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). His most recent book, a liberal modern Dutch reading of Laozi's Daode jing, was published as Lau-tze's vele wegen by Synthese in September 2017.



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 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, June 27, 2011

‘I am; therefore I co-think’ – Part One

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 13)

When I first left textbook Chinese behind me (in 1999) and sank into the supposedly ‘real’ world of a 100% Sinitic daily life surrounded exclusively by Sinitics, it didn’t take me long to realize I was going to have to learn Chinese all over again. Not that I couldn’t ‘communicate with’ people; not that I had any trouble ‘making myself understood’...but I discovered that countless words in the Chinese ‘lexicon’ didn’t at all mean what I had always thought (and, often, been taught) that they did.[1]
        An example. If my Taiwanese wife came home late in the evening from an opera, found me sitting in the living room reading a book, and said: ‘O, ni jingshen hai hen hao!’ 你精神還很好 – it didn’t at all mean ‘Oh, you’re still in good spirits,’ as I undoubtedly would have translated it in my youth if I had found it in the text of a short story. It simply meant: ‘Oh, you’re still awake!’
        A more drastic example, using the same word. Some years ago in Russia, security troops attacked a theater full of hostages by first injecting gas into it so that everyone inside lost consciousness. A Sinitic reporting this event to me said that the gas nongde dajia dou meiyou jingshen 弄得大家都沒有精神. Again, this did not mean that those trapped inside the theater were caused to become discouraged, or that they became depressed, lost enthusiasm for what they were doing, or the like. It simply meant they had physiologically lost their responsiveness.
        Both these examples surprised me, and for the same reason. I had cut my sinological teeth on dictionaries and textbooks that defined jingshen as ‘spirit.’ And as a Western person, I thought of ‘spirit’ as (1) a quality associated with consciousness, which (2) inhered in the individual as a positive, valuable, maybe even divine component of that individual’s ‘mind.’[2]
        For an ‘authoritative’ corroborating source on this Western notion (I’m putting ‘authoritative’ in quotes because that word itself is going to feature heavily in a later section of this Scrap), let me quote the top-of-the-list definition of ‘spirit’ in the 1988 Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary:

Your spirit is the part of you that is not physical and that is concerned with your deepest thoughts and feelings.

All of this is very thoroughly Western. To begin with, the very first word, ‘Your,’ is problematical. This possessive form implies that the spirit somehow ‘belongs to’ you, is assignable to you in the same way that your house or your car is ‘yours.’
        Then we go on to ‘the part of you.’ This suggests that the spirit is a distinct component of a distinct larger whole, perhaps in the way that the liver or the heart is an organ belonging to a distinct organism. This is Western, I would say, because it ignores the possibility that the spirit is itself a larger whole (or a ubiquitously recurrent whole, a situation-dependent reiterative whole!), transcending the distinctness of individual organisms.
          Then, that it is ‘not physical,’ yet also involves your ‘deepest...feelings.’ If I were to agree that my ‘feelings’ were ‘not physical,’ I would have to be sure I would never again say something like ‘When I sit still for too long, I get a numb feeling in my legs.’ On the other hand, I could go on saying ‘I have mixed feelings about this election.’
          In other words, the English word ‘feeling’ can refer to a mental item which we think of as ‘inner’ or ‘subjective,’ but also to a bodily experience which we probably tend to consider ‘objective.’
        Not just some but many of the most crucial words in Chinese thought, philosophy and culture have this two-faced quality. It is not easy for us as Westerners to know which side of the subject-object split to come down on, but very often the mistake we make is to ‘psychologize’: to want to construe as an inner mental experience what ‘to them’ is a feature of the ‘objective’ situation as such. This is what happened to me in the two cases of jingshen I have just mentioned. I was thinking to hear psychological overtones in what to the native speakers was just a report on the physiological state of things.[3]

[to be continued...]


[1] See ‘Haft’s Incommensurability Principle,’ an earlier Fragment of this same Scrapbook, in the March archive.
[2] For the extreme diffuseness and vagueness of the word ‘mind’ in English, see Lloyd Haft, ‘Snowy Men and Ice-Cream Emperors: Wallace Stevens in Some Recent Chinese Translations,’ in Lloyd Haft (ed.), Words from the West: Western Texts in Chinese Literary Context, Leiden: Centre of Non-Western Studies 1993, pp. 145-161.
[3] And of course, that word ‘just’ betrays me once again as incorrigibly Western...