Turning The Wheel, by Charles Johnson
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/2/07
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.
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.
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 McKuen).
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.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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