The Sinosphere blog of The New York Times has published an interview with Bill Porter, who also publishes translations of Chinese texts under the pseudonym of Red Pine, upon the release of his Yellow River Odyssey, a travel journal written just prior to China’s emergence into the modern world. His extensive photographs of the trip capture a China that has largely disappeared. Many of Red Pine’s books are now bestsellers in China, after being translated from English into Chinese, including his translations and commentaries on Buddhist poems and sutras. The interview is by China correspondent Ian Johnson, and can be read here.
Yellow River Odyssey is published by Chin Music Press.
I’ve still not let go of reading and rereading new and old essays of Vidal. He’s fearsomely prescient and usually right in interpreting US history and forecasting where the world is heading, in some cases fully 40-50 years before recent events and popular opinion confirmed and caught up with him. Here he is in the essay “The Day the Amercan Empire Ran Out of Gas (1986)” from Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (2004).
“When Confucius was asked what would be the first thing he would do if he were asked to lead the state – a never-to-be-fulfilled dream – he said, ‘Rectify the language.’ This is wise. This is subtle. As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: You liberate a city by destroying it. Words are used to confuse so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their interests. Finally, words must be so twisted as to justify an empire that has now ceased to exist, much less make sense. Is rectification of our system possible for us? Henry Adams thought not. In 1910, he wrote: ‘The whole fabric of society will go to wrack if we really lay hands of reform on our rotten institutions.’ Then he added: ‘The whole system is a fraud, all of us know it, labourers and capitalists alike, and all of us are consenting parties to it.'”
Is it really too late to right the system more towards the people rather than the oligarchical class? I hope not, but certainly effort is all and it could make a difference as it has throughout America’s history. US history is nothing if not a sustained attempt by hardy souls to come closer to a more egalitarian, just society not controlled by an elite, wealthy oligarchical class. A wise Jewish saying from The Sayings of the Fathers, a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period, offers sage advice:
“It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” – Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot 2:21.
Ruben Habito, my Zen teacher for many years, who will always be a core presence in my life, continues on his path, bringing Zen to Texas, writing his many books on Zen, and opening himself and his zendo to teaching anyone who seeks a way into Zen practice or a way to experience their own religion more intimately. Over the years, his students have been agnostics, Jews, Christians, and members of other faiths, all seeking to experience life more deeply and simply. This interview, which appeared in Tricycle, is typical of Ruben, gently building bridges that can lead Christians and others into Zen practice, pointing to the connections that bind us all to each thing. I wrote a chapter on Ruben in my travel/memoir, which is sitting silently now unable to find an agent or publisher. If for no other reason, I would like the book to be published if only to spread the word about Ruben’s unique life, profound understanding of people, and his unwavering commitment to compassion. As more years pass without seeing him, I miss him more and more while at the same time feeling his presence grow even deeper.
I found a clean copy of a Modern Library edition of The Complete Works of Tacitus at the Lost Bookstore, picked it up, and put it on top of Gore Vidal’s last three essay collections. In his snappy, trenchant prose, Vidal tells us how the US methodically cast itself as savior and circus-master of the world, while neatly positioning itself to dominate the world economy and thereby emerge as an empire far surpassing Rome but sharing many of the same traits. Our empire truly began in 1949 with the end of WWII. Unfortunately, our course has led to a state of perpetual war, overt and covert, around the world and weakened us morally and economically.
Vidal, citing stats from the American Federation of Scientists, lists more than 200 overt or covert military operations around the world from 1949 until the 2000s, and we’re still at it. The number of US military bases in foreign lands stands somewhere around 730. And now the US and China are in danger of reheating the Cold War.
Empire translates to control of resources in order to sustain itself: read oil, gas, key minerals, water, basic food sources, etc. The thought-processes involved in creating an empire can be benign and enlightened (bringing better days to some client states) but also entail darker deeds (reversing or thwarting the legitimate will of a client state) which build up the very things that lead to an empire’s collapse. The myth sustains the doing, but the darker deeds belie the myth and lead to dysfunction when the citizenry tires, sees through the myth and set out for themselves to go their own way, or to try to change the system through legitimate or illegitimate means.
What I like about Vidal is his Man of Letters approach. His essay collections, spanning 60 years, focus on literature, people, history and politics. He is America’s truest popular historian, constantly debunking myths and pretensions. His historical fiction chronicles key decades and figures in American history. The most bracing wit since Oscar Wilde, his ice-like prose glides over the surface of key events and figures, throwing off dazzling phrases and insights that light up serious, core issues.
On the issue of empire, even deeper and more rigorous – but equally clear and compelling – is the work of Chalmers Johnson of the University of California at San Diego, whose final books in the 2000s established the case for an American foreign policy which has been based too often on means that would not be countenanced by the American people: political assassinations, derailing liberal movements in foreign countries, supporting brutal regimes and on and on…the approach has been patriarchal and condescending, assuming we know better than the people themselves in foreign countries. Doing less would have saved the US from many disgraceful acts and led to more respect in the world, but that has not been the way of the US in this century or the last.
“Summarizing the series in “Dismantling the Empire,” Dr. Johnson said that “blowback” means more than a negative, sometimes violent reaction to United States policy. “It refers to retaliation for the numerous illegal operations we have carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public,” he wrote.
“This means that when the retaliation comes, as it did so spectacularly on Sept. 11, 2001, the American public is unable to put the events in context. So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the perpetrators, thereby most commonly preparing the ground for yet another cycle of blowback.”
“To maintain its empire, he said, the United States “will inevitably undercut domestic democracy.”
In a review of “The Sorrows of Empire” in The New York Times, Ronald Asmus, a deputy assistant secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, wrote that the book was “a cry from the heart of an intelligent person who fears that the basic values of our republic are in danger.” He added that it “conveys a sense of impending doom rooted in a belief that the United States has entered a perpetual state of war that will drain our economy and destroy our constitutional freedoms.”
Here are the last books each for Johnson and Vidal, which taken together spell out how the US sank to the current pitiful state of affairs, and, by implication, point to the way out – how things can be reversed and the people can regain control of the political system, taking it away from the wishes of the few – corporate America and secret bureaucracies – who are accountable only to lax, Congressional overseers who essentially ignore the values and conscience of the American people.
Now, I’m ready to return to Tacitus, who, in telling us how the Roman Empire fell, tells our own story. Character and conscience are all. I’ll give Vidal the last word:
“Those Americans who refuse to plunge blindly into the maelstrom of European and Asiatic politics are not defeatist or neurotic,” he wrote. “They are giving evidence of sanity, not cowardice, of adult thinking as distinguished from infantilism. They intend to preserve and defend the Republic. America is not to be Rome or Britain. It is to be America.”
Steven Pinker’s book on writing, The Sense of Style, to be released in September, (see his article below on my blog) will be like beating a hornet’s nest with a big stick. He’s eager to carve out a space for the sciences in serious literary writing, now largely found in the humanities. In fact, a crop of scientists has been turning out books of high literary merit based on conveying key scientific discoveries and truths. Crudely put, he also feels that the humanities approach should be broader and deeper, precisely because it has failed to incorporate the vast knowledge about people and Nature that’s available through science.
A recent column in The Guardian by Oliver Burkeman got on the Pinker bandwagon, quoting just a few of his suggestions on what makes good writing today. Ouch! Readers’ responses were fast and combative all round. This is just the beginning… It shows how much people are vested in the art of writing, creativity, the values of science – and how to make recent theories and knowledge more available to readers in both the humanist and scientific camps (and perhaps more importantly the general reader). The real effort is to bridge the two camps with each camp freely using the best techniques and knowledge accrued over time.
C.P. Snow, of course, broke this ground in 1959 in his The Two Cultures lecture, setting off the debate that’s still ongoing, leading to the “Third Culture” concept which combines the best of both camps and is perhaps best exemplified by The Edge website, an ongoing dialogue between the two camps.
Any discussion that sheds more light on what makes good writing is a good thing. Of course, it can’t be distilled into “rules,” but that shortsighted approach will disappear in the doing, especially for the truly creative novelist or poet who starts with a single thread and, miraculously, stitches together a coat of many colors which reflects a slice of real life. Science, at its best, probes for the truths of Life using scientific techniques and tools. Creative writers and artists seek to touch the same ground through the exploration of individual spirit and esthetic techniques.
For a much deeper look at these two approaches and the fascinating merging that’s underway, see this exceptional article by Hong-Sho Teng, an English professor at National Taitung University in Taiwan. It was originally published in Chinese in The China Times Book Review.
To paraphrase his thesis: “”We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.’” This passage is not from [James] Joyce, but from [scientist Richard] Dawkins’s Unweaving the Rainbow. A modern protégé of Darwin, Dawkin’s borrows Keats’s idea, from the poem Lamia, which accused science of ruining nature’s beauty in order to reveal in turn the beauty in science and the aesthetics of scientific endeavors. Dawkin’s of course holds that science can increase an artist’s appreciation of Beauty. In contrast to the eloquent science writers (think Edwin O. Wilson, and earlier Loren Eisley), traditional humanities scholars and authors are in danger of being marginalized. In May, English writer Will Self gave a talk in Oxford entitled “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real),” clearly echoing the predicament of contemporary novelists. Following the 20th Century legacy of public intellectuals like Edward Said, Hong-Sho says literary writers must take the next step forward to encourage a new generation … in order to lead the humanities [read writers of all types] into participation in cross-boundary dialogues in the third culture. While science speaks to a “rainbow of knowledge,” he says, there must be clouds on both sides of the rainbow’s”bridge” that, however evanescent, will form a third culture.
Below is a letter from astronomer Carl Sagan and his collaborator, Ann Druyan. They knew how to write and tell a good story. Their books about the Universe revealed how science and the human spirit of discovery go hand in hand.
See the comments below in response to The Guardian column on Pinker’s upcoming book. They underscore how people are vested in ideas about writing well:
“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” —Jack Kerouac
Just write however the hell you want to write. Being passionate about it is what’s important; if you lose that passion there’s no point bothering because you’re just going through the motions. Oh, and never write with thoughts of the money you’ll earn; the notion of future wealth is an incredibly bad reason to be creative in any way. Plus, you’ll likely be disappointed because relatively few writers have ever been able to make a tidy living out of it. The same goes for the fame aspect of the craft. I write because I love writing – end of.
I’m not sure that “end of” is a good way to end a comment on how to write well.
Touché. I shall now go and stand in the corner with my hands on my head until I’ve learned my lesson. *slinks off, tail between legs, hanging head in shame*
”never write with thoughts of the money you’ll earn…” Well said! That’ll show that hack William Shaksper, who had a living to earn.
pol09828 June 2014 3:22pm Recommend 2
“why I’m trying to explain this to someone who can’t even spell Shakespeare is beyond me. Maybe you should have explained it to Shakeſpere himself when he signed the conveyance on his house?
Yeah yeah, we all know Shakespeare spelled his name several different ways but the accepted spelling has remained the same now for centuries. It doesn’t mean I have to take your original crappy comment that completely missed the point seriously though.
It’s the writer and reader, side by side, scanning the landscape. The reader wants to see; your job is to do the pointing. Only sometimes. And in answer to this: should you write for yourself or for an audience? The answer is “for an audience”. One word: Pepys
I hope various Guardian columnists and book reviewers take this to heart since many of them are insufferable egotists more concerned with intellectual masturbation than seriously engaging with the people who buy the newspaper. Or read it for free online, in my case.
Your audience just LOLed – you’re a natural writer :-) x
”It’s also an answer to an old question: should you write for yourself or for an audience? The answer is “for an audience”. But not to impress them. “ I write. Anyone who thinks you can decide, as if by fiat, to write to an audience, but “not to impress them,” knows nothing.
I think that Elmore Leonard’s typewriter might have been firmly between his cheeks when he wrote that ‘show, don’t tell’ advice to writers. He was probably preaching against the style of ‘girly-writing’ (not always just women) whose style evokes, in a different context, Martin Amis’s plaintive “Why are you telling me all this”? Where an effort to elevate quotidiana is simply boring, and redundant. When a character in one of those prolix, tell it all novels makes coffee, for instance, the reader ends up learning far more – to paraphrase Thurber – about coffee-making than he wants to know. A sentence, two at the most, is all that’s required; but all too often we get the painstaking and painful description of measuring the sugar, choosing a cup, stirring, sipping – all that. Leonard’s plea to cut to the chase is worth thinking about.
Comments for this discussion are now closed.”
There are two very interesting articles in the new Edge issue. The first, by Terence McKenna, ranges freely all over the map and makes many interesting observations about the chemical processes that involve mind, cognition, language and blissing out…lots of attention is given to the role of ego, its development, non-development, etc. It’s imminently worth reading for its many gem-like insights.
Also, see the article by Edward Slingerland (scroll down on the Edge website) on the role of wu-wei, sometimes deceptively called “non-action,” in Chinese culture. He’s the author of Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China. It’s actually a process of checking on the ego…something the world, the politicians and each of us needs to give ever greater attention. His website is here.
The two articles, in many ways, complement each other.
Here’s a taste of where Slingerland is going with his latest (2014) book on wu-wei, Trying Not to Try.
“In a lot of my recent work I’ve been arguing that these early Chinese models of ethical reasoning, ethical training are psychologically much more, from a modern perspective, more plausible than some modern Western ideas. In some ways I’m arguing that the early Chinese got some stuff right that we got wrong in the Western philosophical tradition. They like to hear that. And I believe this is true. They were very sophisticated moral psychologists, and they’ve got some insights into the way that we reason about morality and the way we train people that I think are a really important corrective to the way we’ve been thinking about ethics in the West.
“But on the other hand I am a critic of certain aspects of the modern Chinese state, and I also worry about the rate of development. I was there in the 80s in mainland China, and going from Taiwan to mainland China was like going in a time machine. Taiwan was relatively modernized. I don’t know how I got to Hong Kong, but I took a boat up the Pearl River from Hong Kong to Canton, to Guangzhou. It was an overnight boat, and I got out in the morning and it was like I’d gone back in time 100 years; there were no cars, no motorcycles, everyone was riding bikes. It was an unbelievable change. Now I go back to Guangzhou and there’s these superhighways and these huge buildings, and it all happened—well, that was not that long ago. So the rate of change is wild. It’s just incomprehensible. I just wonder about how sustainable it is, because it’s creating a lot of wealth inequality and a lot of dislocation.
“I still have my area that is my specialty and now I’m going to bring these new tools to bear on that specialty. A good example is that Effortless Action book back in 2003 that was my transformed dissertation. I have an argument there that one way to look at the trajectory of Chinese thought is that it’s driven by this tension I call “the paradox of wu-wei.” Wu-wei is effortless action or spontaneity. They all want you to be wu-wei, but none of them think you are right now. You’ve got to try to be wu-wei, but how do you try not to try? How do you try to be spontaneous?
“So, I call it the paradox of wu-wei, and I argue it’s at the center of all their theorizing about other things. Their theories about human nature, their theories about self-cultivation, their theories about government—these are all ways of grappling with this central tension that’s driving a lot of the theorizing. That claim got criticized, so my former advisor wrote a very scathing critique of it. A lot of people didn’t buy this claim that, first of all, it’s really a paradox, and second of all that it really has any kind of central prominence in early Chinese thought.
“One of the things I’ve been able to do to with the new knowledge I’ve gained from the sciences is come back to this, revisit this topic again, and say, look, from a cognitive neuroscientific perspective, we actually understand why this is a paradox, why using cognitive control to shut down cognitive control is tricky—it’s inherently tricky. We have a lot of evidence from social psychology and sports science and other areas that show that in fact effortless, spontaneous action is very desirable, because hot cognition is very powerful. Work on the power of the unconscious, the adaptive unconscious. We also, from an evolutionary perspective, have an understanding of why the fact that the paradox is a paradox is why it gets focused on.
“Essentially in our theories about where large scale societies come from, the crucial role is played by trust and commitment. It’s really crucial, if we’re going to cooperate I’ve got to believe that you’re committed to this religion or belief system that we are sharing and not just in it for your own good. There’re lots of ways I can assess your commitment. One of them is whether or not you’re being spontaneous. If I see evidence of cognitive control in you, I start to think that maybe something’s going on, because when we’re being conscious and using cognitive control, we’re often doing it to deceive or lie or figure out what’s best for us. The Chinese believe when you’re in wu-wei, you have this power called “de”. It’s like a charismatic virtue. People like you, people trust you. I’m arguing that we can understand this from a naturalistic perspective as the attractiveness someone who is spontaneous kicks off, and for very good game theoretical reasons. Basically you can relate it directly to evolutionary concerns about cooperation.”
The co-founder and editor of the peerless The New York Review of Books, Robert Silvers, is profiled in this Guardian story. The NYRB is the one English-language publication that covers the most essential ideas and people at the highest level of thought and writing. It’s irreplaceable and one wonders if there is an editor somewhere who can keep it at the pinnacle it has achieved, once Silvers puts down his pencil.