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, September 18, 2011

Hurtin', Leavin' and Longin' (20)—Jolene

Click here to read the introduction to the Round and Square series "Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin'..."
[a] Heart-to-heart talk RF
Dolly really hits the pathos hard with this one. The song has an interesting "backstory," too, involving an attractive bank teller, Ms. Parton's first husband, and a young woman at a concert. It is worth a quick read before we dive into the lyrics. Dolly Parton is fighting for "her man," but in a distinctly obsequious (and anthropologically fascinating) manner. Take a listen. Dolly Parton is known for lines such as "it takes a lot of money to look this cheap," but she is a talented songwriter with an eye for how human beings operate in difficult situations.
          Artist: Dolly Parton
          Songwriter(s): Dolly Parton

          Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
          I'm begging of you please don't take my man
          Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
          Please don't take him just because you can

          Your beauty is beyond compare

          With flaming locks of auburn hair
          With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green
          Your smile is like a breath of spring
          Your voice is soft like summer rain
          And I cannot compete with you, Jolene

          He talks about you in his sleep

          There's nothing I can do to keep
          From crying when he calls your name, Jolene
          And I can easily understand
          How you could easily take my man
          But you don't know what he means to me, Jolene

          Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
          I'm begging of you please don't take my man
          Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
          Please don't take him just because you can

          You could have your choice of men

          But I could never love again
          He's the only one for me, Jolene
          I had to have this talk with you
          My happiness depends on you
          And whatever you decide to do, Jolene

         Repeat Chorus

         Jolene, Jolene

Well, that was troubling...and on so many levels. I can't help but think of adaptive strategies used by various mammals in confrontational situations. One of my cats can more than hold her own against her much bigger and beefier brother, but it requires a kind of submissiveness tinged with rage to pull off. When I listen to "Jolene," I feel as though I am watching a combination of Dallas and Animal Planet. Actually, to be more accurate about my own roots, the latter would have to be Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Only testosterone-loaded carcasses of fury fight in the "predictable" (or cliché-ish) ways (outside bars and on rocky parapets). Most of us are more complicated than that.

So, as troubling as I find the "gendering" of the lyrical argument, I can't help but interpret "Jolene" in the style of mammalian adaptivity. And here is where I'll tell you that "it worked." I mentioned Dolly Parton's "first husband" in the opening paragraph. Well, he's the same one now, forty-five years later. Adaptive strategies have their uses.

***  ***
[b] Strategic stroll RF
The parallels with the East Asian tradition will be clear to those of you who have read Tang and Song lyrics...and Ming literature. In fact, I am making a little bit of a detour this week into the world of Chinese fiction. As always, I will remind you that the point of the juxtaposed East Asian reading every week is not to "echo" the country song. You will note this week the rather pointed, er, counterpoint found in the fascinating and always controversial (for more than four centuries) work, The Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅). In this scene, the deeply flawed main character begins to sense the potential to steal a good friend's wife.

David Tod Roy's translation of this novel is unparalleled. I will have more to say about it as Round and Square proceeds, since I studied the novel with David Roy in graduate school, and I agree with Roy that its "racy" contents have caused enormous misinterpretations of the work (dystopian as much of the narrative is).  Suffice it to say that The Plum in the Golden Vase has been recognized by some of the greatest minds in China's literary tradition, even though it has been banned in one way or another during much of the last four centuries. It was, in particular, praised by Cao Xueqin, the author of China's most renowned novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢) as the inspiration behind his own work.

The Plum in the Golden Vase
Date: Late-sixteenth century  
Author: Unknown (possibly Tang Xianzu)
Translator: David Tod Roy
The story goes that one day earlier that summer, on the fourteenth of the sixth month, when Hsi-men Ch'ing came in from the front compound and went to Yüeh-niang's room, she said to him, "While you were out today, the Hua household sent a page boy over with
a note inviting you for a drink. 'Ask him to come over whenever he gets home,' he said."

Hsi-men Ch'ing looked at the invitation, which read, "Can you join me for a chat at Wu Yin-erh's place in the licensed quarter at noon today? Come over to my place so we can go together. I do hope that you can make it."

Hsi-men Ch'ing thereupon dressed himself to befit the occasion, ordered two of his attendants to prepare his best horse, and proceeded directly to the Hua household next door. How couldhe have known that Hua Tzu-hsü would not be at home? His wife, Li Ping-erh, was standing on the raised stone platform just inside the second gate, the unfinished vamp of a sand-green Lu-chou pongee shoe in her hand. She was wearing a summer outfit that consisted of:
          A chignon enclosed in a fret of silver filigree,
          Pendant amethyst earrings in gold settings,
          A blouse of pale lavender silk, opening down the middle,
          And a white silk skirt with drawnwork borders,
          Beneath which there peeked out a pair of tiny shoes,
          The points of which bore the beaks of red phoenixes.
Hsi-men Ch'ing, quite unaware of what was in store for him, proceeded through the gate, and the two of them ran smack into each other.

Hsi-men Ch'ing had already had her on his mind for some time. Although he had caught a glimpse of her by the graveside at the old Eunuch Director's funeral the previous summer, he had not yet had a chance to savor the details. Now that he was able to meet her face to face and saw that she had a naturally fair complexion, was petite in stature, and had a face shaped like a melon seed and delicately curved eyebrows, before he knew it:
          His ethereal souls flew beyond the sky, and
          His material souls dispersed among the nine heavens.

[c] Hidden RF
Stepping forward with alacrity, he gave her a deep bow, and the woman returned his salute, after which she turned around and disappeared into the interior of the house. But she sent out the maidservant with her hair cut straight across her forehead, named Hsiu-ch'un, to ask Hsi-men Ch'ing to take a seat in the parlor, while she herself stood just inside the postern gate:
          Half-revealing her captivating
and addressed him, saying, "Please sit down for a little while, sir. He's gone out on an errand just now, but he'll be back any minute."

Before long she sent out a maidservant with a cup of tea, and while Hsi-men Ch'ing was drinking it, she conversed with him from the other side of the gate, saying, "At this drinking party over there that he's invited you to today, sir, whatever happens, for my sake, couldn't you urge him to come home a little earlier than usual? Our two menservants will both accompany him, leaving only these two maidservants and myself, so there won't be anyone to be relied on at home."

"Sister-in-law," said Hsi-men Ch'ing, "you're certainly in the right. My brother really ought to:
          Pay more attention to family affairs.
Since you have instructed me, Sister-in-law, I'll be sure to stick by his side.
          Together we'll go and together return.
How could I do anything detrimental to my brother's interests?[1]

[1] David Tod Roy, translator, The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P'ing Mei—Volume One: The Gathering (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 253-254.

Roy, David Tod. The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P'ing Mei—Volume One: The Gathering. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Sunday, September 25th
What She's Doing Now
Next week, Garth Brooks will provide us with a mix of memory and desire that would even catch T.S. Eliot's attention (if he listened to country music). The pain turns wistful next week on Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin'.

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