The Dharma of Western Literature

In this series on The Dharma of Western Literature, we’ve been considering classic works through the lens of the six paramitas, or sublime virtues: generosityethical conduct, patience, diligence, meditation, and wisdom. In this final installment we focus on wisdom, or prajna

Maybe you’ve seen these newfangled miracle-of-science frying pans they’ve got now, with a cooking surface so slick your oil won’t spread out and cover it: it just beads up. Highest wisdom—prajnaparamita, enlightenment—is kind of like that, too slick for our words to cover. Yet for at least 2,500 years and counting, we’ve tried, pouring out words and watching them bead. And with supreme indifference to all our efforts, prajnaparamita still cooks everything to perfection. 

The traditional response to this challenge is to sneak up on the subject, to approach it obliquely with metaphor or allegory, as I did in the previous paragraph. That’s also what Colson Whitehead does in his darkly satirical 1999 debut novel, The Intuitionist. Wisdom, we guess and hope, should somehow raise our life to a higher level—should elevate us. Whitehead writes about elevators. Lift, aufzug, ascenseur: in virtually every language they’re named for their function of lifting us up, even though half the time they bring us down. 

Perhaps that’s because we quietly understand that things left to themselves go down on their own. Gravity pulls our bodies till they’re in the grave. Entropy happens, per the Second Law of Thermodynamics: over time, all things break down, from more orderly to more chaotic arrangements of molecules. Park a shiny new Lamborghini by the curb, check back in five hundred years, and you’ll find a pile of rusted junk. Leave a pile of rusted junk by the curb and you won’t get a Lamborghini.

But the Second Law applies only to closed systems. Make some skillful intervention, inject some ordering intelligence into the system, and we can put up a fight. Better doctoring can lengthen our lives. Better parenting can help keep our kids from sliding into self-destruction. The christs and buddhas and mahatmas of our world bring better insight to elevate humanity, to uplift it from its chronic descent into confusion. Whitehead’s founding buddha is Elisha Graves Otis, who uplifted us with his invention of the modern safety elevator. Its dramatic public introduction at New York’s Crystal Palace during the 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations is narrated in the mythic tones of a Mahayana sutra, concluding with a mantra of reassurance: “All safe, gentlemen, all safe.” 

Who are the guardians, the heirs and protectors of Otis’s legacy of safe uplift? Elevator inspectors, naturally. And like the modern heirs of most spiritual traditions, they’re a deeply imperfect priesthood. Whitehead imagines a sprawling comic opera subculture of inspectors, with its own guilds and academies, competing philosophies, dirty politics, and disturbingly cozy ties to the bigshots of government, industry, and organized crime. Most of the inspectors, like most of the cops in a gritty police drama, are weary, cynical time-servers, but just as there’s always one heroic cop, risking everything to buck the system and uncover the forbidden truth, there’s one such elevator inspector—Lila Mae Watson, who, as a Black woman in a white male world, is doubly an outsider. 

Her story is set in an unnamed city that’s more or less 1940s New York by way of Batman’s Gotham: a noir swamp of corruption and anxiety, furnished with iceboxes, phone booths, drug stores where you get your surveillance film developed, the Happyland Dime-A-Dance (spoiler alert: no one there is happy), and bleak diners straight out of an Edward Hopper painting:

She leaned against the glass window of an Automat. Inside the late-night denizens, the midnight refuse, slouched over java and racing forms, tuna on stale rye and their doomed itineraries. No one looked at anyone else in this crumbling sanctuary: that would risk the perfection of their isolation, their one last comfort in this concrete city.

That sounds a lot like samsara, the grim flatness of life when it’s stuck on the horizontal plane, just one damned thing after another. In contrast to this flatness—perpendicular to it—is the dream of “seamless verticality,” as conjured by the visionary James Fulton in his revered text, Theoretical Elevators, Volumes 1–3. Prophetlike, Fulton declares that our skyscraping cities are made possible only by elevators, in an ascent from the jungle floor that’s just getting started:

What does the perfect elevator look like, the one that will deliver us from the cities we suffer now, those stunted shacks? We don’t know because we can’t see inside it, it’s something we can’t imagine, like the shape of angels’ teeth. It’s a black box.

Our heroine, after being falsely implicated in a spectacular elevator accident, finds herself on a solitary quest for the black box, which the late Fulton is rumored to have built shortly before his death. It’s a struggle: Lila Mae is, as any of us may feel ourselves to be in our quest for highest wisdom, a Watson without a Holmes. And the black box, like any Holy Grail, becomes an object of desire for competing sects, to be politicized, monetized, and gutted of its essentially subversive meaning.

Whitehead’s sects are the Empiricists, who inspect elevators by the numbers, comparing performance specs with the benchmark figures in the manual, and the Intuitionists, who listen and feel. This second group includes Lila Mae, who diagnoses an elevator’s janky performance by pressing her back against its door and feeling the vibrations. As with our own believers that hard-edged science is the final definer of reality—the ultimate wisdom—and our own more spiritually inclined types, the two schools harbor mutual mistrust: 

Some nicknames Empiricists have for their renegade colleagues: swamis, voodoo men, juju heads, witch doctors, Harry Houdinis. … Some counter-nicknames from the Intuitionists: flat-earthers, ol’ nuts and bolts, … Babbitts, collators.

Helping fuel the conflict is the way the transcendent visions of the Intuitionists, like those of our own spiritual prophets, can be both hauntingly poetic and possibly mad, as in these musings from Fulton’s Theoretical Elevators:

We do not know what is next. … Is the next building ovoid, pyramidic? Is the next elevator a bubble or is it shaped like a sea-shell, journeying both outward and into itself? … The elevator world will look like Heaven, but not the Heaven you have reckoned. … The race sleeps in this hectic and disordered century. Grim lids that will not open. Anxious retinas flit to and fro beneath them. They are stirred by dreaming. In this dream of uplift, they understand that they are dreaming the contract of the hallowed verticality, and hope to remember the terms on waking. The race never does, and that is our curse.

As usual, the most vivid, experientially thrilling, and possibly psychotic scriptural passages are found in the apocryphal texts. Fulton’s “lost notebooks” evoke the vision of a zooming ascent past ninety floors that’s so intense it makes everything in our lives that’s earthbound finally melt:

The walls are falling away, and the floor and the ceiling. They lose solidity in the verticality. At ninety, everything is air and the difference between you and the medium of your passage is disintegrating with every increment of the ascension. It’s all bright and all the weight and cares you have been shedding are no longer weight and cares but brightness.

Sure sounds to me like meditative transcendence, at once sublime and—from the horizontal perspective—hopelessly starry-eyed, devoid of practical reality. And yet, as Lila Mae notes while making her inspector’s rounds, “No one can explain why the Intuitionists have a 10 percent higher accuracy rate than the Empiricists.” The closer we look at the universe, the more inadequate the ol’ nuts-and-bolts Newtonian model turns out to be: apparently solid, stolid matter turns out to be more accurately described as an ephemeral dance of energy, a let-there-be-light holographic ballet. On the human level, those of us who stick to our juju-head dharma practice year after year generally turn out to have lower blood pressure and happier marriages (and so on) than our skeptical friends. 

Without revealing too much about The Intuitionist’s many plot twists (this is, after all, a mystery), let’s just say that neither Empiricism nor Intuitionism gets the last word. Final wisdom continues to elude our efforts to pin it down with theories, systems, words. But, like all parallel lines, the two parallel lines of inquiry, hard-edged and touchy-feely, merge in infinity. Seemingly irresolvable dualities—heart and mind, I and you, no and yes, black and white, going down and going up—resolve in a way that is not rationally explicable. But when at last we see that place of resolution, that prajnaparamita, it’s suddenly, luminously, ludicrously, forehead-slappingly obvious. Whew. All safe, gentlemen, all safe.

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