April 09, 2005

Author2Author, Paul Elie & Pankaj Mishra, conclusion

Paul Elie follows up on yesterday's reflections on the life and writing of Thomas Merton, returning to the contemporary spiritual/literary journeys he and Pankaj Mishra undertook in creating An End to Suffering and The Life You Save May Be Your Own:

lifeyousave.jpgIn a sense, I am writing against a common Catholic view of Merton as an adventurer in Buddhism, when what attracted him to the Buddhist monks he met was the fixity of their lives. But I am also writing toward some sort of insight about our lives--yours and mine--and our books. You sent me your last message from an Internet café in Katmandu: you have kept traveling, kept searching for new experiences and new points of reference. I am writing this message from an apartment in the East Village, in the hour before dinner and baths for my three young children: I am a husband, a father, and (though I cringe a little to say it) an office worker, and my search is conducted in the margins of an outwardly conventional middle-class life. 

Yet my search and yours have something crucial in common. They are framed in terms of contrasts rather than absolutes, seen in terms of detachment rather than strict asceticism and renunciation, undertaken in travel and worldly experience rather than the restlessness of the soul (as Augustine had it) groping half-blindly back to a divine origin. 

How different they are from Merton's search, or Gandhi's. What should we make of this fact?  Have we adapted our different traditions to the circumstances of our place and time, or merely met our traditions halfway, rather than taking up their challenges wholeheartedly?

I wish I could answer my own question with confidence. The best I can do is this.  Perhaps (since you and I are contemporaries) it suggests that we are creatures of our age, wary of the absolutes that seemed to drive people of the last century to fight wars of ideology--and that seem to be engendering new wars in this one. But perhaps (since after all we come from strikingly different cultures and backgrounds) it suggests that we are simply two writers of like temperament, inclined to subtlety, prone to see a question from two or more sides. 

And maybe a kinship of temperament is enough, a rope bridge between the alienated. I learned in the writing of my book to be careful not to say what Thomas Merton would have thought about this or that. But it is worth pointing out that here we are, two writers, a Catholic and a Buddhist in our ways, in dialogue nearly four decades after his "Asian journey" of 1968--and with (as far as I can tell) relatively little to overcome in the way of differences or misperceptions.  That we can do so is owing to his efforts--and to the efforts of the Buddhist searchers you describe in your book. 

April 08, 2005

Author2Author: Pankaj Mishra & Paul Elie, pt. 4

After sharing details of their own writerly backgrounds, Paul and Pankaj close by considering the case of another writer who grappled with spiritual concerns. (But keep an eye out this weekend for Paul's coda to the entire conversation...)

pankajmishra.jpgPankaj Mishra: I wonder if someone like Thomas Merton had an advantage over someone like Naipaul (see yesterday's exchange) in that he could work within a spiritual tradition that had not been as damaged by its encounter with modernity or colonialism (which are often experienced as the same thing in Asia and Africa) and use its resources to question the ways of the modern world and also open himself without bringing in stern value judgements to other traditions, as he did when he went to India in the last year of his life and met Buddhists and Hindus.

paulelie.jpgPaul Elie: Doesn't every serious writer need to see himself as apart or alienated from society? I suspect so, even though I don't like the look of those particular words on the screen. Maybe this is why worldly success has been a problem for writers from Tolstoy to Naipaul, and why the second act of so many literary lives is the story of the writer's struggle to make sense of success, to recast the original alienation so as to accommodate the ways in which he or she is now joined through words to thousands of strangers.

Success was one of Thomas Merton's biggest problems, as a monk and as a writer. The success of The Seven Storey Mountain--something like 600,000 copies sold in the first few years after publication in 1948--seemed to contradict the yearning at the heart of the book: the yearning to lose himself in Gospel fashion behind the walls of a Trappist monastery. Success challenged Merton to sound the depths of his monastic calling, to test his notions of what a Trappist monk is against circumstances again and again.

Continue reading Author2Author: Pankaj Mishra & Paul Elie, pt. 4

April 07, 2005

Author2Author: Paul Elie & Pankaj Mishra, pt. 3

Paul's curiosity about Pankaj's development as a writer both immersed in and setting himself apart from modern Indian culture continues to spark discussion, following yesterday's revelations about Pankaj's beginnings...

Paul Elie: I was struck by how strongly An End to Suffering seems to go against the grain of writing about India, or at least against the books about India that are best known to American readers. Those books (think Midnight's Children and A Fine Balance) are about India’s cities; yours is about the windswept and lightly populated Himalayas. Those books (A Suitable Boy, The God of Small Things) are about families; yours is profoundly solitary. Those books (The Moor's Last Sigh, The Satanic Verses) are fictional, and in them everyday life is lushly embroidered even when its laws are not put in patchwork suspension; your book is emphatically factual, in that it restores to history a story that is typically told as if it were fiction--and magical realist fiction at that. Those books are told from the vantage point of expatriation or estrangement from the home land; your book, it seems to me, is an account of your gentle refusal to resolve the question of identity in any simple way, or even to make that question the question. Instead of identifying yourself in terms of where you have chosen to settle, India or the West, or in terms of your refusal to settle--instead of falling into that snakepit in which old dualisms shed their skins for a new age, you go out “looking for the self” in the terms of western humanism, turning at once West to the Enlightenment and East to the Enlightened One for answers to the questions about the nature and destiny of man.

All of these renunciations--if they can be called that--make your book appealingly ascetical and hard-won, a pushing past the obvious to something original and fresh. Even a comparison with V.S. Naipaul breaks down, in that yours is not a story of triumph or emancipation--what Orwell, who seems to me to stand in relation to Naipaul as Naipaul does to you, called “getting one’s own back.” Can you tell me how deliberately you sought to write against conventions and go your own way? I know that I did, and that I was energized by it.


Pankaj Mishra: I think a certain kind of book--metropolitan, packed, or 'teeming' with colorful characters--has dominated other literary representations of India in the west, partly because audiences here usually like the unfamiliar only if it is framed by what is familiar to them: the experience of modern urban life. As for the more personal or existential inquiry, it tends to be framed by the westernized Indian writer around familiar questions of identity: Am I Indian or western, or a hybrid; is fluidity and hybridity better than a sense of belonging? and so on. One of the things I found fascinating about Buddhism is how it sees the need for identity itself as an illusion, a creation of the ego that ought to be undermined. One of its most penetrating insights is how we live most of our lives vicariously, by defining itself by association with this or that readymade affiliation with a person, vocation, class, nation, and intellectual doctrine. Buddhism extends this suspicion of identity to even itself; thus the well-known saying, "If you meet the Buddha, kill him."

Continue reading Author2Author: Paul Elie & Pankaj Mishra, pt. 3

April 06, 2005

Author2Author: Paul Elie & Pankaj Mishra, pt. 2

Yesterday, Paul Elie talked about finding connections with Catholic intellectual role models as a recent arrival in New York. Today, Pankaj Mishra reveals the origins of his own career as a writer...

Paul Elie: I tried to give a personal sketch of my book’s origins akin to the sketch that is found in your book. Your sketch has a strong sense of “fitness” to it: It seems right, and even inevitable, that you followed the path you did: going away from the city, away from the hothouse of ambition and expectation, and into a place where, out of an ambition of a deeper sort, you could read in the mornings. In a sense yours began as the classic pattern of a sentimental education, then turned into something else: having arrived in a city from your home village, you then pushed onward. The fitness of your account might obscure just how much trouble you had to take to go your own way, and it would be easier for the American reader to assume that what you did is just the sort of thing a young writer in India might do in his twenties, when the truth, I suspect, is quite different. So I wonder if you could tell me more about the roads not taken. Can you suggest the direction your life might have taken had you not gone to the Himalayas, so that I might have a better sense of just how distinctive and hard-won your experience is?

Pankaj Mishra: It may seem obvious to many people here in America, but I am always surprised to see how writing in America or England has become this highly organized activity--almost a kind of mini-industry. There are agents, publishers, and magazines; talent is often quickly recognized and rewarded. This wasn't the case in India when I decided to find a place in the hills and be a writer. There were no agents, no creative writing schools or retreats where talent could be identified and nurtured and exposed to publishing opportunities. There was little institutional support for writing in terms of publishers or magazines hospitable to short stories or pieces of reportage; there were only a handful of bookshops in the major cities. A novel in English priced at $2.50 that sold 2,000 copies was seen as a success. In any case, you couldn't trust most publishers and their royalty statements. Penguin, who really changed the face of English-language publishing in India, were only four-five years old in India when I went to Mashobra; they had a small backlist and gave tiny advances (I got an advance of $125 for my first book, a travel book).

Now I had decided very early on, in my early teens, that I wanted to be a writer. It was a strange ambition for someone from my small-town background. My parents, who were Hindu and high-caste but not well to do at all, had sent me to a provincial university because it had the reputation for training people to aspire in government jobs. When I went to a much better university in Delhi, it was not much different, in the sense that most students were there to get into jobs of some sort or other. No one I knew wanted to be a writer. I knew few writers, mostly poets, and all of them had day jobs as academics or journalists; no one I knew made a living as a fulltime writer. The Indian writers in English that I knew of--Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth--had studied at Oxford and Cambridge and now lived abroad, addressing large metropolitan audiences in the West, and also a small but loyal audience in India. But they seemed very remote and inaccessible to me. Generally, Indian writing in English was and has largely remained an elite preoccupation--not only because the well-off in a mostly poor country have more leisure to read and write but also because you can learn to write good English prose only in elite schools and colleges. (There are a few exceptions of course but they tend to prove the rule.)

All this makes my decision to move from Delhi and to live in a Himalayan village seem reckless. But I had only one other option while I was spending my parents' hard-earned money at university in Delhi, which was to do what everyone around me was doing: get a half way decent job and then think about writing. I did not even want to think about this for a second, and I guess I liked very much from the very beginning the small basic life I had in Mashobra. Above all the anxiety of how I was going to survive, what I was going to write about, there was the exhilarating freedom of the freelance writer's life. I remember my time in Mashobra as a time of naivety, ignorance, foolishness, but also as a time of great happiness. Reading in the morning of course, and also watching the light change on the hills, listening to music, taking walks through the nearby forest. And it was there, in the early 90's, that I began to think about writing a book on the Buddha--not out of any great curiosity or interest in the Buddha but out of a simple ambition to get started as a writer, and to write my first book with (preferably) a worthy subject.

Location played a role--just as it did for you, living in New York, passing the places your subjects had known. I traveled a great deal in the areas bordering Tibet where a form of Buddhism had survived. And the discovery of the Buddha for me was in many ways a personal discovery of India, particularly North India, where I had spent much of my life, and about whose old civilization I knew little or was dismissive about.

April 05, 2005

Author2Author: Pankaj Mishra & Paul Elie, pt. 1

I'd seen Pankaj Mishra talk about An End to Suffering back in January, and I was anxious to hear more about his exploration of the Buddha's life and continued relevance in an Author2Author conversation. So I ran the idea by his publicist, who suggested pairing Mishra up with Paul Elie, the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own. I was thrilled, because I loved Elie's study of the life and works of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy, and I was curious to see what would happen when their perspectives on contemporary spirituality came together. I wasn't disappointed, and I'm certain you won't be, either.

pankajmishra.jpgPankaj Mishra: Paul, I have always been curious about how writers alight upon their subjects and in your case, I wonder: How did a writer and intellectual, living in a largely secular and metropolitan world where any hint of religious or spiritual affinities usually provokes disbelief if not scorn and pity, get interested enough in these four Catholic figures to attempt an interconnected narrative about their lives? Where did you first learn of them or begin to see their lives as tracing a particular journey through the modern world? I ask this probably because I had to overcome a great deal of inhibitions, a lot of reflexive secular prejudice against religion, before deciding to write about the Buddha.

paulelie.jpgPaul Elie: As you know, my book’s subtitle is "An American Pilgrimage," and the short answer to your question is that the book is in important ways the fruit of my own pilgrimage, which is bound up with the pilgrimage of the four writers the book describes. Like you, I have always sought from books, for whatever reasons, not just superior amusement, or information, or edification in the strict sense, but what Nietzsche, speaking of history in the passage you made your epigraph, described as knowledge “for the sake of life and action.” I think the initial appeal of those four Catholic writers lay in this--in the frankness of their assumption that literature might serve as a guide to life, or at least might speak to the great questions of our individual lives, and in the power of their work to suggest the possibility of some answers. Though I had been raised a Catholic, I had grown up in the postwar suburbs, where Catholicism’s history, like that of India in your account, is scanty and “largely unrecorded.” My encounters at Fordham, a Jesuit university in the Bronx, with Flannery O’Connor’s pointed dramas of outsized religious crisis, and then with Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, were an opening at once to the larger history of Catholicism and to the pressure that it at its best brings to the questions of our lives.

Whereas you went to a Himalayan village after university and began to write travel articles--and to ponder a novel about the Buddha--I went to work in an office building over Grand Central Station and began to write features about the television business. It was unfulfilling work to say the least. After hours, I was more or less alone in the city--no less so, to be honest, than you were in Mashobra. In those circumstances, I read certain writers with a great hunger: O’Connor and Merton, yes, but also Dorothy Day, the foundress of the Catholic Worker movement, which has fed, sheltered, and kept company with the poor for seventy years, taking a stand for peace and against war all the while. I was struck by the fact that these writers’ lives had unfolded in the very city where I was now living--that Merton and Day had been a “dangling man” and “wayward woman” on these very blocks half a century earlier. Even Flannery O’Connor, so distinctly southern a writer, had spent a few months living on upper Broadway, visiting the Cloisters, and so forth, measuring the distance between Manhattan and rural Georgia in every sentence of Wise Blood.

This factual coincidence of their lives and mine, so obvious in retrospect, came as a great surprise, akin to your surprise that the founder of Buddhism, arguably the greatest Indian who ever lived, had lived in the same places you had lived in. It was as if the reality of their presence in New York once upon a time served as evidence of the reality of the religious experience they described. I’d say that it was this coincidence that led me to identify with those writers. At first I followed in their footsteps in the ways their books rightly invite the reader to do. I spent Saturdays one Lent serving soup “on the line” at St. Joseph’s House, the Catholic Worker house of hospitality on East First Street. But identification turned into over-identification, as I read my own life, such as it was, through the screen of their writing: I wandered through an exhibit of Merton’s correspondence at Columbia like a secret sharer, an initiate into the mysteries of his life.

There came a point when I realized that I knew those writers’ thoughts better than I knew my own, and that I was burying my unbelief in their belief, or more precisely effacing my ill-formed belief in their searching and articulate accounts of conversion and suchlike. It was at that point, I suppose, as I drew near to my thirtieth birthday--the day of reckoning for Binx Bolling in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer--that I determined to write a book about them: either to write my way out from under them or in some sense to make them my own.