by David D. Esselstrom

Originally published in Perigraph (University of Southern Florida) & Facet (Arizona). 

A chill November wind whipping through my thin jacket, I darted across the back lawn and shouldered my way into the makeshift study built in the storage shed.  E.M. Forster crouched in the one comfortable chair (the walnut armchair with turquoise seat and back) and stared at my collection of Fantasy and Science Fiction stacked on the floor.  The sleeves of his beige cotton sweater were pushed back to his elbows, which rested on his knees.  His hair, though thin, retained a hint of the striking reddish-brown of his youth.  Bent as he was, a few wisps dangled in front of his forehead.  He looked like his photographs—which is how I knew who he was.  

Although I should have been surprised at finding him there—he being long dead and all—I was not. I’d been somewhat impressed by A Passage to India when I’d read it several years earlier.  However, it was not until Aspects of the Novel that I began to hear that soft but urgent, gentle voice actually talking to me.  The voice became so clear, distinct, and, finally, intimate that, deep into Two Cheers for Democracy, I felt Forster talking to me even when I wasn’t reading him.  He had become a part of my interior review board, joining such writers as Hemingway, Kerouac, Kazantzakis, Didion, and Mr. Pack (my eighth grade English teacher) and Burroughs (Edgar Rice).  Although I had always thought it unlikely that a member of this group would seek a more substantial existence than that of being a mere voice in my head, I did not discount the possibility.  

Although not surprised by Forster, I was embarrassed by the study itself.  A heavy duty extension cord stretched from the house to the shed for electricity.  The foil side of insulation, precariously tacked between bear studs, buckled and folded in compliance with the demands of gravity.  My bookcases pushed against the thee walls.  A Persian rug, dangling from a rafter, separated the “study” from the clutter of ten-speeds, lawnmower, hibachi, and assorted rusting tools.  The room was not the oak-lined, teak-desked, leather-furnished library in which I would delight to entertain Forster, or anyone else from the board.  

“Do you always keep such slack hours?” he asked.  Moving in from the door, I told him that my writing schedule varied according to my other duties and responsibilities.  “One’s duties and responsibilities should vary according to one’s writing schedule,” Forster chided.  He then glanced back to the magazines on the floor.  “Is this what you are trying to do?”  He kicked at the stack.

Seeing I had no response, Forster ballooned his cheeks and expelled a burst of air in evident irritation and then bent down to retrieve one of the fallen magazines.  “Oh, I suppose to be fair I should admit that there are one or two stories that do signify, but for the most part this stuff…” He fanned the pages in my direction.  “…is escape.  And fantasy is not.”

His disdain confused me. How could the author of “The Celestial Omnibus” and other fantastic stories disparage current fantasy?  I’d always thought Forster as much in favor of fantasy as Burroughs.  Of course, I do admit to some qualitative differences between “The Machine Stops” and John Carter of Mars.  Restacking the pile of magazines, I moved them to the edge of the room while asking what fantasy was not.

“Escape,” he answered.  I said that escape is exactly what fantasy is supposed to be.  “Oh, my goodness no,” he exclaimed, settling back into the chair.  “Let me explain by drawing an analogy to the process of metaphor.  In making a metaphor one simply joins two terms that have no business being together.  By joining them one manages to say something that neither term could express singly, something that is much more that the sum of ‘a’ plus ‘b.’  Fantasy joins form, in this case literary form, to something basically formless—the vague yearnings and nameless fears that are housed here.” He tapped his chest.  “By joining these two things that really have no business being together one manages, if fortunate, to say something that is beyond both form and fear, something worth more than entertainment or information.  Fantasy is not escape from everyday life but rather a revealing record of an intimate relationship with it.”  He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward.  “That does make sense, doesn’t it?”  I nodded my head.  “I’m so glad,” he said, “for both of us.”

He leaned back and grabbed my Signet copy of Pride and Prejudice with one hand and my best pipe with the other.  He tilted the pipe in my direction questioningly.  I motioned for him to by my guest.  The aroma of pipe tobacco somewhat camouflages the moldy smell of the storage shed.  As he filled the pipe, a blast of air ripped past me from the partially open door at my back.  The breeze skimmed a few shreds of tobacco out of the bowl of the pipe.  As Forster retrieved the wayward tobacco, I noticed goose bumps on his forearms.  Closing the door, I apologized for the uncomfortable accommodations of my study.  

As Forster spread an old army blanket over his knees, I joked about a little discomfort being good for the artist.  “God knows what you intend to inflict on your readers.  Misery loves company, and all that,” muttered Forster as he retrieved the book and pipe.  

Sitting down at my desk, I flicked on the space heater and set it between the two of us.  I mentioned that my home-crafted insulation job was ineffective, but the thought of my books as a second layer of insulation I found somehow comforting.  Forster chuckled and said, “Yes, oh yes, they are that, aren’t they?”

His voice only half hit whatever word he was emphasizing so that each sentence came out a bit askew.  Even a simple phrase like “oh yes” came out sounding as if it meant something else, meant something more—or less.  I would have thought him purposely abstruse had not pauses—brief suspensions in which he too contemplated in wonder whatever the hell he’d just said—punctuated his conversation.  

The next day I cut short my office hour at the college to get to my study.  The day was clear, but in Oregon clear days often mean colder temperatures.  When I opened the shed door, Forster was in the turquoise chair, puffing on an overstuffed pipe, and covered except for arms and head by the army blanket (U.S. side out).  He greeted me with an ominous clearing of his throat.  “Comfort is a precondition of accomplishment,” he told me sternly as I pointed the space heater in his direction.  

I thought he was truly angry at me until he leaned forward and whispered, “Freud misses the point so.”  He pulled the blanket closer about his shoulders and continued, “It’s comfort that is at the center of things.  Comfort…not that other thing.  The anticipation of getting it or the fear of losing it is what drives us.”  He pulled deeply on the pipe.  It was out.  “That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?” he asked.  Although I wanted to answer yes, I could sense the question was rhetorical.  “Would that it were true,” he said wistfully and slumped into his chair.  “I probably would have written much more if it weren’t for the other thing.”  

After the room had warmed to a point that I could leave off rubbing my hands over the heater, I finally asked Forster why he was joining me in my study.  “Where else should I be?” he rasped and then quickly returned to his reading.  A bit annoyed, I almost told him that I thought it appropriate he be in the ground. But I could not be flippant with him.  My gaze wondered to my collection of Henry James.  I then told Forster that although I had no idea where he should be, I did imagine that since he was materializing in my study, I could then not be too far amiss in surmising that he was there to be of some aid or assistance to me.  

Waiting for him to answer, I slid the manuscript I was working on, “Odysseus Jones and the Matter Transporter,” into a drawer.  

“I can’t say my presence here is intended to be of aid or assistance,” began Forster, “since it might have the very opposite effect.  But you do need to be talked to.  And I suppose I am a good one to do the talking because, for some reason, people find me authoritative but not threatening.  Personally, I think the perception in error.  Granted my pricks seldom draw blood, but a bubble may be burst as easily with a needle as with a saber.”  

His use of the term “talked to” bothered me.  I did indeed need someone to talk to, and with.  But I certainly did not need to be “talked to” the way an errant child needs the folly of his conduct explained to him, the way a cocky apprentice needs the seriousness and complexity of his enterprise and the stiffness and clumsiness of his fledgling efforts pointed out to him.  

I pulled from the desk drawer a serious effort—ponderous Joycean prose, dense, heavy, thick with profundities, rich with allusion—which I thought more fitting to be working on than the Odysseus Jones thing.  Holding the manuscript firmly, I met his gaze and told him, rather forcefully, I think, that although my efforts were not as serious, as weighty, as significant as his, I sincerely felt that my efforts were honest.  My back straightened as I proclaimed that any honest effort to put one word after another was commendable.  

He nodded his head, bit his lower lip, and gnawed the corners of his moustache.  “I suppose,” he said, “that that is true, to a degree.  Honest effort is always commendable, but it is not always good.”  He continued over my protests.  “That wonderful line Chekhov gives Trigorin in The Seagull comes to mind.  Something about everyone writing what he wants to and what he can.  Ah, what a nice sentiment—liberating, comforting, forgiving.  But I can’t help feeling that Checkhov, as always, is being just a little ironic.  I mean, my god, if we all wanted to write only what we could, I doubt there’d be any great literature at all.  We all want to write better than we can, and the miracle is that, sometimes, we do.”  

A light snowfall—as white and oppressive as a fresh sheet of paper staring up from the typewriter—blanketed the lawn between our house and the shed.  I slid the piece of my dense and profundity-packed prose out of its manila envelope.  I read the first three lines.  The prose I held in my hand was as good as I could write.  No better.

Since Forster was once again buried in the Austen, I decided to pick up Odysseus Jones. When I’d set the story down a few days earlier, I had followed Hemingway’s strategy and mapped out my next move.  But even with a well-planned attack, I am accustomed to one or two false starts before anything good begins to flow.  Hemingway, I am sure, understood that knowing what happens next and telling what happens next are two different things.  Forster’s presence made my false starts all the more false.

Although my back was to him, and five feet of floor separated us, and obviously his attentions were elsewhere, I still I could not bring myself to jot down one word that I felt he did not see.  And his seeing it—my feeling that he did—made each word, each phrase, each sentence stand out awkward, clumsy, and false.  I wanted to write only what would meet his approval.  And I knew he would only approve my best. There I was stuck.  I did not know what my best was; so everything I wrote died on the page even before my pen stumbled dumbly to the end of the line.  

I had tossed my seventh false start in the wastebasket when Forster spoke.  “A few times I had to give up because I felt the project dying, felt it withering all the more as I fed it my best.  Yet even as the story expired on the page, as the voice of my characters faded, as the setting became hazy and I could only focus on the tip of my pen stalled in mid page, even then my belief rested not in my powers—obviously failing—nor in my understanding of craft—weld characters to setting, drive the whole kit and caboodle down the road of plot and over the cliff of climax, sweep up the debris—no, my belief rested in that sense of mystery, that awe one feels when faced with the fact that good writing happens at all.  And my awe was tinged with gratitude that I could be present, on occasion, when it did.”

Exasperated, I told him that great literature was all fine and good, but I was trying to write a simple story about a Soldier/Killer, bound for the allocation games on Mars, who becomes involved in matter teleportation experiments.  

Forster bobbed his head twice, then glanced at my green particleboard bookcase, the second shelf of which contains only the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, except for a copy of Naked Lunch purchased by mistake.  “I won’t argue the merits of the enterprise,” he said.  “But can you accomplish it?  I fear you are looking too far beyond the page, watching the reader.  Writing—all art, really—is illusion.  You, as writer, are a trickster.  But a trick performed well can only be itself.  And that is, really, satisfaction enough.  Watch the audience and your feet miss the wire.  Since you perform without a net, missing the wire can be deadly.”  He paused, surveying the tips of his fingernails.  “Oh, my, a circus analogy.  I don’t often use those.”  

What annoyed me most was his saying something pithy and then directing his attention elsewhere.  Annoyance quickly gave way to anger.  I found his condescension offensive, and I told him so.  In answer, he buried himself deeper in Austen and puffed loudly on the pipe.  Slamming down my pencil, I left the study.  As I crossed the snow-covered lawn, I thought that, for all his insight, Forster was still somewhat a supercilious old fart.  

The next day as I crunched across the lawn to the shed, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted Forster to be there again or not.  I had wanted him to spur my productivity, not rein it in.  As I opened the door, I knew his presence was a miracle I could have lived without and now only wished to live through.  Who was he to sit in judgment of me?  Deft critic, superior novelist, clever essayist, sure, he was all of that—for his time.  But the demands of this age are different.  Aesthetics, like all philosophy, flounders in a sea of probabilities, trying no longer to build something solid, forgetting completely the naïve dream of flight, hoping only to stay afloat for the length of one lousy work.  That being the case, how dare he ask me to touch the heart?  

Pulling back the dangling rug, I found him once again seated in the center of the study, flipping tentatively through my copy of Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon.  Mailer I have always defended as giving us a real and effective vision of the world precisely because that vision is filtered so poorly through the thick membrane of his ego.  I explained my stance to Forster.  He gave me one of those looks that skirts condescension by hinting that there might possible be more in what I’d said than I ‘d put there.  

He lowered his gaze to the work in question and said, “What I don’t understand is that you Americans, you American writers, are always so caught up in the expression of yourselves.  It is as if you believe that life itself were a personal achievement and identity an artistic creation.”  

Pulling up my chair, I told him that that was the point exactly.  With the demise in the belief in the consistency of character, what had the twentieth century writer to deal with, without being manipulative and false, except his own sense of self.  That is our curse as children of our time.  The sureties are gone.  We had found the “I am” dubious and were left merely with the “I think, therefore.”  We, and I unabashedly included myself, marked a turning point in the history of literature, perhaps of all art.  

Forster’s eyebrows rose in concert with the corners of his mouth.  “I dare say,” he said finally.  “You almost believe that.”

I said I did.  I believed too that the fixed star of discernible motivation and natural dramatic structure were never in the heavens but only in the eyes of weak romantics craving certitude. The best of us knew the heavens were empty and we stood alone on a cold clod in the dark of space, not screaming defiance but whimpering gibberish.  

“I can agree with you whole-heartedly on that,” he said, fingering the spine of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.  “But what strikes me as peculiar is that you put such a high store on unintelligibility.  We all look, sometimes, on our rantings and hope—ruefully to be sure—that they are other than what they are, that they are a new code, a new view.  Luckily, we most often come to our senses and toss our rantings in the waste can.  My god, my dear boy, we don’t publish them.”

I told him that unintelligibility may be all we were left.  History had saddled us—Mailer, Pynchon, Gass, Hawkes, me—with the task of finding a new path, a new view; and we were forced to search with neither landmark nor compass.  

“Oh my,” said Forster, fingering the corners of his moustache.  “You Americans, you American writers, seem always so sure that the world begins and ends with you, or in this case ends and then begins.  You seem always so worried about your place in history.  But Art is not History.  Lots of confusion there, in our thinking that it is or that the two are linked in some way.  Art is illusion masquerading as life; History is life masquerading as illusion.”  He paused, his smile broadening.  “I do believe that an epigram worthy of Oscar Wilde.”  

As Forster reveled in the workings of his own mind, I noticed that my manuscript “Odysseus Jones and the Matter Transporter” dangled on the end of the desk, ready to drop.  I tossed the Lattimore translation of The Odyssey on top of my story to add weight to it.  I covered my actions by whining to Forster that we were just looking for answers.  Certainly, he couldn’t fault us for that.

Forster watched the flight of the volume Homer’s epic as he sucked the cone of flame into the bowl of the pipe.  “Ah yes,” he said, as the smoke swirled about him.  “The search for solid answers, the drive of science, the grail of philosophers east and west since the beginning.  I think the problem is that we misunderstand the nature of answers themselves.  We think of them as stones—hard, lasting, sharp edged.  But answers, I think, are more like flowers than stones.  In the right soil, the right climate, they flourish.  They litter the countryside, like Wordsworth’s daffodils, with their ebullient, but transitory, good health.  And, like flowers, answers bloom and fade.  Any one that doesn’t is false from the beginning.”

He punctuated this last by blowing smoke in my face.  As I waved away the sweet smelling cloud, Forster reached across the desk, pushed aside the Lattimore, and snatched up the manuscript of my science fiction story.  “And here is, I suppose, the concrete result of this abstract mumbo-jumbo you’ve been spouting for the last hour.”  I hurriedly explained that the story was some lightweight fluff that I was writing merely for diversion.  He flipped through the first few pages.  “Twenty pages of a manuscript this heavily marked with corrections is not evidence of diversion but rather of serious commitment.”  I was too embarrassed to respond.  He read a few lines from the middle of the story.  “Oh, dear me,” he said, shaking his head from side to side and glancing from the manuscript to me.  “This will never do.   How can you possible defend this?  Here I’ve read less than half a paragraph, and already I am suspicious that the whole thing makes sense.”  

I told him that it wasn’t a serious effort; therefore, of course it made sense.  He found my comment uproariously funny.  His laughter degenerated into a fit of coughing.  I pounded his back to help him regain his breath.  

“Oh my,” he said, grabbing my hand.  “We do indeed have such a lot of work to do.”  

At that moment, the lights went out.  I stumbled into the house to locate the problem.  From a portable radio, I learned that a power transfer station had blown.  With candles and matches, I trekked back to the study.  When I opened the door and struck the first match, I found the study empty.  Forster was gone. 


About the Author

David Esselstrom, Ph.D., is a teacher and writer who encourages students to express themselves clearly and creatively. He has published fiction and journalism, and has written extensively for the stage and screen. Esselstrom combines his scholarly interests and creative projects with his passion for teaching in such courses as creative writing, composition, literature, and film and media.  Via Azusa Pacific University.

by David D. Esselstrom

In 1961, my eldest brother, Keith, was discharged from the Army’s 101st Airborne division. From his last duty station in Okinawa, he returned to La Crescenta, California, with a third-degree black belt in Karate, a Samurai sword with three-foot blade, and the conviction that Gautama Buddha, not Jesus Christ, had had it right. I remember watching him unpack his duffel bag. He pulled out a bright red carton of Pall Mall cigarettes, a bayonet, and a packet of books, among them Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen and Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums

My eldest brother, eight and a half years older than I, had it right, in my eyes. He held my bike when I learned to ride and laughed as I kept yelling for him to “let go, let go, I can do it, let go.” He was laughing because he had let go quite some time before. He took me fishing in the streams of the San Gabriel Mountains, taught me how to work a salmon egg onto a hook. He showed me how to step through and string a bow, how to rest my eyes on the target, let slip the arrow and feel the arc of its flight out from the bow, up through air, and into the cardboard box stuffed with newspapers. 

We had our first discussion about religion when I was twelve. I more or less argued Pascal’s Wager—risking delusion is a better bet than risking damnation. Keith ridiculed the position as being beneath his dignity. I felt embarrassed that it was not beneath my own. Looking at it through Keith’s eyes, Christianity seemed a religion for wimps and cowards, a refuge of the weak and afraid. Mostly because of Keith, I began, at thirteen, working my way through The Way of Zen. I remember reaching what I thought at the time was a state of satori early one morning as I tossed copies of the Los Angeles Examiner to the second-floor apartments of a building in Montrose.

I discovered later that Keith and I were typical members of a restless generation, young people coming of age in the sixties. The fifties began in 1948 with the advent of commercial television and ended with the death of John Kennedy in ’63. The sixties started—in earnest—in 1964 with the Beatles’ first tour of the U.S. An interest in the religion and philosophy of Asia that flowered in the forties and fifties in the work of Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg as a garden of aesthetic inspiration took root in the sixties in the soil of America’s discontented youth, as much a reaction against everything domestic as an embracing of things mysterious, exotic, and other. Things Eastern, or quasi-Eastern, became part of our cultural landscape—from Zen to Transcendental Meditation, from Hare Krishna to the Bagwan, from being Blissed-out with the Guru Mahara Ji to “getting it” with Ehard Seminars Training. 

We can think of America’s flirtation with the philosophies and religions from Asia as an encounter with the “other.” But we can’t really understand the nature of this encounter nor what results from it until we see that all such encounters are problematic.


There are two ways of looking at “the other.” Sam Keen has noted that throughout history we have often demonized the other, seeing what is different as something that is frightening and therefore must be strictly controlled or ruthlessly abolished. In wartime, the enemy is conceived of as evil, his motives base, his actions reprehensible. Our actions, on the other hand, are seen as necessary, as lesser evils needed to prevent greater ones. There is always a qualitative difference between us and them. When “the other” is closer to us we deal with it in a less brutal, but still brutalizing, fashion. If we dismiss it—usually out of fear or ignorance or arrogance, although the three are often the same—we then ghettoize the other, marginalizing a people, taking away the voice of a culture by ignoring it. If we do not fear it, we pretend to embrace it, or rather absorb the other, using it, making differences commodities that can be worn or heard or watched or, in some other way, consumed. 

The second way of looking at “the other” is to give it unwarranted value. This is the “greener grass” phenomenon. What is over there must be better than what is over here. Chekov’s “Three Sisters” want to get to Moscow. Everything will be better in Moscow. Huck Finn takes off for the west where a man can breathe. I always thought Virginia and Sharon who lived across the driveway from me in the fifties had the better toys. Keith, my eldest brother, thought the quieting of the mind and body before doing battle on the tatami mats with an opponent was better discipline than quiet reflection on a passage of the Bible. 

An anecdote from the sixties might help illustrate these two perspectives. A dinner table argument between a teenager and her father began when the young woman said she admired a friend who had taken up the study of Transcendental Meditation. The father was a first confused, then incensed. Her point was that the friend had found something of spiritual value in his practice. The father’s irritation was with anyone finding anything of value from a culture where indoor plumbing was a rarity. 

The problem is that both of these ways of looking at and dealing with the other—to denigrate or to glorify—are counter-productive. Dismissal leads to loss. Not only is marginalization—whether cultural, economic, or social—unjust to those people who are marginalized, but it costs those people doing the marginalizing as well. The father in the preceding anecdote has trouble valuing any culture he cannot measure by his own yardstick of material wellbeing. Because he can’t or won’t do so, he is cut off from interacting with his daughter. He cannot understand her fascination with emotional or spiritual values that have little to do with material things.

But what about the other side? Glorification of the other. Is this dangerous as well? I think it is. And my brother and myself are cases in point. If we value something before we understand it, we run the risk of chipping away at that value as our understanding grows, a paradoxical but not uncommon phenomenon. I’m reminded of a young woman with whom I went to high school. I was honored by her friendship since she was the smartest student in our school, a delightful conversationalist, and a brilliant actress. She went on to a college in Southern California because of her admiration for the professors there in the English and Theater Arts departments. Two years later when I asked her how things were going, she seemed a bit disappointed. She said she’d found out something quite disconcerting about her professors. “What’s that?” I asked. “They’re human,” she said. “Familiarity breeds contempt” does not tell us something about the situation; it tells us something about ourselves. 

Here’s another illustration. When we are children, “the other” is the world of the grown-ups. Bruno Bettelheim maintains that for the child, the adult world is frightening because it is, in fact, unimaginable. The difference between the two realms is qualitative. Imagine how different our lives would be if we really were, as adults, as fearless, as carefree, as certain as we imagined adulthood to be when we were children. One of the more depressing things you can tell a young person is “These are the best years of your life.” 

Worse than the risk of disillusionment, however, is what happens to our relationship to what is in our own backyard. To glorify the foreign often involves the denigration of the domestic. It’s not only a question of comparative values. Selection always involves value judgments. How we choose to spend our time indicates what we value. But the real danger is one of dynamics rather than status. When one chooses to value “the other ” what often happens is that one’s understanding of one’s own cultural heritage freezes, stops, ceases to grow—may indeed begin to whither. 

For example, my growing understanding of the religious tradition in which I was raised stopped at about my junior year of high school. I thought I understood it, and what I thought I understood, I didn’t like. An understanding that is not growing, that is not dynamic, withers. Luckily for me, my understanding, my relationship with my own tradition, began to show signs of life in the late seventies because of my teaching. I was offering a few courses through Marylhurst college in Lake Oswego, Oregon—I believe the name when I was there was Marylhurst Center for Life-long Learning. Sister Marilyn Guldan, head of the Humanities Division, developed a correspondence/brief residency course on “The Convergence of East-West Thought.” She threw a little work to this hungry adjunct instructor by letting me team-teach the course with her. Initially, I was shocked. I believed that there was no convergence between what I thought I knew of Eastern thought and what I thought I knew of Western thought. What I discovered is that I didn’t know either, and that I had used my exposure to the one as an excuse to stop thinking about both. 

I learned that not only is there a rich tradition of Christian mysticism, but that Christian scholars had long been in dialogue with their counterparts in Japan and India. Later, when I was teaching at the University of Portland, Sister Joan Salfield and I formed the core of a weekly meditation group. My brother never had this opportunity to re-examine what he thought he had learned about others and about himself. The danger is that in glorifying the foreign—the exotic, the different—we marginalize ourselves and our own traditions. 

Another example is an experience that occurred to a friend of mine who grew up outside of any specific religious tradition. In a college course which required students to observe and report on religious services outside their own, he chose to attend a Christian service at a Protestant evangelical church. Noting that his peers were reporting on their experiences in positive and respectful terms, he did the same. His report was deemed unacceptable. When he rewrote the report and placed his observations in more negative terms, his efforts were praised, his insight encouraged. The graduate students reacting to my friend’s efforts remind me of my brother and his inability to see his own tradition as valuable, as worthy of study, as something that he perhaps does not yet fully understand. 

We marginalize that which we do not understand, and often that which we think we do. Some certainties make arguments possible; others foreclose all discussion. We can reach agreement if we both affirm that agreement is possible. And, as Kenneth Burke tells us, that is only possible if both of us are willing to change, if both of us are willing to admit that our own certainties are something less than absolute. Believing, because of fear or anger or ignorance, that you know enough about other people to warrant their separation—as with the Americans of Japanese descent interned during WW II—is needlessly damaging to our society. Believing that you know all you need to about yourself and your world is an unnecessary amputation of the self. 

Therefore, if we don’t want to push others away nor do we want to deny ourselves and our heritage, how can we be accepting of other traditions without adhering to them, how can we be respectful of other points of view while remaining steadfast and true to our own? This is one of those questions that can be answered by turning to the examples given us in literature. The answer is that the question cannot be viewed as a matter of stance—where do I stand? what do I believe? what do I know?—but as a matter of dynamics—what can I learn? where can the discussion lead? what are the opportunities for fuller appreciation of one tradition by way of the others? 

We marginalize that which we do not understand, and often that which we think we do.

Some writers have shown us that interest and respect need not be glorification. We can learn how this is done from the literature that explores the relationship between the other and ourselves without marginalizing either the other—or ourselves. From Forster’s Passage to India to Hesse’s Siddhartha to Huxley’s Island to Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Western writers have been intrigued by the East, not so much as a substitute for their own traditions but as way of getting some distance from which to view and critique those traditions. 

But the critique itself is not Eastern but Western in nature and intent. This is the case because our writers—and others—in the current century have been looking for answers in the East to questions that can only be posed in the West. These are questions of identity and purpose, questions that—as I understand the major currents of thought in Hinduism and Buddhism—are unasked because they are unaskable from inside these traditions. Dr. D.T. Suzuki was criticized by those in his own tradition when, partly as a result of Alan Watts’ writing about Zen, he decided to speak to a Western audience. “The way that can speak its name is not the real way,” says the Tao te Ching.

Literature, as we know it in the West, is a production of human consciousness attempting through language to form, define, and explain the mystery of individual personhood. Literature then is both a culmination and a celebration of individual identity. Yet what fascinates Western writers about the East is the absence of the very dependence on identity that makes such questions possible. The problem for all of us is that identity in its own fulfillment doesn’t supply satisfaction. I know who I am and I know I’m not happy. The paradox is that we, in the West at least, want to know who we are and have happiness at the same time. In fact, the way we think of happiness, as a possession, underscores this paradox. Our own traditions have called the problem with this to our attention several times. “The first shall be last.” “Who loses her life shall gain it.”

The answer? It’s a matter of maintaining a healthy relationship. In our own tradition we are exhorted to love the other as we love ourselves, not less than, not more than, and not in place of. It is in our dynamic relationship with others that we form and define ourselves. To shorten that relationship on either end is deadening; to keep it open is frightening because it leads to a richer, deeper life. 

Photo credit: Eddy Van 300, via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

About the Author

David Esselstrom, Ph.D., is a teacher and writer who encourages students to express themselves clearly and creatively. He has published fiction and journalism, and has written extensively for the stage and screen. Esselstrom combines his scholarly interests and creative projects with his passion for teaching in such courses as creative writing, composition, literature, and film and media.  Via Azusa Pacific University.