Introduction to Laozi’s ‘Daodejing’ – Part 2

What follows is the second installment taken from the Introduction to my new versions of Laozi’s Daodejing, published by Enitharmon Press. More information and comments on the book can be found here. References to the traditional 81 chapters of this ancient text are accompanied here by the titles I have given them in my versions. The first section (to read it click here) concluded by indicating how the Dao becomes manifest in the individual objects, the actions and creatures of the world we are familiar with.

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Proceeding to consider how such awareness (more commonly the absence of it) impacts on our personal (and hence political) lives is also a primary concern of the Daodejing. It comes as no surprise that our battle against the tyranny of the self, that intense, intoxicating selfishness that Coleridge calls “the alcohol of egotism” is the key (the phrase is from an unassigned lecture note, date unknown, on Milton’s Satan, specifically concerning his preference to reign in hell rather than serve in heaven. See S. T. Coleridge, Collected Works, ed. Foakes (Princeton UP, 1987), Volume 5, Part 1, p. 427). This is where the untranslatable idea of wu-wei arises. The phrase is intended to characterise actions performed in accordance with, in harmony with the Dao; hence they are driven not by the blinkered and shuttered individual self, but by a more open awareness of the expansive, interconnected reality of the Dao. This is the significance of the recurring idea that the follower of the way should attend not to ‘that’ but to ‘this’. The former implies a divided world (self and other – ‘that’ out there) whereas the latter is a gesture of encompassment of both self and other, the whole, the one. Hence, the narrow intentionality, the forcefulness of the self is withdrawn from actions performed in accordance with wu-wei.

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In translating these ideas, I have used the phrase ‘indirect direction’ to suggest the methods of our dealings with others and the ‘unacted deed’ in an attempt to characterise the pursuit of our own intentions. Both phrases are woefully inadequate, but I hope to convey as plainly as possible the paradoxical nature of these ideas. How they are played out in real human behaviours can be glimpsed through the ‘Three treasures’ (Chapter 67). These treasures are: to be compassionate, to be frugal, to lack personal ambition. In each behaviour, egocentricity is diminished through empathy and there is an inclination towards wise passivity. There is a corresponding reduction in the individual’s personally directed desires (‘Wishes’ (Chapter 3)); we are to act ‘Like water’ (Chapter 8), flowing passively, dispassionately towards lower ground in both personal and political spheres (‘Influence’ (Chapter 66)). We are being urged (to switch the metaphor as the Daodejing deliberately does) to work with the grain of the Dao.

This is what the sage pre-eminently promulgates and performs. I have consistently translated this figure as ‘teacher’, often ‘my teacher’ and (though literary Chinese does not mark gender) there is something unmistakably feminine about her behaviours. This is a point the poems declare insistently. The Dao itself has female qualities (‘Valley’ Chapter 6)) and the teacher also reflects this in her quietness, passivity, sensitivity, lack of overt force (‘Raw material’ (Chapter 27)). Stephen Mitchell’s much praised and popular version of the poems carefully uses ‘she’ at least as often as ‘he’ to refer to the teacher figure. (See Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching: a New English Version (Harper and Row, 1988), p. xi). But I wanted to go further and have consistently feminised, even personalised this figure. Early on in the translation process, I felt a need to make this shadowy figure more manifest, to ground her pedagogic statements for our more liberal, democratic age with its absence of deference. As I set about this, it was clear she had to be female and she soon took on a dual role, both as representative or personification of the Dao itself and as its incarnation in actual human form, a mother figure, a female teacher, a friend.

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The ways in which these teachings translate into the world of politics are summed up in the terse, witty, metaphor of ‘Recipe’ (Chapter 60). The art of good governance is like the art of cooking a delicate fish: don’t interfere, don’t force it, be watchful, assist, adapt, proceed only with the lightest of touches. Laozi’s politics are impossible to translate to our modern age but given the proviso that he is determined to preserve the simplicity and frugality of people’s lives, many of his sentiments read as politically anarchic, primitivist, conservative, environmentalist. For those of us from a Western tradition, there is a Rousseauistic quality to his thinking, a belief in the goodness of mankind as noble savage who has for too long been corrupted by interference, too many codes of behaviour imposed from above. This is where the poems’ anti-Confucian elements are most obvious (‘Codes of kindness’ (Chapter 18)). Laozi is certainly vigorously anti-war, the pursuit of which he regards as the quintessence of the over-determined masculine self in action in utter disregard of the Dao.

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Historically, translators have approached these poems in many ways. Benjamin Penny’s recent review of the field shows how many early versions were motivated by a Western cultural imperialism, searching out affirmations of its own monotheistic tradition (See Benjamin Penny, Introduction to Laozi: Daodejing, tr. Edmund Ryden (OUP, 2008)). Later attempts were spurred by a contrasting desire to find something different, to revitalise moribund Western values in search of exoticism, anti-rationalism, the non-Christian. Still others, keeping a firm hold on a wide variety of already settled spiritual/religious beliefs, plumbed the frequent ambiguities and lacunae of the Daodejing to re-affirm those beliefs. More recently, scholars and academics have brought an ever-growing understanding of Chinese history and culture to bear on these delicate texts and it is surely impossible to avoid accusations of Westernisation in any English version of the Daodejing. Even Stephen Mitchell – who had “a fourteen-years-long course of Zen training” to draw on – has since been accused of colonial mis-appropriation (See Mitchell, ibid., translator’s Forward. For the vigorous accusation, see Russell Kirkland and his book Taoism: The Enduring Tradition (Routledge, 2004)).

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In my case, it was as a long-standing teacher, poet and recent translator of Rainer Maria Rilke that I first came to the text. I found myself in astonishing sympathy with many of the things it has to say about language and poetry and especially about the pedagogic process, both formally and in our everyday interactions. Laozi suggests the teacher’s role is to show, facilitate, enthuse, give space, watch and approve. We must be honest, be ourselves, give the tools, give opportunities, do our job well, but then let go, don’t dwell. We need to be someone to emulate, be quiet, still, attentive, be present, not absent, be mindful, be welcoming. Our role is to synthesise and connect (not disconnect or sever), shed light (but without dazzling, even inadvertently), use a delicate touch, be tangential. Laozi knows that our teacherly interventions – whether physical or verbal – must inevitably alter the material we hope to engage with; we set in motion a swinging pendulum. Our actions call forth responses to the fact we act, plan, demand. Students may re-act to this (against this) simply because we are seen to act. Better back off, do not intervene, don’t use imperatives, perhaps use no words at all. It is better to play the female part, be passive, give space, encourage desired behaviours, neglect all else. Laozi believes students come upon discoveries by themselves. So we must work via indirect direction and the unacted deed. Progress will be seen to happen of its own accord. The deed we desire will remain undone; this is the best way of getting it done.

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Idealistic? Of course, as can be seen most vividly in ‘The commonwealth’ (Chapter 80) which is Laozi’s evocation of the contented society adhering to the ways of the Dao. For Western readers, this poem echoes Gonzalo’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in its turn lifted from Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals’ (Montaigne, Essays (1580). Shakespeare read and paraphrased John Florio’s 1603 translation into English). Laozi’s original gift to the gatekeeper is not to be read as a handbook, not an instructional scripture, but as inspiration. Bearing that in mind, we ought correspondingly to resist the temptation to approach it with the dismissive cynicism of an Antonio or Sebastian, Shakespeare’s all-too-modern sounding cynical ‘evil men’. I think we ought to listen to these poems open-mindedly, mindfully. We ought to resist following the crowd so vividly portrayed in ‘Adrift’ (Chapter 20) who always say, “Prithee, no more; thou dost talk nothing to me” (The Tempest, Act 2, scene 1, l.169). When the true teacher stands in our house, no matter how detached, untidy, unimpressive, even muddled she may superficially appear, Laozi is reminding us “there are treasures beneath” (‘In your house’ (Chapter 70)).

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