A while back someone posted a link to a list of The 16 Best Dystopian Books of All Time. Naturally the list didn’t suit everyone and comments ensued about how wrong the post writer was and about how everyone else’s choices were so much better. Let’s call that blog Dystopia.
Dystopian fiction is a major genre of political fiction that has in turn influenced many other sub-genres such as science fiction, cyberpunk, magic realism, dark fantasy, crime, mystery, horror, alternate history, psychological thrillers, adventure and action. At times a dystopian tone has also influenced literary fiction particularly when the author writes about life in restrictive regimes. An example would be some of the places visited in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. And non-fiction in terms of diaries, journals or other self-reflective writings can contain elements from real dystopias in which the authors live to personal psychological dystopias which we can all relate to.
A dystopia (from the Ancient Greek δυσ-: bad-, ill- and τόπος: place, landscape) (alternatively, cacotopia,, or anti-utopia) is a vision, of an often futuristic society, which has developed into a negative version of Utopia.
and is characterized by some or all of the following:
- an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government. It often features different kinds of repressive social control systems, a lack or total absence of individual freedoms and expressions and a state of constant warfare or violence.
- a utopian society with at least one fatal flaw,
- fears of the ugly consequences of present-day behavior
- pressure to conform in terms of the requirement to not excel
- represses the intellectuals with particular force
- the concept of religion may be under attack
- the family has been eradicated and continuing efforts are deployed to keep it from reestablishing itself as a social institution
- isolate their characters from all contact with the natural world
- advanced technology is controlled exclusively by the group in power
- populations serve some “higher” purpose than their own
- the governing class as hedonistic and shallow [or] rulers are brutal and dedicated to the point of fanaticism
- the state is in control of the economy [or] big businesses often have far more control over the populace than any kind of government
- (adapted and condensed from Wikipedia)
Dystopias generally emphasize conformity, control, enforced extreme ideals, lack of freedom and contain psychological elements that lead to a sense of claustrophobia, fear and a sense of unreality or disassociation.
There is a long history of dystopian elements in human cultural productions. Many ancient mythologies particularly of a religious nature carry with them lessons that evoke the same sense of fear one realizes when reading a modern dystopian novel. Threats of dystopian punishment landscapes-Hell, Lower Realms such as Avici, or Hades-manage to pique the imaginations of many followers enough that the social controls within religious mythology can be maintained by internal pressure rather than by external forces a lot of the time.
Fairy tales and legends also invoke this response. Yet we seem to be driven to come back to examine dystopian possibilities both in fiction and in real life. Grimm’s Fairy Tales was grim but safely exciting for many children. Kim Jong-il‘s North Korea maybe not so much.
In the non-fiction world [and I may be using that term ironically] there have been and are currently many writers attempting to convey their artistic vision in difficult and even dystopian circumstances. [Check PEN International for more on that]
In the last blog post I wrote about a really interesting “zenlike” book I just finished reading and I said I’d make a review of it. That book ties into the topic of this post so here’s something about it.
Today I Wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) is a selection of the author’s writings. He was a Russian who grew up amidst the Bolshevik revolution. After Stalin came to power art became a state concern and Kharms and his fellow artists endured exile and persecution of the most violent types.
Here’s some more background on the author and his milieu:
Kharms—whose real name was Daniil Yuvachev… died of starvation in a lunatic asylum…Kharms’s Russia is cruelty’s utopia, which explains why the Soviets found his work to be intolerable, and why they had him institutionalized. (source)
Daniil Kharms has long been heralded as one of the most iconoclastic writers of the Soviet era…
A master of formally inventive poetry and what today would be called “micro-fiction,” Kharms built off the legacy of Russian Futurist writers to create a uniquely deadpan style written out of–and in spite of–the absurdities of life in Stalinist Russia. (from the publisher’s blurb on Amazon)
Publishers Weekly wrote:
In this surprising new collection of Soviet writer Kharms’s short pieces, including poetry and journal entries… readers will find echoes of Beckett, Ionesco and Kafka, among others. Indeed, Kharms (1905–1942) was part the OBERIU (Association of Real Art), a Soviet artists’ collective often described as Absurdist in orientation. A self-proclaimed member of the avant-garde, Kharms made often violent nonsense out of everyday life. In 1931, he was briefly exiled because his work did not promote Socialist Realism, as Yankelovich explains in an informative introduction. Kharms’s life suffered a complete reversal after his return, a fact that shows in his writing.
There’s a youthful showiness to the earliest work that is replaced by a more fierce desperation in the later years, when Kharms often went hungry and knew his work would not be published. The book’s wonderfully contradictory title, is in unexpected contrast to the weary resignation of a journal entry: Today I wrote nothing. Doesn’t matter. Yankelovich, who provides the fine translations, makes much of the dramatic possibilities inherent in the work but almost combatively refuses to read any political meaning into his subject’s writings, which alternate between playfulness and a sense of futility. (from the Amazon site)
One could read into the writing a lot of political implications. Kharms writes about hunger, violence and cruelty in a way as dispassionate as he writes about lovely country scenery, a hearty meal and a bottle of vodka. Although he does write lovingly of the ladies. There is nothing in everyday life that escaped his attention and the direct spare writing brings it into sharp focus.
The thing that really caught my attention was the philosophical perspective that came through the writing. In some respects it is a wonder that people in dire circumstances can consider producing art at all and when it comes out so remarkably lucid and poetic it’s an amazing statement both about the artist and about humanity.
The translator, Natveu Yankelevich, in the introduction writes:
Kharms makes us aware of our own mechanization, our own ruts, our weakness for unthinkingly, following predetermined patterns of action and perception that limit our confrontation with the world, blinding us to differences, to the “slight error”. (p,30)
The author Graham Roberts has written a lengthy treatise on this particular art movement, OBERIU, in which Kharms was one of the prime movers. He gets into the philosophy of the group, particularly those who made up the Chinari sub-group which was particularly interested in the philosophy of the day. Roberts writes:
In their regular conversations, they speculated, for example, on the nature of the present moment as the infinitely brief dividing-line between a non-existent past and an equally non-existent future. They believed that the present moment was that ‘point zero’ of existence, which, like the zero in the number series, was not nothing (since the continuity of the whole as a series of negative and positive values depended on it), and yet nothing real (since it was neither a negative nor a positive value itself). From this came the (pre-post-structuralist) contention that existence and non-existence are relative terms: ‘One should not say that a thing “exists” or “does not exist”, but rather one should say that it “exists in relation to this thing, and does not exist in relation to that thing”…
Sounds very familiar to anyone with knowledge of certain Buddhist principles. This got me wondering if there was any Buddhist influence in Kharms work or the works of those philosophers that were popular at the time. It turns out that Hegel, Nietzsche and many other European philosophers had examined what information was available on Buddhism at the time and a number of them had written about it. Nietzsche dismissed Buddhism “as yet another nihilism” but Schopenhauer “even called himself a “Buddhist” “and was a definite influence on the OBERIU groups somewhat anti-Kantian viewpoints according to Roberts.
Kharms was also familiar with Emerson and one of the pieces in the book is entitled “A Treatise More or Less Following Emersen”and indeed it does refer to the American Ralph Waldo Emerson. The piece ends with the following:
IV On Approaching Immortality
Every person has a striving for pleasure, which always takes the form of either the satisfaction of sexual desire, or gastronomical satiation, or acquisition. But only that which does not lie on the path toward pleasure will lead us to immortality. Each and every system leading to immortality converges upon one rule: Do continually that which you don’t want to do, because every person wants continuously either to eat or to satisfy his sexual feelings or to acquire something, or all of these more or less at once. It is interesting that immortality is always connected with mortality and is interpreted by various religious systems either as eternal pleasure or eternal suffering, or as eternal absence of pleasure and suffering.
V On Immortality
Righteous is he to whom God has given life as a perfect gift.
One of the reasons the philosophy and influences angle came up for me was in Kharms work itself. Several times he mentions a place in St. Petersburg called the “Tibetan pavilion” as well as the structure and themes of many of the pieces. For example The Connection, a short story in the form of a letter, is an illustration of karmic action that could have been written by a Dharma teacher. One thing leads to another throughout until the last line “They ride along not knowing what connects them, and they will not know it until death.” (p.243)
From the Scrapbook section (p 115-124) of Today I Wrote Nothing
On the poetic side there are such gems as:
Steam, or so-called smoke, poured out of the steam train’s pipe. And a festive bird, flying into this smoke, flew out of it all greasy and crumpled. (p.188)
From the brief play entitled The Window, which is a dialogue between a teacher and student, the window itself has the last words:
I opened suddenly.
I’m a hole in the walls of buildings.
The soul spills out through me.
I’m the air-vent of enlightened minds.
He is not without humor as the piece Anegdotes from the Life of Pushkin illustrates. Apparently Pushkin was not the idol to Kharms as he was to many in the rest of the country.
4. When Pushkin broke his legs, he got around on wheels. His friends liked to tease Pushkin by grabbing at those wheels. Pushkin grew angry with his friends and wrote abusive poems about them. He called these poems “erpigarms” (p.82)
This could just as well be Kharms and his “Anegdotes” which he deliberately mis-spelled.
His humor is sometimes a little caustic, dare I say even snarky. Considering the extreme persecution of himself and many of his group that is not surprising. At the same time he hints at censorship and misanthropy he can still bring a laugh. This untitled piece dated late 1930’s is an example.
I hate children, old men and old women, and reasonable older individuals.
Poisoning children is cruel. But something has to be done about them!
I respect only young, healthy, plump women. Other representatives of humanity I treat with suspicion.
Old women who go around thinking sensible thoughts should really be apprehended with bear traps.
Any face that is of reasonable fashion brings out in me the most unpleasant sensations.
What all the fuss about flowers? It smells way better between a woman’s legs. That’s nature for you, and that’s why no one dares find my words distasteful.
The critique of reason (or is it Reason) is evident throughout Kharms work. There is something very free and a little wild about his writing yet it is done in such a clear and direct manner. The balance is on a razor’s edge sometimes.
He’s lived in the midst of one of the greatest dystopias of the 20th century (Stalinist Russia) and struggled daily to transcend that and create art and recognize the truth and beauty, sometimes a terrible, accidental and violent beauty, that the gift of life brings.
So I found this book absolutely fascinating. And I am looking forward to getting the OBERIU anthology that is available as more of his work is in there along with that of his compatriots. (It’s on the wish list)
I’d highly recommend reading this if you like good literature. I’d even like to know what some Zen folks would make of it. Should be available in some libraries (get it by inter-library loan if your local doesn’t have it).
The Zen Portion of the Program
Are you wondering how I am going to drag Buddhist thought into this topic?
Psychological dystopia is in the realm of Buddhist practice. The dictatorship of the ego demands all kinds of things and exacts all kinds of punishments when demands are not met. This kind of psychological landscape has devastating results not only on individuals but on families, communities and on our planet.
How often have we castigated ourselves for not measuring up in some situation? Does any of this sound familiar?
- I should have said X instead of Y. I’m so stupid.
- I shouldn’t have failed at that.
- I’ll never be good enough.
- I’m so ignorant.
- I’m such a bad person.
- I’ll never be smart/happy/loved.
- Everybody hates me at work/home/school.
- I’m such a loser.
- I’m uncomfortable with myself in XYZ ways
And further how often have we inflicted these kinds of statements onto others, particularly our children. And children learn what they live. So they internalize all this crap and after a while beat themselves up with it. And pass it on in many other situations.
That’s the Dystopia of Ego.
Here’s a video that’s part of an interview with Shodo Harada Roshi. Thanks to Jaye Seiho Morris, Curator of Digital Zendo for posting it.
If you don’t have time to watch the video, here is a transcript I made of his words.
Shodo Harada Roshi talks about Heavy Ego
This is something which everyone understands very easily. Everyone is capable of sensing the situation in the world today. There’s no one who cannot sense that very deep despair that everyone feels. But its not a question of only fixing what is external. It is a question also of going within and taking care of the egoistic source of these external problems.
Today there are a lot of things being taken care of on the outside. There’s a lot of healthy food being eaten. There’s a lot of care being taken to preserve our health. There is beginning to be care taken to preserve our planet. People are coming to the consciousness that is needed to address these external social problems and that’s good. But even if those go to even greater lengths than they are going to now, if we don’t take care of the problem within ourselves its not going to work . No matter how much external work is done if what’s been happening inside is not being repaired its not going to help. It’s not going to help the inner problem. The inner problem is something each person has to do for themselves. That is the problem of the heaviness of the ego.
There’s no one who doesn’t feel that. We can in these days say I want something delicious to eat and we can get it. I want to wear these clothes and we can put them on. I want to do this with my time and we can do it. That’s possible for anybody but when it comes to being uncomfortable with our egoistic heaviness who knows how to rid ourselves of that.
When we feel we are too self aware and too self conscious and living on our own small energy instead of a greater larger picture we don’t know what to do about that. And its the uncomfortability generated by these inner problems that brings about a lot of our external problems. And of course we can solve those external problems by getting what we want to eat or by doing something that we enjoy doing but in the end we will always return to this place within ourselves where we are uncomfortable with our own egoistic narrow self and this is true with more and more people. This is what the real problem is and for that reason we have zazen. For that reason we have this practice that is designed to dig in and dig out that ego, to find that place where it isn’t happening, to get rid of that filter, to cut away, shave away, dig into the deepest possible roots and to find that place where the water of clear mind is flowing freely.
We can’t do that unless each of us does it for ourselves. It can’t be done by some kind of external aid. Each person has to do it and when people look at what we are doing here for example, doing a sesshin, they think what a narrow, rigid, difficult way of going about it. But compared to living all your life in this egoistic bind, its not the things we are doing here, sitting in this posture , living in this sesshin way of living, clearly it is a very very rigid and tight restrictive way of looking at how to live, but it’s for the purpose of going to the place where our ego isn’t directing our life, for realizing that place where that huge clear mind freely originates from.
To be able to realize that we have to cut away all of that egoistic noise, all of that external stimulation and return to that base where that huge clear liberated mind comes from. Its for accomplishing that, that we live in this way and when we do that, when we return to this place, when we can feel our center free from having to be told what to do by that ego, free from having to be controlled by that ego, then we can take that mind back out into our life in the outside world and we can start dealing with the external problems from the inside out rather than the outside in. And that’s the only way that we are really going to be able to get rid of that egoistic heaviness anyway. And it is for that reason that doing Zazen is so important. To dig into that ego, to root it out, to dig it out at its deepest roots and for doing that we are doing Zazen and practicing in Sesshin.
When I was young I wasn’t very different from any other kid. I had a very typical kind of childhood but there came a time when I had to face that dilemma like all children do about what I should do with my life and what it should be about. You see my father was a temple priest and it was typical then in Japan to do what your father does. Most kids willingly accepted that and went along with that but I had a great deal of resistance to the idea. It wasn’t that I was required to be my father’s successor as head of the temple since I had an older brother, but it was more simply because I just didn’t feel like doing that. I always resisted that feeling that I was going to become a priest and taking over a temple. Instead I was going to become a psychologist and the reason I wanted to become a psychologist was because I didn’t like myself. There were parts of myself that I really had a hard time dealing with. I couldn’t take myself the way I was . I thought the fastest way to fix that was to become a psychologist myself. I wanted to remake those parts of myself that I felt were so contrary to what I saw in other people. I thought becoming a person who could understand people’s inner workings was the best way of fixing myself.
Though one day my father asked me to go to my school in Kyoto a little early to do an errand for him. Because I went early the buses were very very crowded. I had to push through this packed crowd of people to get onto the bus and all the way to the back of the bus to find a seat. And all of a sudden as I pushed through all these people I came upon a person who looked like someone I had never seen before. He struck me as a most unusual, a very mysterious person, and he was wearing a robe unlike any I had seen before. It was dyed a mud color like they wear in India, and he had a presence, a face that was of such a nature that it was like he was shining or brilliant. And I was astonished by this man sitting there in the middle of this completely busy and full bus just reading a book. People were standing up and sitting down but he was completely unconcerned with any of that, but just reading a book in deep concentration…
Here is more on Shodo Harada Roshi:
The complete documentary The Man on Cloud Mountain is available on Youtube. This link is an introductory page with all the links.
From Buddhadharma magazine Shodo Harada Roshi:Nuclear Reactor of Zen-an interview conducted by Alan Senauke