Richard Joseph,
(Stoic, 2001)

Every book deserves to be judged on its own merits, but it is often difficult to resist making comparisons with other books one has read. So when I first browsed Richard Joseph's Transcend, I expected this book to be somewhere in between Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Aldous Huxley's Perennial Philosophy.

Joseph has structured the account of his own intellectual development in a way that is very similar to Pirsig's. Part of the book is a travelogue, employed by the writer to expound on the maturing of his view of life. In the later part of the book this narrative is replaced by a more philosophical discourse interspersed with quotations from all directions, featuring the likes of Bruce Springsteen alongside the Buddha.

Following a harrowing incident of random violence and a brush with death, Joseph, a street-smart kid from Queens, goes out to see the world. He takes a job as a baggage handler for an airline at JFK, exploiting the opportunity of cheap air tickets to the full. One of his first destinations is Arizona, where he acquaints himself with the international travel scene. He meets globetrotters from all over the world, but the one nationality that is conspicuously absent from the backpacker trail are the Americans. According to Joseph, this forms no small part of the explanation for the screwed-up worldview that Americans generally have.

After a stint as a cook in a Montana mountain resort, the writer lands a job as an English language teacher in South Korea and begins a 16-month stay in the East. After completing his contract, Joseph travels to China by boat and sets out from there to explore other parts of Asia.

Upon his arrival in China, culture shock really kicks in. Witnessing the economic deprivation of northeastern China, the writer and his travel companion feel totally alienated from their surroundings. Joseph's honesty in describing their confusion is admirable. This mental stress continues relentlessly during the rest of their Asian odyssey, which takes them through Thailand (where they can briefly catch their breath), Vietnam, Nepal and India. But in spite of all the strain and pressures, an extended stay abroad is also exiting and has the potential of being put to constructive use.

Much more depressing and frustrating, however, is the re-entry into the home culture. The initial comfort of returning to a familiar environment quickly turns sour, as the traveler's stories from the road fall on deaf ears or meet with outright ridicule and even hostility. Having myself lived overseas for more than 12 years -- interrupted by an 18-month intermezzo in my home country -- I can relate to Joseph's disillusion. Here again, the author deserves kudos for his apt depiction of a painful episode.

Not surprisingly, he grabs the opportunity to go abroad again and moves to Tokyo. There he stumbles on an unexpected business opportunity. Tapping into the "vintage clothing" craze, Joseph goes back to the United States and becomes a "picker" of vintage clothing stock for the Japanese market. For a year he combines a "drive-away" job (taking cars from the East to the West Coast) with his purchasing activities. It is during the many lonesome months on the road that the idea of a book about his experiences ripens.

Unfortunately, this is where the story loses pace as it becomes bogged down in philosophical musings. Joseph is too repetitive in his argumentation. And though he claims that his purpose is to do away with the "inconsistencies" in our current views of human existence, his method is too eclectic to achieve that objective in a convincing manner.

For example, although his psychology resonates with Buddhist overtones, it is at the same time made problematic by the writer's particular focus on "Self" -- a concept which is very much at odds with the basic philosophy of Buddhism.

But what Joseph's writings may lack in profundity is made up by the author's sincerity and passion for his subject. He does say some very valid things on institutionalized religions and I am especially charmed by his emphasis on our "greater human capabilities." It is evident that Joseph is genuinely amazed by the unfolding of our faculties as embodied in the sheer unlimited cultural diversity of mankind. Here, he shows himself to be a true humanist.

One final critical note: it is a pity the editors of this book failed to correct a number of annoying spelling mistakes like: navel (naval) ships, sincronization (synchronization) and a persistent "boarder" in place of an international "border." More irritating are the misspelling of place names.

In spite of these flaws, a book like Transcend could not have come at a more suitable point in time. As the country is withdrawing from true interaction with the rest of the world, the U.S. dearly needs to take note of messages such as Joseph's.

While the temptation to retreat into "Fortress America" after September 11 is understandable, the keynote should be active engagement. This includes having an open ear for the variety of opinions that are prevailing outside the U.S. Otherwise there is, under what must be the most provincial president in a century or so, a real danger that America will continue to act out of sync with the rest of the planet.

[ by Carool Kersten ]
Rambles: 9 March 2002

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