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.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

‘Not on the Lineage List’ – Part Two

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 17)

Siu’s Ch’i came out in 1974. By that time he had already published two other books on Chinese concepts: The Tao of Science (1957) and The Man of Many Qualities: A Legacy of the I Ch’ing (1968).[1] He himself came to think of these three as forming a trilogy: in the words of the preface to Ch’i, ‘a modest adaptation of old Chinese philosophy to modern Western living.’
        I read Ch’i soon after its appearance and knew at once that I would never forget it. The Man of Many Qualities, however, failed to excite me. For one thing, by the time I saw it in a Dutch bookstore, I had already bought and studied the 1967 Princeton University Press reprint of Cary F. Baynes’ translation of Richard Wilhelm’s German version of the Yijing, as well as John Blofeld’s 1968 I Ching: The Book of Change and the Dover reprint of James Legge’s 19th-century version. Even for me, and even in those ‘head’-y years when everything Chinese was thought to be, as we said then, ‘consciousness-expanding,’ three versions of the Yijing were enough! But also, the commentaries in Siu’s version, rather than directly explicating the Chinese text, were in the form of quotes, some very extensive, from all sorts of Western literature in which Siu saw relevant parallels to the Yijing passages. In other words, once again he was casting himself in the role of a ‘collator,’ not a creator. But in the case of the Yijing, I wished he had collated Chinese, not Western texts.
        For me, he really came into his own in the mid-1970s with Ch’i. What I did not then realize was that it was modeled on the Yijing, with a passing glance at the Dao De Jing. It begins with a twenty-page ‘Synoptic Text’ in 81 numbered sections. These consist of the author’s epigrammatic, unelaborated suggestions or ‘musings’ on such subjects as Time, Light and Life. They are followed by correspondingly numbered Commentaries in which – once again – Siu collates and summarizes relevant passages or ideas from a phenomenal range of texts ancient and modern, Western and Oriental.
        For a long time, I could not see why Siu called his original ‘musings’ a ‘synoptic’ text. In 2011, I finally read the introductory part of The Man of Many Qualities, in which he says the Yijing is a ‘basic text’ followed by ‘supporting literature,’ and a ‘valuable synopsis for meditations...’
        True, the Yijing has only 64 sections or ‘hexagrams,’ while Siu’s ‘synopsis’ has 81. But 81 is the exact number of chapters in the traditional version of the Dao De Jing, and in his preface, Siu admits he is striving to emulate the ‘cryptic and somewhat assertive style of the ancient Taoist writings.’
        In other words, this book was Siu’s own jing , his own Chinese-style ‘classic.’ Like many of the Chinese ‘treatises’ which James Legge sarcastically says lack ‘a beginning, a middle, and an end,’[2] Ch’i presents the tantalizing synopsis of a ‘treatise,’ followed immediately by notes and commentaries – but not the actual ‘treatise’! In other words, Siu performs the perfectly legitimate operation of raising vital questions without answering them.
        Another very Chinese feature is the book’s ethical focus. At the very beginning of the Synopsis, in the section on Musing, we read: ‘Never does it [i.e., musing] dip into the pits of evil. It ennobles and enlightens.’ And the section ends: ‘Contradictions are acknowledged yet resolved; individuals respected yet transcended...A pervasive sharing prevails.’ In other words, in Siu’s musings, ultimately Ontology takes its credentials from an Ethic, rather than the other way around.
        Another Chinese trait is eclecticism. Anything that ever appeared in print, it would seem, is potentially eligible as commentary. Writers of fiction and non-fiction are quoted as equal participants in a common discourse. This reminds me of Solon Wang’s Multiple Planes of the Cosmos and Life,[3] in which stories from Pu Songling’s 18th-century collection Liaozhai zhiyi are treated as legitimate factual sources adding credibility to statements about the supernatural.
        It is never made clear exactly why, or in which of its many senses, Siu found the ancient Chinese concept of qi the missing link that enabled his musings to crystallize into a coherent (?) structure. He designates qi (on page 16) as ‘a Time-related X of some kind.’ As far as I can see, the concept is simply stipulated to be applicable to his ideas. (If I read Chad Hansen correctly, the ancient Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi would have approved: words have no definite meaning apart from each context considered separately. Not just qi but every word ultimately refers to ‘a time-related X’...)
        And this is my answer to those who automatically condemn the Lily Abeggs and Robert Paynes and Robert J. Liftons and Guy Sormans of this world, and would deny them the right to raise their voices in speaking about things Chinese, simply because they ‘are not sinologists’ or – worse still, one gathers – ‘cannot speak Chinese.’ What’s so bad about not being able to speak Chinese? Neither could some of our best teachers! For that matter, how well do a lot of the Chinese one meets speak it?
        I personally do not believe any amount of knowledge of the Chinese language contributes much to one’s understanding of ‘the Chinese mind.’ On the contrary, you must already understand the ‘mind,’ or be intensely trying to understand it in its actual behavioral context, before you can really learn the language. In that sense, the thousands of hours spent looking up Chinese words in dictionaries[4] might better be spent reading and at least once in a while thinking about intelligent books in accessible languages, and above all, just physically hanging around with East Asians in East Asia. Everybody knows the saying ‘One picture is worth a thousand words.’ I would go further: Sitting through one full-scale Chinese dinner (huican 會餐 or jucan 聚餐) is worth a thousand pictures – and nowadays, you may well have to get your picture taken a thousand times before you are allowed to leave the table!
        Back to Siu. One more Chinese feature. In his discussion (on pp. 273-275) of the Freudian trio of id, ego and superego, Siu suggests a tentative parallel between id and qi, and between ‘the action of the ego’ and ‘metabolism of qi.’ Admitting that the ego or ‘real “I”’ in itself is a ‘difficult notion,’ he nevertheless clearly describes it primarily as an agency that regulates behavioral factors. As in so much of Chinese culture and thought, certainly in practically the whole Chinese way of life as I perceive it, there is very little emphasis on subjectivity as such. I would say the predominant attitude is extremely ‘attentive,’ but hardly at all ‘reflective.’
        Yet, Siu’s vision of this behavior-regulating does not show the simplistic voluntarism of so many Chinese thinkers. Nor does he imply – as do so many of those who seem to think that in every generation all over again, we still need new translations, in actual practice rewritings of the old, of Confucius and Mencius – that all we need to do is to re-read the old Teachers and finally get it through our skulls that they already did have all the Answers two thousand years ago. On pages 289-290, discussing what he calls ‘the traditional yin-yang model of the universe’ (based on binary contrasts) he says he ‘would extend the concept to say...everything is the result of many concurrent vectors...One should not be surprised, therefore, to find contradictions within the same person...There is never a perfectly good man...Man thus is a nexus of vectoral instants. One cannot hope to modify the resultant behavior by one thrust...One can only work on the vectors which are real and many...One becomes appreciative of the complexities involved in bringing about social progress and reasonable in his expectations.’
        So...if in 1974 Siu was talking about life in such seemingly post-Freudian and post-Existentialist terms, did he revert by the 1990s to a less sophisticated, more pre-modern view in which the ‘complexities’ of social improvement were not really so complex after all? If so, is this what demoted him from a big-league writer on transcultural philosophy to a nameless bit player whose very ‘notability’ (read: ‘eligibility to be taken seriously’) was in question?
        I can’t answer this, because in the part of the world where I am now, not a single library seems to have copies of Siu’s later works. (Considering their far from ‘notable’ publisher, this is not surprising!) But there is a suggestive passage which I did manage to find:

All human [sic] should be cross-relatable, so I have come to believe, if for no other reason than that it originates within the same human mind...We might even venture the opinion that an explanation is primarily an expression of how the mind functions within the cultural setting of the moment and only coincidentally is it a description of how the phenomenon under scrutiny actually takes place. The same trackings of the human mind can be seen through whatever subject matter it happens to be examining. The quark-antiquark of the American physicist of the twentieth century AD repeats the yang-yin of the Chinese peasant of the twentieth century BC. The thermodynamic principle of the nineteenth century that "heat cannot flow from a colder body to a warmer body" recalls the theological dictum of Thomas Aquinas of the thirteenth century that "an inferior angel cannot advise a superior angel". The holographic process of regenerating the complete encoded message from any part, however small, of the hologram reflects Aristotle's assertion of the fourth century BC that the soul is present in its entirety in every part of the body and William Blake's poetic vision of the eighteenth century as he wrote:
To see the world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower.......[5]

This idea that even if the human mind does not focus on the same objects in successive generations, it still has an underlying ‘tracking’ style or template of focusing which does not change – seems to me eminently pre-modern. I am not the first to object to it. In China, more than two thousand years ago it was disputed or refuted in the very first line of the very first chapter by whoever it was that got taken seriously enough to be considered the author or collator of the Dao De Jing:


‘You can track a Track, but it’s not going to stay a Track for All Time.’
        And if you don’t like my translating Dao as ‘Track,’ please feel free to replace that with what it really means. Which is, of course, ‘an X of some kind...’

[1] A paperback version was published in 1971 as The Portable Dragon: The Western Man’s Guide to the I Ch’ing.
[2] Quoted from the 2001 SMC (Taipei) reprint of The Chinese Classics Vol. I, p. 44.
[3] Hsintien, Taipei: Society for Psychic Studies, 1979.
[4] When I was a young student in Leiden, it was a standard joke, but also perfectly true, that we had looked up certain words in Mathews’ dictionary so often that we knew by heart their four-digit sequential numbers in the dictionary – but not the definitions!
[5] from Siu’s ‘Unifying Theory of the Human Organism and Behavior,’ quoted at