Sunday, October 26, 2008

"Anglers and Honest Men"

Gentle Anglers --

Flyingfish is pleased to report that she is back to skimming the surf after a few weeks running deep and quiet.

I'd like to be able to say that I was busy with something particularly exciting or worthwhile during these last few weeks, but, though I did meet with some excitement of a modest sort down on the ocean floor -- auditing a lecture on World Literature at Peking University, for example, and finally finding out what wildherb dumplings taste like after over a decade of unsatisfied curiosity -- the main reason for the protracted silence was nothing more than writer's block.

Here's the way I look at it, though. We are given to understand that writer's block from the desk of Ted Sorensen once saved the entire planet from total annihilation. I don't mean to suggest that my writer's block has anything like that much going for it, but at least while I've not been running my computer I've been saving electricity. And that, in the shadow of the local cooling towers, seems rather worthwhile after all.

It seemed particularly worthwhile a couple of days ago, when I paid a visit to the Purple Bamboo Garden. While I was there, I met a pair of young women who turned out to be quite knowledgeable tea-fanciers. They were seated on a balustrade in a hillside pavilion overlooking a lake. They were enjoying some tea, and when I came to explore the pavilion they very civilly offered me a cup. As we discussed its flavor and aroma, one of the young women remarked that the water was rather hard and slightly brackish. This led to a rehearsal of the various sorts of water used in making the best tea: water from rivers, from lakes, from wells and springs, and, best of all, water swept as snow from the branches of the winter-flowering plum. This last was my contribution to the discussion, recollected from a favorite passage in Cao Xueqin's famous novel The Dream of the Red Chamber:

黛玉因問: "這也是舊年的雨水?" 妙玉冷笑道:「你這麼個人,竟是大俗人,連水也嘗不出來。這是五年前我在玄墓蟠香寺住著收的梅花上的雪,共得了那一鬼臉青的花瓮一瓮,總捨不得吃,埋在地下,今年夏天才開了。我只吃過一回,這是第二回了。你怎麼嘗不出來﹖隔年蠲的雨水那有這樣輕浮,如何吃得。」

Dai-yu asked, "Is this last year's rain-water as well?" Miao-yu gave a withering smile. "Can you really be so vulgar? Fancy not even being able to taste the difference in the water! This comes from snow I swept from the branches of a winter-flowering plum tree when I was living at the Coiled Incense Temple on Darkbarrow Mountain five years ago. I stored it in that demon-green jar and, as I couldn't bring myself to use it, buried it in the earth and didn't open it till last summer. I have only drunk it once before; this is the second time. You really can't taste the difference? Whenever did last year's stored rainwater have this sort of lightness and effervescence!"

(Gentle Anglers will please note that I owe my translation of 鬼臉青 as "demon-green" to the late David Hawkes. I do not have his remarkable translation Cao Xueqin's novel before me, but, if memory serves, that was the way he rendered it. As I felt his choice could not be bettered, here it is before you.)

My companions in Purple Bamboo Garden agreed with me that tea made with swept snow is indeed the height of refinement -- or rather, the idea of it seems to be the height of refinement, for, as one of them pointed out, such pure tastes are beyond us now. Our water is polluted. It is dirty even as it patters down from the sky; it is dirty, even when it settles in white, crystalline flakes on the branches of the winter-flowering plum.

As I left the park and caught the number 534 bus home, I thought about how often I had encountered the idea of a life close to nature presented as a literary aesthetic, and how often this aesthetic had been linked with the ancient world. I suppose this is partly because, years ago, I wrote an undergraduate thesis about the description of trees in a selection of antique poetic traditions, and a central element in this thesis was a discussion of the various ways in which the relationship between nature and culture emerged in those traditions.

And, no doubt, it is partly because I am attracted by the aesthetic itself. Of course this is scarcely surprising, since more or less everyone from Vergil to Tao Yuanming to William Bulter Yeats has professed himself terribly keen to cast off the madding crowd and get down to planting some beans. I don't mean to say that I plan to go in for the material culture associated with this aesthetic. The realities of the rural life are probably not for me. I can't stoop and I can't be in the sun, so gardening is pretty much off the table in any case. But the poems are nice. I've always liked them, especially when hungry (that is when it is particularly pleasant to read about vegetable gardens), and I suppose I always will.

That my frame of reference is largely confined to the ancient world does not mean, of course, that I suppose this aesthetic to be missing from the modern world. Quite the contrary. Just last Saturday I was invited to hear a lecture on eco-poetry at Peking University's Institute of World Literature. I wasn't able to go, but, even without having heard the lecture, I know for sure that one particular difference between the aesthetics of then and now would have emerged. The literary value of a life lived close to nature used to lie in its simplicity, its deliberate rejection of ambition and strife. The personal refinement associated with choosing such a life was based partly on an ideal of finely-tuned sensibilities and a keen awareness of pure beauty. But now the natural world has become problematic -- not just in real terms, but as an aesthetic. A keen awareness of beauty has been supplanted -- or at least supplemented -- by a keen awareness of fragility. Whether or not a "nature" poem is about the earth that crumbles away beneath the poet's feet, the crumbling earth is its inescapable context.

As I thought these things, I was reminded -- not for the first time -- of E.B. White's remarks on a related subject in his essay Sootfall and Fallout:

These nuclear springtimes have a pervasive sadness about them . . . The rich brown patch of ground used to bring delight to the eye and mind at this fresh season of promise. For me, the season has been spoiled by the maggots that work in the mind. Tomorrow we will have rain, and the rain falling on the garden will carry its cargo of debris from old explosions in distant places. Whether the amount of this freight is great or small, and whether it is measurable by the farmer or can only be guessed at, one thing is certain: the character of rain has changed, the joy of watching it soak the waiting earth has been diminished, and the whole meaning and worth of gardens has been brought into question.

When I think of this passage, I always find myself picturing President Kennedy standing by the window in the Oval Office, watching the poisoned rain slanting down outside and soaking the White House lawn. I don't know where I saw this picture. Perhaps it was at the Kennedy Library. Or perhaps I just imagined it after reading a description or hearing an interview.

It is not possible to reach either Mr. White or President Kennedy now, or I would try to offer them some words of comfort. What I have to say is not much, but sometimes a little is enough.

On Saturday (when I failed to attend the lecture on eco-poetry) I taught a lesson on modes of transportation. It was rather heavy going after a bit, so, to keep the conversation rolling, I asked my students what they thought the vehicles of the future would look like. Well, that got plenty of action. Apparently there will be lots of electric cars and hybrids, cars that run on solar power, other (new word) "eco-friendly" cars, and -- the piece de resistence -- a solar-powered robotic flying unicorn. When I asked the student who made this last contribution "Why a unicorn?" she responded, "It's aerodynamic." (Not that she knew the word either in English or in Chinese -- hey, she's seven -- or even paid attention to the word when I taught it to her, but she's sure thinking about the concept. As well she ought: she plans to be an inventor.)

Both Mr. White and President Kennedy spoke of the blight our activities would one day bring down on "generations yet unborn." Earlier in Sootfall and Fallout, Mr. White remarked that the Cold War was being fought with the lives of future generations, rather than with those of living, existing young men. It is a ghastly thought. I don't deny the truth of it, but I offer this observation: perhaps those future generations are up for the fight.

1 comment:

Ticia said...

Welcome back. I have been in transit from the blowy but beautiful northeast to the sunny south, and am now "enjoying" a cold so have not been very mobil. As a result I particularly enjoyed your latest flight into the wind. Fly high. ( I'll go fix some tea.) Ticia