Aug 222011

Explosion in a CathedralI’ve now read enough of Carpentier to have a sense of what he is up to in his fiction. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read, been impressed by its scope. But I am also much more aware of its limits and repetitions.

Carpentier–more than almost any writer I can think of–has a project and develops it relentlessly. The Kingdom of this World, The Lost Steps and this novel are all very much of the same kind, working in the same way, striking the same tone. This is history compressed and told at a distance. It exists as the context to the four or five acts that together constitute the drama of the protagonist’s life. That life is invariably incidental to the history that frames it but is also hopelessly involved in and buffeted by it. Each of these novels read as an album of exemplary vignettes pulled from the life of that character in order to say something (or provide an occasion for the narrator to say something) about history.

(This description echoes definitions of tragedy, but Carpentier is not a tragic writer. I saw Carlos Fuentes speaking of his own novels at Metropolis Blue. He cited Carpentier and Faulkner as his major influences but specifically credited Faulkner with offering him the tragic sense necessary to write about Latin American history.)

Interestingly, the same pattern holds true in a reduced but telling way in Carpentier’s early novella, The Chase. As it is in the novels, the history is withheld from the character. He isn’t sure what is happening to him or why. But unlike in the novels, the same information is also kept from the reader. In fact, there are clues suggesting that the character may know more than the reader. With this shift in the point-of-view, the reader moves through the story without knowledge of its larger context. The character is buffeted and harassed, but his life–and that harassment–appear senseless. The resulting tone is paranoid as befits life in a police state. The obscurity of it all–and this is related to Kafka surely–seems to encourage an allegorical (i.e. mystifying?) reading of the book.

Perhaps the poles of Carpentier’s fiction are ignorance/paranoia and knowledge/escape.

You need to be interested in Carpentier’s historical-political project to be interested in his novels beyond his development of technique or their influence. For now, I’m not.

N.B. Many people believe Explosion in a Cathedral is Carpentier’s best novel. I prefer The Lost Steps. It’s much more humane and suggestive, much less expository.

June 2011. Hospet, India

Aug 212011

The Way of ZenA history of Zen Buddhism. The first chapter–a more general history–was a repeat of Conze’s book. There wasn’t much difference between the two, but where there was, Watts strikes me as the less credible.

The Zen practice section gets caught up in the details of minor conflicts about monastic and lay life over the centuries. It’s dull going, but as a whole showed the extent to which Zen focuses on a practice (a very physical one it seems to me) rather than a philosophical one based on mastery of knowledge. To an extent that means it’s forgiving of variation rather than orthodox.

To beat the same drum, I walked away from this book more convinced than ever that Buddhism is not a religion, and that to the extent it appears to be this arises from “skill in means.”

June 2011. Gingee/Pondicherry, India

Aug 212011

TheHindusWendyDonigerThe Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger

I read this book slowly over my trip to India, and without it, I’m not sure what I would have made of the things I was seeing.

This book is massive and works through the history of Hindu texts and religious practice from the Indus Valley Civilizations all the way up to practice in the Indian diaspora.

The book made India make sense to me, the temples and art, yes, but also the daily oddities of cultural life in a place run through front to back by religion. It was essential reading and really wonderfully written. In fact, given how alien the material was to me, the fact that I was pulled through it so intensely shows that smart can be engaging and charming.

Card files on this book are coming and there’s stuff to say about, among many other things, the travels of Saint Thomas and the relationship between Hindu mythology and the Gospels.

Great stuff.

June-July, India

Aug 212011

Sadhana by Rabindranath TagoreSadhana by Rabindranath Tagore

A collection of lectures about Indian spirituality by India’s first Nobel Laureate. They are interesting but also vague and non-historical. This is one man preaching his personal religion.

While I was in India, The New Yorker did a profile on Tagore. Apparently, Bertrand Russell saw him speak and said he was spouting standard “we are all the Buddha” mumbo-jumbo. If he heard something like this, he’s not far off.

Interesting thing is that Tagore is a Hindu not a Buddhist. How’s that work? Well, he keeps refering to the Upanishads, which Wendy Doniger describes as Hinduism’s response to the Buddhist and Jainist renunciation of Brahmanic ritual, which to me suggests that, if Buddhism is a kind of Hindu Reformation, then the Upanishads are the Brahmins’ counter-reformation. The Buddhist rejection of court religion and ritual in favour of personal quests for enlightenment are rejected but also remake Hinduism expressed in these texts as more personal (though not yet devotional). Tagore is speaking in that vein.

June, 2011. Chennai/Mamallapuram India

Aug 212011

Buddhism- A Short History by Edward ConzeBuddhism: A Short History by Edward Conze

A useful, concise history of Buddhism. Divides the history into three waves that helped make sense of odd comments I’d read in other books. The first wave is largely monastic, a renunciation of early Vedic Hinduism. The second moves outside the monasteries and invents a lay Buddhism. The third incorporates Tantric and mystical thought into Buddhist philosophy (seriously or not, I’m not sure). The book also places the various branches of Buddhism historically: regional differences are historical traces.

The second-wave notion of a Bodhisattva with “skill in means”–a teacher who speaks in terms a lay person can understand in order to help them increase their understanding bit-by-bit–feeds my sense that Buddhism is not a religion but is instead a philosophy and phenomenology of the mind crusted over with religious trappings. (I mean, a Buddhist god makes absolutely no sense to me. None at all.) “Skill in means” offers a reason for taking those religious trappings as translations of Buddhist insights into metaphorical terms non-monks can understand. (I think of Kierkegaard telling the story of Abraham in various ways or inventing stories to frame the stories that play out his thinking as drama.)

This a book-along-the-way that I imagine I will remember as being important.

June 2011. Mamallapuram, India

Aug 212011

A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony HorowitzA Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horowitz

A history of early American exploration organized around Horowitz’s travels to the places where the explorers set foot to ground. The history is interesting and lightly done. I enjoyed these parts. But the personal narratives were unbearable. The long central chapters focus on Columbus’s voyages, and Horowitz frames them with stories about his travels in the Dominican Republic. He hates the place for reasons that seem patronizing and chauvinistic. It’s just hard to buy into an American tourist lost in worlds different from his own who blames others for his difficulties. Annoying.

April 2011

Aug 212011

I showed Jean Genet‘s Chant d’Amour to Big D and The Beav. Twenty-five minutes of experimental queer cinema, and they watched without being bored for a second. And when the film was over they had questions:  When was this made? Who are these actors? Listening, I wondered how many films are ever that successful?

I hadn’t seen the film in over five years. So watching it on the spur-of-the-moment, I was caught off guard by how beautiful and how shocking it is. Big D kept saying that the film was ahead of its time and couldn’t be shown today. My sense is that he’s right, and it’s because it’s erotic rather than pornographic. Which makes it much more difficult to dismiss.

A happy rediscovery.


Aug 212011

An American Childhood by Annie DillardAt which point in your memoir does common decency require you hint that your awesomeness—or at least the opportunity to cultivate it—might be a product of your WASPy, very upperclass childhood? I ask because I stopped reading Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood at page 120 in a stew of class resentment. If there’s a turnaround, I needed to know because I was killed by smug.

April 2011

Aug 212011

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo LeopoldA Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

I was sent to this book by a blog a friend linked to, and I’m glad I found it. Most of the nature writing I find is preservationist or even worshipful. Nothing necessarily wrong with that but it does tend to romanticize an already romantic approach to the natural world. It’s easy to wind up with an “isn’t it great I’m so sensitive to the world around me” pudding: tons of details and careful observation that together seem more about the author than the place.

This book is interesting because it’s conservationist, a middle-ground voice that I don’t seem to hear very much today. I think it’s probably been killed by double-speak: to many public figures hiding nefarious plans inside their opponents’ language, maybe on purpose, maybe because they’re being used and are too out-of-touch to realize it. Whatever the case, conservationist language just seems like a lie nowadays. Talk reasonably and nobody will trust you.

The Almanac is old enough so that the conservationist voice still rings sincere. In these pages, there is man and there is nature together. Not man in awe of nature. Not man afraid to touch nature. Here he moves gently through the world, touching and being touched. I loved Leopold’s talk about trees, especially the pines that are his favourite and the way the bugs that attack them attack only the new growth that sits in the sun. The closing section on banding birds is glorious. No other word for it. And the essay on leisure time and hobbies is excellent.

This is a book I’d like to teach someday.

April 2011