But as so much duckweed on a river

From Jack London’s John Barleycorn, in London’s inner dialogue with what he terms the White Logic – the brutal insight of drunkenness:

“Your clear white light is sickness,” I tell the White Logic. “You lie.”

“By telling too strong a truth,” he quips back.

“Alas, yes, so topsy-turvy is existence,” I acknowledge sadly.

“Ah, well, Liu Ling was wiser than you,” the White Logic girds. “You remember him?”

I nod my head—Liu Ling, a hard drinker, one of the group of bibulous poets who called themselves the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and who lived in China many an ancient century ago.

“It was Liu Ling,” prompts the White Logic, “who declared that to a drunken man the affairs of this world appear but as so much duckweed on a river. Very well. Have another Scotch, and let semblance and deception become duck-weed on a river.”

The sentiment comes from Liu Ling’s In Praise of the Virtues of Wine (trans. Jennifer Oldstone-Moore):

There is Mr. Great Man:

He takes Heaven and Earth to be one day,

Ten thousand years to be one moment

The sun and moon are his windows;

The eight barren places are his palaces.

He travels without tracks or traces

He lives without room or cottage

Heaven is his curtain, the earth his mat

Self-indulgent, he does what he pleases….

No worries, no brooding,

He is content and well pleased.

He becomes intoxicated without moving;

All of a sudden, he awakens from his drunkenness…

He doesn’t know the feeling of flesh hurt by bitter cold or searing heat,

Or the sensations of covetousness

Gazing down, he watches the rest of the world agitated and unsettled

Like bits of duckweed borne on the Yangtze and Han rivers.




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