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Monday, November 5, 2012

A bit more on Yoda and Tao-Fail

I talked a little bit, a while ago, about Yoda misappropriating Lao-Tse's lines. I do take Yoda as an attempt at a Zen or Taoist sage: the hunched old wizened wise man with a cane, living in the wilderness, is a staple of Taoist and Zen imagery, and so many of Yoda's utterances are so very pseudo-Taoist in tone. I'll give you "Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh. A Jedi craves not these things", which very much match Lao Tse's homebody non-interventionism, and "do or do not -- there is no try" does at least have the syntactical feeling of one of the Old Master's sharp paradoxical aphorisms.

But Lucas's Platonism can't help showing through. As soon as Yoda starts scorning the simple pleasures of this world, talking derisively about "crude matter", and demanding Luke submit to a higher destiny, even at the cost of his friends' safety ("Luke: And sacrifice Han and Leia? Yoda: If you honor what they fight for? Yes."), he enters territory which Lao Tse would be, I think, derisively skeptical of.

Indeed, the whole Jedi agenda -- the ambition of disavowing all dark and painful emotions, avoiding emotional entanglements, putting duty above all else, seems to be just the sort of pious and unrealistic, not to say hypocritical, posturing that Lao Tse is constantly skewering the Confucians about. (It's the disordered society which is full of loyal patriots and efficient doers; the sage is drifting and clumsy, childlike, yet nourished by the great mother of everything).

To be fair, Lucas isn't entirely alone in projecting dualistic self-sacrifice onto the nondualistic and deeply embodied Tao. Some of Lao Tse's modern translators seem also to be uncomfortable with the fact that the Old Master would prefer the lusty, candy-bar-grabbing, stew-cooking Yoda we first meet in the swamps of Dagoba to the dour and moralistic general who quickly replaces him.

Consider the last four lines of the thirteenth poem of the Tao Te Ching. We'll start with the less rigorous and more pious modern translations. Here's Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, who are often quite good, but fumble this:

Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.
(Gia-fu Feng and Jane English)

Well that sounds very altruistic and noble, almost Christlike, right? You should love the whole world, unselfishly. Care for all things, impartially. Very Jedi. A little bland, perhaps....

And here is Stephen Mitchell, one of the looser and New-Age-ier of the Old Master's translators:

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.
( Stephen Mitchell)

This is slightly more mystical -- at least in the first line, it's not just that we are to merely be unselfish and regard the world as just as important as we are; rather, we are actually to see the world as identical with the self. That feels closer to Lao Tse's radicalism.

Still, we have the same basic idea here: don't be selfish! If you expect us to entrust the world to it, you'd better not just be thinking of yourself, young man or woman! You'd better be impartial, and dutiful, like a good Jedi!

Well, now, though, let's turn to Robert G. Henricks, who as a more philological translator is less concerned with writing a modern poem than with conveying the exact meaning of the Chinese characters Lao Tse may have written down 2500 years ago. Henricks is unafraid of sounding a bit clunky, nor of filling up a few pages per poem with cautious footnotes arguing back and forth about how to read a given pu or li. He's pretty trustworthy, in other words, about what Lao Tse is actually saying:

12. Therefore, to one who values acting for himself over acting on behalf of the world,
13. You can entrust the world.
14. And to one who in being parsimonious regards his person as equal to the world,
15. You can turn over the world.
(Robert G. Henricks)

Hold on a second here! What? You mean we're supposed to entrust the world to some stingy bastard who takes his own body (that "crude matter") as seriously as the whole world? Who values acting for himself more than acting on behalf of the world? Someone selfish, rather than altruistic? Someone who prefers burping in his own garden and taking care of his friends to all your sagely robes and palaces and Jedi Councils and Important Missions For Which We Must All Be Prepared Sacrifice? Why, that's shocking! Appalling! Outrageous! And that's why it's totally in character for Lao Tse's sardonic, feisty, lively paradoxical wit, and his deep skepticism of proactive, self-important ventures.

Stefan Stenuud, who is not a Sinological scholar, but rather a novelist and Aikido master, backs Henricks up:

He who treasures his body as much as the world
Can care for the world.
He who loves his body as much as the world
Can be entrusted with the world.
(Stefan Stenudd)

There are two main intratextual reasons to believe Stenudd and Henricks over Mitchell and Feng/English. One is that Lao Tse is always sharp, shocking, and funny, so his saying "entrust the world to someone selfish" is much more likely than his saying "entrust the world to someone selfless." Given the choice between the proposition that Lao Tse is saying something outrageous and the proposition that what he's saying is a truism, I'm picking the former. The second reason is that it's of a piece with everything else Lao Tse says about governance. You don't pick, as your prime minister, the sharply dressed ambitious professional who showed up early for the appointment full of eager aggressive plans for Changing Things and stirring up trouble, who's going to lead by proclamation and demand, whose eye is on ideals and the future. You pick the guy you have to drag out of his garden, the guy who doesn't want the job, the guy who's suspicious of abstractions and grand plans, the guy whose eye is on the here-and-now and the real people standing right in front of him, who cares about the bellies of the poor and not their morals, who leads by implicit example almost without meaning to, who thinks twice and hates to interfere.

A little less Yoda, in other words, a little more Winnie the Pooh.

Posted by benrosen at November 5, 2012 03:12 PM | Up to blog

For what it's worth, here's Le Guin's interpretation:

So people who set their bodily good
before the public good
could be entrusted with the commonwealth,
and people who treated the body politic
as gently as their own body
would be worthy to govern the commonwealth.

And her commentary:

"[Lao Tzu] sees sacrifice of self or others as a corruption of power, and power as available to anybody who follows the Way. This is a radically subversive attitude. No wonder anarchists and Taoists make good friends."

Posted by: Dan P at November 6, 2012 08:30 PM
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