Soumission by Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq
Flammarion, 2015 (English translation)

This book is about the life of a French academic who cares about almost nothing except the 19th century writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, but who discovers that the spark he inherits from Huysmans is snuffed out by the reality of 21st century France. Although he ends up converting to Islam, and despite Houellebecq’s grumbling about Islam in public interviews, this book is not an analysis of Islam at all, and people looking for one will be disappointed. It contains elements of a political manifesto, but attributing some viewpoint to Houellebecq would eliminate the psychological crux of the narrative. Islam is neither the disease killing France nor the magic potion to cure the narrator. Islam is simply a reality happening in France. Whether it becomes a comfortable or uncomfortable reality, a Self or an Other, is the decision of the milquetoast narrator and millions like him.

Tens of thousands of intelligent French people have converted to Islam (far more than in England). So why a novel, rather than a biography of René Guénon? This is a question that unappreciative reviewers who zip through the book finding nothing unusual about it need to ask. Why is the narrator so normal—and why is he so abnormal? He keeps on talking about Huysmans. “Well,” says the putatively leftist reviewer, “he’s a Huysmans specialist. That’s his job.” But what is a job? The narrator François is propelled around the country by Huysmans; he wants the religious conviction that Huymans had. It’s more than just a job for him. Who cares? Well, this question itself is the problem. Is Huysmans not of the West, and is the narrator not of the West, and are we not of the West? How is it that Huysmans became a moldy old “object of study,” and the narrator an alienated professor, and the reader segregated from both of them? How did this strange “normal” way of relating to literature arise, and where did our commonalities go? Houellebecq wants us to be confused by the narrator’s alienation, as much as the narrator is confused himself. He does not want to give us a sociological study about some object of research; he wants us to feel that we need to examine ourselves, that something has gone wrong.

François is free from some of the illusions of his generation. He recognizes the illusory nature of money. Money is a means to get what you want; but what he wants is the consolation and intimacy of books. He recognizes, too, the illusion of free love, and is bemused by how women seem to brush past him, guided by something unwritten (et d’autant plus puissant qu’il demeurait implicite) to drift from person to person without lasting bonds. Throughout Houellebecq’s novels, modern society encourages voracious sexual appetites, so that the sexless are forced to participate as well. François is more mundane than sexless, but one gets a feeling that he ought to be able to rise above shallow relationships.

But he is penned in by some strange limits imposed by “libertine” society. Despite his ability to appreciate Huysman’s intimate portraits of the inner lives of men and women, he finds that he is unable to articulate his own inner life in conversation (car les conversations sur la vie intime ne font pas partie des sujets considérés comme admissibles dans la société des hommes). Pre-modern literature, by giving him a taste of truth, has ruined his life, since he cannot share that truth with others; at the very least, his girlfriends do not care, and he cannot conceive of a willing audience. Thus François becomes a prototypical Houellebecqian protagonist, locked into a sinecure and unable to form close personal relationships; “un pauvre type”.

A solitary existence, living in a world that was nothing but him and Huysmans, gave him some respite for a time. But now he is thrust into a world he does not want any part of: the 21st century liberal arts academy, its disconnect from the meaning of literature, and its endless, circular obsession with what is strangely called “identity”. Immediately, without even bothering to describe the narrator’s politics, Houellebecq gives us three conflicting images: a discussion of a university president practicing identity politics (gender studies) and a Ph.D. candidate’s thesis on the “identitarian” movement, right in the shadow of the Grand Mosque of Paris.

What is an identity? To some, it is a political battle cry. François feels no such thrills. He can write about his literary passion, but his writing can neither change the world nor reveal his authentic frustration, as in some of Houellebecq’s prior novels. Identity politics is not his thing; but he cannot escape the ground shaking beneath his feet. His Jewish girlfriend suddenly leaves for Israel. Neither the “identitarians” nor the Muslims represent the France she believes in. But what is that France? One English review has already commented on François’ self-pitying words, “There is no Israel for me,” but I also liked his girlfriend’s confused attempt to find a heritage she can claim: “J’aime la France! … J’aime, je sais pas… j’aime le fromage!” There is not only no Israel for François to flee to, there is no France for him either. There is only the after-image of Huysmans, transposed onto an unrecognizable cultural wasteland, where “identitarians” prowl after scraps.

To be fair, Houellebecq does not imagine the collapse of civilization. He imagines a peaceful Socialist-Muslim joint government that models itself after Chestertonian Distributism. This is, perhaps, a rather optimistic ideal of what the world like look like in 2022. The new, forward-looking government has solved many social problems by including Muslims in its governing alliance, and it feels like a sorte d’empire romain reconstitué. But as Oswald Spengler said, the Roman Empire only arose when the Republic had been defeated. They may cheer on the name of Chesterton, but the true king of France in 2022 is Spengler, constantly whispering his memento mori into the ear of the newly crowned Caesar (sorry for the mental image). At last the deus ex machina, a guy named Rediger, appears, accompanied by his nubile young wife Aisha, to convert the narrator to Islam; Rediger speaks precisely to François’s insecurities and worries, and proposes that, just like in Histoire d’O, Islam makes it possible for women to submit to men, and human beings to God.

Houellebecq is not actually arguing that this is the natural order of the world. In fact, by placing this argument into the context of François’s hedonism, he immediately problematizes it. The Histoire d’O-citing convert Islam that Houellebecq imagines in a half-sardonic, half-nihilistic tone clearly does not escape his criticism. It is not a French Islam, but an anti-French anti-Islam, based on a muddled confusion of both Middle Eastern and Western European traditions. But what is François supposed to do? No Christian or atheist has been able to offer him any hope. Only the East offers the faint glimmering of a road he can walk. Perhaps if he walks it long enough, his lie will begin to seem like truth.

The correct response to the end of the book is not despair, or excitement, but pathos. But those who skim the book looking for political arguments to use in their own little battles will naturally not only miss the point, but in fact do damage to whatever remaining value literature has to the Western European tradition. It is the darkest of ironies. Houellebecq’s character François loses faith in Huysmans, because he cannot hope to bring Huysmans to people around him. He burns his past; Islam is his only remaining path. Houellebecq writes a book about this, and the clickbait reviewers of the decayed “public sphere” deny him the ability to really connect with his readers, even as he lives. It is no wonder that Houellebecq has declared himself exasperated with having to promote his book, and as of this week has canceled all future interviews about it. But what of Europe?

Posted: May 26th, 2015 | Book Reviews

Pour vivre pleinement

“Pour vivre pleinement, il faut faire quatre choses : planter un arbre, écrire un poème, faire l’amour avec quelqu’un de son sexe et tuer quelqu’un.” Cette ligne est parlé par le personnage principal dans le film de Claude Chabrol, La demoiselle d’honneur (2004).

Quand j’ai vu ce trailer, j’avais 14 ans. Je suis profondément préoccupé par cette phrase. Les gens y croyez vraiment? Même si une ligne dans un film, il était encore très inquiétant pour moi.

Il y avait beaucoup de choses que je ne connaissais pas alors que je sais maintenant. C’est la même idée utilisée par Camus dans L’Étranger (1942). Simone de Beauvoir a également examiné assassiner comme une nécessité pour la liberté dans L’Invitée (1943), et elle-même ne comprenait pas pourquoi.

Mais je savais, à l’époque, que c’était une erreur.

Posted: February 13th, 2013 | Book Reviews 1 Comment »

Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s Psychic Photos

The Present Day Nengraphy (Psychic Photo) and Its Experimental Demonstration
Tokyo: THE ASSOCiATiON OF NENGRAPHY [sic], 1972. 274pp.

This rare and strange book has much of interest inside its inexplicable formal looking cover defaced by a message in red print, which reads “Are you aware that the spirit can make direct impressions on photographic paper?” For one thing, the introduction is written by Shintaro Ishihara, governor of Tokyo until just a few weeks ago. For another, the final chapter is written by someone who probably never existed.

The book itself is a collection of “nengraphs”, uncontrolled photographs allegedly taken through paranormal means. It is unclear why Ishihara, who was a Diet legislator in 1972, found this parapsychology in particular a good opportunity to contribute a preface. But the following message on the first page of the book is clearly his, since it is written in a quite different style than the rest of the book, using some of the most formal, literary Japanese I’ve ever read.

I think readers of this blog from the Perennialist side of things may find this statement by the Tokyo governor quite interesting.

The nensha discovered by Professor Fukurai, which prove the supernatural abilities of humanity, were once applauded by foreign researchers as a very original method and valued quite highly, but have been distorted and have not received the appraisal they deserve, since social conditions in Japan prohibit an understanding of the categorical difference between the rigors of the scientific method and blind faith in someone’s supernatural powers. [… A brief overview of the Meiji period taboo on supernatural phenomena and a comparison to the European Catholic insistence on the verifiability of miracles follows.]
However, in these pages is revealed, according to Mr. Miyanaka, a reconstruction of the genealogy of Japanese-style approaches using nengraphy as a basis, which should prove of great value not only for a small cadre of researchers, but for the salvation of the great majority of this country who have fallen into delusion and forgotten the very essence of humanity.
What I feel upon reading these records anew is that we may ourselves someday be able to approach through the means of science the truths of when it was that human beings came to be human, the limits of humanity, the existence of Mystery and the knowledge of this existence, and other values of humanity.
Science is not done for the sake of science alone. The essence of humanity, which is inexplicable through science, may perhaps be much too distant for science to ever approach, but for that very reason, the wonders of humanity, as well as the meanings of human existence, are unquantifiable.
The things that might be inspired by the mere publication of these records of obstinately persistent approaches, untainted by prejudice, in these modern times, are likewise unquantifiable.
April 7, Showa 47
Representative Shintaro Ishihara
Most of the book, unfortunately, does not live up to the standards of a scientific report. The English summary in the back will provide a representative sample: “At first [the Cosmo-Research Group] was a society for studying cosmos and cosmians, but it has come to make good use of [n]engraphy as a means of correspondence with these cosmians. The contra-NENGRAPHY worked out by Mr. Susumu Mizutani, one of these members and a student in mathematics, cultivated a new field in our nengraphic researches. This is an experiment of mental process which draws out energy contrawisely from the stabilized silver molecules of latent image neucleus [sic] on the sensitized photo-plate once returned to the light, returning to the old nonsensitized conditions and it will answer the purpose of proving the existence of minus energy in the future.”
The final chapter of this book is devoted to someone named Toshio Matsunami, and is completely bizarre. The author appears to be interested in getting the opinion of this person on how nensha works, but there is no reason to suspect that Matsunami’s opinion is valuable. He informs us that great people like Kukai can live for 200 years, that yellow is the “highest” color, and that “sounds can save people”, so therefore there is no such Bodhisattva as Kannon, and her name actually means the sound of clapping. Why exactly was Matsunami considered an authority on nensha?
Here I’d like to quote the only biography of Toshio Matsunami I know of, from an interesting book called Takenouchi Documents III:

The late Matsunami Toshio, special advisor to Emperor Hirohito, had a lot of ups and downs in his life. During World War II, he was captured by the Russian army (former Soviet) as a prisoner and was supposed to be executed by firing squad. For some reason the bullet missed him not once but five times. This strange incident was reported to Stalin who then interviewed him. Later Stalin asked Matsunami to become his advisor, because he was impressed with Matsunami’s high level spirituality. At the end of the war, Matsunami returned to Japan, where General Macarthur was waiting to welcome him as an advisor. Matsunami declined the offer because of his friendship with Stalin, but accepted an offer to become a consultant. After this, Matsunami became a consultant or a top advisor to the Ruling party, political and financial organizations, and finally an advisor to Emperor Hirohito. Matsunami was asked for advice from General Macarthur, US Presidents including Jimmy Carter. British Crown Prince Charles unofficially met Matsunami in Kyoto for advice concerning a problem with his wife Diana when he visited Japan. Because of his high spirituality, many people sought advice from him. He was even nicknamed as ‘Charlie Cook’ in the USA and regarded as a messenger for a highly noble space being. Matsunami was even called ‘the successor’ by George Adamski, a well-known author who wrote a book entitled ‘Record of boarding a flying saucer’, probably because he was somewhat similar to the successor. According to followers, Matsunami boarded a flying saucer (for him a flying saucer was an ‘IFO’ not ‘UFO’) through teleportation from Tokyo each Monday and took a leading role to bridge the gap between the universe and the earth.

I have never seen any other reference to this person besides in the Takenouchi book and this weird Nengraphy book prefaced by Governor Ishihara. This Toshio Matsunami is clearly an illusory creature.

Posted: November 22nd, 2012 | Book Reviews

Reply to an e-mail on spiritualism

I received an anonymous email about a book review I wrote on Amazon. The author did not reply to my reply. Feeling a bit underwhelmed by our conversation, I here post my reply for public consumption.


Cool, thanks for the e-mail! The book [The Trickster and the Paranormal] did leave an impression on me after all, although Randi’s Prize made a much deeper impression simply for the author’s impeccable devotion to leaving all options on the table. Randi’s Prize really changed my entire worldview from left-skeptic to right-occultist, and it was the end of a long process that began with Nietzsche and went through Oswald Spengler and Julius Evola.

Accordingly, I don’t subscribe to the current left-wing academic thesis that holds that some group of people today are responsible for all the problems in the world, and the solutions must be provided by everyone else. Neither do I think that there is no such thing as a universal in human society! So I was not at all inclined against Hansen’s theory from the outset; just because Jung is usually wrong does not mean he can’t be right sometimes. But it is very difficult to prove a universal, so I when I go cross-cultural, as I am planning to do in my parahistory book, I tread carefully and take local, involved opinions (called “emic” accounts in anthropology) seriously. If we want to ask whether a trickster metaphor is relevant to any given society, we must look at the language that people are using and see if they are using language that we can identify as trickster. In the case of Japan, the answer is clear beyond a doubt. Trickster spirits are real in Japan, but they are low-level annoyances who you don’t want interfering with serious spiritual business. The Japanese word for Ouija board literally is literally written with the names of tricksters.

The relationship of charismatic power to traditional power is a tricky one. Charismatic power is, after all, populism. Beginning with Jesus the West has really been on a journey figuring out how to embrace populism without losing material power. This led first to the Catholic Church who very earnestly empowered anyone with spiritual talent and suffered materially for doing so, then to the invention of secular politics, which in its final, democratic form actually gives a voice to the grossest kind of charismatic power as long as it conforms to established rules. The marginalization of non-secular charisma as “religion” is a byproduct of this, but this should not imply to the informed reader that the West hates charisma itself. Loving Obama and hating the Pope is actually an embrace of charismatic power over traditional power.

In Japan the question of “church and state” is meaningless because there was never a church. Since c.1867 when the word for religion was invented in Japan, and increasingly since 1945 with the American occupation, there has been a discourse on religion and religious corporations, and the spiritual leaders I referred to in my review were all involved in this discourse. But I regard this as playing catch-up with the Western ability to harness the populace for materialist world-building activities. It will last as long as the project of modernity remains feasible.

Posted: June 5th, 2012 | Book Reviews

Naturalized in Japan

Yoshinori Kobayashi
Asuka Shinsha, 2011

Yoshirin’s goal here was to interview six foreigners who became Japanese citizens, to ask them what they find so special about Japan, and what direction they hope Japan will take in the future. Obviously he picked people who immigrated to Japan as a political decision and not for mere social reasons. The book is intellectually strong because all of his guests already understand the importance of Japan’s self-identity and its role in the world. Rather than ranting about the need to destroy Japan, as some less socialized and more hate-filled expats do, they discuss how they would strengthen it.

However, while reading the book I realized that it could have been stronger if he added to this mix some ordinary folks who got Japanese wives and are contributing to the gene pool. After all, Japan’s self-identity is determined by its people, so how can we ensure that allegiance to Japan is preserved for children of mixed ethnicity, as Yoshirin hopes it will be for those of Ainu and Burakumin descent? Ordinary expats may be uneducated about Japanese history and how society functions, and would disturb the book’s structure, but through exposure to much greater minds we might get them to open up about their own experiences and hopes.

I will focus on the interview with Bill Totten, since he’s the sole representative of the Anglo-Saxon race. The other interviewees are two Chinese, a Taiwanese, a Tibetan, and a Zainichi Korean, who discuss issues in their own countries that I have little grounds to comment on, but many of the ideas Bill discusses, both on the American and Japanese sides, are things I’ve researched and thought about myself, and the way he orders them into a coherent whole made me consider how I arrange them in my own head. In general, I found the talk rather inspiring, and I wish my Japanese was good enough that I could take it in fully.

Yoshirin opens by informing us that unlike the other interviewees, Bill’s spoken Japanese was rough and lacked fluency, and he had to correct it. There are plenty of smart white expats who never achieve fluency; I worry that I may find myself among them in the future, and certainly I recognized some of my own grammatical simplicity in Bill’s language. I think this is due to the richness of readily available Western media, which can often supply us with news about Japan and even advanced research into Japanese history and culture. If we interact too much in English, we risk missing out on the equal richness and complexity of Japanese society. Anyway, Bill seems to agree with me on that theoretical point, and his Japanese was good enough to have a dynamic conversation with Yoshirin, which is much more than I can say of my own.
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Posted: August 25th, 2011 | Book Reviews, Japan, Kokoro 2 Comments »

The View from Slagter’s Nek

The Covenant
James A. Michener
Fawcett, 1987 (Amazon)

I think the question I really wanted this book to answer for me is why District 9 is such a good movie. It outperformed expectations.

Michener, who is renowned for his expert research, brings us all of the most important episodes of South African history, and many of its most telling quirks–the Norwegians who fought and died in the Boer War purely out of hatred for imperialism, the Afrikaner housewives who demanded that a classical statue in their town square be veiled in the name of decency–all in the context of an epic, generation-spanning fictional narrative, the purpose of which is not to distract from the history being made, but to give that history a human face. Michener’s is determined to show what history looks like, at the expense of any side; and, digesting the work properly, you are forced to evaluate the morality of remembrance and history itself as a human endeavor.

Michener opens with the imagined stories of the !Kung San and Zimbabweans before proceeding to the meat of the narrative, the Afrikaners. Taking the three stories side by side, it is impossible not to come to a reasonable evaluation: the !Kung San’s culture was beautiful and timeless, but being timeless it was also unchanging, and did not have any cultural narrative that could fill up a 1000 page book. Zimbabwe, too, must have had some limited history in the days of its kingdom, but it was never written down and dissolved into legend, irrelevant to its descendants. Is that bad, necessarily? Is it better to have a collective history than a lot of individual stories? Well, the next section will supply some evidence.

The Dutch are deposited in Africa as an unimportant colony, and remain unimportant in world history to everyone besides the southern Africans themselves– attracting notice only as the heroes of the Boer War and the villains of apartheid, but never with any context, and always as part of some other country’s political narrative. In an utterly foreign and savage land, being given no meaning to their mission, it was natural that they would invent some meaning for themselves, and Michener’s quiet argument in The Covenant is that they became an Old Testament people fashioning themselves after the narrative of the ancient Israelites.

This may or may not be true. But the more obvious truth is that they clung to every event in their history, with a bitter, collective insistence that they were alone in the African wilderness–other ethnic groups being incidental or antagonistic to their racial memory–and had been attacked on all sides for hundreds of years. For much of their history the Afrikaners were pretty much left alone to populate the coastline, embark on their own Oregon Trails, and rough it in the Veld with no formidable enemy but themselves. But after their colony was appropriated by the British Empire, Afrikaners kept a running tally of the English crimes against them, which, combined with post-independence responses to apartheid, were made into a historical case for the brutality of the world against the Afrikaner: a double hanging at a place called Slagter’s Nek, the imposed end of slavery by the English, decades of fighting the English for freedom, torture and death in English concentration camps, and now the murders of innocent citizens by (black) communists and killers, political harassment by European leftists and atheists, and so forth.

Too much history! Of course, this history is not easy to forget, just as Americans cannot easily forget 9/11. The Afrikaners cannot be faulted for remembering things that happened to them as a people. If we are to fault anything, it is human nature. Should someone time travel to 1700 and warn the Afrikaners that race is a cultural construct and that they should intermarry freely with the natives, they would be lynched; this was a group that already shared so many cultural bonds separating them from the Other that race was just another layer on the pile. Michener laments many times that the Afrikaners did not give the Colored (mixed-race and Indian) population equal voting and political rights, a choice that could have prevented the terrible legacy of apartheid and could have even eventually integrated the black population. But excluding the Colored was more than a matter of race. In the Colored population the myth of embattled Christians stranded in the wilderness was diluted and lost, replaced with family and local histories that held none of the power of racial memory. Putting aside the Afrikaners who were labeled Colored as a brutal punishment, the actual Colored population did not share the Afrikaners’ teleological drive.

Out of the evils of human history, some, such as imperialism or Balkans-style ethnic conflict, are readily understood as the mistakes of good people. Some, like Nazism and slavery, were easy to understand as the product of good people in the past, but are steadily moving towards ineffability as the world alienates itself from the motives behind them. And some, like apartheid, are simply bizarre to an outside observer. How could a tiny minority of good people perpetrate a system like this onto people they were at peace with, their neighbors and coworkers, whom they agreed belonged in their country? The answer can be found precisely in the Afrikaner narrative, for a people battling for their lives against a cold and uncaring world cannot easily incorporate other peoples, who do not share that sense of urgency, into their polity. The Afrikaners of the 20th century did not lack humanity or intelligence. They openly discussed their political situation with visitors of all kinds; their politicians, leaders, and judges constantly tried to impress the importance of their narrative onto South Africa’s other ethnic groups. The only thing they lacked was the ability to escape their Afrikaner identity.

What actually dissolved over the course of the 20th century was their belief in their own coherence. When they finally backed down and admitted that their system did not work, they were also being forced to admit that their own narrative, which could fill not only the 1000 pages of this book but several more books, was unable to provide a basis for fair and just government. The government that replaced them did not have a 1000-page narrative. In fact, we can see that while it is fairer to everyone, it is also directionless, and from this lack of meaning rises selfishness, corruption, and anarchy.

So, why is District 9 a good movie? Because the Afrikaners are us: a species struggling to keep the world coherent in the face of chaos. We have developed in the past 500 years the ability to refine our myths, but an educated person cannot help but notice that even these purified, enlightened narratives fail to change basic human nature. So we paddle against the current, and hope that if the aliens come they will be saviors, and not miserable wretches like us.

Posted: February 3rd, 2011 | Book Reviews

Barbershops in Sociology

I was at the cigar store in Harvard Square yesterday and saw a wonderful book on their shelf called The American Barbershop: A Closer Look at a Disappearing Place. It was an extremely insightful look at what makes a barber shop a real place for men, why people go there, and what happens there. Another book in this vein, discovered on Amazon when I got home, is Do Bald Men Get Half-Price Haircuts?: In Search of America’s Great Barbershops. I recommend both of these books to people in search of what I’m about to describe, especially the former. But the first was written by a photographer, and the second by a freelance writer. Neither book would be considered a “scientific” look at the barber shop in the way that a peer-reviewed journal article would be.
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Posted: July 15th, 2010 | Book Reviews 2 Comments »

Why Esperanto is Fun

In the Land of Invented Languages
by Akira Okrent. Spiegel & Grau, 2009. Buy it on Amazon

This book is relentlessly fun to read and written from the perfect point of view. Okrent is a practical linguist, who harbors no fantasies of a universal language, but is yet open-minded and deeply interested in the people who do invent languages, and why they make them. I think the most important lesson I learned from it is why Esperanto is fun, and people should make an attempt to learn it.

Back around 1998 I stumbled across the website Learn Not to Speak Esperanto and had myself a good laugh at the people who would try to promote this clumsy language. Why, it’s like Italian written in Eastern Polish! Any other constructed language is better than this one! What a joke! Already I was thinking about it the wrong way, but even though I examined constructed languages many times over the intervening years, I never was able to approach it in the way Okrent presents it for our edification.

Everything about Esperanto makes it more interesting to learn than its competitors. First, despite its weirdness as a language, it’s easy to learn; and once you learn it, you can make new and funny uses of the weirdness to delight your fellow learners. Second, it’s fun to speak in, as opposed to its predecessor Volapük. Third, and finally, the Esperantist culture is one of promoting universal brotherhood and is so lively that it makes you want to speak the language more and more.

Consider the fundamental differences between the way language is thought about in Esperanto as opposed to its competitors, as pointed out by Okrent. One of the example texts that Zamenhof used the original Esperanto books is a letter to a friend, which starts, Kara amiko! Mi presentas al mi kian vizaĝon vi faros post la ricevo de mi a letero, or “Dear friend! I can only imagine what kind of face you will make after receiving from me this letter.” Clearly the intent of this passage is not to make a perfect language, but to puzzle and delight the reader. Reading this example, perhaps more than a few Esperantists sent off some puzzles to their friends as well. In the context of thinking about language as puzzle, we do not need to strive for perfection. But if we do strive for perfection, then we start to forget about how much fun learning a language can be.

The way Esperantists congregate and talk to each other also makes the language more enjoyable. The chief argument against Esperanto, of course, is that English is already a world language. But contained in English, for non-native speakers, is an undeniably bad implication. They are forced to learn English, whether they like it or not, to conduct business with native speakers; and they will be mocked if they speak it poorly, since it has a large native speaking population who more often than not simply assume other people have learned it for their sake. Now consider how people learn Esperanto. It is learned by choice, outside of school, as a “useless” but fun hobby. (Isn’t it interesting how the most enjoyable endeavors in modern society are “useless”?) It has no business application, but is only used for sharing humanity. When the learner comes together with other Esperantists, there are very few or no native speakers, and everyone treats each other as equal. At a conference, the Esperantists genuinely encourage each other to keep it up, and enjoy themselves by singing songs, dancing, and so forth. Conferences receive letters from other parts of the world, for no purpose other than to let them know that they can communicate in Esperanto in any country.

Finally, as an English speaker I can stay at any classy hotel in the world when I travel, but it will be a lonely stay, and English will be part of the room service rather than an enjoyable endeavor for the staff. As an Esperantist, not only could I have lodgings in the homes of fellow Esperantists, but we would have a hobby to talk about and a good reason to become long lasting friends.

In short, this sounds like something I would very much like to do; but business interests are forcing me to learn Japanese first.

Posted: July 1st, 2010 | Book Reviews, World Peace 6 Comments »

Jai Bhim!

Jai Bhim! Dispatches from a Peaceful Revolution by Terry Pilchick
Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1988. BQ336.P5

This is a wonderful little book about the human legacy of one of my favorite people from all history, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. Pilchick strikes me as a practical and compassionate (although sometimes insufferably British) person who wanted to find out how Ambedkar’s Buddhist community in India was faring. Rather than reading one of Professor Zelliot’s books about it, he went there himself and made friends with the Mahars!

I learned some interesting things along the way: for example, how Sangharakshita, so controversial in Britain, was to Dr. Ambedkar a light of philosophical purity in the chaos of Buddhism as practiced in Sri Lanka and Burma, (74) and how despite being British born and raised, Sangharakshita knew his audience of unimaginably poor Dalits so well when he gave a speech in Maharashtra, he brought knowing smiles and laughter from the crowd. (77) “Sangharakshita sees his listeners in a paradoxical, twofold aspect. On one hand, they are poor, uneducated, mainly illiterate. Even as they sit listening, their bodies express an air of physically ingrained humility … But they have also struggled out of a trap that ensnares most of the world … They know life holds greater purpose than placid obedience to some divine plan.” (128) Thus, his message:

Some people say that, because the Buddha taught ‘impermanence’, Buddhism must be gloomy and pessimistic. But it is wonderful that things are impermanent: it means they change. And if things have to change, then why should they not change for the better. People are changing all the time, so people can become better. Society is changing, so society can become better. … A bad man can become a good man; a good man can become a better man; a better man can become a Buddha. (130)

His talks stay simple and direct, and references to the great Dr. Ambedkar are peppered throughout. My opinion of this guy was certainly raised a little. The eagerness of the Dalits to learn Buddhism was also impressive: “Lokamitra told me that one woman came along to retreats quite regularly in the full knowledge that her husband would beat her when she returned home.” (96) There are so many wonderful stories here, I must quote another

A diminutive man squeezes his way through the throng, hammering open a path with the tiny baby he carries in his arms. He thrusts the dazed infant under Sangharakshita’s nose.
‘Name! Please, Bhanteji! Name!’
Sangharakshita looks at the well-wrapped child. ‘Is it a boy or girl?’
‘Girl, Bhanteji.’
He takes another look, smiles. ‘Bodhipushpa—Flower of Enlightenment.’
Overcome with rapture, the father spins on his heels and batters his way back through the crowd, his eyes wildly seeking out the rest of his group. The entire affair has lasted no more than fifteen seconds, but that name will go with the girl for the rest of her life … as a highly prized talisman. (136)

If you went to India to give a dhamma talk, would you be prepared for an encounter like this? Wow!

One last thing I’d like to talk about today is Pilchick’s observation that “even today many Hindus regard Buddhism as nothing more than just an archaic branch of Hinduism”. (23) Dismissive comments like this are an interesting theme I am seeing in many books about “religion” in India and Japan. Many Japanese people will say that Shinto is non-religious custom. For some reason, we laugh off this insider account as due to ignorance, rather than realizing that this is truly a gem of knowledge to understand the role that our imagined “Shinto” or “Buddhism” play in their home societies.

Pilchick states, correctly, that Buddhists were subject to persecution from Brahmins. But at the same time, Buddhism in India was constantly developing throughout the time it was there. Consider this: the oldest form of Buddhism, Sthaviravada, is strictly materialistic and preaches cessation of suffering in the here and now. (I’m ignoring the developments in Theravada in Southeast Asia.) The next form, Mahayana, holds that the forms in which Sthaviravada were taught were empty of independent meaning, and that true insight can be awakened within oneself without the need to follow a rigid path. The next form, Vajrayana, says further that you can come to identify yourself with these perfections in the forms of bodhisattvas, if you have a competent guru to instruct you. Now, all this is moving away from materialist description of life, and towards yogas. Couldn’t we just tack on modern, guru-based “Hinduism” to this list? The gap between Theravada and Hare Krishnas is huge, but the gap between Vajrayana and Hare Krishnas is not so big, I think. Vaishnavas even had major debates about whether you are allowed to identify yourself with God. So maybe this conception of modern Hindus, that Buddhism was just part of modern Hinduism, is essentially correct.

Posted: March 23rd, 2010 | Book Reviews

Are you a “modern Buddhist”?

The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David L. McMahan
Oxford University Press, 2008. BQ316.M36

Are you aware of the vast gap between the Buddhism you know and the culture familiar to hundreds of millions of people in “Buddhist countries”? All of the practices and goals described by Western Buddhists, such as meditation, a philosophical quest, and an emphasis on freedom and egalitarianism, are part of a great revolution in Buddhist knowledge as the Western world discovers it. In this book, David McMahan seeks to describe these differences, neither demeaning or praising either side, but raising our awareness of the new role that our Buddhist modernism is giving to these ancient teachings.

When we read about Buddhism by choice, seeking out its most fruitful and meaningful teachings, we are doing virtually the opposite of how laypeople experience Buddhism in Thailand or Tibet. For an average Thai woman, Buddhism means a concern with “honoring, appeasing, and managing the spirit powers that pervade her existential world and with generating the karmic effects to provide good fortune in this life and lives to come.” (37) She doesn’t pick out what interests her the most, nor is she familiar with what the Buddha actually taught, except on the most basic level of virtue and compassion. She might see us as a strange phenomenon: we know as much about Buddhism as a fully ordained monk, but we do not perform any of the rituals that she considers essential for moral upkeep.

Our creation of a philosophical world for Buddhism in the Western/Greek tradition makes us undeniably modern, and grounds our Buddhism in European history just as much as Asian history. Even the act of reading a Buddhist text on your own is a transformation: “It would have occurred to virtually no one [in medieval Tibet] simply to pick up a book and try to understand it himself … The vast canonical literature of Buddhism was written as an aid to oral and personal instruction by an authorized teacher.” (17) And this, too, is only one of a huge variety of ways that reading was performed throughout Asia. The way we Westerners read texts is no more culturally neutral than any of these, but comes down to us from Martin Luther’s idea of sola scriptura.

In a major sense, this modernism arose in response to the demands of 19th century Christians to see either rationality or superstition in the teachings they came across. India is the most important case of a complex culture being reduced to a perceived primitive, uninteresting superstition which the British called “Brahmanism” or “Hinduism”. In the Buddhist world, too, accusations like “atheistic, nihilistic, quietistic, pessimistic, and idolatrous” came fast and furious from Western colonists. (69) When contemporary Sri Lankans and Japanese aimed to combat the ignorance of these critics, they created in response a Buddhist modernism, that is to say a Buddhism that was compatible with the Western philosophical tradition. This was the Buddhism that was equivalent to science, opposed to superstition, and in agreement with Christianity or even superior to it.

Although he is in some sense trying to demythologize this modern Buddhism, McMahan is careful to note that modern portrayals of Buddhist literature have often turned out to be accurate. For example, the Tibetan Book of the Dead was given an intense psychological rereading by Carl Jung which described its images of fierce Buddhas and bodhisattvas as “‘nothing but’ the collective unconsciousness inside me.” We might assume that Jung is projecting his own beliefs onto the traditional book of chants. (53) However, if we look at the text of the book, we find that Jung had ample basis for this representation: these powerful beings are indeed described as “appearances” (pratibhasa) who are “not distinct from the deceased subject wandering in the bar do“. (54) Jung’s interpretation was certainly novel, in the sense that any Tibetan he talked with would not have been familiar with it. But that does not mean he was wrong.

In fact, the main criticism I have of this book is that it does not attribute enough agency to Asian Buddhists for the elements of Buddhism that have reached us today, such as meditation, interbeing, and aesthetics. McMahan quotes Paul Heelas as saying, “people—whether ‘premodern’/’traditional’, ‘modern’ or even ‘post-modern’/’post-traditional’—always live in terms of … typically conflicting demands” to change or renew the meaning of their culture; our own modernism is just the past 100 years of change in a long, living history. (58) One of the Victorian conceits in their encounter with Buddhism was to portray it as ancient teachings submerged in a “dead” religion, and I think we should avoid framing the Western encounter with Buddhism as “breathing life” into it. Some examples of undoubtedly traditional Buddhism used to modern effect, such as tree ordination in Thailand, might have sufficed to round out the complex image presented here. McMahan brushes over these developments as “post-modern” or “retraditionalization”, which seems to imply (falsely) that they have progressed beyond a stage of modernism. (247)

One thing I think McMahan could pay more attention to is the Western discourse on the terms “religion” and “religions”, and their role in the creation of this modernism. D.T. Suzuki’s claim that Zen is “the essence of religion” (143) is novel, not because nobody had ever claimed an essential nature for Zen before, but because he connects it to the Western ecumenical idea of “religion” as the universal impulse that arises in various forms throughout the world, as opposed to different impulses for different places. He then places Zen as the breakthrough technique to uncover the Ground-Source of this mysterious impulse. It is good to note how Buddhism was reconciled with science by 20th century modernists, but how was it reconciled with this idea of “religion”? Has a discourse on universal spiritual impulse been important, or perhaps even necessary, in the creation of this modernism? This question may be confusing, but I believe it is quite important for understanding how we modern seekers relate ourselves to Buddhism today.

Posted: March 23rd, 2010 | Book Reviews