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The Journey to the West

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Saturday, April 14, 2018

In Praise of What Resembles Life (Wang Anshi)

 This thing that’s
Not quite itself

Today I seem to be
A self that has died

Today it’s as if
I’m full of

As if the thing
Has the ability
To copy itself

* * * *

I partake of the elixir of youth
To know both my dream bodies

One world flows into the next
Transforming into dust

But to know this thing
Is not the thing itself

How can you ask a man today
About his former self



* * * *



*  *  *  *  *

There's nothing new under the sun, as the Bible tell us - a sentiment that was hardly original to the authors of Ecclesiastes but likely can be traced back to the dawn of human civilization itself.  Maybe even earlier than that. In a sense, this saying reflects a wisdom deeply rooted in the earth -- a sense that we're participating in a cyclical drama that is not exactly unique to our species.  There's nothing new under the sun indeed.

Take for example the post-modern sensibility - the idea that reality is fractured and personal identity a tenuously fabricated thing.  We think of the Po Mo sensibility very much as a contemporary way of thinking and feeling, unique to the our own place and time (or more accurately a time only recently past), associated with post-War thinkers such as Derrida and Foucalt.  But post-modernism is really no such thing.  It too has pre-modern antecedents, or is deeply rooted in pre-modern ways of thinking, as reflected in these two poems by Wang Anshi I translated this morning.  These poems were written in the 11th century during the Song Dynasty yet they reflect a way of thinking about life that Derrida would take to like mother's milk -- a sense that the everyday world as we think we know it is far different from what it seems.  Wang Anshi's sense of personal dislocation may be rooted in Daoism and Buddhism, as opposed to Deconstructivism, but it nonetheless results in a fabricated and hollowed out sense of Self all the same -- this thing that's not quite itself, as Wang quite memorably describes himself in the poem's opening line. 
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