Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Tibetan Novel

The Tale of the Incomparable Prince by Tshe ring dbang rgyal, translated and introduced by Beth Newman. The Library of Tibet. HarperCollins, 1996.

Newman explains that she has chosen to translate personal names into their Sanskrit equivalents in preference to the Tibetan forms. A glance at the Tibetan form of the title – gZhon nu zla med kyi gtam rgyud -- is probably enough to convince many Westerners of the propriety of her choice, though since most readers will be unfamiliar with the meaning of the Sanskrit names, she has thereby lost that semantic element. For place names she has adopted a different strategy, translating them into English. The work of translation was originally her Ph.D. dissertation, a notable example of the value of supporting advanced research in the humanities. Her introductory essay is short and accessible.

This unique work, the only pre-twentieth century Tibetan novel, [1] was written by Tshe ring dbang rgyal, an eighteenth century aristocrat who also composed a number of other literary and scholarly works [2] while at the same time taking a leading political role, including service as prime minister. Far from the utopian serenity of Hilton’s Shangri-La, the author’s period was marked by considerable internal conflict as well as assaults from China, Bhutan, and Mongolian tribes.

The courtly society in which the author moved followed Indian models for literature. In form the work is thus clearly within the courtly Indian style kāvya as defined in the most authoritative guide to Sanskrit literary theory, Daṇḍin’s Kāvyādarśa (Mirror of Poetry), composed circa 700 C.E. [3] As in comparable texts in China and Europe this manual regards rhetoric as the basis for literariness. Tshe ring dbang rgyal explicitly declares his intention to follow “the tenets of dramatic composition.” (318) Apart from employing standard rhetorical figures (of which Daṇḍin lists thirty-six) the writer of “epic drama” (mahākāvya, in Tibetan snyan ngag chen po) should also include treatment of each of the aims of life (or puruṣārthas): dharma (righteousness), artha (prosperity), kāma (pleasure) and mokṣa (liberation). Tshe ring dbang rgyal details his attention to each of these areas in his epilogue.

As the narrative alternates prose and verse passages (like the European prosimetrum), it belongs to the genre campū. In content it could be labeled an avadāna, a marvelous bodhisattva tale, as the hero ultimately attains bodhisattva status. The specifics of the story line clearly owe a great deal to the Ramayana and to stories of the life of the Buddha as well as to Jataka tales.

Though Newman calls the narrative a novel, Tsering Shakya uses Northrup Frye’s categories to characterize it as a romance instead. [4] His essay points out that the characters and scenes are highly idealized and conventionalized and that the author makes little attempt at verisimilitude. This can constitute an impediment for the non-specialist Western. The prince, as the title states, is “incomparable.” His every attribute is so superlative, his capital so grand, and Manohari so beautiful that the reader encounters rhetorically elaborate and highly repetitive descriptions at every turn. Though eighteenth century Tibetan aristocrats regularly exchanged aureate show pieces (rather in the manner of Elizabethan courtiers writing sonnets) as an entertainment, it is unlikely that modern readers will find the same charm in a translation.

The same conventions can also impede the reader’s reception of the story’s themes. The disquisitions on virtuous rule (for instance, the passages beginning on pages 189 and 237) are mild and acceptable, though they offer little of substance beyond general advice, encouraging honesty, temperance, and mindfulness of Buddhist teachings. However, in the turns of the story, it seems, deceit is perfectly acceptable for those identified with the side of virtue. Bhavakumara tries his best to trick Manohari and then frames Chetadasa in spite of the repeated appearance of sententiae to the effect that the noble always speak and act straightforwardly. The scene in which he mocks and tortures Chetadasa, putting him eventually to death (112), can hardly be read at all, much less with sympathy, by moderns.

Even the major Buddhist themes are presented with some ambivalence. For instance, the wise minister Viradhiman, very like Krishna addressing Arjuna in the Bhavagad Gita, counsels unconstrained violence in warfare as adherence to individual dharma saying “whether peaceful or violent” “each of us should engrave our duty in his heart.” (136) Though even this passage advises detachment (“It is unsuitable to have any faith in this world”), it is scarcely consistent with the standards later enunciated by the teachings of the ascetic Dharmeshvara (216 and 306) or the bodhisattva vow of Kumaradvitiya (235).

A lengthy and lyrical passage rhapsodically describes the sexual love of the hero and heroine (175 ff.), and yet Kumaradvitiya later (204-5) insists that even the finest love can only be a source of error. King Suyamati is a vivid example of self-deception enabled by lust as is Lavanya Kamal. Ultimately the prince describes, in a bravura passage using terms reminiscent of medieval European celibates, how the once beautiful woman’s flesh will die and become an object of revulsion. (251)

To Newman, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism both from her scholarship and from consulting living masters, the story is meant to illustrate that “staying active in the world is compatible with Buddhist virtue,” (xiii) yet its conclusion clearly privileges the extreme withdrawal of the ascetic as the only way to conquer death. (243) In fact the prince becomes a bodhisattva, filled with an unconquerable elation not by wholly avoiding samsara, but rather by first fully entering into its shimmering and deceptive play, then mastering desire, only to finally thread a path “between the extremes of nihilism and absolutism.” (275) Surely the narrative provides, not prudential advice on a well-regulated life as a lay person, but rather points toward the ultimate abolition of duality, solving (or perhaps sidestepping) the issue of whether dependent and compounded phenomena, are, in fact, real. From that perspective there is no monk or layperson, male or female, enlightened or ignorant, existent or non-existent.

Though differing in virtually every other way, The Tale of the Incomparable Prince reminded me of Wu Cheng-en’s wonderful Journey to the West, another excellent tale so entertaining that the reader may proceed on the route to enlightenment without ever noticing the slightest change. And indeed, there is no change. How could there be? And yet there is.

1. In 1938 Mipam: The Lama of Five Wisdoms was published with a Western audience in mind. The putative author was Lama Yongden, the adopted son of Alexandra David Neel who is generally considered to be the actual author. A novella Yeshe lhamo and Blacksmith topgyelIn by Dorjé Gyelpo (1959) was touted by the Chinese as was Turquoise by Langdun Banjor (1985). Several other works have appeared more recently.

2. His other extant books include an autobiography, a “praise composition,” a biography of Mid dbang Pho lha nas bSod nams stob rgyas, a Tibetan-Sanskrit lexicon, and a book on Tibetan grammar. He is sometimes styled Dokhar Tsering Wanggyel.

3. In Tibet the Indian tradition was naturalized by the 12th century scholar Chöjé Sakya Paṇḍita Künga Gyeltsen (Kun dga' rgyal mtshan). For the Sa skya writers the spread of Buddhism was the primary goal and aesthetic effects were for them, as for Augustine, means to that end.

4. Tsering Shakya, “The Development of Modern Tibetan Literature in the People’s Republic of China in the 1980s” in Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change, ed. Lauran R. Hartley, Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani, p. 70.

Kurt Seligmann’s Riddlesome Symbols

A shorter version of this essay prefaces the forthcoming third Seligmann lecture to be published by the Seligmann Center in Sugar Loaf. Each is available from the Center or through me for $15.

The use of symbols outlined by Kurt Seligmann in his lecture on the topic explicitly seeks to contribute to expand the term’s definition, though his opinions rest securely on nearly a hundred years of scholarly elucidation of symbolic meaning in traditional contexts. While Seligmann’s view of symbols does give a nod to Surrealist ideas, it in fact deviates considerably from that advanced by Breton, and in the end he proposes a method for renewing old symbols for use in the twentieth century distinctly his own, while incorporating the insights of philologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and literary critics.

Greek and Roman mythology had long been included in the European curriculum, but systematic knowledge and comparison of other symbolic systems only began to emerge in the nineteenth century. Nineteenth century writers like J. J. Bachofen mined the expanding fund of knowledge of antiquity to posit an early stage of matriarchy while William Robertson Smith found significant parallels between ancient Hebrew and other ancient Semitic beliefs. While the “higher criticism” sought to place Christianity in its Near Eastern context, scholars like Max Müller and Heinrich Zimmer were bringing the West its first accurate knowledge of Asian texts.

At the same time pioneering work described and analyzed the cultures of what were called “primitive” societies. Edward Burnett Tylor, Oxford’s first professor of anthropology, distinguished between “savagery,” and “barbarism” on the route toward civilization, and James Frazer undertook the first comprehensive study of myths and rituals worldwide, published in The Golden Bough and elsewhere. [1]

Attempts to organize and meaningfully relate the new information coming from the study of Babylon, India, and China, as well as the forests of New Guinea and the Amazon, followed. Meanwhile the foundations of the study of semiotics, of signs in general, were being established by C. S. Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure.

The Surrealists, on the other hand, had little interest in the use of pre-existing symbols. In his 1924 Manifesto Breton suggests the child, the madman, and especially the dreamer as models of the imaginative subject, but never refers to myth or suggests the re-use of any existing symbolic image. Indeed, his entire emphasis is on the generation of inscrutable new objects for contemplation. Furthermore, such Surrealist images (devised in a “hypnagogic state”) do not fit a pattern of symbol and meaning, but rather a new model: “two distant realities” united to form a new one in which “the more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be -- the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.” Breton privileges “previously neglected associations” and “the disinterested play of thought,” and absolutely opposes convention and tradition. Through such newly-coined images, whose meaning is obscure if not ineffable, “we can hope that mysteries which are not really mysteries will give way to the great Mystery.” [2] The most significant techniques for developing such material are first, the linking of unlikely pairs, resulting in a new semantic field and second, the use of aleatory methods to generate ideas entirely independent of both the past and conscious thought.

The Surrealist attitude is succinctly expressed by René Crevel’s unequivocal statement: “Poetry which delivers us of the symbol sows liberty itself.” [3] The recommended Surrealist practice may be illustrated by the editing of Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou during which “no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation would be accepted." According to Buñuel, "we had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why." According to its maker (retaining his own emphatic capitals) “NOTHING, in the film, SYMBOLIZES ANYTHING.” [4]

Seligmann regards this Surrealist position as delusory. He begins his lecture by citing a number of symbols the meanings of which are “established by convention,” though even at this point he notes that interpretation is dynamic, changing through time. Surely he is thinking of his Surrealist colleagues when he observes that, “many an artist of today wishes to break completely with the past.” This cannot be done because the artist must have a public and “the only conciliator between him and the public . . . is precisely the symbol.” The symbol always represents at least a partial conjunction of what is signified by the sign-maker and what is understood by the sign-reader. Thus, the symbols of Surrealism “may seem at first glance to be entirely new creations. Close scrutiny, however, reveals their ties with the past.”

According to Seligmann one cannot rid oneself of semantic associations even when contemplating abstract forms. Though the non-figurative painter may abolish all conscious symbols, the unconscious is “ineradicable.” He says that “psychoanalysis has shown that all symbols . . .are signs arisen from the depths of our psyche.” Thus abstract paintings can be “read” though they lack explicit symbols because of this unconscious content in which “public and the artist meet upon common psychic ground.” Even a modernist’s “freely invented forms” are “not just a private affair” as they cannot escape this collective psychic base.

Furthermore, symbols are not only common to all humanity, they are in part consistent through history. The artist sounds very much like Jung when he discusses certain symbols the meaning of which “is deeply rooted in our psyches,” symbols that express “lasting ideas” will persist through the centuries. From a basic reassurance that the cosmos is orderly (and even just!) to the details of ritual, symbolic usage has always comforted humans with “the signs of civilization.” According to Seligmann “in times of uncertainty” (including his own era) “an uncanny profusion of images” will be produced in an effort to seize some control over circumstance.

According to Seligmann “tradition and convention” had always governed the reading of symbolic language, but along with clearly significant symbols, artists used as well archaic ones whose meaning had been largely lost, and these “mysterious” symbols came to be regarded as more magical, among them the attributes of Abraxas. Such underdetermined symbols, as the Symbolist poets recognized, potentially are more powerful than those with clearly assigned meaning.

Seligmann notes as well that intuitive symbols may arise naturally in the mind of the artist or the consumer of art and yet still be associated with pre-existing symbolic associations. Though such symbols are “direct,” spontaneous, not prescribed but “from personal emotions,” they remain related to earlier patterns of symbolic significance. Similar notions had already been developed by psychologists who found insight into the minds of their patients in exotic myths and rituals. Freud, to whom the Surrealists owed so much, quoted literary texts and classical myths to support his view of the dreams and fantasies he encountered in his practice. [5]

Even more important for Seligmann in his revaluation of the relevance of ancient symbols for modern man were surely the works of his fellow Swiss C. G. Jung who proposed the notion of a collective unconscious [6] in which were recorded not merely instincts but also archetypes. Jung delighted in exactly the same sort of symbolic religious, alchemical, and occult texts that Seligmann collected, and for both authors the illustrations were of primary interest.

Discounting the value of the chance conjunctions beloved by the Surrealists, Seligmann nonetheless finds particular significance in somewhat indeterminate symbols. According to him, though all symbols had at first a set coded meaning, some had become more “mysterious” as time passed, and these were particularly likely to acquire occult uses. He persists in recognizing what he several times calls “riddlesome” symbols as the most fruitful.

Seligmann, while accepting a general position on symbols less radical than orthodox Surrealism would propose, nonetheless insisted upon maintaining his own idiosyncratic fascination with magic. According to him certain powerful symbols “do not only reflect, they also emanate ideas.” If the meaning of those words is far from clear, the artist then explains that such symbols “assume talismanic power” and illustrates by the case of the Star of David used in occult operations as the Seal of Solomon. He suggests that a visual or written collective production of the sort called “exquisite corpse” may result in a “riddlesome emblem.”

More dramatically, Seligmann recounts the story of Victor Brauner who had represented himself with only one eye long before he lost an eye in an accident. To Seligmann his intuitive precognition is bound up with a symbol rich in parallels such as Oedipus and Cyclops. These occult claims have little effect on his aesthetics, either in theory or practice, though they do contribute a note of sensation and a vague background of imminent portentous significance. He slides here from Brauner’s story to the myths of the sort that inform his ultimate world view: alchemical procedures, the worm ouroboros, and the philosophical challenge to dualism, all firmly based in earlier symbolic systems.

In fact, Seligmann only modifies the view of symbols as signs with a conventional meaning by reinforcing the observations of Freud and Jung that the very same symbols sometimes occur to individuals independent of tradition and by his recognition that some symbols have partly or wholly indeterminate meanings. His fascination with symbols in magical use and in non-European cultures deviates from Breton’s Surrealist orthodoxy, and his acceptance of such procedures as the “exquisite corpse” seems designed primarily to please his colleagues in the movement, fitting awkwardly as it does with his historical investigations. A survey of Seligmann’s visual work indicates a lack of dependence on aleatory techniques and instead a consistent use of myth and symbol from the past including paintings representing Baal and Astarte, Melusine, Clio, Leda, Cybele, Amphitrite, Sphinx and Minotaur as well as works featuring motifs from Carnival and heraldry. Seligmann’s images, for all their distortions and individuality, are firmly rooted in European history. Rather than adopting the pose of rejecting the past, he has indeed made it new.

1. Other scholars associated with his methods including Jane Ellen Harrison, F.M. Cornford, Gilbert Murray and A. B. Cook revolutionized the study of Classics by noting similarities between ancient Greek and Roman beliefs and those of other peoples.

2. The French Symbolist poets likewise recognized the power of underdetermined symbols. Note too, the similarity to the koan used by some schools of Zen.

3. From L’Esprit contre la raison.

4. Luis Buñuel, “Notes on the Making of Chien Andalou,” in Art in Cinema, ed. Frank Stauffacher (San Francisco Museum of Art, 1947), 29-30.

5. In his New Introductory Lessons on Psychoanalysis, Freud explicitly says, “In such cases confirmations from elsewhere - from philology, folklore, mythology or ritual - were bound to be especially welcome.” He proceeds then to provide examples.

6. Jung first used the term in "The Significance of Constitution and Heredity in Psychology" (1929).


Page references in parentheses are to the Harvest paperback from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Claude McKay’s 1929 novel Banjo provides a fascinating view of the Marseilles demimonde inhabited by a loose group of copains of African descent who live by panhandling, casual labor, and periodic work as seamen. Subtitled “A Story without a Plot,” the narrative is as episodic and aimless as the lives of the characters depicted. Apart from employing a sort of Chekhovian “slice of life,” still something of a novelty when the book was published, this technique is altogether appropriate for McKay’s theme which privileges id over superego, immediate sensual experience over ratiocination. Accepting the racial mythology which had been used to denigrate blacks, he simply inverted the associated values, celebrating intuition and the wisdom of the African body as inherently superior to the enervated European mind. [1]

To contemporary readers this bipolar opposition is likely to seem pernicious for purely political reasons as it treats ethnic difference as essential. In spite of the fact that Taloufia, Banjo, Bugsy, Goosey, and the gang often discuss racism, Marcus Garvey, black nationalism, and similar issues, the book’s chief focus is more psychological than historical or social. In fact, while always acknowledged, racism and black alienation are regularly secondary to the book’s celebration of life lived in the moment and the embrace of immediate sensual experience.

The line of hedonistic thinking extends from antiquity [2]. Fifty years before McKay’s book, Walter Pater had formulated a passionate cri de coeur from similar attitudes with his ambition “to burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” The same attitude accompanied by a racial paradigm like that in Banjo is central to Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” where petty hoodlums are praised for violent crime because their experience is so intense.

The tone of the whole volume is established in the opening passage in which Banjo exults in the breakwater, calling it “mahvelous” and “wonderful.” The book is filled with breathless excited catalogues. [3] One example occurs in Chapter 11 “Everybody Doing It.”

The scene was a gay confusion – peddlers with gaudy bagatelles; Greek and Armenian vendors of cacahuettes and buns; fishermen calling shell-fish; idling boys in proletarian blue wearing vivid cache-col and caps; long-armed Senegalese soldiers in khaki, some wearing the red fez; Zouaves in strking Arab costumes; surreptitious sou gamblers with their dice stands; a strong mutilated man in tights stunting; excursion boats with tinted signs and pennants rocking thick against each other at the moorings – everything massed pell-mell together in a great gorgeous bowl. (140)

Such delight – the scene is “gorgeous” -- is familiar to modern American readers. One might almost be reading Whitman or Jack Kerouac. Ray and Banjo, and presumably their author as well, are Ur-hipsters.

It is this anti-philosophy, not racial theorizing, that leads Ray to make such currently unacceptable statements as “We are a fun-loving race” (194) and to admire Banjo for his “negation of intellect” (242) or to note “the happy irresponsibility of the Negro in the face of civilization.” (313) Though it is blacks whom he characterizes as having an “intuitive love of color” and “strong appetites,” (165) he is in fact stating a categorical preference.

McKay sometimes sounds racially specific about this ability to lose oneself in the dance of life. “Negroes,” he says “are never so beautiful and magical as when they do that gorgeous sublimation of the primitive African sex feeling. In its thousand varied patterns, depending so much on individual rhythm, so little on formal movement, this dance is the key to the African rhythm of life . . . “ (105) Yet his claim is that through such harmonious participation one penetrates, not to an understanding of Africa alone, but to the very essence of reality. The most dramatic expression of his celebration of ecstatic experience is surely the lengthy scene that concludes Part I with a description of Banjo’s “orchestra” playing “Shake that Thing.” The passage mounts to a grand crescendo that concludes “eternal rhythm of the mysterious, magical, magnificent – the dance divine of life . . . Oh, Shake That Thing!” (58)

One might speculate about the role McKay’s homosexuality played in this insistence on pleasure’s demands, but it could equally be linked to the “roaring twenties” ethos or even to his Communism, meant, after all, to provide the greatest well-being to all (though the Stalinists could not understand him). To me, neither a child of the new twentieth century nor gay nor an orthodox Communist, his attitude is reminiscent of the painfully lovely lyrics of John Keats who found refuge from a world of pain in the immediacy of his experience and in poetry that made his passionate subjectivity available to a world of fellow sufferers, a grand band of copains made up of all those making their way along this black earth.

1. The same distinction, familiar already from D. H. Lawrence and others, appears in the négritude poets who owed so much to McKay.

2. All life naturally and unreflectively avoid pain and seeks pleasure. In written sources, apart from scattered passages in Sumerian and Egyptian texts and the book of Ecclesiastes, the most systematic exponents of hedonism in antiquity were the Cyrenaics.

3. See, for instance, also passages beginning on pages 13, 52, 67, 86, 284, and 307.