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: http://magazine.beloit.edu/?story_id=240813&issue_id=240610

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.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Lectures (6f)—The Accidental Ethnographer (Means of Ascent)

One year ago on Round and Square (31 July 2011)—Hurtin' Country: Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)
[a] Read-climb RL
This is the longer, written version of a lecture I gave as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's bicentennial celebration on June 1, 2012. When I say "longer, written version," I mean just that. This is not a transcript of the talk, although it follows its direction in every way. What is posted here is the "talk" combined with all of the little details that would not have been possible...unless I spoke for six hours. In any case, it reflects my two years of work with the Geil archives at the Doylestown Historical Society, and owes a great deal to the friends and colleagues I have met there, who have made this research one of the most enjoyable archival pilgrimages of my life.
Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h

Today's and tomorrow's posts compose an opinionated little essay on reading. Click below for the linked post.

It was not unusual for me to have spent an hour (not including my mid-morning, head-clearing walk) with the preface to a book that I really wanted to read. I knew that the pace would pick up, but I was following a reading strategy that I developed in college and have continued right up to the present. Even back then, I knew that rereading was one of the most important things I could do, and I began working on strategies for getting the most out of an argument. Indeed, rereading is a practice I try to instill in students, and their reactions vary from curiosity to disgust. The Sacred 5 of China was a good example of a book that I intended to read thrice—once to get the hang of it, the second time with great care and reflection upon detail, and the third to solidify my grasp of the volume. This is the highest "care-level" I give to a book, with the exception of those that are so great and so difficult that they should be labeled hors catégorie, or "beyond categorization." Those should be reread all through life.

[b] Cat 4...3? RF
Let me explain.

In the Tour de France (other cycling events have similar categories), the vertical ascents on each day's route are labeled with a numbering system that awards points to the first, second, third, and subsequent competitors over the peak in a sliding point scale. Since Geil addressed mountain culture in the book I was reading, I was led to consider my reading strategies in a mountain-climbing sort of way. This diversion was more important than I could have guessed at the time, since the hours I have spent with Geil's writing in the last three years have turned out to be beyond anything I could have known back then. Still, it was worthy of a little reflection even that late-autumn morning. I had, after all, spent Hegel-type time on an unknown author, and I could not help thinking of those Tour de France mountain points in relation to my reading efforts.

In Le Tour, a fourth category climb is not as arduous as a third, nor a second as challenging as a first. The length of the climb and its difficulty (usually steepness, but sometimes combined with road conditions) figures into the calculations. The Tour de France organization rates them première, deuxieme, troisieme, and quatrieme. Everything else is "flat" for ranking purposes, no matter how strenuous the brief, 20% grade is up to the promontory outside of that quaint little town in Provence. And then there are the "HC" climbs. The Alpe d'Huez, the Col de la Madeleine, and the Col du Galibier—these tortuous icons are so difficult that they have a category of their own that says, in essence, that they lie beyond efforts to enumerate. Not surprisingly, these climbs are among the most famous in the history of Le Tour.

[c] Tricky RF
Reading is a lot like this.

A trade paperback novel is like an uncategorized section of terrain. It might be worth the read, but the Tour de France organization in your head is probably not going to go out of its way to return to it or give it a number. A hillock, in other words. I know people who have basements full of trade paperbacks, and one of the few opinions most share is that they have little desire to return to most of them. One-and-done; fun while it lasted. Whizzing by variegated terrain. There are a few exceptions, though. Let's say that you really like John Le Carré, and return from time to time for a reread of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Honourable Schoolboy. You know what happened, but you still like working through the pages anyway. They make you...er, sort of Smiley. Category Four. A friend of mine used to read P.D. James like that—plowing through the novels at lunchtime, over-and-over for years. 

That is still a little different, I think, than reading Henry James or Balzac or Melville or Zola or, well, you get the idea. I know that there may be some quibbling here (postmodern hand wringing about whether we can compare texts), but they still get a "third category" (this is not an aspersion) designation from me in terms of effort. The route is long, to be sure (I am thinking of The Ambassadors, Cousin Bette, Moby Dick, and Germinal), but the story pulls the rider (reader) along to the summit. And let's just be clear: such books are very worthy of rereading. Some of them are among the best things ever written. The effort they require, though, is more like a memorable climb at 5% gradient to a lovely plateau. You can picnic there, and may remember the winding (narrative) road long after seemingly "harder" climbs (and reads) have been forgotten.

[d] Up...hill RF
Category two is a bit of a mishmash between the first and third. Classification always seems to work that way. I like to think of them as works that have just a little less narrative "help" than the exquisite category below it. They are often equally "great," but most people would agree that it is a little easier to manage Sister Carrie than Gravity's Rainbow. Better? It's not about "better." It's about the effort required to process the material.

So what, then, is a "category one" read in this classification? For me, it is a work that—while it cannot necessarily be argued as "better" than those we have discussed—is surely a tougher slog. These are books that don't have a story (or as much of one) to pull the reader along. They are "important" and they are somewhat difficult-going. Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory would be one, Pierre Bourdieu's Outline of a Theory of Practice would be another, and Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self would be a third. From here, things get tricky, but no more difficult than rating hills and mountains all over France. What if a book is "difficult" to read, but not very good...or important? That would cover the vast majority of stuff academics write, and I would put it somewhere in the 1-2 category if I cannot just avoid reading it in the first place. What if, on the other hand, something is written so beautifully that it fairly masks the depth of its learning—that it is so elegant and masterful that it seems "easy"...but isn't? Of course, you mean Rousseau's Emile, and I would put it right up there in the first category because of its significance.

These are relative measures, to be sure. On the other hand, it is not that hard to get rough agreement, any more than cyclists in the Le Tour agonize over the differences between categories two and three. They click into the small chain ring and increase their cadence. Up and over. "Taste" has about as much to do with reading (I think) as measuring hills—a little, in other words. The Col du Tourmalet is not a molehill, and the Nicomachean Ethics is not USA Today. And finally, "Beyond Category" is just like it sounds. Although many works fit this definition, we can all agree on one—Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. "Story" is not going to pull us along, and it is, er, rather difficult. And important. It's the Mont Ventoux of reading, and you might as well just learn German, because it's impossible in any language.

What does this have to do with William Edgar Geil's The Sacred 5 of China

Everything. 

Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h
[e] Read-act RF

Monday, July 30, 2012

Lectures (6e)—The Accidental Ethnographer (Nesting Rinds)

[a] Amends RL
This is the longer, written version of a lecture I gave as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's bicentennial celebration on June 1, 2012. When I say "longer, written version," I mean just that. This is not a transcript of the talk, although it follows its direction in every way. What is posted here is the "talk" combined with all of the little details that would not have been possible...unless I spoke for six hours. In any case, it reflects my two years of work with the Geil archives at the Doylestown Historical Society, and owes a great deal to the friends and colleagues I have met there, who have made this research one of the most enjoyable archival pilgrimages of my life.
Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h
I placed Marcel Granet's The Religion of the Chinese People back on the shelf, then went into the kitchen to put a little food in the cats' dishes and to give them fresh water. I checked the phone messages and my e-mail, too. I was feeling a bit guilty, it turns out, and I was ready to make amends. William Edgar Geil's passages about pilgrimage were not that bad. In fact, they were really....very...not...bad at all. Comparing Marcel Granet's writing about Chinese religion with Geil's—even though their works were published only a few years apart (1922 and 1926)—was about as unfair as criticizing Malcom Gladwell for not being Stephen Jay Gould. It was a particular version of apples and oranges, made more complicated by the fact that the apples were American and the oranges French. Moreover, the apples couldn't read or speak Chinese, but the oranges were fluent and studied original texts. Finally, the apples thought of bunches as just more apples, while the oranges saw in each accumulating bushel....a society.

[b] Brisk RL
Oops.

There I go again, I thought. I need to take a walk, clear my head, and return to Geil's preface with a sense of fairness and an understanding of the author's context. He was not a sinologist, and was not trained in social theory. I needed to get over it. It was up to me to see what Geil could teach me about the five sacred mountains of China. I went for a brisk constitutional, thought about Geil's unparalleled accomplishments (unlike Granet, he had traveled to all five mountains, taken photographs, and written the only volume ever penned by a Western writer on the topic). I was ready to return to the fold, and—for now at least—to be rather more analytical in my systematic reading and a good deal less syntopical. It was a chilly late-October morning, and I returned to the house ready for a third cup of coffee, the warmth of the living room couch, and two furry felines. Geil was welcome in my home again, and I opened The Sacred 5 of China to the place where I had started my pilgrimage detour.

But now it was William Edgar Geil's turn to be mean.

Somehow, I had skipped a paragraph between his descriptions of the "5 Yo" (this is rendered today as yue—嶽;岳) and his literary journey into the origins of pilgrimage. How could I have missed it, except to go off on my little Granetian rant about ecstatic religiosity? Now that I considered it, I was more than a little surprised. 

[c] Nasty RL
I had always taught about the syncretic blending of religious teachings on the mountains, and had seen so much evidence for this during my own travels—not to mention the hundreds of texts associated with the five peaks—that it was hard for me to process, at first, what he was saying. In fact, so powerful are the Buddhist flavors on these five syncretic snow cones that it would be beyond belief for me to cast it aside. That was not what Geil seemed to be saying, but it wasn't just the fact that we disagreed (I was willing to bend over backwards after hitting a petty new low in my own behavior just an hour earlier). No, I was struck by how quickly his tone had shifted when discussion turned from Daoism (Taoism), Confucianism, and cosmology to the late-arrival (c. 50 CE) called Buddhism. This seemed just a little bit nasty.

          In the far later days, when Buddhism entered China, the new religion 
          not only sought lodgement on these 5 venerable hills, as the cuckoo
          lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, it also hallowed more hills of its 
          own. But the exotic character of this religion becomes clear in that it
          consecrates only 4 peaks. With the shrines of the intruding faith we have 
          nothing to do; our pilgrimage is to the ancient and autochthonous 5.[1] 

That seemed quite uncharitable, but I kept my powder dry. Maybe he just meant that the five mountains are sometimes called "Daoist mountains." Like Geil, I find this characterization a little problematic, since, as he himself states, these mountains predated any kind of sectarianism, and could far more properly be called "cosmological" mountains. Maybe he just got a little carried away, and failed briefly to turn the other interpretive cheek as he characterized Buddhism as an "intruding" faith that sought to lay its eggs in others' nests.
[d] Sanctity RL

Like the cuckoo.

I briefly considered taking another walk. I had already had too much coffee. I decided to open wide the doors of benefiting doubt and move on. Geil was building to his conclusion, and was more-or-less speaking of the mountains' sanctity from time immemorial rather than of the division of more "modern" faiths. He takes one more jab at the "foreign" religion before making his deeper points about the antiquity of the sacred hills. For Geil, Buddhism is just a little mango peel, easily removed, but something bigger has been going on since long before people could write.

          So with the Sacred Mountains of China. There is a thin rind of Buddhism
          on some of them, easily peeled away. Then comes the more sustantial
          fruit, of which we have much to say. But even this is not the essence; at 
          the core we find something far older than all Lao Tzu invented or that
          was invented for him, than all Confucius gathered up, something of the 
          more ancient religion. These mountains were not made famous by the
          Taoists; they had an immemorial flavour of sanctity about them. Men 
          believed in mountain spirits, in currents of influence ascending and 
          descending, in hill spectres, before any thinker thought to codify or 
          rationalise these beliefs. 

[e] Autochthonous RL
I paused here, surprised by the tone of these sentences. For a brief moment, I thought that I was reading Marcel Granet, and in more ways than one. Certainly the sentence about mountain spirits, currents of influence, and hill spectres sounds a great deal like the fluent descriptions Granet gave of peasant festivals on holy sites. There was one more thing, too. A full reading of Granet's The Religion of the Chinese People shows that Monsieur Granet was no more a fan of Buddhism and its late arrival than was William Edgar Geil. 

I did not have to reopen the book to check. I remembered clearly the care with which Granet had treated early Chinese thought, as well as the layered traditions of Daoism and Confucianism. He was off-handed with regard to Buddhism, and to the extent of appearing....how can I put it?...somewhat rude. I started to wonder whether Geil could have read Granet's 1922 book after all. It was untranslated back then (called La religion des Chinois), and I was not sure about Geil's French language abilities. Had he at least talked with someone who knew Granet's work? This was intriguing, and—in what has continued as "yo-yo" fashion for three years now—I was again more favorably disposed to his work. There was something significant to be said about his characterization of these mountains and their social-religious origins—predating everything.

          They instinctively offered sacrifices to the gods of the range and the 
          peaks, especially when about to cross or scale them, long before the 
          chief minister of Yao was appointed President of the Mountains, or 
          the Emperor undertook to offer on the altar of the Earth at the summer 
          solsctice. They had their superstitions as to the preparation needful, in 
          the way of fasting and purification, that they might climb the passes, 
          before any corps of priests organised temples and laid out highways.[2] 

Exhausted by the mere five pages of Geil's preface, I took a last deep breath and pressed on to the concluding paragraph.

Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h
[f] Concluding RL
Notes
[1] William Edgar Geil, The Sacred 5 of China (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1926), xvi.
[2] Geil, Sacred 5, xix.

Bibliography
Geil, William Edgar. The Sacred 5 of China. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1926.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Lectures (6d)—The Accidental Ethnographer (Pilgrimage)

[a] Pilgrim's Peak RL
This is the longer, written version of a lecture I gave as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's bicentennial celebration on June 1, 2012. When I say "longer, written version," I mean just that. This is not a transcript of the talk, although it follows its direction in every way. What is posted here is the "talk" combined with all of the little details that would not have been possible...unless I spoke for six hours. In any case, it reflects my two years of work with the Geil archives at the Doylestown Historical Society, and owes a great deal to the friends and colleagues I have met there, who have made this research one of the most enjoyable archival pilgrimages of my life.
Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h
[b] Pilgrim's Peek RL
William Edgar Geil had begun his five mountain narrative journey with something like a deft hand. It was not quite aplomb, but I could see its hazy outline from there. In just a few lines, he had taken his readers through a maze of Chinese cosmology, and hinted that he might know a lot more about Chinese culture than I ever would have imagined. He continued with a long set of reflections on the nature of pilgrimage across the world.

          For, with whatever different motive we journey, we follow a custom 
          ingrained for centuries, the custom of pilgrimage. What lies at the 
          root of this practice? Every religion appears to have some sacred 
          sites. Where there is a definite founder, the places associated with 
          him are obviously of interest. Therefore in Sinai, in Palestine, in 
          Nepaul, in Arabia, in Persia, as well as in Shantung, are a few of the 
          localities of historical importance. Only second to the founder will be 
          the great missionaries, and then come the local saints; the scenes of 
          their labours will receive attention...In all such cases, it was natural 
          that mere curiosity, or veneration of the departed man, should attract 
          many sightseers. 

          And as each century enriched the place with new associations, more 
          and more objects of interest accumulated, till the city might become a 
          thorough museum of history. And in the great majority of cases, 
          expectations of healing, entertained by the visitors, have led to a 
          general belief in local miracles, with constant increments of shrines and 
          relics...[Then] there came a time when visitors went, moved by more than 
          mere curiosity, sentiment, history. These places were felt to be hold 
          ground and men went not simply as tourists, but as pilgrims.

While this was not the deepest explanation I had ever read about the origin of holy sites, it was serviceable and even just a little bit compelling. On the other hand, it did not approach the brilliance of Marcel Granet's 1922 description of teeming, bubbling, frothing religious energy fairly flowing from the social engagements on holy ground in early China. No, Geil's description was somewhat more wooden and incremental, with interest in religious founders being layered o'er by thickening levels of saintliness and an accompanying collection of accoutrements in the form of relics. It was believable, I critiqued, but in a sloppy pseudo-objectivist sort of way. I was feeling a little mean, and beginning to think that this stiff American had gotten a B- on his first real test of religious insight. He hadn't failed—not by a long shot—but he could not put his finger on just what makes holy sites dazzle. For that, we need the brilliance of French sinologists in the Durkheimian tradition. We need Marcel Granet.
[c] Pilgrim's Pique RL

I put down The Sacred 5 of China and went to find my copy of Marcel Granet's The Religion of the Chinese People. For perhaps the hundredth time, I reread the most spectacular description of holy places I have ever seen. I was quite aware that mine was a minority opinion, and that many readers (far too beholden for my tastes to a misplaced and pre-Kantian misunderstanding of objective "rigor") would find Granet's description prohibitively French. Where were the footnotes? Where was the reason? It all just sounds, said one critic, "a bit too literary."

Undeterred, I opened to the section called "Holy Places and Peasant Festivals." It crossed my mind that what I was now doing, in the spirit of systematic reading, was the highest level—moving from one argument to another, and then engaging them in my own mind. Mortimer Adler calls such reading "syntopical," and I was preparing to put William Edgar Geil in the path of an intellectual radial arm saw called "French sinology." I was confident that Marcel Granet would lead again to the lieux saint, the holy place.

          The location of these Holy Places is quite well marked out for some 
          parts of China; but all I can describe is the general appearance, the 
          ritual landscape of the Festivals. For the unfolding of their traditional 
          ceremonies, they required a terrain variegated with woods, water, 
          vales, and heights. There the crowd of pilgrims spread themselves, 
          come from afar, often in carts, dressed in seasonal clothes that were 
          freshly woven and of which the dazzling newness declared the 
          prosperity of each family. In their finery, the women folk, usually invisible 
          and shut up in their hamlets, showed themselves in groups and shone 
          like clouds. With their sprigged robes, their grey or madder-red-dresses, 
          they appeared as beautiful as the mallow or cherry blossom. 

          Groups of people made or renewed relationships. Drawing one another 
          by the sleeve, taking one another by the hand, they gave themselves up 
          to the joy of meetings long and impatiently awaited and which had to be 
          of short duration. In the enthusiasm of these solemn assemblies they 
          moved up and down in all directions over the terrain, filling it with their 
          happiness and feeling that happiness fed by memories recovered at their 
          contact with the witness of all the potent joys of their race. 

[d] Pilgrim's Parchment RL
This is a burgeoning, percolating social intensity that Granet's teacher, Emile Durkheim, saw as the very heart of religiosity. People gathering together in communal intercourse was the prerequisite for reaching the highest levels of religious ecstasy. It was Granet, however, who channeled the master's great idea and wrote as if in a Durkheimian social-analytical trance-state of the precise ways that people commingling in holy sites all came together to create something bigger than the individual—something that would be remembered, retraced, and relived year after year, decade after decade, and century after century. When human engagement reaches its highest states, we get holiness. When we get holiness, we get pilgrimage sites. It's a lot more complicated (and intense and fervent) than founders, missionaries, and relics. And then he brings his description to a fever pitch, with animals sharing in the cultural-natural fluidity and making all the world one with itself. The moments are brief, but they are imprinted on humanity and nature in ways that give the sacred mountains of the world their ongoing value.

          They wished to make this beneficent contact as intimate as possible; 
          from it there seemed to come to them a prodigious enlargement of their 
          inner life. They experienced the tutelary power whose sanctity spread 
          from every corner of the landscape, blessed forces which they strove to 
          capture in every way. Holy was the place, sacred the slopes of the valley 
          they climbed and descended, the stream they crossed with their skirts 
          tucked up, the blooming flowers they plucked, the ferns, the buses, the 
          white elms, the great oaks and the wood they took from them: the lit 
          bonfires, the scent of the nosegays, the spring water in which they 
          dipped themselves, and the wind that dried them as they came from 
          bathing, all had virtues, unlimited virtues; all was a promise given to all 
          hopes. And the animals which teemed and also held their seasonal 
          assemblies, grasshoppers gathering under the grass, the arrested flights 
          of birds of passage, ospreys gathered together on sandy islets and shared 
          in the holiness of the place and the moment. Their calls, their chases, 
          were signals, emblems, a language in which men heard an echo of their 
          own emotions.

          They felt themselves strong by their harmony with the natural order. 
          Their festivals opened and closed the rainy season. Were the festivals 
          regulated by the first and last rainbows to appear? Or did they regulate 
          their appearance? In these gatherings where rural concord was forged 
          in rhythmic time, all, exalted by a sentiment of joyous power, imagined 
          that they cooperated in the harmony of nature. Their creative joy turned 
          into a need to worship from which the earth set aside for their 
          gatherings benefited, divine land where everything merited a cult, the 
          great isolated trees, the little woods, the pools, the confluences of rivers, 
          the gushing fountains, the mounds, the split stones, and the rocks which 
          seemed to bear the imprints of giant footsteps.

[e] Pilgrims' Passage RL
I sat back in a satisfied daze, a little tingle in my spine as I let Granet's words resonate—"tutelary power whose sanctity spread from every corner" and "rural concord...forged in rhythmic time." Now that's pilgrimage, I thought, and took another sip of coffee. Yes, I knew that a certain kind of literalist would disagree with me, but I was firmly in Granet's camp when it came to showing the pilgrim's progress. Both were fictional accounts of a sort—Geil and Granet were speculating. But in another way, both were grounded in source materials. Geil's were obvious; Granet's less so, but no less significant for that. The experienced reader of The Religion of the Chinese People can sense Granet's rich use of the Classic of Poetry (詩經) and the Book of Rites (禮記). It is as though his work channeled both the careful scholarship of Leopold von Ranke and the literary exuberance of Gustave Flaubert.

I sighed.

Picking up anew The Sacred 5 of China, I knew I should give it another chance. With regard to pilgrimage, Geil had acquitted himself reasonably well. Still, just a little bit of the initial luster had worn off. Here was a religious person—more on that soon—who couldn't quite convey the religious excitement of pilgrimage. I knew I was being terribly harsh and rather opinionated in this regard, and declared the readerly version of a truce, waiting to see what the rest of Geil's preface held for me. In one sense, he was two-for-two already. He had passed my fairly critical review of five-phase cosmology and pilgrimages, albeit with higher scores on the former, like a verbally-challenged math whiz taking the SAT. Let's give him a 700 on cosmology and a 450 on pilgrimage. Not everyone can match Marcel Granet's perfect 1600, after all.

Or maybe I was just being mean. I kept on reading. 

Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h
[f] Pilgrim's Portal RL

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Lectures (6c)—The Accidental Ethnographer (Reading Geil)

[a] From Middle Heaven Gate RL
This is the longer, written version of a lecture I gave as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's bicentennial celebration on June 1, 2012. When I say "longer, written version," I mean just that. This is not a transcript of the talk, although it follows its direction in every way. What is posted here is the "talk" combined with all of the little details that would not have been possible...unless I spoke for six hours. In any case, it reflects my two years of work with the Geil archives at the Doylestown Historical Society, and owes a great deal to the friends and colleagues I have met there, who have made this research one of the most enjoyable archival pilgrimages of my life.
Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h

After a good night's sleep, spent dreaming of rocky crags in the world of 1919, I got up, made myself a little omelet, prepared a pot of coffee, and settled down with the cats to read The Sacred 5 of China. My goal was to process Geil's work by moving methodically through the book, page-by-page. In the spirit of systematic reading, this was to be the first close encounter—not too fast, but not as slowly as a second reading would require (if it warranted that kind of attention at all). Yesterday, I had skipped around and considered bits and pieces, on the one hand, and developed a birds-eye sense of the whole, on the other. Today and tomorrow—and maybe the day after that—would be devoted to a methodical reading of every word, as well as careful study of every photograph and diagram in the volume.

[b] From Middle Heaven Gate (in The Sacred 5 of China)
It all started auspiciously enough. On the left was a view of Mt. Tai from the mid-point (Middle Heaven Gate, 中天門); it was even more barren and stark than the picture I had shown in class the night before. On the right stood the title page—its combination of phrases, titles, and numbers just curious enough to arouse suspicion. Why was it "5," and not "five?" The details of that answer were still a year away. Why did he list his degrees, the books he authored, and the words "etc. etc?" I also noticed that it had been discontinued—pulled from the living, borrowing shelves—at the Public Library of Tulsa, Oklahoma. On the other hand, if you're an author you can't do much better than Houghton Mifflin Company, then or now. Good start, I thought, but I remained a little wary of an author of five books on China whose name had never before ended up in even one of my card catalog notes or electronic searches before 2009.

I turned the page. "Every book has many authors: the title-page names but one." Geil thanks five people, including his wife, various academics, and "a very distinguished scholar whose name, for political reasons, is set down in a strictly secret place." The rest of the dedications page is equally odd and inspiring. The "fly on a fleet horse's tail" called to my mind several idiomatic phrases in Chinese about brevity and the general insignificance of a single individual or moment. Very nice, like viewing the flowers while galloping on horseback (走馬觀花).

          In the words of magistrate Chên of the Hua Yin District:
               "I have undertaken the labour of seeing this book
                to completion, and have the privilege of
                inscribing my name at the end,
                like a fly on a fleet horse's tail."
                                                                   WM. EDGAR GEIL. 
     5th sun of the 5th moon of the
            5th year after visiting
     THE SACRED 5 OF CHINA.

[c] 5 RF
On the other hand, what was with the date? Clearly, this 5 thing was on his mind, and it struck me that maybe it was, already, just a little bit too much. I was somewhat reassured by the formidable and detailed table of contents. He certainly knew the mountains and, if that were not enough, the list of illustrations—one hundred of them—sealed the deal. This man had been to all five mountains, and he had the illustrative firepower to prove it. He also had, on page xiii, a quotation that would serve as his pivot, allowing him to transition from architectonics to narrative.

               THE LARGEST MOUNTAIN DOES NOT REJECT THE SMALLEST DUST. 

And then it began. I wish to quote directly from Geil's preface. No paraphrase can do justice to the peculiar combination of insight and idiosyncrasy that I was just beginning to discover in the writing of William Edgar Geil.

                                               THE MAGIC OF 5
        5 is a number most remarkable to the man of the Central Kingdom. When 
        he looks into the sky at night he sees 5 planets, which we of the West term 
        Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, Mercury. When he studies the tints of nature 
        he distinguishes 5: Green, Red, Yellow, White, Black. In the world there are 
        5 elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water. If in the orchard the stems or 
        the flowers of apple, pear, and cherry be admired, 5 reveals itself again. If 
        space be analysed, there are 5 directions: East, South, Centre, West, and 
        North. So, too, in the little world of the body. The human frame has 5 
        constituents: Muscle, Vein, Flesh, Bone, Skin-and-hair. The trunk contains 
        5 organs: Kidneys, Heart, Liver, Lungs, Stomach. It has 5 offshoots: Head, 
        two Arms, two legs.

[d] En petit RF
Well played, William Edgar. Even though the reader with no background in Chinese cosmology might be a little perplexed, this seemed to be the start of a useful—even entertaining—picture of Chinese thought. One phrase in particular struck me as deeply insightful—indeed so much so that I wondered if it was possible that he meant what he said in all its enormous microcosmic implications. 

"So, too, in the little world of the body..."

Be still my beating heart-mind (心), I mused. Could this unknown writer really be hinting at one of the most profound ideas in all of Chinese thought? Could it be that he understood the brilliant, though circuitous, tradition in Daoist text and practice connecting the human body with the cosmos? Is it possible that Geil understood the insights of perspicacious French scholars of his time—Edouard Chavannes and Marcel Granet—who wrote fluently of this idea in the context of mountains and even society? Could it be that he had already, in 1926, anticipated the work of Granet's student, Rolf Stein, who wrote—long after Geil's death—that the human body is a "world in miniature" that mirrors the action, flow, and refulgence of mountains themselves? Was it possible? If so, the world of Chinese studies had missed a serious link in its own intellectual history. 

I kept reading.

        All other things, therefore, should manifestly be sorted into 5's. In music, 
        where where the white man talks about an octave, but really discriminates 
        popularly 12 sounds within that octave, the Son of Han recognizes only 5 
        notes. 5 tastes are distinguished: Salt, Bitter, Sour, Acrid, Sweet. From his 
        ancient semi-mythical kings he singles out 5 as worthy of remembrance. 
        And for more than 4 millenniums he has known 5 degrees of nobility.

        As there were 5 constant or cardinal virtues, so there were 5 punishments. 
        The calendar depends upon the Pillars of Heaven, or pars of stems. And 
        many of these matters are mentioned in the 5 Classics, and brought up to 
        date by the 5 stripes in the Chinese Flag.

        It is, therefore, only to be expected that mountains should be mentioned in 
        5's. And among the holy mountains, it was inevitable that 5 should be 
        prominent; and natural that these should become associated with the 5 
        elements, the 5 directions, the 5 colours. Hence, we find:

               Tai Shan, the East Peak, corresponds to Wood and Green.
               Nan Yo, the South Peak, corresponds to Fire and Red.
               Sung Shan, the Centre Peak, corresponds to Earth and Yellow.
               Hua Shan, the West Peak, corresponds to Metal and White.
               Hêng Shan, the North Peak, corresponds to Water and Black.

        These 5 are the sacred Quincunx of Hills; the devout pilgrim will fulfil his 
        duty by visiting these.

[e] Yin-yang RF
As page-and-a-half introductions to yin-yang five phase (陰陽五行) cosmology and the mountains as pilgrimage sites go...this was impressive. I thought of the challenges I had faced in teaching these concepts, and knew that it took a truly solid grasp of the material to make it digestible. If I were to quibble, I might have said that he could have defined his terms just a little more clearly at the outset, but that was a minor point here. In just 375 words, he had given even the general reader a sense of the biggest of the big ideas behind his mountainous project. Although I still didn't know if his reference to (as I saw it) the body as microcosm was penetrating or just a little lucky, I had read enough to see that William Edgar Geil knew his material well. He had proven himself in the early going to be a reliable and even amiable narrator. 

I poured myself another cup of coffee, and continued reading.

Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h
[f] Pilgrims RF

Friday, July 27, 2012

Lectures (6b)—The Accidental Ethnographer (Opening the Book)

[a] March 2009
This is the longer, written version of a lecture I gave as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's bicentennial celebration on June 1, 2012. When I say "longer, written version," I mean just that. This is not a transcript of the talk, although it follows its direction in every way. What is posted here is the "talk" combined with all of the little details that would not have been possible...unless I spoke for six hours. In any case, it reflects my two years of work with the Geil archives at the Doylestown Historical Society, and owes a great deal to the friends and colleagues I have met there, who have made this research one of the most enjoyable archival pilgrimages of my life.
Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h

Back down the mountain the next day, I logged onto the Abe Books site and tracked down a copy of William Edgar Geil's The Sacred 5 of China. My electronic receipt made clear that it would be delivered to my door by the time I returned to the United States. In the meantime, I finished my whirlwind visit to all five sacred mountains in a two-week period, and filled my ethnographic jottings notebook in anticipation of a long winter's write.

And read, as it turned out.

[b] Mt. Tai map (from The Sacred 5 of China)
Back in Beloit, Wisconsin, I unpacked my bags, organized my notes, began teaching the second half of a busy semester, and opened a chubby package from Abe Books. There it was, and it looked impressive. Hardbound with gold cloth covers, the front pictured a turtle bearing a Luo River chart upon its carapace. The volume was substantial, and even a little bit elegant. This struck me as a very serious effort. Although the text was front loaded (a third of the text) toward Mt. Tai—this is so hard to avoid that it has taken me three years to find a solution to the problem—it contained meaty chapters on all five mountains.

Moreover, he knew the classical cosmology of it all. Mt. Tai, the mountain of spring, was followed by Mt. Heng in the south—the mountain of summer. In the very middle of the book came Mt. Song, the central mountain, and the pivot of the four quarters. From there, Geil proceeded to the spectacular vistas of Mt. Hua in the west (just an hour today further down the road from the terracotta soldiers, but the better part of a day by donkey caravan for Geil and his entourage in 1919). He finished the book with the lonely little mountain of the north, Mt. Heng, which is cold much of the year and was actually outside the borders of China's dynasties during much of their history.

It was impressive, and powerfully more so because it contained some of the beautiful hand-sketched maps of mountain details that could only be found by working through many dozens of original texts from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. William Edgar Geil had gotten hold of them and put them into a single volume. That feature alone made the volume worthy of study by students of Chinese culture. It crossed my mind again that there must be something...some reason...why I had never heard of him during a quarter century of study. Had I just missed something that everyone else knew? Was this a hidden gap in my preparation that would have embarrassed me in conversation with other "sinologists," had I admitted that the name Geil had never crossed my pupils before that autumn?

[c] Mt. Tai temple (from The Sacred 5 of China)
So I checked. I wrote e-mail messages to a cluster of China scholars, and asked if any had heard of a certain William Edgar Geil, who had traveled to all five sacred mountains in China and written a major work on the subject. Just to be sure, I mentioned five other names, all of whom had lived and traveled in China during the first two decades of the twentieth century. I asked—at the risk of a little embarrassment—if they were unaware of any of the following names.
                            Edouard Chavannes (1865-1918)
                            Paul Pelliot (1878-1945)
                            Marcel Granet (1884-1940)
                            William Edgar Geil (1865-1925)
                            Herbert Giles (1845-1935)
                            D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966)

To be sure, a few people who were less familiar with earlier eras and national traditions of Chinese studies marked names such as Pelliot and Suzuki. Still, the vast majority of responses had just one name noted as unrecognized. Let me make this as clear as I can. Of fifty total responses, only one name was unrecognized by everyone. Not one person among a substantial group of China scholars in North America, Europe, and Asia recognized the name of the only Western person to have written a book about China's five sacred mountains.

No one.

Let me take things one step further. If you do an Internet search tonight (1 June 2012), you will find that only one of the names above lacks even a stub of a Wikipedia entry. That will be remedied soon enough, but it should give you a sense of how completely unknown this author was.
[d] June 1919 (from The Sacred 5 of China)
Back in late-October of 2009, though, I couldn't tear myself away from the pictures. You see, William Edgar Geil, in addition to publishing a verbal account of his journey up and down each of the sacred peaks in the summer of 1919, included a hundred original photographs. And they are impressive. I was so intrigued by one photograph that I brought it immediately to my evening seminar group (our topic was, appropriately, "Mountains") and opened the floor for discussion. On one side was Geil's 1919 photograph of the "eighteen bends" (十八盘) up Mt. Tai. On the other were two of my own 2009 photographs. Eighty years separated them. What was different? What was the same? What could we learn from it all?

To begin, Geil's photograph showed a spectacularly barren landscape. I could recognize the twisting stairway to heaven—to the 南天門, the South Gate of Heaven. Not much of the rest seemed possible. How could only two little tufts of pine trees be visible? It looked like a moonscape—all rock, and no water. T.S. Eliot might have mused about this very scene as he drafted the first section (edited with the help of sinophile Ezra Pound) of The Wasteland.

                              What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
                              Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
                              You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
                               A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
                               And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
                               And the dry stone no sound of water.

[e] June 2009 RL
Where did all the foliage go in 1919? Why is the same rock face drenched in vegetation eighty years later? Photo A, above, is fairly close to the angle and distance of Geil's picture. You will notice that, even in early March of 2009, the stone path was dotted by shrubbery and buds of various kinds. By late-June, eighty years to the month after Geil took his photograph, the rock is covered in greenery. My seminar students came up with a wide range of answers, but two interrelated ones dominated. In 1919, in the midst of general confusion and territorial fragmentation, the mountain was scoured for firewood, building supplies, and other uses. By contrast, in 2009 Mt. Tai had spent over two decades as a UNESCO World Heritage site and was vigorously promoted by the Chinese government as one of the the most significant tourism sites in the country.
***  ***
In other words, Geil's book immediately found its way into my classroom, and I was favorably disposed toward him after our first full day together. Indeed, I was getting ready to champion him as a truly significant, yet somehow forgotten, figure in the history of Chinese studies. This was one of the most exciting days of my career, and I could not help thinking that I had found a heretofore unknown Margaret Mead hidden in the deep recesses of the Western sinological tradition. I had unpacked, spent a full-day teaching, and now had a long weekend ahead of me to study The Sacred 5 of China. I was ready to meet William Edgar Geil on his own turf—the 360 pages and five mountains of his text.

Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h
[f] Lush RL