Monday, February 17, 2014

A humble pontification on some old Tibetan books

I normally try to avoid merely reposting recent news items on this blog—mostly keeping in line with my stated wish to be something other than a news aggregator.

But when I saw this weekend's story in the New York Times on the construction of a library in southwest China for thousands of Tibetan texts, I had to share it. The E. Gene Smith Library at the Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu houses the collection of the eponymous E. Gene Smith, a private collector and non-academic scholar who over the course of five decades, oversaw the collection, preservation, and republication of a wealth of Tibetan texts, many of which only existed in one known copy.

Smith had always wanted to return the books to Tibet, but since travel restrictions would have made it very difficult for scholars to use the resources if they were in Lhasa, a library was set up in Chengdu in Sichuan. The article gives the impression that the situation is still acrimonious—rioting in Lhasa held up the opening of the library for years, and "during a recent visit, Tibetan students complained that the doors of the library were often locked."

But amazingly, the library's mere existence has made monks who have been guarding unique copies of Tibetan books since the Cultural Revolution feel comfortable bringing them into the light of day again:
In November, robed monks from the Dongkar Monastery in western Sichuan arrived with a yellowing collection of 300-year-old texts that had never been published. Scrawled in cinnabar and black ink, the manuscripts, detailing the tantric rituals of Buddhist deities, were copies of 15th-century texts. The monks stayed for five weeks while archivists scanned 6,000 pages, then returned home carrying their beloved texts and a single CD-ROM of digital copies. They vowed to return with seven more volumes.
This is incredible. A story like this easily risks being lost in the flood of the Sunday Times, and I felt it was of vital importance to insist that more people read and appreciate what a singular phenomenon this is. Imagine a scenario in which some sect of Anglican clergy, faced with religious persecution or ethnic turmoil, turns out to have been keeping the lost plays of Shakespeare safe in secret for centuries; or that Dante's Inferno had only ever existed in manuscript copies and was suddenly rediscovered; or that (probably a more faithful analogy) suddenly it turns out that Thomas à Kempis wrote five more books complementing the Imitatio Christi. This is how amazing this is—that parts of a culture that had only been saved by a couple threads of luck and prudence are now being recovered and preserved.

This is how the West's texts were saved in the Renaissance. Notoriously, the only known copy of Catullus' poetry was found on the street, its pages about to be used for wrapping up fresh fish. Most of the ancient historians have been patched together from copies held in monastic libraries for centuries, copied out every few hundred years to ensure that they would survive, sometimes by monks who didn't even understand what they were reading. Even now, we sometimes lack whole books of Tacitus or Livy—possibly because someone was careless with a candle or a hot drink. Weeks ago, it was announced that papyrologists have recovered another one-and-a-half poems of Sappho off the papyrus used to mask a mummy. These are, in their own way, miracles.

People often ask me why I would want to be a literature professor, or—putting aside the question of the academy—a humanist scholar generally; in the interview for the Rhodes Scholarship, I was asked why it mattered and how it constituted a form of leadership. Professors take a lot of flak. Few people understand what they do; they inspire little fear and hold less power. On the day before the story about the Tibetan library ran, Nicholas Kristof wrote this op-ed bemoaning the fact that professors have made themselves less rather than more practical over the past decades. If the political science people are divorced from practicality, surely the embattled literary scholars are even more imperilled and egg-headed. There is some sense in which what Dr. Johnson wrote in Rasselas in 1759 is still true:
[T]he life that is devoted to knowledge passes silently away, and is very little diversified by events. To talk in public, to think in solitude, to read and to hear, to inquire, and answer inquiries, is the business of a scholar. He wanders about the world without pomp or terror, and is neither known nor valued but by men like himself.
The humanists get asked why they would want to spend their lives wrestling with texts that people have worked on for millennia to little avail. Why reread the Republic? It takes years to develop the philosophical and linguistic proficiencies to do so well, to say nothing of the depth of soul it takes; but unless you believe that Plato truly holds the insights to save a civilization (which few nowadays do), this too is vanity. Why devote yourself to Jane Austen professionally when one can do so as a hobby in the evenings? Why spend time learning about obscure medieval poems in Old Slavonic; about the precious fragments of Mayan art we have; about how to read enough Tibetan to decode a set of scrolls that no one else can read?

The example of the Tibetan monks shows why these are all worthwhile endeavors. Why did these monks save these books for five hundred years, through decay and gunfire and revolution? Because to lose them is akin to losing Tibet itself, or at least to its inner deadening. One might as well ask what America would be without the Federalist papers; the works of Melville, Twain, James, Faulkner, Bishop, Bellow, and Updike; jazz and rock and roll; Old Hollywood, and, for that matter, new Hollywood; Pollock, Cage, and Jasper Johns, and on and on. Perhaps the republic would stand; perhaps we'd still make cars and computers and medical discoveries and such.

But cars rust and go overseas, and technology exists to be surpassed. Our artistic, literary, and spiritual traditions always stay salient, though; there is something to be learned from them at any point in time, and the best things in each offer entire worlds. Centuries from now, people will still be reading The Portrait of a Lady and Absalom, Absalom! in order to meet us as we were then, are now, and themselves as they will be. God willing, people will still hear "In a Sentimental Mood" or A Love Supreme and feel something.

Burning it all would be worse than burning a civilization's diary. It would be like willing yourself into an Alzheimer's-like state of utter oblivion, with some rote mechanical reflexes intact, but none of the sense of I-love-this, I-know-this, I-have-felt-this that imparts that evanescent but invaluable thing we call an identity. We would be like the haunted 45-year-old with a comfortable living who wakes up one morning and realizes on the way to work that she doesn't know the first thing about herself: what principles she holds, who she loves, why she bothers to do the same thing every day. Some people don't mind living like this. But most crave something more.

And we don't get this merely from knowledge stored; we get it from knowledge known. It's not enough to have the libraries of all time archived on Google Books; we have to have people who know it, who internalize these texts, who think critically about them and teach others to do so—or else we're still amnesiacs. That's why cultures need professional humanists: like the Giver in the Lois Lowry novel of the same name, they preserve the rationale, and bring it back to light when there's need. They give others as much of it as they can, to show who they are and what they are a part of, and how to critique it in moments of need.

But we aren't merely Americans, or Westerners. We're humans. And so it's the job of the humanist not just to forge a particular parochial identity, but to work toward creating a broader human community. (Is it silly to still hold this dream for literary studies? I do.) E. Gene Smith believed this strongly enough to spend his life recovering and promoting a literature that was his by neither birth nor geography. It was an identity he elected to adopt. The fate of humankind depends on people making such decisions to reach out and declare that their humanness allows them to love something from a wholly different time and place—that what they love in it is something just as human as themselves. No one with a scanner and a printing press can stop a madman with an army. But in a way, three generations of lamas and E. Gene Smith have done more to thwart Mao's agenda than the entire Vietnam War did.

It may seem now like Plato's Republic or the poetry of Horace are in no danger of vanishing. But in historical perspective, they're just as fragile as the manuscripts on the tantric rituals of Buddhist deities. It may seem hard to believe now, in an age of information overload and mass data storage. But no literature is ever wholly safe from oblivion, and every generation requires people to stand up and say that they're willing to internalize and transmit the ability to make sense of this material to future generations. (Half the world's languages are expected to die out in the next 90 years.) We falsely think of the Fall of Rome as something that happened all at once. But if the forgetting comes, it comes gradually: the Middle Ages took two centuries to fall into place. It starts with people saying it's a waste of time to think about these things, to keep the tradition alive—that philosophy and literature and history are unnecessary distractions from the more pressing work of real life. It's only when all the scholars die out and there is no one left to pass the ways of thinking on that you're left with a handful of people copying out texts they don't understand, waking up and realizing they don't know who they used to be.

This prose poem ran in last week's New Yorker:
by Charles Rafferty 
Socrates taught Plato and Plato taught Aristotle and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great, who founded a city that would house the most voluminous library of the ancient world—until it was burned, until forgetting came back into vogue. The great minds come down through the years like monkeys descending from high branches. Always, a leopard is waiting to greet them—in the tall grass, among the magnetic berries, in the place they should have checked.

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