Liberating Paradox

A Tang Dynasty mirror depicts Boya playing his zither on one side and a dancing phoenix on the other, the sympathetic symmetry recalling how his friend, 知音, Ziqi, could picture what he was playing (melodies of lofty mountains and flowing water) without words being exchanged. It suggests the possibility of speaking in essences instead of words - an escape from the Lévi-Straussian binary of bricoleur vs. engineer.
According to Lévi-Strauss in Savage Mind, "the scientist [i.e. engineer] never carries on a dialogue with nature pure and simple but rather with a particular relationship between nature and culture definable in terms of his particular period and civilization and the material means at his disposal. He is no more able than the 'bricoleur' to do whatever he wishes when he is presented with a given task." Interestingly, it is the "terms of his particular period" that allow philologists to surmise the dates of works in 'science' and that delimit even the big dreams of Big Data to "the capacity of the critic to ask interesting questions."
Outside of this circuit, I place the silence that interprets. I picture J.C. Maxwell with his colour triangle and wheel - it occurring to him as a child to spin the colours round. The understanding of that triangle enables us to see images on pixelled screens, albeit with the help of regulating algorithms. Maxwell was not stuck in time, he opened one of his books with an epigraph from Plato's Republic: λαμπάδια ἔχοντες διαδώσουσιν ἀλλήλοις ἁμιλλώμενοι τοῖς ἵπποις 328a - "they carry torches and pass them along to one another as they race with the horses"; translator Shorey directs us also to Laws where life is also described as being passed on like a torch, and also to Lucretius' De rerum, where runners pass the lamp of life to one another. Accepting limitations (e.g. of the single life) while doing work may be taken as an example of a liberating paradox.
So may the paradox of the educated, elevated Boya finding in a peasant from the hinterlands one who could understand his music without prior explanation - and explain Boya's art back to him without any prepping. So many of the poems about Boya and Ziqi observe that scholars make for terrible friends most of the time - usually with further incrimination against the intellectual vulgarian (well, those are my choice of words; haughty would perhaps be more accurate). It may be paradoxical for a man of such high station as Boya's to develop such a strong attachment to the woodcutter Ziqi. But theirs is the invisible tie, what Rumi calls the longing string. A resonance of essences.




This state of 'wordlessness' is illustrated by Chuang Tzu in 外物 (13): "Fishing-stakes are employed to catch fish; but when the fish are got, the men forget the stakes. Snares are employed to catch hares, but when the hares are got, men forget the snares. Words are employed to convey ideas; but when the ideas are apprehended, men forget the words. Fain would I talk with a man who has forgot the words!"
The passage has been compared to Tao Yuanming's poem "Drinking Wine" in which he sits in his house on a busy street unperturbed by any noise when his mind is elsewhere - he could even be in the countryside plucking chrysanthemums, "In all this there is true meaning, I'd like to explain but have lost the words". He does not need words when he has already attained the state of being where his heart wished to take him - he has already illustrated this, experienced it. It is a liberating paradox to be a writer whose words are suddenly gone by the end of a poem, superfluous.
It is a funny concept: I imagine the successfully lived life as a kind of ikebana: the last stalk placed in the pot erasing any extraneous blah-blah-blahs. But work is needed for this liberation.
Recently, I received such a beautifully-printed letter from Bailey from Antiquaria, who incidentally teaches people how to write calligraphy. The repeated practice of each single letter eventually leads to script that buoys the eyes, does not drown them in scribbles. This reminds me of advice I got from a very gnarly boss from my early work days: work is a ballast. There is nothing like treating the existential despair every human is bound to experience at least once in life with the floating stability of the repetitive or absorbing task. This is a liberating paradox.




Another paradox is that of being freed by giving voice to one's feelings of suppression: a freedom of articulation if not in fact. One of my favourite examples of this is from The Book of Songs, 蕩之什, 桑柔 10, 11, 16: "Here is a wise man; - His views and words reach to a hundred li, There is a stupid man; - He on the contrary rejoices in his madness. It is not that I could not speak [all this]; - How is it I was withheld by my fear? ; Here is a good man, But he is not sought out nor employed. There is a hard-hearted man, And he is thought of and promoted once and again. The people [in consequence] desire disorder, And find enjoyment in bitter, poisonous ways. ; Although you say, ' We did not do this, ' I have made this song about you." Emphasis added. The question of how the poet was restrained by fear brings to mind Demosthenes' Philippic 3, about how aliens (like Philip) and even slaves are granted freedom to say what they wish, but Athenians themselves "have banished it utterly" not out of fear but out of the corruption of the hard-hearted, thus a war was being waged without javelin or bolt being launched (3.17). We might consider another verse from The Book of Odes 園有桃: "Of the peach trees in the garden, The fruit may be used as food. My heart is grieved, And I play and sing. Those who do not know me, Say I am a scholar venting his pride. 'Those men are right; What do you mean by your words?' My heart is grieved; Who knows [the cause of] it? Who knows [the cause of] it? [They know it not], because they will not think." Emphasis added. As recent political critique pointed out, sometimes business is valued over knowledge and experience - which is much harder to come by but is a weight that lightens the perils of transport.
Finally, an LARB article I gave much thought to recently, Deconstructing de Man in the Digital Age, shows the liberation of bringing the timeless aspects of a person's work to light. Freedman focused on how de Man had also brought to America not just deconstruction but explication de texte rooted in its comparative literature aspects in philology: a "tradition" that united Heidegger, Auerbach, Nietzsche. It may have been a paradox to find that tradition, or a fragment of it, in de Man, but a liberating one.
If where our freedoms differ there is work to be done



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