John Donne: Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (No. IV) & the Buddhist Doctrine of Dependent Origination

As part of my project to revisit some of my boyhood favorites (poets, novelists, ice-cream flavors, etc.) I’ve been rereading John Donne, though in this case I take up my project with a slight difference: Since I was in high school & began reading poetry seriously, I’ve admired & studied Donne’s poems, especially the lyrics & Satires. Those are the poems of a young man, bursting with energy & invective. But this week I’ve been reading Donne’s Devotions— a work I had no more than glanced at previously; written in prose, they represent the thoughts of a dying man. So I am revisiting the writer, not by rereading pieces I already know, but by taking up something new of Donne’s. The Devotions are written in a prose that could be cut into a block of granite:

It is too little to call man a little world; except God, man is a diminutive to nothing. Man consists of more pieces, more parts, than the world; than the world doth, nay, than the world is. And if those pieces were extended, and stretched out in man as they are in the world, man would be the giant, and the world the dwarf; the world but the map, and the man the world. If all the veins in our bodies were extended to rivers, and all the sinews to veins of mines, and all the muscles that lie upon one another, to hills, and all the bones to quarries of stones, and all the other pieces to the proportion of those which correspond to them in the world, the air would be too little for this orb of man to move in, the firmament would be but enough for this star; for, as the whole world hath nothing, to which something in man doth not answer, so hath man many pieces of which the whole world hath no representation.

I offer this excerpt not only as an example of Donne’s mastery as a prose stylist, but because they suggest to me certain ideas familiar from the central Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination. As for the style, read carefully through the sentence that begins “If only . . .” & then look at the way it is framed by the three short sentences that precede it.

Everything is interconnected. Everything affects everything else. Everything that is, is because other things are. This is the teaching of Dependent Origination. [ . . . ] No beings or phenomena exist independently of other beings and phenomena. All beings and phenomena are caused to exist by other beings and phenomena. Further, the beings and phenomena thus caused to exist cause other beings and phenomena to exist.1 

99% of bacteria, by far the most numerous organisms on the planet, cannot be cultured in isolation in petri dishes for the convenience of scientists & graduate students. There is a microbiologist named Slava Epstein profiled in the June 20th, 2016 New Yorker, who is trying, with a few others, to study the 99%. In fact, I would argue, he is studying a concrete example of dependent origination, not just as empirical science, but as metaphysics.

Let’s step back & look at Donne’s metaphor, if that’s what it is, that links a person’s body with the earth. If we unwound the veins in our bodies, they would become rivers, our bones quarries. So far, this is only an example of the kind of elaborate extended metaphor Donne was & is well-known for. But a metaphor, to more than decorative, should plunge the reader into uncertainty, should point toward genuinely unsettling possibilities. Donne is considering his own approaching death in the Devotions, and with it the dissolution of his body. Part IV bears the Latin title Medicusque vocatur. (The physician is sent for). Renaissance scientists had begun doing actual post-mortems, so the imagery of veins & bones has an immediacy it would have lacked a couple of hundred years before Donne wrote. 

Buddhism famously sees everything in the universe as interconnected. Some misconstrue this as meaning there is no difference between one thing & another–a weird kind of epistemological relativism. All things are not one thing–just look around you. “But in their essence . . .” the guru objects. There are no essences; Buddhism insists on a profoundly existential way of looking at the world. And the world is staggeringly multitudinous. The doctrine of dependent origination teaches that the multitude of things, phenomena, processes, objects cause each other to exist. One might say that only the relationships between things exist, not the things themselves, in any essential sense. But even this is a hedge. Even the relationships are empty. From the Dhammapada:

When this is, that is.
This arising, that arises.
When this is not, that is not.
This ceasing, that ceases.

Donne clearly wants to demonstrate the deep interconnectedness of things, but he is caught in a hierarchical system of thought. It was the Renaissance (& A.O. Lovejoy) that gave us the Great Chain of Being, with God at the top & worms, I suppose, at the bottom. Beneath God are the Angels of various sorts, and then Man. Donne explicitly evokes this system of thought in the opening sentences of the fourth Devotion: “It is too little to call man a little world; except God, man is a diminutive to nothing.” This would seem to run counter to the idea of interdependence (Thich Nhat Hanh names it interbeing) so central to Buddhist teaching. So if I am asserting a similarity between the Great Chain & Dependent Arising, where do I see it & how do I surmount this particular difficulty?

First, the Renaissance was drunk on correspondences between the macrocosm & the microcosm. Ideas of this sort saturated the air Donne breathed. Even so, look how he slyly reverses the expected relationship: instead of Man the microcosm representing Earth the macrocosm, Donne writes, “man is diminutive to nothing.” This observation gives my assertion a little breathing room, at least in so far as it shows Donne willing to mess around with parts of the prevailing paradigm. But the poet is still stuck with two (at least) fundamentals that he cannot abandon:2 Those is stuck with his hierarchy & with an eternity in which things actually exist. It is only in the sublunary world.

In consequence, he cannot get to something like dependent origination, despite his metaphor’s demands–at least from the point of view of this reader. I haven’t proven my case, then. Donne’s metaphor is suggestive of interconnectedness & dependent arising, but he is blocked for approaching more closely by the fundamental structure of his society & in particular the intellectual climate of the aristocracy. We do not know what was going on in middle class households, or the huts of peasants. Locations for invention & change–especially the former–that should not be ignored.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Barbara O’Brien, About Religion. See also: BuddhaNet (1) & BuddhaNet (2).
  2. I’m not blaming Donne here; he could no more do away with these concepts than a leopard could change its spots.

A Deceptive Lyric by Robert Hass

You thought it was just going to be about flowers. You thought it was going to veer into the dark that way. You didn’t know there would be history & geography. You didn’t think it would be a poem about poetry–or maybe you did. You love the way it slips sideways just slightly to deliver, not a punch, but the blow of a feather.


Afternoon Phenomenology

Aware of sunshine, trees, drifting clouds through window on my right. Sitting at computer. Hand on mouse. Doing something or going somewhere online. focused attention. Eyes close. Instantly inside a dream narrative that has the feel of having been going on for a while, though not always (so far as I can tell) the same narrative. Defuse attention. How long? A few seconds to a minute best estimate. Wake up. Dream narrative unavailable to consciousness. I can do this many times over the course of an afternoon hour. The affective color of this experience–conscious & unconscious parts taken together–is neutral to mildly pleasant.

Note: About ten years ago, while taking a prescribed sleep drug, I had a couple of frightening, anxiety-inducing experiences in which I felt myself to be simultaneously asleep & awake. That is, I was doing something in waking life while at the same time doing something else entirely unrelated in a dream or dream-like state of mind. (These experiences took place during the daytime, when the zolpidem was supposed to have cleared my system.) The “double exposures” had a dark, negative affect, even long after they had passed & I was merely recalling them.

Feldenkrais & Gesellschaft

This piece in the NY Times reports that the latest U.S. Scripps National Spelling Bee co-champions are (again) from South Asia. Jairam Hathwar spelled “feldenkrais” & Nihar Janga spelled “gesellschaft,” arriving at a linguistic stalemate. There is no entry in the online OED for feldenkrais, but Wikipedia tells me that it is a way of training people’s movement to “increase . . . kinesthetic and proprioceptive self-awareness.” Gesellschaft shows up in the OED with this brief entry: “A social relationship between individuals based on duty to society or to an organization.”

Since reading this article a couple of hours ago I have been pondering whether it’s possible to draw any coherent implications from the fact that the two winners “are the ninth consecutive victors of South Asian ancestry, and the 12th in 16 years.” One is tempted to make invidious comparisons between the South Asian immigrant community & American nativist English-only fundamentalists. And though that particular social configuration currently packs a certain political wallop, its arguments are so incoherent they ultimately tear themselves apart.

So why this run of victories by South Asian elementary & middle-school students? My best guess would be that Indian immigrant communities (in the US & elsewhere) preserve the very deep Indian understanding of language. Combine that with the aspirational immigrant respect for education & one can begin to see how this run of South Asian spelling bee victories might happen. The claim about Indian cultural understanding of language would need to be further developed & I’m not expert enough to do that in an adequate way. I would simply note that there is a 4000 year textual tradition that begins with the Vedas. For the first half of that period the “texts” were oral, but there was a highly developed form of “oral literacy” among the priestly class that included an elaborate technology of memorization & error checking. Early Buddhists, faced with preserving the discourses of Gotama, adopted & adapted this set of values & skills for their own purposes.

I assume that the boys’ parents are immigrants who grew up bilingual in English & an Indian language & that the boys have grown up speaking American English. I hope they are also speaking the Indian language(s) of their parents–from the boys’ first names probably Hindi. India is an example of bilingualism / multilingualism on steroids. No doubt the boys’ families created an educational / study environment based on these values. The parents themselves would very likely be prepared to draw on their own traditions to help their children prepare. And this would be true of a certain percentage of similar immigrant parents, thus the long string of victories.1

These two particular words raise a question about how children study for the highest level of spelling bee competition. I assume they simply memorize long lists of common & even not so common words, but at some point this method will reach a point of diminishing returns. At that point competitors will need to shift to phonetics, including the phonetics of words of non-English origin. Feldenkrais is a Ukrainian / Yiddish (?) surname; gesellschaft is borrowed from German. I doubt these were on the boys’ To Memorize list.


Show 1 footnote

  1. I make no claim as to whether such training is in some larger way good–either in general or for particular students.

Guy Clark Dead at 74

The NY Times obituary covers his career but fails, to my mind, to suggest the combination of verbal high wit & deep feeling evident in Clark’s best songs. When the wit failed, as it did occasionally, the songs could slip over into sentimentality, as in “The Randall Knife,” “El Coyote” & “Hemingway’s Whisky.” This happens most frequently when Clark decides to draw a moral or teach a lesson. Clark’s crowd pleaser “The Cape” should fail on these grounds, but doesn’t, saving the lesson through a self-deprecating tone & the slight distancing of a third-person point of view.

Different listeners will have their own favorites, but my nomination for Clark’s best song would be the middle-period “Dublin Blues” & the late-career “Hell Bent on a Heartache” or (from the same album, My Favorite Picture of You) “I’ll Show Me.” Finally, I’m not big on the “novelty” songs like “Homegrown Tomatoes” & “Texas Cookin’,” with the exception of “Baby Took a Limo to Memphis,” which in any case I hesitate to put in the novelty category.

There is No Science of Consciousness; Or, Talking Animals

What follows is either a piece of grammatical / ontological speculation, or a shaggy dog story1–probably the latter. I was reading this report of a conference on the nature of consciousness in the NY Times when it occurred to me that there can be no “science of consciousness” because science is a product of consciousness. We can & do have consciousness of science, because science is a product of consciousness–an aspect–not the other way around. Maybe it’s just a trick of grammar & cannot be generalized, but it’s a trick that reveals something important. One does not say “the science of earth” for Geology (though we might well say Earth Science, which is itself revealing); nor does one say “the science of animals” for Zoology. Should one consider nouns like geology & zoology as highly compressed forms of apposition? If so, what does that imply? And why has no one yet proposed Consciousology as a name for this new science?

Show 1 footnote

  1. Scouting around for a brief definition of the phrase shaggy dog story, I found Wikipedia straightforward but appreciated the compact irony of the Urban Dictionary: “A joke, usually long, with a silly premise, often involving talking animals.”