Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Engraving by M. Mouzyn, after Adriaen van de Venne. Courtesy Wellcome Collection

Engraving by M. Mouzyn, after Adriaen van de Venne. Courtesy Wellcome Collection

[Easy Chair]

Dangling Man


It’s a dramatic scene. A man clings to the branches of a fruit tree, a look of terror on his face. He’s certainly in a pickle. The tree is bent over a fiery pit. At the bottom lurks a dragon, beams emanating from its eyes, almost catching the man’s foot. On the rim of the pit are snakes, also emitting some kind of ray—or perhaps poison—from their mouths. In the background stands a ferocious beast with the bulk of a bear but the face of a big cat. Whatever it is, it’s not friendly: between its front paws lies a severed human head. As if the situation weren’t dire enough, two rats, one black and one white, are gnawing on the trunk. There’s no way out. Sooner or later the man is going to fall.

I’ve spent hours gazing at this picture. It hangs above my desk, just to the right of my computer. I can see it now, as I’m writing. I bought it years ago at an auction. The listing said it was Dutch, a leaf from a seventeenth-century book of emblems—allegorical images that were popular at the time. Emblems usually bear a moral lesson, and I took this one to be a fairly standard Protestant message about the vanity of earthly existence, the sort of sentiment that led Dutch Golden Age painters to include a fly or a worm in their depictions of ripe fruit. Life is precarious; death is already eating away at you; fear God.

The image appealed to me because I recognized the absurd peril of the man hanging from the tree as my own. I’ve been a working writer since my early twenties, and as every freelancer knows, existential dread is part of the deal. Sometimes you’re on top; sometimes one piece of bad luck would plunge you into a fiery financial pit. It’s a condition I chose, and while I’ve at times been broke, I have always had food, shelter, and health care. That said, the experience of precarity unites freelance knowledge workers with the increasing number of others whose employment is unstable, informal, or temporary. Maybe you’re happy to “be your own boss.” But maybe you just feel isolated, vulnerable, and hopeless.

One afternoon, while cleaning up my house, I was listening to a podcast about the psychologist William James. Mulling in faintly seventeenth-century Dutch fashion over the transience of my possessions, I was only half listening as the hosts discussed The Varieties of Religious Experience. Exploring the religious melancholy of “sick souls,” James used the example of Tolstoy’s famous spiritual crisis. “I had nothing left to hold on to,” Tolstoy wrote in his memoir A Confession. He likened his condition—and here is where I put down my trash bag—to an “oriental fable” about a man being chased by a wild beast who jumps into a well, only to find a dragon at the bottom. That’s my picture, I thought. Tolstoy knew about the freelancer.

I found a copy of A Confession and read the full account. Every detail was the same, down to the “two mice, one black, the other white, regularly going around the trunk of the shrub from which he is hanging and gnawing it.” To Tolstoy, the freelancer was primarily an image of horror, of life as blind, meaningless struggle. He solved his own crisis by adopting the simple Christian faith of the serfs on his estate. This was not really an option for me, and besides, I was preoccupied by the billing of the story as “oriental.” For personal reasons, I’m always interested in the cultural traffic between Europe and Asia, and I spent some time googling phrases such as “Indian legend man in tree” and “Chinese fable man in tree,” until I found a modern Indian vernacular painting of what was unmistakably the same scene. In this case the beast was an elephant, not an indeterminate Dutch chimera, and a god floated through the sky in a golden vehicle, extending a helping hand. The hanging man was oblivious, too busy with a detail mentioned by Tolstoy but absent from my engraving: a swarm of bees. Drops of honey drip from their hive, and he is eagerly catching them on his tongue, lapping up the sweetness.

I found another Indian version of the picture, and eventually a source. The scene appears in the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic about the cosmic consequences of a war between two clans: the Pandavas and their cousins, the Kauravas. In the eleventh book, the wise counselor Vidura sits down with the blind king Dhritarashtra and describes the “wilderness” of existence, using the allegory of the man hanging from the tree. In Vidura’s telling, the elephant has six heads and the traveler has been chased into the forest by a giantess, but the rest was familiar: a monster in a pit, rats and bees, the man desperately slurping honey. “Even then, O king,” Vidura explains to Dhritarashtra, “he did not become indifferent to life. Even there, the man continued to hope for existence.”

Dhritarashtra is concerned: “Alas, great was the distress of that person and very painful his mode of life!” (The only full English translation of the Mahabharata was completed by a Bengali scholar in 1896, which is why Dhritarashtra sounds like a theatrical knight.) Vidura explains the allegory: The threatening beasts are diseases. The tree is our longing for life. The pit is the human body and the creature at the bottom is a figure for devouring time, “the universal destroyer.” So are the two rats, the black nights and white days that ceaselessly eat away at the future. The bees are our desires, and the honey is the pleasure we derive from their gratification, which makes us oblivious to everything else. Wise people, Vidura explains, recognize that this is the brutal truth of earthly existence, and use this knowledge to escape its shackles.

How, I wondered, did this ancient story, with its unmistakably Asian spiritual tone, come to the attention of a seventeenth-century Protestant moralist? And how did it find its way into the library of a depressed Russian nobleman two centuries later? If my engraving dated from the 1650s, then it was made when the Dutch had already been in India for half a century. Merchants on the Coromandel Coast were buying textiles, spices, precious stones, opium, indigo, and silk. I imagined some pink-faced trader hearing the tale from a munshi, a teacher hired to help him understand languages and cultures that must have seemed as rich and heady as the goods he was loading onto his little ship. Through such cargo India found its way into Dutch culture. Rembrandt, for example, owned a collection of Mughal miniatures and sometimes copied them in drawings.

I realized I knew relatively little about the creation and production of the picture above my desk. I learned that it had been engraved from an original by Adriaen van de Venne, whose most famous painting I’d once squinted at in the Rijksmuseum, a spectacular allegory showing Protestants on one side of a river and Catholics on the other, competing to pull souls out of the water. Van de Venne had painted Fishing for Souls when he was a young man. Later, it seemed, he worked for the wildly popular maker of emblems Jacob Cats, known as Father Cats. Van de Venne made dozens of illustrations for Cats, who set them beside his doggerel poetry. They were sold as broadsides for ordinary folk and as bound books for the new rich.

I started staying up late, plunging deeper down the rabbit hole, wanting to push my research as far as possible. Connections that would have taken weeks or months to find in physical libraries were arriving on my desktop in seconds, like drops of honey dripping into my mouth. Soon I was peering at a yellowed scan of the Bavarian State Library’s copy of Doot-Kiste voor de Levendige of Sinne-Beelden uÿt Godes Woordt, which was printed in Amsterdam in 1655. There was my picture, and its accompanying verses. Early modern Dutch not being one of my strong suits, I converted the scan into text and dumped it into Google Translate. This resulted in lines like “but through a stout arm line suffered reciprocity: And if he (thus counted) his Norwegian began to complain.” While evocative, this was not useful. But I was also offered tantalizing glimpses of what I wanted:

When he sees the ∫tam two eager rats to gnaw,
D’an seemed to him by ter ∫wart, and d’other white

There they were, through a static of computer-generated weirdness: my two rats, one swart, d’other white, the rat of nights and the rat of days.

I cleaned up the translation a little, but Cats’s workmanlike poetry offered no clues about itself, about how it came to be telling the story in the first place. Then I spotted a line of Latin printed at the bottom of one page, what appeared to be a reference: “The old man Barlaam described this kind of human life to King Josaphat, as the historian John Damascene relates.” There was also a chapter number: thirteen.

Barlaam and Ioasaph turned out to be a strange and wonderful book, the key to the door. Written in Greek and traditionally attributed to St. John Damascene, a Syrian monk born at the end of the seventh century, it tells the story of a young prince named Ioasaph. It has been prophesied that he will become a Christian, and his father, a wicked pagan king, is determined to prevent this. Though kept secluded from the world, Ioasaph meets a hermit, Barlaam, who indoctrinates and eventually baptizes him, offering “the Mysteries of the unbloody Sacrifice.” Eventually, the king also converts, abdicates, and leaves Ioasaph to rule in his stead.

Chapter thirteen contained nothing familiar, but in chapter twelve I found the freelancer. There were the snakes, and the rats gnawing at the trunk. The man, though, is running away, not from a bear or an elephant, but a “rampant unicorn”—a frightening Greek monster known as the monoceros, which has a single horn but no rainbow sparkles. Barlaam’s interpretation of the allegory is very different from Vidura’s in the Mahabharata. This time, the pit is the world, “full of all manner of ills and deadly snares,” and the dragon at the bottom is the maw of hell.

Barlaam and Ioasaph traveled all around the medieval Christian world. There are versions in Ethiopic, Old Norse, and the langue d’oc. One of Barlaam’s tales found its way into The Merchant of Venice. Ioasaph and Barlaam were considered saints in both the Roman and Orthodox churches. Now it was clear how the story of the freelancer had made its way to Tolstoy and Father Cats, but it had begun to feel like a little remora on the back of a much larger narrative whale, part of a profound revelation about the interconnectedness of the world’s spiritual traditions.

Whoever wrote the Greek text of Barlaam and Ioasaph claims in the introduction that the “edifying story” had come to him via “devout men from the inner land of the Ethiopians, whom our tale calleth Indians.” The immediate source seems to have been a Georgian epic, in which the prince is called Yudasaph. The Georgians probably took it from an Arabic book that had circulated in eighth-century Baghdad, the KitabBilawhar wa-Yudasaf. The Arabic Yudasaf is a corruption of Budhasaf, itself derived from the word “bodhisattva.” Ioasaph turns out to be none other than Gautama, the young prince kept in seclusion, who sees the toll of age, disease, and death, and is so appalled that he renounces his kingdom to become the Buddha.

The fact that the Buddha has been venerated as a Christian saint for well over a thousand years makes a joke out of the deeply held belief that “East” and “West” stand in some kind of cultural binary, and, as Kipling put it, “never the twain shall meet.” In 1591, Portuguese Jesuits translated some Christian texts and produced one of the first Japanese books printed with movable type. Included was The Life of the Blessed Confessors Saint Barlaam and Saint Josaphat. Jesuit books were considered dangerous, and most of them were burned—along with the people who read them—so we have no known record of how Japanese converts behaved after being presented with stories that had been known in their country for hundreds of years. The freelancer had made it to Japan as early as the eighth century, in the form of a sutra in which the Buddha himself tells the story to a great emperor, explaining that “the parable teaches men to be afraid of the causes of misery—of birth, old age, disease, and death.”

From India, the freelancer made his way to the cultural crossroads of Turfan, in modern-day Xinjiang. Chinese travelers took him farther east, but in Turfan he also found a receptive audience among followers of the prophet Mani, who equated matter with evil and the spirit with good. These Manichaeans took their ideas about the darkness of the material world along the Silk Road, where they eventually influenced European heretics, as well as more conventional Christians, including some who emigrated to the New World. Barlaam’s preaching about the need to escape the miseries of matter forms part of a Gnostic undercurrent in Christianity. Scholars have begun to accept that this perspective owes something to Buddhism, undermining the modern myth that this particular cross-cultural fusion started only when the Beats discovered Zen in the 1950s.

As I tried to untangle the freelancer’s Buddhist origins, I emailed my friend Alex Watson, who teaches Sanskrit at Ashoka University in India. I confessed that I had strayed into his territory, and asked whether the Buddhists had taken the story from the Mahabharata. In response he sent me a seventh-century Jain version for my collection, and warned that I could not expect a clear answer. “The older strata of the Pali canon”—the standard collection of Theravada Buddhist scriptures—“are older than the later strata of the Mahabharata,” he wrote. So I could not treat the Hindu epic as in any way prior.

It was clear to me that my search for an origin, an ur-freelancer, wasn’t going to end neatly. All I would find were more variants. The man in the tree belongs to a common stock of ancient stories that were drawn upon by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, as well as by Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, and even a few self-employed atheists. So now the engraving hangs on my wall, and a copy of the 1914 Loeb Classical Library edition of Barlaam and Ioasaph sits on my desk, a physical souvenir of my virtual journey along the Silk Road. Together they make up a thread that connects me to deep time, to a sublime past that confounds all distinctions, all differences.

| View All Issues |

July 2023

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now