Sara Jeannette Duncan’s “The Ordination of Asoka” (1903)
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“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.
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.
More from Jeff Sharlet:
From the September 2010 issue
On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.
In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”