Archive for August 2014
The art of reading consists to a large degree in developing the ability to find works to which you will respond deeply.
As I’ve tried out my new reading chair, I’ve discovered profound rewards in reading two under-appreciated geniuses of the twentieth century, the playwright Heiner Müller and the Tibetan “renegade monk” Gendun Choephel. Although their backgrounds could not be more dissimilar, they were kindred spirits – relentless independent thinkers who were able to drink deeply from their respective traditions, and to let those energies and ideas pour through their own creative processes, without being overwhelmed or determined by them.
Reading a series of interviews with Müller, compiled in the Semiotext(e) edition Germania, one encounters the fascinating perspective of an intellectual who remained in East Germany by choice, not as a dogmatist, but as an extremely resourceful analyst of history and culture.
For Müller, the Berlin Wall was one of the great monuments of the world. Here, you could come and see it – this is our historical situation, and it’s right there, in concrete. The world that he foresaw after the disintegration of the detente between the US and the Soviet Union was one in which history would cease to exist, not because things would stop happening, but because it would no longer be possible to describe events in a way that made sense.
Gendun Choephel was brought up in one of the last generations to go through traditional training in the monastic universities of Tibet. His prodigious powers of debate were notorious, and he had a tendency to argue against traditional Buddhist doctrine with a tenacity and insight that stunned his contemporaries. In one instance, he shocked his teacher into silence with a virtuosic proof that Buddhahood was impossible, and was subsequently beaten up by some of his fellow monks who tried to force him to recant.
I can’t help but remember Stephen Dedalus being beaten up at Clongowes for praising Byron over Tennyson in “Portrait of the Artist.”
It is extremely rare to find someone deeply immersed in Tibetan scholasticism who is nonetheless not programmatically determined by its traditions, capable of asking real and penetrating questions of long-accepted conclusions. His interest led him into a Quixotic attempt to help modernize and democratize Tibet, which primarily seems to have resulted in getting him thrown into the dungeon of the Potala Palace, where the young Dalai Lama XIV was in residence.
When the Dalai Lama reached his majority, his first act was to declare general amnesty, and Choephel was released, a broken man addicted to opium and drink, who lived just long enough to see the Chinese army march into Lhasa. He died three weeks later.
His newly-translated book Grains of Gold is a masterpiece and is to my knowledge completely unique in Tibetan literature. It consists primarily of his travel log as he spent more than a decade traveling through India, visiting the sights, and confronting the vast gulf separating the heavily-mythologized perception of the Land of Sages held by his compatriots and the realities of a post-Mughal colonial state. His travels and observations are mixed with a heady blend of lyrical descriptions, including a proclivity for quoting the Sanskrit poet and playwright Kālidāsa, one of my most-cherished literary authors.
Curiously parallel, both men drank from the same well, and were alert to different concerns. Müller recalls attending a production of one of his own plays in Cologne, in which a dialog was staged between a man and a woman, and every time war or murder was mentioned, the man would throw a cake between the legs of the woman. I was immediately vividly reminded of Choephel’s account of a Nepali king who was treated for a karmic obstacle by being placed inside a large gilded statue of a woman and emerging from her womb.
Mesocosm on Heiner Müller
Mesocosm on Kālidāsa