George Saunders and Buddhist Literary Criticism

by Varun Gauri

For many of us, reading and writing literature is a spiritual endeavor. What does that mean?

In his book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, George Saunders describes the benefits of reading and writing short stories using concepts familiar to Buddhists. In what follows, I list the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and explore their relationship to literature, leaning heavily on Saunders’ account. Whereas my previous piece explored the implications of Saunders’ book for public narratives, here I focus on personal spiritual journeys. I close by raising questions about the evidentiary basis for these arguments.

Dissatisfaction, or suffering, is a basic fact of life

Buddhists often enumerate three types of suffering in our lives:  the kind that comes from old age, sickness, physical pain, and death; the suffering that accompanies change, that sense that we can’t hold onto anything that we love, not permanently; and all-pervasive suffering, the background of fear and anxiety always with us, the sense that even our own existence is questionable, and that our relationships and personal lives will never live up to our hopes.

Saunders is especially interested in the last form of suffering — pervasive dissatisfaction. His account of the spiritual potential of literature focuses on its power to cause “an incremental change in the state of mind” in which, for a little while anyway, we become more alert to our lives and the presence of other beings —  and less existentially dissatisfied. For Saunders, a crucial cause of this third type of suffering is miscommunication: We are egocentric and constantly talk past each other; as a result, we feel lonely and misunderstood. Egocentrism has an evolutionary origin— we are primed, for personal survival, to think that everything that is good for us is also good for everyone else. Tragically, that survival mechanism contributes to isolation and suffering.

Saunders reads Gogol’s story “The Nose,” in which the protagonist oddly, hilariously, keeps running into his own nose as the protagonist and his nose ride different horse carriages around St. Petersburg, as a realistic account of human miscommunication:

Gogol hears, in everyday life, the first hints of the small miscommunications that, under duress, become catastrophic. It’s funny enough when Kovalyov, in the cathedral, can’t seem to get a straight answer from his own nose, but this same species of miscommunication, writ large, causes revolutions and genocides and political upheavals, and family disasters that never get healed (divorces, estrangements, bitter grudges) and is, Gogol implies, at the heart of all human suffering — that is, at the heart of that constant nagging feeling of unrest and dissatisfaction that attends every human interaction. (p. 300)

The principal cause of suffering is craving

Craving, in Buddhist psychology, is about becoming too close to an object, being consumed by its presence, so much so that we lose track of the changing nature of that object as well as of our own desires. We grow to believe the object is the solution, the answer, the holy grail, even though our desires, like all entities, are continually in flux. The object becomes so all-consuming that we stop paying attention to what we actually want, to who we really are. This fixedness even provides a kind of pleasure because it creates the illusion that we have a solid, consistent self (structured, ironically, by precisely what it lacks).

The ancient Buddhists, cataloguers extraordinaire, listed three types of craving: the craving for sensual pleasure; the craving for being and becoming (otherwise understood as the wish for permanence or immortality); and the craving for non-being or non-becoming (the wish for self-annihilation).    

Our day-to-day stories speak to the second type of craving — the wish for permanence. Our minds, tricksters that they are, continually reify ourselves and the world, turn complex desires, sometimes inconsistent and irrational, into simpler cravings, mistaking the word for the thing, the easier to grasp more tightly, and longer. Stories are psychological structures for creating the illusion that there is a solution, an end point, to craving. We convince ourselves that our lives would be entirely different if got a date with that handsome landowner, landed that real estate deal, got that house in the country.

The instant we wake the story begins: ‘Here I am. In my bed. Hard worker, good dad, decent husband, a guy who always tries his best. Geez, my back hurts. Probably from the stupid gym.’

And just like that, with our thoughts, the world gets made.

Or, anyway, a world gets made.

This world making via thinking is natural, sane, Darwinian: we do it to survive. Is there charm in it? Well, yes, because we think in the same way that we hear or see: within a narrow, survival-enhancing range. We don’t see or hear all that might be seen or heard but only that which is helpful for us to see and hear. Our thoughts are similarly restricted and have similarly narrow purpose: to help the thinker thrive.

All of this limited thinking has an unfortunate by-product: ego. Who is trying to survive? “I” am. The mind takes a vast unitary wholeness (the universe), selects one tiny segment of it (me), and starts narrating from that point of view. Just like that, that entity (George!) becomes real, and he is (surprise, surprise) located at the exact center of the universe, and everything is happening in his movie, so to speak; it is all, somehow, both for and about him.

So, in every instant, a delusional gulf gets created between things as we think they are and things as they actually are. Off we go, mistaking the world we’ve made with our thoughts for the real world. Evil and dysfunction (at at least obnoxiousness) occur in proportion to how solidly a person believes that his projections are correct and energetically acts upon them. p. 157-158

Saunders finds Gogol’s absurdist story “The Nose” to be “realistic” because it accurately describes human communication, which is always unraveling.

‘The Nose’ suggests tha rationality is frayed in every moment, even in the most normal of moments. But distracted by the temporary blessings of stability and bounty and sanity and health, we don’t notice. p. 299

The fundamental problem is that our day-to-day story telling, succumbing to the craving for permanence, lazily refuses to self-correct, pay attention, recognize change:

Every human position has a problem with it. Believed in too much, it slides into error. It’s not that no position is correct; it’s that no position is correct for long. We are perpetually slipping out of absolute virtue and failing to notice, blinded by our desire to settle in — to finally stop fretting about things and relax forever and just be correct; to find an agenda and stick with it. p. 337

Buddhist psychology documents “five hindrances” to enlightenment — sensual desire, anger, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt. Notice that in his account, Saunders is primarily targeting sloth, torpor, and laziness, referring to the wish to “relax forever” and the distractions arising from “stability and bounty.” I believe he does so because the literary equivalents of the Third and Fourth Noble Truths, which announce a possible end to suffering and the technique for attaining it, concern the sustained attention that arise from better storytelling. Sustained attention is the opposite of sloth, torpor, and laziness.

The tendency to crave can fade

In non-theistic Buddhist accounts, a vivid awareness of the possibility of liberation arises from, and depends on, the realization that craving causes suffering. Glimpsing this state of mind, even for a moment, inspires seekers to pursue their spiritual paths, and orients their journeys. The seekers begin to reexamine their choices, practices, beliefs, and goals in light of the possibility of freedom from suffering. This glimpse can include feelings of connection to a less alienated world, a sense of curiosity, and a kind of playfulness.

Saunders believes great stories provoke a similar kind of curiosity and love for the world.

This feeling of fondness for the world takes the form, in [Chekhov’s] stories, of a constant state of reexamination. (“Am I sure? Is it really so? Is my preexisting opinion causing me omit anything?”) He has a gift for reconsideration. Reconsideration is hard; it takes courage. We have to deny ourselves the comfort of always being the same person. p. 338-9

Unlike the reflexive, necessarily egoistic stories we are habitually and constantly creating, the stories of the attentive writer are attuned to complexity and, often, inconsistency. Those stories illustrate, for instance, how certain human virtues, all desirable, cannot easily coexist, how people fall in love with deeply flawed individuals, such as Olenka in Chekhov’s “The Darling,” and how the world is less rational and “normal” than we typically need believe.

These insights are often challenging to convey in rational discourse; they are as much emotional as cognitive. The experience of reading complex stories provides access to a kind of knowledge, and insight, that the world could be different, that we might be different. There are more possibilities than found in the “crappo” or “dopey” stories we routinely tell ourselves.

We are always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we are at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate.… it’s superior to our usual (conceptual, reductive) way. p. 102

This kind of insight can be spiritually empowering. The character Vasili, in Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” undergoes enormous personal transformation based on insight. Saunders describes Vasily’s change in terms a Buddhist might recognize, emphasizing Vasily’s new belief that he does not have a hard, permanent self.

What kept Vasili so small in this life? (What is keeping us so small now?) He wasn’t small, actually, as proven by the end. He was infinite. He had access to as much great loves any of our beloved spiritual heroes. Why did he live out his life in that small country of selfishness? What was it that finally jolted him out of it? Well, it was truth. He saw that his idea of himself is untrue. His idea that he was himself was untrue. All of those years, he was only part of himself. He had made that part, was always making it and defending it, with his thoughts and his pride and the desire to win, which continually separated him, Vasili, from everything else. As that entity, Vasili faded away, what was left behind discerned the fallacy and joined (rejoined) the great non-Vasili of it all.

If we could reverse the process (let him come alive again, warm that body up, melt away the snow, cause him to forget all he’s learned tonight) what we would see would be a mind gradually reasserting a series of lies: “You are separate” and “You are central” and “You are correct” and “Go forth and prove that you are better, that you are here best. p. 243

There is a path to end of suffering

Buddhist schools differ on the path to the end of suffering, with varying degrees of emphasis on personal versus community-wide liberation, and the use of rituals. They share the view, however, that concentration, mindfulness, and compassion are important.

As I noted in an earlier post, mindfulness builds a meditator’s ability to sustain moment-to-moment awareness over longer and longer periods of time. In the process, one learns to appreciate that things are less substantial, solid, and essential than they appear. The sound of an air conditioner is not a drone but a bedlam of high- and low-pitched bursts. A shower is not a stream of water but undulating rivulets and tributaries cascading over various parts of the body. Pain vibrates, rises, and falls. Everything is changing, including one’s desires. Crucially, the self, when one pays attention, diffuses into memory fragments, disconnected chunks of planning and plot, and threads of emotion and desire.

The experience generates compassion because one sees that all human beings, and perhaps all creatures, are fundamentally alike — they crave and grasp in the face of suffering, impermanence, and the absence of a stable self. Recognizing one’s own impermanence, and the struggle and suffering that arises from resisting it, generates a compassion for other beings, as well, given that they, too, are engaged in the same struggle. In other words, Buddhist practices provide a technique for becoming compassionate. As is often said, compassion, and loving kindness, are understood to be skills, not feelings.

Saunders believes Tolstoy was engaged in an analogous practice, when writing his stories. From their own inner experience, writers generate sympathy for others out of the confidence that all human beings are sufficiently alike. This moment-to-moment and specific situational perspective-taking is essential to literary storytelling. It’s what good writers do, Saunders argues. In other words, just as Buddhism proposes a reliable technique for becoming compassionate, and for ending suffering, writing and reading literature offers a technique, as well.

What else could it be? From where, other than his own mind, could Tolstoy find material with which to fill those other minds? These four people are all Tolstoy, and his recounting of what they’re thinking is not extraordinarily “compassionate.” He’s just ascribing to them thoughts he’d had in an analogous situation, thoughts not particularly unique, psychologically, to them, produced more by their role in the situation.

In other words, what makes we think Tolstoy as a moral-ethical giant here is a technique (going from mind to mind) coupled with a confidence. Of what is Tolstoy confident? That people are more similar to him than different. That he has an inner Vasili, an inner aged host, an inner Petrushka, an inner Nikita. This confidence serves as a gateway to (what reads) as saintly compassion. p. 222

I’ve been arguing that, for Saunders, writing and reading short stories are practices akin to Buddhist meditation in two senses: 1) they arise from an impulse to overcome the reality-denying character of most of the day-to-day stories we tell ourselves and live and act under the spell of; 2) a deep engagement with stories increases our compassion for ourselves and for other beings.

Is this right? Does literary fiction lead to compassion? Saunders is not the only writer to argue this, though he may be among the first to do do with Buddhist concepts. Pinker (2012) argued that reading played a crucial role in the emergence of humanitarianism in the 18th and 19th centuries, culminating in practices and institutions that sharply reduced violence in daily life. Nussbaum (1985) made related arguments, as did Hunt (2008).

In a paper published in Science, Kidd and Castano (2013) found that reading a single passage of literary fiction promoted a form of perspective taking that psychologists call “theory of mind,” akin to cognitive empathy, but reading nonfiction and popular fiction passages did not. This finding seems to support the arguments that Saunders is making, especially the distinction between day-to-day “crappo” stories and literary fiction. However, other studies found conflicting results. Djikic et al (2013) found no impact of reading fiction on theory of mind or affective empathy. Others found that the effects of reading literary fiction are moderated by individual differences, such as the ability to be transported by narratives, openness to experience, and affective empathy (references here). Pino and Mazza (2016) found that reading literary fiction improves cognitive but not affective empathy, but their participants read full books, not just passages. Panero et al (2016) noted that the effect sizes in the Kidd and Castano paper were relatively small, about one-point on a 36-point scale, and found no effect of reading fiction in their own results, though they did find that lifetime readers of literary fiction scored higher. A large replication study of social science experiments did not support the main findings, but Kidd and Castano (2019) responded, arguing that their best study was in fact supported.

The methods of replication are contested. I suspect there are reasons to believe that the effects of reading and writing literary fiction are indeed context-dependent. As I’ve argued in this piece, drawing on Buddhist concepts, literary fiction primarily targets one of three kinds of suffering (pervasive dissatisfaction), one cause of that kind of suffering (the craving for permanence), and one of the “five hindrances.” If, in a given context, for given people, other kinds or causes of suffering predominate, or if those people are under the spell of other hindrances, literary fiction may not effectively challenge the ordinary stories they routinely tell themselves.

As Saunders puts it:

And that’s what fiction does; it causes an incremental change in the state of a mind. That’s it. But, you know — it really does it. That change is finite but real.

And that’s not nothing.

It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing. p. 383