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The Empty Mirror

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July is looking like the cruelest month.

On July 4, Thomas M. Disch, the under-recognized author of the visionary science fiction classics Camp Concentration and 334, committed suicide in his Manhattan apartment. He was 68. Book Review contributor Edward Champion -- or his alter ego Bat Segundo -- did the last in person interview with Disch. You can link to a podcast here. In this Sunday’s Book Review, James Sallis, an old friend of Disch’s, remembers both the writer and the human being.

Yet Disch wasn’t the only writer to die on July 4: Janwillem Van de Wetering died at age 77 at his home in Maine. Van de Wetering is known primarily as a mystery novelist, but I remember him for two nonfiction books he wrote in the 1970s, The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery and A Glimpse of Nothingness: Experiences in an American Zen Community.

I read those books back-to-back the summer after my freshman year in college, along with a lot of other stuff -- Black Elk Speaks, The Teachings of Don Juan -- that, I hoped, would give me some kind of mystical insight. Mostly, it didn’t -- or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I was looking for answers that no book can provide. But Van de Wetering’s two memoirs opened up another kind of insight, making accessible the notion of Zen-like acceptance, an ideal to which I continue (in my better moments) to aspire.

I never read Van de Wetering’s mysteries, never wanted to, never felt the need.

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But I still carry around my copies of ‘The Empty Mirror’ and ‘A Glimpse of Nothingness,’ to remind me of who I once was and who I may yet someday be.

David L. Ulin


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