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Honoring the Form: Zen Moves in Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale

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In Being and Race Charles Johnson compares a writer working with traditional forms to a martial artist who “honors the form” of his predecessors. In his 1982 novel Oxherding Tale Johnson honors the form of a number of traditional fictional genres, including the slave narrative, the picaresque novel, the philosophical novel of ideas, and Zen texts such as koans, sutras, and the twelfth-century graphic narrative, the “Oxherding Pictures.” Calling his novel a “slave narrative that serves as the vehicle for exploring Eastern philosophy,” Johnson alludes to Hindu, Taoist and Buddhist texts, as well as to Western literary and philosophical works, to dissolve the dualistic thinking at the heart of what he calls “the samsara of racial politics.” To be free of the illusory nature of “ontological dualism,” however, one must journey through stages of increasing awareness, admirably depicted in the ten illustrations of the “Oxherding Pictures.” From seeking a self (ox) that one thinks one has lost, to glimpsing the self that is first elusive and finally illusory, the seeker comes to realize that all identities are constructed and therefore temporary, including such notions as “race” and “self.” Like some biracial Everyman, Johnson’s narrator may not complete the journey by the end of the novel but he discovers much about the insubstantiality and inter-connectedness of himself in the world along the way.

Affiliations: 1: Louisiana State University at Alexandria

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