Nine-Headed Dragon River by Peter Matthiessen

I’ve been a fan of Peter Mathiessen’s since I discovered At Play in the Fields of the Lord in the 1970s. Unlike many of his admirers, though, I think I have liked his fiction better than his non-fiction. Maybe I just have a problem with “environmental writing” that spends most of its energy in describing the environment. I already know that the Himalayan wilderness is beautiful — I’m not sure what pasting words over it really accomplishes, except inviting a kind of smug moral complicity on the part of the reader. Well, that’s hyperbole, but I nevertheless prefer a writer like John McPhee, who tends to focus more on the human presence within the environment. Perhaps I am too on guard against sentimentality to appreciate real sentiment sufficiently.

In any event, Mathiessen’s book of Zen journals has several passages of very clear exposition of Zen principles, but much of this — as one would expect from a journal — emerges from very fine-grained and small scale descriptions of the writer’s interactions with his teachers and — especially in the third section of the book — his travels around Japan visiting various Soto temples. This final part contains some of the best “Zen writing” but also tends to get lost in paragraphs of landscape painting and descriptions of peripheral Soto places & personalities. My own preference is for Mathiessen’s historical anecdotes, as opposed to his contemporary accounts. For instance, in Chapter 11, visiting the Engaku-ji Temple in Kamakura, he relates the story of the 13th century nun Chiyono, who attained enlightenment while hauling water. Apparently, she had been studying a long time without experiencing kensho, but one evening her wooden bucket gave way & she “understood the great matter,” to paraphrase Master Dogen. To commemorate the event, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!

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Zazen & Happiness

Buddhists sometimes bristle at the idea of meditation as therapy, though at the same time there is a thriving Buddhist therapy axis in American culture. And while I had been circling Buddhism for much of my adult life, I only came to it as a serious practice through “therapeutic” practice. I had come to a point in my life during my fifties when I was experiencing a great deal of anxiety & I found the guided meditation practices of Jon Kabat-Zinn extremely helpful in getting hold of my self. Kabat-Zinn’s techniques, of course, are basically desacralized Zen & after I had emerged from what was actually, I see now, a deep crisis of faith, I returned to some of my earlier reading about Buddhism in general and Zen in particular. That was a couple of years ago & I have been sitting zazen pretty much every day since then with only a couple of short breaks. Over the last six months I have been sitting twice a day.

I had lost my faith, in my mid-fifties, in the only religion I had ever believed in, the religion of poetry. But that’s really another story — I started out to write about happiness. As I began to sit more often & for longer periods, I noticed that I was not just calmer, but happier. A lot happier. And this worried me. As a new student of Zen, I was trying to be Very Serious. After all, the great Zen masters are always talking about “clarifying the essential point” & reminding one that “life and death are of supreme importance” & so on. And what about kensho & enlightenment & realizing one’s true nature? But then it occurred to me that maybe happiness — not frivolity, but happiness — is one’s true nature, or part of it at least. Why deny this aspect of reality?

One of the things I hated as a kid about going to church was the deadly grimness of it all. I didn’t sense any of that at the monastery last month. You can probably find grim zendos, but Zen, I think — much of Buddhism, actually — starts from the idea of an original freedom whereas Christianity starts with Original Sin. I’m not ecumenical about this: I think there is a fundamental difference, but that, too, is another story.

On Failing to Wake the Dead

I seem to be waking slowly from the trance induced by the last few weeks of the semester. The cold, wet weather isn’t helping.

It’s not that I was overwhelmed with work — the number of papers and conferences and faculty meetings was about average, I guess. But I admit to feeling a little bit demoralized by my students this term. I had a long wrangle with some of the students in my Honors seminar on modernity because they really didn’t believe the course had anything to do with their careers and they really didn’t like the fact that I kept asking open-ended questions that did not appear to yield to the usual procedures of problem solving. Seniors in the Honors Program have mastered the art of problem solving, though in many cases they have not mastered much else. [Here is what I wrote on our class blog after turning my grades in.] But at least the wrangle with the Honors seniors involved the active expenditure of effort; the vast majority of the sixty students in the two sections of my Literature of American Popular Music course simply absorbed energy like sodden little black holes. Out of the sixty there were perhaps half a dozen who tried from time to time to help be ignite a discussion, but their efforts were ultimately futile in the face of the pervading passivity and sullenness.

This was a course in which we read Howl and The Dharma Bums and listened to Monk and Bird and watched video of Lady Day singing accompanied by Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. We watched documentaries about Dylan and listened to old ballads about murder and adultery. And they just fucking sat there. As if none of it means anything. I’m tempted to never teach the course again — the students don’t deserve it. It profanes the sacred texts to exhibit them to such dolts.


The Elegance of the Philosophical Novel

On the recommendation of one of my students, I’ve just read Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. A lovely piece of fiction, I think, filled with great generosity & marred only by an occasional sentimental slip-up. Whether its vision of comity across the lines of class is realistic, I am not at all sure; but certainly, imagining such comity is a kind of blessed work.* The narration is split between a precocious twelve-year-old girl, the daughter of a haute bourgeois family, and the fifty-four-year-old concierge who works in their building, an autodidact of startlingly wide reading. The girl Paloma’s contributions are in the form of a pair of journals she keeps that record her alienation from her family and their values and her tone is a sometimes wistful, sometimes viciously satirical in manner; the concierge Madam Michel’s contributions feel more like traditional narrative, though at one point she, too, alludes to the fact that they are a written record of her life. This leads to what, in a traditional novel, would be a point of view problem at the end of the story, but that, here, seems designed to create a paradox for the reader’s contemplation.

The machinery of the interlocking narratives is not terribly subtle, but this is hardly a fault in a philosophical novel, where, presumably, the emphasis is in the reality of ideas rather than the realism of the setting & plot. It is clear from the beginning that the two narrators, living in different worlds in the same Paris apartment building, must inevitably be brought together; the way they come together is, however, both surprising and appropriate to their personalities. I thought the story sagged a bit about two-thirds of the way along, but it recovers itself quickly and rushes on to a surprising and, as noted, paradoxical conclusion. I am perhaps less sanguine than the author about the possibilities for communication and friendship across the boundaries of class and culture, but surely we ought to aspire to such intellectual and spiritual freedoms as this novel celebrates.

*In this, as in other ways, The Elegance of the Hedgehog reminds one of another European philosophical novel narrated in the voice of a precocious girl, Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder [NY Times Book Review, review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog  by Caryn James; review of Sophie’s World by John Vernon]

The Aesthetic versus the Philosophical

It’s a little hard to take seriously the philosophy of a man who could write a story as bad as “The Wall.” I’m pretty much on Sartre’s side & have been since I was seventeen, but “The Wall,” which I hadn’t read since my first youthful enthusiasm for existentialism, amounts to little more than a philosophical shaggy dog story. I picked up Sartre’s fiction again recently because of my more general reading in the European Philosophical Novel from Then to Now, as you might say if you were making up a course. I realize that the story is supposed to shock the reader with the dark comedy of an absurd world, but the irony falls absolutely flat at the ending. The most delicious irony in the story is the setting, wherein a hospital is reconfigured as a prison for anti-fascists awaiting execution. Hospitals & prisons have much in common, from an institutional perspective, of course, however different their fundamental missions, one of healing, one of punishment. Looked at through the lens of irony, though, both hospitals and prisons are designed to confine those sentenced to death. But the graveyard gambit at the end of “The Wall” is not much more than a piece of sophomoric stage business. Sartre’s short essays are probably his best writing. Among the Existentialists, Camus never said too much, writing with great economy in all the genres he undertook, while Sartre almost always ran on & on. Even a short story like “The Wall” is too long by half for the effect it wants to produce.

As a poet I find it hard to take seriously any philosophical doctrine presented is clumsy or unconvincing language. (Sartre of course wrote effective fiction elsewhere, as in the novel Nausea, so the story being discussed here is perhaps nothing but an aberration.) Despite the aesthetic failures of this story, I remain of Sartre’s party, mostly because it offers a materialist like me the opportunity to exercise a certain amount of self-making within the overpowering historical and material forces that shape so much of human existence.