From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Hurtin', Leavin' and Longin' (38)—Big John

He's larger than life. He's a flawed hero who has been misunderstood all his life. He is so strong that he can both help and hurt. He is..., I don't mean Newt Gingrich. Put down your newspaper (turn off your Kindle). The hero of this tale is quiet, reflective, and maybe even a little morose. There is not a touch of the grandiose anywhere to be found in this particular hero's self-image, only selflessness and sacrifice. Take a listen to the tale of Big Bad John.

       Big John
       Big John

       Every morning at the mine you could see him arrive  
       He stood six foot six and weighed two forty five
       Kinda broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hip
       And everybody knew, ya didn't give no lip to Big John 

       (Big John, Big John)  
        Big Bad John
       (Big John)

       Nobody seemed to know where John called home  
       He just drifted into town and stayed all alone
       He didn't say much, he kinda quiet and shy
       And if you spoke at all, he just said, "Hi" to Big John

       Somebody said he came from New Orleans  
       Where he got in a fight over a Cajun Queen
       And a crashing blow from a huge right hand
       Sent a Louisiana fellow to the Promised Land, Big John

       Then came the day at the bottom of the mine  
       When a timber cracked and men started crying
       Miners were praying and hearts beat fast
       And everybody thought that they'd breathed their last, except John

      Through the dust and the smoke of this man made hell  
       Walked a giant of a man that the miners knew well
       Grabbed a sagging timber, gave out with a groan
       And like a giant Oak tree, he just stood there alone, Big John


       And with all of his strength he gave a mighty shove  
       Then a miner yelled out, "There's a light up above"
       And twenty men scrambled from a would-be grave
       Now there's only one left down there to save, Big John

       With jacks and timbers they started back down  
       Then came that rumble way down in the ground
       And then smoke and gas belched out of that mine
       Everybody knew it was the end of the line for Big John


       Now they never reopened that worthless pit  
       They just placed a marble stand in front of it
       These few words are written on that stand
       At the bottom of this mine lies a big, big man, Big John 


      Big John... 
      Big Bad John

Now there's a hero, and I mean that word in the Chinese sense of "larger-than-life-ness"—someone capable of great feats that can come to good or ill. We'll return to that idea at the end of this post. For know, though, we have a combination of Hercules and Lennie in a sad tale of loneliness, redemption, and despair. Big John didn't know his strength when he sent a Louisiana fella to the promised land, presumably many years ago.
[b] Quiet, strong RF

Quiet, shy, and strong...he is the very picture of exile. And exilic response. This is the stuff of mythology, and Jimmy Dean (before he started pitchin' sausage) sings the tale in just the right key of country irony. It is hard not to read it as a tale of redemption, of sorts, in which a man too strong for his own emotions channels that strength—as the last act in a misunderstood life—for the good of society.

Or something like that.

How on earth are we going to find an East Asian juxtaposition for a lyric like this? Well, I choose to follow the little sub-pattern in these posts of including a segment from a classic East Asian narrative. This scene from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義) pits the two "strongest" men in the realm against one another in the first of many episodes leading to combat. The key idea behind this is the term "hero." The English doesn't quite render it correctly, as I hinted above. The term 雄 (xiong) gives a sense of "bigger than life" and "beyond normal capacities." In a strict "dictionary" sense, it can be said to be neutral (we could quibble over that if you want to haul out your 大漢和辞典. Just let me know and we'll have coffee. For non-quibblers, the basics go this way. Another idea must be added to the "larger than life" core to make it work in most narrative contexts. To make a long etymological story short, we can add "shining" (英) or "treacherous" (奸) to that core, as you can see.
[c] Layers RF

英雄 "shining hero"     
奸雄 "deceitful" hero" 

So, we have the "shining, brilliant hero," on the one hand, and the "crafty, malevolent hero" on the other. We have, in the grand tradition, Liu Bei and Cao Cao. I won't go into the layer upon layer of challenges presented by these concepts in the 120 chapters (about a thousand pages in fine-print English translation) of the Chinese historical-fictional narrative. You owe it to yourself to read one of the most pivotal stories in all of Chinese history. You can check out the reference below. For now, though, let's take a look at a crucial early scene between "shining" Liu Bei and "treacherous" Cao Cao from Three Kingdoms lore.

A flash storm was threatening.  Some pointed to a distant dragon suspended on the horizon.  The two men leaned against the balcony and watched it.

Cao: “Does my lordship understand the dragon’s multiform manifestations?”

Liu Bei:  “Not in any great detail.”

Cao Cao: “Dragons can enlarge and diminish themselves, surge aloft or lie beneath the surface.  Enlarged, they create clouds and spew mist.  Diminished, they can fit themselves into a granule.  Aloft they prance triumphant in the upper realm of space.  Under the surface they lurk among surging breakers.  Now in the fullness of spring they mount the season, like men who would fulfill an ambition and dominate the length and breadth of the land.  In this respect they can well be compared to the heroes of the age.  You yourself have traveled widely and surely must be familiar with the great warriors of our time.  Please describe them for me...”

And each name that Liu Bei raised—Liu Biao, Sun Ce—Cao dismissed derisively.

At last he said, “Now, what I mean by a hero is this: He cherishes ambition for grandeur, a mine of marvelous schemes, the ability to encompass the realm or disappear within it, and the will to swallow the world of men or spit it out!”  

Liu Bei: “Who merits such a description?”

Cao Cao pointed first to Liu Bei, then to himself.  “Heroes of the present day number but two—you, my lordship, and myself.”
[d] Larger than life RF

Moss Roberts, Three Kingdoms (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976), 26-27.

Roberts, Moss. Three Kingdoms. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.

Sunday, February 5th
Sunday Morning Coming Down
Next week we'll examine another sad classic written by the inimitable Kris Kristoferson and sung by the unparalleled Johnny Cash.

1 comment:

  1. I think of heroes as those who can never self-identify as heroes, but are defined by others. This is one of the essences of heroism. Like the old Yiddish expression "Let a stranger praise you, and not your own tongue," heroes can be accidental, calling upon themselves in what may be a frenzy of inactivity and indecision by others to become heroic by necessity. Heroism also stands alone, existing in its own time and space, defined by deed. Not necessarily selfless, though, because the heroic deed strongly defines "self."