Sunday, May 31, 2009

Alexander Theroux's "An Adultery": Book Review

As with "Darconville's Cat," this novel also thrives on revenge by a jilted lover. Theroux reportedly based it on his own affair gone wrong, as he had his previous novel. Thematically, longing requited and then unrequited permeates "Laura Warholic," his novel nearly twenty years later, as well. Out of these three formidably dense and allusive fictions, "An Adultery" remains most conventional in style, although this dense, James-meets-Hawthorne character study (there's not much of a plot) does not make an easy read.

Theroux defends his "amplified" rhetorical style; shorn of the abundant allusions and arcane vocabulary of his other work, "An Adultery" chooses to focus on a Cape Cod setting, a romance between a louche artsy-craftsy dabbler and the narrator, Kit, a "serious" painter (strangely, few of his creations gain much description, although there's a painting called "An Adultery" of two people trying to reach out towards each other over an abyss that's powerfully evoked). Theroux, typically, sharpens his pace with satire, directed this time at boutique galleries in chi-chi clapboard resorts of his native Massachusetts. Usually, the tone's darker, like Kit's art.

Despair at clinging to an unworthy and shallow lover comprises the bulk of "Darconville's Cat" and, obliquely skewed, "Laura Warholic." The difference in "An Adultery" is that Farol Colorado ("red light" as one possible meaning) appears, in her lack of intellect, no less than Theroux's other female antagonists to be a curious object of affection, compared to such erudite and accomplished men who pursue such initially attractive but quickly superficial women. Why can't the men do any better?

I hesitate to equate art with life, but Theroux does establish a pattern in his novels. He's as misanthropic as misogynistic in the general sense, and his tone deepens and expands when at its best he relates the petty insecurities and passing fancies that any lovers create to shore up against eventual ruin. Yet, this story wants to demystify adultery, and take the romance out of affairs. It does that, but at such obsessive length over seemingly small matter-- Farol's never in Kit's league intellectually and in Theroux that alone's practically cause for damnation-- the novel does wear out its initial impact. It drags on, and drags us down into Kit's marathon bouts of feeling sorry for himself.

On the other hand, this swerve may be intentional: we see how annoying our own refusals to let go of a partner who's not meant for us or not good enough for us can be, when we get to eavesdrop for hundreds of pages on a lover's endless rationalizations, self-pity, machinations, and justifications. Perhaps Theroux has upended the romantic novel into a sorry set of how we must sound inside our heads when we, too, carry on pining for a worthless object of our affections. Inverted, this novel may be ingenious, if insufferable, for it forces us to listen to Kit, unable to stop whining for the woman he does not need while turning away from the one he should want.

Metaphors about guns, poison, variable equations, iron and stone, and vicious one-liners pepper the pages. Their target's always Farol, but there's also blowback. Kit, in a sense recalling not only James or Hawthorne but Poe, becomes an unreliable narrator, perhaps. He gets predictably caught in his own finagling, but when this happens, it's hard to feel the pity we are conventionally supposed to by such a dramatic fall. Kit's hubris appears to cheapen his appeal, and dims his luster in the eyes of Marina, his more worthy lover, whom he unaccountably abandons. She gains little presence in the narrator's mind compared to unworthy, sloppy Farol. While this may be, for a writer of such ability as Theroux, an intentionally distorted presentation of how love and lust can blind an intelligent man to what's good for him, it does not increase the reader's sympathy for Kit.

"Love murders the actual" in search of a dream and a whim. This sums up a long chronicle of breakups and reunions between the floundering couple, and for a writer of such ability and range as Theroux, it may satisfy more readers who have been daunted by his more word-witty excursions into other unhinged male minds. Yet, since I prefer those stories where Theroux can better display his awesome if overwhelming erudition with larger canvases and brighter hues to splash on all he sees and sneers, the relative hermeticism and psychological repetition of this relationship-based novel proved if as artistically controlled, less memorable. However, I stress that many readers may find this a better introduction to Theroux: the vitriol without the verve, perhaps, even if the narrator's another smart sourpuss scorning nearly everyone he meets in a fallen world and a stupid nation.

Therefore, it's more difficult here even than in "Darconville" or "Laura" to feel pity for the male supplicant whose favors are repulsed by a less-than-worthy woman. You cannot understand why Kit neglects Marina. Perhaps neither can he, but after four hundred intense pages of scrutiny of what turns out to be merely another affair gone wrong, this inability to connect appears a lot of ado about not much of a thing. You do feel sadness for Kit's failure, but I felt more for Marina's loss than his; hers proved to me the more tragic, for she did not deserve her fate. Another tragedy to add to a book full of the little savageries and small deceits that add up inexorably to moral failures and spiritual erosion.

(Posted to Amazon US 5-29-09. I've now reviewed all his major works on this blog and Amazon US over the past year. P.S. from 11-21-10 via Lisa Flowers a mutual fan of AT: Colin Marshall's Alexander Theroux primer. Marshall interviewed him at The Marketplace of Ideas radio site; you can link to it and a transcript via this fine overview.)

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Alexander Theroux's "Darconville's Cat": Book Review

Deservedly praised, unjustly neglected, this novel captures Theroux's favorite theme: a rejected lover's revenge. Based on a girl he taught at a woebegone third-rate women's college in early '70s Virginia, the plot, as with many of his works, is less original than his prose. Theroux delights in savage excoriation of Southern decay, academic cant, romantic gush, and generally everything lazy, misguided, or stupid.

He's also a snob, however, like his protagonist. They both never let you forget how smart they are, and this accounts probably for the status of this as a novel few know of but those few know it well. As with "An Adultery" and especially "Laura Warholic," Theroux's fiction works by excess. His protagonist, stuck teaching in a backwater burg, labors over a masterwork that oddly or intentionally we learn nearly nothing about, although it will earn him an appointment at Harvard soon enough.

Other Amazon reviewers relate the wordy delights, the catalogues of arcana, the rhetorical flourishes that comprise, often in different styles and registers, these hundred chapters. Halfway, without giving away any story, the break occurs, and you do get the impression always with this author that he's happier in telling of the aftermath of the affair rather than its ascension, the turmoil left after the jilt. My favorite among many sections: Chapter 93 records the hundreds of ways to leave a lover, in splendidly misogynistic (if you can't stand those two words yoked, than this novel's not for you) litanies of lavish hatred.

"Replace her nose with a headlight and drive her into a plate-glass window painted the color of money!" (663) "Dress her up like Satan and walk her into the Valley of Mina to be pelted by outraged Muslims!" (666) "Scotchtape three-hundred pigeons to her arms and then hurl sacks of popcorn into a rocky gorge!" (668) "Grill steaks out of her baby's feet!" (669) I could go on; the exclamation points appear superfluous.

The tone rises and falls and rises again; the book has its languors over so long a course, but it gains in intensity and energy as it accumulates in the latter stages into a Gothic extravaganza, married somehow to a "Death in Venice" coda that, as with his later novels, manages to tamper down the eccentricities and onslaughts for a poignant conclusion. Buried within but never quite killed off by the wordplay and invention and corrosive satire, there's a humanist message for decency that remains.

He records in his journal: "'Will I have to use a dictionary to read your book?' asked Mrs. Didypol. 'It depends,' says I, 'how much you used the dictionary before you read it.' Witty. But cruel. We are all too cruel." (330) Theroux sums up his own persona and that of his character, a formidable and verbose, savage and idealistic, humane yet cutting type of male overachiever who nonetheless fails to find a partner worthy of his love.

Is Darconville deluded in making Isabel his target of so much affection poured on seemingly so ordinary a young woman? Or, do we all share such confusion in pursuing our dreams of love? This question will obsess Darconville, and his creator, for Theroux will return to this quest and its thwarting in later novels after this 1981 tome established, if only for a discerning few, his reputation. (I've reviewed all his major works on this blog and on Amazon US, where this review appeared 5-29-09.)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Samuel Beckett's "Watt": Book Review

Longer than but at a faster pace than "Murphy" if not the prose trilogy that followed, this dismantled novel written during WWII in France by its underground author features less slapstick, more repetition, and lots of nothingness. Produced under stress, "Watt" reveals the ineffable beauty glimpsed amidst the mundane despair and enduring horror of never belonging, never knowing where or why we are here. It's a brisk read, perhaps since there's so much repeated!

Such an element starts to work on you like a mantra, or a dentist's drill's rhythm. It nags at you. Knott's "shadow of purpose" stalks Watt, and those who precede and follow him in serving this man on his surreal estate. There's in this verbose, plangent, picky prose a few glimpses of poignant loveliness mixed with the characteristically wry bitterness:
"for here we all seem to end by being good-natured men, and of good will, and indulgent towards the dreams of middle age, which were our dreams, whatever may escape us now and then in the way of bitter and I blush to say even blasphemous words and expressions, and perhaps also because what we know partakes in no small measure of the nature of what has so happily been called the unutterable or ineffable, so than any attempt to utter or eff it is doomed to fail, doomed, doomed to fail." (62)
If you see humor as well as heartbreak in this, it's a quick glance, as most of the work carries the increasingly hefty weight of later Beckett drama and prose. You snatch what you can amidst the squalor. "To be together again, after so long, who love the sunny wind, the windy sun, in the sun, in the wind, that is something, perhaps something." (163) Aging draws us away from even these passing comforts towards acknowledgment of their fleeting, spare joys. "To think, when one is no longer young, when one is not yet old, that one is no longer young, that one is not yet old, that is perhaps something." (201)

I found this a tougher time than "Murphy" (reviewed by me earlier this week on the blog and on Amazon US) which by comparison seems rollicking. "Watt" takes us into the circle, the pot, the dog, the Lynch retainers: the familiar upended, tipping us into the existential abyss. It's a heady book, in every sense, for its nonsense reminds us of our tethered mind, trapped in the senses. Out of such circular reasoning, "Watt" begins to make sense, literally. There's such a surfeit of description and rehearsal and routine that the novel deadens from such detail, and in this rigorous mortification it stiffens into a long shout against alienation.

I'm not sure where Arsene's duck came from, I lack the ability to fill in the question marks that break the narrative, and I share the estrangement Knott and Watt both possess, claiming they need little to nothing, but still demanding that Knott "needed to be witnessed" even when "needing nothing if not, one, not to need, and, two, a witness to his not needing, of himself knew nothing." (202-3) Out of such knots and whats, the tale tangles itself and you with it. It's up to you to take the challenge, for "Watt" will prepare you for the heights of the prose trilogy, the "dramaticules," and the chilling atmosphere of the later prose pieces as well as the plays. (Posted to Amazon US 5-28-2009.)

P.S. "mcap" in 1998 posted at Amazon US this insight:
"Written while Beckett was active in the French Resistance during WWII, often while in hiding or on the run and always at night, the peculiarly drawn out trivialities of the life of the servant Watt become zen reflections on a life that cannot be lived with introspection, for that might yield the madness that is for this reader suggested by the seeming (if shadowy and vague) incarceration of Watt and Sam the narrator."
Critics, amateurs as we all are on the Net and Amazon at least, appear convinced this novel's considerably tough going, perhaps less so than the rigors of the prose trilogy after the war and the comparatively light-hearted (for Beckett!) "Murphy" (also reviewed by me) before it. This novel's regarded as the bridge between his younger attempts to find his own voice to match his mind, and his later success in doing so.

The editorial condition of the work, as I mentioned in the review I posted above to Amazon, needs to be recognized; the novel's full of errors in every separate printing, and as with apparently most of Beckett's oeuvre, problems remained that increase our confusion with already formidably complicated texts. The almost instantly out-of-print (why?) Grove Centenary tetralogy boxset gave a handsomely bound Collected Works, apparently correcting the many slips between British Calder and American Grove printings.

Robert Bezimienny's 2001 Amazon review offers this stunning quote as his favorite.
'But our particular friends were the rats, that dwelt by the stream. They were long and black. We brought them such titbits from our ordinary as rinds of cheese, and morsels of gristle, and we brought them also birds' eggs, and frogs, and fledgelings. Sensible of these attentions, they would come flocking round us at our approach, with every sign of confidence and affection, and glide up our trouser-legs, and hang upon our breasts. And then we would sit down in the midst of them, and give them to eat, out of our hands, of a nice fat frog, or a baby thrush. Or seizing suddenly a plump young rat, resting in our bosom after its repast, we would feed it to its mother, or its father, or its brother, or its sister, or to some less fortunate relative. It was on these occasions, we agreed, after an exchange of views, that we came nearest to God.' Part III, paragraphs 15 & 16.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Shoah, Kabbalah, Karma & Evil

Shoah defined as "whirlwind" reminds me of the Tibetan Buddhist green crescent as the "destructive wind" elemental to our imperfect world. Reading about Buddhist retreat from the pains of our earth, yet knowing of the "Engaged" movement of such as Thich Nath Hanh (who resisted the war as a Vietnamese monk) to bring the dharma into social justice as often pioneered by Jewish leaders, I figured I'd look for insight. How might those arguing for detachment face assaults of mass destruction? Who's to blame: innocents, Nazis, evil, karma, or a divine retributive force?

How do Buddhists take on theodicy, and macro-evil? I understand their dismissal on the personal level of the need to let go of our attachment to illusory power, fleeting attitudes, and vanishing emotions. Yet, how do you take on-- in an ideology set on separating the practitioner from a corrupt system-- those bent on destruction? Speaking of Tibet, are those who accept the Dalai Lama's advice to not resist with bloodshed correct as their nation and their people succumb to the PRC?

Furthermore, what about placing blame? If we're all complicit by our fallen nature and/or unenlightened state in perpetuating our bad karma, our sinful shortcomings, are we then, as sloganeers like to claim, guilty with blood on our hands? If we're all in this together, how do we disentangle ourselves from "samsara," life after Eden, exile from Shangri-La's Promised Land, post-lapsarian thumping in Cain's desolate, nightmarish, far from slumberingly comforting, condemned Land of Nod?

I'd vaguely heard about some Hasidim who argued that the Holocaust was a punishment to unfaithful Jews who'd fallen away from Torah. This drew me back to consult a book I read fifteen years ago, "The Jew in the Lotus," by Rodger Kamenetz. On the visit he and Jewish (mostly liberal at least) leaders made to visit the Dalai Lama, they learned about Buddhist contrasts. Geshe Sonam told Kamenentz that: "from the point-of-view of the Buddhists, the Holocaust itself is the result of past karma. Those people were not necessarily Jews in their past lives when they created the actions that they reaped in that form. But when your karma ripens there is nothing that can protect you." (122)

This reminded me of Martha Sherrill's "The Buddha from Brooklyn" (reviewed on this blog and Amazon US), wherein a Maryland-based New Age healer recognized by a guru as a Tibetan "tulku" or reincarnated holy woman insists to her cowed and cowled followers that karma indeed ripens and can rot, that is, can pull the practitioner back instead of forward by merit somehow used up rather than hoarded even if directed for good use. Sherrill avers such an interpretation may be unorthodox among Buddhists. But I clearly hear its Himalayan echo in Kamenetz' account.

Kamenetz feels these Tibetans are blaming the victim. Yet, he recalls Rabbi "Yitz" Greenberg's restatement of the Shoah as reminding humans they must bear more of their side of the "voluntary covenant" even if God let us down on His side. That is, people have to stop blaming God for all that goes wrong in our story, history.

The Tibetans asserted to their Jewish visitors how they cannot even blame only others. The Dalai Lama opined how the typical Jewish reaction of "never again" turned today's Jews reflexively against other nations, poisoning them into paralysis, aggression, self-righteousness, and xenophobia. They unleash chaos. To survive now, the Jews took on the qualities of their militant enemies. This may find parallels, however unintended or not, with the protesters who commonly equate Israeli actions with Nazi terror. (Of course, the irony that many who rage against Zionism also deny or diminish the horror of the Shoah, while wishing another "whirlwind," persists too.)

The Dalai Lama reminded the Jewish delegation that the real enemy remains inside us. The external foe, the communal karma, may exist and may destroy a nation, but in the longer-range Buddhist philosophical perspective, the angriest and deadliest danger lurks inside us. They tend to diminish the "innocent victim" idealization, insisting that responsible human beings must accept their share of culpability. They can't project it all onto even the enemy with the Zyklon-B ready to take awful action. As with many concepts in Eastern thought, the distorted, shocking nature of such a perspective may embody the Zen challenge of seeing the familiar only when it's been transformed into a shape or sight heretofore unthinkable or indescribable. That re-conception breaks our mis-conception and forces us into re-ception of truth.

Can such awful truth set us free, as adepts promise? I entertained a similar notion that a few New Age promoters (Louise Hay's positive thinking cadre?) averred that such events as the destruction of millions by a totalitarian regime could be blamed more on the negativity of those involved than, say, the union of high-tech killing machines and low-tech atavistic prejudice. Looking so far, not very diligently given the type of sites and sources I may encounter along that dark way, I have not found much illumination.

There remains a fundamental distinction. For Jews (and Christians & Muslims more or less), there's a conceptual gap with Buddhists. The reality for the monotheists: we need redemption. We blew it early on. We, lacking sufficient faith, totter about on earth in desperate straits. Until we straighten up and fly right (as my dad used to say, and used to annoy me by saying), we'll always keep crashing in the same car (as Bowie & Eno titled a song on "Low," speaking of Berlin's environs. No karma puns.) God's there making the rules of the road-Torah-Gospel-Qu'ran-Good Book of the Law, giving us the keys, enforcing the code, locking us up, letting us out if we behave.

Buddhists insist the problem's in our conception. Pain will come, and our liberation from attachment to what we perceive as solid and permanent depends on recognizing that it's neither quality. Our freedom emerges not by changing the world to what we want it to be, but adapting to its unpredictability. You can see the clash with liberal Judaism, progressive politics, and social justice campaigners.

Lacking the superstructure of God, relying on individual struggle to regain illumination, for Buddhists, people aren't the victims of original sin imposed by jealous God; instead, they're bound by their own grasping, which extends their entanglement in karma and forces rebirth. This teaching compliments (as Kamenetz' colleagues agree) Kabbalistic conceptions that we're shattered vessels leaking out bits of light otherwise denied us by our Fall from grace. We try to recover union with "Ein Sof," the divine power without name or substance. That's a primordial form to which we aspire. Differences? Buddha dismissed theological frameworks as ultimately, like gods themselves, illusory. Jews seek reunion with their Godhead.

Leaving aside theodicy, perhaps not coincidentally my feeble meditations aligned with an undated post I found at the Philadelphia Shalom Center run by Jewish Renewal (as in "graybeard hippie" Zalman who went with Kamenetz as elder statesman, straight out of an Edward Koren cartoon) rabbi Arthur Waskow. He'd be familiar with both Kabbalah and Hasidim, Buddhists and post-Holocaust philosophy, and a likely source of wisdom. He left what I cite below as a rather ragged set of notes. They may convey a similar shock in their reconfiguration of the awesome, terrible power of a "Godwave," as modern men take on what once was only a divine source of energy.

Not sure if these thoughts'd make much impact to a crowd less versed than Kamenetz' or his Ju-Bu comrades, but here 'tis. Reading about their common application of Martin Buber's familar I-Thou/ I-It distinction into how God relates to us and vice-versa, and considering Rabbi Waskow's disturbing conception of how the "Godwave" gets used and abused as we technologically take on the powers of the universe, it makes for talking points; the rabbi expands them, he notes, in a book "Godwrestling: Part 2."

Here's most of Rabbi Arnold Waskow's: "God & the Shoah":

First: I see the Shoah as an outgrowth of one aspect of Modernity: the ability/power to DO, MAKE, PRODUCE. Before modernity, pogroms but not the Shoah were possible: It was a giant leap in both physical technology & administrative technology that made the Shoah do-able. Turning murder into a grotesquely high-productivity industry.

These same leaps forward in technology also make possible world-wide intercultural communication, women's control over their own reproduction, etc. AND the H-bomb. ozone destruction, global scorching, burning the Amazon.

Second: I see this leap in CONTROL & Power to DO/ Make etc as a leap in the 15-billion-year process of the infusion of more and more Divine Power into the world. This power to DO and COHERE and CONTROL is what turns space-dust into galaxies & stars & planets; what turns carbon compounds into proteins, DNA, life-forms; what turns amoebas into humans, redwoods, and mosquitos; what turns human hunter-gathering communities into agricultural, commercial, industrial, & informational societies. What turns tiny clans as independent politico-military units into continental super-states and global corporations.

Third: AND -- There is another aspect of this constant infusion of more and more God-energy into the world. (Constant but it comes in leaps and floods, not smoothly). This is the infusion of Love & Community, which are ALSO aspects of God.

In short, God is BOTH I-It and I-Thou.

The infusion of both into the world in greater and greater doses comes about because the world is itself an aspect of God, that aspect which is a finite left-over of God-energy, left-over from the great Tzimtzum or inward contraction of the Eyn Sof (Infinite One) to leave space for a world.

This finite aspect of God-as-Universe exists because the Eyn Sof wanted a Mirror for Itself -- was deeply characterized by self-reflectiveness. So the universe is constantly seeking to emulate and mirror the Eyn Sof. The result is a continuous dynamic double spiral of It-It/ I-Thou/I-It/I-Thou etc. Each step in one arena calls forth and demands the analogous step in the other arena. More ability to kill requires more ability to love -- otherwise, the killing takes over and the system breaks down from an overwhelm of death.

So the Shoah -- painful to say this -- was an authentic result (though not a necessary one) of a surge of God as I-It into the world. It demands from us openness to a similar surge of God as I-Thou into the world.

All this has precedents on a smaller scale in human (and pre-human) history, The only unprecedented element is scale: All this now applies on the planetary level. I-Thou must now extend to the whole human race and to all species and "organs of Gaia" (like ozone, etc).

We need to invent new forms of community to do this. Just as the invention of Rabbinic Judaism (and of Christianity and later Islam) were I-Thou responses to the great Divine I-It wave of Hellenism into the world, so we need now to create new I-Thou forms in response to the great Diivine I-It wave of Modernity into the world.

Jewish renewal, and Christian renewal (e.g. MLKing, Dorothy Day, Pope John XXIII) and Buddhist renewal (e.g. the present Dalai Lama, Thich Nath Hanh) and Muslim renewal (Sadat), and feminist spirituality, and others, are efforts to express and shape these new I-Thou forms, these waves of divine energy into the world.

We ourselves are one part of the I-Thou aspect of the Godwave. We can choose to shape the Godwave into ourselves.

The Shoah was one part of the I-It aspect of the Godwave. We (i.e. some humans) chose to shape the Godwave into the Shoah.

Trepidation and trembling.

Blessed is the One Who shapes light and makes darkness, Who makes shalom and creates ALL -- which, when it is not shaped by our mitzvah/connection making into the harmony of shalom, comes thru as evil.

P.S. Me again: This link emerged after I wrote my entry. I cannot link to a specific URL, but if you scroll down the month archived to May 26, 2009, look up "Bad Things, Good People" by guest columnist "Tamerlane." He has a fascinating exchange (with typically heated commentary appended) on Rabbi Harold Kushner's book with dissenting remarks (relying on Pema Chodron, the Western psychologist and Tibetan Buddhist nun, as a non-theistic counterpoint) on theodicy. Kushner separates God from Nature as forces, and puts God on the side of the victims of the Shoah and other "bad things" while admitting that "s--t happens" that God has no, or chooses not to exercise, control over: those "acts of God" perhaps we can't explain. Not very comforting, but neither was the Book of Job. He got his riches back and a new family-- but they weren't the loved ones he buried, were they?

Illustration: Back to me and neither rabbi. Was my Uncle Jack right (whom I wrote about on Memorial Day in Irish and English, regarding his death on the shore of Saipan) and these figures wrong in the same war? We start so young learning the ways of evil that we admire. Contrast this cartoon with "this photo" from last Monday's entry. If the uniforms were reversed to those my uncle and my cousins wore, would my reactions change towards this image? Would yours? Should they? What would Buddhists do if faced with such a force? What has Tibet's genocide, or China's success, taught us sixty-five years after the Shoah?

"When the Soldiers March Through Town": popular 1942 book of children's verse. From 1936, military preparation was mandatory for the Reich's boys. At ten, those tykes could have joined Deutsches Jungfolk; Hitlerjugend followed at 14.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Martha Sherrill's "The Buddha from Brooklyn": Book Review

Not a tale of an Allen Ginsberg-type who finds fulfillment in Katmandu, but an unpredictable, insightful, and nuanced report on how a cult (of personality?) begins and a religion may evolve in exurban Maryland. This book's generated heated discussion on Amazon; I suspect many hostile reviewers have not read the book's last chapters. Here's the subtlety of what happens when an experienced journalist, skilled at Hollywood and D.C. celebrity profiles, decides to challenge herself by immersing herself further in the opportunities for learning the dharma, the Buddhist teaching, that's claimed the foundation of the controversial happenings at KPC temple.

The blurbs tell the background of how a twice-divorced New Age healer-channeler, in her mid-forties in the mid-90s, became "recognized" by a visiting Tibetan lama as a reincarnation of a holy woman from the 17th c. She turns herself into a "tulku" to be venerated as representative of a type of buddha, or enlightened being. Those with whom she once socialized now prostrate themselves before her; her children do so too. She claims that by "skillful means," and "by any means necessary," she will bring the dharma to America and build a "religion." This already may display either a misunderstanding of Buddhism, which technically is not a theistic system of worship, or it may simplify how the complex layers of Tibetan practice may be translated into an American vocabulary. Such indeterminacy permeates this narrative.

Typical ambiguity appears in apparently charismatic presentations by Jetsunma, as she calls herself in her fourth name change in her career. The question of her conduct drives this carefully structured study of religious leadership and social obedience. I learned of this book through James W. Coleman's sociological study of how Americans create "The New Buddhism" (also reviewed by me). The process now unfolding of how Westerners incorporate Asian concepts of "guru devotion" here by Correct View may remind many examining KDP of a cult, yet Tibetan Buddhism demands absolute trust in a guru's commands for a practitioner to instill self-discipline and to gain merit. Some explaining Tibetan customs insist also that many gurus have proven to be equally unpredictable and iconoclastic in their documented behavior, long before Jetsunma's entry as the first female "tulku" in Western Buddhism.

Yet, I ended this book still with a big question that may not be resolved by our Western expectations. Here's what haunts me. Did the Tibetan lama make a mistake by selecting her so early on, before she and her New Age group knew much about dharma? The lawsuit filed later on after Jetsunma repeatedly assaults a fragile nun (just out of hospital that day with stitches) for her infidelity with a visiting monk seems to connect with possible retraction of Jetsunma's "recognition" by other lamas. The lack of central jurisdiction among the many sects in Tibetan Buddhism complicates who's legitimate, I assume. The New Age elements that persist after Jetsunma establishes America's largest and most stable Tibetan Buddhist monastery confounded me, although many observers appeared less confused by this syncretism.

Jetsunma's comprehension of Buddhism, if she is a "tulku," however, appears less than complete despite her study and "recognition." She "channels" what to outside observers does not always fit dharma; is her word to be trusted as a "tulku" even if it challenges the norm? She assures the KDP community that she must be obeyed, and her followers fear karmic retribution or harm for "other sentient beings" will ensue if Jetsunma is not placated. Some divorce their spouses on her instruction. She adopts one child of a follower who becomes a nun, and she covets the child of a lay couple. She uses seduction to win men and women to the dharma. This chaotic atmosphere becomes rationalized by many defenders; a few turn fearful but fewer dare to leave, for they face a loss of the merit accumulated by their devotion, unrelenting work, and spiritual effort that invests a type of romantic love in their surrender, their promise of "samaya" or total devotion, to their spiritual leader.

Their guru comes up with grand projects. Some, like the hair-care business sold by infomercials, fail despite the funds raised by her community. Others succeed. But why Jetsunma builds a stupa, a sacred monument, in a grove that necessitates the cutting down of so many trees even as the workers pray for the bugs they killed frustrated me. I also could not understand why the temple had to expand into the sixty-five acres of woods across the road. Add to this: Jetsunma's taste for red meat, Lee Press-On Nails, black leather, tight jeans, frequent vacations, and the acquisition of crystals and relics. She received an income tax-free of $10k monthly, plus food and expenses, while her monks, nuns and followers mortgaged houses and sacrificed sundries so she could increase the dharma among an accountant or clerk somewhere who'd see her name on the credit card bills she amassed.

Two nuns were her lovers; two monks were her later husbands or consorts. She leaves her third husband during the course of this narrative; I often wondered about her variously fathered children, who follow her faithfully. One restriction of Sherrill's access appears that she could not talk to the first two husbands or Jetsunma's mother; the absence of photos-- the hardcover I read lacks the paperback's tiny cover photo of the guru-- does make this a book dependent on the author's considerable powers of description to enliven the fascinating story that begins to lure her in, despite her journalistic skepticism and authorial objectivity.

Sherrill late in her investigation appears stymied as a movie deal, a documentary, and a feature film of Jetsunma all enter the negotiations. The journalist sidesteps into interviews with Tammy Faye Bakker, Deepak Chopra, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, and Reneé Taylor as she seeks insight into how spiritual marketing collides with religious power. These conversations feel inserted from Sherrill's other commissioned work, and detract from the focus. Better to have compared American Buddhist centers to KDP, as we hear from a visiting monk how KDP differs from the other foundations, but we lack the details that provide a comparison. He warns that Tibetan Buddhism is not the system that KDP incorporates, and that Tibetan Buddhism itself is not the Buddha's teaching anymore, but that in our lifetime, change will not likely occur. This reflection needed more elucidation from Sherrill, as it's a crucial insight often lacking equivalent scrutiny by others who rush to defend every utterance made by Jetsunma.

Sherrill's ultimately divided in her loyalty to journalistic detachment vs. her curiosity about the message of the dharma that, perhaps in her followers more than Jetsunma, impels such childlike trust and sustained wonder. How a cult turns a religion, she reasons: time plus conformity. Now, KDP appears in the earlier stages. Jetsunma claims her stupa's doing more good than finding a cure for cancer or running a soup kitchen. Sherrill bristles at Jetsunma's temper, her rampages, her spending: "there was no emptiness." That is, no renunciation such as the KDP community had to give, but only taking by its leader. This betrays not "aspiration" towards humane progress through the dharma but "desperation" of a deluded leader, but after asserting this, Sherrill retreats from harsh conclusions. She listens to those who insist how much KDP has given meaning to their shallow lives.

How she reconciles her criticism of Jetsunma with an acceptance of the impact her teaching of the dharma has on her followers provoked me towards reactions that she, as with me, did not anticipate. She remembers how "the lotus has its roots in the mud." She also applies, in the closing pages, a memorable interpretation of a Tibetan story of a dog's tooth as a decoy that fittingly ends this engrossing, cleverly constructed, gently spiralling narrative very evocatively.

P.S. Others have mentioned this, however, is not a proper introduction to the often over-romanticized, misunderstood Tibetan Buddhist mindset. Thubten Chodron's "Open Mind, Clear Heart" may help; antidotes or alternatives to the opulence sought at KPC may be found in Dzongsar Jamyang Kheyentse's "What Makes You 'Not' a Buddhist," or former Zen and Tibetan monk Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism Without Beliefs" (all reviewed recently by me on the blog and as was this last week on Amazon US).

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Paul Mariani's "Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life": Book Review

In an immediate prose always in the present tense, Mariani distills forty years of research into a biography drawn from Hopkins' journals and correspondence. No critical detours, no theoretical jargon, only a sense of watching the poet labor and priest struggle. It's a scholarly work that reads like a novel.

The highlights, a discussion of "The Wreck of the Deutschland" as the early breakthrough, and the late "Hericlitean fire" poem, show Hopkins consistently battling despair by insisting upon the sacramental vision that transforms the mundane by the example of the Incarnated God. Taking the trouble out of love to become flesh, Christ for Hopkins proves the "Real Presence" in the Eucharist that exemplifies the transformation of the natural into the divine. This, Mariani gracefully depicts, takes Hopkins out of the agnostic, Darwinian, mechanistic milieu of his Oxford peers into a bold decision to take the toughest path possible: to give up his security and his career prospects to become not only a Catholic but a Jesuit.

The arduous years towards ordination do not end there; toiling in gritty, urban immigrant-poor parishes deprived Hopkins of his beloved countryside that in his studies in Wales brought him closest to what "Pied Beauty" and "God's Grandeur" convey memorably: the shattering of the norm by the intense arrival of God, transforming but remaining within our beautiful world. Mariani takes Hopkins' priestly vocation to show how he believed what he preached, lived, and promoted in poems that could not find any audience, and for long stretches as a Jesuit, Hopkins either denied himself or lacked the time or inspiration to write verse.

He wore himself out young, dying at forty-four, of a typhoid flea's bite (or perhaps, Mariani suggests, what we know now as Crohn's disease). Hopkins in these pages remains, of course, a rather introverted, nervous, and conflicted man, fighting a lonely campaign against "acedia" and spiritual despair, shunted about from one dull assignment as a teacher or preacher to another in rapid fashion until at the ramshackle University College, Dublin, he's hired on the cheap as Jesuits will return their 400 pounds annual salary to the running of the institution!

Hopkins wore out his talent in drudgery. He knew it, too. Reading about the 557 exams in Greek and Latin facing him one day to grade down to the eighth-of-a-point, his dreary lessons to bored undergrads, his failure to get even his one patient reader-- lifelong friend, future laureate and editor Robert Bridges-- to understand much of his formidably dense and amazingly original verse, Hopkins emerges as a saint for his willingness to keep on in a very anguished and solitary calling. His eccentricities make him more like us; his gifts separate his daring energy from us.

He had a great knack for wordplay and punning; his comic verse as a young Jesuit sparkles. Arm wrestling, chasing a monkey on a roof, trying to mesmerize a duck so to study its beak, scrutinizing a peacock as closely as an oak tree's leaves, dragging or being dragged around a Dublin classroom to show Hector's posthumous fate: these vignettes enliven an otherwise serious life and biography. Mariani's extended, deadpan recital of a failed student sermon on the miracle of loaves and fishes that tried to relate the Ignatian "Composition of Place" to the Welsh local landscape fails magnificently in its "overdetermined" and unconsciously pedantic parody. I also heard wistfulness, when late in his life-- as Mariani shows, nearly all spent with males around him-- he admits to a Dublin class "while lecturing on Homer's Helen," he looks up from the text. "'You know, I never saw a naked woman.' And then, after a moment, 'I wish I had.'" (391)

The book has its slow stretches, as it takes a closely observed, scrupulously attentive, and very gifted fish-out-of-water character as its subject. And, being so focused on the protagonist's correspondence and journals, you never get a chance to step back from this startlingly precocious modernist. Still, this is a study based on primary sources and archival diligence. Like the man himself, it's a demanding subject.

Hopkins' compression of lines by sprung rhythm that takes the beat and puts it where he wants outside syllabic convention only grows with time into a dense, hammering, melodic, thundering pulse. Mariani takes you through the famous and the obscure poems and intersperses his own subtle explanations of how Hopkins' thoughts and circumstances evolved into what emerged on the pages of his unpublished poems. The instress forces you deep, into dark realms that mirrored Hopkins' own terror, and his rage at the natural world's beauties being savaged, the work of God ignored or denigrated, and the message of the Incarnation belittled or cheapened.

The "lens of faith" magnified and intensified, and perhaps distorted what Hopkins saw, in slums and on slopes. He looked at a Welsh stream's storm flow as if "ropes and hills of melted candy," he saw himself, Mariani imagines, with God "whispering like some old married couple," and Hopkins learned, if to his Jesuit superiors' suspicion, to stress the "haeceittas," the Scotist "this-ness" of the startlingly individualized rather than the conventional Thomistic classification into general categories. He could not help but pick out the detail, to his detriment as a Jesuit preacher perhaps but to his advantage as a radical poet. He seems, too, to have been capable of such craft early on; Mariani does not truly explain 'why' this came to be, but concentrates on 'how' this works in Hopkins' intricate lines, that, as he matured, became more compounded and more off-kilter. Mariani shows how Hopkins' poetry expresses what his life contained, but Mariani seems to step away from accounting for it critically, preferring to present the verse and correspondence to us directly.

(By the way, one wonders what Joyce, who put the real "Rev. John Conmee, SJ" into "Ulysses," would have made of this transplanted Dubliner and his experiments with language, done in the few spare moments by one who met Conmee. Imagine Hopkins, both alienated from Ireland and sympathetic towards Home Rule despite his imperial patriotism, this weary Englishman and transplanted Classics professor longing for the Welsh mountains, by chance wandering and worn out late in his short life on O'Connell St one day. Conmee offered his tired younger confrere a rest at Clongowes Wood.)

A note on two tiny details: the early theologian's name's "Origen," not "Origin." And, Moel Fam[m]au in Wales is translated not as "mother of mountains" but the "'mountain/ bald topped-eminence' of mother." Mariani's love for Hopkins comes through along with his even-handed critiques in an impressively learned book, with a bibliography of Hopkins criticism, that nonetheless without being impeded by intrusive notes wears its own scholarship well. I never thought such an outwardly placid life as Hopkins has been portrayed to live had within such drama.(Posted today to Amazon US. P.S. Remedy for interior desolation? Ignatius advises patience. Last words overheard that Hopkins said, over and over: "I am so happy.")

Monday, May 25, 2009

Uncail Jack agus Lá Cuimhneacháin aríst

Scríobhim faoi Lá Cuimhneacháin inniu. Ceapaim faoi uncail agam. Is fear de m'ainm féin. Fuair sé bás ar feadh an cogadh mara níos mór. Bhí cúig agus trí scór fadó ann.

Bhí oifeageach ceannais ar mbád bídeach dul i dtír. Chuaigh cabhlach cogaidh go gcladaigh leis trúpaí. Ní raibh longa chogaidh ábalta ag dul i dtír in aice leis. Iarr saighdúirí ag breith longa iompair níos lu ag dul idir na longa mór agus an targaid talamh.

Mar sin, bhí díth acusan féin ag dul ina báid iompair ag coinneáil leis an gcladach. D'imigh saighdúir amháin leis mo h-uncail agus an tiománaí eile. Thug an dhá féin na trúpaí leis acusan de longa chogaidh amach i bhfarraige.

Tháinig na trúpaí gálanta rith cladaigh díobh láithreach. D'fhág an cath cóirithe ar aghaidh na tSeapáinaigh is daingean láithreach. Chuaigh Meiriceánaigh ag dulta i ndeabhadh greadadh ar an dá thaobh. Chaill saol idir chríon agus óg na mílte míle, a dhá is tríocha duine, mar sin go raibh inis straitéiseach agus bolcánachann.

D'ordaigh Jack do saighdúirí ag fanacht leis seisean féin mar a ordaítear. Rinne siad dhá uair ag dul trasna na habhann i mbád a ainmniú "an Lacha." Ina dhiadh dhá dul i dtír na hoilean na tSaipan uafásach, long a bhá ansuid. Fuair dhá bás mar bombardú is marfach i dtíortha i gcéin an t-Aigéan Ciúin anois aríst.

Uncle Jack & Memorial Day again.

I write about Memorial Day today. I think about my uncle. He's my namesake. He died during a very great naval battle. It was sixty-five (=five and three score) years ago.

He was a head officer on a tiny landing boat. The wartime navy went on the shore with troops. The warships were not able to land close. The soldiers attempted to take off to smaller transport boats landing between the great ships and the shore target.

Therefore, there was a need for themselves to go in transport boats to keep close to the shore. The soldiers only went with my uncle and another driver. The two themselves carried the troops with them from the battleships off shore.

The brave troops came to hit the shore. They left facing a pitched battle against the most determined Japanese straightaway. The Americans went into a horrendous melee on both sides. Thirty-two thousand lost young and old life both because there was a strategic, volcanic island.

Jack commanded the soldiers going out with themselves according to his orders. They made two times ferries in the boat called "the Duck." After two landings on the fearful island of Saipan, the boat drowned. Death had taken the two during a fierce bombardment there on distant shores of the now again "quiet ocean" (="Pacific").

Illustration/ íomhá: Chonaic mé an grianghraf seo nuair bhí mé óg. Iarr mé a bheith mairnéalach sula an radharc láidir. Tá íomhá sin is cosúil mar dán na h-uncail agam ag tSaipan. D'athraim mé sé. Tháinig an bás air agus eile go leor sa 17 Meitheamh 1944. Suaimhneas síoraí díobh anam gach lá./ I saw this photograph when I was young. I had wanted to be a sailor, before that strong sight. It changed me. That image is most similar to my uncle's fate on Saipan. Death took him and many others 17 June 1944. Let them rest in peace every day. "1943, Papua New Guinea/ Guine na Nua-Papua: Dead on the beach/ Na marbh as an bhfarraige."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Samuel Beckett's "Murphy": Book Review

This novel's often been neglected by comparison with the prose and drama after WWII, but admirers of Flann O'Brien's wit and slapdash satire sprinkled with Joycean erudition and unpredictable characters will find enough to admire. (N.B.: Four stars by comparison with what follows, which in hindsight will allow us better to appreciate what this novel sets in motion for Beckett's rise to mastery over his domain.) Already, the references veer towards obscurity, the vocabulary stretches for the archly observed and the totally original phrase, and while the author, just entering his thirties, already possesses the mordant perspective on life and love, there's a coltish kicking about the familiar realms of flat and asylum, city park and pub, that keep you tethered to a somewhat recognizable setting of Dublin (best not mention Cork) and London.

As with "Watt," the learning's considerable and not always comprehensible to those of us less gifted or leg-pulling than Beckett or Joyce; many critics tend to see the student trying to match his teacher, but I see more a proto-O'Brien voice, enamored with weary cliché and existentialist horror, utter dread and light mockery, character-type send-ups and human foibles. There's a poetic sense of life's fragility amidst the sharpened exchanges of cruelty and cant. "He thought of the four caged owls in Battersea Park, whose joys and sorrows did not begin until dusk." (106) "Is it its back that the moon can never turn to the earth, or its face?" (131) "Each leaf as it fell had an access of new life, a sudden frenzy of freedom at contact with the earth, before it lay down with the others." (150)

Who has not felt like Murphy? "For what was working for a living but a procuring and a pimping for the money-bags, one's lecherous tyrants the money-bags, so that they might breed?" (76) Or, known the backstabbing ridicule we do to each other, as Celia watches him retreat, perhaps from her forever: "His figure so excited the derision of a group of boys playing football in the road that they stopped their game. She watched him multiplied in their burlesque long after her eyes could see him no more." (143)
The novel's plot focuses less on the protagonist than you may expect, and follows mostly those who pursue him from Dublin over to London, all bent on manipulating him while betraying each other. Murphy's "unredeemed split self" gains much attention, and the sixth chapter's depiction of his tripartite, somewhat Freudian, spherical mind, dark, light, and half-lit, signals Beckett's signature concern for his later works. The mind-body problem haunts everyone here, from kite-loving Mr. Kelly at the Round Pond to one-eyed, hat-wearing Cooper. Outer reality vs. interior sanctuary, as represented in the Magdalene Mental Mercyseat's inmates, attracts Murphy: "here was the race he had long since despaired of finding." (166)

Eventually, he will see nothing, literally. Endon's chess game ended, Murphy will meet his maker in spectacular sense, finding perhaps the freedom within the merging where light meets dark. For those who trail him to his departure, the problems continue, as for us all in our own narratives. Beckett's story for us may bewilder more than entertain, but even in what some dismiss as a rather juvenile effort, the immense questions of mortality, mentality, and human purpose in a crazy world in and out of the asylum prove this to be a rewarding, if off-kilter and nervously narrated, story of one's man's attempt to outrun his demons by rocking in his trusty chair towards his own enigmatic, inexplicable, and unverifiable enlightenment.

(Posted to Amazon US 5-24-09. I use an older Picador graphic rather than generic Grove paperback cover. The illustrations match the day's passage, seen from the motion of the chair under the skylight in M's garret. Thanks to Pere Ubu at Flickr. Probably neither the band nor the Jarry-built original.)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

"What Kind of Philosopher Are You?" (& other Facebook quizzes)

"You are incredulous to metanarratives. Truth is relative to all the elements of history and social location. You seek diversity and fragmentation as well as the dissolution of power structures that oppress people. You are probably a feminist and you probably critique social mores through the use of deconstruction. Unfortunately many don't consider you a philosopher: logical self-contradictions abound in postmodern theory, but you certainly have a lot to offer in the way of social critique. You are a postmodern."

So went the results of the first smart quiz I've come across on Facebook, and after only five questions! Few consider me a philosopher, that's true; true too my predilection for social (and literary and musical) critique!

It's accompanied by a snapshot of brooding baldy Foucault. When I started grad school, I bought an introduction to him, "The Will to Truth," that's served me well. I've always liked the witty picture on its cover; rare to have a title from Routledge let slip a modicum of levity! Alan Sheridan's lucid overview, dating myself, was the first in English! When I did my dissertation, it being on arcane (of course) medieval religious literary culture, I was told by my advisors I had to drag "THEORY" into the congregation, not only Thomistic disputation or Augustinian exordium. Well, the quiz informs me I'm "Postmodern."

So, I sprinkled a bit of "Discipline and Punish; The Birth of the Prison," being disappointed by Foucault's abandoned "History of Sexuality" since it couldn't get it up enough to last until even the Middle Ages. I went back to that carceral study, seeing my recent sentence to the pedagogical wing of the electronic delivery apparatus of the Panopticon along the expanded (thanks to the Web that Foucault never saw unfurled), "carceral continuum." As he warned us: "Visibility is a trap."

Still, back in somewhat freer days among the Academy, I threw the tenured mandarins all for a loop when I started my opusculum by evoking Mircea Eliade's Altaic shamans and Robert Thurman's Tibetan "psychonauts." If they wanted to integrate multicultural, non-phallocentric all-inclusive po-mo into my muted parade of lugubrious dirges and choral trentals, they collided with my innately eclectic, post-punk psyched SoCal syncretism. I reordered my own post-structural bricolage, my own set of "ex votos" and reredos.

I tire of theory as such easily; yet, I know following Foucault that my phenomenological, nominalist, and skeptical bent twists me away from any allegiance to any power stucture, any easy explanation of it all. I also admit that my own professed distrust of meta-narrative itself represents its own endlessly generated narrative. This labyrinth, as Foucault and Derrida acknowledged, made its own trap that none of us, given our human predicament, could escape power from by any Word On High. The patterns of "discursive formation" engender their own destruction and reconstitution, and so our inability to ever pin the tail on truth's donkey's ass.

I guess, unlike Deasy to Stephen in "Ulysses," not history but "theory's to blame." The mode when I was in grad school was away from textual explication or psychoanalytical reduction towards deconstructive and transformative leftist critiques. They have tenure now. The generation since-- and perhaps those of us apart from those who've safely secured faculty posts by fidelity to denial of all standards as fixed, apart from their own tenured hurdles to leap-- has turned more suspicious that all can be levelled to "socially constructed" models of discourse.

I'm not sure what's replaced it, other what I've inherited: a millennial exhaustion with impenetrable prose that mocks academic obfuscation by imitating it in such a mortifying depiction of rigor mortis. Such "interrogation" reminds me of the Ramists, late on, who kept pressing Scholasticism forward in the face of dulled students tempted past hedging Erasmus by the shouts of a bolder Reformation. Not that those rebels made much headway initially with textual liberation, but even amid political suppression and religious totalitarianism, it was a start. But, I digress.

Every generation gets subjected to the syllabus of its teachers, the predilections in which their professoriate had been inculcated. Radicals get tenure; true radicals and freethinking outliers stay shut out. Luckily, head advisor like me favored restless Jung over routine Freud, so at least he spared me tiresome sidesteps towards taking seriously that Viennese prattler. It's also fun to know that my wife has to acknowledge my accreditation now as not the usual "fascist" she labels me as, but as a credible "feminist" any UC Santa Cruz History of Consciousness major will doubtless recognize as an "incredulous" and suitably theory-addled peer!

P.S. Apropos, making up for lost time after a busy week working for The Man, I took also a "Which 60s Subculture Are You?" I'm with the, gulp, "caravans of clowns" and "Yippies" alongside Kesey and Abbie. I wonder if Foucault caught AIDS when he hung out at Berkeley in the Harvey Milk era? I guess I have a sense of humor after all. I'd prefer San Francisco's more philosophical jesters The Diggers, alongside that Hiberno-New Yawker talltale teller (read "Ringolevio"-- I have two copies!) Emmett Grogan. Apparently the Diggers got shunted over to the other side of the bus with the more earnest quiz kid boomer contingent, "Hippies."

P.P.S. As for "What Kind of Reader Are You?": "Snooty Loner." Icon of Eustace Tilley, New Yorker mascot, if that's the word for such a gentleman, inserted. "It's not necessarily a bad thing. You read what you want, and what you want is the best. You don't ask for recommendations on what to read. You don't want to discuss how you feel about books. You don't read anything Oprah reads. You do sneer at anyone reading Danielle Steele on the bus." I posted that I do post "how I feel about books," not in some bluestocking's circle, but on this very blog, and on Amazon, amidst the Top 500.

P.P.P.S. I was also for "What Los Angeles neighborhood are you from?": "Born in East L.A.," as the Cheech song goes, and I was, at County General which I can see from my upstairs window. "South of the 10" Freeway is part of the definition, and that's not correct, but I am definitely if unpredictably given my ethnicity and complexion a true Eastsider, living the other side of the true border, the L.A. River. Not La Brea or whatever the Westsiders, Hollywooders want it to be as "urban pioneers" not to mention those damned hipsters overrunning Los Feliz (which was a quiz question regarding local pronunciation along with "Cahuenga"), Silverlake and Echo Park!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

20 Most Beautiful Libraries (and others less so)

"The World's 20 Most Beautiful Libraries" illuminates with splendid photos Borges' “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” I've only been to Trinity's Long Room in Dublin. I'd glimpsed the old British Reading Room once and again minutes before closing the same at its new location; in Prague I could not slip into the narrow time-frame opening Strahov monastery to the outside.

Layne and I visited the Library of Congress but it was closed for repairs so we got as far as the open gift shop; we'd been to the Rijksmuseum too, but I had no idea a library was attached. Out of twenty, these I'd been even near; others include abbeys, Seattle's severely vertiginous but dynamically glassed edifice, a garish private library by one Jay Walker, and mostly Germanic and monastic institutions predominate. Belarus' national library's ugly, but the other 19 get a pass from me. Although that Walker place could double as a "Batman" set for Wayne Mansion.

Contrast these with my post May 3rd on Bruce McCall's library of the future, but really the present. I hear the local colleges have couches, coffee, and carrels galore. Not for reading, but for laptops. Now, I can hardly, with my own use of the Net, be blaming younger folks for their on-ramps onto the information highway, but is this the contrast we must face? Curators or coffee?

Starbucks on campus with a few magazines, lots of terminals, and token books? Or, museums displayed in the photos, but like the Strahov, in the care of monks or the Trinity by docents, venerable treasures behind glass or out of reach by grubby daytrippers trundling through with camera in hand, headphone audio tour spiel in six languages in ears? My own traffic with local libraries descends as I move along circling tiers, down the income level and educational accomplishments, or lack thereof. The fact that everyone's attracted in a downturn to the library perhaps speaks well of their democratizing, non-curatorial impulse, or betrays the decline of standards as libraries turn into coffee shops-- only with books around you not glued down as they are, bought-by-the-yard, at a Marie Callendar's chain.

I once in a while consult the Huntington Library nearby for research, as an approved "reader." Ph.D.'s or doctoral students only need apply. While the treasures such as an Ellesmere Chaucer, Blake's "Songs," or Chinese porcelains and British portraiture rest securely in their own installations under guard outside the scholarly lair, this division does remind us of the rarified, academic, protective quality necessary for the care of learning. Librarians as monks, fanatically protecting misunderstood blueprints and indecipherable detritus, as in the post-apocalypse envisioned as Walter Miller's 1960s SF novel "A Canticle for Leibowitz"?

And, by separating the "readers" from the "visitors," The Huntington serves both constituencies well; the former contingent supported by the latter's admission fees. There's always been a slightly musty, pleasantly aged atmosphere around the galleries that since childhood I loved to walk in, "Blue Boy" and "Pinkie" and "Mrs. Sarah Siddons," glass cabinets brilliantly lit, splendid tomes opened gently to reveal dazzling miniature illustrations, rock and cactus and Zen gardens beyond the tea room and gazebos over two hundred acres of the railroad (robber?) baron's estate founded nearly a century ago just south of Pasadena, and the equally lovely Caltech campus, in San Marino. It also sets off my hay fever now.

I suppose the Huntington represents the best compromise for a stately, scholarly purpose that also appeals to a gentrified audience. South Pasadena's little branch, from the same time period nearly that settled that region with dry-county Midwestern transplants bent on civilizing the dusty ranches and dividing them into tidy tracts, has its own share of regulars, but the air, literally, one can still breathe. One dishevelled man shuffled through stacks of library sale books next to me, and I shrank back in sensitivity. I fingered through a "Prague Hrad" b/w picture book magnificently illustrated with mid-century studies of the Castle, but the captions were all in Czech, and I have enough books, including a handsome one of the city already, so I left it for him.

I go to Glendale when I must, but its brutalist 1973 architecture disheartens me. With the new Americana (better called Armenia-cana for the teen and/or immigrant demographic that loiters at this high-end "shopping and entertainment destination" pretending to be a town square not in Yerevan but the kind of burg that Henry Huntington or "The Music Man" might have mythologized) nearby now, the parking gets used up by mall-goers. I hate the ambiance inside and out of the frayed, stark, cinderblock-grey library.

Cypress Park rebuilt a decent space a few years ago to serve the local barrio, but there's no reason to linger long given the lack of sustenance for grown-ups on the shelves. I was berated by a clerk for using my teacher card to check out a book for my son last year, and I don't go back there now to increase its user stats with my loans sent in from other LAPL branches. Arroyo Seco gets my architectural nod for its remodel with Craftsman style and river-boulder facades, but the sparse offerings for anyone over twelve disappoint inside. I switched to Lincoln Park for my needs, a delightful crescent imitating a Venetian palazzo, and while it has the same bare wares for a mixed clientele of chattering Vietnamese-Chinese, pre-teen gamers, and a few misfits slumped in chairs, their staff doesn't hassle me on my card choice.

The Los Angeles downtown library, of course, only three miles away from my house but a world of difference in feel and range, must serve the great unwashed that stream into its corridors. It stands, half-rebuilt after the fire in the mid-80s. It restored the Depression-era murals in what was the Children's Room that I also recall with delight from earlier years. It keeps its café adjacent, however, and manages if not to keep the bums out, it being central city after all, it does post signs warning of theft. I needed an art book (on a vaguely erotic topic, but not that explicit, as consultation elsewhere verified later) once only to find all the pictures of lissome lasses and stolid gentlemen in the middle razored out.

The LAPL for perhaps such accumulative reasons does, from my experience doing a bit of chess history research, keep many more valuable books on call. It only lets you see them in house, after surrendering your driver's license. The librarian consults a computer terminal, rings a bell, a teen clerk shuffles up, and a few minutes later comes back with your book plucked, as half of the holdings, from some invisible niche.

Apparently chess books, Buddhism, film, or sports all meet some level of popular demand, as inevitably many of them are lost or permanently missing despite what the catalogue promises. I've wasted more than one visit there on false hope. Even an arcane monograph on medieval political theory relating to chess texts met this fate!

Pasadena follows suit, in a handsome Spanish 1925 building, with iconically acquisitive or mouth-aspirating patrons. It's across from the Courthouse. I do find it hard to settle into the comfier chairs in its lounges, however, due to the smellier sleepers around me. They do have a helpful staff, and it's pleasant to stop in when I can find an empty space outside. The adjacent courthouse, with probably many drivers wanting a free spot as they pay their parking tickets, may be to blame!

I had to use the microfiche, of all contraptions, in its basement recently. First time in twenty years. I had to get the librarian to help me, and he had problems too. This antiquated but necessary device to rescue the knowledge shrunk to tiny film of a 1992 "Scientific American" reminded me of who filled diligently the adjacent room: about forty people madly tapping away on today's machine, computers. I wondered how many of them were out of work, how many due to automation or "rightsizing" or abandoned technology-- and how many of them feared becoming the daily sleepers all around us.

Photo: One of the oldest in the world, at the Swiss Benedictine monastery of St Gallen. Its own ceilings, as with many of its neighbors featured in the photos, come close to Borgesian heaven, if a decidedly Baroque manifestation of divine taste.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse's "What Makes You 'Not' a Buddhist": Book Review

Elucidating four "truths," as in "seals" or hallmarks of Buddhist doctrine (rather than the Four Noble Truths relating to suffering), Bhutanese monk Khyentse emphasizes these as the foundation of practice. "In order to be a Buddhist, you must accept that all compounded phenomena are impermanent, all emotions are pain, all things have no inherent existence, and enlightenment is beyond concepts." (5)

"They are secular truths based on wisdom, and wisdom is the primary concern of a Buddhist." (4) These seals, which are neither edicts nor commandments, carry not moral force but literal truth. Their adjectival qualifiers prove important. As all things dissolve back into their components, as an ice cube melts back into a glass of water, so all that seems so real cannot endure without change. Similarly, even the most pleasurable experiences we enjoy cannot long be grasped; they as with the rest of what we hold and seek do not linger long. When even "nirvana" can be understood as outside of any category or even the absence of such, the ultimate truth will arrive.

Khyentse's short primer devotes a pithy chapter to each of these four truths. One caveat may be his pop culture examples. While fresh for readers today, they may not be in a few years. This may weaken the long-term impact of this valuable set of reflections, but for the short term it may expand his readership: a difficult trade-off? He does appear, if righteously so, to be ticked off at the West and especially the U.S. for all sorts of sins against simplicity, compassion, and moderation.

I would add that at least he does not insist that one must renounce the world in order to better one's self; this book unlike those from some other advanced Tibetan-oriented practitioners does not make you feel you are doomed to another million lives of lowly rebirth if you do not flee to a monastery post-haste to make up for wasted eons. Khyentse instead prods you and nags you to accept the four seals, practice them, and get on with letting go of all the rest that holds us back and lets us down.

His references may in time make this as dated as a Jesus People tract of 1972 might to us, but for now, Eminem and wardrobe malfunctions, hanging chads and John Lennon's assassin, Bush's foreign policy and MFN status for purportedly Communist China all exemplify the wide-ranging and topically applicable illustrations for his points. He writes as if speaking to you, and this direct method keeps the doctrine fresh, as a good preacher or religious guide should for listeners.

He reminds us of our contradictions, seeking to pin down Buddhism rather than delving into the elusive message of emptiness beyond the many forms such a practice may embody after 2500 years and so many cultures and adaptations. Karma and especially rebirth get downplayed; instead, we are told to regard ourselves as if cleaning a wineglass of accumulated imprints, temporary defilements that do not mar the glass itself, only bring it back to its original intended condition.

This cleansing can lead one to discover a renewed "buddhanature" that we generate as we create love and spread compassion. We get hung up on seeing our fears akin to Jack in a dark room who shrinks from a snake. The snake's only a striped Armani tie, but it takes Jill to illuminate the room by turning on the switch. Thus, Jill can end Jack's phobia. Jack's shown the reality that he has unreasonably been afraid of all his life.

Given that Buddhism takes on so many methods of revelation, how do those curious about it find the method right for them? He compares this to the four seals being tea itself. Skills of making tea and ways to drink it have developed into rituals and ceremonies. Yet, the tea, he chides, should be appreciated, not the cup it's in or the ceremony surrounding its imbibing. He stresses the separation of the colorful trappings from the attractive void within. All are guilty: it's easy to be a hipster blaming others for greed, but even those smugly protesting "No Blood for Oil" often sip kiwifruit smoothies whose flavor depends on fuel and globalized transport.

Forget the "cultural trappings," he suggests; the four seals themselves remain the goal one must keep in mind and in practice. "People are more inclined to sit straight in a quiet place on a meditation cushion than to contemplate which will come first, tomorrow or the next life." (120) What's crucial is that the seeker accepts that even Buddhism is no more than a start down the infinite methods, the path leading away from the real teachings: "At the point of total realization, you must abandon Buddhism. The spiritual path is a temporary solution, a placebo to be used until emptiness is understood." (77-78)

Urging readers not to dive into any particular manifestation of Buddhism or any practice that diverges from the seeking of peaceful wisdom, he cultivates detachment from the weary frenzy of getting and spending all around us. He compares an adult able to nourish such freedom from grasping, such an embrace of letting go, to grown-ups on the beach, sipping a coconut cocktail while watching kids building sand castles. "They are not caught up in the drama the way the children are. What more enlightenment could one ask for?" (102)

The book does not allow for a lot of in-depth debate about assertion such as how a conventionally portrayed Almighty God can be impermanent if His "actions are an assemblage of beginnings and ends," (18) and in these stressful times I did find his easy acceptance of less anxiety about how one in the world must worry about making a living a bit too detached from most of his reader's reality, but I do recognize that such a recognition that "all things must pass" does represent the core teaching of Buddhism.

This introduction might be compared with Thubten Chodron's "Open Heart, Clear Mind" (also reviewed by me) from a psychological and Tibetan perspective for Westerners, in that much learning comes lightly and its expression encouragingly. I'd add, however, that despite the Himalayan origin of this author, his book avoids any Tibetan-centered teaching, and strives to be more streamlined, even to the point of detouring away from identification with any cultural manifestation of dharma. As other reviewers have noted, this book may be better for non-Buddhists, or those who eschew such identifications with or without a denominational marker to trap them into one way of regarding the search for ultimate meaning-- which supports Khyentse's whole point of this book as wisdom anyone can follow. Free from God, free from dogma, these truths penetrate boundaries.

One can be, he concludes, a Buddhist in many ways and garbs, but the essence of Buddhism only comes to those honestly ready to accept in the end the termination of such superficial categories and transient definitions. "You can change the cup, but the tea remains pure." (125) The Buddha left us responsible, his disciple in this book teaches, to be our own master.
"It is time for modern people like ourselves to give some thought to spiritual matters, even if we have no time to sit on a cushion, even if we are put off by those who wear rosaries around their necks, even if we are embarrassed to exhibit our religious leanings to our friends. Contemplating the impermanent nature of everything we experience and the painful effect of clinging to the self brings peace and harmony-- if not to the entire world, at least within your own sphere." (124)
This monk makes no dramatic claims for what he believes. He turns not towards doctrine but its practice to make his truth stick with us. He leaves his readers eager to seek the other shore, the empty quarter, where one abandons the boat and walks ahead into uncharted terrain.
(Posted 5/2/09 to Amazon US. P.S. A book since then I've reviewed matches well this: Stephen Batchelor's agnostic revision, "Buddhism Without Beliefs." Both authors use the sandcastle analogy, and the snake!)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Do stádar a thabhairt

Siúlaim mé suas agus síos isteach loc caranna folamh is beag nach bhfuil ar feadh sos ó obair siar sa tráthnóna. Tá sé in aice leis scoile agam. Téim ansuid nuair go bhfuil díth ormsa ag bainte de an áit.

Fásaionn an aimsir seo níos te faoi deireanach, ar ndóigh. Tá fad ag teacht sa lá. Iarraim ag siúl, ach níl ábalta ag dul ar aghaidh na gréine tamall níos fada. Tá sé níos fuar istigh an tógáil caranna sin! Bain sult as gaoth go suaimhneach ormsa ag éirí suas na cúig h-ardáin go mall.

Caithim culaith eadaigh a mhúineadh. Dá bhrí sin, caithim bróga gléasta go foirmiúil fós. Bogaim níos lag ansin!

Rachaidh mé taobh amuigh sula le luí na gréine ag imeall am suipéir. Is maith liom ag éisteacht na scairdáin leis uisce ag scaird scairdeán. Cloisim na heín. Feicim an bóthar mór.

D'imigh mé an áit pháirceála caranna inné. Mhuin mé. Thosaigh stádar eile ina dhiadh aréir go sos eile go gearr.

Fuair mé an radharc ag trasna an scoile nuair go raibh siúl ag dul síos. D'oscail oifig eastát réadach ach an seachtaine seo caite ann. Bhídís lipéid greamaithe seamróg ar na ballaí istigh agus na fuinneoigái amuigh orm.

Insíonn comhartha framúithe gruanna cruinnscéithe mhór le díol is mo. Bhain sé amach síos ar an úrlar salach leis ramhais go leor. Léigh mé triu an doras an póstaer taistil uaine ag féicthe os cionn ar an taobh clé, suas go fóill faoi i ndíol ar roinn díolaíochta: "Éireann: Cumann Ceannaire ADP 2009."

"Walking one's rounds."

I have been walking up and down inside a nearly empty car park during my break from work in the late afternoon. It's near my school. I go over there when there's a need for me to take off from the place.

This weather's growing warmer recently, of course. The days are getting longer. I wish to walk, but I am not able to go out under the sun for very long. It is cooler inside the parking structure. I enjoy the breeze gently on me as I rise up the five floors gradually.

I (must) wear dress clothes to teach. Therefore, I (must) wear formal shoes also. I slow down more then!

I will go outside before sunset around supper time. I like listening to the fountains with water squirting gushes. I hear the birds. I see the freeway.

I went out of the parking lot yesterday. I taught. I started another short walk later last night at another brief break.

I found a sight across from the school when I was passing along down there. A real estate office was open there only last week. Shamrock stickers used to be seen by me on the walls inside and the windows outside.

An ugly framed sign tells of a big target for most sales. It's been taken down on the dirty floor with trash galore. I read through the door the green travel poster seen above at left, still up about rewarding the sales department: "Ireland: President's Club ADP 2009."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Skepticism & Belief: Pew, Proust, Buddha

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
Rick Fields in his masterful "How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America," quotes one adherent, warier after one of the many sex scandals that in the 1980s rocked centers in the U.S., that these precepts "should be tattooed on our eyelids." Given her probable experience with meditation, I am not sure if it's inside the lid to miraculously enhance comprehension or on the reverse to elicit the gaze of intimate readers of necessarily tiny inked incisions, but still, the reminder of the veracity of these remarks from Shakyamuni Buddha's caution's admirable. I was reminded of them when an old high school classmate and friend-- who since he had left after his sophomore year I had not heard from for 32 years-- through Facebook contacted me and renewed a conversation (if much altered) about how both of us still sought tenuous, restless forms of belief or its opposite verity, even if now we had wandered far, both by marrying Jewish women and raising Jewish children, into realms unpredictably distant from our Irish Catholic upbringings.

On Facebook, I'd changed my quotation from Bloom's protest in Nighttown from my favorite novel, "Ulysses," to Foucault. "Visibility is a trap" appeared appropriate for the Net; but when Thomas Merton's "Our real journey is interior" popped up as the epigraph to Seán Dunne's memoir that I reviewed earlier this month (here and Amazon), "The Road to Silence," I figured bibliomancy cast its spell again on me. (It's from Merton's "Asian Journal," September 1968, less than three months before his sudden death; he apparently found himself ready for such a departure from what a contributor to an anthology I'm now studying on Merton & Buddhism calls "the human space-time continuum," in his recent understanding of how Buddhism fit into his Christian views and monastic practice.)

In Stephen Batchelor's epigraph to his agnostic apologia, "Buddhism Without Beliefs"-- surprisingly difficult little book to retrieve given that it's missing (Bad karma! I posted a review on Amazon US and this blog) from local libraries and always checked out from others--he has a related quote from Proust starting his defense of his existentialist philosophy that's confrontation with the Big Unanswerable Questions rather than consolation.
“We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we at last come to regard the world.”
I reviewed last week (here and on Amazon US) Veronica Chater's memoir "Waiting for the Apocalypse." In that, too, I found a kindred spirit, a Catholic girl a year younger than me, who had grown up in and then drifted apart from a strictly traditional, rigorously severe, "weltenschaaung," the Cold War-Fatima world-view that her father had of a "anti-revolutionary underground" determined to cling to a pre-modern attitude in both Catholicism and culture, even within 1970s California. The tension between outmoded orthodoxy and disco-era laxity (much as I hated disco!) entered my own teenaged world-view. As with Chaten, Proust, and former monk (in both Zen and Tibetan monasteries!) Batchelor, I stumbled towards an uneasy, more intellectual, less emotional understanding of my belief-system, or its denominational lack. This separation of one's identity from a venerable institution, be it lamasery or parish, shul or chapel, comes for many of us with no little hesitation.

Layne sent me this link. The Pew Forum think-tank's "Faith in Flux" reports nearly half of Americans have either left their childhood affiliation for another denomination, or lost faith altogether. Over one-fourth of all Americans have changed religions. As I expected, Catholics lead the way in leaving the pews.
Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change. Many people who leave the Catholic Church do so for religious reasons; two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated say they left the Catholic faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, as do half of former Catholics who are now Protestant. Fewer than three-in-ten former Catholics, however, say the clergy sexual abuse scandal factored into their decision to leave Catholicism.
Many who left Catholicism do so out of a combination of gradual drift and a loss of belief in its teachings. The recent scandals may have accelerated some who went into mainstream or evangelical Protestant options, but many married an evangelical and/or became disenchanted with Church teachings on the Bible.
One-in-ten American adults is a former Catholic. Former Catholics are about evenly divided between those who have become unaffiliated and those who have become Protestant, with a smaller number leaving Catholicism for other faiths. In response to the yes-or-no questions about why they left the Catholic Church, nearly six-in-ten former Catholics who are now unaffiliated say they left Catholicism due to dissatisfaction with Catholic teachings on abortion and homosexuality, about half cite concerns about Catholic teachings on birth control and roughly four-in-ten name unhappiness with Catholicism's treatment of women.
There's a lot more of interest at this site for any explorers of the religious terrain that's being reshaped this new century. (See also James O'Toole's study of "The Faithful," on lay Catholicism in America, that I reviewed on the usual two places earlier this month.) I find such studies as fascinating as the attacks by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins (all reviewed by me on Amazon and here!) even though I step back from total agreement with what I find as exaggerated assaults on the tenets that many sincere people who do much good in our world still profess.

It's ungrateful and rude to condescend to criticize the beliefs held by loved ones, family members, and close friends. I tend to keep my counsel and do not confess my own unpredictable congerie of doubts and premises unless directly asked. I despise that annoying condescension that many "brights" carry in their dismissal of everyone else as dim.

The neo-atheists claim my sympathy for those who believe, if less intolerantly, exacerbates the problem by allying my namby-pamby inclusion to the causes of the spiteful adherent. The spokesmen claim that humanists ("brights" in Dawkins' neologism) could help heal our shattered planet much more effectively, if freed of genuflection to Lord Sky-God. With the possible exception of Harris, who as with so many other secular Jews admits a lingering liking for meditation (which may align him nicely with similar conclusions pondered by agnostic Batchelor!), those opposed to God(s) appear to place Buddhism on their "organized religion" hit list.

As Obama's inaugural address, a bit to my shock, recognized, we are as much a nation of "non-believers" and, say, Hindus, as the traditional Catholic and Protestant and the pro-forma ecumenical tagalongs Jews and Muslims. Don't recall if Barack mentioned Buddha, but I wonder how many Buddhists, New Agers, or pagans will constitute, along with atheists and agnostics, the next tally?

The anomaly of the U.S. being the most religious of industrially advanced nations has generated much scholarship here and little affection abroad. Will Americans ever elect a non-believer? They're by far the most despised group, according to voter polls. On the other hand, there's a lot of whiny "why do they hate us?" posturing that prominent atheists indulge in that weakens their appeal. The fact they belittle agnostics and humanists disinclined to confidently and utterly deny the possibility of a higher power may also alienate "brights" from a naturally sympathetic, if less dogmatic, audience. I think we have only one in Congress now who's secure enough in his seat to avow his atheism; I suspect our President's far less pious than he lets on, or had to pretend to get elected from the Chicago ghettoes movin' on up to his current bully pulpit.

Still, as Obama's complicated childhood-- father born Muslim who turned atheist, mother Midwest Christian by background but never a churchgoer, quite opposed to religion and anti-American in her sentiments except apparently when she needed an education or welfare in between her hippie sojourns overseas--- such storied identifications that long served our "American Gothic" and log-cabin-to-the-White House-myths keep, as the Pew report attests, crumbling in our "question authority" ethos inherited from his mother's iconoclastic 60s. We may soon in our census encounter "irreligious" (or whatever euphemism includes those opposed to belief too!) categories not even anticipated yet as religion (or its lack, or resistance to such enumerations) complicates Prousts and Batchelors who increasingly dilute the ranks of megachurch neighbors and augment multicultural cousins in our post-modern, intermarried, and increasingly skeptical, increasingly fundamentalist, speckled society in Obama's nation today.

Illustration: "What is your religion?" Not asked in the U.S. thanks to that First Amendment, but apparently in many a Commonwealth census. Here's New Zealand's 2006 example.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Jack Kerouac's "Wake Up! A Life of the Buddha": Book Review

My last entry reviewed ""The Dharma Bums," so I pair that with this 1955-penned, 2008-published meditation. He collates a somewhat stilted, often moving, distilled version filtered through Kerouac's own practice of Buddhist "Law," as he puts it, or truth-teaching. It's a serious, intense series of reflections, not of the author himself, but as a transparent medium transmitting the Buddha and his core dharma 2,500 years later. It certainly mirrors the author's own awareness, at the height of his immersion; Japhy in "DB" warns that "Ray" will revert to his Catholicism on his drunken deathbed. Who's to say that his childhood faith is not incompatible with his love of Buddhism?

Robert Thurman thinks the two outlooks can be reconciled. A pioneering Western-born exponent of Tibetan Buddhism, he's a child of the Beat generation. His thoughtful introduction argues that we need not regard Jack as macho-bullish as Gary Snyder-"Japhy Ryder" in an uncompromising Zen attitude; we also need not assume Kerouac, comfortable with both Jesus and the Buddha, rejected his Christianity in the way Thurman did, at 17, when reading "Dharma Bums," renouncing Protestantism, and running away from Phillips Exeter Academy! He proposes that Kerouac found himself able, as a Catholic, to relate to the rich panoply of Tibetan or Mahayana forms of Buddhism more easily than the austerities of Zen. Thurman excerpts a lot of key passages, but as a previous reviewer on Amazon states, these alert us to the importance and eloquence of these learned citations when they appear in the text.

As largely a newcomer to such topics, I found JK's summation of overcoming the Hindu "Atman" concept of an Oversoul intriguing: "all of it a mind-made mess, much as a dreamer continues his nightmare on purpose hoping to extricate himself from the frightful difficulties that he doesn't realize are only in his mind." (20) This fits the urgency of the title: "All is empty forever, wake up!" (68) that permeates the whole text. Here the "dharma bums" and "Zen lunatics" of his novel turn into their inspirations, "bhikshus" or wandering holy men following Gotama after he finds enlightenment and turns himself after long struggle into the historical Buddha.

As with the Gospels, the narrative combines dusty journeys with elevated preaching. It demands that you focus on intricate perspectives. Kerouac himself's absent as a character. He erases his presence so as to direct us towards the dharma's insight. The story ends beautifully; some of the Buddha's last inspiring words: "From the 'desiring-little' we find the way of true deliverance; desiring true freedom we ought to practice the contentment of 'knowing-enough.'" (141) Kerouac knows enough to stay out of the way of his subject!

It's an erudite presentation. For instance, cadences summing up how mental ignorance gives rise within us to endless cycles of trapped karma: "a sentient being's inheritance, the womb which bears him out of it, the womb to which he or it must resort; Karma is the root of morality, for, what we have been makes us what we are now. If a man becomes enlightened, stops, and realizes perfect wisdom and enters Nirvana, it is because his Karma had worked itself out and it was in his Karma to do so; if a man goes on in ignorance, angry, foolish and greedy, it is because his Karma had not yet worked it out and it was in his Karma to do so." (28-9)

For me, this played into the stereotype that many entertain of a fatalistic Eastern acceptance of one's destiny, but I may be wrong. Kerouac as a practitioner may have been reflecting his sources with far more insight than I possess. Either way, these ideas do test our Western mind, our notions of good and evil, reward and merit, predestination and free will, guilt and justice! [Buddhism also challenges our ideas of what an ethical philosophy can achieve, not an "-ism," but a moral system freed of gods and Hindu contexts that probably the Buddha himself, agnostic Stephen Batchelor argues in his existentialist "Buddhism Without Beliefs," was not entirely free of, being a messenger to/for/from his own time and place!]

Ananda plays the straight man, respectfully posing the questions that the Buddha elucidates. Still, wisdom proves elusive. "Ananda stood dazed hoping for a clearer interpretation of this instruction in the kind and gentle tones of the Master and he waited with a pure and expectant heart." (81) You may sympathize with Ananda's confusion as the Buddha by Socratic dialogue in the Shurangama Sutra tries to define the essential non-existence of one's own mind within, rather than apart from, a universal essence of mind! We mistake delusion for reality, but discrimination eludes facile phrasing. "They concentrate on the dream instead of the Mind that makes it." (82)

Our imperative: to recover free from grasping desire in "the two illusions of appearing and disappearing" (124) the "reality of the Shining Emptiness that is Essence of Mind." (107) Compared with eternal perception, the rest is "puppet-shows and racing up and down the Buddha-mountain." (122) If this sounds like gibberish, take the hundred pages preceding again and start over! I found the Seven Elements explanation easier than that of the six senses. The book's full of not superficial glimmers into truth but loaded with weighty ore that demands refinement and transformation out of this "Sea of Mystery" into gold-- or "Diamond Knowledge."

It's usually slow going; the nature of the dense, compressed material creates a weighty if slim volume. However, one editorial shortcoming, thus my subtracted star. This text lacks what would have enriched its usefulness to a wider audience, embracing Beat admirers probably more than Buddhist adepts. Take "the ten quarters of the universes," or "the realms of Tusita." Such terms need a glossary. Many Sanskrit terms Kerouac copies faithfully but these lack easy familiarity or quick recall for Westerners. Also, analogies such as "imaginary blossoms" and "morbid mist" regarding essential perception vs. that of the senses stayed for me rather obscure, despite the patience of the Buddha with Ananda and Kerouac's earnest reiteration of their recondite conversation. Footnotes or endnotes would have helped the general reader's perception of intricate concepts in a foreign language. Make no mistake: this is tough going for anyone who reads this sobering discourse carefully.

I'd recommend this for contemplative reading and patient reflection-- perhaps after finishing the four books mentioned below. The archaic tone forces you into a fresh reception to its philosophical instruction, conveyed in a folkloric or antiquated manner. The King James Version-cadences highlight the venerable registers of Kerouac's sources as he studied them-- translated into probably high-Church diction-- but their depth also slowed me down, pressuring me to concentrate on the necessity where "a sentient being sees the Light that was previously obscured by his brain as moon by cloud." (100) Thus, verily I say unto thee, regard this not as revelation to be taken within thy mind neither with lightness nor levity.

(P.S. This primer compliments Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse's "What Makes You 'Not' a Buddhist, Damien Keown's "Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction," Karen Armstrong's "Buddha" [Penguin Lives], and Thubten Chodron's "Open Heart, Clear Mind," all reviewed by me on this blog and Amazon US-- where nearly all of this review appeared yesterday. See also Carole Tonkinson's "Big Sky Mind," Kerouac's "Some of the Dharma" as the previously unpublished journals, and the scroll version of "On the Road". This review of "Wake Up!" to Amazon)