American Athenaeum News and a Stevens Poem

Colossus of Rhodes, a 16th century engraving by Martin Heemskerck

More good news! American Athenaeum, the literary journal I’ve been helping to curate for the past several months, is just about ready to release its first issue, Colossus. It won’t be released until July, but we are taking pre-orders for print, e-book and PDF versions of the issue here. I’m proud of this work and excited to share our contributors’ stories, poems and essays, so I hope you’ll buy a copy and check it out.

In celebration and for the sake of general enjoyment, a Wallace Stevens poem I love:

“The Latest Freed Man”

Tired of the old descriptions of the world,
The latest freed man rose at six and sat
On the edge of his bed. He said,
“I suppose there is
A doctrine to this landscape. Yet, having just
Escaped from the truth, the morning is color and mist,
Which is enough: the moment’s rain and sea,
The moment’s sun (the strong man vaguely seen),
Overtaking the doctrine of this landscape. Of him
And of his works, I am sure. He bathes in the mist
Like a man without a doctrine. The light he gives–
It is how he gives his light. It is how he shines,
Rising upon the doctors in their beds
And on their beds…”
And so the freed man said.
It was how the sun came shining into his room:
To be without a description of to be,
For a moment on rising, at the edge of the bed, to be,
To have the ant of the self changed to an ox
With its organic boomings, to be changed
From a doctor into an ox, before standing up,
To know that the change and that the ox-like struggle
Come from the strength that is the strength of the sun,
Whether it comes directly or from the sun.
It was how he was free. I twas how his freedom came.
It was being without description, being an ox.
It was the importance of the trees outdoors,
The freshness of the oak-leaves, not so much
That they were oak-leaves, as the way they looked.
It was everything being more real, himself
At the centre of reality, seeing it.
It was everything bulging and blazing and big in itself,
The blue of the rug, the portrait of Vidal,
Qui fait fi des joliesses banales, the chairs.

The Circularity of Infinity: In Memory of Borges on His Birthday

I discovered Borges in undergrad around the same time that I discovered the Chuang Tzu and the two are linked in my mind. It’s not just that I came upon them at roughly the same time; they communicate similar concepts in similar ways, and I consider Borges to be perhaps the chief of Taoistic Western writers. Both Borges’ work and the Chuang Tzu address chance and fate (as in Borges’ “The Lottery of Babylon” and “The Garden of Forking Paths”), language as mutable and infinitely subjective (as in “The Library of Babel” and “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”), and the possibility of perceiving the whole of existence in a single, enlightened moment (“The Aleph”). Borges’ work also shares with the Chuang Tzu a love of language-play and a wry sense of humor; both are complex and subtle and require more than just a passing glance. All things I love in literature. I was pleasantly surprised today to see that Google produced a doodle in commemoration of his 112th birthday and decided, in that same spirit, to present some Borges quotes I love. Enjoy!

“Rumor had it that The Secret Mirror was a Freudian comedy; this propitious (and fallacious) interpretation determined its success. Unfortunately, Quain had already reached the age of forty; he was totally used to failure and he did not easily resign himself to a change of regime. He resolved to avenge himself. Toward the end of 1939 he issued Statements: perhaps the most original of his works, doubtless the least praised and most secret. Quain was in the habit of arguing that readers were an already extinct species. ‘Every European,’ he reasoned, ‘is a writer, potentially or in fact.’ He also affirmed that of the various pleasures offered by literature, the greatest is invention. Since not everyone is capable of this pleasure, many must content themselves with shams. For these ‘imperfect writers,’ whose name is legion, Quain wrote the eight stories in Statements. Each of them prefigures or promises a good plot, deliberately frustrated by the author. One of them — not the best — insinuates two arguments. The reader, led astray by vanity, thinks he has invented them.” (from “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”)

“Heraclitus of Pontica admiringly relates that Pythagoras recalled having been Pyrrho, and before that Euphorbus, and before that some other mortal. In order to recall analogous vicissitudes I do not need to have recourse to death, nor even to imposture.” (from “The Babylon Lottery”)

“The faraway king of the birds, the Simurg, drops an exquisite feather in the middle of China; weary of their ancient anarchy, the birds determine to find it. They know that their king’s name means ‘Thirty Birds’; they know that his royal palace stands on the Kaf, the circular mountain which surrounds the earth. They undertake the almost infinite adventure. They fly over seven valleys, or seven seas; the next-to-the-last one is called Vertigo; the last, Annihilation. Many of the pilgrims desert; others perish. Thirty of them, purified by their labors, set foot upon the Mountain of the Simurg. At last they contemplate it; they perceive that they are the Simurg, and that the Simurg is each one of them and all of them.” (from “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim,” in a footnote)

“Differing from Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not think of time as absolute and uniform. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times. This web of time — the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries — embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and in yet others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words, but am an error, a phantom.” (from “The Garden of Forking Paths”)

“Once dead, there will not lack pious hands to hurl me over the banister; my sepulchre shall be the unfathomable air; my body will sink lengthily and will corrupt and dissolve in the wind engendered by the fall, which is infinite.” (from “The Library of Babel”)

“An n number of possible languages makes use of the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library admits of the correct definition ubiquitous and everlasting system of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramid or anything else, and the seven words which define it possess another value. You who read me, are you sure you understand my language?” (from “The Library of Babel”)

“I have known what the Greeks did not: uncertainty.” (from “The Babylon Lottery”)

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What’s your favorite Borges quote?

Basho, A Cherry Tree and Meaning

After having put down Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches for a while, I’ve returned to it to (finally!) finish it up. About 20 pages toward the end, I read this:

“As I sat reflecting thus upon a rock, I saw in front of me a cherry tree hardly three feet tall just beginning to blossom — far behind the season of course, but victorious against the heavy weight of snow which it had resisted for more than half a year. I immediately thought of the famous Chinese poem about ‘the plum tree fragrant in the blazing heat of summer’ and of an equally pathetic poem by the Priest Gyoson, and felt even more attached to the cherry tree in front of me.”

And I thought of how much of an impact human craft has on a person’s perception of the world, specifically the impact of literature on the individual and the objects s/he encounters. It’s the same idea here as Adam in Genesis naming the plants and animals of the world: they mean little to us until we give them meaning. Basho appreciates the beauty and hardiness of the cherry tree on its own, but remembering poetry written about other trees makes it significant, endears it to him. I think of features of the landscape that have meaning for me — the mourning dove, the toad, the darkness, the birch and willow — and realize that behind those images are stories, poems, songs.

While I’ve long thought that there is no inherent meaning in anything, and that we all layer meaning like a lacquer over our lives, desperate to preserve the present that too soon becomes the past, I rarely feel how deep it goes. We’ve all been conditioned to love some things more than others, fear things more than others, disregard things more than others, and it’s largely literature — old and new — that quietly dictates which shall be loved, hated or ignored. And so nature is a mirror, reflecting our thoughts, fears and desires back to us. We respond by thrusting more of ourselves onto the object and, believing it’s a dialogue with nature, split our monologues in two.

Comparative Taoism

I first discovered Taoism in a World Humanities class while I was in undergrad. I’d spent years searching out various religions—different sects of Christianity, Judaism, Neo-paganism, Buddhism, etc.—but while I’d found things in each belief system that I could agree with, nothing I’d studied or practiced entirely coincided with (or even addressed) the things I wondered about and felt to be true. So when I was assigned to read parts of the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu, I felt like I’d reached a light in the darkness. I connected with Taoism’s sense of and respect for mystery, its resistance to dogma, its view of naming, language and categories as mutable and illusory, its doubts about one’s sense of self and reality as a whole, its belief in nonduality—the list goes on. I felt like I’d finally reached something familiar, something whole, something very, very wise. Since then, as I’ve continued in my studies in English literature and creative writing, I’ve stumbled upon ideas by various non-Taoist writers that are Taoist in nature, which is always really satisfying because it shows that Taoist concepts aren’t so foreign to the West — they’re just fragmented, scattered here and there over time. Anyway, it’s become a little hobby of mine to match quotes.

Two writers/poets who frequently convey Taoist concepts and beliefs in their work are Oscar Wilde and Wallace Stevens. Shakespeare also has some Taoistic quotes to offer. The following are some examples by these three, but there are more. Perhaps I’ll add to this list as time goes on and I make more discoveries.

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On the Value of Useless Things

“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” ~Oscar Wilde, “Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

“Now you have this big tree and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life, nothing can ever harm it. If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?” ~Chuang Tzu

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On the Fallacy of Right and Wrong

“Any preoccupation with ideas of what is right or wrong in conduct shows an arrested intellectual development.” ~Oscar Wilde, “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young”

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” ~Shakespeare, Hamlet 2.2

“How great is the difference between ‘eh’ and ‘oh’? / What is the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘evil’? / Must I fear what others fear? / What abysmal nonsense is this!” ~Tao Te Ching, Chapter 20

“If a man follows the mind given him and makes it his teacher, then who can be without a teacher? …But to fail to abide by this mind and still insist upon your rights and wrongs—this is like saying you set off for Yueh today and got there yesterday. This is to claim that what doesn’t exist exists.” ~Chuang Tzu

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On Sympathy

“No artist has ethical sympathies.” ~Oscar Wilde, “Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

“Heaven-and-Earth is not sentimental; / It treats all things as straw-dogs. / The Sage is not sentimental; / He treats all his people as straw-dogs.” ~Tao Te Ching, Chapter 5

“If benevolence has a constant object, it cannot be universal.” ~Chuang Tzu

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On Naming and Language

“Tired of the old descriptions of the world, / The latest freed man rose at six and sat / On the edge of his bed. He said, / ‘I suppose there is / A doctrine to this landscape. Yet, having just / Escaped from the truth, the morning is color and mist, / Which is enough…’” ~Wallace Stevens, “The Latest Freed Man”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” ~Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet 2.2

“Tao is always nameless. / …When once the Primal Simplicity [Tao] diversified, / Different names appeared. / Are there not enough names now? / Is this not the time to stop?” ~Tao Te Ching, Chapter 32

“Names should stop when they have expressed reality.” ~ Chuang Tzu

“Let it be! Let it be! [It is enough that] morning and evening we have them, and they are the means by which we live.” ~Chuang Tzu

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On Letting Go of One’s Sense of Self

“One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow… / and not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind, / In the sound of a few leaves, / Which is the sound of the land / Full of the same wind / That is blowing in the same bare place / For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” ~Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”

“Tzu-ch’i of South Wall sat leaning on his armrest, staring up at the sky and breathing—vacant and far away, as though he’d lost his companion. Yen Ch’eng Tzu-yu, who was standing by his side in attendance, said, ‘What is this? Can you really make the body like a withered tree and the mind like dead ashes?…’ Tzu-ch’i said, ‘You do well to ask the question, Yen. Now I have lost myself. Do you understand that? You hear the piping of men, but you haven’t heard the piping of earth. Or if you’ve heard the piping of earth, you haven’t heard the piping of Heaven!’ …Tzu-yu said, ‘By the piping of earth, then, you mean simply [the sound of] these hollows, and by the piping of man [the sound of] flutes and whistles. But may I ask about the piping of Heaven?’ Tzu-ch’i said, ‘Blowing on the ten thousand things in a different way, so that each can be itself—all take what they want for themselves, but who does the sounding?’” ~Chuang Tzu

“Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind! No, don’t listen with your mind, but listen with your spirit. Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but spirit is empty and waits on all things. The Way gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.” ~Chuang Tzu

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A Peaceful View of Death

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause: there’s the respect / That makes calamity of so long life; / For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, / The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, / The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, / The insolence of office and the spurns / That patient merit of the unworthy takes, / When he himself might his quietus make…” ~Shakespeare, Hamlet 3.1

“In the middle of the night, the skull came to [Chuang Tzu] and said, ‘You chatter like a rhetorician and all your words betray the entanglements of a living man. The dead know none of these! …Among the dead there are no rulers above, no subjects below, and no chores of the four seasons. With nothing to do, our springs and autumns are as endless as heaven and earth. A king facing south on his throne could have no more happiness than this!’ Chuang Tzu couldn’t believe this and said, ‘If I got the Arbiter of Fate to give you a body again, make you some bones and flesh, return you to your parents and family and your old home and friends, you would want that, wouldn’t you?’ The skull frowned severely, wrinkling up its brow. ‘Why would I throw away more happiness than that of a king on a throne and take on the troubles of a human being again?’ it said.” ~Chuang Tzu

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On Death and Dreaming

“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with sleep.” ~Shakespeare, The Tempest 4.1

“He who dreams of drinking wine may weep when the morning comes; he who dreams of weeping may in the morning go off to hunt. While he is dreaming he does not know it is a dream, and in his dream he may even try to interpret a dream. Only after he wakes does he know it was a dream. And someday there will be a great awakening when we know that this is all a great dream.” ~Chuang Tzu