Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My great books #3: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

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Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

Like many young people of a certain disposition, I used to entertain a fantasy of giving away my possessions, leaving home, and traveling the world with nothing but what I could comfortably carry on my back. These days, that dream seems very remote: if nothing else, having children makes it much harder to justify. And even when I was “male, unmarried, and well-connected,” as E.B. White tartly characterized the ideal reader of Thoreau, there was one big barrier in my way: I couldn’t bear to leave all my books behind. If nothing else, though, I’ve always known which book I’d take with me if I were limited to just one: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth. Most readers might not recognize the title, but this little book has a lot to recommend it. My tattered paperback copy is small enough to fit into even the tiniest backpack. Along with so much else, it’s the most interesting anthology of poetry and prose, both eastern and western, that I’ve ever encountered. It’s a mine of insights and ideas that never cease to reward contemplation, no matter how many times we’ve studied them before. And of all the books I’ve read, it comes closest to expressing my own philosophy of life, which has less to do with Zen itself than with the quirky, peculiar amalgam that Blyth offers us here. His version of Zen has sometimes been called “limited,” but it’s less interesting as an objective exposition of existing doctrines than as a primary text in itself, as channeled through its author’s specific experiences, tastes, and prejudices.

R.H. Blyth himself was a fascinating figure, an Englishman who went to Japan before the war and never left, and whose work was largely responsible for introducing haiku to the west. Zen in English Literature is his masterpiece, an eccentric, sometimes ornery series of meditations backed by the poems of Bashō and the plays of Shakespeare. I don’t always agree with his aesthetic pronouncements—he despises Coleridge, whom I adore, and I’ve never been able to work up his degree of enthusiasm for Wordsworth—but the conclusions that he draws from the evidence are constantly rattling around in my brain. (His discussion of voluntary poverty, for instance, is the best I’ve ever found: Blyth describes it as “a form of safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house.”) It was one of the few books I brought with me on a recent visit to see my dying grandfather, and Blyth’s words on death and loss, while not exactly consoling, are indispensable. In the very last lines of the book, he quotes Macduff, who asks, after discovering that his entire family has been murdered: “Did heaven look on, / And would not take their part?” Blyth concludes:

What is the answer to the question? It cannot be given in Yes, or No, because as the question is understood by most people, it has the same form as, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” But you may say, “You are only equivocating: answer the question, does Heaven care for us or not?” The answer is the plays of Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, for when we are watching or reading the plays, and even for a short time afterwards, before the glow has died away, we know the answer. But it is not Yes, and it is not No.

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