston Hughes to Mario Savio, Salvador Allende to Harold Pinter. It spans William Blake’s “Jerusalem,” Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Fela Kuti’s “Zombie,” and a Nicaraguan Misa Campesina

Humor is in too short supply in this earnest collection, but a wry sense of realism or release glimmers. Kurt Vonnegut sighs that there’s “no reason goodness cannot triumph over evil, so long as the angels are as organized as the mafia.” Five years later, in 1968, #9 of predictions from the Yippies proclaims “public fornication wherever and whenever there is an aroused appendage and willing aperture.”

Normally, sobriety dampens exhilaration. The stakes are often the highest imaginable. “Poem in Blood” documents the defiance of an Indochinese Communist Party guerrilla. This “rosy-cheeked woman,” tortured to death, on her cell wall wrote her final statement in her own blood. After the Communist triumph over much of Asia, Tibetan poet-blogger Woeser sits today in house arrest. In 2008, “The Fear In” shows how the society of the spectacle which Debord predicted has indeed come to pass. 

Woeser tells what she sees in Lhasa: “Where the fear is now minutely scanned by the cameras that stud avenues and alleys and offices, and every monastery and temple hall;/ All those cameras,/ Taking it all in,/ Swiveling from the outer world to peer inside your mind.” Is this the freer society imagined a half-century ago or a more Orwellian one? This decade’s contents encompass our cyber-connected, digitally accessed, endlessly monitored present-day predicament.

"For the problems that come from the barrel of the pen can only be resolved by the barrel of the pen." Liu Xiaobho, new Nobel Peace Prize winner and Chinese prisoner, argues thus; but many others in this anthology take up the barrel of a gun. This tension permeates dissent: can peaceful protest drive out violence and oppression?

This book ends with recent protests from Greece, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, China—and the Internet. It returns to these ancient lands where the eloquent peasants complained namelessly. Some protesters still share this nameless worker’s status. 

Today’s fear of speaking out contends with the necessity to speak out. Their archived dissent spans four thousand years. This edition provides a thoughtful compilation of the reactions to the privileges some possess today, alongside the injustice the dispossessed endure-- next to the pyramids of the powerful.
(Posted in shorter form to Amazon US & Lunch.com 10-29-10. Featured as above 11-5-10 at PopMatters: Happy Guy Fawkes day.)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Martin Amis' "The Pregnant Widow": Book Review

The last sixth of this novel entertained, and sometimes chilled, me. But, the action does not kick in until page 240, and the coda takes fire in a way that leaves the previous 300 pages rather limp by comparison. The denouement becomes the gripping plot, while the main story wanders with uninteresting, arrogant, privileged characters. It's mired in a meandering sense of place, time, and motive; for a book about the sexual revolution, almost all of the couplings are offstage. The few that merit detail do so in decidedly everyday language.

I understand intellectually what Amis does here. Maybe he wants to demystify the promise of this pivotal era that he was lucky enough and affluent enough to enjoy. But, as with "The Information" (see my review), it makes for a lopsided novel. That story started off brilliantly and then dragged into a roman á clef that left me feeling left out of an inside joke. "The Pregnant Widow" also leaves me cut off from the bedroom battles fought in this Italian villa.

Meanwhile, despite the temptations of his compliant companion Lily, Keith's always reading the canon, mainly of heroines who delay their consummation over hundreds (or in "Clarissa," thousands) of pages, until they too usually find their fulfillment off-stage, and post-nuptials. Amis through his protagonist starts to address Lawrence, Mussolini, the Pill, Milton, Austen, Shakespeare, Richardson, Kafka, Echo, Narcissus, and "Wuthering Heights." But this wobbly approach to whatever he's commenting on (Keith & Amis the same age more or less?) about this post-Philip Larkin realm where "sexual intercourse began in 1963," if not yet for Keith, "Between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP" for these young folks from Europe and America feels limp. Keith may be callow, but Amis appears to forget that such a narrator leaves us with not much reason to keep turning so many pages.

But does this book jump. "Making love to a fragrant twenty-year-old girl, in summer, in a castle, in Italy." This is followed immediately by: "Christ, even in heaven they couldn't stand it." (103) "Paradise Lost," with its great rebellion against happiness, presages how this Italian interlude will crumble.

Sad to say, as the subject's promising. The "pregnant widow" caught between a future of joy and a past of mourning, the impact that middle age has on the body (at 45, death hints he will not ignore you; at 55, he edges a bit nearer, in between, one sinks to 50 in despair, and then comes out of this crisis filled inside with-- the now heavier sense of one's past), and the "sexual echolalia" of reverberating conversations in books and in person: all provide moments of insight. The first real encounter between Keith and one of the women at the villa is haunting, erotic, yet icy and disturbing in the way that fevered dreams may be, half-recollected.

This character, on the margins for two-thirds of the story, suddenly rears and dominates. I won't give her away, but as with Nicola Six in "London Fields" (see my review), she redeems the latter portion of this work. She is terrifying, seductive, maddeningly opaque, shape-shifting, and unforgettable. But I cannot fathom why Amis left so much of this novel so loose-- the etymological asides, the chapters that drift and mope, the story that seems so often to go nowhere, the supporting characters who barely register even after hundreds of pages.

Such distortion may be to highlight the character who occupies so much of Keith's attention even by her absence by the conclusion, but Amis's decision to construct this narrative in such a skewed manner either attests to his genius or his haste. As with Nicola Six, he's inspired again to fill the pages with this immense black hole of a feminine power, a force from the primeval, but I am not sure how this jibes with what otherwise seems a half-hearted take on the "Decameron," and the coming of age tale that for most of its telling rushes past everyone else except-- finally and long after some readers may abandon the effort-- this one woman.

(Posted to Lunch.com 11-3-10 & Amazon US in a rare conjunction of my predicted [three-star] rating and the average of the previous 26 reviewers there, on 11-2-10. Cover: Gérard Schlosser, "Il ne se plaignait jamais" 1976, Musée d'Art Moderne.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Gabriel Josipovici's "What Ever Happened to Modernism?": Book Review

This eminent English critic confronts those who would discard the modernist novel, whose heyday seems to have been 1850-1950. He challenges the realistic, the fantastic, and the mundane fictions acclaimed in the academy and the marketplace. He defends modernism as “coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities, and therefore as something that will be, from now on, always be with us.” The cadence of his phrasing exhibits the characteristic style of this elegant small volume.

Josipovici urges those who value literature over trends and theories to champion the cause of the lure of a fiction that addresses Max Weber’s “disenchantment of the world” as our predicament. Josipovici returns to Luther and Durer; they first articulated this discontented mentality. For the novel, one of its earliest examples, Don Quixote, pioneered this undermining of the reader’s expectations of solace within what lies between its satirical and picaresque pages. Cervantes imposes himself within the text “and turns it into something much stranger and more arresting, an exploration of the nature of novels and their ontological status.”

Instead of enchantment, modernism demands of its readers and viewers that they forget the artlessness or purported innocence of their stance. We must not halt before modernist creations expecting to see ourselves and our world reflected benignly or conventionally. We have to regard modernist works “as machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world and so muddy the waters of genuine understanding of the human condition.” Entertainment becomes banal. The rarified reader searches in modernism for meaning instead of escapism, even if the meaning escapes the diligent reader. Fictions are not reality, modernists caution their audience, and in this warning they seek to divert spectators away from the safety of an “inevitable production of plot and meaning” into a truer representation of our psyche and our perspective, one that cannot be altered after disenchantment as our mindset.

This proves a demanding book. Josipovici expects that one has pondered the works and watched the art he explicates. The pace hurries, all the way back to Euripides and Rabelais, then forward to Julian Barnes or Philip Pullman. While the professor does not descend into literary jargon, to his credit, he does speak as if in the seminar. A liberal arts education appears the prerequisite for what feels, in our less attentive age, an erudite, traditional work of scholarship grounded in the verities, if those of not a more leisured humanism than an anxious skepticism.

This restlessness quickens as our times approach through the texts discussed. At the “heart of the modernist enterprise,” Josipovici discovers “that which will fit into no system, no story, that which resolutely refuses to be turned into art.”

This vantage point may overwhelm the viewer. Why this reaction should be preferred to academically promoted “literary fiction”--let alone bestsellers and mass-market fare--however, becomes an unspoken assumption. This professor apparently expects any reader of this book to already have renounced, by the very choice of this university press title, any ameliorative comfort from the aesthetic.

Modernism demands seriousness. Its dogged insistence on collapsing the fixed distance between language and story, reader and viewer, makes it as advanced as those dramas that dismantle the “fourth wall,” those films that refuse the happy ending, those books that refuse the neat conclusion. Such productions alert us to their exposed construction. They deny the possibility of another language-game or aesthetic veil that we can sweep over the work. Josipovici argues that contemporaries cannot retreat back to innocence after such linguistic and artistic strategies have exposed the artificiality of that which once fooled us.

His English colleagues come in for the most contempt in the liveliest portion of this study. Josipovici castigates those critics who fail to understand “that what is at issue is reality itself, what it is and how an art which of necessity renounces all claim to contact with the transcendent, can relate to it, and, if it cannot, what possible reason it can have for existing.”

He lists three reasons why English criticism may “fail better” (to borrow a usage from one of his influences, Samuel Beckett). Its “robust pragmatic tradition” has slid into a “philistine one,” as British power wanes and American cultural and political hegemony expands. Next, our times tend toward a suspicion of pretension and a deification of the “profound.” Third, trendy novels cash in on the latest atrocity and rush to peddle it as if sanctified, worthier of attention than a detective thriller or a fantasy paperback among those who tell us and sell us what to read next.

Finally, Josipovici rallies us to re-read modernists. He directs us not only to Woolf but Wordsworth, who conjured up the powers of the Romantic poet to energize his paradoxical calling “in an age when art itself is in question.” Two centuries later, Josipovici convinces his reader of James, Eliot, and other contenders against the complacent norm “to go back and try to understand what they were up to as writers, not dismiss them as reactionaries or misogynists, or adulate them as gay or feminist icons.” His call to take authors and artists by their word, as it were, resonates in an era too eager to shelve creative works by segregation.

His final sentence revives the restlessness that pulses beneath the professorial stance. He tells us that we are all rootless now. We can ignore this condition of the modernist sensibility as “something which blinkers us.” Or we can take advantage of its perspective to sharpen “our vision.” While this elevated position may expose Josipovici to attack from academia, he appears resigned to remain at his post, proud of the cause he asserts as the most honest one.

While this can be a formidable book in its rapid treatment of complex novels and combative art, it respects a reader schooled in the classics, of a steadily and stealthily evolving modernism as far back as the classics. This ambitious scope may convince the searching student and educated reader of the inheritance that too many modern audiences discard in the name of the dictates of the latest cloddish report from suburbia or breathless account from an approved if marginalized constituency. Josipovici may find fewer consumers and critics among his attentive audience, but this reminder of what we have gained by the modernist assault on complacency may be welcomed. He offers a refreshing retro-radicalism. He rejects the vetted reading list, the neat niches in the bookstore, the carefully multi-this and cosmopolitan-that curriculum.

Posted to Amazon US 9-28-10 & Lunch.com 9-28 in a form that duplicates none of the above, which appeared 10-28 at the New York Journal of Books.