Saturday, 30 January 2010

A Heart Like the Ocean, Mysterious and Dark

"...You have greatness, she continued, but Mr Ramsay has none of it. He is petty, selfish, vain, egotistical; he is spoilt; he is a tyrant; he wears Mrs. Ramsay to death; but he has what you (she addressed Mr. Bankes) have not; a fiery unworldliness..." - Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

As you may or may not have noticed, I've been undergoing some form of identity restructuring over the past year or so. I have rejected - completely - Judaism and Zionism and embraced in their stead and as their replacement, as it were, the more universal and humanistic Taoism and democracy.

But something is missing.

Being a part of the Jewish people or the Zionist enterprise means more than just lending your support to a particular hierarchy of values. To use a problematic expression whose dubiousness is probably actually appropriate here, it ennobles you. It gives you a sense of participation in something that transcends space and time; of a metaphysical mission; but it does something more too. Something that the metaphysical missions of Taoism and democracy don't quite suffice for.

Going back a few (okay, many) centuries to the ancient Greek civilisation about which I know remarkably little, we encounter a curious phenomenon.

It's called Greek mythology, though I suppose at the time it was called the history and reality of life among the gods, and no, I'm not about to compare it to monotheistic religion, at least not directly, but to make the point that a civilisation presumably not entirely composed of complete idiots, chose to base their "hierarchy of values" on a system more or less congenitally devoid of both morality and reason.

This argument would be neutralised in the eyes of those who assert that both morality and reason are relative concepts, but I contend that the Greek gods were arseholes by any standards, and doubt that many people anywhere at any time would honestly disagree with me, including the ancient Greeks.

As for reason, it is perhaps less clear-cut, but the fruits of Greek civilisation suggest that they conducted themselves far more responsibly and adultly than their gods did, and in any case, Olympian gods are never exactly made out to be paragons of wisdom, unless I'm forgetting some stories - in stark contrast to, say, the monotheistic God.

So what did the Greek Gods have going for them? The conventional explanation I at least always seem to encounter is that they helped explain away annoying things like natural disasters and bad harvests and military defeats and kept people from going into Woody Allenesque funks over how small and insignificant they were.

That's probably true, but another central aspect of Greek mythology is that the stories are really fucking cool. And not even action-movie, bombastic cool, but an understated, morally ambiguous, film-noir cool. There is an aspect to this cool that is rooted in the unknown - in the irretrievably mysterious, so that the Olympian gods, just like the Abrahamic god, appeal to us not only because of what they explain, but also because of what they render romantically mysterious. They embrace and promote a Something Elseness.

This institution isn't exactly neglected by the secular world, and in fact it's admired, but from afar. It's called art, and normal people dip into its fruits once in a while usually because they feel they ought to or as a means to relax, and sometimes because they missed it and enjoy it for its own sake.

Weird bohemian types spend their whole lives wallowing in it, exploring, pontificating; most importantly creating, even if nobody else ever shows interest or satisfaction in it.

I say "pontificating" dismissively, but that's actually the activity I want to consider here. Exploring or creating is between you and the artist or audience, respectively. Pontificating, or speaking Artsy-Fartsy, or communicating in idiosyncratic emotion, is between you and the people in your life. Your loved or liked or at least acquainted ones, with names and faces that you recognise and mean something to you individually.

Most people respond negatively, with varying degrees of intensity, to Something Elseness, unless it comes in a framework where they were expecting it, like religion or art. Even philosophy usually meets people's resentment. There's an automatic aversion and alarm at this sentiment, possibly to do with the scientific revolution, but I won't get ahead of myself.

People who behave strangely are considered to be behaving wrongly, regardless of the actual effect their behaviour has on people. It is a significant leap to be able to continue in the face of this criticism, which is often superficial and easily forgotten by the criticiser later, but it's a leap you must make if you want to be an independent person, free of arbitrary and harmful allegiances, and have a chance of self-fulfillment and happiness.

This is what I was trying to talk about a few posts back with trying to impose on life your aesthetic sensibilities. I'm beginning to think that it's less in what you do than in what you say, or at least in what you express. If you say something to somebody and they look at you bewildered, that is a positive development. And it is this point that I can't seem to convince myself of or even properly present to other people. I wonder if this signifies a change.

Bob Dylan's album Desire is a great example of this, and probably what first got me thinking about this business way back when. Three of the songs on it (Hurricane and Sara are fairly well known) are his colourful and emotive romanticisations of real people and real events. The one I quoted in the post title isn't, as far as I know, but seems to illustrate my point pretty well, especially when you consider that if the protagonists were real, they'd most probably lead a miserable and monotonous existence.

Have at you:

One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)

Your breath is sweet
Your eyes are like two jewels in the sky
Your back is straight your hair is smooth
On the pillow where you lie
But I don't sense affection
Nor gratitude or love
Your loyalty is not to me
But to the stars above

One more cup of coffee for the road
One more cup of coffee 'fore I go.
To the valley below.

Your daddy he's an outlaw
And a wanderer by trade
He'll teach you how to pick and choose
And how to throw the blade
He oversees his kingdom
So no stranger does intrude
His voice it trembles as he calls out
For another plate of food.

One more cup of coffee for the road
One more cup of coffee 'fore I go.
To the valley below.

Your sister sees the future
Like your mama and yourself
You've never learned to read or write
There's no books upon your shelf
And your pleasure knows no limits
Your voice is like a meadowlark
But your heart is like an ocean
Mysterious and dark.

One more cup of coffee for the road
One more cup of coffee 'fore I go.
To the valley below.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

A Short Summary of the Tao Te Ching: Introduction

My reading journey culminating in the Tao Te Ching started with Salinger's "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction", and continued through "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and the "Tao of Pooh". I mention this journey because I consider it a gratifyingly successful one. The first two aren't the easiest reads, but the third certainly is, and they're all inexpressibly awesome.

This journey effectively actually began with "Catcher in the Rye", and the continuation of it seems so obvious and feels so fulfilling that I would be remiss if I were not to make this futile appeal to you and beg that, if you enjoyed "Catcher", you read at least one of these books, please please please please please.

Now that that's out of the way, I'm here to talk about the ancient Chinese text that is the foundation of the Taoist philosophy. Taoism is sometimes called a religion, but it is absent the exclusivist nature of Western religions, and therefore it seems to me a bit misguided to use that word, at least in a Western context like this.

It is true, however, that Taoism professes to be a comprehensive and all-encompassing view of the world (the idea is that every other positive notion can merge into it) and implies a need for a religious level of devotion - not in terms of promotion and protection from perceived threats, but in terms of personally, individually being deeply committed to following its suggestions.

It was with this in mind that I studied the Tao Te Ching. The original text is over 2000 years old in a notoriously ambiguous language and even back then was poetic in a rather abstruse way, so when you approach the translation with anything beyond simply recreational intentions, you have to study it in order to avoid being merely spoon-fed the particular translator's personal interpretation.

How does one do this? Well, I got me a translation that seemed a happy medium between the fiercely personal and distortive interpretation and the virtually meaningless literal and detached translation of a foreign text both ancient and poetic.

It's only 81 chapters (each chapter constituting one page) long, but in the ten months since I'd begun reading it I've only gone over it three or four times, trying to study it slowly the way a religious text is studied, and working at distilling my immediate impressions of it, trying to avoid rationalisations meant to squeeze it into what are conventional and familiar attitudes to me.

It's still, doubtless, a deeply personal interpretation, but the idea was to infer the meaning of it through its spirit, which is a major principle of Taoism itself.

Taoism insists on its being a practical philosophy with day-to-day implications, so it's a little bit problematic that its founding text is so vague and mild in its dictums. There is of course an enormous body of learning concerning this book that has developed over the many centuries since, but it was my impression that the author intended for the readers to individually determine the practical expressions of these general principles, and in any case I don't automatically trust centuries-worths of a faceless host of "prestigious" interpreters. I'd have a go at them later, but first I needed to figure out what my own understanding of the Tao Te Ching was.

So I'd decided, quite a while ago, that I'll summarise, in my own words, what it means to me, on this blog. I have concentrated a lot of effort on this more than a little presumptuous task, and as I complete it, through the coming posts, I expect to present to myself an at least partial guide on how to fulfill the teachings of the Tao Te Ching in my day-to-day life. Once this happens I can comfortably call myself a Taoist. Which will probably be expressed mainly by changing my religious status on Facebook, but who knows, maybe it will effect a profound improvement in the quality of my life. I suppose it can be part of my identity even if I don't actively proselytise, though I should probably do that as well.

So there you go. A whole post without actually saying anything. You only have yourself to blame, really. The word "introduction" in the title was a dead giveaway.

Perhaps you will forgive me if I present to you one of the greatest songs in the history of the universe: