Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Novels, memoirs and Pico Iyer in Japan

I finally started reading Pico Iyer's THE LADY AND THE MONK.  Despite my having lived in Japan for two years plus a summer, I put off reading this story set in Japan because I thought it was a novel and some critic I read (maybe just an Amazon reader) said that Iyer hadn't lived in Japan long enough to really understand it. 

But when I actually got the book in my hands, I found that it was not a novel but a memoir.  And that makes all the difference.  So I'm asking myself why it would be OK to me if someone misrepresented Japan in a memoir but not in a novel.

I think it's because if I read a novel, I know the characters and plot are more or less made up, but I expect the setting to be realistic (unless it is fantasy, of course).  If a novel takes place in a specifically named location, I expect that the manners, the relationships between the sexes, the street scenes, etc., to be realistically drawn.  I expect even that, through reading a fictional story about a place, I will learn something about it I didn't know before .  The author, in a sense, sets himself or herself up as the authority whom I expect to give me a trustworthy vision of what life is like in that place. 

Strangely, I don't have those expectations of a memoir writer.  I expect that a writer, when using his own voice, is providing a personal point of view.  I allow that the writer had such and so experience in a given place, and that others who go there might have a very different experience and point of view.  The author, in that instance, is the authority only for his own experience.  So even if a given writer's experience in Japan is different from mine -- and from what I've read so far, Iyer's experience, especially in Zen temples, is very different -- I cannot even call it "misrepresentation" because it isn't supposed to be a general portrayal of "how things are."

Iyer's memoir is vague about the time it takes place, but it feels like the 1980s.  At the beginning of Chapter 4, Iyer says that he moved into a guesthouse in Kyoto named I.S.E. -- and suddenly, I am there -- because in fact, I myself lived during the summer of 1984 in that very guesthouse!  Wouldn't it be a remarkable to learn these several decades later that I, unknowingly, once had Pico Iyer for a housemate?

So the streets he describes in this chapter are the same streets I walked along.  I remember especially my first encounter with a talking vending machine where, parched, I made my purchase of a can of beer after coming home late on a stifling summer evening from teaching English in Osaka.  Domo Arigato Gozaimasen -- "Thank you very much!" -- the machine said after I made my purchase. These days it is commonplace for machines to talk to us, but I remember how startled I was that first evening when, breaking the silence of the night, the machine offered its appreciation of my patronage!

Through reading Iyer's account of these streets, though, I also realize how very much I failed to notice.  Iyer has eyes to see and the words to describe what he sees.  And it doesn't matter if the eyes he sees through are different from those of someone else -- certainly they are different from a Japanese but also from other foreigners -- because a memoir is meant to be specific to the writer -- at the same time as it lets us into a world we can now share. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Toward an Enlightened Aesthetic 4: Fictional Characters

Today I read an article about writing by novelist Dan Barden.  He says we novelists need to create characters in conflict because it is only through struggle that characters grow.  And I'm wondering, from the standpoint of Eastern spirituality, what is growth?

One approach is to show a character's growth as linear: a character responds to an unpleasant situation, and as a result of having to learn how to deal with this type of situation, the character learns something important -- about himself or maybe about other people -- that makes him a better person.

And I think most readers would say that a character "grows" when he or she becomes a better person.  That's not too bad a definition.  But what if the ultimate goal is not just becoming a better person in relative terms but realizing one's true nature as consciousness, as that which doesn't move but within which all movement happens?  Maybe a character who realizes this is not even the same "character" as before she realized it. A character, after all, is by definition limited by certain qualities he does or doesn't possess.  And so, if the character's consciousness is completely transformed, is it still the same character?

I would classify a novel that demonstrates what I am trying to describe here as "Enlightenment Fiction":  A character is in a difficult situation and can't find an exit, and perhaps after many efforts, is finally graced with the ability to see everything from the standpoint of the whole, from the standpoint that is in fact no standpoint.  Compassion would arise, then, not simply because the character has learned to emphasize but because she no longer sees her own story as the central one.  And if she no longer sees herself in those terms, isn't it also necessary that the reader's view shift as well? 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Ambivalent Zen by Lawrence Shainberg -- unambivalently recommended

I'm still enjoying reading around in a book I read many years ago:  Lawrence Shainberg's AMBIVALENT ZEN (1995).  It belongs on the "Enlightenment Journeys" book review page of this blog, but I'd have to read the whole thing again to do it justice.  Suffice it to say that it is hilarious while also informative with respect to American Zen (especially Rinzai Zen).  It's hard to write a book about meditation practice, especially a practice which you admittedly are not succeeding in, but Shainberg does a marvelous job.  Here is just one of many passages I could quote verbatim:

"Returning to the cushion, I am ocnvinced that everything I seek in Zen is suddenly within my grasp.  All I have to do is push a little harder, cast aside my caution and timidity.  When my half-lotus, as often, begins to feel off-balance, I lean back and pull my right leg onto my left so that both feet, soles up, are high on opposite thighs.  Until now, it has never occurred to me that this posture -- the Zen equivalent of the four-minute mile -- would ever be available to me, but such is my intoxication at this moment that my body seems infinitely supple.  What are physical limitations, what indeed is the body itself, in the face of unobstructed concentration?  My chest pounds.  I am short of breath, so awash in sensuality that for an instant I feel -- literally! -- on the very of an orgasm.  It's as if I have unlocked a vault within myself, released an energy that dwarfs anything I've known before.  Ignoring the pain in my knees and ankles -- how can I call it pain when I am feeling so much pleasure? -- I sit like this until the timer sounds, at least another forty-five minutes.  And then, when I try to move, I feel as if the lower half of my body has been amputated.  My legs and feet are completely numb, paralyzed.  It is unimaginable that I shall ever move them again.  I consider screaming for help until I remember that the nearest neighbor is five miles away.  I see David [his brother] -- shaking his head, reflecting sadly that I'd still be alive if only I had listened to him -- arriving in June to find my bones in a neat little mound on my cushion.  Five or minutes will pass before I am able to take a foot in my hand and move it just a hair in the direction of my knee, nearly fifteen before I can stand erect and take a few steps, more than ten years before I attempt this posture again."

If you liked this passage, you will love this book.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Poetry's Magic

A month or so ago, I came across these first lines of a poem by Samuel Amadon in an old issue of The New Yorker: 

I think I think of what I want en masse,
as concrete thinks it wants the overpass --

while wind and broken glass want heavy rains . . .  

Something happened to me when I read these lines.  I understood something new about desire, something about how my own desire isn't different from the "desire" of  concrete or wind or broken glass.  It was something about how desire is just a movement toward something -- not personal at all, not something one needs to own and decide about, just something that happens in the scheme of the universe.

I thought I would post what these lines had elicited in me but I was busy that evening, and set the task aside to do later.  "Later" turned into weeks, and when I finally got around to it, I read the lines anew and they were flat.  Where had the insight I'd had at the moment of first reading gone?

Tonight I read this explanation:

"As your mind moves in the direction of a more profound level, your intellect may not always follow.  You may be left wondering why you like a poem, why it transports you as a beautiful piece of music transports you, why it has a significance that you cannot express.  Without knowing why, you may feel a liberating joy as your awareness expands beyond its old boundaries."

-- from MYSTICAL DELIGHTS by Hilary Huttner (Frontline Systems, 1996)

This came by way of an excerpt, and the whole excerpt is wonderful as well, as it samples the mystical in poetry throughout the centuries.  I searched online to find more about this person.  She's a poet -- that's all I can find.  The book is available, but nothing about her.  Does anyone out there know if she is still alive or what she is doing now?