Harper's Finest — June 30, 2014, 11:00 am

Sara Jeannette Duncan’s “The Ordination of Asoka” (1903)

A story

This introduction to “The Ordination of Asoka” was first published in Radiant Truths, edited by Jeff Sharlet and published by Yale University Press in 2014.

“The mysterious throbbing of the life that is inner and under.” That, by her account, was what most interested Sara Jeannette Duncan. Yet she wrote mostly about manners. For her surface was depth. You can see it in the opening lines of “The Ordination of Asoka,” published in Harper’s Magazine in 1903: “My invitation came from Oo-Dhamma-Nanda. That was his name ‘in religion.’ ” Almost a complete story unto itself. An invitation, a stranger who is not what he seems, the gentle mockery of pretension.

Oo Dharma Nanda, from Harper’s Magazine, October 1902

Oo Dharma Nanda, from Harper’s Magazine, October 1902

But Oo-Dhamma-Nanda, an Irishman ordained as a Buddhist monk at a time when such a conversion was still remarkable enough to justify a magazine story, was not pretending. “Yes,” Duncan reflects, “he was like them.” Them — the story is racist, alert to imaginary distinctions between “one’s own race” and the Burmese, bemused, too, by the “spiritualized” Irishness of Oo-Dhamma-Nanda. Duncan herself was a Canadian, married to an Englishman — she published the piece as Mrs. Everard Cotes, wife of a man identified in the story only as “the Stoic” — living in India, her reputation made by an autobiographical novel called An American Girl in London. She got her start in New Orleans, rose at the Washington Post, and is remembered now, if at all, for a satirical novel of provincial Ontario life called The Imperialist, a story of the world she’d left behind. She understood displacement, reinvention, and the undercurrents that carry the past into the present. She could be cruel and funny and forgiving at the same time. “Nearly as good as ‘Mark Twain,’ ” noted a contemporary critic. Sometimes better.

Henry James, whom she considered a peer, did not get the joke. Her writing, he told her, lacked the “bony structure and palpable, as it were, tense cord” that would result in a necessary “direction and march of the subject.” She lingered too long in that “mysterious throbbing.” No surprise to James: “It’s the frequent fault of women’s work,” he consoled.

It’s also why I’ve included Duncan’s “Asoka” rather than a piece of James’s rigidly certain American Scene, published two years later. In his nonfiction, James knew what he knew and marched his prose along accordingly. Not so Duncan, whose empathy surpasses her sarcasm and undermines her bigotry. “What I longed to get some inkling of,” she writes of the Irishman, “was whether through mysticism and mortification he had really attained, even momentarily, another plane of existence.”

No mystic herself, she could only observe. The result is a small comedy of manners, in which “the inner and the under” are hinted at but never fully revealed. That’s the subtle trick of the story: Mrs. Everard Cotes knew what she could not know.

Read “The Ordination of Asoka”

Share
Single Page

More from Jeff Sharlet:

From the October 2013 issue

The Blazing Facts

Filming Uganda’s homophobic fits

From the September 2010 issue

Straight Man’s Burden

The American roots of Uganda’s anti-gay persecutions

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, fiction by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Estimated portion of registered voters in Zimbabwe who are dead:

1/4

Honeybees can recognize individual human faces.

Pope Francis announced that nuns could use social media, and a priest flew a hot-air balloon around the world.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today