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September 27, 2010


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I put up a reply at my place, more narrowly focused on your question about choice.

Here is the answer I left at Chris' blog-- and I think it comes down really to looking at how later Confucian scholars dealt with someone like Mi Fu (I hope someone out there will have imput!)


Hi Chris,

This was an inspired Post– except, of course, that you never did answer the question of why Aeneas just comes across such the Ass. If both are doing their duties– following their paths, why does Aeneas come across so incredibly wishywashy and dislikeable–the anti-hero– to Odysseus?

Even setting aside Aeneas (which I have done), there is still so much to respond to in this post– but the first problem I have is in your conception of “choice” (both from a Kierkegaard perspective but more from the Confucian perspective)

1) Kierkegaard
When Judge William says to the Young Man– “you will get all that and more in marriage,” I don’t think he is saying that the aesthetic is wrong because it lacks commitment– because in fact, some aesthetics do commit (or to put it in a different manner, a Kierkegaardian commitment could in fact be the pursuit of a beautiful woman– like Helen– or a life devoted to art and culture. If those are ends in themeselves and are experienced as truth, right?) People in the aestheic can commit (Tomasz). And they can be very clear about it too.

Judge William says “choose!” but at the same time– it’s not the kind of choosing that you are impyling, I think.

“Marry and you’ll be miserable, don’t marry and you’ll be miserable” “Kill yourself and you’ll regret and don’t kill yourself and you’ll regret it”…

The choice is an existential one…And I am not sure that “choosing” to devote one’s life to the beautiful woman or to a life of art or culture would _necessarily_ be impossble in Kierkegaard’s world as it wasn’t really the nature of the choice was it?


2) Confucian either/or
In the same way, I think the Confucian “good person” similarly can choose “either” a truth which will lead to the cultivation of his Self (or in Kierkegaardian terms will lead to the expression of her subjective self)– “or” not.

While the choices open to these “selfs” are determined by cultural context (lichtung) so that Kierkegaard has much different (and arguably more over-the-top choices) than your average Confucian scholar who of course lived so much earlier, still it seems to me there is only one real choice in front of them both: walk the path of self cultivation or not. (either or)

Sam Crane sent along the introduction to the art of War and I really liked this quote:

“In contrast with its classical Greek counterpart where “knowing” assumes a mirroring correspondance between an idea and an objective world, this Chinese “knowing” is resolutely participatory and creative– “tracing” in both the sense of etching a pattern and following it. To know is “to realize,” “tomake real.” The path is not a “given,” but is made in the treading of it. Thus, one’s own actions are always a significant factor in the shaping of one’s world.”

So, even though the choices are less varied (or really in Kierkegaard the examples are just way over-the-top) still to me it seems that there is only 1 choice– to walk this personal path or not. I mean, isn’t it the same forking path in both cases? And isn’t the Confucian “commitment” to self cultivation in the end a commitment to Self?

I wrote this post about Mi Fu …. Have, in fact, the Confucians come down hard on him? Or is he somehow “forgiven” within their worldview? I guess what I am trying to bring up is the possibility that the Confucian cultivation of self– or the Confucian forking path– does have more of a range of possible expressions (expessions as choice) than your post hints.

And more importantly– what does this tell us about Aeneas??

Sam tackles the Hannah Arendt issue here


I have heard-- but cannot locate an english translation-- that Anna Akhmatova wrote a poem or a cycle of poems about Dido and Aeneas. I have a volume of her collected poetry in LA-- but have no recollection of any poems on the African queen and her less than savory lover. In the opera, the queen laments: remember me not my fate (for of course they are different).... I imagine this is how Akhmatova would feel as well? Anyone know?

From :

This is all I could find, from "Sweetbriar in Blossom." Let me know if this isn't it. Although, if it isn't, you're kinda out of luck, because it's all I can find. She might be speaking from Dido's point of view, maybe not. You be the judge.

Also, if you need the Russian for some reason, I can type it out for you.


I abandoned your shores, Empress,
against my will.

-- Aeneid, Book 6

Don't be afraid -- I can still portray
What we resemble now.
You are a ghost -- or a man passing through,
And for some reason I cherish your shade.

For awhile [sic] you were my Aeneas --
It was then I escaped by fire.
We know how to keep quiet about one another.
And you forgot my cursed house.

You forgot those hands stretched out to you
In horror and torment, through flame,
And the report of blasted dreams.

You don't know for what you were forgiven ...
Rome was created, flocks of flotillas sail on the sea,
And adulation sings the praises of victory.


Austin, TX

Thank you Austin!

I think Dido-- poor Dido-- must have been thinking these words when the two met in icy Hell. You will recall that sincere and pious Aeneas tries to talk some sense into her: I'm sorry: "I only did it because I had to"... but would only turn away; refusing to talk.

Look: I scribbled this poem on a purple piece of handmade Nepali paper almost 20 years and have carried it with me ever since:
(whenever I look at it now, I cannot help but wonder what in the world drew me to it when I was still so young and free-spirited...but in fact this poem, and others by the Mandelstams have sustained me in recent years.-- as an almost testiment to the great strength that our inner lives have to sustain us??)

"Depriving me of sea, of a space to run and a space to fly,
And giving my footsteps the brace of a forced land,
What have you gained? The calculation dazzles
But you cannot seize the movements of my lips, their silent sound."

--Osip Mandelstam 1935


I'm glad you like his work . Large format platinum-- its pretty stunning. And, can you imagine going out for entire month and only taking 8 shots? So, I guess I also disagree with Conrad about the distinction between the fine arts and crafts-- ceramics being the fine art par excellance in japan, of course. Did you ever read this Post I wrote awhile back about yixing ware, called, Taking a Good Hard Look

I really wanted to try and think about what it means to really LOOK at something-- but I am not sure I captured exactly that embodied aspect which you hinted about in an email... yes, me too. Especially music, like opera. But sometimes I get a very breathless feeling-- one of our mutual friends in fact writes poetry so beautiful that sometimes I actually stop breathing for a second.

And you are right that I think there is a tradition in China of going out into nature to really look before returning to your studio to paint. Not too long ago I was working on a translation about a contemporary ink painter in China who paints nothing but the same mountain over and over again. He must know every inch of the scenery and goes out-- sometimes with a sketchbook, sometimes just looking-- and then returns to his studio where he creates yet another ink-- no touchups no re-painting, it is pure performance art. Inspiration.

And there is also the tradition of not going anywhere and going traveling into nature via paintings.

This painting, 瀟湘臥遊図巻 has been my computer wallpaper forever... I have looked at it in person many times, but every day on the monitor for maybe 7 or 8 years now (from a long ago era before Adonis was born). No matter how many times I look at it, I never grow tired and always seem to find something new to be fascinated by it

臥遊 means "dream journey".. or traveling through a painting. I've always loved to do that too-- travel around in paintings.

Anyway, work just came in-- I had more to tell you-- but will email later...

The painting is quite remarkable… Of course I'm sure the appeal for me is not quite the same as it is for you, but that is precisely what is so wonderful about "looking" at things; the opportunity for individual interpretation… Personally, I'm totally intrigued by all the red stamps (Chop marks, right?) I'm assuming one of them is the artists stamp, but what about all the others? Were they there from the start? Were they added by successive owners? Who decided where to put them? I'd also love to know what the poem on the side says; I'm assuming it's a poem.

I have always looked at paintings as windows… I suppose thats not so unusual but it certainly works with your traveling by means of paintings.

The painting--Dream Journey of Xiao Xiang-- was one of Qinalong's "Four Beauties" (4 of his treasured paintings-- including Admonitions, now in London) He wrote poems and sketched bamboo on the painting, including in very large script his own dreaming: "An Overwhelmng Dream of Clouds"... a lot of the poems and collector's seals are the Emperor's, but in fact, not just Qianlong, because almost every famous collector who owned this painting impressed their collector's seals and some added poems or explanatory descriptions.

I think you are talking about the 4 lines on the right side? That is by far my favorite part of this painting. They are by one of China's great calligraphers, late Ming literati Dong Qichang. (He wrote his collector's impression on silk and then this was attached to the painting, I believe)

It says some to the effect that this painting, along with 3 other famed paintings were once part of so and so's collection in Shanghai. Now they are all dispersed: Xiao Xiang is here, Admonitions there, River Shu is far away there and I own the glorgious Nine Songs. All four are precious. I, Dong Qichang, have viewed them all and hence wrote this inscription.

Maybe 100 years later (more or less?) Qianlong somehow managed to collect all 4 again under one roof so imagine his delight? Apparently he had a special place built to house his 4 beauties and he must have looked at them constantly. When things fell apart, 2 somehow of the paintings were whisked away to Japan and the most famous one admonititions to Britain. Sadly Nine Songs just disappeared. Shu was later sold to Freer (a real coup for him) and so that is now in the US (I believe).... so the 4 beauties are separated again. Xiao Xiang, by the way, is a National Treasure in Japan.

You know I hate boats, but the water looks so calm and enticing in the cove-- I like to imagine, I am all alone just relazing in a boat doing nothing as it drifts along in the current... I will never grow tired of it....

Oh, and I am not sure if an artist's seal is on there or not-- I will check a book after work... I think a Buddhist (chan) priest painted it so there may not be a seal.

OK, back to the salt mines-- and Adonis' pajamas and underwear are still on the neighbor's roof-- frozen.

"In complete disgust, Conrad's friend the Count had called him "a sod and a wet blanket," "

He didn't call me a wet blanket!

Me and my grammar! It's amazing I even find anyone to give me work, I swear! No, in the name of full disclosure, the Count was not calling Conrad a wet-blanket-- he may have been thinking it though :)

The Akhmatova poem is beautiful-- I cannot get it out of my mind. And Rome. I have never been. Never further South than Florence on the boot. Maybe someday.

Buyers often added their chop mark to calligraphy they bought. It sounds vandalistic but as far as I know wasn't regarded that way. It seems like an attempt to absorb the prestige, magic, virtue, or whatever of the artist into your person. Not as barbarous as being buried with a painting, which almost happened to a Van Gogh.

In Coedes book collecting classical Greek and Latin references to China before Marco Polo, over half of the items are references to Chinese silk and tyrian purple as symbols of luxury. To my knowledge, nothing Europeans knew about China was simultaneously interesting and true.

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