Experience: Thinking, Writing, Language, and Religion
by Norman Fischer
University of Alabama Press, 2016; 327 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
Zen priest and poet, Norman Fischer has gathered up thirty-some years of writings into Experience, ranging from literary commentary, book reviews, tributes, Buddhist commentaries, interviews, and articulations about the intersection of language and consciousness.
Fischer admits that Zen folks are “baffled” by his poetry, and poetry types appear “slightly embarrassed” by his religious commitments. His isolation is intensified, I think, by the fact that his Language poetics swim in currents outside poetry’s mainstream (which is itself a side-channel in culture’s flow). Likewise, Zen is one thing to read about but another to practice, let alone become an ordained priest (which Fischer did in 1980), leaving him far from the more popular streams of spirituality.
But this book is tremendously valuable, no matter what avenue readers approach it though. While the concepts seem esoteric, at root, his poetics and Buddhist practice are deeply ordinary and practical. That tension makes the book so rewarding, as greater coherence unfolds.
In his preface, Fischer recognizes that “contradictory impulses…stand behind the works in this volume.” For example, he sees his poetry not as “self expression” (93) but as “extended improvisation” (26). He says, “I am practicing discovering what it means to exercise language” (28). This is where the writing can seem lofty, but language is as intimate and ordinary as the chatter going on when we’re eating or driving. And so, at that level and in poetry, Fischer says, “Language is the primary medium of the unexamined conceptual self” (60). By exercising our verbal thinking, he can explore who and what is unfolding within himself and the world. In another essay, he says, “Writing’s a form of investigation, a form of contemplative experimentation” (77).
The paradox, though, is that “language ruins us and makes us suffer” (71). For Fischer, it is both the prison and means of liberation because it “unlocks our imagination, allowing us to reach out to the world, and to fly beyond it” (94). At this level, language making is not “incidental or ornamental to human consciousness” but “the defining piece of being human” (70). And so, writing and speaking are merely “articulating humanness” (95).
Likewise, his Zen practice seems like it’s a pursuit of clarity, a still point beyond incident and thought. The popular use of “Zen” to indicate a state of mind that is so serene as to seem otherworldly misses the point of meditation entirely. “Meditation practice,’ Fischer says in an early essay called “Are You Writing?” which he’s asked about in later interviews, “brings the mind to a profound quiet that comes very close to the bottom of consciousness, and right there is the wellspring where language bubbles up” (71).
Fischer reveals the interdependence of these seemingly contradictory impulses. His preface to his Zen-influenced translation of the Hebrew Psalms also attest to this intersection. Ultimately, he arrives at a place where he can declare that “what we call the aesthetic impulse is...identical to what we call the religious impulse” (84). The process of comprehending these relationships and of encountering this original thinker makes the book more than a repository of information and viewpoints; it is itself an encounter with “a life,” just as he says in his preface.