I recently heard about a British Library project to reassemble and digitize a 17th century illustrated edition of the Ramayana, a classical Hindu epic. This sounds pretty cool, and it reminded me of a different edition of the Ramayana that I once owned myself.
This was just a cheap pocket paperback, a novelization of the great poem, published alongside a similar edition of the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. These two books, the life work of a young American translator named William Buck, were designed to be accessible and enjoyable versions of their extremely long and complex originals. Of course the great epic poems had to be condensed and simplified to fit into these forms, but the popular paperbacks provide a rich reading experience that must capture at least some of the significance of their gigantic counterparts.
William Buck's Mahabharata is the one I read all the way through and remember most vividly, because it's a colorful, wise and beautiful long tale that begins with the household altercation that resulted in an elephant head being placed on the body of a boy named Ganesha, the son of Shiva, who is noted (in the story that surrounds the story) as the scribe who is writing the text:
It's time to start putting some puzzle pieces together.
Five weekends ago I began a project by suggesting that we try to analyze some tough ethical/historical problems with the methodology of a puzzle-solver, by which I meant that we would determine a few principles or "tools" and then apply these principles or tools repetitively and mechanically until we reach a conclusion.
I originally spoke of Sudoku or KenKen puzzles, while today I'm showing a picture of a Rubik's Cube. It doesn't matter because the puzzle is only a broad metaphor for the experiment I'm trying to conduct. The goal is to obtain fresh insights that we don't seem to be able to obtain with our usual emotional and moral interpretations of history. You can't solve a Sudoku puzzle or a Rubik's Cube with your emotions, or with a demonstration of your moral goodness. You need to apply simple techniques repetitively and consistently, which leads me now to ask what simple techniques we use when trying to understand the worst and most well-known atrocities of recent history: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the African slave trade, the massacres in Rwanda, the September 11 attacks, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Irish famine, China's Great Leap Forward, the massacre in Srebenica, the refugee death camps of Darfur, the current crisis in Syria.
The great puzzle we are trying to solve is this: why do these atrocities occur? I think the urgent need for fresh insight is obvious, since despite our hollow promises of "never again" these atrocities occur frequently today (in the list above, five of the atrocities occurred in the last twenty years, and at least two are happening right now).
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.