Interlude for Daniel
It strikes me anew, Daniel, that this insight practice began not with meditation, but with my literary practice in the 1990s.
I had intense scholarly interest and practice in post-structuralist literary theory, meaning I was a deconstructor, meaning I pointed out how texts deconstructed themselves and the critic deconstructed herself in thus pointing out.
My dissertation was a koan on the koan that is Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, a novel so empty and luminous, like its central metaphor, that I was the only one constitutionally equipped, for whatever reason, to finish it. It is a stream-of-consciousness narrative continually emptying itself of content. It is a story of a marriage, an unlawful reconciliation (infidelity), and the gift around which the narrative timeline runs full circle.
The central metaphor, the golden bowl, is glazed in a luminous gold coating. The opacity of this coating hides a flaw in the background, underneath the coating. You see, underneath the gilt, is a perfectly transparent empty bowl; however, this bowl, sometime well before it is found and the story begins, was split: It has a crack down its center.
There are four characters:
- Maggie Verver (a childlike woman who is overattached to her father)
- Adam Verver (Maggie’s father)
- Amerigo (Maggie’s new husband)
- Charlotte Verver (Adam’s new wife, and Amerigo’s rekindled old flame)
Maggie is too attached to her father, playing that off as perfectly innocent, and consequently neglects a properly adult (sexualized) relationship with her husband. Although she is the innocent, ostensibly, her not letting go of the past, her sexual repression/recursion, pushes her husband back into the arms of the conniving Charlotte. Once Charlotte stops attending to Adam, whom she seems to have married for less than ideal reasons, perhaps to have access to Amerigo from within his own household, Adam is increasingly at Maggie’s disposal, while Charlotte and Amerigo are left together much of the time. So what do we have here as a direct result of Maggie’s childish innocence? Adultery and something akin to incestuous preoccupation between father and daughter.
Maggie, through gradual insight, realizes that these fatal flaws, splits along wrong axes, are her own doing. So she sets about realigning the pairs of spouses, over time, through a series conversations with the other three characters. What is striking, and literary genius, about this whole narrative, and the dialogues, is how completely empty they are of the content that they effect through sheer performance, through a rhetoric of failure, through repeated patterns of recursion to empty signification, through silence. Maggie talks around the problem with the others, not directly ever stating the problem. Another metaphor in the novel is a round table for playing bridge. And lest you miss that this comes out of Eastern traditions, the third big metaphor is a pagoda that Maggie circumambulates.
So the novel is a koan. Its narrative timeline bites its own tale. Its future goal is to restore purity to the original flaw.
My dissertation was not scholarly. It was creative. It too was a koan that took The Golden Bowl as meditation object.
This Path is also the rhetoric of failure, until it isn’t, until it is direct love.
I often reflect how funny it is that you and I, some 25 years before speaking to each other, were earning English degrees in the very same building. When I read MCTB years later, I had no idea you were from Chapel Hill. Then when I saw that old photo of you that you showed me, I remembered you from back then. You stood out, after all, long hair and quirky clothes. I even have a specific memory of passing you in the stairwell and meeting your eyes with my gaze. It is a small world, isn’t it? It would have been nice to talk literature back then, when we both had more time, as in 25 years before our next project.