Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ag dul isteach na coillte dorcha

Sílim go mbeadh uaireanta crua liomsa go minic. Tá brón orm go leor, ach deánaim iarracht chun nascadh le dóchas, a cháirde. Léigh mé an oiread sin: "Faoi láthair ghlacann tú le trioblóidí tú gur tógadh, beidh an dorais oscailte...Rumi."

Is cuimhne liom ag leamh na línte chéad le Dante fós. Scríobh mé dhá bhliain ó faoi shin aistriúcháin éagsúla seo oscailt drámatúil. Bhí meas í gcónaí mé ar na véarsaí scáthfhoglaimaí, ar ndóigh.

Mairfeadh siad dom i mo lár aois. Níl fhíos agam an slí ar fud na fírinne. Tá me ag cuardach ar an cosán caol i mo shaol. 

Dá bhrí sin, iarraim ag éisteacht taobh istigh orm. Mhian liom freisin ag foghlaim le duine eile níos mó. B'fhéidir, tógann sé tamall fada dom a aibí.

Mar sin féin, féidir liom teacht solas agus sonas go lag. D'fhoglaim an ceacht doimhin seo Dante agus Rumi fadó, tar éis gach. Bealtaine na bliana nua a thabhairt daoibh áthas go leor.

Entering the dark woods.

I think that hard times may be mine often. Sadness has come upon me a lot, but I make an attempt to connect with hope, friends. I read a short time ago that: "The moment you accept what troubles you've been given, the door will open...Rumi."

Reading the first lines of Dante comes to mind too. I wrote two years ago about the various translations of this dramatic opening. I've always admired these shadow-like verses, of course.

They endure for me in my middle age. I don't know the wide way of truth. I'm searching on the narrow path in my life.

Therefore, I seek to listen inside of me. I also desire to learn from other people more. Perhaps, it takes a long time for me to mature. 

All the same, it may be for me that light and happiness come slowly. Dante and Rumi learned this profound lesson long ago, after all. May this new year bring you all joy galore.

Greanadh: Ag dul isteach Dante na Coillte Dorcha le/ Engraving: Dante entering the Dark Wood by Gustave Doré.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Thinking myself into certitude"

I've spent much of the past month reading up on Soka Gakkai's Buddhism. This advocates a self-actualizing, pragmatic, and this-world orientation rather than an introspective, detached, and renouncing one. I'm curious about how its globalizing, humanistic, and multicultural aims might enrich my study of Buddhism in the West, and how it's marketed, transmitted, and adapted by seekers and scholars today.

You can find six basic works on its teachings in the past six entries on this blog (and Amazon US). What intrigues me, as a sympathetic skeptic, is how its message via medieval Japanese reformer Nichiren makes sense for those who join SG International today. SGI affirms, as do other sects of Nichirenism, a direct channelling of a cosmic life-force via an inscribed mandala, a Gohonzon, and by recitation twice daily of a daimoku invocation of to what these Buddhists regard as a mystic law. This law, excerpted in the gongyo passages from the Lotus Sutra, is taken by believers to energize them and to bring about both "conspicuous benefits" in material gain and achieved results as well as more altruistic fulfillments leading to world peace, cultural enrichment, and environmental healing.

I began with Daniel B. Montgomery's "Fire in the Lotus" about Nichiren, his times, and his followers. I then entered the academic survey "Global Citizens" by Bryan Wilson, David Machacek, and colleagues which verified how initially converts often seek to gain material goods but then progress into less tangible but more lasting (perhaps?) gains in better relationships, communal harmony, and inner confidence. I also found out in "Soka Gakkai in America" how perhaps 10% of members stick with the program, but how this committed core works all the more diligently in terms of an ethos aligned with American values, to generate visible results that better one's self and others for practical goals. Its members tend to come from creative, entrepreneurial, or corporate fields. They're open-minded, ethnically diverse, liberal or even (morally) libertarian, "post-materialist," bookish if wonky types. Finally, I learned how believers interviewed by leader Richard Causton in "Buddha in Everyday Life" and academic observer Richard Hughes Seager in "Encountering the Dharma" support the SGI ideals as beneficial to good works built on an earnest faith.

Still, none of the six works solved for me a problem. If you chant and you don't get what you want, what then? As with our hopes however secular or our prayers however sincere, we're left with what Robert Wright in "The Evolution of God" calls "explanatory loopholes." No religion survives without qualifiers to its claims.

SGI-UK members report to Professors Wilson and Karel Dobbelaere how if they failed to get what they asked for in chanting, it was not meant to be, or they lacked faith, or the time was not right, or the request came about in an unexpectedly altered fashion. Of course, the scholar or skeptic might respond. W & D's "A Time to Chant" briefly examines a sociological interpretation of what might be prevarication, compromise, coincidence. Causton's insider's view stresses the necessity for diligence, and he narrates inspiring accounts of those considerably beaten down by life who in chanting find renewal and hope. One haunted me: a man loses a child to stillbirth and then another's stricken by cerebral palsy. Other Job-like afflictions come, yet this man reasons that they all happened because this was the path by which he found his way to Buddhism.

No religion, even a technically non-theistic (in theory often more than practice as Rodney Stark's "Discovering God" reminds us), can survive long except for intellectuals and a few hardy monastics. Ordinary folks need comfort, and SGI gives them a way towards buddha-hood in this life, not deferring it to an endless delay of rebirths as, say, Tibetan versions might present, or the conundrums of severe Zen, or even the more amenable self-reflections of "insight" Vipassana Buddhism deliver to many Westerners who cotton to analysis.

Yet I wonder, inescapably, how a system can lead to results. The fine print (you failed to believe enough; the time was not right; it may happen later but not when you asked) puts paid to the affirmations by SGI's millions that it works now and works reliably if only you are committed enough to make it happen by your diligence. This attitude fascinates me, as it's at odds with a lot of Buddhism I've been studying, but it remains for me a desideratum, with the same countercultural resonance that brings me back to 1972 when I saw the poster of Desiderata on the wall of a hippie-ish pair of dog breeders my parents went to visit (on business) up by Big Bear. I wish SGI well and I understand it much better. It can't be reduced to a "personality cult" as media stereotypes have claimed as it spread from postwar Japan among blacks, Asians, and whites the world over. I take note of its reportedly transformational powers, even as inevitably my own intellectual distance persists. I wryly recall a bumper sticker no car dares sport in my 'hood: "Nothing Fails Like Prayer."

This reading and reflection finds me at a very difficult time personally. The question mark, faint but indelible, imprints itself on my soul or spirit or mind. Maybe Providence might have played its sly role, speaking of coincidence or there are no coincidences, via the professor at San Jose State who after my talk on Maura O'Halloran's Irish Zen quest introduced herself as an SG member, who'd gained her doctorate in Ireland.

I never knew SGI existed there; Laurence Cox and Maria Griffin's newest research on Irish Buddhism alerts me in a note (on pg. 48) that a temple had existed in Dublin a while ago, and its membership's as in many lands a combination of multicultural immigrants and emigres from Japan with natives. The professor at SJSU told me that they numbered now around 300, doubling from mid-decade. While I had mentioned Daisaku Ikeda's claim in my "Celtic Buddhism" essay (pg. 69 of ibid, "Ireland's New Religious Movements") that the dharma had perhaps been transmitted via Alexandria to the ancient Western realm, Cox & Griffin's earlier article, which I had consulted in my own research, had not included SGI. So, thanks to her (I'll keep her anonymous) for alerting me to this presence, and for encouraging another direction for my research.

This blog entry's title comes via its own detour. On John W. Smart's political site, I'd posted at "Eyes of Newt" Gingrich's explanation of his conversion to Catholicism. I'd added that the legions of JWS's liberals and Newt detractors might consider the 150+ comments, as they comprised a perfect cross-section of pro-con reactions to Newt's decision. I encouraged JWS's political junkies to consider how the remarks boded well or not for his campaign, as economically and ideologically (contrary to past patterns or persistent stereotypes) Catholics represent a perfect sample across the voting spectrum and class system in our nation.

"Sophie," who shares my own ethnic background and my marital blending, replied how one commenter had cited of all converts Hilaire Belloc. I posted about him, with a bit of surprise that anyone knew of this doughty Catholic apologist of nearly a century ago, and she commented on his prescient perspective on the rise of Islam in Europe. Anyhow, I then told her I'd been a cradle Catholic but had wound up walking on my own, and she mentioned how hard it had always been politically or spiritually "to think myself into certitude." I concur, and it seems the perfect phrase for me to typically adopt or pause upon in my own endless search.

As I wrap this up along with a challenging 2011, it occurs to me how that installation depicted here resembles a butsudan, the cabinet housing for Nichiren Buddhists not an icon of Shakyamuni, but instead, in its denomination's reforming and aniconic light, the written scroll itself. In that, it reminds me of a Torah, and a synagogue faithful in its lack of figurative art to the First Commandment. I chose the illustration before I knew what I'd write today, and it shows its own coincidence, or lack of such. It also aligns with its artist's own mission for "active engagement" rather than a separate "work of art." For Nichiren's followers hold that the Buddha to be followed, not as an object of veneration so much as a mirror of one's own buddha-hood, is not a statue or an amulet anymore, but truly within one's self, as one finds and shares self-realized enlightenment.

Illustration by Julius Koller. Tate Gallery information:

Question Mark b. (Anti-Painting, Anti-Text)  1969
Otáznik b. (Anti-Obraz, Text-Obraz)

Latex paint on wood. Object: 50 x 500 x 330 mm. Sculpture, T13312.
Described by the artist as an ‘anti-painting’, this object was made using a wooden tray, which he covered in white latex paint. Koller’s techniques and choice of materials were intended to position his work as an active engagement with everyday life, rather than existing as a separate ‘work of art’. The question mark inscribed upon the object’s surface was a recurring motif in Koller’s work, reflecting the atmosphere of uncertainty in his native Czechoslovakia during the years of Communist rule.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Richard Hughes Seager's "Encountering the Dharma": Book Review

This sympathetic survey of "Daisaku Ikeda, Soka Gakkai, and the Globalization of Buddhist Humanism" combines a personal narrative of this professor's encounters in Japan, Brazil, and America with an accessible introduction to its function as a modernizing "vehicle" (98) for change. This small reform movement spread from a 1930s "value creation" in education society to a postwar missionary effort bent on a self-actualizing Buddhism to an export via war brides and immigrants and businesspeople to hundreds of locales today. As a professor specializing in Asian religions in America, he's well-suited to study this phenomenon, even if as he admits he has a lot of catching up to do about Japan.

Richard Hughes Seager, as a secularized scholar and a somewhat lapsed Catholic, confesses how his "capacity to entertain faith while remaining the skeptic" (6-7) allows him critical distance. Yet, he finds himself, after the sudden death of his wife and his own midlife predicament, warming to the earnestly presented if impressive achievements of Ikeda and his followers. He learns to regard Soka Gakkai as benevolent rather than calculating, and he finds its outreach to the "favelas" in Brazilian slums, its energy from its encounters with the civil rights and countercultural upheavals of the 1960s in America, and its Japanese endurance despite media suspicion all worthy of respect.

He meets Ikeda, the president of SG, and the professor overcomes his skepticism, if unable to make the "leap of faith" himself. Hughes accepts the Japanese model of a "mentor-disciple relationship" as benign, and he watches carefully as a scholar how Ikeda and supporters react and respond before relaxing into an appreciation of SG's Japanese presence and power. Still, he remains a scholar, trained to observe, even if he wonders early on "whether my critical disdain is related to my intelligence and academic education, as I like to think it is. It may be that I'm just spiritually indolent and existentially lazy." (122)

This admission enriches this investigation. One aspect that remained underexamined is how the chanting and good intentions of SG members transform into altruistic projects, seeing they demand so much of those who often volunteer funds and time. (The finances raised aren't examined in much detail--this appears odd, as both supporters and critics might wish for this professor's unbiased coverage of this issue.) His visit to Soka University in California doesn't elaborate its Pacific Rim aura or explain his allusion to why faculty were at odds with administration as the school opened.

I also wished that, given a reported high rate of SGI attrition (see my review of "Soka Gakkai in America"), that more context was provided in how members convert, and why many may not persist. How Buddhists from other denominations relate, or don't, to SGI could have been integrated, given the author's earlier "Buddhism in America" study. A lot of SGI's material appears filtered by its directors; he acknowledges this but at times it feels an "authorized" version. Everyday folk who support SGI tend to come later in the storyline, in a current-events style which feels more journalistic than analytical, even if it remains always readable.

However, his loneliness and his own quest deepen the relevance, in 2001-02, of this series of encounters. As he sums up SG's appeal: "its teaching of empowerment of self and other to achieve happiness." It's a "modernist spin" on ancient and medieval dharma. It adds to that teaching's "quiet contemplation" the "energizing power of daimoku and gohonzon, the former the performance of Buddha nature, the latter its graphical representation, the two mirroring in each other what Buddhists understand to be a liberating power inherent in the fabric of the universe." (205) Professor Seager's ability to sum up complex theories helps to convey this movement's ethos and accomplishments for a wider, scholarly--and perhaps popular--audience.

P.S. I've also reviewed complimentary studies: Daniel B. Montgomery's "Fire in the Lotus" on Nichiren Buddhism; "A Time to Chant" on SGI-UK; "Global Citizens" by various scholars, ed. Bryan Wilson & David Machacek; and "Soka Gakkai in America" by Machacek & Phillip Hammond. Also see from an insider's p-o-v a book not cited by Hughes, "The Buddha in Everyday Life" by British SGI leader Richard Causton. (Amazon 12-9-11)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hammond & Machacek's "Soka Gakkai in America:" Book Review

How does a Japanese "new religious movement" replicate the Reformation, as it exports a global Buddhism bent on world peace, self-actualization, post-materialism and transmodern values? Two UCSB sociologists survey 400 Soka Gakkai members in 1997, and their findings compliment those for British counterparts in "A Time to Chant" (1994; see my review). There, Bryan Wilson and Karel Dobbelaere found many SGI-UK converts from self-employed and creative, artistic professions. Those in America who answered Phillip Hammond and David Machacek's questionnaire tend to be more from corporate and knowledge-industry occupations, but the members' outlooks and scholars' findings resemble each other.

"Accommodation" examines the evolution into 35,000-odd U.S. members, of diverse ethnicities and religious or spiritual backgrounds, of a movement imported in the mid-1950s with a few Japanese wives married to U.S. servicemen. It outgrew its immigrant roots and flourished in the counterculture when its post-war seekers found a spiritual match for discerning "postmoderns." This refers to one of four responses to modernity by American religions. Modernists reject religion as superstition and favor reason and science, breaking up cohesion of past loyalties. Counter-modernists reject modernity for tradition. In between, some take a liberal balance, as mainstream Protestants, that accepts science to "enhance religious understanding." (127)

That leaves SGI-USA among postmodernists, who affirm modernity's limits regarding scientific progress, the human condition's humility, environmental harmony, and a "therapeutic orientation" on "healing and wholeness." They also have "a fascination with the exotic" (128) which celebrates matter joined with spirit, male with female, and culture with nature. This openness also invites consumerism, but more for cultural and artistic pursuits rewarding self-improvement rather than mere acquisition.

This also connects with the outward direction of committed members. While chanting for material benefits has been assumed by observers to be a primary motivation, Hammond and Machacek lean towards data which show a shift from marginal to active to core members that draws SGI's faithful into more communal service as their chanting draws them into work and action that optimistically helps others along with themselves. It's an "ascetic" worldview which converts do not form on joining, but which attracted them as jibing with their previous perspective, as these often young, single, uprooted people found a congenial fit with SGI.

Soka Gakkai's orientation does not reject American culture but reinterprets it. SGI offers a framework that "is now coherent and endowed with sacred meaning." (140) SGI's promise of chanting offers a way to tap into a life-force and to channel energy into not material benefits but a promise of "compensators such as faith, a sense of personal happiness, and confidence" (76) Hammond and Machacek sensitively examine how what members chant for relates to and differs from SGI's collective goals, and why benefits gained may not equal the goals sought. However defined, success makes the convert feel at home with an accommodating force for change that aligns with American beliefs in human potential and responsible use of an optimistic attitude.

The authors explore how SGI-USA aimed not at a foreign-looking, lifestyle-altering, anti-mainstream "cult" status, but a "soft-sell, low-tension strategy" (178) that resulted in less growth but more sustained adjustment to American mainstream society, where SGI blended in rather than stood out. 

While the authors estimate, on the high side, 90% of those who've "received the Gohonzon" (56; the venerated mandala that serves as a mirror for one's practice defining Nicherin Buddhism) from SGI-USA have lapsed from membership (if not practice, for this is hard to tell in a survey drawn from the organization's own list), those who remain turn out to be more committed. The investment in learning chants in archaic Japanese, in attending meetings, and in giving time and donations to SGI pays off for a smaller, but more convinced, cadre. Unlike other Eastern imported movements, SGI-USA appeals by tailoring its mystical  philosophy to a pragmatic set of rewards combined with an altruistic appeal. (The authors downplay criticism of its president's influence, which detractors have charged as nearing a "personality cult.")

SG enriches the "mundane world of daily life with religious significance." (140) Conversion reinforces social values as SGI members socialize "with like-minded others, and legitimates them with a Buddhist religious tradition." (140) The authors demonstrate this by excerpting interviews with marginal, active, wavering, and core members--and a few defectors gleaned admittedly (more than in Wilson & Dobbelaere) from a small sample, given scholars relied on membership lists from SGI for research. One difficulty shared by both reports is this built-in lack of context for more of those disenchanted, but "Soka Gakkai in America" improves upon its British predecessor by trying to document as completely as possible the range of members and outlooks.

This makes a fitting companion to "A Time to Chant"; that book's recommended for its deeper historical context of Nichiren Buddhism, and its study of the split with the priestly caste in 1991. I also note that Wilson with Machacek followed this with "Global Citizens" (2000; see my review), an academic collection of essays by scholars on SGI worldwide, past and present. There's far less background in this very slim volume, but with these two other books as supplements, readers may easily look up more. (Also see Daniel B. Montgomery's "Fire in the Lotus" on Nichiren and all varieties of Nicherinism; it too's reviewed by me.)

One fresh element added by Machacek and Hammond: supply-side and demand-side economics are mooted as models for SGI, one for the availability of late 20c options in a spiritual marketplace, the other for its ability to meet the needs of seekers. While less vibrant in its narrative than the British version, full of articulate informants, this American successor, even with more "textbook"-toned interpretations of the surveys, incorporates the same conclusions as before that match SGI abroad to a shift into a consumerist, yet ethical and practical, social phenomenon and religious movement. (Amazon US 12-1-11)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Richard Causton's "The Buddha in Everyday Life": Book Review

After evaluating three scholarly studies of Nichiren Buddhism, I compared this insider's version aimed at inquirers. Causton was Soka Gakkai's British leader; this revision was finished the year of his death, 1995. It revamps his 1989 "Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism: A Popular Introduction to the Worldwide Religious Movement That's Showing Millions How to Find Peace and Prosperity in Everyday Life." This merits mention, for the schism that separated the lay-led SGInt'l from priestly Shoshu control in Japan shifted how an affirmation of this pragmatic, ethically flexible, peace-promoting, diverse, international society would be conveyed to Western readers.

Bryan Wilson (quoted here as a sociologist of religion; this lacks paginated citations but lists a few references) analyzed what's now SGI-UK in "A Time to Chant" (1994, with Karel Dobbelaere) and in a 2000 collection edited (with David Machacek) as "Global Citizens." Wilson (who cited Causton's earlier ed.) found that British SGI adopts a freer, libertarian bent, as it's far from Japanese influence and considerably multicultural. Causton's rendering of SGI's neither analytical nor academic, in contrast with the two above (reviewed by me). His can be very philosophical and complex. He aims to convince seekers of SG's merits. This provides strengths and shortcomings for one seeking a balanced view of SGI. It's informed by members, not critics.

Strengths are its friendly tone, its use of vivid narratives by members of how they overcame difficulties, and its insights from such sources as Hardy, Donne, Dostoevsky, Einstein, Proust, Tolstoy, Wordsworth, Primo Levi, and Tom Wolfe. Good for savvy, clever, creative folks, curious about SGI's message. Causton assures that chanting as practice equals no "magical cure" (91; cf. 194), but a transforming power of "daimoku" (125) tapping into what's released as a "cosmic life-force" (193) sparks environmental and personal change. SGI uses this to prove how chanting creates, by greater energy and practical benefits, "value." A neutral observer may wonder if "success" comes by the chanter's compromise, prevarication, or coincidence, as Wilson & Dobbelaere aver; note p. 194 again. SGI believes a member will see the "conspicuous benefits."

This is not to diminish the sincerity and good works of this sometimes controversial movement. I wish to discuss what other {Amazon} reviews by those convinced have not: such a book is not by definition going to contain objections, for after all, it's aimed at persuasion. But some critical material might have strengthened it; one finds here a sharp, rapid tilt away from conventional Buddhism to Nichirenism. It displays a minimal foundation in earlier Buddhism before it reconstructs it with SGI's reformed "testament." Everyone can become enlightened; Nichiren supplants Shakyamuni as the latter-day Buddha model. Attributing radical changes in personal and communal success (see the subtitle of the original work) by chanting is the promise at the heart of SGI's interpretation of Nichiren's radical message which keeps only the Lotus Sutra as the "Middle Way" between latent and manifest effects that can literally alter the course of karma for the better.

This book's openness to rationalism and science enrich its contents, which can be challenging even as this simplifies Nichiren philosophy, itself no easy task. (Compare my review of a work aimed at a similar level on this subject, Daniel Montgomery's "Fire in the Lotus.") It elaborates karma intriguingly; it compares life and death, manifest and latent powers to a black cat, seen and not seen as it walks a "zebra crossing"! (138) I found its explication of the Ten Worlds doctrine sensible and engaging; SGI-UK's study guide online sums up this version of Causton's presentation. Ten Factors earn analogies to a knife, a lover's breakup, and a Van Gogh painting, for example. Also, its ties to physics, sleep research, and anger management prove valuable.

The modern vs. the ancient in light of what scholars say about the origins of the "Mystic Law," on the other hand, comes free from the critical examination that might be wished for by a reader looking for an intellectual context to accompany the inspirational one dominating here. The Lotus Sutra's understood by scholars to have been composed hundreds of years after Shakyamuni Buddha is said here to have delivered it as his definitive teaching. "Roughly 3,000 years ago" is given for the historical Buddha's career, further back than conventional estimations. This implies (255-6) wiggle room for periods of 500 years that comprise Nichiren chronology, but Causton never mentions those widely accepted birth-death ballpark figures for the Buddha.

I know that SG and Nichiren ease the impact of the historical Buddha, to elevate Nichiren and the Mystic Law, but those opening this book to find out about "Buddhism" as conventionally rendered may not glean much, compared to SGI's insistence on how Buddha-hood for all has been manifested by Nichiren and his followers since the 1200s. You understand, say, "Four Higher Powers" but "Four Noble Truths" gain a cursory mention; "Six Lower Worlds" earn abundant detail, but how they emerge via "Six Realms of Existence" gets little attention. (It's like reading about the Catholic Mass with barely a glance at a Passover Seder. Even in a defense of a denomination today, more credit of nonsectarian influences might be expected.)

If this sounds like quibbling, it's central in fact to how SGI leans towards a more exclusive, if globally accessible, "mission" with their Buddhism as the ultimate, definitive version. This book tends to blur dharma's historical context and denominational varieties; it's akin to a work introducing one to evangelical Lutherans which skims over the control of the medieval papacy, or how the 95 theses were composed. Daisaku Ikeda, revered SGI president, gains many quotes and serves as Causton's role model. Therefore, Causton provides as expected the "authorized" expression of SGI, but for those curious about what religious scholars have to say about the historical creation and textual evolution of the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren, his account will not offer much critical context. This book's meant to welcome one into SGI, not to dissect its ideological claims. 

Therefore, if you want an introduction to SGI from one convinced, this is recommended. If you prefer an academic study, check out Montgomery for Nicherinism, and Wilson's co-authored two studies above. (Amazon US 11-29-11)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wilson & Dobbelaere's "A Time to Chant": Book Review

I didn't expect such an engrossing, engaging sociological survey of British "votaries" of this Buddhist self-actualizing, libertarian-tinged, socially aware and creatively populated movement. These two professors interviewed hundreds of Soka Gakkai ("value-creation society") members around 1990, and they place SG within a response to a secularized Britain and a post-Christian ethos based on not an externally imposed system of moral codes but an emerging commitment to personal responsibility and communal action in peace studies, the environment, and global harmony. While for some critics this has smacked of a personality cult and an eerie Japanese export, Bryan Wilson (Oxford) and Karel Dobbelaere (Louvain/Leuven) argue that SG represents a reasonable reaction to an era when Christian morality emphasizing delayed gratification and an ascetic work ethic has been replaced by a consuming culture encouraging rapid fulfillment and "psychic liberation" from guilt and sin.

Nichiren Buddhism, defined as a "permissive, optimistic, and positively oriented religion," (33) takes its impetus from a thirteenth-century reformer who challenged the emerging feudal system. (See my review of Daniel Montgomery's "Fire in the Lotus" for more context.) Some of its followers, in the 1930s, began a lay-led society that eventually, by the time of this book in 1990-91, broke with their sponsoring Japanese priesthood in a controversial schism. An appendix explores the ramifications of this split, and the writers compare it usefully to the Protestant Reformation and modernizing tendencies. What they have in common is a move towards lay control, and less ritual and authority placed in a hierarchy. 

Of course, a system of local and global leadership is the reason for SG International. Therefore, part of the interest in the interviews transcribed and the data arrayed is to see how SGI members in Britain gravitated, all being converts, to a situation where their own libertarian, generally anti-authoritarian outlooks fit into a democratic system based on local circles of "votaries" who then serve their own structured system for mutual support and globalized goals of reform. It may reflect my own bias, but I would have liked more investigation of how a membership composed of those intellectuals, creative types, self-employed, artists and fringe occupations found a congenial mix of a self-motivated chanting and D.I.Y approach to morality within a structured, communal, and mutual-support society stressing cooperation.

Wilson and Dobbelaere separately contributed essays to a subsequent collection of essays, "Global Citizens," [see my review] and these can be consulted for more of their scholarship on this intriguing movement. "A Time to Chant" due to its depth allows a more nuanced examination of SGI, however, and some of the questions that I had when reading their essays in "Global Citizens" are better answered in "A Time." That is, I wondered how chanting for goods or success aligned with altruism or less-selfish or individualized goals, and the interviews and data included here examine this topic.

It may or may not be the fault of this book, but I remain hazy on how traditional Buddhist ideals of letting go of goods and attachments square off against SGI's encouragement of using chanting to generate goods as part of its acceptable goals, but I understand somewhat better the process of how chanting works to spark action, from these interviews. (One note: nearly none of those responding had exposure to other Buddhist practices before SGI, so useful research here as of 1990 was not truly possible.) Chanting, the scholars propose, may serve adherents as a means and an end, that is, those who attribute the fulfillment of their goals to the practice that is at the heart of SGI (and the larger Nichiren Buddhist approach) may express the dual methods of "self-examination and self-help" (186) at the core of the daily practice.

Naturally, the self-selecting limits of such a study, based on a list of members, is itself a predicament, for those responding tend (90%) to be regular practitioners. But even here, the professors take pains to share the honest answers of the few dissidents and skeptics that they can glean, as they seek to make this study the best it can be. Granted the boundaries of this report, its introduction provides a great overview of the organization's history and background, and its conclusion (however briefly) places SGI within countercultural and secularizing trends that in the two subsequent decades have rapidly accelerated in much of our society.
(Amazon US 11-22-11)

Monday, December 19, 2011

David Machacek & Bryan Wilson's "Global Citizens": Book Review

This collects scholarly articles on Soka Gakkai's Japanese, reformed Buddhist ethos and worldwide expansion. Most of the pieces, therefore, examine its growth in the later part of the 20th century. Emphasizing cultural (and also political) contexts, it combines theory with narrative histories, and then multicultural, sociological case studies.

Jane Hurst's "A Buddhist Reformation" cogently parallels the Protestant rebellion with the Soka Gakkai movement's rejection of a "priestly" for a "pragmatic" religious form (85-6). Collective ritual gives way to individual faith, and sacraments to practicality. Traditions recede while mysticism fades. Scripture trumps tradition. While a lack of authority may diminish an engaged, lay-led system's clout, and while ideological purity can be diluted, a global and rational enterprise gains by harnessing individual action to achieve progressive, egalitarian goals in a time of technological transformation and humanistic engagement.

David Machacek studies with Kerry Mitchell how Japanese immigrants spurred initial growth of Soka Gakkai in America. This began as war brides took the movement overseas after WWII. (259) The authors note how declining zeal of those raised in a such a radicalizing version of a faith often occurs, contrary to their parents who may have been converts, but they record how second-generation members appear to be steady with, if less diligent towards, practice. Unlike "world-rejecting" religions, Machacek and Mitchell see in SGI a heartening engagement with repairing social and environmental problems that bodes well for its future sustainability. (279)

In a related article, Machacek studies how "isomorphism" accounts for why SG sparked little controversy as opposed to other Eastern imported varieties of religious experience: SG parallels better the social bonding expected of hard-working Americans, even as its celebration of happiness and success appears to be at odds with Judeo-Christian practices oriented towards self-denial and otherworldly reward. (282) It looks legitimate, it acts respectably, its members keep a low profile. They do not undergo outwardly dramatic or exotic changes; the movement's progress, along often volunteer and now totally non-clerical lines, continues.

Instead of Jan Nattier's claim (qtd. 301) that evangelical Buddhism best defines SG, David Chapell substitutes "socially inclusive" (325) as distinguishing the notable presence of Americans and immigrants of European, African, and Asian descent in its ranks. Unlike the overwhelmingly white presence in Zen, Tibetan, and vipassana "elite" or "ethnic" Japanese cohorts, those involved in SG in the U.S. represent great diversity. Social development, he concludes, accounts for this prominence, as solidarity grows among members encouraged by welcoming and supportive circles of five or six, these in turn answerable to a district, a local chapter, and so on up a pyramidal structure, all led by laypeople (303-4). Abilities are encouraged, and while materialistic or selfish goals may seem to be accepted as legitimate reasons for initial practice or chanting, these are channeled with time and maturity into transformative skills better suited to one's lasting improvement, and that of those around one's self, in the faith and in the wider community. (324-5)

"Changing one's karma" rather than being bound by it distinguishes SG from other forms of Buddhism. Peter Clarke shows in Brazil how SG's third president, Daisaku Ikeda, in 1960 explained for the first time this notion to a Japanese immigrant, recently widowed, burdened with children. Her adversity was instead inspirational; her predicament became a way to overturn adversity rather than be a victim of fate. (337) Using a Nichiren Buddhist concept of "ganken ogo," Ikeda interpreted this as a method of turning difficulties into a vocation to change one's life by one's reaction to karma, and to overcome fatalism by committed action.

In postwar Britain, Bryan Wilson explains, a post-Christian residue of an "ascetic" outlook was overturned for a few by SG's appeal to a consumerist, individually flexible ethos. How traditional Buddhist discouragement of material accumulation squares with SG's "licensed hedonism" (369) puzzles me, but it redistributes restraint with reward. (353) He lauds the compassionate and secular approach that aligns SG with a community open to members allowed to seek happiness and enjoy fulfillment. A quarter of British adherents, from forty countries, were born overseas, a remarkable fact; some informants were introduced to SG by an encounter at a pub or a nightclub or an astrology class. (361) 3/4 of newcomers were not "seekers," and did not belong to another religion at the time of their first encounter. (363) As in America and Japan, the tilt upwards towards the more educated and professional cohorts appears over the decades to be accelerating, although economic, class, and cultural diversity remain hallmarks of global SGI.

Maria Immacolata Macioti looks at comments by guides and visitors left by those attending a 1990s human rights exhibit sponsored by SGI in a Roman museum as part of a chapter on Italian contexts; Metraux pursues the movement's spread into Southeast Asia. Whether into Buddhist, Protestant or Catholic nations, it appears a few committed members manage to convince thousands of others of SGI's advantages. Even in Islamic Malaysia or Indian communities abroad, a few decide to make the commitment to change and chant.

The remaining essays merit mention: Noriyoshi Tamaru on the historical perspective; Dayle Bethel on Makiguchi's educational message; Hiroshi Aruga on Japanese political ties; Daniel Metraux on the Komeito party; Atsuko Usui on women's roles; Takesato Watanabe on Japanese media coverage; Karel Dobbelaere on the "pillar" organization of SG.

Intermittently, I sensed re: SGI an uncritical bias. The generosity of many members is credited; these scholars support the movement's aims. This may not be a drawback for some readers, but I register how criticism of SGI here remains minimal. These scholars examine the evidence, assert their arguments, and defend SGI.

A few authors roamed into side topics or current issues (as of the year 2000) which neared indulgence or stridency. The results can be dry at times, but essays such as Chapell's despite statistics convince by their incorporation of interviews and testimonial enthusiasm. Overall, this is an accessible (if expensive even by university press standards) volume, aimed at the academic with a sociological slant, but newcomers (such as myself) needing an overview will also find this beneficial. (Oxford UP site.; Amazon US 11-18-11)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Daniel Montgomery's "Fire in the Lotus": Book Review

This erudite but thoughtful survey looks at Japan's contribution to religious unity and global harmony--amidst seven hundred years of dissension, suppression, antagonism, and idealism. Nichiren Buddhism, founded by a thirteenth-century reformer, challenged the priestly traditions and feudal hierarchies. It served as a parallel of sorts to the Protestant Reformation, in that it elevated lay participation, and confronted clerical dominance in league with political imposition. It very roughly compares to Christian supplanting of Jewish power, via reformer Nichiren--according to many who interpret his own enlightenment as he faced execution, and as he escaped death, as a transformational moment. This rekindled this restive rebel into another Buddha, some say replacing the historical Shakyamuni as the ultimate One who has woken up, and who wants all to awaken.

It's a very complicated story. Filled with splits and schisms, as strong-willed dreamers match their wills against imperious Japanese social structures, Montgomery narrates, with plenty of unobtrusive but solid documentation drawn from a wide variety of sources, how Nichirenism has become, in postwar Japan, its fastest-growing religion and one that appeals to those abroad who have little or no connection with Japanese roots. This globalizing dimension expands the Asian-centered dharma of most Buddhist movements. Human potential for change--and sometimes financial gain and material success as some varieties promise to dedicated devotees--spurs many to missionize, contrary to the mainstream Buddhism of East or West.

This "universal truth, manifested in Japan but applicable everywhere" according to Nichiren's followers as Montgomery introduces the concept, comes from directing "a philosophy of action" (12). It focuses on motivating people towards Buddhist-based enlightenment. Its controversial and energetic (and sometimes aggressive) methods, especially through the largest branch, Soka Gakkai, have sparked controversy and resentment in and out of its homeland, but Nichirenism "remains the most important indigenous expression of the Japanese indigenous spirit" (13) and one that, at least as of this 1991 publication, accounts for some of the same intensity that fueled Japan's postwar rise as an economic superpower.

This aspect does not gain as much coverage as I expected later on, (one drawback in a generally strong study), but in this relatively compact survey, Montgomery prefers to concentrate on the many debates, schisms, and revivals of Nichirinism since its founding. He delves too into the message of the historical Buddha in a marvelously told chapter, full of vigor; his accounts of Central Asian translator of Indian into Chinese texts Kumarajiva, of the bold and rebellious Nichiren himself in his epic life story, and the careers of such disciples as earnest Daisaku Ikeda of Soka and peaceable Nichidatsu Fujii "Guriji" deserve equal acclaim.

Montgomery carefully documents each of the denominations, and he reasons that so many versions exist due to natural tendency in an early religion to engage in fiery bickering as doctrines are contested and scriptures formed, whereas in the later times, of a decaying sect: "The white-hot volcanic eruptions of yesterday are the lifeless subsoil of today." (247) Nichiren had six schools immediately inheriting different interpretations or communal loyalties, and this contention over territory, continuity, and control of the teachings defines then and the centuries since.

Often opposed by the Japanese feudal system and its heirs, today's Nichiren missionaries are freer to promote their energetic message--in Japan, this now involves political campaigns promoting a party representing pacifist, environmental, and humanistic issues in a nation that had fought or co-opted Nichiren's earlier adherents. Elsewhere: "The goal is straightforward: to gain peace for the world and salvation for themselves." (263) The potential lies within the individual to change, however, and this is why, Montgomery shows, the movement's emphasis on one's own conscience and no intermediaries between the believer and the dharma have impelled its often headstrong followers towards strong personalities and self-expression.

The book moves efficiently, but it can be extremely dense in how compacted and intricate can be descriptions of Nichiren's understanding of advanced commentaries on the Lotus Sutra, the core teaching, as well as the multiple and multiplying schools of his followers. It's tough for a uninitiated reader to keep straight Nicho from Nichiko, Niko from Nikko, Nichiren Shu from Nichiren Shoshu. An index, glossary, "how-to" and statistics appendices, and bibliography help. Montgomery keeps control of quite a large amount of data and history and dogma in 300 pages.

This is a work that will please those looking for an introduction that stays unbiased but delves deeply into this movement. "Fire in the Lotus" as of this writing is no longer in print, but it's worth seeking out as a rewarding and balanced introduction to Nichiren's origins and rise as a national and now global phenomenon. (Amazon US 11-14-11)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Chistin na Dolly West: leirmheas beag

Fhreastail muid an dráma seo ag scriobh le Proinsias Mac Aonghusa faoi deireanach. Tá sé faoi comhlinti go leor ar feadh an dara chogadh domhanda ann. Bíonn sé ar siúl in aice leis an teorann Uladh i gContae Dún na nGall.

Tagann Dolly ar ais go hIódail a teach. D'fhoghlaim sí faoi rúin go leor idir fír agus mná ansin. Faigheann sí grá agus brón leis ar saigdiúrí Sasanach, Meiriceánach, agus Éireannach--agus a baill teaghlaich.
Shíl muid go raibh an dráma níos láidre go luath. Tá sé an-deacair a dhéanamh rún a réidh le coinbhleachtaí teaghlaigh an oiread sin i dhá uair a chloig. Ach, tá na aisteoirí oilte agus cumasach ann. 

Bhí an dráma chéad uair in Amharclann na Mainistreach i mBaile Átha Cliath i 1999. Measaim go mbeadh 'iomrall aimsire' de reir an téama homaighnéasachais fadó. Ina theannta sin, b'fhéidir go raibh an cáineadh Caitleacheachais ar cósuil doibh as áit ina deichniúr na Daichidí sin.

Mar sin féin, is maith linn go minic chuig an Amharclann Bhán Sí. Is iad na drámaí ar chighdéan maith. Tá an suíomh tarraingteach beag fós.

"Dolly West's Kitchen": Mini-Review

We attended this drama written by Frank McGuinness recently. It's about many conflicts during the Second World War. It takes place near the Ulster border with County Donegal. 

Dolly comes back from Italy to her home. She learns about many secrets between men and women there. She finds love and sorrow with English, American, and Irish soldiers--and her family members. 

We thought that it was stronger early on. It's very difficult to make a resolution of family conflicts in the space of two hours. But, the actors are diligent and talented there.

The drama premiered at Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1999. I judge that it might be an anachronism concerning the theme of homosexuality back then. Moreover, perhaps the critique of Catholicism's similarly out of place in that Forties decade.

All the same, it's a pleasure for us often to go to the Banshee Theater. They set the standard for quality drama. It's an appealing site too.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Alexander Theroux's "Estonia": Book Review

"A collapsing tiny box-set of a republic that is dark as a cave in winter, shit-cold for most of the year, a strange ignored dorp with no ice-free ports, a queer language, curious laws, rummy food, eccentric people, funny money, and a veritable forest of unreadable signs." This formidably erudite, incorrigibly vexed novelist follows his wife, Sarah, to this Baltic nation in 2008, where she paints on her Fulbright grant scenes of its stolid towns.

Brother of the equally waspish travel writer Paul, Alexander Theroux, meanwhile, skulks, fulminates, studies, and walks wherever he can, soaking up the frigid atmosphere of its people, who totter about "round, turnip-nosed, bulbous."  Their hair may resemble a cock's crow, or a potato's shade of brown. Estonians may garden naked in summer, but they remain sour-faced when meeting his gaze. They represent an evolutionary oddity, for in a place where 54% of the population is female, its young women whisk about in tight jeans, Goth-accentuated makeup, and impassive hauteur while their middle-aged counterparts appear "concave" and dumpy. This remains a mystery to me, this mid-life transformation from leggy goddess to hunched crone, but as one of Estonia's many misogynistic proverbs puts it: "Young maidens and white bread age rapidly."

Theroux wanders--once on a bus whose engine sounds like an opened potato-chip bag's rustle--its blue-bleached, white-bright landscapes. They, in this half-forested realm, dominate a flat and chilly niche for a population less than that of the Gaza Strip. The citizens of this land, ranked first worldwide in accident-prone mishaps and second in alcohol consumption, endure as they have within their little outpost for thousands of years. They share linguistic roots more with their Finnish cousins than their Latvian and Lithuanian neighbors to the south. Estonia squirms between two ancient antagonists, Germany and Russia.

"The Nazis visited, but the Soviets stayed." Occupied and brutalized for most of the past century, the only post-Communist Nordic nation, this newly independent country, in this eclectically arranged and intentionally diffused account, represents for Theroux an object lesson in cultural nationalism. It's a third alternative more genial than Benjamin Barber's global clash between "Jihad vs. McWorld." Reasoning that such small lands survive more on their own terms than those of multinational capital and ideological capitulation, Estonia for Theroux turns more intriguing the less genial it becomes. Tellingly, the place is absent from "1001 Places To See Before You Die." Stranded as he is for Sarah's academic year, he must navigate "a ramble through the periphery" with little guidance from books or guides. "I bucked up, although I was never warm. I had heard Estonia got milder, that many are cold, but few are frozen."

Such levity is welcome in what can be (as with his themed essays "The Primary Colors" and "The Secondary Colors," or his daunting if rewarding novels "Darconville's Cat," "An Adultery," and "Laura Warholic, or the Sexual Intellectual" [all reviewed by me on Amazon US & this blog]) a challenging encounter with a cranky autodidact. He appears to remember everything he has read, and he shows this frequently with citations from an unpredictable shelf. Theroux intersperses, in the style of such forebears as W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice's "Letters from Iceland," a diverse array of digressions. In a chapter ostensibly given over to "Antiques," six pages castigating the Israeli occupation of Palestine enter the contents. Newer fulminations against such outrages as waterboarding and the trial of former Nazi guard John (or Ivan) Demjanjuk join habitual rants about American illiteracy and laziness, part of the vast jeremiad that expanded the satire of "Laura Warholic."

The author takes comfort doggedly if bitterly in a nation with little luxury despite its high levels of technology. (Skype was invented here, and nearly everyone reads and uses cellphones for every function that can be digitized). He rallies against the Estonian determination not to play his welcoming host. He knows that to the Estonians he looks as if another Ugly American. Oddly, the stoicism of the people and the difficulty of the language drive Theroux, an already contrary character, into a stubborn effort to account for the glum mood of his dour hosts. (Estonia's acclaim for Depeche Mode may or may not explain so many long faces.)

This is where the book turns intriguing, if more in glimpses than sustained analysis. How long can a people sustain surliness? "Grimly you begin to see good manners take effort, attention, style, but rudeness takes none." In bewildering Estonian, "smile" and "turnip," at least to Theroux, appear as if near-cognates. 

Not that he seems cheerful. Theroux delights in putting down his hosts along with his fellow Americans. He despises Bush and praises Obama. He hates U.S. foreign policy and suspects Zionism. He remains a New England type, flinty and sharp. He deploys bombast, overkill, and ridicule to pepper his perennial pop-up targets of greed, lassitude, and stupidity.

He includes here his caustic if characteristic habit of lists, ruminations, and rants. For all his predilection for careful observation of how people look, sound, and move, he inflates, if maybe in sly self-deprecation, the impact others have on him--rather than vice versa.  In a chapter on Sarah's fellow Fulbrighters, "The Whole Squalid Lot," he returns to what has captivated him since his debut 1972 trio of short stories, "Three Wogs," and which dominates long stretches of "Darconville" and "Laura": the admiration of amplification. 

He claims to name Sarah's fellow Fulbright grantees: "Katerina the Crank, Benny Profane, Currants and Queel. The noxious Butterheads. Sairey 'Is That Your Nose or Are You Eating a Banana' Golomb who in a discussion we recently had actually thought the Ottoman Empire was a chain of furniture stores. The notoriously cheese-paring Belk, the miser. And how about Capybara?"

Theroux habitually gives such quaint, oddball names to those he excoriates, or, far less often, encourages. This metaphrastic register--heaping up recondite vocabulary, obscure obsessions, and highbrow observations--may strain Theroux's voice on the page. Even in the comparatively compact (for him) "Estonia," a few pages for those new to this maximalist practitioner may suffice until one becomes acclimated to the wintry blasts of his prose. 

His frostiness blends form into content. Not much snow, but a lot of bluster mixed with icy gusts typifies a land where March may be its sunniest month. Its people, Theroux finds, meet his lowered expectations. Try as he may to accommodate himself to their glares and guffs, Theroux struggles vainly to make sense of his inclement exile in this strangely dispassionate setting. "The advantage of consciousness can prove a disadvantage when the society you meet, the culture you confront, is almost imperious in its strangeness and the fealty it exacts of you in merely coming for a visit."

Perhaps, Estonia can be seen "figuratively as a tiny, self-sacrificing, hard-working wife to her husband, Russia, slaving away always to appease him, doomed to spend years appeasing her demanding spouse but asking meekly for nothing." The tart, sour, and tangy flavors of its pork, its predilection for dullness fueled by vodka, and its obsession with communal singing make Estonia a tiresome residence. In a chapter "What Did I Hate About Estonia?" such jagged gems prickle as this: "I hated their idea of their naive, simpleminded singing like the Whos in Whoville as a sole defense against the guile of black-hearted totalitarianism." 

Yet, another chapter, "Carmen Secularae," finds Theroux moving from a predictable diatribe against televangelists into a thoughtful consideration of the impact unbelief may wreak upon a nation so beaten down as modern Estonia. This analysis segues into an elegant defense of Pauline Christianity, one of many unexpected connections this ramble makes along its many peripheries. Theroux later adds (in an aside illustrating his command of a short remark amid so many long grumbles):  "In the Bible there is no mention that the sky is blue--we yet locate heaven there."

Full of endnotes, translating many phrases he quotes in their original languages, and graced by a few of the couple's photos and Sarah's plein air oil paintings, this provides a suitably quirky introduction to Theroux as an essayist and critic. Far better copy-edited for Fantagraphics Books than was "Laura," its publication by this press fits into this press's emphasis upon graphic novels and comic illustrators, too. As the author of two Fantagraphics short studies on Al Capp and Edward Gorey, Theroux's elliptical style and elongated perspective delineates an American tradition of satire that connects him to Thomas Nast's political and cultural caricatures of a century and a half ago. 

I wish this handsome volume had a map, but then, Tallinn and the other major city of Tartu appear about it, in terms of notable Estonian locations. Instead, we rely on his onrush of big words and biting phrases to tell us about this forlorn entity. These chapters compile much that most may relegate to byways, detours, fumbles, and trivia, but he explains in a "Valedictory" his guiding principle. 

"I daresay my Estonia is as much about me and my crotchets as it is about anything else, but as Thoreau pointed out in Walden, 'I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.'" He notes, "paranomasiacally, I left no Estonian unturned. Those who are less charitable may even insist that I left no turn unstoned." Catch the wit and the venom, the depth and the breadth, of this honest account of a "a strange, unlooked-for place at the back of beyond" where "the fascination of its strangeness" renders it a fitting subject for a curious report by a memorably talented, ever off-kilter, chronicler of oddity. (Featured at PopMatters 11-23-11 & Amazon US.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Péter Nádas' "Parallel Stories": Book Review

Robert Musil, early last century, tried to bring a modernizing and warring Central Europe into a massive work; he left its second volume unfinished. Péter Nádas picks up the saga a few decades later, as another war brings a neighboring nation into the struggle, and follows Hungary through its revolution in 1956 and its predicament in 1961 through to 1989, the year of its liberation. This enormous novel combines, as its title promises, different characters and various approaches towards exploring personal and political survival within this sprawling, intricate story.

The scenes set at Buchenwald, and among those surviving the Nazi terror, recall a socialist realist form of narrative, heavier on action and, if not heroism, than revenge. For other segments during and after the war in Germany as well as Hungary, a inwardly focused novel of manners and subtler tensions shifts overlapping tales into revelations of betrayal, appropriately conveyed in asides, incriminations, and hesitations as much as confrontations. The opening section which begins the investigation of a murder in 1989 Berlin follows the edgy, swaggering, uneasy mood of a mystery, full of diversions and evasions.

Imre Goldstein, who translated Nobel laureate Imre Kertész’s works set in and after the same world war in similar situations, brings to Mr. Nádas’ work the same fluidity. (See my review of Fiasco) The challenge of expressing Hungarian, a slowly spoken language full of heavy long words with opening stress, into conversational English has eluded many. Mr. Nádas’ prose carries in Mr. Goldstein’s rendering the sensation of solidity and density, and this creates the pleasure and the pain within this epic work.

That is, the commitment to over eleven-hundred pages of serious writing that roams from character to character without warning, and which depends upon an alert reader able to appreciate the considerable demands that a work eighteen years in the making and four in the translating expects may make this encounter a rarified one, for those able to navigate these confusing and chilly depths. Mr. Nádas rarely has his characters laugh, and only one scene here made me chuckle. For a work concerned with eugenics, conspiracy, anguish, lust, evasion, and compromise under a variety of oppressive regimes, levity may be a rare commodity, after all.

Jewish and Gypsy, Catholic and Protestant, fascist and fanatic, Nazi and Hungarian characters, many of which themselves are of mixed parentage, contend. They are almost never happy. Those in power resent those beneath them. Sex enters many relationships, but it never connects people beyond such moments. The explicit nature of this detached novel, conveyed with its intricate and extended descriptions of the aroused males and their pursuit of sexual release, less often in its fulfillment than its postponement, makes for a very difficult book to enjoy.

The blurb portrays this as the story of three men, spies in the Cold War era, but only two of them play large roles: Hansi von Wolkenstein aka János Kovách, and Ágost Lippay. Hansi was sent, as a bastard child, to a Nazi school where such youths were studied—this plays off other characters, including his mother, involved in eugenics schemes which employ Mengele among others, in Hungary as well as the Reich. One scientist muses over “independently inherited narratives” as intertwined within heredity, and this theme extends its tendrils over much of this work’s construction and intentions.

For instance, Ágost will entwine with his lover Gyöngvér, whose coupling takes most of seventy-five pages, certainly among the liveliest in this colossal story. Even here, however, Mr. Nádas refuses to give the reader a conventional narration.  The mechanisms of the male member earn great elaboration—both male-male and male-female pairings elicit clinical observation combined with if not soothing than enervating bouts rendered over many pages and many places, most of which are decidedly less than romantic. An underground pissoir, a cockroach-infested bathhouse, rough trade in the park of dark Margit Island, and a dismal room in a dreary flat typify the settings where men, with or more often without women, pursue their release. Even the shadows of Buchenwald for a brief moment become a place full of such a possibility.

Mr. Nádas interrupts that precisely narrated encounter (and the semi-humorous interruption by a dim old lady of the dimly lit couple makes for my chuckle) with Ágost and Gyöngvér’s memories, which drift off and come back. “Stories about the soul and about social relations scarcely touch each other; rarely is there a direct connection between them; they are two different categories written side by side.” So a neighbor reflects, in an interlude during the couple’s lovemaking.  Nobody in this novel has their time on stage for long, even if dense chapters may roam over dozens of pages.

The lack of tonal difference among many who enter this story to articulate their unhappiness, beyond the genre shifts earlier mentioned, discourages easy progress. Mr. Nádas prefers to cloak hundreds of scenes and many characters (an appended list would have helped, as this novel exceeds even Tolstoyan lengths) within an elongated, distended, wandering style which tucks revelations and explications within its narrative as if asides. This demands attention, and this attention flags over so long a book.

However, certain moments persist. As in 1961, when young Kristóf Demén pursues Klára from the counter at the candy store where she works across Budapest. This segues into a recollection of his burrowing into a bombed-out cellar as the Soviets crushed the 1956 rebellion; this then blends masterfully into a tense re-creation of how a bread line created competition and then panic, heightened in turn by the arrival of tanks. One points its turret straight at those in line.

The resolution of this showdown, as is typical, will be delayed for many more pages, and then it will be related in passing. (By the way, the translator’s footnotes now and then do assist the reader less versed in Hungarian references about politics and history.)  Péter Nadás may infuriate readers accustomed to a Tolstoyan resolution of a series of interrelated stories and characters and times and settings. The author refuses to resolve his unhappy stories.  Each will remain open-ended. Time and space, for him and his modernist creations, create a human and social longing to flee elsewhere, free of backbiting and spying, secret societies and endless bickering. Hungary represents a hopeless realm, confined between German power and Russian control.

The impersonal flesh contends with the personal imagination, the omniscient, if not exactly straightforward, impersonal narrator reflects. Neither passionate lovemaking nor desperate pick-ups will satisfy these men and women. They stay predators. They fail to find rewards across these restless decades.

Murder, sexual assault, backstabbing figural and actual, and the insistence upon compromise for surviving these brutal times occupy the actions for most of these characters. When Providence is invoked, it is more likely by a Nazi eugenicist than a devotee, for few in these pages praise any power higher than their own desperate struggle to stay alive. Fulfillment stays distant, and self-hatred curdles. For more than one of those condemned to be born when and where they are, betrayal becomes the promise, if not the realization, of liberation from regimes and police states. (Featured at New York Journal of Books; published 11-5-11.)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Ride's "Nowhere": Music Review

A buzz surrounded the twentieth anniversary of Loveless by My Bloody Valentine and Nevermind by Nirvana this year. Certainly both albums represent wonderful achievements; another from this era earns its own celebration. Ride, four young men just out of school and all of about twenty, released its own impressive debut, after three strong four-song e.p.'s earlier in 1990. That fall, a few Americans like me who had paid import prices for whatever appeared on Alan
McGee's Creation label found ourselves paying again, if for a Sire record, for the eight songs on the British full-length Nowhere were appended by four from the latest of those e.p.'s, Fall.

Alan Moulder's mix reveals, in these Rhino remasters, a grittier coating over the hazy smear. The original album felt ethereal and woozy. As Jim De Rogatis' liner notes record, the "gigantic oceanic swell" of its cover art match Moulder's "disorienting" blend of aggression and delicacy. While shelved with shoegazers My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive upon its release, Nowhere hearkens back to this Oxford band's influences: the eclecticism of psychedelic Beatles, the guitar constructions of The Smiths, the lazy drift of Rain Parade and L.A.'s Paisley Underground, and the measured beat of The Velvet Underground.

The backwards loops opening this album, on "Seagull," signal the band's determination to re-create their favorite sounds. What the quartet adds is an aggression that takes from British post-punk what The Smiths and the Paisley Underground pioneered: a meatier guitar attack overlaying a more expansive, subtly folksier vocals. Andy Bell's Rickenbacker 12-string takes charge, electrified, phased, and distorted. Mark Gardener supports on guitar, with a wistful, understated voice that wafts over the sonic waves: the swaying drums of Laurence "Loz" Colbert and Steve Queralt's steady bass. De Rogatis' comparisons of this rhythm section to that of The Who are, typically for this astute critic of Sixties rock, well-chosen.

"Kaleidoscope" brings, as its title promises, a swirling style, lighter as Gardener's lyrics float upon a propulsive, yet jittery melody recalling a gentler ballad, pressed into service of a more demanding, dreamily echoed direction. "In A Different Place" resembles The Smiths, a steadier pause after so much whirling action. "Polar Bear" roams into a more desolate landscape, closer to Echo and the Bunnymen, but replacing Ian McCulloch's stolid moans with Gardener's softer regret. Colbert's control of the snares and toms emerges in the production well to anchor this more simply composed tune.

Nearing the halfway point of the original album, "Dreams Burn Down" slows the pace. Colbert adapts a slightly funkier tap, backed by Queralt's own thumps, to introduce this melancholy evocation. Gradually, the guitars rise into an angry response, retreat into reconsideration, and flare into a final hiss.

In another version a standout song (missed on the accompanying L.A.'s Roxy concert in April 1991 disc), "Decay" showed on the BBC radio sessions Waves how the band could transform this tune based on an Eastern modal progression into a vehement expression live in the studio. In its original version here, it remains too muffled to reveal its full power, but the fading snare in the last seconds hints at what production might have captured.

The Roxy concert, on tour with Lush, shows a Ride diligently trying to capture its striated studio sound before an enthusiastic crowd on a small stage. The album's title track here distended, the early song "Like A Daydream," and two standouts dating back to their original demo tape--"Chelsea Girl," and the closing "Drive Blind"--allow the band a looser, unsettled energy that transforms their live abilities best. These particular songs at the Roxy compliment those on Waves, along with those on Live Light a few years later.

The band's most consistent songs came early in their brief career; they got grandiose, they tired, and they bickered and burned out. Even their original album needed to pause after so much energy expended.

"Paralysed" hints at Andy Bell's subsequent band's sound; Oasis could have written this. The fact I prefer Ride to Oasis may show the relative position of this track in how I rank its songs. It follows its titular feeling, or lack of feeling, too closely. Effects mask a weaker tune. Moulder's attempts to improve Marc Waterman's original production (abandoned in the making of the record) wander off into a work in progress. Its best moments remain a creepy sample, as if a crowd at a football match is being trampled. Perhaps a sly joke?

With "Vapour Trail" grace returns, and beauty arrives. A basic "la-la" garnishes the gentler vocals, and the music (augmented by keyboards and ending in strings) delivers an accessible example of a short shoegazer song. While the twin guitars of Ride earn critical acclaim, again I credit the drums for their constant guidance.

This album, in its American version, now takes over. "Taste" shows a lighter production style, more Beatles -meets-Byrds. This may document a period of the band before Moulder's direction, as these next three songs were on the British Fall e.p. "Here and Now" with its harmonica shuffles a mid-Sixties reference into a lysergically tinged, sleepy mood. It tries to move ahead, but the ambiance drags it back. This exemplifies the band's adaptation of earlier post-punk bands merging their perspective into that of previous visionaries. However, the song outlasts its welcome. By now, Nowhere, a dense, thick collection, needed to end.

The original U.S. album closed with its heavier title track. It imposes itself on the listener, over Gardener's half-chanted invocation. Harmonica wafts again, but now ghostly, above an array of processed guitar drones, an uneasy drumming pattern, tambourines, and a bass turning in on itself into a growling sound mix. This feels more like a bad trip than a pleasant ramble. It crumbles as if a plane going down into the sea, and the water washes over the remains of this song and the album as composed, as a seagull soars above the crash landing.

This re-release adds four songs from their fifth e.p., 1991's Today Forever. One can hear the next album, the prog-rock leaning Going Blank Again, already approaching. "Unfamiliar" stands more detached as the voice sinks into the churning, not chiming, guitar effects and the bass and drums thicken into a less distinguishable mass. Sustained pedals continue with the acoustically based "Sennen" while "Beneath" returns to the janglier feel of Fall. It finally wraps it up with a nearly symphonic, cinematic "Today" which could inspire Sigur Rós. Ride's tone keeps dispersing, as the band fades into its sleepy phase. This band stretches itself, and in these final songs the expanded Nowhere leaves behind a punchier, cheerier sensibility to sail into vast introspection. (Amazon US 11-27-11; featured at PopMatters 12-15-11)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Fall's "Ersatz G.B.": Music Review

With a studio album each year since the punk era broke, I was wondering, as this year neared its close, if The Fall would deliver its annual contribution to my not-so-short shelf. I've been listening to this Northern English band before their albums appeared in the U.S., and their career has found them on many labels, with some records never released overseas, others released in the U.S., and most re-released over and over, adding (for better or not so much) to their legacy. Live, they prove unpredictable; within a studio, they prove recognizably innovative if often infuriating in their truest commitment to punk's iconoclasm. They refused to conform to punk in the late 1970s, and they refuse to play by anybody's rules but those broken by their leader, and sole founding member, Mark E. Smith.

Studio record #29, Ersatz G.B. delivers a heavy, ornery style of discontent. It's one of their best. For a singer nearing his mid-fifties, Smith insists upon his idiosyncratic approach. His mumbling, self-referential, literary, and demotic blend of insider jokes, baffling references, sly narratives, and winking humor remains intact. His band, cemented here by his wife Elini Poulou's keyboards, works mightily to satisfy its leader's difficult standards. The music, I am pleased to report, responds to Smith's challenges, and it's a tough, sassy album. Not as melodic as recent triumphs from the past decade, but it works by its own unrelenting concentration upon a stripped-down, solid stomp.

This starts off with a febrile, dense "Cosmos 7" compressing words and snarls from Smith into a mash of Elena Poulou's keyboards and backing vocals and the band's assault, until it suddenly ends, in less than three minutes. It's a promising opening, recalling the best moments from The Fall's strong albums five years or so ago. It swaggers but does not brutalize, with meaty production.

Track two "Taking Off" sounds similarly cosmic. It features an off-center dub rhythm section, with a repeating riff over keyboards which skitter against the confident anchor of Keirion Melling's drums and David Spurr's bass. It stops with a nod to an Eastern snatch of a pop tune, barely registered in its final moments.

"Nate Will Not Return" comes back to the opening sound, very "live" and jittery in Pete Greenway's guitar and growling keyboards in another strong mix of direct, congealed melody. Smith mutters about deception over a chordal pattern recalling the experiments of PiL decades ago by Keith Levine; the vocal here rejects John Lydon's wails, however, for insisting that "I am Nate" in a tale about Ukrainian imports of sinister fashion and "maybe New Jersey state".

Lacking liner notes (at least in the download provided me), the listener must depend on the passing reaction to what the words at the moment suggest. Repeated listens to albums by The Fall bring out their nuanced layers of assault and delicacy, and their wordplay and considerable, if wry and dry, wit. At six minutes, compared to some tunes on recent records by the band, "Nate" moves with catty precision and never wears out its initial promise.

"Mask Search" brings back in a brief tune a familiar pattern for longtime fans: a hint of the American rockabilly roots that tangle some of the more obscure cover versions that Smith favors. It's a somewhat simpler delivery than the previous three songs, yet its production, as relentlessly determined as before, matches the mood of the CD.

"Greenway" finds Smith straining his voice: "it's good enough for" a variety of targets, until it segues into a typically bizarre tale of the singer watching a video in a Danish hotel of a man who looks like him. He goes to a neighboring room to ask for a way to record this astonishing sight. This leads to predictable complications: "people like that really get on my nerves." Here, the famously cranky Mancunian vocalist adopts a different tone, grainier and even more raw than his usual tipsy warble, and the band follows suit in a backing support of male voices that channel the sound into a tunnel of dark threats.

Keyboards find a simple way into a tune that Poulou delivers, as a "Happi Song". It's not quite Nico alongside Lou Reed, but her articulation of similarly careful English reminds me of that avant-garde European predecessor. It's rare on an album from this version of The Fall to promote for an entire song one by another vocalist, so this variety helps. It's musically not as intriguing as the five songs so far, but it does not depart from the style of Ersatz G.B.. This record's far more consistent than many of the band's hit-and-miss output.

The saying among fans goes that a weak album follows a strong one, but the previous Our Future Your Clutter was respectable. All the same, Ersatz G.B. easily betters it, for its devotion to a more monolithic construction. Far from this weakening the structure, the preparation of deceptively simple rock band ingredients sustains a firm, weighty, and smooth direction that rarely wavers or wobbles.

This album benefits by concision. Any listener of the band can volunteer past Fall tracks which wore out their welcome, so the seven minutes of "Monocard" serve as the test drive for the handling of this year's model. It doesn't wander into wankery or get mired in silliness. "Laptop Dog" returns to the album's first half, and while not very distinguishable from those tracks, continues the progress where parallel stretches in other Fall albums have sagged and the pace has slackened.

"I've Seen Them Come" swings back to the PiL template, with a rowdy call-and-response siren call tucked into the male backing vocals for Smith, and the interplay of guitar-bass-drums with the competing and overlapping voices keeps this an exciting song. Six minutes does not diminish the focus of this track. The impact of early 1970s German progressive rock on PiL as on The Fall must be acknowledged, and if Lydon had persevered as has Smith, one wonders how the best of post-punk's pioneers thirty-odd years on would have evolved. The slap of the drums and the whir of the keyboards keeps this song punchy to its end.

So does the percussion opening "Age of Change". Blocks might be thudded; it's hard to tell in the sonic fog. The production staggers the vocals slightly, and keeps backing voices martial against a static-frosted Smith. The textures, throughout this sprightly record, above the phasing of the keyboards, make this closing track wonderfully propulsive. Forty-one minutes produce a wonderful album by Smith and his willing musicians, who rise to his exacting leadership, until he cracks up declaiming the last lines about a "dam of vast proportions will break over hawk's hahahah"--or something. With him, you're never quite sure what he's onto. This keeps The Fall like Smith: fresh, and sour. (Amazon 11-26-11; 12-5-11 at PopMatters)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Magazine's "No Thyself": Music Review

The titular pun, allusive and mocking, literate and "classic" in at least a double sense, typifies this pioneering post-punk band's approach. Howard Devoto's adenoidal delivery, his poetic or satirical lyrics, and his direction of a band bent on keyboard-guitar dominated aggravation make their fifth album (the first in nearly three decades since their heyday), as consistent as ever. Whether this wins them new fans as much as woos old ones remains uncertain. Magazine's a group committed to an uncompromising attitude transmitted through an arch form of dense New Wave, while backing ex-Buzzcocks founder Devoto's willfully theatrical, petulant or defiant poses. 

"Do the Meaning" begins with a hint of PiL's guitar swirl, its riff connecting with a keyboard-driven sound reminiscent of their standard style. A chunkier, stuttering guitar characterized the innovations of original guitarist the late John McGeoch; his successor Noko--who paired with a solo Devoto in Luxuria--remains faithful to this direction. This continues on the next track, appropriately named "Other Thematic Material".

However, Devoto's preference for a sparer, theatrical mood often slowed the pace of Magazine's albums. Here, "The Worst of Progress" follows this form. Discordant tones fill many songs by the band, even if "Hello Mister Curtis (With Apologies)" integrates piano chords that hint at George Benson's version of "On Broadway" of all tunes, at least to my ears. I am not sure if Devoto, being a Mancunian contemporary, refers to the departed singer of Joy Division here, as I have no lyric sheet but only a downloaded sound file.

Despite Devoto's mannered articulation and phrasing, "Physics" manages to be nearly a ballad by comparison with most of this album. "Religion, it wasn't meant for everyone" becomes the refrain, and no lyric sheet's needed to make that message out. "Happening in English" fits into a typical early-1980s style for the band, with some nods to a more tribal percussion from that era's John Doyle, who returns on drums. 

Dave Formula, their loyal keyboardist, contributes the most to keeping this reunion record close to its predecessors. He joins with Noko's lively guitar and new recruit (although the talents of original member Barry Adamson are missed) Jon "Stan" White on bass for "Holy Dotage" as the CD's punchiest song. 

The noir shuffle of "Of Course Howard (1979)" evidently refers to some event back then, mixing a nearly spoken-word alteration of Devoto's vocal registers into a menacing entry. Yet, as with other such Magazine tracks in the band's career, this plods along and drags down the album's trajectory. Their albums always stop and go, hurry and dawdle, and true to this erratic form, after thirty years, this one follows suit.

"Final Analysis Waltz" by its title may anticipate this judgment. Despite a jerky guitar with lilting piano and bass interplay that gave many of the band's songs their distinctive sonic stamp, this fails to keep a listener's interest for almost five minutes. "The Burden of a Song" again appears well-chosen as a name, for this fights against the ennui incorporated into its title by a welcome brush with a snappier melody, if in shards.

Tired and battered, the breakdown of "Blisterpack Blues" reminds me of the band's nearly unrecognizable, crawling, collapsing cover version of Sly Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)"; it drags down the album to its close. The willful direction-as-misdirection of this solid, if unspectacular by earlier standards for this creative band, record typifies their refusal to conform to expectations. Unless they are those of any listener fond of this Manchester-based quintet, who from their first single, "Shot by Both Sides" in 1978, never could fit into any mold except the ones they broke and melted and remade. (Amazon US & Published to PopMatters 11-21-11)

(P.S. Blame no liner notes or line-up ones on the bare download provided me but credit to Rosalie Cunningham for backing vocals--I always liked one Maria Teresa who did the same for the final Magazine LP and Devoto's one solo record, half-great, half-not, the aptly titled Jerky Versions of the Dream--see my review!)