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.
Funny thing: it was only when I began writing about ethical philosophy here on Litkicks that I began writing seriously about history. The two disciplines might not seem to have much in common, but to me they feel intertwined.
Maybe that's because our popular conceptions of both ethics and history show so much confusion, contradiction and willful denial of obvious fact. People often say illogical and nonsensical things when they talk about their moral principles, and they do so as well when they describe what they believe has happened on planet Earth leading up to our present times. It's hard to say whether our typically chauvinistic and ethnocentric conceptions of history cause us to be ethically confused more than our ethical confusions cause us to mangle historical fact. Let's just say that both things happen a lot. If our world will ever have the happy epiphany in ethical philosophy that is our hopeful destiny and due, it will probably be accompanied by a more informed popular grasp of history.
I read a lot of history -- more history than fiction or philosophy or poetry or even (believe it or not) rock star autobiographies. I haven't written about history much here on this blog because, frankly, I'm scared to start. I have too much to say. I don't know where to begin to unload. I think that many things people believe about history are dead wrong -- no, I know this, because every good history book proves this to be true. But I don't want to turn Litkicks into a whirlpool of historical revisionism. Historical revision is a field with an ugly reputation, since revisionism can be used to gain respect for horrific campaigns such as Holocaust denial.
But perhaps historical revision isn't what we need. We need historical vision. We don't need new books to tell us that what we've learned is wrong. We just need to read the damn books we already have. They will tell us that everything we've learned is wrong.
Here are three superb books I've read that have helped me to understand how little we tend to know about the things we think we know.
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:
This is the last of five blog posts inspired by the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. As I struggle to write this one today, I'm forced to admit two things that you'll very rarely ever hear me say.
First, I feel humbled. Second, I am at a loss for words.
It's refreshing to see rival social, political or philosophical doctrines debated online with the kind of clear, brisk, brief writing that the best blogs feature. Last week, Michael Lind of Salon challenged the American libertarian/Paulist movement with a blunt Salon article titled "Grow Up, Libertarians!" This article led with a powerful question: "If libertarianism is such a good idea, why aren’t there any libertarian countries?"
In the National Review, Jonah Goldberg responded directly and thoughtfully with a piece called "Freedom: The Unfolding Revolution". Goldberg tried to swipe away Michael Lind's direct thrust by pointing out that the political ideal of liberty is too essential to be weighed on Lind's scale. Goldberg may or may not be right about the broader meaning of libertarianism, but his piece also echoes and agrees with a basic point of Michael Lind's that contrasts rising tide of 21st Century libertarianism with the sad history of 20th Century Communism. Here, both Michael Lind and Jonah Goldberg are accepting a sweeping premise about world history that is itself untrue, and must be challenged:
(A few months ago, I received an email from an Australian writer named Tim Hawken who had a few article ideas for Litkicks. I published his Kant on Beauty and Heidegger on Art, and it was only after this that Tim revealed to me that he was writing these pieces under the stress of a family health calamity. For more of the personal story behind today's article, see this post on Tim's own blog. The photo of a deconstructed wristwatch is from a photo essay also on Tim's blog, entitled "Timeless" -- Levi)
Two years ago my wife was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. At 29 years old, she was told that she was going to die. The revelation turned our world upside down. Certainties we held previously about our lives were washed away like sandcastles built in the tidal zone. Only small mounds of faith remained, but the idea of a distant, pain-free death in our twilight years, having lived a full and happy existence, had been demolished.
Instantly, the ‘bucket list’ mentality came into play. We began building a catalogue of things to do before eternal darkness swept in. We quit our corporate jobs and traveled the world. After a year on the road, a reassessment of our life goals led us both back to study: philosophy for me, nutrition for her. What I have come to realize in these recent tumultuous years is this: we were always both dying; we just didn’t realise it yet. Death, of course, is life’s only real certainty. So, why did being told something we both should have known already change our perspective so much?
I've just learned that Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park/Book of Mormon fame have been animating some passages from seminal Western Buddhist author Alan Watts. The videos are excellent! Here's Music and Life, with a message well worth hearing:
The last time I saw Yoko Ono in concert, which was just a year ago, I was handed a small blue plastic puzzle piece in a small fabric bag as I entered the club. It was a very Yoko Ono gesture, and I'm sure the piece symbolized a lot of things: the sky, world peace, an artist's anxiety in facing an audience.
Yoko Ono is a brave performer, but her anxiety and shyness is often evident when she stands on stage. It must be this shyness that drives her exhibitionism and displays of aggression; as a young experimental artist (before she met John Lennon), she created her famous "Cut Piece" (it's described in Ellen Pearlman's recent book Nothing and Everything) in which she invited viewers to cut off pieces of her clothes while she sat still. This gesture wouldn't have been as moving as it was if her anxiety were not so palpable on her face as she sat.
I went through a weird sequence of emotions when I spotted a new history book, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng. First, I felt a flash of excitement: this will be the book that will help me to understand this unimaginable episode in history.
But, I quickly realized, I've already read (and blogged about) two thick books that told the horrific story of Mao's manufactured famine: Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikotter and Mao: the Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. I already know the facts. What am I expecting a third book about the same subject to tell me that I don't already know? Did I think I would find new answers to my questions? Was I hoping for Yang Jisheng to come up with a happy ending?
Well ... some truths are so hard to comprehend that it takes three heavy books to pound them into our heads. The truth of what happened in the Chinese countryside between 1958 and 1962 probably falls into this category. The tragedy began as "The Great Leap Forward", an optimistic and progressive experiment in farm collectivization, invented by Mao and eagerly championed by countless government leaders and regional cadres. The ambitious government program quickly descended into a sadistic holocaust, destroying between thirty and thirty-six million lives, before a few sane politicians managed to break through Mao's grip and force an end to the madness. The level of cruelty, illogic and wastefulness that fed this debacle for four painful years is difficult to grasp, and the results are hard to picture. Here's a typical description from Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine:
Haruki Murakami’s novelistic fantasies offer a tonic — not only to a culture overly enmeshed in the realities of the day to day but to each of us individually. One aspect of this tonic is his view of the role women play in relationships with men.
When asked by an interviewer why women in his novels seem to embody and represent the fears and fantasies of his narrators, Murakami answered, “In my books and stories, women are mediums, in a sense; the function of the medium is to make something happen through herself. It’s a kind of system to be experienced. The protagonist is always led somewhere by the medium and the visions that he sees are shown to him by her.”
This remarkable view of the woman’s role closely echoes psychologist C. G. Jung’s theory of the anima. Anima means soul or life (especially inner life). Through such an image a man may seek for aspects of his life that are unconscious, undiscovered by him. The image of the woman may be seen in a vision, a dream, or even be a woman whom he meets.