Beatnik Buddhism in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums

Monday, October 7th, 2013

A talk to the White Heron Sangha, October 6, 2013

I was introduced to the writings of Jack Kerouac by a trumpet-player friend in high school who gave me a copy of On the Road just after it came out in 1957.  But though I’d already done some hitchhiking around New England and hung out in Greenwich Village on Friday nights, I was put off by the book’s frenetic style and its praise of aimless, restless travel.  Twelve years later, in 1969, I encountered The Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s second most popular book, while selecting works to place on the syllabus of a class at Columbia University I called “Pastoral and Utopia, Visionary Conceptions of the Good Life.” This book’s triumphant celebration of free love, wilderness adventures, bohemian companionship, and Buddhist meditation made a perfect fit.  Forty four years later, while looking for a topic for a Sangha talk to follow up on the one about Thoreau’s Buddhism I offered last Spring, I picked The Dharma Bums in order to consider how my perspective on the novel and its Buddhist themes might have changed in the meantime. (more…)

Thoreau’s Buddhism

Monday, June 24th, 2013

A presentation to the White Heron Sangha June 23 2013

Henry David Thoreau was born July 12, 1817 and died at 45 years of age on May 6, 1862. His name is a household word, especially among those of us who grew up during the 1960’s, when his two most famous works, Walden and “Civil Disobedience” offered compelling guides to non-conformity, self-reliance, appreciation of nature, reduction of one’s environmental footprint, opposition to war and injustice and spiritual quest.

Although not widely appreciated during his life, since the late 19th century Thoreau’s works have become classics, admired by later writers, assigned in schools, and the subject of a burgeoning scholarly industry. He produced more than 20 volumes in a dense and quirky literary style, at times pompous and bombastic, at others intimate and funny. (more…)

Genes in Genesis: Evolutionary Psychology and the Bible as Literature

Monday, April 8th, 2013

Introductory Note:  This essay was completed in March 2011.  The interpretation of Genesis it proposes first occurred to me in 1996 in the course of writing a book commissioned by Oxford University Press,  Shakespeare and the Bible.  I first learned about Evolutionary Psychology and the field of Darwinian Literary Criticism in 2006.


“The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art,” proclaimed William Blake in one of the captions of his etching, “Laocoon” (755). In The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, Northrop Frye replicated part of that proclamation and elaborated some of its implied claims. If indeed the Bible can be said to encode a substantial portion of Western culture’s imaginative, historical and legal heritage, then its first book, Genesis, can be regarded as the Code for the Great Code, since so much of what appears in the subsequent 65 books seems to grow out of it. Genesis’ title is amplified in the names of some of its recurrent themes and images: generation, generations, genealogy, gender, genitalia. The common root of all these words suggests yet another code: that which is carried by genes.[1]

Frye observed that Genesis’ “primary concern is expressed in the Biblical phrase “life more abundant,” and J.P. Fokkelman showed coherence in the book’s motley mosaic of stories with the discovery that its “overriding concern [is] life-survival-offspring-fertility-continuity,” (41) but neither critic associated these concerns with the evolutionary perspective they suggest. Until recently it’s been left to contemporary novelists versed in biology and literature to explore some of the rich meanings that flow from the convergence of Genesis and evolutionary principles, for instance Ruth Ozeki in All Over Creation and Barbara Kingsolver in Prodigal Summer.[2]

Genesis rewards literary analysis because of its complex structure and plot, its concentrated characterization, its vibrant language and its rich but submerged themes, accompanied by what Robert Alter calls “the high fun of the act of literary communication… the lively inventiveness …[which] repeatedly exceeds the needs of the message, though it often also deepens and complicates the message”(40-45).  Such analysis can be enriched by combining the relatively rigorous scientific methods of evolutionary psychology with some of the inventive and fanciful tactics of traditional Midrashic interpretation to make sense of the book.[3] That combination seems appropriate to a work which is itself a product of literary evolution–the outcome of a thousand-year history of competition among oral traditions, written documents, individual and group authors and editors assembled in the palimpsest of the received text (Friedman).

Genesis prompts Darwinian analysis because it traces human history back to its beginnings, where it locates the origin of what came later. It chronicles a period of prehistory that figuratively parallels the one and a half million year Pleistocene period that Darwinists refer to as the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA), the span of time long enough to allow most human traits to evolve (Cosmides 1997).

Darwinian interpretation explores the operation of the principle of evolution in literary works, depicting what Jonathan Gottschall calls

the fascinating multiplicity of ways characters react to and manipulate their environment (the setting and the other characters) to accomplish the prime directive of all life: to live long enough to reproduce and, in species where parental care is necessary (like ours), rear young to reproduce again.…” (260)

Genesis personifies that principle in its characterization of the Creator. Its God designs both animal and human life during their common emergence on days five and six by pronouncing the two parts of evolution’s “prime directive”: “I have given you every seed bearing plant …for food…and to all which has the breath of life within it.” (1.29) “…be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…”(1.28)[4]

Genesis’ God repeatedly affirms evolution’s positive outcome of reproductive success as the reward of those whom He has chosen and trained–from Adam at the beginning of the book to the sons of Israel at the end: “I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed, as the stars in the heavens and as the sand on the shore of the sea, and your seed shall take hold of its enemies’gate.”(22:17)

Genesis’ word for “seed” –zera in the original Hebrew—has several meanings that converge with those of “gene” (Alter 1996 xiii-xiv). It signifies the originating kernels as well as the foodstuff of fruit and grain–the source of sustenance for animals and humans. It signifies semen, half of the material agency of reproduction. It signifies individual progenitors and progeny connected by inheritance–the generations of genetic relatives who extend personal existence beyond the bounds of individual mortality. It signifies lineage, the mark of kinship drawing individuals together into a survival unit, a community, and eventually, a nation.[5]

Joseph, the culminating hero of Genesis, epitomizes all of these meanings of “seed.”  He distributes seed during famine; he preserves enough grain to feed the world; he procreates two sons, one of whom is named Ephraim, meaning “he has made me fruitful”; at his death, he joins his father and mother in their tomb; and he paves the way for his wise descendant Solomon “whose people, Judah and Israel, were as many as the sands of the sea.”[6]

Genesis establishes literary coherence among narrative units with genealogies that catalogue the succession of seed through numerous generations, binding its many discrete stories into the history of a single genetic strain. Later uses of the text call attention to the importance of this genetic continuity. The first edition of the King James Bible begins with thirty-four folio pages of genealogical charts tracing lineage from Adam to Christ, while the succession of deaths and births of relatives is still recorded on pages inserted in family Bibles.

The operation of the principle of evolution is determined by the “algorithm” of Natural Selection formulated by Darwin in Origin of Species:

Through the preservation of favoured individuals and races, during the constantly-recurrent Struggle for Existence, we see the most powerful and ever-acting means of selection. The struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high geometrical ratio of increase which is common to all organic beings. …

These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms (406).

Genesis begins at “Growth with Reproduction; inheritance” and proceeds to the more complex and turbulent aspects of natural selection: “the struggle for Life,” “Variability,”  “Extinction of less improved forms,” and consequent adaptation.

Natural selection arises from three conditions: 1) individuals compete for the resources to stay alive and procreate, 2) they compete for reproductive success through sexual selection–finding mates and raising offspring that preserve and proliferate their genes, and 3) over long periods of time, species adapt, that is, they change in ways that increase their likelihood of survival and reproduction. Such adaptive changes are carried out through improved design of the physical organism and through the adoption of adaptive behaviors.

Adaptive behaviors are patterns of response to recurrent environmental challenges. The brain circuits, or programs that enable adaptive behaviors, become “incorporated into a species’ neural design.”[7] Assemblages of such software circuits evolved as “cognitive domains,” just as the eye and ear, for example, evolved as hardware. Their blueprints were replicated and transmitted by genes in “the seed,” just as were the blueprints for organs.[8]

Adaptive behaviors produced by natural selection include tool use, kinship selection, status competition, territoriality, coalition building, reciprocity, indirect reciprocity and in-group/outgroup discrimination. These adaptations are observed in primates as well as in remnants of hunter-gatherer societies. This essay argues that evolutionary psychology’s account of the development of cognitive and behavioral adaptations offers a key to decode many of Genesis’ particular incidents as well as its overall design.


Book Review: Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book: Contested Scriptures

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book: Contested Scriptures, edited by Travis de Cook and Alan Galey, Routledge, New York and London 2012.

Published in Religion and Literature 44:2, Fall 2012

This is a collection of essays about relationships between the production, dissemination and reception of books and the pairing of two books: Shakespeare and the Bible.

Many recent scholars have studied the either the Bible or Shakespeare in terms of the history of the book—ways that material media have determined their form and message.  Intertextual relationships between Shakespeare and the Bible is also a familiar, if sparse, field of critical inquiry.  But investigating the coupling of Shakespeare and the Bible itself with the methods of textual materialism is a novel and narrowly focused undertaking.

The editors’ discussion of Rudyard Kipling’s whimsical 1934 fantasy about Shakespeare’s drafting language of the King James Bible introduces the book’s overall polemical argument that the consideration of historical and physical conditions of texts should counter the tendency to canonize them and “naturalize” their assumed unity and completeness.

The book’s first group of essays examine ways in which Shakespeare’s use of the specific editions of the Bible he’s presumed to have read affected plot, characterization, theme and language in individual plays.

Barbara Mowat finds in the glosses and cross references of the Geneva Bible sources for Shakespeare’s recurrent links between scriptural allusions to stories of sibling rivalry and concerns with early modern primogeniture.  She claims that other Geneva Bible marginalia account for his deliberately ambiguous use of the phrase “measure for measure” in the play of that name to refer both to the Hebrew Bible’s lex talionis and its repudiation by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.  These particular marginalia don’t provide convincing evidence for the Geneva edition’s influence, since both themes are apparent to readers of the uncommented text.  Other Geneva glosses, such as those justifying deception on the part of God or his surrogates, or the Geneva’s epigraphs and illustrations emphasizing the defeat of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea are more likely to have attracted Shakespeare’s special attention.

Randall Martin’s “Paulina, Corinthian Women, and Revisioning of Pauline and Early Modern Patriarchal Ideology in The Winter’s Tale,” argues that that this outspoken feminist character represents Shakespeare’s daring mock of the Apostle Paul. She adopts Paul’s characteristic rhetorical stance of Parrhesia, or “speaking truth to power,” but uses it to challenge and eventually overcome the misogynistic tyranny that her antagonist Leontes has adopted from Paul’s own condemnation of female authority and public expression. In support, Martin cites the Geneva gloss on Corinthians to the effect that “disorder was in the church that women usurped what was peculiar to men,” and also modern scholars’ speculations that the objects of Paul’s disdain were priestesses and prophetesses influential in early Christian communities. He also mentions a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Anne Dowriche, who performed analogous appropriations of Pauline doctrines. But in his discussion of Paulina’s staging of one of Shakespeare’s numerous fake resurrections, Martin doesn’t entertain a broader implication: Paulina may be successfully carrying out Paul’s mission of “awakening faith” with the use of rhetoric and theatrical illusion.

The next two essays link the pairing of Shakespeare and the Bible with theoretical issues raised by textual materialism–each of them provocative but set forth in an associative style of argument difficult to fully engage.

Travis Raley’s “The Tablets of the Law: Reading Hamlet with Scriptural Technologies,” yokes together two unusual couplings around the book’s tripartite theme.  The contrast between erasable wax tablet and permanently printed book made by Hamlet in his pledge not to forget the ghost implies a Biblical allusion to the permanent and definitive inscription of the ten commandments by God. The biblical inscription of the tablets provides a verbal and visual backdrop for Steve Jobs’ launch of the ipad tablet in 2009. Such inscription is enshrined as Scripture–an idealized concept of a text that is complete, authoritative, and self-validating, ignoring the contingent material conditions of its production, preservation and dissemination. Both the Bible and the monumental volume of Shakespeare’s First Folio have been accorded false Scriptural status. However, Raley concludes, the contrast between inscription and scripture evaporates on close scrutiny: the first version of the decalogue inscribed by God was shattered by Moses and then rewritten by him at dictation.  Hamlet has trouble remembering what he inscribed. The erasable ipad’s first Shakespeare app is a falsely definitive rendition of the multiform possible renderings of the play texts.  A worthwhile sequel to this essay might include discussion of the non-scriptural status of present day digital texts because of “bit-rot” resulting from material decay of encoded data and obsolescence of coding software.

Edward Pechter’s essay, “Shakespeare and the Bible: Against Textual Materialism,” counters the perspectives of most of the contributors to this volume.  He contrasts their materialistic, analytical, deconstructive approaches with the “recuperative” efforts of critics like Johann Gottfried Herder, Matthew Arnold and Northrop Frye, all of who accorded both the Bible and Shakespeare the status of “Scripture” based on aesthetic value and secular significance which could be illuminated by insightful empathic literary criticism. Citing the example of Stephen Greenblatt, who championed the rejection of such recuperative work thirty years ago but has recently returned to it, Pechter asserts that this book’s mission has already run its course.

The next three essays explore ways Shakespeare and the Bible were conflated by 19th century scholars and the reading public. In “Going Professional: William Aldis Wright on Shakespeare and the English Bible,” Paul Werstine documents the way an otherwise judicious and precise editor of the King James Bible (AV) Concordance and of Shakespeare fell under the spell of the pairing of the two and made up inaccurate cross references between them. “’Stick to Shakespeare and the Bible. They’re the roots of civilization.’: Nineteenth Century Readers in Context” by Andrew Murphy traces how use of the AV translation as the only reader in early 19th century church schools for the working class paved the way for adoption of Shakespeare in later secularized public education by making 17th century diction and usage familiar.  Charles LaPorte’s “The Devotional Texts of Victorian Bardolatry” studies popular 19th century compilations of parallel Biblical and Shakespearean quotations.  He exposes their absurd distortions of meaning out of context but acknowledges that collecting such commonplaces of doctrinal wisdom and proverbial eloquence has deep roots in both literary and devotional traditions.

Like his co-editor’s essay, Travis DeCook’s “Apocalyptic Archives: The Reformation Bible, Secularity, and the Text of Shakespearean Scripture” generates fertile speculation out of far-flung examples and the book’s central conjunctions.  The early Jewish and Christian notions of the Bible itself as a universe, parallel in scope and completeness to the rest of Creation, was elaborated in the sola scriptura doctrine of Luther and Tyndale. This notion was applied by numerous Victorian writers to Shakespeare’s First Folio. The essay concludes with a study of bizarre nineteenth century “cryptographic” readings of the Shakespeare text as coded work by Francis Bacon whose true meaning will surface at the end of days.  Such apocalyptic Bardolatry—also explored in Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books–illustrates the extremes to which idealised and unhistorical thinking about the Bible, Shakespeare and the Form of the Book eventually leads.