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.

Monday, March 21, 2011

On the ‘Revelations’ of Art

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 4)

Upon entering the famous Gemeentemuseum (Municipal Art Museum) in The Hague 海牙 (famous, among other things, for its collection of paintings by Mondriaan), one of the first things a visitor sees is an impressive motto on the wall: ‘Honor the Divine Light in the Revelations of Art.’ I have often thought that phrase is almost a nutshell summary of the main differences between traditional Chinese and modern Western esthetics.
        To begin with, the concept of a specifically ‘divine’ light is Western, and to traditionally brought-up Westerners definitely suggests a kind of ‘light’ that is ‘not of this world,’ somehow different from, more than ‘merely’ natural light. In a traditional Western context, it goes without saying that that ‘higher’ or ‘divine’ light is better than, preferable to, any light that nature has to offer.
        Next, the idea that what art produces are ‘revelations.’ The very word ‘revelation’ would have reminded our Western ancestors of the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of St. John in which ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ are proclaimed. A ‘revelation’ shows you something you have never seen before. And it is something important, not just a trivial discovery. There is the suggestion that your whole view of things will never again be quite the same.
        For some time now in the West – since the 19th century at least – we have assumed that the task or function of art is to do this: to bring in something new, a way of seeing things, a light or perspective or opening that had not quite been there before. For us, artistic expression does not provide answers; it reveals the relativity and inadequacy of the former answers. This is what the American conductor Leonard Bernstein meant when he said the role of the artist is to ‘shout the great questions.’
        In traditional Chinese culture, the role of the artist is to repeat the great answers. The answers, as the standard social discourse has laid them down, are already long since known. The artist (or writer, poet) does not grope toward an unknown; he or she affirms what is (said to be) known.
        In the West, the ever-questioning and perhaps unsettling quality of art, its refusal to become just another adjunct to society’s existing discourse, is felt as something positive. Kenneth Rexroth, one of the great translators of Du Fu’s 杜甫 poetry in English, said the best art was ‘permanently caustic (酸性的and unassimilable (不可同化的 ).’ Julia Kristeva has written that artistic expression is a ‘privileged area’ of ‘transgression (違反) and enjoyment’ – a very different thing from adjustment to, harmonious co-management of, a tradition which claims already to have laid down the possible meanings within all ‘areas’ of society.
        If ‘transgression and enjoyment’ are not the goals or defining features of the traditional Chinese conception of the arts...what are? An often-quoted passage from Confucius, though it refers specifically to the ancient Book of Odes (詩經), represents a pretty general attitude. I will quote it here in the translation of James Legge:

The Master said, ‘My children, why do you not study the Book of Poetry [i.e. of Odes – L. H.]? The Odes serve to stimulate the mind. They may be used for purposes of self-contemplation. They teach the art of sociability. They show how to regulate feelings of resentment. From them you learn the more immediate duty of serving one’s father, and the remoter one of serving one’s prince. From them we become largely acquainted with the names of birds, beasts, and plants.’ [Analects 論語 Book 17, chapter 9]

In the footnotes to his translation, Legge explains that according to tradition, the Odes ‘stimulate the mind’ through ‘the descriptions in them of good and evil’; they are useful for ‘self-contemplation’ because one can compare one’s own character with those whom the Odes ‘praise and blame’; they teach ‘sociability’ because they exhibit ‘gravity in the midst of pleasure’; and by their blend of ‘pity and reproofs’ they ‘teach how to regulate our resentments.’
        As an Occidental who has been involved with traditional Chinese and modern Western poetry for a couple of generations, I must admit that in re-reading this summation by Confucius, I cannot easily find a single point in it that is comparable with what we expect from ‘modern’ Western poetry. Even the first point – that poetry can ‘serve to stimulate the mind’ – is problematical. Our first reaction would probably be that poetry does not ‘serve to’ do anything it all; it is an autonomous factor that has no concrete goal, maybe even that liberates us from the oppressive notion that we should always have ‘goals’ in mind. In any case, the kind of person whose ‘mind’ is not yet ‘stimulated’ is not likely to start reading poetry in the first place!
        Next: our notion of ‘self-contemplation’ would not, I think, be based on the ‘praise and blame’ of others. Maybe it would not be based on any definite ethical standard, not concerned with social behavior at all. For many of us, ‘self’ begins where ‘society’ and its obligations leave off. This takes us on to ‘sociability’: quite a few people in the West think of a ‘poet’ as by definition a hopelessly ‘unsociable’ type of person: a rather dubious eccentric whose contribution to  any social setting is not likely to be outstanding. When I was a young graduate student, for a while in the U.S. George McGovern was a candidate for President. The fact that he wrote poetry was sometimes cited with derision by his opponents as an indication that his character was not suitable for such high office. Such a person, they were implying, lacked the necessary qualities of realism and practicality. He could not be trusted with the management of society and its traditions.
        Again, we certainly would not turn to poetry for help in ‘regulating feelings’ or ‘learning duties’ – rather to lighten the burdens that lifelong ‘regulation’ and ‘learning’ have laid upon our hearts. And even Confucius’ last point: that poetry helps us to learn ‘the names of birds, beasts, and plants’ – would lead us to ask: ‘what do you mean by “birds, beasts, and plants”?’ In modern poetry, they are liable not to be the ordinary factual ‘birds, beasts, and plants’ of the objective world, but to be imaginary versions which may or may not look like, behave like etc., their ‘real’ counterparts. In other words, poetry is didactically useless.
        In the Chinese world, didactically contributing to the generation-unto-generation management of social tradition is, I would say, the main task of poetry, of the arts and of mental life in general. The arts are not perceived as outside the continuum of what ordinary well-educated citizens would recognize to be their concerns. This explains what seems to us (to me, at least) the one-sided Chinese preference for clarity, recognizability, and absence of unresolved sectors in art works. It also underlies some fundamental differences in what people expect from, or can accept from, poems or paintings. In the traditional Chinese view:

1. Lack of originality is not a problem. If anything, similarity to existing works adds to the clarity and recognizability, hence the acceptability, of a new work.

2. It is considered perfectly reasonable for non-experts (as long as they are reasonably educated and, above all, well-behaved members of society) to sit in judgment upon the productions of art. The esthetic and (especially) moral standards which apply in other areas of life also apply in the arts. A person who is sensible and prudent in judging other things can be expected to be equally reliable as a judge of literature and the arts.

In other words – and this is the crux – the arts are an integral part of the standard overall discourse of society, not an alternative to it. (I would even say that in the Chinese view of life there is not, nor should there be, any such thing as an alternative discourse – what Kristeva would call a ‘privileged area.’) Now, even in the West, social discourse, as any reader of Lacan could tell us, very heavily determines us as individuals. Even before we were born, there was an assigned place for us in the discourse...we were pre-destined to be the son or daughter of NN., we were ‘bound to’ inherit such-and-such features, ‘likely to’ behave in such-and-such ways, and so on. In this primal pre-determination by society and its net of pre-established meanings, we Westerners see something fatefully threatening: an unfreedom, an imposed limitation on which we have not been consulted. In the Chinese world, the pre-existing discourse is seen as benevolent, a welcome enveloping framework in which the individual, by abandoning him or herself to it, can feel at home.
        You can feel at home in it, of course, only as long as there are no sudden fundamental changes of perspective. No perceived need for revelations. And no revelations.

--March 15, 2011