Sunday, January 27, 2013

Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream / Neil Young -- N.Y.: Blue Rider Press, 2012

I'll never forget the first time I heard Neil Young.  It was 1972.  I was riding in the back of our family car and his song "Heart of Gold" came on the radio.  At the time, I thought it was the most heartfelt, soulful song I'd ever heard.  I found more of the same on "Harvest" -- the album that contained "Heart of Gold."  Upon receiving CSNY's "Four Way Street" as a Christmas present, I became an undying fan.  I snatched up every album I could find by him.  Over the years, I have continued to follow his career, but by no means religiously.  I finally saw him in concert in 1988 when he toured with "The Blue Notes." 

For me, the single most apt description of his music is that it is honest.  Young is certainly in the music business, but he seems to treat it more as means to distribute his music to whatever audience might appreciate it.  The music comes first, and if there is no audience, then that's unfortunate, but not a disaster.  Disaster comes when he betrays his muse which I don't suspect he has done very often.  There is also an appealing innocence and vulnerability in his voice that comes through even in his most angry and aggressive songs of which there are more than a few.  Of all the recording artists of his generation, Neil Young seems to have remained true to the best elements of the contercultural sensibility.  Once upon a time, that sensibility tore the mask of hypocrisy from the face of a complacent and degenerate society.

Given my admiration for Young, I picked up his book Waging Heavy Peace with trepidation.  Somewhere in the course of its 497 pages, I knew I'd find a few reasons to be disappointed in him.  Fortunately, the disappointments were minor and few.  Moreover, they paled in the presence of his characteristic honesty.  Waging Heavy Peace is a random compilation of Young's memories of family, friends, and events.  It is as though Young is spontaneously conjuring the roots of his past and bringing them to mind in whatever order they happen to appear.  He jumps from stories about his days with Buffalo Springfield to days just one year ago, back to his childhood in Canada, and then to his days with Crosby, Stills, and Nash.  Some passages are about the very present situation in which he is writing. The chronological disorder is at first disorienting.  He is rather like Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim who became "unstuck in time," but eventually one comes to understand that Young's past (like everyone's) is always present if we care to remember.  When an event ocurred is less important than the effect it had on us and its significance in its own time.  The seemingly random order of Young's stories underscores that who we were in our teens is not merely a prelude to who we will become, but it is we ourselves in a unique time and place.

Waging Heavy Peace is a meditation on a life, seemingly written more for the author's benefit than for ours.  In that way, it is a lot like Young's music.  Young obviously is cherishing his memories and the people who have been part of his life.  At one point he writes, "Old memories are wonderful things and should be held on to as long as possible, shared with others, and embellished if need be."  The passage says a lot about what is behind his writing.  It is loaded with small recollections of events that are not likely to be of much interest to a fan of his music (though many of his recollections certainly are).  Instead, his recollections appear to be written as a letter to the friends who appear in the story.  Young is sharing his memories with the people who were with him over the years and sometimes with people who crossed his path only briefly.  It is as though he is telling them, "I may be a big star now, but I still remember you and I remember you very fondly." 

Young seldom has a bad word to say about anyone and he usually has a torrent of good words.  At another point he writes, "I don't want to write some damning thing here about someone and have to live with that for the rest of time.  I don't think that would be a very good idea."  While the observation seems like he's protecting himself from guilt or remorse, there is enough in Waging Heavy Peace to understand that his real concern is for the feelings of the people he's writing about.  In the rare instance when he does criticize someone, he is careful not to name them.  They are merely "the two AP reporters" or "the record company executive."

His language is simple and direct.  It is sometimes confessional and sometimes it sounds like he's paying off a debt or making amends, but it always rings true.  A cynic might say that it is all for effect, but that's hard to square with his lifetime of artistic authenticity and his more or less unchanging stage persona that appears to be no different from what can be seen of his private life. 

By the end of the book, Young becomes remarkably self-revealing.  For example, he writes,
Changing the person one has evolved into is not a simple process, to be sure, but I know with Pegi's love and suppport [Pegi is his wife] and my family close, I will be able to reach out and learn to live life in a more caring and conscious way.  Maybe I've never been good at that, and that's why it's so hard to find it in myself. It may never have been really there.  I may be starting from scratch.  I've always been told that what I'm doing is right.  Maybe it isn't.  Maybe just some of it is.  I need to dig deep and discover some things along the way.
How do I avoid being short with those I love and respect?  How do I try to make people feel good about what they are doing for and with me?  How can I respect others' tastes while retaining my own?  This is the knowledge I'm searching for.  I can remember so many times in my life when I hurt others and hurt myself.  I really need to find a way to change those patterns for good.
One is left with the sense that Young is a deeply introspective man whose search for a heart of gold is really about finding the strength to be compassionate and now that he really is getting old, his search has become more urgent.

Some might find all of this a little self-indulgent and maybe it is, but no one is compelled to read his book, just as no one is compelled to listen to his music.  For my part, it was an enjoyable bit of voyeurism.  Waging Heavy Peace gave me the feeling that one of my musical heroes took the time to write me a long letter, telling me about his most memorable experiences and confiding some of his most personal thoughts.  I'm certain I know Neil Young better for having read his letter and I appreciate him all the more.  Long may he run.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Buddhism: A Modern Perspective / Charles S. Prebish, ed. -- University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University, 1975

Buddhism, edited by Charles Prebish is a cross between a introductory survey and an brief, one volume encyclopedia of Buddhism.  It is composed of 45 chapters, averaging five and a half pages.  Each chapter explores a significant topic in the history and philosophy of Buddhism.  The First Part deals with "Indian Buddhism," beginning with a history of early Buddhism.  Chapter Six begins the treatment of the central ideas of Buddhism:  the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Three Marks of Existence, the Five Aggregates, Dependent Origination, and the Stages of Sanctification. The rest of Part One provides and account of the major schools, important literature, and advanced ideas.  Remarkably, the authors of each of chapter manage to convey the important concepts clearly and concisely, quickly presenting the essence of the topic at hand. 

Part Two deals with "Buddhism Outside of India."  Unfortunately, it is here where the work begins to falter.  There is simply too much information about the development of Buddhism in Ceylon, Southeast Asia, China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and the West to pack into the brief chapters allotted to these regions, some of which have been home to Buddhism for nearly two millennia.  Nonetheless, even Part Two can serve as a worthwhile reference source for names of political and religious leaders and monastic communities.  They also provide a thumbnail sketch of the history of Buddhism in the region

A short bibliography of "suggested reading" follows each chapter.  The work also includes a brief directory of Buddhist communities in the United States and an extensive glossary, general bibliography, and index.

Buddhism: A Modern Perspective will be more valuable for the beginner, but more experienced scholars are bound to find an number of chapters quite useful.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World / Eric Weiner -- N.Y.: Twelve, 2008

The Geography of Bliss is built on a couple interesting questions: what are the happiest countries in the world like and why are they so happy?  Of course, one might begin by wondering how is happiness to be defined and how can it be measured?  The work's author, Eric Weiner, relies on research compiled by the World Database of Happiness.  The research is being produced by the budding field of happiness studies.  Much of the work in this field relies on surveys in which people are simply asked, "On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you?"  As pedestrian (an problematic) as this seems, it's hard to image a more valid method to get at answers to the question.  The results of these data are then compared with other social, political, and economic facts to try to determine what makes people happy.

Based on a ranking developed by the World Database of Happiness, Weiner travels to ten countries (including the U.S.).  Most rank high on the happiness scale, but one at least does not:  Moldova.  Indeed, Moldova ranks last among all countries.  Unfortunately, Weiner's investigation generates nothing of importance to the study of happiness and provide the reader with little insight into the research and tentative conclusions drawn by the psychologists and anthropologists seriously examining the topic.  Even as a frivolous beach-reading book, The Geography of Bliss could have afforded one chapter giving the reader a systematic review of happiness research. 

Weiner's work is, instead, a simple journal of his travels and his conversations with people he meets along the way.  Some are citizens of the country he is visiting, but about as many are ex-patriots.  He meets most of them through sheer happenstance, and very few have any special insight into the culture or the concept of happiness.  Consequently, The Geography of Bliss is little more than an idiosyncratic and quite superficial travelogue written by someone frequenting cafes and bars around the world.  It has little more substance than the postings of a compulsive blogger.  On the plus side, Weiner's writing style is polished and often entertaining.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: a film directed by Peter Jackson (2012)

I first read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit 42 years ago and immediately went on to read and re-read everything by Tolkien that I could get my hands on.  Around the year 2000, I was excited to hear that a movie version of The Fellowship of the Rings would be premiering soon.  I was not disappointed.  Certainly, there was much to criticize in Peter Jackson's cinematic treatment of Tolkien's epic story.  The battle scenes loomed far too large in the movies, orcs looked dangerous, but fell like grass before a reaper, and the screen play included, from time to time, some rather juvenile dialogue.  Perhaps most disturbing, though was the characterization of Frodo.  In Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Frodo starts out as a rather feisty character, an aggressive leader of the band of hobbits making their way to Rivendell.  Only after he is stabbed by the morgul blade on Weathertop does he becomes progressively more passive, even pacific.  In contrast, Elijah Wood's Frodo is timid and frightened from the beginning. 

Jackson misses one of Tolkien's most significant sensibilities:  that violence and war, though necessary at times, are extreme horrors and that the wisest among us will not glorify them. For a revealing treatment of this, see The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son in The Tolkien Reader. For these, and many other reasons, Tolkien purists have dismissed Jackson's films.  In the words of Tolkien's son Christopher, "There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away," but the lush cinematography and the chance to see the story unfolding on a film screen led me to look past the deficiencies of Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and simply enjoy the films for what they were. 

It is more difficult to adopt this tolerant attitude toward Jackson's new film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  In contrast to The Lord of Rings, The Hobbit is a small story -- a children's story -- but presumably in an effort to make it accord with the style of his previous films, Jackson tries to turn it into another epic.  Worse, he loads it with grand, action-film violence that is uncharacteristic of the early chapters of Tolkien's The Hobbit.  As before, our heroes face and defeat hundreds of foes as though they were cutting their way through a light back-country brush.  This leaves the battle scenes devoid of any tension or sense of danger and is an insult to the fearsome race of orcs and goblins.  Characters that were only briefly mentioned in passing play significant roles in Jackson's film.  Azog the Goblin who Tolkien only mentions having killed Thorin Oakenshield's grandfather, becomes "the White Orc" and is "hunting" Thorin and company.  Unfortunately, we can expect to see the White Orc in the subsequent hobbit movies, but hopefully not until the Battle of the Five Armies.  Radagast the Brown, who also is mentioned only briefly in The Hobbit, is featured in an extended sequence in the film.  He is aptly used to depict the decline of Greenwood into Mirkwood, but his main role is to divert attacking wargs from Thorin and company by driving a sled drawn by rabbits. This is completely Jackson's invention and is simply silly.

Even more than the film version of Frodo, the film version of Bilbo is unrecognizable. In the early stages of his adventure, Tolkien's Bilbo is an extremely reluctant member of the expedition, quaking at every danger and frequently wishing he was home in Hobbiton.  Jackson's Bilbo does start out this way, but much too quickly becomes a clever and courageous member of the party.  In the encounter with the trolls, it is not Tolkien's Gandalf who defeats them, it is Jackson's Bilbo; and when the party is treed by wolves (wargs in the film), Bilbo leaps to rescue Thorin from the White Orc's minions, standing over his fallen leader.  By this time in Tolkien's story, Bilbo had gained only the slightest confidence and did nothing so rash.  The overly quick development of Bilbo's character robs the story of one of its most interesting features:  Bilbo's transformation from a quiet homebody into a resourceful hero.  We seldom see the mixture of anxiety and excitement that would come to a comfortable, middle aged, middle class man suddenly thrown into a life and death adventure, full of great historical figures.

Tolkien himself had mixed feelings about The Hobbit.  He was pleased, of course, that it was a literary (and financial) success, but he was more attached to his grander work that became The Silmarillion. (The Lord of the Rings occupies a middle ground between these poles.)  Jackson seeks to integrate the story of The Hobbit into the larger epic.  Unfortunately, Jackson is not Tolkien and has done a ham-handed job of transforming The Hobbit.  A more cynical analysis would hold that he has intentionally turned the story into a Hollywood action film extravaganza to please a popular audience -- an audience that has no real appreciation for Tolkien's oeuvre, but simply enjoys modern special effects and video game-like violence.

Still, there are some very good aspects of the film.  The New Zealand scenery is as striking and beautiful as ever.  The sets, particularly Bilbo's home -- Bag End -- and Elrond's Rivendell are still faithful to a Tolkien sensibility, at least as interpreted by Alan Lee, and Bilbo's opening encounter with the dwarves is consistent with Tolkien's own whimsical tone.  I take Jackson at his word that he tells us that he has serious respect for Tolkien, loves the stories, and does not wish to do them any harm.  At the same time, he is a film artist himself, feeling justified in bringing his own vision of the story to the screen. I cannot fault him for this, but I do question the evolution of his artistic judgement.  Tolkien's stories certainly could have fallen into worse hands, but I can't help wishing that Jackson had made a more mature film -- one which captured the deeper themes of Tolkien's visions and which presented Middle Earth in Tolkien's mysterious, enchanting light.  Jackson appears to have set his eyes less on faerie and more on making a Hollywood blockbuster.