Thursday, November 19, 2009

Eckhart Tolle IS John Ashbery

That's the conclusion I drew from reading Adam M. Bright's article "Here, Now: Eckhart Tolle Takes the Stage" in the new magazine The Point, "a Chicago-based print journal devoted to rigorous intellectual essays on contemporary life," that I picked up at the newsstand before boarding the train to work this morning. (Parenthetically, I love taking the train to work; I love that there's an actual newsstand—a very well-stocked one—at Chicago and Main in Evanston.) The article is an appreciative look at Tolle's philosophy that addresses the fact of skepticism toward New Ageism and gurus in general but doesn't really try to argue or persuade the reader; in so doing, Bright adopts Tolle's stance as his own without really trying to convince of his critical distance. "Escaping thought and returning to Being is my life’s purpose if I believe it is. It’s a blank-faced bovine god if you believe it’s not."

But what fascinated me most about the piece was how its description of Tolle's spiritual practice—and I do believe it's a spiritual practice, though it boggles me how Bright could neglect its obvious connections to various strands of Eastern mysticism and meditation practice in general—amounts largely to disidentifying the self with the mind, and how well this seems to describe the poetic practice of John Ashbery. Tolle tells his audience that they must step back from the interior monologues that accompany all of our actions, to view them dispassionately as "possessing entities," and to step into "a depth in that still alert space between thoughts and that is here, now." Isn't that "between thoughts" where the action happens in an Ashbery poem and its bewilderingly sinuous, pseudo-hypotactic sentence structures? Consider this little chunk of Flow Chart:
The incubus awoke from a long, refreshing sleep.
A lot of people think they have only to imagine a siren for it to exist,
that the truth in fairy tales is somehow going to say them. I tend to agree
with dumb people who intervene, and are lost; actors of a different weakness
who explain the traceries of fallen leaves as models for our burgeoning etiquette,
a system that does't let us off the hook as long as we are truth and know it,
the great swing of things. And of course it may yet turn up.
I couldn't believe he said it. But that's the way we lived. It existed.
I've been at this stand for years and I think I see how the wool
is pulled over our eyes gradually, so that each of us thinks of ourselves as falling asleep
before it happens, then wakes to a pang of guilt: was it that other me again?
Why did I take my mind off the roast, as it turned
hypnotically on its spit, and now it's charred beyond recognition?
As with many Ashbery poems this excerpt seems to adopt the neurosis of modern postindustrial life as its subject matter, but it's Ashbery's form—the emptied-out conjunctions that coordinate without coordinating, subordinate without subordinating—that actually give us the feel of dipping into the stream of consciousness without ever capturing or summarizing or taking firm hold of that consciousness, as a cupfull of muddy water bears an at best metonymic relationship to the Mississippi River.

I don't know if Ashbery lives in the state of nirvana-like bliss that Bright ascribes to Tolle, if he actually places his "self" within what Tolle calls "presence" as opposed to "the mental story of me." But I've often felt my own response to his poetry mirrors somewhat Bright's response to Tolle: frustration at my inability to conceptualize what any given poem seems to be up to gives way to delight in what Ashbery has called "the experience of experience," a delight homeomorphic with boredom. Tolle's persona eerily mirrors this: as Bright writes, "Tolle’s charisma, the magnetic quality of his personality, is almost an anti-charisma. He’s made himself so boring, punched so far through the back end of dullness, that we feel his simplicity must represent some incredible inner power." Anyone who's ever actually been in Ashbery's presence or heard him read might nod with recognition at this.

The comparison for me highlights the nigh-invisible separation between genius and charlatanism that dogs the reputations of both men. Yet I am more skeptical about Tolle than Ashbery. I suspect Tolle's teaching probably does bring about actual good in people's lives, whereas I'm not sure Ashbery's influence has been entirely healthy for poetry. But I think the effort to conceptualize what Ashbery is up to is good and necessary: his writing is a kind of puncture or suture in our discourse that generates critical thought and perhaps pushes it into more open and dialectical directions, even if "You have it but you don't have it" ("Paradoxes and Oxymorons"). There seems to be no such effort to think Tolle, who presents himself in a profoundly un- if not anti-intellectual way, and Bright's article doesn't ultimately do much to challenge this.

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