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Charles Johnson's Way to a Spiritual Literature.

In his interviews and essays, Charles Johnson has been unfailingly generous in describing the forces, circumstances, and choices that have shaped his literary career. He has helped us better understand the notable shifts that led him from being a visual artist to becoming a literary one, from being a protest novelist to becoming a practitioner of philosophical fiction. He has helpfully described the variety of subjects he has seriously studied, the particular types of disciplines that have informed his outlook, and most significantly, the sources of spiritual knowledge that have been most signally important in his life and works. We know what kinds of writing he produced (but did not publish) before his platform book, Oxherding Tale, and we know the sources of much that appears in that book because of his honest commentary on the variety of forces (cultural, political, and personal) acting on him as he transformed those forces into a work of art. In a word, then, Johnson has been an artist who has provided us with candid, searching, and useful autobiographical information that has helped us much better appreciate not only the subtleties and richness of his writing, but sometimes its very cultural and social grounding. In this paper, I would like to examine how we can understand something about the trajectory of Johnson's career in light of a comment he made in a remarkable retrospective moment, when he stated that his body of work is fundamentally about the spiritual. As he put it in an interview with Michael Boccia: "when I think back over the products of thirty years, it seems to me that my fiction is at bottom a form of spiritual literature" (205).

Although Johnson does not offer much by way of definition of what constitutes the distinctive features of "spiritual literature," it is clear from the list of books he cites in that interview--classic books of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and modern writers in those traditions--that he means a form of writing that explores what he calls "the central questions in Eastern religions" (205). (1) The Eastern religion and spiritual practice that has been most prominent in his work since the publication of Oxherding Tale in 1982 has been Buddhism, of course. A brief spiritual biography of Johnson would demonstrate the variety of ways he has arrived at Buddhism over the course of his life, beginning with a youthful encounter with Vipassana meditation in 1962 (Whalen-Bridge, "Whole Sight" 251). After taking what he calls the "first, tentative steps on a path" that would prove deeply important to his life and work, Johnson developed a fascination that he would pursue at first with "only a scholarly commitment to Buddhism" through the seventies until he went to San Francisco in 1981 and "fully surrendered" to both meditative practice and Buddhism (Byrd, I Call 7, 26). Following that "surrender" in 1981, Johnson made Buddhist ideas an unmistakable feature of his work--"a dimension present in [his] fiction," as he puts it. The final stage in his spiritual path was what he describes as his "complete and public devotion to the Buddhadharma as a spiritual practice and way of life" which was "not made fully explicit" in his writings until the 2003 publication of Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (xv).

Even before Johnson's recent declaration of his public commitment to the Buddhadharma, many critics were indeed finding in Johnson a writer who, in the words of Jonathan Little, is "fundamentally idealistic and spiritually oriented" (Charles Johnson 161). Yet critics of Johnson were also aware of another side to his work--the political side that manifested itself, among other places, in his attempt to produce protest fiction, and, most importantly, in his rigorous study of Karl Marx and the Marxist tradition more broadly. Indeed, not long after first discovering meditation, Johnson also round dialectical materialism. "Marxism," he writes in an autobiographical essay, "was my passion and political orientation throughout graduate school" (Byrd, I Call 23). He was "immersed in Marxism" while writing his Master's thesis and taught courses on Marx during his doctoral studies (Davies 153). As late as 1996, in the same interview in which he proclaimed his writing to be a form of "spiritual literature," he also claimed still to believe in "the Marxist critique of capital," although he was hot a proponent of "Marxist solutions to social and economic problems" (Boccia 201). Nothing in his subsequent interviews or writings suggests that he has changed from that position. Johnson has been a student of both Marx and Buddha, and at different and overlapping times in his life he has proclaimed belief in both Marxism and Buddhism.

For many Johnson scholars, this dual allegiance has posed considerable problems, as they have round a contradiction between his political and his spiritual concerns. For some, the question is to figure out the trajectory of those concerns, to determine, in other words, which system of thought is ascending and which descending in importance in Johnson's mind in a given work. On this, there seems to be little agreement. The joint editors of a recent anthology of essays on Johnson, Marc C. Conner and William R. Nash, exemplify the major disagreement. Nash sees "Johnson's social activism as increasing with each of his novels," and Conner views "Johnson's work as progressing into increasingly spiritual and religious avenues that resist specific political programs or solutions" (xxxv). These, I think, are the terms that have largely defined an important debate in Johnson scholarship about the relationship of his political to his spiritual concerns, whether his politics or his spiritual focus is increasingly coming to the fore in the series of books he has produced since Middle Passage.

I would like to suggest a somewhat different tactic for understanding the place of this fruitful and complex tension in Johnson's career between his spiritual and his political ideas, between his Buddhism and his Marxism. For one thing, it is important to note that Johnson does not himself see a contradiction--"Buddhism and politics need not be antithetical," he comments (Johnson, Turning the Wheel 44)--but he does also certainly maintain, in his interviews and essays, the primacy of the spiritual as a solution to social problems. The tactic I would suggest in light of these comments is for us to explore the body of Johnson's work with an eye toward appreciating the variety of ways he has produced a "spiritual literature," but to do so with an appreciation for the place of the "political" in that literature and with an understanding that there might be less a "shift" in the trajectory of his career than a sometimes uneasy, sometimes seamless attempt to stage stories that merge and play with sets of coexisting and overlapping ideas. Toward that end, with the hope of helping to define what a spiritual literature looks like in Johnson's oeuvre, and what strategies of reading we can employ in discerning the complicated play of spirit and politics in his work, I suggest returning to that moment in 1981 when Johnson "fully surrendered" to Buddhist ideas and meditative practice.

The years around 1981 were certainly fecund ones for Johnson, whose Oxherding Tale had been completed in the summer of 1980, and would be published in 1982 (Johnson, Preface xvi). Some of his most notable short stories were written in these years, with "Popper's Disease" appearing in 1982 and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" in 1983. It is also a period where Johnson was asking himself some serious questions about the relationship of his politics to his spirituality. As he tells John Whalen-Bridge in a recent interview, having "plunged deep into meditation practice while living and working in San Francisco in 1981," he asked himself how he could be spiritual and political. What was one to do "after awakening if one remains in the marketplace," especially a marketplace "like contemporary America?" How, he asked, how "do I remain in the world and follow the dharma?" ("Shoulder" 315) Johnson published one story in the year he was both immersed in meditation and taking up these profound questions about how to use the wisdom of faith in a world governed by the marketplace. That story, interestingly enough, was his most obviously Marxist-inflected short story, the aptly named Exchange Value.'" (2) An exploration of that story, I believe, will reveal some of Johnson's earliest tentative answers to his searching questions about spirit and politics, and provide us with some insight about how we can discern a spiritual literature in texts that might not seem obviously about religious subjects at all.

The story is about two brothers, Loftis and Cooter, who break into the apartment of Miss Elnora Bailey to discover that she is dead and has left a hoard totaling more than $879,543 (34). The two brothers respond differently to their new-found wealth. The day after they transport the money and goods into their apartment, Cooter, the narrator and younger brother, takes some of the money and treats himself to extravagant meals and clothing (35). Loftis, the elder and more deep-thinking brother, criticizes Cooter's extravagance and offers him the theory that wealth is power only so long as it is hot spent. "As soon as you buy something you lose the power to buy something," he explains (36). Shortly after they acquire the money, Loftis falls thoroughly under the spell of accumulating capital. In the final event in the story, Cooter stealthily goes through the pockets of his sleeping brother and discovers there a piece of paper. "Fumble-fingered, I unfolded the paper, and inside be a blemished penny. It be like suddenly somebody slapped my head from behind. Taped on the penny be a slip of paper, and on the paper be the note 'Found while walking down Devon Avenue' " (39-40). Like Miss Bailey, Loftis has been transformed into a miser, someone who values money as a physical object in itself and not as a symbolic means for acquiring commodities for consumption. Cooter sees that it is now his duty to save his brother from this rate. The ending of the story is not altogether hopeful that Cooter will be successful in saving his brother from miserliness. For one thing, Cooter has his own doubts about his capacity for fighting whatever sorcery the money contains: "maybe it didn't have to be like that for us--did it?--because we could change. Couldn't we?" Moreover, Cooter also consciously or unconsciously supports his brother's fetishism of money when he wraps the penny back up in the paper and puts it "away carefully, for now, with the test of out things" (40).

The few critics who have written on "Exchange Value" have focused on the story's treatment of class, sorcery, or race. One school of critics argues that the story, like any good Marxist tale, is about class. Bill Brown, for instance, maintains that the "utterly disenfranchised" brothers of "Exchange Value," "even when finding themselves in sudden possession of riches, cannot transform those riches into objects of desire and thus cannot transform themselves." The "middle-class characters" of Johnson's other stories, like "China," on the other hand, find that "the culture of the commodity is at once the site of stasis and metamorphosis" (43fn11). A second school of critics believes that this story reveals the workings of sorcery, as do so many of the stories published together in the volume tellingly called The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Rudolph Byrd cleverly notes that what these "two brothers in crime exchange ... are their lives for the occult former life of Miss Bailey" (346). The brothers fall prey to what Cootis speculates could be a "curse" on the hoard when they become "custodians of the inheritance that, in a psychic and spiritual sense, immobilized her and which will soon immobilize them" (Byrd 347).

A third school of critics locates race as the primary kind of sorcery and the locus of meaning in the tale. There are varying emphases in the facial reading. Some, like Jonathan Little, see the tale as a thorough critique of the social order, especially "the tragic past of North American race relations--that deadly overwhelming legacy," and read the rate of the main characters as being a result of "the devastating effect of years of discrimination and economic deprivation on African Americans" (Charles Johnson 114). Others see the story as an expose of what Gary Storhoff calls the "racist system" (122), but they focus on the ways that the racial order forms the outlook of the main characters. For Storhoff, the system created a racial either/or perspective for Miss Bailey, Loftis, and Cooter, where they are able to "think of the world only in contraries: things either gained or lost, things either saved or spent" (122). William Nash also argues that the story demonstrates how "a long-standing sense of oppression and injustice" creates a "limited notion of [] racial being" that afflicts those who are unable to "escape the lute of power trapped in the money" (90).

Finally, in a reading that brings together all three elements, Linda Selzer argues that Johnson shows how class and race are not "separate categories" but rather "mutually constituting social formations" (258); and the story is meant to expose "the hidden logic or sorcery--performed by both capitalism and racism" (255-56). In showing how both systems operate together to create "the objectification of human beings and the mystification of things," Johnson, according to Selzer, improvises upon Marx "to develop a distinct, racialized understanding of commodity fetishism" (259, 254).

While all these readings are persuasive, it is also not clear that Johnson regards all these factors as equally important in this story. Class does not seem to play its role in quite the way Brown suggests. For one thing, the brothers are not "utterly disenfranchised," which I take as shorthand for "underclass," nor does Johnson seem to be saying that they are entirely victims of the social order. Neither their class status nor their class aspirations explains just what happens when they are transformed by the possession of the hoard. The other two factors--sorcery and race--are much more relevant in Johnson's exploration of the magical properties of the basely enchanted world of capitalism. Race in this story, as it always is in Johnson's work, is a cultural experience; in this case, it is the cultural experience of people of African descent whose relationship to consumption is wrought out of the experience of living in a racist economic order. When they discover the source of the money, which Miss Bailey inherited from her wealthy boss Henry Conners, for whom she was a housemaid, Loftis scoffs at Miss Bailey's inability to act in a manner befitting her new station. Cooter explains what he calls
 that special Negro fear of using up what little we get in this
 life--Loftis, he call that entropy--believing in her belly, and for
 her faith, jim, that there just ain't no more coming tomorrow
from grace,
 or the Lord, or from her own labor, like she can't kill nothing,
 won't nothing die ... so when Conners will her his wealth, it
put her
 through changes, she be spellbound, possessed by the promise of life,
 panicky about depletion, and locked now in the past 'cause every
 purchase, you know, has to be a poor buy: a loss of life. (37-38;
 original ellipsis) 

The sorcery in this story is that racist economic order. The money itself is in some fundamental way the source of the desire to hoard it, apparently a result both of the specific history of its accumulation and of its general history as money, as "exchange value." In its specific history, the accumulation of this particular wealth represents a series of expropriations. We are told that the money Miss Bailey inherits comes from Henry Conners, who is the last in the line of an "old American family" who arrived on American shores "on the Providence shortly after the voyage of the Mayflower." The Conners family "flourished in the early days of the 1900s" and Henry Conners himself was a "distinguished and wealthy industrialist" (33). Without explicitly saying so, the journalist who is writing this article on Miss Bailey's inheritance for the Chicago Daily Defender is suggesting that the Conners family is part of an American heritage and in its general history represents the genealogy of America's manifest destiny. They arrive at the time the country is first being colonized; and they become wealthy as industrialists in the Second Industrial Revolution. Their initial and later wealth is thus produced first from the appropriation of Native lands and then from the surplus value of exploited laborers. The Conners family holdings include "stock in General Motors, Gulf Oil, and 3M Company" (30). Precisely because the money is a product of that particular history of appropriation, it apparently assumes the evil demeanor of its past. As Cooter puts it, "Miss Bailey's property was the past the power of that fellah Henry Conners trapped like a bottle spirit" (34). As readers of other fables, we know that spirits trapped in bottles rarely grant unalloyed wishes that satisfy those who rub the bottles. In this case, the money is not only a genie but also a genie with a brutal past. At first Cooter felt that he could forget that "past" and use the genie to produce something they "could live off, so it [the property] was the future, too, pure potential: can do" (34). As we see by the ending of the story, however, both the past and the crimes of the past form part of that very inheritance.

In its general history, the kind of money Conners accumulated and Miss Bailey hoarded represents the deviations that occur in human relations precisely when use value is supplanted by exchange value. A brief digression on Marx will help us here. Under the conditions of capitalist production, exchange value becomes the most important factor in the ways human beings relate to one another. In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx writes: "it is a characteristic feature of labour which posits exchange-value that it causes the social relations of individuals to appear in the perverted form of a social relation between things" (34). He puts it more pointedly in Grundrisse: all human activity and all products of that activity "are always exchange value, and exchange value is a generality, in which all individuality and peculiarity are negated and extinguished (157). (3)

Exchange value is also the factor leading to miserly behavior. Hoarding, according to Marx, is the "outward expression of the desire to withdraw money from the stream of circulation and to save it from the social metabolism" (Contribution 130). "Our hoarder is a martyr to exchange-value," writes Marx. "He cares for wealth only in its social form, and accordingly he hides it away from society. He wants commodities in a form in which they can always circulate and he therefore withdraws them from circulation. He adores exchange-value and he consequently refrains from exchange" (Contribution 134). In Capital, Marx refers to a similar process when he describes what he tellingly refers to as the "magic of money" (187). The magic, the sorcery, the alchemy, if you will, of "exchange value" is that it changes people into commodities, and healthy consumers into misers.

That is exactly what happens to both Miss Bailey and Loftis. They both refrain from exchange and refuse to spend money because they both adore exchange value. "As soon as you buy something," Loftis has told Cooter, "you lose the power to buy something" (36). In their conversation we see the different orientations between the two brothers, one based on the qualitative aspect of commodities and the other on the quantitative. Maintaining that the money is in some way cursed, Cooter asks his brother: "why didn't she use it, huh? Tell me that?" (34) Loftis responds by offering a definition not of use value, which is what Cooter asked about, but of exchange value. "Its value be (Loftis say) that of a universal standard of measure, relational, unreal as number." The property is no longer for consumption but becomes "raw energy" which the owners, "like wizards, could transform ... into anything else at will" (34-35). The desire for accumulation replaces the desire for consumption. That is the disfigurement of human desires under the political economy of capitalism. Desire for human sociability is translated into a singular desire for things at the same time as, and because, relations between human beings become relations between commodities.

What Johnson is showing us in this brilliant short story is the dire and almost inescapable situation of African American laborers in relation to the market forces of late capitalism. In particular, he focuses on the moment of the emergence of commodities as exchange value and the effect this moment had on the labor and social lives of those who are its victims before they accidentally become its beneficiaries. The scene that perhaps most frighteningly reveals the deviances of exchange value is the one where Miss Bailey literally consumes money itself. Cooter recalls that after he once gave her "a handful of dimes," she "gulped the coins down like aspirin" (32). The fact that she also defecated in "Maxwell House coffee cans" suggests that she ingested, then excreted, and then collected the coins which she puts into circulation in her own metabolism instead of what Marx called the "social metabolism" (28). The money she refuses to transform into commodities for their use value changes her relationship to her own body.

Cooter recognized that Conners's money represented the "past" and he hoped it would open up the "future" (34). In time, he will intuit that Conners's money instead of freeing them from the past leaves them as it had left Miss Bailey, "locked ... in the past" (38). The reason is that they make a fetish of the money, and their predilection of making a fetish is connected to their failure to understand how to negotiate that past. Fetishism, according to Jean-Joseph Goux, "originates in the erasure of a genesis, the obliteration of a history" (33). In Johnson's short story, Miss Bailey and Loftis fetishize money and remain locked in the past when they forget the history of its accumulation, when they deny or erase the genesis of a capitalist system which promotes the desire for exchange value over the desire for use value, when they prefer solitary accumulation to sociable exchange.

What can we then make of this story, with its remarkable play on Marxist ideas, given the two topics we have raised here? First, in what ways can this story be thought of as part of the corpus of Johnson's "spiritual literature"? Second, what does it mean that this is the story that appeared in the momentous year when he immersed himself in and surrendered to Buddhist meditation practice? Let me begin by seeking to answer the first question.

Although "Exchange Value" appears to be more obviously a political fable than a story of spiritual renewal, I would like to suggest that it exemplifies precisely the same set of philosophical ideas and ethical values as do Johnson's more obviously spiritual stories. "Exchange Value" demonstrates those ideas and values through its form as a cautionary tale, through its diagnosis of the deviant operation of capitalism on human desire, and through the searching philosophical question it poses about how to inherit the past and make a future.

First, it is crucial to notice the form of this story, which Johnson would characterize as a parable, a story that represents a world with "esoteric and moral laws" unknown to the protagonist who acts "in ignorance of the way things work beneath the level of mere appearances" (Little, "Interview" 99). Unlike all four of Johnson's novels that appeared after 1981, in which the protagonists grow to understand and achieve what Johnson describes as a "moment of awareness, an epiphany if you like, a place where the character is smashed into a larger vision under the pressure of events," the characters in this parable, and others of his short stories, remain without an epiphany (Middle Passage 49). Like other parables, "Exchange Value" shows the reader but denies Loftis and Cooter that larger vision, that powerful understanding of the forces that act on their lives and thwart their desires. The hidden structures in this parable are the operative workings of capitalism, and especially the ways a specific kind of property ownership creates deviations in human relationships.

As a diagnosis--that is, a tale about a problem without an explicit offering of its solution--"Exchange Value" leaves open the possibilities for varying interpretations, as parables tend to do. Many readings have perceptively pointed out how Johnson has indeed offered diagnoses of the world he critiques in the tale by raising profound philosophical and religious issues in the story. Two critics have recently demonstrated how the sight of Miss Bailey's decaying corpse inspires Cooter to a quasi-philosophical meditation. William Nash notes that the moment Cooter encounters what Heidegger calls "being-toward-death" he is driven to reflect on the nature of time and the transience of human life. Cooter sees how the past and future are connected and thereby develops the potential, ultimately not realized, of making "healthier and more life-affirming" choices. These topics, especially Cooter's "momentary recognition of the confluence of time," reflect, as Nash notes, the "tenets of Buddhism that Johnson embraced" at the time he was writing Oxberding Tale (91-92). Gary Storhoff also sees Cooter's reflections on Miss Bailey's corpse as an opportunity for him "to foster a detachment from worldly things," noting that the device of using the presence of death as a spur to meditation is a feature of both the Judeo-Christian and Buddhist traditions. By showing us Cooter's meditation, Johnson is able to hint at what Storhoff calls the "alternative to the brothers' bondage to their own desire," which would be a "Buddhist knowledge" that leads to "a choice to perform actions that do not degrade the self or others, a preference for a more compassionate, related form of living over self-gratification" (120).

Finally, Linda Selzer reads the story as a warning of "human susceptibility to dangerous metamorphoses." Johnson's diagnosis, in this case, is that "[w]ithout a fixed essence ... we tend to reproduce the character of the relations through which we 'spend' our being--like the replicating magic of the sorcerer's apprentice" (264). Given the Marxist impetus of the story, and given the focus on the protagonists' nescience of the forces working on them, it is plausible that the tale suggests the need for a firmer knowledge, and therefore a more stable knowing self, although I suspect Johnson would not use the term "fixed essence" to describe that self. I would go further, though, and suggest that Johnson does not advocate the need for even a self, an illusory construct he has consistently questioned. Here, I think, is where we find the complexity Johnson works into his dialectic between politics and spiritual concerns, between Marxism and Buddhism.

Having stated that he believes that "Buddhism and politics need not be antithetical," Johnson nonetheless maintains the primacy of the spiritual as a solution to social problems. One of the most primal of those problems is the problem of the self, and in particular, the problem of the self in what Buddhists refer to as kamadhatu, the "realm of desire" (Johnson, Turning the Wheal 44, 43). What this cautionary tale cautions us against is not simply miserly behavior or other forms of arrested development caused by the allure of capitalist materialism. It cautions us more profoundly against the forces that can manipulate the direction and quality of human desires, making healthy spiritual beings into craving misers. As Marx showed, that miserliness, inspired by the seductiveness of exchange value, is in the end not simply a desire to accumulate things, but a desire not to share in and thereby be a full and capable participant in social and spiritual life. Like Rutherford Calhoun at the beginning of Middle Passage, the miser hoards both things and experiences, "as if life was a commodity, a thing we could cram into ourselves," as Rutherford puts it (38). In his diagnosis of how the allure of exchange value can render people into commodities and transform them into misers, Johnson cautions us against succumbing to precisely those acquisitive values that would prevent us from achieving the kind of openness that creates what he calls in "The Education of Mingo" a "complex skein of relatedness" (19) and what he quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as calling an "inescapable network of mutuality" (Turning the Wheel 9). This focus on what Johnson describes as the greatest spiritual challenge--the capacity to live well in the world of desire, the ability to perceive "unity and multiplicity without the least contradiction between them" (Huang Po qtd. in Turning the Wheel 22)--has been part of his aesthetic since at least the publication of Faith and the Good Thing, but it has assumed a newly prominent place in his later novels and his most recent philosophical pronouncements.

I believe that that same focus is demonstrated in this story in the only way it can be: in a parable form, just beyond the representation. What "Exchange Value" teaches us in its representation of the ways humans desire and hoard, whether things or experiences, is that desire is the problem, and that a more profound study of the nature of desire and the suffering it causes would reveal the impermanence that marks both the things and us, the desiring beings. "Suffering," Johnson writes elsewhere, "arises from the belief in a separate, unchanging 'identity' for things. That is the foundation for attachment and craving" (Turning the Wheel 12). Liberation from suffering comes with liberation from the illusion that there are unchanging things or an unchanging desiring self. In the novels, we find this change marked when Rutherford in Middle Passage, for example, becomes more like his brother Jackson in understanding the priority of spiritual knowledge to political and economic action. In the parables, this change is only hinted at, in the same way as the tenth Oxherding Picture hints that the oxherd can return to the "marketplace" only after he has "completely transformed himself" (Johnson, Turning the Wheel 55).

As a careful scholar of Marxism and as a seriously engaged student of the Buddhadharma, Johnson was and is aware of the insatiability of human desire and the near-hegemonic force exerted by capitalism on it. The question he asked himself when he first began to practice meditation consistently, at the very time he was writing this story was, as we saw: "How do I remain in the world and follow the dharma?" It is not a question to which there is a single or easy answer. Particularly in his second and third novels, he produces powerful meditations on that same searching question. How does one accept the past, the slave past in this case, with its remarkable legacy of suffering and ill-gotten wealth, and yet strive for equanimity--for an end to suffering and the solace of justice? In this story, he raises a similar question when he notes the historical source of the money Miss Bailey inherits and Loftis and Cooter steal, money that leaves all of them "locked ... in the past." Throughout his career, Johnson has insisted on how things endure but change, how literary forms or martial arts kata accumulate meaning, for instance. If he is suggesting that the same is true of commodities--that they have a history that inheres in them and a meaning accumulated within them--then "Exchange Value," in showing us how this particular hoard arrests the lives of those with whom it comes in contact, is asking us to take up the same questions that have made his fictions so rewarding: how can we live in a world troubled by so much historical suffering, trafficking in so much materialism, subject to so widespread and destructive a system of political economy, and yet strive to meet the "challenge of the spiritual," which he defines in his latest novel as the struggle "to be good, truly moral, and in control of oneself for this moment"? (Dreamer 196)

Let me now turn to the second issue: what we can make of the fact that this story appeared at just the moment when Johnson was immersing himself into Buddhist meditation. Why, in other words, should he produce so Marxist-inflected a story at the very time where he was turning to a form of spiritual practice? I would like to suggest that the story represents an attempt in Johnson's career to work through two competing but not necessarily contradictory sets of ideas, one associated with the Marxism he had so thoroughly studied during his graduate years and the other associated with the Buddhism to which he was committing himself during his San Francisco period.

"Exchange Value," I think, can profitably be read as an exploration of the implications in certain theories of Marxism. The story does not read as a "bitterly ironic commentary," in the words of Jonathan Little (Charles Johnson 112), but rather as a vigorous effort to trace the ways theories about the flow of capital affect people's lives directly, or to put it another way, to see how theories of the material can help us understand the stresses of the spiritual. We recall that Johnson had asked himself in 1981 just what he could do and be as an awakened soul with an affirmative spiritual practice to help him achieve a greater enlightenment. He phrased that question to himself in terms of what it meant to be spiritual in a material world, what it meant to be religious in a marketplace. In "Exchange Value," he looks at the marketplace, at the rules governing the material world, in order to demonstrate the difficulties in that task he set himself. Awareness and knowledge, he shows, are not sufficient to offset the depravity of human desiring. Loftis was well-read and dedicated to gaining greater knowledge. While Johnson does make it clear that the form of black nationalist knowledge Loftis sought was problematic, it is nonetheless the case that Loftis does know the theory of exchange value and yet remains unable to avoid the psychological pitfalls that theory describes. So partly at least, this story, like many of Johnson's parables, attests to the limits of knowledge, and recognizes that it takes more than cognitive abilities to live well and in control of oneself in a tempting world. (4)

In another way as well, Johnson, as someone in the process of "surrendering" himself to Buddhism, used the story to examine a simulacrum of surrender. All the major characters in "Exchange Value," including the industrialist Mr. Conners, the beneficiary maid ,Miss Bailey, and the thieving brothers Loftis and Cooter surrender to the accumulated wealth and lose everything of value in their lives in pursuit of keeping it intact. They remain unenlightened because they have devoted themselves to material and not spiritual goals, and they have committed themselves to the operative rules of the marketplace. It is not merely a question of how one acquires the wealth--whether one "earns" it through exploitation and appropriation, or is willed it, or steals it. Nor is it a question of what social status one has, but rather a question of whether one embraces it. The one who comes closest to not embracing it is Cooter, the least educated and least ambitious of the bunch. Also, in making Henry Conners a representative American, a scion of an "old American family" who first arrived on the ship sailing shortly after the Mayflower, Johnson is indicting an entire society given to accumulation, as he does in Middle Passage, where he gives us Ebenezer Falcon, the slaver who is born at the birth of the nation and captains the Republic. What Johnson shows us in "Exchange Value," then, is what a spurious form of surrender looks like, what it means when one succumbs to the world instead of transcending it, when one becomes implicated in the material. This is a tale of what happens when the "marketplace" does in fact prove victorious and thus governs the wills of those unable to evade its grasp.

Following his use of this story to work through his ideas about Marxism and Buddhism and to contemplate what genuine surrender to a spiritual practice might mean in an indifferent material world and a cruel marketplace, Johnson embarks on a series of tales and novels that will examine how to reconcile a spiritual with a political vision--how indeed to answer the question he asked himself, to "remain in the world and follow the dharma." The answers he offers in later short and longer stories can be understood as cumulative, I think, and not negating each other. Some emphasize the signal importance of marshalling spiritual resources and taking greater responsibility for how we remain in the world, and others attend more rigorously to determinative economic principles that make it difficult for unequally situated persons to take equal kinds of responsibility. Indeed I think we can quite often find in his later work an effort to produce a "spiritual literature" that does not evade a political vision, but rather establishes a useful connection between his Marxism and his Buddhism. In the novel he finished just before and published just after "Exchange Value," he worked through Marxist ideas by having Marx himself make a cameo appearance where, as Johnson notes in his 1995 preface to the novel, he is represented "not as the bristling socialist of so many caricatures" but rather as the figure he found most attractive in his study of his writings, that is as someone of genuine "philosophic genius and humanism," who in the novel advocates spiritual values about intersubjectivity and love that help Andrew "achieve classically defined moksha (enlightenment)" (Oxherding xvi-xvii, xvi). (5)

Even more than Andrew, it is a character in Johnson's next novel Middle Passage who demonstrates Johnson's most coherent marriage of spiritual and political values, and who proves an exemplar of what it means to be enlightened and remain in the world. In the middle of Middle Passage, Rutherford Calhoun tells a story about his brother to a fellow sailor on a ship transporting Africans to America. The story centers on the moment when the enslaved Jackson Calhoun rejects the opportunity to possess everything his master is going to leave in this world. Jackson asks his dying master, the man who owns him, how any man can "own something like those trees outside" or the "pitcher" on the table, which is a result of millions of years of natural processes and then the manual exertion of human ones: "Took the sun, the seasons, the metalworker, his family and forebears, and the whole of Creation ... to make that one pitcher. How can I say I own something like that?" These are the religious themes Johnson raises so well and the ones his readers find so compelling, celebrating the virtues of a vision that sees the deeper spiritual connectedness in all things. These are perhaps the most emblematic signs of our being in the presence of a "spiritual literature." Jackson eschews ownership over material things because he sees the spirit of nature and humanity in those material things. But Jackson does not stop there. Jackson goes on from that insight to develop a socialist vision where his master's "property and profits" are "divided equally" among all the workers on the plantation and then the "fixed capital spread among bondmen throughout the country" (117). From a spiritual insight into the mystery of things, Jackson develops a political program for the redistribution of material goods. From sounding like a Buddhist enlightened about the ways all events, lives, and energies are interconnected, Jackson goes to sounding like a Marxist aware of the exploitation that occurs under private ownership of the means of production.

Johnson--who admits to feeling a "certain identification" with Jackson Calhoun (McWilliams, Interview" 273)--shows us the means by which one rejects material wealth, and in refusing to inherit that wealth (like Miss Bailey) or steal it (like Rutherford and Loftis and Cooter), renounces the values of the marketplace. Because Jackson recognizes the interconnectedness of things (even to the elements of the earth), and is able to meditate on what that means for the interconnectedness of people, he rejects miserliness and embraces sharing. He refuses to be selfish because he understands profoundly that what we do in the world has ramifications. His program of economic redistribution is both Marxist (repaying the laborers for the theft of their surplus value) and Buddhist (a karmic return of energy to those from whom it was stolen). Jackson's program provides justice both in the realms of political and spiritual economies. What Johnson does here is remind us that the cosmic equivalent of exchange value is indeed karma, as Jan Willis put it.

In Middle Passage then, Johnson shows us a character who perhaps best combines the knowledge of Marxism in his recognition of the "invisible economic realm ... behind the sensuous one" (149) and the wisdom of Buddhism in his renunciation of desire and his embrace of interconnectedness. At the end of the novel Rutherford plans to return to Jackson and begins to exhibit acts of similar selflessness. In this way Middle Passage is the polar opposite of "Exchange Value" in being a story of two brothers who break the hold of capital on their lives, and thereby engage meaningfully in both the spiritual and political realms. The earlier tale, in this reading, is not a rejection of Buddhist spirituality or an embrace of Marxist politics or economic theory, but rather a parable that reveals how both spiritual and political values can be lost to the false sorcery of capital. The parable, we should recall, is the form par excellence of spiritual teachers. Both Middle Passage and "Exchange Value" then, though polar opposites in form and ending, share a common goal of providing us with insights into both the operation of desire and the complex, intricate forms of attention we can lose or attain depending on what ideas we cultivate about our place in the world. That these two works, so different in temperament, subject, and strategy, nonetheless share a common goal should give us pause in how we think about the dialectic of politics and spirit in its author's career. His, I suggest, is a career marked not by contradictions, but rather productive and illuminating tensions between political programs and religious practices. Both of these elements, with varying emphases, degrees of subtlety, and nuances constitute part of a body of writing that does indeed reveal the possibilities and hopes we can find in his spiritual literature.

Works Cited

Boccia, Michael. "An Interview with Charles Johnson." McWilliams, Passing 192-205.

Brown, Bill. "Global Bodies/Postnationalities: Charles Johnson's Consumer Culture." Representations 58 (Spring 1997): 24-48.

Byrd, Rudolph P. "It Rests By Changing: Process in The Sorcerer's Apprentice." Byrd, I Call 333-52.

--, ed. I Call Myself An Artist." Writings By and About Charles Johnson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999.

Davies, Linda. "Charles Johnson: Interview." McWilliams, Passing 142-58.

Conner, Marc C. " 'At the Numinous Heart of Being': Dreamer and Christian Theology." Conner and Nash, Charles Johnson 150-70.

--, and William R. Nash. "Introduction: Charles Johnson and Philosophical Black Fiction." Conner and Nash, Charles Johnnson xi-xxxvii.

--, and William R. Nash, eds. Charles Johnson: The Novelist as Philosopher. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2007.

Goux, Jean-Joseph. Symbolic Economies: After Marx and Freud. 1973. Trans. Jennifer Curtiss Gage. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990.

[Huang Po]. The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind. Ed. and Trans. John Blofeld. New York: Grove, 1958.

Johnson, Charles. Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970. 1988. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

--. Dreamer. New York: Scribner, 1998.

--. E-mail communication. 18 Mar. 2008.

--. "The Education of Mingo." 1977. Johnson, Sorcerer's Apprentice 3-23.

--. "Exchange Value." 1981. Johnson, Sorcerer's Apprentice 27-40.

--. "Foreword." McWilliams, Passing x-xvi.

--. Preface. Johnson, Oxherding Tale ix-xix.

--. "I Call Myself an Artist." Byrd, I Call 3-30.

--. Middle Passage. New York: Atheneum, 1990.

--. Oxherding Tale. 1982. New York: Plume, 1995.

--. The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Tales and Conjurations. 1982. New York: Penguin, 1987.

--. Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Little, Jonathan. Charles Johnson's Spiritual Imagination. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1997.

--. "An Interview with Charles Johnson." McWilliams, Passing 97-141.

Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. 1903. Trans. S.W. Ryazanskaya. Ed. Maurice Dobbs. Moscow: Progress, 1970.

--. Capital." A Critique of Political Economy. 1867. Vol. 1. Trans. Ben Fowkes. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1976.

--. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. 1857-1858. Trans. Mamn Nicolaus. New York: Random House, 1973.

McWilliams, Jim. "An Interview with Charles Johnson." McWilliams, Passing 271-99.

--, ed. Passing the Three Gates: Interviews with Charles Johnson. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2004.

Nash, William R. Charles Johnson's Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2003.

Selzer, Linda Furgerson. "Charles Johnson's 'Exchange Value': Signifyin(g) on Marx." Massachusetts Review 42.2 (Summer 2001): 253-68.

Storhoff, Gary. Understanding Charles Johnson. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2004.

Whalen-Bridge, John. "Shoulder to the Wheel: An Interview with Charles Johnson." McWilliams, Passing 300-15.

--. "'Whole Sight' in Review: Reflections on Charles Johnson." MELUS 31.1 (Spring 2006): 44-67.

Willis, Jan. Personal communication. 31 Oct. 2006.


I would like to take this occasion to acknowledge gratefully the enormous help and innumerable insights my friend and colleague, Jan Willis, has provided me over years of shared meals and even more nourishing shared conversations about Buddhism and Johnson. I would also like to thank my fellow panel members and the participants in the Charles Johnson Society meetings who asked deeply helpful questions at the 2006 ALA conference where an abbreviated version of this paper was delivered. Finally, I would like to thank Charles Johnson, who has proven to be as generous and thoughtful a reader and considerate a correspondent as he is gifted and brilliant a writer.

(1.) I will be using "spiritual" and "religious" as virtual synonyms in this paper, not as a way of distinguishing an informal from a more institutional form of worship or faith. I think this usage is true to Johnson's ecumenical vision.

(2.) "Exchange Value" was originally published in Choice in 1981, reprinted in Best American Short Stories, 1982 and then collected in The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1986). I am not trying to suggest that 1981 was the year when Johnson struggled with whatever tensions or connections he could find between his Buddhism and Marxism; that year is shorthand for an intellectual dialogue he had been having before and would continue having after the writing and publication of "Exchange Value." It is worth noting that Johnson wrote the story in the winter of 1977, and gave his first public reading of it at the Writers and Poets Series, Portland State University, May 13-14, 1977 (Johnson, E-mail).

(3.) Marx also notes that it is precisely the "finished form of the world of commodities--the money form--which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly" (Capital 168-69). For a useful discussion of Johnson's use of Marx in this story, see Selzer.

(4.) Conners provides an illuminating reading of Johnson's critical recognition of the limits of human wisdom and philosophy in Dreamer (150-70, esp. 150-51, 164).

(5.) I have written elsewhere about the spiritual values Marx enunciates in Oxherding Tale, and the sources in Marx's writings on which he drew to give substance to those values. See Ashraf H. A. Rushdy, Neo-slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form (New York: Oxford LIP, 1999), 210-11.
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Date:Jun 22, 2009
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