February 12, 2011
I saw the movie Black Swan, but didn’t like it, and don’t recommend it. It’s partly about ballet, but mostly about sex. It’s sometimes classed as a horror film. The world has plenty of real darkness — I can’t understand why people would want to create more.
And the darkness of Black Swan isn’t believable, the protagonist’s hallucinations aren’t believable, so you never forget that you’re watching a movie, not a real world — you never “suspend your disbelief.” The protagonist is under pressure, and she’s striving for perfection, but that doesn’t explain her descent into madness. The only explanation for her madness is that the filmmaker wanted to make a horror movie. The plot is just a platform for sex, violence, and terror.
I also saw The King’s Speech, which I enjoyed. True to history, true to psychology, devoid of gratuitous sex and violence. It depicts a man struggling with his inner demons, struggling with the effects of early-childhood mistreatment. The hero of the movie is the king’s tutor, who lacks credentials, but gets results by prodding the king toward personal growth.
Perhaps an even better movie could be made about an average person, a person that the viewer could connect with, struggling with average problems, problems such as the viewer himself might have. The King’s Speech, by focusing on a king with a stammer, transfers the struggle for personal growth to a plane far removed from the viewer’s own life.
And finally, I saw an American movie from 1958, The Long, Hot Summer, which is based on a Faulkner plot, and is set in the American South. It depicts a small town that’s dominated by a noisy character, Will Varner (played by Orson Welles). Varner wants his refined daughter, Clara (played by Joanne Woodward), to marry the drifter Ben Quick (played by Paul Newman). Good movie.
An interesting essay in the Weekly Standard by Robert Kagan. Kagan writes well, has broad historical knowledge, and stays in touch with current events. His essay argues that the U.S. shouldn’t cut its defense budget, despite its economic problems. He says that the defense budget isn’t the chief cause of our economic problems, and cutting the defense budget won’t solve those problems.
Kagan says that the U.S. must check Russian power in Eastern Europe, Iranian power in the Middle East, and Chinese power in the Far East. He says that “the United States has undertaken roughly 25 overseas interventions since 1898,” and the frequency of interventions has climbed since the end of the Cold War. These interventions have been undertaken by Democrats and Republicans alike. There are likely to be more interventions in the future, so we should be prepared to handle them. He says that we sent too few troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and he says that, if our armed forces shrink, we invite a repetition of the problems we’ve had in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kagan says that, in the decades since World War II, the world has been generally prosperous and stable, but if we change our foreign policy, we risk this prosperity and stability:
Herman Melville came from an old, established family. His maternal grandfather was one of the heroes of the Battle of Saratoga, while his paternal grandfather was involved in the Boston Tea Party. When Melville was a boy, his family’s fortunes declined, prompting Melville to go to sea. After a stint in the merchant marine, and a stint as a teacher, Melville joined a whaling voyage in 1841, when he was 21. When the ship docked at an island in the Pacific, Melville deserted, and lived briefly among the natives. Eventually he returned to the U.S. on a warship.
Living with the natives provided him with material for his first book, Typee, which was popular, and made Melville a well-known writer. His second book, Omoo, continued the story of his Pacific adventures, but wasn’t as popular as Typee (both books were classed as novels, but drew heavily on Melville’s own experiences).
Melville had acquired a reputation as “the man who had lived among cannibals,” but he was dissatisfied, he wanted to be regarded as a serious writer, he had literary ambitions. In his third book, Mardi, the characters go to sea, and then begin to philosophize. Critics grumbled, Melville’s popularity waned.
In his next two books, Redburn and White-Jacket, Melville put his lofty ambitions on hold, and tried to revive his popularity. He referred to these books as “two jobs which I have done for money — being forced to it as other men are to sawing wood.” Redburn drew on his experiences in the merchant marine (Melville said that it was “trash,” and that he “wrote it to buy some tobacco with”). White-Jacket drew on his experiences on a warship.
His sixth book, Moby-Dick, written when Melville was 31, drew on his experiences on a whale ship. With Moby-Dick, Melville ignored contemporary taste, and staked his claim to immortality. Moby-Dick is Melville’s masterpiece — a blend of character, drama, symbolism, and philosophy. Perhaps he was inspired by his friendship with Hawthorne, perhaps by his close reading of Shakespeare. The influence of Shakespeare is evident in Melville’s preoccupation with evil, fate, and prophecy.
Even in Moby-Dick, though, Melville’s philosophizing is somewhat heavy-handed, and his prose is somewhat wordy and obscure. Leonard Woolf spoke of Melville’s “execrable prose,” and Bernard DeVoto said, “Though Melville could write great prose, his book frequently escapes into a passionately swooning rhetoric.”2
The public responded coolly to Moby-Dick, as it had to Mardi. Melville’s next novel, Pierre, had an even chillier reception, and at the age of 32, Melville’s literary career was on the rocks. Though he wrote two more novels (Israel Potter and The Confidence Man), most of his later work is poetry and short stories.
Perhaps his best-known story is “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Melville was hurt by criticism of his writings, and in “Bartleby,” he described a clerk who refuses to write.
When Melville died at 72, he left a manuscript in his desk — the novella Billy Budd, one of his most highly-regarded works. At the time of his death, he was forgotten in the U.S., but he had some admirers in England. Melville’s reputation in the U.S. grew in the 1920s, when the U.S. was becoming aware of itself as a distinct civilization, American literature was beginning to be taught at American colleges, and scholars began looking for writers who represented American civilization.
If you want to read a biography of Melville, consider Melville: His World and Work, by Andrew Delbanco.3
In his last years, Melville kept a Schiller quotation on his desk: “Stay true to the dreams of thy youth.” The young Melville had dreamed of literary immortality, and had striven to achieve it, and now he has the immortality that he strove for. Many readers today enjoy Melville’s wit, wisdom, and vitality.
In a recent issue, I discussed the chapter on Confucianism in Huston Smith’s World’s Religions. Now I’d like to discuss the chapter on Taoism.
Taoism originates with Lao Zi, who was born about 604 BC — about the same time as Confucius. Little is known about Lao Zi — even his name is unknown, “Lao Zi” being a nickname meaning “Old Master.” Lao Zi is said to be the author of the Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Power), the basic text of Taoism.
What does the word “Tao” mean? Literally, it means path or way. Taoism uses the word “Tao” to mean the “way of ultimate reality.... Above all, behind all, beneath all is the Womb from which all life springs and to which it returns.”4 In my book of aphorisms, I spoke of “the world behind.”
Taoism also uses the word “Tao” to mean the way of the world — not the world behind, not the essence behind things, but the world itself. As Smith puts it, “Behind, but also in the midst of all life, for when Tao enters this second mode it ‘assumes flesh’ and informs all things.”5
A tree eventually dies, a person eventually dies, the sun eventually burns out, but the Tao, as a spiritual essence, is immortal: “Basically spirit rather than matter, it cannot be exhausted.”6 And if the tree, the person, and the sun come out of the Tao, embody the Tao, and return to the Tao, should we view death as a change of form, rather than annihilation?
So Taoism uses the word “Tao” to mean the mysterious essence behind the world, and it also uses the word “Tao” to mean the world itself, the way of the world. The third and last meaning of the word “Tao” is the way of human life — how life should be lived, how to live in accordance with the rhythm of nature.
Is the idea of the Tao unique to Chinese thought? There have been attempts by Western philosophers to understand the world-essence — Schopenhauer’s “will”, for example, Bergson’s elan vital, and Aristotle’s quintessence. But I don’t think these Western notions are as comprehensive as Lao Zi’s Tao, I don’t think they embrace the world behind, the world itself, and human life. The Chinese seem to have had a better grasp of this important and mysterious concept.
According to Smith, there are three kinds of Taoism: philosophical Taoism, yoga Taoism, and religious Taoism. Philosophical Taoism aims to conserve one’s vitality, one’s power, by not forcing things, by “going with the flow” (power = te, as in Tao Te Ching).
Yoga Taoism tried to not only conserve energy, but increase it. Practitioners paid attention to their qi, their vital energy, and sought to make it flow properly with the help of meditation, acupuncture, and Tai Chi. They also paid attention to nutrition, especially herbs; “they developed a remarkable pharmacopia of medicinal herbs.”7
Yoga Taoism aimed to help not only the individual, but society, too. When your mind and body are “on track,” and your energy is harnessed, you possess “extraordinary power... over people and things,” you can “shift Heaven and Earth,”9 you can have a positive impact on the world around you.
In an earlier issue, we discussed the “one percent effect,” which says that if 1% of the population is meditating, the crime rate falls.
Now that we’ve discussed philosophical Taoism and yoga Taoism, we can turn to the third type of Taoism, religious Taoism. Religious Taoism has sacred beings (including Lao Zi) and sacred texts. Even today, Smith tells us, Taiwan has a Taoist church whose “pope” is descended from the first Taoist “popes.” While philosophical Taoism tries to conserve vital energy, and yoga Taoism tries to increase energy by nutrition and exercise, religious Taoism tries to manipulate energy through ritual and magic. Though Smith is sometimes cool toward the occult, he realizes that magic shouldn’t be despised:
Now Smith discusses Taoism in general, the Taoist view of life. He begins by saying that creativity isn’t about conscious thinking, it’s about tapping into the powers below consciousness. Hawthorne said that he didn’t write The Scarlet Letter, it wrote itself; in other words, it wasn’t written by his conscious mind, but by his unconscious or semi-conscious mind. For the athlete as for the artist, conscious thinking isn’t the way to success. If a basketball player makes ten shots in a row, he is said to be “unconscious”; this is the highest praise for a basketball player. The Zen archer drinks tea before performing, in order to relax the conscious mind, connect with the deeper self, become unconscious.
Taoism applies this idea not only to literature, basketball, and archery, but to life in general. The Taoist principle of wu wei means non-doing — in other words, no forced action, no conscious action.
Taoists are fond of water metaphors. Water is soft and yielding, but wears away stones, and levels mountains. Learning to swim means learning to trust the water to support you, just as learning to live means learning to trust feeling, intuition, unconscious: “One who understands the basic life force knows that it will sustain one if one stops thrashing and flailing and trusts oneself to its support.”13
One who follows wu wei “acts without strain, persuades without argument, is eloquent without flourish, and achieves results without violence, coercion, or pressure.”14 One who follows wu wei understands how to be still, how to wait, how to be patient.
Do you have the patience to wait
Taoism was opposed to war.
Weapons are the tools of violence;
With Taoism opposed to war, and Confucianism in favor of a scholarly life, it isn’t surprising that China wasn’t a militaristic society. China was more often conquered than conquering. China is best known not for its great generals, but for its Great Wall — a defensive wall.
Lao Zi wasn’t a fan of progress and technology; he preferred the primitive to the civilized; one might say he subscribed to “soft primitivism.” “Let us have a small country with few inhabitants,” he said. “Let the people return to the use of knotted cords [for keeping records].”17
Smith says that Taoism has a light-hearted, witty tone. He quotes the Tao Te Ching: “He who feels punctured must once have been a bubble.”18 Lao Zi would have agreed with Nietzsche’s remarks about the “spirit of gravity.”
When we discussed The Tao of Physics, we noted that the Chinese believe opposites are related to each other, and change into each other. Smith writes thus:
We divide things into good and bad, but later we may be surprised to find that what we thought was good wasn’t good, and what we thought was bad wasn’t bad. Smith tells the story of the farmer whose horse ran away — surely a misfortune. But the horse returned the next day with a band of wild horses — surely good fortune. But the next day, the farmer’s son broke his leg trying to tame one of the wild horses — surely a misfortune. The next day, a group of army recruiters came by, but didn’t take away the farmer’s son because of his injury. Who knows what is good or bad?20
Smith concludes by contrasting Taoism with Confucianism:
As for books about Taoism, Smith recommends D. C. Lau’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu, and Max Kaltenmark’s Lao Tzu and Taoism.
Elliott’s son, William Elliott “Billy” Burch, died of cancer in 1990, at the age of 36. I remember Elliott’s eloquent remarks at Billy’s funeral; he quoted A. E. Housman’s “To An Athlete Dying Young”:
The time you won your town the race
To-day, the road all runners come,
Elliott was married to my father’s sister, Phyllis.
|1.|| “The Price of Power: The benefits of U.S. defense spending far outweigh the costs,” January 24, 2011 back|
|2.|| See DeVoto’s essay in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. back|
|3.|| A Melville scholar tells me, however, that Delbanco’s book is “really weak on the last three decades of Melville’s life.” back|
|4.|| ch. 5, p. 198 back|
|5.|| ibid back|
|6.|| ibid back|
|7.|| Ch. 5, p. 201 back|
|8.|| ibid back|
|9.|| Ch. 5, p. 203 back|
|10.|| Ch. 5, p. 204 back|
|11.|| Ch. 5, pp. 205, 206 back|
|12.|| Ch. 5, p. 208 back|
|13.|| Ch. 5, p. 209 back|
|14.|| Ch. 5, p. 210 back|
|15.|| Ch. 5, p. 209 back|
|16.|| Ch. 5, p. 217 back|
|17.|| Ch. 5, p. 213 back|
|18.|| Ch. 5, p. 217 back|
|19.|| Ch. 5, pp. 214, 215 back|
|20.|| The story is found on pages 215, 216. One is reminded of the Christian concept of the felix culpa — the lucky fault, the fault that has positive consequences. The chief felix culpa is The Fall (when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit), which had a positive consequence: Christ coming to redeem fallen mankind. back|
|21.||Ch. 5, p. 218 back|