I recently returned to New York’s legendary art house IFC cinema to see the new documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, a film forty years in the making co-directed by Robert Weide, a close friend of Vonnegut (1922–2007) and the director of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the 1996 film adaptation of Vonnegut’s Mother Night. Like many Americans, I devoured Vonnegut’s irreverent, satirical novels in high school. I wrote my admissions essay for the University of Chicago about his 1963 Cat’s Cradle, a fictional ethnography the university retroactively accepted as his MA thesis in anthropology. (“I liked the University of Chicago,” he once said. “They didn’t like me.”) Returning to his books in recent weeks, I was still struck by his characteristic combination of cutting humor and utter moral seriousness. The documentary presents Vonnegut as a remarkable friend but also highlights his anti-war politics. He served as an American soldier in World War Two and was captured at the Battle of the Bulge, where most of his division was wiped out. An even more powerful experience was later surviving the allied fire-bombing of Dresden while a German prisoner of war. He struggled for over twenty years to write his “Dresden book” (there’s also a new book about his many aborted attempts, including a play), which finally came out in 1969 as the bestselling Slaughterhouse-Five, which secured his place in the canon of American literature. What finally overcame his seemingly interminable narrative experimentations was the moral urgency of 1969, the high point of the senseless violence of the Vietnam War. As Vonnegut explained, “I think the Vietnam War freed me and other writers, because it made our leadership and our motives seem so scruffy and essentially stupid. We could finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis.” Vonnegut’s lifelong reflections on violence exemplify the kind of multidirectional memory that drives my own research on catastrophe, and in particular the phenomenon memory studies scholars call remediation, whereby certain aspects of the past gain new salience and become narratable in light of the changing present. In his eighties, Vonnegut came out of retirement to write a series of columns against the Iraq War for the leftist Chicago-based magazine In These Times. “Like my distinct betters Einstein and Twain,” he wrote in 2004, “I now am tempted to give up on people too. And, as some of you may know, this is not the first time I have surrendered to a pitiless war machine. My last words? ’Life is no way to treat an animal.’”
“O Shariputra, form is not separate from boundlessness; boundlessness is not separate from form. Form is boundlessness; boundlessness is form.” In the last weeks, I have been reading Kazuaki Tanahashi’s in-depth guide to the Heart Sutra, one of the most widely recited and studied scriptures in Mahayana Buddhism. Also known as the Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra, it is chanted by millions of Zen practitioners worldwide. With few lines, the Heart Sutra reflects on emptiness, transience and awakening, leading a path to the other shore, towards “wisdom beyond wisdom.”
In his extensive study, the Japanese Zen teacher and calligrapher offers a cross-cultural history and translation of the Sutra. In Sanskrit, the word sūtra means scripture, but also string, line or thread. Accordingly, the Heart Sutra is presented as a travelling text conjoining “the invisible connections among bits of information scattered throughout Asia and beyond.” Tracing the Sutra’s centuries-long pilgrimage to the East and West, Tanahashi elucidates its pan-Asian and global transmission; from early Korean woodblock printing, calligraphy and Phoenician scripture to California’s ashrams. In this intricate web of correspondences, the Heart Sutra is the thread that holds everything together.
Tanahashi’s historiography is animated by his own cross-cultural experience of “living in India, translating into Japanese the books addressed to a U.S. audience by a Vietnamese master who lived in France.” It suits the picture that his first encounter with the sutra was in a Zen temple in San Francisco. Tanahashi recalls:
One of [the students], a relaxed young man with an unshaven face and long hair, who might then have been called a beatnik, showed me around the city in his old truck. The interior of his vehicle was ornately decorated; a small Buddha figure was glued onto the centre of the dashboard. He would turn his ignition key, offer incense to the Buddha, and take off. While driving, he listened to a tape recording of a group chanting the Heart Sutra. I must admit that it sounded rather weird to my ears. This was my initiation into the sixties counterculture in the United States.
In Tanahashi’s footsteps from India and Japan to Hawaii, Central Asia and Korea, the reader slowly uncovers the fascinating journey of the Heart Sutra. On this long path, we meet great translators and mediators, such as the Chinese monk Xuangzang (602–664). Finally, in Tanahashi’s translation, the famous concept of emptiness (śūnyatā) reappears as boundlessness or zeroness, with “no eyes, no ears, no nose.”
This past week, I returned to one of the more idiosyncratic works to emerge from the debates over objectivity and archival mediation that roiled the historical profession in the last quarter of the twentieth century: Carolyn Kay Steedman’s 1987 classic, Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. Resisting precise formal categorization, Landscape for a Good Woman draws on (and unsettles) the discursive idioms of psychoanalysis, Marxist and feminist cultural criticism, traditional historical scholarship on class, and memoir to investigate twentieth-century British working-class girlhood through the prism, per its title, of two lives: those of Steedman’s mother and Steedman herself. In Steedman’s words, it is a story which concerns itself less with “what really happened” and more with interpreting “the experience of my own childhood, and the way in which my mother re-asserted, reversed and restructured her own within mine.” A set of personal and epistemological questions animates Steedman’s account: what desires, privations, and attachments experienced in childhood motivated her mother to abandon her family’s Labour roots and embrace post-Attlee Toryism in the 1950s, the decade of Steedman’s own upbringing? How do concrete historical phenomena––the exigencies of wage labor, the promises and limits of welfare state provisions, the multiple forms of productive and reproductive labor women are required to perform––accumulate in our psyches, our endocrine and nervous systems, and shape how we narrate our lives? I won’t give away too much, but Steedman’s deft balancing of emotional candor and conceptual rigor foreshadows, for me, some of the genric experimentations of “autotheory” pioneered by Paul Preciado in Testo Junkie and exposed to a broader audience through Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, among others. The recent turn to affect theory in social and labor history, exemplified by Gabe Winant’s phenomenal The Next Shift, testifies to the enduring relevance of Steedman’s work. Moreover, in an era of endless ethnographic analyses probing why working-class people “vote against their interests” and embrace right-wing populists, it would be prudent to sit with Steedman’s provocations and consider whether academic and media elites––left, right, and center––are asking all the wrong questions about class. Steedman’s book reminded me of Mike Leigh’s gorgeous 1990 film Life is Sweet, which similarly grapples with the psychosexual dimensions of working-class family life. Both explore how histories of exploitation inhere and disclose themselves, unexpectedly, without warning, in the hyper-intimate, mundane textures of everyday life, in structures of desire, in “the processes by which we come to step into the landscape, and see ourselves.”
Featured Image: Trompe-l’oeil still-life. Samuel van Hoogstraten, 1664.