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.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

‘Wisdom’s Fine, As Long As You Never Apply It’

 (Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 21)

Let me start this Scrap from a Sinological Scrapbook, which I hope for a change will be quite short, with an apology. I hope a person of my age (66) may be excused for talking about Chinese and Japanese things as if they were, if not interchangeable, at any rate meaningfully related. That attitude was common when folks like me were young students of Chinese. In those days it was normal to say someone was ‘an Oriental,’ believed in ‘Oriental thought’ and so on.
Okay...what I want to talk about this time is one of my all-time favorite books of poetry: Afterimages: Zen Poems by Shinkichi Takahashi 高橋新吉, translated by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto.[1] (That’s right, translated. As a retired sinologist, presumably I no longer need to apologize for not pretending to be able to read it in Japanese.) If I had to expand on why I continue to re-read these poems after decades, I could write a book at least as long as this 137-page volume. If I were to criticize the book at all, I would say I wish the Introductions (one by each translator), hammering very hard on the point that Takahashi is a Zen man, didn't take up so much space – almost a fourth of the whole book. But so be it – I suspect the publisher was afraid that if the book wouldn’t sell as poetry, maybe it could at least break even as Zen.
But what really jars, discomfits, somehow goes down wrong with me every time I see one short passage from the foreword by the poet himself. Takahashi writes:

In Japan, since the decline of Buddhism, morals and manners have ceased to exist, and simultaneously respect for life and a view of social life such as the right relationship between young and old, have disappeared. To regain these is as difficult as to have the mini-skirt made long again.

Clearly, even after attaining this or that level of Buddhist enlightenment (for this I refer to the 32-page Introductions), he regrets the demise of ‘the right’ relationship between young and old.
Why does this bother me? Because it seems to imply that whatever the enlightenment an individual may attain, be it ever so far-reaching in metaphysical or psychological dimensions, it is never to be taken as grounds for criticizing, revising, or repudiating the pre-existing social-conventional ethos. That ethos, you can be very sure, was not, is not, and never will be based on any such thing as a striving for enlightenment in individual consciousness. I would guess that whether in East or West, consciousness as such would not play much of a role in it – not anywhere near as much as, just to call it what it is, unreflective imitative behavior based on conditioning.
In other words, in the mentality I have just quoted, the side of yourself that has forged its way through to new and perhaps subjectively earth-shaking insights, is never going to be able to apply those insights in practical living. As soon as you walk out the front door, once again you’re just a dummy, a cog, a billiard ball like anybody else. Suddenly you are supposed again to consider it a big deal whether people are ‘young’ or ‘old.’ The assumption is that the worn-in Ben Franklin-like ground rules of middle-class or Confucianist society, though they be based on far lesser levels of reflection, discernment, or sophistication, remain not only valid but superior and unchallengeable. The same poet who writes[2] must go on, beyond time,
which in any case does not exist.
...I must live
beyond the smoke and clouds, as all else
without dimension, succession, relationship...

continues to agree, apparently, with the non-reflective bulk of his generation who thought girls should not show their legs. The revelatory openness that the poem proclaims ceases to exist as soon as a social fashion is in question.
        Or, to consider an example from the Sinitic world: what to think of a Taiwanese businessman who in recent years has taken up many New Age health and diet habits, claims to live by ‘listening to his body’ and the qigong philosophy of avoiding harmful overexertion – yet almost immediately after a major heart attack, went ahead with a planned business trip to the Western hemisphere because he ‘didn’t want to disappoint his colleagues’ with whom he had already arranged meetings before his heart went bad? I would say that in this case, too, a Confucianist mental rut took precedence over a recently won insight which had actually been dramatically confirmed in experience.
        On the other hand – it suddenly occurs to me that if (in the terminology of my own ancestors) ‘the spirit moved him’ to let the planned trip go through, then to cancel it in the name of anything so individualistic as ‘listening to his body’ would have been ‘quenching the spirit’[3] and perhaps worse for his well-being in the long run.
        Maybe it is actually a very high and esoteric form of enlightenment just to accept that there are many mental ruts in our lives that we simply cannot help honoring, and that many of those ruts were indeed installed or imprinted in us by the kind of people who care nothing for this whole concept of ‘enlightenment’ – the smotheringly populous type of whom Proust says with chilling concision that they ‘do not try to get light upon it.’[4]
        But then – if we are to give up the attempt to bring mental ‘enlightenment’ usefully to bear on our social and behavioral ruts – is the striving to ‘get light upon it’ just superfluous nonsense that adds nothing to life and could just as well never have existed? Was the anti-miniskirt crowd actually, unbeknown to themselves, in possession of the only wisdom there is?
        My answer to that is, I think, very un-New Age. But it is also one that the conventionally adjusted crowd, whether in East or West, never likes to hear.
It is: ‘I don’t know.’
And in support of my answer, I will do something I would never have done in my youth, and that I think Takahashi would have approved of. (He left this world in 1987.) I will quote Confucius –

‘When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it; – this is knowledge.’[5]

--Lloyd Haft

[1] New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1972. The poetry is all included, but with different front matter, in Takahashi’s more recent expanded volume Triumph of the Sparrow (Grove Press, 2000).
[2] From the poem ‘Autumn Flowers’ on page 73 (capitalization adjusted).
[3] See 1 Thessalonians 5: 19.
[4] From The Past Recaptured, translated by Frederick A. Blossom: New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1932, p. 225.
[5] Analects, Book II, Chapter 17, translated by James Legge.