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.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Philosophy of History of Philosophy: A History (1d)—Heaven is High and the Emperor is Far Away

A year ago on Round and Square (22 April 2012)—Hurtin' Country: Harper Valley PTA
[a] Gathering RF
This is one post in a four-part series. Click below for the other posts:
High 1          High 2          High 3          High 4

I recently wrote an essay for a website that proposed to deal with history, philosophy, culture, and the practice of daily life in early China and Greece. The piece that was finally published was a great deal different from this one, so I am happy to post the "long version" here. As will be clear soon enough, I see profound connections between the thought of Greek thinkers such as Hesiod and Herodotus, on the one hand, and Chinese writers from Sima Qian to the anonymous authors of the Book of Songs (詩經/诗经). Through it all, like a flowing watercourse, runs the calendar and a question that I think needs asking (and re-asking) as we study history: what is the relationship between repeatable events, such as we find every year at certain points of the calendar, and singular moments in the past. This is a philosophical question...about history, culture, and time. That is why it is the second post in this series on the philosophy of history (of philosophy).

The Classic of Poetry
It is probable that no single work has been read, studied, and recited by more people in Chinese history than the Classic of Poetry (詩經). It presents all of the challenges we have faced to this point regarding early texts, point-of-view, and knowledge about everyday life. Above all, though, it allows us to return to the cyclical movements of the calendar, people’s lives, and almost everyone’s daily distance from the sources of power. To complete the circle, then, we need to grasp the patterns of the calendar and the details of our texts. Few works shows this coherence better than the Classic of Poetry.  
Take, for example, the love songs from the Classic of Poetry. Some of these lines served as the inspiration for Marcel Granet’s interpretation at the beginning of this essay. He had learned to see where the detail “fit” and where the context buried it. These quoted lines, if read side-by-side with Granet’s description of the spring festivals, above, show how relevant they are for an interpretation of how people moved and acted; they are not merely an accounting of “they did this…and then they did that.” The Classic’s lines put everything into the context of a calendar, the patterning of life throughout a year, and the life cycles of people. The temporal movements make everything else cohere.

As we have seen, the spring festivals—the verdant rhythms and chants of young men and women—announced the cycle of engagement. This poem brings us face-to-face with its marital implications. 

          101 Southern Hill 
          Over the southern hill so deep 
          The male fox drags along, 
          But the way to Ku is easy and broad 
          From this Qi lady on her wedding way. 
          Yet once she has made the journey, 
          Never again must her fancy roam.

          Fiber shoes, five pairs;  
          Cap ribbons, a couple. 
          The way to Lu is easy and broad 
          For this lady of Qi to use. 
          But once she has used it, 
          No way else must she ever go.

          When we plant hemp, how do we do it?
          Across and along we put the rows.
          When one takes a wife, how is it done?
          The man must talk to her father and mother.
          And once he has talked with them,
          No one else must he court.

          When we cut firewood, how do we do it? 
          Without an axe it would not be possible. 
          When one takes a wife, how is it done? 
          Without a match-maker he cannot get her. 
          But once he has got her, 
          No one else must he ever approach.[1]
The tone is both suggestive and startling, and the careful reader will ask what she can learn of everyday life from it, just as she did in considering Hesiod, Herodotus, and Sima Qian. A great deal, might well be the answer, but what we can learn in meaningful ways is always dominated by the text. We must react to it, learn to ask new questions, but always realize that the text (unlike the person to whom an anthropologist speaks in the present) will never clarify its answers for us, never answer our follow-up questions. At most, upon rereading, it will repeat its message, and we will gain clarity through repetition.

What is significant here? As with almost every example in this essay, marriage plays a role. The careful reader will note the manner in which the poem mixes natural and cultural imagery in every stanza. It is tempting to sever precise details from the narrative thrust of the poem. Fiber shoes (five pairs) and cap ribbons seem harmless enough as “data.

Indeed, experienced readers such as Marcel Granet learned how to extract precise details for understanding in other contexts. Woe to the researcher who carries this mission too far, however. Then the whole enterprise fails, as though the very weight of excised detail threatens to bury the text itself. 

If done well, it is a precise operation. The fiber shoes and cap ribbons—copies, really, since the “originals” must stay with the narrative—are, in a sense, put into a conceptual holding bin, where they await other references in other texts that might confirm them. Too few of them and the researcher fails to comprehend how textual details can aid her project; too many, and it becomes a great game of separating the peas from the pods in a chimerical pursuit of “facts” about daily life. 
There are fewer problems with the thrust of the narrative itself. Even the most gullible reader can see that the focus on marriage is so overwhelming that every line touches upon it in one way or another. Somewhat more careful readers will note the gendered advice, which (at least at first) seems to say that women leave their homes…never to return again. They would not, at least not in a broader life-cycle sense. They, as well as their husbands, would never return to the relative freedom of youth. They could never look at anyone quite the same way again, and it is about this social point-of-no-return that the poem sends its warning to both men and women. Youth dances and sings at the spring festival; by autumn, youth ends in marriage.

For Greek and Chinese society in the millennium before the Common Era, we have precious few documents. We have touched upon some of them in this essay, and it should be clear that none will give up its details about everyday life with all of the clarity that we seek. Most often, they represent a challenging jigsaw puzzle of life fragments that have persisted since Hesiod’s time, almost 3000 years ago. We can make small assessments of the importance, for example, of the axe (referenced in several of our documents and relevant to this day). We can understand something of marriage alliances, fashions, and cultural variation. At the very highest levels, we can put those pieces together into a moveable framework that gives us a sense of time and change. Even in the simplest societies (as they continue to be called), we know that winter and summer have enormously varied social qualities.[2] In the most complex ones, the pattern of nature can be seen in the movements of social groups and activities throughout the calendar year. If we want to understand everyday life on a deep level, in short, we must focus on how those exquisite details fit the pattern, and not only in the world of our documents. We also must understand the flow of the year—and patterns of work and rest over lifetimes—experienced by those who wrote them. 

It is difficult, to be sure. 

Heaven is high; all else is far away.

This is one post in a four-part series. Click below for the other posts:
High 1          High 2          High 3          High 4
[1] Arthur Waley, The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry (New York: Grove Press, 1996), 80.
[2] These rhythms are brilliantly captured by Marcel Granet’s friend and colleague, Marcel Mauss, in a work on the social cadences of yearly life among the Eskimo. Marcel Mauss (with Henri Beuchat), Seasonal Variations Among the Eskimo: A Study in Social Morphology (London: Routledge Books, 2004).

—Mauss, Marcel (with Henri Beuchat). Seasonal Variations Among the Eskimo: A Study in Social Morphology. London: Routledge Books, 2004.
Waley, Arthur. The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry. New York: Grove Press, 1996.

No comments:

Post a Comment