Monday, February 1, 1999

The Zen of Oz, by Joey Green

Originally published in Toast Magazine, February 1999

By Joey Green
Renaissance Books, 132 pp., $16.95

One of the marks of a great work of art is the variety of interpretations it spawns. Take Shakespeare’s plays: 400 years later and we’re still arguing about them. And Kafka: Nobody really knows what The Trial’s about, do they? A classic can be claimed by anybody, and the greatest works often have any number of mutually exclusive readings. With few works of this century is this as apparent as it is with the film version of The Wizard of Oz.

Seen by different factions as a parable of the Populist Party (which Oz author L. Frank Baum admired), a gay fantasy, a feminist fairy tale, an anti-feminist cautionary tale, a Communist allegory, a drug-soaked nightmare, and a sexual awakening, The Wizard of Oz is pretty much whatever we want it to be. And now Oz critic Joey Green has added yet another interpretation with his book The Zen of Oz.

Until now the Oz tale has been seen by most as a secular fairy tale, with its only reference to religion being Aunt Em’s cop-out to Miss Gulch about being a “Christian woman.” But Green sees it differently. To him the Ruby Slippers represent Dorothy’s inner spark, and the Yellow Brick Road is her path to spiritual enlightenment. “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” is her mantra, and Good Witch Glinda, who most critics usually see as simpering and foolish, is here the Zen Master who refuses to give Dorothy easy answers and instead makes her figure the way out for herself.

Green reads the Wicked Witch of the West—who is generally seen as a dollar-hued representation of capitalist greed—as a control freak with an extinguished inner spark and a serious case of Bad Karma. And the Wizard himself comes out little better. Ruling through fear, intimidation, and out-and-out humbuggery, the Great and Powerful Oz is worse than a bad wizard and is hardly the person to look to for brains, heart, and courage (see Gregory MacGuire’s novel Wicked for an even stronger indictment of the man behind the curtain).

But “satori” (awakening) can arrive through any vehicle, Green argues. And the journey itself is more important than the destination anyway. The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion had their respective brain, heart, and courage all along, of course, but they, like Dorothy, had to find it out for themselves. This accords with the Zen truism that you already have the attributes you most desire.

Green stretches things, though, when he says that Dorothy starts out having Bad Karma and that the cyclone is its manifestation. And much of his reading seems a little too Freudian for a Zen Master, at times degenerating into the worst kind of pop psychology and self-help tripe (although he’s right on when he says that the Lion needs to come out of the closet).

Green’s worst fault, however, is that he only has a handful of meaningful points and he pretty much runs them into the ground after a few chapters. Still, he knows his Oz, and his enthusiasm and keen eye can be illuminating to even the most astute Oz fans. So if you can deal with the general hokiness of this kind of book (shelve it somewhere between the cute Tao of Pooh and the annoying How Proust Can Change Your Life), The Zen of Oz definitely offers a new path down the Yellow Brick Road.

—David Wiley