Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘R.H. Blyth

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.

Four ways of looking at simplicity

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Carlos Castaneda

A man of knowledge needed frugality because the majority of the obligatory acts [for acquiring knowledge] 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.

Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan

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. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. We know not much about them. It is remarkable that we know so much of them as we do. The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Stewart Brand

Personally I don’t like the term [voluntary simplicity]…I’m more comfortable with the idea of “right livelihood,” which is one of the folds of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s less of an exhortation than an observation—greedy behavior makes a sour life. The idealism of “Voluntary Simplicity” is okay I suppose, but it obscures what I find far more interesting—the sheer practicality of the exercise.

Stewart Brand, The Next Whole Earth Catalog

Sometimes the inculcation of poverty may be a concession to human weakness, which finds the golden mean so difficult. Poverty then appears as a kind of universal Prohibition. Confucius says rightly,

I know why men do not walk in the Way: the clever go beyond it, the stupid do not reach to it. I know why men do not understand the Way: the virtuous exceed it, the vicious fall below it.

But actually the sweetness and light of the Way of the Mean comes from complete, absolute poverty, for as Milton says in Samson Agonistes,

What boots it at one gate to make defense,
And at another let in the foe?

Poverty appears again as a form of safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house.

R.H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

The one question, revisited

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Byzantine necklace

Yesterday, I quoted the architect Christopher Alexander on the one overriding question you can always ask when presented with two alternatives: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” It’s a test that can be used to make choices in life, art, and architecture, and in many ways, it’s the best and only question worth asking. At first glance, however, it seems to fly in the face of what I’ve said numerous times on this blog about the importance of objectivity and detachment. I’ve argued to the point of redundancy that art of all kinds has something of the quality that T.S. Eliot identified in poetry: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” David Mamet goes further: “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” I suspect that Mamet—who often uses architectural metaphors when he writes about craft—would initially be a little suspicious of Alexander’s test, and that he’d say that the real question isn’t “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” but “Which of the two gets the job done?”

But if you were to ask me whether I believe Alexander or Mamet, my only answer would be: I believe in both. When Alexander asks us to look for a true picture of the self, he’s not speaking in autobiographical terms, or even about personality. (Hence the more depersonalized version of the same question: “Which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?”) It’s more an issue of the deeper response an object evokes of naturalness, rightness, or life—which are all qualities that can be found in objects in which the self of the maker seems all but absent. You can think of it as the difference, say, between a personalized necklace from SkyMall and the Byzantine necklace pictured above: one of them seems to have more of me in it, but when I ask myself which one I’d prefer to become when I die, the answer is obvious. On a much higher level, it’s the difference between Shakespeare’s sonnets and something like Prospero’s speech to Ferdinand, which, as George Saintsbury points out, is placed in The Tempest almost arbitrarily. At first, the sonnets seem to have more of Shakespeare the man, but I don’t think there’s any question about which is the truer portrait.

SkyMall necklace

Poets, like Eliot, have always been at the leading edge of objectivity, and from Homer onward, the greatest poetry has been that in which the authorial “I” never appears but is somehow everywhere. In Zen in English Classics and Oriental Literature—which, like Alexander’s A Pattern Language, is one of the two or three essential books in my life—R.H. Blyth provides a useful list of examples of objective and subjective poetry, the latter of which he calls “a chamber of horrors.” On the objective side, we have:

A certain monk asked Hyakujo, “What is Truth?”
Hyakujo said, “Here I sit on Daiyu Peak!”

And on the subjective side, a passage from Yeats:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Comparisons, as John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, are odious but instructive, and it’s hard not to read these two passages and conclude that the first not only has more of Hyakujo in it, but more of Yeats.

In fact, you could even say that the essence of art lies in finding objective, impersonal images that also serve as a picture of the self. If that sounds paradoxical, that’s because it is, and it goes a considerable way toward explaining why real art is so elusive. It’s a simple matter to write subjectively, acting as if your own thoughts and feelings were the only important thing in the world; it’s less simple, but still straightforward, to construct objective, technically considered works in which the self never appears; and it’s hardest of all to write, as Wordsworth did: “A violet by a mossy stone.” And the test has wider applications than in poetry. In software design, we’re hardly asking programmers to write code to serve as a self-portrait in letters: we’re happy enough if it runs smoothly and does the job it was meant to do. Yet I feel that if you were to show a good programmer two blocks of code and ask him to pick which one seemed like a better picture of himself, we’d get a meaningful answer. It wouldn’t have anything to do with personal expression, but with such apparent intangibles as concision, elegance, ingenuity, and clarity. It’s really a way of asking us to think intuitively about what matters, when the external trappings have been stripped away. And the answers can, and should, surprise us.

Dealing with distraction

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Henri Lefebvre

Today everything comes to an end virtually as soon as it begins, and vanishes almost as soon as it appears. But everything repeats itself and starts over again…As interest in it gets progressively weaker, so news becomes more rapid and concentrated, until finally, at the end of a shorter and shorter period, it wears itself out…News shrinks to the size of the socially instantaneous, and the immediate instant ends to disappear in an instant which has already passed.

These words might have appeared the other day, or been posted online a few seconds ago, but in fact, they’re over half a century old, written by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre. Nowadays, it seems that we’re all concerned by the problem of distraction—by a world that carves our attention spans into increasingly tiny increments—but it’s an issue that thoughtful people have worried about for a long time. The technology behind our present situation may be new, but the dilemma is as old as mass media itself: we’re bombarded by information on all sides and have the option of switching easily between countless streams of content, to the point where it feels as if our own thoughts are being driven out of our heads. Creative or meaningful thinking needs quiet time, circles of solitude and disconnection, and there are moments, as I pointed out yesterday, when they seem to be dwindling down to the size of a shower stall.

The quote from Lefebrve comes from a recent New Yorker piece by the writer Evgeny Morozov, who surveys some of the latest works on distraction—including three nonfiction books and a new novel by Dave Eggers—to see if they provide any insights on dealing with our ongoing deluge of stimulation. Morozov, who is in his late twenties, reveals that he owns a safe with a timer that he uses to lock away his Internet cable and cell phone, and he approvingly discusses the Dutch scholar Christoph Linder’s proposal that cities create “slow spots,” areas where visitors have no choice but to disconnect. Reading the literature of disconnection, I’m struck by how often it falls back on religious language or imagery: proponents talk of technological sabbaths, of tech-free retreats, of digital fasting. It’s a natural human impulse to want to withdraw from the world, and these days, the world of the flesh seems to have taken a digital form, as if it were an act of spiritual virtue in itself to turn off one’s phone and confront, for once, who we really are when we aren’t online. And like any form of renunciation, this runs the risk of confusing external trappings with the real inward changes it longs to create.

The author's desk

Because the real challenge isn’t learning to live without distraction, but learning to live with it, just as it’s more difficult to live a life of simplicity and renunciation within the city than in the desert. R.H. Blyth, in his great Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, quotes the Saikontan, the Japanese translation of the aphorisms of the Chinese philosopher Hong Zicheng: “The mark of nobility is to have nothing to do with power, reputation, wealth, and rank; but the noblest thing of all is to have these and yet be unaffected by them.” That’s how I tend to feel about distraction. People have been wasting time forever; a hundred years ago, we’d still find ways of procrastinating, of avoiding extended thought, or of confronting the tasks that really matter. The means by which we’re able to avoid these things may have changed, but the underlying impulse remains constant, and it has more to do with human nature than the particular form it takes. This only means that learning to live a productive life in the face of constant distraction doesn’t necessarily mean unplugging altogether—although for some people it wouldn’t hurt—but being able to integrate the forces competing for our attention more thoughtfully into our everyday lives. Renunciation, in itself, isn’t a bad thing, but it’s all too easy to return from that digital sabbath, or from any pilgrimage, to discover that we’re still the same as before.

And the first step is to acknowledge how wonderful connectivity, and even distraction, can be. My online life has informed my offline existence in countless ways: I’ve been exposed to ideas, writers, music, and media that I never would have discovered otherwise, and my creative life has been enriched accordingly. (As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the germ of the idea for my novel Eternal Empire was the result of a chance encounter with a book excerpt on a blog, and I never could have researched my novels and short stories as efficiently as I have without access to online materials.) At times, like everyone, I worry about my exposure to so much constantly refreshed content, which is when I pick up a book or a ukulele or a baby instead. But just as what we think about in the shower tells us a lot about what really matters to us, the things that distract us provide a glimpse into who we actually are. If we don’t like what we see there, there are ways of addressing it, but turning off the computer only addresses the behavior, not the actual cause. It isn’t easy to become a person who can absorb all these distractions without being consumed by them, and I’m far from being there myself. But if the first step is to occasionally unplug, the next is to plug back in, check your browser history, and ask how you want it to look tomorrow.

Books for a long journey

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A Pattern Language

Earlier this week, I read Keith Gessen’s fascinating account in The New Yorker of the voyage of the Nordic Odyssey, a bulk carrier with a load of iron ore that sailed from Russia to China through the melting Arctic ice. Gessen notes that one of the greatest challenges on a month-long voyage like this is boredom: deprived of email and alcohol, crew members tend to spend their time playing solitaire, watching downloaded television shows on their laptops, and engaging in epic ping-pong matches. Reading this, I began to daydream of the books I would take on such a voyage. I often like to ask myself what books I would keep if I were compelled, for reasons of space, weight, or minimalism, to restrict myself to a few compact volumes, and recently I’ve been thinking about this a lot, perhaps because, with a baby in the house, I’m not sure when I’ll take such a trip again. The books I’d bring would need to be dense, open to rereading, and small enough to fit in a small suitcase or backpack—which means that I’d need to leave Proust and The Annotated Sherlock Holmes behind. At the moment, in my private reveries, this is my traveler’s library:

1. Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. I’ve long been a devotee of R.H. Blyth’s eccentric, prickly masterpiece, but I’ve gradually come to see it as one of my indispensable books, and perhaps the only one I’d bring with me if, for whatever reason, I had to spend a year or two reading nothing but what I could carry. At heart, it’s an opinionated, sometimes cranky philosophy of life that owes as much to Jesus, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare as to the Zen of the title, and it comes closer than any other book I’ve found to laying out the virtues I strive, with mixed success, to apply to my own life: simplicity, detachment, and objectivity. It’s a distilled anthology of some of the world’s best poetry and prose, both east and west; a spiritual handbook; a guide to literary and artistic expression; and a mine of practical wisdom. I’ve turned to it constantly in recent years, in both good and difficult times, and it’s been an unfailing source of inspiration and pleasure. For decades, it’s been out of print and difficult to find, but I see with some satisfaction that an inexpensive reprint edition should be available in February. Pick it up if you can—I don’t think you’ll regret it.

The Five Gospels

2. The Five Gospels. Even if you’re an agnostic like me, it’s hard to deny that the gospels contain some of the most compelling distilled wisdom in all of literature, even if their message tends to be lost in interpretation and transmission. The genius of the Jesus Seminar has been its commitment to teasing out the core of the original teachings, using a sort of best consensus—based on a majority vote—of textual and historical criticism, and their findings are elegantly presented in this book, which prints the texts of Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and Thomas with colored annotations to indicate various degrees of perceived authenticity. You can quarrel with their methodology and assumptions, and many have, but it’s still riveting to be presented with what certainly feels like the center of what remains the most challenging of all ethical paths, if we’re willing to read it as closely as it demands: “Turn the other cheek.” “Blessed are the poor.” “Walk the second mile.” “Love your enemy.” And underlying it all is the seminar’s pithy admonition, which we’d all be advised to take: “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.”

3. A Pattern Language. Any great work of philosophy should also be full of useful advice, and the beauty of Christopher Alexander’s classic book—which is the best work of nonfiction of the past fifty years—is that it begins with a vision of the world on the level of nations and cities and brings it down to open shelving and window seats, while managing to remain a seamless whole. Reading it, it’s hard not to fall under the spell of its language and rhythms, which are simultaneously logical, soothing, and impassioned, and quickly come to seem like the voice of a trusted guide and friend. It’s primarily about architecture, but it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to all other aspects of one’s life, from political engagement to writing to web design. Each entry leads to countless others, while also inviting sustained thought and meditation. If I could give only one book to President Obama to read, this would be the one, and it’s also the book, above all others, that seems to offer the best tools to construct a meaningful life of one’s own, whether at home, on the road, or in a cabin on a ship in the Arctic Sea.

The practical bohemian, or the art of getting by

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You want to know the only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man? It’s that he’s a survivor.

Christopher McQuarrie, The Way of the Gun

The same is true for a writer who is still working after five or ten years. Writing for a living is an education, and not just in the obvious ways. After a few years of writing on your own, you’ve inevitably developed a bag of the usual narrative tricks—get into scenes as late as possible, cut all drafts by ten percent—but you’ve also learned some practical tools for survival. You know how to write a publishable short story in a couple of weeks, rather than the month or more it might have taken in the past. You know where to find cheap books. Like J.K. Rowling, you know the address of a café that will let you write for hours if you buy a cup of tea. Maybe you’ve gone through a period where you drank or smoked too much, and then hopefully managed to get beyond it. And you’ve met other artists who have figured out some of the same things.

Because the unseen, communal art of writing is that of surviving happily on very little. In his great Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, R.H. Blyth describes voluntary poverty as “safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house,”  which also explains why most writers, including myself, eventually decide to quit their day jobs. The optimal solution, obviously, is to have it both ways: to write and work a steady job, as many writers have indeed done. But for most of us, the time ultimately comes when you need to make a choice. And of the two extremes of being consumed by a non-writing career and renouncing it entirely, walking away seems the safer solution, even if it means giving up some material comfort. And if nothing else, a writer can take heart from the fact that the things he needs to survive—books, a little food, a source of caffeine—can be had for almost nothing.

Take all these tricks, add them up, and turn them into a culture and community, and you have the artist’s life. More specifically, you have Midnight in Paris. Most artists eventually come up with similar solutions to these problems, in a sort of convergent evolution, which is why bohemians in all times and places tend to resemble one another more than the societies around them. But the lifestyle is a means to an end, and one of the worst things we can do is romanticize this kind of existence for its own sake. Everything that we find romantic about the Lost Generation and other spiritual bohemians—the coffee shops, the cheap neighborhoods, even the drug and alcohol abuse—originated as a practical answer to a particular question. And the untidy life of a Fitzgerald or Henry Miller can only be understood as very specific solution to the problem of how to sit down and write for hours at a time.

A writer’s goal, as I see it, should be to combine the simplest possible external life with an inner life of great complexity. This may sound like a spiritual or mystical objective, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the result of cold, calculating pragmatism. Voluntary simplicity, enforced solitude, joining a community of artists, renunciation of other kinds of careerism—these may seem like ethical choices, but they’re as basic and value-neutral as any other set of tools. And if we tend to forget this, and get distracted by side issues, it’s only because getting by on one’s own terms inevitably leads, almost by accident, to a very interesting life. It took me years to realize that Tropic of Cancer wasn’t about sex, but a handbook of art and survival. And while we may be fascinated by the details, the artist’s ultimate goal should be to say, with Miller: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

Books for Christmas?

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First off, I don’t see how anybody can fail to love this kid, although apparently this video has generated more than a few negative comments on YouTube:

Personally, I love getting books for Christmas. And while yesterday’s post was about potential gifts for the writer in your life, today I’m going to be talking about a few personal favorites—a handful of rare or out of print books that might make a more unusual present for a discerning writer (or reader). Some are a bit hard to find these days, but I can’t imagine my own library without them:

1. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould. Leslie Klinger’s more recent edition is a fine piece of work, but for sheer reading bliss, it doesn’t hold a candle to Baring-Gould’s original version, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the best book in the world. While Klinger tries to be objective, Baring-Gould cheerfully favors his own theories about the identity of Watson’s wives, the location of Watson’s mysterious wound, and what, exactly, Holmes was doing during the Great Hiatus. The result is a monumental work that has probably given me more pleasure, over the years, than any other single book.

2. Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth. If I could own only five books, this strange but wonderful little volume would be among them. It’s ridiculously hard to find—there’s one used paperback copy available on Amazon for $25, which is the lowest price that I’ve seen in a while, and hardcover copies tend to run much more than that—but if you can track it down, it’s more than worth it. As well as a highly opinionated introduction to Zen, it’s one of the most idiosyncratic multicultural anthologies around, with much valuable poetry, both Eastern and Western, that I’ve never seen anywhere else. I don’t agree with everything that Blyth says—notably his low opinion of Coleridge—but this is still the closest thing that I’ve ever found, between book covers, to my own personal philosophy.

3. The Road to Xanadu by John Livingston Lowes. Speaking of Coleridge, this obsessive look at the composition of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is an unparalleled look at a writer’s creative process, as well as a compellingly odd book in its own right. Lowes begins by studying the scribbled quotations in Coleridge’s notebooks, and by tracing the quotes back to their original sources, he attempts to reconstruct the process by which the two great poems took shape, idea by idea, with one image leading to another. It’s speculative, eccentric, and probably unacceptable by current scholarly standards, but also riveting, with a lot of fascinating incidental material along the way. The footnotes alone are worth the price of a good used copy. (The novelist Toby Litt is particularly eloquent in his praise of this book, which you can read in an article here.)

4. World Tales by Idries Shah. Arguably the best book of folklore and fairy tales ever published, with a consistently entertaining and surprising selection of stories from throughout the world, complemented by Shah’s insightful thoughts on their origins and variants. You can buy a no-frills paperback on Amazon, but for the full experience, you’re better off tracking down a used hardcover copy of the illustrated edition, which features fantastic artwork by Brian Froud, Alan Lee, and other legendary artists. (Some of the illustrations might be a little scary, or smutty, for kids, but that’s part of the fun.)

5. The Limits of Art by Huntington Cairns. The fact that this remarkable anthology is out of print is a crime: it should be in every school and home library in the world. The concept is a simple one: it’s a collection consisting solely of works of prose and poetry that have been deemed, by one major critic or another, the best of their kind. Cairns reproduces the critic’s evaluation along with each passage—in translation and in its original language—and the result is like browsing through a compendium of the best that the human race can offer: the most famous passages of Shakespeare, Dante, and the rest, of course, but also a lot of welcome surprises. It’s hard to read even a few pages without being immediately humbled, and inspired.

One last thing: if Google would make copies of these books, especially 3 and 4, readily available online, it would single-handedly justify its digital bookstore’s existence. Google eBooks has already made it possible for me to read the books of George Saintsbury, most of which are out of print, and it needs to do the same for Blyth and Lowe. Is anyone in Mountain View listening?

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