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Winter 1995, Volume 12.1

Book Reviews

 

The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture, Reviewed by Ronald L. Holt
Snowmelt, Reviewed by Susan Smith Nash
They Whisper, Reviewed by Sally Bishop Shigley
Tender Darkness: A Mary MacLane Anthology, Reviewed by Peter Donahue

 

 

The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture by Stephen Batchelor. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1994, 416 pp., $18.00 (paper).

Reviewed by Ronald L. Holt, Honors Director/Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Weber State University

Stephen Batchelor was born in 1953 in Scotland and was ordained as a monk in the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism (1974) and formally trained in Korean Zen (1981-85). He has written, translated, and edited numerous books on the Tibetan and Zen traditions. Although now disrobed, he continues to write and conduct retreats.

This book explores the two-thousand-year ongoing encounter of European culture and the Buddha Dharma. Batchelor's approach is organized around the twin concepts of western romanticism and orientalism. He begins by enumerating attitudes expressed by Europeans when confronted with Buddhism: blind indifference, self-righteous rejection, rational knowledge, romantic fantasy, and existential engagement. In Batchelor's view, Buddhism is a concept created by the western orientalist to construct "The East." Batchelor documents how these western representations of Buddhism were, and are being, continually refined as new texts become available in translation. He asserts that the other two major evolutionary factors are westerners who went east in search of rational knowledge or wisdom, especially those who received in-depth training in Buddhist practice, and Asian Buddhist teachers who journeyed to Europe spreading the Dharma.

In Part One "Ashoka, Greeks and Gnostics," his section on early contact, Batchelor gives examples of the intermixture of Buddhist and western thought from King Menander to Basilides. He ends this section with a discussion of Theravada Buddhism and early attempts to found a Theravada mission in Britain.

Part Two is entitled "Mongols and Friars, Lamas and Zen." It begins with an explanation of the bodhicitta, the inspiration to become a bodhisattva or awakened being, as expressed by the 8th century C.E. Indian poet Shantideva. Then the chapters cover the Tibetan Nyingma and Kagyu traditions, thirteenth-century Europeans such as William of Rubruck and Marco Polo who ventured east, and Japan's Soto Zen tradition and Nichiren sect.

Part Three covers the growth of the Tibetan Geluk and Japanese Rinzai Zen traditions and includes a fascinating chapter on early Jesuit activities in China and Japan.

Part Four begins with a look at the origins of western rational knowledge of Buddhism through scholars such as Brian Hodgson and Eugene Burnouf.

Chapter fifteen outlines the impact of a romanticized version of Buddhism on western figures such as Schopenhauer, Wagner, and Nietzsche. Chapter sixteen argues that as long as westerners see the Buddha Dharma as "other," it will remain elusive. Thus Buddhism must assume forms in the West that will blend with our distinctive identity and history.

"Sangha," or Part Five, chronicles the growth of Buddhist spiritual communities in the West. The chapters on the Russian Sangha and on the life of Alexandra David-Neel are particularly engrossing. Batchelor's portrait of Buddhist practice in Chapter Twenty centers on the unification of samatha (mind calming and focusing on a single point) and vipassana (insight based on moment-by-moment awareness). His exposition is clear and surprisingly deep without recourse to overly technical Pali or Sanskrit terms.

The final chapter centers on the concept of Buddhist social engagement. The Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh are presented as exemplars of renewed efforts by Buddhists to express compassionate wisdom in this world. Batchelor suggests that colonialism benefited from a Buddhism that was not as socially engaged as in the pre-colonial past and was portrayed as world-denying and quietistic.

The Awakening of the West is a rich tapestry of lamas, scholars, adventurers and Buddhist teachings. Batchelor skillfully partitions the chapters between episodes dealing with modern European Buddhists, sketches of the founders of Buddhist traditions, and teachers and pilgrims moving both ways. This book deserves to be read by a wide audience. Interested readers might find it valuable to follow this volume with Rick Fields' How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America (Shambhala, 1992, 3rd ed).

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Snowmelt by Shaun T. Griffin. Reno, NV: Rainshadow Editions, The Black Rock Press, 1994, 72 pages, $12.00 (paper).

Reviewed by Susan Smith Nash, Department of English, University of Oklahoma, Norman

After reading the poems in this collection several times and contemplating them, I began to realize how perfectly the illustrations by Karen Kreyeski complement Shaun Griffin's poetry, and how they represent, in visual form, the linguistic processes at work within the individual pieces. Her drawings are fluid, shapely evocations of the Nevada landscape, and they re-create a complicated, dream-dissected Basin-and-Range topography of the mind, which is paralleled by aspects of the physical world. Her representations of alluvial fans and splays, playas, pediments, and valleys are surreal with a certain trompe l'oeil effect, resulting in mountains that can also be reclining human figures.

Griffin's earthy, concrete, and carefully detailed poems parallel the illustrations by allowing the reader to imagine identity by relating it to an object in the material world. When Griffin blurs the boundaries between self and landscape, he suggests an interchangeability of both bodies, earth and human. He also suggests that language fails to represent a thing in and of itself. There must always be the objective correlative the object to project upon. If this requires a poetic form that grounds itself upon extended metonymy, the advantages are that the attributes of the original (the thing being described) are not fixed and motionless. Instead, they are also ontologically refractory, which is to say that the beingness they represent is fluid and multifaceted.

Griffin uses the Nevada desert to explore issues of self, identity, and autonomy—and to question how one survives in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and emotional pain. Perhaps this is why I found his mention of the trees of Nevada so perfectly appropriate. Their survival is a triumph in the harsh, predominantly desert climate of Nevada. In "Taste of March on the Comstock," the Scotch pine is the survivor. In "Sycamore," the tree has "gray fingers/[that] reach out," reinforcing a sense of striving. And in "Decomposition," the personification of trees structures the notion that the trees, as well as other aspects of nature, function as an extended metonymy for the individual's frail, lone battles.

As in the poetry of Amy Clampitt or Mary Oliver, Snowmelt privileges le mot juste, the precise word to convey compactly and fluidly a multitude of significations and poetic implications. Griffin's diction more resembles Robert Frost's, but without his bitterness and harsh condemnation of human nature. In "Decomposition," Griffin's similes are carefully wrought: "A January wind / pierces limbs like a pitchfork, / shakes the last dead leaves from stems, / and eats them till they become snow."

These psycholinguistic transformations involve invoking within the reader a vague nostalgia, and a sadness, not simply for the existential resignation provoked by such representations of the individual's solitary and ultimately losing battle against obliteration or engulfment, but for something more. The sadness seems to rise up in response to the notion of ineffability and a kind of Wittgensteinian discontent with language and its inadequacies to express the concepts and awareness that comprise a knowledge of existence. In "Dancing Tree," the "sweet residue of failure" could apply to language as well as to the narrative of the poem—a story about the efforts of an actor to play a tree on stage.

Griffin's poetry reconfigures consciousness in the same manner as Theodore Roethke's, whose "Words for the Wind" suggests all landscapes are psychological and that the goal of writing is to construct tensions between structure and chaos, interior and exterior realities. Griffin's work tends to be more intimate and quieter than Roethke's and not underscored

by the deep grief and rage that informed Roethke's use of geological process and changing seasons.

Such dilemmas about language and the nature of representation characterize all poetry formed upon a base of Romantic epistemology. Paul de Man has pointed out that words designate a desire for epiphany—a need to unite with the natural object to achieve a measure of transcendence, to rise up from the material reality of perception, and to gain intuitive knowledge. However, what is problematic about this, in de Man's eyes, is that a gulf exists between language and the natural object, and a signifier does not perfectly express all the qualities of the signified. Thus the poet's desire to merge with the natural object to achieve transcendent knowledge is never possible. In Snowmelt, the interplay of Kreyeski's illustrations and Griffin's poems succeeds in representing the evocative, multi-layered nature of the desert, visually expressing the poet's desire to position the person, the human self, within the landscape so that the human body and the earth are one and the same. According to de Man, this merging is what poets desire, but what poetic language simply cannot do—hence, the sense of loss, longing—a lost opportunity to experience union with the physical, material world.

 

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They Whisper by Robert Olin Butler. New York: Henry Holt, 1994, 333 pp., $22.50 (cloth).

Reviewed by Sally Bishop Shigley, Department of English, Weber State University

In Robert Olin Butler's most recent novel They Whisper, the protagonist, Ira Holloway, mentally catalogues women he has loved in an attempt to understand what it is about them that so fascinates him. Reminiscent of an east-coast American Ulysses, Holloway's stream-of-consciousness narrative leads the reader through an often lyric, sometimes disorienting, maze of childhood fantasies, memories of the Vietnam War, momentary encounters with women on subway trains, and, at the novel's center, his chaotic, painful relationship with his wife Fiona. Scarred by an incestuous relationship with her father, Fiona retreats into alternate states of obsessive and violent jealousy (and guilty Catholic piety) until finally she joins the ranks of Ophelia and other famous madwomen of the literary canon, taking her own life.

Although some readers might be shocked by the frank, anatomical language that Ira uses in describing women's bodies or by the intricate detail in which he describes making love to these women, the most disturbing aspect of the novel is how the character of Fiona develops. When Butler read from this book during a recent lecture at Weber State University, he made

a point of saying that Ira approached women as a sort of secular sacrament. He also suggested that Ira did not objectify women as he viewed them, but instead was mesmerized by the power of his attraction to them. Contrary to his disclaimer, the women do seem to be objectified, as they are remembered part by anatomical part. They also have little conscious power in the novel. Their femaleness compels Ira, and he describes their bodies in loving, lingering detail, but Butler gives us little information about them as individuals. In fact, the most profound information we find out about these women is filtered literally through the skin and the consciousness of Ira's character.

Making love to a woman, Ira can hear her "secret" voice and knows the thoughts she cannot utter out loud. He says: "I could give the girls voices that spoke clearly to me, and I think that was how I first came to understand something about the love of a woman" (11). Note the use of "of" and not "for" here. Fiona's voice and, to a lesser extent, the voices of all the women Ira remembers, speak of only one thing—Ira. Whether having a baby, having sex, or indulging in idle daydreams, the women behind these voices exist largely to validate Ira's image of an ideal self. Through their voices, Ira hears the reactions his intimate actions are intended to convey. When a woman's actual speaking voice contradicts the other imagined voice he hears, as in the case of the disturbed and jealous Fiona, the woman becomes a sort of monster—a Gorgon, whose destructive power ironically renders Ira impotent instead of turning him to stone.

What lacks irony, however, is Ira's attitude towards these voices. Early in the book, the reader sympathizes with the young man's awkwardness and inability "to tell the truth about my life in this body of mine" (4). His obsession "to know the words that girls spoke secretly, to each other" (11) seems congruent, even poetic, as adolescent curiosity about sex takes the form of language. This curiosity leads him to enter the sanctuary of the girls' bathroom at his school and, upon reading the "tame" graffiti there, to write some of his own. Interceding in an "argument" between two girls on the inside of the door of one of the stalls, Ira reasons, "I knew I could make both of them happy if only they could be made to understand who I was" (14). The solution to their problem is found in their seeing him as he wants to be seen. He even goes so far as to write phantom notes about himself on the stalls to further his cause.

While this youthful fantasizing may charm readers with memories and the nostalgia of nascent sexual yearning, the same pattern continues throughout the novel and into Ira's adult life as women ranging from Blossom McCoy, legendary high school tramp, to Viet Cong prisoners under interrogation see themselves as they truly are through Ira's sexual interpretation of them.

Butler's novel is fiction—not a political treatise or an essay on the psychology of men and women—yet for a feminist literary critic and a woman this book raises many troubling psychological and political questions. Butler's protagonist speaks in lyric and evocative prose, and his ability to capture the fragility and eloquence of a raised eyebrow or the back of a woman's knee is sometimes breathtaking. Unfortunately, in its very attempts to replace "traditional" male attitudes of female objectification or male conquest with a more sensitive portrait, They Whisper at times strengthens them.

 

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Tender Darkness: A Mary MacLane Anthology edited by Elisabeth Pruitt. Belmont, CA: Abernathy and Brown, 1994, 204 pp., $14.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Peter Donahue, Department of English, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater

When a literary work falls into neglect, the work's shortcomings are usually considered the cause. The literary establishment judges the work to have failed to make a lasting mark. Such judgments, though, become their own self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes a work is neglected merely for the unease it creates. Read again, such a work can often force a re-evaluation of the very criteria that excluded it.

Such is the case with the work of Mary MacLane. Although her name is almost unrecognized today, she enjoyed, in the first decades of this century, and suffered an astonishing notoriety. In 1902, MacLane's first book, The Story of Mary MacLane, sold nearly 100,000 copies in its first month, bringing the author nationwide attention and immediate riches. Acclaimed by the likes of H. L. Mencken and Hamlin Garland, and blasted by many lesser critics, The Story of Mary MacLane (the main text in Tender Darkness) is the diary of a nineteen-year-old woman living in Butte, Montana. It is, as the author declares in her first sentence, "as full and frank a Portrayal as I am able of myself, Mary MacLane, for whom the world contains not a parallel" (13).

Combining the raw enthusiasm of Walt Whitman and the irony and somberness of Alice James, Mary MacLane, nonetheless, strikes a cord all her own. Throughout the ten-month diary, there emerges an irrepressibly alert, wonder-struck, self-assertive, self-questioning personality. The author has no qualms about praising herself: "I am a fantasy—an absurdity—a genius!" (110). Such boasts from a young woman expected only to marry and raise children were then, and still are, quite startling. But as the author explains, "A genius who does not know that [s]he is a genius is no genius" (111). MacLane is adamant about her genius, and much more besides.

Balancing such boasts are the author's reflections upon her great unhappiness, the "mysterious pain" she bears, often as she wanders alone over the

"sand and barrenness" surrounding her milltown home (83, 82). This account of her anguish turns quite edgy at times. While it can take on the tone of adolescent self-pity, as in her fantasizing about her own death, it is far more than this. Too often a young woman's articulation of her suffering is dismissed as mere indulgence, but from Mary MacLane to Sylvia Plath to Susanna Kaysen (in Girl Interrupted), we find the continuing struggle of young women to resist the efforts of a male-centered society to compel them, in Carol Gilligan's term, "underground"—to repress voices unwilling to comply with prevailing definitions of what it means to be a woman.

MacLane's defiance becomes especially evident when she discusses her own body—"my admirable young woman's body, which I enjoy thoroughly and of which I am passionately fond" (22). In these passages, she often evokes the "Devil," as the dark, lawless figure that will rescue her from her oppressive circumstances. Only with the Devil will she entertain notions of marriage. Otherwise, she scorns the institution, regarding it "as a cloak to cover a world of rather shameful things" (37). Complementing this scorn is her attraction to "the anemone lady," a former high school teacher, for whom she feels "a strange attraction of sex" (77).

Yet contrary to many early critics' accusations, Mary MacLane is not a sensationalist. The vitality of her prose prevails regardless of her subject. As with all great epistolary writers, MacLane combines attention to day-to-day minutiae with broad speculations. To illustrate her "accursed, devilishly weary existence," she explains how "up-stairs in the bathroom, on the little ledge at the top of the wainscoting, there are six toothbrushes," and then stoically describes each in detail (55). Expressing her delight in life, she expounds on the joys of "a fine rare porterhouse steak—and some green young onions" (33). Throughout the work, her vivid descriptions of the Montana landscape rank with the best, helping to dispel misconceptions of the West as a "boy's world."

In addition to "The Story of Mary MacLane," Tender Darkness includes an interview with the author and several newspaper articles recording her impressions of the East, where she fled following her diary's publication. The best of these articles are "The Borrower of Two-Dollar Bills—and Other Women" and "A Waif of Destiny on the High Seas," in which she profiles women she has known in Manhattan, where, as she claims, "women are the pervading spirit" (163).

Tender Darkness is the first re-issue, other than photo—duplications, of MacLane's works since very early in the century. A second anthology, Human Days, is scheduled for release in 1995. While Tender Darkness includes a thorough bibliography of primary and secondary writings, Elisabeth Pruitt's two-page Introduction is far too brief. Nonetheless, Tender Darkness from now on must take a prominent place in any discussions of American women's writing and the literature of the West.

 

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