In an earlier post I gave myself permission to post fragments. So here goes….
I’ve been reading the new book by my favorite philosopher, Buddhist thinker David R. Loy. Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution pulls together shorter pieces written for magazines, and the venue seems to have encouraged great concentration and great simplicity in Loy, who is typically (anyway) capable of moving from the just-shy-of-obscure to flashes of brilliance with ease.
One essay that captured my attention is “The Suffering of Self.” Loy argues the familiar Buddhist point of view that the Self is “our most dangerous delusion, a “psychological-social-linguistic construct” that doesn’t cause our suffering (dukkha in Buddhist parlance), but is our suffering. From the Buddhist perspective, “the self needs to be deconstructed, to realize its true ’empty,’ non-dwelling nature. […] Not being a real self is also what enables the sense of self to be deconstructed and reconstructed, and this deconstruction/reconstruction is what the Buddhist spiritual path is about.”
I’ve made fun of the Derrida/Barthes incarnations of “deconstruction” in varous blog posts, but when I see it in the context of Buddhism, I wonder if maybe I’m wrong. Loy himself often refers to Derrida approvingly, and aren’t the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (or post-modern, or post-avant) writers, whose theories derive from Derrida and language philosophers like Wittgenstein,—aren’t they somehow Buddhist in their attacks on the self?
One only has to read a characteristic page by Ron Silliman, or Charles Bernstein, or Christian Bök, to discover that these writers do, after all, deconstruct. This excerpt from Lyn Hejinian’s introduction to The Language of Inquiry could have been written by Loy:
Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts. Such contexts rarely coalesce into images, rarely come to terms. They are transitions, transmutations, the endless radiating of denotation into relation.
And indeed a typical Hejinian poem operates according to these ideas.
Self is Language; it is all “transitions, transmutations,” etc. It is, in Buddhist terms, a “construct.” A delusion.
Not all younger poets are post-whatever writers, of course, but the drift of recent American poetry, under the influence of deconstruction, has been to unmask the delusion self by fragmenting or deracinating or mocking the writing persona, spurning the coherence of authorial voice, exalting the value of linguistic play, and asserting the irrelevance of authorial intention to the meaning of any given work.
But about reconstruction these poets seem to have no clue.
As noted above, Loy emphasizes that Buddhism’s program of deconstruction is balanced by a program of reconstruction based on the very thing post-whatever writers ban from consideration: intentionality.
He quotes the Dhammapada, on the importance of intention: “Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows even as the cart-wheel follows the hoof of the ox. […] If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.”
The message for writers is clear: intention is not irrelevant, but all-important, if one cares to move beyond mere deconstruction.
I have no idea what Loy thinks about Darwin per se, although he frequently makes the point that Buddhism evolved in a particular historical/cultural moment, and therefore the “old ideas” that were current at the time were mixed in with the Buddha’s “new ideas.” And as Buddhism spread from place to place, it acquired all kinds of other cultural influences that the Buddha himself would never have recognized. Loy further argues that Buddhism must continue to evolve if it’s to continue to be relevant as a spiritual path.
This interests me because Darwin seems in many ways the antithesis of the Buddha: interested less in the now than in the history of the now: What are the processes that produced the world we experience and how did they operate over time?
An underlying assumption of Darwinism, of course, is that idea that traits are passed on from generation to generation because they are a help to survival. I think this is undeniable. And it leads me to wonder: If the constructed Self is such a bad idea, why is it among the core traits we might reasonably call characteristically human?
It seems clear to me that the self is a product of evolutionary processes, and so presumably has some kind of survival value.
It also seems clear to me, post-whatever theory be damned, that the Self is also the wellspring of art—if not the source itself, then at least the necessary conduit for the source. (The source I mean is unknowable, of course, both from the Buddhist and Darwinist perspectives. In fact, all religious and non-religious traditions acknowledge the unknowability of the source I’m talking about—call it what you will.) Loy makes the point that by “self” we mean “persona,” the habitual mask constructed for us (socially/linguistically) and by us (psychologically); Buddhist scriptures, as far as I know, don’t mention the existence of genes, those powerful sequences of nucleotides that might be considered a physiological component in the construction of our masks.
Poets have always understood masks, and poetry has always used masks as part of a deconstruction/reconstruction process
The deconstruction of the authorial mask that post-whatever writers consider a breakthrough is, in other words, very old news. What these writers seem incapable of doing, however, is acknowledging the necessity of the mask and the fact that readers need the mask, the way we all need other people to display their masks in order to function in society.
No masks, no social life. And since poems are social creations … : No masks, no poems. Or at least, no poems that other human beings care to read.