Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Michael Grant

The man up the tree

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In his remarkable book The Sound of the One Hand, the author Yoel Hoffmann provides a translation and commentary for one of the most famous of all Zen koans, which is usually known as “The Man Up the Tree.” Here’s Hoffmann’s version:

Zen Master Kyōgen said, “Let us suppose that a man climbs up a tree. He grips the branches with his teeth, his hands do not hold onto the tree, and his feet do not touch the ground. A monk below asks him about the meaning of our founder coming from the west. If he does not answer, he will be avoiding the monk’s question. But if he opens his mouth and utters a word, he will fall to his death. Under such circumstances, what should the man do?” A certain monk by the name of Koto said, “Once the man is up the tree, no question should be raised. The man should ask the monk if the latter has anything to say to him before he goes up the tree.” On hearing this, Kyōgen laughed out loud. Later, Master Setchō commented, “It is easy to say it up on the tree. To say it under the tree is difficult. So I shall climb the tree myself. Come, ask me a question!”

A koan is a question traditionally posed by a Zen master to a novice, and according to Hoffmann, there’s a “correct” answer for each one, in the form of a ritual response or gesture: “In some cases, the answer simply consists of a repetition of the essential phrase within the koan. In other cases, it adds a somewhat different variation of what is already implied in the koan. The best answers are those which through an unexpected phrase or action provide a flash of insight into the koan’s meaning.” And I’ll get to the “answer” to this koan in a moment.

I found himself thinking about the man up the tree shortly after yesterday’s horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas. More specifically, it came to mind after I read the comments from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was clearly shaken by the attack, but who also responded to questions about gun control: “There will certainly be a time for that policy discussion to take place, but that’s not the place that we’re in at this moment.” If this rings a bell, it’s because it’s highly reminiscent—as David Dayen of The New Republic has pointed out—of the statement made last month by Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, about the debate over climate change in advance of Hurricane Irma:

To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced…To use time and effort to address it at this point is very, very insensitive to this people in Florida.

I don’t want to overanalyze the political calculation here, which seems both instinctive and fairly obvious—if this isn’t a good time to discuss these issues, it’s because there will never be a good time. But it also left me with the picture of an entire culture hanging over a precipice, afflicted by existential risk and unable to open its mouth to talk about it. As Koto says: “Once the man is up the tree, no question should be raised.” Or as Lisa Friedman of the New York Times wrote more than three weeks ago: “In Washington, where science is increasingly political, the fact that oceans and atmosphere are warming and that the heat is propelling storms into superstorms has become as sensitive as talking about gun control in the wake of a mass shooting.”

A koan isn’t the same thing as an argument, and the image that this one presents isn’t entirely clear. (I’m not even sure who the man in the tree is supposed to be in this scenario. Is it me? The government? All of us? Scott Pruitt?) But it rings true as a commentary on life itself, in which we’re constantly suspended by the teeth. Two months ago, I wrote of the state of perpetual emergency that Jesus saw in the coming of the kingdom of heaven, which the historian Michael Grant insightfully discusses in light of the parable of the unjust steward:

How shocking…to find Jesus actually praising this shady functionary. He praised him because, when confronted with a crisis, he had acted. You, declared Jesus to his audience, are faced with a far graver crisis, a far more urgent need for decision and action. As this relentless emergency approaches you cannot just hit with your hands folded. Keep your eyes open and be totally apart and prepared to act if you want to be among the Remnant who will endure the terrible time.

I quoted these lines in August in response to the violence in Charlottesville, which seemed at the time like the most urgent manifestation so far of our own emergency. Now its memory threatens to fade, effaced by the seemingly endless succession of crises—large, small, and ludicrous—that have followed. It isn’t a political strategy or a run of bad luck, but the way of life that we’ve bought for ourselves. This is how it’s going to feel to be alive for the foreseeable future. And the best image that I’ve found for it is that of the man clinging by his teeth to the branch.

So what’s the answer? Master Setchō says that it’s easier to reply to the question when you’re in the tree than under it. Hoffmann explains: “Setchō’s quasi-paradoxical comment implies that the concrete problem of being caught up in a tree…is not to be confused with abstract speculations.” But it might also mean that it’s exactly in the moment of greatest danger that the best answer is likely to be given, if only we can manage to say it. Meanwhile, here’s the “correct” answer that the student is supposed to offer, which, at first glance, doesn’t seem especially helpful:

The pupil stands up and takes the pose of hanging down from a tree. With certain masters, there are pupils who may stick a finger in the mouth, utter, “Uh…uh”; and, shaking the body slightly, give the pretense of one trying to answer but unable to…The pupil pretends to fall from a tree. Landing on his bottom, he says, “Ouch! That hurt!”

But there’s a message here that I find faintly encouraging. The man falls from the tree—but he doesn’t die. Instead, in a moment of slapstick that recalls the comic hero, he lands on his bottom. It stings, but he’ll recover, which implies that the risks of opening one’s mouth are less hazardous than the alternative. And perhaps Hoffmann gets closest to the truth when he says:

It is plausible to assume that a man who holds onto a tree with his teeth would fall anyway. Answering or not answering the question is not his most urgent problem. What he needs is not philosophy, but somebody who is kind and courageous enough to help him down.

Written by nevalalee

October 3, 2017 at 8:03 am

The gospel of singlemindedness

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It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

—Upton Sinclair

A few years ago, I started reading, but didn’t manage to finish, the New Age classic The Teachings of Don Juan. Its author, the late Carlos Castaneda, has been convincingly revealed as a talented writer of fiction who sold millions of copies of his books by presenting his work as anthropology. As Richard de Mille writes in Castaneda’s Journey: “[Castaneda’s] stories are packed with truth, though they are not true stories, which he says they are…[He is] an ambiguous spellbinder dealing simultaneously in contrary commodities—wisdom and deception.” (De Mille would have known—he was one of L. Ron Hubbard’s earliest followers before breaking away from the dianetics movement.) But I’ll take good advice wherever I can find it, and there’s one passage in The Teachings of Don Juan that I think about all the time:

A man of knowledge needed a rigid will in order to endure the obligatory quality that every act possessed when it was performed in the context of his knowledge…A man of knowledge needed frugality because the majority of the obligatory acts dealt with instances or with elements that were either outside the boundaries of ordinary everyday life, or were not customary in ordinary activity, and the man who had to act in accordance with them needed an extraordinary effort every time he took action. It was implicit that one could have been capable of such an extraordinary effort only by being frugal with every other activity that did not deal directly with such predetermined actions.

I think that Castaneda, whatever his flaws, is getting at something important here that I haven’t seen fully explored in other discussions of frugality and simplicity. A simple life is undoubtedly worth pursuing for its own sake, but it’s also a means to an end, allowing for an almost frightening degree of concentration and prolonged attention to problems that would otherwise be impossible to address. When you look closely at our most celebrated exemplars of voluntary poverty, from Spinoza to Thoreau, you realize that their underlying motivation is an ethical or intellectual ambition too vast—and maybe too dangerous—to be contained within a conventional life, and this extends to the most famous role model of all. In Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, the Cambridge professor Michael Grant writes:

The disciples had to be equally singleminded. Not only must food, drink, and clothing be totally unimportant in their eyes, but they must abandon everything they possess in order to take part in Jesus’ installation of the Kingdom…Peter declared: “We have left everything to become your followers.” By doing so they had become “pure in heart,” singleminded and free from the tyranny of a divided self…It was because of his insistence on this singlemindedness that [Jesus] took so much notice of children, allowing them to be in his company and praising their simplicity…Feelings of kindly tenderness were not in fact the reason why he paid them so much attention…It is the total receptivity of children that he is praising: and for his disciples, too, the implication was that they must be equally receptive in their wholehearted devotion to the one and only aim that is worth pursuing: admission to the Kingdom.

Not surprisingly, the examples of simplicity that stick in our heads tend to be the ones that that seem the most difficult to emulate. Jesus, as Grant notes, “emphasized the point in terms which, even allowing for Middle Eastern hyperbole, displayed formidable starkness,” as when he said to the disciple who asked for permission to bury his father first: “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their dead.” Thoreau couldn’t even live by his own principles for more than a couple of years, while Castaneda’s version is basically imaginary. Yet it’s only by measuring ourselves against such extreme cases that we can hope to make incremental changes in our own lives. If you’re a writer, you learn to pare away everything else to the extent you can, simply because of “the extraordinary effort” required each time you face a blank page. And doing good work of any kind calls for resources that we can only allocate to it if we’ve taken the time to structure our lives accordingly beforehand. Human beings are fallible and weak, and most of us can only act with moral integrity after we’ve systematically reduced the obstacles that prevent us from doing so. It’s hard enough as it is, so there’s no point in making it any more difficult than necessary. In theory, we could gain the freedom for what Castaneda calls “the exercise of volition” by becoming sufficiently rich and powerful, but in practice, it’s easier and less compromising to go about it the other way. As Thoreau famously writes: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind…None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty.”

The key word here is “impartial.” Our lives are full of entanglements, and our ability to respond in a crisis requiring extraordinary effort has less to do with our inherent worth than with the pragmatic choices that we’ve already made. For another extreme case, you don’t need to look any further than the events of the past weekend. If Donald Trump resisted making the denunciation of white nationalism that even members of his own party were able to provide, it isn’t so much because he’s uniquely horrible as because of certain facts about his rise to power. Trump can seemingly pick fights with anyone except for Vladimir Putin and white supremacists. He cannot do it. And it’s in large part because he’s trapped. I don’t know what Trump actually believes, but he’s the embodiment of Upton Sinclair’s man whose salary depends on his not understanding something. True empathy requires “extraordinary effort” and singlemindedness, and the choices that we’ve made in the past affect our actions in the future. In his discussion of the Parable of the Unjust Steward, which is perhaps the strangest story in the gospels, Grant writes:

How shocking…to find Jesus actually praising this shady functionary. He praised him because, when confronted with a crisis, he had acted. You, declared Jesus to his audience, are faced with a far graver crisis, a far more urgent need for decision and action. As this relentless emergency approaches you cannot just hit with your hands folded. Keep your eyes open and be totally apart and prepared to act if you want to be among the Remnant who will endure the terrible time.

Strip away the eschatological language, and you’re left with the message that this crisis is happening all the time. The only way to act properly is to remove everything that prevents us from doing otherwise. And if we wait until the emergency is here, we’ll find that it’s already too late.

Edit: Never mind—it turns out that we do know what he actually believes

Loving the alienator

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Donald Trump

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

—Mark 8:36

Whether or not you’re a believer, you eventually end up with your own idea of who Jesus might have been. I like to think of him as the ultimate pragmatist. If you accept his central premise—that the kingdom of heaven, whatever it is, is something that is happening right now—then his ethical system, as impossible as it might seem for most of us to follow, becomes easier to understand. It’s about eliminating distractions, focusing on what really counts, and removing sources of temptation before they have a chance to divert us from the true goal. Poverty, as Michael Grant puts it in Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, is a practical solution to a concrete problem: “Excessive wealth might be a positive disadvantage, since its too lavish enjoyment could distract its possessors from the overriding vital matter at hand.” And as Grant observes elsewhere:

Certainly, “blessed are the meek”…but that is because “they shall inherit the earth.” Since nothing less than this is at stake, a contentious spirit is wholly out of place, for it will only distract attention and energy from the preeminent task. It is not even worth hating your enemies…In the urgent circumstances, Jesus believed, it was a sheer waste of time. Love them instead, just as much as you love everyone else; pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek. For why not avoid hostilities and embroilments which, beside the infinitely larger issue, are ultimately irrelevant and distracting?

“Love your enemies,” in other words, is nothing but sensible advice. Which doesn’t it make it any easier to do it for real, rather than merely paying it lip service, when it strikes us as inconvenient.

Take the case of Donald Trump. It’s fair to say that I feel less love toward Trump than I do toward any other American public figure of my lifetime. At my best, I just want to go back to the days when I could safely ignore him; at my worst, I want him to suffer some kind of humiliating, career-ending comeuppance, although I’m well aware that real life rarely affords such satisfactions. (If anything, it’s more likely to give us the opposite.) I’m also uncomfortably conscious that this is exactly the kind of reaction that he wants to evoke from me. It’s a victory. No matter what happens in this election, Trump has added perceptibly to the world’s stockpile of hate, resentment, and alienation. Hating him and what he stands for is easy; what isn’t so easy is trying to respond in ways that don’t merely feed into the cycle of hatred. The answer—and I wish it were different—is right there in front of us. We’re told to love our enemies. Jesus, the pragmatic philosopher, knew that there wasn’t time for anything else. But when I think about doing the same with Trump, I feel a bit like Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, when she realizes that love is the only weapon that will work against IT, the hideous brain that rules the planet of Camazotz:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

The italics, as always, are mine. It isn’t too much to ask. But it’s one thing to acknowledge this, and quite another to grant that we’re obliged to do it for someone like Donald Trump.

The Simpsons episode "Brush with Greatness"

So here’s my best shot. Trump grew up wanting nothing more than to please his own demanding father. Early in his career, he was just one real estate developer among many. He ended up concluding that the only values worth pursuing were the acquisition of money and power, abstracted from any possible benefit except as a way of keeping score. What’s worse, he received plenty of validation that his assumptions were correct. He’s never had any reason to grow or change. Instead, as we all do, he’s become more like himself as he’s aged, while categorizing the human beings around him as sources of income, enemies, or potential enablers. Behind his bluster, he’s deeply insecure, as we all are. He refuses to take responsibility for his actions, he can’t admit a mistake, and he blames everyone but himself when things go wrong. (When he says that the first debate was “rigged” because someone tampered with his mike and the moderator was against him, I’m reminded of what David Mamet says in On Directing Film: “Two reasons are equal to no reasons—it’s like saying: ‘I was late because the bus drivers are on strike and my aunt fell downstairs.’”) He seems unhappy. It’s hard to imagine him taking pleasure in reading a book, preparing a meal, or really anything aside from trolling the electorate and putting his name on buildings and planes. He appears to have no affection for anyone or anything, except perhaps his own children. And he’s the creation of forces that even he can’t control. He’s succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, but only by becoming the full-time monster that was only there in flashes before. Trump uses the system, but it also uses him. He has transformed himself into exactly what he hopes people want him to be, and he’s condemned to do it forever. And when the end comes—”As it must to all men,” the newsreel narrator reminds us in Citizen Kane—he’ll have to ask himself whether it was worth it.

I know that this comes perilously close to what the onlookers say after seeing Marge Simpson’s nude portrait of Mr. Burns: “He’s bad, but he’ll die. So I like it.” But it’s the best I can do. I can’t love Trump, but I can sort of forgive him, and pity him, for becoming what he was told to be, and for abandoning what makes us human and valuable—empathy, compassion, humility—in favor of an identity assembled from who we are at our worst. In a way, I’m even grateful to him, for much the same reason that George Saunders expressed in The New Yorker: “Although, to me, Trump seems the very opposite of a guardian angel, I thank him for this: I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail. But I imagine it that way now.” If Trump didn’t exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. He’s a better cautionary tale than any I could have imagined, because he won the trappings of success at a spiritual cost that isn’t tragic so much as deeply sad. He’s like Charles Foster Kane, without any of the qualities that make Kane so misleadingly attractive. When I think of the abyss of his ego, which draws like a battery on the love of his supporters and flails helplessly in every other situation, it feels like the logical extension of a career spent in the pursuit of wealth and celebrity divorced from any other consideration beyond himself. Like all mortals, Trump had exactly one chance to live a meaningful life, with greater resources than most of us ever get, and this is what he did with it. The closest I can come to loving him is the acknowledgment that I might have done the same, if I had been born with his circumstances and incentives. He’s not so different from me, as I fear I might have been in his shoes. And if I love Trump, in some weird way, it’s because I’m thankful I’m not him.

Written by nevalalee

September 30, 2016 at 9:28 am

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