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 Children’s Book . . . Reimagined

I was probably three or four years old when my mother gave me this little book by Margaret Wise Brown, published in 1952, the year after I was born. As a physical object the book is a delight–small, slim, sturdy, the cover boards measure 5 ½″ x 5″ with the width slightly greater than the height, giving the book its appropriately horizontal feel. The illustrations, by Barbara Cooney, in black, white & red, fill the double fold of the open book, with the text always on the right. The illustrations combine a certain naturalism with a tightly controlled whimsy.1

 

title-m_brown_bk_sm-1

 

The structure of the book is perhaps the most common in children’s poetry over the last 100 years or so: The poet begins with a formal structure, often, as here, a question & answer pattern, simple rhymes with frequent repetition. In Where Have You Been? the title sets the motif: Someone is asking first one animal & then another the title’s question–Where have you been? The rhetorical payoff or punchline of each stanza is the witty reply of the animal being interrogated.

 

little cat_sm-1

little mole-sm-1

 

Little Old Cat
Little Old Cat
Where have you been?
To see this and that
Said the Little Old Cat
That’s where I’ve been.

The typographical convention here is clearly maximum capitalization & minimum punctuation. The lines are broken at grammatical junctures emphasized by rhyme, sometimes identical rhyme, though as it turns out this leaves room for a fair amount of variation from section to section. Thus:

Little Old Fish
Little Old Fish
Where do you swim?
Wherever I wish
Said the Little Old Fish
That’s where I swim.

And one more example, with a slight variation, from Where Have You Been? In this stanza, the question shifts from the empirical to the metaphysical:

Little Old Mouse
Little Old Mouse
Why run down the clock?
To see if the tick
Comes after the tock
I run down the clock.

There is one other stanza in the book that makes use of this kind of grammatical shift. It was that opening to the metaphysical–from where to why–that gave me the idea of writing a few of my own stanzas, using Brown’s poetic structure & rhetoric. Mine are darker.

Little Old Man
Why do you run?
I’m just about done
You can put down the phone
Said the Little Old Man
That’s why I run.

Little Old Rat
Little Old Rat
Where have you been?
I’ve been under my hat
Said the Little Old Rat
That’s where I’ve been.

Little Old Man
Little Old Man
Where were you
When the shit hit the fan?
I was right here with you
When the shit hit the fan.

Little Old Flea
Little Old Flea
What do you see?
I have been out to sea
Said the Little Old Flea
To bring you This Disease.

Little Old Man
Little Old Man
Where have you been?
Why do you flee?
I have been out with the flea
Sailing over the sea.

I don’t make any great claims for this little piece. I’ve always admired the rhetorical stance that adopts children’s language & vocabulary, recasting it for adult purposes.2 Or maybe I felt the need to drop the attitude of The Good Cancer Patient for a little while & simply indulge in some dark play. In fact, I think that is mostly what I have been doing.

I understand the connection between mind & body in cancer treatment, including the need to focus the mind on what is good & useful; no doctor, though, would deny the existence of bleak moods & it seems to me that my poetic exercise incorporates this kind of bleakness into a larger creative act. Poetry, even as the highest art, can have therapeutic value even when that is not the motivation of poet or poem. Used consciously as therapy–though that only dawned on me gradually–making this sort of poem must be an act of healing. This has been a pretty rotten day, actually. I had to spend the time & energy to go to the hospital for another MRI scan, a procedure that, while necessary, does not foster peace of mind. But because I came home & worked on a collage for a while, then rested & ate, then took up this little essay, I feel fairly peaceful, though not without a trickle of anxiety. Well, poetry isn’t magical, is it?

Show 2 footnotes

  1. To my way of thinking, whimsy is always best when tightly controlled.
  2. cf. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Visits to St. Elizabeths.”

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.