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

May 2017

A Dream Preferred

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Snowden’s Box

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Duce

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Prayer’s Chance

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bee-Brained

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Mothers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Snowden’s Box·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration (detail) by Taylor Callery
Post
The Forty-Fifth President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Photograph (detail) by Philip Montgomery
Article
A Prayer’s Chance·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Photograph (detail) by Robin Hammond/NOOR
Article
Bee-Brained·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration (detail) by Eda Akaltun. Source photograph of Jairam Hathwar at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee © Pete Marovich/UPI/Newscom
Article
My First Car·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Percentage of Russians who believe the West is attempting “to weaken Russia with its economic advice”:

54

African elephants can distinguish the gender, age, and ethnicity of a human speaker from voice alone.

Three bodies were tossed from a low-flying plane in the Sinaloa state of Mexico.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today