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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Notes on Recent Reading 12 [Huxley, Norris, Dōgen]

Crome Yellow [Huxley]

I should confess at the outset a weakness, for Saki’s Clovis and even -- dare I confess it? -- for Ronald Firbank. In Huxley’s novel, the same aestheticism verging into camp appears in somewhat diluted, digested, and intellectualized form. This roman-à-clef of the scene at Lady Ottiline Morrill’s might be a grandchild of Thomas Love Peacock and a child (on the other side perhaps) of Oscar Wilde.

The fashions of the advanced thinkers of the time are naturally for the most part altogether absurd, though Mr. Barbecue-Smith’s salable profundities would probably rank as high today on the best-seller list as they did in his own. With becoming self-mockery, the author himself is represented by the ineffectual poet Denis Stone.

Modern readers are likely to be particularly interested in the utopian schemes of Mr. Scogan. Surely the most quoted passage in the novel is Scogan’s description of a future generation spawned in state incubators, initiating a time when “Eros, beautifully and irresponsibly free, will flit like a gay butterfly from flower to flower through a sunlit world.”

The Pit [Norris]

Norris’ novel of the futures markets in Chicago, one of his three part wheat series, is very much au courant in its depiction of the addictive psychology of speculation. The ego-foolery of high finance is reminiscent of Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe” in Bonfire of the Vanities.

Apart from the unusual interest in economic forces, though, the novel is quite conventional. Though Laura is, at first, rather flippant and self-absorbed, a bit of a rebel, she ends up as traditional a good wife as one could imagine. And a male with aesthetic interests like Sheldon Corthell can never hope to gain such a love.

Every now and then Norris deploys a rhetorical flurry on “the pit,” implying people’s helplessness in the face of fate or some such “naturalist” lesson from our “American Zola,” and Curtis Jadwin would like to think his addiction something quite beyond his control, but these notions seem adventitious. The true characters here are motivated just as in the age’s popular stories

McTeague and The Octopus seemed more absorbing as stories, though The Pit was popular enough when new to have been serialized in the Saturday Evening Post.

Shobogenzo [Dōgen]

Neither a Japanese scholar nor a practitioner of zazen, I nonetheless fancy that I read Buddhist texts both to ameliorate my Eurocentric education and to pursue enlightenment. If Dōgen is correct that anything less than total commitment is fruitless, my remarks may only, I suppose, mislead, but I stubbornly offer them regardless.

Dōgen, the thirteenth century Zen master, founded the Soto school, sometimes insulted as “farmer Zen” by Rinzai adherents because of its popularity. Though Shunryu Suzuki taught Soto at the San Francisco Zen Center and reached many more through his Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, many Americans with a literary connection to Buddhism will be attracted to the more dramatic style of Rinzai.

How to Raise an Ox is a partial translation of Dōgen’s Shobogenzo with a substantial introduction by Francis Dojun Cook. These editorial materials and the selections from Dōgen stress practice, while keeping a clarified eye on the most basic facts: the paramount importance of meditation, the illusory conundrum of ego (here magically solved by the bodhisattva’s pledge to await the enlightenment of all sentient beings before accepting his own).

Prof. Cook is an academic as well as a Zen adept, so one can only appreciate it if he sounds a bit preachy in his introductory remarks. He does, after all, want to bring us all to nirvana. It is not surprising and a sign of the best intentions if the strain shows just a bit.

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