9-2 literature

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

9.2 (Spring 2009)

 

literary analysis

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courtesy of artrenewal.org

 

The Power of Then

Steve Kogan

And when the sun has begun to sink behind the rim of the hills, I sit quietly in the evening waiting for the moon so I may have my shadow for company, or light a lamp and discuss right and wrong with my silhouette.

Matsuo Basho, The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling

 

Over the past few months, I have grown curious once more about the mass-marketing of Zen and those joyful claims from the 1950s and 60s about “living in the moment,” an impossible life-ideal that easily slipped into living for the moment and, for the highly motivated, often ended in living from moment to moment, as was the case with any number of burned-out eccentrics I met in those years, when drugs and Buddhism seemed made for each other.  I myself had consumed quantities of both and liked them, but I didn’t like the combination, and I particularly disliked Allen Ginsberg’s agenda for living, although I was struck by the opening section of Howl, because I had seen some of my own most gifted friends “destroyed by madness… looking for an angry fix” (this was at Columbia, where Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg had gone years before).

Among all the writers in their circle, I made one exception, and that was for Kerouac.  By 1957, I had several reasons for wanting to travel west, but it was On the Road that spurred me to take the first of many cross-country trips, both as a student and two-year dropout from teaching, and I am still partial to some of Kerouac’s recorded readings from his works and the Orientalism of “Alone on a Mountaintop,” a travel sketch and philosophical reminiscence that recalls certain motifs in Chinese and Japanese landscape painting and Basho’s The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling, a meditation on the poet’s stay among the hills near Lake Biwa, which captivated many of my later students, as did Kerouac’s chapter from Lonesome Traveler.  A veteran in one of my classes, just back from Saudia Arabia after the first Gulf War, told me that he never wanted to see another sunset until “Alone on a Mountaintop” inspired him to look again.  Another student, a conservatively dressed business major (whom any run-of-the-mill hipster would have labeled a “square”), came up to me after class one day, told me that he had grown up in Kerouac’s home town of Lowell, Massachusetts, and had read all his books, whereupon he opened his attaché case and gave me a copy of the town’s commemorative Guide to Jack Kerouac’s Lowell, complete with descriptive passages of local sites from his works and accompanying photographs.  None of the other authors I assigned from that 1950s New York-San Francisco group meant anything to my students, either in Advanced Composition or American Literature II.

Curiously enough, for all his earlier celebrity status and Ginsberg’s promotion of his work, not one of the many people who came in and out of my life in the late 1960s ever talked about Kerouac that I can remember, although copies of Buddhist tracts, popular “Zen” commentaries of the day, and Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha were strewn about everywhere I went, from the Bay area in California to Manhattan’s Lower East Side and southern Vermont.   When I returned to teaching, I assigned Hesse’s novel one semester, mostly for old time’s sake, but it never really took hold of me, and after a few classes it began to leave me cold.

One of my great awakenings from the fog of the “cultural revolution” occurred when I read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and saw just how thin and programmatic Siddhartha was compared to the vibrant scenes of India in Kipling’s tale.  It was all there—the British army, the Great Game in the north between England and the continental powers, the exotic traffic along the Grand Trunk Road, the Buddhist’s Wheel of Life, an old lama from the Such-Zen monastery on a holy quest—the entire canvas of India as Kipling knew it in his time, yet I had never seen a single mention of the novel anywhere that I had knocked about.  And what could that keen-eyed and passionate writer, whom the left decades ago branded an “imperialist,” have taught those offbeat groups in which I moved, with their first stirrings of New Age orthodoxy through one cultish belief or another, including their “counter-culture” propaganda of Zen?  Not even Gary Snyder, for all his Buddhist studies in Japan and outdoor life in the Pacific Northwest, could write, as Kipling and Basho did, without betraying a self-conscious desire to sound authentic and in tune with his surroundings.

Of all the “beat” writers of his time, Kerouac was the only one I remember whose Orientalism had no trace of posturing in it and who wrote with a genuine weakness for the American scene, especially the landscapes and cityscapes of his childhood generation.  I still feel drawn to Kerouac’s travels through the last remains of Depression-era America in the 1940s and early ’50s, with its freight yards, battered side streets, and dusty towns along Route 66, the old migrants’ highway of The Grapes of Wrath, and I still value his ear for Whitman’s prose in Specimen Days and the long, all-embracing lines in Song of Myself, with their pronounced love of country that Ginsberg never heard.  It was Kerouac, more than any other writer in my youth, who helped me to recognize the deeper levels of this same sensibility when years later I read John Dos Passos’ trilogy U.S.A. (1936) and was further surprised when I read Orient Express (1927) and heard a familiar sound from On the Road in Dos Passos’ travel sketches of the middle east: “There’s no opium so sweet as the unguarded sunny sleep on the deck of a boat when it’s after lunch in summer and you don’t know when you are going to arrive nor what port you will land at, when you’ve forgotten east and west and your name and your address and how much money you have in your pocket.”

All this and more came back to me last September in an unexpected way after I saw several performances of an autobiographical monologue directed by my wife and written by an acting student of hers in LA, Jim Loucks, whose father, a Baptist preacher in south Georgia, was the main subject of Jim’s scenes from his rural southern past.  Talk about an earlier America.  Everything about the work was a recreation not only of Jim’s childhood but also of his parents’ youth, and it even touched upon the long-gone dead.  At the center of Jim’s memories was his father’s church and a cemetery that began just behind the preacher-family’s house and ended at a hog pen further back.  It was not the pen, however, but three points in the graveyard that marked its special character, for Jim’s father, whose two great passions, as his wife never tired of complaining, were “God and golf,” had turned that pastoral burial ground into a three-holed golf course where he could practice his swings, until one day he achieved the Zen-like perfection of a hole-in-one bounced off the church roof and gravestones dating back to the Civil War.  Hence the title of Jim’s monologue, Cemetery Golf.

I saw the work in its latest incarnation this summer at Beyond Baroque, a small theater near the Pacific in Venice, California. The god of ironic associations must have had a hand in my moment of recall, which was amplified by Barack Obama’s remark in San Francisco about small-town Americans clinging to their guns and religion (or golf clubs and religion in the case of Reverend Loucks).  Soon after returning to New York, I happened to be reading “Obama, Oprah, and the Guru’ in the online conservative journal American Thinker when my Venice evening leapt to mind, the exact moment occurring when I came to the passage on “Oprah’s guru Eckhart Tolle” and his book The Power of Now.  It was this hucksterish-sounding title that triggered my memory of Jim’s show and the after-theater conversation that I had with a one-time professor of film, who drifted from Cemetery Golf to carrying on about his teaching days among “Georgia rednecks” and from there to the church of higher thoughts in LA that he attends, with a brief mention of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s Be Here Now.

I had never heard of Tolle or his book, but I had read the original Now in the old days and years later tried out several passages on some of my Borough of Manhattan Community College students, one of whom wrote a journal entry that sums up for me the lively, articulate, and unselfconscious writing of my best BoMac subway-college students from that time.  The author of that entry, a divorced thirty year-old postal worker living in a small walkup apartment, had the distinctly Jewish-East European and non-Now name of Jerry Yutkowitz, and his directness still makes me smile when I think of all the verbiage that Alpert’s book inspired:

What is this assignment about?  Is it Zen?  Is it living in the moment?  Individuality?  Are all these things the same anyway?  I’m sitting here at my desk, which is a hollow wooden door supported by old green army file cabinets facing a brick wall.  I’m nervously munching on raisins, turning pages of this Be Here Now book, dazzled and stupefied by the crystal clear knowledge or the incredible bullshit coming from its pages.

Living in a cramped apartment, working at a menial job, going back to school, coping with an ex-wife who was giving him grief about seeing his child, Jerry was living proof that one could be alive in the moment without being stoned, “self-actualized,” and in tip-top shape to receive the higher consciousness.  As for me, I always thought that Leary and Alpert were frauds, although I never got to the bottom of my feelings about Better Buddhism through LSD until that evening conversation about Cemetery Golf, when, living for one perfect instant in the Now, I said, without any thought or hesitation, “I would rather be living in the Then.”

I had struck the mother lode.  There I was, at one with the moment and turning its force against the peddlers of Zen, who want us to believe that Now is only what they say it is.  Naturally, they claim the opposite and say that Now is everything, and then they complete the ruse by making everything subservient to their version of the Now.  This is the way with all self-sealing ideologies.  The ancient gnostics, who created the template, preached that holy wisdom lies beyond Creation, with the sole exception of their own illuminated minds.  The Koran insists that Allah is both the immediate and final cause of everything, postmodernists that nothing exists apart from words (“il n’y a rien hors du texte”), Marx that no form of society, politics, or spirituality has any existence outside ‘the mode of production of material life,” and Tolle likewise lays down the dictum that nothing can ‘happen or be outside the Now.”  The past is not the past but only “a former Now,’ the future is not the future but only “an imagined Now,” and all the ills of the world nothing more than symptoms of “resistance to the Now.”  In the perfect circle of Tolle’s tautologies, ‘there are no problems in the Now.”  And just to make sure that this self-enclosed gibberish remains insulated from critique (for where else can problems exist except in the present?), we have the first and last rule of Now: “The essence of what I am saying,” writes Tolle, “cannot be understood by the mind.”  In the words of Alpert / Ram Dass, “The major obstacle at every stage of the path of enlightenment is our own thoughts.”  The elimination of this “major obstacle” is the express aim of these salesmen of Now, for, as it is written in the Gospel of Tolle, “The good news is that you can free yourself from your mind. This is the only true liberation.”

It is one thing to say with Pascal that the heart has its reasons which thought cannot know, but it is quite another to impugn thinking itself, a strategy that is tailor-made to protect the notions that these gurus want us to believe, the thoughts that lie beyond all thought.  In Be Here Now, this quackery is enhanced by a fourteen-page mishmash of “books to hang out with” and other hip selections, which include everything from eastern and western scripture to Madame Blavatsky, Dante to Timothy Leary, and William Blake to Dame Rudhyar (The Planetarization of Consciousness).  Herman Hesse weighs in with three novels, but Kim is nowhere to be found.  It is not just that the author’s name alone would be a political liability (Kipling as “apologist” for British rule in India), but that the lessons of the novel itself would be too tough to swallow; for Kim is a street-wise boy of the first order and could never be seduced by Alpert’s egoless parent (“You’re offering a child here and now-ness”), and Kipling’s Tibetan holy man is a free thinker, as he is referred to several times, and his skepticism would likewise have no place in Alpert”s flummery (“My teacher Hari Dass Baba is Essence”).  As for his own religious beliefs, the lama has faith only in the Buddha, the perfect justice of the Wheel of Life, and his own journey with the help of Kim, to whom he insists only that “the Search is sure.”  What is most sure for Leary, Alpert,[1] and Tolle, on the other hand, is the ever-expanding market for popular Zen, where they excel in the art of selling freedom from thought to gullible minds.

This is the crux of the lama’s difference even from the gurus of his time, for Teshoo Lama makes no special claims for his beliefs or the beliefs of any sect.  As we learn in the second scene of the novel, he is guided by the Buddha’s doctrine that “it is all illusion,” and, although he welcomes the chance to teach the Buddhist world-picture to one and all along his way, no one’s salvation matters to him except his own and later Kim’s.  What is more telling yet about his search is that he does not wish to be free of his mind or personality, only of his sins, a word that has no place in the semantic tyranny that has cornered the enlightenment market since the 1960s.

Let the buyer beware.  On the one hand, we are called upon to Be Here Now, which is a direct command for each of us to be fully alive in the moment; yet we are also told that we have to pay attention to each other, for “we are all on the journey towards enlightenment and at each stage must share what has been discovered with those who will listen.”  Unless we are all living in the same Now, however, the two directives cancel each other out, for we cannot live in the moment if we have to be concerned with everyone else’s Now, as well.  Moreover, it is patently false, as the world goes, that “we are all on the journey towards enlightenment”; and if, for argument’s sake, it were true, who would not be willing to listen?  Worse yet, if we did as Alpert says we “must” and shared our discoveries “at each stage” on the way to Now, there would be no room left to live in it, for we would all become consumed with talking and listening, and the world would turn into a spiritualized version of Show and Tell.  There remains one last question, which brings us back to Alpert’s title and takes us to the heart of this farce.  With no ifs, ands, or buts, he proclaims that we must “Be Here Now,” yet where else could anyone be while reading the book?  The answer completes the circle of this self-enclosed journey into mindlessness, for, according to Alpert and his clones, you aren’t anywhere worth being unless you accept their definition of the Here and Now.  And what it means, most of all, is that you cannot become enlightened as long as you think that you are you.

The mantra of Zen for the masses goes like this: if you are frightened, unhappy, repressed, or unfulfilled, it is because you persist in the delusion that you have a self that feels this way, even worse, that you believe you have a self at all, when what you really have is a fixation on a mental construct that you think is you.  In the politics of Now, you are a victim of the western “assumption of self-presence,” the belief that all things have an identity, which locks us into an oppressive word system and cuts us off from the infinitely changing flow of everything.  To which a Jerry Yutkowitz might reply, “But isn’t this just another bunch of words?”  Indeed it is, and at length.  A Japanese haiku creates a world in under twenty syllables, and even the prose-poetic sections of Lao Tzu’s The Way of Life are short enough to have been written in a single visionary flash, while our mass-marketers of life in the moment don’t know when to stop talking, especially about silence, despite the teachings of the east.  And why should they when they have an unlimited audience for their brand of illusions?  It’s not just that “the simple believe everything,”[2] as Proverbs has it, but that the masses are especially vulnerable when demagogues lace their fantasies with the necessary scapegoats du jour: Jews, Christians, capitalists, meat-eaters, Dead White European Males, men themselves, living or dead, or one’s own anxiety-ridden self.  Hence the wisdom of P. T. Barnum’s “every crowd has a silver lining.”  The old masters of the Tao would have looked right through the peddlers of Zen, the last people on earth who could possibly understand what the Way of Life meant to them: no words, no theories, no pretence at “crystal clear knowledge” that is nothing more than “incredible bullshit.”  As Chuang Tzu wrote, “Where is there a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?”

That is the kind of Now that lasts for centuries, while today’s is filled with words without end, like the wall of books that I once saw at the delivery entrance to Barnes & Noble’s flagship store on Fifth and 18th in New York. One could grow old trying to count the volumes of dead words since the advent of the “counter culture” in the 1960s (counter to culture is what Leary and the others really meant).  The last time I looked, works on psychic self-help, postmodern theory, and spiritualisms of one kind or another took up whole sections at that same Barnes & Noble store, while one or two volumes still suffice for the Bible, Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, the plays and poems of Shakespeare, and the essays of Montaigne.  For sheer conciseness, depth, and beauty of expression, Then has it over Now in spades.  All you have to do is have one true insight into Hamlet and the power of Then will be with you in a flash, while today we have nothing more than one instant Was after another, in which the present is only as good as the last hour before a politician’s promises or the latest scandals and disasters are gone and forgotten, the last minute before your five-year-old laptop suddenly crashes and becomes permanently obsolete, the last flicker between one image and the next on MTV or a high-speed computer game, and the split second between the end of a class and the moment when a student reaches for his cell phone, so that Now becomes one vast prison-house of disconnected moments, in which the past is reduced to, “That’s so yesterday,” and the future becomes, “Later for that.”

In an age when the world seems to be closing in on us in a frenzy of change, Tolle’s pronouncement that “there are no problems in the Now” sounds especially perverse, and it would be erroneous even in the best of times, for, as Robert Frost observes in “Carpe Diem,”

The present

Is too much for the senses,

Too crowding, too confusing—

Too present to imagine.

Life is difficult enough amid this welter of sensations and events, but it becomes all the more bewildering when the past slides out from under one’s feet and the present is up for grabs, which is why demagogues thrive in an atmosphere of disorientation and crisis. “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle” is not only true in itself but perhaps the most self-revealing line that George Orwell ever wrote, for it speaks to his own efforts to anatomize the most destructive fraud of his time, with its unrelenting campaigns on behalf of the Soviet regime, which used every trick of language to promote a profoundly evil fantasy of world reform.

In The Communist Manifesto, where this fantasy was born, Karl Marx declares with all the tough talk at his command that religious, philosophical, and otherwise ideological critiques of communism “are not deserving of serious examination,” but what mass-produced Zen offers is soft dogmatism for soft minds.  “Be here now” means that you aren’t but you should be.  Note the unspoken imperative that yours is not to question why.  When his first guru tells Alpert in so many words to shut up, he treats it as religious instruction and stores it in his memory as the key to his enlightenment:

“Did I ever tell you about the time that Tim and I… ”

And he’d say, “Don’t think about the past. Just be here now.”

Silence.

And I’d say, “How long do you think we’re going to be on this trip?”

And he’d say, “Don’t think about the future. Just be here now.”

This is the kind of deep training in expanded consciousness that Alpert thinks he is receiving from Bhagwan Dass, (or, more properly, “Bhagwan Dass”), “a 23 year old guy from Laguna Beach” on a “temple pilgrimage” through India, whose charismatic appeal for Alpert lies in his “long blonde hair and a long blonde beard,” his “holy clothes—a dhoti,” his lessons on “some mantras and working with beads,” and the blank slate of his essential vacancy, on which Alpert can project whatever guru fantasies he desires.  Through the accompanying photograph of Baghwan and his terse messages from the Here and Now, Alpert urges us to do the same.  Interestingly enough, the two are traveling on the same exotic journey to the Himalayas as Kim and Teshoo Lama; but that is where the resemblance ends, for Kipling’s novel is filled with vibrant human interchange, while Bhagwan insists that he and Alpert remain practically incommunicado from each other:

He’d say, “You eat this,” or, “Now you sleep here.”  And all the rest of the time we sang holy songs.  That was all there was to do.

Or he would teach me Asanas—Hatha Yoga postures.

But there was no conversation.  I didn’t know anything about his life.  He didn’t know anything about my life….  And yet, I never felt so profound an intimacy with another being….  He had been in India for five years, and he was so high that everybody just welcomed him, feeling “he’s obviously one of us.”

There is a kind of sophomoric silliness to Alpert’s excitement over the important people in his life that sometimes sounds like the voice of Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, with its perfect intonations of Valley Speak among the teenagers of Beverly Hills High: “The more time I spent with Tim, the more I realized he had an absolutely extraordinary intellect.  He really knew a lot.”

Whatever else they may have known, what Leary and Alpert understood about Buddhism would have barely filled a thimble compared to the knowledge and wisdom of Kipling’s lama.  The first time we meet him, he is about to enter a museum of Indian arts and industry, “the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum,” where the curator (modeled on Kipling’s father) takes him on a guided tour, has an extended conversation with him, scholar to scholar, as they pass among the exhibits of sacred art, and later exchanges gifts with him.[3]  In addition to the lama’s depth of knowledge, inquisitiveness, dignity, and poise, the curator is intrigued by the actual path of his journey, which follows Buddha’s own life from birth to death among “the Holy Places which His foot had trod.”  This is no mere pilgrimage to venerate the sacred sites, however, but a quest to discover the Buddha’s legendary “River of the Arrow,” which the lama began after years of dissatisfaction over the decline of Buddhist spirituality, about which Leary, Alpert, and all the other proselytizers of the Now have not a word to say:

The lama lowered his voice.  “And I come here alone.  For five-seven-eighteen-forty years it was in my mind that the old Law was not well followed; being overlaid, as thou knowest, with devildom, charms, and idolatry….

“So it comes with all faiths.”

“Thinkest thou?  The books of my lamassery I read, and they were dried pith; and the later ritual with which we of the Reformed Law have cumbered ourselves—that, too, had no worth to these old eyes.  Even the followers of the Excellent One are at feud on feud with one another.  It is all illusion.”

Unlike Alpert and his Laguna Beach guru, the lama has no special interest in temples, rituals, or yogic practices (his great meditation comes only at the end), and people from all walks of life are drawn to him not because “he’s obviously one of us” but for the exact opposite reason, because he is unlike anyone that they have ever met.

The young street urchin Kim, who seems to know everyone in Lahore and is irrepressibly curious about everyone’s business, follows the lama into the museum and lays himself down on the floor just outside the curator’s cubicle, “his ear against a crack in the heat-split cedar door,” where he overhears the lama’s story and is immediately filled with a sense of wonder about the man.  What Kim experiences with the quickness of a perceptive and impressionable child, the curator grasps with the eye of an art historian and avid connoisseur:

The curator would have detained him; they are few in the world who still have the secret of the conventional brush-pen Buddhist pictures which are, as it were, halfwritten and half drawn.  But the lama strode out, head high in air, and pausing an instant before the great statue of a Bodhisat in meditation, brushed through the turnstiles.

Kim followed like a shadow.  What he had overheard excited him wildly. This man was entirely new to all his experience…

For all their talk about “higher consciousness,” I cannot recall a single expressive thought or image in any of the Orientalized guides to enlightenment I ever read, only endless passages of highly charged, all-purpose abstractions, to the point where an intellectual and emotional nullity like Eckhart Tolle can depersonalize that most personal of all the world’s sacred figures and insist that his readers treat “Christ” as a unisex “presence” as well:

If “Christ” were to return tomorrow in some externalized form, what could he or she possibly say to you other than this: “I am the Truth.  I am divine presence.  I am eternal life.  I am within you.  I am here.  I am Now.”

Never personalize Christ. Don’t make Christ into a form identity.

So much for Christ’s “form identity” in the Gospels and in Christian art for over fifteen hundred years, and so much as well for the entire sweep of sacred Asian art from India and Tibet to China and Japan, for, according to Tolle, “Avatars, divine mothers, enlightened masters… are not special as persons.”

Kipling gives the lie to this chilling pronouncement when he draws our eye to the paintings and scultpures at the Lahore Museum, as the lama, with “the curator behind him, went through the collection with the reverence of a devotee and the appreciative instinct of a craftsman”:

Here was the devout Asita, the pendant of Simeon in the Christian story, holding the Holy Child on his knee while mother and father listened; and here were incidents in the legend of the cousin Devadatta.  Here was the wicked woman who accused the Master of impurity, all confounded; here was the teaching in the Deer-Park; the miracle that stunned the fire-worshippers; here was the Bodhisat in royal state as a prince; the miraculous birth; the death at Kusinagara, where the weak disciple fainted; while there were almost countless repetitions of the meditation under the Bodhi tree; and the adoration of the alms-bowl was everywhere.  In a few minutes the curator saw that his guest was no mere bead-telling mendicant, but a scholar of parts.

Kipling’s prose is vivid and moving because he has the capacity to see and feel the human drama of these sacred scenes.  Like the curator’s attraction to the lama’s own distinctive qualities, the emotional depth of the passage also prepares us for the exquisite relationship that is about to begin between the boy and the aged lama, “such a man as Kim, who thought he knew all castes, had never seen.”

In stark contrast to Kipling’s Teshoo Lama, Tolle’s “enlightened masters” lack all character and physiognomy, as Alpert’s guru worship is organized around a series of inflated clichés (“He is just like a crystal,” “He is a perfect mirror,” “A teacher points the way.  A guru is the Way,” etc.).  Such demagoguery of the spirit is both intellectually embarrassing and pernicious.  In The Power of Now, which is a chaotic mixture of ersatz Buddhism (“Give Up the Relationship with Yourself”) and radical feminist rhetoric (”Why Women Are Closer to Enlightenment”), we read that “the energy frequency of the mind appears to be essentially male” (manipulative, grasping, and aggressive) and that the highest form of this “energy frequency” belongs to the fear-arousing “traditional God” of the Old Testament, who “is a patriarchal, controlling authority figure, an often angry man.”

Tolle’s drivel plays its part in propelling the underlying chaos of the book, in which he denies the humanity of Christ and Buddha and passes a simplistic and offensive judgment on the Torah yet claims in his introduction that he does not wish to undercut the followers of any religion but only to reveal “the essence of all religions.”  Tolle inadvertently reveals the demagoguery and outright lie of this vacuous claim when he writes that he has “endeavored to use terminology that is as neutral as possible to reach a wide range of people.”  On the final page of the book, we discover that Tolle, in fact, does not care whether God is vengeful or compassionate, since the Gospel principle of forgiveness, which he refers to merely as “a term that has been in use for two thousand years,” can only become “true forgiveness” if you give up “your sense of self from the past” by “accessing the power of the Now,” at which point “the whole concept of forgiveness then becomes unnecessary.”

The end result of Tolle’s dismissive sophistry is that scriptural teachings are either manipulated or thrown out the window (so much for non-“male” thinking), and people’s heads become filled with childish notions about spirituality, human nature, and the condition of the modern world, as in Tolle’s, “Resistance to the Now… forms the basis of our dehumanized industrial civilization.”  This exploitation of the Now as a ready-made answer for everything has its counterpart in Alpert’s psychedelic gospel and draws upon the same language of New Age Orientalism as we find in Be Here Now, minus Alpert’s drug therapy, detailed yogic lessons, and bibliography, which makes The Power of Now the perfect adaptation of Alpert’s book for the I. Q. of the new millenium.  Where Alpert / Ram Dass proposed ashrams for the “counter culture,” Buddhism Lite is for everyone (“Enter the Now from wherever you are”).

The lessons of Kim have nothing in common with these escapist fantasies.  It never occurs to Alpert and Tolle, for example, that “the power of Now” can be used in the service of force and fraud, yet it is little Kim who practices both to perfection, once when he devises a plot to have two assassins captured, another when he disguises the identity of a spy in a train compartment without anyone being the wiser, and the third when he outwits a French and Russian spy, all in a flash of inspiration and the luck of the moment, whose successful resolution comes about “simply, beautifully, and inevitably.”

As for Teshoo Lama, his humility and ethical rigor would never permit him to preach the narcissism of Alpert’s, “You are the guru,” or Tolle’s, “The reality of your divine presence”; and he would positively shun the rhetoric of these New Age faqirs, whose spiritualized snake-oil about “the energy body,” “loss of Now,” and “the realized being” operates in the same perverse way as political propaganda and leads not to higher thought but in the precise opposite direction, which Orwell described for all time as “a reduced state of consciousness” that is “favorable to political conformity.”  Hence the deadening of thought and perception as the strategic aim of all “the smelly little orthodoxies that are contending for our souls.”

One aspect of this strategy is the cynical manipulation of images, chiefly of the Leader or some equally exalted figure, and in the most simplistic terms possible.  Like the ever-watchful gaze of Big Brother’s poster-portraits in 1984 and the mass-produced portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin that blanketed parades and administrative offices throughout Soviet Russia,[4] Alpert’s full page photo-portrait of his Laguna Beach guru is meant to induce the same response in everyone who looks at it, in this case the impression of the generic hippie as an other-worldly youth and budding saint.  With his mouth pursed behind his beard and moustache (the enigmatic silence of the master), Bhagwan rivets our attention to his eyes, which bore into ours from the slightly elevated angle of his head.  For one who does not come under its intended spell, the general effect, complete with long hair, beaded necklace, and naked torso, is of insufferable pretentiousness that is also frighteningly vacant as he stares at us with a kind of all-seeing disdain.  Marariji, another of Alpert’s holy men, looks much wilder by comparison in his photograph but with those same tunneling eyes.

In Dan Yack, a novel that takes us from St. Petersburg to Patagonia, Blaise Cendrars remarks, “The simple impression of being disoriented, in an alien land, is sufficient to knock you off balance.”  If we add to that observation a drug-addled mind like Alpert’s, we can appreciate how a disaffected Harvard professor of psychology, wandering through India and the foothills of the Himalayas, could surrender all sense of self and reason to a “23 year old guy” after he tells him, “You know, I feel crumby, my hips are hurting,” and a moment later feels that his SoCal guru has exploded his whole phony life (“He sort of wiped out my whole game.  That was it—that was my whole trip—emotions and past experiences, and future plans”), all because of Bhagwan’s unrelating and empty-headed response to his complaint: “Emotions are like waves.  Watch them disappear in the distance on the vast calm ocean.”

It is Mahariji, however, who gives Alpert the full treatment by telling him where he was the night before they met, what he was thinking of (his mother), and when and how she died, after which Alpert’s mind burns “out its circuitry” in trying to comprehend what happened.  He then collapses into uncontrollable weeping, suddenly feels “like I was home.  Like the journey was over,” and several days later “realized that he knew everything that was going on in my head, all the time.”  Alpert claims that he wasn’t under the influence of psychedelics when Marariji read his mind, although he writes that he was carrying a bottle of LSD when he and Bhagwan visited Mahariji and that he gave him several pills, which would have knocked out any ordinary person but, according to Alpert, had no visible effect on him.  On the following page, the mystery of this offhand miracle is presumably cleared up when Alpert tells us that Mahariji is living in a state of Samadhi, or “oneness of mind; undistracted union of subject and object.”

The most telling point for me about these stories of all-seeing gurus is that Alpert, a trained psychologist and, among other things, a former therapist with Harvard’s Health Service, was “turned on… to pot” by his first patient when he was “still quite a heavy drinker” and then graduated to Psylocybin and later LSD; yet he does not even suggest the possibility that he could have been experiencing distorted perceptions through any long-term effects of alcoholism and the ingestion of powerful drugs.  Although he is incapable of making the connection, his failure to consider Baghwan’s or Mahariji’s effect on him in light of his own history is bound up with his admitted failure to believe in the very techniques of analytical psychology that he was both teaching and practicing; and we in turn are left to believe that it was all over with his “game plan” after Bhagwan taught him that “emotions are like waves” and that his mind blew its circuits in trying to understand how Mahariji could have read it like an open book.

Alpert’s stories belong to a genre that might have found its way into Robert Ripley’s Believe it or Not (“In 1967, the guru Mahariji read a Harvard professor’s mind in less than five minutes!”), whereas Tolle confronts us with the dumbing down of hokum itself: “Even a stone has rudimentary consciousness; otherwise it would not be, and its atoms and molecules would disperse.”

Whatever these celebrity guides have to say, there is always something shoddy, ignorant, or unprincipled at work.  Early in their travels, to cite one choice example, Alpert’s Laguna Beach guru is busy “giving away all my money,” then insists that they drive off in a Land Rover that an initiate in Alpert’s “psychedelic sessions” had left in someone else’s care; and when they finally reach their holy man in the foothills of the Himalayas, Mahariji’s first remark is, “You have a picture of me?” followed by, “You came in a big car?” and, “You give it to me?”  Once again, Bhagwan leaps at the chance to give away someone else’s property; and, although Alpert’s first reaction is “No—now wait a minute—you can’t give away David’s car like that,” the day after Mahariji sees everything “going on in my head,” Alpert is ready to give him “anything” he wants.  “If he wanted the Land Rover, he could have it.”

As for Teshoo Lama, he asks for nothing but gratefully receives offerings of food and lodging from the faithful, and what he offers in return is a ready ear, common-sense advice, and the lessons of his “brush-pen Buddhist pictures which are, as it were, half written and half drawn.”  During the last stage of their journey, the lama brings Kim to his temporary temple cell at Benares and ushers him into the secrets of his craft.  There is a fairytale feeling of magic in the air as the lama assumes “the cross-legged attitude of the Bodhisat emerging from meditation” and, in an echo of Shakespeare’s Prospero, solemnly says to him, “I will show thee my art”:

He drew from under the table a sheet of strangely scented yellow Chinese paper, the brushes, and slab of India ink.  In cleanest, severest outline he had traced the Great Wheel with its six spokes, whose centre is the conjoined Hog, Snake, and Dove (Ignorance, Anger, and Lust), and whose compartments are all the heavens and hells, and all the chances of human life.  Men say that the Bodhisat Himself first drew it with grains of rice upon dust, to teach His disciples the cause of things.  Many ages have crystallized it into a most wonderful convention crowded with hundreds of little figures whose every line carries a meaning.  Few can translate the picture-parable; there are not twenty in all the world who can draw it surely without a copy; of those who can both draw and expound are but three.

It is a piece of  knowledge, one of the highest in the old cultures of Tibet, China, and Japan, that allows him to paint the Wheel of Life in all its glorious details, even when he is on the move, and to “expound [it] cycle by cycle” along the way:

Here sat the Gods on high—and they were dreams of dreams.  Here was our Heaven and the world of the demi-Gods—horsemen fighting among the hills.  Here were the agonies done upon the beasts, souls ascending or descending the ladder and therefore not to be interfered with.  Here were the Hells, hot and cold, and the abodes of tormented ghosts.

In one of the most brilliant passages in the novel, when the lama directs Kim’s attention to “the Human World, busy and profitless, that is just above the Hells,” the boy’s mind is “distracted” from the lesson by the living truth of the lama’s words, for right there

by the roadside trundled the very Wheel itself, eating, drinking, trading, marrying, and quarrelling—all warmly alive.  Often the lama made the living pictures the matter of his text, bidding Kim –too ready—note how the flesh takes a thousand thousand shapes, desirable or detestable as men reckon, but in truth of no account either way; and how the stupid Spirit… is bound to follow the body through all the Heavens and all the Hells, and strictly round again.

It is as though the lama’s painting and “the living pictures” of the road had grown out of one another,[5] and it is all described in a single vivid paragraph that is more intimate and more compelling than anything that Alpert has to say about Buddhist spirituality and altogether beyond the humbug of Tolle’s “essence of all religions.”

As for the deeper relationship between guru and disciple, in Kim it is the teacher who seeks enlightenment and the student who is the key to his salvation.  This process begins almost from the moment that they meet, but it does not effectively get under way until they are forced to separate, and it is the lama’s embrace of this rupture that will take him from suffering to redemption.  As the lama later tells Kim, “It was made plain to me in a hundred dreams… that without thee I should never find my River,” yet, earlier in the novel, when the two come upon an English encampment, are taken for questioning, and Kim is turned over to the chaplain of the regiment, the lama gives him up as a sacrifice to his love for the boy and his faith in the justice of the Wheel.  This faith will be tested by the very terms of their separation, for the one person that Teshoo Lama needs to fulfill his quest turns out to be the son of a deceased English soldier, Kimball O’Hara, of that same regiment to which their path has led them, and it is Kim who has drawn them to the camp.  What is more remarkable yet is that these circumstances will play a decisive role in Kipling’s own portrayal of the Wheel.

There will be many comings and goings between teacher and disciple as the story unfolds, but for the present each is forced to return to his separate world: the lama to his solitary quest and the boy to his English roots.  Without knowing the meaning of its contents, Kim has been carrying a little “leather amulet-case” around his neck that contains three papers: his father’s signed scrawl, “Please take care of the boy,” his “clearance certificate” from the army, and the boy’s birth certificate—which O’Hara (who by then had become addicted to opium) insisted that Kim should never lose.  Unlike Alpert’s drug-addled visions, O’Hara’s are filled with love for his own flesh and blood, and they are based on a true understanding of what his documents mean, for “those things, he was used to say, in his glorious opium hours, would yet make little Kimball a man.  On no account was Kim to part with them.”

This sole command from father to son has a special urgency, for Kim’s mother “died of cholera in Ferozepore” when Kim was three-years old, whereupon O’Hara turned to drink and “drifted away, till he came across the woman who took opium and learned the taste from her.”  In dramatizing the conjunction between O’Hara’s downward slide and the orphaning of Kim, Kipling does not say precisely when it happened, only that O’Hara was speaking to a child and that he died sometime later “as poor whites die in India.”

In addition to the documents, what helps to save Kim from a similar end is his curiosity and quick-wittedness, his ability to live as a native child of the streets, and an oral gift from his father that is in some ways more significant than the papers, for it is the direct cause of his capture and all that flows from that event.  Kipling describes it as an enigmatic and magical prophecy, according to which “nine hundred first-class devils, whose god was a Red Bull on a green field, would attend to Kim, if they had not forgotten O’Hara—poor O’Hara that was gang-foreman on the Ferozepore line.”[6]  It is that Red Bull, the regiment’s emblem, “on a background of Irish green” and sewn onto “an ordinary camp marking-flag,” which stops Kim in his tracks at the encampment and for the lama also “touches my Search.”  When they are brought before the Anglican priest and the Roman Catholic chaplain of the regiment, the lama gazes “into space and emptiness” and renounces his attachment to the boy by the dictates of his search:

“And I am a follower of the Way,” he said bitterly.  “The sin is mine and the punishment is mine.  I made believe to myself—for now I see it was but make-belief—that thou was sent to me to aid in the Search.  So my heart went out to thee for thy charity and thy courtesy and the wisdom of thy little years.  But those who follow the Way must permit not the fire of any desire or attachment, for that is all illusion….  I see now that the sign of the Red Bull was a sign for me as well as for thee.  All Desire is red—and evil.  I will do penance and find my River alone.”

Unlike the commercializers of the “self-actualized” life, the lama keeps strict account of his personal failings and, free thinker that he is, loves true learning wherever he finds it and has no need to impugn the west in order to prop up the teachings of the east.

These qualities of the lama’s character are revealed at the museum in Lahore, and they now determine the direction of Kim’s development; for it is Teshoo Lama’s intellectual rigor, together with his care for the boy, that allows him to decide on the instant to support his education in an English school.  Before he departs, he asks Father Victor’s advice and is told that “the best schooling a boy can receive in India, is, of course, St. Xavier’s in Partibus at Lucknow.”  Several days later, he astonishes the chaplain with a letter written by a wayside scribe “for Venerable Teshoo Lama the priest of Such-zen looking for a River, address care of Tirthankers’ Temple, Benares,” in which the lama hopes that his “present step” will be “approved for Almighty God’s sake.  Education is greatest blessing if of best sorts.  Otherwise no earthly use,”  to which Father Victor, a man of no mean intelligence and common sense himself, exclaims, “Faith, the old man’s hit the bull’s-eye that time!”  Reading on, he is bowled over to hear that the lama will forward “three hundred rupees a year to one expensive education St. Xavier, Lucknow”; and, four days later, his wonderment reaches its crest when he receives another letter from the temple “enclosing a native banker’s note of hand” for the first year’s payment and cries out, “How the Divil—yes, he’s the man I mean—can a street-beggar raise money to educate white boys?”

Father Victor soon receives an answer of sorts from Colonel Creighton, who arrives to take charge of the boy.  He is the spymaster in charge of the Indian Survey, the British counterpart to the lama in Kim’s education, and one of several men and women who will figure prominently in the plot.  After the chaplain shows him the bank note, tells Kim’s story as far as he knows it, and asks, “Did ye ever hear the like?” Creighton only deepens the mystery when he says to Father Victor, “At any rate, the old man has sent the money.  Gobind Sahai’s notes of hand are good from here to China.”  There is a Now of finance too, which Kipling highlights by never explaining how “the old man” secured the note nor how he would have gained immediate access to a man of wealth and ready reputation (perhaps the Abbot of Such-Zen has his own prestige that is “good from here to China”); and when Creighton adds, “The more one knows about natives the less can one say what they will or won’t do,” Father Victor replies that it is not so much the money that baffles him as “this mixture of Red Bulls and Rivers of Healing… it’s the mixture of things that’s beyond me.” Given the many social barriers between whites and “natives,” a close friendship between a child born into an Anglo-Irish regiment and a Tibetan lama would be perplexing enough, but it is compounded by their separate and unusual tales, each one summed up in a symbol that has a hold on their imagination.  The chaplain cannot know it, but he has hit upon a karmic mystery that has already begun to take shape through this “mixture of things,” which Kipling will unfold with uncommon clarity and precision.

This conjunction of mysterious destinies and precision of expression is inherent in the very fabric of the novel, and Kipling makes it possible by endowing his principle figures with superior knowledge and character, so that they are able to thread their way to their goals in a sure-footed progression of steps amid a bewildering variety of people, secret plots, and random events.  Throughout the novel, for example, there are many references to detailed observations and coded messages being passed across “the Hind” and to Creighton as the man who keeps it all together in the Great Game in the north.  In their own way, the boy and the old man share Creighton’s mastery of worldly affairs, since both have a wide range of contacts and a sharp and extensive knowledge of the land: Kim knows all the byways of Lahore and many people, places, and customs beyond its walls; and the lama seems to find his way to men in authority with ease and quickly gains the trust of everyone he meets along a journey that extends from the Himalayas to the plains of India.

It is a vast and ancient world whose fate is now bound up with the life of a late-nineteenth-century empire, both of which are summed up in the figure of Kim. On his “Asiatic side,” as Creighton calls it, Kim “spoke the vernacular by preference,” “was burned black as any native,”

knew the wonderful walled city of Lahore from the Delhi Gate to the outer Fort Ditch; was hand in glove with men who led lives stranger than anything Haround al Raschid dreamed of; and… lived in a life wild as that of the Arabian Nights…

At the same time, he is the son of Kimball O’Hara, a former “colour-sergeant of the Mavericks, an Irish regiment,” while his mother had been an English “nursemaid in a colonel’s family.”  This brief reference to her station underscores the role of the British army in the lives of Kim’s parents as well as in his own, for as the unnamed colonel gave his mother employment while his father was stationed with the regiment, Colonel Creighton will oversee his youthful occupation as a spy in the Game.

Like the orders of being in the lama’s art, with their cycles upon cycles of existence, there is a recurring harmony at work in Kipling’s east-west motifs, which is epitomized in two expressions of the miraculous: the lama’s River of the Arrow and the three papers that Kim carries in his leather amulet, which his father told him he must never lose,

for they belonged to a great piece of magic—such magic as men practised over yonder behind the Museum, in the big blue and white Jadoo-Gher—the Magic House, as we name the Masonic Lodge.  It would, he said, all come right some day, and Kim’s horn would be exalted between pillars —monstrous pillars—of beauty and strength.  The Colonel himself, riding on a horse, at the head of the finest regiment in the world, would attend to Kim, little Kim that should have been better off than his father.5

At the heart of these correspondences, O’Hara’s prophecy that “it would… all come right some day” parallels the lama’s faith in the justice of the Wheel, and it is simultaneously fulfilled in Kim’s last successful operation for Colonel Creighton and the perfect peace that comes to him through Teshoo Lama’s completion of his search.

The wheel of the novel encloses these analogies and even includes a subtle correspondence between drugs and enlightenment; for O’Hara’s words to Kim, spoken at the height of his “glorious opium hours,” appear on the second page, and the lama’s spirit, “exalted in contemplation,” soars into “the Great Soul” near the very end of the work.  Moreover, at its highest point, the lama’s vision, like O’Hara’s, concerns the welfare of Kim; and both occur in the midst of suffering, O’Hara’s through poverty, addiction, and the death of his wife, and the lama’s through great hardships, together with Kim’s, on their journey from India to the Himalayas (the lama returning to the hills where his search began, and the boy in pursuit of a French and Russian spy).

Their last resting place is at the home of the Sahiba whom they met early in their travels on the Grand Trunk Road.  She is as cheerful and garrulous as ever, but the lama stops her short: “Do not jest,” he tells her.  “That time is done.  We are here upon great matters.  A sickness of soul took me in the Hills, and him a sickness of the body.”  It is as though they were one person suffering on either side of the divide between body and soul, yet nothing is cut and dried in Kim; and, like the Buddhist’s circular symbol of yin-yang opposition, in which a black dot appears against a white background and a white dot against a black, each shares something of the other’s illness: the old man from a blow to the head by the Russian, and Kim through renewed doubts about who he really is: “‘I am Kim.  I am Kim.  And what is Kim?’  His soul repeated it again and again.”

As the Sahiba nurses Kim while he lies ill with “mountain-sickness,” the lama wanders into the fields and sits down under a tree to meditate, in ritual imitation of the Buddha under the Bodhi-tree of his enlightenment.  Without moving a muscle, he begins a two-day fast and meditation and on the third sees a brook that he believes to be his River of the Arrow, which he told Kim several times would appear of itself one day beneath his feet.  Still in his trance of meditation, he steps into the water, tumbles in, and is about to drown in the midst of his mystic vision when he hears a voice call out to remind him of the boy, and he allows himself to be rescued from death:

“Also I saw the stupid body of Teshoo Lama lying down, and the hakim from Dacca kneeled beside, shouting in its ear.  Then my Soul was all alone, and I saw nothing, for I was all things, having reached the Great Soul.  And I meditated a thousand thousand years, passionless, well aware of the Causes of all Things.  Then a voice cried: ‘What shall come to the boy if thou art dead?’ and I was shaken back and forth in myself with pity for thee; and I said, ‘I will return to my chela, lest he miss the Way.’  Upon this my Soul, which is the Soul of Teshoo Lama, withdrew itself from the Great Soul with strivings and yearnings and retchings and agonies not to be told.  At that hour my Soul was hampered by some evil or other whereof I was not wholly cleansed, and it lay upon my arms and coiled round my waist; but I put it aside, and I cast forth as an eagle in my flight for the very place of the River.  I pushed aside world upon world for thy sake… and behold I was again in the body of Teshoo Lama, but free from sin, and the hakim from Dacca bore up my head in the waters of the River.”

Like Kim’s magnificent exploits in thwarting a plot against English interests in the north, the lama’s vision is action-packed and no less a conquest over himself than Kim’s over the European spies.  Nor are these isolated acts, for both represent the final recurrence in a pattern of similar events.  Kim has already achieved a number of successful missions, each one rising in complexity along the wheel of his life; and the lama redeems his own by letting go of his vision for the sake of the boy, as he once gave up the boy for the sake of his search.

As the lama’s spirit soars into the higher realms, we are reminded one last time of his speaking “brush-pen Buddhist pictures”: “Here sat the Gods on high—and they were dreams of dreams.”  This was the first lesson from his works that the lama taught the boy, and it teaches us as well about Kipling’s continuation of the Prospero theme in relation to the lama’s craft; for Shakespeare’s magician likewise creates a sacred dream-work when he summons the goddesses Iris, Ceres, and Juno to enact a wedding masque for Ferdinand and his daughter Miranda.  Within limits, the parallel is precise, since both visions express love for the young: Prospero for his daughter and her betrothed, and the lama for Kim; while the “Gods on high,” who are “dreams of dreams,” are echoed in what the lama would call “the Human World” of  Prospero’s ,“We are such stuff  / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.”

There is still another aspect of the lama’s watery trance that weaves together eastern and western literature and lifts it beyond the clichés of westernized Zen, for Kipling, in one quick stroke, has linked the lama’s imitation of the Buddha to the actions of a Buddhist Don Quixote in a moment that is “simply, beautifully, and inevitably” both sublime and ridiculous.  Had R. H. Blyth described Teshoo Lama rather than Don Quixote as “Zen incarnate,”[7] he would have hit his mark, for in that one act of tumbling into his fabled “River” that is nothing more than a brook, the lama not only takes a pratfall as Quixote does whenever he translates a common reality into a scene from medieval romance but also frees himself from his last imperfection through love of the boy, that same Kim who was distracted from his teachings when he saw “the very Wheel itself” by the side of a road, with its scenes of humanity “warmly alive.”  All this surpasses Blyth’s “Zen in literature” and is further yet from Siddhartha’s relentless wordiness and Govinda’s ersatz Buddhist vision by the side of a river[8] in the concluding section of Hesse’s novel.  As for Alpert, Leary, and Tolle, they disappear in the dust of their meaningless words as soon as the lama begins to speak of his search and exchanges gifts with the curator of the “Wonder House” at Lahore.

Postscript

During the last weekend of January, 1984, which fell by a double coincidence on the thirty-fourth anniversary of Orwell’s death, I flew to London to see an exhibit of Venetian painting at the Royal Academy.  Early the following morning, I took an express train north to see the cathedral at Durham, which appeared from afar on the heights of the cliff above the River Weir as the train rounded a bend and slowly pulled into the station.  The early morning sun had dissipated the freezing fog through which the train had passed the length of the journey, although the cathedral still shimmered in a sparkling haze like a late Turner or Monet.  As I stepped out of the car and looked around, a station hand who was sweeping the platform came up to me and asked if I had come to see the cathedral.  When I answered yes, he remarked that the very building of it was a wonder.  “They did it all without modern machinery, and it’s stood there for centuries and hasn’t budged an inch.  My council house is only three years old and the front steps are already moving out of line.”  At the entrance to the cathedral was a sign that read, “We would like visitors to know that people have been worshipping here every Sunday for the past nine hundred years.”

 

 Notes


[1] Leary died during a “former Now” on May 31, 1996.

[2] The Biblical equivalent of “there’s a sucker born every minute,” once attributed to P. T. Barnum and subsequently traced to one of his competitors, who was referring to the spectators of a hoax perpetrated against him by “the  master of humbugs” himself.

[3] 3 In “The Pleasures of Imperialism,” the tenth essay in Culture and Imperialism (1993), Edward Said declares that Kipling has placed the lama “firmly… within the protective orbit of British Rule in India.  This is symbolized in Chapter 1, when the elderly British museum curator gives the Abbot his spectacles, thus adding to the man’s spiritual prestige and authority, consolidating the justness and legitimacy of Britain’s benevolent sway.”  It is Said, however, not Kipling, who makes the lama subservient to “British Rule in India,” since he omits the lama’s gift to the curator, an “open iron-work pencase….  It was a piece of ancient design, Chinese, of an iron that is not smelted these days; and the collector’s heart in the curator’s bosom had gone out to it from the first.”  The scene in fact depicts a heartfelt exchange between scholars of two very different cultures, men who are sensitive, moreover, to certain weaknesses in each other, the curator to the lama’s old eyes and scratched spectacles (when he looks through them, he recognizes that their “power was almost exactly that of his own pair”), and the lama to the curator’s “collector’s heart.”  The nature of the lama’s journey also means nothing to Said, who refers to it merely as “the quaint sincerity of his search.”  About the lama’s vision at the end, he says that “some of this is mumbo jumbo, of course” (so much for his sympathies with the suppressed spirituality of colonial India), and he also claims that “Kipling is less interested in religion for its own sake… than in local color, scrupulous attention to exotic detail, and the all-enclosing realities of the Great Game.”  This too is a piece of intellectual dishonesty and is flatly contradicted by the closing words of the novel, which Kipling gives to Teshoo Lama:

“ … So thus the Search is ended.  For the merit I have acquired, the River of the Arrow is here.  It broke forth at our feet, as I have said.  I have found it. Son of my Soul, I have wrenched my Soul back from the Threshold of Freedom to free thee from all sin—as I am free, and sinless.  Just is the Wheel!  Certain is our deliverance.  Come!”

He crossed his hand on his lap and smiled, as a man may who has won Salvation for himself and his beloved.

It would take an essay twice as long as Said’s to separate the facts of the novel and even his own few worthwhile points from the chicanery of his polished lies.

[4] To which one could add the ubiquitous photographs of imams and suicide bombers in jihadist states and communities and the disturbing suggestions of a Leader cult in the posters and photo portraits of President Obama that have been flooding the public arena since the beginning of the 2008 presidential campaign.  Apropos Soviet propaganda and subversion, the politics of guru worship held particular interest for the KGB; for, according to Yuri Bezmenov, a former agent who was involved in this episode of its history, the regime was bent on exploiting the pacifism of the celebrity guru craze as part of its strategy to demoralize the west.  See “Yuri Bezmenov on KGB interest in Yoga”: http://youtube.com/watch?v=Srw3Ysda1XY&NR=1.

[5] The harmony between the lama’s iconography and “the living pictures” of the Wheel reflects an aesthetic principle for Kipling that appears in another work of this period: Letters of Travel, 1892-1914, in which he first describes a scene on a tropical freighter as though it were work of art and then passes judgment on studio painting in his time:

A blue, red, and yellow macaw chained to a stanchion spreads his wings against the sun in an ecstasy of terror.  Half-a-dozen red-gold pines and bananas have been knocked down from their ripening-places, and are lying between the feet of the fighters.  One pine has rolled against the long brown fur of a muzzled bear….  The faithful sunlight that puts everything into place, gives… [the officer’s] whiskers and the hair on the back of his tanned wrist just the colour of the copper pot, the bear’s fur and the trampled pines.  For the rest, there is the blue sea beyond the awnings….  Now, disregarding these things and others—wonders and miracles all—men are content to sit in studios and, by light that is not light, to fake subjects from pots and pans and rags and bricks that are called “pieces of colour.” Their collection of rubbish costs in the end quite as much as a ticket, a first-class one, to new worlds where the “props” are given away with the sunshine.

[6] Kipling is a master of suggestion and often reveals a wealth of unspoken observations in a single line.  Note, for example, the emotional range that O’Hara’s words encompass, from the heights of fairytale imagery (“Nine hundred first-class devils, whose god was a Red Bull on a green field”) to the grim reality of “poor O’Hara that was gang-foreman on the Ferozepore line.”  Although Kipling never says it outright, we are meant to understand that O’Hara has an instinctive understanding of a child’s imagination, and his care for the boy shines through even in the midst of his self-pity and addiction; for he couches his command in the only way that it could find a permanent home in the heart of a child, which is not through reasons and explanations but by the language of enchantment.  Moreover, this language, as O’Hara’s uses it, is grounded in reality, since his prophecy that that “it would… all come out right some day” is based on the actual content of his papers, and even this outcome is tempered by the realistic observation that his documents can only work their “magic” if those “nine hundred first-class devils… had not forgotten O’Hara.”

[7] In Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics (1942).

[8] Together with mountains and waterfalls, rivers are frequently associated with the sacred in Buddhist iconography, all three sometimes appearing in a single Chinese or Japanese landscape painting that includes an image of a sage in meditation.  Other than this general context and the theme of a riverside vision, Hesse’s final section, “The River,” has nothing else in common with Kipling’s treatment of this motif, neither in its narrative function or prose style and subject matter.

 

Dr. Steve Kogan is a native of Brooklyn and was educated largely at Columbia University.  He has taught for over three decades at The Borough of Manhattan Community College.