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.



Friday, December 23, 2011

Muus and the Tai Chi Masters (story; Part 2 of 8)


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

When I got out in Heerenveen, Aarts was waiting for me on the platform. He looked, as he had put it in his email to me, ‘not exactly the youngest,’ thin but sprightly. I wondered if he was deliberately imitating Immanuel Kant by letting his hair grow out in white bunches on either side of his head.
But no one would have taken him for a philosopher of morals: his often-laughing mouth was surrounded by ample flesh that our grandparents would have called ‘jovial’ and our parents ‘sensual.’ I liked him at once.
The first thing he said was: ‘I hope you have health and accident insurance.’
        ‘Why?’
        ‘Because when you get in the car with me, you’re taking your life in your own hands.’ Another big laugh.
        ‘I’m not worried.’
Despite his age, he walked with the speed of an athlete. At 42, I had to work hard to keep up with him on the way to the grey Toyota Prius.
He turned out to be an excellent driver. In the bumpy, cobbled parking area in front of the mini-mall that had once been an old guild house, he managed to find a tiny open space and set the car down precisely in it.
‘I want to go in and buy some bakery to go with tea,’ he said. ‘Hope you’re not on a diet?’
        ‘Even if I were!’
        ‘Okay, I’ll be right back.’
        I was going to stay overnight at his house. This afternoon and evening, De Novo was paying me to give him an intensive introduction to tai chi, that strange form of anti-strenuous exercise in which all the movements are made super-slowly. Supposedly he had already received some relevant books and DVDs from the Body and Becoming Foundation. I was supposed to get him prepared on the subject today so that tomorrow morning the Foundation could send somebody out to film him while he took his ‘first tai chi lesson’ from a real-live teacher just flown over from Beijing, who was scheduled to give a lecture in Leeuwarden tonight.
I thought it was strange that the Foundation wanted to take so much trouble for a man who was planning to write a book damning their whole endeavor of popularizing tai chi. But undoubtedly De Novo was paying them to do it. Maybe the publicity itself would bring more students to their doors.
Aarts was back, with a bulging-full paper sack that he put down on the back seat.
        ‘Looks like you bought a lot!’ I said.
        ‘I hope it’s enough. There’ll be four of us this afternoon.’
        ‘Who besides us?’ Didn’t he live in a ‘one-man monastery’?
        ‘Puilenbroek. And what’s-her-name...that Chinese girlfriend he has, Veronica, I guess her name is. They’re coming over this afternoon with those books and DVDs.’
        ‘Hey, are they in the Foundation?
        ‘They’re not just “in” the Foundation, they are the Foundation. “Body and Becoming”: even the name of it has ‘Puilenbroek’ written all over it. Or, that is, that was the name of it. Now they’re going to change it, nowadays he’s got something against the whole body concept. He thinks our usual idea of our body is too limited, it’s a straitjacket that Big Sister wants us to wear. “Big Sister,” that’s his term for society.’
‘But now wait...you say they’re coming over this afternoon to give you the tai chi stuff. I thought you already had it!’
‘Well, I was supposed to, yeah. But...that’s just the way Puilenbroek is. You don’t have to keep your word, you understand, that’s just another straitjacket.’
We were driving through a flat, wide-open Frisian landscape. The weather didn’t look promising. I thought back to Vera’s blue suit, the way she stood in the sun and waved at me from the platform. I hoped there’d be decent weather tomorrow, for the filming.
‘Actually, I don’t really mind them coming over today, maybe it’ll give us a chance to make peace, me and Ed. He was really pissed off when my sex book came out – have you read it?’ I nodded. ‘ – with that chapter about Wilhelm Reich, that I thought it was just nuts, all that stuff about the Function of the Organism. Puilenbroek made his name with that book of his, The Orgasm: Fuel for your Future. Did you ever read it?’
‘No.’
‘Well, you haven’t missed a thing. It’s what I call the Hydraulic Model of Man. There’s pressure, and there’s discharge of that pressure. That’s all. The only thing we’re here for is to bounce back and forth between Pressure and Discharge. Puilenbroek loves that, he likes it because it’s totally non-mental. You don’t have to think about things, the body does it all. The less thinking the better. That’s in his book; I don’t know if it’s a quote from Reich: that the brain is just “a parasitic organism feeding on the energies of the rest of the body”.’
‘Wow.’
‘That is...that’s what he used to think. I can’t tell you what he’s into now. The last time I saw him was in Steenwijk one day; I ran into him on the street and he wouldn’t even say hello to me. I guess he thinks I’m just what he calls a “mind-eunuch”: an intellectual, a teacher, a mental guy that doesn’t work with his hands, doesn’t repair his own car...basically just doesn’t screw enough!’
‘But he used to be a teacher himself.’
‘Well, sure...used to. But now he rides around on a big red cycle, brrr-ombrrrom-brrromm!’ He laughed. ‘I’ll be curious to see if he’s driving. For a while his license was suspended. He believes the citizen should resist Big Sister’s domination as much as possible, and that starts with the traffic laws. He sometimes drives through a red light just to prove he hasn’t surrendered to Big Sister yet. Well, once they caught him. I saw him on TV, he was interviewed about it. He said we should all try to train ourselves in ‘self-discernment,’ that was the word.’
‘But then...discernment without a “parasitic” brain?’
He laughed and turned off the road onto the grassy, rutted gravel road that led up to his house. It was a renovated farmhouse, white-painted brick with grey roof tiles, surrounded by fields on three sides. I felt completely at home before we reached the end of the driveway.

We had eaten our lunch of bread and cheese and were still drinking coffee when they arrived. Muus went out and waved in the direction of the fire-red delivery van that was now parked beside his car. I saw Vera sitting in the driver’s seat; the non-smiling man beside her was just getting out. He moved quickly and expertly despite his extreme obesity.
In the back seat there was a third head: an afghan. Wouldn’t you know, I thought. Not a nice cuddly family dog that shares the couch with you, but a touchy maverick breed that resists domestication.
‘Come on, Matt!’ said Puilenbroek as he shoved open the side door and let the dog out. ‘Let’s go in and say hello to Daddy.’
Ouch, I thought. That’s great for a start! Meanwhile Vera was shaking Muus’ hand. There she was again, dressed in the blue that the sky had already lost: there was a chilly wind coming up and the air had the smell of rain in it.
         ‘Well, hello Ed, how’s he going?’ Muus called optimistically. His words were drowned in the self-contained world of Ed struggling to tie Matt to a blossoming jasmine.
        Vera looked me in the eyes. She looked tenser than she had this morning, but the hand and the smile had lost none of their warmth. ‘Daaf, isn’t this incredible! I wish I’d known you were coming here, we could have sat together the whole way!’
        ‘Well, next time!’
Muus asked if they wanted a cup of tea but Puilenbroek, after a quick expressionless handshake, said he wasn’t thirsty; he would stay outside to ‘enjoy the fresh air while it lasts.’ Vera took a big cardboard box out of the car and followed Muus into the kitchen.
‘You guys go ahead and start’ I said. ‘I’ll be right in.’
While I watched Vera stepping across the gravel in her high white boots, I heard the sputter of a cigarette lighter behind me. Without looking, I could already smell what Puilenbroek was smoking. By now I could have guessed. Needless to say, he rolled his own, and it was one of the strongest, rankest-smelling brands of shag: Van Nelle.
While Matt relieved himself in both kinds under the jasmine, Ed watched, exhaling smoke in slow stages. ‘I wouldn’t have had to come here today,’ he said. ‘I could have let Vera deliver those books and disks. But I came along because before this we went up to Leeuwarden, to meet that tai chi teacher at the station. We’ve already dropped her off at the Martial Arts Club up there. I was curious to sniff that Chinese bitch from close by.’
‘And...how was it?’
‘Well, you know what it is...’ He took a deep drag. Held the smoke in his lungs. Looked out across the field at a farm in the distance. Exhaled, shaking his head.
‘You know – we hear so much about the Chinese all being these cheerful smiling little people that have never heard of, quote, the body-mind split’ – here he raised his hands theatrically and wrote quotation marks in the air – ‘but what I actually see is the exact opposite!
‘Take that teacher, Jiang Wei – isn’t that her name? – ’ He pronounced it “Jong We” but I didn’t correct him – ‘She’s the big tai chi teacher, she’s supposed to be a walking encyclopedia on how to relax, but when I see how she is, I’m thinking: Lady, what you need is a year of therapy! That tortured face of hers – really, I’m saying “tortured,” I’ve watched her when she didn’t know it – that face could be a textbook illustration of stress. I get depressed just looking at her.’
Another deep drag. Breath held. Gaze wide. Exhalation snail-slow, starting with the nostrils: ‘And that face...there’s something weird about that face, something’s not right there. It’s like her face has an upper half and a lower half, and they don’t belong to the same person. Her mouth smiles at you with that big sweet sexy smile, but her eyes aren’t part of it, she avoids my eyes like the plague!’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘it could be...I don’t know how she was brought up, but if she’s from a very traditional family, she’s not supposed to look you in the eyes, because you’re a man.’
        ‘Oh, that’s a great one – because I’m a man!’ He broke out in a laugh, and as often happens with heavy smokers, the laugh quickly turned into a wheeze that lasted a while until it was finally rounded off with muted coughs and a quick throat-clearing. All this was followed at once by another, still deeper inhalation, held in extra long while the gaze moved philosophically over the fields where sparse drops were beginning to fall with a light ticking sound. As he blew out the last smoke, he flicked the still-glowing butt onto the gravel. ‘And yet – they’re not all like that, Chinese women. Take Vera.’
‘Hey, wait just a minute now,’ I said. ‘She grew up over here!’
‘Well sure, I know that, but still. She’s an Oriental. And that’s her whole problem: where can I go with my femininity in a society that doesn’t want women to act feminine? And on the other hand – if I’m Chinese, but kind of strong and athletic and too assertive to be the dear little dollie from China – then what kind of a woman should I be? No, Vera’s really worked hard on herself. What you see now is a totally different Vera than just a couple of years ago.’
‘I know. In the train coming up here I didn’t even recognize her at first.’
‘There you go. You know, I led humanistic therapy groups for years and years, and maybe five, six years ago she showed up for one of our growth weekends. We called it Biocentric Therapy. In those days I still believed in that body stuff – but that’s another story.
‘Anyway – so here comes Vera to join this group for the weekend. And she was one big bundle of unfulfilled need, you could see it the minute she walked in. And those big wide-open eyes, pure longing, they were saying Here I am, who’s going to take my hand and help me? Talk about eyes that don’t avoid you! Just her being there was a big problem for the group, all the men were crawling up the wall for her! Too bad for them...you weren’t going to get near Vera’s bed, in those days she was a strict Catholic! Mind you, I’m saying in those days.’
Matt yelped. On the other side of the field he had seen another dog walking with his owner, a farmer in a flat cap. Together with a whiff of manure, a sound of barking reached us from the other side. Ed waved in the direction of the slowly moving forms in the distance.
He kept looking that way for a few seconds and then suddenly spat out: ‘Bastard!’
‘What’s going on?’
‘Jackass didn’t respond. I can’t help this stuff, it’s just the way I am. Wherever I go, wherever I am, I’m always trying to get some fellowship going. It’s what we all need, it’s what people are dying for lack of. But you can’t do it alone. That’s the whole point: you can’t do it alone. I always say: life’s too big to fit inside a single body!
         ‘Muus and I,’ he said, ‘we have our little differences of opinion, I won’t deny it. But I’m all for him if he wants to tear down all that tai chi bullshit. I can’t help it Vera still believes in all that crap.
‘It really gets on my nerves, that whole Oriental Cult of Peace. The Supreme Gentleness, the Great Non-Doing. If we can only switch off all the aggression buttons, then we’ll all be happy.
      ‘But meanwhile? We can’t just switch off the instincts, they are what keeps us alive! Do you want to switch off life itself? All we can do is to admit that whole side, and keep the instincts friendly by throwing them a biscuit now and then...isn’t that right, Matt?!
        ‘Take that great tai chi Master in the old days, Yang Ban Ho – am I pronouncing it okay? Well, I saw a little piece about him, in one of those books. It said in spite of all his tai chi training, as soon as he started sparring with a partner he would get aggressive, even dangerous. Like the movements, the sensation of movement opened him up to that aggressive side of himself that he normally surpressed. And in the end, one day he flew off the hook and killed his own daughter. Is that true?’
‘I don’t know for sure if it’s true, but I have read that, yes.’
        ‘So that’s the great Wu Wei. The great Non-Interference. Nothing but a fantasy. Nothing but self-deceiving bullshit.
‘And I’ll tell you something else!’ Now his tone was muted, conspiratorial; he leaned over close to me and dropped his chin till his eyes glared out at me from under the tops of their sockets. ‘If you ask me, there’s something shady going on in tai chi. Spooky, even. It’s like a séance. They’re messing around with departed spirits.’
        ‘That sounds kind of strange. How’s that?’
        ‘When you start looking at those books, you’ll see one called The True Tai Chi Tradition of Grand Master Zhong Furen. Furen died long ago, but after his death they built a whole temple for him, in his home town. And tai chi students go there to burn incense for the deceased Master. “Sending up fragrance for the Teacher,” they call it. They have no idea how dangerous it is.’
        ‘What do you mean, dangerous?’
        ‘Well, the incense is just hocus-pocus, that’s just a symbol, a focus for your conscious mind. Nothing but self-hypnosis. But what you’re actually “sending up” – is your own vital energy! And the Grand Master may be dead, his physical body may be buried, but his astral body keeps hanging around for years, for decades, and the damned thing feeds itself on you, it drains your energy! The Master that you think you’re worshipping is actually a parasite living off your own vitality! Do you believe that?’
‘No. I don’t believe one bit of that stuff.’
‘Well okay, that’s your business. But...another thing. Is it true that tai chi teachers advise you when you’re practicing alone, to imagine that your body is actually their body, that it’s actually them making the movements?’
‘Some teachers do say that, yes.’
        ‘Well, that’s incredibly dangerous! To set aside that weak little ego that you’ve been trying so hard to build up? You’re laying yourself open to possession, and you don’t know by what!
        ‘I’ve seen them – I mean in my therapy groups – when they got too close, too involved with something out of the past – I mean “past” with a capital P, see what I’m saying? – and for a while they turned into a completely different person! With a different voice, different talk, different movements, different everything. And then it’s not easy to get them back into the here-and-now. Vera was one of them. There was one whole afternoon, she turned into a man, pure and simple. I’m not saying she was a tomboy, I’m not saying she was “like” a man: she was a man! At the time, it scared the hell out of me.
        ‘And I said to her: you sure better hurry up and get yourself a boyfriend! I said: that masculine energy that your body craves – you’re trying to find it in yourself, acting like there’s a man inside yourself. But your body won’t fall for that. You need  another person, a man, to embody that energy for you. That’ll be the answer to a lot of your problems!’
‘And – did she do it?’
        ‘Well – yeah, she did. Not right away, but she did.’ He looked at his watch.
I said: ‘I wonder how they’re doing in the kitchen. Maybe there’s some tea left.’ Ed nodded but did not go with me. He stayed on the driveway, looking out over the fields, still on the lookout for some candidates for fellowship.

[to be continued]