October 1, 1999

Welcome to Phlit, a newsletter on philosophy and literature, a newsletter that flits from topic to topic like a book of aphorisms. I thank you for subscribing, and hope that you find it worthwhile.

1. Tim Gautreaux

The life of a booklover is punctuated by discoveries — discoveries of authors and books that strike a chord with him. A few months ago, I discovered an American writer named Tim Gautreaux. Here’s how it happened: my wife was reading a book called Best American Short Stories of 1998, and she said that she had found a wonderful story, a story that I must read. The story was Gautreaux’s “Welding With Children,” which is about a poor welder in Louisiana whose children have had children out of wedlock, and expect him to help care for them. He tries to do some welding while his grandchildren are scurrying around under his feet, making things difficult for him.

Gautreaux himself is from Louisiana, and many of his characters are working-class whites, struggling to make a living. Gautreaux’s characters are sharply delineated, and his plots get your attention and carry you along. I thoroughly enjoyed “Welding With Children,” a humorous story with serious overtones. I then began looking for more works by Gautreaux, and I found that he had written a novel and a book of short stories. I read more of his stories, and I enjoyed all of them, but none as much as “Welding With Children.” Gautreaux often describes a particular trade in great detail; for example, in his story about navigating on the Mississippi River, he describes steering the boat around sandbars, fixing the boat’s engine, etc. Gautreaux writes from research and knowledge, rather than wild imagination.

What Gautreaux does, he does well, but he doesn’t do a great deal. His work is somewhat limited in range and depth. He’s an excellent regional writer, perhaps a national writer, but he doesn’t aspire to occupy a place in world literature.1B

2. Milan Kundera

Kundera occupies a place in world literature; indeed, Kundera has written some of the finest fiction written in the 20th century. The novels of Joyce, Proust and Kafka are fascinating, but they’re also eccentric, shapeless and difficult to read. Kundera’s work, on the other hand, has polish, structure, plot — everything that you could ask for in a novel. Furthermore, Kundera is a product of the 20th century, while Joyce, Proust and Kafka, though they achieved fame in the 20th century, were actually born in the 19th century, and formed by that pre-World War I world which seems like it isn’t part of the 20th century. Kundera is Czech. It seems that a writer of his depth and power couldn’t have come from Western Europe or America.

My wife led me to Kundera, as she led me to Gautreaux. She said that she was greatly impressed by Kundera’s novel The Joke, which she read in one day. (I don’t read anything in one day; I’ve been reading The Joke for three weeks, and I’m still not through with it.) The Joke was written about 1968, when Kundera was about 38. It achieved international renown, and has been translated into English five times. Kundera himself worked on the fifth translation, which is called the “definitive version.” It’s an excellent translation; Kundera’s effort has paid off.

It’s interesting to observe English becoming more and more an international language. One aspect of this trend is that writers like Kundera (and the great Dutch historian, Huizinga) translate their own works into English. A century from now, English may become what Latin was during the Middle Ages: an international literary medium.

The Joke contains some fascinating remarks on folk music, and folk art in general. Kundera obviously has a keen interest in the folk art of his homeland. This folk art was an expression of Czech national identity when the Nazis were trying to erase the Czech nation. In the modern world, nationalist feelings have often been expressed through language and literature. In Ireland, for example, the effort to drive out the English has been accompanied by a revival of the Gaelic language. Likewise, Jewish nationalism aimed to establish a separate Jewish nation, and also to revive the Hebrew language. As nationalist feelings subside, the trend to use English as an international language may overcome the trend to resurrect the language of a particular people.

Besides being interested in folk art, Kundera is also interested in popular culture — jazz music, movies, etc. In fact, he was a teacher at a Prague film academy. He seems to have the lofty goal of raising the level of civilization by improving popular culture. I long to read a good biographical sketch of Kundera, a sketch that would carry his life up to the present time. Perhaps one of you, my dear subscribers, could write such a piece for the November issue of Phlit.

3. Alan Watts

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts, made a tremendous impression on me when I read it in August ’98. Watts can’t match the literary skill and taste of Kundera, but Watts writes well and, more importantly, Watts can open up a new world for the reader: the world of Zen, with its long history in China and Japan, with its profound effect on the arts, the crafts, and the life of the Far East. Since reaching the West around 1900, Zen has cast a spell on many Western artists and writers. Alan Watts spent his life preaching the gospel of Zen, and his finest work is The Way of Zen.

It’s interesting to see how Western writers were moving in the direction of Zen before Zen reached the West. (One suspects that, if Zen hadn’t reached the West, the West would have reached Zen, through the natural evolution of Western philosophy.) Thoreau, for example, has many Zen-ish insights, though he died long before Zen reached the West. Take this passage from Thoreau’s Journals: “The wise man is restful, never restless or impatient. He each moment abides there where he is, as some walkers actually rest the whole body at each step, while others never relax the muscles of the leg till the accumulated fatigue obliges them to stop short.”1 The popularity of meditation and yoga indicates that our culture is ready to listen to the gospel of Zen. Many people in the West are no longer receptive to traditional monotheistic religion, and for those people, Zen offers a different kind of spirituality.

Machiavelli wrote, “Men walk almost always in the paths trodden by others, proceeding in their actions by imitation.”2 Modern culture worships originality, so we need to be reminded of the importance of imitation. Roman culture followed patterns established by the Greeks, and Renaissance culture followed Roman patterns. Nineteenth-century culture was divided in its loyalties: on one hand, it followed classical-pagan patterns, and on the other hand, it followed Gothic-medieval patterns. Twentieth-century culture refused to follow classical or Gothic patterns, refused to follow any patterns; it rejected tradition, and worshipped originality. (If imitation is the sincerest sign of respect, one can say that twentieth-century culture imitated nothing because it respected nothing.) What pattern will twenty-first-century culture follow? Zen offers one such pattern. Zen offers a world-view that has inspired much artistic creativity. Western culture needs to re-connect with its own roots, but it can also benefit from contact with Eastern culture, particularly Zen.

That concludes this first edition of Phlit. (The sun is warm today, and it’s calling me to go outdoors.) Hope to see you again on November 1.

© L. James Hammond 2017
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1B. [2018 note] Another notable contemporary fiction writer is George Saunders. Saunders built a reputation as a writer of short stories. His first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, won the Booker Prize. back
1. Selections From Thoreau’s Journals, 1840 (Introduction and Notes by R. H. Blyth; Tokyo, Daigakushorin; Blyth relied on The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals, edited by Shepard, so this quote can probably be found in The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals). back
2. The Prince, ch. 6 back