It was a hot, windless afternoon and the Master had led his students outside, to sit under the shade of the giant tree standing in the courtyard. As they gathered around him, the large group of young men grew so silent that they could just barely hear the sound of a myriad of birds taking flight over the Ganges River-- thousands upon thousands of miles to the west. The whole world grew very still and...
Drawing in his breath deeply; the Master slowly opened his mouth to speak:
"It is a rare man who would turn his mind to virtue when he could follow love instead" (Analects 15.13)
Nobody dared to say a word. And so the Master, with a smile on his face, spun on his heels and walked away. Really what more could be said? And the Master looked quite pleased with himself too (a fact to which everyone present later confirmed).
Beijing, however, complains: "It's a rather innovative translation, don't you think?"
The problem being the word "love," of course. And, I realize that in our times so high do we hold Love （愛）that "love" （恋）for us must carry much more weight than it ever could possibly have for the ancients. In all fairness, the word is not really "love," but rather 色。Beijing thinks that it should probably be translated as
I've yet to meet anybody who is fonder of virtue than of sex
Fair enough, but I just don't think people talked that way back then. I mean, I cannot imagine them talking like that at least. And being in a stubborn mood, I try to persuade him:
"But what does the character 色 itself convey but the emotion felt when two people are embracing; in love."
As a compromise, however, I here offer this:
"It is a rare man who would turn his mind to virtue when he could follow romance instead"
Approximately 2500 years have passed since the time Kongzi was said to have uttered these words-- and in one sense, I guess it is partly comforting to think- how little has changed. A teacher wishes to gently urge his students to "keep their eye on the ball." We are all human-- and everyone loves romance-- but it's important to try and stay the course. On the other hand, I cannot possibly imagine that Kongzi is criticizing his students. They're not, afterall, monks-in- training.
To me, the interesting question is what do you think the Master would say to a bunch of students today? In one sense, it seems like romance and love affairs have really been banished to a place outside acceptable conversation ("family values" etc.)-- is it just me or do other people just find it impossible to imagine a teacher telling his students:
It is a rare man who would choose study over romance
This is not religion and the students are not monks in training. Rather, this is philosophy concerned with how to live a good life. And, as I read the analects again after all these years, I am struck by the way in which something in the project feels somehow very similar to the project of poetry:
to never deny desire or emotion-- but to refine it like art
Saying this to Beijing, I wasn't necessarily saying that through the Rites or study that all desire or emotion should be civilized as to be no longer recognizable as such (sublimated in the form of archery, for example). But rather, more like poetry, that emotion is refined and moderated.
Anyway, the readers of these pages will all be interested to learn that through my travels in this blog-- I have come to re-think my previously-held dark-and-gloomy conviction that people are no longer able to be swept away by things, or to be really moved by someone or something.
Some of you will recall that the philosopher I work for in Hiroshima is very interested in a German thinker named Wolfgang Welsch (who teaches at Schiller University at Jena). I have written about his work in greater length here (or better here), but Welsch writes a lot about what he characterizes as our contemporary focus on "amusement and the virtual."
This from his Undoing Aesthetics:
In surface aestheticization the most superficial aesthetic aesthitic value dominates: pleasure, amusement, enjoyment without consequence. This animatory trend today reaches far beyond the aesthetic enshroudment of individual everyday items-- beyond the styling of objects and experience-loaded ambiances. It is increasingly determining the form of our culture as a whole. Experience and entertainment have become the guidelines in recent years. A society of leisure and experience is served by an expanding culture of festivals and fun. And whilst some of the all too strident offshoots of aestheticization, or singular aspects of the cosmetics of reality, might raise a smile, with its extension to culture as a whole, this is no longer a laughing matter.
What is interesting about this phenomena--beyond the obvious resulting anti-intellectualism and philistinism-- is that there is a "leveling;" whereby "experience" and "having fun" (entertainment) create what Welsch calls the Disneylandification of our emotional experiences-- that is to say: everything loses its depth.
To be emotionally carried away-- or moved-- by music; by beauty; by art; or to be carried away by another person (in love); to be carried away by landscape somehow seem to be retreating outside our ability to experience.
Travel back in time 1000 years.
There meet a young man who writes of falling so deeply in love that he is unable to function--indeed, he can barely breath. Maybe he would say falling in love with that woman was like a thermonuclear meltdown in his heart...
Totally impressed, I recall the words of a friend, who once wrote that
Our passions are like the sail”, a generic Hindu guru once said, “and our reason — like the rudder. Without the latter, the boat will founder; but without the first, it won’t go anywhere.”
This is very much how I think of the Master's advice. I mean, even the southern song landscapes that I love so much-- while they may have been called "untrammeled"-- in fact, they were moderated and refined expressions of emotion plus reasoned restraint (but remember the boat ain't going anywhere without the passion part).
Finally, over a bowl of noodles, I ask Adonis' father what he thinks about the passage. Immediately, he responds,
"Sex is the worst translation"
"Why?" I ask (though I already know exactly what he is going to say).
"Because 色 is not 遊び and in the end, it doesn't matter whether the person acts on their feelings or not-- it can all be inside his own mind and still be 色。” And then after another few slurps of noodles he says, 心の動き、それだけ。("it's all about being moved")
From Beijing, who says that this is probably the real context of 15.13: The Romance of Nan Zi
And, for Beijing: A slide show here with some good shots of the 新光戲院
And speaking of photographers I like, here is Michael Wolf (I've been wanting to buy his book of hong Kong photographs for some time) Architecture of Density is HongKong and Transparent City is Chicago.