Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006).



He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.



Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog.



After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. He sings in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.



Saturday, January 29, 2011

Concupiscent Curds (story, part 1 of 3)

CONCUPISCENT CURDS

(from Strange Tales from a Sinological Studio 漢齋誌異 by Lloyd Haft)

Let us assume, for the modest purposes of the following brief story, that in the autumn of 19— there was among the foreign residents of the ancient city of Peking a certain young Dutch student of literature, altogether unremarkable in appearance, abilities, or manner. We may suppose him to have arrived in the Ancient Capital, like so many before him, during the strangely golden days which mark the passing of true summer, in which the unsung willows and humble bean-vines in the countless courtyards of the city seem fairly to cry out in poignant praise of the fleeting warmth that has been. We may imagine as well that after his first weeks in the Yen Capital, the young scholar had grown gradually accustomed to the indescribably moving beauty of his new environs, and had settled into a regimen of taxing studies pursued in solitary diligence and punctuated only by the frequent writing of dutiful missives to his parents, his friends, and his teachers.
        Likewise for the purposes of the present narrative, we may well surmise that it had been long, long indeed since the conscientious young scholar’s limbs had last known the embrace of woman.
        Now as we may safely guess, the young scholar was not exempt from the dietary proclivities common to those of his foreign kind, among these being the drinking of milk. Finding himself unable within the environs of his lodgings to satisfy his recurrent desire for the indulgence of this seemingly harmless weakness in his nature, he had formed the habit of walking, daily save in inclement weather, for some distance into the city, invariably stopping at a certain shop at which he might purchase, for consumption upon the premises, a portion of the fermented milk which is referred to in the Mandarin Vernacular as suan nai.
        Now upon a certain afternoon in late October, the young scholar had once again betaken himself to the said shop, and having purchased his usual tot of curds, had sat down upon one of several bare wooden chairs formed up in a row against the back wall. The native clerks and customers, as was their wont, regarded him continually with silent but congenial curiosity. Enjoying his portion in quiet gratitude, the scholar was perhaps still intent upon the studies of the day. He seemed, in any case, scarcely to return their glances. Handling his spoon slowly and with great deliberation, he sat gazing into his cup with a decidedly reflective air. Indeed, it could not have been denied that there was in his expression more than a suggestion of the pensive. No doubt for this reason, none of the other customers saw fit to be seated next to him, and as ten minutes became fifteen, fifteen twenty, the empty chairs on either side of him loomed ever larger, ever weightier, seeming more and more to constitute about him a marked zone of distinction, a tangible figuration of the aura of the foreign which hung so impalpably about him and tended, as time became more time, to deepen inexorably in quality and degree, attaining finally, after the passage of some thirty minutes, to a positive state of the uncanny.
        Altogether reasonable though any might have seemed who found this foreigner unfriendly, yet they should have erred. Indeed, had these modern denizens of the Imperial City possessed but the merest modicum of that psychic acumen for which their ancestors had been fabled in story, they should inevitably have discerned in his countenance the cold-pursed lineaments, borne with whatever show of dignity, of one quietly despairing for want of humankind. Being in the fact, however, but plain and undistinguished participants in the present fallen age, and sharing in the generally benighted state of latter-day humanity, they were quite incapable of access to perceptions of such rare and subtle sort. Carrying themselves as befitted citizenry in the presence of an alien, they continued observing his motions with an inscrutably abstract optimism.
        Now it came to pass that when the young foreign scholar had been seated for some forty minutes, had long since consumed his portion, and was indeed on the point of returning to his lodgings, two new customers entered the shop. The younger was a boy of perhaps ten years, clad in a modest blue jacket and pants. The other, presumably his sister, was a good six years older. Wearing upon her slender frame the green cap, jacket, and trousers of the Chinese Army, she was, for the run of her people, notably tall.
        As the girl and her brother came into the shop and made their way to the counter, it could not truly have been said that the young foreign scholar ignored them. Rather was it the case that he, having accustomed himself to following in the quotidian amenities such fashions as were locally judged seemly, had learned to avert his gaze in the strong presence of female comeliness. He had not failed, in the moment in which the girl had entered the shop, to remark the uncommon line and proportion of her cheekbones. Indeed, they had seemed to him to glow as it were from within, irradiating even the bystanders with a gleam which was yet not so much a gleam as a promise, and which seemed momentarily aflame in an insouciant eagerness to divest itself with stark inconsequence, to break loose in one thick thunderbolt of glee, from the dull, darkening slant of the autumnal hour surrounding.
        In an instant the young scholar had lowered his eyes again, and now as he sat in silence, not watching yet observing, he perceived that the girl was either looking at him or straining every fiber of her being to avoid doing so. Presently he sensed, also, that the girl and her brother were moving away from the counter, slowly and unsteadily, carrying full cups of suan nai.
        His own cup, he realized, was long since empty. He found himself nevertheless gripping it more and more tightly. A cup...was there not a story from the Liaozhai zhiyi in which a single teacup became a raging sea full of tempests, containing within its once-porcelain rim an untold theater of shipwrecks, gallantries, and tragedy? The young scholar tried to remember, but it was late in the afternoon and his mind, so it seemed, was less than fully clear.
        Meanwhile the girl and her brother were standing directly before him. The young scholar allowed his gaze to rise unobtrusively out of his cup and into the intervening space, intending in all discretion to steal a brief glance at the girl’s visage. But before he could do so it was her brother who suddenly spoke, saying: ‘Waibin xiansheng hao,’ which translated means ‘The Foreign Guest, the Gentleman, hail!’ The young scholar forthwith looked directly into the boy’s face, and as if by prior agreement, there seemed immediately to pass between him and the boy a thrill of inexplicable mirth, so that both commenced to laugh, and laughing turned to look at the girl, who laughed to feel their laughter, and whose laughter made them both to laugh the more.
        It was in this moment that the young scholar experienced, however fleetingly, an unmistakable glimpse of his deathlessness. Suddenly absolved of all lesser perception by the crashing music of the two children’s laughter, he saw himself afloat upon a water-craft, a raft or hollowed log or outrigger, and floating all about him upon a glimmering tropical sea were loose planks, torn sails and masts and the like, and a strangely warm rain began to fall though the sun continued shining, and he held in his arms two children, a girl and a boy both very young and clinging to him, and as he shielded them in his rain-spattered sunburned arms he knew that a frightful structure of limitation had been undone, and that henceforth he would live in his full stature.
        It would perhaps be indelicate to inquire after the objective duration of such a widened instant. In any case, what may be stated with certainty is that very soon afterward the girl and boy had sat down in the chairs on either side of the young scholar, and that all the customers in the shop were now silently observing the little group of three.
        Presently the girl said, very clearly but with eyes averted, ‘One would ask the Foreign Gentleman upon what business the Foreign Gentleman has come to our country.’
        ‘The study of literature,’ said the young scholar.
        The girl gasped and seemed almost to rise out of her chair into the very air. Yet she did not turn her head, and when her composure had returned, she said, ‘This also holds one’s own interest.’
        ‘In what literature is one’s Younger Sister most interested?’
        ‘Old poems. Does the Foreign Gentleman also appreciate old poems?’
        ‘One hopes to be worthy of making the attempt.’
        ‘And does the Foreign Gentleman know the verses of illustrious foreign poets?’
‘Perhaps most inadequately.’
‘One seeks to understand such verse, but is most lacking in knowledge, and opportunities for study are few. One wonders whether it were possible to ask the Foreign Gentleman for brief instruction regarding a case of interpretation.’
‘Upon what matter does one’s Younger Sister’s question touch?’ Saying these words, the young scholar permitted himself to look into the face of his young interlocutress. And if he was shocked anew to rediscover her beauty, he was yet more shocked to hear her speak unhesitatingly a language recognizably German, in which despite the vagaries of her plainly autodidact pronunciation, she succeeded in calling to his mind the lines of verse which life had long ago seared so indelibly upon his memory:

Ach, in den Armen hab ich sie alle verloren,
du nur, du wirst immer wieder geboren:
weil ich niemals dich anhielt, halt ich dich fest.


By a supreme feat of self-direction, the young scholar brought his gaze to assume fixity upon a point some two yards directly in front of his feet. Countermanding a powerful impulse to suspend breathing, he spoke carefully and without expression, deliberately allowing no cadence or intonation to color his words: ‘Being oneself but an inexperienced student who could not yet be said to have “entered the gates” of Poetry, one cannot speak with confidence. Yet one would seem to have been taught that these are lines by the very great poet Rilke. Their meaning, of course, can never be fully grasped by the waking mind. Nevertheless, if one were to attempt a most rash and immature interpretation, it might be this: that we can truly love only such entities as are beautiful in our eyes; that an entity can only touch us with beauty if it is moving unhindered along its own Path of Life; that in the unavoidable overweight of possessive desire which attaches itself to our physically manifested embraces, we cannot but obstruct each other’s Paths with our own ego-ballast – and, hence, that every true love story is inevitably a most sad and painful story, for we can only love deeply that which it can never be ours consciously to possess. One does not know whether this might be an answer to one’s Younger Sister’s question.’
        When he had finished speaking, all eyes in the shop were upon him. In the same instant he felt his body being overtaken by a vast swoop of fear, starting as a cold-winged cramp somewhere between his lower vertebrae and sweeping mercilessly upward along the spine, into the neck and down to the cold belly and hollow legs, leaving his head clammy and bereft of bearing. And he knew that he did well to fear, for having heard the tales and read the histories, he knew that it was a dreadful and perilous thing for a native of the Middle Kingdom to converse with an alien upon matters smacking however obliquely of the passional.
        Nor was he alone in being afraid, for in the selfsame moment the girl and her brother stood up and turned to face him. The girl spoke to him very quietly and without apparent emotion: ‘One thanks the Foreign Gentleman extremely for his kind instruction. It is truly lamentable that opportunities to study together are so few. One wishes the Foreign Gentleman continuing success in his literary occupations.’
        ‘Perhaps...’ the young scholar replied, measuring his words; ‘perhaps in future there shall be an opportunity to speak again.’ But before he had finished, the girl and her brother were already walking rapidly toward the door. Every cell in the young scholar’s being cried out for them to stay, and as they approached the door he experienced an intense impulse to rise from his chair and follow them. But this he knew he must not do. Accordingly, he stood up, went to the counter, and ordered another cup of suan nai. The longer he stayed upon the premises, he reasoned, the less he would appear in the eyes of witnesses to have been in any way agitated by his encounter with the girl.
        Indeed, by the time he left the shop in the gathering twilight, it may be doubted whether the clerks and customers retained particular memory of the afternoon’s events. When he returned on the following day, and the next, to drink his portion in solitude, it would not have occurred to them to pity him the absence of the two young figures who had been so momentarily his friends.
        And so it continued for four days, after which, quite without warning, the young foreign scholar never again appeared in the milk shop. After some days, the Chinese clerks recognized the fact that the stranger was no longer in their midst. A few, chiefly the younger among them, troubled to guess at the reasons which might have prompted the sudden surcease of his patronage. But all such musings, being susceptible of neither confirmation nor disproof, were quickly forgotten.
        What none of the clerks nor any other inhabitant of the Capital could have known was that immediately following upon the events just related, the young foreign scholar had entered into a state of profound physiological distress. The sight of victuals, indeed of comestibles generally, had become daily more disgusting to him, and the very thought of milk, or of any milk product however compounded, came to be outright nauseating. Dwelling in a precinct chiefly reserved for foreigners, in which he had little occasion to partake of bean-curd, the young scholar began, subtly but inexorably, to exhibit symptoms of calcium deficiency. Whether for this or for some yet more delicate reason, he was increasingly plagued with insomnia. Most curiously of all, his spirit became quite suddenly impervious to the beauties of poetry, or of any fine literature; the most dogged attempt to read even two consecutive lines was doomed to end in an awful paroxysm of restless vexation, neural fatigue, and pathetically futile self-reproaches. Yet his brain was by no means averse to other forms of activity. On the contrary, he was obsessed at all hours of the day and night by a fanatical fascination with the systematic phonological analysis of the Mandarin dialects. Scarcely a word could come to his cognizance, whether in speech, in writing, or in the mercilessly ceaseless reflexes of silent memory, without his being possessed by maddening doubts as to the reliable exactitude of his conception of its phonemic structure. More particularly, the critically rigid distinction obtaining between the aspirated and unaspirated consonants, constituting one of the most universally recognized structural fundamentals of the language, began to appear, in the young scholar’s view, increasingly untenable. As October passed into November, while the young scholar’s appetite dwindled toward the vanishing point even as his capacity to endure sleeplessness grew steadily more exceptional, he became convinced that there lay open to him no alternative but to abandon the literary pursuits that had so long charmed him, and in their place to dedicate the rest of his life to the study of the historical process by which a D, which to his ear’s feeling was less than a D, and a T which anyone in or near Peking must agree is so much more than a mere T, had become so illusorily segregated.
        Intellectually indifferent, linguistically implausible, or psychologically unsound though this temporary phase of obsession might have appeared in larger perspective, it was to prove poignantly pivotal for the whole future course of the young scholar’s embodied sojourn in this World of Dust. Indeed, it was to decide not only his fate but that of another.

(to be continued)