Mariama Ba, So Long a Letter

I first heard of Marieme Ba’s Une Si Longue Lettre when living in Dakar, but despite its great reputation and brevity–89 pages in my translation–I only just got to it.  My mistake, in some ways, but on the other hand, having gotten a bit older, gone through a lot, and learned to understand more about people, it’s just as well I came to it now.

To briefly rehearse the plot: Ramatoulaye’s husband took, as allowed by law and custom, a much younger wife.  She rightly understands this as a rejection.  He dies suddenly, and she faces both her past and her future.  She pens a long letter–89 pages in my translation–to her friend, Aissatou, relating her thoughts.

The book, more than one bit on the internet points out, is often used in post-colonial lit courses to illustrate the “woman’s point-of-view,” etc.  This is certainly appropriate, such as it is.  It is also pointed to as an example of an African feminism, which I would not disagree with either.  I am in favor I will stress of both endeavors.

The problem is that a lot of people will read those two descriptions above, imagine that they know what to expect–post-colonial=Europe bad, African feminism=African and European men bad–and completely miss what’s actually happening.  It’s well-known that liberatory movements are often misrepresented, but less commonly noted that this is often done by sympathizers.

As regards the book’s post-colonial place: Ba was of the first generation of independent young people in Senegal.  As such, and not unlike the brilliant Ousmane Sembene, she works through, in her literature, the realization that independence was the start of a lot of work for the country–in this case, Senegal–even more than it was the end of a process.  A line stands out:

One does not easily overcome the burdens of a thousand years. (73)

Ramatoulaye is shocked to find her daughters smoking:

Suddenly, I became afraid of the flow of progress.  Did they also drink? Who knows, one vice leads to another.  Does it mean that one can’t have modernism without the lowering of moral standards? (77)

There is nothing conservative about these concerns, despite the internal discourse in the United States.  Ba is facing a central fact of modern capitalism: it doesn’t care about people.  It cares about selling.  I had a friend who spent some time in Russia immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union.  He noted a proliferation of old US pornography, Penthouse more than anything, he said, sold on the “free market” in Russian kiosks.  Yes: one can’t have modernism without the lowering of moral standards.  We can discuss the dynamics of those morals, i.e., who makes them, how they are enforced, etc., all from a critical angle, but I say as a leftist that at some point we need to discuss in more detail not just the problems in out societies, but what kinds of communities we want to form.  This is where those of us living in citadel of capital need to shut up and listen to the peripheries.

The question of African feminism is critical as well.  I will note anecdotally that both my wife at the time and I noticed in Senegal that we saw patriarchy everywhere, but very little if any misogyny.  Neither of us would have allowed the possibility that the two were separable before we lived there, but we witnessed it.  We were there nine months, too–not just a quick trip.  By no means were things equal: as Ba notes as a matter of course, there are strict limits on women in the Senegal of her day.  However, she conceives, contra a universalizing white feminism in which everyone is essentially the same save for social construction, or an essentializing white feminist in which all women are more or less the same, a feminism which means that people are free to be who they are.  She does not, however, reject a dualistic approach to gender:

I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman. (88)

You can reject this proposition and furthermore note its heteronormativity, and I’ll say that for my part I do, but do so understanding its context.  This is not a feminist who is behind the times (the white people in the US being au courant), nor has she merely been browbeaten by the oppressor.  This is a reflection of a place where there are emphatically two unequal gendered spheres, but in which each values the other.  This is a far cry from US misogyny.

Sheng Yen, There is No Suffering


Like a baby.

The lineage I stated practicing Buddhism in was Sheng Yen‘s, Dharma Drum Mountain.  My teacher made a point that while one needs to be open to change and possibility, one should not hop this teacher or this lineage to that.  Shopping around happens a lot for people who are seeking someone they (imagine) they don’t already have.  That said, I still consider that first teacher my teacher, though locally I have one as well who’s working out beautifully, and I certainly consider Sheng Yen the master I look to, primarily.  Geography has put me in touch with Thich Nhat Hanh much more than Sheng Yen, and it was with Thay that I took the precepts, in his language the mindfulness trainings.  I have nothing but the deepest respect for Thay, but my teacher’s point about sticking with someone still strikes me as sound advice.

So, even though Sheng Yen has passed on, and while I don’t live in an area where I have access to anything institutionally in his lineage, I still look to Sheng Yen.  When I recently got the sense I needed to go back to the Heart Sutra, I asked for his translation and commentary on it for my birthday.  The book came, and I finished it last night.

I was lucky enough to do a short retreat with Sheng Yen in upstate New York.  It was my first retreat, and I’d practiced for about a year or so.  I was blown away, because I had never heard talks like the ones he gave that long weekend.  I had been through grad school and thought I knew a good lecture when I heard it.  I was shrewd enough to know that the three-hour evening talk that Jacques Derrida gave was not good lecturing, nor did the three hours he added the next morning add value to the experience, whatever the merits of his arguments that evening, which, summed up, were that Marx was not invalidated by the collapse of the Soviet Union.  I valued clarity, but I also valued complexity.  The best lecturer I knew could deliver a crisp, clear expression of very complex ideas, and I was impressed.

I had not known the value of intellectual simplicity before I heard Sheng Yen’s talks.  That quality is everywhere in evidence in There is No Suffering.  He delivered a series of talks, interspersed between various meditation periods.  Each was entirely self-contained.  After the first, I remember feeling, hey, this is cool, nothing too special, he’s probably keeping it simple for a general audience.  The retreat, a short one, was intended for new practitioners.

The second talk he gave built on the first, and at the same time was equally simple and self-contained.  He would reference the earlier talk, but in such a clear way that one did not need to refer back to notes.  Talk after talk, the process, entirely simple and clear all the way through, had a snowballing effect.  I had never heard anything like it before, and if only in my rhetorical values I was forever a changed man after it.  I would note that Thich Nhat Hanh has a similar quality of simplicity in his talks.

I read in one of Sheng Yen’s books that he felt his early training was un-methodical, and that he took it upon himself to try to give clarity and form to the various practices that went on in Chan training as he encountered it.  It would be very wrong to suggest that Sheng Yen was merely a systematizer, but he was this among other things.  That quality is palpable in There is No Suffering. Where Thich Nhat Hanh, in his commentary on the Heart Sutra, uses the lines as starting points to various discussions, teasing out if you will meanings present but not explicit to your average reader in the text, Sheng Yen draws out threads and, to maybe stretch the obvious metaphor, weaves them into a coherent pattern.  This systematization is not an ontological position for Sheng Yen–there is no ultimate truth in the system–but a matter of expedience.  A person can be of help much more effectively if there is a coherent system helping that person do so.  We have conditions, as human beings, that make it that way.

Lost in the book, which I gather was taken from talks and then edited, is Sheng Yen’s sense of humor.  The book doesn’t lack because of it, but I make the point simply to record my own memory of him.  He was riotously funny throughout all of his talks, and I had expected someone very serious and studious.  He held a couple of doctorates, after all, and the clarity of his thinking conflicted with my notions of humor.  Turns out he was very possibly the best practitioner alive at the time of a type of pun, I was told by the Chinese man who drove me to the airport after the retreat, that one makes in Chinese by playing with the inflections of words.  In Chinese, the inflection of a word changes the meaning, I am told.  You can’t do this in English, he said, and of course you can’t.  So Sheng Yen was making wisecracks all the time by using one inflection either in place of or in reference to another, not obfuscating or changing his meaning but adding a level of reference, irony, and humor to what he said.  Some of this the translator was able to communicate, if only by explanation.  He also made more conventional jokes, but by and large they seem to have been, probably judiciously, edited out of the book.

One remained, though.  Writing on different nirvanas, he discusses non-Buddhist nirvana, referencing in this case worshiping God or gods:

The reason why this first kind of nirvana is considered a non-Buddhist path is because being reborn in, or brought to a heaven, is not considered eternal from a Buddhist perspective.  Further, it is questionable whether the god has even transcended samsara.

“It is questionable.”  Sheng Yen was a very funny and beautiful man.

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

A sculpture of the cat Behemoth from the novel...

We are Him.

I never, never reread books, but after the Pelevin novel and reading an interview with him, I decided to check out The Master and Margarita (in Burgin’s translation) for a second time.  Pelevin is convincing.

However, the effect of this book was really fantastic. There’s an expression “out of this world.” This book was totally out of the Soviet world. The evil magic of any totalitarian regime is based on its presumed capability to embrace and explain all the phenomena, their entire totality, because explanation is control. Hence the term totalitarian. So if there’s a book that takes you out of this totality of things explained and understood, it liberates you because it breaks the continuity of explanation and thus dispels the charms. It allows you to look in a different direction for a moment, but this moment is enough to understand that everything you saw before was a hallucination (though what you see in this different direction might well be another hallucination). The Master and Margarita was exactly this kind of book and it is very hard to explain its subtle effect to anybody who didn’t live in the USSR. Solzhenitsyn’s books were very anti-Soviet, but they didn’t liberate you, they only made you more enslaved as they explained to which degree you were a slave. The Master and Margarita didn’t even bother to be anti-Soviet yet reading this book would make you free instantly. It didn’t liberate you from some particular old ideas, but rather from the hypnotism of the entire order of things.

Ever in need of liberation, and all the more particularly now, I read the book.  Couldn’t put it down, actually: I polished it off in a week, more than once getting in bed at around 1 pm (partially depression in hindsight, I will admit…) and only getting up to make peanut butter and jelly or go to the bathroom.  It’s that good.  This, of course, is not news.  Everybody who has read it knows that.  If you haven’t read it, make it the next book on your list, or interrupt your current one.

The plot if you don’t know the book is as follows: Satan comes to Moscow in the late 1930’s for his annual ball, takes a woman named Margarita for his date.  Margarita is in love with the Master, who wrote a novel about Pontius Pilate, a topic completely out of step with Bolshevik orthodoxy, and who landed in an insane asylum as a result.  Periodically, Bulgakov intersperses chapters of the Pilate narrative into the broader Moscow narrative.

I’m not making an original point here, I know, but first-class satire, of which The Master and Margarita is one of a small number of crowning examples, is not just about being funny, or making fun of, or even about its object.  Satire is about a way of perceiving, that is, of not only its object but its subject.  To see the world through a satirical lens is joyful, and that a writer (or anyone else) can cause another person to experience that joy when subjectively gazing on a world with much suffering is an enormous act of skill and compassion.

Fundamentally, I get on this second read of the book, the novel is an act of enormous compassion on Bulgakov’s part.  Maybe I’m in a place in my life where I am more in need or open to compassion than I was when I first read it over ten years ago, but that’s what I took from the experience.  Again, for those who don’t know the book, Bulgakov was a writer who, for political reasons, couldn’t publish in the late 1920’s and 1930’s in the Soviet Union, but who did some work in theater.  Bulgakov did not have to put the bulk of his effort into a novel he knew wouldn’t be published in his lifetime, but he did.  It was an act of self-sacrifice, though not suicide, at least as far as his mental health was concerned, because though he never lost his mind properly, stress and anxiety (my friends!) were major problems for him.  He died of a congenital illness, but stress never improves health, too.  All this, and he still gave us this book.  That’s deeply loving.

That’s the most important thing about the book as far as I can tell, but it’s worth talking about technique.  I do not know of a more skilled novelist than Bulgakov.  Everything is in place: the narrative itself is absolutely compelling, the prose, which admittedly I read in translation, is beautiful, the jokes are hysterical, and the various references, literary, cultural, political, economic, are embedded in the narrative in such a way that not getting one–I took a degree in the history of this period of the USSR and I’d say I miss as many as I get–in no way impedes a reader’s connection to the book.  One experiences its detail at the level one can, but the depth of one’s experience is not contingent upon the depth of one’s knowledge of that detail.  One’s life can be changed on plot alone.  That’s literary skill.