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.



Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Muus and the Tai Chi Masters (story; Part 1 of 8)

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

The rail connection from Utrecht to the northern province of Friesland was notoriously prone to delays, and today was no exception. I had already boarded my connecting train at Zwolle when it was suddenly announced departure would be delayed by ‘an estimated twenty minutes.’ Normally I would have raged, but this time I was actually relieved. The wait would give me some extra time to prepare for my session with Aarts.
I was sure I could handle the content side of it – I was supposed to give him a crash course in tai chi, and ever since I had spent my sophomore year studying Chinese in Taiwan, I had been practicing it more or less every day. But I wanted to take a closer look at the file on Aarts’ personal background that his publisher had given me.
        I took the plastic folder out of my briefcase. Even the vulgar colors put me off – bright red with diagonal black pinstripes. In the middle was a white rectangle with three lines of text in disproportionately thick letters:

De Novo Publishers
Muus Aarts
Tai Chi for Unbelievers

Once again I wondered why Aarts spent his retirement on things like this. De Novo was a too-popular publisher. Their sensation-mongering often involved them in libel suits that only increased the circulation of their own scandal sheet, What Big Brother’s Watching. One of their recent books, a ruinously derisive biography of the Dutch pinup-model-turned-sinologist Freya Benskop entitled From Playboy to Peking, had remained unpublished due to an eleventh-hour court order. Pending adjudication, De Novo had gone ahead and published devastating excerpts.
I had read in the file how Aarts had started writing for De Novo. By profession he had been a mathematics teacher at one of the elite gymnasium high schools. Far along in his career, he suddenly attracted international attention with an article in a German music magazine in which he enthusiastically urged republication of A. D. Fokker’s long-forgotten Mathematical Reflections on Music. Experts claimed Aart’s brief but trenchant article had opened the way to a revolutionary new mathematical approach to esthetics. Rumor had it that he had been discreetly offered a professorship by the University of Groningen – and turned it down with the words ‘I’m a teacher, not a preacher.’
Years later, he had been invited by the intellectual weekly Vrij Nederland to write a mathematician’s reply to a televised lecture by the famous Dutch astrologer and nature healer Ulla Melkert. The result was a full-page mini-essay, scathing yet elegantly witty, in which he pointed out dubious aspects of the mathematical methods employed by Melkert and some other giants of astrology including Edd Jonas Merckx and Gilda Ludmann. The piece touched off weeks of controversy in the media.
Soon afterward, De Novo had invited Aarts to expand his Vrij Nederland article into a short book for a new series called Hype Busters. The result was Astrology for Unbelievers. A month after publication, it was into its third printing.
These first few of Aarts’ publications, conscientiously supported with references to established sources, had been based on areas of his expertise. But barely two years after the astrology book, De Novo had published another Hype Buster of his. Entitled Sex for Unbelievers, it seemed like the work of an entirely different author.
In contrast to the clean-looking tables, graphs and astronomical illustrations that had modestly enlivened his earlier works, Sex was full of explicitly sexual, often downright pornographic photos, drawings and cartoons. Most of them were concerned not with ‘normal’ sexuality but with every conceivable variant, extending even to little-known anatomical abnormalities. The text itself hardly touched on the orgasm as a locus of joy, happiness, health or creativity. On the contrary, from beginning to end its argument was that sex was predominantly a source of problems, trouble and misery in people’s lives. The book began with a motto, printed in red Gothic letters on a separate page, quoted from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan: ‘Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel’. The introductory chapter was entitled ‘Under the Yoke of the Act.’
        The analytical wit and critical acumen that Aarts had already applied to music and astrology were now unleashed on what he called, in the first paragraph on the first page, ‘the last and greatest sexual taboo: being honest about the negative and misery-producing sides of it, which this writer believes are predominant in the lives of most of us.’
Like many Dutch intellectuals, I had bought the book myself. Reading the first few paragraphs, I had thought: boy, and this is supposed to be amusing! But little by little I began to like it. Aarts’ style was an admirable mix of freshness and learning, and his argument, with one unexpected fact unfolding after another, read like a detective story.
But amusing or not – what had inspired Aarts to write this tirade, known in the media as ‘The Anti-Kama-Sutra Sutra’? I opened the folder and leafed through to a photocopied interview that had appeared in What Big Brother’s Watching shortly after the book came out. The headline read: ‘Anti-Sex Guru Lives Like Monk.’ The bold letters under it said: ‘Two years after the sudden death of his wife, Muus Aarts published a scathing indictment of sex. Ed Puilenbroek interviewed the 68-year old childless Anti-Sex Guru at his one-man monastery in Friesland.’
I thought: they don’t leave much to the imagination, huh? Dead wife. Childless marriage. Late sixties. Any other questions? But who was ‘Ed Puilenbroek’? I had heard the name before. I was still silently mumbling it when a loud clacking of high heels announced the coming of another passenger. The door of my first-class compartment slid open.
There stood a Chinese woman, unusually tall, in a blue trouser suit and white patent leather boots with high square heels. Her hairdo started as a topknot and continued down the back as a long, lush pony tail. I could not see her eyes clearly behind the extra-wide lenses of her formidable sunglasses – the kind with wings that you can wear over a pair of regular glasses – but she was already smiling.
        Goede morgen’ she said as she stepped in. A deep-pitched, firm yet breathy voice that I had heard before. She pronounced her g’s with the y-like glide typical of the South Netherlands. She put down her big full shiny-red plastic bag on the upholstered seat across from me and sat down next to it in the corner by the door.
‘Morning!’ I said with another attempt to look through the dark lenses at her eyes. No use. I looked away, gazing supposedly out the window, but I was still into the voice: where did I know her from?
The train started moving. Outside, the sky was clouding fast. I was prepared, as always in the Netherlands: my umbrella lay in the luggage rack above my head. But the Chinese woman had also thought of the weather. Though I was officially not looking at her, I was perfectly aware that she had taken a book and a small folding umbrella out of her bag. Now she laid the umbrella down on the long seat next to her, crossed her long legs, and took the book on her lap. She opened it, all the while making small circular movements with the ankle that was suspended in the air, first raising the toes upward, then making three small circles, then relaxing.
Why those movements? Was she the so many millionth Chinese in this world who couldn’t sit still, who compulsively used every idle instant to get in a bit of physical exercise, qigong, self-massage – or was she just reminding me, as if I still needed any reminding, that she was a very attractive woman with nice boots on?
I took my eyes off her and tried to go on reading about the Anti-Sex Guru. I skimmed quickly through the introductory paragraphs of the interview piece, which summarized the content of the book. I remembered it well: first the chapter ‘Home Sour Home,’ on the scarcity of truly monogamous marriages, with its long review of the little-known book Sexual Aversion in Marriage by the Dutch physician Theodoor Hendrik Van de Velde. After that, a chapter called ‘Raw-Deal Marriage,’ criticizing Van de Velde’s Ideal Marriage, which in an earlier generation had been one of the standard sex manuals on both sides of the Atlantic. The eagerly documented statistics, all taken from respected studies, on how many people had never had an orgasm or could not have one with their current partner. On how many of either sex, rather than experiencing the orgasm as a relief, found it caused them insomnia, guilt, or heavy anxiety. The crass dishonesty, revealed posthumously by their biographers, of popular writers like Peer Frits, author of self-help bestsellers and the originator of Bodyform Therapy, who in his autobiography had claimed to be strictly heterosexual while actually going to bed regularly with men on trips far from home; or like Witz Aelred, practically the apostle of Zen to the hippie students of the 1960s, who had described male-female intercourse as a uniquely available channel of energetic balancing and spiritual harmony, while actually his own wife had left him because she was disheartened by his persistent sadomasochistic desires.
And other chapters: on the celibate anti-physical life that many of the best minds in history had chosen, on other cultures (including the Chinese) in which frequent orgasm is considered deleterious to health, on animals which after or during the act of mating actually kill their partner or offspring...
The woman had taken off her sunglasses and was immersed in her book. I read the title: Till Fourscore and Twenty: Today’s Wholistic Healing.
Now I remembered. A few years ago in Maastricht, I had been the interpreter for a Chinese acupuncturist at a conference on wholistic healing. One of the other speakers was Ed Puilenbroek. In the introductory brochure, he had described himself as ‘a wholistic therapist who believes in an organismistic lifestyle.’ He had been a professional actor and drama teacher, but had gradually concluded that the ‘performance side’ of theater was not important; the main thing was its ‘emancipatory re-educative effect,’ which could just as well be realized in daily life offstage.
During the Maastricht conference this Chinese woman, who had grown up in South Limburg, had interpreted for Puilenbroek when he interviewed the acupuncturist. At the time, she had made an unglamorous, rather schoolmarmish impression on me. But...what was her name?
I watched her eyes as they moved intensely back and forth, reading line after line under heavy blue eye shadow that had a hint of silver speckle in it. The stretch-and-turn movements of her ankle went on while she used one hand to massage the knee on the same side.
The train was slowing down. A voice from the intercom said: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, next stop: Steenwijk!’
        ‘I know you’ I said. She was already getting up.
        ‘Well – I thought so too, but I just wasn’t sure!’
‘From that conference in Maastricht, on wholistic healing.’
        ‘Ri-i-i-i-ght!. That’s where!’ She had already picked up all her things.
        ‘But I can’t remember your name, I’m sorry.’
        ‘I’m Vera, Vera Tjoe.’ She took a little sheaf of calling cards out of her jacket pocket and gave me one of them.

Vera Tjoe, M.A.
Translator/Interpreter (Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka)
Writing and Editing
Desktop Publishing
Digital Photo and Video Services

‘And I’m Daaf Vanderhecht. Sorry, I forgot my calling cards. But – I see you have to get out here.’
        ‘Yeah. Too bad! I’d like to hear how things are going in Leiden these days. Are you still teaching Chinese at the university?’
‘No, retrenchment got me two years ago. Right now I’m just living from gig to gig. Next week I’m going to China for two months, for a Dutch company.’ The train had almost come to a stop. ‘But – okay, now I’ve got your telephone and your email. I’ll get in touch!’
‘Yes, do!’
We shook on it. Her hand brought a many-leveled warmth – it had in it something of a good sturdy Dutch girl fresh from the hockey field, but also of a pre-modern Chinese village girl who had never yet held the hand of a man.
When she stepped down on the platform, she waved back at me. I didn’t need a camera: blue dress, white boots, wide open eyes.
        I still had thirteen minutes to go before the train got to Heerenveen. I opened the folder again. Through constant flashes of blue and boots and eyes, I tried to read a little more about Ed Puilenbroek’s interview with the Anti-Sex Guru.

[to be continued]