Next: Original Formula Dept.
The other day someone asked me, "Given your interest in Zen Buddhism and some of the subjects of your fiction, does that mean you're writing 'Buddhist fiction'?"
My answer was, "I don't really think so."
I also wasn't sure I wanted that to be the case, but not because I dislike either writing or Buddhism. It isn't because I think Zen Buddhist or Buddhist themes generally are unworthy of being treated in fiction. It's more that I don't want to force the point and make both of those things, Zen and fiction alike, look bad.
Novelist and sometime critic Dale Peck once wrote that as soon as a work of fiction signs onto a formal literary program of any kind, it loses its power. It falls victim to "the trap of reification, of contemporaneity, an inability to react to changing circumstances." Belief systems may be the stuff of lives and life eternal, but the eternity of 2017 is not the eternity of a century past. Codifying such things in literature just freezes over the whole thing in a bad way, like a prom snapshot where everyone's hairstyles will look horrible before the decade is out. As someone else once said, not even the most devout reading of Tolstoy will turn one Calvinist.
Individual writers can be very good at taking their belief systems and embodying them in fiction. Shusaku Endo embodied his Christian beliefs in his works (all the more unusual for a Japanese author), but not in a way that made them into cheesy open-and-shut tracts. Out of this came Silence, made into the great Martin Scorsese film (and before that another very good one, in 1971, by Masahiro Shinoda), but out of this also came "The Sea and Poison", and the harrowing faithlessness and despair of the latter work that gave the former one all the more resonance. Christianity was one of many assets in Endo's psychic economy that he could draw on. It constituted and major and pivotal one, but it was not the absolute fountainhead; it was a transmuter rather than a progenitor.
Filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski once produced for Polish television a series of one-hour movies, The Decalogue, each ostensibly about one of the Ten Commandments. (Criterion has made all ten available in a single set on home video.) They are not tracts either, but meditations. They reflect on how each of these principles creates as many problems as they are intended to solve, and how the mere fact that we are only human and that we live in a world with others renders them difficult and imperfect. It's another good example of work informed by a belief system, enriched by it, rather than dictated by it or constrained by it.
Sometimes I look at what I wrote and realize yes, I've allowed aspects of Zen and Buddhism generally to be reflected in them — selflessness, or the implications of the precepts, or what have you. That's fine. I see stuff like that in there, I leave it in there, and I let it grow as it ought. It's always more interesting to let those things ramble.
So, I try not to shoehorn any of it in because I think everyone needs to hear the message. That's a good way to ensure no one wants to hear it, because few people take kindly to being harangued or evangelized. They want a story first, and maybe some of them beyond that want something deeper to connect with on their own terms. The point is to give them avenues of connection, plural, to let them find their own way to the heart of whatever it is you're yourself exploring. Give them only one road to it, in and out, and you don't give them much of a trip worth talking about. Or having.
Next: Original Formula Dept.
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