Exactly sixty years ago, in May 1952, 81-year-old Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki began teaching a regular course at Columbia University. 39-year-old modernist composer John Cage attended a few of his lectures, and this is the electric point of contact that starts everything buzzing in Nothing and Everything - The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde: 1942 - 1962, a new book by Ellen Pearlman.
Both men were trailblazers. Suzuki is remembered today as a premier ambassador for Eastern religion in the West, and as the author of the influential books Introduction to Zen Buddhism and Essays in Zen Buddhism. But, Ellen Pearlman reveals in the first chapter of Nothing and Everything, Suzuki had not been considered a very "successful" Buddhist as a young Zen student in Japan. He found a far greater calling as a highly visible foreigner in the West than he could have ever found if he'd stayed in Japan, since his idiosyncratic personality rubbed many Zen masters the wrong way. It was Suzuki's ability to translate key Asian texts into English that gave him a foothold in the United States of America, and he eagerly grabbed the opportunity to pursue his own unique vision of a global Buddhist awakening.
John Cage had already earned a reputation as a rule-breaker in the field of avant-garde music by the time he attended the elderly Suzuki's lectures at Columbia, but it wasn't until after he was exposed to Zen Buddhism (from Suzuki and several other sources) that he was able to conceive of his signature work, 4'33, which thrilled and outraged the world of classical music with its unspeakable simplicity. The composition indicated that the performer should sit at a piano (or any other instrument) and maintain four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.
It's impossible to encapsulate modern, avant-garde and experimental arts within any formula, but Nothing and Everything's purpose is to follow a single thread of excitement among several 20th century innovators within American art, music, theater and literary scenes that was caused by a rising awareness of traditional Buddhist religion and philosophy. The first to follow John Cage were the Dada-inspired innovators of the Fluxus movement in the early 1960s, Alison Knowles, Jackson Mac Low, Num June Paik, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko Ono (who, beyond the scope of this book, would eventually collaborate with John Lennon to present crystalline expressions of Fluxus ideas to the entire world, and become its most famous practitioner).
1. This looks to be pretty special:
The Tenant’s Association of the Chelsea Hotel presents a rare screening of Andy Warhol’s 1966 masterpiece, Chelsea Girls, introduced by poet and Warhol superstar Rene Ricard.
Rene Ricard is one of the few surviving members of the cast, and was a close friend and associate of Warhol from 1965 until the artist’s death in 1987. In a rare public appearance, Rene Ricard will discuss the making of the film and offer reflections on Warhol’s larger career as painter, author, publisher and wit.
Chelsea Girls was shot in various rooms in the Hotel Chelsea (and the Warhol Factory) over three weeks in the summer of 1966. Rene Ricard lived in the hotel at the time, and he remains a current resident.
Appearing in the film, amongst others, are Nico, Ondine, Brigid Berlin, International Velvet, Mario Montez, Ingrid Superstar, and Marie Menken, with music by the Velvet Underground. Filmed at a cost of $3,000.00 The film grossed $130,000.00 in its first five months of its release, making it perhaps the most successful underground film of all time It has since earned cult status as one of the most stunning and provocative cultural documents of the 1960s, and is considered by many to be Warhol’s filmic masterpiece.
Filmed in black and white and color and shown on two screens simultaneously, the film runs three hours and fifteen minutes.
At the premiere of the film at Jonas Mekas' Cinematheque, the film sequences were listed on the program accompanied by fake room numbers at the Chelsea Hotel. These had to be removed, however, when the Chelsea Hotel threatened legal action.
Today the residents of the Chelsea Hotel are fighting to retain and preserve one of the great cultural landmarks of New York City. The Chelsea Hotel is not only a historic landmarked building, but also a living national treasure, and a vital part of the intellectual and artistic heritage of New York. Residents have incurred great expense fighting evictions and what they consider to be the illegal demolition of over a hundred rooms in the historic hotel.
3. The PEN World Voices Festival is about to begin, and has a fantastic lineup.
5. I had a very negative initial reaction to the news that a team of transcendentalist video game designers from the University of Southern California has created an electronic interactive version of Thoreau's Walden (still and always my favorite book in the world). But the preview visible at the link above really doesn't look so bad. And while it's true that playing a video game is nothing like living in a cabin in the woods for two years -- well, come to think of it, reading a book is nothing like living in a cabin in the woods for two years either. So I guess I won't judge this project until I get to see it for myself.
1. Michael Stutz recently shared his theory that a diner in Jack Kerouac's hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts might have been the inspiration for the name of Sal Paradise, the On The Road narrator. In a follow-up conversation, Michael told me more about the Paradise Diner: it opened in 1937 (when Jack was 15 years old) and can be found on Google Maps here.
2. The poet Adrienne Rich has died. Jamelah Earle has written about this.
3. My younger daughter compelled me to read Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games last year, and we were both fairly blown away by the movie (as was Benoit Lelievre and many, many others). The Atlantic has published a good list of the story's mythological and pop-culture sources. (I'm only surprised this article doesn't mention Gone With The Wind, since Katniss's richly layered love triangle with Peeta and Gale strikes me as a clear echo of Scarlett O'Hara's tortuous confusion over Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes).
1. A favorite baseball player of mine died last week.
2. Here's a fun literary site that's been making the rounds: police sketches based on descriptions of fictional characters, by Brian Joseph Davis. I'm particularly impressed by his Emma Bovary and Humbert Humbert, but I sense subconscious influence in the Daisy Buchanan: this sketch does not have the requisite bright ecstatic smile, and looks exactly like Mia Farrow in the movie.
3. Katy Perry says her song Firework was directly inspired by Jack Kerouac's On The Road. I still don't like the song but this helps a little.
When Bill Griffith was a 19-year-old art student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, he ran into Marcel Duchamp at Manhattan gallery hosting a retrospective by the venerable Dadaist. When he told Duchamp that he, too, wanted to be an artist, the old man sternly warned, “Go into medicine. The world needs more doctors than artists.”
Had Bill Griffith taken Marcel Duchamp seriously, we would be without Zippy (aka Zippy the Pinhead), the best-drawn daily underground comic strip in America, currently running in 300 newspapers across the planet.
Griffith didn’t ignore Duchamp’s advice; he simply interpreted it in the spirit of Dada.
As he recently said, “I did consider his comment, that I should go into medicine, as a Dada statement. On one level, when he first said it, I had an immediate deflated moment of ‘oh no, this is not what I want to hear,’ but then literally a second later, I thought ‘wait a minute, this is Marcel Duchamp, he doesn’t speak the way normal people speak. This is a code.’ I convinced myself that that’s what he meant.”
Several collections of Zippy strips have been published over the years, but the single massive volume that Griffith’s work deserved had eluded him. That gaping oversight has now been partially redressed with Bill Griffith: Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003, a 400-page tome published by the estimable Fantagraphics Books, edited and brilliantly annotated by Griffith. It begins with samples of the work Griffith did in the early days of his career when he was among a group of Bay Area artists—including Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Rory Hayes, Justin Green, and Griffith’s wife-to-be Diane Noomin—who reshaped, reinvented and reinvigorated the comic book form to embrace hip, adult, intelligent readers.
(Late last year, writer Mike Norris and artist David Richardson imagined the members of J. D. Salinger's fictional Glass family, a follow-up to their earlier exploration of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Here's their take on Salinger's most famous novel. -- Levi)
If you were like me, you were a big fan of J.D. Salinger in high school. A big fan. Not only read The Catcher in the Rye, but followed that with Nine Stories, and the Glass family chronicles. Talked about the stories with your friends, contemplated the idiosyncrasies of Holden Caulfield and Seymour Glass. Went around with these characters running through your head, perhaps not quite knowing what to make of them.
Then, you moved on. I headed off to college, and I put Salinger behind me. I advanced to the Beats and other writers, and except when reading about Salinger’s death in 2010, I didn’t think much about this famously reclusive writer.
But recently I started re-reading his slim oeuvre.
Salinger’s early life parallels that of Holden Caulfield. He grew up in Manhattan, and there he attended the McBurney School. He showed promise in drama, wrote for the school newspaper, and, like Holden, managed the fencing team. Nevertheless, McBurney expelled Salinger because of his failing grades. He then went to Valley Forge Military Academy near Philadelphia, from which he graduated in 1936. It was at Valley Forge that he started writing stories.
I waited a couple of months before letting myself open up Walter Isaacson's acclaimed new biography, Steve Jobs. Given Isaacson's known gift for storytelling and my own penchant for computer-age pop culture history, I knew I'd be in for an obsessive reading experience once I cracked it open. This is a book I needed to clear away some uninterrupted time for.
The most enjoyable part of Steve Jobs is the first section, in which two delightful Silicon Valley counterculture tech nerds named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak grow up and invent the world-changing Apple II, the first commercially viable personal computer, in 1977. Here, the book offers the familiar satisfying thrill we look for in the early pages of every celebrity biography: those achingly pregnant moments in which the players stand at the precipice of greatness ... and then finally step over.
The dawn of the computer age is always a compelling subject, because we can all relate in some way to the feeling of surprise, personal growth and liberation that has accompanied this rapid pace of technological change (this is a dawn, after all, that we are still somewhere in the middle of). Isaacson's Steve Jobs is a classic computer-age tale of transformation and wonder -- from the quaint beauty of the first Macintosh (a wonderful little machine, so efficient that its entire operating system fit along with several applications and free user space on a single one-megabyte diskette) to the wide smiles generated by the Toy Story movie franchise (this is what Jobs worked on in the 1990s, between the Mac and the iPhone), to the invention of the dynamic iPad device, his last offering to the world before his early death.
"Literary Kicks," says the guy where I pick up my mail, looking at my address on a package. "What is it, sneakers?"
"Books," I say to him. "Books. I'd probably make a lot more money if it was sneakers."
With that said, here are the latest literary links, for your edification and enjoyment:
1. Novelist and critic Walter Kirn, who has suddenly begun live-blogging the Bible, ponders the Tower of Babel.
2. Alan Cumming will star in a one-man performance of Shakespeare's Macbeth.
3. Check out The Books They Gave Me: A Tumblr for images of books given by former lovers. No, I'm not going to make a Herman Cain joke.
1. Isn't this a great book cover? Woolgathering is not a new Patti Smith book, and it shouldn't be mistaken for a sequel to her great Just Kids. In fact, I first bought this when it was a great little Hanuman book that looked like this:
The Hanuman book looked cool, but I think the newly republished New Directions version's cover art may be even better. Shepherd, tend thy flock.
2. Occupy St. Petersburg? Bill Ectric draws some connections between Nikolai Gogol's financial satire Dead Souls and more recent high finance scams.
3. Steve Silberman asks: What kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, really?
The famous allegory of the cave is hardly the highlight of Plato's great Republic, though commentators sometimes treat the extended metaphor -- a person in a cave is temporarily blinded when he sees sunlight for the first time, and is then ridiculed when he returns to the cave and can no longer distinguish the shadows on the walls -- as if it were a capsule summary of Plato's entire philosophy. Perhaps the brilliance of the philosopher's writing has itself blinded these commentators, because the allegory of the cave is mainly an illustration of the difficulty of understanding a provocative philosophy, and hardly represents the essence of Plato's philosophy itself.