International Writers Magazine: Book Reviews
The book is divided
into two parts, with a preface. The first part is called On Buddhism,
and consists of seven essays on the subject. The second half of the book
is called On Writing, and contains nine essays. As someone who is far
more interested in the arts than religion, my preference is for the latter
essays, but the book, as a whole is well written, and straddles the line
between Lowest Common Denominator appeal and textbook jargonese. In theory,
this should allow the book to appeal to both ends of the intellectual
spectrum, but in practice, the ignorant simply will not read such a work,
and the supposed intelligentsia will ignore it, for it does not attempt
to cordon off higher thought from the barbarians.
The Wheel by Charles Johnson
Charles Johnson is a fictionist best known for his award winning
novels like Oxherding Tale, Middle Passage, and Dreamer.
He is one of the rare published writers and intellectuals willing
to publicly state his displeasure with the current low state of
American writing. Yet, despite his novels and short story collections,
Johnson is also an essayist and Buddhist. In
2003 he published a small volume of Essays titled Turning The
Wheel: Essays On Buddhism And Writing. Unsurprisingly, in this
deliterate age, the book was launched without fanfare and destined
to obscurity, perhaps awaiting rediscovery in future decades by
Johnson scholars and historians, once today's ignorant era is passé.
In Reading The Eightfold Path, Johnson does a creditable job of
explaining the desires for perfection that the philosophy (or is it religion?)
of Buddhism espouses. The essay is perhaps a bit too long to be read by
an average reader in one sitting, but it does shed light on some of Johnson's
own prior fictive work- most notably the meaning behind Oxherding Tale's
title and narrative. Johnson quotes some studies and statistics to bolster
his claims, but I admit, this is not the best essay to lure one into a
discussion of Buddhism. It probably should have come after a few others.
In The Elusive Art Of 'Mindfulness', Johnson gets a bit more personal,
exploring Buddhism's effect on his life and career as a writer, and this
would have made a better opening essay. Accepting The Invitation is a
brief political essay on Johnson's Buddhist views in light of enfranchisement.
A Sangha By Another Name deals with the ramifications of the Middle
Passage and posits Buddhism as a coming wave in black American spiritual
and philosophic life. I tend to disagree, though, as I doubt blacks are
anymore or less susceptible to the crass materialism that McMartWorld
inflicts upon modern life. But, it makes its points well, especially in
the rearview mirror. On The Book Of Proverbs is the most interesting
essay in this section, in its comparison of Western and Eastern thought,
the wisdom vs. knowledge paradigm, and Johnson ends up divining the pros
and cons of the titular work, and ultimately siding with Proverbs as a
work worthy of human trust.
A Poet Of Being is the most provocative essay, on the provocative
writer Jean Toomer and his seminal book Cane. More so than Cane's
preeminence in exposing racism's ills to a larger white public, Johnson
posits the work rises beyond a mere race work:
Toomer's belief that what we call the self (the subjective side of experience)
is without substance- is not an essence- leads seamlessly to Toomer's
assessment of the 'objective' world, to his awareness of how nuclear physics
in the 1920s was revealing 'matter' to be no more than a concept or abstraction,
for beneath the visible world of the senses, which most people believe
is substantive, there is a dynamic, invisible reality of protons, electrons,
and hadrons in constant movement, transformation, and mutation.
While I would take issue that Cane touches upon such blatantly
scientific themes, there's no doubt the book cores under the real. But,
other works- especially great works of art, do so, as well. The paintings
of Salvador Dali immediately come to mind. Yet, it's clear Dali's prescience
was a parallel act to that of probing the microscopic cosmos, not a joint
probe. Coevality does not impute connection. That said, note Johnson's
writing style. It's rather impassive, direct, and not larded down to show
off his intellect and vocabulary, say, like the worst that abounds in
criticism of painting or films (think of the Cahiers du Cinema dreck of
the 1950s). Nor is it pandering to the masses. One might want a bit more
conviviality, or some personalized poesy, ala the science essays of a
Loren Eiseley, but Johnson always keeps an even keel.
Toro Nagashi is a brief essay on remembering Hiroshima, and is a weak
essay. Not because of its political stance (decidedly left of center)
but because that stance infects the writing to an almost bathetic level.
Then come the essays on writing. Here, Johnson seems a bit more comfortable,
and willing to be aggressive. This is an interesting development since
in the first essay, The Role Of The Black Intellectual In The Twenty-First
Century, he deals with the ideas of artistic self-segregation of blacks,
as well as the historic reality that the only area of 'expertise' blacks
were ever intellectually granted were in regards to racism in America
and their suffering. Yet, manifestly, while blacks may have expertise
on the suffering bigotry causes, they are likely to be clueless as to
the whys and wherefores of that ill. Not that I agree with black radical
assumptions that 'blacks cannot be racists,' as that is patently absurd,
but Johnson makes some good points in concluding that blacks need to expand
their base of knowledge, and claim more ground, lest be left behind in
this century of knowledge, and its acquisition.
Uncle Tom's Cabin is a guarded defense of Harriet Beecher Stowe's
novel with some interesting takes on both its artistic and political power.
The Singular Vision Of Ralph Ellison has a similarly strong defense
of that writer's most famed work, if for differing reasons than the prior
work, and On Kingsblood Royal deals with Sinclair Lewis's work
and the claims of racial ambiguity, as well as the 'the Negro problem'
really being a white problem. While I agree with the idea that racism,
or bigotry of any sort, is the problem of the carrier, and merely the
burden of the victim, I do not agree with the idea that race is a mere
political construction. It is a real thing- albeit a shallow one. Yet,
like so much else in America's material scheme, shallowness is not the
equivalent of inanition.
Progress In Literature is the best essay in the book, and a brilliant
one, even if some of its claims, such as the mere existence writers of
color opening new horizons to readers, is dubious. While such claims can
be made for Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and even Toni Morrison- as
well as the unmentioned James Baldwin, Johnson lumps in inferior writers
like Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Jhumpa Lahiri with them. Only
a writer of quality can expand a reader's mind, while mediocrities, like
the above mentioned trio, just waste ones time, disguising soap opera
level stories as having import simply because the 'bodice-ripping' narratives
lack a hero named Heathcliff.
The Beginner's Mind is one of the better essays on writing as a
pursuit that one will read and A Phenomenology Of On Moral Fiction
is somewhere between a hagiography of Johnson's mentor, John Gardner,
and a philosophic mirror for Johnson. 'Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing' is on
James Weldon Johnson, and An American Milk Bottle ends the book.
That final essay includes some insight into Johnson's personal and family
history many readers will find interesting and unexpected.
Overall, Johnson shows that, as an essayist, while he might not be in
a class with greats like a Loren Eiseley or James Baldwin, he certainly
has insights and an ability to convey them that surpasses- and rather
easily, most books you will read on religion or writing. Yes, more Baldwinian
passion, or more Eiseleyan poesy, would have made the read a great pleasure
rather than merely intellectually provocative, but that's picking nits.
How Johnson's art and religion informs not only the essays' both titular
sections, but those in the other sections, is the unconscious sort of
implementation that only a superior artist does. He does not screed, nor
wave banners, nor state the manifest- especially in bald clichés.
He is also someone who truly thinks- even if his conclusions are not in
sync with the reader's own. There is no mistaking a work like this with
the New Age charlatanry of writers like Tony Robbins, Bill Moyers, Joseph
Campbell, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, nor Wayne Dyer. Yet, Johnson
is not hermetically sealed away, as many intellectuals are, as the book
even mentions a writer as pop cultural as Rod Serling (but, no- not Rod
Overall, Turning The Wheel: Essays On Buddhism And Writing is not
a work to read if one merely wants to kill time. Yet, by stating that,
I am not declaring the book FOR INTELLECTUALS ONLY. If one wants to really
ponder some things about life and art, it will give one some new things
to chew on, make some connections, and do both in ways one would not notice.
This is something that other such books in this vein will not do. To some-
if not most, that will seem a call to pass on this work. To those who
actually do read it, you can thank me later.
© Dan Schneider October 2007
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