Friday, September 28, 2012

Empire of the Senseless, Acker

Empire of the Senseless
Kathy Acker

I tried to read this book by Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless. I read to about pg. 75 out of 227 and I just can’t go on anymore. It’s fairly rare that I put down a book, but life is too short not to enjoy the hours you spend reading. Reading is supposed to be fun; even when it’s difficult there should be some element of enjoyment in it. I am not having any of that with this book. This book is FUCKING NUTS. It’s about a half-human/half-robot? And a pirate? I never would have guessed that, actually, but that’s what it says on the back. There are a lot of references to literary theory, lots of rape, and now some pretty intense apocalyptic, suicidal imagery… and I’m done reading. I get it – you’re experimenting and testing the boundaries, fucking with the status quo, the hegemony, the patriarchal norms and whatnot - maybe it just seems so dated and boring because it’s 2012, not 1988. 80’s Gertrude Stein… something better read in a theory course than on your couch alone. Oh, if only I had a theory course…

The reason I decided to try this book in the first place (which I already had because a friend who was downsizing gave it to me) was because another friend recommended it. Not directly, exactly, but we were talking about one of the classes I’m teaching now, called “The Art of Non-Fiction,” in part about the differences between fiction and non-fiction writing. And my friend said, “Oh, you would like Dodie Bellamy then.” And I said, “Who’s she?” And my friend said something about “New-Narrative,” a blending of fiction and non-fiction, and she said, “Kathy Acker is the same movement, kind of,” and I thought “I have that one at home,” and that is why I started reading. But I’m stopping. I’m stopping now. It’s much too much for one girl alone.

I’m pretty sure the friend who gave me this book, as well as the one who recommended it, must have read it for a class because surely, no one is reading this for fun. I would try it again, but I would need the help of a brilliant professor and, alas, I am not that professor myself. One of the many, many times I wish I was still a student in college, instead of the teacher…  

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A run in Prospect Park

Today was the first day it hasn’t been sunny and crisp and beautiful. I went running in the park even though the clouds were wooshing grey and tumultuous across the sky and the wind was whipping the trees leaves into a furious wave-like rushing. I knew such weather would mean that the park would be empty, or close to it, and I was right. The long, sweeping meadows today contained only grass and hills. Since everywhere was shady there was no competition for the arcs of dark beneath the trees. The paths winding through the ravine and around the reservoir were wet and speckled with leaves clinging to the black asphalt, beautiful and clean and untrodden by the muddy feet of people and dogs and children. It was a lovely day, and though I ran hard and struggled now and then against the wind, my lungs sang for the comfort of breathing in fresh, wet air, and my eyes could have cried for the beauty of seeing only trees, grass, water, and the occasional fellow runner.  

A few weeks ago I made my first excursion to the Brooklyn Public Library, the big one, right at the entrance to the park at Grand Army Plaza. I went for a discussion group on Mrs. Dalloway but stayed for the books, picking up, among other things, Hermoine Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf. The thing is too heavy to take about with me; it’s over 700 pages and is exhaustive, definitely for the scholar, not a popular audience. But I’m enjoying it. Not in the same way I enjoy the novels, of course, but it does at times have a similar quality of transporting one to an idyllic English past. You see, I’m a bit of an Anglophile. I have always loved reading Victorian and other early English literature, hell, even modern English literature, because it takes me over there, across the pond, and makes me feel like I, too, know something about the grey skies and the sloping heaths, the tea, the fish and chips, the fireplaces and cold English nights. I studied in London as a college student, and my romantic relationship with the Isle has never ended, though my romantic relationship with one of her subjects certainly did (and badly). But that hasn’t tainted my love of England. So, when I run in Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, on a dreary, wet day like today, I am partially running in Alexandria Park, and at Hampstead Heath, and in Hyde Park. I’m trudging through the muddy paths at Highgate Cemetery, and when I’m done I’m coming in out of the cold to a bathtub, and then a drawing room complete with drapes, and a fire, and a cup of tea.

And, when the air gets misty and lush, and refreshing droplets start to fall from an otherwise blessedly blue sky, I’m also back in Oregon. Running along that winding path of mine beside the calm, sturdy Willamette River, watching the birds flit and the squirrels scamper and the trees and grass blow in the breeze. It just feels so good to be out in air, to feel air on my skin, air untainted by garbage or urine or cigarette smoke or even pizza, perfume, or the fruity, welcome smell of marijuana. Just earth, damp and wet, dark and sweet, reminding me that while I am happy to be here, thrilled with the way life is going and excited about all the opportunities this city of cities has to offer, deep down, what I really want, is more time outside. This question keeps popping into my head as I run, as I feel the air on my skin, and it’s a good one, and I know the answer (miracle!) – what do you really want? I want a family, and a warm, cozy house to settle us all in. I want enough money to travel regularly. I want to keep on writing and teaching. And I want to be outside; I want to see more of the outdoors of this world, in all countries, in all places, and I want to meet the people who know the outdoors. I want to have these simple things, and I can. If I just come back to home – to the feeling of the air – and breathing, and reminding myself of the answer to that simple question every single day. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Hanh

Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers
Thich Nhat Hanh

“You love the apple; yes, you are authorized to love the apple, but no one prevents you from also loving the mango.”

I picked this book up because I am interested in the similarities between Jesus and Buddha, and because I find my faith and understanding expanded every time I read one of Hanh’s books. This topic, in particular, has meaning for me. When I was first learning about Buddhism the idea of letting go of my spiritual tradition, Christianity, was very hard for me. Of course, there were a lot of things about it that I didn’t feel comfortable with, hence my search for an alternative, but at the same time there were, and are, many aspects of the religion that I find meaningful, and that I was hesitant to give up, most of all the teachings of Jesus Christ. But Thich Naht Hanh says that we don’t have to abandon one tradition when we embrace another. In fact, he says, we shouldn’t.

First of all, Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who lives in a religious community in France, says that it is a mistake to focus on the teachings, on dharma or dogma, only, ignoring our lived experience. “What is the Dharma? The Dharma is not a set of laws and practices, or a stack of sutras, or videotapes, or cassettes. The Dharma is understanding, it is the practice of loving-kindness as expressed by life. You cannot see the Dharma unless you see a person practicing the Dharma […]”. According to Hanh, we get caught in ideas, concepts, and notions, and this is an obstacle to true understanding. This is as true, he says, in Buddhism as it is in Christianity. We have to let go of the idea that we already know everything. “Understanding is a process. It is a living thing. Never claim you have understood reality completely.” We have to allow learning to happen through experience, not just by reading and listening to monks and nuns, priests and pastors. Hanh seeks to guide Christians not by converting them to Buddhism, but by helping them to practice their own religion more deeply.

Hanh clearly wants to stay away from criticizing Christianity, yet the implicit critique is everywhere. There’s no doubt he thinks Buddhism offers more opportunity for inner peace and ease of suffering than Christianity does – at least in the way it is taught and practiced today. He seems to want to make the case that the same ideas could be found in both traditions, if one just looks at them a little differently. For example, “Practicing Buddhist meditation does not transform our person into a battlefield, the good side fighting the evil side. Non-duality is the main characteristic of Buddhist teaching and practice. […] We learn in Buddhism that the negative is useful in making the positive. It’s like the garbage. If you know how to take care of the garbage, you will be able to make flowers and vegetables out of it.” The Christian tradition, Hanh continues, can benefit from this kind of insight as well. “As I see it, if there is a real encounter between Buddhism and Christianity, there will be a very drastic change within the Christian tradition, and the most beautiful jewels in the tradition will be able to emerge.” I have to agree; in my experience the idea that the good side of me was constantly fighting the bad was exhausting and demoralizing. As soon as I recognized, through my study of Buddhism, that I didn’t have to reject any part of me, but rather water “wholesome seeds” and kindly acknowledge but not water “unwholesome” ones, I immediately felt better, calmer, and more able to be loving and friendly to myself and others. I think Hanh is saying that non-duality is inherent in Jesus’s teachings too, but it has become lost in the way we understand it, and that is bad for all of us.

Hanh goes through the Lord’s prayer and the Apostle’s Creed, analyzing each line and reinterpreting it through a Buddhist lens. The meaning he takes from it is often essentially the same, yet also completely different and, for me, easier to understand. For example, how do we understand Jesus’s claim at the last supper that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood? In the Christian church they talk about “transubstantiation” which means that, somehow, the bread and wine we eat and drink at communion literally becomes Jesus’s body and blood. In contrast, Hanh writes, “‘Take, my friends, this is my flesh, this is my blood.’ Can there be any more drastic language in order to wake you up? What could Jesus have said that is better than that? You have been eating ideas and notions, and I want you to eat real bread so that you become alive. If you come back to the present moment, fully alive, you will realize this is real bread, this piece of bread is the body of the whole cosmos.” Hanh’s interpretation retains the essential truth of the Christian one – that the bread literally is Jesus’s body – but adds to it the truth of  inter-being. We are all literally the bread, Jesus’s body, and every other thing in the world. We are all made of the same things; every single thing it part of every other single thing. Jesus is not gone; he is you and me, the bread we eat and the air we breathe. Are we so set in our beliefs about communion that our practice can’t be deepened by adding this new understanding to it?

There is so much more good, profound stuff to talk about in this book. But I think you should read it and then come back and leave me comments about which parts were most meaningful to you. The book will give you insight into Buddhism, and hopefully a deeper appreciation for your own tradition, too. Hanh writes that in Vietnam missionaries caused suffering by telling the people that they had to abandon their traditions and take up Christianity instead. Hanh says, “We don’t want to do the same thing to our friends.” Instead, he talks about the time he has spent in Europe, and how because he was deeply rooted in his own culture he was able to develop another set of roots in the Christian tradition as well. This has added to his understanding of reality, and this is what he offers to us in this and all his books. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Way Out of Suffering, Percival and The Third Noble Truth

~a continuation of my discussion of Virginia Woolf's The Waves, read through the lens of Buddhism's Four Noble Truths

So, now, even though I have a few jobs, and am very grateful for that, I have yet to be paid by them in any significant way, and so hubby and I are still living on credit. Sometimes, I let this get me down. But when that happens, I remind myself that if only I didn’t want anything, then I wouldn’t feel bad about not having it. So instead of thinking about how I can get the ice cream, the new dress, the museum admission (especially since I already know the answer: by patiently waiting for those paychecks) I concentrate on not desiring those things in the first place. Or at least, I remind myself that I should be concentrating on not desiring those things in the first place. That I should be more like the silent, though much spoken of Percival in The Waves.

For the “pagan” Percival the trick of indifference (one of Woolf’s favorite words) works quite well. Bernard, for example, notes Percival’s “curious air of detachment,” and explains that, "being naturally truthful, he did not see the point of these exaggerations, and was borne on by a natural sense of the fitting, was indeed a great master of the art of living so that he seems to have lived long, and to have spread calm round him, indifference one might almost say, certainly to his own advancement, save that he had also great compassion.” I share Bernard’s admiration for these qualities in Percival. I, too, want to “master the art of living” so that I can “spread calm” around me through my “indifference” to my own advancement. But it’s going to take some time to unlearn what society has taught me – the exact opposite, that ambition is king and acceptance weak.  

Percival, who “reads a detective novel, yet understands everything," is observed only from outside and never gives a firsthand account of himself because, unlike the other characters, he has already reached nirvana, a state of non-self, a freedom from personality. His indifference, his solid simplicity, his lack of desire are his strengths. They are everything. They are, in fact, the Third Noble Truth epitomized: “The Third Noble Truth is that suffering can be overcome and happiness attained. This is perhaps the most important of the Four Noble Truths because in it the Buddha reassures us that true happiness and contentment are possible. When we give up useless craving and learn to live each day at a time, enjoying without restlessly wanting the experiences that life offers us, patiently enduring the problems that life involves, without fear, hatred and anger, then we become happy and free. Then, and then only, do we begin to live fully. Because we are no longer obsessed with satisfying our own selfish wants, we find that we have so much time to help others fulfill their needs. This state is called Nirvana. We are free from psychological suffering” ( Like Percival, when we find the peaceful happiness of being freed from our own fleeting desires, then we can concern ourselves with the real needs of others.

An attitude like Percival’s may make a good life, but perhaps it doesn’t make great fiction. Accepting what life hands you with equanimity creates a profoundly peaceful existence, but it lacks the drama of Rhoda raging against the “violence” of the world, Bernard, trying so desperately to “sum it all up,” or Louis seeking fame and fortune to overcome his perceptions of his less than admirable heritage. It is perfect that Percival is absent, that he is a void, an emptiness, and that he dies as such, without us ever hearing his voice, or knowing his “self” – because he wants nothing, he has escaped the tyranny of the self. Percival is the empty center around which Woolf builds her story, and the truth at the heart of it.