- Long Strange Journey: On Modern Zen, Zen Art, and Other Predicaments by Gregory P. A. Levine
Whether we like it or not, Zen seems to feature everywhere, from a Shiseido perfume bottle to a brand of breakfast cereal, from an advertisement for Mercedes Benz to the sign on a more modest hair salon. Restaurants with "Zen" in their names exist in Dallas, the Real Madrid football ground, Saipan, and Nairobi, among other places. Even in the Veneto region in Italy, where Zen is a well-known family name unrelated to the Oriental Zen, most restaurants with "Zen" in their name offer sushi and other Japanese delicacies. The spread of Zen is truly global. What, however, do we mean by this "Zen"? This wonderful book tries to answer this very question.
The main title of the book Long Strange Journey is suitably enigmatic and Zen-like, but the subtitle On Modern Zen, Zen Art, and Other Predicaments is more to the point. The book's main focus is on the modern period and it deals with the discourse of Zen, Zen art, and Zen within more popular manifestations. Gregory P. A. Levine provides many examples of Zen art and Zen in everyday life, including some hilarious cartoons. However, what is most impressive and original is his methodology in approaching this topic. This study is highly erudite, interdisciplinary, against essentialist [End Page 279] approaches, and very aware of the historicity of the subject, but it is also open and honest about its own subjectivity. It is a definitive study of this topic.
Let us unpack this. Levine's erudition is astonishing. There are nearly 1,000 endnotes in this volume, which show that much of the evidence is taken from primary material. He warns us that this study is not comprehensive, but this just means that he couldn't include everything. Also, the point of the book is that this is not a survey of the subject but a critical analysis of the phenomenon of modern Zen and Zen art. If you want to know what these are about, this is the book you should read. The introduction and coda give a good overview of the author's approach. The eight chapters start with one on the period from the mid-nineteenth up to the early twentieth century and another on D. T. Suzuki, the most influential modern writer on Zen. Subsequent chapters consider Zen iconoclasm, Zen art, the postwar Zen boom, the postwar Zen influence on art, Zen and humor, and popular and commercial Zen, including Zen design.
Long Strange Journey is a highly interdisciplinary, transnational study with North America as the primary focus. Any historian of postwar American art would need this book and anybody interested in Zen art would want to consult it. The book also shows that Levine is very well versed in premodern Japanese Zen art, as his book Daitokuji: The Visual Cultures of a Zen Monastery (University of Washington Press, 2005) also attests. This means he knows a lot about Zen Buddhism, and this new publication is essential reading for the student of modern Zen Buddhism as well, although one should note that it deals more with the history rather than the theology of this religion. It is also a transnational study with North America as the primary focus. One minor complication with such an interdisciplinary work is that some terms are rather esoteric to nonspecialists in particular fields.
The greatest contribution of this book is perhaps its nuanced way of dealing with its subject, avoiding an essentialist approach. Unfortunately, the literature on Zen published in both East and West has been, and still is, riddled with comments on the "true" or "correct" Zen. Levine navigates this tricky terrain beautifully. While reading this, I was repeatedly saying "yes!" He is critical of the purist approach but also declares that this book is not intended as Zen-bashing. He resists cynicism, as he is not advocating for relativism or a free-for-all. Though...