Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Not So Deep as a Well"

I had some more really good pancakes yesterday. I was told they were called 春饼 chun bing , "springcakes," evidently because they are customary fare in the springtime -- I suppose during the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, though I forgot to ask for clarification on this point. Perhaps they might best be described as something like the 木须 mu xu (often spelled moo shu) dishes that have long been popular on Chinese menus in the West. With this difference: where a mu xu dish consists of a pancake, some plum or duck sauce and a filling prepared according to certain fixed criteria (by definition, mu xu dishes contain scambled egg; most of them contain cloud ears and tiger lily buds as well), spingcakes may involve any number of fillings.

At our particular board, we had scrambled eggs with garlic chives. Since garlic chives turn a very pretty emerald color when cooked, they made a pleasing background for the bright yellow eggs, like a deep green swale thick with yellow flags or daffodils. We also had garlic stems with bits of pork, and pale-skinned cucumber shredded as fine as grass. Also shredded pork with pickled cabbage, and minced pork with tricolor peppers, and another dish whose acquaintance escaped me, but who appeared, from its general dress and demeanor, to be of the spinach kind.

The pancake wrappings themselves were only marginally less spectacular than the ones I had at the Moon Festival a few weeks ago, but it was the filling that went to my heart. Though I heard one or two complaints round the table that the fillings were a bit too salty, I can't say I agreed. They were certainly salty enough, but then, salt seemed just the right character for the sort of pancakes one might have by the sea.

And the seaside is where I was, in the faded old city of Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall of China abuts the Pacific Ocean. I was visting a new friend, the wife of a classmate of mine from Princeton. My friend was staying for a time with her mother while she recovered from a serious and protracted bout of illness. Since I am pretty familiar with that scenario myself (she and I suffer from the same disease, though I have been lucky enough to escape its severest manifestations), there was, I suppose, a certain "transport of cordiality" ready-made between us.

But in addition to this somber bond, my friend offered a much happier attraction in her two-year-old daughter. Anyone who's ever had a two-year-old, or been a two-year-old, can pretty much imagine the rest. A couple of measuring cups, some grains of rice and millet, and you have yourself a festival of Pouring. Throw in a few toy spoons and you can get some serious Stirring action going as well. I have never been much engaged by the imperfect articulation that is so generally characteristic of the toddling stage, but even I was completely enchanted by this little muffin's soft, croodling commentary on her Pouring and Stirring activities.

But then a toy spatula was mislaid, and the tears began. I can hardly bear to think of it even now, though I am back in my own room in Beijing, safe and far away. What is it about the crying of a child that is so peculiarly calculated to claw at the heart and leave it aching with such dreadful pity? It is not hard to understand such a reaction when no comfort is at hand, or when a child is crying because of some terrible, unusual injury to body or mind. But a toy mislaid is hardly uncommon, and this particular toy was found and restored to its owner within ten minutes.

Perhaps there is something of the Banshee in me -- a sort of disposition towards adoptive lamentation where I have no particular cause of my own. At any rate, my own eyes kept welling up in sympathy. It was hard to resist joining the little thing where she sat humped on the floor:

Yes, yes, little one! We are heartbroken, you and I!

But, though we may not all be weak or impressionable enough to consider collapsing on the floor a reasonable response, children's cries are generally accounted the most distressing sounds known to humankind. I suppose whimpering animals come in a close second. That is why they have been put to diabolical use in the interrogation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

So my question is, why? When it is an ordinary sound, an everyday sound, a sound suggestive even of health and growth? Think how disturbing a silent baby would be!

I think perhaps here, as so often elsewhere, Gerard Manley Hopkins may be onto the right idea:

Margaret, are you grieving over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts, care for, can you?
Ah, as the heart grows older it will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh,
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name;
Sorrow's springs are the same
Nor mouth had, no, nor mind expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed.
It is the blight that man was born for
It is Margaret you mourn for.

I should say that in this poem Hopkins offers not only an analogical map of time and loss, but a sort of telescopic chronicle of desolation. By "desolation," I mean that peculiar disassembly of self and world, when self seems at once to become lost in the infinite vastness of the indifferent universe, and to swallow up that universe in an unappeasable hunger for comfort, for society, for a sense of harmony and in-placeness, with all things ordered according to their fitness.

Algernon Blackwood seems to have made a few similar associations in "The Wendigo," though his reflections are much more roughly hewn: the avowed subject of the piece is certainly "the Desolation that Destroys," as he puts it, and the image of a child weeping lies at the structural core of the narrative:

[T]he lap of the water still beat time with his lessening pulses when another sound introduced itself with cunning softness between the splash and murmur of the little waves. And, long before he understood what the sound was, it had stirred in him the centers of pity and alarm . . .Then, suddenly, with a rush and flutter of the heart, he knew that it was close beside him in the tent . . . It was a sound of weeping: Defago on his bed of branches was sobbing as if his heart would break . . . And his first response, before he could think or reflect, was a poignant and searching tenderness. This intimate, human sound, heard in the desolation about them . . . it was so incongruous, so pitifully incongruous -- and so vain! Tears -- in the vast and cruel wilderness: of what avail? He thought of a little child crying in mid-Altlantic . . .

Little Pupu's desolation, for the short time that her toy spoon was lost and the combined efforts of her mother, grandmother and visiting "auntie" failed to restore it, seemed particularly keen and piercing because she was lonesome in her distress -- utterly bereft -- and yet not alone at all, but "bounden round with silken care." Though no doubt true lack is the heaviest burden of all -- and carried by far too many --it is quite hard enough to want without lacking, for then we have no recourse. Implacable longings may wash over us and overwhelm us in desolation, but, as they are part of the "blight" that we were apparently born for, all we can do is cry to Heaven, or for our mothers, according to age and disposition. Small wonder that the prayer most often repeated by those in distress should be the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is my Shepherd;
I shall not want.

Perhaps I was the readier to feel for Pupu, because I felt rather disassembled myself. While on on the way to Shanhaiguan the day before, reflecting that I was about to visit a particularly impressive section of the Great Wall, I set about recalling a favorite poem of mine -- a yuefu ballad by 陈琳 Chen Lin called 饮马长城窟 "Watering My Horse by the Great Wall Spring" -- and found to my dismay that I could only remember snatches of it. After a lot of thought I came up with most of it, but even then I was missing a couple of lines toward the end. I used to know it like the back of my hand.

Later, when viewing some portraits depicting various distinguished generals from a range of historical periods, I found myself unable to recall more than a line of 杜甫 Du Fu's famous poem 丹青引 "Painting Song," about the restoration of military portraits by a great representational artist. This surprised me less: I once knew the poem, but never knew it so well as to be sure of getting it right from top to tail every single time. By the time I reached the actual sea shore itself, where the Dragonhead Keep juts out into the surf, I had only enough spirit to go through the motions of regretting that I had never troubled to memorize 木华 Mu Hua's 海赋 "Ekphrasis on the Ocean." I suppose I could have recited John Masefield's "Sea-fever," but somehow it never occurred to me.

Of course, it is quite possible to enjoy castle walls and painted generals and waves on a shore without the bracketing of any verses at all. But I am accustomed to an arrangement of things in the places that seem fittest to me; when pieces of my interior library go walkabout, as it were, without my having any notion when or if they will ever return, I am in want, though I lack for nothing, and so I feel bereft and desolate.

However, as I noted earlier, I am now back in Beijing, with a job before me, and, as Mr. Kipling pointed out, there is nothing like having something to do.

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