To Move Freely, Again

I have a memory of doing this before, but apparently not for blogging. One of my current readings is Victor Mair’s 1994 translation of Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi, 莊子, 庄子), Wandering On The Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. I have a memory also of not reading this ten years ago, and opting for David Hinton’s 1998 translation, Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, possibly influenced by The Useless Tree in that decision. Hinton’s is far more poetic, and takes liberties with translation; Mair’s, regular contributor on Language Log and professor at University of Pennsylvania, is a deeply academic work, striving to make sense of multiple conflicting requirements, which results in some odd choices, like the neologism, tricent, for li, a third of a mile. Mair, though, is one of my long-term favourite writers on Chinese and East-Asian languages, so, obviously I was eventually going to read this.

There’s a passage in Hinton’s translation that I ended up using on my 404 page, which I originally wrote about after a crawl (for me) and enthusiastic spring (for Gala) up Waterfall Gully in Adelaide, ten years ago. This is the comparison I thought I’d blogged. Maybe it was in an email to someone, or notes for a work I was making at the time. Either way, I remember going on a journey down multiple translations of this passage, and comparing to the original (as in the received ‘original’), and doing my own translation. Which I repeated in an abbreviated manner writing this, because there’s nothing like staring at 2400 year old Classic Chinese on a grey Berlin Sunday.

David Hinton’s translation, Ch. II, §12, pp. 23–24:

Sufficient because sufficient. Insufficient because insufficient. Traveling the Way makes it Tao. Naming things makes them real. Why real? Real because real. Why nonreal? Nonreal because nonreal. So the real is originally there in things, and the sufficient is originally there in things. There’s nothing that is not real, and nothing that is not sufficient.

Hence, the blade of grass and the pillar, the leper and the ravishing [beauty] Hsi Shih, the noble, the snivelling, the disingenuous, the strange – in Tao they all move as one and the same. In difference is the whole, in wholeness is the broken. Once they are neither whole nor broken, all things move freely as one and the same again

Only one who has seen through things understands moving freely as one and the same. In this way, rather than relying on you own distinctions, you dwell in the ordinary. To be ordinary is to be self-reliant; to be self-reliant is to move freely; and to move freely is to arrive. That’s almost it, because to arrive is to be complete. But to be complete without understanding how – that is called Tao.

Victor Mair’s translation, Ch 2, §6, p. 16:

Affirmation lies in our affirming; denial lies in our denying. A way comes into being through our walking upon it; a thing is so because people say it is. Why are things so? They are so because we declare them to be so. Why are things not so? They are not so because we declare them to be not so. All things are possessed of that which we may say is so; all things are possessed by that which we may affirm. There is no thing that is not so; there is no thing that is not affirmable.

Thus, whether it be a tiny blade of grass, or a mighty pillar, a hideous leper or beauteous Hsi Shih, no matter how peculiar or fantastic, through the Way they all become one. To split something up is to create something else; to create something is to destroy something else; But for all things in general, there is neither creation nor destruction, for they all revert to join in Unity.

Only the perceptive understand that all things join in Unity. For this reason, they do not use things themselves but lodge in commonality. … It is all a result of their understanding the mutual dependance of “this” and “that.” To have achieved this understanding but not be conscious of why it is so is called “The Way.”

Mair deleted some passages (the ellipsis here), of which he said, “because they are spurious or because they are later commentaries and other types of interpolations that have been mistakenly incorporated into the text.”

In commonality there is use, a kind of use through joining. To join is to attain, and through suitable attainment, they are close to the Way.

And the Chinese text from James Legge translation in The Writings of Chuang Tzu, 1891:

可乎可,不可乎不可。道行之而成,物謂之而然。惡乎然?然於然。惡乎不然?不然於不然。物固有所然,物固有所可。無物不然,無物不可。

故為是舉莛與楹,厲與西施,恢恑憰怪,道通為一。其分也,成也;其成也,毀也。凡物無成與毀,復通為一。

唯達者知通為一,為是不用而寓諸庸。庸也者,用也;用也者,通也;通也者,得也。適得而幾矣。

因是已。已而不知其然,謂之道。

What I was Reading in August – November

Unmotivated to blog / write about what I’m reading, I didn’t even do an annual Books of The Year thing in October — and I’ve been doing that for ten years. “Life Project” and all (still quoting Emile on that), so … change and shit, I suppose. Still reading though, at a much diminished rate, partly because lack of time and energy and eyes needing a rest. Books have been read and are being read. No particular order.

Miri Song’s Multiracial Parents: Mixed Families, Generational Change, and the Future of Race, ’cos I’m trying to understand myself, my family’s history, and all. You’d think by the time you’re in your forties, you’d have this somewhat nailed, but nope, thanks to family secrets and family aspirations to whiteness, or some shite. Like my middle name never blew that fantasy up.

Charles Stross’ The Labyrinth Index, nth book in a series I’m long over. I keep reading like an old lover whose time has passed and, yeah, Lovecraft mythos is really creaking on its Zimmer frame these days.

JY Yang’s The Descent of Monsters. Very much a favourite author right now. South-East Asia is slaying it in the sci-fi / fantasy lately. I wish these were longer and JY Yang would write more. The so-far trilogy for some reason reminds me of The Water Margin (水滸傳, Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn), which is, I dunno, about as high praise as you can get from me.

Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Joseph Norman’s The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks. Only two references to Feersum Endjinn. I was broadly disappointed. More so because trying to divide Banks’ work up into skffy / non-skiffy, or sci-fi / non-sci-fi, is never going to work (and I’m not even going to start on the glaring errors referring to The Hydrogen Sonata). Ken McLeod’s essay was beautiful.

Ben Aaronovitch’s Lies Sleeping: The Seventh Rivers of London novel. Still holding fast to ‘Harry Potter, a black cop from London estate’. Glad he finally dealt to the Faceless Man, and hope he moves on a bit from this narrative arc (apparently, yes, he is planning to). I’m likely to re-binge this series rather soon, while listing to proper LDN Grime.

Ruth Pearce’s Understanding Trans Health: Discourse, Power and Possibility. Not fun reading. Considering lending to my endocrinologist because he gives a shit but I swear it’s like the last 30 years of ‘progress’ hasn’t happened in Germany. Primarily focussing on the UK and NHS, but I’ve dealt with health systems in several countries around the world (either Euro, or influenced by / aligned with Anglo models), and “Tru dat” was said a lot. Also “Fuck cis people”.

Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few: Wayfarers 3. Reading a lot of series, me. This is the series where nothing much happens, in a rather large universe (of the world-building type, I mean; mostly takes up a small bit of a small bit of a galaxy). I’ll keep reading because for some reason I like the story.

Kevin Martens Wong’s Altered Straits. Currently reading, and had been waiting for this for an age. Trans-dimensional, time-travelling corporeal horror. Once again, South-East Asia, and Singapore bringing it in the sci-fi / fantasy.

Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. I’ve been reading her blog for years. I kind of talked back to her a lot while reading, particularly of the, “Well, if you’d read history, and get outside a euro-centric model of science and philosophy, maybe some of these ‘intractable’ problems wouldn’t be there in the first place?” A frustrating like.

Tiffany Trent and Stephanie Burgis’s The Underwater Ballroom Society. Plus for the cover, plus also for Ysabeau S. Wilce, a stack of really good stories, probably going to have to read some of these authors.

Victor Mair’s translation of Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. He of the blog Language Log. Also been reading that for years. And I knew he was all about this stuff, but somehow blind spot assisted me in missing this. I like Zhuangzi heaps, my 404 is not complete without.

I also re-read a bunch of other novels, some Iain Banks, and Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy for the second time, even better than the first.

Gallery

Östasiatiskamuseet

Had planned to go to Historiska Museet and look at mediæval stuff. Made it as far as Skeppsholmen and going to the Östasiatiskamuseet. “We close in an hour. But an hour is usually enough. For most people.” Even for me. Small and average. The collection of Chinese (and pre-China) pottery and ceramics was the best part. Also the stone sculptures of various Buddhist, Daoist (I know!) deities. The Japan collection was mediocre. I wanted to steal quite a bit of the Tang and Song dynasty. And use it. The Ming stuff looked like Lack of Subtlety by comparison. Even cheap tea would taste better in a Song Dynasty bowl.

Reading: Justin Tiwald, Bryan W. Van Norden (eds.) — Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han to the 20th Century

A much easier one to trace why I’m reading it. Published in September, Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han to the 20th Century edited by Justin Tiwald, Bryan W. Van Norden was on Warp, Weft, and Way: Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學, and looked like the kind of thing that would nicely summarise a couple of millennia of Chinese thought, philosophy, and religion.

Besides some Chuang Tzu—I mean Zhuangzi, (and some decidedly awkward teenage messing around with the I Ching) my exposure to Chinese philosophy has been by osmosis. Even communist China in any of its forms is unavoidably aligned with some form of Confucianism. To read the the sources, for all my China reading is something I haven’t done.

I do dislike Confucianism, and everything in the translated selections here only confirms that. The Cosmology section (coming chronologically before Buddhism) alone for me is worth the “Oh why am I paying so much again for a book?” price. Not the least for the notes on that favourite pop-spiritual object of Western culture: Yin and Yang, which can only be understood as unmistakably misogynist and generally hegemonically normative.

For me, the dogmatic aspects of Confucianism in Chinese history and culture seem to be balanced—or at least resisted from achieving complete dominance—by Daoism, Buddhism, and Mohism (this latter I’ve read effectively nothing on). Perhaps experiencing confirmation bias while reading.

It could do with a couple more female translators, especially as it suffers from that “women in the kitchen” problem of them represented in the Women and Gender section but a distinct minority elsewhere. Anyway, it’s my go-to book for the subject.

Justin Tiwald, Bryan W. Van Norden (eds.) — Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han to the 20th Century
Justin Tiwald, Bryan W. Van Norden (eds.) — Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han to the 20th Century

Reading: Eugen Herrigel (trans: R. F. C. Hull) — Zen in the Art of Archery

I went on a bit of a philosophical forest experience while staying in Waldsieversdorf. First, while feeling all introspective, I went on a very not sensible bike ride, the result of not paying attention to the topographic contour lines on the map meant what I thought would be a gentle, horizontal-ish amble through Wald and around See was a hellish excursion of muddy verticality, up and down slippery flights of stairs and inclines too steep to cycle, unloading bike from shoulder and mounting only to have to dismount five meters later for the next impasse, all the while darkness creeping in.

I arrived back at the bach in semi-darkness to finish watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is all kinds of buddhist philosophy and struggle which caused me to wonder why I think I’m so clever to take the hard path or think I don’t even need to pay much attention and then find myself in situations where I’m genuinely not having fun. Instead, for example, just going for a gentle ride around the lake.

Later, I was writing an application, and sorting through my scrapbook when I came across a pdf of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery. It turned out to be a short 60 pages and as I began reading, it dragged me in. I’ve been finding Chinese philosophy more appealing lately, and more practical, than European, particularly Daoism and Zhuangzi, which of course have strong parallels with Zen (or at least in my mind they do). I find also there is little mysticism or spirituality in the texts—or no more than any European philosopher has of Christianity. It was the practicalness of doing in this book that I had to read, coming off such a horrible cyclocross experience, something in general I have struggled with often as a dancer, climber, doing yoga, cycling, in my thinking of how to get through a task. Yeah, it sounds like I’m going all hippy here.

Early next year I’ll be working with Isabelle Schad, and we were speaking about this. I’d been thinking—as a result of reading Zen that I might take up Kyudo, but it occurred to me that Aikido, which Isabelle practices would be a better fit, given how the form influences her movement. Actually this book should be required reading for me on a monthly basis, if nothing else than to remind me not to do stupid things on my bike.

Eugen Herrigel (trans: R. F. C. Hull) — Zen in the Art of Archery
Eugen Herrigel (trans: R. F. C. Hull) — Zen in the Art of Archery

Reading: Justin Tiwald & Bryan W. Van Norden (eds.) — Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han Dynasty to the 20th Century

I saw Justin Tiwald & Bryan W. Van Norden’s Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han Dynasty to the 20th Century on Warp, Weft, and Way: Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學 a month ago, and my interest was piqued by “Within those topics, issues of contemporary interest, such as Chinese ideas about gender and the experiences of women, are brought to light.” I’m also in something of a philosophical reading frame, specifically Chinese and Japanese (to be honest, I find I just can’t focus on European philosophy lately). I was troubled at seeing a couple of pieces by Liu Shaoqi, one of the instigators of the Great Leap Forward and well, perhaps I tend to absolutism on the one hand and recognise on the other it’s necessary to read people such as he because of his influence on the country, but it still feels unpleasant.

I haven’t read much yet, still pushing through the Confucianism stuff, which I find horrible in the way having to endure Descartes or Marxism is. The cover is beautiful, as are the illustrations throughout, and yes, it does really cover everything from the Han Dynasty onwards. One (perhaps misplaced) criticism is that I would have liked to have seen both more female translators and female philosophers, and not just where they are present writing on women and gender.

Justin Tiwald & Bryan W. Van Norden (eds.) — Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han Dynasty to the 20th Century
Justin Tiwald & Bryan W. Van Norden (eds.) — Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han Dynasty to the 20th Century

Reading: Michel Serres — Variations on the Body (trans. Randolph Burks)

Michel Serres is probably my favourite philosopher. Of the crop of post-68ers, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, all the names that are almost compulsory to be able to at least nod knowingly about if one wants to seem relevant in the contemporary dance milieu (to speak nothing of elsewhere) he goes strangely unmentioned. Possibly it’s changed in the last few years, but it was for me only by hanging out with some philosophers in Auckland and Melbourne who were dead keen on Serres that I know of him at all, as I am pretty certain I’ve not come across him otherwise, or not in a way that I can pin down as notable.

It’s because he wrote on dance, specifically ballet, that think so highly of him. Or perhaps it’s because when I first encountered him he wrote so beautifully, so poetically, so unlike every other philosopher, sometimes incomprehensibly (though never in the way that say, Derrida or Lacan did). I photocopied all the books of his I could find in the University library: The ParasiteRome: The Book of Foundations, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, of course Genesis … his brilliant essay Gnomon: The Beginnings of Geometry in Greece in A History of Scientific Thought: Elements of a HIstory of Science (along with every other essay in there, especially Catherine Goldstein’s Stories of the Circle), photocopied because otherwise impossibly expensive. Even by the affordable prices of Germany, I can seldom afford what translations exist of his work: Variations on the Body caused me to wince and look the other way when I handed over the cash, and it’s tiny, a mere 162 pages. Beautifully bound and presented though, which honestly makes up for a lot for me when it comes to buying academic-ish texts; it’s really a book to hold and enjoy the tactile pleasure of the embossed cover and heavy paper.

This translation then, by Randolph Burks (member of the Unemployed Philosophers’ Guild: The Lens Grinders) I have in two versions: latterly this printed one, an actual book; formerly a pdf which I think I snagged on the most excellent blog devoted to Serres. Same translation, different work. The French version is lavishly illustrated, something of a habit for Serres (Angels: A Modern Myth, for example). The English translation in book form is entirely bereft of illustrations, a compromise to getting it printed at all, which likely indicates the relative popularity of Serres compared to other French philosophers. The illustrations and photographs are not careless decoration, so the printed translation actually is substantially a lesser work, despite the work of Burks, who I think – based on the other translations I’ve read – makes me feel like I’m reading Serres without a go-between.

Serres does have his problems: there’s a distinct heterosexual male perspective in both his choice of words and choice of metaphors, similes, examples, which if nothing else shows his age (83, born in 1930), and Variations on the Body, with long sections devoted to romanticising mountaineering as an understanding of the philosophy of the body seems prone to this more than others. Ah, but it’s beautiful, it’s really not frequent for philosophy to make me smile with joy, but Serres, he does it all too often. He sometimes writes in a way which reminds me quite a bit of Chuang Tzu’s The Inner Chapters. So I’m enjoying this book immensely and think I will take seriously my desire to go on a Serres bender.

Michel Serres — Variations on the Body (trans. Randolph Burks)
Michel Serres — Variations on the Body (trans. Randolph Burks)

Reading: Plato — Symposium and the Death of Socrates

This is the last of the six I picked up because of Jo Walton’s Among Others, (one of which is so dreadfully bad I won’t mention it), which has sent me to sleep several times already. Plato, who is unavoidable for anyone with even a passing interest in Western philosophy, is someone I’ve managed to successfully avoid, having more of a preference for Lucretius and others of the minor echelons.

Plato, I wasn’t intending on mentioning him here either — the Symposium and the Death of Socrates — but last night while well-bondaged, a pair remarked how we were tied was like the original nature before Zeus and Apollo hacked the three sexes into two (leading to hetero and homo and other things), which I thought dead funny because I’d just read that part; Aristophenes account of Eros in the Symposium.

I don’t have much to say about this or Plato in general, given I’ve read so little of him directly and not much of this book, but it seems a pity that Western philosophy has spend two and an half thousand years circulating around a drunken bore. Drunken bores. Socrates isn’t much better.

It might be that it is however a clear representation of why I don’t bother with Marx (or Freud for that matter), more than just because my philosophical upbringing by way of Deleuze and Guattari encouraged a scepticism and distance to the grand canon. Making willful generalisations here, it’s just that at their best and when not outright wrong, they’re not that good. Other philosophers have covered the same territory in far more considered terms, yet there is a constant demand to regard issues through the lens of these names. It may be that because of they paint their arguments in such dialectical terms they are attractive in their ultimate simplicity and resolution; they provide certainty, even if it’s on first glance buried.

I have been thinking of Chuang Tzu (The Inner Chapters) while reading this, who was around the same time as Plato, and who by comparison I would say engages in serious philosophical thought; even The Water Margin manages this, and the drunkenness is funnier. But these Chinese texts are regarded as either more or less, somewhat religious and not properly philosophical and deserving consideration alongside the Western canon (the former), or classical literature of the populist kind, again not proper philosophy (the latter), both things it’s pretty easy to say about the Symposium.

Plato — Symposium and the Death of Socrates
Plato — Symposium and the Death of Socrates

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chuang tzu again…

About a week ago, a quote from Chuang Tzu turned up on The Useless Tree (another shortly after explaining just how useless the tree is). There are things I don’t want to write about here, that on occasion in the past I did, and short of starting another blog, I doubt at the moment I will even venture to explain why. Which doesn’t mean I don’t read and think and get angry and upset and…

So I was reading this quote, and in the past couple of weeks thinking about it when I read Burning Words, Cheerful Megalomaniac, Renegade Evolution, Monster’s Creed, nixwilliams, Questioning Transphobia, Sexual Ambiguities, Trans Group Blog, Whimsy with a twist, Whipping Girl, Ye Goblyn Queenne, Feministing, FemmEssay, Fetch me my axe, let them eat pro-sm feminist safe spaces, Uncool, Ami Angelwings’ Super Cute Rants of DOOOM XD, Dented Blue Mercedes, Ideologically Impure, The Corvid Diaries, TransGriot… and everyone who commented, who gets it, who gets being trans* and gets feminism and…

I was thinking about people I’d forgotten when I was reading Stone Butch Blues, thinking about one in particular, a tough Maori butch named Dutchess. She’d been a street kid, and… I wrote to Gala about her, “she was staunch and when she decided she was your friend she’d never throw you away, it took time to get to that though. And she’d stand up to anyone who showed her disrespect.”

Somehow in the last few weeks amidst everything that’s been written on these and other blogs, I’m reminded of her…

I don’t know what else to say so I’ll say nothing.

We’re cast into this human form, and it’s such happiness. The human form knows change, but the ten thousand changes are utterly boundless. Who could calculate the joys they promise?

And so the sage wanders where nothing is hidden and everything is preserved. The sage calls dying a blessing and living long a blessing, calls beginnings a blessing and endings a blessing. We might make such a person our teacher, but there’s something the ten thousand things belong to, something all change depends upon – imagine making that your teacher. (87)

— Chuang Tzu