Q&A with Professor Carol L. Yang
Prof. Carol L. Yang, author of the essay “A Passage from Adam’s Dream to the Cessation of Desire: A Buddhist Reading of John Keats’s 'Ode to a Nightingale,'" spoke to JNT in 2018,
JNT: Tell us a bit about your essay.
Yang: I contend that the “Nightingale” ode, instead of being an escapist poem, can be best understood as a form of negative theology of the cessation of desire manifest in an “apophatic” discourse that frees spiritual experience from rigid orthodox metaphysical dogma via a poetic language that characterizes such an outlook by suspecting and subverting its own verbal expression. I suggest a Buddhist reading in terms of the dharmas (impermanence, dissatisfaction, and non-self) and the Noble Truths (suffering, origin, cessation, and path), which is strongly attuned to an apophatic poetics of negation and a poetics of silence beyond language. In no sense was Keats a doctrinaire Buddhist, but I would like to suggest that certain Buddhist concepts may shed light on some concepts in Keats’s writing. Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” embodies such Buddhist principles as the dharma and the Four Noble Truths — articulated through Buddhism’s focus on suffering and its antidote.
JNT: What inspired you to research this topic?
Yang: I am fascinated by the familiar tropes inspired by John Keats the poet and the man. Posthumous fame which hails Keats as “the apostle of beauty and truth,” a “dedicated sensualist,” and a “poet’s poet” to be placed “in the school of Shakespeare” seems to have blurred the reality of a life of suffering at every stage of his career, as well as the significance of this struggle as an existential phenomenon. As a Keats scholar, I propose a deconstructive approach to his thought and poetry—I focus on textual play to disclose uncomfortable contradictions or aporias which defy any possible logical interpretation. To me, the renowned Keatsian concepts—such as Adam’s dream, Negative Capability, the material sublime, life as a “Mansion of Many Apartments,” Pleasure Thermometer, the vale of Soul-making—are Keats’s terms for being-in-the-world, and his philosophy, if it is anything, is a philosophy of existence.
JNT: What was the most exciting thing about this project for you?
Yang: I have come across a number of texts, by scholars from different disciplines and cultural and historical contexts, which focus on the conflict between the discourse of desire and the counter-discourse of the cessation of desire. To some extent, they retell the old conflict between the society and individuals, culture and nature: nature comes first, and is wild; culture comes next, and tends to domesticate and acculturate nature. Human beings start with endless wild impulses which are to be socialized and acculturated into desire. Desire is thus culturally constructed and constituted as well as inscribed in the linguistic symbolic order. However, there are recurring attempts in literature, philosophy, and religion to deconstruct this cultural logocentrism. My study of Keats’s affinity with the apophatic tradition, Buddhism, and postmodernism has directed my focus to the issues of the impossible task of translating the unnameable, of domesticating the otherness of the other. The apophatic narrative tends to be deconstructively disruptive, to make manifest the failure of language and the vicious circle of desire—in which dissatisfied desire keeps returning in the form of haunting addiction to further vicariousness. In this way, the apophatic tradition approximates a postmodern theology of the cessation of desire, by way of which I would like to highlight Buddhism. It is a mistake to view Buddhism as an elite path to salvation. In fact, the Buddhist cessation of desire is an abolition of all kinds of differentiation and binary oppositions, such as the life of nirvana and the life of samsara. The Buddhist nirvana is never a supernatural or superhuman state of being. It is a state of mind that is empty of all egoistic attachment and ontological transcendental craving so as to work out its own salvation on the basis of everyday ordinariness, for truth is equally alive in nirvana and samsara. In short, this project reflects my further research on the ethics of radical otherness in cultural encounters and translations.
JNT: What’s next for you?
Yang: Currently, I am working on a research project called “The Stranger Revisited in T. S. Eliot’s Work.” This project aims to explore Eliot’s reconceptualization of the stranger from the perspective of urban theory, phenomenology, and the ethics of radical alterity. I will consider a myriad of momentous encounters with the stranger in Eliot’s work: when all the characters confront the strangers concealed among themselves, and when they grasp even themselves as strangers. What results is a sense of anxiety provoked by the awareness of strangeness on one’s threshold: the shuddering of being caught between being the host and the stranger, being-at-home and being-not-at-home, being inside and outside. I maintain that Eliot’s work celebrates an ethics of the otherness of the other so as to challenge any orthodox principle—be it existential, epistemological, or ontological—of similarity, being, and unity.
Carol L. Yang is Professor of English at National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan. She received her Ph.D. from Birmingham University, UK. She has published articles on T. S. Eliot, Timberlake Wertenbaker, and on the narratives of post/modernist urban literature.
Away! away! for I will fly to thee, - John Keats