Dharmachari Ananda asks: can there be such a thing as Buddhist fiction, or only fiction by Buddhists? This essay first appeared in Urthona Issue 10.
With eighty thousand new titles appearing every year, most of them little more than froth to distract us from the stresses of our lives, one may be forgiven for thinking no, it isn’t. But then we may pause, and consider Milton, Shakespeare, Kafka, Primo Levi, among many others, and we will probably then have to admit that such writers have profoundly transformed the way we think of society and ourselves. Yet literature is itself now undergoing a profound transformation, both in its form and its subject matter:
Most novels produced today stand outside the history of the novel: novelized confessions, novelized journalism, novelized score-settling, novelized autobiographies, novelized indiscretions, novelized denunciations, novelized political arguments, novelized deflowerings…novels ad infinitum, to the end of time, that say nothing new, have no aesthetic ambition, bring no change to our understanding of man, or to novelistic form, are each one like the next, are completely consumable in the morning and completely discardable in the afternoon.
Thus Milan Kundera (in his Testaments Betrayed 1) berates the contemporary art form we know as the novel, and by implication shoots down the entire formative culture that has given birth to it.
Is he right? Have we even the means to try to answer this question?
In order to understand the novel’s crisis we must look at some possible reasons for this fall from grace.
Our European literary tradition has all but ceased to nourish us; it has become, as a deeply sensed presence informing our sensibilities, inaccessible. At this point we can do one of two things: revivify it, mainly by educating people to access its original energy; or create a new tradition, drawing on the deep global experience of humanity across millennia. Maybe we have to do both, simultaneously, and aim at an eventual synthesis.
A putative Buddhist fiction would, presumably, take the second route, using values and experience accumulated since the time of the Buddha, and translating these in terms of Western, contemporary images and sensibilities. But there are problems in this approach too, and some of these must now briefly be looked at.
2. Simplistic characters
3. Dualistic ideas about reality
4. Participating in the ‘literary machine’ and compromising ideals
5. ‘Dirty realism’ and a sanitised version of reality
Fiction addresses our need for stories. But stories work through the memory and the imagination: if they give us precepts, they give them through an image, probably an image of an ancestor or neighbour – someone who acted selflessly or heroically in defence of another, or in quest of a truth, or someone who embodied virtue to an unusual degree. The image would embody the effect that this had on his community (the harvests were abundant, kings ruled justly, plagues vanished).
This, we may say, is the ground plan of the traditional story. It worked because the community believed in an overarching ethical context that establishes a correlation between virtue and prosperity, individual altruism and the wealth of the whole.
Such a correlation no longer exists in our psyches, and therefore our stories have become instances of a mind’s self-division, isolation, severance from a universe of meaning. In such a context, the traditional hero is impossible, while the postmodern hero goes through the motions of virtue with his eyes knowingly wide open, yet with no faith in a connected universe which might give significance to his or any action.
1. Dogma, didacticism and ideology
As a culture we have grown weary of those who claim to speak for the gods, whether politicians, gurus, psychologists or poets. No one today is allowed a hotline to the absolute. Dogma is anathema to honest discourse, which is what everyone believes they want. (Of course, this laughter, aimed at straw gods, opens the back door to the thief of relativism, whose aim is to quickly empty our house of all values, both ancient and modern, and immediately vanish into the dusk of semiotics).
This is why for me being a novelist was more than just working in one ‘literary genre’ rather than another; it was an outlook, a wisdom, a position; a position that would rule out identification with any politics, any religion, any ideology, any moral doctrine, any group; a considered, stubborn, furious nonidentification, conceived not as evasion or passivity but as resistance, defiance, rebellion. (T.B. p.158)
This image of the novelist is very attractive to one whose family background has been shadowed by northern Puritanism and working class Socialism. And one can also understand its attraction as a reaction to the all-controlling, all seeing paternal communist state, in which the artist is completely free at all times to praise the state, its patriarchs and its machinery.
But in a modern western democracy it seems merely childish: our problem is that nobody cares a jot what a writer says so long as it is stylish, amusing, and does not attempt seriously to change people’s lives or question their values. And most writers seem to accept this status quo as a good deal all round.
2. Simplistic characterisation
There is already in our society a tendency to reduce the complexity of real characters to a cartoon-like simplicity as a result of the commercial imperatives of high-cost productions. It has been said that the best screenplays are produced from the simplest plots, and if audiences can be moved by high-tech sets, sumptuous costumes and glamorous actors, where is the incentive to produce complex, multi-dimensional narratives?
Luckily there are still many writers who are not seduced by the astronomical rewards (not merely financial) of the film industry, and for whom the challenge of creating fully alive, complex, many-hued characters is the primary motive for writing.
3. Stimulating dualistic thought
All language uses conceptual and imaginative faculties, which have evolved on the back of our need for survival as an individual, in a world of separate individuals. Fiction cannot avoid stimulating these faculties. But, as Coleridge says, mankind progresses by a dialogic process of flow and restraint, coming into conflict with others and resolving the conflict through engagement with wider perspectives.
This is dualism in the service of transcendence, and may be said to be the essential dynamic of the creative imagination: conflict leading to suffering, suffering leading to introspection, introspection leading to transcendence of the conflicting forces.
Hopefully, a Buddhist fiction will emerge which will refine this process through the imaginative and effective use of current language.
4. Participation in the ‘Literary Machine’
I see this as the greatest challenge to an emergent Buddhist fiction. As much as creative criticism, an aspiring writer needs a taste of success; of what it is to make a mark on a culture, and to have peer recognition. This is a legitimate need, just as much as financial reward. To deny this is to make the basic mistake of expecting an artist to create something worthwhile in a vacuum.
Those who have been writing for some time well know the insidious nature of this process. The literary establishment holds the reins of power and prestige (such as it is) and on the whole harbours the same values as the political and commercial worlds. The upshot of this is that reward has a very distant relationship indeed to intrinsic merit.
If there is to be a new ‘value-based’ fiction in the West, it will be necessary to resist the pressures of hostile criticism, compromise, and eventual assimilation, that will inevitably be brought to bear. This will be difficult unless we are able to create our own critical community more sympathetic to the needs of writers, and able to sustain and nurture intelligent, appropriate discourse.
5. ‘Dirty’ realism
The long-running argument that ‘everybody knows the world is a dirty place and there is no need to rub our noses in it with the help of literature’ is still regularly trotted out by those who want to keep literature safe from the vultures of the banal and the commonplace.
But the only sure way to keep literature safe from the vultures is to keep it alive: if it is healthy it will not attract vultures. If we sanitise literature by circumscribing its reach, it will not deliver the sustenance we rightly expect from it.
It is true that the media (TV, newspapers and radio) is largely dedicated to sensationalism and trivialisation; but it could be argued that this is merely a reaction against the dominant culture of materialism and cosiness that would prefer to believe that wealth naturally trickles down to nurture the under-privileged and disaffected.
This, however, should not stop writers staying close to the ground of the everyday, and resisting the pressure to edit their resulting experience in the cause of a ‘received’ harmony.
Work in progress
‘The House of the Changes’
This is a novel comprising four main characters: Alan Northgate, a novelist suffering from loss of memory and in search of his past; Alex, an ex-University lecturer who has just discovered his marriage is at an end; Axel, embarking on a ‘quest’ for the lost writings of Coleridge; and Lisa, a 15 year old orphan girl who befriends Alex.
Alan feels alienated from his own community, and is self-obsessed to a point where he needs serious help. It is no surprise, when he meets Lisa in the flesh, that he becomes fixated on her. He realises that she is only a ‘fictional’ character and therefore lacks real substance, permanence or ability to satisfy his needs, but this does not affect his passion for a form he sees as intensely desirable. Even more bizarrely, he believes he can ‘rewrite’ her at any time to make her comply with his needs, but he does not do this. Maybe, as in Ouspensky’s compelling novel about a man who gets the chance to live his life over again, he is already beginning to forget that the world he is in is literally a fiction created by his own mind.
As a writer, I have to keep my hand off the scales; I want to discover the process of his obsession; to see him operate in the context of his past experience, and to observe how those he is close to modify his perception of the world. For this to happen I must move in close, listen to the way he speaks, watch his gestures, body language, the minutiae of his behaviour, in order to divine the pattern, the deep structure behind the apparently random actions.
Axel, on the other hand, is someone who has had a certain amount of spiritual experience, and is able to ‘remember’ himself at critical moments. He is in a way the exact mirror image of Alan: he remembers all the time that he is in a fictional world, and that how he behaves will somehow be effective in the lives of others, and in his own ability to move outside the fictional realm.
Axel’s weakness is that he takes nothing seriously: when Alex inadvertently pushes Lisa over a cliff, he treats it as an interesting philosophical conundrum: can a fictional character have a real death? And what would happen if nobody actually died, or if we all remembered every detail of our previous lives?
Since the viewpoint constantly shifts between the characters, it is essential to give the reader sufficient pointers to who is speaking, without these becoming over-intrusive.
A difficulty I’ve repeatedly encountered is how to prevent the characters taking on the role of the ‘omniscient narrator’ for the sake of giving necessary information to the reader. No character can know as much as the narrator knows without claiming ESP or clairvoyance – especially if the narrator is also the author of the novel!
My most enduring difficulties however revolved around two things: plot and abstraction, and I would like to devote the remainder of this essay to discussing these.
Given that the development of character is intrinsic to the modern novel, how do we justify the often labyrinthine excesses of plot and counterplot?
What about crime fiction? The detective genre is as capable of as many permutations as the shapes of waves in the sea, and it has indeed proved as enduringly attractive as that element. Might Buddhist fiction adopt this form to its own ends? Or its equally enduring sibling science fiction? Is there any reason why Buddhist fiction should not take on the challenge of contemporary and future technology? I feel sure that one day it will do so.
But we have to be clear about purposes and ends. Buddhism is about purifying human consciousness in the cause of the cessation of suffering. Buddhist fiction should therefore not create paths that are so tangential to this overall aim that they are incapable of throwing any light on it.
And yet writers need an audience, and audiences typically need to be fascinated, seduced, taken out of themselves by a glimpse of magic, something rich and strange.
Shakespeare of course, in this as in so many other areas, was a master. He knew that transformation will only happen when we are enchanted and carried over that invisible threshold into the world that is always waiting for us, whenever we have the courage to throw away our habitual personality.
Staying imaginatively in the world of what one is engaged on, for long periods of time, is crucial to establishing consistency and a concentrated flow of energy. Yet in contemporary life this is so often exactly what is most difficult to achieve without great presence of mind, or sacrifice of one’s ‘normal life’.
It is difficult to imagine that Rabelais or Cervantes suffered from this dilemma: when Pantagruel danced his dance, or Don Quixote mounted Rocinante, on that fateful July day (or was it April?) neither of them worried too much about making sense! The journey was the message, the destination merely another waystation, the starting point for another ingenious instance of human frailty. Their characters were so alive and believable that no one had room for doubts about the conflict between story and message.
A Buddhist fiction will somehow have to find its way back (or forward) to this felicitous state before it stands any chance of winning the hearts and minds of today’s restless readers.
Perhaps abstraction is the chief bugbear of every novelist who secretly fancies himself as a philosopher. Which leads me to ask a question pertinent (by dint of its absence) to much current literary theory: what is the difference between fiction and philosophy? Is there indeed any common ground betwen them? Or do they serve entirely antagonistic gods?
As writers we are mortally afraid of asking our readers to do any work: we think this entirely beyond the writer’s remit, and runs the unthinkable risk of critical contumely. But the antithesis is mostly artificial: fiction (and of course I include drama) can and should deal with the important questions of ethics and human consciousness. If Homer and Shakespeare achieved it, why not the novel and the short story?
But fiction eschews the premature synthesis. We may even say (with Kundera) that the novel’s great strength as a serious medium of self-inquiry is its complete indifference to conclusions, its refusal to come down on one side or the other of an argument.
In this way we are obliged to work harder at grappling with the root and branch of the subject. As William Stafford says, ‘the life of the poem is the work of the reader’. I would take this further, and say that the only truly alive (and thus enduring, valuable) work of fiction is that which stimulates its reader to make hitherto unthinkable leaps into hostile or unsuspected territory.
Homer’s fiction did this for his own world, as did Shakespeare’s for ours; in our own time novelists such as Joyce, Forster, Lawrence, Sartre, Kafka and Hemingway have produced works which lift our imagination into a state where we can begin to redesign ourselves, and thereby our world.
I have a deep-seated bias towards abstraction in my writing (which may go back to my father’s long adherence to socialism and consequent almost obsessive suspicion of anything imaginative or irrational). For the past twenty years I’ve been struggling to pull this invader out by the root and replant with more environment-friendly flora.
And because of this I am now most inspired by those writers who manage to implant valuable ideas seamlessly and invisibly into their characters, and in so doing give them a vibrancy and colour which has made them a part of my inner landscape for the whole of my adult life: The Catcher in the Rye, Le Grande Meaulnes, Franny and Zooey, The Magus, The Lord of the Rings, Herzog, A Portrait of the Artist…Here are the instinctual storytellers, whose characters act out the root dramas of every age, but in the language of the present.
If one day I could achieve a single such fictional character, I would consider this lifetime supremely well spent.
Postscript: the question of freedom
The postmodern dilemma, in my view, is how to achieve imaginative freedom from the past (stylistic, ideological, thematic and objective), while remaining relevant and interesting to a wide readership.
The freedom of following ‘the blue road’ can be heady, especially in the wake of a culture that is deeply conformist at heart. My greatest joy in writing has often been to creep along a trajectory of pure irrelevance to anything, flirting with ideas I may encounter on the way, without any consideration of their import in the overall design (and often without any direct sense of an overall design!)
The besetting danger in this is of becoming quirky, whimsical, and self-referential, in the cause of not being a vassal of past achievements or present fashions. As already mentioned, one cannot escape tradition: one may react against it, but this merely reveals its power.
As with any discipline, the writer must assimilate, rather than be assimilated; and in so doing, he transforms the given material so that it energises his own myth. In this light, the postmodernist fallacy is exposed as irrelevant. The past is in us, for good or ill.
The writer now has the choice, on the one hand, of becoming a mere imitator or iconoclast; on the other, of building on it a myth which is vibrant with his own life-urge, which scintillates with the energy of his achieved inner work.
1.: Milan Kundera: Testaments Betrayed, trans. Linda Asher, Faber 1995
Stephen Parr (Ananda) has been writing fiction and poetry for twenty years, and has written ten collections of poetry, a number of short stories and a novel. His poetry has appeared in many publications, including The Times Literary Supplement, Foolscap, The Poetry Business, and Bloodaxe’s major anthology The Long Pale Corridor. His first full-length poetry collection, North of the Future, was published in 1999. (return to top)