Saturday, December 18, 2004

the techno-warrior Posted by Hello
A Terrible Love of War
by James Hillman

reviewed by William S. Kowinski in the San Francisco Chronicle
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2004

Now in his 80s, James Hillman notes in the first of his interpolated personal commentaries in this volume: "Strange indeed that what I'm assuming to be my last book should land on the shores of this theme..." Strange but perhaps fated, for this uncompromising examination of war arrives as portraits of flag-draped coffins and images of young Americans abusing captives in Saddam's torture prison hover over its pages. They illustrate the gripping mythic power of war that Hillman insists we recognize and acknowledge.

"James Hillman is an artist of psychology," Thomas Moore writes in his still indispensable Prologue to A Blue Fire, his 1989 selection of Hillman's early writings. " He turns upside down many ideas people hold dear and unreflected. After an hour with Hillman's writing, a reader might feel himself twisting and turning in the wind." In the cruel spring of 2004, this reader certainly did.

James Hillman studied with Carl Jung in the 1950s, and wrote prominently on Jungian themes while deconstructing psychoanalysis in the 1970s in such landmark books as The Myth of Analysis and Re-Visioning Psychology. His "archetypal psychology" and re-imagined concept of soul, soon resonated with artists and others outside his first audiences of professional therapists.

By the 1980s, Hillman engaged in book-length dialogues with Italian journalist Laura Pozzo (Inter/Views) and Los Angeles writer Michael Ventura (We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse.) After A Blue Fire and a collaboration on men's poetry with Robert Bly and Michael Meade (The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart), he went public in a big way beginning in the 1990s with Kinds of Power (addressing the psychology of business) and his best-sellers, The Soul's Code and The Force of Character.

This book is perhaps his most accessible, and therefore his most devastating. Hillman has never been one for therapeutic bromides or blanket comfort. He has counterbalanced the usual emphasis on spiritual growth, hope and happiness with a call to experience the soul's depths of complexity, limitation, loss, patience and relationship with death. Soul confronts what ego would like to deny.

For instance, the reality---and normality---of war. It is with us every hour now, but even in the supposedly placid 1990s, something like 6 million people died in at least 14 wars. More than 60 million were killed in the 20th century's wars. For every year of recorded human history there have been at least two wars. This is not a pretty picture of humanity but to avoid it entirely leads to such products of denial as neglecting to confront the damage that ruins the lives of many returning soldiers. The "failure of imagination" we heard about concerning 9-11 (and have heard long enough to be noted in this book) is a failure to painfully apply imagination to the nature of war, so our stupidity masked as innocence leads us into avoidable repetitions of mass killing.

But reader beware: there is nothing pacifist about Hillman's approach. He says war is normal, not just usual. He says it is inhuman, but not just for its horrors---it is inhuman as are the gods, even if their autonomy resides in our psyches. War is not just the province of Mars but of Venus, so war has its sublime beauty and love. This book's title is not rhetorical-the subject is the terrible love of war. "Because war reveals our being, we are brutal and insane in action," he writes, "and we are ethical and loving in essence."

Hillman agrees with political philosophers who say war is inherent in the existence of states. His most aggressively presented theme is that war is a result of the either/or of monotheistic religions. Polytheism (not as literal belief but as a way of exploring the human soul and the soul of the world) shows us the complexity of shadings, relationships and contained contraries. One of his more startling illustrations is a Homeric Hymn to the Greek god of war that ends, "give me courage,/let me linger/in the safe laws of peace..."

Our task, he writes, is to dig "below the blanket of hypocrisies" and stop blaming the beliefs of others, especially when the inflammatory clerics and history of religious warfare we decry are mirrored in our own. "Psychoanalysis has moved civilization to where it must do what its patients do: take back easy blame from out there in search of the more difficult blame in here."

At times Hillman's concluding pages sound as bleak as the despairing H.G. Wells in his last book, Mind At the End of Its Tether. But he dares to make a case for beauty and the complexities of culture as a necessary counterbalance even more strongly than the case for consciousness that Jungian Anthony Stevens shapes in his new book on war and terrorism. And while Hillman states starkly that "There is no practical solution to war because war is not a problem for the practical mind..." he also says that recognizing "War belongs to our souls as an archetypal truth of the cosmos" may help us focus more effectively on preventing war's bloody enactment in the world. "We may understand it better, delay it longer, and work to wean war from its support in hypocritical religion."

Hillman can be a seductive writer. Living now in Wallace Stevens' Connecticut, Hillman's voice on a recent audiobook sounds eerily like Stevens', and there are lines of his prose that could easily be slipped into certain Stevens' poems, and vice versa. But this book presents more of his provocative side, and much more of his intriguing personal history than he's shown before. Its' a skillfully constructed tour de force with more virtues than omissions. It took a warrior courage to publish it, and it will take warrior courage to absorb it. But without either endorsing or denying all its conclusions, this reader can recommend it as important reading for our time, as we try to make sense of its terrors.

A Terrible Love of War by James Hillman (The Penguin Press; 256 pages, $23.95.)

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Maxine Hong Kingston Posted by Hello
Now in paperback
The Fifth Book of Peace
By Maxine Hong Kingston
Vintage $14.95

Notice the quote on the front cover of this book's paperback edition? It's from the following review which appeared originally in the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Book Review.

by William Severini Kowinski

Maxine Hong Kingston's long-awaited new book combines fiction and memoir in a "tour de force"--or more appropriately, a "tour de paix"--- that's full of thought and feeling, with interweaving themes and literary layers to keep her Berkeley students busy, and wonderful reading for us all.

As far back as her late 1980s interview with Bill Moyers, Kingston talked about re-imagining the contents of ancient China's three Books of Peace, instructions on how to avoid war and induce tranquility, which according to legend were all deliberately burned by incoming emperors. She also planned to follow the further adventures of Wittman Ah Sing, protagonist of her novel, Tripmaster Monkey, during the Viet Nam war. She combined these intentions in 156 pages she spent two years writing, the beginning of a fourth Book of Peace.

But then in 1991 came the devastating fire in the Berkeley-Oakland hills that destroyed her home and turned her manuscript to ashes: the fourth book of peace had suffered the fate of the first three. And so her new book, The Fifth Book of Peace, begins with a section called "Fire."She was returning from "the red ceremony," a family memorial for her recently deceased father, in which the living fend off the temptation to join the black and white world of the dead by wearing red; by displaying vibrance. Then she was walking in the ash-blackened and heat-scorched white landscape that had been her neighborhood, where the only color left was the red of flame.

Starting with a fiery disaster is a dramatic way to begin a book, and by documenting her sense impressions, thoughts, feelings and encounters with others in the fire zone, Kingston produces a mesmerizing description of an event creating its own fatal landscape, both stark and hallucinatory. But it is also a thematic initiation: before they get to peace, many have gone through fire.

The devastation is itself an object lesson. Kingston quotes an Oakland fire captain and Viet Nam vet who looked down from a helicopter on the melted phantoms of beloved neighborhoods and cautioned, "When we decide to send our military and our bombs into a country, this is what we're deciding to do." (He's quoted again, applying this observation to 9/11 in the book's epilogue.)

The next section, "Paper," is about the Books of Peace, and about books, writing, words and storytelling; paper is the human element. These sections are memoir as in "The Woman Warrior" and "China Men," though more weighted to contemporary America. "Water" is the re-written remnant of the intended earlier book, a fiction following Wittman, his wife and young son to Hawaii where he hides from the Vietnam era draft.

If "Tripmaster Monkey" is discursive, hermetic and Whitmanesque in its frenetic energies, this tale is more descriptive, economical and open, imbued with the magic of discovery, of first times. In its depiction of young war resisters from within the military, it is both generous and accurate to the era. If asked for prose that reflects the realities of the Viet Nam 60s in America, I'd have no hesitation in recommending these pages. There's also memorable writing, like the description of two men walking: "The small soldier and the tall soldier walked the same way; they made their shoulders big, and moved shoulders and feet in rhythm, one side of the body at a step."

The last section, "Earth," is a reportorial and collaborative account of writing and meditation workshops Kingston held in the mid 90s with war veterans---mostly Viet Nam vets (including civilian women), but also World War II Americans and veterans of other armies and wars. Again she brings her considerable skills to describing the emotionally ragged process that leads to a series of dramatic and revelatory moments, including several of reconciliation and even peace.

The war veterans find their way back to community through honest saying and story. There are countless little jewels to admire glittering on the path throughout this book, such as a different ending for the woman warrior tale, and the true account of how Thich Nhat Hanh invented the Hugging Meditation.The relevance of all this to our current moment, as we revisit in Iraq the slowly unfolding horrors of quagmire, gives these journeys a particular resonance.

But the issues and emotions of war and peace are always with us, and this book does a service for all seasons. The author doesn't back off from uncomfortable observations, such as the vets' willingness to forgive Vietnamese enemies but not American war protestors. Liberation through self-expression turns out to be not enough; some shadow work is also indicated. But others must write more books of peace to follow this inspirational example. For now, we have this marvelous opus to talk story to us on all our roads to peace.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Max Ernst, Apres moi le Sommeil (1958), tribute to Paul Eluard Posted by Hello

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Ghost Ships: A Surrealist Love Triangle
by Robert McNab
Yale University Press. 266 pages, $40.

In the fabled Paris of the 1920s, the poet Paul Eluard was a leader of the Surrealists. His wife was a woman of Russian extraction everyone called Gala. When the young artist Max Ernst arrived from Germany, he and Eluard became friends and collaborators on artistic projects (most of Eluard's books of poetry included art by Ernst.) Their friendship was deepened by the knowledge that they had faced each other anonymously across the battlefield in specific battles of the Great War they both detested. But then Gala and Max Ernst became entangled in a sexual affair, and for awhile the three shared the same house, while Gala shared and was shared by the two men.

If this sounds like the plot of Truffaut's "Jules and Jim," right down to the historical period, it almost is. Truffaut's film is based on an autobiographical novel by Henre-Pierre Roche, whose own triangle was separated from this triangle by one degree: they all had friends in common, notably the Surrealist Marcel Duchamp.

But then apparently agitated by the prospect of losing Gala as well as other aspects of his life, Paul Eluard suddenly disappeared from Paris, launching himself on a journey that would take him to Saigon, where Ernst and Gala would meet him. After their reunion, Ernst was the odd man out as Eluard and Gala left together to give their marriage a final try. It didn't work. Gala left both men behind, and soon began her most famous and tumultuous relationship with Salvador Dali, which ended with them both at advanced age, hitting each other with walking sticks in public. Both men married other women, and through years of active friendship and periods of estrangement, they remained deeply loyal. When Ernst was imprisoned in a French concentration camp at the start of World War II, Eluard's influence got him out. When Eluard died, Ernst produced one of his most luminous paintings as a memorial.

Though this story winds through it, this book centers on that voyage to what was then Indochina and its subsequent influence, particularly on Ernst's art. It required detective work by author Robert McNab, a documentary filmmaker, for until now little was known about this journey, and art historians hadn't examined Ernst's art with it in mind.

So while McNab's description of the triangle is pretty clinical and attenuated (in particular Gala's attraction remains a mystery, except that it apparently had a lot to do with sexual performance), the heart of this book is in carefully linking a number of Max Ernst's artworks to the particulars of these voyages.

McNab insists on the historical context of this travel, in a particular and brief period when long sea voyages on huge steamships were accessible in a way we're now used to, but were different in ways we are not. The differences were in the time they took, and the few ships involved at the beginning of what would be the tourist age. This resulted in long, isolated periods in the open sea with no other contact.

The most impressive sight at the end of this voyage was Angkor Wat, the ruins of a lost city discovered in the ever-encroaching jungle. McNab describes how a trip there would go at the time, and what visitors would see. It was still a remote site, but reachable by ship or a two-day drive by car. There was one hotel, where visitors were advised to sleep through the intense heat of midday, and approach the ruins at six p.m. Though the jungle was still an imposing presence, a winding road had been built so visitors could see major sites with relative ease and speed.

According to McNab, Eluard left Indochina with new political fervor, having seen the oppressions of the French colonial regime. Though Ernst agreed politically, he was more haunted by the images of powerful and implacable nature, overwhelming human pretensions. In the lush and unfamiliar plants and animals as well as the exotic, ornate temples decaying in fierce and dazzling light, he saw surrealism come alive, and it stimulated both his outer and inner eye.

McNab's careful analysis is accompanied by dazzling reproductions of some of Ernst's most haunting works. Ernst produced a lot of varied art in his long lifetime, so most surveys can show a small portion, but these certainly deserve the extended treatment they receive here. Several paintings are reproduced opposite photographs of scenes that might have inspired them. So more despite the story of the triangle than because of it, this is a very satisfying book. I enjoyed it and learned a lot, too. I suspect it is so carefully researched and written that it will become a standard work for scholars, as well as a resource and a pleasure for students and other readers.

Besides artists and scholars, the readership for this book I suspect is comprised of people like me, who are fascinated with the arts and artists of this period and these places: western Europe and particularly Paris for the first thirty or so years of the twentieth century. Attracted by the giant romantic figures of Picasso in art and Joyce in literature perhaps, or the presence of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, we hungrily turn our attention to each of the many others like Ernst and Eluard whose major accomplishments and fascinating stories continue the revelations and discoveries in this incredibly rich and seemingly inexhaustible milieu.

My own interest, begun in college and even more intense in my early 20s on account of the mixture of art and political activism in the period, was suddenly made more personal by two more or less simultaneous discoveries. In one or another of the books I devoured in my old and barely maintained apartment in the unfashionable east side of Cambridge, I saw reference to a woman artist, said to be the only American and only woman artist in the Paris surrealist group. She was Dorothea Tanning, born and bred in Galesburg, Illinois, the quintessential middle American rural Midwestern town where I had gone to college.

A painter and writer still alive and working in New York (she had a poem in a recent New Yorker), Tanning married Max Ernst and shared the rest of his very productive career. Her beautifully written autobiographical books link those common Galesburg streets to this surrealistic life that included so many famous people whose accomplishments (well beyond the 1930s) formed the imaginative environment of our time. Plus I like her painting a great deal, and in her book Between Lives: An Artist and Her World (Norton), she offers a necessary corrective to this period, from the point of view of a woman and a wife whose own work was considered subsidiary.

The hint of an even more evocative connection came from another book, which mentioned the Italian Futurists and their representative in Paris, the painter Gino Severini. Severini is my mother's family name, and I soon learned from my grandmother that there is a good chance I am related by blood (though perhaps distantly) to a man who was at the center of everything happening in Paris during these decades. I learned about his associations from various fragmentary sources, until Severini's own autobiographical works were translated into English and published as Gino Severini: The Life of a Painter in 1986 by Princeton University Press. (Gino Severini died in 1966, the same year as Ignazio Severini, my grandfather.)

These closer degrees of separation added an unexpected texture, a different kind of grounding, to my interest, and helped keep it alive, even as my relationship to the art shifted---deepening here, becoming less involving there. I wonder how many others who are fascinated with this era have discovered something in their lives that connects them to it. A book that explores the relationship of life to art in the lives of artists reminds us that such complex interpenetrations and expressions of inner and outer life are also at work (and at play) in what attracts readers to read about them.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

No, it's not Egyptian or Mayan. This ancient magical cat effigy was found in southern Florida. From 'Hero, Hawk and Open Hand" Posted by Hello
HERO, HAWK AND OPEN HAND: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South
edited by Richard F. Townsend. Yale University Press, in Association with the Art Institute of Chicago. 288 pages, 9x12. cloth $60, paper $34.95.

The sheer number of gorgeous images in this book is breathtaking. But for many readers I suspect the most astonishing image might be a fairly simple one on page 17: a rendering of a orderly semicircle of structures facing a river, it is a city in Louisiana----in 1500 B.C. This book reveals Native American civilizations rivaling what we know of the Maya and Inca, but in the heartland of North America.

In the south and Midwest a series of sophisticated cultures left behind artifacts and even structures that we are just now beginning to study and understand. For example, the Hopewell site in Ohio, where "the most dramatic" sacred structures were "geometric in form and combined circular, oval, square, octagonal, or other elements in compositions covering hundreds of acres."

The artistry of the artifacts presented here is amazing, and this book has a generous selection of large, excellent photographs. But the prose is equally good: intelligent but intelligible, often with an interesting narrative. Even the occasional semiotic language is used as vocabulary rather than jargon. (In addition to editor Townsend, there are essays by 18 other scholars.)

Not only does this book explore so much about these next-to-unknown cultures, but it provides an exemplary context of explaining a worldview shared by many Native cultures and peoples. So it is a terrific introduction to Native cultures of the past and the present, and why these cultures are particularly important to explore now.

Although this is a scholarly presentation based on a traveling art exhibit, it is pretty graceful about integrating contemporary Native views and information. It's only in recent years that scholars have taken the testimony of contemporary Native Americans about their own culture as seriously as they take their own theories about old artifacts that survived.

For all of these reasons I count this book as instantly one of my most treasured.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer
by Peter Turchi
Trinity University Press 242 pages, $24.95.

During the 2004 election, the TV networks featured their maps of America: the few blue states surrounding the wide field of red states. But afterwards there were other versions flooding the Internet. Weighted according to population, the blue states swelled and curved around the shrunken center of red. Maps of color-coded counties showed a panorama of red cut with shards of blue. But coding according to precinct and proportioned by population produced thin stripes and swirls of red and blue across the map.

One website put side by side a map of the blue and red states, and a map of the free and slave states: a close match. And in my email I found a map of North America that linked the blue states with "our neighbor to the north" to produce the new nation of the United States of Canada, edging and topping a broad red plain dubbed Jesusland.

Maps tell stories, which is more or less the starting point for Peter Turchi's meditations on the manifold relationship of maps and mapmaking with books and writing. Turchi teaches writing and he knows the literature that tends to interest writers. But non-writers can profit by his ruminations as well, especially readers looking for ways to consider revered authors who work in less conventionally naturalistic forms.

In a way, this book confounds the Gregory Bateson dictim that the map is not the territory. In this case, the map is quite a journey. For example, Turchi notes that in Arctic Dreams, a book by Barry Lopez, there is a map of the Alaska coast drawn by a Native American fisherman. "The product of years of mental mapmaking, the map shows the coast as seen from above---that is, it offers a view the fisherman had never seen---yet the map is extraordinarily accurate." The map is a mental construct, based on experience of the senses. This suggests what the Italian writer, Italo Calvino, noted about reading the great Argentine writer, Jose Luis Borges: that while much of 20th century writing attempts to express the chaotic flow of existence, Borges represents another tendency (which Calvino would himself explore) of imposing a mental order---"a rigorous geometry"--- on that chaos. This leads Turchi to a consideration of Borges, Nabokov, and the games of Risk, Monopoly and chess, ending this relatively brief section with an analysis of Roadrunner cartoons.

Besides the fine and lively prose, there are wonderful maps and other well-chosen illustrations. Physically this is an unusually handsome book, with comfortably thick and well-bound pages, and an attractive typeface and layout. It even feels good and well-balanced in the hand. These are not minor virtues, especially when combined with this text. For this is a book to savor, to explore, to hold and to keep.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Man of Steel, Men of Tomorrow Posted by Hello
Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book
By Gerard Jones
Basic Books, 320 pages, $26.

Gerald Jones, himself a sometimes comic book and superhero screenwriter, describes the real origins of Superman and other superheroes in the gritty urban streets of the 1930s. In this mostly chronological narrative, we follow high school collaborators Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, who created Superman and the superheroes who reemerged in recent years to dominate the box office.

Jones also profiles Bob Kane of Batman fame (portrayed as a less than admirable figure) and Stan Lee, impresario of the Marvel superheroes, like Spider-Man and the Hulk.

But this is not a gee-whiz comic book portrayal, or a series of personality profiles. This is rich cultural history brought to life. By following these characters, readers will learn as much about Prohibition and the Depression, and what it was like for immigrants scrapping to make it in the teeming cities. Perhaps among the surprises is the involvement of gangsters in the success of the crime-fighting superheroes.

Jones shows how the superheroes established the comic book in American culture, as a kind of combination of several genres: the daily newspaper comic strips (so popular and important in immigrant life---as well as a way that they learned English), and the similarly popular crime and science fiction pulp magazines.

This book's publicity calls it "A real-life Kavalier and Clay." I read it just after reading that Michael Chabon novel, and though this non-fiction book is mostly about a different era, it also tells an engrossing story very well. I was also impressed by the author's care in telling what is known, what is generally believed but doesn't quite check out, and what is still speculation.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Native Universe: Voices of Indian America
Edited by Gerald McMaster and Clifford Trafzer
National Museum of the American Indian/National Geographic
320 pages;$40

In 2002, when Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington became the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to orbit the earth, he carried aboard the shuttle Endeavour a Hopi ceramic pot with a traditional corn motif. It was made by a contemporary Hopi artist and mechanical engineer, Al Qoyawayma, who has also patented internal guidance systems.

This is the new American Indian reality that this book portrays. It's the inaugural volume celebrating the opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington this fall, and its themes corresponds to the those of the first exhibition: "Our Universes," "Our Peoples," "Our Lives." Essays and poems by John Mohawk, N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, Wilma Mankiller, Linda Hogan, Victor Montejo, Sherman Alexie and others, plus historical photos and documents, provide context for lavish and evocative photographs of ancient and contemporary art and artifacts.

The presence of the past and the power of the timeless in the world of time that characterize Indian America are illustrated here in many ways. So essays on the political and cultural importance of the Alcatraz occupation coexist with a description of the Navajo First Laugh Ceremony. Yet this volume reminds us that the oldest cultures on the continent are still the least understood.

Perhaps the new National Museum, largely designed and administered by American Indians, will play a leading role in changing that. Then perhaps Allan Houser, for example, will finally be considered a great American sculptor, instead of solely a prominent Indian sculptor. And the important American tribal stories, so different in important ways from European myth, may be absorbed into our common cultural cornucopia, equal to the tales of Greece and Iceland. If so, this volume may also contribute, by attracting attention to the Museum, and enlarging upon the experience of travelers when they return home. It is also ably edited to perform that role on its own.

Monday, June 21, 2004

The Future (in 1939) Posted by Hello

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Writing the Future
reviewed by William S. Kowinski

Writing the Future
Progress and Evolution
Edited by David Rothenberg and Wandee J. Pryor

Our concepts of evolution, progress and the future all emerged from the same 19th century crucible. This anthology of essays plus some poems and pictures addresses questions they raise for us today, in science, culture and everyday experience. But it does so, as the title implies, through the revelations of the writing process, focused in one way or another on the natural world. Even the best collections are usually either good reading or incisive treatments of an important and neglected subject. This anthology is both.

There's plenty of variety in treatment and subject matter--- the scientific, metaphysical and metaphorical concepts flashing by in Dorion Sagan and Jessica Whiteside's aptly named essay, "Prismatic Progress," Valerie Hurley's memoir of ordinary life in the invisible shadow of nuclear weapons, Floyd Skloot's riveting tale of a son's dance with destiny in the living mythology wrought by ESPN and the NBA--- but the book leaves an overall impression of important matters approached with passion and humility. Even the essays centered on philosophical and historical concerns are generally grounded in place and time, and the writer's own life.

While the technological future of speeding into the unknown is explored in Joan Maloof's exegesis on Deevolution and Transhumanism and Kevin Warwick's startling account of joyfully turning himself into a cyborg, the growing recognition for the need to also include the pace of ancient wisdom is acknowledged in Stephen Miles Uzzo's evocation of knowledge lost forever as Native American petroglyphs and the elders who study them disappear, Carolynne Baker's description of a city's evolution in Vietnam, Andy Couturier's portrait of a Japanese artisan whose teacher is a Tibetan monk, and Richard Norgaard's essay on coevolution.

The work in this volume is of such high quality that it's unfair to name only a few authors, but I will: the essays by Theodore Roszak, Leslie Van Gelder, Kristjana Gunnars and David Petersen are especially outstanding, as are the poems by Ricardo Pau-Llosa, John Canaday and the verse by Buckminster Fuller that ends the volume perfectly. The editors have organized and orchestrated a book that will delight the reader racing through it or savoring it a little at a time, and it will certainly repay return visits. Well-framed by the editors' introduction, this exemplary anthology explores but does not exhaust its subject, while it rewards but does not exhaust its readers.

A shorter version of this review appears in the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review of June 20, 2004.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Bill Moyers Posted by Hello

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Moyers On America: A Journalist and His Times by Bill Moyers

by William S. Kowinski

After a half century of journalism, Bill Moyers is retiring at year's end. There has been no other broadcast journalist like him, and unfortunately it's unlikely there will be again. American television journalism does a notoriously poor job covering the arts, culture, science, humanities---in fact, ideas of any kind, and certainly of any complexity. Yet Bill Moyers was perfectly comfortable questioning Senators, foreign diplomats, and philosopher Martha Nussbaum, playwright August Wilson, and physicist Murray Gell-Man. His interviews with Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly changed the cultural landscape, and just last year his coverage helped stir public outrage which stopped (or at least slowed)the FCC from allowing media conglomerates to absorb even more news outlets.

Moyers made two significant detours in his journalistic journey: an early stint at a Baptist seminary, and several years working in the White House for the man who'd given him his first broadcast journalism job at a tiny Texas station, Lyndon Johnson. The impulse that led to each, and the experience gained, gave his journalism a rare richness. Viewers responded to his integrity and authenticity, and the courage behind the smile---also rare. All of these are on display in this collection taken from talks and commentaries, along with historical perspective and informal reminiscence too informative and entertaining for prime time.

Moyers'words in this book on the dangerous trends of celebrity journalism and conglomerate control should be required reading for young journalists, if not all citizens. His evaluations of his private and public past will be equally useful and inspiring to readers who have grown up with him. This is a penetrating yet companionable volume, from an exemplary journalist who says he still believes, and still doubts.

Moyers On America: A Journalist and His Times by Bill Moyers (The New Press; 204 pages,$34.95.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The Dalai Lama Posted by Hello

Monday, April 12, 2004

Dependent Arising: The Dalai Lama and the Scientists

by William S. Kowinski

The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama
Edited and narrated by Arthur Zajonc

Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama
narrated by Daniel Goleman
BANTAM paperback; 448 PAGES; $16.

Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature

edited by Richard J. Davidson & Anne Harrington

Healing Emotions: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions and Health

Edited by Daniel Goleman
SHAMBHALA, 2003; 277 PAGES; $15.95

Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama
Edited and narrated by Francisco J. Varela

Consciousness at the Crossroads: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Brain Science and Buddhism
Edited by Zara Houshmand, Robert B. Livingston and B. Alan Wallace
SNOW LION,1999; 183 PAGES; $15.95

Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind
Edited by Jeremy Hayward & Francisco Varela
SHAMBHALA, 2001; 272 PAGES; $17.95

When Charles Darwin proposed the crowning scientific theory of the 19th century, a wide public understood enough of it to passionately debate evolution and natural selection. But not even physicists today fully understand the similarly significant theories of quantum mechanics, first proposed early in the 20th century. With western scientific thought apparently at its limits, a group of scientists recently looked for help from a man who, until he was a teenager, believed the world was flat.

The resulting dialogue between Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, several other Buddhist scholars, and a group of western physicists and philosophers (including Tu Weiming, formerly of UC Berkeley) provides the substance and the narrative energy of physicist Arthur Zajonc's graceful and insightful new book.

This five-day conference at the Dalai Lama's compound in Dharamsala, India in 1997 was not the first or last of these conclaves. Since they began a decade earlier, there have been 11 discussions convened by the organization created to arrange them, the Mind and Life Institute. Seven books have resulted so far (though video DVDs of the most recent conference, at MIT in Cambridge last fall, are available from

These are not the only books that have emerged from discussions between the Dalai Lama and western scientists (others include Worlds in Harmony from Berkeley's Parallax Press, and MindScience: An East-West Dialogue from Wisdom Publications) but the Mind and Life series is itself a kind of story, of continuing and fascinating cross-cultural collaboration---even a kind of convergence---on subjects suddenly of common importance.

Most of the conferences didn't deal with physics. They began with the mind. Though largely self-educated in western science, the Dalai Lama expressed keen interest in new developments in brain sciences and related fields, to test his belief that ethical behavior is inherent in human nature, and can be nurtured without reference to any religious doctrine. As leader of Tibetan Buddhism, he was also intrigued by what western science had to say on workings of the mind that Buddhist scholars and advanced meditation practitioners had been exploring for several thousand years.

At the same time, neuroscientists using new technologies were challenging old assumptions about the relationship of brain and body. Psychologists were trying to account for abilities to change physical states (such as body temperature) as specifically demonstrated by individuals adept at meditation, when such influences on the body by the mind was thought impossible. Western science had emphasized external influences, and was just beginning to investigate human life from the inside. So in various disciplines loosely grouped as mind sciences, some scientists were eager to experiment with more advanced meditation subjects, and they were ready to hear new points of view.

These attractive and carefully edited books chronicle this unique journey, though each is also self-contained. Gentle Bridges impressed me as a kind of crash course in contemporary mind sciences, while Consciousness at the Crossroads most eloquently explicates Buddhist thought, particularly in Alan Wallace's afterword. Healing Emotions and Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying delves into research in those subjects and pertinent Buddhist thought, while Visions of Compassion investigates the growing scientific interest in altruism, empathy and the psychology of violence. These all turn out to be at the cutting edge of science in these decades.

The mood of the early conferences seemed eager but uncertain, with the scientists especially amazed by the Dalai Lama's scientific mind. Scientists exclaiming that his questions anticipate their next area of research, or otherwise demonstrate remarkable analytical acuity, is a recurring theme throughout these books. The Dalai Lama often repeats that if science can prove a Buddhist assumption wrong, it should be discarded. Trust is established as the Buddhists find the scientists both forthright and respectful, and the scientists appreciate the sophistication of Buddhist thought, which is based on rigorous training in logical debate as well as introspection. As Alan Watts noted elsewhere, "Buddhism is absolutely, fundamentally a dialogue."

While personalities percolate more obviously on video, they manifest in print as well: in questions, quick exchanges and presentations of doggedly systematic, briskly trenchant and passionately eloquent character. These dialogues had to navigate deeply different assumptions (just the differences between Buddhist enlightenment and the European Enlightenment is revealing), but the findings and methods of each tradition illuminate the other, so for readers these books become an education in both.

By the conference in 2000, the subject of Destructive Emotions, scientists were collaborating with Tibetan Buddhists in designing and conducting new laboratory experiments involving skills of advanced meditators to influence activities of mind measurable in the brain, and in designing educational programs on emotional literacy. Some scientists took their own research in new directions partly as a result of these dialogues. (Participants from the Bay Area include UC Berkeley psychologist Eleanor Rosch, UC San Francisco psychologist Paul Ekman, psychologist Jeanne Tsai and professor of religion Lee Yearly of Stanford.)

Along with Daniel Goleman's Destructive Emotions and Francisco Varela's Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying,Arthur Zajonc's New Physics provides narrative that suggests the dramatic quality of the dialogues as well as the emotional impact of the conference experience. Physics became a topic partly because of the Dalai Lama's curiosity, but western scientists had their own reasons. Because quantum physics implies an apparently determining role for the human mind on the phenomena observed, it shatters western notions of objective reality. Tibetan Buddhism has been investigating the correlations of thought and reality for centuries. The nuanced Buddhist ideas of "dependent arising," which explore relationships of perception, expectations and reality, were particularly intriguing to both physicists and mind scientists.

The physics dialogue didn't create a new way of understanding quantum reality, but did suggest a path to it. The new physics and mind science both lead quickly to questions once considered the sole province of spirituality, and also to other traditions---not only to Buddhism, but as Tu Weiming points out, to indigenous thought such as "Hawaiian, Maori, and Native American." "I think the time is ripe for imagining a new kind of education," he asserts. "It is highly desirable, maybe even necessary, that this new education integrates the self-cultivation of the Buddhist and other traditions...It will enhance the communal, critical self-awareness of some of the most creative and reflective members of the scientific community. This is absolutely necessary for a new breakthrough."

For the Dalai Lama, the emphasis on the human mind's profound role in reality has an ethical dimension. "Therefore, the future of humanity is in the hands of humanity itself," he says, concluding the physics dialogue. "We have the responsibility to create a better world, a happier world, and a more peaceful world." These books illuminate just how deep, common and unavoidable a responsibility that is, even if we don't believe it.

crash course in science and mind

Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind
Edited by Jeremy Hayward & Francisco Varela
SHAMBHALA, 2001; 272 PAGES; $17.95

Readers shouldn't think this book is of interest only to Buddhist adherents of any school. In a series of presentations and dialogues, contemporary scientists---Newcomb Greenleaf, mathematician and artificial intelligence researcher; physicist Jeremy Hayward, neuroscientist Robert Livingston, biochemist Luigi Luisi, cognitive psychologist Eleanor Rosch, and biologist Francisco Varela---present a wonderfully succinct and relevant crash course in contemporary science from its methodologies to its latest findings (as of 1991) and their implications for questions that western science has in common with Tibetan Buddhist thought.

For it turns out that various schools of Tibetan Buddhism have been systematically investigating and building theories about the mind-how it perceives, what knowledge and thinking are, what the relationship of the individual is to common reality---for centuries. So this book reflects a true dialogue, in which western scientists and the Dalai Lama and other Buddhists present each learn from the other.

In fact, several of the scientists comment on how pertinent the Dalai Lama's questions are, often anticipating the next line of research they're going to talk about. "You think like a scientist!" one of them exclaims.

While the Dalai Lama explains the theories and explorations of various Buddhist schools with remarkably easy erudition, the emphasis of material in this book is on western science. This is the first of at least eight books emanating from conferences that the Dalai Lama has hosted with western scientists, on questions of mind. A much fuller presentation of Tibetan Buddhist theories of mind can be found in "Consciousness at the Crossroads," dialogues from the next conference, published by Snow Lion Press. The presentation and dialogue on the recent history of scientific theory pertaining to Darwinian evolution is especially valuable. There's more information about the series at

Personally I like dialogues, perhaps because I'm an aural learner. To me these books are like plays in the mind, about the mind. Some of these scientists know a lot about Buddhism already, while others know very little. But they all seem impressed by the long tradition of Tibetan Buddhists in investigating phenomena of mind, and in developing a sophisticated view of how mind relates to the universe. I'm sure they are heartened as well by the Dalai Lama's attitude that Buddhist doctrine is not dogma, and if science disproves these theories, they ought to be abandoned. But it's clear that western science has much to consider that Buddhist scholars have already thought about in a way more relevant to the most advanced western science than the science of even a few decades ago. Together they may help answer perennial questions about humanity's role in the universe. Maybe even the meaning of life, the universe and everything.