You are a wonder. Every day, you grow and change and you fall deeper into my life, changing my rhythms to the point that I barely recall what we did before there was you. You… More
It’s been over a year since I’ve posted here. It’s been an interesting time, especially since it’s been nearly two years since I posted with any kind of frequency.
In that time I’ve removed myself from every social media platform, excepting instagram and goodreads. You can find me on those if you care to. It really depends on if you like to read my book reviews and/or see pictures of my cats. And I suppose I keep those because I don’t get stuck in them. They don’t lead me to hours of wasted life and frustration.
There’s been a push in me to sort of erase my digital footprint. You can blame that on any number of impulses, but it’s primarily for my own wellbeing. I think the world right now can be divided into two people: those who can use social media and those who can’t.
Chelsea has no problem using facebook. She doesn’t get stuck inside it. She can open it up, browse around, shut it down, and then just keep on letting it remain shut down.
I can’t really do that. Never could. It’s a bit of a sickness, I suppose, or at least some kind of neurological defective aspect that causes me to get stuck in the algorithm getting more and more annoyed and frustrated with what I see there. I think it’s something common to people who are writers, really, because, even when we say we’re not, we’re desperately seeking an audience, approval, and social media thrives on that kind of neurotic and narcissistic impulse.
In this time of digital erasure, I could go on about how my life actually did improve. How I feel better and less mentally drowning in the detritus of all the things that never mattered to me. It seemed so utterly positive to me in part because I lost that need or desire to just share. Share endlessly, compulsively. It’s strange to be so reticent with my personal life and so willing to share any thought that pops into my head so long as there’s someone out there able to read it, give it attention.
It turned this site into a bit of a wasteland, one I was somewhat lost over. I had lost my desire to share my thoughts online, lost my desire to be found online at all, and yet…this site is a mausoleum for nearly a decade of my randomly sketched out thoughts about so many different subjects, ranging from suicide to drone wars to why I love ballet, why it comforts, consoles, and fills me with life.
So I’ve considered quite often that I should just delete this all, and yet there’s a bit of nostalgia for it all. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever read many of my old posts, and I doubt anyone will ever comb back through ten years of stupidity to wonder what I thought about kimchi during the summer of 2011 when I was constantly sweating in Gwangju.
For better or worse, I’ve decided to pick this up again, to begin writing on here. Not for me, but for you, Fritz.
There were once people who used to actually come to this site to read what I wrote down. I can’t imagine why anyone would bother to do something like that–I found it almost impossible to read the blog posts of anyone else, even dear friends. But those people are likely long gone, and there’s no reason for them to return here–a year of absence is a good tactic, I suppose, for defeating any kind of fandom that might arise from what you did marginally well. And so now there’s only you, though I doubt I’ll ever show you this. Ever admit to any of it. Ever let you read what I once thought–all the embarrassments, tragedies, and harrowing recklessness of my 20s.
Letters to you, Fritz.
I get chills even just writing that down. Son. You are my son. I have a son.
I suppose this is an introduction for no one, to no one. Maybe not even to you, who I just said this was all for.
So I’ll just finally write down those first words I said to you when your mother was asleep, when no one else could hear me.
I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of you.
There was a dream that the internet would save us all, that it would bring us closer, open society, bringing new ways of thinking and doing and being.
As it evolved, we believed in that evolution. We believed in facebook, in twitter, and even, briefly, in google plus (or at least someone did, once). We believed it would bring us closer together, create pockets of civilization, a new way of collaborating, of discussing information, of sharing it.
It’s fashionable to talk about social media as a curse, but there’s literally no reason not to believe that that statement is accurate. Studies have been and are being performed to show how damaging social media is for our social lives, our mental wellbeing, and even our sense of self.
I think what’s strangest is how these algorithms drive people to the fringe of thought. I’m reluctant to give too much credit to this, at least in terms of turning a “normal person” into a nazi, or whathaveyou. But there are people out there looking for answers, and when google or youtube or facebook opens up a thousand dark doors into depravity, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of these people step inside instead of slamming it shut.
It’s the question we find ourselves asking today.
There’s a power in sadness, in grief. And often it sneaks up on us. Even when we didn’t think it would hurt, we find ourselves in tears. Because grief, as ephemeral a concept as it is, we feel it like claws tearing us apart. We feel it as the fist choking our throats from the inside.
Grief is a precious thing. It is a deliriously painful thing.
And none will know it but for the pain in our faces.
And we never knew you but for a dream that didn’t come true.
And we will never meet you but for the hole in our hearts.
And we will miss you.
I’ve always loved youtube for all the weird things that people upload on there. And my youtube history is often a bizarre odyssey through word association spiraling down a hole into some very niche corner of the internet, where I start learning about blacksmithery or Russian popstars who remind me more of aliens than anything I’ve ever encountered or how to make a bow and arrow from a sapling or where people load hour after hour of surreal skits. I think the best thing I’ve stumbled into over the last year is this:
I can’t even explain how funny that is to me or how hard I laugh every time I see it or think about it.
In anycase, the things youtube recommends me are often times pretty strange and I usually ignore them, but sometimes I get something awesome. Which is how I discovered Francis and the Lights yesterday.
This video popped up on my recommendations and, I mean, how could I turn down something that has Kanye West and Bon Iver involved?
So I click over and find one of the strangest and most delightful music videos I can remember. Having no idea who Francis and the Lights was, I had no concept of who this strange, hawklike man standing in a white room with Kanye West could possibly be, but I was into it, if only for how weird it is to do a single shot video of a white wall that pans over to Kanye West just slightly bobbing to the beat while looking at the ground, not even pretending to be singing the song. And as you watch, it just keeps getting weirder, because this skinny guy with awful hair starts strutting in the background, then sits on a ladder that serves no purpose, and then suddenly he’s dancing, and the way he dances is just so absolutely gleefully bad. It reminded me immediately of all those 90s comedians who built a career on describing how terrible white men are at dancing.
It almost seemed like it was the visualisation of all those Sinbad jokes that used to make me howl with laughter when I was a kid, staying up late on school nights.
But it doesn’t stop there either. He just keeps dancing once the chorus hits again, and who’s there? Justin Vernon! The man behind Bon Iver, someone I still have trouble imagining dancing because he seems like the last person you’d expect to be able to move with any semblance of rhythm, and then this video kind of proves that that’s the case.
Maybe what makes it strangest of all is that you see that this is choreographed! They spent some amount of time practicing these moves! There’s something both hilarious and amazing about this. That they could invent this dance, then convince a camera crew to film it. And Kanye West, we finally see, is just standing on the sidelines watching, maybe approving.
Anyrate, I really dug that song, and I love love love the video, so I of course clicked onto the related video, which was similar but with Chance the Rapper, and then I clicked another, and another, and I was intensely amused but also completely loving the music this guy makes.
And he has a strange visual aesthetic for his videos.
The beat to this song is so simple but it fits right between my heartbeats. And then his vocals are sort of Phil Collinsy or Peter Gabriely, but over beats that seem more like Jamie xx or even a milder Daft Punk…or something.
Whatever it is, I like it, and I like these strange single shot videos. Following in a tight frame right behind him as he walks through some city is weirdly engrossing, especially when the only sound is that electrodrumbeat and his haunting synthed out vocals.
And then he starts running while the song slows down only to handspring into the street and backflip as the song crescendoes down our ears.
What I’m trying to say is that I really dig this Francis and the Lights. He’s kind of amazing, and I could imagine him being a pretty big hit. There’s nothing about his music that screams pop sensation, but there’s also nothing about his music that seems offputting to a larger audience.
Big hooks, infectious beats, and a clear vocal style, and enough energy and self possession to make his awkwardness seem endearing, or even like a confident statement.
I mean, look at this goofball spend three minutes dancing in a field:
And then, through some kind of alchemy, this all reminded me of Kesha’s new song that I happen to hear on the radio because sometimes I hate my life just enough to listen to top 40s radio instead of whatever else I could be listening to as broadcasted from my phone.
But I was driving to pick up Chelsea and this song came on that began kind of small and simple, but rose into this emotional level that I don’t often expect from the radio. I was thinking to myself, This is a great song, and when it was over, the DJ said it was Kesha and I was kind of flabbergasted.
My knowledge of Kesha is, admittedly, almost nonexistent. She made a lot of music I found intensely offputting and annoying that I would hear out in the world at restaurants, stores, and so on. But I never gave her much though until I heard about the terrible things that were done to her by her producer.
I won’t go into it or even link to it, because it’s one of the most vile things done to a person that I can think of.
But that was a few years ago, and I probably had not thought about her since whenever I read that stuff about her producer assaulting her.
I don’t know. People who paid attention to Kesha probably always knew she was talented, but I was pretty blown away by her.
And after watching a bunch of Francis and the Lights videos, I looked up her new one, and it was…well, it’s right here.
I’m mostly struck by how passionate and bewildering the video is. The imagery is caustic and gaudy and fairly spiritual, but there’s also a sort of nightmare quality to it, and then a seeming ambivalence towards all the iconography that she jams onto the screen here. Because at a certain point here, you’re not so much watching her perform as feeling her perform a song that directly addresses the awful things done to her.
What I find especially interesting about this song–besides that Kesha made it–is how beautiful it is. Most popmusic has a strange kind of viciousness to it, I think. It’s often accusatory, especially when it’s about a relationship, romantic or adversarial. I think of Taylor Swift who’s basically famous for accusing people of treating her poorly and then proudly declaring that she’s better than them, or that they’re unable to hurt her because she’s strong and independent. Or something. I don’t know much about Taylor Swift either, so this is kind of my impression of her music that generally only glances against me every once and a while.
But it’s not just Taylor Swift. I even wrote a long thing about Justin Beiber last year that’s kind of about this same thing. There are probably a lot of examples that come to mind when someone mentions a song about a jilted lover or a cheating lover or a friendship that soured.
In all cases, there’s a clear antagonist and protagonist, and these are generally put in opposition.
You did a bad thing and now the world will know.
Or at least that’s how I think of them when compared to Kesha’s song.
Kesha’s doing something more interesting here, I think, and it’s something that’s much stronger than simply moving on or calling someone out.
She’s saying You did a terrible thing to me, and I forgive you.
It gives me chills even to write that, knowing what was done to her.
She’s not just moving on from the horrors inflicted on her by another person, she’s picking up the weight of that trauma, shouldering it, embracing it, and making it a part of her life, a part of who she is. She’s moving on, but not forgetting. She’s not starting over or beginning as a new version of herself.
At the same time, forgiving someone doesn’t mean that you forget what they did or excuse what they did. Those scars will always be there, but she’s accepting them, and instead of attacking the man who scarred her so, she’s hoping that he’s asking more than just her for forgiveness. Because the trauma we inflict on one person is never just contained by one person. The violence you do to a single person is always felt by a family, a community, the whole world.
It’s one of the most interesting things I think a popstar has done in a long time. At least to me. It shows a kind of strength we’re unused to encountering.
But, man, listen to those drums come in while she’s singing.
People died this weekend fighting Nazis.
No one cares how you felt when you saw pictures of a bunch of Nazis carrying tikitorches on buzzfeed news.
Violence that happened to other people isn’t an invitation to tell us about that one time you felt uncomfortable.
The tragedy that happens to others is not your tragedy.
I see a lot of accusations levelled against the new season of Twin Peaks by David Lynch. The more mild being that it’s dumb or unintelligible, and the more interesting being that it’s incredibly misogynistic.
Both seem to get the response that the person saying this doesn’t get it.
I have no strong feelings about David Lynch beyond that I hated Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. They made me so insanely uncomfortable that I can’t even imagine watching anything else by him, and so I haven’t. I did like The Elephant Man, though. Either way, I think Lynch is basically incredibly talented and maybe a genius, but the things he makes are things I hate. Kind of like Nine Inch Nails or Tool.
So I haven’t actually seen any of the new Twin Peaks. Nor have I seen the original. But because I have no intention of seeing any of this stuff with my own eyes, I have no problem reading spoilers and whathaveyou, which these critical articles tend to contain.
Granted, my experience is heavily biased because of this, so I’m also going to mostly ignore my own feelings about the work and just focus on the accusation of misogyny.
And I guess what I’m really going to talk about is people’s reactions to the accusations.
A lot of the responses tend to be, like I said, that the accuser doesn’t get it, as if that makes it excusable. The rest of the responses seem to be along the lines of he’s from a different time or that it’s somehow unintentional (which is maybe the take I have the most issue with, since it’s clear to anyone who’s ever seen anything Lynch has made that nothing in it is unintentional–seemingly nonsensical or vulgar, certainly–or some byproduct of thoughtlessness on his part, especially given how much creative control he has over his projects).
This is actually pretty normal behavior, though. It’s something that I probably always understood but never really clicked this way until I saw so many people who consider themselves to be progressive or feminists or radicals basically dismiss what seems like a critique that’s worth taking seriously.
I think it’s why Bill Cosby is still best known as a comedian and not a serial (alleged) rapist.
When you trust an artist–or anyone, but especially someone you deify, the way we tend to deify artists/celebrities/politicians–it’s hard to see them objectively or even with unbiased eyes. It’s why so many people are still defending Cosby against his accusers. Why people like Dave Chappelle have incredibly troubling takes on Bill Cosby’s alleged crimes. It’s why Dick Cheney can shoot someone in the face and get away with it, why Caitlin Jenner can kill someone with her car and have no repercussions, why Donald Trump is president, why Woody Allen still rubs shoulders with feminist icons, why so many Democrats omit or overlook war crimes done by the Obama and Clinton administrations, why Republicans and every pundit in the US cheers when we shoot missiles into the air or drop bombs on children half a world away, why Casey Affleck and Johnny Depp are still Hollywood powerhouses, Ronald Reagan is seen as a hero and not a savage maniac tottering on a throne made of bones, why every athlete who’s killed or beaten or sexually assaulted a woman has never had to own up to what they did.
It’s weird, but it happens way too often in the exact same manner for it to be anything except a part of how humans see the world.
We want heroes. We want them to be infallible. We want them to stay heroes.
We absolutely love to tear them down and watch them suffer, but only if their downfall is drugs or narcissism or some kind of mood disorder.
No amount of violence–sexual or otherwise–will lower these people in our estimation.
I don’t mean to say that making potentially misogynistic art is anywhere near the same thing as any form of active violence.
That’s a ridiculous position to hold, especially since I’ve never even seen the work of art in questions (and probably never will).
But I do think there’s a very strong tendency to look at the world–and especially things we love–uncritically. It’s why so many progressives are easy on Bernie Sanders when he pounds his fist for war or why so many Democrats refuse to see anything even remotely problematic about the Clintons or why so many Republicans will support Trump no matter what, while still arguing that they don’t like him, see him as a vulgarian or whatever else (for conservatives it seems to have a weird sense of loyalty to the party, even as that party shifts farther and farther away from what it was when they became a member).
This is especially true with art.
Art is in our blood, our lungs. We need it, and it shapes us. It makes us who we are. A work of art, a story, a song–they’re more than just those words. They’re a reason to live. A reason to get out of bed. A reason to love and laugh and find meaning.
So when someone who has routinely made art we love for years or decades, when their art has helped shape and define our worldview (or at least our view and understanding of art), it becomes incredibly difficult for us to take a step back and see that this man or woman is just that. A human. Maybe a garbage human doing unspeakable evil in the world. Maybe just a blundering buffoon.
I think it’s worth examining your heroes and the institutions you feel attached to. Do it regularly.
There’s a tendency to behave as if any critique on something you’re attached to is a personal attack or outrageous libel about all that you hold sacred. But, really, the things we should be most critical of are the things that we hold most dear, the things that are most woven into ourselves. Whether that’s a political party, figure, artist, or singular work of art, you should be relentless with your critiques.
While it’s good and fine and wonderful to critique the things you hate or despise, it’s not really going to get you anywhere because those things or people or institutions don’t care that you hate them. Why should they?
But when you truly love someone or something, and it disappoints you, you should let them know. You should let them know exactly how and why they disappointed you.
It might make them better, next time.
It might make them change.
But, yeah, just some idle chatter here.
Sometimes, I teach creative writing to the youths of the nation (high school kids) and the advice I always give them, no matter what, is to write your obsessions. To give into them. To chase them. To follow where they lead. Because whatever you’re obsessed with or consumed by will come out in your fiction eventually, whether it’s sex or pokemon or baking or art deco or frayed jeans, and it will make your fiction better.
It’s something that held me back for a long time. I thought I needed to write a certain way, and about certain things. I grew up on SFF, but then fell deep into experimental and avant garde literature, and that meant writing in certain modes and about certain things. But even when I was deep into this stuff, my heart was still with SFF. It’s why even my most experimental novels involve invented cultures and peoples and mythologies.
Like a lot of arrogant and angry young men, I thought that art had to be a specific thing. I thought, as an artist, that I had to be a specific kind of artist. Those things mostly held me back, and they led me to discourage my own impulses and obsessions, which made my writing worse.
Since coming home to the genres that defined and shaped me, I’ve felt much freer and just better. I mean, me being a better writer isn’t just because of the genres I now write, but it’s helped. I’ve written in dozens of genres and styles, but I think my home is in the fantastic and surreal.
Anyrate, I think about my obsessions a lot, because they repeatedly come out in my fiction, even when I was actively trying to bury them.
Things like dust and wolves are everywhere. Ravens too, and a recurring dream I had for about a decade. Then there are all the people missing a hand, missing an eye, and all the characters who just never say a single word.
But the bigger ones are totalitarianism, systemic violence, cultural clashes, shared stories, theology, Taoism, and cooking.
Most of those have always been present, to one degree or another, but cooking is a new one. I love cooking. It’s one of my favorite things to do in life. And it’s recently found it’s way into my fiction. Three of the last four novel(la)s I’ve written have cooking as a major component. Two of them involve the invention of boardgames, like chess or go.
Weirdly, these little things are making my fiction better.
The big themes are fine, and the small details are good too. But what I’ve found is that specificity adds a lot. At least, this is something I’ve found from my own reading. A character in a novel can be working a loom, and while I have no interest in such things, it’s really obvious how much the author cares. And that level of care and all that specificity just makes the utterly mundane utterly fascinating.
And so I suppose that’s what I really mean about chasing your obsessions. It’s no good to just list things you enjoy doing. You need to dig into the meat until you’re grinding on bones, breaking through to the marrow. If you want to make the reader care about the mundane things your character does, you need to really care about those things.
A scene about cooking is worthless if you don’t care about cooking, and your ambivalence will come through. Too, why would you write a scene about something you don’t care about?
It’s something that I think fantasy does better than literary fiction. Literary fiction is generally less plot driven, but I also often find the characters weaker. And it comes down to these obsessions. If your characters aren’t obsessed with something, then they feel weirdly alien. Inhuman. And while fantasy gets derided for favoring plot over character (which I generally disagree with), I’ve found that fantasy is often lethargically paced (why else would it take three or ten books to tell a story?) but that it remains a page turner, whereas the literary genre is just a slog.
There are a lot of reasons for such things and unbelievably numerous generalizations to make, but I’ve found that genre fiction tends to allow their characters to be obsessed. To have them dig into the minutia of things.
Like, I just read Lonesome Dove, which is often considered the best western ever written (for good reason!), and so many of the characters are just obsessed with…something. Horses, guns, drowning, gambling, whoring–it really doesn’t matter.
Obsessions are good.
But, yeah, follow your obsessions.
Luckily for me, mine change often, so I always have something new to write about.
Right now, it’s extinction and witches and blacksmithing, which will reveal themselves in my next two novellas.
I guess I could’ve captured all of this just by saying that obsessions are good.
So it’s been a few months, yeah?
I’ve been meaning to post all kinds of things since my last post about the Tao Te Ching. I really enjoyed doing a post a day about the Tao Te Ching, and you can just keep scrolling on the homepage to find a bunch of them. Or you can click here.
Anyrate, I’ve had essays I wanted to write and share about politics, art, love, life, my cat, and other stuff, but I seem to’ve sort of lost the habit.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about. The tendency to share and how it becomes habitual or ritual. Over the last couple years, I’ve been using social media less and less, and it’s sort of like I’ve been weening myself off the incessant sharing that happens online. There are all kinds of reasons, but mostly it’s just that social media isn’t good for me, personally.
But because I don’t really share much online these days, it seems less and less important to share anything online. It always seemed like the point of starting a blog was to do more long-form sharing of thoughts and so on. Then facebook came the place to share all my dumb thoughts, so I used my blog less, and then when I began using social media less, I thought I’d use my blog more.
The opposite has mostly been true. Like I said, sharing online is kind of like a habit or ritual. Once I broke the habit, it no longer seems to matter whether or not I share anything online.
Anyrate, there is some news to talk about.
My first poetry collection is coming out from Hawkline Press. There’s an announcement on their site.
Obviously that’s the cover and title up above in that amazing image.
I wrote it a few years ago. I think it was 2014. I wrote three poetry collections that year. All of them over the course of their own individual weekends when I had fevers. I wrote like 600 poems that year, but haven’t done much with them.
Still, very excited to have this coming out. It’s about 130 poems, most in the ryuka, tanka, and haiku, and then a final freeform series that might be my favorite poetry I’ve ever written.
The collection is inspired by the life and death of Yoshiya Chiru.
The collection is dark and weird and simple.
It’s funny to have a my first poetry collection come out as my fourth book, since I used to primarily think of myself as a poet. Obviously I’m not, and probably never will be, but I’m proud of the poems I wrote, and I hope you like them.
I’ll probably talk more about them in the future.
I also just wrote this novel. Or, not just now. I’ve been writing it for a while. I was hoping to have it finished before May, but then I spent all of April and May not writing. It was a weird deadline to put on myself, since I began this near the end of February. It’s about 130,000 words right now, though it’ll almost certainly balloon a bit once I do edits/rewrites.
It’s a big complicated novel about terrorism and imperialism.
Also, it’s a fantasy novel.
There’s a lot to say about it, really. The novel is mostly about four people: a student, an activist, an immigrant, a 200 year old poet, a 500 year old teahouse owner, and a factory worker. They’re all elves, which is funny to me, since I never really ever intended to write about elves or other standard fantasy creatures.
But the novel is really about race, culture, religion, terrorism, aspirations, systemic violence, totalitarianism, and whistleblowing.
This novel really is a reaction to basically everything I love and hate about fantasy novels. For example, most fantasy novels treat races and cultures as monochrome. All elves are the same culture, all dwarves are the same culture, but humanity gets thousands of shades. So I decided to give my elves all kinds of shades, and so the novel is really about how cultural purity is an invention, and a dumb one. But also it’s about how systems of power crush people.
I’m really happy with it, but it’s also one of the darkest novels I’ve written, which is kind of saying something, considering how many times I’ve written apocalyptic books.
But, yeah, this year’s doing well. Last year I wrote a giant novel and two short novellas. This year I’ve written two novellas and a reasonably large novel. Next I’m going to be writing a western novella, then a pirate novella, and then a novella about burning a witch at the stake.
But that’s not for a while.
It’s a relief to be finished writing this book because now I can get back into all the other things I want to do! Like read books, play videogames, and just not have the weight of a huge book on my shoulders.
That’s all for now, though. I’m going to say that I’ll keep updating things on here, but that’s a lie.
Mostly I’ll just be taking pictures of my cat.
I’ll see you when I see you, followers of this dumb blog.
True words aren’t charming,
charming words aren’t true.
Good people aren’t contentious,
contentious people aren’t good.
People who know aren’t learned,
learned people don’t know.
Wise souls don’t hoard;
the more they do for others the more they have,
the more they give the richer they are.
The Way of heaven profits without destroying.
Doing without outdoing
is the Way of the wise.
In this final poem, Lao Tzu drums out several of the paradoxes and central ideas that make up the Way. To give is to gain. To learn is not to know. Being truthful and good may not make you friends or give you the kind of power generally thought of as power.
The Way is simplicity. It’s flexible.
The Way is smiling and laughing.
The Way is feeding ducks at a pond.
The Way is buying groceries for the guy who forgot his wallet at home.
The Way is walking through a city or field or forest or park.
The Way is many things and yet hard to state.
But at its core, it’s asking us to be kind and gentle and thoughtful.
That’s pretty much it.
Kindness can change the world. Every act of kindness you do will ripple into the acts of others. Kindness will swell, very gradually, and that rippling can become a wave and that wave can sweep over a city, over a state, over a country. But only if we don’t seek such power. Only if we simply act and follow the Way.
It’s a beautiful thought, and it may be a true one. But it’s a lot to ask of people, for some reason.
Being kind is a radical act. Promoting peace is a radical idea in this country that loves war so much. But it’s only through these radical acts that the nation will change.
So resist. Be gentle, be peaceful, be kind. It’s the most meaningful act of resistance we have available.
Let there be a little country without many people.
Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred,
and never use them.
Let them be mindful of death
and disinclined to long journeys.
They’d have ships and carriages,
but no place to go.
They’d have armor and weapons,
but no parades.
Instead of writing,
they might go back to using knotted cords.
They’d enjoy eating,
take pleasure in clothes,
be happy with their houses,
devoted to their customs.
The next little country might be so close
the people could hear cocks crowing
and dogs barking there,
but they’d get old and die
without ever having been there.
Le Guin’s commentary:
Waley says this endearing and enduring vision “can be understood in the past, present, or future tense, as the reader desires.” This is always true of the vision of the golden age, the humane society.
Christian or Cartesian dualism, the division of spirit or mind from the material body and world, existed long before Christianity or Descartes and was never limited to Western thought (though it is the “craziness” or “sickness” that many people under Western domination see in Western civilization). Lao Tzu thinks the materialistic dualist, who tries to ignore the body and live in the head, and the religious dualist, who despises the body and lives for a reward in heaven, are both dangerous and in danger. So, enjoy your life, he says; live in your body, you are your body; where else is there to go? Heaven and earth are one. As you walk the streets of your town you walk on the Way of heaven.
Is this a utopia?
It’s hard to say, and it’s hard to say if Lao Tzu is even meaning for it to be.
I’d say he’s not, at least in any practical sense.
Mostly, it’s the idea of a place where people are content to live. They’re not chasing after the unknown or even the known. They’re living life, and that’s enough.
It’s been a trend for a long, long time. The idea that there’s something more for us out there. That life is meant to mean something. That the farther we go, the more humane we become.
I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t even know if it’s useful to think of it as sort of true.
I’ve traveled a fair amount. More than most people, I’d say. So it’s difficult for me to seriously say that it hasn’t influenced the way I experience and view the world, but I’m also not convinced that doing those things was necessary to my vision of the world. Or, to put it another way: I may have come to who I am through a different route.
Of course, such thoughts aren’t especially useful to think about, since hypotheticals about who I might be had I had a different life are, you know, boring and tedious and intellectually unsatisfying.
I think what Lao Tzu, and the Tao Te Ching, in general, are saying throughout the text is that you must come to learn who you are. You must find yourself within yourself. Travel and education may bring you more easily to the surface, but it’s not the only path, and it may not even be useful for most people.
Be like water.
Know yourself, and then no matter how far you go or what you learn, you will be content. You will be able to fit into any mold, adapt to any circumstance, and yet you will remain yourself.
Imagine a society so self-possessed that life is just contentment.
I don’t know if it’s a utopia, but it’s certainly a pretty idea.
In a time of so much self-reflection and intellectual insulation, I think this is especially important. To understand who you are you need to find some kind of quiet. A place to meditate and reflect.
The issue we have, I think, is that our self-reflection happens publicly. We post our self-reflections on the internet. Even this, one could say, is an example. I’m simply writing private thoughts down, but then I’m posting them where anyone with internet access can stumble upon them.
Is it really self-reflection when it’s projected through the internet?
Can we ever know ourselves when we’re so wrapped up in the lives of others?
That’s not to say we should imitate Descartes. I think his version of self-reflection as road to self-discovery is pretty stupid. Because it begins with the idea that humans are, at some point, entirely alone.
This is too easy to reject because it’s never true.
And the Tao is never about self-isolation. Almost every poem is balanced by a regard for the greater world. Questions for state, for power, for peace. Taoism is about engaging with the world while being yourself. By following the Tao, we discover ourselves, and in discovering ourselves, we demonstrate the Tao for others.
Bring the Tao to the world, but do it in your every word, your every action.
Be like water.