Academic journal article African American Review

Charles Johnson's Way to a Spiritual Literature

Academic journal article African American Review

Charles Johnson's Way to a Spiritual Literature

Article excerpt

In his interviews and essays, Charles Johnson has been unfailingly generous in describing the forces, circumstances, and choices that have shaped his literary career. He has helped us better understand the notable shifts that led him from being a visual artist to becoming a literary one, from being a protest novelist to becoming a practitioner of philosophical fiction. He has helpfully described the variety of subjects he has seriously studied, the particular types of disciplines that have informed his outlook, and most significantly, the sources of spiritual knowledge that have been most signally important in his life and works. We know what kinds of writing he produced (but did not publish) before his platform book, Oxherding Tale, and we know the sources of much that appears in that book because of his honest commentary on the variety of forces (cultural, political, and personal) acting on him as he transformed those forces into a work of art. In a word, then, Johnson has been an artist who has provided us with candid, searching, and useful autobiographical information that has helped us much better appreciate not only the subtleties and richness of his writing, but sometimes its very cultural and social grounding. In this paper, I would like to examine how we can understand something about the trajectory of Johnson's career in light of a comment he made in a remarkable retrospective moment, when he stated that his body of work is fundamentally about the spiritual. As he put it in an interview with Michael Boccia: "when I think back over the products of thirty years, it seems to me that my fiction is at bottom a form of spiritual literature" (205).

Although Johnson does not offer much by way of definition of what constitutes the distinctive features of "spiritual literature," it is clear from the list of books he cites in that interview--classic books of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and modern writers in those traditions--that he means a form of writing that explores what he calls "the central questions in Eastern religions" (205). (1) The Eastern religion and spiritual practice that has been most prominent in his work since the publication of Oxherding Tale in 1982 has been Buddhism, of course. A brief spiritual biography of Johnson would demonstrate the variety of ways he has arrived at Buddhism over the course of his life, beginning with a youthful encounter with Vipassana meditation in 1962 (Whalen-Bridge, "Whole Sight" 251). After taking what he calls the "first, tentative steps on a path" that would prove deeply important to his life and work, Johnson developed a fascination that he would pursue at first with "only a scholarly commitment to Buddhism" through the seventies until he went to San Francisco in 1981 and "fully surrendered" to both meditative practice and Buddhism (Byrd, I Call 7, 26). Following that "surrender" in 1981, Johnson made Buddhist ideas an unmistakable feature of his work--"a dimension present in [his] fiction," as he puts it. The final stage in his spiritual path was what he describes as his "complete and public devotion to the Buddhadharma as a spiritual practice and way of life" which was "not made fully explicit" in his writings until the 2003 publication of Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (xv).

Even before Johnson's recent declaration of his public commitment to the Buddhadharma, many critics were indeed finding in Johnson a writer who, in the words of Jonathan Little, is "fundamentally idealistic and spiritually oriented" (Charles Johnson 161). Yet critics of Johnson were also aware of another side to his work--the political side that manifested itself, among other places, in his attempt to produce protest fiction, and, most importantly, in his rigorous study of Karl Marx and the Marxist tradition more broadly. Indeed, not long after first discovering meditation, Johnson also round dialectical materialism. "Marxism," he writes in an autobiographical essay, "was my passion and political orientation throughout graduate school" (Byrd, I Call 23). …

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