Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


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Monday, October 1, 2012

A Note on Radcliffe’s The Italian



The distinction between high and low art used to be largely a matter of venue and milieu. Poetry appreciated in court circles such as troubadour lyric and sonnets is easily differentiated from folk-song, and one could hardly confuse Sidney’s Arcadia with a penny dreadful title. The growth of a literate middle class, however, that accompanied the coming of capitalism led to a new market with its own demanding taste. The novel itself was regarded as an inferior literary form for years (in China as well as in Europe), often composed and consumed by women who were no longer required to spend their leisure doing needlework.

The work of Ann Radcliffe, praised by the great Romantic poets and a best-selling author as well, illustrates characteristics of both popular and high art. Every piece of literature confirms some expectations while denying others, but popular works tend to be toward the reassuring side of that continuum while “high” art often raises contradictions and ambivalences if not outright denial of received ideas. Radcliffe’s books, like most television narratives, conclude with the happy ending that reassures the consumer that, in spite of temporary upsets, all is right with the world. Her characters are flattened and overdone: the heroes are most “manly,” possessing at once good looks, courage, and an unerring morality, while the heroines are lovely, pious, and proper to the degree that in The Italian Ellena Rosalba in The Italian is troubled by such scruples as worrying about keeping company with a male admirer while he is rescuing her from vicious persecutors. Meanwhile the villains are black-souled indeed, though Schedoni practices such titanic and self-controlled machinations that he has been compared with Milton’s Satan and considered influential in the Byronic anti-hero.

Between these factions, Radcliffe regularly distributes retributive justice in the most predictable manner. One need fear no more than in a comedy that all might not come right in the end. The loftier social classes are uniquely capable of fine feeling, of sensibility. The fair heroine’s marriage is impeded by her presumed lower status, yet she turns out in fact to have been high-born after all and from a virtuous father, rendering irrelevant the issue about whether alliances between classes are possible. Paolo is a fair type of the lower strata. He is an exemplar of the best quality of the low-born, which is to say he is fiercely loyal to his master. His hound-like devotion is so great that he repeatedly makes a fool of himself to lighten otherwise serious scenes, and he is rewarded in the end by being allowed to sing a repeated chorus of good wishes to Vivaldi, “O! giorno felice!

Though there is no questioning of the old stereotypes about men and women, morality, or the order of society, Radcliffe did participate in her day’s more intellectual and aesthetic currents. The “Gothic” novel has become a popular genre little remarked by critics, but in the late eighteenth century, it was a new and ambitious orientation toward the sublime. To Edmund Burke “terror is in all cases whatsoever . . . the ruling principle of the sublime.” To him the “Astonishment” associated with the sublime is invariably accompanied by “some degree of horror.” [1]

Mrs. Radcliffe expressed derivative notions in her posthumous essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry” [2] where she argues that “obscurity” and grandeur” combine to generate sublimity. To her this recipe holds “not only on frivolous occasions,” “but in the “most important pursuits of life.”

For all that, to the modern reader, it is almost as though fear is used to ratchet up the story’s impact like sex in a music video. The Italian setting announced in the title is itself a somewhat sinister place smoky with Roman Catholic incense and moral corruption. The Inquisition even appears. All these thematics are as expected; what is “modern” in Radcliffe is the delectation, the self-conscious reveling in a safe, emasculated horror, whose epigone we see in the young college graduate of today who likes nothing better than to dress as a zombie or a vampire.

The effect is similar with her descriptions of nature which may provide grandeur as well as mystery. [3] Sometimes extensive and pictorial, they remain thoroughly conventional, a code that should elicit the proper response. The topographical poets had particularized; Radcliffe is always painting variations on the same few scenes.

Her taste is surely influenced by the Graveyard School poets, or she was a product of the same trends in taste. The enjoyment of a sweet melancholy, colored perhaps by a faint hint of the beyond, either Christian or pagan, a breath of the sublime was evidence of a person of sentiment, an aesthete. Radcliffe broadened the audience for such a vision by washing her stories with the same elements and ameliorating the edgier elements (such as Cowper’s real depression).

Radcliffe’s reader sought a domesticated horror. Her books are filled with spooky, seemingly preternatural events, but they are virtually always explained rationally. By rational, though, I do not mean likely, for Radcliffe inherits from the Hellenistic romances a fondness for formal symmetry in plot, welcoming all-but-impossible coincidence such as the revelations of the identities first of Schedoni and then of Olivia. Far from a failure of verisimilitude, this was a clear literary code. Scott defined the romance by its “marvelous and uncommon incidents.” [4]

She added the newer aesthetic ideas of the time, including the taste for horror and for landscape and a lugubrious sense of mortality, and attracted a mass readership as well as impressing Shelley, Byron (who called her the founder of a school) and Keats (who refers to her enthusiastically as an influence in his letters). She raised the ambitions and altered the direction of the novel genre, adding to the woman-in-distress theme of Richardson the “sublimity” of terror and of landscape, the power of meditation on mortality, and the love of the exotic (which is to say the partially understood) which made her and Mary Shelley avid travelers and original travel writers.

Her oeuvre at once advanced the prestige and popularity of novels. Though some writers in other genres before had addressed a general audience and found critical celebrity (such as Shakespeare) and others had addressed an educated audience yet found a broader readership (such as Milton), Radcliffe mediated the levels of literature, using familiar themes dressed up in the latest aesthetic styles, and created new readership and new tastes for the form whose very name means new.




1. Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757. Burke goes on to note that “obscurity” is effective as terror will dissipate with clear vision, adding that despots are secretive to excite fear in their subjects. He does not say whether such repression can result in the sublime.

2. First published in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 1826, 145-152

3. See Sir Uvedale Price's essay “On The Picturesque.”

4. See his “Essay on Romance.”

A Scholar’s Debut



I have fond feelings toward my essay on Mechthild von Magdeburg. My first sustained analysis of a Middle German text, it was published in the Mystics Quarterly, a journal that had once been called the Fourteenth Century Mystics Newsletter (the original title appealed to me, for it gave me a mental picture of some bearded figure with a rope belt slipping a few mimeographed pages through the slot to Julian of Norwich, bringing news of colleagues’ birthdays and visions).

“Transformation of Convention in Mechthild von Magdeburg” is also the first paper I presented at a professional meeting. I was still taking courses in graduate school when the essay was accepted for the annual Patristic, Medieval, Renaissance Conference at Villanova University near Philadelphia. This seemed a positive sign, as, for my part, I had been deeply ambivalent about scholarship, whereas from their side, the academics doubtless saw much in what must have looked like my gypsy’s history to give them pause. We had decided to take a chance on each other, and now it seemed that perhaps it might work out.

I decided that, since it seemed I might be on the point of acceding to the bourgeoisie after years of poverty, I should buy a new suit. The fact is, though I had spent whole years wearing almost nothing but blue jeans, I never taught without a coat and tie. I had a considerable collection of ill-fitting suits from the Salvation Army and dozens of antique ties with patterns I liked but which unfortunately had been made to end about the middle of the wearer’s chest when knotted properly. These served me well enough for the unlikely teaching positions I had held, but I decided my scholar’s debut required something grander.

Taking advantage of a sale at the Iowa City Montgomery Ward, I purchased a two-vent three-piece navy pinstripe suit with alterations-to-fit. Or that was the idea at any rate. As I recall my unseemly bicyclist’s thighs stretched the fabric from the day the man was running tape measures over me. The upper elements which felt a bit snug at first, seemed to shrink rapidly. Nonetheless, I felt I could make a proper impression in this suit.

My initial visual impact was threatened, however. Part of my eternal youth has been periodic manifestations of adult acne, and, rather like some teen’s prom nightmare, a sizable lesion appeared on my left cheek, giving my countenance a spot of unsettling roseate glow. I was building toward some sort of crescendo, but it was yet uncertain if it was to be dreadful or revelatory.

With my graduate student’s income deep beneath the poverty level, I ground my teeth at conference registration fees and eschewed hotels. An acquaintance at the Friends’ Meeting gave me the number of a relative who was rehabbing a building in West Philadelphia. It may have been the presumptive virtue of the Quaker connection, but this person whom I had never met (and never did) sent a key and an invitation to sleep on the floor of a vacant apartment. I managed to buy a cheap ticket from Chicago, and my arrangements were complete.

With the bus from the airport and the Main Line train, I made my way to Villanova where the meeting was in session. I attended panels faithfully, hearing, as one always does, some critics who put one in mind of Swift’s “projectors,” and others who provided occasional flashes of wit or insight. In my new suit, I felt quite at home. Even the alarming phenomenon on my cheek was subsiding.

After returning to the city center late at night, I took the elevated train line to the West Side. Unfamiliar with the city, I overshot my destination by a stop or two and found myself, shortly after midnight, resplendent in my suit, carrying the large, old-fashioned pre-attaché style briefcase in which I kept papers, toiletries, and underwear alike, down the middle of the Friday night urban African-American business strip. I walked the twenty blocks or so to the address at which I had aimed, past the loungers outside bars and bodegas to whom I may have seemed a bit of an apparition. Doubtless they thought I had a better reason to be there than in fact I did.

Fortunately, the key I had been sent worked. I unrolled my sleeping bag on the floor of the empty apartment.

The next day I returned to the conference and reveled in the semi-medieval ambiance created by the Catholic institution. I was delighted to attend the only panel I have ever witnessed conducted entirely in Latin: papers, questions, even a good deal of the chit-chat afterwards. I heard also about the work which had been going forward for over a hundred years already, the preparation of a critical edition of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas at the Pontifical Institute in Toronto. Not only was Aquinas productive, his books were preserved and copied to such an extent that the editor must consider all-but-countless variant readings and choose the best from hundreds of manuscripts, while noting all the rest. The publishing task was Herculean in its demands. In recent years some chores had been relieved by the analytical advantages of mainframe computers, and the decision had been made that, rather than the ponderous volumes they had been issuing for generations, which possessed gravitas in the extreme. only digital editions would appear in the future. The speaker said that some of the elder monks participating in the project, who had worked their entire lives on earlier volumes as assistant editors and were only just advanced to the point of having a book bearing their own names as editor, were broken-hearted at the change in format. Surely their merciful Lord will be tolerant of such bookish vanity.

Sunday morning I made my way again to the transit line and out to Villanova. My paper was scheduled for 8:30, the first session of the day. I shared the stage with a professor speaking on an unpublished collection of Florentine lay sermons, and another dealing with the fourteenth canto of Immanuel of Rome’s Mahberoth. Scattered about the front rows of a sizable lecture hall half a dozen scholars had got their faces washed and their coffee down in time to catch my debut. Or they were faithful friends (or underlings) of one of the other speakers. Several were loath to break off their exchanges of gossip. They probably see each other every year at PMR and never at any other time and each likes it that way, or at least that is how they looked to me as I entered. I was pleased enough with my work and no one else there had even read my author (as I in turn had never seen a page of Immanuel of Rome), so there could be no difficult questions, and I had a reasonably good time delivering my ideas on Mechthild. A couple of my listeners lingered to discuss related issues with me, and I felt as though I had earned an honorable position among the mandarins, all my youthful anti-academic prejudices conveniently invisible if persistent.

A week or so later I was elated to receive a note from one of the people with whom I had chatted. He was editing a book of selected papers from the conference and wished to include mine. I immediately sent him a revision, but, sad to say, I never heard from him again in spite of an inquiry. Ah well, each of us savants had gained a line on the c.v.

Becher's "Someone Stands Up"

Johannes R. Becher (1891-1958) exemplifies many of the tragedies and ambiguities of twentieth century history. A revolutionary from his youth in both politics and art, he knew the Dadaists and was for a time an active Expressionist. Arrested for an anti-war novel under the Weimar government, he became ever more dependably an orthodox Communist, eventually fleeing the Third Reich in one city after another, but finally settling in Moscow. There he fell under suspicion of Trotskyite taints during the purges of the thirties and informed on others. During this era he several times attempted suicide (as he had in his youth) yet he survived the war and returned to East Germany where he served as Minister of Culture, oppressing the same sort of young radicals among whom he had counted himself many years before.
This poem was first published in Um Gott in 1921.





Goddamned century! Chaotic! Without song! And you’re hung
out there, man, poorest of baits, with pain foggy mirages
lightning.
Blinded. A kid. Frenzied. Scabs and sourness.
With blazing eye. Mad fury in the incisors. Whistling
feverhorn.
But
over the cross in the neck waves the mild and endless ether.
Out from the graves. The factories. The asylums. Sewers,
spelunkers from hell.
Sun choruses sing hymns over the caves of the blind.
And
over the bloody deeps of the waters of slaughter
scatter God’s eternally fixed and magical stars.

You soldier!
You hangmen and thieves! And, the worst of all, the scourges
of God!
When – finally –
I’m asking – torn and full of raging impatience –
when will you be my brother?
If
the murderous knife moves restless from you into you,
weaponless, you wheel to face graves and fiends.
A deserter! A hero! Thanked! Glorified!
In fury you break the criminal gun to a thousand bits.
Reckless, you drop your goddamned “guilt and duty,”
and that crummy doglike duty
refuses brazen, baring teeth to profiteers, tyrants, and to
each and every boss.
If
your destructive step no longer stamps pitiless over the
peacefully lit lands of an earth animated with living
creatures,
and you yourself – raging – tear yourself in pieces in a
glorious offering on the cross,
then . . .then . . . you will be my brother.
You’ll be my brother:
if you kneel repentant before the last and worst of the
pirates who have been shot,
despairing and submissive
a spiked fist through your coat of mail,
bearing down on the innards of your heart

pinned and loud with oaths, you scream it out –
“Look at this man here – he was my brother.
What’s going on? O my god my guilt.”

Then then you’ll be my brother.
Then then the final blinding day of paradise will come our
human fulfillment
all will reconcile with all
each will see itself in each
then the whipping commotion will melt away faint in the face
of our word of faith.
Your pride in headstrong Ararat will settle down free and
glad under gentle tides of selflessness.
The devil’s own attack, his burden, his noise dissipates
just as evil’s will to power’s overcome and helpless, most
limitless and boundless betrayal and triumph.

Tell me, my brother, who you are.
Rager. Raper. Villain and cop
Lying in wait, a glance on yellowed bones of your fellow man.
King Emperor General.
Gold gobble. Whore of Babylon and degeneration,
hate-bawling maw, fat purse, and diplomat
or . . . or . . .
a child of god!!??

Tell me, man, my brother, who you are. Lucky to be
throttled by the restless ghosts of slaughtered helpless innocents!?
The goddamned drained and blasted slaves and wage-slaves too!?
Hopeless pyramids round desert graves scalp and corpse
The dry tongues of the hungry and the thirsty are the
relish of your meal.
Death rattle lament, breath of death, the embittered
hurricane of rage a far-off lovely tune to you?
or . . . maybe . . .
the bellows of misery may not reach as far as you
you’re full as slow and tepid with your heartless prominence
is your hard severity thundered about by the cyclone of
these times truly unmoved?
Doesn’t your proud tower fall to pieces, stone by stone,
o let the pregnant donkey rest!
Your modern fruits: people grown soulless and brutal.
A ruler of the world – you are your own most heavy burden!!!

Tell me, man, my brother, who are you!?
. . . flawless star the cosmos above an answer to the
poorest’s prayer flagrant fiery wound a cool
and comforting balm –
magic sweet dew on the tiger’s wild thorn bushes –
fanatic terrorists in mildest Jerusalem –
never an end to hope –
no lying compass. Signs of god
juice of a bitter onion staring doubt
you fugitive from a tropical port, the lost boys --
none a stranger to you, a brother,
each close to you, a brother
Bee swarms stray and nest in you.
Your tub rests in a sleep of southerly breeze, snared in the
space of the labyrinthine wilderness
the beggar singing ecstatic, the poet without property
Ahasuerus, the unworldly melancholy pilgrim.
In the slumber leaves and oases your feet dive under
restlessness
but in the temple of the Urals of your skin a bright
indefatigability ascends.
The sources of your purity
struggle on through curses and grasslands
in fortified citadels
you use the spice of lamb and the hillocks of spring.
An angel, you go down to where the poorest drag themselves
about.
Even in hell you still can do some good.
Still the wicked clatter – a court your fledgling
from the street’s canyons of pestilential air
you ladle heavenly blood.

Grim Moloch of Heaven’s shore.
Spewer of poison gas or a harvest of healing.
Monstrous hyena or grove of palms
the wounds in Jesus’ side or a sponge of vinegar.

Tell me, man, o my brother, which of the two are you?!

Because
the burning tide roars out the question.
Take a stand! Answer me!
I will have an accounting and
the torn earth from the powerful catapult of your brain:
desire and fullness and fate.
A blessed and fortunate future of kindly careless sleep
questions dawning already pulling you.
Pour yourself out! Confess and recognize yourself!
Hear me now! Make a change!
Be brave and think!
Man: you solitary stewer hardly human sinner tax collector
brother and betrayer: who are you?
Turn in your grave! Stretch yourself desire yourself!
Breathe! Make a choice at last! Evolve!
Lemon farm or exile’s thistle
chosen island or swamp of thieves
cellar of ruin illuminated prophet and Sinai of flames.
Locomotive’s rhythm brakes howling.
Man, man, my brother, who are you?

Sulfurous storm fill the evil azure space
the horizon of your desire pens you in.
( . . .down in the gore! Chest up! Head gone! Torn off!
Mashed! In the sewer’s snout . . .)
Still still it is time!

All out! For Revolution! Join the march!
Hit the street! Hurry! Leap from the Canaanite night!
There’s still time
man man man stand up stand up!!!

Liezi

The following comments are based on A. C. Graham’s The Book of Lieh-tzŭ. Rather than alter all the names and untranslated terms, in a confusing and monstrous hybrid of usage, my essay follows Graham in using the Wade-Giles system of transliteration, though my title uses the current pin-yin for the convenience of web searches by contemporary students. Thus I shall refer to Taoism rather than Daoism, Lao Tzu rather than Laozi, etc., though I am well aware of the current convention.
Perhaps in this way I feel closer to the excitement I felt when reading this text for the first time fifty years ago when this version was new, and, in my suburban home, I ordered a copy from Blackwell’s which arrived from the U.K. bearing fascinating stamps and postal markings. Those Blackwell’s catalogues were an enchanted land in which an American high school student with a taste for words could wander without end, no less magical than the fabulous lands described by Liezi.
Apart from sentiment I use this edition as I do not know of a newer complete translation. I have not seen the book of commentary Riding the Wind with Liezi: New Perspectives on the Daoist Classic edited by Ronnie Littlejohn and Jeffrey Dippmann.



Lieh-tzŭ is the third text of philosophical Daoism. Something of an anthology, while attributed to a “Hundred Schools of Thought” sage of the fifth century BCE, it was probably assembled seven or eight hundred years later, though using some much older materials including passages from both the Tao te ching and the Chuangtzu. Less gnomic than Lao Tzu, less unified and structured than Chuang, never venturing into the alchemical or magical bypaths that came to use the name of the Tao, consistently amusing and engaging, the book may be the best brief introduction to philosophical Taoism. Taoism can seem remote and abstruse, yet its sages sought like Socrates a way to live a satisfying life that might be useful to everyone. Many conceive of life as a battle and thus make Sun Tzu our modern American ancient Chinese best-seller, but readers will find more in which to delight as well as more challenging mental moves in the relatively neglected Lieh-tzŭ.
The paradoxes of the book begin on the first page when it opens (as does the Lao Tzu) by insisting on the inadequacy of words. This figure of speech is familiar throughout Western literature in versions both religious (“the divine is ineffable”) or secular (“words cannot describe my beloved”) versions. For Lieh-tzŭ, however, this opening announces a book on the theme not merely of the failure of words, but of effective will, of the senses, and of logic as well. The author (or editor) elaborates a system of utter skepticism which, for all its merciless rejection of knowledge, buoys the spirit. Without values he manages to portray exemplars. Lacking a mythological structure, his imagination knows no bounds. Though he claims that endeavor is useless, he describes super-adepts in every sort of human activity. Advocating doing nothing and knowing nothing, he prescribes a regimen of psychic focus and living in the moment so demanding that few can adhere to it. Not only is (almost) every anecdote entertaining and provocative, the reader may well find immediate confirmation and application in lived experience.
The point of the celebrated story of Chuang Tzu dreaming he is a butterfly is not that he is either human or insect or something different yet. The point is that one cannot tell, will never be able to tell. Whereas the Hindu devotee seeks to peer behind the veil of maya, for Taoists the apparent is as real as the fantastic, the fraudulent as the authentic. The third book of the Lieh-tzŭ, called King Mu of Chu, expounds this inevitable uncertainty. Mr. Yin, the rich man who dreams of being a slave, and his servant, the poor one who dreams he’s rich are said to have identical lives. (68) Even the honest emotion of the nostalgic man made to believe he is reentering his home town is only a joke played by his companions. (73) One cannot tell what is normal and what abnormal. (72) A judge even with all the facts cannot decide the case of a deer’s disputed ownership. (69) All in all, reality is probably best avoided. A certain Hua-tzu lost his memory and objected when he was cured saying “Formerly, when I forgot, I was boundless.” (70) Taoism in its extravagance goes beyond skepticism to privilege what seems to be fancy and to cultivate amazing tales like people trapped in a dark cave, passing the time in imagined visions.
If one cannot necessarily accept one’s sense impressions, emotions, or judgments, one might yet, like Descartes, proceed through purely rational means to reclaim God and reconstruct the world. Yet for Lieh-tzŭ, this option is also fruitless. Much of his Book IV is devoted to an attack on logic. The notoriously reasonable figure of Confucius is made willy-nilly to accord with the Tao. Finding that his life’s work has been in vain, Confucius reaches a point where he returns to history and poetry without expectations, not as before with the goal of making people into good citizens, but simply because the subjects appeal to him. He follows his nature without attachment to results. (76) The writer amuses himself with the paradoxes of Kung-sun Lung (86) (which resemble those associated with the name of Zeno), but more to show the absurdity of seeking truth with words than for any other reason. The true sage here is Keng-sang-tzu who has reached virtual omniscience through self-knowledge. (77) Lieh-tzŭ sounds very like a Buddhist when he says “Whoever gets the idea says nothing, whoever knows it all also says nothing. Whether you think that saying nothing is saying or not saying, whether you think that knowing nothing is knowing or not knowing, you are still saying still knowing. But there is nothing that he either does not say or says, nothing that he either does not know or knows. This is all there is to it.” (80) The wise traveler pays no attention to where he is going. (81) The correct answer to any question is “I do not know.” (94) Everything is relative, everything subjective. Because of this cavalier attitude toward logic, what has been taken by many as evidence of multiple authorship is very likely simply the author’s willingness to contain contraries without concern and to accept mystery, contradiction, and ambivalence.
Lieh-tzŭ certainly sounds like a proponent of Sanlun Buddhism, the Chinese form of Madyamika. He propagates paradox and balances opposites in the tradition of Nagarjuna: “There is no limit, but neither is there anything limitless; there is no exhausting, but neither is there anything inexhaustible. That is why I know that they are limitless and inexhaustible, yet I do not know whether they may be limited and exhaustible.” (95) But for the Taoist there is a significant difference in affect. Lieh-tzŭ finds the world’s unknowability exhilarating. As Confucius is made to conclude, “Rejoicing in nothing and knowing nothing are the true rejoicing and the true knowledge.” (76)
Lacking faith in sense impressions or in rationality, one has no way to make decisions. The individual has no dependable basis for action. One cannot out-maneuver destiny. As the 6th book Endeavour and Destiny insists, the individual cannot control the world. A course of action that might work one time will fail the next. It is rank superstition to believe that one’s striving is effective. To Lieh-tzŭ most people are like Johnson’s madman in Rasselas who had come to believe that his astronomical observations maintained the sun in its path. Another example is the neurotic man of Ch’i who worries like Chicken Little that the sky is falling. (26) With our anxieties and stress, do we differ from him only in degree?
Even moral virtue is illusory – people do what they must. Duke Huan employed his enemy not through superior insight and ethics, but because “he could not do otherwise.” (126) If all destiny is inexplicable, all attitudes are equally “right.” (130) The best doctor is the one who does nothing. (129) Realizing that effort is useless, Pei-tung-tzu is wholly content (124), while Duke Ching decides to drink. (133)
Whatever one tries to pursue, one can only encounter the alternation of contraries. “All things come about of themselves.” (122) Because of his intoxication, a drunk man is wiser than a sober one and less likely to be injured when he falls. (30) The craftsman who worked for years to create a precisely accurate sculpture of a mulberry leaf was daft since the most perfect models hang from trees. (161) A robot is an adequate facsimile of a human. (110) The Taoist term is tzu-jan, meaning self-so-ness, spontaneity, or naturalness. Fatalism need not result in resignation or passivity. Taoism counsels rather that one imitate the cosmos and cultivate tzu-jan. “There are ways in which earth excels heaven, and ways in which each thing is more intelligent than the sage.” (19) A clear and focused mind can produce unreflecting action which is sustained by a mysterious jouissance, the result of being in tune with everything else.
The stylistic corollary of this high state of mind is the playful mythologizing with which the author ornaments his pages. To balance the fact that the book’s philosophy is an almost nihilistic skepticism, it expresses at the same time a deep engagement with things of this world and beyond that exhibit the most fascinating and unpredictable variety. Florid legends and semi-supernatural beings ornament the margins of the vision as though to entertain, illustrate, and assure the individual that one can never be certain of the truth. Jung Ch’i-ch’i strums a lute from excess of joy (24) and the centenarian Lin Lei sings as he gleans, happy since he never “learned to behave” or “strove to make his mark.” Without moral or ego goals, he is a free man. “You travel without knowing where you go, stay without knowing what you cling to, are fed without knowing how, You are the breath of heaven and earth which goes to and fro; how can you ever possess it?” (30)
Yang Chu
, Book VI of the Lieh-tzŭ, is generally called an anomalous interpolation as it advocates a straightforward hedonism of a simple and physical sort, more like that of Ecclesiastes than the sublime (or sublimated) version of the Epicureans. In contrast to Confucian shame culture, what most call virtue is condemned as valueless (146); “reputation is nothing but pretence” (138), and ritual, including offerings to deceased ancestors is absurd, nothing but useless self-deception. (142) One must obey every spontaneous desire (140) just as Blake prescribed. As life is suffering (139), any amelioration that one can find is reasonable. Po Yi who claimed to be desireless was a monster of pride. The same is true of Chan Ch’in who claimed to be moral. Selfish as everone else, they differ only in their hypocrisy. (141)
Though both the Yellow Emperor and King Mu are said to have rejected the pursuit of pleasure, it seems an option consistent with the rejection of all values. Just as Confucius resumed his studies after recognizing their emptiness because such activities suited his nature, another individual might follow a different inclination into dissolute days.
For most of the volume, though, the exemplar is a Taoist adept. Lieh-tzŭ exhibits an wondrously successful archer, a water-forder, a lion-tamer, a swimmer, a fisherman, a musician. In every field, excellence comes from the mental poise and detachment than congruence with the Tao affords. (The attitude reminds me ironically of the stories of scientists and athletes during the Cultural Revolution who gained a similar single-mindedness from study of Mao’s little red book.) In Lieh-tzŭ, though, there can be no striving. When the friend of all gulls became self-conscious, the birds shunned him. (45)
As Lieh-tzŭ was about to move from Cheng, his disciples asked what his master Hu-tzŭ had taught him. His first reply was “What did Hu-tzŭ ever say?” (17) But he then proceeds, saying, “I did once overhear him talking to Po-hun Wu-jen” [whose latter name means no-man]. He goes on to expound the “Unborn” and the “Unchanging” with rhetoric whose dramatic lofty flights and dark shadows, for me at least, better account for the world I experience daily than would-be intellectual rigor or positivist statements of any kind. Like the mystics of the via negativa, like the poets who know their words can never wholly correspond to their intention, like the lover who admits his inability to express his heart’s full feeling, Lieh-tzŭ knows he communicates only in the most imperfect manner, and, in this way, all his cards on the table, he addresses my own mind as a brother.

Strong Stuff [Marrakech]



The sweat trickles down the visitor’s back as the afternoon sun approaches a hundred degrees in Marrakech’s celebrated Djema el Fna, but the unapologetic naked intensity of the heat can seem almost bracing. The elements here may feel extreme, but at least they lack hypocrisy.

The vicious cruelty of the old rulers matched Caligula’s, and the slave market in the Souk Zrabia flourished until the French occupation in 1912. Today men’s aggression is for the most part displaced into commerce and socio-economic hierarchy. The assault of self-interested hustlers has abated since the government has got after them, but their importunities were little worse than the gauntlet of shopkeepers who will go so far as to seize the arm of a foreign passerby. Business here may seem recreational, but everyone knows it is always a matter of getting one’s hand into another’s pocket. The pitches to the visitor are transparent: “it is bad luck not to make the first sale of the day,” “just for looking, no buying,” and always the earnest “for you, a special price.”

Though the beggars are also a result of a greed-based economy, and they sometimes distress the tender-hearted visitor and annoy the rest, but they testify also to the vitality of Muslim charity or zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam. The Arabic word means “that which purifies” [the giver] and such donations are enjoined by the Koran; to give what one ought is a prerequisite for one’s prayers to be heard. Almost always aged, crippled, or holding a baby, sometimes in orderly rows chanting outside a mosque, the appeals of beggars are regularly heard by the more affluent. Certain medicants make a regular circuit of souk merchants, receiving a coin from each. Have they somehow a franchise on the route? Compassionate giving may extend even to animals. Outside the modern carrefour where one may purchase forbidden goods such as cured pork from Savoy and wine, the feral cats find plates of milk and scraps of rotisseried chicken, perhaps left by a worker who recalled the story of Mohammed’s cutting off his sleeve to avoid disturbing his cat Muezza who had fallen asleep there.

Travelers are one of the categories of people to whom zakat should be given, and hospitality to travelers remains strong in spite of the constant procession of foreigners, now decades-old. Though anti-American demonstrations are at this moment turning violent in Egypt, Tunisia, and Pakistan, we are consistently greeted with smiles and waves of the hand even from passing cars. The wanderer lost in the medina’s maze who asks directions will receive warmth as well as aid.
Pleasure may be mingled with suffering, generosity with selfishness, civility with barbarism, but each element is undiluted and manifests without disguise. The head of household (the king even) slaughters his sheep for the Aid el Kebir. The stench of the tanning vats makes a miasma of a whole neighborhood. The diner knows the source of his meat and the stroller the origin of his shoes’ leather.

One reads that Thami el Glaoui, Lord of the Atlas and Pasha of Marrakech, entertained not only the French officials with whom he collaborated, but Churchill as well, Colette and Charlie Chaplin, offering his guests hashish and opium as well as girls and boys snatched from the tribes of the Atlas. He was, not surprisingly, hated even before he turned on the king. The indulgences of his palace were beyond the means of most Moroccans, but a pipe of cannabis was not. If kief is no longer consumed openly, this is the result of government fiat under international pressures. Sebsis and shkaufs (pipe-stems and bowls) for its consumption are for sale in the markets yet today, and the use of alcohol, which I would agree with the imams is less desirable, is surely increasing every year.

Islam itself seems a creed fiercely insistent and singularly simple and direct. When compared to the multifarious maze of Hindu mythology, the subtle metaphysics of Buddhism, the pomp of Roman Catholicism, or the denatured Puritanism with which I was raised, Islam’s requirements are few but absolute. The insurgent dynasties, the Almohads and then the Almoravids were puritan simplifiers out of the desert, and today the Sufis, the marabout cults, and the remnants of Berber animism continue to lose ground to the grand simplicity of orthodoxy. Experiential emotion is replaced by authority and variety by uniformity.
The Shahada, the basic statement of Islamic belief is a single sentence, stark and simple: “There is no god but God and Mohammed is his prophet.” It must impress those of us it cannot convince.

In Paul Bowles’ Moroccan stories one finds the same extreme forms of friendship, sensuality, betrayal, and agony. There is but one sun in the Sheltering Sky, and its heat overwhelms all else. The wanderer in the Djema el Fna can feel in his whole body that animating heat that chastens and mortifies even as it vivifies. Among the multifarious distractions of the square and of the wider world beyond, the joy and the pain of being alive, the love and aggression of the world, are here unmistakable.