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.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique—Rural Religion in China (Introduction)

Click here for the introduction to La Pensée Cyclique, the "umbrella" series covering this topic.
One year ago on Round and Square (4 August 2011)—Longevity Mountain: Mid-Mountain Temple Road
Click here for translations of French terms used frequently on Round and Square

[a] Encircled RF
Click here for other posts in Round and Square's "Rural Religion in China" series:
Rural 1          Rural 2          Rural 3          Rural 4          Rural 5          Rural 6           Rural 7          Rural 8 
Rural 9          Rural 10        Rural 11        Rural 12        Rural 13        Rural 14         Rural 15        Rural 16        Rural 17        Rural 18        Rural 19        Rural 20        Rural 21        Rural 22         Rural 23        Rural 24
Rural 25        Rural 26        Rural 27        Rural 28        Rural 29        Rural 30         Rural 31        Rural 32        Rural 33
Readers of Round and Square know that I refer quite frequently to one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. Marcel Granet (1884-1940) was a student of both the social theorist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and the sinologist Edouard Chavannes (1865-1918). He was also a close friend of Marcel Mauss (1874-1950) and a stalwart member of the close-knit community of scholars who created and sustained L'Année Sociologique, one of the most influential journals in any field during the first decades of the twentieth century. He was a scholar of China and of social theory, a combination that has frequently caused consternation among his readers. I find him to be so brilliant and nuanced a writer and thinker that I have devoted many years to studying him as part of a vast project I have entitled La Pensée Cyclique, for Marcel Granet articulated a powerful message about the cyclical nature of Chinese life and thought. This would, in time, influence his friend Marcel Mauss (who, in turn, worked his analytical powers on Granet), as well as Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), who quotes extensively from les deux Marcel in his own work, particularly The Elementary Structures of Kinship.
[b] Brilliant RF

We are going to dive into the heart of Marcel Granet's pensée cyclique in this series, and seek to understand just what makes Granet difficult to read in some places. We will also examine why he can seemingly be so obtuse in others, such as his implication that rainbows appear because people gather in fields during the early spring for their rural festivals. More on that in a few days. Suffice (it) to say that Granet is sometimes as clear as a social-theoretical clarion, sometimes obscure, and occasionally exasperating. He is, in my opinion, a thinker of great brilliance who most interpreters have failed to understand precisely because they haven't read all of his work...and with the care it demands. His student, Rolf Stein (1911-1999), was troubled by this very issue, writing the following in the introduction to an equally obscure, cyclical, and brilliant work called The World in Miniature.

          In his courses, [Granet] forced us to analyze texts on our own, to
          examine them critically, and to draw from them the maximum amount
          of knowledge. The questions he asked were designed to elicit not
          necessarily an immediate solution to any single problem, but a slow,
          progressive journey toward personal discovery. If he was not always
          pleased with our replies, this was simply because even the most
          advanced student could not hope to reach the high level of a master
          like Granet.   

          In order to work as Granet did, a student would have to have complete
          knowledge of ancient Chinese literature, for Granet set down this general
          principle: no single detail of any civilization can be understood and
          explained except in the context of the entire civilization, just as in a jigsaw
          puzzle the meaning of a piece can be seen only when it is put into it place
          in the larger picture. Any interpretation from the outside, based on a priori
          principles, was immediately rejected. Only those who have completely
          misunderstood Granet could accuse him of holding preconceived ideas.
          He always refused, for example, to “explain” a legend or a myth on the
          basis of any “theory.”

          But he did actually have one preconceived idea: that of the importance
          of his method of working. He would accept only explanations that resulted
          from casting a new light on facts by putting them side by side, revealing
          their relationship to each other, and finally grouping them into a whole.[1] 
[c] Rural RF

To my mind, Rolf Stein "got it," and the many China scholars who admire one of Granet's books—the unparalleled La Pensée Chinoise (1934)—but harrumph with dismissive tones at the rest of his oeuvre (I know some of these people)...are wrong. Dead wrong. To show and tell just how dense, fascinating, and complicated Granet can be, I have a plan: this series will be devoted to working carefully, page-by-page, through every word of every book that Marcel Granet ever wrote.

You think I'm kidding, don't you?

Well, I'm not. I started this set of essay-notes while in Hikone, Japan during the summer of 2004. It was the time that I started going more deeply into my French sinology project—the one I have come to call La Pensée Cyclique. Working every single evening at a desk that gave me a nice view of Lake Biwa, I began analyzing Granet's work, statement-by-statement, and then writing about it. This is an exercise that, while "involved" (let us not underestimate that), can be life-changing. I chanced upon it as a work method when, frustrated by the ways that busy scholars have dismissed Granet, I thought about how to explain what seemed clear to me in his writing. I remembered that, more than twenty years before that summer, my Shakespeare professor in a class at the University of Minnesota had described the way he worked every single night of his life. He would finish dinner, sit down (I imagined a nice glass of wine), read a scene from one of Shakespeare's thirty-eight plays, and then write for an hour or more about it. At the time, I could not imagine anything so strange, but what he said next was even more surprising. He told us that he put them into a file cabinet and never looked at them again. The process itself, he maintained, changed everything.

I was intrigued, but not enough to follow his advice and do a little bit of daily writing as part of my class work. Still, the example stuck with me, and I turned to it that humid, lakeside summer when I was in need of something strangely different in my own research and writing. I remembered Professor Rosenthal and all of those nights he spent reading just a few pages of the bard, followed by writing, writing, and more writing. I still couldn't understand why he put them in a file cabinet and walked away (he didn't have a blog, I guess), but it turned out to be one of the most productive turns I have ever taken. It slowed me down to the point where I paid the kind of attention usually only given by translators. They need to focus on every single word, no matter what. This was almost like that—reading so carefully that every sentence mattered. It was productive, and slow, work. These posts—which will go on and on for many years and cover every one of Granet's published books—will take the curious and serious reader through the published thinking of one of the greatest scholars of the twentieth century. As I wrote in the overall introduction to this series, it is the least we can do for a truly inspirational scholar. 

[1] Rolf Stein, The World in Miniature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), iii-iv.

Stein, Rolf. The World in Miniature. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
[e] Inspirational RF

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