The Art of Writing Terrain

In 1895, in his essay “The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper,” Mark Twain not only assassinated James Fenimore Cooper but also disemboweled him and slowly, painstakingly, drew out his guts and spread them in the bright sun for all to see. The essence of Cooper’s crime was the violation of physical law in his narrative. He characteristically creates a situation in which physical relations are simultaneously invoked and betrayed through studious avoidance of physical probabilities:

If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper’s proudest creations in the way of “situations” suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer’s protecting gift. Cooper’s eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of course a man who cannot see the commonest little every-day matters accurately is working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a “situation.” In the “Deerslayer” tale Cooper has a stream which is fifty feet wide where it flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to twenty as it meanders along for no given reason, and yet when a stream acts like that it ought to be required to explain itself. Fourteen pages later the width of the brook’s outlet from the lake has suddenly shrunk thirty feet, and become “the narrowest part of the stream.” This shrinkage is not accounted for. The stream has bends in it, a sure indication that it has alluvial banks and cuts them; yet these bends are only thirty and fifty feet long. If Cooper had been a nice and punctilious observer he would have noticed that the bends were often nine hundred feet long than short of it.
   Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a “sapling” to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are “laying” for a settler’s scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions “it was little more than a modern canal boat.” Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of “greater breadth than common.” Let us guess then that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies “two-thirds of the ark’s length” — a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say — a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms — each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa’s bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream’s exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians — say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper’s Indian’s never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.
   The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet
long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he judged, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in the stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.
   There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did — you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat — for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper’s inadequacy as observer. 

The idea of “accuracy” as a standard for narrative might not have been new for Twain, but it was for Cooper, writing over 50 years before Twain. Nowadays we expect it of our writers — that is to say, we demand in our narratives a respect for the physical laws of space and time, such that descriptions of action have to take into account probabilities of spatial relations, specifics of relative location, and the laws of physics. This demand was cultivated over the course of the 19th century — for example, through detective novels and courtroom stories, where temporal and spatial exactitude is crucial; and scientific and exploratory prose, which required detailed maps and diagrams. Contemporary with Cooper and an admirer of his, Balzac would render streets, city neighborhoods, and interiors, with scrupulous grasp of detail. In Père Goriot (1835), the Maison Vauquer is laid out so cogently that as the protagonist Rastignac moves from his room to the kitchen we know exactly which rooms and landings he has to go through and what is around them. In today’s action thrillers we will know the precise distance between two antagonists, what lies between them and around them, what they can see of each other, the makes of gun they each have, how fast the bullets fly, and what the impact will be at that distance. In contrast, when Homer describes a battle, he will say that one warrior threw a very large rock at another, but not how big the rock was, what shape, how far, how high it had to be lifted, whether uphill or downhill, how big the men were. The same vagueness is found in any description of action before about 1830. In the older narratives action took place in “heroic” or mythic space; now, they have to take place in “realistic” space. Everything that Twain criticizes in Cooper can be seen in narratives of action before 1800; the difference is that Cooper, in daring to specify lengths, distances, and times, is pretending to observe natural laws while flouting them. Cooper’s problem is that he falls between old and new, and fails by both mythic and realistic standards. 

   I don’t know when or how the new standards entered literature, but certainly the habit of spatial accuracy was already a feature of Balzac’s treatment of the city and of houses; he did not write much about the countryside. With country landscapes, in particular the wilderness, I suspect the groundbreakers would have been the German Romantics and all those they influenced, including American writers like Charles Brockden Brown. However it developed, this shift in the handling of landscape signified a revolution in the conception of a human being: how we relate to a landscape, how we situate ourselves within a land, tells us what we think about human nature — are we “above” nature, or bound and trapped by it, or are we partners of some kind? There is an analogous revolution in mathematics, when Copernicus turned the Ptolemy’s geocentric planetary model inside out. For Ptolemy, the path of each planet could be rigorously worked out and rendered predictable in relation to the sun — but not in relation to each other. There was no unifying device to make the paths of the planets commensurable; this was partly because Ptolemy was interested in the apparent path of each planet across the sky, not in orbits — and partly because as a polytheist he was fine with the picture of a bunch of different gods with different personalities and agendas, all in tension with one another but not reducible to one scheme. Copernicus on the other hand finds a way to make the radii of the orbits commensurable, so that now the planets all move in one system with sun as center, and the relations between them can be articulated. Accuracy now is based on a unification of spatial relations. In 1845, with regard to narrative, Fenimore Cooper found himself making gestures towards unity of space but unable to understand what that would mean in terms of action in that space.

   Tolkien tends not to calibrate in terms of feet and inches, but on the whole he sees his topographies with uncanny precision. When he lapses, it tends to be in his accounts of heroic warfare, in which his interest has a de rigueur, desultory quality and teeters towards bombast and vagueness:

A broad stairway, climbed from the Deep up to the Rock and the rear-gate of the Hornburg. Near the bottom stood Aragorn. In his hand still Andúril gleamed, and the terror of the sword for a while held back the enemy, as one by one all who could gain the stair passed up towards the gate. Behind on the upper steps knelt Legolas. His bow was bent, but one gleaned arrow was all that he had left, and he peered out now, ready to shoot the first Orc that should dare to approach the stair.

‘All who can have now got safe within, Aragorn,’ he called. ‘Come back!’

Aragorn turned and sped up the stair; but as he ran he stumbled in his weariness. At once his enemies leapt forward. Up came the Orcs, yelling, with their long arms stretched out to seize him. The foremost fell with Legolas’ last arrow in his throat. but the rest sprang over him. Then a great boulder, cast from the outer wall above, crashed down upon the stair, and hurled them back into the Deep. Aragorn gained the door, and swiftly it clanged to behind him. (143)

How long is this stair, how far “behind” is Legolas, how far away are the Orcs and where are they hiding, how many are there, why is no one else ready with a covering arrow, would Orcs seriously be running “with their long arms stretched out to seize him” (like the pursuing monsters in a Scooby-Doo cartoon), how big is the great boulder, what is it doing on the outer wall above, does it come crashing down the stairs or just drop onto the Orcs, how many Orcs again…?  This lack of specificity is characteristic of Tolkien’s combat scenes and is redolent of the old “heroic” manner of describing action. 

  However, he is intensely interested in descriptions of journeying, and in these he has two modes, a warrior-mode and a hobbit-mode. The first is sweeping, covering wide expanses both physically and visually.

All day the track of their enemies led straight on, going north-west without a break or turn. As once again the day wore to its end they came to long treeless slopes, where the land rose, swelling up towards a line of low humpbacked downs ahead. The orc-trail grew fainter as it bent north towards them, for the ground became harder and the grass shorter. Far away to the left the river Entwash wound, a silver thread in a green floor. No moving thing could be seen. Often Aragorn wondered that they saw no sign of beast or man. The dwellings of the Rohirrim were for the most part many leagues away to the South, under the wooded eaves of the White Mountains, now hidden in mist and cloud; yet the Horse-lords had formerly kept many herds and studs in the Eastemnet, this easterly region of their realm, and there the herdsmen had wandered much, living in camp and tent, even in winter-time. But now all the land was empty, and there was silence that did not seem to be the quiet of peace.

At dusk they halted again. Now twice twelve leagues they had passed over the plains of Rohan and the wall of the Emyn Muil was lost in the shadows of the East. (29)

Apart from “the ground became harder and the grass shorter,” the dominant impression is of a soaring view of the land, of huge distances covered and eyes roaming far and wide. Among the greatest pleasures of Tolkien are the maps — as engrossing as the fold-out maps in old tomes of history or exploration, but doubly delightful because they conjure up a complete imaginary world, full of corners and possibilities,  which Tolkien holds in his head. This mode of topographical description evokes a whole map, where features of the landscape are seen from heights. The detail of the “wooded eaves of the White Mountains” being “now hidden from mist and cloud” is brilliantly evocative because it summons up not what is seen but what is known to be there: thus the world exists, regardless of what we happen to see. The maps reassure us of that. Moreover we are reminded of the history of places through the absence of the herds and herdsmen. The heroic landscape is brought into being by an aerial view with long range of vision, which in turn evokes things known but not seen — for this landscape is complete, full of known significances, a world worthy of being defended. Warriors “pass over” this land, constantly seeking heights:

The others sprang up, and almost at once they set off again. Slowly the downs drew near. It was still an hour before noon when they reached them: green slopes rising to bare ridges that ran in a line straight towards the North. At their feet the ground was dry and the turf short, but a long strip of sunken land, some ten miles wide, lay between them and the river wandering deep in dim thickets of reed and rush. Just to the West of the southernmost slope there was a great ring, where the turf had been torn and beaten by many trampling feet. From it the orc-trail ran out again, turning north along the dry skirts of the hills. Aragorn halted and examined the tracks closely.

‘They rested here a while,’ he said, ‘but even the outward trail is already old. I fear that your heart spoke truly, Legolas: it is thrice twelve hours, I guess, since the Orcs stood where we now stand. If they held to their pace, then at sundown yesterday they would reach the borders of Fangorn.’

‘I can see nothing away north or west but grass dwindling into mist,’ said Gimli. ‘Could we see the forest, if we climbed the hills?’ (30)

The maps in Tolkien present the substratum of a world that underlies and supports any particular experience in it. Aragorn stares at trampled turf and earth, but from this he infers numbers, times, distances, and directions. In a world, everything has location; and everything in motion has a direction. It is the stranger here, Gimli, who is trapped in the realm of what can be seen: ‘I can see nothing away north or west but grass dwindling into mist,’ said Gimli. ‘Could we see the forest, if we climbed the hills?’

   The second mode of description is characterized by a sense of confinement in the immediate realm of the senses. The map exists somewhere, but for us it has been lost. It is like losing our way in a familiar forest because we took an unaccustomed turn somewhere and now can recognize none of the old landmarks. Presumed knowledge starts to dissolve, and we are uncomfortably thrown back onto the little that our senses can perceive. We guess at where things might be, go around in circles, and often have to go back — and each step of the way the going is difficult, never soaring.

It was the third evening since they had fled from the Company, as far as they could tell: they had almost lost count of the hours during which they had climbed and laboured among the barren slopes and stones of the Emyn Muil, sometimes retracing their steps because they could find no way forward, sometimes discovering that they had wandered in a circle back to where they had been hours before. Yet on the whole they had worked steadily eastward, keeping as near as they could find a way to the outer edge of this strange twisted knot of hills. But always they found its outward faces sheer, high and impassable, frowning over the plain below; beyond its tumbled skirts lay livid festering marshes where nothing moved and not even a bird was to be seen.

The hobbits stood now on the brink of a tall cliff, bare and bleak, its feet wrapped in mist; and behind them rose the broken highlands crowned with drifting cloud. A chill wind` blew from the East. Night was gathering over the shapeless lands before them; the sickly green of them was fading to a sullen brown. Far away to the right the Anduin, that had gleamed fitfully in sun-breaks during the day, was now hidden in shadow. But their eyes did not look beyond the River, back to Gondor, to their friends, to the lands of Men. South and east they stared to where, at the edge of the oncoming night, a dark line hung, like distant mountains of motionless smoke. (209)

It takes smaller creatures than traditional heroes to experience the landscape like this: nothing is easy, and the way is crowded with obstructions. Notice how much more alive Tolkien’s writing is in these passages than in the descriptions of heroic action. If you read it aloud carefully, you will notice a perfection in his control of cadence — for example, in the last sentence hear how “South and east they stared to” is in trochaic meter that shades to dactylic “where at the edge of the oncoming night” (or anapestic, depending on how you take the pivot where) before stabilizing into a classical iambic tetrameter “a dark line hung, like distant mountains of motionless smoke.” These sentences sing. As before, the precision of the narrative perception here depends on what is not seen: the Anduin is “hidden in shadow,” the hobbits do not look back to Gondor, and the powers of vision are bounded by “the oncoming night.” A dark line hung, like distant mountains of motionless smoke is a potently concise evocation of what lies ahead of them.

   The hobbits’ journey is stubborn struggle and ceaseless exhaustion. In the following passage, what Frodo and Sam go through is probably like something we have all experienced, possibly in the rocky hills near our own homes:

But that day wore on, and when afternoon faded towards evening they were still scrambling along the ridge and had found no way of escape.

Sometimes in the silence of that barren country they fancied that they heard faint sounds behind them, a stone falling, or the imagined step of flapping feet on the rock. But if they halted and stood still listening, they heard no more, nothing but the wind sighing over the edges of the stones – yet even that reminded them of breath softly hissing through sharp teeth.

All that day the outer ridge of the Emyn Muil had been bending gradually northward, as they struggled on. Along its brink there now stretched a wide tumbled flat of scored and weathered rock, cut every now and again by trench-like gullies that sloped steeply down to deep notches in the cliff-face. To find a path in these clefts, which were becoming deeper and more frequent, Frodo and Sam were driven to their left, well away from the edge, and they did not notice that for several miles they had been going slowly but steadily downhill: the cliff-top was sinking towards the level of the lowlands.

At last they were brought to a halt. The ridge took a sharper bend northward and was gashed by a deeper ravine. On the further side it reared up again, many fathoms at a single leap: a great grey cliff loomed before them, cut sheer down as if by a knife stroke. They could go no further forwards, and must turn now either west or east. But west would lead them only into more labour and delay, back towards the heart of the hills; east would take them to the outer precipice.

`There’s nothing for it but to scramble down this gully, Sam,’ said Frodo. `Let’s see what it leads to!’ (211)

Passages like this need to be read slowly if we are to feel the journey. Too often, under the compulsion of plot, we speed through them and do not notice how carefully, how beautifully, Tolkien brings terrain to life. We do not wander across a map, but across a land — which is a being of cliffs and gullies, not lines and white spaces. The hobbits’ adventure is through and in a landscape, not over it. In this respect Tolkien surpasses most other writers, because his world is not just a map but a terrain with a life of its own. He is like the Japanese poet Basho, who, in travel journals much shorter than any book by Tolkien, lovingly renders not just the high points of a journey but also the hardships, agonies, aches, and sicknesses — all of which are essential constituents of any adventure or pilgrimage. They make up what it is for a fragile mortal body to move through a landscape — and to love travel, one must also love its frustrations, obstacles, fatigue, and discomfort. It is not simply that the struggling of the hobbits have to be described to make the adventure more realistic; they are not just a literary device for creating plausibility. Rather, the slow progress over rocks, and the decisions made in fatigue, are of the very essence of the journey. This is why Tolkien is so minutely interested not just in where the hobbits go but how they think about where they go: They could go no further forwards, and must turn now either west or east. But west would lead them only into more labour and delay, back towards the heart of the hills; east would take them to the outer precipice.

   Sometimes I find myself wondering if the Lord of the Rings would be a better book if I put the plot on the back burner and concentrated more on what to me are the real beauties of the book. It is like hiking with small kids: you can spend a whole day and get no further than a hundred yards, because they want to stop and look at things, like rocks, streams, and insects. And when we stop with them and witness how spectacularly individual each pebble is, how no two slopes are the same, how the breeze on our faces is subtly different in different spots on the same stream bank, is it not a richer experience than marching to a destination? Some books blossom when read like this. 


The Love of Trees


For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver. (Martin Luther)

I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.  (Thoreau)

The love of trees is a mysterious thing: some people have it, others don’t. Some people notice individual trees they pass and even stop to behold them, delighting in their shape, their color, or the texture of their bark; others never notice trees unless there is some practical problem associated with them, and see only “trees” generally and not as species, let alone individuals. I have a friend who, housesitting for another friend, had been told to give extra water to the fruit trees but then admitted that he couldn’t tell the difference between the fruit trees in the garden and other trees. I confess that like Thoreau, I am one of those who develop great fondness for individual trees, will walk miles to see them, and rejoice to be in their presence. I know how their branches flow, how their leaves sound in wind and rain, and what birds or animals frequent them. Consequently I also notice if the authors I read relate to trees like I do. Some of my favorite writers seem indifferent to them: Austen, Dostoievsky, Orwell. Others are as smitten with them as I am: Wordsworth, Tolstoy, Chekhov — and in the East, Zhuangzi and Basho. Each of these writers seem to have “special” trees. Among the few fantasy writers that I have read, there is the same divide. Alan Garner and George R.R.Martin both have a strong feel for trees, but it is Tolkien who loves them as only a poet can.

   Throughout the Lord of the Rings trilogy there are episodes that evoke Eden — a time before time, and beings who reach back into a golden beginning. The Tom Bombadil and Lothlorien chapters were essential thematic motherlodes in the Fellowship, and in the Two Towers the same functions are satisfied by Treebeard and the Ents, who are shepherds of the trees, primordial gardeners and nature-guardians like Tom Bombadil. It is these sections that elevate the trilogy from a narrative of cosmic war to a kind of hymn to nature, giving a spiritual background to the struggle of good and evil. When we meet Treebeard, somehow we know that in the end everything will be okay, and that even though there may be tremendous destruction in the wars the spirit of nature will outlast it all just as it has already outlasted eons of wars: if Tom Bombadil and the Ents preceded all the Saurons of past ages, how can the Sauron of this age have strength to vanquish them? The Nature-spirits of Middle Earth create in the reader a deep faith in the underlying order of life, so that the epic tragic tales all take place in the quiet embrace of a divine comedy that cannot be hurt by any of the conflict.

   An Ent is what a tree would be if it could perceive, think, and speak as a human being: it is both tree and person, a hermaphrodite, embodying both ways of being.

They found that they were looking at a most extraordinary face. It belonged to a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck. Whether it was clad in stuff like green and grey bark, or whether that was its hide, was difficult to say. At any rate the arms, at a short distance from the trunk, were not wrinkled, but covered with a brown smooth skin. The large feet had seven toes each. The lower part of the long face was covered with a sweeping grey beard, bushy, almost twiggy at the roots, thin and mossy at the ends. But at the moment the hobbits noted little but the eyes. These deep eyes were now surveying them, slow and solemn, but very penetrating. They were brown, shot with a green light. Often afterwards Pippin tried to describe his first impression of them.

‘One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know but it felt as if something that grew in the ground-asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between roof-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.’ (66-67)

The second paragraph of this could only have been written by someone who has spent time gazing on a particular tree for hours, watching the light play on every part of it, and meditating on its life from top to bottom. We cannot seize the essence of a tree as quickly as that of a bird, whose movement can say everything about it: a hummingbird at a trumpetvine, the sudden fluttering of pigeons disturbed in an attic. A tree needs more time to be grasped, and the slowing of our minds to contemplate it gives us a glimpse into the long epochs of a tree’s perception. 

‘Hm, but you are hasty folk, I see,’ said Treebeard. ‘I am honoured by your confidence; but you should not be too free all at once. There are Ents and Ents, you know; or there are Ents and things that look like Ents but ain’t, as you might say. I’ll call you Merry and Pippin if you please – nice names. For I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate.’ A queer half-knowing, half-humorous look came with a green flicker into his eyes. ‘For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.’ (68)

What we take to be an event is, for a tree, a moment in a much longer event, which cannot be named until it is completed. We name things according to our own scale, which may not be the things’ own scale — and the naming of a thing on its own scale might mean nothing to a creature that lives on an incomparably smaller scale. What sense would the idea of a solar year make to a being who lives less than a day?

   Between trees and Ents the boundary seems to be porous, as if they were really two phases of the same being — asleep or awake:

‘The trees and the Ents,’ said Treebeard. ‘I do not understand all that goes on myself, so I cannot explain it to you. Some of us are still true Ents, and lively enough in our fashion, but many are growing sleepy, going tree-ish, as you might say. Most of the trees are just trees, of course; but many are half awake. Some are quite wide awake, and a few are, well, ah, well getting Entish. That is going on all the time.’ (71)

   Tolkien emphasizes one aspect of trees that is obvious to all: they stand. Their standing inspires health practices such as Qigong standing meditations, in which you stand still for long periods with arms held in various positions. To do so effectively, your alignment and posture have to be balanced and stable, such that there is minimal expenditure of energy and maximal muscular relaxation, and both breathing and heart rate slow down naturally. There are numerous passages of great beauty in which Treebeard is described as just standing, drinking in the elements, bathing in rain and light:

‘Those were the broad days! Time was when I could walk and sing all day and hear no more than the echo of my own voice in the hollow hills. The woods were like the woods of Lothlórien. only thicker stronger, younger. And the smell of the air! I used to spend a week just breathing.’ (72)

For a moment Treebeard stood under the rain of the falling spring, and took a deep breath; then he laughed, and passed inside. A great stone table stood there, but no chairs. At the back of the bay it was already quite dark. Treebeard lifted two great vessels and stood them on the table. They seemed to be filled with water; but he held his hands over them, and immediately they began to glow, one with a golden and the other with a rich green light; and the blending of the two lights lit the bay; as if the sun of summer was shining through a roof of young leaves. Looking back, the hobbits saw that the trees in the court had also begun to glow, faintly at first, but steadily quickening, until every leaf was edged with light: some green, some gold, some red as copper; while the tree-trunks looked like pillars moulded out of luminous stone. (73-74)

He strode to the archway and stood for some time under the falling rain of the spring. Then he laughed and shook himself, and wherever the drops of water fell glittering from him to the ground they glinted like red and green sparks. He came back and laid himself on the bed again and was silent. (77)

Merry and Pippin climbed on to the bed and curled up in the soft grass and fern. It was fresh, and sweet-scented, and warm. The lights died down, and the glow of the trees faded; but outside under the arch they could see old Treebeard standing, motionless, with his arms raised above his head. The bright stars peered out of the sky, and lit the falling water as it spilled on to his fingers and head, and dripped, dripped, in hundreds of silver drops on to his feet. Listening to the tinkling of the drops the hobbits fell asleep. (81)

Such passages contrast with the rapid action of the book’s war episodes and also with the painful onward effort of Frodo’s journey, and it seems appropriate that it is the two hobbits Merry and Pippin who encounter Treebeard first, since they themselves are good at  staying put, albeit while sitting and eating. In one of the loveliest passages, the Ent Bregalad delivers to these two hobbits an elegy on the rowan that turns into an elegy for the destruction of all trees at the hands, beaks, or blades of the quicker beings that fuss around them and are heedless of the life in them:

‘There were rowan-trees in my home,’ said Bregalad, softly and sadly, ‘rowan-trees that took root when I was an Enting, many many years ago in the quiet of the world. The oldest were planted by the Ents to try and please the Entwives; but they looked at them and smiled and said that they knew where whiter blossom and richer fruit were growing. Yet there are no trees of all that race, the people of the Rose, that are so beautiful to me. And these trees grew and grew, till the shadow of each was like a green hall, and their red berries in the autumn were a burden, and a beauty and a wonder. Birds used to flock there. I like birds, even when they chatter; and the rowan has enough and to spare. But the birds became unfriendly and greedy and tore at the trees, and threw the fruit down and did not eat it. Then Orcs came with axes and cut down my trees. I came and called them by their long names, but they did not quiver, they did not hear or answer: they lay dead.

O Orofarnë, Lassemista, Carnimírië!

O rowan fair, upon your hair how white the blossom lay!

O rowan mine, I saw you shine upon a summer’s day,

Your rind so bright, your leaves so light, your voice so cool and soft:

Upon your head how golden-red the crown you bore aloft!

O rowan dead, upon your head your hair is dry and grey;

Your crown is spilled, your voice is stilled for ever and a day.

O Orofarnë, Lassemista, Carnimírië!

The hobbits fell asleep to the sound of the soft singing of Bregalad, that seemed to lament in many tongues the fall of trees that he had loved. (87)

Although there are noble, heroic trees in Tolkien  — for example, the white tree of Numenor, the Mallorn —  such trees are icons noticed and revered by characters who view themselves as epic heroes. To them, ordinary trees are nothing, unless there is something of epic scale about them. It takes hobbits to relate to Ents in an intimate, affectionate way, because hobbits — content in their smaller scales — are more accepting of the different living things in the unheroic world. Thus Pippin and Merry simply notice more trees than Aragorn or Faramir would. It is simply because they don’t need anything bigger.

 In this way they came at last to what looked like an impenetrable wall of dark evergreen trees, trees of a kind that the hobbits had never seen before: they branched out right from the roots, and were densely clad in dark glossy leaves like thornless holly, and they bore many stiff upright flower-spikes with large shining olive-coloured buds… It was smooth and grassclad inside, and there were no trees except three very tall and beautiful silver-birches that stood at the bottom of the bowl. Two other paths led down into the dingle: from the west and from the east…At first Merry and Pippin were struck chiefly by the variety that they saw: the many shapes, and colours, the differences in girth; and height, and length of leg and arm; and in the number of toes and fingers (anything from three to nine). A few seemed more or less related to Treebeard, and reminded them of beech-trees or oaks. But there were other kinds. (83)

   There are two aspects of the Ents that remain undeveloped in Tolkien’s work. The first is the germ of moral judgment in them, whereby they see themselves as the anti-Saruman, or rather, they see Saruman as the enemy of nature. 

 ‘Saruman is a Wizard,’ answered Treebeard. ‘More than that I cannot say. I do not know the history of Wizards. They appeared first after the Great Ships came over the Sea; but if they came with the Ships I never can tell. Saruman was reckoned great among them, I believe. He gave up wandering about and minding the affairs of Men and Elves, some time ago – you would call it a very long time ago: and he settled down at Angrenost, or Isengard as the Men of Rohan call it. He was very quiet to begin with, but his fame began to grow. He was chosen to be head of the White Council, they say; but that did not turn out too well. I wonder now if even then Saruman was not turning to evil ways. But at any rate he used to give no trouble to his neighbours. I used to talk to him. There was a time when he was always walking about my woods. He was polite in those days, always asking my leave (at least when he met me); and always eager to listen. I told him many things that he would never have found out by himself; but he never repaid me in like kind. I cannot remember that he ever told. me anything. And he got more and more like that; his face, as I remember it – I have not seen it for many a day – became like windows in a stone wall: windows with shutters inside.

‘I think that I now understand what he is up to. He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.‘ (76)

To Tolkien via the Ents, Saruman breathes the breath of the modern age; he is the technologist, the maker of engines for the domination of nature — but in time he himself has been taken over by the Engine: He has a mind of metal and wheels. In such an interpretation of Ents and Saruman as antitheses to one another,  it is allegorically fitting that the Ents the ones who will bring down Saruman with contemptuous ease; he has no chance, because the Ents wield all the might of nature when once they decide to act. I think Tolkien was aware that there was something inherently perfunctory and anticlimactic about this, and this is one reason why the battle of Isengard cannot be any kind of culmination but acts as a kind of prelude to the main action that follows.

   The other undeveloped thread concerns those enigmatic creatures, the Entwives, whose disappearance has left the Ents with an ancient and uncomprehended wound:

 ‘I remember it was long ago – in the time of the war between Sauron and the Men of the Sea – desire came over me to see Fimbrethil again. Very fair she was still in my eyes, when I had last seen her, though little like the Entmaiden of old. For the Entwives were bent and browned by their labour; their hair parched by the sun to the hue of ripe corn and their cheeks like red apples. Yet their eyes were still the eyes of our own people. We crossed over Anduin and came to their land: but we found a desert: it was all burned and uprooted, for war had passed over it. But the Entwives were not there. Long we called, and long we searched; and we asked all folk that we met which way the Entwives had gone. Some said they had never seen them; and some said that they had seen them walking away west, and some said east, and others south. But nowhere that we went could we find them. Our sorrow was very great. Yet the wild wood called, and we returned to it. For many years we used to go out every now and again and look for the Entwives, walking far and wide and calling them by their beautiful names. But as time passed we went more seldom and wandered less far. And now the Entwives are only a memory for us, and our beards are long and grey. The Elves made many songs concerning the Search of the Ents, and some of the songs passed into the tongues of Men. But we made no songs about it, being content to chant their beautiful names when we thought of the Entwives. We believe that we may meet again in a time to come, and perhaps we shall find somewhere a land where we can live together and both be content. But it is foreboded that that will only be when we have both lost all that we now have.’ (79-80)

Even these majestically powerful beings are thus riven with incompleteness and yearning, and Tolkien deliberately never resolves this: “I think,” he wrote in one of his letters, “that in fact the Entwives have disappeared for good, being destroyed with their gardens in the War of the Last Alliance.” The guardian forces of the natural world are already broken before our wars have even started, so even though they may win victories over the likes of Saruman, primal harmony can never be restored. The trees may be protected, but their protectors cannot be happy. 

    Part of the poignancy of the Ents is that they are fantasy and we all know it: in our world there are no Ents, no natural giant protectors of the forests, no Ent army to come and save them. Our trees are on their own, vulnerable to all who choose to take or not take. The triumph of the Ents over Saruman is on the surface a gesture of hope, but deep down it is a confession of fragility. This is partly why Tolkien does not allow the Ents to be fulfilled and self-sufficient like Tom Bombadil, who is an unfallen, invulnerable Adam.

   In conclusion, to me the Ents are for the most part a wonderful blend of lyric, comic, and elegiac: lyric when they sing of nature an allow the play of light, air, and water on their bark and leaves; comic when they march uproariously into war and give reassurance to the whole world of the invincibility of nature; and elegiac when they mourn the death of trees and The loss of their other halves. They do not work as epic figures, when they are drawn into polar opposition to Saruman; and when, representing Nature, they start to shade into the allegorical, which Tolkien claims to eschew. They work when they are irreducibly themselves, as a unique fusion of lyric-comic-elegiac, and they would have been well portrayed in film by a genius like Miyazaki, who understands the spiritual dimension of nature. But Treebeard has power to move us only if we know trees intimately, if we have some sense of the life of a tree in all its myriad breathings, turnings and swishings, if have taken time to enter into its long rhythm and understand what it is to stand on the wooded earth amid its congregations. We care for Ents only if we love trees. A reader who wants a tree with superpowers but who has no love for trees would be content with Groot. 

Dog on a Leash



“Fasting,” said a good friend who happened to be in the midst of a fast, “is a good way to confront the ego and reach the limits of its control.” Even in a more gentle fast, where a modicum of food is permitted for mere sustenance, and where one knows with rational clarity that there is no danger of death or even harmful emaciation, one experiences in the first two days the whole range of emotional resistance from discomfort to panicked desperation as the necessities for physical survival are systematically withdrawn. In a more drastic fast, with only fruit juice allowed, I have felt something like terror as my digestive tract was brought to growling, screaming depletion. We hardly ever feel hungry, and are distressed if we have to miss a meal. Rationally considered, the distress cannot be intrinsic to the act of missing a meal, since there are other times — for example, during illness, or after the surfeit of gluttonous festivity — when missing a meal might even feel good. Regularity in feeding brings profound emotional solace: the idea of an unending supply not only of food, but of food we like, reassures us against extinction itself and against the extinction of our individual selves. It safeguards our ego or jiva — and when the food is denied, we are brought to the edge of our ego, as to the edge of an abyss. Of course, rational reflection pulls us back and comforts us: no one we know has perished of fasting, we are in the good hands of our spiritual group, we have done this before and been fine, and so on.

   If you have ever attempted a reading fast, you will know that it is not only physical inanition that can take us to the brink of primal desperation. Just as food and drink are nutriments for the body, to a Buddhist thoughts, perceptions, experiences, and words are nutriments to the consciousness. Try a reading fast. For one week, you are not allowed to read books, magazines, newspapers, web pages, advertisements, emails, social media posts; you are also not allowed to read the information on food packets or toiletries — so at the breakfast table, do not let your eyes wander mechanically to the cereal box. On the first day you will experience various levels of resistance: first, after a few hours of restlessness, you will try to rationalize your way out of the fast, telling yourself you already know what is going to happen or that the whole thing is a pointless exercise; then there will be a period of desperate emptiness, as if coming out of severe addiction, and if you stay with this, you will feel something like terror, as if consciousness itself were being starved to nothingness. An uneducated person will be close to going out of his mind after a day of this, but the lifelong reader will have stores of words and thoughts packed in the memory — volumes and volumes of distraction from the emptiness. But sooner or later one can feel that running dry — at which point the resourceful reader will start to write books, inventing original geometry proofs, thinking up novels. We will do anything but let the mental production grind to a halt. Even if we never get so far, it may be enough to realize how compulsive reading can be; and that even if reading may not be our particular way to feed the mind, we all have a favored strategy to guarantee a constant stream of nutriment to our consciousness. If this stream is staunched or dries up, we find ourselves thrashing  for breath like a fish on dry land.

   When we reach that edge and are about to pull back, it is good to linger there a bit and look at what it is. In any kind of fasting we are tempted to view this moment as an obstacle we need to move through in order to get to the state of lucid contentment that follows it — but it may be that our dread and panic tell us more about who we are and that we need to listen carefully to the uncomfortable.

   Hidden deep in the vast collection of discourses known as the Samyutta Nikaya, there are two versions of a potent little parable called “The Leash” (or the Gaddula Sutta). In this parable the Buddha gives us an image of ourselves in our normal “chained” state, where we can never stray too far from a sturdy central post:

“Suppose, bhikkhus, a dog tied up on a leash was bound to a strong post or pillar: it would just keep on running and revolving around that same post or pillar. So too, the uninstructed worldling … regards form as self … feeling as self … perception as self … volitional formations as self … consciousness as self…. He just keeps running and revolving around form, around feeling, around perception, around volitional formations, around consciousness. As he keeps on running and revolving around them, he is not freed from form, not freed from feeling, not freed from perception, not freed from volitional formations, not freed from consciousness. He is not freed from birth, aging, and death; not freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair; not freed from suffering, I say.” (Gaddula Sutta: The Leash 1, Samyutta Nikaya 22:99, tr.Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The body (form), feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness are the “aggregates” or heaps that constitute who we are: we are nothing but them, and they are constantly moving and changing, constantly mutually conditioning, without any ultimate spatial or temporal boundary. The problem is that we identify them as our self, we identify with them, and this act of identification — which asserts a solid core in the middle of the tornado — is our leashing to the immoveable post of a conceived self. The post is the idea of a self, the leash is the idea-ing of self — and our running around the post is our way of consolidating circle and radius by the repetitious attachments with which we make our selves.

   The second version of this Sutta emphasizes how close we stay to the post: 

“Suppose, bhikkhus, a dog tied up on a leash was bound to a strong post or pillar. If it walks, it walks close to that post or pillar. If it stands, it stands close to that post or pillar. If it sits down, it sits down close to that post or pillar. If it lies down, it lies down close to that post or pillar.” (The Leash 2, Samyutta Nikaya 22:100)
The radius is tiny, for we confine ourselves to our familiar little circle — and this precisely is the foundation of our unhappiness. The Buddha will then go on to describe how through discipline the Buddhist practitioner frees himself from leash and post, but in this essay I want to dwell more on the range of this leash. What do we experience when we pull hard and reach the end of the leash?

  The great Italian philosopher Julius Evola expands on the Parable of the Leash in his strange, rich book on the Pali suttas, The Doctrine of Awakening. Evola sees the modern human being as self-imprisoned in a materialist, external orientation to his own life, lost in the illusion of infinite “options” and not capable of seeing more deeply than the merely psychological. Even so, we all experience moments when the reassuring solidity of what we take to be real dissolves suddenly into blackness:

the life [modern man] normally leads is as if outside himself; half sleepwalking, he moves between psychological reflexes and images that hide from him the deepest and most fearful substance of existence. Only in particular circumstances is the veil of what is, fundamentally, a providential illusion torn aside. For example, in all moments of sudden danger, on the point of being threatened either by the vanishing of ground from under one’s feet through the opening of a chasm or glacier crevasse, or in touching inadvertently a glowing coal or an electrified object, an instantaneous reaction takes place. This reaction does not proceed from the “will, consciousness, nor from the “I” since this part follows only after the initial reaction is complete; in the first moment it is preceded by something more profound, more rapid, and more absolute. During extreme hunger, panic, fear, sensual craving, or extreme pain and terror the same force again shows itself–and he who can comprehend it directly in these moments likewise creates for himself the faculty of perceiving it gradually as the invisible substratum of all waking life. The subterranean roots of inclinations, faiths, atavisms, of invincible and irrational convictions, habits, and character, all that lives as animality, as biological race, all the urges of the body–all this goes back to the same principle. Compared with it, the “will of the I” has, normally, a liberty equivalent to that of a dog tied to a fairly long chain that he does not notice until he has passed a certain limit. If one goes beyond that limit, the profound force is not slow to awaken, either to supplant the “I” or to mislead it, making it believe that it wills that which, in fact, the force itself wills. The wild force of imagination and of suggestion takes us to the same point: to that where according to the so-called law of “converse effort,” one does something the more strongly the more one “wills” against it–as sleep eludes one the more one “wills” it, or as the suggestion that one will fall into an abyss will certainly cause one to fall if one “wills” against it. 

   This force, which is connected with the emotive and irrational energies, gradually identifies itself as the very force that rules the profound functions of physical life, over which the “will,” the “mind, and the “I” have very little influence, to which they are external and on which they live parasitically, extracting the essential fluids yet without having to go down for them into the heart of the trunk. Thus one must ask oneself: What, of this “my” body, can be justifiably thought of as subject to “my will? Do “I” will “my” breath or the mixtures of the digestive juices by which food is digested? Do “I” will my form, my flesh, or my being this man who is conditioned thus and not otherwise? Can he who asks himself this not go on even further and ask himself: My “will” itself, my consciousness, my “I”– do I will these, or simply is it that they are?   (Evola, Doctrine of Awakening, 1995/96, pp.54-55)

This is the vision that lies on the other side of fasting, which is a way of easing us towards the realization. Faced with this, and made uneasy by it, the sages of the Upanishads would sacrifice: the world devours, all beings devour and are devoured, we are the devouring and the devouring is us; life is nothing but nutriment, digestive combustion as well as intellectual conflagration, birth and sustaining and destruction on every level all at the same time. There is no way to change all this, but there may be a way out if we ever find ourselves at the point where we cannot take it any more — yet the way out is not to escape with ourselves intact, for that would be wanting to bring leash and post with us. It involves learning to “comprehend it directly,” as Evola puts it, not just theoretically; and to “create” for ourselves the faculty of perceiving it gradually as the invisible substratum of all waking life. And the greatest masters of such comprehension might not be the conventional spiritual teachers, but writers like Chekhov, Kafka, and Beckett.

I am employed by the parish, and do my duty to the point where it is almost too much for one man. Though badly paid, I am generous and helpful to the poor. I should like to see Rosa provided for, and then the boy may have his way as far as I’m concerned, and I shall be ready to die as well. What am I doing in this endless winter! 

The complete Gaddula Suttas, together with the rest of the Samyutta Nikaya, can be found at
Julius Evola, The Doctrine of Awakening:

Franz Kafka, “A Country Doctor”:

‘A Country Doctor’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Michael Hofmann


Samvega: The Great Unsettling

Each of us can think of a handful of moments in our lives when everything noticeably changed and there was no going back to what we were in the previous moment. We experience these irrevocable transitions as simultaneously feelings and cognitions: disturbance, shock, sadness, euphoria, a profound unsettling both of our emotions and our understandings. It is an “unsettling” precisely because afterwards we can no longer take for granted that we are at home in our lives; we have been uprooted, and now feel lost. While this experience of loss is always uncomfortable and often painful, it is also essential to our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth — and continued growth means staying attuned to the agitation and shock of the breakthrough moments.

   Anton Chekhov’s very short short story, “The Beauties” (1888), gives exquisite expression to what really happens when a sensitive soul meets beauty for the first time. The speaker is a teenager who, accompanying his grandfather on a trip through the dusty countryside, sees an unattainably beautiful Armenian girl at a farmhouse and feels the encounter as something like a blow that then becomes an open wound:

At first I felt hurt and abashed that Masha took no notice of me, but was all the time looking down; it seemed to me as though a peculiar atmosphere, proud and happy, separated her from me and jealously screened her from my eyes.
“That’s because I am covered with dust,” I thought, “am sunburnt, and am still a boy.”
But little by little I forgot myself, and gave myself up entirely to the consciousness of beauty. I thought no more now of the dreary steppe, of the dust, no longer heard the buzzing of the flies, no longer tasted the tea, and felt nothing except that a beautiful girl was standing only the other side of the table.

I felt this beauty rather strangely. It was not desire, nor ecstacy, nor enjoyment that Masha excited in me, but a painful though pleasant sadness. It was a sadness vague and undefined as a dream. For some reason I felt sorry for myself, for my grandfather and for the Armenian, even for the girl herself, and I had a feeling as though we all four had lost something important and essential to life which we should never find again. My grandfather, too, grew melancholy; he talked no more about manure or about oats, but sat silent, looking pensively at Masha.

Even the grandfather is not immune to the contagion. Not desire, nor ecstasy, nor enjoyment: in other words, the feeling has nothing to do with what we normally think of as Eros or the Romantic, but is more like the otherworldly rapture felt by Confucius when, having heard the music of Shao for the first time, he forgot the taste of meat for three months. I thought no more now of the dreary steppe, of the dust, no longer heard the buzzing of the flies, no longer tasted the tea, and felt nothing except that a beautiful girl was standing only the other side of the table. Yet what he feels is not “ecstasy” or some stereotypical spiritual bliss. It is the transcendental sadness of a cherished veil being torn away to reveal an emptiness where the familiar face had been. After this, one can no longer be “happy,” because something essential is always missing and will not be restored through time or the wisdom of age: he talked no more about manure or about oats, but sat silent, looking pensively at Masha.

   Chekhov offers no resolution to this. His deep insight in these few pages is to include both teenager and grandfather, impressionable youth and hardened age, in the experience. The sadness envelopes both the beholders of beauty and the beauty itself, because everyone sooner or later finds himself and herself engulfed in a yearning that cannot be satisfied.

   In “The Beauties,” Chekhov is giving modern voice to an ancient discovery. Plato describes this yearning several times — for instance, in the Symposium, where Alcibiades laments Socrates’ destruction of  his peace of mind:

For when I hear him  I am worse than any wild fanatic; I find my heart leaping and my tears gushing forth at the sound of his speech, and I see great numbers of other people having the same experience. When I listened to Pericles and other skilled orators I thought them eloquent, but I never felt anything like this; my spirit was not left in a tumult and had not to complain of my being in the condition of a common slave: whereas the influence of our Marsyas here has often thrown me into such a state that I thought my life not worth living on these terms. [215e-216a]

Compare this to the reaction of the protagonist of Chekhov’s masterpiece “The Kiss” to a fleeting encounter with a woman in the dark:

And the whole world, the whole of life, seemed to Ryabovitch an unintelligible, aimless jest. . . . And turning his eyes from the water and looking at the sky, he remembered again how fate in the person of an unknown woman had by chance caressed him, he remembered his summer dreams and fancies, and his life struck him as extraordinarily meagre, poverty-stricken, and colourless. . . .

   Although this experience most commonly occurs through the powerful smiting of Eros, it can happen in an encounter with art, the holy, or both together. Eric Gill in his Autobiography (1940, p.187) describes the effect of hearing Gregorian chant: “At the first impact I was so moved by the chant … as to be almost frightened … This was something alive … I knew infallibly that God existed and was a living God.” This response articulates powerfully one important aspect of the experience: the sense of becoming painfully open to something more real, more alive, than life itself — in the face of which everything in our lives shows up as insufficient. We are dealing here with no mere passion — a passive reaction to some stimulus — but an emotion that is at the same time an insight, just as the cracking of an egg is at the same time sound and fracture.

   There is a word for the experience I have been trying to describe: in Pali, it is samvega. Ananda Coomaraswamy, the great Indian writer on art, explores the idea of Samvega in an essay called “Aesthetic Shock” (1943): Samvega is a state of shock, agitation, fear, awe, wonder or delight induced by some physically or mentally poignant experience. It is a state of feeling, but always more than a merely physical reaction. The “shock” is essentially one of the realization of the implications of what are strictly speaking only the aesthetic surfaces of phenomena that may be liked or disliked as such.  While it is part of a deep aesthetic response, the range of samvega encompasses all experiences that have power to jolt us into estrangement with our lives. Coomaraswamy traces the word through a selection of Sanskrit and Pali texts:

The Pali word samvega is often used to denote the shock or wonder that may be felt when the perception of a work of art becomes a serious experience. In other contexts the root vij, with or without the intensive prefix sam, or other prefixes such as pra, “forth, ” implies a swift recoil from or trembling at something feared. For example, the rivers freed from the Dragon, “rush forth” (pra vivijre, Rg Veda X.III.9), Tvastr “quakes” (vevijyate) at Indra’s wrath (ibid. I. 80.14), men “tremble” (samvijante) at the roar of a lion (Atharva Veda VIII.7.15), birds “are in a tremor” at the sight of a falcon (ibid. VI.21.6); a woman “trembles” (samvijjati) and shows agitation (samvegam âpajjati) at the sight of her fatherinlaw, and so does a monk who forgets the Buddha (Majjhima Nikâya, I.186); a good horse aware of the whip is “inflamed and agitated” (âtâpino samvegino, Dhammapada 144); and as a horse is “cut” by the lash, so may the good man be “troubled” (samvijjati) and show agitation (samvega) at the sight of sickness or death, “because of which agitation he pays close heed, and both physically verifies the ultimate truth (parama saccam, the ‘moral’)1 and presciently penetrates it” (Anguttara Nikâya II.116). “I will proclaim, ” the Buddha says, “the cause of my dismay (samvegam), wherefore I trembled (samvijitam mayâ): it was when I saw people floundering like fish when ponds dry up, when I beheld man’s strife with man, that I felt fear” (or “horror”), and so it went “until I saw the evil barb that festers in men’s hearts” (Sutta Nipâta, 935938).

    A scholar of the Pali Suttas, Thanissaro, puts it thus:

Samvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness, and death. It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle. This is a cluster of feelings we’ve all experienced at one time or another in the process of growing up, but I don’t know of a single English term that adequately covers all three. It would be useful to have such a term, and maybe that’s reason enough for simply adopting the word samvega into our language. (“Affirming the Truths of the Heart”)

Thanissaro shrewdly notes that samvega is usually felt as threatening to individual or societal life, and strategies are in place for suppressing it or rendering it innocuous: you are unhappy because you are being unreasonably idealistic, and you need to find contentment by lowering your expectations; stop worrying so much and let yourself have fun and enjoy life;  go to therapy and have yourself adjusted back into functionality; understand that everything is made by God and is all good; live in the Now, find a way to enjoy doing the dishes, and don’t allow yourself to be distracted by an intellectualized Big Picture…All of these are familiar and complex strategies for anaesthesia: we can numb the pain by obscuring and fuzzing up the insight — make the pain smaller by making the heart smaller. 

   Buddhism gives a discipline and a path in which we can drink our samvega without diluting it. Thanissaro argues that it is important not to forget the feeling that brought us onto the path; indeed, we need to keep it alive and stay in touch with it. But it needs to be balanced with a positive emotion — in this case, pasada, another complex set of emotions usually translated as “clarity and serene confidence.” Without something like pasada, one can become mired in a turbulent dismay of samvega — whereas pasada without samvega would be a hollow cheerfulness that only looks like courage.

   In “The Beauties,” Chekhov doesn’t give us any solutions or resolutions: the encounters he describes open up a big hole in life, and once it is open it cannot be closed again. Samvega is the discovery of this hole; its shock and agitation are what impel us into the strenuous quest for truth and for the beauty of truth, and after its tremors it is difficult to repose any longer in comfort or pleasure. This is a good thing: we are given a standard that prevents us from ever being content with the merely pretty or pleasing. In my own life as a reader, writer, lover of art and music, and educator, I remember clearly the samvega moments that pushed me over the threshold, and have seen that my students and colleagues in the Liberal Arts nearly all have known samvega too; that is why we get along so well! The danger for us lies in our occupational habituation to deeply moving texts of all kinds, so that we become dulled to samvega — taking small daily doses of the poison, as it were, until it becomes harmless to us. If samvega ever becomes “safe” — something that we can calmly contemplate without a hint of disturbance — if we can read “The Beauties” and only recognize the sadness conceptually without being perturbed by it, then we will find that we have been lulled back into thinking that the realm of manure and oats is the only one there is. If there is one emotion that needs to be attended to and nourished throughout a philosophic or literary life, it is samvega — because it is what brought us here and what keeps us honest.


Chekhov’s “The Beauties”:

“The Beauties” read by Philip Pullman:

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Affirming the Truths of the Heart”:

Ananda Coomaraswamy, “Aesthetic Shock”:,%20A.K.%20-%20The%20Essential%20Ananda%20K.%20Coomaraswamy%20(2004)_djvu.txt


The Almost-Forgotten Book

Even though this was the first book that I wanted to own and the first that I spent my pocket money on, it was actually only my second book. The first book was littler than the Little Guide, brown, about half an inch thick, and called something like Mammals of Great Britain. It had a fox on the cover. A teacher gave it to me when I was eight, having seen that I had an interest in animals, probably from my absorption in drawing and painting them. It was not the first book that had been bought for me, but the first that stole my heart. It had not occurred to my own parents to place such a book in my hands; although well-intentioned and encouraging of the habit of reading, they tended to give me more conventional childen’s books, such as simplified versions of the Arabian Nights or Robinson Crusoe. And it would certainly not have occurred to me to want to buy a guidebook to fauna. Until that day pocket money was dedicated to sweets and ice-cream. This teacher, Mrs. Williams, had given every child in her class a small something for Christmas, and I am sure that she found the right gift for each one of us. I remember clearly the feel and smell of this book, but not the author’s name or exact title; and I have been unable to find it on Google. Yet this almost-forgotten book, a faded petroglyph in the prehistory of my reading, became the most important book in the growth of my mind. It inspired me to save my coins for my first book purchase, the Little Guide, after which came a long line of books on animals and birds. Some of these subsequent additions were little more than lists of the mammals of the world, illustrated by line drawings, but I would nonetheless spend hours poring over exotic names and the enthralling manifold of animal forms.

   The first book took over my life for several months. I didn’t really read it. What fascinated me more were the names and pictures, which I would re-draw and then color more vividly. Even at age eight I had a lucid conception of relatively obscure creatures such as the coypu, all the various voles, every sngle European mustelid — as well as their tracks and scat. I wasn’t an outdoorsy boy, and never made any effort to find or even see these creatures in the wild; my engagement was entirely imaginative. I had inherited a fear of the outdoors from my parents and my early years in Malaysia, where a superabundance of dangerous snakes and painful insects has the effect of nipping in the bud potential Wordsworths and Thoreaus.  I don’t understand how one year after we moved to England I could have developed a passion for wild animals strong enough for a teacher to recognize it. We had no books on animals in the house; my family had not yet discovered National Geographic; and in 1967-68 wildlife documentaries on TV were sparse. Yet suddenly here I was, spending hours each day entranced by animal forms. This trance lasted about five years, during which I read almost every animal narrative I could find in my local library. Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, and Joy Adamson’s Born Free made deep impressions on my young mind and heart; they played a crucial part in teaching me about love, and about letting other beings be themselves (which is the condition for love). In school we studied Call of the Wild and White Fang, but neither of these had as deep a respect for the mysteries of the wild animal as Tarka the Otter did — the most beautiful book about an animal, and also the most powerful evocation ever written of the English countryside. It could be that Intergalactic science fiction never won my attention precisely because no alien that a human mind conceived could be stranger or more wonderful than an animal on our muddy planet.

   My alternative life would have been in natural history. If I hadn’t wound up in literature and philosophy, I would have loved to have been David Attenborough, one of my heroes. Yet that life would have been out of the question for me, for I would not have had his uninhibited self-confidence in plunging into impenetrable jungles and purblind snake-infested caves. His confidence is characteristic of a northern European upper-middle-class boy’s easy familiarity with the woods and fields, his sense of being at home on the land (which may be owned by his family) — whereas the middle-class boy of the tropics is shy of the wild and its buzzing, biting denizens. So being David Attenborough had to remain a fantasy  running like an underground river through my life of books. I had wanted to pursue parallel careers in both biology and English in my university studies, but was dissuaded from that by my high school teachers and encouraged to commit to just one — so if I had followed Attenborough’s trail, my subterranean life would have been as poet and writer. I wonder if every modern person needs two lives, a real one and a shadow one, to be complete.

   As my love of natural history went underground, it began to permeate my life in ways that had no connection with my official successes or failures: the enjoyment of hiking and the need to live in places where the Wild was just next door or around the corner; a home constantly full of animals; volunteer work with animal rescues; the practice of physical exercise that either incorporates animal movements (such as menagerie exercises or Qi Gong Five Animal forms) or seeks to maintain the physical vitality that animals are naturally blessed with. “Move like a bear! See how the bear moves as if he had no joints…” Or “Be like a snake! See how at whichever point on its body you pick it up by, it has the same amount of life!” And of course I still love to read books about animals, watch David Attenborough, and draw birds and mammals. All of this can be traced to that first book. If that book had a name and author for me, and if the interest in animals had become more explicit and taken form as a career, would it have had the same power to permeate my life from beneath, as it were?

  A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to study Adolf Portmann’s Animal Forms and Patterns (1948) with a group of excited high school students. This neglected classic takes as its working hypothesis the idea that the multifarious forms of animals are meant to be seen, and that the visible features of an animal are a window into the mysteries of its being. Portmann is aware of writing late in life a book that is the fulfillment of a childhood fascination with animal forms; indeed, the entire book is a loving meditation on what it means for living beings to be visible and also visibly remarkable. It may be the case that such a meditation is possible only later in life, when passion has become conscious, attentive, contemplative. The ecstasy of intimacy has been superseded by a more deliberate mood of savoring, almost of rasa:

While a child, as soon as I had reached the stage when the name of an animal meant something to me, I began to draw animals, very lovingly. Soon I made voluminous, but chaotic, collections of pictures and very extraordinary texts to go with them. At that time an early, curious draft of a book on animals took shape. But, having climbed to that peak in a school career where one feels certain that one can see through everything in the world, the whole of these first attempts were destroyed as being childish. Yet, however thoroughly one burns what has been created, it is still there — and so the early pictures have continued to work within me, and have secretly found their way into everything which scientifc research into animal life has brought to my later years.

   So then, while I was working at this book, my thoughts often went back to the sitting-room known to my childhood’s days. There, on many an evening and many a holiday, I was blissfully forgetful of all else as I copied one animal picture after another from the old ‘Brehm’ or some other beautiful book of animals, precious treasures which I had been allowed to fetch away from the Public Free Library. Maybe here and here something will speak from the pages of this book which may help to awaken in others love for livng things and respect for that existence within the animal form which is beyond our full comprehension…Has it indeed managed to capture within this later form something of the blissfulness of those very early activities, and so to pass on the germ of what may develop into quiet delight?  (pp.15-16)

Up until the age of eleven, I loved to paint animals in profile, particularly horses. I loved the muscularity of the outline, the dignity and strength of the animal just standing. Then I would paint the animal with every imaginable color, as if my fantastical coloring magically liberated the animal into a realm beyond the literal. This never ceased to be interesting. My art teacher at school, a dullard called Major Dobbin, grew noticeably frustrated with what he saw as a monotonous series of profiles not conducive to the cultivation of skill in draughtsmanship. At first he gave me suggestions and examples for drawing animals from a variety of perspectives and poses, but when I persisted in rendering horses in ever more spectacular profile he finally became angry and told me that my paintings were simply boring. After that I too lost interest, and I didn’t painted again until over thirty years later, with my daughters. The spontaneity and sheer pleasure of painting has taken even longer to return. It is amazing how delicate the love of beauty can be — how, like the leaves of certain plants it curls away from brutal touch and rolls up to protect itself from death by stupidity — and also how, many decades later, it can unfold once more to the sunlight.