The Future Is … Soon: ‘Autonomy’ and the Future of Autonomous Vehicle Literature

An unprovable claim: 95 percent of the existing literature on driverless cars is written in the future tense. Soon cars will do X, passengers will do Y, and so on. For some, I imagine this stylistic tic generates excitement—look at all the cool stuff that will happen! As a tech skeptic with a nine-year-old laptop, I can’t help reading chapters full of future tense and hearing a robotic, monotonous tone: “We will be with you shortly.” The future tense lends itself to these tonal interpretations, usually because the focus is on possibilities instead of outcomes. Reading autonomous vehicle literature is like watching clouds: You see a unicorn, I see a tank; neither of us is wrong, necessarily.
Except, why are we out in some field looking at clouds? Don’t we have work? Class? Kids? According to the existing autonomous vehicle (AV) literature, the answer is: What are those? A quick survey of the field reveals less about the underlying technology of AV and more about how the AV industry views the available time and resources of the average consumer.
Take 2016’s Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead, which offers several hundred “exciting” futuristic scenarios, almost all of which I find terrifying. For instance: Authors Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman theorize that the “crude, poorly designed in-car infotainment systems of today’s vehicles will no longer exist,” and whereas I envisioned the total eradication of this strange, possibly meaningless thing called “infotainment,” the authors quickly assured me that in driverless vehicles, the infotainment systems will not be eliminated but improved upon. Later, Lipson and Kurman envision a driverless taxi that will feature “a 200-page click-through license” wherein the passenger waives the right to sue; to me, this sounded like a dystopian Disney ride for lawyers, yet the tone in their future-focused paragraph is oddly rosy.
These are petty tonal disagreements compared to a scenario that unfolds late in Driverless. In what might be the most telling line in all of AV literature, the authors outline opportunities for in-car advertisements. Lipson and Kurman posit that by the passengers logging into the driverless vehicle system, the car will know all sorts of consumer information about them. The car will beam this information out to businesses appearing along the route to the destination. Driverless then concocts a can’t-miss deal for the passengers: “Restaurants will agree to split the cost of gas for a family’s road trip if their digital profile indicates that each time this family dines out, they spend $200.”
What’s telling isn’t the scenario. It’s the “$200,” which broke my readerly rhythm like a seat belt in a car door. Your city and acquaintances may vary, but I do not know a single family that spends anywhere close to “$200” “each time” at dinner. I started wondering: Do they mean a family of eight? Did I miss a reference to some kind of futuristic inflation?
They didn’t, and I didn’t. They wrote what they meant, i.e., $200 dinners as a baseline expectation for the average family. The line is a perfect, almost comic insight into the classist world of AV writing and AV thinking, where an embarrassing number of arguments do not seriously engage with how the coming AV revolution will affect the middle class, let alone the lower ones. In some instances—and I am only 99 percent kidding—one wonders if Driverless is actually written for cars. On multiple occasions, the verb “liberate” is used. As in: “Cars will be liberated from human drivers.” If the official tense of AV literature is the future, then the tacit audience may be the vehicles themselves.
There is one fleeting, acceptable use of “liberated” in Lawrence D. Burns and Christopher Shulgan’s Autonomy: The Quest to Build The Driverless Car—And How It Will Shape the World. It takes place during a fraught moment for Carnegie Mellon University’s Red Team, a group of engineers and roboticists scrambling to prep a driverless vehicle for the first DARPA Grand Challenge in March of 2004. Their robot, “Sandstorm,” has been smashing into poles, catching fire: “Sometime later, with Sandstorm liberated from the barbed wire and the deadline approaching, [Red] Whitaker gathered Urmson and everyone else around him.”
There’s nothing extraordinary about that line. But it is scenic, and in the field of AV lit, this is extremely rare. Autonomy’s ability to balance hypotheses with scenes ranks high on the list of reasons that it is far and away the best of an admittedly so-so group of AV books. It spends at least half of its pages covering every snag and success in the 2004, 2005, and 2007 DARPA Grand Challenges. There are “Getting the Band (of Nerds) Together” scenes. There are “Getting the Band (of New and Other Nerds) Back Together” scenes. There are races written tensely and races that are campy (squads of highly accomplished engineers skulk nervously for hours in the desert because none of the event organizers had the extremely lo-tech foresight to provide video footage of the course). After the races, when the respective teams disband to more or less originate the AV industry, there is workplace drama.
In short, Autonomy delays its “will” for a long time. It’s rooted firmly in “was.” Yes, there are some technical sections, but they end, and when they do, they often conclude with cliffhangers: “Thrun had no idea, at that point, that Page would change the course of his life.”
A bit cheesy? Sure. But it’s purposeful cheese. For a text with intermittent chunks of technicality and calculations, the book has an undeniable velocity, in part because Shulgan, the reporter with a ghostwriting credit, knows how and when to ramp up the narrative stakes.
It’s also probably rather important to note that Autonomy radically altered my perspective on AVs, largely because of Lawrence D. Burns. For 30 years, he worked in General Motor’s research and development department, yet he refuses to cast himself as a “car guy.” He states clearly and repeatedly that what he’s interested in is mobility, which is to say that he has privileged humans over machines, both in his career and in Autonomy. He makes a number of irrefutable arguments about the environmental, safety, and financial benefits of AVs, but I have to confess that I was most shaken by his framing of the profit-motivated “car guys.” When Burns describes the incredible resistance to change on the part of Detroit car guys for much of the previous decade, I thought, “That sort of sounds like me.” I experienced a sinking feeling: If I am stubbornly against AVs for reasons that amount to a line in a book about “$200,” am I siding with … the car guys? Them? Over there? That’s me?

So Autonomy is good. It’s the best AV book to date. It is scenic and reported like the best pop nonfiction. It laces an evidence-based polemic throughout the DARPA narrative. It provides an insider’s account of both Detroit’s “car world” and Silicon Valley’s “mobility world.” And—if I can be allowed a bit of future tenseness—I think the book will prompt two interesting discussions, both of which have to do with sources.
The first source-related issue will, in true American fashion, be both a bigger deal to many people and also much less relevant. It concerns biases on the part of Burns. While at General Motors, Burns had business relationships with many of the technologists interviewed in Autonomy. After leaving GM, he consulted for Google’s Chauffer project, which later become Waymo, Google’s self-driving technology development company. It’s clear he personally knows over half (if not all) of the people in this book. Whereas Burns, a Midwesterner, frequently refers to Canadian wonderboy Chris Urmson as a “straight shooter,” other engineers clearly irk him. Chris Levandoski’s leadership at Uber is said to be “dominated by mistakes and accidents.” Tesla and Elon Musk receive similar criticism. It seems likely that some in the AV industry will think favorites are being played.
Which is a silly criticism. Thanks to publicly viewable lawsuits, it’s pretty clear that when it comes to individuals like Levandoski—who was sued for stealing 14,000 technical files as part of his transition from Waymo to Uber—Burns is actually quite large-hearted. Conduct a news search for “Tesla autopilot crash” and you’ll likely find results that are both more damning and more current than anything in Autonomy.
But to seriously interrogate Burns’s biases is to miss the point. We should want veterans of innovation with specific points of view turning to book-length work. Moreover, we’d be lucky if all such efforts are as structurally nimble as Autonomy. When Burns enters the text a fifth of the way through—“So in 2006, Whittaker came and visited me at the General Motors Technical Center”—the “me” is exciting. Suddenly, the book becomes a memoir. Then it slides back into reportage, then back to an insider’s tell-all, and there’s also math, plus small essays about labor, and then urban design, and also hearing aids, and so on. Whereas industry types might see conflicts of interest, readers should see a thrilling interaction of genres within a single title. Burns throws quite literally as many narrative styles as he can manage at an issue he feels is era-defining. Though tech sites do admirable work reporting on the ills of the tech industry writ large, their highly curated “vehicle experience” tours seem silly when compared to book-length work that has room to examine its subject along multiple lines of inquiry.
Autonomy does have at least one predictable oversight, though. It will surprise absolutely no one that the second source-related issue in a tech-sector book concerns women, specifically the scant attention they receive in the narrative. The acknowledgements page is a slew of men. Women are quoted maybe once every 60 pages in Autonomy (this ratio is almost surely generous).
Individually, the lack of quotes is at times justifiable. Collectively, the effect is predictably icky. The labor of Chris Urmson’s wife is rendered in a parenthetical: “(He and Jennifer had since had a second boy).” Later, when a secretary cries upon hearing about a setback in advance of another “big race,” I thought, “Gosh, it would be great to hear her perspective on why she cried, how much she devoted to the project, the hours she worked.” One of the engineering teams features a married couple, and I thought, “What is it like to be the lone woman on a history-making robotics team and to work alongside your husband and for both of you to be juggling these insane work demands and also various lucrative job offers?” Where is that story?
Again, in every scenario, there are no doubt explanations for why the source was not consulted. It’s possible that interviews were attempted and denied.
But if we reach for justification—“Well, the secretary was not on-site for many events”—then we know the exact type of book we will be reaching for on the new-releases shelf. It will feature men. It will not be misogynist, necessarily, but like many successful if limited initial textual offerings about a phenomenon, it will have a particular lens. It’s easy to mock the tech industry’s reluctance to champion minority perspectives, but the life cycle of book-length coverage is equally slow to highlight the missing voices. Whether it’s cars or the internet or outer space, the cycle for innovation-centric texts is familiar: Here’s what “will” happen. Then, a definitive white, male-centric tome emerges. Ensuing books focus on the male figures treated unfairly in the tome, then, years if not decades later, the cracks get filled in, the marginalized voices heard, just in time to be overshadowed by the emergence of a new innovation. In the future, a landmark book in an emerging tech-related field will hopefully be confident enough to skip ahead, i.e., a writer will draft the tome, identify the cracks, then discard the tome and essentially write what is missing. If this laborious process sounds like overkill, consider that the alternative is to lay a foundation with built-in cracks.

5 Brazilian Women You Should Read Who Aren’t Clarice Lispector

The literary world loves to love Clarice Lispector. The Ukrainian-born Brazilian was undoubtedly one of the most important writers of the 20th century and probably competes only with Borges for the title of Giant of Latin American Letters. Ask any follower of world literature if they’ve read anything from Brazil and they’re likely to at least mention Lispector, and if you’re lucky, perhaps Machado de Assis or Jorge Amado. This is all well and good, but it makes for a grand total of one female author from a country of more than 200 million people. Lispector aside, there are a number of incredible female writers, both contemporary and 20th-century, who deserve a spot in the canon of world literature. In honor of Women in Translation Month, which ends today, here are five.
1. Tatiana Salem Levy
I first came across Levy in Granta’s The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists. Her debut work A Chave da Casa, published in English as The House in Smyrna (translated by Alison Entrekin), was the winner of the 2015 English PEN award. It is a brilliant, fragmented work of autofiction about generational dislocation and language. I was also reminded of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights to the extent that Levy is also concerned with the gritty details of bodies: blood, phlegm, bile. The House in Smyrna spans across Brazil, Portugal, and Turkey. Levy herself descends from Turkish Jews and was born in Portugal and raised in Brazil.
2. Ana Paula Maia
Ana Paula Maia is one of many Brazilian writers who, for whatever reason, has had more international success outside of the Anglophone world than inside of it—before Saga of Brutes (A Saga Dos Brutos, translated by Alexandra Joy Forman) was published by Dalkey Archive Press, Maia’s work had been published in Serbia, Germany, Argentina, France, and Italy. Saga of Brutes is as grim as the title suggests: It is a collection of three interrelated novellas about men who carry society’s collective shame: crematorium workers, garbage collectors, bloodied-floor-level slaughterhouse employees. Dark though it is, Maia’s work glimmers, if opaquely, with compassion for her characters.

3. Beatriz Bracher
Bracher is undoubtedly the most recent author to find her way into English; I Didn’t Talk (Eu Nao Falei) was published by New Directions at the end of July of this year (translated by Adam Morris). Bracher bears some resemblance to Lispector stylistically, but her preoccupations are her own. I Didn’t Talk is an unflinching look at the short- and long-term impacts of political violence; anybody wishing for a more intimate look at life under the Brazilian dictatorship would find the book useful. Azul e Duro (Blue and Hard) examines how a white woman benefits from Brazil’s bigoted legal system. Since Eu Não Falei’s publication just a few weeks back, a number of positive reviews have been published.

4. Carolina Maria de Jesus
Carolina Maria de Jesus was born in Minas Gerais but would come to be associated with the Canindé favela of São Paulo. Child of the Dark (Quarto de Despejo, translated by David Saint Claire) catapulted her into immediate, if somewhat ephemeral, literary fame, selling extremely well both in Brazil and in the United States. The book, an edited version of her diary, recorded the conditions of favela life and its inhabitants. It reminded me of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, an 1890 book about tenement life in New York City. After Child of the Dark, Carolina published multiple other memoirs in her characteristically sparse style. Although Brazil’s overall quality of life has risen considerably since Carolina’s work was first published, the economic inequality she wrote about is still present.

5. Hilda Hilst
Hilda Hilst died in 2004, but her first work didn’t make it into English until 2012 with The Obscene Madam D. (A Obscena Madam D., translated by Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araújo), published by Nightboat Books. This is partly because of how challenging her prose is: Much of it alternates between fragmentation and stream of consciousness; fans of Thomas Bernhard and Laszlo Krasznahorkai will find themselves at home with Hilst’s work. Like Lispector, her work frequently shifts between the sacred and the profane; she continually returns to the supernatural and the utterly corporeal in her work. Since the publication of The Obscene Madam D., a flurry of her work has become available in English. Fluxo-Floema is forthcoming this year from Nightboat Books (translated by Alexandra Joy Forman).

An Element of Perversity: The Millions Interviews Katharine Kilalea

OK, Mr. Field—the debut novel from the South African-born, London-based writer Katharine Kilalea—is the story of a man and a house. Mr. Field, a concert pianist who lives in London, suffers a wrist injury after a performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude.” With the payout he receives, he buys a house in Cape Town that he had read about on the train before the accident occurred and moves there with his wife, to her mild dismay. The house, known as the House for the Study of Water, is no ordinary structure. It’s one of a number of replicas of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a modernist building that stands outside Paris.

As Mr. Field and his wife begin their new life in the House for the Study of Water, their home’s alienating architecture begins to take a toll—first on their relationship, and ultimately on Mr. Field’s grip on reality. Take, for instance, this passage, in which he gazes out a window after a gust of wind blows out the glass:
Everything was exactly the same as it always had been, of course it was, but there was something vague about the way my eyes registered the world. Whereas previously I could see things clearly—the trees, even their individual leaves—now when I looked out the low-flying gulls were almost indistinguishable from the white specks that came off the tops of the waves. Things were on the cusp of not being themselves. I had the idea that it wasn’t my vision deteriorating but the very glue which held the objects of the world together growing old and weak.
Kilalea’s lucid prose absorbs the reader into Mr. Field’s increasingly uncanny experience of his surroundings and himself. This slow, steady unhinging reveals the strangeness of his world—and ours—anew.

Kilalea was kind enough to answer my questions about the novel over email.

The Millions: What was the initial impulse behind writing OK, Mr. Field? How did that first idea develop into what the novel became?

Katharine Kilalea: Some time ago I visited the Villa Savoye, which most people seem to love, and hated it. I’d already spent over a year writing a dissertation on the perversity of the building—the unnaturally narrow shape of its windows, the coyly hidden position of its entrance—without seeing it in its actuality, so I was surprised to discover that the building, which in my imagination had been something wonderful, was in fact very ordinary. And so unsexy! The stud walls were so porous that I could hear people in other rooms, talking, going to the toilet—presumably, if you lived there, having sex. It reminded me of the overexposed feeling I’d get when writing (or publishing) poetry. I was working for Farshid Moussavi, the architect, at the time. “Why are you writing a book about a building that you hate?” she said. Sometimes it occurred to me that if I could work out why I hated the Villa Savoye I might understand what I hated about writing poetry. Sometimes it seemed like I was using the Villa Savoye to write about a feeling, a kind of desire I suppose, which I was reluctant to write about directly because (in the same way as one ought not to take too much pleasure in an ice cream, say, or a dog, or a question) there’s an element of perversity in it. The building stood in front of that feeling, or stood in for it, as if substituting the words “feeling close” with “being close.”

TM: OK, Mr. Field is concerned, in part, with the interplay between outward order and internal disarray. I see that conflict as embodied in the House for the Study of Water, which is this impeccably designed living space that becomes the site for its occupant’s unraveling. It’s a feature, too, of the way you’ve designed the novel itself: Its motion is careful and its prose restrained as the world of its protagonist comes apart. Do you see that tension between order and disorder as an animating force in the novel? Is it a feature of the act of writing?

KK: The idea of order in a novel is, I think, quite literally the ordering of events. That’s what animates a novel, the knowledge I have from the moment I open it that something is going to happen, the business of waiting, trusting that one thing will lead to another to some climax or conclusion. It’s interesting; in poetry, “order”—rhythm, especially—guards against disorder, whereas in a novel, order stands against dullness. Which differentiates fiction from life—makes it more sexlike than lifelike—because in life, of course, there’s the possibility that nothing will change, nothing will happen. The tension, for me, is the wedge which this idea of progress drives between fiction and life. Is what makes a novel worth going on reading so different from what makes a life going on living? (What makes me go on living? Nothing. I just do!) I paid attention to climaxes while I was reading. The climaxes of some of my favorite books, instead of being moments of clarity or revelation, seemed to be points of disappearing or dissolving. They had a vague, misty quality. In The Magic Mountain, having spent hundreds of pages waiting for Hans Castorp to finally speak to Claudia Chauchat, their conversation is in French so I can’t understand it. Having spent weeks reading about K.’s quest to reach the Castle, Burghel’s offer to help is met with a smile, not because the object of K.’s desire is finally within reach but because he’s about to fall asleep.

TM: Another contradiction that seems to lie at the heart of the novel is the way that structures meant to foster intimacy can instead inspire isolation. As a definition we encounter in the novel has it, a house is “a machine for living in together,” yet it’s the House for the Study of Water that drives Mr. Field and his wife irrevocably apart. Music, too, often functions as a way of bringing people together, but in the novel it works in the opposite way: Mr. Field’s performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” early in the novel alienates him from his audience, and when he plays it again later, alone, it carries him further into himself. What is it about those structures for connecting us—homes, songs—that can instead cut us off from one another? What makes that an interesting subject to you?

KK: I’m fascinated by the difference between loneliness and too much intimacy. The Villa Savoye seemed to think of intimacy as a kind of heightened proximity to other people—seeing each other and hearing each other and being with each other constantly. That much “togetherness” would drive me mad. In fact, Le Corbusier’s descriptions of how his buildings bring their inhabitants closer to nature reminds me of Daniel Schreber (famously analyzed by Freud), whose psychosis took the form of an overly intimate relationship with the outside world: The sun spoke to him, birds read his thoughts. Schreber tried to drown out the voices by reciting poems and playing the piano. So he used music as a way of keeping things out, shutting himself in. That’s my experience of music: The more I’m carried away by it, the more I find myself thinking about myself.

TM: This is your first novel but your second book. Your first was a book of poetry. How was writing this book different from writing poetry? In what ways, if any, do you see the novel as continuous with your poetic project?

KK: Somewhere between writing my book of poetry and this novel, I wrote a long poem which I think of as the hinge between the two. The poem is the opposite of prosaic—the images don’t make sense, the syntax doesn’t make sense, some of the words are nonsense. It was written at a time when, for reasons that were never clear, I had great difficulty in expressing myself. I was unable to speak properly; I couldn’t finish sentences and often couldn’t find the right word at the right time. Perhaps the music of the poem supplemented those unfinished thoughts and made sense of them, because I couldn’t write poems after that. Then, after a while, sentences started to appear. I miss poetry, but it’s a great relief to be able say something rather than having to convey it intravenously, as is the way of poetry.

TM: Many of my favorite recent novels were written by writers who began their careers as poets—Ben Lerner, Garth Greenwell, Anna Moschovakis, and you. Would it make sense to you to think of the contemporary English “poet’s novel” as a form with certain specific characteristics? What might those be?

KK: I’m not at all confident about this, but here goes … I wonder whether Ben Lerner and Garth Greenwell’s novels (I’m looking forward to reading Anna Moschovakis) share a cynicism about instinct, or the naturalness of feelings. There is a sense of feelings behind feelings, thoughts beneath thoughts; you settle on something only to discover, a moment later, something different buried beneath it. It makes it impossible to land anywhere, which is something I recognize from poetry, the sense that everything must be unsettled, that you think of a thing one way, but really …

TM: One of the features of OK, Mr. Field I found most compelling is the subtle prominence of animal life, from the sea or sea-adjacent creatures (seals, squid, seagulls) discussed when Mr. Field goes to the restaurant to the spider that he sets on fire to the dog that becomes his companion. What role do you see animals as playing in the novel?

KK: It’s not easy to describe feelings. You can only describe what caused them or what it looks like when a person is smiling, crying, etc. The thing about animals is that, since they can’t speak, perhaps, their bodies are very articulate—they seem to register feelings with their whole bodies through tail wagging, head cocking, etc. Also, although animals seem to experience roughly the same feelings as we do—guilt, affection, enjoyment, being left out, etc.—they’re not expected to be moral. For example, whereas people are expected to experience attraction to other people, preferably ones of a similar age, background, and so on, dogs are allowed to hump table legs or handbags.

TM: In an early scene, when Mr. Field meets Hannah Kallenbach, he notices a shelf filled with “big books, the kind of grand European novels which concern themselves with the human condition.” I thought of this as a winking way in which the novel both acknowledges the tradition of which it is a part (it’s also a novel that explicitly concerns itself with the human condition) and differentiates itself (it’s not a big book). Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned The Magic Mountain as an influence. What other books do you consider OK, Mr. Field in conversation with?

KK: I do miss the modernist project’s ambition to tackle death, love, the meaning of life. I’m still anxious about the meaning of life! There were a few books which were—are—always on my desk while writing: The Magic Mountain, Correction, The Castle, and Peter Sloterdijk’s Bubbles, all of which I treat as odd love stories: for death, a castle, a soap bubble, a foetus, a placenta … Bernhard’s Correction and The Loser were too thematically similar to OK, Mr. Field to ignore, though anyone trying to write while reading Bernhard knows how terribly infectious his style can be.

TM: In the novel, Mr. Field moves from England to South Africa, which is the reverse of the path of your own life. What, if anything, do you see as distinctly English or South African about the novel, or even distinctive of the interchange between the two?

KK: OK, Mr. Field was initially set in the Alps—as an homage to The Magic Mountain, I think—but I’d only been there once, so halfway through, I transposed it into South Africa, which I knew better. I realized, then, how dominating a presence South Africa can be, because suddenly I felt the need to write in great detail about its sunsets, the seaweed, etc. (which felt wrong: too much looking out, not enough looking in). There is a perverse pleasure in withholding that visual description, because the landscape is beautiful, yet that restraint seems common among South African novelists: Their books have an arid quality; they don’t sing. The changing of countries at the last moment was also willfully contrary, a corrective to the unspoken regulation that a South African writer should concern themselves primarily with South Africa and things associated with South Africa.

TM: What are you reading and working on now?

KK: I’m about to re-read Lolita. It’s not my favorite Nabokov, but I’d like to write about, and think about, sexuality, in an amoral way.

Thinking Makes It So: Ward Farnsworth Reframes the Stoics with Wit and Insight

Seneca’s suicide, at the order of the emperor Nero, presents a macabre scene. Previously adviser to the fickle, impetuous, paranoid, thin-skinned emperor, Seneca was erroneously implicated in an assassination plot and was ordered to take his own life. Seneca’s wife, Pompeia Paulina, distraught at her aged husband’s sentence, convinced him that they should die together, and so both opened their veins in the hope of expiring at the same moment.

Hearing of this, Nero intervened and Pompeia was spirited away and patched up, the philosopher condemned to die alone. Scholar Simon Critchley writes in his irreverent and appropriately titled The Book of Dead Philosophers that Seneca’s “death is more tragicomic than heroic.” Critchley explains that “because of an aged frame attenuated by a frugal diet,” Seneca’s blood was too thin; he requested the hemlock in imitation of Socrates, but the poison didn’t take. Finally, he was placed in a scalding bath and suffocated to death with steam, like an ancient Roman Rasputin ultimately done in by the shower.

Seneca was a theorist of Stoicism, that classical philosophical school drawing its name from the “Stoa Poikile,” the painted porch at Athens’ agora where the earliest proponents taught. Stoics recommended living according to reason and virtue; they extolled moderation above all things and advocated facing fortune and adversity, even death, alike with an even temper. Sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne contended that to “study philosophy is to learn to die.” Montaigne had in mind the lessons of Seneca himself, who argued that “He who has learned how to die has unlearned slavery,” for it may be a “great deed to conquer Carthage, but a greater deed to conquer death.” Critchley explains that for Seneca, the “important thing is to be prepared for death, to be courageous.”

As with Socrates, whose death was famously depicted by the neoclassical French painter Jacques-Louis David as a variety of class seminar that happened to end with the teacher’s suicide, Seneca’s execution provides means to contemplate the philosophical end. Spanish artist Manuel Dominguez Sanchez presented the subject in his 1871 painting “The Suicide of Seneca,” showing us the elderly, emaciated, pale body of the philosopher with his arm over the side of the bathtub like Jean-Paul Marat in David’s more famous painting. One of Seneca’s students, in a seemingly non-Stoic pose, lies slumped near the corpse, grieving with face obscured. To the back left a crowd of calmer men stand, but of the corpse itself it’s impossible to say whether Seneca met eternity with courage or not. Yet if there is any lesson about Stoicism for its critics, it might as well be in the waxy pallor of Seneca’s languid body, for the very word “Stoicism” has long connoted insult, signifying the stern, unemotional, robotic, unforgiving ethos of somebody who lives life as if they were already a corpse.

According to Ward Farnsworth, that understanding is wrong, and he exonerates an unfairly impugned philosophy in his idiosyncratic, strange, yet convincing and useful volume The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual. Dean of the University of Texas School of Law and former clerk for retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Farnsworth previously authored two well-received books: Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric and Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor, and as with those earlier volumes, his tone is erudite, patient, and at times dryly whimsical.

Contrary to being stern and unfeeling, Farnsworth argues that Stoicism is “a humble philosophy … a regimen for training the mind” that is deeply concerned with others and is fundamentally a “form of psychological hygiene.” Stoicism shares with the similarly maligned ancient philosophy Epicureanism a concern with “human nature and its management,” eschewing abstraction for pragmatism, metaphysics for what actually works. Farnsworth explains that the Stoics were “highly practical,” having “offered solution to the problems of everyday life, and advice about how to overcome our irrationalities.” As part of his defense, Farnsworth hopes to produce an actual guide for living the Stoic life, as based on concisely presenting “what the Stoics themselves said.”

A succinct expression could be summarized in Marcus Aurelias’s assertion that “If any external thing causes you distress, it is not the thing itself that troubles you but your own judgment about it. And this you have the power to eliminate now.” From that observation comes all of Stoicism’s insights; Seneca’s approach to life is that “We must make it our aim to have already lived long enough,” and his position on acquisition is that the “shortest way to riches is to despise riches.” Human life is buffeted too much by arbitrary “externals,” by the desire for wealth, acclaim, sex, power, and so on, but the feeding of the beast never brings respite, for the beast can always hunger more. Rather, tranquility is attained by learning to silence the beast.

The Practicing Stoic is organized into 12 “lessons,” ranging from how to approach death to how to contend with adversity, desire, and emotion. In pursuit of those queries, he gathers short selections from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius (who was an emperor as well as a philosopher), whose lives briefly overlapped during the first century of the Common Era when men like Caligula, Claudius, and Nero reigned in a manner that was anything but even-tempered and moderate.

Several later “students,” including Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, and Arthur Schopenhauer, are included, naturally raising the question: Why those philosophers and not others? Why not Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, or the Buddha, whose approach to suffering and detachment is shockingly similar to that of the Stoics? For that matter, in giving modern Stoics their due, an argument could be made for Bill W., author of the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous which explored a sort of folk-cognitive-behavioral version of the doctrine and is arguably the most widely read “Stoic” text in the world today. What all of these varied figures share is the principle that “We should stake our well-being on what we can control and let go of attachment to what we cannot.”

Farnsworth explores manifestations of that axiom, providing short, elegant commentary on quotes that contend with whatever is under discussion. Despite sometimes being dry, he is insightful; though he is occasionally repetitive, he is convincing. Farnworth’s prose, is, well, stoic, but it’s also useful—as it should be. As Farnsworth writes, “A large share of Stoicism might be viewed, in effect, as interpretation of two famous inscriptions above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: know thyself; nothing in excess.” What could be more helpful than that?

The Practicing Stoic is one of many philosophical self-help books, contending with the primordial question: “How am I to live?” Julian Baggini has made a cottage industry out of the genre, having authored The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods, What’s It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, and The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. Alain de Botton rivals Baggini; his “School of Life” is “devoted to developing emotional intelligence,” and he cribbed from Boethius with his The Consolations of Philosophy, considered God (or the lack thereof) in Religion for Atheists, and penned the amazingly titled How Proust Can Change Your Life—even if the French novelist isn’t a philosopher, he’s at least philosophical.

Farnsworth hasn’t even cornered the market on Stoicism alone, as there is A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine, Massimo Piglucci’s How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, and even The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (prepared for leap years), by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, including more scholarly considerations by philosophers like Martha Nussbaum. Indeed there is a Stoic Solutions Podcast, The Practical Stoic Podcast, and an Annual Stoic Week held online, with the nerdy, masculinist ethos particularly popular in Silicon Valley. In The Conversation, Matthew Sharpe describes this online community “numbering over 100,000 participants” as being “Stoicism 5.0.” And of course, the biggest seller in the category of “philosophical self-help,” though not Stoic in nature, is the controversial right-wing Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s grandiosely titled 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

Seemingly there is a genuine desire for not just answers but meaningful answers, which this somewhat gimmicky genre supplies. Of variable insight, I can’t speak to the efficacy of all of these titles, but I can attest to the intellectual honesty of Farnsworth’s volume and the helpfulness in his centering on the primary sources themselves. Peterson’s best-seller is basically a mixture of Jungian pablum and unconvincing sociobiology masquerading as science, whereas Farnsworth’s guide is rigorous, well-argued, and applicable. No doubt Peterson would (and does) dispute such characterizations of 12 Rules for Life, and yet the thread of Western chauvinism, misogyny, and nativist triumphalism peers out through his claims, the better to counter with a cosmopolitanism as exemplified by Epictetus’s credo that “When asked what country you are from, do not say ‘I am Athenian’ or ‘I am from Corinth.’ Say … ‘I am a citizen of the world.’” (A crucial position as nationalists polish their jackboots.)

One of Farnsworth’s strengths is that he’s resolutely nonpartisan, as opposed to the thinly veiled reactionary politics of a Peterson, and in the process, Farnsworth actually speaks far more to contemporary concerns by counterintuitively not particularizing our moment. Where Peterson offers a banal “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding,” Marcus Aurelius invokes the profound “everything you see changes in a moment and will soon be gone”; one hopes that 12 Rules for Life is one of those transient things. Farnsworth jokes that “Some would regard Marcus Aurelius as a notably poor motivational speaker. For the Stoic he is among the only kind tolerable,” but who needs Peterson with his lobster serotonin when you can have Marcus Aurelius?

Farnsworth is valuable because he isn’t transient, keeping with the seemingly universal character of the movement that he advocates, though he quips that despite “repeating … claims written 2,000 years ago,” the honest “Stoic would presumably say it’s still early.” Such is his good-natured humor, reflecting the humility of his philosophy. There is a stolid Victorianism in Farnsworth’s prose, the better to convey timelessness so that he’s convincing when he claims that the “most productive advice anyone offers nowadays, casually or in a bestseller, often amounts to a restatement or rediscovery of something the Stoics said with more economy, intelligence, and wit long ago.”

Farnsworth’s claim may be sweeping, but he convinces you, not by making those connections explicit but in letting you infer them. When Seneca writes, “there is not one [person] whose life is not focused on tomorrow. What harm is there in that, you ask? Infinite harm. They are not really living. They are about to live,” I note the concept of “mindfulness,” of “living in the present.” When the poet Horace, a Stoic fellow-traveler, observes that “they change their climate, not their disposition, who run beyond the sea,” I hear echoes of the warning in the recovery community against “pulling a geographic.” And when Seneca imagines the possibility of “looking down upon the earth from above” and saying to oneself, “Is this the pinpoint that is divided by sword and fires among so many nations?” I see prophetic intimations of the beautiful “Earthrise” photograph taken in 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission, Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot.”

Strangely, Stoicism’s most helpful sentiment is that cosmic sensibility. A crackerjack account of intellectual history emphasizes a tendency toward humility as humans realized their less privileged place in existence, from Copernicus to Darwin to modern cosmology, but the Stoics anticipated this by two millennia. Marcus Aurelius noted that “the whole of the sea is a drop in the universe … all the present time is one point in eternity”; while other emperors built themselves monuments, this particular emperor had the wisdom to understand that this, too, shall pass. Such comes the ethic that “Our ultimate insignificance makes the case for living well in the present, for no other purpose survives,” as Farnsworth explains.

Stoicism’s continuing relevance is its ability to help us cope with the ever-mounting anxieties of postmodernity, the daily thrum of Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds, the queasy push notifications and the indignities of being a cog in the shaky edifice of late capitalism (or whatever). Even more than that, Stoicism is attuned to the largest problems that our species faces, perched on the verge of extinction. Quoting Marcus Cato, Seneca wrote that “As for the cities that ever held sway over the world … someday people will ask where they were,” adding with almost eerie insight that perhaps “severity of climate will drive their people away, and neglect will destroy what they have abandoned.”

Mature insights offered by Stoicism during the humid days of the Anthropocene. Such may be the position of the literary scholar Roy Scranton, who in We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change is an eloquent theorist of what it means to live on the precipice of ecological collapse. Hard not to hear Seneca’s voice as Scranton imagines “some unknown future, on some strange and novel shore, human beings just like us … sitting circled around a fire on the beach … one telling a story about a mighty civilization doomed by its hubris, an age of wonders long past.”

We need not distinguish between the planet’s mortality and our own, for as Seneca wrote, “We live in the midst of things destined to die.” What Stoicism offers is a way of life in the midst of death, a maturity toward what extinction means. Seneca claimed that “We go astray in thinking that death follows, when it has both preceded and will follow. Whatever conditions existed before our birth, was death.” I’d heard similar arguments before, but after reading that in Farnsworth, something about the reasoning struck me like a neophyte in a Zen parable who is suddenly enlightened.

What is death to fear when there was a time that we did not exist? When we were already dead? I’ve read of a tradition where a Roman general would triumphantly parade through the streets, with golden laurels and purple-trimmed robe, and as part of this precession, an enslaved person would whisper in the ear of the victor that “You too are mortal.” Stoicism is a philosophy of memento mori, of reminding us of that simple yet profound fact. What The Practicing Stoic argues—and convinces us of—is that this philosophy of mortality provides a measure of freedom to both the general and the person whispering in his ear.

‘Pale Horse Rider’ Examines the Life of William Cooper, Where Conspiracy Blurs with Fact

You’ve seen home videos like it: family scurrying in a kitchen while preparing a holiday meal. A father carrying a turkey to the counter to be carved; a mother washing dishes. Young daughters, anxious, watching the whole mess. Hours of recorded footage to be savored later—or to simply sit in a box, forgotten.

It was Thanksgiving Day, 1998, in Eagar, Arizona. The FBI was monitoring the family inside a small home atop a hill in the White Mountains. The home belonged to Milton William Cooper, a veteran of the Vietnam war who worked in Naval Intelligence. Host of The Hour of the Time, an infamous shortwave radio show that opened with an air-raid siren, commanding voices, barking dogs, screams, and stomping jackboots. Author of Behold a Pale Horse, one of the most shoplifted books in America—and one of the most-read books in prisons. There was a warrant out for Cooper’s arrest: He’d been indicted on tax evasion and bank fraud. In response, Cooper posted a warning on his website: “Any attempt by the federal government or anyone else to execute the unconstitutional and unlawful arrest warrants will be met with armed resistance.” It was a warning, and prediction, that would later come true.

Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America by Mark Jacobson is a worthwhile introduction to one of the most unique personalities in the world of conspiracy theories. In a business full of hucksters, paranoiacs, and would-be messiahs, Cooper is the prototype: the insider-turned-outsider, the radio show host behind a movement. Jacobson, an investigative journalist and contributing editor for New York magazine, creates a complex portrayal of Cooper that recognizes why he has become a mythic figure but doesn’t fall prey to the legend. Jacobson is clear that Cooper was physically abusive in his personal relationships and that his paranoid view of the world reached a dangerous fever pitch.

Soon after that Thanksgiving movie was filmed (and sold online to his supporters), Cooper’s wife Annie and her daughters left the home, never to return. Cooper’s drinking had fueled battles with his previous wives and girlfriends, but even when he cut down, his temper caused problems. The passion that Cooper poured into his research, writing, and radio show was not performance: He could be volatile and mercurial, but he could also be prescient.

To his credit, Jacobson is able to present Cooper’s alleged predictions with a grain of salt. In 1991, within Behold a Pale Horse, Cooper seemed to foresee the rise of school shootings: “The sharp increase of prescriptions of psychoactive drugs like Prozac and Ritalin to younger and younger children will inevitably lead to a rash of horrific school shootings … [these incidents] will be used by elements of the federal government as an excuse to infringe upon the citizenry’s Second Amendment rights.” Jacobson is careful to couch these predictions within a particular worldview—as an author, he doesn’t think Cooper’s internal analysis is actually sound—to demonstrate how Cooper’s beliefs influenced and nurtured a burgeoning “patriot” movement.

On June 2, 2001, Cooper began talking about Osama bin Laden during his recording of The Hour of the Time. He claimed that bin Laden was trained and funded by the CIA. “I’m telling you to be prepared for a major attack,” he warned. “Something terrible is going to happen in this country. And whatever is going to happen they’re going to blame on Osama bin Laden. Don’t you even believe it.”

Did William Cooper, a shortwave radio host, predict the 9/11 attacks two months prior, in a small home studio near the New Mexico border? “Predict,” as Jacobson is aware, suggests preternatural knowledge. Back in 1999, CNN was already publishing articles with headlines like “Bin Laden Feared to Be Planning Terrorist Attack” and even identifying Washington D.C. as one of the potential locations. It might be better to claim that Cooper, like other radio host and raconteurs who speak in recursive sentences laden with ambiguity, was able to make us think that he could connect the mysterious dots of the world without actually drawing the lines.

Cooper would often give his audience a suggestion: “Listen to everyone, read everything, believe nothing until you, yourself, can prove it with your own research.” Such advice sounds reasonable, but democratization of knowledge tends to make expertise less important than personal experience. Cooper began his own investigative journey at Long Beach College, where he expressed his anger at how Vietnam veterans were treated upon their return. Cooper was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and received treatment at the VA hospital in Long Beach, California, twice, in 1981 and 1982.

His interest in conspiracy theories began with Roswell. A central myth of American UFO lore, the event had been resurrected by The Roswell Incident, a 1980 book by Charles Berlitz, language school scion and paranormal researcher. Jacobson writes, “Now the weakness of the Roswell narrative—the insufficient eyewitness testimony, the lack of compelling physical evidence—became the case’s greatest selling point. If Roswell was relegated to obscurity, someone at the top must have wanted it that way. It was an axiom of modern life: the extent of obfuscation is in direct proportion to what the authorities felt they needed to hide. The bigger the secret, the bigger the cover-up.”

Jacobson is on to something with such observations, but he quickly returns to a biography of Cooper. It is a fascinating biography, to be sure. Ol’ Dirty Bastard called Cooper “curriculum,” one that was studied and even preached by Big Daddy Kane, Busta Rhymes, Tupac Shakur, Mobb Deep, and Nas. Domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh was a fan of Cooper’s radio show and writings, even visiting him once before the Oklahoma City attack (Cooper had been unnerved by the encounter, describing McVeigh, who was unknown to him, as acting like a zombie; after the attack, Cooper recounted the incident to the FBI and even offered a tip that a Florida militia man was planning a similar attack).

Pale Horse Rider begins to consider the lineage between Cooper and Alex Jones, but it would have benefitted from a fuller examination. Although some claim that Cooper even predicted an “outsider” president like Donald Trump, more consideration of the overlap between the rhetoric of Cooper and Trump is warranted. Jacobson gives us a taste; his first chapter is a concise overview of the road from Cooper to Trump. Still, there’s more to be said. The route between the men and their supporters is not a direct one, though. Cooper’s worldview was a menagerie of folklore and fear, but he was doggedly American. Trump, never a veteran of peacetime or war, is something else entirely.

Is this too much to ask of a biography? Should we expect Jacobson to keep digging and create a more forceful argument connecting Cooper to our present moment? Maybe. Pale Horse Rider is a request that Milton William Cooper is worthy of our sustained attention. It is a hypnotic dive into a world where theory is considered fact.

Shells for the Creation of Human Dramas: Living, Breathing Settings in Fiction

Reading The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick for a creative nonfiction craft lecture during the final residency for my MFA program gave me a greater appreciation for Hardwick’s work and changed the way I read. One essay from the collection,“Locations: The Landscapes of Fiction,” taught me to give more attention to objects and places in fiction instead of just viewing them as props that help set the stage or fill space. Using works from Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Wharton, and others, Hardwick explores the connections between interior and exterior landscapes in American fiction and the characters who inhabit those landscapes. She writes about how the landscapes created by these authors inform readers beyond establishing the setting. Hardwick writes:
The landscapes of fiction, the houses and things, are a shell for the creation of human dramas, the place for the seven deadly sins to do battle with probity and reality or outrageous demand and vanity. The shells, the habitations of America are volatile, inventive, unexpected, imponderable, but there they are, everywhere.
Dwellings—and the objects found in these dwellings—help form characters and their stories. Layers of landscape are placed around and within stories for readers to examine in order to grasp deeper meanings, like the rings of a tree.

Hardwick devotes a good chunk of “Locations” to fiction that takes place in New York City. She writes:

Manhattan is not altogether felicitous for fiction. It is not a city of memory, not a family city, not the capital of America so much as the iconic capital of the century. It is grand and grandiose with its two rivers acting as a border to contain the restless. Its skyscrapers and bleak, rotting tenements are a gift for photographic consumption, but for the fictional imagination the city’s inchoate destiny is a special challenge. Those who engage this “culture of congestion” today need a sort of athletic suppleness, such as we find in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.
Anna Qunidlen must possess the athletic suppleness Hardwick mentions; Alternate Side, a novel that unfolds in Manhattan, still contains elements of memory and family in addition to plenty of congested restlessness. Quindlen introduces the reader to the vacant lot around which Alternate Side revolves in the opening pages:
In the line of narrow townhouses that made up their side of the block, standing shoulder to shoulder like slender soldiers of flawless posture and unvarying appearance, there was one conspicuous break, a man down, a house-width opening to a stretch of macadam turned into an outdoor parking lot. It held only six cars, and since nearly everyone on the block wanted a space, it had become a hot commodity, a peculiar status symbol.
All of the residents on the block vie for one of the vacant lot’s six parking spots close to home. Those lucky enough to score one are obsessed with the lot and their spots. Convenience and comfort are powerful drugs. Feeling superior to your less fortunate, parking-spot-bereft neighbors is a powerful drug, too.

Quindlen explores themes connected to race, class, privilege, friendship, and family in ways that are only possible because of the empty lot she plops down in the middle of a rare dead-end block in Manhattan. After an act of violence occurs for reasons connected to the lot, the lucky six are no longer allowed to park their cars there. The relationships between various residents begin to unravel. Their homes start to fall apart as well, and the emptiness of the lot reflects the emptiness of some of the marriages and friendships on the street.

Early in the novel, Nora (the protagonist) contemplates the old New York of her youth compared to the current New York: the New York of her married-for-several-years-with-two-kids-in-college days. Quindlen writes:
It was crazy, but there was a small, secret part of Nora that was comfortable with trash on the street. It reminded her of her youth, when she’d first arrived in a nastier, scarier, dirtier New York City and moved into a shabby apartment with her best friend, Jenny. A better New York, she sometimes thought to herself now, but never, ever said, one of the many things none of them admitted to themselves, at least aloud: that it was better when it was worse.
Nora longs for a different New York, for a past version of herself—when a vacant lot wasn’t so important, when much of what her life has become wasn’t so important. Nora later discovers, thanks to the lot—the shell for the creation of her human drama—that people and circumstances aren’t always what they seem to be.

The hotel-cum-addiction-recovery-facility in Denis Johnson’s “The Starlight on Idaho” (from The Largesse of the Sea Maiden) serves as another notable shell. The main character in this epistolary short story, Cass, is going through detox in the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center and writes several letters to various people, including God and Satan. Cass writes a letter to his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Bob:
Dear old buddy and beloved sponsor Bob,

Now hear the latest from the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center on Idaho Avenue, in its glory days better known as the Starlight Motel. I believe you might have holed up here once or twice. Yes I believe you might have laid up drunk in room 8, this very one I’m sitting in at this desk writing this letter …
And in a letter to his father and grandmother, Cass says:
Do you remember when the Starlight was a motel? I remember when it was a motel and whores used to sit out on the bench at the bus stop across the street, really miserable gals with blotchy skin and dents in their head after getting run out of San Francisco … I mean you wouldn’t cross the street for them, but I guess once in a while some desperate character from one of these rooms in the Starlight would make the journey. Do you know what? I’ve had one or two minutes here when I might’ve done it myself. But the whores are gone, the bus-stop benches are empty. I don’t think the bus runs past here no more.
The Starlight helps make this story what it is. Johnson uses the Starlight as an additional character in the story, one that has gone through its own turnaround.

At the end of the story, readers learn that Cass has been told several times that he shouldn’t have survived some pretty terrible situations. But he’s still alive and he still hopes this round of recovery will stick. Perhaps some past frequenters of the Starlight Motel have ridden by—probably by accident—and noticed buses no longer serve the area; maybe they thought the motel would be abandoned and condemned but instead discovered it’s still alive, now a place where people go to recover, where people who should be dead have another chance at redemption.

I’ll keep paying more attention to locations and landscapes when I read and write now. Maybe I’ll include locations that have traits that mirror those of my characters or locations that represent a sort of redemption my characters desire for themselves. Maybe I’ll introduce locations that are unexpected, inventive, volatile.

Image: Flickr/Stephen L Harlow

Unsung Women: Buddhist Women’s Poetry and the Revival of the Female Teaching Lineage

One of the holiest forms of practice in Zen is the chanting of names of one’s Buddhist ancestors and teachers. In Japan, China, and Korea, prayers reciting one’s teaching lineage are a common part of the rituals, soaring back in Japanese, Korean or classical Chinese through the venerable line of monks, masters and saints, all the way back to Bodhidharma, the monk credited with bringing Buddhism from India to China. Every Zendo has a different founder and thus a different lineage; teachers proudly recite these chains as pedigrees of legitimacy and power. The thing all these traditional teaching lineages have in common is that they are made up almost exclusively of men. Women have participated in Buddhist traditions as far back as the time of the Buddha, but they exist only tenuously in the stories, poems, and songs: a nun in a folktale here, a relative of the Buddha there. When I first started reading Buddhist folklore and poetry as research for my novel about contemporary American women practicing Zen, I kept seeing signs of erasure. An unnamed nun who is one of the Buddha’s earliest followers; the Buddha’s stepmother, insisting she has the right to practice alongside men; girls entering convents because their birth shamed and disappointed their families. As in many other religions, the role of women has been largely erased from artwork, stories, and prayers, unless you know where to look.

They’re there, though. And perhaps because they were excluded from telling stories in the traditional canon, Buddhist women’s stories often take the form of poetry. In the Therigatha, one of the earliest collections of Buddhist nuns’ writings, women sing of their lives before renunciation, and how freed they were from oppressive marriages or life choices by donning the yellow robe of a nun. This text, long forgotten, has been revived thanks to a luminous new translation from Buddhist scholar Susan Murcott in First Buddhist Women: Poems Stories of Awakening. In one typical example, a woman rejoices at joining the sangha (the Buddhist community) and leaving married life behind:
Free, I am free.
I am free
by means of the three
crooked things,
mortar, pestle, and
my crooked husband.

I am free
from birth and death
and all that dragged me back.
Their stories are tragic and funny, and always personal. Unlike the stories of particular monks, which are characterized by magic powers and feats of miraculous strength, the nuns emphasize humility, community, and freedom. The nunnery meant freedom to many women forced into prostitution or trapped in abusive homes. In the Buddha’s India, life for women was strictly regulated and governed at every stage until the state of widowhood. Only when women had produced children and lost their duty to their husbands were they permitted to explore spirituality the way men could at any stage of their lives. Many of the women who became followers of Buddhism were widows, or had lost children, and their grief and sense of loss fills every line of their poetry. Only the life of the nun, the simplicity and the fellowship they found there, provided solace. In one dialogue, Mara, the god of deception and desire, tests one nun’s faith by reminding her of her rage and grief at the death of a beloved child. The nun replies:
I have finished with the death of my child,
and men belong to that past.
I don’t grieve.
I don’t cry.
I’m not afraid of you, friend.

Everywhere the love of pleasure is destroyed,
the great dark is torn apart,
and Death,
you too are destroyed.
It is women who are drawn overwhelmingly to Zen practice today in America, and I think what draws them are often the same losses that drew women over two millennia ago. Zen in the west sometimes models itself as a form of therapy more than a religious practice; there are Zen groups for the bereaved and Zen hospice centers. The kind of experience Zen offers is powerful consolation for the ill, the dying, the anxious, or the bereft. It teaches us that life is fleeting and that clinging to worldly phenomena will only lead to suffering; being aware of each present moment and treasuring our interdependence as living beings can provide solace to those who have had chaos enter their lives.

It’s also refreshing not to be preached to or be given promises that can’t be kept. When I lost my mother to cancer, nothing irritated me more than the declarations that she was in heaven, or the more vaguely palatable “she’s in a better place.” I didn’t believe it, and I didn’t want to be told that there was some other realm where she was living a better life without the people she loved. I didn’t like the idea that her life was only a waiting room adjoining the real thing. My grief told me that her life was precious and that the suffering I felt at her loss was real. I looked to literature for consolation, and the poems and narratives of Buddhist women were a balm. In one classic folktale called “Vasitthi the Madwoman,” a woman who has lost her child to disease begins wearing rags and wandering homeless and bereft through her village. The Buddha tells her to go to every house and find a single one where someone has not died. Vasitthi visits every house but cannot find one where someone has not been lost to disease or old age or war. This realization—that death visits us all, and that we will all be united, ultimately, in grief—is oddly soothing and cures Vasitthi of her madness and rage. She dons the yellow robe and becomes a nun. The Buddha does not offer empty promises or explanations; he only makes her aware of grief as a universal human condition.

Zen, in its quiet way, has infiltrated American culture. Today you can find a Zen or Tibetan center or a private residence with a few zafu mats laid out in almost every city and town in the country. There’s the Dalai Lama’s personal North American headquarters in Rochester and Chogyam Trungpa’s massive compound in the Hudson Valley; the San Francisco Zen Center, Naropa University in Boulder, private Zendos and basement meditation rooms in Brooklyn, Boston, and Seattle. You can see its influence in a television ad for a new flavor of ginger ale, in which a man-bun-wearing white guy seated on a mat asks what nirvana tastes like. You can participate in Japanese tea ceremonies at cultural centers around the country or visit the Buddhist Temple Room in the museum of fine arts of Boston. You can listen to the poetry of zen, the haiku, taught in elementary school classrooms and studied on college campuses. There’s a sanitation and appropriation of the religion going on right now, with businesses sending their employees to “mindfulness meditation” and articles written on how mindfulness can increase your chances for a promotion at work or help you burn belly fat. There’s mindful eating and mindful jogging and mindful mothering. The practice and the philosophy of Zen is a powerfully compelling antidote to the perceived problems of American life, and it has been neatly unzipped from the culture, language, and ritual of its roots. As Americans often do, we look elsewhere for solutions—to another culture, to a snowy mountaintop, to an exotic stranger.

As in most religious traditions, women have been marginalized in Zen, treated as “tea ladies” or accessories to the spiritual genius of men. But there’s a new tradition becoming popular in Zen centers across the country: the chanting of female teachers’ names, as part of the ritual of remembrance, reverence, and respect. Members of the Zendo begin their practice with prayers to the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha: the teacher, the teaching, and the community. And then they begin the long recitation of forgotten women, invisible teachers, unsung women. There are a surprising lot to get through. In fact, they’ve been there all along down the centuries, writing about their experiences of the divine. They’ve been passing down their own poems and songs. And current leaders of Zendos and Tibetan centers are increasingly women. There’s Elsie Mitchell, founder of the Cambridge Buddhist Association; Maurine Stuart, the first female Zen master to teach in the U.S.; Zenkei Blanche Hartman, the San Francisco Zen Center’s first abbess. They are the leaders of the next generation of American Zen. Now the long, elegant lines of teaching lineage, once exclusively male, are peppered with female names, Western names, a funny hodgepodge of old and new, tradition and translation.

Image: Pixabay/truthseeker08

Tuesday New Release Day: McFadden; deWitt; Donkor; Taneja; Rich

Out this week: Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice McFadden; French Exit by Patrick deWitt; Housegirl by Michael Donkor; We That Are Young by Preti Taneja; and Essential Essays by the late Adrienne Rich.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Death of the Father, Death of the Son: On Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The Red-Haired Woman’

The new works of a Nobel Prize winner such as Orhan Pamuk (who won the award in 2006) are subject to intense scrutiny, in case they show any sign of decline on the part of the author. But Pamuk’s most recent novel, The Red-Haired Woman, exhibits profound skill on Pamuk’s part and acts as a vehicle for social analysis, theory, and critique on par with the best works of Balzac. With his latest, Pamuk has created an important means of understanding the dynamics underlying contemporary political upheavals and the struggles between secularists and Islamists in Pamuk’s native Turkey.

The Red-Haired Woman begins during the teenage years of its main character, Cem, who is preparing to take his entrance exams for university. He takes on a summer job as an apprentice to a well digger named Master Mahmut in order to fund his preparatory courses. The beginning and end of the novel take place in a barren settlement on the outskirts of Istanbul called Öngören, where Master Mahmut has been commissioned to dig a well and find water.

Cem and his mother were recently abandoned in Istanbul by his father, a pharmacist and left-wing activist. Master Mahmut and Cem’s relationship is one of master-apprentice as they painstakingly dig a well by hand for a local businessman hoping to build a factory, but Master Mahmut develops into a father figure for Cem. Cem’s experience in Öngören is rooted in fantasy, illusion, and the mythic and divine. Master Mahmut tells Cem fantastical tales that correspond to allegories in the Quran, which in turn lead the two to contemplate lofty subjects such as the existence of heaven and hell. Cem notes, “Whenever he told religious stories, Master Mahmut always grew quiet at the most meaningful moment, and I would sense a vague warning in his manner: it could happen to you.” The tension in their relationship begins when Cem tells a story that he read in an Istanbul bookshop, thinking he could strike fear into the heart of his master: the tale of Oedipus Rex. There is a menacing atmosphere to Cem’s time in Öngören, especially because Master Mahmut is unable to find water and grows increasingly suspicious of Cem’s activities.

On his evening walks through Öngören, Cem encounters the titular red-haired woman, an actress in a traveling theater group that puts on morality plays derived from the Quran and folktales. Cem grows obsessed with her and begins to follow and interact with her on an increasing basis. The absence of his father is especially evident when Cem begins to fall in love, or at the very least, fall in lust.

Cem feels that a lack of paternal supervision is allowing his true self to come through, as he does not need to worry about the stern gaze of his father—but his father’s advice also plays into the fantasies he holds of the red-haired woman. He imagines the two of them reading together, and Cem recalls his father’s words: “The greatest happiness in life was to marry the girl you’d spent your youth reading books with in the passionate pursuit of a shared ideal.” Though he may not be explicitly aware of it, the lack of a paternal figure is affecting not just Cem’s conscious life but the idealized version that plays out in fantasy.

In an interaction with the woman, Cem mentions his absent father. She responds, “Find yourself a new father. We all have many fathers in this country. The fatherland, Allah, the army, the Mafia … No one here should ever be fatherless.” The object of Cem’s affection is pushing him to form a new paternal relationship: In Cem’s case, this is the potential bond between himself and Master Mahmut. On a broader sociological basis, it is a comment on the role paternal imagery plays in the imaginary of a populace, especially in a traditional society that emphasizes the authority of fathers. In the Turkish context, it is especially significant that the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal, took on the name Atatürk (meaning “father of the Turks”) after its establishment.

While watching a play put on by the actress’s theater troupe, Cem encounters a tale derived from the Persian-language epic Shahnameh: the story of Rostam and Sohrab. Rostam is a warrior and champion of the Persian kingdom who travels into a neighboring land. While there, he beds a princess named Tahmineh and gives her a band to wrap around the arm of his child so that he may recognize it after he returns to his homeland. This child is Sohrab, who becomes the champion of Tahmineh’s land and plans to reunite with his father in order to establish the two-kingdom rule of Rostam and Sohrab. For Sohrab’s plan to work, he needs the kingdoms to go to war and for the father and son to recognize one another. Through various underhanded machinations on the part of Sohrab’s king, the two champions are set to duel each another, but both are in full combat regalia and unable to recognize one another. After hand-to-hand combat that lasts many days, Rostam kills Sohrab and finally sees the armband when it is too late. The father is left to grieve the life he has taken while the mother, Tahmineh, dies upon hearing the news of Sohrab’s death.

Analyses of familial dramas sometimes neglect one fundamental emblem of tragedy that Pamuk is adamant in emphasizing: the mother’s sorrow. As Pamuk writes, “The logic of the universe turns on the tears of the mother.” Pamuk employs the narrative in The Red-Haired Woman to emphasize the universal role of mothers in both cultural traditions and their founding myths. The violence that fathers and sons bring upon each other universally affects one figure, the mother, whether she is Jocasta, mother of Oedipus, or Tahmineh. In the story of Rostam and Sohrab, which originates in the lands east of Turkey, there is a father-son relationship that leaves the son murdered. In the Oedipus myth, which originates from Greece, west of Turkey (and part of the so-called “West”), the son kills the father. In Öngören, an accident at the excavation site forces Cem to leave the rural settlement and return to Istanbul thinking he may have caused the death of Master Mahmut. The end of Cem’s Öngören period leads to him partially acting out the Oedipal drama.

In Istanbul, Cem studies to become an engineer, learning the technologically advanced methods of water extraction that render old-fashioned well-diggers like Master Mahmut useless, bringing to bear another tension at the heart of the novel: the growing influence of the West on Turkish society. The movement of modernization in the 20th century has done away with the traditional modes of life and the fantasies represented by Master Mahmut, and it has forced the figural fathers to “die” at the hands of their modernizing sons. However, the “Eastern” tale of Rostam and Sohrab plays a major role in Cem’s adult life, which occupies the second half of the novel.

Although Cem did not know the title of the play the theater troupe put on in Öngören, a business trip to Tehran provides Cem the opportunity to formally encounter the tale in its original literary context. If Cem’s youth was spent contemplating the tale of Oedipus, his adult life became increasingly devoted to Rostam and Sohrab. He opens a construction company named Sohrab with his wife, Ayse, and as the couple lacks a child, the construction company begins to substitute. The final events of the novel allude to the death of the figural child Sohrab, and Cem is forced to return to Öngören in order to alleviate his guilt over the accident that befell Master Mahmut, the figural father he believed he killed.

The presentation of Turkish society in this novel is pressing in contemporary circumstances, but the juxtaposition of two major cultural traditions, their tensions and commonalities made plain, makes The Red-Haired Woman one of the most interesting novels published in recent years and a lovely addition to Pamuk’s oeuvre. Tradition still has a reckoning in store for those who turn away from it, and Pamuk’s novel is masterful in drawing out the inherent tension of a society in the midst of an identity crisis related to its own history and values.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Seasons Quartet Is a Raw Journey through the Writing Process

The “seasons quartet” by Karl Ove Knausgaard comprises four books. In order of publication, their titles in English are: Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer. Made of paper (unless they’re in electronic form), each book resembles a flat rectangular box with three sides open and hinged lids on top and bottom. Inside are sheets of paper, bound with glue and thread to the “closed” side of the box. The cover of the box …

Never mind all that Knausgaardian verbiage. What’s really inside each book? Autumn’s chapters—“September,” “October,” “November”—start with “Letter to an Unborn Child”; short personal essays follow. Winter follows the same scheme, with “Letter to a Newborn Daughter” heading each month. Spring steps out of the group with a novelly structure. Summer falls more or less back in step with essays followed by diary entries, per month.

I was able to read the four books over their publication schedule. Spring I read straight through. Autumn, Winter, and Summer I put down and picked up at leisure. This is the way to do it. A forced march through the essays is not recommended. Even avoiding surfeit by taking them three or four texts at a time, I pondered if these books would have been better, more honest, with the dreck trimmed out, published as a single, longish book.

I didn’t feel that way about Knausgaard’s autofiction opus My Struggle, the first five volumes of which I read twice in a row (the sixth is not yet available), or A Time for Everything, his mind-boggling novel which tells of biblical angels and retells a few Bible stories I’d assumed I knew pretty well.

Those earlier books formed my conviction, shared by many (but not all, for sure), that Karl Ove Knausgaard is one of the greats whose literary works will live. Even given the enthusiasm carried by conviction, though, it’s plain that the seasons quartet would not stand without Knausgaard’s name on them. Leaving aside commercial ploys—banking on the author’s fame to sell a four-book project—should the seasons books have been published as they are, entirely?

Yes, they should have been published as they are, entirely.

The seasons books—and the wonders within—show the process of a literary writer. Sometimes he blathers. Sometimes the writing feels forced; sometimes it’s cutesy. Sometimes … you fall under that old Knausgaard spell, and if you can mark when that happens, you get to see a writer in his “flow.” Through the best and the worst of the seasons quartet, Knausgaard’s well-known quest for authenticity, exercised in My Struggle, is more transparent than ever. Authenticity, or truth, if you will: It’s the quest of every literary writer, from the most cynical to the most idealistic.

The project was conceived as a series of messages to Knausgaard’s then-unborn fourth child. At the beginning of Autumn, he addresses the child directly: “I want to show you our world as it is now: the door, the floor, the water tap and the sink, the garden chair close to the wall beneath the kitchen window, the sun, the water, the trees.”

Clearly, the unborn child is muse, not reader. This disconnect makes the tone disingenuous. In “Chairs” (Winter), the description is made for someone who hasn’t the foggiest idea of what a chair is: “A chair is for sitting on. It consists of four legs on which rests a board.” Of course, by the time the child can read these books, or can read at all, hopefully she’ll have the hang of chairs, doors, floors, etc.

So why describe the chair? (And not even that well, in this case. If you’re so naive to furniture that you need a chair described, and someone says it has four legs, won’t you think of a dog’s or cat’s legs? Four legs and a board to sit on. Picture it and laugh!) Should the editor have persuaded the writer to trim out from the books all the “A chair is for sitting on” bits?

No. Even if the descriptions fail to give us a child’s-eye look at mundane objects, the build-out of tedium can be marvelous. The essay “Winter Sounds” (Winter) starts with the less-than-brilliant observation: “Walking in the forest in winter is quite different from walking there in summer.” And moves to: “The screech of a crow … which in summer is just one note in a greater tapestry of sound, in winter is allowed to fill the air alone, and every single nuance in its rasping, hoarse, seemingly consonant-filled caws stands out: how they rise aggressively at first, then descend mournfully towards the end, leaving behind a sometimes melancholy, sometimes eerie mood among the trees.” Then to a close with snow falling: “That sound, which is no sound, only a nuance of silence, a kind of intensifying or deepening of it, is the sonic expression of winter’s essence.”

The main problem with reading too many of the essays in one sitting is that they can be formulaic. Physical description of an everyday object: “A chair is for sitting on …” Ruminations on the object’s use/activity in everyday life. Digression into deep thoughts. Close with an insightful non sequitur. Bada bing! You almost cringe in anticipation.

At times, the thoughts are trite, better to have been laid to rest in the closed covers of a journal. At times, they can reach right into the heart of life. “A household of family … exists in the real and aspires towards the ideal. All tragedies arise out of this duality, but also all triumphs.”

Then he goes on, “And the feeling of triumph is what prevails in me now, when the kitchen in the house on the other side of the lawn, lit up like a train compartment in the darkness, where only a few hours ago I did the Christmas cleaning, is sparkling clean and bright.”

Should the last bit have been edited out? Wouldn’t the text be more powerful ending with “A household of family,” which beautifully evokes Tolstoy’s opening of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”?

That wouldn’t be Knausgaard. He doesn’t “edit out.” Nor is he beginning a book about a tragic love affair in the glittering courts of imperial Russia. He’s writing about his family and about himself, a man taking a smoke on the lawn of a modest country house in early 21st-century Sweden.

Spring stands apart. It’s a novel—autofiction along the lines of My Struggle—following the time frame of the other seasons books: the period around the birth of the youngest daughter. It’s ripping, heartrending, and like My Struggle, it raises the ethical problem of family-centered memoir and autofiction. On one hand, it’s the author’s and his family’s business. On the other hand, published, it becomes the business of whoever reads it. The exposure the family takes in Spring is daunting.

In Summer, Knausgaard’s diary segues in and out of a fiction whose narrator is an old woman looking back on a disastrous love affair. It’s somewhat in the footsteps of Knausgaard’s college mentor Jon Fosse, though not nearly as perplexing as Fosse’s fiction (at least, what’s available in English). Each time Knausgaard announces the story, within his diary entries, it’s with a similar device: “While so far in this text ‘I’ have represented a forty-seven-year-old Norwegian man residing in Sweden with a wife and four children, ‘I’ will soon, as soon as this sentence ends, represent a seventy-three-year-old woman who is sitting at a writing desk in an apartment in Malmö on a summer evening.”

The old woman’s story never goes far; it’s like an abandoned novel whose ending I didn’t particularly regret missing, though I enjoyed reading what there was of it. The problem was, after the first entry, the transition began to seem gimmicky, a clever device—should the old woman story have been deleted? Or the transitions made in a more conventional, less self-conscious way, by a space in the text, for example? Should the story have been gathered up into one segment, rather than scattered throughout the diary?

No. Leave them in, just as they are. The story and the way it’s told share the writer’s process.

Knausgaard writes most compellingly in the seasons books not of objects like toilets and toothbrushes but of his family’s life. He gazes on the belly of his pregnant wife and sees the child move within “almost like the ripples in water when a sea creature moves just beneath the waves.” He watches his son “curled up in a way I have always been affected by, with one knee pulled up to his belly, his head resting against his arm.” He doesn’t stifle the futile, aching urge to protect his children, nor conceal the shameful urge to judge and disparage them over trifles. He lets out the sheer fun of being with his children, both inside and outside their sphere. He lets us in on the joy of family and the deep fear—the deepest kind there is—that comes with deep love. And then he’ll rattle on about something like coins or kitchen utensils.

The spirit of Knausgaard’s seasons quartet lies in its process and its flaws, its moments of physical loveliness, the hapless insights, emotions joyful and big-hearted, petty and bitter. Like My Struggle, but using a different method, they show us a man (with a more-than-ordinary talent for putting himself in words). You might not identify with him at all, but you feel him. At times you’ll be glad you don’t know him personally. At other times, he’s a given, like a friend you’ve known almost too long: a friend who can irritate the hell out of you, whose messes you more or less forgive, whose gifts win you over time and again.