Academic journal article Journal of Global Buddhism

Nothing & Everything: The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant-Garde 1942 - 1962

Academic journal article Journal of Global Buddhism

Nothing & Everything: The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant-Garde 1942 - 1962

Article excerpt

Nothing & Everything: The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant-Garde 1942 - 1962. By Ellen Pearlman. Berkeley: Evolver Editions, 2012, 264 pages, ISBN 978-1583943632 (paperback), $21.95.

Reviewed by Marc Olmsted

Ellen Pearlman does a pretty bang-up job in a too slim volume on the subject of Buddhism's effect on the American avant-garde from 1942 to 1962. Because of the specificity of the time line, this is mostly the influence of Zen Buddhism as popularized by the writings of premier Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki.

The early chapter on D.T. Suzuki himself may be the gem of the entire book. We have an intimate portrait of a man often seen as basically an academic more than a practitioner of Zen. Here the whole person emerges, and we see how special (and brilliant) he was, and the depth of his actual practice, which includes a description of his kensho or flash of enlightenment.

The chapter on John Cage that follows this one is also exceptional, with a similar portrait to Suzuki's of both the man and his music. For those unfamiliar with Cage, his concerts were playful and maddening, using randomness, instruments that could include household items, and even the shifts of the uncomfortable audience in their seats to suggest an almost enforced Zen sitting confrontation with boredom and inattentiveness.

The book ends very nicely with a dovetailing account of Beats Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky meeting D.T. Suzuki in 1957. It is a story that has been told elsewhere, but here we also get the memories of Suzuki's then-secretary Mihoko Okamura and her own account of Suzuki's positive summation of the Beats, even as he understood the discipline that was still absent.

As Pearlman gets into considerably denser material with Suzuki's influence beyond and through Cage, it is hard not to sense a need to hurry things up in the limited time she has left. Descriptions of the Fluxus group that came out of Cage, and the influence of Zen on Abstract Expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock becomes increasingly a laundry list and brief catalog sketch. There is still room to discuss the pre-surrealist movement Dada and the strangely Western karma of Zen-influenced art on a newly secular postwar Japanese avant-garde. There is the intuited if unintentional Zen of presenting a urinal as art (with Marcel Duchamp signing it "R. Mutt") as a natural progression that would eventually yield Andy Warhol's soup cans, both artists likely without awareness of Zen theory of the ordinary and the boring. Besides a secondary influence of Buddhists such as Cage on an artist like Warhol, one might also consider artists naturally arriving (as perhaps Duchamp did) at some of the same empiric conclusions about mind itself in efforts to deconstruct concept and perception.

By the time we reach the New York collaboration between Saburo Hasegawa, the first Japanese abstract painter, the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and Franz Kline the European-American painter, the absence of good photographs becomes somewhat like listening to a restaurant menu. It is fascinating, important, but very hard to grasp without previous knowledge.

The tidy thesis of Suzuki as prime source works well for the most part, except with its lack of influence on Kerouac, who found his Buddhism elsewhere in the public library and was drawn to different elements closer to Theravada and (at least in spirit) Pure Land Schools of China and Japan, the latter mostly because of his Catholic background and propensity for religious devotion. Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen were clearly influenced by D.T. Suzuki, but Ginsberg's Buddhism is owed primarily to Kerouac, and doesn't really even begin to blossom until his trip to India in 1962, even if he had read D.T. Suzuki prior even to hearing about Buddhism from Kerouac. Kerouac in his book Dharma Bums shows he is not all that interested in Zen specifically, even after meeting Snyder and Whalen. …

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