A chalk pit, a picture gallery, a brown figure in the sun, a skin, here, redolent of salt and smoke, and here (like Mary’s, he remembered) savagely musky. Somewhere in the mind a lunatic shuffled a pack of snapshots and dealt them out at random, shuffled once more and dealt them out in different order, again and again, indefinitely. There was no chronology. The idiot remembered no distinction between before and after. The pit was as real and vivid as the gallery. That ten years separated flints from Gauguins was a fact, not given, but discoverable only on second thoughts by the calculating intellect. The thirty-five years of his conscious life made themselves immediately known to him as a chaos – a pack of snapshots in the hands of a lunatic.
From Red Pine’s translations of Cold Mountain (poem 31)
A mountain man lives under thatch
before his gate carts and horses are rare
the forest is quiet but partial to birds
the streams are wide and home to fish
with his son he picks wild fruit
with his wife he hoes between rocks
what does he have at home
a shelf full of nothing but books
The expression yi-ch’uang (a shelf) can also mean “a bed,” and some translators have preferred this interpretation. I would think, though, that the presence of his family would encourage him to keep his bed clear of books. In any case, the emphasis here is on both lack of possessions and the importance of books for someone who chooses, rather than is forced into, the simplicity of mountain living.
As someone who has just moved the day’s pile of books from the bed so his wife can sleep, I disagree with this argument. And – though I admittedly know nothing of the import of the image in Chinese culture – I personally find the bed full of books a better depiction of a spirit freed from the dictates of etiquette and living in natural ease.
From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, from Squire Trelawney’s description of readying the expedition’s ship:
So far there was not a hitch. The workpeople, to be sure—riggers and what not—were most annoyingly slow; but time cured that. It was the crew that troubled me.
I wished a round score of men—in case of natives, buccaneers, or the odious French—and I had the worry of the deuce itself to find so much as half a dozen, till the most remarkable stroke of fortune brought me the very man that I required.
A personal quirk of mine is preferring always to eat at the bar of a restaurant. Too many places – and especially too many popular places – treat the dining section as a reborn steerage class. Case in point – last night we’re sitting at a two person table with maybe 15 inches of clearance against the next table. Their waiter arrives and is announcing the specials as he opens the wine they’ve ordered – only the limited gap means his elbow is spilling into my space and I have nearly a minute of bobbing and weaving as he uncorks the thing. As I shadow box I come up with a term for this problem – oinodoulooignophobia:
oinodoulos – Greek for wine slave and even though the dictionary contains no entry I’m sure I’ve seen it somewhere.
oignumi – Greek for open (and the word in Homer for unsealing a krater of wine).
And it is, after all, as good a way as any of solving the problem of existence to get near enough to the things and people that have appeared to us beautiful and mysterious from a distance to be able to satisfy ourselves that they have neither mystery nor beauty. It is one of the systems of mental hygiene among which we are at liberty to choose our own, a system which is perhaps not to be recommended too strongly, but gives us a certain tranquility with which to spend what remains of life, and also—since it enables us to regret nothing, by assuring us that we have attained to the best, and that the best was nothing out of the ordinary—with which to resign ourselves to death.
Et c’est en somme une façon comme une autre de résoudre le problème de l’existence, qu’approcher suffisamment les choses et les personnes qui nous ont paru de loin belles et mystérieuses, pour nous rendre compte qu’elles sont sans mystère et sans beauté; c’est une des hygiènes entre lesquelles on peut opter, une hygiène qui n’est peut-être pas très recommandable, mais elle nous donne un certain calme pour passer la vie, et aussi comme elle permet de ne rien regretter, en nous persuadant que nous avons atteint le meilleur, et que le meilleur n’était pas grand-chose — pour nous résigner à la mort.
I don’t like Moncrieff/his revisers using ‘not to be recommended too strongly’ for ‘n’est peut-être pas très recommandable’. I think the sense is closer to ‘perhaps not very commendable.’
But I also have a hard time with a couple of points of the original. It is unclear what tone to give this observation since while it seems to match the system the narrator himself adopts (or, not to suggest a conscious policy guiding his path through life, discovers) it is outlined here with ambivalence. Then it is also unclear what to do with the reasoning sequence of ‘ it enables us to regret nothing, by assuring us that we have attained to the best, and that the best was nothing out of the ordinary.’ There comes to mind the passage in Time Regained where the narrator talks of how he would like to be a collector of first editions but first not in the sense of first printings but of the first he himself encountered, the precise copy through which he first came to know a work. The perspective underlying this reorientation of value – from monetary/aesthetic to personal – requires rejecting external criteria for assessing what is best/most desirable and instead referring the judgment to inner fermentation, to what most enriches our inner-looking mental selves. In that sense, both ‘best’ and ‘ordinary’ lose their meaning and the above program of ‘hygiene’ derives its worth not from offering the tranquilizing disillusionment of a vague nihilism but from freeing us – in that disillusionment – to transfer the imagination’s focus from the external to the internal.
I’ve just finished Will Hunt’s Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet. I can’t recommend him for style or fertility of thought but his anecdotes are charming and his enthusiasm endearing. I do wish someone – his editor? or his internal censor? – had not counselled him to cultivate/falsify a reflective voice. Will seems a doer, not a thinker. And, despite the mandates of MFA-stylings, it’s always best to be ourselves and trust our truths will come out better in authenticity than in fashionable narrative structures. I also wish he’d learn to cite sources, caption photos, and – a personal quibble – stop quoting Annie Dillard (twice is twice too much for a straw puppet). But I like where his interests trend and among the more interesting things I took away is this tale:
I decided to go down into the catacombs in order to retrace the path of an eighteenth-century man who, as it happened, had famously entered the quarries and be come lost. In 1793, Philibert Aspairt – a man in his sixties, who worked as the guard at the Val-de-Grace hospital – had descended underground on a quest to find the cellar of a nearby convent, which was said to contain a secret cache of very fine chartreuse. Aspair lost his bearing, and eleven years later his corpse was found in an alcove beneath the boulevard Saint-Michel. A memorial tomb stone was installed on the spot were he fell.
In the few minutes I’m generally willing to give to passing topics I couldn’t find a consistent account of Aspairt’s death. Everyone now knows him as the patron saint of the catacomb explorers – lescataphiles – but they disagree over the motives for his adventure. One site – whose content I choose to trust based solely on their comforting 90’s aesthetics – phrases his quest as the Proustian ‘à la recherche de quelque trésor (solide ou liquide)‘. Observing the de mortuis nil nisi bonum principle I therefore opt for Hunt’s version of a man in (holy) quest of (Green) Chartreuse.
From Red Pine’s introduction to his Collected Songs of Cold Mountain:
Despite Kuoching’s famous philosopher monks, whenever Cold Mountain visited, he preferred the company of Big Stick (Feng-kan) and Pickup (Shih-te), two men equally cloaked in obscurity. According to the few early accounts we have of him, Big Stick Suddenly appeared on day riding through the temple’s front gate on the back of a tiger. He was over six feet tall. And unlike other monks, he didn’t shave his head but let his hair hang down to his eyebrows. He took up residence in a room behind the temple library and came and went as he liked. Whenever anyone asked him about Buddhism, all he would say was, “Whatever.” Otherwise, he hulled rice during the day and chanted hymns at night.
In James Sanford’s introduction to Shi-shu in The Clouds Should Know Me By Now: Buddhist Poet Monks of China we get this extra image:
[Cold Mountain’s collected songs] also contain … two poems attributed to their somewhat reclusive fellow traveler, the Zen monk Feng-kan (perhaps best known for his habit of using a pet tiger as a naptime pillow)