I just finished David Hinton’s Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry, which I’ve written about in at least one previous blog. Hinton narrates the life of the great T’ang poet, Tu Fu (712-770 C.E.) through close readings of nineteen of Tu’s poems. Each poem is printed first in Chinese pictographs with literal English translations, and then in Hinton’s translation. Much of the commentary is about the untranslatability of the Chinese, with two problems emphasized. First, Tu’s language uses no first-person I, but English requires a subject who sees, feels, and so on. Tu’s ability to write in the no-first-person means the poems can enact what Ch’an Buddhism seeks, which Hinton describes as mind that mirrors the cosmos; a mind through which the cosmos awakes to itself.
The second untranslatable feature of Tu’s language is that his written characters retain traces of their original analogical drawings: the word looks like the thing, instead of being an abstract signifier of the thing. In my favourite example, Hinton explains how the pictograph for anxiety is a composite of two elements. One is the image of a tiger, and the other is what translates as think, but itself decomposes into an image of the heart muscle and an image of “fieldland”. Hence, for anxiety, Hinton suggests the pictograph shows, analogically, “heart-mind when there is a tiger nearby in the fields” (119). Having spent these decades struggling to put into words the anxieties of illness, I feel a sense of epiphany–“Yes, that’s it!”–reading that cumbersome but evocative phrase: heart-mind when there is a tiger nearby in the fields. That’s what I’ve called deep illness.
These translation issues explain why Tu’s poetry is always on the verge of dissolution; it’s language undoing itself, in constant awareness of its insufficiency. Language already fading back into a pre-linguistic real, just as the landscape in paintings of the same period show the emergence and dissolution of forms. All that is solid melts into air, not just in modernity which is what Marx was describing in that phrase, but always.
Tu lived a refugee life–sometimes well patronized and other times starving–because of his vulnerability to the politics of his day, and in that we today feel an immediate kinship. My Provincial government announced this morning a commissioned report that describes how to cut 1.9 billion from the health budget. The Opposition critic pointed out that the government wouldn’t need to do that, if it had not begun its mandate by cutting corporate taxes by more than twice that amount. He didn’t add that the tax cut seems to have had no effect increasing employment. He also didn’t add that to the extent the health budget could stand cutting, what’s most worth trimming is the result of previous governments using health spending as a form of electioneering, especially building rural hospitals. So that’s my problem, and wherever you are, you can fill in yours. Compared to Tu’s problems, mine are civilized, at least so far. I may consider my government wrong-headed, but Tu saw heads literally rolling as civil wars precipitated invasions.
To sustain a life within this chaos, Tu wrote. He was the consummate vulnerable writer, and we read to know ourselves as vulnerable; to acknowledge our condition.
Politics is the contingent vulnerability of the day. Death is humans’ existential vulnerability. If you understand yourself as a transient form, emerging out of Absence to be, for a brief while, one of the Ten Thousand Things, and certain to return to formlessness, then death is the ultimate homecoming–and Tu spent his life trying to get home, which was both a real place and a spiritual condition. In his poems he dies and is reborn many times. And if we read him right, our vulnerability to death changes.
“Is this the promised end?” asks Kent at the end of King Lear. It may be the most bitter line in Shakespeare. Kent has suffered in the belief that a promised end will come, and for a moment it seems possible. Cordelia has returned, leading an army. Lear and Cordelia are reconciled. But then the battle is lost, Cordelia is murdered, and Lear dies, at best holding to the delusional hope that Cordelia still lives. Shakespeare gives us another ending later, in Cymbeline, where the battle is won, all are pardoned, and the old King blesses the young lovers. Vulnerable reading can hear, in each of these endings, the echo of the other. Both endings are always happening, emerging and dissolving.
As I finish David Hinton’s book, with the greatest regret that it’s over but knowing I can soon return to it, I imagine Tu still out on the boat in which he probably wrote his last poems, trying to get somewhere but knowing he was already there. One practice of vulnerable reading is to keep rethinking what I want to read when my vulnerabilities become embodied realities; what to read if dying admits reflection. Awakened Cosmos is definitely on my list. The end it promises is neither Lear’s resounding nothing nor Cymbeline’s pardons. It’s mind dissolving into the reflection of the moon on a lake. The tiger, hearing Tu’s poem, sleeps in the field.