Wednesday, August 6, 2014

R. John Williams's "The Buddha in the Machine"

R. John Williams is assistant professor of English at Yale University, teaching courses in literature, film, and media studies.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Buddha in the Machine: Art, Technology, and the Meeting of East and West, and reported the following:
I think I can say with some confidence that the “page 99 test” has revealed something interesting about the “quality of the whole” in The Buddha in the Machine. On that page, I write:
What Fenollosa’s Buddhism-inspired diagrammatic illustrations . . . are designed to convey, in other words, is a fundamental difference between Eastern aesthetics and Western machinism and thus critical information for our methods of education. [figure from p.99 below left; click to enlarge]
The West is the “machine,” but the East is “beauty” and “art,” which turns out to be a fundamental doctrine for Ernest Fenollosa, who was extremely worried about the frantic industrialism he saw happening throughout the world in the 1890s. Buddhism, for Fenollosa, was the answer to all our problems with the “machine.” Zen will help you with your technological dilemma, in other words.

So, in terms of the “page 99 test,” I must say bravo, Mr. Ford Madox Ford! He really must have been on to something when he came up with the “page 99 test.”

Except--and here I must confess, this is where I really think the “quality” of my work as a scholar must step in--the truth is, Ford never actually said, “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” In fact, I have serious doubts he said anything like it. William Gass’s 2006 collection of essays, A Temple of Texts, tells us that Ford had a “page ninety-nine test,” which Gass then summarizes with those words. But it’s not a quotation by Ford, as has been circulating on the Internet since then, and, what’s worse, I think Gass must have been misremembering, or simply inventing, the entire thing. Simply put, there doesn’t exist, at least that I can find, any source for any “page 99” test before Gass.

It is quite astounding, in fact, to see the authority with which people have discussed it since then. For example, Ben East, reporting on the “page 99” phenomenon in The National (Oct. 2010) tells us that,

“In 1939, [Ford] remarked, ‘open the book to page 99, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.’”

And then,

“His words were barely picked up on at the time.”

Indeed, this is true, if by “barely” Mr. East means, not at all. Ford died in June of 1939 at a clinic in Deauville, France, and there is no record of him saying anything like it. But I suppose we shouldn’t put too much blame for this on Mr. East. He seems to have invented the “1939” source for the quotation, but Gass seems to have invented the whole “page 99 test” in the first place, which is now everywhere online.

The problem here is no doubt a symptom of the saturated weirdness of our current media landscape--our technĂȘ as I call it in my book--whereby something can enter circulation, and become so ubiquitous, so commented upon, so referred to everywhere that it seemingly becomes authoritative “history.” But it’s not history, really. It’s a pastiche of circulation, quotation parading as historical information. A quotation that was not even a quotation is now, ostensibly, something Ford really said and was, unfortunately “barely picked up on.”

(Of course, as a scholar, I am always willing to entertain the possibility that I have missed something here. I await further clarification from Mr. Gass--who will be 90 this month-- or anyone else who might have a source for this idea. But at the very least I think we have been circulating a “quotation” for a source that is, at best, highly suspect).

Perhaps some readers will say it doesn’t matter. But here I disagree. Indeed, I believe we live in an era that has become so fully overloaded with technology and information that we have started coming up with things like “page 99” tests, simply because we cannot cope with the massive storm of texts, gadgets, and programs that invade our lives at every turn. We want for there to be a dazzlingly efficient “page 99 test” to cut through the clutter, to locate for us just the “essence” and “quality” of a work. Then we can let go of the rest.

Such an approach, I would argue, is yet another instantiation of the whole regime of “Zen and the Art of …” (which I discuss, on page 198--so, sorry, you might have to read on a bit). In this case, we are talking about something like “Zen and the Art of Reading,” and it no doubt makes for a pleasurable dipping-of-one’s-toes-into-books, but it’s very bad history, and I believe we really need good history, perhaps now more than ever.
Learn more about The Buddha in the Machine at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue