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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lest ye riot

At the risk of being arrested for plagiarizing or being denounced by the Chinese government (like the author here) and ruining future employment prospects, here is Gao XingJian's answer to the question previously posed:

It is a fine day with not a trace of cloud in the sky and the vault of heaven is amazingly remote and clear. Beneath the sky is a solitary stockade with layers of pylon houses built on the edge of a precipitous cliff. In the distance it looks quite beautiful, like a hornet's nest hanging on a rock wall. The dream is like this. You are at the bottom of the cliff, walking one way and the other, but can't find the road up. You can see yourself getting closer and the suddenly you are moving further away. After going in circles for quite some time you finally give up and just let your legs carry you along the mountain road. When it disappears behind the cliff, you can't help feeling disappointed. You have no idea where the mountain road beneath your feet leads but in any case you don't actually have a destination.
You walk straight ahead and the road goes around in the circles. Actually, there has never been a definite goal in your life. All your goals keep changing as time passes and as locations change, and in the end the goals no longer exist. When you think about it, life in fact doesn't have what may be called ultimate goals. It's just like this hornet's nest. It's a pity to abandon it, yet if one tries to remove ti one will encounter a stinging attack. Best to leave it just hanging there so it can be admired. At this point in your thinking, your feet become lighter, it is fine wherever your feet take you, as long as there are sights to see.
On both sides are red bayberry forests but it is not the season for picking the berries and by the time the berries ripen you don't know where you will be. Whether berries wait for people or people wait for berries is a metaphysical problem. There are many ways of dealing with the problem, and it has been dealt with in endless ways, but the berries are still berries and the person is still me. One could also say this year's berries are not next year's berries and the person existing today did not exist yesterday. The problem is whether or not the present really exists and how the criteria are established. Best leave it to the philosophers to talk about metaphysics, just keep your mind on walking along your road.

It's breakfast time now. Maybe later I'll post on why I think the book is so awesome, in case it's not immediately apparent. Or why it may or may not have turned me into an amateur Daoist, and what that may or may not mean. More likely than not, I won't, though.


jeffrey sessions stepp said...

I like that passage.

Oh, and who's the winner?

Mike said...

unask that qustion, son.

according to Daoism there are no winners. winning and losing flow freely into and out of one another.

here's a parable from ChuangTse (maybe) by way of Lin Yutang

A chinese dude had a nice horse. One day it ran away. Others offered their sympathy but, understanding the Dao, he wasn't saddened. Later the horse came back, bringing with it another, more powerful and beautiful horse. Others congratulated him, but, understanding the Dao, he was unmoved. His son tried to ride the new horse, fell of, broke his leg, and was unable to tend the land. Others commiserated, but the dude, understanding the Dao, said that the event was neither good nor bad. Later, war broke out and young men from all provinces were drafted. The son, his leg broken, was exempt. Others thought the father was lucky, but the father paid no attention.

And so on and so forth. Apparently there used to be some kind of game where people would sit in circles and extend the story as far as possible. Sweet, eh?

Jamal said...

I'm not sure that I follow... That line of thinking only works when we can manipulate the endings. Surely we can state with confidence that some things are bad, and that some are good, right? Also, the passivity of the man borders on ambivalence. I know that is not how it is portrayed in the story, but a life without celebrations is not one I would envy.

Jamal said...

That said the story is kind of sweet. Parabolic (as in like a parable, not a parabola, fiction is always intriguing, if done well.

Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

Preface:, I tend to have this problem where I wind up becoming an apologist for something I only believe halfheartedly, mostly for the sake of argument. So don't take me seriously.

That said, I'm not sure what "That line of thinking only works when we can manipulate the endings" means. You mean that the story is contrived in such a way to make the parable seem more realistic than it is? In that case, I agree. The story is suppose to demonstrate the point clearly, though, not give a rigorous proof.

However, the word "ending" sent my thoughts in another direction. It's something like: you don't know where one event ends and another begins, so any time you you stop and say "that was good" or "that was bad," you're inescapably wrapped up in whatever moment you're in. But soon after later you may reevaluate. And again, and again. So why pretend like the judgments are heavy, serious, or meaningful?

To give a lame example, I was really excited to find this little restaurant in Laos called "the minority restaurant," where they claimed to serve authentic hill tribe dishes. They didn't have what I first wanted (chicken & rattan soup), so I ordered something different (chicken & bamboo shoots). I wound up puking it up after an hours of stomach agony and decided not to leave on a trek the next morning. At this point, I got really bummed. But then I just rented a bike and wandered around the next day, and even got into a little bike race with some elementary schoolers on the street, and the day after I wound up on a trek with an awesome group of swiss and austrian girls and a Canadian guy who had worked in Taiwan for the last 5 years, which is something I've been considering. Also, on the final day of the trek, we passed through a village having some ceremony, and the village leader gave us shots of Lao whiskey and some pumpkin soup. Had I left a day earlier, I would have missed the festival. So, I was glad that I had been sick.

Admittedly, in the end you (or I) wind up evaluating whatever course of events. But what I take from the parable is that those evaluations are all provisional and not as weighty as we think when we're making them.

Also, I think the man is ambivalent towards the twists of fortune, not towards life itself. It's possible to still have celebrations and ceremonies, but they celebrate things that are less dependent on chance: natural beauty, the taste of tea, the new year, and so forth.

As a rejoinder to the last part of your first comment, I think a Daoist would say a life where happiness is a result of good luck rather than personal disposition isn't one to be envied, either.

Lin Yutang said...


Was your lengthy response to young Jamal's query just an excuse to mention your "trek with an awesome group of Swiss and Austrian [bikini team] girls"? It reminds me of a parable.

At the end of the orgy he was unmoved. When he was diagnosed with VD others were concerned but, understanding the Dao, he wasn't saddened.

Mike said...

Yes, there was definitely a bit of bravado in there. I do have a picture the for of us clad for swimming.

Swiss girls are crazy, for the record.

Jamal said...

I would agree that happiness shouldn't be based on circumstance, though certainly we all know that circumstances make it much easier or harder to have joy. However, I was only talking about celebrations, which are an essential part of life, I would argue. You addressed that (a Daoist would celebrate things that were chance related), but I wanted to clarify.
Still, although I find it admirable to not become mired in despair when tragedy strikes, it seems somewhat off (horribly indescript, I know) to me to respond to a “happy” occurrence with the wary knowledge that circumstances are fleeting. Maybe I’m not capturing the spirit of passage, though.
Good post and responses, Mike.

eats, shoots, and leaves said...

"I do have a picture the for of us clad for swimming."

Even colloquially you are often grammar perfect, or at most only only one letter off. This sentence worries me.

eats chutes and leaves said...

and if you deflect my criticism with the fact that i typed "only" twice, i will smack you

L. Yutang said...

Please post said picture, young Master Roy.

Yippee for Swiss ladies.