Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ag leamh Virgil

Faoi deireanach, bhí ag léite trí leaganachaí de an Aeneid. Bheul, ní raibh trí leabhair gach go hiomlán. Chriochnaigh mé leis mo triúr de na haistriúcháin.

Fuair mé i mo gáraiste an tríur le chéile. Is oraiste agus beag an leabhar le C. Day-Lewis. Is uaine agus mór an leabhar le Allen Mandelbaum. Is dathannaí airgid agus dubh an leabhar le Robaird Mac Gearailt.

Réasunáithe mé go raibh ag tús a chur leis Day-Lewis. Thaithin sé liom an líne fhada go raibh in aice leis an méadar Laidin. Bhí sé níos dluth chomh na eile, ach bhí maith liom é nios fearr.

Ina theannta sin, i gcomparáid mé Day-Lewis leis an dá cheann eile. Gan amhras, is bréa liom is fearr an dara caibidil faoi an heachtraí na Aeneas ar feadh chogadh na Troy agus an éalú siar ar fud an Méanmhara. Go cinnte, chomh maith le sin, bhain mé taitneamh as grá tragóideach idir Dido agus Aeneas ina roinnt ceathrú.

Tar éis tamaill, áfach, faigheann an scéal iomlán achrann agus fola. Éirionn sé níos lú airgtheach. Céimnithe hídéil. Tá súil ag deireadh. Daoine troid agus daoine argóint agus daoine bás thar talamh agus ar shaibhreas. B'fhéidir, is cósulacht ár saor go fírinne ansin anois mar.

Reading Virgil.

Recently, I had read three versions of the Aeneid. Well, it wasn't three books each entirely. I started with my trio of translations.

I got from my garage the trio together. Orange and small's the book by C. Day-Lewis. Green and large's the book by Allen Mandelbaum. Silver and dark-colored's the book by Robert Fitzgerald.

I reasoned to begin with Day-Lewis. The long line pleased me that was near the Latin meter. It was more dense than the others, but I liked it better.

Furthermore, I compared Day-Lewis with the other two. Without a doubt, I loved most the second chapter about the adventures of Aeneas during the battle of Troy and the adventures westward across the Mediterranean. Certainly, equal to that, I enjoyed the tragic love between Dido and Aeneas in the fourth section.

After a while, however, the story gets full of strife and bloodshed. It turns to less invention. Dreams fade. Hopes end. People fight and people argue and people die over land and wealth. Perhaps, it's similar to our life truthfully then as now?

(Péinteáil/Painting. Éalú na Aeneas go Troy/Aeneas' Flight from Troy (1598): Frederico Barocci)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Dalai Lama's "Becoming Enlightened": Book Review

This ambitious account delves much more deeply than I expected into Buddhist philosophy, drawn from ancient teachers such as Tsongkhapa and Nagarjuna. It sums up Tibetan concepts, as expected, but given its rarified explorations of higher-level approaches to liberating one's self from suffering and embracing the rejection of lust, hatred, and ignorance, it may not be the best place to begin, despite its welcome approach for all readers.

After quite a few introductions and some advanced texts about Buddhism reviewed, I came to this with interest. I've weighed in on Amazon [and this blog] about the Dalai Lama's other works "Beyond Religion," "The Universe in a Single Atom" and "The Way to Freedom." I've also reviewed his adventures as told by Stephen Talty in "Escape from the Land of Snows," and Tetsu Saiwai's manga graphic novel on the same. Also, Robert Thurman's books about the DL interested me, and Pico Iyer's interviews in "The Open Road."

I say this to set in context my repeated textual encounters with the Dalai Lama; after a while, his familiar stories and often cogent examples tend to blur or repeat somewhat altered in his talks as edited by his translation team, so this does not diminish but enhance the motifs he returns to as he emphasizes his teachings. He is accessible and his topics are diverse and well-chosen, but it's not an easy read. More than once, this jumps about in challenging fashion.

Following a great overview of how "religion" differs from or resembles certain Buddhist interpretations, the DL leaps about in what seem more like transcribed talks from various places and audiences. Some are considerably more intricate than others, and it's a long way into this work before even a basic Buddhist introduction to doctrine is given. The delayed nature of this exposition of basics, rather than a "chronological" approach from the life and times of the historical Buddha forward into his legacy and then Tibet's refinement of the concepts, adds another layer that may discourage newcomers to these complex ideas and subtle moral lessons, often drawn from enumerated lists of three-this and ten-that that fill many pages, in a somewhat scholastic and dry method that hearkens back to perhaps traditional ways of inculcating doctrine, but which seem to smack of the seminar or treatise.

Jeffrey Hopkins, one of the first American students of Tibetan Buddhism (along with Thurman), renders this teaching in a similarly academic manner. On the audiobook I heard this as, Professor Hopkins reads it in an avuncular, teacher-like tone. I rewound many passages, to get the meaning clear or to stop my mind from drifting, as this naturally contemplative theme, combined with some difficult points, demanded close attention. This is not to diminish the value of this work, but I wanted to advise audiences that this is quite a lot of important material, conveyed in an equally mature, and perhaps not the easiest, fashion, for those entering the high summits of Buddhism with such a compact but dense volume. (Amazon US 11-16-11)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Gao Xingjian's "Soul Mountain": Book Review

This existential, postmodern, mystical quest is based on the writer's 1983 trek into southern China. After he learns his diagnosis of lung cancer is false, he seeks renewal as he searches for "Lingshan," the allegorical and actual goal of his title. While a novel, it feels based on fact, and as Gao Xingjian mixes reverie, folktales, adventure, and history, it provides a look at the deforestation, modernity, and lack of will to keep to old ways of self-discipline and customs as the Communist regime erases the traditions of mountain peoples. 

Chapters flow easily, over all sorts of subjects. Erratic in nature, often shuffled about, the manner of this relating may annoy Western readers. We can't catch all the references, I reckon, caught in translation at least. Still, enough of the texture of how life's lived far from cities keeps one's interest. Watching a Miao tribe's boy-girl dance-mating ritual, the writer reflects how "the human search for love must originally have been like this. So-called civilization in later ages separated sexual impulse from love and created the concepts of status, wealth, religion, ethics and cultural responsibility. Such is the stupidity of human beings." (228) The writer wonders how much culture's needed anyhow, under a system bent on eradicating it, on ignoring it.

Such editorializing happens a lot. I didn't mind it, but many chapters drifted, and my level of attention varied. This novel comes and goes, like its characters, not wishing to impose a fixed meaning on it all. "In fact human life amounts to this"-- so one woodcutter for a Daoist temple shrugs about his precious seclusion. 

What's innovative is how the author elaborates his own narrative voice. He adds to the "I" a "you" even if talking to himself. Then, "he" is created out of the "back of the head" as "you" turn away. "She" often arrives in the narrator's plot, as real bed-mate, as imagined folk seductress, as magic temptress, as symbolic mate. Memory and sense conjure up many of her representations, and she shows the "I" and "you" how to get out of one's self, one's mind, one's body, if for a while. 

The journey's a metaphor for life. Five hundred pages, and what happens? Can even personalities survive the pressure of fiction, anymore than fact? A critic arises, castigating the writer's attempt to ape the West in this narrative experiment. "You've slapped together travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of your very own, and are calling it fiction!" (453) 

The pace slackens more than hastens. You adjust to it, as with life, or you fight it. Not every page draws me in, but none pushed me away. Despite the distance from the references and contexts, enough comes through this translation (rather British, by an Australian professor) to make this worthwhile as a leisurely companion. It ends in a burst of otherworldly revelation that caught me off guard. Not sure if it's an easy resolution or an inspired conclusion, but I found it memorable.

Well, it works, if not as a gripping, page-turning thriller, but a meandering, wandering, reflective passage of the later 20c in time and a slice of southern Chinese space as felt and seen and heard. Given it's for a Chinese readership, consider how much is suggested in a simple sentence about the rule of Mao: "Organizations and colleges came under military supervision and people discontented with their lot all became contented." (322) Composed in Parisian exile a few years later, this helped him win the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000. (Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 5-8-11.) [P.S. Compare to two accounts that also took place ca. 1985, Ma Jian's travels in "Red Dust" and Colin Thubron's "Behind the Wall"-- both reviewed by me since.]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ma Jian's "Red Dust" & "Stick Out Your Tongue": Book Review

In 1983, this dissident left a failing marriage, his daughter, and Beijing to wander China three years. This travelogue compresses and distorts time; it's matter-of-fact and mundane. Not a lot happens a lot. 

Similar to Kerouac's perigrinations, Ma Jian reads a lot of his predecessors who seek bohemian and countercultural lifestyles. He works as a holy man of sorts, a barber, a vendor of cleansing powder sold off as "French" dentifrice too strong for sensitive Chinese palates--so he tells one displeased customer the morning after! What he sees as his country changes from the Cultural Revolution's ravages to the beginnings of capitalism if not personal freedom (Democracy Wall he sees in an earlier, pre-Tiananmen Square period of expression followed by crackdown) is often grim.

On the Yangzi River, where the poet Li Bai wrote of clouds and monkeys, fertilizer plants and cement factories spew yellow waste. "Where the green slopes have been cut away, the earth shines like raw pigskin." (162) This river divides the bureaucratic north from the entrepreneurial south; neither seems to please him much. "The government has liberated the economy, the country is moving, and the south is moving faster than the north. The waters of the Yangzi look tired and abused. When man's spirit is in chains, he loses all respect for nature." (163-4) Like his counterpart Gao Xingjian who the same year started his own meandering, if more mystical, pilgrimage south that became the philosophical, Nobel Prize-winning, novel "Soul Mountain" (see my review), Ma Jian seeks to flee an urban China that wearies him with oppression, conformity, and inertia. (Compare my review of Colin Thubron's 1987 travelogue on his 1985 tour, "Behind the Wall.")

Yet, Ma Jian finds surprises beneath the surface. He talks to a complicated, deceptively ordinary-seeming girl he'd met earlier a few months ago when he runs into her (what are the odds?) in Shenzhen."You would never guess she has a child in nursery, a husband in prison, a married boyfriend, a girlfriend, a Canadian lover and an opium addiction." (225)

Flora Drew's translation reads well to convey such straightforward observations. Here, the colloquial, often unadorned style of Ma Jian's reports makes this narrative flow smoothly, if often without much excitement. It feels honest, for that. I found more interest as he made his way south, and, by 1985, into Tibet. The chapter "A Land with No Home" conveys a lot in a little, and much of it, I found from the section "The Woman and the Blue Sky," shows up nearly verbatim, if with subtle shifts of emphasis or description, as the first story with the same title in his short collection of five disturbing, detached tales from Tibet, "Stick Out Your Tongue." (The title refers to the natives' traditional greeting!)

His afterword to that follow-up 1998 edition (written in 1987, in English 2006 also via Drew) admits this small volume of stories roused tremendous controversy in China. It can be existential and it can be hopeful, in the Beat spirit. The religious temperament pervades as God and man, myth and legend tangle: in an eerie tale of initiation, the narrator confides: "I am writing down this story in the hope that I can start to forget it." (66) Revelation does not descend for Ma Jian either in his travelogue or his storytelling from Tibet. Monks live amidst Maoist slogans; Ma Jian himself gains pocket money by "painting propaganda murals outside the local radio station." (86) He does not comment on this apparent irony.

Graphic as these spare stories can be, if for me rather than the PRC censors they seemed far from "pornographic," a demystified and deromanticized version of life on the plateau. They may benefit from a prior reading of "Red Dust," at least the Tibetan chapter; without some grounding in dharma Tibetan-style, the concentrated allusions and contexts may elude readers.

"Stick" dismantles the natives as "gentle, godly people untainted by base desires and greed." Ma Jian notes that "in my experience, Tibetans can be as corrupt and brutal as the rest of us. To idealise them is to deny them their humanity." (92)

Certainly, in "Red Dust" and "Stick Out Your Tongue," the steady, direct account of a very young woman, dying after a botched childbirth, in her sky burial--when a corpse is left for the vultures after the bones have been pounded down and mixed with dough to be fed to birds, and after the skin has been separated and the viscera and flesh dismembered after blessings have been recited--seems determined to get rid of any lingering attachment to delicacy. I found Ma Jian's account, reading it twice echoed in two versions, sensitive and dignified, although other readers were predictably revolted. For a sympathetic explanation in a book that I reviewed, compare Colin Thubron's trek around sacred Mount Kailash, "To a Mountain in Tibet (2011)."

Ma Jian doubts, even as a budding Buddhist, that his faith or that of his fellow adherents can save Tibet. Communists import greed: "As soon as a road is built, kindness vanishes." Values of one collective, perhaps communal and somewhat refined, civilization cannot withstand those of individualism masked as communism. "I came here hoping to see man saved by the Buddha's compassion, but in Tibet the Buddha cannot even save himself." (297) Ma Jian winds up distrusting Buddhism, and dismissing capitalism as well as Communism. No wonder that he left for Hong Kong the year he wrote these stories, fearing prison. He moved to Germany and he now lives in London.

He sees a pert woman's bosom jiggling as she shakes on a bus ride, with a "bent paper clip" holding her shirt in place instead of a button. This image reappears in "Stick," as does a character Sonam, in "Red Dust" half-Chinese, half-Tibetan and torn in loyalty; a skull-bowl's vividly imagined origins inspire another bold story; a third ends with a forlorn, supplicating young woman exposing her breast from under a market table, a scene first seen in "Red Dust." The oddness inherent to the fiction and the fact combines into a reflection on Tibet's uncertain future, and that of Ma Jian and his homeland where he must return to the great capital.

He concludes his "Red Dust" travels by going back to Beijing. "People are changing with the times. Everyone can see their paths. But society travels along an invisible road and no one can tell where it is going." (323) [Posted as two separate reviews in revised fashion to Amazon US & Lunch.com 5-21-11]

Monday, November 21, 2011

Colin Thubron's "Behind the Wall": Book Review

After reviewing his excellent "To a Mountain in Tibet" (2011) and "Shadow of the Silk Road" (2007), I enjoyed this 1987 account of his 1985 Chinese travels. Thubron's unsurpassed when recounting the distance between foreigner and native, observer and participant in the passing scene. Without exaggeration, every other page of these three hundred could serve up an eloquent example of his prose and his perception.

I'll share a few of my favorites. He visits a Beijing classroom: as a teacher plays on a harmonium, the children chorus "like mechanical birds: vivacious and dead." (21) In Nanjing, interviewing a priest, he seeks to get past his persistent divide, as he "sensed that my questions were subtly irrelevant to them, my Western preoccupation with suffering and conscience merely a measure of my isolation, a sign of my not understanding." (98) 

This struggle permeates his finely crafted narrative; he focuses on what he sees rather than who he is or what he's done (his books tend to be quite reticent), but he filters all he sees through his p-o-v, so we ponder what he does. It's not egocentric, somehow, but universal in his reflections on his fellow men and women. As with his Silk Road book (more than his Tibetan trek), he may annoy those readers wanting a less acerbic, or more romanticized view, but for me, cross-referencing this with Ma Jian and Gao Xingjian as native travellers at the same time exactly, their accounts align with his about his criticisms.

The lethargy, staring, constant scrutiny, relentless rudeness, noise and filth of China gain frequent attention. Dissimulation, helplessness, disdain, and catcalls follow his every move, it seems, over much of his ten-thousand mile journey, as "above the charming photographs on the identity badges of waitresses, the real faces are a rockery of sulks and scowls. Their lidless eyes have been invented for avoiding yours." (111)

In Suzhou gardens promising peace, he finds bad art galleries, shops, and photographers everywhere. "A glaze of cigarette stubs glazed the lakes." (135) Yet, in this same visit, he hears a young woman tell a blind man of what she claims to see: dragons writhing on the water, lions on their backs; lions roaring over the lake.

Similarly, he balances wit with despair, as in his woeful description of his meal of "braised wildcat" he must endure in Canton; he redeems himself later by liberating an owl from a horrific caged city market of dogs, cats, and birds as some recompense. He listens to those he suddenly shows up among, and he tries to hear their tales of terror, not long after the end of the Cultural Revolution. He also attracts attention, gawking, standing out as an alien before questioners who ask him how many children Charles Dickens had, or tell him that their father studied math at Cambridge. 

He shows up in a peasant's rubber grove near the Mekong. "Momentarily I saw myself in his eyes--taller than anyone he had ever met, uncannily pale-haired, and fattened by the mystery called England." (222) Thubron's basic Mandarin allows him some deeper insight into common humanity. And, as a "foreign devil" he can sometimes hear what natives might not dare to say aloud. Later, a young lecturer opens up to him about a failing marriage and a lost love: "It would be like confiding in a star or a tree." (267) 

Still, much of the beauty of this account lies in the distance in a crowded country, the scenes glimpsed as he passes. On a train into the hills of Fujian:
"Beyond my window, as the afternoon wore on, the mountains unlocked isolated valleys which the falling sun varnished into the illusion of peace. Village roofs dipped and swung above the green stairways of their terraces. Whitewashed walls were bright and unreal in the silence. Momentarily I thought: how beautiful. And I gazed at them with the acquisitive longing of someone hunting a weekend cottage. But they were filled by a rude poverty, I knew: their people were here in the train, bellowing convivially together. So I would greyly discount these idylls, and return to my book. But in the next valley the dream would reassert itself, and the glimpse of a tiled roof under a white wall incite again a childish mirage of Elysium." (167)

That masterful passage shows Thubron's power. Read this journey across China to find out much more in similar scenes. Highly recommended by an acerbic but wise writer at the peak of his talent. (Compare my reviews of two others who wrote of the same year, 1985 or so, in China: Ma Jian's travels in "Red Dust," and Gao Xingjian's philosophical novel "Soul Mountain."; posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 5-21-11)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bunker Hill, banker mentality

I watched the Occupy LA protests six hours live-streamed Thursday, four miles from my house. The progress of the Day of Solidarity can be seen from the videotaped standoff near 4th and Hope after the occupiers set up tents in front of the Bank of America tower. Then, inevitable late-afternoon arrests. The LAPD lined up in front of admittedly privately-owned (Brookfield-Trizec, same as Zuccotti Park) tiled promenade disheartened me: police (with lord knows how much cost to taxpayers like me in this decaying city) lined up to protect the powers that be. Some of the protesters appeared callow, but I could tell many were sincere. Their "supporting" unions, contrary to LAT coverage, seemed to melt away by mid-afternoon.

I asked myself: why don't I take the subway down there? But, I had to earn a living (paperwork online), while I waited for my wife and son to come home. By then, even though I mulled over trying to head by the protest site first, these arrests were already in progress. That area was locked down around Bunker Hill. How could I support this national November 17th Day of Solidarity? I'd found out about this live-stream, globally, from Evie in Dublin; then Mouse via John W. Smart's blog told of the Zuccotti Park crackdowns. I then shared the OLA live-stream on FB and JWS, as well as with a Boston writer-activist who'd been to OWS often. I worked, and I began a massive novel assigned for review, Peter Nádas' Parallel Stories; a footnote for we English readers explained the revolt against the Soviets in Hungary, as if already forgotten.

How long would my children remember the encampments here? My older son demurred, until my wife reminded him that similar marches had ended a war once; my younger son had accompanied my wife and myself, and he wrote a report about it for school. I get the sense lately it's already receding into nostalgia, book-deals, a movie pitch or three, Obama's re-election spin, teleprompted jokes, all by way of The Onion.

Later that night, I'd take supplies downtown---not to OLA as before, but for concessions to Silverlake Children's Theater Group to support them by sales at performances starring my son and a cast of dozens. My weary, generous, volunteer (no less for SCTG than those for whom she'd sent granola and gauze, cereal and water, a tent, our books--those who marched downtown, for a better society, in our microcosm) wife had loaded the car with drinks and supplies. I hauled it and my son past a few dense or dismal, destitute and dreary blocks from the encampment and the BofA. The plays this season will be featured at a fittingly titled Inner City Arts center, albeit a spotless, squeaky new edifice. Near The Midnight Mission and a Greyhound depot, Skid Row adjacent's full of the homeless. Their tents or boxes, lacking signs, aren't on a live-stream.

Driving down, I listened as NPR aired a program that noted about Occupiers the need to shift from "the symbolic to the real." The host concluded that "occupation" had meant having a job; now it meant "political protest." I added one tiny part to a big project yesterday to help someone's dreams of acting on stage, or seeing their child or sibling perform in one of three (!) plays this weekend, while I watched a protest that on an amateur's wobbly camera appeared more visceral than the clean soundbites fed us by the MSM.

I found its live-stream "journalist," who labeled himself as an occupier and protester on his UStream site, a bit disingenuous, as he claimed there to be at a camp for three weeks at OWS and now at OLA, but when asked by the LAPD on camera, he distanced himself, saying he was "press" and that he possessed a "letter from a magazine" as credentials, which failed to convince the officer. But I sympathize with this young man's subterfuge. I commend him for his day-long diligence under trying circumstances. A FB feed could be seen alongside the stream, with generally supportive comments (that he often responded to via his voiceover) but with a lot of snark tossed in, as this was the Net. I also listened to this young man comment all day long, and I wondered how many of the students I taught would have the inspiration or stamina to do this for free.

Understandably, "Jordan" appeared to dance around the drama of how much he wanted to capture on tape the mayhem that some wanted to spark. Being in the crowd ("Mic-Check: Global Revolution and U-Stream have 11,000 viewers" he would call out from time to time to tell the crowd "the whole world [in part] was watching") but also wishing to capture it for those of us away from the front lines. After all, he needed to act as if a journalist, for survival. I wondered what 1870 Paris or 1917 St. Petersburg or 1956 Budapest would have been with such an eyewitness. And, he was a journalist, if one of the masses and not a professional.

As with many commentators, then and now, he sided against the authorities, appearing at times to rush towards a confrontation to record, but he did try to remain in control, chatting with Officer Braun when the camera appeared stuck on him ("man-crush?" one commenter jeered) for what seemed like hours during the standoff as arrests neared. I observed how often during scuffles or tension, "Jordan" recited badge numbers and surnames. I learned that the LAPD's green weapons held beanbags while those that looked like paintball guns had rubber bullets, again via the feed. "You are the 99%," "This is what democracy looks like," and "The people united will never be defeated" rose and fell as chants among the small crowd.

At one point, around 4:15, arrests were imminent after a fifteen-minute warning had been announced by the LAPD to clear the plaza when "negotiations" had ended between OLA organizers, police, and owners of the non-public space. His camera went black. An officer had been heard telling "Jordan" he was being arrested, but luckily this did not happen. He remained on the flat tiled walkway steps outside the tents set up on an elevated plinth-parklet where the police, after setting up a tarp to block the cameras seemingly as much in evidence as protesters, cleaned up the city in the name of private property instead of the First Amendment.

Point being: did I offer for "solidarity" a better duty that night by assisting in my clumsy manner a less-noticed portion of the L.A. community in a less dramatic way? Or, did I weaken OLA by my absence at a rally where I could not get near, as the BofA plaza was cordoned off? I tried later, when picking up my son, to steer towards the plaza, but 72 arrests had been made, the LAPD cleared the zone, and it was 10 at night.

Bunker Hill, ironically or not, is well-named in its L.A. setting: a fortress for the banks and the philanthropists who fund and name the art museums and Disney Hall that replaced the flimsy Victorians, the Native American neighborhood, the old cityscape that my blog shows at left in Millard Sheets' "Angels Flight" painting and in one of my favorite novels about my love-hate relationship with this hometown, John Fante's "Ask the Dust," which I read long before its film version, I proudly add, back in college in the early '80s. Bunker Hill, all gleaming steel and buffed granite, shines as the proverbial city on the hill, Reaganesque.

The annoying but accurate Mike Davis noted 20 years ago, pre-Rodney King riots (or "urban uprising" or "Justice rebellion" according to Davis and his cronies, whom I imagined influencing the glum bearded youth in a Mao cap who refused to applaud a spokeswoman's call for non-violence aired by "Jordan") in "City of Quartz" how this "urban core" keeps away the restive. This city is skilled, as a "carceral" setting that isolates those who resent the banks and towers. As I drove, and wound up going the wrong way in my diligence, I pointed up to my son to cock his head so he could see back over my shoulders a glimpse, awkwardly, of the BofA's massif, second highest on the skyline. Its logo shone in red and blue above the incoming whitish haze.

"Hundreds held in Occupy protests across nation"--this implies the SEIU as having more involvement all day, when the live-stream shows them leaving by mid-afternoon. Union reps served in vests as crowd control, which appeared to miff "Jordan" and his nearby marchers when they kept them off the street. I must say I side here with the authorities, for traffic was snarled that morning by the initial march on BofA. I have no liking for those who jam public thoroughfares, congested as workaday L.A.'s downtown core always will be.

"How will Occupy L.A. end?"-- the LAT wonders if it's time is up as a physical presence soon. Six weeks on, Lice infest, lawns die, and pot wafts, as my Occupy L.A.: One Month On previous entry had noted. This embeds many links, some updated since the original, to reflect media attention and competing reactions.

Photo gallery--shows the situation at the Bank of America, as well as OLA's home camp near City Hall and protests in NYC yesterday. This LAT online site did not feature my image, Arkasha Stevenson's print ed. photo of cops vs. sit-down protesters, but Pan African News blog site did. (So much for mainstream media.)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Elizabeth Cunningham's "Red-Robed Priestess": Book Review

Imagine Mary Magdalen was born a Celt, foster-daughter of a hero who then rapes her. She then falls in love with a certain gifted foreign exchange student who comes to (what is now) Wales from Palestine. She rescues him from sacrifice by the Druids, so they must flee back to Israel. They will create a daughter, together. There he will meet his fate with --and apart from-- her. Meanwhile, her first-born daughter, taken from her by the Druids, a “misbegotten child of a misbegotten child,” grows up to lead a native rebellion against the Romanization of Britain.

After a career roaming the Levantine, where not only Jesus but Paul of Tarsus embraced her with various consequences, this red-robed priestess, born Maeve Ruadh, Mary the Red, sails from Gaul across the Channel. Her hair now faded to grey, at sixty she returns to the land of Britain where she was raised, to seek out her first-born daughter, rebel queen Boudica. During an uprising in Britain a generation after the Crucifixion, Maeve will witness through her shape-shifting self the fate of her homeland and the decisions made by both her headstrong daughters.

This ambitious novel completes Elizabeth Cunningham’s lively series, The Maeve Chronicles. As a first-time reader of Maeve’s adventures, I found the start of this complicated saga slower going. Still, Ms. Cunningham integrates the past gossip and guises of her appealingly flawed, wittily droll heroine deftly. The author blends what can be known from the historical record—as with the three earlier installments—into a winning mixture of fantasy, romance, epic, and meditation upon the struggle between Christian notions of peace and pagan insistence upon power, and how these principles themselves warp and mutate and shrivel as the cause of the Celtic Britons clashes with that of the Roman (or Romanized) imperial settlers.

Without taking herself or her creation of unpredictable, seductive Maeve too seriously, Ms. Cunningham manages to extend the relevance of this novel beyond a mash-up tale of “Magdalene returns to the Druids”. Her pace rarely pauses to allow us to catch up, but Maeve can shift via dream states conveniently across Britain if necessary, a helpful narrative device that compresses the defeat of the Druids on the Isle of Mon (today’s Anglesey off the northern Welsh coast) with the rebellion of Boudica that burned down London and two other Romanized cities before the Celts were crushed by the Roman forces. The predestined nature of the true part of this tale, therefore, requires skill in keeping the reader involved in a doomed epic. It is a testament to Ms. Cunningham’s ability that she can keep the plot moving rapidly while insisting upon depth given to the magical and mundane characters from history and myth who hurry across these busy pages.

Maeve, telling us her tale, muses early on about her relationship with the Roman commander. She recalls how both of them “kept straying into each other’s story, as if some incoherent dream insisted on inhabiting waking hours.” The chronicle, colloquially rendered in modern-day English, succeeds in avoiding the mustiness of many alternate histories. Maeve addresses herself to our time as well as hers, and this allows Ms. Cunningham to connect her predicament with that of anyone forced to take the side of those who murder or those who will die.

Tangled into the machinations of Celts and Romans, directed by the come-and-go voice of Jesus and the messages from earlier chronicles in this series now and then, Maeve struggles to make the right decisions, as her daughters must confront the presence of their mother in unexpected circumstances, and as she must admit uncomfortable revelations about her own background and her own long absence from the lives of her two girls.

“I sighed. Once again, the choice. Suddenly I was tired of spinning tales, spinning the truth, tired of spinning. They say deceit weaves a tangled web. But fabrication is an art form. The truth is the raw, and often unappealing, material.”

Maeve’s admission compels her to alter allegiances, and to test her loyalties. Ms. Cunningham presents a fair-minded portrayal of both sides in this British conflict, and this is enriched by Maeve’s own understanding of the lessons left for her by Jesus. “What does it mean to love your enemy on the eve of battle? Do you spare your enemy even though he won’t spare you? Do you kill him, because he will kill you? Which is worse, death or murder?”

The tragic resolution of this dramatic showdown comes after hints of stories perhaps nearly as ancient, the roots of King Lear and Hamlet, as well as plenty of Celtic divination and Druidic debate. Ms. Cunningham notes how she had to return, a final time, to allow her heroine the chance to return to her homeland, to settle the last story which Maeve’s long life had created. This final episode in The Maeve Chronicles, for all its carefully recreated battle and bloodshed, lingers in the mind equally as long for its introspection and revelation. This offers a welcome examination of the ties of love and the conflicts of loyalty on the intimate as well as epic levels. (Featured at the New York Journal of Books 11-15-11; Author's website.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ag breathnú míoltaí móra

Fhreastail mé An Chomdháil Mheiricéanach do Léann do Éireann i Naomh Seosamh in aice leis Naomh Críos. Lhabhairt mé faoi an saor agus saothair de réir Máire Ní hAllmhuráin. Thógaidh sí i mBaile átha Cliath agus ansin ag imithe sí An tSeapáin ar feadh na n-ochtóidí go luath.

Chuaigh sí ar shiúl mar sin go raibh an dúil mhór aici ag maireachtáil chomh mar 'manach na tSen' ansiud. D'imigh sisean ar an taobh Thior i bhfad chun stadéar a dhéanamh Búdachas. Fuair sí bás nuair a bhí ach seacht mbliadhna ar fichead d'aois, i 1982.

D'fhan muid ar lar na cathrach i Naomh Seosamh ag trasna na basilica stairiúil agus dhá múseaim na healaíne agus teachneolaíochta. Shiúl muid ag cheantair sean 'solas-dearg' ina hoíche. Anois, measaim go raibh na colbhaí 'salach' leis carachtair amhrasach faoi na lampaí galánta fós.

Thug muid cuart air ár chairde dhíl Bob agus Crios ina dhiadh. D'ith muid ag am lón ag an caladh ina Naomh Crios. Bhi ag féachaint ar an chuain agus an clárchósan go hiontach.

Chonaic muid míoltaí móra léim ard amach as an aigéan. Ní fhaca mise féin riamh an oiread sin i mo shaol. Is  radharc go mbeidh mé ag cuimhneamh ar feadh i bhfad. Is cuimhne liom aríst faoi ár shaol gearr i hiontas tapaidh agus an rúndiamhair laistigh de gach créatúr.  

Watching whales.

I attended the American Conference of Irish Studies in San Jose near Santa Cruz. I spoke about the life and times of Maura O'Halloran. She grew up in Dublin and then left for Japan during the early Eighties.

She went away as she had a great desire to live as a Zen monk over there. She departed herself for the Far East to study Buddhism. Death took her when she was but twenty-seven years old, in 1982.

We stayed in the city center of San Jose across from the historic basilica and two museums of art and technology. We walked in the old "red-light"district at night. Now, I reckon the curbs may still be "dirty" with suspicious characters under the elegant lamps.

We paid a visit to our dear friends Bob and Chris afterwards. We ate lunch on the wharf of Santa Cruz. We viewed the harbor and wonderful boardwalk.

We saw many whales leaping high out of the ocean. I never saw myself so many at once in my life. It's a sight I will remember for a long time. I recall once more our short life in quick wonder and the hidden dimension within every creature.

(Above/Suas: Teach Solais Rinn le leon codhlata na fharraige/Lighthouse Point with sleeping sea lion. An caladh na Naomh Crios/Santa Cruz wharf. Photograph/Grianghraf le Chrios de Barra/Chris Berry, 30ú Samhain/October 30, 2011.)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Andrei Znamenski's "Red Shambhala": Book Review

Why did early Bolsheviks sponsor expeditions for occultists obsessed with a Shangri-La? A Russian historian of shamanism answers this in his engaging study of characters caught up in an unlikely pairing. It matched Marxist communal ideology with New Age-tinged notions of totalitarian theocracy. It conquered, if briefly, the steppes of Mongolia as a vanguard for a pan-Buddhist takeover of Central Asia. Even before the October Revolution, plans to spark uprisings in the inner Asian fastnesses grew. Secret plans by geopolitical instigators circulated that the fulfillment of apocalyptic promises loomed, so the communist conspiracy to sign on fellow travelers here recruited strange companions.

Careful manipulation of shamanic myths and Buddhist prophecies crafted by self-made scholars and savvy spies sought, after the 1917 Revolution and during the Red-White Civil War, to advance the Communist cause. Convincing natives in the Siberian and Himalayan regions, a few adventurers reasoned this call to unity could challenge the British rule of India, weaken the Whites, and totter the Chinese warlords. Adventurers seduced by Orientalism told their Soviet overlords that native peoples across the East would rally towards liberation, and as ancient predictions came true, the nations that the U.S.S.R, inherited would take one giant leap closer to the Soviet-sponsored global triumph of the poor over the pampered. Professor Znamenski combines his expertise in shamanism and Central Asian teachings with Western esotericism, and the results, enriched by newly opened Soviet-era archives, provide an accessible entry into a fascinating saga. 

He prefaces his narrative with essential cautions. Rather than try to argue how one version of the famously puzzling tantric and hidden teachings of Buddhism combined with native lore do or do not align with the true version of Shambhala's myth, he regards each version as fitting whatever time and place created it. Znamenski regards every religious or spiritual manifestation as fluid, and this open-minded quality allows him to remain detached from the notoriously convoluted applications of difficult texts to simplistic political solutions. Even if the characters themselves appear less than logical about how Buddhist teachings can square with Marxist materialism and Leninist class warfare, the author here wisely keeps his distance from such fruitless attempts to make sense out of nonsense. However, as an aside, this book appears under the aegis of a Theosophical press, so I note that when it comes close to assessing the veracity of Madame Blavatsky's own inventions, Znamenski chooses to remain guarded or nearly reticent. 

Certainly, a century ago many looked to the East via Theosophy, magic, spiritualism, and the New Age to answer their doubts and dreams about the potential chaos and coherence of the modern era. The counterculture then romanticized, as did the Beats, hippies, and backpackers later, the appeal of an Eastern teaching. Both conservative and radical misfits reasoned that Eastern promises could redeem Western corruption and bring about equality, order, and the restoration of goodness over wealth. Many self-taught adepts wished or claimed to harness the inner powers latent in those who had forgotten arcane doctrines and magical methods. The repository for such solutions lay waiting in remote Shambhala, and the forces unleashed from its Central Asian or Himalayan hideaways could be harnessed to the Marxist goal of liberating the oppressed to fight for a golden era once the proles destroyed the aristocrats.

This tale opens--after some lucid and at times lurid introductory material on Tibetan and Mongolian teachings, cultures, and doctrine--with Alexander Barchenko. His occult pursuits influenced his idea for social reform. Discouraged by the Red Terror that obliterated the White resistance to communism after the October Revolution, Barchenko sought a peaceful method by which equal rights could be established and Marxism implemented without bloodshed. As a "Red Merlin" he wished to build a communist theocracy "controlled by peaceful and spiritually charged high priests of Marxism".

His boss became the chief cryptographer of the most secret of the Soviet intelligence agencies. This agency experimented with telepathy at a distance, re-engineering of mental powers, electronic surveillance, and what we would label parapsychology. Its chief, Gleb Bokii, agreed with Barchenko that Marxism possessed an appeal for Asians as a surrogate religion, if a transitional stage that could be manipulated among the peasants and nomads to convince them to join the Leninist banner and to bring about the victory of the downtrodden. 

Many appealing details enliven this stage of the story, as a few visionary Soviets support this strange plan. Whispers of mind control, nudism, orgies, mummified penises, a talismanic meteorite, and black magic circulated, while Znamenski neatly relates how eccentric and bold many early Soviet intellectuals might dare to be in a time of cultural disruption and erotic innovation. Watching over this scheme, the secret police amassed careful files which would later weigh against Barchenko and Bokii, as Stalin's paranoid executioners extracted confessions interspersed with salacious details from the brief heyday of 1920s radical indulgence. These reports were edited by the secret police to condemn a decade-and-a-half later culprits who flouted convention in the first flush of triumphant Red fervor. 

One who escaped the purges, Nicholas Roerich, takes on the role of a lifetime. Already well-versed in an odd mix of New Age and messianic ambitions, he and his wife had left tsarist Russia. This charismatic if manipulative pair of artists and occultists used whomever they could to further their hopes of a "Great Plan" that would unite Tibetan Buddhists across all of Inner Asia under the Panchen Lama. They even convinced a future vice president under FDR, Henry Wallace, to support their ideals, and the Roeriches erected a "Master Building" as a world headquarters which still stands on Riverside Drive today in Manhattan. The Roeriches dreamed of converting the planet to their scheme of transformed equality via enchanted transports of visions.

For a while, after the revolution, the determined couple returned to Red Russia to reconcile their ambitions with those of Marxism. They calculated that they could advance their plan better by aligning it with communist ideals of communal equality. They convinced a coterie to join them, financially or in person, to hasten their takeover of Central Asia, the epicenter for what they saw as an inspirational revolt of the peasants and monks against their lamas and warlords. The Roerichs donned costumes and roles as if natives. Nicholas posed as a reincarnation of the Fifth Dalai Lama so as to convince the local people of his mission. 

He and his entourage plotted with the Soviets and indigenous sympathizers carefully, but their plans to enter Tibet to make it a Marxist-Buddhist realm akin to the region of Mongolia--that region had recently been swayed by prophetic revisions to accept a materialist-millenarian combination of mystical overlords and enforced communism--rapidly failed. The party nearly froze before they were allowed to enter the suspicious and firm jurisdiction of the British representative over the Himalayas in Sikkim. There ironically their claims that the Soviet mission had for its success to overthrow British dominion in India were proven, if indirectly. 

The narrator comments how Roerich wore a face like a mask, one that it appeared he could remove at will. The couple, as with the other protagonists in this dramatic episode from early Soviet history, appear often as if to act with disguised motives. Znamenski uncovers in the archives of the secret police and recent studies from Russian-language sources the hidden facts unknown to the players then or until very recently scholars at large.

The early Bolsheviks boasted: "We are born to make a fairy tale into reality." For a few years, they tried to do this, in an unbelievable and rather cynical fashion. They chose to distort shamanistic teachings to play into mass resentment against imperialism and to upset the poor who would then presumably wish to seize wealth. While the juxtaposition of Buddhism with its teaching on non-attachment and Marxism with its materialist class warfare clash, this disparity escapes any comment by those participating in its proclamation in these pages. 

The Soviets in hindsight tolerated the games of the Buddhist role-players as useful to their own strategies. For instance, they had the Roerich party travel under the Stars and Stripes so if their mission met with unwelcome attention, it could be disowned by the communists; if successful, it could undermine the White Russian refugees fomenting trouble, while it strengthened the power of native nationalists, who would be employed by Soviet interests to counter Japanese imperialism edging by the 1930s into Inner Asia. 

By the time of the Japanese takeover of Manchuria, the U.S.S.R. tolerated less imaginative methods of exporting Marxism. The failure of world revolution to spread westward and Stalin's fears of rebellion caused the Soviets to contract their power inward. The fascist Japanese and the wary British were both feared. The Great Terror caught up those who had provided the vanguard of Soviet rebellion back in 1917. Even those who tortured and murdered Barchenko, Bokii, and thousands of loyal communists from the days of Lenin were themselves put to death a couple of years later. Stalin eliminated the cadre of any rivals to his regime, imagined or actual. 

Near the end of this history, Znamenski tells of a representative vignette in this sorry saga. A former junior lama took over Mongolia as a communist fanatic. He vowed to make the feudal system into a more equitable one. He killed resisting monks and lamas and drafted the compliant remnants into the army or concentration camps. By 1940, the Mongol Buddhist clergy was wiped out. The lamas were sent off to Siberian prison camps. But many thought they were headed to northern Shambhala, the predicted land of bliss.

Those lacking specialized knowledge of arcana have not learned much of this story, for until the fall of the Soviet empire, many records have been sequestered or linger in Russian-language academic journals. A few very minor slips in English usage reflect the author's Russian origins, but these occasions are far outweighed by the valuable contributions he provides so the rest of us can learn about these events and their scholarly sources. The transcripts forced out of doomed prisoners about their role in this Red Shambhala project make for poignant reading. 

They remind us of the fragile nature of idealism, and the moral costs of suppressing those who tried to temper the fury of the Red victory with some sensitivity to the cravings of the spirit and the capabilities of the mind. While the practical experiments of laboratories bent on superhuman creations failed as surely as did the subversive aims to spark revolt on the Mongol plains or in the Tibetan monasteries, the lesson of this unbelievable plot lingers in this thoughtful, instructive, and sad testament of grand hopes and puny fates.
(Featured at PopMatters 8-12-11; debate over this title ensues at Amazon US, but I stay reticent, although I posted this as my 1300th review there 8-16-11.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Janwillem van de Wetering's "The Empty Mirror": Book Review

This iconoclastic memoir provides one of the earliest "I went to Asia and tried to find enlightenment" narratives from what became the counterculture. After philosophy studies, affairs, working here and there, at 25 or so, in postwar Japan, van de Wetering winds up in Kyoto, ringing a bell he should not to enter a monastery to study Zen as a voluntary monk. As a Dutchman with no knowledge of the language or culture, he stands out in many ways; he says that he was among only 27 Westerners in Kyoto in 1958. His brisk, reflective, but restless and anarchic account shows what few back then witnessed: how, just as for others Zen met Beats, a fidgety young man seeks to better himself and to find truth amidst a world he seeks and flees from alternately.

Buddhism appeals to him as "a possible path, not a vague theory" that refuses certainty but eschews "questions about the why of everything" by "a disregard of doubt." (32) If the Buddha could do it, and others could follow this way, van de Wetering figures it aligns better with his skeptical mindset than other methods. He seeks to cut down his self without committing suicide.

He tries to get over logical ruminations or god-centered ideas. His master, once a neurotic boy, now a composed presence, encourages his wayward student: "The intellect is a beautiful instrument and has a purpose, but here you will discover a different instrument. When you solve 'koans' you will have answers which are no longer questions." (51)

Unlike his fellow, native monks, who get a somewhat easier way to solve koans to speed their way along the standard three-year stint required before they are ordained to take over temples and make their careers, as a volunteer monk and a foreigner, van de Wetering struggles against the regimen. He feels like a "circus bear" compared to the native-born monks apart from whom he lives in a tattered dirty cell. He knows that the Japanese work by many written laws, but also unwritten ones that keep them from killing themselves too often, so he learns with Peter and Gerald, fellow Zen "gaijin," how to balance his life with the monastic rigor. 

He barely masters the half-lotus position, and how he can meditate remains to him and to the reader a mystery. He tries to stick with it for a year and a half. Anticipating the regular sessions of intensified practice: "that was why I had come, to visit an old Japanese gentleman who ridiculed everything I said or could say, and to sit still for fifteen hours a day on a mate, for seven days on end, while the monks whacked me on the back with a four-foot log lath made of strong wood." (79)

Peter reasons about "now" being synonymous with eternity, and doing what one must "now" for it to happen. Van de Wetering muses how so many answers given in Zen seem "brilliant, deduced from the one and only reality, but which I couldn't make use of because as soon as I started to have a good look at such an answer its message proved to be well outside my reach." (113) He seems to resist giving in to the compassion and detachment he admires and which he knows must be sought in dharma. But, in typical Zen form as non-form, is his master even a Buddhist? Han-san answers his pupil: "Is a cloud a member of the sky?" (140)

The later part of his stay gets blurred over. A shift inside's weakened him, but I felt this stayed too distant from the reader. It means he lives outside the walls of the monastery, with Peter as his tutor, but Janwillem appears to slacken in his discipline, as his wanderlust appears to return, and eventually he leaves Kyoto with little formal notice. He respects those he leaves behind, however, and this remains a jittery, self-deprecating, and honest attempt to make sense, fifteen years later, of what must have marked the author indelibly. For at his departure into where the "world is a school where the sleeping are woken up," the master tells him that he "is now a little awake, so awake that you can never fall asleep again." (146) 

(For another account, see my review of Kaoru Nonomura's fine narrative. At thirty, he enters forty years later at Eihei-ji: "Eat Sit Sleep: My Year at Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple".) (Posted to Amazon 3-27-11 & Lunch.com 4-21)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Peter Matthiessen's "The Snow Leopard" & "Nine-Headed Dragon River": Book Review

These overlapping works blend memoir with history, travel with insight. They present Zen Buddhism filtered through a keen eye and a sympathetic voice. While Matthiessen's familiar to many readers, these are his only works I've read, and as for "Snow" re-read, if after twenty years.

I remembered "Snow" as sharing with another narrative back enjoyed back then which I've returned to, Andrew Harvey's "A Journey in Ladakh" [reviewed here in the previous entry] a "drop-off" scene where all the noise vanished, as if a silent passage in a film, and a mystical experience unfolded on the page, floating into my mind. But, in "Snow," this time I failed to find it. It may be that my intervening reading, especially the past few years, in Buddhist studies has eased me into other accounts, so "Snow"'s impact was muffled, but in following Matthiessen through the Himalayas again, I enjoyed his trek, forty-five days at the end of 1973. He and a naturalist companion with their porters and guides trudged over the Nepal plain, up the river trails over into Inner Dolpo's enclave of a widely demolished (by the Chinese) or eroding (as Colin Thubron's companionable "To a Mountain in Tibet" documents recently; see my review) native culture where it perches on the edge of the Land of B'od, that land's vast plateau.

The spiritual side contends with the physical rigor. Matthiessen deftly balances his personal story with his wife's recent death from cancer serving as a poignant counterweight to his own adventure. The title seems to imply an adventure into the animal world, but as you will find, this symbolizes more than represents an actual encounter, which makes the quest to see the leopard even more engaging. Meanwhile, the mountains abide, as his Zen koan "why do the mountains have snow, but this peak is bare" appropriately accompanies his journey into his soul as he wrestles with the needs of the body and of the spirit equally.

He struggles to an understanding of the unity of all existence, he faces despair and disgust at his impatience and irritability, and he seeks hope. In a way, a very simple story, imaginatively told and magnificently rendered. While I wish photographs were included (all I had with the hardcover was one image I imagine of Shey Gompa, the monastery at the foot of the Crystal Mountain, their long-sought destination where the blue sheep gather near the snow leopard's haunts), their lack may push the reader into an inner imagining of the scenes captured so well in Matthiessen's sinewy, self-aware, disciplined prose. Like his mystical musings, the mountains and ravines, the terrible cold and isolating snow, the intense sun and the eerie atmosphere all combine into a memorable presentation of a man's search in the most remote and severe of habitations, where people live three miles high.

For "Nine," this title refers to the river where Eihei-ji, the sprawling monastery founded by Dogon, the iconoclastic, brilliant monk who started the Soto school of Zen, climbs up its Japanese slopes. This book places the core of the journals from his Himalayan trek in 1973 that also appeared in "The Snow Leopard." These are prefaced by his account of how Zen came to America, and how he helped build the upstate New York community he served at, becoming there a lay-monk. Interspersed nimbly are excellent summaries of Zen teaching. After the "Snow" passages, Matthiessen includes a travelogue-journal during his 1970s travels to Buddhist sites.

I felt this book provided some of the best insights into Zen I've ever found. Matthiessen's American commonsense fits well with Zen's practical, clear-eyed, boldly existentialist attitudes, and it's easy to see why Dogen becomes the most cited personage, with dazzling reflections prefacing each chapter. (See also my review of Brad Warner's "hardcore Zen" commentary on Dogen's "Treasure of the Great Dharma Eye" rendered as "Sit Down and Shut Up"!) Dogen's role as reconciling practice and everyday realities with ultimate truths and enlightenment, simply summed up but elusive and difficult to grasp in words, emerges through Matthiessen's interpretations vividly.

But often his chapters skip about, the "Snow" ones being drawn from his journals kept with frozen hands.  He never shies away from his own delusions and his passions, as the intellectual heft and idealistic mission within Matthiessen's countercultural ambitions contend. He blends autobiography and anthropology, if from a post- Carlos Casteneda tone at times, given this work's shamanistic genesis and hallucinogenic sympathies.

While the "Snow" material (I read this right after re-reading all of the original "The Snow Leopard") skillfully excises the best of that book's contemplative moments, I wondered why it had to be repeated, as it tends to throw off the Japanese sections before and after these two chapters. The latter portion, as Matthiessen goes from site to site, piling up names and dates, loses the power of the introductory sections, where the pain of his wife's death (she brought him to practice Buddhism, overcoming his reluctance) from cancer overwhelms you alongside him. Pain also tends to madden the author, as he pushes himself in the strident Japanese manner to fight his own physical limitations and sit in "zazen" at punishing length at marathon "sesshins." He never shies away from his own delusions and his passions, as the intellectual heft and idealistic mission within Matthiessen's countercultural ambitions contend.

Both books sum up famously challenging Zen Buddhist philosophies and regimens. They combine a love for the natural world with a respect for the lonely path of those who share his need for beauty and clarity within some of the most rugged landscapes, as well as the most tamed, that Asia offers. Matthiessen's discipline nourishes his writing, which keeps sinewy and supple, while it also helps readers come closer to his own rather formidable commitment to master mountaineering and Zen, both short paths up steep slopes to vistas of wonder.  (Posted and edited as separate reviews to Amazon 3-27-11 & Lunch.com 4-21. See "Snow" here; compare his companion George Schaller's search at Shey for the snow leopard in "Stones of Silence" 3-2012.)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Andrew Harvey's "A Journey in Ladakh": Book Review

Not a journey "to," but "in" this Buddhist enclave, before or as it succumbs to the rest of the world's ways, Harvey's quest takes in his own spiritual and existential condition as much, if not more, than his travels. While you gain a sense of how this barren, golden, light-bright landscape looks, Harvey shifts to the appeal of its monastic traditions, as he falls hard for Thuksey Rinpoche, a Tibetan refugee lama. Harvey meets Dilip & Moneesha, two delightfully drawn characters, up from Delhi, who introduce him. Gradually, Harvey's defenses erode and he learns what moves him.

Nature takes up much of the first portion of this carefully composed, often understated narrative. Compared to Peter Mathiessen's "The Snow Leopard" (see my review of this and the overlapping Japanese-oriented "Nine-Headed Dragon River") which takes place over the Himalayas around this same time, sometime in the 1970s, in another monastery also called Shey, "A Journey in Ladakh" does not give as much attention to the mountains climbed. One shortcoming for readers may be this relative attention to the conversations he has (he speaks many languages) and the thoughts he shares. The book turns more inward as it develops, mirroring the shift Harvey makes as his journey turns vision-quest.

Harvey's settled more in a few places and not as much a trekker as he is a pilgrim. Unlike Mathiessen, who comes to these mountains already a Zen practitioner, Harvey's a Cambridge-educated poet with a secular or disenchanted, detached perspective. His erudition's evident, if worn rather lightly, thankfully.

But as his friends and teachers here note, he wants to change from his English-educated, somewhat distant attitude towards the spirit, even if he does not realize it at first. He signals this subtle change as he walks to see a monastery, but he never gets there. Instead he stays in the lovely scenery on the way. "I have no choice but to be alive to this landscape and this light: I must let this light do to my spirit and my words what it has to." (66)

He knows the folly of his mission. Hans, a visiting professor, tells him that by his own academic fieldwork there as well as Harvey's presence, they attest to the erosion of what they seek to document and preserve in Ladakh. If Harvey "bears witness," a last testament for his readers to what's vanishing, Hans reckons: "aren't you inviting them to a rather corrupt party? 'Another moving study of a doomed culture'?" (96) With the Rinpoche, Harvey wonders what Hans'd say about his transformation as he seems to enter his teacher's mind. "In this old man from another, unknowable world the writer has found the perfect way to aggrandise himself, advertise his spirituality." (150) This self-aware skepticism about his own struggle to let go, in the Buddhist sense, enriches this study for the outsider, such as Harvey still is.

Even skeptical Hans and cautious Harvey admit they're moved by the generosity of their hosts. Drukchen, another lama, tells Harvey how the teachings represent the loss of illusion, of the end of "false hope or consolation," as Tibet falls and its teachings spread abroad through its exiled adherents. "Buddhism will flourish in the West," Druckchen predicts, for the West "is coming of age; it is becoming adult, able to bear the radical clarity of the Buddha, hungry for" the wisdom that brings "a practical, severe analysis of things as they are, of the mind as it is" (180), free of salvation unless it comes from within the seeker. Compassion, wisdom, and a hard look at reality's own constructs accompany this vision of absolute change, for those unable to believe in Christ as a god anymore, but only as a man.

A Swiss student, Charles, annoys but then appeals to Harvey's own search: not to use it "as an anaesthetic," to cling to "a great wall of experiences and meditative ecstasies and learning between me and the world," as Charles had done in vain. Instead, hang on to "no insight, no experience, no learning--it is to be simple and unprotected. It is to be practical, in the highest sense, with everything that is around you, with all the energies, good or bad, of the present." (191)

This is a difficult story of inner entry and outer adventure to control, but Harvey succeeds. He tells of an out-of-body experience as he watches a Tantric ceremony, and as he forgets "all my fear and self hatred in those moments," he sees insubstantiality surround him, all "a transitory fiction." (205) Later, Drukchen tells him of his confidence that Harvey must return to the West. The lama warns that "the East is not a large convalescent home for the West," a place to "play at being spiritual," but "it is a place of power, of new power, a new kind of strength which must be used in the world." If Harvey's sincere, he will succeed in sharing his discovery with his audience: "If what you have learnt is true, it will hold." (226) 

Finally, as he prepares to leave, he visits the Rinpoche. He takes the Bodhissatva vow not to enter Nirvana until all sentient beings he can assist will precede him there, and he's a Buddhist instead of an "almost" one as his friends had noticed before. He is told: "The true journey is toward the enlightened self, and you are that already. You came, across your life, across Ladakh, to this room, to this morning, to me, and now another journey is beginning, the journey which you have travelled here to begin." (233)

I read this again after two decades, and like "The Snow Leopard," it sustains its energy and compels the reader to follow an outsider's struggle within these mountains to find beauty, meaning, and truth. Harvey's voice controls this compelling, yet modest, presentation of his own nuanced self-awareness. He conveys deftly his own evolution into a wiser, humbler pilgrim who returns with quite a story to tell us. (P.S. I reviewed the original 1983 edition pictured here; an unread by me 2000 version adds an afterword criticizing some sacred cows which some felt gored by, as Harvey since became a New Age-ish popular author and speaker. Posted to Amazon US 4-6-11 & Lunch.com 4-21)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Lisa Napoli's "Radio Shangri-La": Book Review

A solid combination of travelogue and memoir, this takes us into a land where until recently, few could enter. And, with the tourist tax and limited access now, few can afford to visit. It reminded me of Jennifer Steil's Yemen encounter as "The Woman Who Fell From the Sky" (2010: see on Amazon US or my longer review on PopMatters): a driven but weary journalist in a high-powered profession, unattached and searching for meaning, on short notice and happenstance leaves the big American city to advise those in a remote country who want to become more Westernized in their media, within a strongly traditional culture. Like Steil, Napoli seeks love and finds it, so she thinks, among the ex-pats in the capital city. Yet, as readers will find, Napoli's maturity may make for a more satisfying moral than Steil's to her journey, as much delving inside herself as describing what she sees on the outside in this Himalayan kingdom.

Similar to Steil's time abroad in its scope and events, Napoli's itinerary during 2007, the Year of the Female Fire Hog, seems rather limited, for time and sights. She tells of what happens at Thimphu's newly launched Kuzoo 108 radio, even if her tale tends towards the everyday in a globalized pop culture blur that links her to her Bhutanese hosts as often as what keeps them still so much different than Americans. As she does not get out of the capital much, there's not a lot that happens. But her enthusiasm, tempered with her growing understanding of Buddhist transience, enriches her straightforward narrative. She's not a flashy writer, so the depth comes more from subtle transformations inside her, compared to the rapid ones in a nation eager to tap into what it sees as the excitement, comforts, and goods of globalization.

The irony of her (a native Brooklynite) leaving downtown L.A. (working for NPR's "Marketplace") to quiet down in this place that seeks to settle people into a happiness based on not materialism but spiritual balance does not escape her. She and her radio crew try to promote a "Symphony of Love" for Valentine's Day while she comes to terms with the lessons of what may appear to be lifelong love, but in fact may be a pleasant encounter. Her tempered wisdom works well in her telling.

Later, her return to Bhutan, twice in a brief time, brings already the sense of a rapidly Westernizing realm. It's one that appears in her perspective as a protective one, like that towards a lover, worried about the object of her affection becoming too altered, too quickly. But that attachment's not the Buddhist way, either, as she learns.

While I learned much less about Bhutan itself than what I'd expected, a bibliography, some fact-filled chapters late in the book, and a list of websites point us towards more information. The tone's therefore a bit uneven, but this may reflect her own preoccupations as they shift from first visit to follow-up complications. (I wish photos were included: they were needed to enhance the rather low-key account of what Bhutan looks like, at least beyond Thimphu, where she's settled in for most of the events.)

Napoli favors her own vantage point, as character-driven rather than focused on scenery or excitement, and she keeps the story a modest one. She reveals enough of her past to inform her own transformation but she does not linger. She keeps the story moving, and although the tone of later chapters, after her first return home and then back again, feels altered, she's changed from her Bhutanese stay. Her own sudden embrace of being a godmother, and her own insights as she connects more with a country in need of contraception and all sorts of careful planning with temptations all around it, make for a satisfying, delayed-coming-of-age tale. (Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 3-1-11)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Occupy L.A.: One month on

We took supplies to the protest on its one-month anniversary. At night, downtown's famously empty, even with 30,000 hipsters, artists, and/or professionals having moved down there the past decade. Some of them undoubtably were watching the dancers, lit in white, as drums pounded, on the south side of City Hall. Peripherally, I noted them, but my wife and I, and later my younger son on our return visit that same evening, were more intent on weaving through the onlookers in the dimly-lit dusk all around the shadowy crowd, pressed onto the patio's uneven Spanish tiles by the crush of tents (30 on October 1st, two weeks later estimated at 350, and now...500?) that covers whatever grass had grown here in the pocket park--and which threatens the historic fig trees.

The first jaunt took my two dozen mint-condition books, mainly practical ones. I now lamented having sent hundreds of books to the thrift store a few months back on a summer cleansing campaign commanded by my wife, so not much remained that I judged of even slightly wide appeal. However, perhaps some diligent tent-dwellers may benefit from two copies of a great public speaking textbook, two more of a pair of fine rhetoric-grammars, one on multicultural communication with a testbank and instructor's guide included for a slightly out-of-date Business Communication set, so no harm done!. Perhaps a pristine literary anthology nearly a thousand pages, or odd reads gleaned from the garage. I hoped those books under a plastic sheet would be safe from the rain which would come soon, if the camp endured. My wife promised to come twice weekly with supplies "as long as it lasted."

The shelves were nearly full. Nobody around. It was hazy. As I crouched and found spots for my haul, I glanced up at Catherine Cookson and Jodi Picoult romances, Marxist tracts, a blur of furrowed colored spines of mass-market offerings in the unlit nook. However, I noted on the ground at the lending library in its tarped gloom a prominently placed paperback of Elias Canetti's "Crowds and Power."

At the First Aid tent, I noted how animated my wife looked. She found out they had, I suppose, enough condoms now, and maybe toothpaste--two earlier needs filled? Hairbrushes, festooned with Dora the Explorer, and combs and mouthwash were earlier ferried down there by her when she found out what was desired. Now, it was gauze--a sign maybe of the harsher conditions after the initial revelry?

We passed a few officers from the LAPD, standing and walking up the recessed steps off Main Street, at the back of City Hall. The photo above shows how tall this icon, on a cop's badge if you recall from "Dragnet" or "Adam-12," stands, even if dwarfed now by skyscrapers and L.A. Live a few miles south. These Blade Runner shapes prove a municipal harbinger with its $248 million in tax breaks to billionaire builders of Farmer's (as in Insurance) Field, about to be approved for the NFL team which apparently our city cannot flourish without, fast-tracked free of "job-killing" environmental (or traffic mitigation it appears) impact reports. Not publicized are the 40 digital billboards that will surround said stadium, visible from one of the most congested interchanges in an already gridlocked (even at night often) downtown, if not the blocks around City Hall.

Nearer the historic downtown core across the 101 Freeway--and adjacent practically to Skid Row--City Hall, diminished on the skyline downtown, is post-1960 off the beaten track, compared to where tourists strut and fans flock. That massive stadium's approved by the same city council and mayor who are wooed and wined by these tycoons in the municipal chambers, I suppose, above where now the main entrance (at least after hours) is cordoned off with signs directing you to the side where the LAPD waits. The protester in the photo above was three weeks ago, before I suppose the wide handsome steps off Spring Street were blocked off to us, as residents, visitors, donators, supplicants, voters, dwellers (it's technically illegal to be in a park after 10:30 p.m., but the officials have overlooked this for now), and/or citizens.

The Food Tent was in the center of the south part of the park, hard to get to as the tiled paths are the only way into the middle. Tents take up all the surrounding ground. An articulate young woman as its staffer told my wife she used Twitter; my wife scoffed and said the old fogies used Facebook. As we unloaded a shopping cart full of granola bars and Special K cereal, "Deirdre" told us that tap water was not available and that they'd run out of bottled water or jugs full of it. Cooking being prohibited, she informed us that bananas and oranges were favorites, and that peanut butter had run out. I smelled marijuana nearby.

We went to get our son from his theater rehearsal, bought four boxes of bottled water, some gauze, and drove back--he and I unloaded the water while my wife circled the block--you cannot park around this area. A line of white trucks with satellite dishes filled the spots in front of the county courthouse. My wife asked me why they were there, and I figured they were waiting in case something happened. (LAT's sample coverage on the site's lapse into slovenly bickering and how malt liquor's plentiful while nothing's donated for breakfast.) It only occurred to me after we got home why the press had lined up across the street from City Hall. Around the block from that very newspaper, grabbing more headlines, Michael Jackson's doctor's on trial for murder.

A black man in what seemed an orange Native American get-up (?) welcomed those who passed his prominent place facing Main at the front of the tiled path leading to the drum circle. I think he was selling votive candles. No other evidence of commerce could be found, even if the Green Party had a table and I saw discarded the inevitable evidence of any non-mainstream political rally, LaRouche flyers.

A woman was speaking when we had returned, wrapping up the day with announcements after the dance. In the shadows, just the other side of the dancing and drumming, the way to the Food Tent was gloomy, as if taken from some wartime footage, and I couldn't make out the back of the tent, so crepuscular its depths. It was if a refugee settlement emerged. The demographic tilted half my age. For all of its bustle, it was but a tiny encampment, limited to its little fringe of flat around a tall building, hemmed in by big buildings, pavement, concrete, laws, and cops.

Is this extremism from the left, wannabee hippies, our era's silent majority, a lot of malcontents lining up for grub? Growing pains of democracy, for all its mocked gawkiness? No Central Committee, no logo (I hear OWS wants a trademark, however), no buttons, no t-shirts--yet? Meanwhile, look at these downloadable posters here!

How dreamers, the downsized, deadbeats and Deadheads could move the powers that be to change seems sobering, so utopian. (See here for one skeptic's fine account of her conversion, in Oakland. Compare a sympathetic skeptic on OWS  and a third Awl blogger reporting on Occupy L.A.'s inability to agree on banning pot from the park. Video of OLA. [Update: attempted march on Financial District 11-17 Live stream video.] Today's news: Obama spends a $100 million of PAC money against Romney in digital attack ads. Our mayor in this eternally Democrat city had handed out ponchos on one day of sudden rain last month. After an initial welcome, the City Council debates whether to move the restive camp.

My stance, despite--and amidst--spirited bickering pro-con over at my fellow Angeleno and political commentator John W. Smart's eponymous blog, has been to wait and see, and cautiously hope for reform outside the bipartisan system, pledged to and seduced by the capitalists. Many there criticized even my hesitant support, but many more join me (see Noam Chomsky's speech: he and Chris Hedges [after I wrote this, he was arrested at OWS protesting GoldmanSachs] are slated to appear at OLA on Guy Fawkes Day the 5th) in insisting that after bemoaning so much corruption and collusion among the corporatocracy that rules our nation and world, change must come, even if we are not able to control it the way we might judge most pragmatic.

I passed a man in an Anonymous-V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask. He held a smartphone up to his hidden gaze as he crouched on the pavement, interviewing it seemed a young woman in front of him, squatting, unmasked. We walked past so many signs, some scrawled and left on the dirt, some attached to tents, some overturned. "The First Amendment is our permit" stood out most.

Most of the small tents were shut tight on the hard soil against the chill. Which one was that three-person model we'd sent via the Occupy L.A. Amazon Registry and UPS a few weeks ago, I wondered? On my way out, I saw a silhouette behind a plastic sheet of a standing man reaching out to embrace another figure.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Haruki Muratami's "1Q84": Book Review

Inventive, engrossing, and imaginative, this memorable novel will earn acclaim. Haruki Murakami blends fantasy, dystopia, speculation, mystery, murders, sex, death, radicalism, and love into nearly a thousand thoughtful pages. Originally published in three volumes during 2009 and 2010 in Japanese, the translations of Jay Rubin of the first two-thirds and Philip Gabriel of the concluding section convey its contents into fluid, natural, and straightforward, if slightly elevated and subtly nuanced, English. 

"Things aren't always what they seem," a cabdriver warns the first of this saga’s two protagonists. A personal trainer, thirty-year-old Aomame leaves a traffic jam on an elevated expressway to exit via a hidden staircase on a fateful walk down back into 1984 Tokyo; her city and her life and her world may look different, the cabbie tells her, from now on. But beneath appearances, he says, one reality persists. 

She will have ample cause to doubt this. Nimble in body and clever in mind, Aomame moonlights as a vigilante against men who perpetrate sexual abuse against women. During one such mission, as if her sensibility gets split in two, she wonders about her predicament. "Call it the Zen of the killer." 

She starts to want to hear, as a signal of her departure from reality, a song first heard in the cab, the Czech composer Janacek's Sinfonietta. She suffers dislocation. Frenzied sex neither with her erstwhile lesbian friend nor the men she picks up (slightly balding, middle-aged) in bars can ease her spiritual and emotional frustration. She receives eerie glimpses into a strange realm, where she then sees two moons glow over our earth—a sign of the shift that the cabbie warned was coming as Aomame left the traffic jam, determined as if on impulses sent from beyond to escape 1984 Tokyo. What she enters, she reasons, she christens 1Q84: a question mark replaces the number nine in this Orwellian year. 

Meanwhile, a man the same age as Aomame, Tengo, teaches mathematics and writes literature on the side, albeit unpublished. He takes on an assignment to edit, and to polish, a strangely half-assured, half-faltering submission by Eriko Fukada. Her tale, Air Chrysalis, has been submitted to a story contest. Tengo and the contest’s director conspire to rewrite the work as if hers, touching up the awkward yet appealing manuscript bearing the name of the seventeen-year-old dyslexic and oddly blank-eyed young woman under the guise of “Fuka-Eri”. Her mysterious past, and her gnomic lack of affect, confuse and intrigue Tengo. He finds, as he gets to know her, a premonition about Fuka-Eri; she shines a "special light" into the void he always has had, the "blank space inside him”. 

Tengo and his colleague learn of another Orwellian connection in this 1984. After the communist radical protests of the 1970s led to violence against the Japanese state by some rebels and the establishment of an organic farming commune by peaceful dissenters, the latter faction began, itself fragmenting, to create "mindless robots" in a rural retreat. Here, Eriko Fukada was raised after her radical parents went underground. The elder Fukada resisted this conformity, but he and his family became enmeshed in a quasi-Buddhist mind-control cult. A reaction against "footbinding for the brain” as Tengo phrases it, after talking with Fuka-Eri, sparks his quest to learn the truth behind the fictional Air Chrysalis

Aomame’s adventures alternate with Tengo’s search over the first two books, each 24 chapters. Gradually, Mr. Murakami introduces an investigator, Ushikama, hired by the cult to try to find out what Tengo knows about Fuka-Eri and the secrets which may be exposed by her book. He joins Aomame and Tengo in his own chapters in the third section, as the year of 1Q84 under two moons hovers over a transformed hyper-reality for these three seekers of the cult’s hidden truth.

Their lives become much more complicated. This tense situation creates an "endless battle of contrasting memories" for Aomame; she envisions at one of many stressful points a Tibetan wheel of passions--at its center, she takes courage by glimpsing love as its steady axle. As the novel progresses, Aomame and Tengo find their own imaginations and dreams directing them towards a destiny that Air Chrysalis appears to conjure up, in its evocations of what the Sakigake robotic cult may be up to. 

Tengo faces his own challenges. He is haunted by a vision of his mother. When he was a baby in bed, he recalls her next to him, suckling erotically a man not his father. Confused, as a grown son he now seeks out his elderly, demented father. This subplot enriches the tone with themes of mortality, longing, and thwarted desire. His father tells him: "Your mother joined her body with a vacuum and gave birth to you. I filled in that vacuum." Not all is solved in a conventional fashion in this version of a mystery; some readers may be puzzled and others pleased by the open-ended nature of its plot. While Mr. Murakami neatly fits many elements together by its conclusion, he is careful, ironically if faithfully, to leave certain revelations or explanations unresolved, to increase verisimilitude. 

Halfway through this trilogy, Aomame meets the Leader of the Sakigake cult whose mysteries Fuka-Eri has dared to reveal in her book. The Leader explains to Aomame how in the account of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough “one who listened to the voices” took control over the destiny of those he ruled as king. The nature of the voices he hears during his sacrificial rite—enrich as one of many cultural and literary aspects this erudite but unfailingly entertaining book’s forays into grace, belief, truth as verifiable and provable, lust, feline fears, and lunar appeal. On the Beach, “Stalinist Zen”, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Proust, Jung, the nature of a shifting force of good and evil, the food we eat, and the Esso slogan “Put a tiger in your tank” all feature as conversational or meditational topics for these erudite, yet accessible, characters.  The final section will reveal the fate of Aomame and Tengo, as well as the destiny of he who enters to try to make sense of it all under two moons, private investigator Ushikawa. 

The Leader convinces Aomame: "Violence creates certain kinds of pure relationships.” In the lethal confrontations which ensue, Aomame and Tengo try to find out more about the cult and its link to the Little People, whose presence may not be as benign as a Disneyfied version of such beings connotes. These creatures remain, while keeping the suspense alive, the most underwritten of its many intricately drawn features. This intentional lack of detail, however, invites the reader to invent backstories. This gap leaves (as a speculative work should) some unease and lack of closure that may strengthen rather than weaken the power of the novel as a whole. Facing these disturbing revelations, Aomame considers at one crucial point a decision that appeared too melodramatic for me, but in retrospect, Mr. Murakami may have included this scene, as a mystery writer may, to demonstrate how a character exhausts all possibilities in his or her determination to uncover the nature of the perplexity that propels the plot. 

For the remaining portion of this ambitious novel, this review will reveal only what one protagonist figures out. "Two story lines at work, starting at different starting points but running parallel to one another." Luckily, Aomame, Tengo, and Ushikawa pause now and then to remind themselves and us where the plot has been headed and what has been figured out so far, during this alternate 1984 year.

Besides the deftly rendered details that uncover a conspiracy, which may remind a few readers of another sexually adventurous girl who kicks over a hornet’s nest even if she lacks a dragon tattoo, Mr. Murakami offers us appealingly recognizable characters. These are his lasting strength, for he never lets the metaphysical level of his tale overwhelm its resonance with our own longings and anguish. 

At moments of passion, pain, and puzzlement, all of his figures remain human, fully rounded in their light and shadow. I missed them when I finished this book. None are caricatured, and the minor walk-on parts, as in a well-directed epic film or sprawling mini-series, remain as engaging as those main characters with whom the reader will learn to live with as if friends, or enemies, over the course of the hours and days spent immersed in this satisfying, off-kilter, and slightly open-ended combination of romance, adventure, urban commentary, novel of ideas, mystery, thriller, and speculative saga.

New York Journal of Books featured 10-25-11.