Saturday, March 29, 2008


It's been a while since I've posted anything here. Three weeks ago I spent three days at the NAIS convention in New York City, and when I came back I had stacks of papers waiting for me, lots of other business to catch up on, and just to make it interesting, 90 applications to review for two high-school English teaching positions we have posted. I eventualy got those 90 applications eventually boiled down to about ten interviews, all of which I have now completed. We've hired one teacher, and will be making another decision this week.

One of the candidates I wound up interviewing is working on a doctoral thesis focusing on utopian science fiction. During that conversation he mentioned a book I had not heard of by an author I had not heard of: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. And that, sports fans, has been where the rest of my time has been going during this last two weeks: I've been immersed in this extraordinary 763-page novel, which I finally finished last night.

The Years of Rice and Salt is an extended thought experiment, a sort of alternative history of the world that starts with a "what if" question: what if the plague, instead of merely reducing the population of Europe by a third, had wiped out the population entirely? What shape might world history have taken if the principal players had been China, India, and the Middle East; and the principal religious systems Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam?

The novel consists of ten books, each of which takes place in a particular era, starting in roughly the year 622 and leading in sequence up to the present. In one of the novel's most interesting conceits, the main characters introduced in each of the ten books are in fact reincarnations of the same spirits that make up their jati, the small group of spirits who are karmically connected and who therefore keeping meeting one another in one lifetime after another. At the end of each lifetime, they meet each other in the bardo, the holding room in the non-earthly realm where spirits are sent to be judged on their life's work, and where their future incarnations are decided upon by the gods. It is understood that it is the responsibility of each human being to struggle, over the course of many lifetimes, to improve the world. As one character says, "Now we are in this lower realm. Our dharma still commands right action, even here. In the hope of small advances upward. Until reality itself be established, by many millions of lives of effort" (580).

The recurring characters with clearly defined dharmic roles are designated by the first letter of their names. The "B" character (incarnated as Bihari, Bistami, Bao, Bai, and Budur, among others) is a sort of everyman: goodhearted, capable, open to instruction. The "K" character (Kyu, Katima, Kerala, Kirana, Kung) is a social activist, a rebel driven by a strong sense of justice. The "I" character (Iwang, Ibrahim, Ismail, Iwa, Isao) is an intellectual, an investigator, someone with a faith in reason and science.

These character types are placed into a wide variety of situations all across the globe, as Robinson reconceives and reinvents human history. Some developments — the discovery of electricity and atomic energy — mirror similar developments in the "real" world. Others are boldly re-imagined. The colonization of the Americas, for example, (by the Chinese, in the absence of Europeans) fails because a Japanese sailor arrives ahead of the Chinese and convinces the Native American tribes to join forcers to withstand the threat. The resulting Hodenosaunee Confederacy winds up being a major world power event to the present day.

Robinson is an adept storyteller, and the individual stories keep you turning the pages. But the structure of the novel, and the room he gives his characters to argue with one another and advocate for various theories, allows him frame within the narrative what amount to exploratory essays on a wide variety of subjects, including religion, philosophy, women's rights, and the function of literature and storytelling and history itself. Here, for example, is a passage from the end of the book where Zhu Isao, an elderly historian, in the midst of considering different ways of thinking about history, talks about what he calls "dharma history," and its opposite, nihilism:

Thus a history like Than Oo's is what some call "Burmese history," but that I would prefer to call "dharma history," being a romance in which humanity struggles to work out its dharma, to better itself, and so generation by generation to make progress, fighting for justice, and an end to want, with the strong implication that we will eventually work our way up to the source of the peach blossom stream, and the age of great peace will come into being. It is a secular version of the Hindu and Buddhist tale of nirvana successfully achieved...

The opposite of this mode is the ironic or satiric mode, which I call entropic history, from the physical sciences, or nihilism, or, in the usage of certain old legends, the story of the fall. In this mode, everything that humanity tries to do fails, or rebounds against it, and the combination of biological reality and moral weakness, of death and evil, means that nothing in human affairs can succeed...

These two modes of emplotment represent end-point extremes, in that one says we are masters of the world and can defeat death, while the other says that we are captives of the world, and can never win against death. It might be thought these then represent the only two possible modes, but inside these extremes Rabindra identified two other modes of emplotment, which he called tragedy and comedy. These two are mixed and partial modes compared to their absolutist outliers, and Rabindra suggested they both have to do with reconciliation. In comedy the reconciliation is of people with other people, and with society at large. The weave of family with family, tribe with clan—this is what makes them comedy: the marriage with someone from a different clan and the return of spring.

Tragedies make a darker reconciliation. Scholar White said of them, they tell the story of humanity face-to-face with reality itself, therefore facing death and dissolution and defeat. Tragic heroes are destroyed, but for those who survive to tell their tale, there is a rise in consciousness, in awareness of reality, and this is valuable in and of itself, dark though that knowledge may be.

I suggest that as historians, it is best not to get trapped in one mode or another, as so many do; it is too simple a solution, and does not match well with events as experience. Instead, we should weave a story that holds in its pattern as much as possible. It is like the Daoists' yin-yang symbol, with eyes of tragedy and comedy dotting the larger fields of dharma and nihilism. That old figure is the perfect image of all our stories put together, with the dark spot of our comedies marring the brilliance of dharma, and the blaze of tragic knowledge emerging from black nothingness.

The ironic history by itself, we can reject out of hand. Of course we are bad; of course things go wrong. But why dwell on it? Why pretend this is the whole story? Irony is merely death walking among us. It doesn't take up the challenge. It isn't life speaking.

But I suppose we also have to reject the purest version of dharma history, the transcending of this world and this life, the perfection of our way of being...We are animals, death is our fate. So at best we could say the history of the species has to be made as much like dharma as possible, by a collective act of the will.

This leaves the middle modes, comedy and tragegy...Surely we have a great deal of both of these. Perhaps the best way to construct a proper history is to inscribe the whole figure, and say that for the individual, ultimately, it is a tragedy; for the society, comedy. If we can make it so.

Such rhetorical flights may not be to every reader's fancy. But I found myself thoroughly swept up by the novel, interested in both its plot line and its arguments, and amazed by its scope and ambition. And, as the last line of the above passage suggests, it is a deeply ethical book, a book that is engaged on every page with the investigation of questions of individual and societal responsibility. The world is, for better or worse, what we have made it, and will become what we are making it now.

For the teachers out there, I can't resist ending by quoting one last passage, spoken by the character Bao, who in his old age has settled into a life as a teacher of college-age students, who often ask him what he thinks about reincarnation:

Over time Bao came to understand that teaching too was a kind of reincarnation, in that years passed, and students came and went, new young people all the time, but always the same age, taking the same class; the class under the oak trees, reincarnated. He began to enjoy that aspect of it. He would start the first class by saying, "Look, here we are again." They never knew what to make of it; same response, every time.

He learned, among other things, that teaching was the most rigorous form of learning. He learned to learn more from his students than they did from him; like so many other things, it was the reverse of what it seemed to be, and colleges existed to bring together groups of young people to teach some chosen few of their elders the things that they knew about life, that the old teachers had been in danger of forgetting. So Bao loved his students, and studied them assiduously...

Over time the students added to his growing internal list of ways reincarnation was true: that you might really come back as another life; that the various periods of one's life were karmic reincarnations; that every morning you reawakened to consciousness newly, and are thus reincarnated every day to a new life.

Bao liked all of these. The last one he tried to live in his daily existence, paying attention to his morning garden as if he had never seen it before, marveling at the strangeness and beauty of it. In his classes he tried to talk about history newly, thinking things through yet again, not allowing himself to say anything he had ever said before; this was hard, but interesting.

Hard, but interesting. Yes it is.

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