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Of Counterpoint and Counterrevolutionaries — a book review

Thursday, April 2nd, 2020

[ Emlyn Cameron reviews Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is Upon Us, which offers us current insight into the celebrated 1965 Cambridge Union debate between William F. Buckley, Jr. and James Baldwin ]
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Nicholas Buccola
The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America
Princeton University Press, (2019)
ISBN 9780691181547
Hardback, 496pp: $29.95 / £25.00

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                                                                    “Repression is an unpleasant instrument,” – William F. Buckley, Jr.
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There was something musical about William F. Buckley, Jr.

He was, in addition to being one of the most recognizable pundits of the 20th Century, a harpsichordist with a profound love of Bach.

“It’s not my medium,” he said in 1992, but a kind of musicality was in the warp and woof of his whole public life.

He used all his affect as an instrument in the practice of persuasion. Like Bach, he was a master of counterpoint — allowing his voice and gestures to work independent but harmonious enchantments that formed a captivating whole: the luxuriating deliberation and emphasis he put into each phrase and phoneme; the lexicon of unusual words, with their intricate, exotic sound and coy medley of connotation and insinuation; the features of his owlish face sparking and cascading with feeling, with suggestion; and his deft, musician’s hands clasping, undulating, and pirouetting through the air.

In his recent book The Fire Is Upon Us, Nicholas Buccola calls this contrapunctus, “the art of performing conservatism,” and presents it as essential to Buckley’s success in popularizing his politics. The book is Buccola’s history of the 1965 Cambridge Union debate between Buckley and James Baldwin. More broadly, it is an attempt to give an intellectual biography of both men.

With regards to Baldwin, the book is a charming introduction: It paints an inviting picture of him, with emphasis placed on his stubborn independence, ceaseless emotional curiosity, and concern that progress in American race relations extend beyond law to a substantive moral revolution of individuals. His commitment is to a confessional honesty and a future where all people, having discarded the cataract of racial prejudice, are ennobled by the recognition of their mutual humanity.

It is a spirit of reform and a kind of personal character for which Buccola has palpable admiration. The reader is not long in joining him in his respect for Baldwin: I came to the book with knowledge of Buckley and Firing Line but possessing precious little familiarity with Baldwin. I knew his name, had his essays recommended to me by a discerning friend, and had seen the debate itself, but his life and work was largely unknown to me. The man I came to know was one I could not help but like: “‘intensely serious,’ ‘delicate,’ ‘intuitive,’ ‘rash,’ ‘impractical,’ ‘rebellious,’ and ‘mercurial,’” according to the catalogue of impressions Buccola cites, he is irrepressible and tender, tough and impassioned. And, as his insistence on examining unvarnished humanity would require, he is fallible.

The apex of this balance of Baldwin’s foibles and charm is his agreement to pen an essay on the Nation of Islam for an editor with whom he has had a good working relationship: He long defers the delivery and finally sells the finished product to a different outlet, leaving the editor high, dry, and furious. And—just as one’s temple begin to throb with not a little voyeuristic impatience and disappointment—Buccola describes Baldwin sitting through the editor’s sputtering, racially charged tirade, only to lean forward at its conclusion and suggest that the man publish his resentments as an introspective essay (which he does, and which Baldwin publicly defends as the sort of honesty essential to progress). This innocent, placid response, devoted to his project of understanding, is as redemptive as it is unexpected. These episodes, and others from Baldwins life, prove just enough to please and inform, without spoiling the appetite to know more and read him firsthand.

Buckley, on the other hand, emerges the worse for this examination. It is not just that he resisted the civil rights movement (though that would be enough to contaminate his image): Buccola proposes that Buckley’s claim to a principled resistance is a mask on an unscrupulous defense of white supremacy. Buccola supports this by reference to successive arguments Buckley made for segregation, in which he shifted emphasis between, “constitutional, authoritarian, traditionalist, and racial elitist” justifications depending on what was rhetorically expedient (even when one called for conduct repudiated by one or more of the others). Buccola furthers his case by citing Buckley’s personal correspondence, highlighting evidence of prejudice (a distaste for sharing even a segregated army base with black soldiers) and self-interested cunning (apparently plagiarizing an essay he commissioned for National Review in his column before it could be published). And completes it by showing how Buckley either did not read, did not understand, or intentionally misrepresented Baldwin’s work in every public conflict he had with the man. The combined blows are debilitating, though their impact is blunted in a few respects:

First—and most superficially—Buccola is a scholar but not a great stylist. The book is easy reading, but it never approaches anything sublime in its delivery. This is made more conspicuous by the contrast to the style and skill of its subjects.

This connects to the second and more substantial limitation: Buccola’s clear condemnation of Buckley announces itself at just about every opportunity, even in the selection of verbs—words “oozed out of Buckley’s mouth slowly and [were] accompanied by a devious smile,” for instance—and the seeming absence of almost any positive descriptors for him beyond “witty” (even synonyms). Given Buccola’s thesis and the evidence he marshals, censure is legitimate. But, delivered as it is, he is unlikely to win any previously unsympathetic converts. Instead he’ll likely be suspected and dismissed by many conservatives to whom he might have most meaningfully made his argument and who could most benefit from critically examining the history of the conservative movement. (For a more skilled stylist with a similarly critical view of conservatism, who thereby also helps the reader come closer to Baldwin’s ideal of truly understanding the feelings and motivations of those one contends with, see Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm, which artfully marries a critique of the 1960’s Right with an effective rendering of what made the movement appealing to its adherents.)

Buccola is not helped in this respect by his willingness to speculate as to the thoughts and feelings of his subjects where history has left no record upon which to draw. It aids the tone of the book (and, one imagines, pads difficult transitions), but leaves his flank rather unbecomingly exposed to assault for wishful historical thinking from critics. (Perlstein also does this occasionally, but less often, with a lighter touch, and usually without recourse to definitive phrases like “must have,” of which Buccola has availed himself.)

Finally, for people open to his argument about Buckley, the book will prove compelling, but Buccola’s broader project of a biography of ideas for these two men feels incomplete. He starts strong, with early insights into the childhoods of his subjects: how the claustrophobic poverty of Harlem and the self-hating cruelty of Baldwin’s father shaped Baldwin’s thoughts on inhumanity and self-delusion; how the pristine and hierarchical arrangement of family and staff at a young Buckley’s Connecticut home nourished his belief in “fruitful inequalities.” But, before long, the book takes to examining the arguments and ideas without such perceptive analysis of what circumstances and experiences gave them genesis or came to alter them. We are given events of the men’s lives and an evaluation of the themes of their writings, but the connective tissue of how the former inspired the latter is increasingly tenuous.

This is most apparent, in my memory, in Buccola’s statements on Buckley’s attempt to write a “big book” of political theory. Throughout the book Buccola teases that he will discuss at length Buckley’s abortive thrusts at writing a comprehensive theory of political conservatism. Given the goal of his book and the early insights into Buckley’s developing views, one expects to find a lushly realized explanation for the inability of one of recent history’s most emphatically opinionated and prolific writers to give a long statement of his beliefs.

Surely, there must be some revealing reason that a man who gave conservatism a project and a platform at its nadir and nursed it to a new zenith could not set down his own manifesto? The final reveal is disappointingly brief, descriptive instead of explanatory, and rests largely on Buckley’s preference for offensive rather than defensive debating, which Buccola had already described. This, like other aspects of the book, leaves one feeling as though potential is yet untapped in a subject which Buccola had begun so energetically to mine.

All the same, the book is a challenge to the retrospective image of William F. Buckley, Jr. that any intellectually honest person who has held affection for the man must acknowledge. I can say from firsthand experience, having often enjoyed watching that mesmerizing, sly figure on Firing Line, that it is neither pleasant nor quickly and easily done. But, it’s a testament to Buccola’s book that this painful disillusionment is also not something one is able to evade or delay.

And, as I’m sure Baldwin would insist, it is essential.

Further, for all the discomfort, there is not much surprise. It is rather like confirming a lurid suspicion one has come to feel towards an otherwise well-loved uncle.

Though I may stand at an ideological remove from them, I do not for a moment doubt the sincerity and good intentions of the average conservative and I believe in good in Buckley himself: I’ve interviewed people who attest from personal experience to his warmth and generosity. And I know he could be bracingly honest, as when—near the end of his life—he admitted without melodrama that he had reached an end to the enjoyment he took in living and was ready to be done with it.

But, he was also a man who argued that massive military spending in Vietnam was indicia of American moral superiority because it would have been cheaper just to carpet bomb indiscriminately. And who, Buccola shows, supported segregation and racial paternalism by any means necessary.

Buccola, who shares my experience of being on the political right through college (and knows the attachment to Buckley this usually entails), has performed an act of integrity and honesty with this book by bringing the ugly side of a charming man to the fore. The result could be ethically and intellectually vitalizing for everyone involved.

It is to be hoped that it will be a challenge to conservatives, and even to many liberals who have allowed more immediate conflicts to retroactively label old adversaries “reasonable.”

There was something enchantingly musical about William F. Buckley, Jr., and he cared that instruments of beauty never be abused by being put to poor use: Upon his personal harpsichord was the phrase, “Shame on anyone who plays me badly.”

We would do well not to forget his many sour notes.

One of the more interesting comments about, well..

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — reading my daily dose of 3QD again after a health-induced lapse, and glad I’m back ]
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One of the more interesting comments about, well, religion, comes from a review by Robert Fay in 3QD of Chinese science fiction master Liu Cixin‘s novel, the first in a trilogy and the one President Obama so praised, The Three Body Problem, reading it in a wide world context:

Sacrifice used to be part-and-parcel of the western self-identity. Jesus on the cross at Calvary was the central spiritual truth of Christendom. The west, of course, left much of this behind during the Enlightenment. The French Revolution further asserted the rights of individuals. If anything, the consumption of consumer goods is the true religion of the west now, and it demands we all act immediately on our impulses, cravings and desires.

This hasn’t worked out well for the planet.

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Yes, sacrifice, and it’s dual, martyrdom, have all but disappeared, although, well, the Marines understand sacrifice, and the jihadists understand martyrdom.

To take you into the audacity of sacrifice or the self-surrender of martyrdom is beyond me here. Let me just note that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, and the death of Joan of Arc a martyrdom. Arguably, the two ideas are parallel, and meet at infinity, as in the Cure D’Ars observation:

If we knew what a Mass is, we should die of it.

Thus, theologically speaking, the Eucharist (present) cyclically repeats Christ‘s sacrifice on the cross (past), in a transcendent manner which makes of it a foretaste of the Wedding Feast (future) envisioned in the book of Revelation.

But enough!

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There’s a fine alternative vision of the three body problem in Bill Benzon‘s Time Travelers We Are, Each And All, his account of brain, mind and Beethoven, which, like Robert Fay‘s account of Liu Cixin‘s novel of that name, arrived in today’s edition of 3QD. Benzon is quoting the literary critic Wayne Booth describing a performance of Beethoven‘s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 as constituting unities out of a string quartet, Booth himself and his nwife, and, somehow, both of those and Beethoven — three bodies as one:

There is Beethoven, one hundred and forty-three years ago … writing away at the marvelous theme and variations in the fourth movement. … Here is the four-players doing the best it can to make the revolutionary welding possible. And here we am, doing the best we can to turn our “self” totally into it: all of us impersonally slogging away (these tears about my son’s death? ignore them, irrelevant) to turn ourselves into that deathless quartet.

That unity of three bodies is found, and can be joined, in Beethoven‘s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131:

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Reading Benzon‘s piece, we can benefit also from his presentation of neurons, their connections and internal workings:

We have no way of directly counting the neurons in the nervous systems, but estimates put the number at roughly 86 billion with an average of 10,000 synapses per neuron.

To specify the brain’s state at a given moment in clock time we need to know the state of each unit component, such as a neuron. One convenient way to do this is to say that a neuron is either firing or it is not. So it can have two states. Neurons are complicated things; each is a living cell with the full complement of machinery that that requires. There’s a lot more to a neuron that whether or not it’s firing.

This description of neurons is in service to a discussion of clock-time and brain states, which is itself in service to a wider discussion of time itself, as our wrist-watches understand it, and as our experience of Beethoven might cause us to discover it.

Following the musical branch of this discussion, we find Benzon quoting Bernstein on ego-loss:

I don’t know whether any of you have experienced that but it’s what everyone in the world is always searching for. When it happens in conducting, it happens because you identify so completely with the composer, you’ve studied him so intently, that it’s as though you’ve written the piece yourself. You completely forget who you are or where you are and you write the piece right there. You just make it up as though you never heard it before. Because you become that composer.

Benzon‘s three into one is Bernstein‘s two into one, and all paths lead to reliving a keynote segment of the life of Beethoven — Beethoven as a musical Everest, with Bernstein and the quartet as sherpas, Booth and his wife and Benzon and you and I as climbers, some at base-camp listening to the great Chuck Berry, some on the final ascent, some planting flags at the peak..

Peak Beethoven is phenomenological unity. Across time, time travel.

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Oh, the numbers games one can play — Sixteen into forty into one in Tallis’ forty-part motet, Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui — where the very title speaks to the union – I Have Hope in None Other:

Oh and is not religion at the heart of this unity, this unity at the very heart of religion? And is not this braiding of voices, this polyphony, a working of this unity?

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My early mentor and friend, Herbert Warner Allen, wrote of his own time with Beethoven. As I wrote elsewhere:

Herbert Warner Allen, a classical scholar, sometime newspaper editor and noted authority on wines, experienced a timeless moment between two beats during a performance of one of the Beethoven symphonies. Not knowing quite what had hit him, he went on to research the mystical tradition and wrote three mostly forgotten books [of which the first was aptly named The Timeless Moment] situating his experience within intellectual tradition without nailing it to any particular dogmatic structure. TS Eliot, who published the books, inscribed a book of his own poetry to Warner Allen with the words “from the Srotaapanna to the Arhat, TS Eliot”, with a footnote to explain “Srotaapanna: he who has dipped one toe in the river of the wqaters of enlightenment; Arhat: he who has arrived at the further shore”.

Here’s the almost anonymous A.T. writing to The Times, 19th January 1968:

In your obituary notice of the late Mr. Warner Allen you do not mention the books he wrote describing his “journey on the Mystic Way”. The best known of these books was The Timeless Moment in which he gave some account of a visionary experience that for him “flashed up lightning-wise during a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony at the Queen’s Hall “. In this split second of time he received (as no one reading his books can doubt) a flash of absolute reality that broke through the normal barriers of the conscious mind and left a trail of illumination in its wake. Mr. Allen never claimed to be an advanced mystic or profound philosopher. He described himself as an ordinary man of the world. He spent years unravelling the implications of his strange experience. The resulting volumes were and are of extraordinary interest.

Amen. Warner Allen’s was a Timeless Moment, an ego-loss indeed!

I must have been fifteen or so when I had the great good fortune to meet and be befriended by this extraordinary man..

Tehom and Ruach Elohim in the Pool at Bethesda?

Friday, September 20th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — for Catherine Keller, whose book Face of the Deep is a wonder ]
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Meditating on the first quote below these days, as I gradually make my way into Catherine Keller‘s work of poetic theology, I am reminded of the second —

— as if the first were a general principle, and the second a scaled-down and localized version of that principle.

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Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep

I’ll return for a full review of this book once I’ve finished reading it — a slower process than I’d have liked, given my current state of health!

Reactions to the Reactionary – The New Scholarship on Fascism, 1

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019

Emlyn Cameron returns to the pages of Zenpundit with the first in a series of reviews of books on Fascism, the entire series forming an essay on the topic — Charles Cameron
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How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them
by Jason Stanley
Random House, 240 pp (2018)
ISBN 978-0-525-51183-0
$26.00

Inheritors of a world we did not build, we are now
witnesses to a decline we did not foresee.

• Timothy Snyder, Road to Unfreedom

We had conceded the entire political landscape, my millennial friends and I, as terrain too treacherous to travel. But the truth was that the territory it covered was simply so staggeringly vast that we felt powerless to navigate it, let alone work it for a future yield. It intimidated us into cynicism: Politicians were serial liars, news sources couldn’t be verified without recourse to other news sources we had to verify, and even if we believed what we were told, we were simply told too much to know what deserved our attention. We needed some initial map that would help us find our way.

Like the narrator of A. E. Housman’s poem, The laws of God, the laws of man, we knew we wanted to reject the authority of leaders who “will be master, right or wrong”, or laws imposed by the foolish based on strength, but we were “stranger[s] and afraid, in a world [we] never made”. Further, in addition to being paralyzed by the scope of politics, we saw no way to escape the results of a system in which we felt incapable of participating. As we were – as with Housman’s narrator – that left only one practicable response: submission.

Luckily, just as Donald Trump raised the stakes of political participation, he inspired a body of popular scholarship on our worst apprehensions for the future.

Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor, has provided a book that helps to complete this project: How Fascism Works lays bare the purpose and mechanism of much of the fascist’s intellectual shell-game.
Hanna Arendt (to whom Stanley pays tribute), Leon Trotsky, and Umberto Eco amongst others have likewise attempted to write an anatomy of fascist thought, but Stanley’s effort, in addition to being explicitly contemporary, achieves a balance of brevity, justification, and application to real world events that makes it a worthy addition to the others.

Though Eco’s 1995 essay Ur-Fascism is structurally similar to Stanley’s book and shares some of the same insights, Eco’s essay was primarily descriptive, while Stanley’s book presents the principles of fascist politics and goes on to dissect their utility to the fascist politician, in a way that Eco doesn’t manage. In essence, where Eco wrote a bird spotters guide to fascism, Stanley offers a concise ornithological textbook.

Take, for instance, the notion of traditionalism: While Eco makes the same observation as Stanley, that fascist movements sanctify the status quo and the past, Stanley drills down into a specific instance – the patriarchal family structure – and outlines why this traditional structure is a handy one for the would-be dictator: it normalizes inequality and makes commonplace a command structure analogous to the one the fascist proposes for the state – a group of people all sharing a blood bond, subservient to a single figure who acts unilaterally to guide and provide for them.

Lacking is only a greater examination of how this androcentric tendency in fascist politics does not exclude the occasional female far-right leader, such as Marine Le Pen. Stanley has said, in a New York Times opinion video, that the leader is “always a he,” which makes this outlier still more worthy of consideration. Perhaps his phrasing is meant to be taken as reflecting the truth to a first approximation, but what enables a woman to take command of a traditionally male focused cult-of-personality would add an interesting dimension to the analysis.

In addition to this, his book articulates some common fascist tendencies that go unrecorded in Eco’s essay, and which enable the reader to more effectively detect the tremors of oncoming totalitarianism. Stanley’s proposal, for instance, that sexual anxiety is central to fascist politics, seems especially salient in modern America (where gender identity is a high-profile point of division between conservatives and liberals) and with reference to contemporary Russia (where Putin’s public addresses make use of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric).

Stanley argues that singling out minorities who challenge traditional sexual and gender norms is efficacious for the fascist, as it both moves to eliminate archetypes for social relationships alternative to the patriarchal model favored by fascists, and enables the first of many oblique attacks on the principle of free expression without directly assailing democratic platitudes. Stanley also manages to tie this to the fascist tendency to decry cities, usually hubs of the attacked minorities, as dens of iniquity, and the rhetorical correlation of the out group with rape and the destruction of mythical purity. Having done this, Stanley is able to identify attacks on sexual minorities as “perhaps the most vivid” of the canaries to eye as leaders draw us further and further into the proverbial coal mine.

The book also offers some interesting discussion of the fascist relationship to truth. In addition to the commonplace insight that fascists lie about the past to create a triumphant nationalist mythology, Stanley argues that the fascist, having spread lies about the laziness and treacherousness of their chosen enemy, also seeks to use policy to so brutalize their victims that the malnourished and abused minority population comes to resemble the abject figures of fascist propaganda, reducing reality to the “truth” that fascists had all along maintained; that the fascist first produces lies to debase the certainty of anything, and then manufactures their “truths”.

It is a book at once enlightening and useful to those looking for some through-line to the news of the day. Learning, per the BBC, that Citizenship and Immigration Services’ acting head has defended an administration move to cut public aid to legal migrants by saying “No one has a right to become an American who isn’t born here as an American” unless they can “be self-sufficient […] as in the American tradition”, a reader of Stanley’s book might take pause and recall a passage that runs “In fascism, the state is an enemy; it is to be replaced by the nation, which consists of self-sufficient individuals who collectively choose to sacrifice for a common goal of ethnic or religious glorification.”

Having seen such an article, and taken such a moment of reflection, the reader may decide they see nothing ominous in this correlation. Even so, how salutary many such reflective pauses could prove to be to the national character, and how much easier they become when so able a teacher has given us an idea of when to take them. And in providing ways of recognizing and describing fascist politics, Stanley’s book sharpens the usefulness of other books tackling similar projects.

It might be said that the interplay of those tactics Stanley has described in his book, and the effective responses Stanley’s Yale colleague Timothy Snyder enumerated in his book, On Tyranny, are the two forces that animate the events in perhaps the most ambitious of these other recent works: Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom (to which I will to return). But, even if not taken as a mandatory supplement to either of Snyder’s works, Stanley’s book substantially enhances and reinforces the lessons of the other two, and vice versa.

Together, they may provide the confidence necessary to uncertain voters, especially among the young, to discard what Mark Fisher called “reflexive impotence” (and the cynicism that guards it) and become educated participants in our politics. If these authors manage it, they will deserve credit and status alongside those offered to the analysts and thinkers to whom they refer in their own work, and those of us so armed may just find ourselves alive to solutions beyond simple concession.

Chuang-tzu or Zhuangzi, it’s a laughing matter [review]

Sunday, July 28th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — cross-posted at BrownPundits — Zhuangzi, a light-hearted philosopher dancing to his own laughter, illuminated by CC Tsai ]
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Zhuangzi: The Way of Nature
translated by Brian Bruya, illustrated by CC Tsai
Princeton University Press, 2019
US $ 22.95

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You may be acquainted with the yin-yang symbol — or as it’s more properly called, the Tai-chih or Taiji — but here’s CC Tsai‘s version, with dragon:

That’s the style of CC Tsai‘s illustrations, which — rather than Brian Bruya‘s translations — are the featured aspect of this version of the Zhuangzi: it also encapsulates the essence of Zhuangzi‘s thought.

Here’s the comic book version of a very comic work of profound, non-invasive philosophy.

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Zhuangzi is a Taoist, one who would allow the arising and fading away of things in their natural order, with as little thought-commentyary, let alone intervention, as piossible — given the human tendency to go round and round in circles even while sitting still — Laozi‘s Tao Te Ching is the simple and direct exposition of this way of approaching and appreciating life, while Zhuangzi presents the same appreciation in the formm of quizzical tales and (naturally, absent) morals..

Ah. Thus the seagull, Laozi tells Confucius, who came to discuss benevolence and righteousness, doesn’t get white by soaping yup and washing itself, nor does the crow get black by dipping itself in ink: benevolence, similarly, is not a matter of soap and water — it simply arises where it arises.

You get the feeling Laozi wouldn’t mind having left it at the seagulls doing what they do, and likewise with the crows — but Confucius dropped by and asked about benevolence and righteousness, and Laozi responded as was only benevolent and polite..

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My favorite story in all of Chuang Tzu / Zhuangzi is the story of Lord Wen-hui’s cook Ting, who taught him the natural way of things while cutting up an ox. In Burton Watson‘s translation:

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee – zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now – now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

“A good cook changes his knife once a year-because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month-because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room – more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until – flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”

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That’s a long-ish quote, but its rollicking good humor will have carried you through it, and I wanted to give you a sense of the Zhuangzi as I have known and loved it — to taste it in comparison with CC Tsai‘s vision / version of the same tale, as represented in a couple of frames from his telling:

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So now we have Burton Watson‘s “the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room” and Brian Bruya‘s “my knife glides in and out between the bone joints, moving as it pleases: the cow suffers no pain and, in the end, doesn’t even know it’s dead.”

Pretty remarkable, either way — but that’s in English, and who knows what contortions a translator must make to move from Chinese into English? Watson‘s Chuang-tsu is closer to Lao-tsu, if you compare the statement of principle to its embodiment in an anecdote:

Ursula Le Guin‘s translation of the Tao Te Ching is even more succinct:

The immaterial enters the impenetrable..

No wonder cook Ting’s vorpal blade went snicker-snack, to borrow a phrase from Lewis Carroll‘s poem, Jabberwocky. And come to think of it, Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the Christ Church, Oxford logician, may indeed be the English language’s native equivalent of the Chinese Zhuangzi.

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As I hope I have indicated, Chuang Tzu / Zhuangzi, even in translation, is a writer of enormous charm and insight, and CC Tsai‘s presentation marries the conventions of the comic book with classical Chinese artistry to provide an exemplary introduction to one of the world’s great philosopher-humorists.

Delightful. Warmly recommended.


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