No matter that my personal favourite, The Power And The Glory, isn’t in the picture because the charm that Greene worked wafts through several novels written at the height of his powers.
The thing with Greene is the effortless elegance of his story craft and prose. It’s flawless. If the books were made of rice paper, you could eat the pages up and never be satiated, always want more.
Literature without being bookish.
An Introduction to Zen Buddhism - DT Suzuki Zen Buddhism - Christmas Humphreys The Way of Zen - Alan Watts
As guides to the nature and meaning and cosmic heart of Zen Buddhism, these three combined are a dream team.
It is quite something to use the intellect to go beyond the intellect, is it not? To explain what can only be experienced and say with words what cannot be said. But for the sage and the poet, it is their day job.
I have to say, I once met a guy with an extraordinarily flexible hand, who would answer the question “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” by making a very creditable flapping noise.
When I read this at the age of twenty, it excited me beyond measure.
I really (really) needed to put the strictures and heaviness of traditional Christianity behind me, together with its insufferable stuffiness, and suddenly encountered an iconoclastic vision of reality called Zen that was not a religion at all. I yearned for “cosmic consciousness” with all my being, fully aware all the while that my desiring precluded its happening. Just as “trying to be good” can never succeed because it is by definition “not being good” but “trying”.
Be spontaneous. Be authentic. Calm the surface of the pond with your hand. Good luck with that. Ego-plagued human duality was a conundrum of consciousness that I could not for the life of me solve. If it was straightforward, I supposed, then just about everyone in the world would already be enlightened in Buddha nature (wouldn’t that be nice?).
I just hoped to luck out (not much of a plan, but hey ho). I did my damndest to drown the brain habitat of my ego in beer, yet despite my efforts, I remained me. On the plus side, the book did mark a philosophical shift towards an atheism where I felt liberated from the dismal, minatory teachings of the Church, and the beginning of a lifelong interest in Buddhism and especially Zen, since it represented sudden enlightenment without all the hard work of years of training (mine was laziness by conviction). It went beyond the intellect and, boy, did I need a break from that. Its instruction was typically playful, never solemn, and completely serious. Its goal was nothing less than utter freedom in the living light of truth (and you can’t get that at Tesco’s).
So anyway, I read the book. (Hell, I would have bought the T-shirt if it would have done any good). It absorbed me like nothing else and I got what it was saying, without it disturbing the fundaments of my ignorance an iota. (“Da steh’ich nun, ich armer Tor! / Und bin so klug als wie zuvor”)
What I didn’t know at the time was that much later in life, when I came across Alan Watts’ recorded talks, this humorous Englishman who also drank rather too much would teach me in a way I have never been taught before, and then the meaning would sink in. His are the teachings to which I always now return.
Along with the Spike Milligan books, the mice in the caravan ate my copies of The Colossus, Ariel and The Bell Jar, so there will be some pretty mixed-up rodents out there.
I’m mentioning Sylvia Plath’s poems because of the imprint they left on me at the time, although they are not pieces that I care to return to and dwell on. It was the early 80s, I was drinking too much (like any good student), listening to Joy Division, and of a mind with Plath critic Al Alvarez (of “The Savage God”) who commended those who lived on the edge and took risks of disintegration. I was a whole bunch of joy.
Plath’s imagery isn’t just striking, it can knock you head clean off. There is no doubting the intelligence and power of her work. Nor is there any getting away from its immutable darkness.
From images of blackness, beauty can arise. In the lake of “Crossing The Water”:
“Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.”
Otherwise, her pathological song tolls an awful bell, in whose reverberation you can make out the features of her tyrannical father, Otto.
Rereading these poems, I realize just why they have such preternatural intensity — and why I would be wary of recommending them to anyone of a morbid or depressive disposition.
For Plath, her death by suicide was a given. She even had the timing mapped out (making an attempt every ten years and succeeding at thirty). It gave her a kind of terrible freedom, because nothing in this life could hold her. She was, in her own mind, already dead. It meant that she wrote from the other side. If her voice and poems are unique, it is because her sacrifice was the price.
Personally, I do not believe that art, not even great art, is worth the suffering of such a deeply troubled soul.