02 March 2009


Sometimes, I like to go to book talks. I go for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s like reading a review, a shortcut to extracting a bit of knowledge from a book I know I’ll never get around to reading. Sometimes I’ve read something of the talker’s before, and I want to see how their mind comes out in speaking, to compare with what I know already of the way it comes out in writing--a tinkering with the instruments I use every day to guess what might be going on inside all those mysterious people around me I can know only through how they look and what they do and what they say.

But the main reason to attend these talks is to see what intriguingly idiotic questions the audience may come up with during the question period, and whether the speakers are skilled at reformulating bad questions in a way that lets them give good answers.

There was an evening a year ago when I wandered into the central library in search of frivolous fiction and noticed that Anne Enright was about to read. I went into the auditorium and listened. Her book sounded good, and she read well. When she stopped, she said she would answer some questions.

It was as if the audience had conspired on a plan to drip stereotypes on her till she went mad with irritation. One person asked about the Irish mother as anchor of the family, the next about pub culture and the strength of the storytelling tradition, another (or at least it would not surprise me were it so, though on this one I have no clear memory) some damn thing or other about potatoes.

And then came a question that started with ten years of unprecedented economic prosperity and ended with, “and can you believe it yourself?”

Enright had to this point managed firmly and politely to say things that responded directly to people’s questions while politely hinting at things like diversity in Irish family dynamics or Dubliners with no taste for pubs, but this last question confused her a bit. She asked to have it restated, which it was in almost precisely the same words. And then I was filled with profoundest admiration to see that, instead of flying toward the auditorium’s ranks of hard foam seats to throttle someone, she found something or other quietly and calmly to say.

With books about a bigger country, things get even worse.

People like Philip Pan (whom I heard at Town Hall in June of last year) or Xinran (Saturday at Elliott Bay Book Company) put years or decades of careful work into understanding and documenting what is happening in contemporary China, and come out hoping to convey one main message to people who may have only an hour or ten to devote to this subject: China is vast, complex, and changing dizzyingly fast; here are some illustrative examples. And then they are met with all the old questions that demand simple, all-encompassing answers: When will we see progress on Tibet? On prison labor? On the one-child policy? When will press restrictions be lifted, and how are people feeling about the Cultural Revolution?

Or even questions like those asked Xinran Saturday:

“Because of the huge, trillion-dollar indebtedness of America to Red China . . . do you you see Red Chinese influence taking us back to feudalism?”

“I think that China holds the key to the survival of mankind! Because I worry about global warming . . .”

Something about China does seem to draw lunatics, or people who if not quite lunatic are still unable to grasp the bigness of the subject. Even when someone like Xinran speaks explicitly of the inadequacy of her 50 years of experience to do more than scrabble at the edges of 5,000 years of culture, 1.3 billion people, the vast and terraced landscape, etc., etc., people still go on voicing these much-too-large questions, the kind that make my brother mutter to himself, “What about the world?” in imitation of something a shaggy young Metallica fan once asked him when I stood him in front of a class of Chinese high schoolers as a target for their English practice.

Even books only tangentially related to China have something of the same effect.

A couple of hours before Xinran spoke in the basement of Elliott Bay, Stephen Mitchell was there, reading from his new book of translations and commentary. Though the abominable presumption of calling his anthology The Second Book of the Tao awoke in me a half-remembered animosity (Assuming the primacy of the Daodejing in the Daoist canon! Appropriating Zhuangzi to the purposes of Stephen Mitchell! Grab-bag spirituality! Bah!), I had once spent an entire week absorbed in his Gilgamesh, finding that there, at least, I didn’t mind him stuffing bits of Stephen Mitchell into the chinks left by older writers. Take, for instance, the following:

When he walked into the main street of Uruk,
the people gathered around him, marveling,
the crowds kept pressing closer to see him,
like a little baby they kissed his feet.
“What an enormous man!” they whispered.
“How much like Gilgamesh--not quite so tall
but stronger-boned. In the wilderness
he grew up eating grass with gazelles,
he was nursed on the milk of antelope and deer.
Gilgamesh truly has met his match.
This wild man can rival the mightiest of kings.”

How much more faithful to my idea of an epic than the more careful and scholarly version by N. K. Sandars:

He entered Uruk, that great market, and all the folk thronged round him where he stood in the street in strong-walled Uruk. The people jostled; speaking of him they said, ‘He is the spit of Gilgamesh.’ ‘He is shorter.’ ‘He is bigger of bone.’ ‘This is the one who has reared on the milk of wild beasts. His is the greatest strength.’ The men rejoiced: ‘Now Gilgamesh has met his match. This great one, this hero whose beauty is like a god, he is a match even for Gilgamesh.’

Of course, one might wonder where the heck the gazelles came from, and suspect they were merely overflow from the teeming mental landscape of Stephen Mitchell, where an overpopulation had developed for reasons entirely unrelated to Gilgamesh but needing outlet before the grass was all eaten and the ecosystem wrecked.

But no mind! Afraid not of antelope, not daunted by deer, I would listen to this singular voice!

There were things in the reading to make me squirm, but I am always happy to have my suspicions vindicated. Mitchell draws the kind of audience whose loudest sighs of appreciation come with the simplest statements about harmony coming with the centering of the self. He has the kind of awareness of words’ rhythm that I’m still surprised to find rare. He shows no trace of doubt that if a though occurred to him it must be interesting, and if it occurred to his wife [link] it could fix the world.

As for his voice--there are hints that nature made it loud and raspy, but by generous application of life-affirming philosophy he constrains it to a quiet and unctuous huskiness.

He read, and his reading came to end, and people asked him questions. Someone asked a reasonable question, the kind to which he could give a brief but still revealing answer, a question about his work habits. I was interested to hear that making a version of Zhuangzi seemed to him straightforward: find the seven or eight translations into English and German; read, amalgamate, and transform. But for Homer he was somehow haunted by uncertainty about the meanings of words, and saw a need to consult volumes of scholarly commentary. Whence, I almost wished to ask him, this sudden sense of responsibility to the interpretive tradition? Where is our dauntless Stephen Mitchell, herder of gazelles?

But I stayed quiet, so as not to take up time that could be used by others to ask questions like “What’s the historical link between Daoism and Zen?”

What about the world?

04 October 2008


Shortly past a Saturday noon, a young woman was at the post office, mailing a box to Russia.

“Russia,” commented the clerk, whose tag said Susie Q. “Pretty nice country, huh? How’s the weather, is it nice? Is it hot?”

“Actually, right now the weather is pretty much like here,” mumbled the woman with the box, but could not seem to find the spirit to go on.

29 September 2008

19 September 2008