Thursday, February 23, 2006


We can draw back.

You can come with your numberless armies, with your machines, but we will have moved on ahead of you. Even when you think we are surrounded we will not be there when you come.

We can live in your shadows. We can live under your houses. We can live in spaces you have built and then forgotten, in crevices you can not imagine.

We can always go farther away, farther down, farther inside. Because there is no space too small for us to inhabit.

We will take our scrolls and our memories and you will know nothing of them, not ever. You will never understand us.

You can cover every inch of the surface of the earth with your presence. We will find a space inside you and you will never feel us there.

In time we will fill every vein in your body. We will quicken and break apart your bones and you will crumble to dust.

Even then we will not try to dominate you. We will simply flow away, like water.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Confucius at the ford

Three versions of an incident from the Confucian Analects, Book 18, chapter 6.

First, the translation by James Legge (1815-1897); the italics are in the original and evidently represent passages added for clarity:
1. Ch'ang-tsü and Chieh-nî were at work in the field together, when Confucius passed by them, and sent Tsze-lû to inquire for the ford.

2. Ch'ang-tsü said, “Who is he that holds the reins in the carriage there?” Tsze-lû told him, “It is K'ung Ch'iû.” “Is it not K'ung Ch'iû of Lû?” asked he. “Yes,” was the reply, to which the other rejoined, “He knows the ford.”

3. Tsze-lû then inquired of Chieh-nî, who said to him, “Who are you, sir?” He answered, “I am Chung Yû.” “Are you not the disciple of K'ung Ch'iû of Lû?” asked the other. “I am,” replied he, and then Chieh-nî said to him, “Disorder, like a swelling flood, spreads over the whole empire, and who is he that will change its state for you? Rather than follow one who merely withdraws from this one and that one, had you not better follow those who have withdrawn from the world altogether?” With this he fell to covering up the seed, and proceeded with his work, without stopping.

4. Tsze-lû went and reported their remarks, when the Master observed with a sigh, “It is impossible to associate with birds and beasts, as if they were the same with us. If I associate not with these people, — with mankind, — with whom shall I associate? If right principles prevailed through the empire, there would be no use for me to change its state.”
Here is Arthur Waley's version:
Ch'ang-chü and Chieh-ni were working as ploughmates together. Master K'ung, happening to pass that way, told Tzu-lu to go and ask them where the river could be forded. Ch'ang-chü said, Who is it for whom you are driving? Tzu-lu said, for K'ung Ch'iu. He said, What, K'ung Ch'iu of Lu? Tzu-lu said, Yes, he. Ch'ang-chü said, In that case he already knows where the ford is. Tzu-lu then asked Chieh-ni. Chieh-ni said, Who are you? He said, I am Tzu-lu. Chieh-ni said, You are a follower of K'ung Ch'iu of Lu, are you not? He said, That is so. Chieh-ni said, Under Heaven there is none that is not swept along by the same flood. Such is the world and who can change it? As for you, instead of following one who flees from this man and that, you would do better to follow one who shuns this whole generation of men. And with that he went on covering the seed.

Tzu-lu went and told his master, who said ruefully, One cannot herd with birds and beasts. If I am not to be a man among other men, then what am I to be? If the Way prevailed under Heaven, I should not be trying to alter things.
And finally, a very free adaptation — probably based on Legge — by Paul Goodman (1911-1972):
"The Ford"

Analects, Bk. xviii, ch. 6

Of the boiling river ripped by fangs of rocks,
on the tranquil shore, in the pink sun, are plowing

bitter Chang, with pity swollen-hearted
and rational Chieh-ni, deep hermits.
And here comes in his dusty carriage
Confucius, humanely wandering
from prince to prince: “These are the rules of Order.”
Soon departing! when will his heart break?
“Tze-lu, go ask them where to ford this flood.”
The favorite bows low to the lonely sages.

Says Chang, “Is not yon noble with the reins
Confucius?” “Yes, Confucius my teacher.”
“He knows the ford! he knows the ford!
he wanders with advice from state to state!”
Says Chieh: “You see the flood! you see the fangs!”
—alas, Chieh-ni! the very shore is rotting—
“disorder like a flood has won its way

the Empire is raging. Who will change?
who will change? from state to state withdrawing
your teacher is traveling in disorder.
Once and for all withdraw. Is it not better?”
Without another word he falls to plowing.
“I asked them for the ford across the river:
they mention a philosophy of life.”
The Master said: “It's impossible to live

with birds and beasts as if they were like us.
If I do not associate with people,
with whom shall I associate?”
The two hermits make a joke: your master is the famous K'ung, who travels from state to state, thinking he can direct the course of the waters — he of all people knows the way across! But really, who can change the ways of the world? Instead of withdrawing from one tide here, another there, why not just withdraw from all men, like we have done? And Confucius answers, I can't live with birds and beasts as if they were people. Furthermore (Goodman omits this part), it's precisely because the true Way does not prevail in the world that I must continue to try to set things right.

I don't know whether Goodman wrote his poem during the years in which he was an outspoken opponent of American involvement in Vietnam; I suspect he may have. But in any case, even allowing for the enormous difficulties in interpreting the ancient Confucian texts, the essential issues posed in this brief encounter between two hermits and one sage seem to have changed very little between the first millennium BC and our day. Does it make sense to step into the flood of disorder (by which I think Confucius meant, wrong actions, bad rulers) knowing that one may be tainted or drowned, or is it better to stay pure, leave the waters to rage around those who stir them up, and simply withdraw into the hinterland? (There are many hinterlands, literal and otherwise.) Try to save others and — likely — fail, or save yourself?

We all of us, all who see the disorder, search for our own balance. Some dive in, others plough the fields; most of us teeter somewhere between. Nothing gets resolved.

Editions consulted: Legge: The Four Books. Shanghai: The Chinese Book Company, 1930. Waley: The Analects. New York: Everyman's Library, 2000. Goodman: Collected Poems. New York: Random House, 1974.