Saturday, May 29, 2010

American Heritage

American literature, knowingly, consciously or not, represents an awakening to the same truths elicited and elucidated by the Buddha. American literature represents an organic awakening, quietly on a leading edge. American literature has a point. American literature will be what saves us. American literature is the nation's most important work.

It comes from quiet corners, folks different as Dickinson, Melville and Kerouac. Include Lincoln and Hemingway in its spirit and many others. Certainly it merges with the poetry of England, sharing the same language and tradition, but American has been bolder, more explicit, and maybe finds its realizations more crucial, more vital.

Buddhism, by which we refer to as a system of thought, is a necessary reaction to a commercial culture constantly revolving around a hyper constant market economy. (Buddhism is at least turning off the TV and thinking on one's own, a dismissal of the illusions offered behind each product.) Its noble truths wait amidst obvious signs of the great decay cannibalizing unregulated market place of self-based wants, needs and desires, weary, exhausted, played-out.

Melville's Ahab is a symbol of many things. In him we find economic greed leading to plundered resources, a heightened sense of self as something distinct, therefore wronged, therefore needy, therefore vengeful. His is a steady path to destruction. Melville had seen the industry up close. His great book was oddly not very popular (joke) with a public pressed into believing in the sanctity of forwarding economic fortunes and the subsequent 'trickle down' of the day. Look at what's going on the Gulf of Mexico today. Thanks, Captain Ahab. You really served us well.

Emily Dickinson waited quietly until she realized the main impetus behind her work. Her 'Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--In Corners--till a day The Owner passed--identified--And carried Me away--' It was not a selfish entity writing her poems, but one vigorously opposed, a 'deadly foe,' to the habitually self-assured illusions of the world of the economic and social intercourse the more selfish entities press upon us. Words were her deeds, and while of course she died, never to come back, the deeds of her words, oddly enough, are quite with us today, as teachings.

Kerouac came along years later, armed himself with good books he found for free (what he could afford) at the San Jose Public Library, not that he ever had much of a problem finding and reading literature in an industrious fashion. Buddhism is explicit for him. In similar fashion to Melville's Ishmael, if not for Melville himself, Kerouac grew successful at creating a product, therefore an economic entity. (Hey, we all need to make a living.) The subsequent popularity and stress was not the best thing for such an open and vulnerable thinker too kind not to say no to intruders, in true Buddhist fashion. (well, yes and no.) Still, we can be very gratitude for Kerouac's careful scholarly presentation of the noble truth into a reading mainstream; the work he leaves behind is a solid building block, a foundation.

Industrial revolution, slavery, robber barons, factory conditions, child labor, the Native American, countless issues came home to roost in the new country, and the nation's minds couldn't help but try to responsibly consider them down to the core. To a tuned ear, Lincoln's writings and speeches present a Christianity stripped down to a Buddhist core. A house, that which is beyond self, cannot stand against itself, cannot allow itself to be swept up in selfish considerations. There are deeds, good ones and bad ones, and they have consequences. That is Buddhist to the core. Through the test defined by him at Gettysburg, on through The Second Inaugural's putting away of selfish passion to embrace an enemy as a brother, Lincoln reeks of Buddhist thought, not that there is much of a record of him reading such texts. Interesting that great minds reach a similar conclusion. Perhaps it's not so odd that a man considered 'a baboon,' a country bumpkin, would, left to his own devices start to think in a grand and radical way, and take his position as an opportunity to present a great vision. He sheltered hatred for no one, having been humbled in life. He was a resourceful man, invented things, made use of useful things to a higher aim.

Twain, Dreiser, Anderson, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, in them one can read the same argument about self and illusions. They speak to a nation growing ill on its own excesses. They bring us individual struggling with mindfulness and sometimes reaching it, becoming oddly and beautifully liberated, like Huck with his dignified friend Jim going down a big river, selfish illusion off on either bank, Buddha himself loving rivers as a way of illustrating his lessons.

Of course, this is not to say that any effort outside America, a floating imaginative place anyway, a creation of our minds, will not have the same tendencies. Rather, similar, which leads one to think that a great writers has an intuitive feel, a balance that is not far removed from the truths of Buddha. Chekhov, Saramago...

So we have the organic movement now, and get quite a bit better with consciousness, yoga, meditations. We'll come to plant non-competing plants in between our amber waves of grain as a way of handling weeds, as Monsanto's once helpful chemical offerings don't work anymore. We won't place our retirement investments in hands concerned only with profit's Tower of Babel. We'll buy into that which is healthy for all of us.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

My lovely Polish neighbor tells a story. She and her husband have escaped from Soviet Bloc Poland to Stockholm. (They were putting him on a train to Siberia. He slipped away.) They have with them basically just the clothes they are wearing, a few photographs. Free of possessions, she describes the moment as a feeling of bliss, the joy of freedom.

Such a moment is rare, for the most of us, for much of our days, but every now and then, there comes a pleasant whiff of that feeling, maybe a day off, so maybe it's not so rare. Today I will tell the reader the story of finally deciding not to buy the cheap car a friend had interested in me. Good little car, nothing against it, but between the bureaucracy of parking in the rare free zones, that of getting a mechanic to pre-inspect it before seeing if the car would pass DC Inspection, fixing a few things, new seat belts, insurance, temporary tags, etc., to say nothing of traffic, I finally came to a simple decision. (Maybe the fact that the AC doesn't happen to work was part of this today.)

I went and parked out back behind the Bistrot, where I had first picked it up and driven it, not quite legally, away. To celebrate, I went grocery shopping, and walked home through the woods with my groceries on my back.

I sometimes think that by simple virtue of being incarnated, i.e. living, in the world, we are cast as forms of mental patients. We are very simple beings, in as far as our minds operate. And of course the modern world throws complications at us in the course of living. Stuff that is really a bit beyond us, but that, good creatures that we are, we manage. Cars, bank accounts, telephones, jobs and bosses, and, if we're lucky, careers. To say nothing of family. Yet, balanced against that, is, maybe, a deep sense of some intangible issue, largely unconscious, but which, at times, we are awaken to. The matters of simple kindness, of being easy and peaceful, mindful of the nature of our deeds, responsible toward good ones.

Maybe in time we grow up, to integrate the automobile into the sangha, into the community which acts are good. I hope for such days. But in the meantime, I don't so much mind walking. Plus it's good exercise.

Post-script, dated 5/29/10, about 1:15 PM:

Interesting enough, May 27, 2010, brought me further liberation, as if to prove that if you can say no to one tempting demon of Mara and illusion's offer, you'll find a clear enough mind to let the bully's brethren fall. What you were down on yourself for not finishing, not providing, not doing, turns out to be quiet good fortune, a weight lifted, a bad self-image (which was based on some illusion of self one seems obliged to buy into) taken away, removed. Doubt, too, is a demon, one of the bad actions a person can fall to.

And what was left was like all good people in their good moments, a quiet content person, delighted with the world and its designs and all its lovely loving details, within and without.

There I was, without a car, without something else that might bear on a personal life such as a marriage or a career choice would, a complete figment of my imagination anyway I am, if I were selfish, embarrassed to say with respect to all parties. Other minds, rejecting, are wiser than my own, and I am grateful to the common wisdom. There I was, free, and happy, and feeling good, at peace, once again. Bless the stars above, the freedom they bring.

Monday, May 17, 2010

I have to wonder, if some books aren't written out of some form of a broken heart. Those words are of course tainted, as something hypocritical, but you know what I mean. Emily wrote her poems. Kerouac wrote his 'sad book.' Most critics would throw a significant number of others into that group, Twain, etc.

But maybe there is some bit of good news in all that, that a pot is boiled down to something we might call a primitive basic scientific understanding, a comforting expansive thought like those of the Buddha. Those thoughts, if you will, raise the level of dialogue above the same stale old issues kicking around in the news everyday, the mindset behind pollution, unkind deeds, excesses, etc.

Ahh, ladies and gentlemen, what can you do, what can you do? Take your 5-HTP pill, maybe go for a half hour walk, brood a bit, get to work (once there it won't be so bad), hope for the best, get home in one piece, live to battle another day. Good deeds, that's what it's all about, good deeds.

Giotto had the mind
to paint that wedding scene,
populating it with real life
just like you'd find.
Every day and ordinary.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

An artist can, at times, be perfectly happy with a state another profession might take as neglect. The artist thrives in the condition another individual might take to be loneliness, regarding it as a chance to get something done. Or, he or she just gets use to it, doesn't complain about it, uses it to feed the vision, the spiritual backbone by which works are accomplished. In a given moment, a mind has many directions to go in, perhaps in the way an atom works, protonic thoughts zipping in energy around a glowing nucleus. In the quiet of neglect that mind operates as a whole, the core and the outer layers in tune, sympathetically vibrating, so that an outer thought concerning the world as it is manifested in all its detail is directly related to the centered wisdom at the core. To consider oneself as being neglected is some outward-based interference pattern that has not much to do with the wheels that tick away in some task that leaves the mind free to muse and work.

It is for such good reasons that artists, thinkers, writers, composers, etc., behave the way the do, with the inherent reward system of accomplishment they have placed an intuitive faith in and then pursued again and again. Another person though, may well regard such an individual's behavior as being that of a complete dope, not seeing the deeper mechanism, the core of the eternal mind ever engaged perhaps to the expense of the countless decisions and choices one is supposed to make in the course of labors and social lives. The artist may appear, from an outside perspective, 'not to care.' Which is far from the truth.

Eliot spoke of this healthy neglect in Preludes, the 'infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing.' In fact, you can find it in a lot of art out there, or at least make it up if it's not there.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A writer must respect his own vision, follow it, walk its gangplank, find it within, adopt few others but broad ones into which you fit. That's what a book should be, the pursuit of a vision.

One reads Hemingway with a sense of nascent vision. It seems he had one, but he doesn't elaborate. There's evidence, and even action toward vision, hints, trails, and even maybe just the Zen of it. Old Man and the Sea seems too story-like, fabled, mythic. But, he felt the exuberance of discovering the secret of writing. And if anything, that exuberance, of a soldier's populism, bottles clinking beneath his hospital bed, rubbing elbows with his new buddies in Europe over campfires, is close to being the core of his vision. His stories are descendent of Melville's ship.

A significant part of Hemingway's vision seems to have also centered around an element of self-promotion, an emphasis on self that a Buddhist or a more modest person would not be comfortable with. However, it's fair to say that his work added to us, that his form of sunlight is by its nature a positive force for humanity, by more than sheer force of intellect and capturing of detail. There was a generosity to the man. As my Polish neighbor tells me, he loved life. And what the hell, if writing is good for your morale, on a daily basis, good for you, Ernie, you go, man.

That exuberance is akin to Shakespeare's secret, unknown, of late nights, theater people, Falstaff actors; thus Hemingway's fanciful comparison of boxing with Ol' Willy. (Shakespeare should be synonymous with the battle against ego, egos within and without.) The recognition of another lively soul, another person who edges into wanton behavior, boyishness. The writer recognizes that connection of getting easily excited about something. We read what we read because we feel the craving for life experiences, the indulgent edge that makes perfect sense.

Still, though, beyond his jocular love of writing prose, a final word on Hemingway would be to give him credit for his recognition of the state of 'beaten but not defeated.' That's close to a recognition that life offers constant change, thus to the Buddhist a suffering, a decay, from which is derived the understanding that a solid concrete self is illusory, especially in light of the great connectedness of all things in the universe.

Lincoln cracked, it seems, his personal ties to the tavern people he endured once. Had he bottomed out in his own way, semi-regularly, without having to engage in indulgences? Still, it seems, relative puritan that he came to be, as reported, about drinking, maybe a little too conspicuously, that he remained friendly to the boozy friendly bourbon-drinking smoke-filled-room-loving rowdy-conventioning gentlemen who got him elected. It helped, perhaps, that he was strong and big enough, a good enough wrestler, for a basic self-standing agreement. He would not allow himself to be bullied.

Kerouac admits his allegiance explicitly. "I'm for the mad ones..." But he too was athletic enough to escape them if he had to. He was also addicted to books and learning too. He read Proust. He had a way of framing his conversations with the world. (MacGowan reads Yeats' "An Irish Airman Forsees His Death." There is a tie between song and writing, Joyce being a fine tenor.)

When I left Amherst, I went to work in a place that served up forms of country music along with Ann Cashion's Tex-Mex. Songs about life, real life, unvarnished, about behaving badly, the whole gamut really. Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum, Robert Earl Keen, Townes Van Zandt, Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Wallon & Willy, Johnny Cash, mixed in with contemporary stuff like 10,000 Maniacs and REM. My deep gratitude to Mr. Robert Wilder, all round great guy, for letting me in on being a part of a place called Austin Grill, the original one, up there on Wisconsin Avenue. (I was bussing tables, and they were doing my singing for me. Lazy as that is.)

To me, this aesthetic, if you will, is one of populism. I'd like to think it goes back to the building of Amherst College, when the local farmers chipped in, lent their backs to clearing out a hill top to build with brick and mortar a college. Oh, there were fancy guys back then too, no doubt, the bankers and the lawyers, Webster and Dickinson, along with names forgotten of farm-boys grown up who still liked to read. It was a joint venture, a community of high and low, would be one person's guess, maybe a sentimental one. I've always thought a populist touch, even though it might not bring a lot of gold reserves in, had something to do with it. (JFK's last speech, there, concerning Robert Frost, about an artist, whomever he was, having the task of following his vision, one of questioning power, even if that pursuit is disinterested, maybe especially because it is disinterested, has a populist ring to it.)

By which I mean, in contrast to an attitude of I know better, I am superior, I will show you disorganized slobs how to better manage your lives, the commercial selling of a whole life-cut out for us in neat patterns. That's creativity of another sort, often involved with creating wealth for wealth's sake, no? A house of tight perfection--no thank you. (I'll live my own way, see the light on my own, thank you.)

Some of us, I gather, just aren't cut out for a lucrative lot in life.

Lear asked for a show from his daughters, each to put on an act of how they loved him. Shakespeare rebelled against having to make such behavior, for he had that within which passeth show, a natural organic vision that let him, through his own basic instincts, understand everyone.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Reading from Kerouac's letters, as put together by Ann Charters, we get from time to time a sense of the writer asking, what more can I do? "I've been employed, worked all sorts of physical jobs. I wrote when physically not impossible, battling discouragement, a lack of support, and maybe even some sniping from my fellows." What more can you do? You just keep going, and pretend, or just shrug at the great lack of security the future holds. "At least they could publish my book."

Ginsburg, acting as an agent, was often more critical than positive, suggesting to Jack that he make changes, and get rid of some 'bad crazy.' And so, On the Road, and all its related manuscripts, edited versions, etc., just sat around, and Kerouac despaired. He goes back to Rocky Mount, to his sister's house, takes a job in a textile factory. And this is after much toil, and hard railroad work, travels, times starving, all sorts of stuff. Rites of passage, he had them. More than we would know.

But there you are, suppose, in that moment, in that sentiment, where you just keep going, even though you are 35 and nobody and maybe even a family joke. That must be, is, when you reach a confirmation, a belief in the great artistic instincts within. Then you see, maybe, how perfect your book is. It is perfect at being what it is, and no one can criticize it. Kerouac was perfect at doing what he was doing. It hadn't been done before.

Whether or not he was right or wrong--eternity and the divine, quite beyond us, to know the difference and be the judge--there is great power to his work, an achievement, a spiritual accomplishment, flawed as it may be. And that is hard for a mortal to do.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Kerouac seems predisposed to understand Buddhism on so many levels. In the public library in San Jose, he found what he was looking for in Dwight Goddard's Buddhist Bible. He was studious about it.

Visions, he had. It's happy news he brought, though tinged with a certain sadness, one that's okay to feel, that doesn't cause you to be carried away. "Go moan for man," he wrote, or rather heard from a passing hobo of some sort. Like Buddhism, happy news though it is, it doesn't seem like a sure thing that people would want to know this sort of stuff about themselves. Maybe to extents and degrees, some of it can be accepted, some of how gentle they are by nature, how passive one must be. But yes, not much of it makes any sense. And the skeptical will remain so, saying, 'why should I believe someone with a vision?' Why should I buy the many preoccupations that On the Road offers a reader? 'Why should I get caught up with this "I think of Dean Moriarty" crap?'

Later on, of course, compliments are paid. The work is understood. But in the meantime, it must have looked like, as life is, a huge lack of security to everything. As life had been for him in many ways all along.

On the Road is not just a book, in the sense of a book being an account. It goes forward with producing a vision, just as it departs from the tradition of the European novel. Not just a novel, but from real life, and on the verge of being a political statement, as if it had lingered long in the background of the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, waiting to come out, saying something akin to 'all men are created equal.' Most novels really don't have vision, except here and there, hidden, subtle.
I like the way people here in Washington say words. "Chicken," as spoken in an office when the freedom of lunch break is tangible, is one of them. Spoken, it is a term full of inflection. It evokes mouth-watering and lip smacking, reminds one of fingers too pleasantly dirty with tasty greasy spice to touch all those tiresome pieces of paper, phones, computers, etc. Trying to capture that sound, that claim to membership in the human clan, it seems we begin with an exhaled 'chuh' sound, simultaneously blended 'ehhh,' as if stirring them together in a mixing bowl, once brought together in the appropriate desire and anticipation, just so, a cluck deep within the gullet, not far away from a voice breaking with real emotion, remnants of a clicking language deep in the physical past, readies the word to swallow the inhaled ending syllable, itself almost a whisper, like pulling a blanket over a lover once both comfortably put away. The word goes across the blank screen of everyday grey conversation like the heartbeat on an EKG monitor. It can be said over and over, and everyone will go 'mm, mmm, mmmm.' That's right. Chicken. Said like your voice was the knife, the word itself butter, spreading across the sweet airy bread of life.

And here too there is another word that comes across with such guttural passion. Maybe it is said quieter, with a beat before it, as if one were looking about to let in others on a secret, one containing justifiable pride. "The... administration." Man, it will make your hairs stand up.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Hank Williams

I hope Al Qaeda is watching Crazy Heart tonight, wherever they are. I hope they're getting a bond of humanity with us, looking up Townes Van Zandt on iTunes. Maybe singing. Getting the guitars out. Letting the fire rip. Maybe the recording equipment, too. "Oh, did you see Once?" Who knows, maybe Bin Laden secretly likes The Pogues.

It's hard to carry hatred that long, when there's music.