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The Journey to the West

Though we journey to the West We pray to the East More or less that's the way Each day begins and ends It’s a tale everyone ...

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Name for All Ten Thousand Things

Here is something I realized today as I was translating a verse of the Dao De Jing.  In the west we tend to think of poetry as a special type of writing, whether rhymed, metered or blank verse; poetry is somehow set apart, different and distinct.  Ironically, an important part of what makes writing poetic for us is the acknowledgment of the inadequacy of our everyday language as a means of conveying deeper meaning or intent. Consequently, our finest western poets -- from Shakespeare to Auden -- resort to all sorts of sensual trickery and special effects in order enhance and expand on the literal meaning of their written work.

But in the classical Chinese tradition, poetry is not really so different from other types of writing. Take for example classic texts like the I Ching and the Dao De Jing.  By the rules of composition, these books don't conform or fit into any recognized poetic form, genre or tradition. And yet these great prose texts are best understood as pure poetry, since they are composed with a clear recognition of the fundamental inadequacy of mere words as a means of expressing what it is that must be said. And that's why, notwithstanding their very limited vocabulary and rudimentary grammar, these books somehow manage to provide us with a luminous and truthful description of life in the realm of ten thousand things, with a power commensurate to any of our western canonical works.

Poetry is our first
And best language
Uninflected and unpunctuated
 It's how we describe the world 
While holding the bars of our crib

And once again after we realize  
Even with a proper name 
Assigned to every single being
Adam still struggles mightily
To make himself well understood

What can be learned from Chinese literature and culture is an entirely different way of approaching reality - a mode of apprehension that does not require a name for every thing.  In classic texts like the I Ching and Chuang Tzu, as well as throughout the enormous body of surviving Tang poetry, we find writers who spoke and composed their work in that first and best language, which does not privilege subject or object but rather points us towards a mode of existence and thought somewhere in between, unselfconscious and free, much the same way a bird sings its song.  

It's worth noting, that the world-view of classical Chinese civilization bears some remarkable similarities to the contemporary trends in physics and cognitive science.  As the physicist John Wheeler was quoted in a recent issue of The Atlantic:  "Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists "out there" independent of us, that view can no longer by upheld."

For those of you who are interested in reading a more philosophically rigorous discussion along these lines, I strongly recommend that you put your hands on a copy of the wonderful book The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject Through Painting, by Francois Jullien.  I am greatly indebted to Jullien for his graceful ability to leap across the East-West divide. 

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