- Realization, Awakening, and Transcendence
192 Pages; Print, $24.00
Night Hawks is Charles Johnson's fourth volume of short stories, his eighth volume of fiction writing, and his twenty-third book. Since his first published novel, Faith and the Good Thing, appeared in 1976, Johnson has been one of the most prolific and varied writers in American letters. He has published novels, short stories, works of philosophy, reflections on the craft of writing, interviews, reviews, essays, and two children's books. All of this capacious works traverse multiple philosophical positions and traditions; they reflect upon the perilous state of culture and civil society in the twenty-first century; and they examine—sometimes skimming the surface, sometimes plumbing the depths—the state of black America in this complex and perilous time.
Most fundamentally, this prolific and many-sided writer is a storyteller. He has described his goal in writing as seeking "the same innocent enchantment I had when I was a reader of twelve or thirteen…the experience of mystery and wonder, and needing to know what happens next." In great stories, Johnson has argued, everything disappears except the story—these are what he calls "stories that endure," that "liberate our perception." These experiences, where the world drops away and only the present moment of the story exists, parallel the moment in phenomenology (the western philosophical tradition that is most central to Johnson's thinking) when all experience is bracketed and only the present moment exists; they parallel the moment of awakening and self-transcendence in Buddhist thought, the religion to which Johnson has been committed since taking vows in 1980. Each of the stories in Night Hawks seeks at some level to bring about such a moment of realization, awakening, and even transcendence.
Despite the dazzling variety of the stories —ranging in setting from ancient Greece to the mountains of Afghanistan to contemporary Seattle to centuries in the future; and ranging in form and perspective from 1st person to 2nd person to 3rd person; and from science fiction to crime story to fabliau—each story is marked by a common experience of awakening or realization. At the end of "Kamadhatu: A Modern Sutra," Toshiro Ogama, the young priest who cares for the Buddhist temple but really seeks to preserve his isolation, is able to surrender "his personal anguish, his pain" and move past "the sense of twoness" and embrace the oneness of all things. In this self-surrender, he is able to accept comradeship and community and a far richer sense of purpose. Similarly, at the close of "Welcome to Wedgewood," the comfortably bourgeois narrator realizes that the young neighbor whose loud music had so disturbed his sense of peace is actually deaf from his combat experiences. The sudden empathy liberates the narrator from his self-obsession: "I did not judge him or myself now, because he had taught me how to listen better." He is now able to welcome the young man to the community in a gesture that parallels Ogama's concluding welcome to his new disciple.
The most beautiful of these epiphanies occurs at the end of "The Cynic," a fascinating story in which the philosopher Plato encounters the cynic Diogenes, who ruthlessly dogs Plato's steps and challenges his every premise (as well as his philosophical authority). Plato resists Diogenes' ruthless self-examination, until finally in frustration Plato stops philosophizing about the transcendent realm and simply looks at the cosmos around him:
I was ambushed by its sensuous, singular, and savage beauty. Enraptured, I felt a shiver of desire (or love) rippling through my back from the force of its immediacy. For a second I was wholly unconscious of anyone beside me, or what was under my feet. As moonlight spilled abundantly from a bottomless sky, as I felt myself commingled with the seen, words failed me, my cherished opinions slipped away in the radiance of a primordial mystery that was as much me as it was the raw face of this full-orbed moon, a cipher so inexhaustible and ineffable it shimmered in my mind...