Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

Zen and the Art of Pippi Longstocking

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Pippi Longstocking

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 8, 2016.

Last summer, at my local library, I checked out a copy of Pippi Moves In! by Astrid Lindgren and Ingrid Vang Nyman, the first English-language collection of their comic strip featuring Pippi Longstocking. These strips were originally published in the Swedish children’s magazine Humpty Dumpty in the late fifties, a decade after Lindgren’s classic novels first appeared, and although they caught my eye mostly because I hoped they would amuse my daughter, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them since. In the first strip, we’re introduced to a pair of ordinary children, Tommy and Annika, who live next door to an empty house in the village of Villa Villekulla: “It’s so stupid that nobody lives there,” Annika says. One night, Pippi Longstocking moves in, and when we first see her, she’s casually lifting a horse over her head. (“Nobody can lift a horse!” Annika exclaims. “I can,” Pippi casually replies.) “Tommy and Annika don’t know it yet,” the narrator informs us, “but she’s the strongest in the world.” Pippi lives by herself, with a suitcase of gold coins left by her absent father, and she immediately befriends the two kids, giving them presents—including “a nice dagger with a mother-of-pearl hilt” for Tommy—before telling them to come back to visit her again soon. The ensuing stories are charming in themselves, but the more I read them, the deeper they seem. In fact, Pippi is nothing less than a perfect example of the life of Zen, as outlined by R.H. Blyth in Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. Zen is notoriously hard to define, and the best you can do is learn to recognize it, like Judge Potter Stewart said of pornography, when you see it. Then you just point and say: “There it is.”

And there’s a lot of it here. Take Pippi’s two most salient qualities—her strength and her wealth. She’s the strongest girl in the world, but she never resorts to violence for its own sake, and she only uses her strength to gently reprimand unlikable adults, like the man who is beating his horse. (“Keep out of it,” the man says, “or else I might beat you too.” Pippi quietly breaks his stick and responds: “That won’t happen, because your stick is broken.”) Similarly, she blithely observes that she’s “as rich as a troll,” but she just uses her money to buy an entire store’s worth of candy to share with all the kids in the village. In other words, she has the kind of unthinking trust in her own limitless resources that only a child, or a Zen adept, possesses: she gives freely of everything, because she takes it for granted, and she knows that there’s plenty more where that came from. This circles back around to the paradoxical freedom that comes from voluntary simplicity and powerlessness, which become identical, in their inward sense of liberation, to the thoughtless wealth and strength that Pippi possesses. In fact, Pippi works hard, and she’s always absorbed in what she’s doing. She’s a “thing-searcher” who gets to keep whatever she finds on the ground, including “gold nuggets and ostrich feathers and dead rats and tiny little screws and things like that,” and she has to be dissuaded from laying claim to a drunk sleeping in a field, although she’s bothered by the thought that someone else will come along to swipe him. Pippi concludes: “Just think how stupid people are. They are carpenters and shoemakers and chimneysweeps, but no one is ever a thing-searcher. And it’s such a great job.”

Pippi Longstocking

Pippi’s wisdom has many of the qualities of a Zen koan, with Tommy and Annika serving as her bewildered novices. When Annika asks Pippi why she keeps a horse on her porch, Pippi replies: “Well, he wouldn’t be happy in the living room, and he’d just get in the way in the kitchen.” After being told that she can’t mix pancake batter with a bath brush, Pippi says: “Of course I can!” When she finds a large tin can, she puts it on her head to pretend that it’s the middle of the night, and she promptly tumbles over a fence. Sitting up, she says: “Imagine if I wasn’t wearing this can! I might have fallen on my face and really hurt myself.” When a teacher asks why she’s drawing on the floor instead of on paper, she sensibly responds that it’s the only way she’ll have room to draw her entire horse, and then she lies down for a nap. (As Blyth tells us: “That is all religion is: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired.”) Then there’s this classic exchange, after Pippi and her friends have gotten shipwrecked for fun on an island in the lake, and she dictates a message in a bottle:

Pippi: “Here’s what to write: ‘Help us before we perish. We’ve been pining away for two days on this island without any snuff.’”
Tommy: “I can’t write that!”
Pippi: “Why not? We don’t have any snuff, do we?”
Annika: “No, but we don’t use snuff.”
Pippi: “Exactly. That’s why we don’t have any. Just write what I said.”

I don’t think Lindgren was out to create anything more than wonderful entertainment, but whenever an author manages to write honestly and unsentimentally from a child’s point of view, while fully honoring the logic of childhood, the result is a glimpse into the heart of Zen. It’s why we’re told that we have to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. We see this in the Alice books, and in the Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist, of whom Blyth observes: “What seems to be at first impudence rises with an influx of energy into an identification of himself with the whole machinery of the Law.” But Pippi’s nearest relative is Don Quixote. As Blyth writes: “[Don Quixote] is in a state of muga, a state in which he himself is nothing, he seeks nothing for himself, his personality is always dissolved in the valor and glory of the action itself.” You could say much the same about Pippi, except that she succeeds where Don Quixote fails, even as they both embody what Blyth calls “entire engrossment, conscious and unconscious, in what one is doing.” (Blyth adds sadly: “We ourselves, as we read the book, have an underlying sense of shame that our lives are directed to the acquisition of all the things Don Quixote so rightly despised.”) And we need these qualities now more than ever. As it happens, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, which was out of print for decades, was reissued last year in an affordable paperback edition, and I’d encourage everyone to get a copy: it’s close to my favorite book in the world, and it wouldn’t make a bad present for a loved one, either. But you might do just as well if you only bought Pippi Moves In!

Zen in America

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In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik discusses the recent books Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright and Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism, the latter of which he calls “in many ways the most intellectually stimulating book on Buddhism of the past few years.” As with most of the articles under the magazine’s departmental heading A Critic at Large, it’s less a review than an excuse to explore the subject in general, and Gopnik ends up delivering a gentle pitch for Buddhism as a secular philosophy of life. He writes:

As for the mind’s modules [Batchelor writes], “Gotama [Buddha] is interested in what people can do, not with what they are…We may have no control over the rush of fear prompted by finding a snake under our bed, but we do have the ability to respond to the situation in a way that is not determined by that fear.” Where Wright insists that the Buddhist doctrine of not-self precludes the possibility of freely chosen agency, Batchelor insists of Buddhism that “as soon as we consider it a task-based ethics…such objections vanish. The only thing that matters is whether or not you can perform a task.”

This idea was enormously appealing to certain Americans of the nineteenth century, as Gopnik notes earlier on: “These American Buddhists, drawn East in part by a rejection of Gilded Age ostentation, recognized a set of preoccupations like those they knew already—Whitman’s vision of a self that could shift and contain multitudes, or Thoreau’s secular withdrawal from the race of life…The quietist impulse in New England spirituality and the pantheistic impulse in American poetry both seemed met, and made picturesque, by the Buddhist tradition.”

I find something especially revealing in the way that such adherents hoped to combat certain stereotypically American tendencies, such as material striving and competition, with the equally American notion of a “task-based ethics.” The promise of turning one’s preference for concrete action—or rules of behavior—from a weakness into a strength is very attractive to someone like me, and I’ve always liked R.H. Blyth’s memorable description of the training of a Zen novitiate:

I remember when I began to attend lectures, at a Zen temple…I was surprised to find that there were no lofty spiritual truths enunciated at all. Two things stuck in my head, because they were repeated so often, and with such gusto. One of them, emphasized with extreme vigor, was that you must not smoke a cigarette while making water. The other was that when somebody calls you (in Japanese, “Oi!”) you must answer (“Hai!”) at once, without hesitation. When we compare this to the usual Christian exhortatory sermon, we cannot help being struck by the difference.

But I’ve also learned to be cautious about appropriating it for myself. I’ve been interested in Zen for a long time, particularly since discovering Blyth’s wonderful books Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics and Haiku, but I don’t feel comfortable identifying with it. For one thing, it’s a complicated subject that I’ve never entirely gotten my head around, and I don’t follow its practice in fundamental ways. (I don’t meditate, for instance, although reading Gopnik’s article makes me think that I probably should.) My understanding of it is mediated through such Western interpreters as Blyth, and I feel less than qualified to talk about it for much the same reason that Robert Pirsig gives in his disclaimer to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “What follows…should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”

And my understanding of Zen can best be described as being not very factual on motorcycles. What I like about it is what Stewart Brand, speaking on the related issue of voluntary poverty, once called “the sheer practicality of the exercise,” and I’ve taken as much of its advice to heart as I can. It feels like common sense. The trouble, obviously, is that this extracts a tiny sliver of meaning from a vast spiritual tradition that most Westerners haven’t studied firsthand, and its cultural distance makes it easy for us to abstract whatever we want from it. As Gopnik points out:

[Batchelor’s] project is unashamedly to secularize Buddhism. But, since it’s Buddhism that he wants to secularize, he has to be able to show that its traditions are not hopelessly polluted with superstition…Batchelor, like every intelligent believer caught in an unsustainable belief, engages in a familiar set of moves. He attempts to italicize his way out of absurdity by, in effect, shifting the stresses in the simple sentence “We don’t believe that.” First, there’s “We don’t believe that”…Next comes “We don’t believe that”…In the end, we resort to “We don’t believe that”: we just accept it as an embedded metaphor of the culture that made the religion.

And Buddhism is probably more conducive to this “set of moves” by Americans than, say, Christianity, simply because it feels exotic and unfamiliar. If you look at the picture of Jesus that emerges from a study like The Five Gospels, you end up with a religious ethic that has important differences from Buddhism, but which also shares deep affinities in how it positions the self against the world. Yet it’s so tangled up with its history in America that secular types are unlikely to embrace it as a label.

Of course, this scavenging of traditions for spare parts is quintessentially American as well, and it comes out of an understandable impulse to correct our worst tendencies. In all honesty, I’m one of the least “Zen” people I know—I’m ambitious, competitive, and deeply invested in measuring myself against worldly standards of success, all of which I intend to renounce as soon as I’ve proven that I can win in all the conventional ways. It’s all very American of me. Yet it would be equally true to say that I’m drawn to the doctrine of nonattachment because I need it, and because it serves as a corrective to ingrained personality traits that would otherwise make me miserable. I’m not alone, either. Gopnik refers briefly to the San Francisco Zen Center and “its attempted marriage of spiritual elevation with wild entrepreneurial activity,” and the one thing that the most famous exponents of Zen had in common is that they were all hugely ambitious, as well as highly systematic in the way that they pursued their goals. You don’t become the spokesman for an entire religious tradition by accident, and I suspect that their ambition usually came first, and their lifelong effort to come to terms with it was channeled, not into withdrawal, but into a more active engagement with the world. This might seem contradictory, but we’re also simply more likely to talk about Blyth, Pirsig, D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and the rest than the nameless monks who did the sensible thing and entered a life of quiet meditation. It skews our picture of Zen a bit, in particular by presenting it in intellectual terms that have more to do with the needs of writing a book than the inner experience of a principled adept, but not to an extent that seems impossible to overcome. It may well be, as Gopnik notes, that “secular Buddhism ends up being…secularism.” But even if we arrive there in a roundabout way, or call it by different names, it still amounts to the best set of tools that we have for survival in America, or just about anywhere else.

Zen and the art of survival

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R.H. Blyth

It’s probably too late to buy it as a Christmas gift, but I wanted to mention that Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth, one of my favorite books, is now available in an affordable paperback edition from the Catholic publisher Angelico Press, after being out of print for decades. I’ve said before that if I could own just one book that had to fit in a backpack, it would be Blyth, and if there’s any time in which we could use his insights, it’s now. It’s a series of essays on such subjects as “Death,” “Children,” “Poverty,” and “Non-Attachment”—the last of which is so important that it gets four chapters to itself—and Blyth makes his points using copious quotations, anecdotes, and literary illustrations. His tone is captured by an aside toward the beginning:

I remember when I began to attend lectures, at a Zen temple…I was surprised to find that there were no lofty spiritual truths enunciated at all. Two things stuck in my head, because they were repeated so often, and with such gusto. One of them, emphasized with extreme vigor, was that you must not smoke a cigarette while making water. The other was that when somebody calls you (in Japanese, “Oi!”) you must answer (“Hai!”) at once, without hesitation. When we compare this to the usual Christian exhortatory sermon, we cannot help being struck by the difference.

Blyth continues: “I myself heard the ‘Oi!’ ‘Hai!’ so many times that I began to wait for it and look on it as a kind of joke, and as soon as I did this, I began to see a light, or ‘get warm’ as the children say. It is like the grooves of launching. Release the blocks and the ship moves.” Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics is a collection of grooves. It’s both the best anthology of poetry I know and a source of advice and ideas that are constantly rattling around in my brain:

That is all religion is: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired. But to do such simple things properly is really the most difficult thing in the world.

We ourselves, as we read [Don Quixote], have an underlying sense of shame that our lives are directed to the acquisition of all the things Don Quixote so rightly despised.

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

Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

What Blyth describes isn’t Zen, exactly, and if you’re looking for a more approachable introduction, you’re probably better off going with Blyth’s friend D.T. Suzuki, or maybe Pippi Longstocking. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take it as a primary text in itself, as channeled through its author’s specific experiences, tastes, and prejudices. To the extent that I have a personal philosophy, however rarely I manage to live up to it, it’s here. And it’s the last chapter, “Shakespeare,” that I’ve been thinking about the most. Blyth believed that Zen could be found in its purest form in poetry, even in doggerel, so it isn’t surprising that he devotes so much space to Shakespeare, who stands with Jesus and Bashō as one of the book’s central figures. On the very last page, Blyth 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.

This seems about right to me. But the most extraordinary thing about this book is left almost unspoken. In the closing lines of his preface, Blyth thanks his typist, Mrs. Saeko Kobayashi of Toyko, and he ends it with the simple words: “Kanazawa, May 1941.” It’s as evocative, in its own way, as the famous “Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921” at the end of Ulysses, which reminds us that the epic of Dublin was written in exile. Blyth was also working in a place and time that couldn’t have seemed less conducive to his subject or its reception, and it was about to get worse. In the preface to his other masterpiece, the four-volume study Haiku, Blyth writes: “Of the great number of Japanese books that I referred to while writing this and the succeeding volumes, hardly any escaped the air raids.” It wasn’t a period in which Japan itself seemed particularly emblematic of the life of Zen, and certainly not one in which most of his intended readers would be receptive to what it had to say. There are times when Blyth, quietly preparing his manuscript as the war raged around him, reminds me of the narrator in Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” working on his translation of the Urn Burial while the world as he knows it ends. But that’s how a lot of us feel these days, and the fact that Blyth emerged with his faith in Zen intact consoles me just as much as his book does. I can’t think of a better Christmas present—and even if it’s too late to give it to someone you love, you can always get it for yourself.

Zen and the art of Pippi Longstocking

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Pippi Longstocking

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Pippi Moves In! by Astrid Lindgren and Ingrid Vang Nyman, which is the first English-language collection of the comic strip featuring Pippi Longstocking. The strips were originally published in the Swedish children’s magazine Humpty Dumpty in the late fifties, a decade after Lindgren’s novels appeared, and although they caught my eye mostly because I hoped they would amuse my daughter, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them since. In the first strip, we’re introduced to a pair of ordinary children, Tommy and Annika, who live next door to an empty house in the village of Villa Villekulla. “It’s so stupid that nobody lives there,” Annika says. One night, Pippi Longstocking moves in, and when we first see her, she’s casually lifting a horse over her head. (“Nobody can lift a horse!” Annika exclaims. “I can,” Pippi replies.) “Tommy and Annika don’t know it yet,” the narrator continues, “but she’s the strongest in the world.” Pippi lives by herself, with a suitcase of gold coins left by her absent father, and she immediately befriends the two kids, giving them presents—including “a nice dagger with a mother-of-pearl hilt” for Tommy—before telling them to come back to visit her again soon. The ensuing stories are charming in themselves, but the more I read them, the deeper they become. In fact, Pippi is nothing less than a perfect example of the life of Zen, as outlined by R.H. Blyth in Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. Zen is notoriously hard to define, and the best you can do is learn to recognize it, like Judge Potter Stewart said of pornography, when you see it. Then you just point and say: “There it is.”

And there’s a lot of it here. Take Pippi’s two most salient qualities—her strength and her wealth. She’s the strongest girl in the world, but she never resorts to violence for its own sake, and she only uses her strength to gently reprimand unlikable adults, like the man she finds beating his horse. (“Keep out of it,” the man says, “or else I might beat you too.” Pippi quietly breaks his stick over her knees, and replies: “That won’t happen, because your stick is broken.”) Similarly, she blithely observes that she’s “as rich as a troll,” but she just uses her money to buy a store’s worth of candy to share with all the kids in the village. In other words, she has the kind of unthinking trust in her own limitless resources that only a child, or a Zen adept, possesses: she gives freely of everything, because she takes it for granted, and she knows that there’s plenty more where it came from. Freely given, it circles back around to the paradoxical freedom that comes from voluntary poverty and spiritual powerlessness, which become identical, in their inward sense of liberation, to the casual wealth and strength that Pippi possesses. In fact, Pippi works hard, and she’s always absorbed in what she’s doing. She’s a “thing-searcher” who gets to keep whatever she finds on the ground, including “gold nuggets and ostrich feathers and dead rats and tiny little screws and things like that,” and she has to be dissuaded from laying claim to a drunk sleeping in a field, although it bothers her that someone else will come along to swipe him. Pippi concludes: “Just think how stupid people are. They are carpenters and shoemakers and chimneysweeps, but no one is ever a thing-searcher. And it’s such a great job.”

Pippi Longstocking

Pippi’s wisdom has many of the qualities of a Zen koan, with Tommy and Annika as her bewildered novices. When Annika asks why she has a horse on her porch, Pippi replies: “Well, he wouldn’t be happy in the living room, and he’d just get in the way in the kitchen.” After being told that she can’t mix pancake batter with a bath brush, she says: “Of course I can!” When she finds a large tin can, she puts it on her head to pretend that it’s the middle of the night, and then tumbles over a fence. She sits up and says: “Imagine if I wasn’t wearing this can! I might have fallen on my face and really hurt myself.” When a teacher asks why she’s drawing on the floor instead of on paper, she sensibly replies that it’s the only way she’ll have room to draw her entire horse, and then she lies down for a nap. (As Blyth notes: “That is all religion is: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired.”) Then there’s this classic exchange, after Pippi and her friends have gotten shipwrecked for fun on an island in the lake, and she dictates a message in a bottle:

Pippi: “Here’s what to write: ‘Help us before we perish. We’ve been pining away for two days on this island without any snuff.’”
Tommy: “I can’t write that!”
Pippi: “Why not? We don’t have any snuff, do we?”
Annika: “No, but we don’t use snuff.”
Pippi: “Exactly. That’s why we don’t have any. Just write what I said.”

I don’t think Lindgren was out to create anything more than wonderful entertainment, but whenever an author manages to write honestly and unsentimentally from the point of view of a child, and honors the logic of childhood, the result is a glimpse into the heart of Zen: it’s why we’re told that we have to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. We see this in the Alice books, and in the Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist, of whom Blyth observes: “What seems to be at first impudence rises with an influx of energy into an identification of himself with the whole machinery of the Law.” But Pippi’s nearest relative is Don Quixote. As Blyth writes: “[Don Quixote] is in a state of muga, a state in which he himself is nothing, he seeks nothing for himself, his personality is always dissolved in the valor and glory of the action itself.” You could say much the same about Pippi, except that she succeeds where Don Quixote fails, even as they both embody what Blyth calls “entire engrossment, conscious and unconscious, in what one is doing.” (He writes sadly: “We ourselves, as we read the book, have an underlying sense of shame that our lives are directed to the acquisition of all the things Don Quixote so rightly despised.”) As it happens, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, which has been out of print for decades, has recently been reissued at last in an affordable paperback edition, and I’d encourage everyone to get a copy: it’s close to my favorite book in the world. But you would do just as well if you only bought Pippi Moves In!

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.

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