Trey and Matt ftw!


The only little detail in this that jars is the gratuitous label at one point. Otherwise, it’s one minute and thirty-eight seconds of potent antidepressant animated brilliance. But how do they keep it together recording this? …


shi shi shi …

shi shi shi

(Apologies for the poor scan. It’s taken from Writing Systems: A Linguistic Approach, by Henry Rogers (Blackwell))

I love this very extreme example of Mandarin Chinese homophony: an entire story made up of a single syllable (though really four syllables of course, taking into account tonal quality).

Various people have recorded this literary masterpiece, the one below being my favorite…

“perhaps culture is now the counterculture” (2, regarding scientism)

Another excerpt from the commencement address recently given to Brandeis University by Leon Wieseltier, long-time literary editor at The New Republic:

Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic [one].

Owing to its preference for totalistic explanation, scientism transforms science into an ideology, which is of course a betrayal of the experimental and empirical spirit. There is no perplexity of human emotion or human behavior that these days is not accounted for genetically or in the cocksure terms of evolutionary biology. It is true that the selfish gene has lately been replaced by the altruistic gene, which is lovelier, but it is still the gene that tyrannically rules. Liberal scientism should be no more philosophically attractive to us than conservative scientism, insofar as it, too, arrogantly reduces all the realms that we inhabit to a single realm, and tempts us into the belief that the epistemological eschaton has finally arrived, and at last we know what we need to know to manipulate human affairs wisely. This belief is invariably false and occasionally disastrous. We are becoming ignorant of ignorance.

So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man…. You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it…. [You] are the counterculture. Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.

He concludes:

So keep your heads. Do not waver. Be very proud. Use the new technologies for the old purposes. Do not be rattled by numbers, which will never be the springs of wisdom. In upholding the humanities, you uphold the honor of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true and the good and the beautiful. For as long as we are thinking and feeling creatures, creatures who love and imagine and suffer and die, the humanities will never be dispensable. From this day forward, then, act as if you are indispensable to your society, because – whether it knows it or not – you are.


“perhaps culture is now the counterculture”: again, the humanities make us human

I’m not terribly familiar with Leon Wieseltier’s writing – he being the literary editor of the New Republic. But I just came across a commencement address he recently delivered at Brandeis that is about as rousingly superb a defence of the humanities as I’ve ever seen.

An excerpt (and one more in the next post):

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience….

The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information. Who will any longer remember that knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch-–that information is the most inferior kind of knowledge, because it is the most external? A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know, we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method. And the devices that we carry like addicts in our hands are disfiguring our mental lives also in other ways: for example, they generate a hitherto unimaginable number of numbers, numbers about everything under the sun, and so they are transforming us into a culture of data, into a cult of data, in which no human activity and no human expression is immune to quantification, in which happiness is a fit subject for economists, in which the ordeals of the human heart are inappropriately translated into mathematical expressions, leaving us with new illusions of clarity and new illusions of control.

linguistics in a flow chart (ish)

(click for higher resolution)

Well, I feel sorry for the oft-neglected morphologists, neglected again. As the bridge between phonology and syntax, their work tends either to be tacked onto the former or the latter, for some reason, denied sovereignty.

Beyond that, this is quite clever, though of course necessarily schematic. I don’t really fit, since my answer to the very first question channels me into only one option – which is not where I’d want to go. But when I choose the answer “several,” instead of “as many as possible,” it does in fact bring up the half of the diagram I’m most interested in, especially syntax, semantics (although the non-math kinds like lexical and cognitive), and pragmatics. (Hmm, but both first and second language acquisition are completely fascinating also – I suppose it’s only the upper right quadrant that holds less of an interest for me.)

Obviously the main purpose was to give some general sense of the range of linguistic enterprise while having some fun at the same time (can’t syntacticians function with young children?!).

It’s interesting how little the general public still knows about what linguists do. The most common view of course is that “linguists” simply learn many languages, ie that they are polyglots, rather than that they study language as such. So this chart may be helpful in giving a sense of the range of areas involved in the study of language, even if a little (tongue-in-) cheekily.

Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet

The New Republic has a wonderful appreciation, by Peter Green, of Paul Scott and his Raj Quartet (available in two handsome volumes in the Everyman’s Library here and here).

Green met and became friends with Scott during the war, in Calcutta, then later, back in London and interviewing for a literary agent in the ’50s, he found himself, purely coincidentally, seated across a desk from him. Scott served him as agent for six years, at which point – in 1960 – he became a full-time novelist. Several years later Green moved with his family to Greece for eight years, and then took up an academic post in the US (he is an esteemed classical scholar). So for the most part their contact during the last 15 years of Scott’s life was limited to letters.

The essay well captures what is so monumental an achievement in the novels:

What has always astonished me about The Raj Quartet is its sense of sophisticated and total control of its gigantic scenario and highly varied characters. The four volumes constitute perfectly interlocking movements of a grand overall design. The politics are handled with an expertise that intrigues and never bores, and are always seen in terms of individuals. Though Paul always saw the inevitability, and the necessity, of an end to the British occupation, and exploitation, of India, he still could see, and sympathize with, the odd virtues that the Raj bred in its officers. No one—certainly not E. M. Forster—has ever produced a subtler, more nuanced, picture of the Raj in action during its last fraught years, or of the seething, complex, and wildly disparate nationalist forces arrayed against it.

Evidently the ten-year process of completing the book took a shattering toll on Scott’s health; terribly sadly he didn’t live long enough to receive the full appreciation that would eventually come his way. Green’s essay spends some time pondering the mystery of the Quartet’s origins. In particular, he wonders how so great an achievement suddenly appeared, fully formed, out of the author’s previous corpus of work, which he describes as “good, but not in any way really exceptional.”

The Quartet remains a tour de force virtually without rivals. The question is, how? How did this middle-class suburbanite—who left school at fourteen, had no experience of diplomacy or the civil service, in India or anywhere else, and never set foot inside a British university in his life—suddenly, after a solid but hitherto no more than middling literary career, acquire the vision that brought the world of the fading Raj to unforgettable life, in a quartet of novels that for range and power have been compared to Tolstoy? Suggestions have not been wanting, most notably that his experience on the wrong side of the rigid social divisions operating in pre-war London suburbia gave him a sharpened insight into both native caste distinctions and the even more absolute British color-bar that he found in India. Others have pointed to his sexual ambiguity… There may be some truth in both of these theories, but since both stem from Paul’s early life, why did they not have the same transforming effect on his early fiction as they are alleged to have done on The Raj Quartet? The difference is as total, and as extraordinary, as the still not fully understood process by which a chrysalis becomes a butterfly.

“My Reincarnation” (documentary)

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This one took me by surprise. It’s a film documenting the relationship between the Dzogchen teacher Namkhai Norbu and his son, now known as Khyentse Yeshe (Dzogchen is a term indicating the pinnacle and most direct path within the ancient Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.) Filmed over the course of 20 years by Jennifer Fox, it surely must represent the most intimate visual portrait of a Tibetan lama to date. At times watching it, in fact, it’s hard to fathom how a family would put up with that degree of intrusion for so long: we see them at the dinner table, preparing for teaching events, and discussing all kinds of personal matters. It caused me to remember a comment in one of Trungpa Rinpoche’s books, to the effect that a bodhisattva has no room for privacy in their life at all, is completely open to the demands of the world.

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Namkhai Norbu, like a number of eminent teachers but unlike so terribly many more, managed to escape over the mountains from Tibet in 1959, during the Chinese invasion. He ended up in Italy, where he still lives, and married an Italian woman. At the beginning of the film his son Yeshi – as he was then called – is about 17, deeply respectful of his father but not all that connected to the practice of buddhism. We hear him lament the relationship he has with his father, which lacks the kind of ordinary, Italian familial warmth he wishes for.

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But that relationship contains an added wrinkle, because Yeshi, when still in his mother’s womb, was “recognized” as a tulku, the rebirth of a lama – in this case Namkhai Norbu’s own uncle, Khyentse Rinpoche (not the most famous such with this name, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, but a lama who died in Tibet at the hands of the Chinese). Without pressuring his son either to take up his vocation or even to practice, he nonetheless has made it clear how important a responsibility he feels is on Yeshi’s shoulders. And many others around him, too, have high expectations and await the time when he will begin to manifest as a teacher. Yeshi himself remembers many dreams he had at a young age of particular places in Tibet he had of course never seen. However, he chooses a job in the business world, marries, and begins raising a family.

The film moves leisurely through the years, giving us glimpses of Namkhai Norbu teaching and relating to his students.

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We see him, very ill, in a hospital bed, and then well again and out in the world (having decided, he says, that he needed to stay alive and continue teaching). And we also see – a highlight of the film – wonderful and equally up-close footage of the Dalai Lama during a visit to Italy (in the stills below Yeshi at about 17 is in the foreground).

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At a certain point I realized the film had crept up on me in a remarkable way. Yeshi begins involving himself more and more in Dzogchen practice and helping his father during teachings and empowerments. And then one day, without particular fanfare, he decides finally to visit Tibet, where he has been awaited by students of the previous Khyentse Rinpoche for over 40 years…

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Those for whom the entire tulku system is alien and maybe even suspect might not know what to make of this portion of the film. I place myself somewhat in the middle between such a group and those who have strong faith in that system – though probably a little closer to the former – yet I found these scenes very moving.

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The film ends with Yeshi beginning to teach as a lama himself – in a casual, 21st-century-style. He comes across as very genuine and open throughout the film, and in a scene between him and his father at the end there is a greater ease between them that is lovely to see. Here, Namkhai Norbu is playing the flute and joking that it would have been “much easier” if he’d chosen to be a musician instead of a teacher…

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In fact, I liked this so much I ended up watching it again a couple of days later… All in all, quite a beautiful look into the life of a beloved Tibetan lama, the pressures and difficulties of being a son of whom very much is expected, and the journey which the latter takes to come fully into his own.

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scientific certainty

(from an interview in the current issue of Buddhadharma with biologist Rupert Sheldrake):

In 1894, Albert Michelson, later to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, declared, “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote… Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”

Whoops. Within a generation quantum theory and general relativity would bring about such an “exceedingly remote” possibility.

Today the same kinds of claims are made for a great many theories that not only haven’t been established by centuries of rigorous work – as Michelson’s physics was. They haven’t even been properly understood, delineated, and “proven” the first time around. I’m talking about the infiltration of scientific certainties into various social “scientific” domains. Wild claims about genes for such notions as “gregariousness,” “altruism,” and “criminal personality” appear every week. But it is hard to see how these kinds of concepts are anything but trans-scientific in their profoundly imprecise and contingent natures.

(Even a one-dimensionally, completely measurable trait like height has about fifty genes connected to it, together only accounting for roughly 5 percent of a given person’s actual height, according to Sheldrake.)

That is to say, to quote from the interview again: “…human meanings, values, and purposes can only be understood in the context of human societies, traditions, philosophies, religions, and experiences.”

adieu Waterfront Video…

I haven’t been attached to a great many stores in my life but have been realizing over the past couple of weeks how much I will be missing Waterfront Video, which closed its doors on April 30 after nearly 17 years in business – I’d been a customer for the past six of those. (I unthinkingly began to link to their website just now, then remembered that of course it wouldn’t still be up, except that it turns out it is – which is even sadder…)

Waterfront made it far longer than most video stores in the country, in part due to the willingness of its owner to keep it going no matter what, and in part because it was quite special. It had a stock of something like 30,000 videos, a great many of which will never find their way into Netflix: all kinds of foreign, older, obscure, quirky titles that were always a pleasure to browse through no matter how many hundreds of times I’d been in the store. And the staff were the best – always cheerful, always happy to talk about movies.

Its loss has reminded me yet again of how relentless is the internet’s whittling away of physical, ie real, community. Since I happen to live alone, some nights a visit down there served an added function of connecting with the world in a small way, having a chat with the folks behind the counter, seeing what was new.

Netflix just ain’t the same, at all… They do their best and my queues aren’t going to run low anytime soon, but again, there will never be anything close to the selection of less popular films available there, with the streaming catalog being of course even more limited. One of the best things about Waterfront was that if at 9:00 you suddenly remembered a movie you really wanted to see, you could go down there and more often than not pick it up, having it back home ten minutes later. And with their 4-for-3, five-day-rental deal, you could bring back a varied selection in case your first impulse didn’t grab you. But in that situation now, if Netflix hasn’t got it on streaming – and the chances aren’t very good that it will – you’re out of luck. So even at the level of convenience, which is what online commerce is supposed to be all about, it’s a serious loss.

Who knows, maybe one day specialist providers might appear and over time build up eclectic collections of film that might come (somewhat) close to matching Waterfront Video. But even so they can never replace the experience of being in a real-live space, surrounded by real-live people, being able to browse through real-live video covers. My very last batch of four included films by Kieslowski, Jarmusch, Howard Hawks, and Ozu – none of which, and in fact probably none or almost none of whose films at all – are available on Netflix streaming. Sure, having to pay late fees sucked, but mainly because I was just too disorganized to get things back in time…

I was also really saddened to read in the Seven Days article of the loss of George Holoch, who’d worked at Waterfront almost from the beginning. He was an award-winning translator of French, with numerous books to his credit, and a nice man to chat with when I happened to be in there during the day, which was rare. My memory is of him reading The New York Review of Books with a late Beethoven Quartet playing over the speakers.

So another loss to “progress.” It’s going to take probably a few months before the thought stops popping into my head at 9 or 10 at night: hmm, maybe I should pick up Wings of Desire, just in case I feel like putting it on later, or see what’s just come in… Adieu Waterfront.

Cocteau Twins, Michael Franti, Radiohead

So my journal asked me what I would like for my birthday and I just said: “you know.” And lo, the following post has appeared…

So first up – oh yes, possibly the single most sublime song from one of the sublimest bands ever to have blessed the Earth. I have surely heard this at least 400 times, and somehow … it’s still every bit as heartmeltingly great.

And then there is a lullaby for the world from Michael Franti…

And … a dangerous final choice… Something about this that’s almost too shatteringly perfect for human ears…

“Futility” – Wilfred Owen

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

subu: a Georgian case-study in drugs policy

There is an interesting piece by Graeme Wood over at The New Republic on how Georgia dealt with the sudden epidemic in opiate use that began around the year 2000.

A drug called buprenorphine or Subutex (“subu” on the street) entered the country via France, where, in the mid-90s, it had become the most widely used substance in drug-substitution programs – ie for weaning addicts off of heroin. Evidently it is far superior to methadone in this regard: a mere 5% of the 2000 Georgians currently in a methadone program will ever come off successfully, according to a clinic director cited in the article. And methadone is dangerous too, building up in the body and causing an estimated 5000 deaths in the US each year. Subutex, on the other hand, appears to be much safer, several times longer-lasting than heroin (a single dose will reach 12-24 hours), and mellower, enabling users to function at a job quite normally for the most part.

So the drug arrived in Georgia, and at a time of high unemployment its popularity rapidly soared, to the point where some 1 in 20 Georgians, according to the article, were using “hard drugs.” Syringes littered the parks, tunnels, and alleys of Tbilisi.

What happened next makes for an interesting case-study in drug policy. Georgia’s new president at the time, the Columbia Law School-educated Mikheil Saakashvili, chose a US-style zero-tolerance policy – and then some – to stamp out the Subutex epidemic. Anyone at any time – 53,000 in 2007 – could simply be stopped on the street and forced to give a urine sample. First-offenders were fined, second-offenders imprisoned, causing the Georgian prison population to triple between 2004 and 2010.

According to the article, there have been two results of this extremely energetic and draconian set of policies, one perhaps surprising, the other depressingly familiar.

The surprising result is that, apparently, Subutex scarcely exists in Georgia today. From that standpoint, the policy was successful. But then, what has happened to all those addicted to it? Have they suddenly all gone drug-free? Well, some have, and a great many haven’t. The difference is that those who haven’t are now in greater danger.

Wood spent time interviewing “Pavel,” a law school graduate unable to find work in his field who operates a market stall and has been shooting up one thing or another for more than 15 years. After his release from prison, with no more of the relatively safe and controllable Subutex around, he turned to a horrifying concoction known as krokodil, consisting of codeine, toilet-cleaner, red phosphorus, and lighter fluid, which is as health- and soul-destroying as you would imagine it could be.

Now he is in a methadone program – with, again, a 5% chance of success, and at greater risk than when Subutex had been available.

One of Wood’s main points is that drug policies always create unexpected and mixed results even at the best of times. He notes that where – as in Ohio in 2012 – the smuggling trade in OxyContin has been broken up, heroin has a tendency simply to come in and fill the void.

Surely there are few public policy spectacles more depressing than the “drugs war,” which seems completely immune to all common sense and compassion. It’s hard to guess how much longer it will take before we recognize that criminalizing the profoundly human desire for intoxicants – found in all times and places – simply cannot succeed. Building a fundamentally saner, more nurturing and uplifted society would seem to be the only way that the more destructive forms of intoxication can diminish in attractiveness.

Far easier, however, to condemn those whose circumstances and history led them to a substance that happens to be different from one’s own…

“Take pleasure in the mid day”: Siri and Google Voice (try to) have a conversation…

… and remind us just how utterly human is language.

Why is language understanding/production so stupendously difficult to inculcate in a machine/software? Consider the various levels:

1) A language’s sound system is never simply a one-to-one mapping from symbol to a set of articulations, because sounds are always affected by their surrounding context too, in all kinds of ways. We’re almost entirely unconscious of this as we speak, but software must explicitly calculate everything. So every form of assimilation, say – whether it be forward-looking (anticipatory coarticulation), or as it were backward-looking (perseverative) – represents an additional syllabic possibility, and as English contains many homophones (though not even nearly as many as, say, Japanese), software has to come up with higher-level criteria in order to select one over another. Leading to:

2) All the intricacies of morphosyntax, which represent a creative capacity fundamentally irreducible to sets of algorithmic procedure.

3) But then, at the same time as a machine is grappling with all of that, it comes up against the semantic component of language, which again is an unthinkably more sophisticated system than a mere cataloguing of potential meanings word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase, involving intricacies within intricacies of nuance – figuration, irony, suggestion, metaphor, and on and on…

4) And even this isn’t the end of a poor machine’s travails, because semantics then shades into the level of language known as pragmatics, which involves everything connected to context (personal, social, cultural), and cohesiveness and reference internal to the entire current discourse – in short, a multitude of different kinds of understanding between people which don’t need to be explicitly expressed.

The end result of all these layers of difficulty?

We quickly go from: “…I expect some degeneration. Human Computer Interactions are prone to error, frustration, and often amusement. Humorous incongruities arise and superiority humor emerges as we take pleasure in the mistakes, misunderstandings, and limitations of software and machines.”

To: “I think that the generation human computer interactions airport to wherever castration in the office at and if you have to call me at either white and Terrier already and we have urgent that we take pleasure in the Patriot understanding on limitations of software and leaking.”


more on James Purdy and the “via negativa”

In the previous post I had recommended a fine piece on James Purdy’s short novel In a Shallow Grave. It is by Don Adams and can be found here, in the online journal Hyperion.

I’d tried to read some of Purdy’s work awhile back and was unable to finish. There is certainly no one quite like him, and he is not for everyone. His fictions continually push various kinds of stylistic, narrative, and thematic boundaries. The worlds he creates are never comfortable – or predictable. They contain much loneliness and repression, grotesqueries and obsessions, strange sudden violence.

I just made another (successful, this time) attempt however, with a different book – the aforesaid In a Shallow Grave – and after a day or two of absorbing it a bit further, letting it settle, have realized there is much I appreciate in it. Don Adams’s essay has helped further my understanding, making a strong and well-rounded case for the novel as spiritual allegory.

The story concerns – and is written in the rough narrative voice of – a man called Garnet Montrose, a war veteran so horribly disfigured by injuries that his appearance resembles someone turned inside out, his vein-exposing face (the color of “mulberry wine”) instantly emetic in effect to those who catch sight of him. He spends his days on the property he has inherited – near the Virginia coast – reading (or rather being read to) completely randomly from the miscellany of books in his grandfather’s collection, most of which he barely comprehends, having only received an eighth-grade education.

Into his life appear two “applicants,” helpers, somewhat younger men – one black, one white – one of whom reads to him and massages circulation back into his feet, the other of whom takes down dictated letters to Garnet’s old sweetheart, “the Widow Rance,” and delivers them, and who also, well … this is the mystery of the book, because this second “applicant,” one Potter Daventry, emerges as a strange kind of Christ-figure, though not quite like any I’ve come across before. There’s also an old deserted dance-hall – Garnet’s great “secret” – and a hurricane finale.

It’s a strange ride, but not without its own mysterious touches of tenderness and beauty. Garnet at the start of the novel is a man more than half-dead, a man whom almost no one can set eyes upon without uncontrollably retching. But the experience of love comes to him in unexpected and inexplicable ways, from Daventry, and from Garnet’s other companion, Quintus Perch.

I like this summation from the Adams essay:

[Purdy] … flies in the face of our intellectual culture’s predilection to believe that human nature and experience may be accounted for rationally in terms of the behavioral sciences. According to such theories, human nature is a series of hard-wired drives and impulses, genetic encodings and cultural adaptations, that may be thoroughly explored and explained, given a limited social and cultural context… Purdy’s entire effort as a fictive creator is to counter such assumptions regarding our ability to account rationally and exhaustively for human nature and experience as a whole. In his interview with Christopher Lane, Purdy bemoaned the failure of critics to comprehend his counter-conventional fiction, noting that, “intellectuals are the worst sinners because they want everything clear and life is not clear.”

Purdy’s fictive contrariness and negations, his creation of characters and worlds that are inexplicable in and through the behavioralist thought systems by which we typically account for our realities, is that against which readers habituated to mimetic realism often instinctively rebel when first encountering his fiction, as my experience with my students demonstrated. But readers who are willing to engage the text’s alternative realism on its symbolic and archetypal terms eventually come to understand that Purdy’s multiple-ramifying allegorized world, which refuses the consolations of the conventional in affirming the unfathomable mysteries of being, is paradoxically more true to life and more respecting of the real than the fictive mimicries of actuality we are more accustomed to encountering and consuming. For these willing initiates, Purdy’s unconscious allegories … serve as fictive revelations, prompting them to discover the affirming power and purpose of negation for their own lives and worlds.

Pseudo-Dionysius and the Heart Sutra

In an insightful reading by Don Adams (in Hyperion) of the James Purdy novel In a Shallow Grave, discussing the book as an allegory of the via negativa, I discovered this quotation from “Pseudo-Dionysius,” a theologian who wrote most likely around 500 CE:

The “Divine Cause of all,” says Dionysius:

…is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness…. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it.

This cannot help but remind me of the famous language of the buddhist Heart Sutra:

Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness…. There are no characteristics. There is no birth and no cessation. There is no purity and no impurity. There is no decrease and no increase. Therefore, Shāriputra, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no dharmas; no eye dhātu up to no mind dhātu, no dhātu of dharmas, no mind consciousness dhātu; no ignorance, no end of ignorance up to no old age and death, no end of old age and death; no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering; no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no nonattainment. [translation by the Nalanda Translation Committee]

It has long struck me that genuine wisdom traditions tend to have – and need, in order to be in a healthy state – both a “positive” and “negative” View, in balance with one another. By these terms are meant, respectively, a View which aims through language to reach – as near as possible – to a description of the nature of reality itself, and one which frustrates, which leads the inquirer explicitly away from, such an attempt.

Christianity seems to me largely to have lost the latter, leading to certain long-standing imbalances. Without a via negativa, the basic View of a spiritual tradition has a tendency towards reification and indeed, potentially, ossification. The approach of negation continually opens perception up and out, aerates it, maintains freshness and clarity. It reminds the practitioner of the fundamental ungraspability of truth. Indeed the negative way might, it seems to me, even be thought of as the approach of spaciousness.

Interestingly, buddhism more often suffers from the opposite problem to Christianity…

In the buddhist tradition, broadly speaking two ancient philosophical approaches predominate, again one “positive,” the other “negative.” The positive approach can be seen in the Cittamatra or “mind-only” school, the latter in the Madhyamaka. Madhyamaka – “deconstruction” some 2000 years avant la lettre – makes no positive assertions whatsoever about the nature of reality. Rather, it is purely a technique for revealing the inescapably relative nature of all such statements – both positive and negative! We seem to need both perspectives. A purely “positive” philosophy has a tendency towards “eternalism,” the denial of thoroughgoing interdependence, while a purely “negative” approach might lead to nihilism, its counterpart. Or – as sometimes happens within buddhist communities – to a certain coldness or harshness, or worse.

More generally, in the ravings of fundamentalism we see most clearly what happens when (in the old Zen parable) the pointing finger is mistaken for the moon, when the inherent relativity of all language, all concept, is forgotten.

A bit more on James Purdy in the next post.

the Karmapa on gender (2)

Continuing on from the preceding post, two more exhilarating moments from The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out:

As for myself, I am a Khampa, but I do not like to take an aggressive stance or oppose others at all. People who watch out for my interests sometimes advise me to be less earnest and to go on the offensive more. They caution me against being so open and trusting. They warn me that people can have all sorts of different motivations and ulterior motives, and may be out to deceive me or use my name for their own ends. Even though I have heard this advice clearly, I cannot change. Actually, I don’t want to.


In this era of global communication and weapons of mass destruction, rather than impose our will on others by force, we urgently need to find ways to accommodate divergent wills. It has been a long and gradual process, but I believe the world is slowly coming to realize that what we need now is not the ability to make assertions, but the ability to listen. Especially with the unthinkably destructive power of the weapons we have at our disposal, it seems clear that we need to sit down to dialogue, and not stand up to fight.

The times call on us to look at others with the attentive and loving eyes of a mother, rather than with the hostile eyes of a warrior in battle. If we are going to divide up qualities as masculine or feminine, I think we have to say that the qualities we need today are qualities more often described as feminine. We need communication and sensitive listening to others’ needs – qualities that are likelier to be identified as feminine than masculine in most societies.

It is time we truly recognize that the era of the hunter is past. This should be a more “feminine” era…

the Karmapa on gender

The previous post here talked a bit about the Karmapa’s new book The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out. The chapter I find the most remarkable of all has to be the one on gender – “Gender Identities: It’s All in the Mind.” This is so because Tibetan culture, as is true of traditional cultures in general all over the world, has maintained a strongly gendered view of psychology and society.

Nothing in this chapter hasn’t been said by various western teachers of buddhism, and stray remarks can be found – increasingly so in recent decades – coming from other Tibetans, but this chapter surely represents the most direct and sustained presentation of the emptiness of gender from within the Tibetan world. As such I feel it to be a genuinely epochal moment.

A couple of examples:

Gender identities permeate so much of our experience that it is easy to forget that they are just ideas – ideas created to categorize human beings. Nevertheless, the categories of masculine and feminine are often treated as if they were eternal truths. But they are not. They have no objective reality. Because gender is a concept, it is a product of our mind – and has no absolute existence that is separate from the mind that conceives of it.


(©bodhiimages — Tim Buckley)

Societies take the distinction between masculine and feminine qualities very seriously indeed. Whole industries reinforce gender ideals, such as, for example, boys should be brave and girls should be sensitive. Society promotes the idea that people with Y chromosomes should exhibit only “masculine qualities,” and people with X chromosomes should exhibit “feminine qualities.” This holds us back, limiting men and women to socially constructed boxes, and causing a great deal of suffering for everyone [my emphasis].

In my own personal case, I do not always feel clear about this distinction between masculine and feminine qualities. People have told me that I have more feminine qualities than masculine. I do not know quite what that means. I have a sense of what these qualities feel like, but I have no labels of “feminine” or “masculine” to go with the feelings. I simply experience them.

For me personally, knowing how to define and categorize such things is not important. What matters to me is being able to connect with others heart to heart, with real feeling. What I value is the ability to speak from my heart, and to be tender and caring. I hope I have some of these qualities. Certainly these are the qualities I aspire to have. It does not strike me as at all relevant whether they are categorized as feminine or masculine.


21st-century lama

I’m very grateful for the new book by the 17th Karmapa, The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out.


I first became aware of him via his “Aspiration for the World“. Not long after, he issued an edict mandating vegetarianism in all centres within the Kagyu lineage – of which he is the head. (Many people assume buddhism to require vegetarianism of its practitioners, but this isn’t so, particularly within Tibetan buddhism.) These statements appeared when he was twenty or so, around 2006.

The Karmapa lineage is one of the oldest reincarnating lineages within Tibetan buddhism, older than the Dalai Lamas by a couple of centuries, and the current Karmapa’s immediate predecessor – the 16th – was one of the most revered buddhist teachers of modern times.

So, I began to take note of him. However, honestly it had been some time since I’d been able to feel hopeful about institutional Tibetan buddhism. Long story, but suffice it to say, for those lacking experience in this area, that power does seem to corrupt everywhere, and the greater the power, the greater the danger of this. So even a certain amount of despair had set in with me regarding the question. (Cf. even the Karmapa controversy itself, there being two rivals – though all of the lamas whose teachings I’m acquainted with, including the Dalai Lama, recognize this one, whose name is Ogyen Trinley Dorje.)

I must say, though, that this book truly heartens me. I feel that with the 17th Karmapa we have our first fully 21st-century lama. Have a look at some of the chapter titles: “Social Action: Caring for All”; “Environmental Protection: Cultivating New Feelings for the Earth”; “Food Justice: Healing the Cycles of Hunger and Harm”; and, most startlingly from a Tibetan teacher, “Gender Identities: It’s All in the Mind.”

Of course, it’s not a political book, reaching far deeper, but the point is that the Karmapa represents the first Tibetan lineage holder I’ve come across whose mind seems fully at home in the ecological View, who sees our predicament and understands that there is no room anymore for any kind of duality between personal practice and practice for our Earth and for the world.

The talks in this book in fact came out of meetings with American college students. It’s funny to remember too: back in 2006 I participated in a week-long program with the great Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and one of the things he said in one of the question-and-answer sessions was that powerful teachers manifest and develop in particular ways in the world in part due to our aspirations, so that if, for example, we yearn hard enough for “an ecology buddha” (his words), someone who will be of special benefit in this way, we might get one. And it was around this time, in fact, that the 17th Karmapa began to come into his own distinctive voice as it were.

I remember hearing somewhere also that Thrangu Rinpoche, his personal tutor, said of him around this time that he’d thoroughly mastered everything he had to teach him. And within Tibetan buddhism this is an extraordinary thing to say of someone of that age, given the immensity and depth of philosophical learning on the one hand, and actual practices on the other.

My feeling, and that of many others, is that the 17th Karmapa may well become a world leader in the decades to come, comparable to the Dalai Lama today. Judging by this book, which I am about halfway through now, he has much to say that we desperately need to hear and work with.