Thursday, June 28, 2012

22 Books for Reflection on Reform?

Over at Glenn Wallis' Speculative Non-Buddhism, a debate's on (or was at that blog and there'll be others by the time I publish this weeks later due to my own strange predilections, and after my paired posts will have appeared on his own ideological and musical transmissions, past and present) about how Buddhists capitulate to capitalism, and go with the flow of Our Fearless Leaders' assurances that tides lift all boats, and I suppose dharma rafts across life's streams. A few days later, the NYTBR relays: "China’s Communist rulers have reached an easy accommodation with Zen, whose practitioners are, [Andy Ferguson] believes, 'usually content to practice their religion quietly and . . . tend to emphasize meditation over confrontation.”' Perusing over 150 comments under "Un-Mindful Collusion" on the political ramifications (or lack of) in Buddhism, and the need to "wake up" from its transports or cushions, to celebrate my "blackjack" wedding anniversary plus one I recalled (mostly) recent titles that touch upon eclectic if related aims at betterment, and reform.

That may betray my own bent to read first and ruminate often, rather than rush out as an agent, but as an instructor myself if from a more modest background and credibility-claim than most who frequent S N-B, I (mostly) lurk there and listen, a few months in. It's a site--as its creator-daemon wisely warns--not for beginners.

While it champions the ordinary inquirer, it prefers academic language, with no apologies. I advise not venturing into its terrain without a few years studying Buddhism, as it'll disorient the newcomer and I confess it sends me to look up philosophical terms that few outside of Continental seminars depending on German and French may follow with fluency. As with Wallis' editions, S N-B rewards reflective re-reading. Wallis (see my reviews via those paired posts) shifts tone from his two Buddhist commentaries--S N-B deploys a baited, barbed, stealthy application of theoretical jargon sprinkled by playful invective to dismiss the verities of timeless truths of dharma blah blah via confrontational analyses of the underlying mystifications that, after 35 years doing the business of Buddha as a practitioner turned critic-professor with a Harvard Ph.D., he rejects as obfuscating or delusional. He examines the Pali texts as such, not as discoveries of a deeper "understanding" or "insight." Humanistic analysis of dharma dismembers a hero-Buddha, and dismisses any fetishized "master knowledge." His year-old site urges a dictionary, unsparing scrutiny, and defines his S N-B project as an attempt "to think new thoughts, non-Buddhist in nature but using Buddhist postulates."

Anyhow, when between laundry and grading duties I studied over 150 (at the moment) S N-B responses, I reflected how a confrontational style enjoyed by regulars (as on many blogs) repelled some greenhorns while it amused old salts. I spent long years (free-time at least) in attempting to change a small place in a large world, alongside Marxists and socialists. My non-aligned skepticism persisted, but I watched and I listened, to radicals and their rivals. I saw there in the real realm and then the cyber one the same mixtures of idealists and pragmatists, armchair revolutionaries and a few who had done their deeds and written or dug their plots in ways arguably best not to fully know.

From there, once that struggle had faded as geopolitics and greater battles took over, a like-minded colleague directed me to participate in a contrarian political blog where the past four years I have watched similar energies ebb and surge. This comrade and I both wearied of the infighting amidst the countless petty wrangles and character assassinations online as in the "real" world. So, I evolved to keep my distance to protect, yes, my illusory ego from those who can't wait to chop me/it down. I suppose patience necessarily achieved however flawed from nearly thirty years teaching matters, and I also know how online many of us boast on parading personae that in person we might not flaunt. I take the gladiatorial nature of such blog fora as a lesson in humility and a reminder for care and tact.

Those who run both S N-B and that political site proclaim their own refusal to act as playground cop, and it may come down to Type A personalities who thrive from debate while I seek sustenance more in contemplation. As I look upon religious or political allegiances more as rooting for one team or preferring one sport, I find as a spectator often a sense of bemusement as I sit mimicking a Deist's deity, even if I didn't start this ball of confusion rolling. I cheer few causes. I'm an untrue believer in idols or role models. My attitude--after my own long march through academia to find only a frontier post distant from the heartland of cultural capital--comes as a stoic outlier, in lean times relegated by market forces and lack of preferment from those able to court favor or tenure, far from Byzantium.

Temperament: it may come down to our own style of coping, and in that spirit, my titles may invite you--whatever your own personality and mood--to learn how others have dealt with troubles of the political, spiritual, personal, and ideological realms as these collide and merge. I list them in alphabetical order. They reflect despite my own situation in L.A.'s smoggy sprawl my leaning toward British, Celtic, or punk sources. Not all reach perfection, but how else can we seek to find solutions?

The American Bible by Stephen Prothero. This collects political core texts from throughout our nation's struggles with self-governance. It imitates the structure of the Bible into Genesis, Exodus, Prophets, et al., to demonstrate the evolution of debate and a Talmudic pattern in arranging commentary around central readings. Recommended: the discussion about "under God" in the Pledge.

The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. This necessarily incomplete, rambling, academically dense yet restlessly searching testament records the monk's final seven weeks, as '68 'Nam rages a few nations over from his retreat and attempted renewal. Transcribed headline: "Smiling Boy Dies of Poison."

Basic Teachings of the Buddha by Glenn Wallis. This presents sixteen suttas in a phenomenological order exacting the self-transformation demanded by the contents themselves, ingeniously. While Wallis since this has progressed to criticize the "dharma-raft" and the fundamental (x-)Buddhist enterprise, his fluid translations and astute commentaries represent the profoundest expression I've found (in four years) of the Pali paradigm, in this deceptively titled edition, far from "basic" at all.

Buddha Da by Anne Donovan. This novel shows the results of a Glaswegian housepainter's decision to devote himself to a lama who comes to the city, and the effects on his wife and daughter, ca. 2000.

Good Friday: the Death of Irish Republicanism by Anthony McIntyre**. This study collects columns and essays during the aftermath of the GFA, as the sharp perspective of an ex-IRA blanketman turned political journalist and academic informs us on the costs of compromise and the collapse of idealism.

Ecopunks by Tony Bailie. This novel combines an ecological topic with a politicized thriller. As an Irish journalist with a deep familiarity with musical as well as literary and psychological mythmaking, Bailie dramatizes the power of the media to "cover" climate change via New Age networked activists, who must succumb to the lure of a platform from which to preach, and to yearn.

The 'England's Dreaming' Tapes by Jon Savage. This transcribes his 1992 interviews with sixty-one pioneers of the (mainly London-based) punk movement, centered around the Sex Pistols. It provides a case study and cautionary tale about the fate of an idealistic effort to incite, for a few, real change.

Everything Must Change by Grahame Davies. This sharp novel of ideas and characters expands the Welsh-language original, alternating enigmatic Simone Weil's existential quest--as a convert mingling Catholic mysticism with anarchism and working for Renault (however awkwardly) into her pacifism, the French Resistance, and possible self-starvation during WWII--with a young woman's 1980s attempt to fight capitalism and anglicization within the non-violent campaign of Welsh nationalism.

The Heart of the Revolution by Noah Levine. This third installment by this scion from an American Buddhist family I found more nuanced and grittier than I expected. I admit I remain by nature very distanced from elements of this stylized, recovery-based, and mannered presentation (which may overlap with Kuhn + SxE's "bad religion" if slightly). However, Levine's maturation and his caution for the platitudes with which many Buddhists coat their mindsets may encourage a few of his S N-B detractors. From within the Buddhist movement, this blunter, streetwise approach mixing "dharma punx" tattooed contexts into Tibetan "tonglen" practices to generate compassion--and stir up social change --may be a harbinger of how emerging teachers raised in Buddhism may wake their ilk up.

In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise by J.C. Hallman. This astute, detached, steady chronicler of idealism, fanaticism, and ennui turns his careful eye to ecological restoration, a Virginia commune, a millionaire's cruise ship, an Italian communist turned Slow Food advocate, a Korean high-rise city, and a Nevada gated community for paramilitary gun owners.

The Lost Revolution by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar. This exhaustive, long-due history unfolds a worst case scenario, as "Official" Irish republican radicals decide to promote Marxism to workers and neighbors, first by bomb and Armalite, later with the ballot box despite relentless strife among  themselves as well as against the British state and their former IRA comrades now Provos. It demonstrates how what's concocted as viable in the seminar room or the pub cabal generates a free-fall into brutal, bitter marginalization, at the cost of lives and not only reputations or theories.

Mánchan's Travels by Mánchan Magan. This narrative of an Irish journalist's encounter with early-90s India reveals subtly his own spiritual and cultural discontent alongside that of a changing sub-continent full of seekers and charlatans. It explores (as his other accounts, all recommended), the unease of an educated observer who must deal with his own insecurities as well as the poverty, delusions, desires, and contrasts of those far worse off than his comparatively pampered, edgy self.

The Monk and the Philosopher by Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard. This dialogue involves the father, a French political philosopher and his son, a molecular biologist Ph.D. turned Buddhist monk in Nepal. They discuss many of the Big Questions about science, humanities, hope, and reform.

Peace, Love, and Petrol Bombs by D. D. Johnston. This semi-autobiographical, witty novel shows how history happens and gets lionized or demonized. Teen Scots burger-flipper turns anarchist, joins sloganeering squatters in France and Greece during the anti-globalization demonstrations ca. 2000.

The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett by John Calder. This examines the existential humanism within his life and texts, in a straightforward, candid, moving, and accessible study from Beckett's publisher.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson. This novel follows a Vermont hardcore band, the Green Mountain Boys, in the fading of Reagan's second term, as they embrace Krishna and tour the Northeast. It contrasts their rebelliousness with their parents, in hippie New England and yuppie NYC. Flawed, but it conveys some spirit of hardcore and the later punks who tried, again, to revolt.

See a Little Light by Bob Mould. This autobiography of the Hüsker Dü guitarist-singer-songwriter follows him from angry if Monkees-loving kid to punk to minor star, WWF (panda-less) storylines to gay love, in diligent detail of how the aspirations of alt-rock contend against one's lingering anger, sexual insecurities, and emotional frustrations. It shows the slow evolution of his life into a graceful arc, accepting responsibility for his own role yet not letting others off easily for their manipulation.

Sober Living for the Revolution by Gabriel Kuhn. These interviews with Straight Edge (SxE) punks from the later decades may not nestle neatly with those of us who toast a pint or two, but it offers a look inside many anarcho-communal, manifesto-driven, vegan-radical communities within which international SxE struggles against overwhelming odds, as a testament to defiant if rigid commitment.

Thirst: The Desert Trilogy by Shulamith Hareven. These three biblically-inspired novellas upend the hero-worship for Moses or Joshua, and strip Torah to the bare-bones, raw, off-handedly rendered backstories which became Exodus and Numbers and all that. This is how it felt if you were the type who was pushed aside or kept out of Moses' way. Existentialist, evocative, haunting. One reads these stark lessons and understands the hazards of mythologizing, the despair of marginalization from the self-promoters and bandwagon jumpers, and the unsettling but enduring identity of "border-crossers" unable to get with the Levitical program. Possibly an allegory for Israeli-Palestinian relations, but it need not be viewed by this perspective: Hareven rescues ordinary people from the chapter and verse. 

To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron. This travel account by an eloquent chronicler relates a secular pilgrimage to Mount Kailas, a site held sacred by many Indian-born faiths. It examines, sparingly and subtly, the rigors of humanism when an observer cannot find solace in custom or belief.

The Visionary State: California's Spiritual Landscape  by Erik Davis with photography by Michael Rauner. This handsomely documents the attempts of radicals, fanatics, utopians, charlatans, and/or otherwise inspired neighbors who come to the Golden State to convert and/or solicit us natives.

Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton. This revisionist survey attempts to prove where Marx was not perfect, but plausible. Like his "Marx" monograph, it suffers from compression and the forays of a lit-crit prof into poli-sci and econ, but his assertions of a more humanist, humane vision merit study.

(Links to my Amazon US, PopMatters, NYJB, or blog reviews; **see my in-depth one on Good Friday. Poster: James Montgomery Flagg, 1917)

No comments: