Thursday, June 14, 2012

William C. Dell's "Deconstructing Zen": Book Review

This is our brane, no drugs. That is, Dell takes us beyond our perceptual limits, trying to convey in language and diagrams the universal and eternal nature of the inexplicable. He locates the Zen no-mind of "satori" within string or M-theory, the six dimensions since the Big Bang so far inaccessible to us in our three-dimensional slice of space-time. This deconstructs as our universe expands from its initial (and seemingly cyclical) inflation. No meaning can be fixed in this flow.

By seeking these strands of the brane which constructs and spins out our world hovering between real and imaginary time, Dell posits we can extend our orientation towards the infinite and eternal "bulk" that lies behind (not that such prepositions work too well) our brane in this universe. He sets up Zen and string theory and combines their "oscillating meaning." He ties this in turn to intricately if often tersely argued models of what St. John of the Cross called "beyond all science knowing." Quite an elegant evocation of the erasures and elisions which impel Dell's own exploration.

Even if Roger Penrose, Stephen Hawking, and Brian Greene (whose "Fabric of the Cosmos" similarly challenged me if at far greater length last summer as an audiobook) build the scientific knowledge necessary for Professor Dell to project his vision, ultimately, as with the Zen koans and parables and verses with which he begins this hundred pages or so, words fail. This small book compresses libraries of data and decades of contemplation. It's difficult to put the substance of this book into a review. As with Greene and astrophysics, the models depend on visualization, and an interior perspective that takes us inward to our own powers of imagination crossed with reality.

Yet, such intersections, as the plotting shows in "Deconstructing Zen," work to make us work. While Jacques Derrida is cited but twice, his "differance" distinguishes the utility of this combination of close readings of poems by Blake, Coleridge, Donne, Herrick, and ingeniously Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar." This last selection opens up a chart of how imagination and reality overlap at "satori," and this as "the navel of the world." While Joyce to my surprise is not drawn in (for once), the Rg Veda's dignified comments on creation and creator and Lao-Tzu's Watcher segue from such mapping well.

"The temporal and the eternal are the same at the navel of the world. Arrival, like inhalation, is a departure, an exhalation. It is both something and nothing, empty consciousness, the mind of no-mind." (74)

Books on Zen, such as Shenryu Suzuki's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" or the one I started with four years ago before Suzuki's, David Fontana's "Discover Zen" (both reviewed by me) tend towards similar brevity. William C. Dell appears from his prose to have practiced a long time; the more writers do, the less they have to say. Therefore, the short length of this book is not a discouragement; much can be meditated upon in its suggestive chapters. So much that I wished for more in Chapter Five on the quantum mind, about its microtubulin organization that generates consciousness. Dell packs so much into so small a space that while he does not to his credit lose his train of thought, the elucidation of this material demands for less gifted audiences more than the few pages given over to this topic. It deserves its own book.

Quantum physics, the importance of peripheral vision, and the adage of the "watched pot never boils" gain freshness by their blending. Dell's diligence reminds me of my own classroom efforts to get across complicated mental models by a few lines drawn with precision yet open-ended direction. His many years as a humanities professor and interdisciplinary scholar certainly emerge.

While the final few pages diverged into explications of "Kubla Khan," Wordsworth's "Lucy Gray," and Donne's nocturnal on St. Lucie's Day and eased away from the provocative build-up of the previous chapters, they may inspire readers to return to such poems with a twenty-first rather than Romantic or early modern sensibility. Tempered by the humbling discoveries of our own insignificance in a multiverse that earlier generations thought they knew so well, we can learn from Dell's ambitious search into a new variety of "natural philosophy" how to breathe in the same wonder that old poets captured for us. (A copy was provided by the author for review; I have no connection with Professor Dell but I thank him for his offer. See also his follow-up "Time's Hidden Dimension" which allows many of these same themes to open up and "breathe" more freely.) Amazon US 4-9-12.

1 comment:

Darlene said...

Hi Fionnchu': I'd like to submit a book to you for consideration. Please email me at I am a book publicist. Thanks.
Darlene Chan