A surprising news bulletin made the rounds this week: "Incredible Discovery Reveals Birthplace of Buddha". They did what? The story appears to be credible, though many Westerners like me who feel the significance aren't quite sure how to react. Shouldn't a discovery this momentous be bigger news? Shouldn't it at least be accompanied by some kind of astral event or bright comet? (Oh, right.)
It's strange to think of Buddha's traces in the material world, though Prince Siddhartha Guatama of Kapilavastu was certainly a historical figure, and was a celebrated personality in his community even before he became the Enlightened One. His teachings are similar in many ways to those of Jesus of Nazareth, but their life trajectories were opposite. Jesus was born in poverty and anonymity, and died an early violent death after being hailed as the King of the Jews. Buddha was born a royal, but nobody thought of him as a Prince or King any more by the time he died peacefully at the age of 80.
(We've been talking to novelist Roxana Robinson about her unique family history, which includes two celebrated 19th century Americans, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In this conclusion to the two-part interview, we talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe, about religion in fiction, and about Roxana's own mission as a writer.)
LEVI: It's true, as you say, that Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary reputation currently suffers. She's seen as melodramatic, long-winded – a second-rate novelist. I didn't read Uncle Tom's Cabin myself until just recently, and I was happily surprised at the richness I found. Isn't this as well-written as any novel by Charles Dickens or Nathaniel Hawthorne? It's a riveting work, filled with psychological complexity and carefully drawn characters. Do you have any idea how her reputation got so bad? Was there a period in which she fell in public esteem?
As for the perception of Harriet Beecher Stowe as racist – I can only say that this is a terrible injustice. I wonder if the hot issues Harriet Beecher Stowe handled so bravely are still too controversial for us to see her fairly today. Do you know if she was often attacked or criticized on these terms during her life, and if so, how she responded to it?
ROXANA: In 1949 James Baldwin wrote a polemical essay called “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he attacks the idea of the protest novel in general, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in particular. It is a fierce and angry piece of writing, much of it graceful and eloquent. Baldwin was, of course, highly respected as a novelist and essayist, and he offered a black voice in the literary world, at a time when a black voice was rare and very welcome. But this essay is not particularly well reasoned or well-wrought. He begins by dismissing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “a very bad novel.” He calls it sentimental and compares it, with contempt, to Little Women.
It wasn't long after I became enraptured by the uncommon fiction of Roxana Robinson that I learned she was a direct descendant of the famous, controversial 19th century preacher Henry Ward Beecher and a relative of Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe. I was intrigued but somehow not surprised; it was easy to find threads of this weighty influence in Robinson's fascinating and intense novels, which include This is My Daughter, Cost and the recent Sparta. A few weeks ago I got the chance to ask Roxana about her family history. In this first half of the interview, we talk mostly about Henry Ward Beecher. In the second half, we'll focus on Harriet Beecher Stowe.
LEVI: How old were you when you found out you were a Beecher? How was the family heritage explained to you?
ROXANA: I must have known very early that I was a Beecher: Roxana is a Beecher name, so as soon as I knew my name I knew I was a Beecher.
Roxana was Lyman Beecher’s wife and the mother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, my great-great-great-aunt, and Henry Ward Beecher, my great-great-grandfather. I narrowly missed being named “Roxana Beecher Barry.” I’m one of five children, and most of us received names that identified us with certain parts of our family. Mine identified me as a Beecher; no-one else in my family had a Beecher name.
This made me feel, irrationally, that I had a closer and more direct link to them than any of my siblings had. My mother encouraged this, giving each of us things that strengthened this bond, so that we each felt the responsibility for carrying on a certain part of family tradition. She gave me a silk patchwork quilt, made by the ladies of the parish in Brooklyn, and presented to Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher; she gave me Roxana Foote Beecher’s beautiful silk pincushion and embroidery hook. I still have this, tucked away in my bureau, in a box in which the contents are identified in her small elegant curving handwriting. It was clear that family heritage implied some kind of responsibility.
1922 was a special year for modernist literature. On February 2, James Joyce was the shy guest of honor at a small publication party for Ulysses in Paris. Sylvia Beach showed Joyce the book for the first time that day, thus establishing 2/2/22 as its Joycily pleasing official publication date.
Ulysses is one of two pillars of 20th century modernist literature, and the other is The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, a long and strange poem that arrived to the wastrel world eight months later on October 16, 1922, neatly printed within the debut edition of The Criterion.
Both Ulysses and Waste Land were mash-ups of ancient heroic literature, regurgitated through a pained awareness of the plight of Europe in the age of industrialized war, revolution, capitalism and fast society. The milieu of European urban high culture that produced Ulysses and The Waste-Land in 1922 -- a vast set of personalities that includes Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Andre Breton, W. B. Yeats, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin, Mohandas Gandhi, D. H. Lawrence, E. E. Cummings, Wassily Kandinsky, Virginia Woolf, George Gurdjieff, and of course Gertrude Stein -- is the subject of Kevin Jackson's ingeniously simple Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One.
The book is ingeniously simple because it is written as an annotated calendar, moving forward in brisk anecdotes from January to December, constructing a found story along the way. Some entire days are skipped, while other days present enjoyable juxtapositions, like June 30, on which Franz Kafka retired from his job, T. S. Eliot wrote a letter and young Eric Arthur Blair applied to the India Office for a position that would take him to Burma, one of many eventual stops towards his future as George Orwell.
It must mean something that Marcel Proust died on November 18, 1922, one month after Waste Land came out (though it is not known whether or not Proust read Eliot's poem). This was the same month that Howard Carter discovered and plundered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt, the same month that Crown Prince Hirohito became the new emperor of Japan.
The shaded cobblestone streets of Garden Rest are lined with shops, cottages, a pub, a boarding house near the town square, and of course, something nefarious lurking in dark hinterlands. John Shirley’s Doyle After Death reads like a classic Sherlock Holmes whodunit, with a couple of major differences.
First, it takes place in the afterlife, or as the people of Garden Rest prefer to call it, the Afterworld. A private detective named Nicholas “Nick” Fogg wakes up in the Afterworld after dying in a hotel room in Las Vegas. Also, flashbacks to the detective’s last case among the living give the story a touch of gritty noir realism.
The plot advances at a breezy clip that is somehow both relaxing and exhilarating, and Shirley has a knack for cinematic descriptions. In one nighttime scene, four men look down at the town from a steep hill and see a view like a rich chiaroscuro painting. Shirley's biographical knowledge of Arthur Conan Doyle informs the novel and confirms Shirley as a fan and a history scholar. He even includes an appendix, which expounds upon Doyle’s theories about the spirit world and incorporates those theories into the novel. Comic book collectors speak of the “Marvel universe” and the “DC universe.” This is the Doyle/Shirley universe.
A musical play about ethical philosophy called A Theory of Justice, loosely inspired by John Rawls's book of the same name, is causing a mild sensation after opening in Oxford and Edinburgh. Written by four Oxford students named Eylon Aslan-Levy, Ramin Sabi, Tommy Peto and Toby Huelin, the musical is apparently a spirited spin through the history of ethics, focusing on the debate between Rawls and Robert Nozick and featuring appearances by Plato, Socrates, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ayn Rand, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Benthan, Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Immanuel Kant. A symbolic female figure named "Fairness" (she is singing a duet with Rousseau in the photo on this page) provides an anthropomorphic representation of John Rawls's favorite concept, signalling the fact that these Oxonian playwrights are Rawlsians, or something close.
If the musical ever plays on Broadway I will surely see it, and until then I'll have to satisfy myself with an interview by Nigel Warburton and a lively review by Glen Newey in London Review of Books, who says this:
Back when I was a philosophy student, Immanuel Kant was it. The 18th century Prussian philosopher who pinched off the stiff arguments between the Continental Rationalists and the British Empiricists and ushered in the contemporary era of analytic/existential thought was probably more highly regarded by most of my professors (a highly contentious lot) than any other single figure except maybe Plato.
That doesn't mean Kant was anybody's favorite philosopher, though, either in my college's department or anywhere. He probably wasn't. Everybody respects Kant, but few get excited about him -- probably because his ideas are so widely and generally accepted. He is a foundational figure because he stands as a mediator between opposing ideas.
Kant's greatest achievement in 18th century European philosophy was to mediate a middle ground between two intellectual attitudes that had reached a deadlock. He agreed with the British Empiricists that human beings cannot claim access to absolute truth by means of philosophical argument. But he denied the empiricist's model of the human mind as an empty vessel, accessing reality only by means of sensory experience. Instead, Kant showed, we must realize that the mind constructs its understanding of the outside world, and that therefore our beliefs are grounded in something less flimsy than the phenomenological and epistemological mass of meaninglessness that Bishop George Berkeley and David Hume described.
With this model, suddenly the tedious arguments between Berkeley and Hume and Spinoza and Leibniz seemed to matter less, and western philosophy found several more creative and constructive paths. Philosophy got better after Kant. He led the way to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer, to Soren Kierkegaard and Freidrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and William James, Auguste Comte, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
We don't get many philosophy-related sound bites in our public news cycle, so the story of a guy who got shot in an argument over Immanuel Kant that rippled through the likes of The Guardian, ABC News and Time last week was a notable event. It's revealing, though, that these news outlets only played the story for laughs.
A person got shot over Immanuel Kant? What a joke. It's as if a fight broke out over gang signs at a Beethoven festival -- as if somebody got offended by the nudity in a Rubens painting. Could the ideology of an 18th century Prussian philosopher really matter to anyone today?
These news outlets missed their story. In fact, Kant has been deeply controversial in certain circles, and it's a disappointing sign that our mass media is so out of touch with common thought that these major outlets find the idea of arguing over Kant so quaint.
I love a writer with the gumption to fix the world. The list of great shouting visionaries and Jeremiahs of classic literature includes Henry David Thoreau, whose prescription was nature and simplicity, and T. S. Eliot, who offered humanity the balm of strict religious and academic tradition. it takes a special kind of sensibility to tell the world what it's doing wrong.
Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were all social philosophers, but they never made the slightest attempt to recommend a solution to society's problems, though their fellow modernist W. B. Yeats tried. Anton Chekhov did not preach, Leo Tolstoy did. Albert Camus did not, Jean-Paul Sartre did. When the Beat Generation hit, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs all seemed aware of the same fault lines in modern civilization, but it was only Allen Ginsberg who tried to recommend a path to progress through pacifism, sexual liberation and activism, as Jack Kerouac resigned himself to lyrical drunken pessimism and William S. Burroughs built bunkers, both psychic and residential, from which to observe the disasters to come.
Jonathan Franzen is a modern novelist who has the same rare and classic passion to save the world as Thoreau, Tolstoy, Eliot, Yeats, Sartre and Ginsberg, and this one reason I like him so much. Many readers, however, do not like this kind of behavior from a novelist. The enormously successful and popular Franzen (one of the few candidates, in my opinion, for best living American writer today) is now testing his audience's patience for preaching with an unusual new volume, The Kraus Project, an annotated collection of essays by an Austrian Jewish satirist and cultural critic named Karl Kraus who was, Franzen tells us, extremely influential during the twilight years of Vienna before, during and after the First World War, a hundred years ago.
Jack Kerouac's poetry has just been enshrined in the prestigious Library of America series, which would have made him proud. No sooner is the book published, though, than comes the reaction. Bruce Bawer trashes Kerouac mercilessly in The New Criterion, with raw insults that go way over the top:
Grimly reconciled though one may be to the annual flood of books by and about the Beat Generation, it’s particularly depressing to see Jack Kerouac’s poetry, of all things, enshrined in the Library of America, that magnificent series designed to preserve for posterity the treasures of our national literature. To read through these seven hundred–odd pages of Kerouac’s staggeringly slapdash effusions set in elegant Galliard, outfitted with the usual meticulous editorial apparatus, and bound—like Twain’s novels and Lincoln’s speeches—in a beautiful Library of America volume is enough to trigger a serious attack of cognitive dissonance.
Well. I must admit that I too prefer Kerouac's wonderful prose to his vexing poetry. However, I can prove that Jack Kerouac is an important poet, because he has written at least one short poem that seems to mean many things to many people. It goes like this: