World Book Day 2019

I have always loved World Book Day. At school, I loved receiving a book token and legging it to Waterstones to buy something new to read. I explicitly remember Roald Dahl’s ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’ and Jacqueline Wilson’s ‘Lizzy Zip-Mouth’ being two of my World Book Day purchases, which I re-read about twenty times each.

You guys: World Book Day is not just for childhood, it’s for life. I continue to enjoy World Book Day because it gives me an excuse to happily blither on about books for a whole 24 hours (not that I ever really needed an excuse but, you know). Reading is such an incredible, immersive pastime, a treat for the imagination and important means of acquiring vocabulary in childhood. It is also so important to help explore the limits of language and to challenge our preconceptions about race, gender, age and sexuality. I think we should all be encouraged to read as much as possible. I know that our lives are so busy and we’re all perpetually tired, but I try to follow my Dad’s example: he will not end the day without reading, even if it’s just one page of a book. Not only does this help me wind down after a day of work, it means that I create distance between myself and my screens and helps to take me somewhere beyond my busy, chattering brain.

In light of World Book Day, I wanted to share with you some books that I really think you need to know about:

The books I have just finished

The Wisdom of No Escape and When Things Fall Apart both by Pema Chodron

Pema Chodron

I have always been interested in spirituality and these books, written by Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, introduce basic concepts of the Buddhist dharmas in an accessible, relatable way. They have become a go-to for me when I feel anxious, uncertain and groundless. Every single word of these books is steeped in wisdom: I almost wish I could have eaten them so that I could digest it all properly. I have enjoyed learning about Tonglen meditation, which is a practice that involves breathing into anxiety, uncertainty, fear and anger etc. and breathing out clarity, spaciousness and peace for yourself and behalf of everyone else who is suffering. With Chodron’s help (and that of another great Buddhist friend) I have learnt how to embrace the impermanence that characterises life, making our relationships all the more precious; and the importance of compassion, non-judgement and moving from a place of loving-kindness. I saw on Twitter recently someone’s opinion that ‘being kind’ is a wishy-washy, beige way of living life: after a read of Chodron’s work, however, I couldn’t disagree more. I have come to realise that there is perhaps nothing more radical or fearless than accepting egolessness and consciously moving from a place of joy, compassion and care for the world and everyone else in it.

The book I am currently reading

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama

I am half way through the former First Lady’s memoir and I am enjoying it immensely. Her story is compelling and characterised by a complex mixture of personal drive, determination and striving, whilst juggling her African American heritage with the white patriarchal power structures of Ivy League universities and law firms. Race is central to the book, as Obama recounts the frustration of the lack of opportunity afforded to her talented, smart grandfather and uncles and her own frustration of being caught between not being black enough (a cousin/classmate asks her early on why she ‘talks like a white girl’) and not being white enough (she finds herself outnumbered by predominantly white men at Princeton, Harvard and in the law firm Sidley and Austin). As such, it is a really important read that directly challenges the unthinking white privilege of many of the readers who are likely to pick up her tome. Obama also gives us a tour of her treasured friendships, her family and, of course, her relationship with Barack Obama. I know I get mushy really easily but, seriously, their story is bloody romantic. I know that she opens up about marriage counselling later on in the book, and I am very much looking forward to reading a refreshingly un-Disney account of what it really takes to be in a long-term relationship. And Trump. I can’t wait to see what she’s written about him.

The book everyone should read

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy

This book is beautiful but was definitely a tricky one to get into at first. After 100 pages I was still not finding myself suitably immersed, which is a testament to how brilliantly challenging this book is. I persevered because I am slightly loathe to leave a book I’ve started reading unread, and was so glad I did. 100 pages in, and after a lengthy and hilarious description of various groups of people protesting various political and religious in a central Delhi square, I was swept away. The novel features a myriad of interesting characters, but centres on Anjum, a transgender hijra living in a cemetery in the heart of Delhi. Infused with Urdu poetry, political satire and witticisms, Roy’s novel investigates love, conflict and chaos in the colourful and brutal Indian capital, through the life of an extraordinary character. Reading this novel feels all the more pertinent now that tensions are once again flaring up over the region of Kashmir, which features heavily in the novel’s second half. I learnt so much about Indian culture and politics in this book, in particular regarding the country’s Muslim population, and was entranced by the unfolding drama and Roy’s bewitching prose. As such, I would recommend this novel time and time again.

 The books I’m going to read next

This is both my most and least favourite predicament: I have easily 50 books on my shelf that are lined up for reading and I get choice paralysis every time I need to decide what to read next. The main contenders include:

Milkman by Sarah Burns

Natives by Akala

A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson (really interesting that she is running for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 US election)

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

Milkman AkalaMarianneWar and PeaceNaomi againNancy Mitford

Love Note – Inspector Javert and Alyosha Karamazov

AKA men who look at the stars

Last Thursday, I went to see the touring production of Les Misérables at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. In a signature Elizabeth Harper move, I bawled my eyes out pretty consistently throughout the entire production [SPOILER ALERT]: during ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, ‘On My Own’, when Gavroche was shot, when Éponine was shot, when Enjolras was shot, when Marius sings ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ and, finally, during Jean Val Jean’s death with the lyric ‘To love another person is to see the face of God’. I’m not a Christian, but I just think that is the most beautiful idea: there is something spiritually transcendental about loving another human being from your very core.

Turning into a weeping willow aside, I enjoyed Les Misérables because I got to see one of my favourite characters being performed in the flesh: Inspector Javert, who sings ‘Stars’, my favourite song in the musical.[1] Javert reminds me of another of my favourite male characters, who I like for very different reasons but, incidentally, also has a beautiful and interesting relationship with the stars. I am going to offer a short and snappy comparison between Inspector Javert and Alyosha Karamazov from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

On a very basic level, I want to sit Javert down and tell him that everything is going to be OK and that he just needs to ease up on life. For those who are not familiar with the story, Javert is born in jail to parents embroiled in poverty and crime and raises himself in life through his dedication to the law and authority. He becomes obsessed with Jean Valjean, who, in Javert’s singularly black and white worldview, is a thief and an inherently ‘bad’ person. Javert looks to the stars as his guiding lights of order and control within the chaos of revolutionary France, and of his own personal history:

‘Stars

In your multitudes

Scarce to be counted

Filling the darkness

With order and light

You are the sentinels

Silent and sure

Keeping watch in the night

Keeping watch in the night

 

You know your place in the sky

You hold your course and your aim

And each in your season

Returns and returns

And is always the same

And if you fall as Lucifer fell

You fall in flame!’[2]

Click here for Philip Quast’s rendition of the song: 

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He sees stars as pinpricks of certainty, surrounded by a dark, unknowable vastness. He is invested in certainty, predictability, of a specific and very dichotomous construction of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’. He perceives Jean Valjean as Lucifer: a rebel, a traitor, and someone who must be brought to justice. In his search, he is unrelenting, and has no room for mercy or any sense of moral ambiguity. I find Javert so endearing and interesting because he believes completely and utterly that order and control are what keep himself and the world a safe and just place. As a character, I think he speaks to anyone who, at one point or another, has believed that ‘being good’ has in some way protected them from the storminess of life and the people within it. Certainty, however, is an illusion. It is his inability to accept that life is impermanent, fluid and precisely uncertain that leads to his loss of faith: in, what is for Javert, an unprecedented act, Jean Valjean spares his life, thereby undercutting the embodiment of ‘badness’ that Javert has spent decades projecting onto him. It leads to Javert in turn sparing Jean Valjean’s life, which he cannot fathom, he cannot reconcile with:

 

‘I am reaching but I fall,

And the stars are black and cold,

As I stare into the void, of a world that cannot hold.

I’ll escape now from that world;

From the world of Jean Valjean.

There is nowhere I can turn. There is no way to go on!’[3]

 

The world of Jean Valjean is a world of disorder and chaos that overwhelms Javert. He feels abandoned by the stars, consumed by the darkness that he has kept at bay all throughout his life by being so devoted to a very literal interpretation of law and order, good and bad. This, eventually, leads him to take his own life. Interestingly, he does this by throwing himself into the running waters of the Seine, the river being a stark embodiment of the fluidity and tumult that Javert could not accept.

Alyosha Karamazov, on the other hand, rediscovers his faith and love for all of humanity through looking at the stars. His spiritual guide and mentor, the Elder Zosima, dies midway through the novel. His corpse begins to rot, which sends shockwaves throughout the monastery: the superstition is that a truly holy man’s corpse would not rot, but would instead stay pristine and intact. Young and still slightly naïve, Alyosha is swayed by the mutterings of his fellow monks, and begins to doubt the spiritual integrity of the Elder Zosima. Throughout the novel, Alyosha is presented as a character whose goodness, his joy and his desire to help the flailing and chaotic people around him are all expressed through his face. If you’re interested, this essay (‘The Faces of the Brothers Karamazov) is a brilliant summary of the various faces within the novel. One of Alyosha’s faces that the writer of this essay doesn’t mention, however, is Alyosha’s face after the rotting of the Elder Zosima’s corpse. Where his face is closely related to beauty and youth before this point, it changes, at what the narrator refers to as a ‘critical moment’:

‘Alyosha suddenly gave a twisted smile, raised his eyes strangely, very strangely, to [Father Paissy] the one to whom, at his death, his former guide, the former master of his heart and mind, his beloved elder, had entrusted him, and suddenly, still without answering, waved his hand as if he cared nothing even about respect, and with quick steps walked towards the gates of the hermitage’.[4]

In this moment of doubt, which is confirmed as such in the next chapter by the narrator, Alyosha’s normally bright and entreating face becomes different, almost cynical and manic. To see someone described as almost angelic become ‘strange’ signifies an unnerving change in the character. In a novel where much of the action involves the men of the Karamazov family passionately rushing about with Alyosha in their wake trying to tie up all the loose ends, here we see Alyosha himself caught in a storm. This is further emphasised by the uncomfortably long sentence, broken apart by commas, almost as if the words are panted with the effort of hurrying.

Yet, it is the stars that help Alyosha to re-discover his faith, hope and love for life and all of humanity. The following is one of my favourite pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Gear up, it’s a long one:

‘Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly. From the zenith to the horizon the still-dim Milky Way stretched its double strand. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the church gleamed in the sapphire sky. The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flowerbeds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars… Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.

He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears…,” rang in his soul. What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and “he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.” It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything, “as others are asking for me,” rang again in his soul. But with each moment he felt clearly and almost tangibly something as firm and immovable as this heavenly vault descend into his soul. Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind-now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages. He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. “Someone visited my soul in that hour,” he would say afterwards, with firm belief in his words…’[5]

 

Where Javert lost his faith in order and the dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, the stars for him turning into a great void of chaos and confusion, in The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha is humbled and overcome by the joy of life because of the stars. Under the celestial wonder of the Milky Way, Alyosha comes to understand and appreciate the depth and beauty at work in every human being. Whilst Javert is consumed by the abyss, Alyosha cries with joy, ‘even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss’. Furthermore, where Javert throws himself into the waters of the Seine, Alyosha accepts the uncertainty and ecstasy of a life of difference and love, and throws himself to the floor, finding himself on solid ground. It is this paradoxical acceptance of uncertainty, chaos and tumult that helps Alyosha to find a sense of stability, and of his place in the world. Ultimately, and again unlike Javert in the most tragic sense, Alyosha’s reconciliation with mystery and ambiguity leads him to a place of forgiveness and gratitude. It brings him to love himself and all of mankind, no matter what has been done or whatever will be done. It is a moment of irreverence, peace and boundless love, steeped in the wonder of living life hopefully. In short, a piece of writing everyone would do well to keep in mind.

These men remind us that in looking at the stars we have a choice about how we perceive ourselves, our place in the world and, indeed, the universe. Javert’s story is poignant in its tragedy; Alyosha’s for its eruption of joy. Carl Sagan said that ‘we are a way for the Cosmos to know itself’: these two beautifully crafted characters, in their relationship to the stars above them, provide two compelling and very moving blueprints. In the musical and in the novel, we see them play out the archetypal human experience of living with uncertainty and mystery in their own very different but no less endearing ways.

 

 

[1] My assessment of this character has purely come from the way in which he is portrayed in the musical version of the novel (I will get round to reading it at some point) but considering how well-loved and culturally important the musical is, I think that is enough.

 

[2] ‘Stars’, Les Misérables, Claude Michel Schonberg / Alain Albert Boublil / Herbert Kretzmer

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky transl. Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear (London: Vintage Books, 2004), p.337.

[5] Ibid., p.362-3.

Love Note – ‘Please Mr Kennedy’

The first Coen Brothers film I watched was Fargo when I was 18 and I really didn’t get it. The parody of a ‘true’ crime drama, with its humour and comic book violence, was all lost on me. As I’ve grown older, my awareness and appreciation of the Coen oeuvre has increased and expanded. My main Coen Brothers eureka moment came with A Serious Man, by way of True Grit and No Country for Old Men (I still need to watch The Big Lebowski and others). With Larry’s exasperated declaration that ‘I don’t want Santana Abraxis! I’ve just been in a terrible auto accident!’ I finally understood the full hilarious extent of the artful and subtle writing. Which brings me to Inside Llewyn Davis, which I find hilarious and joyful in its anger and misery, and it has become one of my favourites.

Llewyn is my favourite kind of grumpy arse who believes he should be an uber-successful musician but is blinded by pride, egotism and poor decision-making capabilities.[1] He has opportunities to help himself throughout the film, but prefers rather to wallow in his own self-importance and curse everyone around him for his short-sightedness, bad luck and inability to compromise. I love Llewyn because he is propelled by both intense delusions of grandeur but also a kind of endearing vulnerability that prevents him from being able to do anything else but be creative. The film was criticised by Suzanne Vega for turning the folk scene in 1960s New York into ‘a slow brown sad movie’, but I think this is to misunderstand what the Coens are getting at: there probably was a Llewyn in 1960s New York, just as there was probably a Llewyn at every point in artistic history. Wherever art and creativity are mixed up with commercial success, fame and recognition, there is going to be a Llewyn. Where there’s a Bob Dylan, there is a Llewyn. There has always been a Llewyn and there will always be a Llewyn.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is where Llewyn records a childish, novelty song with Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver). ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ gives me life and I frequently sing it around the house, getting it stuck in the heads of loved ones around me (you’re welcome). Click the photo below to have a watch:

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I love everything about this 2 minutes and 59 seconds. I love the hideousness of Justin Timberlake’s beige jumper; Oscar Isaac’s cooler-than-thou cigarette hanging from his mouth; the nauseating earnestness of Timberlake’s insistence of two ‘P Ps’ before ‘please’; I love that Llewyn thinks he’s too good for the song (Llewyn: Who wrote this? Jim: I did); I love Timberlake singing and staring God-wards as though he’s delivering the most profound song in the world, when it’s probably the most ridiculous; the series of surreal blurtings and ejaculations in the scene-stealing performance of Adam Driver (‘One second please!’ and ‘Uh Oh!’ being my favourite accompaniments); the cheesiness of Timberlake’s ‘Oh pleeeeeeease’ and Llewyn’s sterling attempts to meet him with his eyes closed; and I love the stupid lyrics and the stupid music. The whole thing is just hilarious.[2]

As well as being a bonafide ear worm, I love ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ because I realised that it loosely presents a bit of an allegory for life. It reminds me of a famous painting that depicts the three standard bearers of Eastern philosophy and spirituality: the vinegar tasters.

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'The_Three_Vinegar_Tasters'_by_Kano_Isen'in,_c._1802-1816,_Honolulu_Museum_of_Art,_6156.1

The picture depicts Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu and represent the basic tenets of their belief systems: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. We have Confucius, who perceives life as full of corruption and people needing saving from degeneration: he tastes vinegar as sour, as ‘polluted wine’. Llewyn, the archetypal mardy bum hates ‘Please Mr Kennedy’, thinks it’s crap and wants to blast his way through it to get to the folk music career he wants.

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Jim represents (in a very loose way, please indulge me), Buddha. Buddha sees that tasting vinegar exposes him to bitterness, life’s bitterness. We are offered the opportunity to practice not avoiding the difficulties and trials of life, but also to practice not being overwhelmed by them either. Jim understands that he cannot take responsibility for himself and his family by pursuing a career as a purist folk singer. Whilst he performs folk classics at The Gaslight Café, he also makes space for a crap novelty song, no less earnest and with no less integrity in his performance of it as he is of ‘500 Miles’. Either which way, he is performing, practising, trying to find a middle way.

giphy

Al represents Lao Tsu and the Tao. Lao Tsu tastes the vinegar and rejoices in the vinegar-ness of the vinegar. It is sweet to Lao Tsu because it is manifesting according to its nature, exactly as it should: when life is appreciated as it should, it becomes sweet. In a similar way, Al Cody is committed to ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ for what it is, no qualms, no quarrels but with plenty of gusto and dedication. His singing part requires no less: a half-hearted ‘Outer Space!’ just wouldn’t work. As such, as I mentioned earlier, he pretty much steals the scene.

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‘Please Mr Kennedy’ is a shmuck song, artistically questionable, a real toe-tapper and perhaps the most important song in the entire film. To appreciate it speaks volumes and to not appreciate it speaks volumes. I think we have all three characters inside of us at any one point and they all have something to teach us. I’ve had many a Llewyn day, which is fine: Llewyn is great, I wouldn’t not be a bit Llewyn. But I would encourage myself, as much as possible, to be Al: to appreciate and revel in the nature of things just as they are. This sublimely ridiculous life, encapsulated in this sublimely silly song, requires just as much humour and healthy ridiculousness to meet it.

[1] Llewyn is Welsh for ‘lion’ or ‘leader’, which just feeds the wonderful irony about this miserable, supercilious protagonist.

[2] What makes this all even better, now that time and pop culture have elapsed since 2013, is that Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver now play adversaries Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren in the new Star Wars films. What a joy it is to see these two men, stars of the biggest sci-fi franchise of all time, strumming away singing the best stupid song about space ever written. Sarah Brightman’s ‘I Lost My Heart to a Star Ship Trooper’ must be the worst stupid song about space ever written.

 

 

Love Note – Ave Maria

Amongst the usual merry-go-round of Christmas songs, one song has captured my undivided attention this year: Frank Sinatra’s rendition of Ave Maria. It’s not necessarily a Christmas song; it’s not necessarily a song that I have cared much about in the past; and I only really started caring about Frank Sinatra two years ago when ‘One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)’ literally stopped me in my tracks.[1] This year, however, Sinatra’s rendition of Schubert’s much-loved piece has been the gentle yet sublime musical offering that I have needed during this busy time.

The combination of Sinatra’s deep voice with the soaring choral accompaniment is both uplifting and deeply comforting. He sings a popular Latin interpretation of the song that describes Mary mother of God being with ‘us’ in the hour of our death. This, understandably, could be read as extremely morbid, but for me, feels more like a lullaby. On a basic level, the speaker both entreats and asks for everything to be alright, but through the reassuring ebb and flow of the choir, the plucked violins, and Sinatra’s grounding dulcet tones, we get the sense that everything is already more than alright. How can anything be but OK when we use the present moment to tap into hope, appreciation and gratitude?

I would describe myself as spiritual, rather than religious, and whilst Ave Maria has some serious Catholic affiliations, thanks to the previously mentioned Latin prayer that was later attached to Schubert’s composition, there is ample room for further interpretation. Schubert originally composed Ave Maria as a musical setting for Walter Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake: more specifically, Ave Maria is a musical dramatization of Ellen’s song ‘Hymn to the Virgin’, whispered by the heroine Ellen whilst sheltering in a Goblin cave with her exiled father. There are some problematic references to Mary being ‘undefiled’ and ‘stainless’, which reinforce the virginal standard of ‘perfection’ that has been used to hit women round the head with for hundreds and hundreds of years. Some of the lines, however, in their appeal for some kind of divine maternal protection are beautiful:

‘The murky cavern’s heavy air

Shall breathe of balm if thou has smiled;

Then, Maiden! Hear a maiden’s prayer,

Mother, list a suppliant child!

Ave Maria!’

The poem entreats a greater, spiritual power for comfort, safety and support; to dispense the dank weight of the air in the cavern with the gentle smile of benevolence and clarity. Whoever has felt like a captive in the churning and chattering or their own mind knows the yearning for relief and for lightness; the cavern that Scott describes here, trapping Ellen, could easily reflect the headspace of anxiety, depression and worry.[2] A calm, serene smile in the face of adversity, uncertainty and pain is a wonderful image of transcendence and acceptance. Whilst we may remain critical of the traditional, patriarchal imagining of femininity here, this is undeniably a prayer from woman to woman: Ellen appeals to Mary’s young womanhood here, so uncannily like her own, yet not her own. Ellen is at once a woman like Mary, but so in need of nurture and support, like a small child; Mary’s small child. She appeals to a maternal figure so much greater and more powerful than herself, currently trapped in a desperate predicament. In this reaching, in this supplication to something beyond herself for direction and guidance, she finds peace and joy in the declaration: Ave Maria! It is that same feeling I alluded to earlier of asking that everything be made OK, whilst knowing in the very asking, that everything in this present moment is OK, is as it should be.

Ave Maria then, whilst used in many religious circumstances for this most important time of year for Christians, is also welcoming beyond those confines. Life is so uncertain and awe-inspiring, and it is pieces of music like Ave Maria, and what it has come to mean for me, that soothe our fears. It takes us out of the worries and patterns that keep us stuck and afraid, and opens us to the possibility that if we look beyond ourselves into the mysterious, strange and beautiful world and Universe around us, that we can find inner stability and peace.

 

 

 

[1] My first experience with Ave Maria (as with most of my favourite pieces of classical music) was watching Disney’s Fantasia. The film finishes with the calm parade of pilgrims after the chaos and profanity of Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

[2] This also reminds me of the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno, which could easily be a metaphor for the existential crisis or Dark Night of the Soul that many, if not all of us, will encounter at some point in life: ‘Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost’.

First Response: ‘Tao Te Ching’

I first became interested in Taoism after reading Benjamin Hoff’s Tao of Pooh and Te of Piglet. This book, first published in 1982, brings together A. A Milne’s classic children’s book character Winnie the Pooh with the ancient philosophy of Taoism. It explores the ways in which these texts talk to and illuminate one another despite being produced in different veins, centuries apart. It is an excellent, funny and poignant introduction to Taoism (and Winnie the Pooh for that matter) which I highly recommend. It led me to pick up the original text that informs Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, which is the world’s second-most widely translated book after the Bible and which accompanied me around New Zealand in April of this year.

The ‘Tao’ is often translated into English as ‘The Way’ and ‘Tao Te Ching’ translates roughly as ‘The Book of the Way and its Virtue’.[1] The book is a Derridean dream: the combination of contradictions and paradoxes within the text’s ‘teachings’ combined with the aphoristic structure of its 81 chapters points to the instability and consequent inability of language to successfully explain what the Tao is and how it manifests. For example, we are woven into a big knot with aphorisms like number 71:

‘Knowing ignorance is strength,

Ignoring knowledge is sickness

If one is sick of sickness, then one is not sick

The wise are not sick, because they are sick of sickness

Therefore they are not sick’.[2]

Sick is repeated so many times here that it’s easy to lose track of what we originally interpreted as sickness. Indeed, the aphorism is a befuddlement of sickness that does not present much in the way of resolution: does being sick of sickness refer to another kind of sickness or not? But what does this matter anyway when this state of being (being sick of sickness) results in the wise not being sick. In this vein, we can see that the book is humorous, frustrating and whilst conveying wisdom, knowingly withholds comprehensive understanding all the way throughout, reminding us that ‘the truth often sounds paradoxical’ (aphorism 78). It playfully reminds us of language’s limitation as an arbitrary system of signs that constantly constructs and deconstructs. It also introduces us to the concepts of ‘wu wei’ (‘non action’), ‘pu’ (‘the uncarved block’: a metaphor for the natural spontaneity and state of being), yin and yang, and makes political observations about war, weapons and leadership. I would argue that there is definitely room here to draw in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus for comparison, but that might have to be another post for another time.

Some of the concepts raised are initially quite jarring from our Western ideological standpoint, for example ‘non action’. This idea is brought up throughout the text:

‘Open your mouth,

Always be busy,

And life is beyond hope’ (aphorism 55).[3]

 

‘Practice non-action.

Work without doing’ (aphorism 63).[4]

 

‘Those who act defeat their own purpose;

Those who grasp lose.

The wise do not act and so are not defeated.

They do not grasp and therefore do not lose’ (aphorism 64).[5]

In a world where injustice abounds, it is difficult to accept that non-action is the right course of action. Whether it’s those currently suffering at the hands of tsunamis and earthquakes in Indonesia, the election of men like Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh into positions of power when they have been widely accused of sexual assault, the massacres of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the world’s poorest losing their homes and farms to rising sea levels when they have contributed the least to levels of carbon in the atmosphere etc. is non-action the best way of protecting and helping those in need? To fight tyranny, care for our environment and spread love and understanding, we must act, we must ‘do’.

The Tao Te Ching, however, deals in paradox and not absolutes. In aphorism 37, we are told:

‘Tao abides in non-action,

Yet nothing is left undone.

If those in power observed this,

The ten thousand things would develop naturally.

If they still desired to act,

They would simply return to the simplicity of formless substance,

Without form there is no desire.

Without desire there is tranquility.

And in this way all things would be at peace’.[6]

Here we can see that non-action does not necessarily equate to a sense of inertia or apathy; rather non-action begets action. The ‘ten thousand things’ refers here to the cosmic power of the Universe, the source from which life on Earth manifests and what we attempt to return to through meditation and inner work beyond the thrashings of ego in life. Non-action, therefore, is so much more than not doing; it is about finding harmony in the bigger, more mysterious picture of the unfolding universe, by which we find a sense of belonging, purpose and direction. As Jacob Needleman observes in the introduction to the Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English text, conscious receiving and acceptance of the universe is an opening, rather than a doing.[7] Through non-action, we transcend the moralistic trappings of Earth-bound ego and return to something more powerful, connected and spiritual. More specifically, the idea laid bare in aphorism 37 is that if leaders attempted to cultivate and acceptance of flexibility, changeability and uncertainty, all the things that effectively characterise the Universe, this would permeate all of society and we would live in a more accepting and serene world. Unfortunately, we see too much ‘action’ in the form of exclusionary politics, rampant capitalism, war, environmental destruction; all of which distract us and prohibit us from collectively finding peace and oneness.

The Tao Te Ching is a mind and spirit-expanding text that comes to us in the guise of a short, digestible read. It is a disorientating text that offers with obscurity, humility and wit, a significant challenge to a great many of our Western orthodoxies. I get the impression that the more often this text is read, the more wisdom there is to be gleaned from it. For many, spirituality and connection with the universe may seem like something fantastical, cheesy, ‘unscientific’ and something dreamed up by hippies; however, I am coming to believe that with the world in such a shit state as it is, it is perhaps only by understanding ourselves and the deep connection we have to the world and the other people within it that we have a hope in hell of finding peace. We cannot underestimate the impact we have on others in every moment of every day. The Tao Te Ching, as with any other text that deals with a form of mysticism, is effectively a guide, an inscription of ancient wisdom and knowledge. It offers us something more than the cynical two dimensional social structures, hierarchies and politics that we are accustomed to and largely disillusioned with today: a perspective on the perennial questions of who we are, where we are and how we can understand the world around us.

 

[1] As with all works in translation, we have to be careful of the numerous potential discrepancies in the translators’ interpretation of the text and how this may impact our own reading of it. I opted for the Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English revised translation (first published in 1972, revised in 2011) because they collaborated to honour the simplicity and clarity of the Classical Chinese whilst making the text accessible for Western readers.

[2]Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu trans. Gia-Fu Fung and Jane English with Toinette Lippe (Vintage Books: New York, 2011), p.74.

[3] Ibid., p.58.

[4] Ibid., p.66.

[5] Ibid., p.67.

[6] Ibid., p. 39.

[7] Ibid., p.xxi.