The Pond

They watched the shadows lengthening around the pond: small oaks, reeds, and willows all glowed like lanterns as they absorbed the horizontal sunbeams, while the surface dimmed slowly and grew more reflective. Dragonflies — red, blue and green — zipped around in the last hunt of the day, diving into bunched swarms of gnats, and above them swallows threaded and wove invisible sheets of air. A grass snake slithered across, its nose above the surface; and every now and then you could hear the plop of a leaping fish, spreading glitter-rings over the entire pond. All around, the air buzzed with the song of a billion flies and gnats. It was life devouring life, desperate to bring warmth into the body before darkness rose from the shades.

Then, a few feet away from the bench where they sat,  a grey and white cat crept out of the reeds; its teats were huge, and out of its mouth stuck a mouse tail. Both men stared intensely at the cat. She stared back at them; then, disdainfully, she turned away from them and stalked into the field, where she vanished into a clump of tall brown grass. The older brother sat up and nodded. The younger stroked his grizzled chin, then looked down at his feet. They had both just experienced something like an electric shock.

Keshav said to Simon, who was three years younger, “Did we just have the same flash? That cat. This pond.”

“Brook House I think it was called,” said Simon slowly, “but I don’t really remember the name. I couldn’t find it the last time I googled.”

“Brook, Brookfield, Brooking, something like that. Maybe they changed the name or even demolished the whole thing.”

“It was more than fifty years ago, believe it or not!”

There was a pause as a fish larger than usual jumped out of the water, twisted in the air, and splashed. Keshav said, “I practically haven’t thought about that place. I was ten, you were seven.”

Simon snorted. “Whereas I practically haven’t left it!”

The brothers glanced at each other. Each usually found the other difficult to read, but now Keshav’s face wrinkled in question as memories and questions started to jostle in from a lifetime ago.


They can’t have stayed at the mansion for more than a couple of months. The mother was Chinese of Hakka descent, the father a successful Indian Brahmin doctor, and the two boys looked utterly different from one another; one resembled the mother, the other the father. Keshav had been named by the father, Simon by the mother, who, while unbaptized, considered herself Christian. The parents had married against their families’ wishes, breaking their ties to tradition and ethnicity with this daring romantic elopement, and if this had happened anywhere else than in  a British colony like Malaya, the relationship would inevitably have been stamped out, like an unwanted fire. But as it was, they were protected by British law, and the two boys were able to thrive — albeit as outsiders, wherever they would go, for the rest of their lives. When the father followed his path by moving to southern England for a more interesting medical career, the whole family was transplanted to the other side of the world to this legendary kingdom of dismal food and dismal weather. By marrying each other the parents had already chosen to throw in their lot with the modern West, and the migration seemed an unavoidable flight towards new possibilities — but possibilities that would not come from any single culture, because the new family belonged to no culture simply. Thus voluntarily displaced, the parents struggled to plunge roots into the new land, soberly seeking any opportunity that would open the door to a better life, while the sons threw themselves with giddy zest into the adventure of a new country, new friends, new ways.

In one of his professional transitions, the father moved north to a new posting, and had to work to establish a foothold before the rest of the family could follow. In the meantime, the mother and two sons had to find a place to live temporarily, and this place came up in conversation with the mother’s hairdresser — who, it turned out, was a minor baron in possession of a large 18th century mansion that he could not afford to keep up or live in. He liked the mother for her humor and spunkiness, so when he heard of her need he immediately offered to rent her a few rooms. It would be cold, he warned her, but paraffin heaters and thick blankets would be sufficient.

Thus it was that this Chindian family — modern in their cultural displacement, their perplexed identity — found itself living in a vast, empty Georgian mansion, in the early 1970s. The boys did not raise an eyebrow; they had no idea what a mansion was or what it meant in their adopted country, but were simply excited at the prospect of running wild in this large ancient house.

It stood amidst an overgrown estate: waist-high grass turning yellow, hedges slowly reverting to bushes and trees, a cider orchard crowded with trees bowed low from their weight of ungathered fruit, and the ground carpeted with fermenting green apples. There was a low semi-circular stone wall in front of the house taken over with vines, and the lower half of the house itself had lost its war with the ivy, which was dense on some of the windows and impenetrable everywhere else. To enter the house they had to go through the side door, which led into a musty hallway with threadbare rugs.This in turn led to a long, dark corridor, flanked on either side by gun cabinets still containing rifles behind glass, and above the cabinets hung antlered or toothed heads of animals from exotic places. The doors on both sides of this corridor were locked, keepers of treasures and secrets. At the end of the corridor was the staircase, with its worn red carpet, and on the first landing stood a suit of armor, with closed visor and halberd in hand, apparently guarding the passage to the better lit upper regions. This corridor was dim at the best of times, and the hunting trophies were always frightening. Coming down here at night was unthinkable. The boys never even dared to inspect the gun cabinets, being in too much of a hurry to leave this corridor.

Their improvised suite was on the next floor, at the end: three rooms austerely equipped with three simple beds, some old chairs, a two-ring gas cooker, a dining table, paraffin heaters — the comforting smell of which the boys never forgot. There was no TV reception. The mother would spend her days making a home, sewing, and reading romance novels, a habit that she had cultivated in her homeland; and the boys — when they were not in school, and had finished their homework — would spend the days running around and exploring, mostly outside, for the days were still warm and long enough. They would play outside till twilight, run inside down the dreadful corridor, eat their dinner at table, read their comic books a while, and fall asleep.

The cider orchard was a paradise of plenty. Never before had they seen such a columned vault of gnarled old fruit trees, or found themselves wading ankle-deep through shining, almost perfect fruit. Their first bite was a bite of delighted shock: these apples were not only sweeter than any fruit they had tasted, and so juicy that their chins would run with it and the shirts would end up drenched, but they were also fermenting into cider on the ground. They would eat their fill, and then lie there laughing amid the apples, staring through the branches at the clouds while the green world spun and spun.

It was during one of these sessions of apply inebriation that they noticed the cat, grey and white, crouched at the base of a tree a few feet away, watching them. They both found it funny that a mouse’s tail stuck out of her mouth. They sat up, and after a few minutes managed to coax the cat to come to them. It moved slowly, heavily, over the apples, its teats swollen. The orchard in its current state must have abounded in small mammals hungry for food. The cat would rub itself on their legs and let itself be petted, but the mouse tail would remain poking out of its mouth like a cigarette, giving her a knowing streetwise look. In the days to come, whenever they saw her she would be carrying a mouse, but she would always vanish at the last moment so adroitly that they never found out where she hid her kittens. On more than one occasion they followed her through the orchard and out the other side into a meadow, as she crept and dodged her way through some bushes. There, they stumbled upon a pond, which they would from then on visit every day. This pond, even at midday, would be buzzing, humming, singing, sometimes screeching with birdlife and insect life. As soon as they arrived here they would forget everything and go hunting for treasures — Keshav characteristically looking down at roots and the squirming life on the ground, Simon gazing up at the birds and trying to discern the different birdsongs. Here they would lose all track of time until dusk overtook them, each brother lost in his own kingdom. It might even take them a few minutes to find each other at the end of the day.


On wet days they would play inside the house. There were about forty empty rooms above the ground floor — all with wood floors, all with windows that had not been cleaned for decades. They never found anything in the rooms except insect shells and cobwebs. When they played hide and seek, which became almost infinitely fascinating in such a house, it never occurred to them that there might be anything lurking in the old cupboards, or ancient ghosts craving the company of kids. They were new to the culture and hadn’t yet encountered any stories of haunted mansions; the house was just a playground. The brother who hid behind a door or inside a closet listened intensely for the sound of footsteps on the wooden boards, but there was never a thought that the footsteps could belong to anyone but the seeking brother.

It was during one game of hide-and-seek that Simon, always the cleverer one at hiding because he had no trouble staying still for hours, looked out of one of the inside windows. He was in a narrow lavatory on the third floor, and this lavatory had a window that faced the inner courtyard of the house. It was a surprise to him, peering through the scratched pane, to see below a yard containing two carts, some boxes, a few cages, and straw on the ground. He had enough self-discipline to contain his excitement until Keshav found him, and as soon as he showed him the window the two brothers raced each other downstairs and outside, where they circled the house trying to find a way in. But the ivy covered everything, the stems from decades of growth being now thick and woody, and as strong as iron bars; they couldn’t even see anything through the ivy. It was like a fairy-tale wall of vegetation, but without giant thorns.

After two rounds of the house and trying several times to pull apart the ivy at places where a door seemed plausible, Keshav stood back and looked up at where the wall seemed lowest. “Let’s climb,” he said. They had spent many hundreds of hours climbing trees, so without hesitation both brothers leapt onto the vines, reached their hands in, and pulled themselves vigorously to the top; once there, they dropped lightly to the strawed ground and began to explore.


At the center of the courtyard the two carts stood parked at an angle, one four-wheeled, the other a tumbril with its shafts propped on the ground. Empty crates and cages were scattered all over; every metal part was rusted, and moss grew lightly on much of the wood. There were wide doors on three sides of the court, leading into low buildings. Keshav wandered into what must have been stables, which still smelled of horses. The next one was was packed with low tables and shelves, with a selection of rusted cans and jars. In the center stood a trestle table with four rusty cages on it; one cage was still locked, and at the bottom of it were what looked like bird bones. Had the place been abandoned in a hurry, with not enough time even to let the animals out? This was a mystery they were never able to solve. Even the way the carts were left suggested something unfinished. The third building was evidently a workshop. Rusted saws hung from a rack on the wall, and a carpenter’s bench large enough for two men to work at teetered on three legs. On it there was a circular saw, also elegantly rusted. How is it that the workmen never took their tools? — or did these tools belong to the house, and were forgotten along with it? This place still smelled of sawdust, which lay thick at the sides of the room, swirled there by the breezes. Pervading the entire courtyard was the mixed smell of straw, sawdust, and horses, as if the dead past were somehow still there even though unpeopled. It was like climbing into a wholly alien world, one that the two of them had never even read about and therefore had no familiar associations with.

Keshav was a little dazed at this discovery. He walked around, picking up things from the ground — feathers, brown nuts and bolts — before realizing that the light was fading and that he didn’t know where Simon was. He called for him, the echoes called for him: no answer. There was a long silence before Simon appeared from the stables, with a look of brooding perplexity.

You okay?” asked Keshav.

“Yeah. Let’s go.” And they clambered out into the twilight as the last bats of the year flittered around them.


In the days that followed Simon became more withdrawn, less eager to play and explore, and he began to disappear for hours at a time. Keshav would search for him, give up, and retreat somewhere to read. Invariably after a few hours Simon would reappear either from some corner of the house or from the trees, but he would never say where he had been or what he had been doing. “Just fooling around” or “I wanted to be by myself.” At first Keshav was a little hurt by what he took to be rejection, but he sensed too that something was not quite right.

One afternoon, in cool autumnal sunshine, Keshav was alone in the orchard munching apples when the cat appeared, smoking a mouse tail as usual. After a bout of petting and leg-rubbing, Keshav tried to pick her up, but she squirmed away and darted into the grass. Lonely, he followed her, and when he came closer to the pond he heard a voice speaking on the other side of a bank of reeds. He couldn’t distinguish the words, but he recognized Simon’s voice — which seemed not to be engaged in a soliloquy but actually addressing someone. There were pauses, as if to listen, and he could catch intonations of questioning or surprise. Disturbed, he pulled away to a distance and called out “Simon!” before approaching cautiously, hoping to catch a glimpse of his interlocutor. The talking stopped immediately, and Simon emerged from the reeds, two green dragonflies whizzing around his head.

“Hi!” he said without smiling.

“I was looking for you,” said Keshav, “and heard you talking to someone.”

“I was talking to myself,” Simon said quickly. “I like to do that these days.”

“But you have me!”

“It’s not the same. I’m imagining stories.”

Then they went back to the house quietly together, Keshav perplexed, Simon grim and a little angry at having been disturbed. When they reached the dining room their mother had a special dinner of spaghetti waiting for them, a dish she had learned from a magazine, and she was obviously in a mood to celebrate. “Guess what? Daddy’s found us a house, and got a school for you, and we can leave next week!” She was clearly glad to be leaving this cold, creepy stone edifice that was more a tomb than a home.


The boys were less glad about this because they had been enjoying the place and had been expanded by it: the society they had moved to was a new enough world for them, but this house was an opening into mystery and darkness. They did not jump for joy; on the contrary, Simon turned pale at the news, and fell ill the very next day. Until they moved he was unable to get out of bed, babbling away in a week-long fever dream, and had to miss the first few weeks of school. When he recovered, he could remember barely anything from the last few weeks — and he had lost the use of his lower legs.  No doctor could give a satisfactory account of his affliction, and the best they could do was to attribute it to a virus he had caught at the house, perhaps from the pond or playing in the mews or stables. The short stay at the house became distant family history, mentioned from time to time but never discussed..


But with important episodes of family history, the fruit can fall only when it is ripe. Now, sixty years on, as they sat there watching the swallows swooping and swerving over the surface of the water in their elegant feast, Keshav took his cue and asked: “What do you mean you haven’t left it? You’ve never really told anyone what happened in those weeks when you would vanish all day.”

“I couldn’t. I had blanked it out, and it only trickled back to me over the years in bits and pieces, and even then it seemed too crazy to be told. Too private, as if telling would be a betrayal.”

“A betrayal of what?”

“Of her.” He paused, and Keshav waited, stunned. “The girl you heard me talking to that day by the pond.”

“But I didn’t see anyone. Was she hiding?”

“Yes, but not in the way you think.” The sun was just going down, and there was an hour left of the long northern twilight. “You remember the time we found the courtyard? When you wandered off to see the building with the cages, I went into the stables and for some reason I walked straight to the back stall. Before I even reached it I heard someone say my name, but I knew it wasn’t your voice. Then I saw her, crouching in the straw — a little Indian girl about my age, with curly hair and big eyes, and a simple white dress. ‘I was wondering where you were, Simon,’ she said, and took my hand and pulled me down beside her.”

“Weren’t you afraid or even disturbed?”

“No, it felt completely natural, as if I had known her every day of my life. I was happy to see her. I wasn’t even surprised that I knew her name. ‘Ananya!’ I said. ‘You’re so good at hiding. It took me so long to find you.’ I could not have explained how I came to be able to say that. And we just talked, or played with the straw, or bits of gravel, I don’t even remember what — but it was all so natural, like two kids who share a fantasy world. Then you called, and the spell was broken, and I left her. I must have looked dazed, because what it felt like was waking up groggy from a dreamless sleep. That day when you showed up by the pond and asked me questions, I knew I wouldn’t be able to answer them even though I wanted to, because I myself had no clue what was happening.”

“Was she a hallucination? She can’t have been real because no one else ever saw such a person.”

“She was real! Not a hallucination. As real as you or me sitting here. As real as this pond. As real as that pond. But she showed herself only to me, evidently.”

“She was a ghost?”

Simon laughed. “You believe in those things?”

“Well, I think it’s quite plausible that the thing that organizes and holds together the physical body is spiritual, and that after this physical body disintegrates the spiritual body can persist a while before it too disintegrates. So yes, if that’s what a ghost is, I think I could believe in them.”

“I have no idea what she was, but I know she was real. When she grabbed my hand or hugged me, it was physical. I know the timbre of her voice, the exact shade of brown of her eyes, her smell. You realize how Asian our family is? — we’re so restrained, we don’t hug or kiss each other. And it’s as if coming to England made us withdraw more into our own worlds. Well, Ananya broke that, and wasn’t afraid of contact. She could even be boisterous in her contact and punch or shove me in play. She was spontaneous, and both of us could go instantly into whatever fantasy play-world one of us initiated.”

“That sounds magical — pure happiness. In adulthood people dream of having that with someone.”

“Well, over the first week the bond became more intense. She would be with me all the time — even though you and mummy couldn’t see her — and I had to pretend that she wasn’t there. At bedtime she slept in my bed. When mummy announced that we’d be leaving, it broke my heart, because I had told Ananya that we were expecting to leave and asked her to come with us, but she had said with great definiteness that she couldn’t leave Brook House. She needed me to stay. She started to become fierce about it. We were twins, she insisted, and we belonged to each other for ever. I wasn’t scared by all this possessiveness. On the contrary, I loved it that she was so possessive, because I too felt the twinhood — but at the same time I also knew I had to leave. I was lost in two opposed worlds, split apart. And they were two opposed living worlds. It never occurred to me, in the state of mind I was in then, that Ananya might actually be dead. That was in fact not a thought I could have had about her.”

“I can understand that. In one way she wasn’t dead yet, and in the dimension of things where spirits can meet spirits maybe she wasn’t dead at all.”

“What on earth do you mean?”

“Well, one part of us, the normal part, lives in space and time, where things have to be right now and right here for us to be able to perceive them — but there’s another part, the soul, that seems to be able to perceive things remote in space and time, like the time we both woke up at night knowing that Auntie Jaya had just died in India. This part of the soul doesn’t need time and space because it lives some place that doesn’t have them.”

“Ah. So there’s a part of us that doesn’t die — because it isn’t born! So you’re thinking that Ananya only outlived herself in the world of space and time, and in that sense she’s a ghost — but really for her there’s no then or now, or rather it’s all now.”

“Maybe,” said Keshav, snatching a blade of yellowing grass from the side of the bench and putting it between his lips. “But that wouldn’t explain why she’d be so afraid of losing you. Anyway, I’m distracting you from the story. What happened next?”

“To be honest, I don’t remember clearly, but I do remember the feeling. It was as if she started to twine herself about me, like a lover who won’t let go, but the twining wasn’t like a hug or a physical clasping, it was a twining around my innermost core — a bit like the ivy around the house, how it would grip on everything that gave it the slightest purchase, and get a hook in any little crack or hole, and seal everything off from the outside world. She wanted me for herself alone:I felt her inhaling me into her, and my own life slowly becoming hers.”

“That sounds horrible! Like a succubus.”

“Looked at from a third person’s point of view, yes, but for me it was rather pleasant and comforting, like two lovers dying into each other, slipping into the eternity of each other.” Simon laughed again. “Hey, that sounds like what you were saying earlier about the soul.”

“Then what?”

“I suppose then she must have felt that that wasn’t going to work and that I had to go, so she tried to force me to stay by crippling me. First she made me lifeless to my world, then she tried to destroy my ability to locomote — and succeeded. I didn’t figure that part out till years afterwards.”

“Did she follow us when we moved?”

“No. When I regained my right mind, she had gone — or rather, we had gone. I was never visited by her again, unless you count how she made a big hole in me and how ever since then I’ve missed her more than I’ve ever missed anyone.”

The two of them sat there a while in silence and felt the air cooling around them. Another fish splashed, and the first frog  began its song. A breeze rippled the surface of the pond and swayed the reeds and grasses.

Keshav said, “Did you try to find out anything about her?”

“Of course! I went back about thirty years after, when I had been through quite a lot of therapy and had started to find my own words for what happened. I looked up every record I could find, every church and legal record, every newspaper for about a hundred years, and talked to people who were supposed to possess the communal memory of that village. I found that about 1880 the lord of the manor returned from decades in Bengal bringing his Brahmin doctor, an Ayurvedic healer. The duke had been in poor health for years and could no longer do without the only doctor who had ever managed to give him relief. Along with him came his wife and two small children — twins. Unfortunately the healer wasn’t able to heal the twin who caught pneumonia in this damp and chilly land, and to the terrible grief of all of them she died in acute respiratory distress a few months after arrival. Her name was Ananya Choudhury.”


“I found out because the controversy about her funeral rites made it into the local paper. Since she was an unbaptized heathen, no church in the county would deign to bury her, and in any case what the family wanted was a Hindu-style cremation. The duke turned a blind eye to it, but it outraged the local pharisees. Guess where they held it? Beside the pond, on the other side of the trees where supposedly no one could see. The father performed the rites, and the ashes were scattered on the water. Then — I don’t know whether from local pressure or from desperation to leave this deadly place — they left, but I never succeeded in tracing them. They probably returned to India.”

“So Ananya…?”

“…longed for her brother. There must have been a powerful, intense bond between these two. She had been waiting for almost a hundred years. And then I came along. I must have been similar enough to her brother for her to latch onto me. It was as if I fell into a hole shaped exactly like me — a hole of hope. And there I was stuck, enveloped by her. She could not leave the world until she had found her brother again, and while I might have been the key that opened the door out of life for her, I might also have been the one who kept her here longer because she couldn’t go anywhere without me. So when we left, she might have been stuck here more deeply. I don’t know which — because when I returned to Brook House as an adult, I felt nothing of her, no pull from any presence. It could be that she had been released. Or it could be that she was in hiding, not recognizing this middle-aged cripple and refusing to show herself to anyone but her brother.”

“What about you —  have you been released?”

“Of course not. I became her brother, don’t you see? I am a twin who lost a twin, and have never been able to enjoy life fully — because the person I should be enjoying with isn’t there. The doctors called it depression, but that’s only a word.” He paused. “The spiritual bond is so much more powerful than the biological bond, isn’t it?”

“From what I’ve seen in my own relationships,I couldn’t agree more,” said Keshav. He brushed a mosquito away from his face. “Come, it’s getting dark, and we’re being eaten alive.” He stood, waiting for his brother to re-position himself so that he could be lifted. Then, putting an arm around him, he hoisted him to his feet, and supported him to the wheelchair positioned precisely behind the bench. The surface of the pond grew dark, reflecting the Evening Star, and now almost roaring with the chorus of frogs, as the older brother pushed the younger brother along the gravel path that led back to civilization.











Should We Teach Our Own Children?


Kung-sun Ch’ou said: “Why is it the noble-minded never teach their own children?”

  “The way people are, it’s impossible,” replied Mencius. “A teacher’s task is to perfect the student, and if the student doesn’t improve, the student gets angry. When the teacher gets angry, the student in turn feels hurt: You demand perfection, but you’re nowhere near perfect yourself. So parents and children would only hurt each other. And it’s a tragedy when parents and children hurt each other.

   “The ancients taught each other’s children. That way parent and child never demand perfect virtue of one another. If they demand perfect virtue of one another, they grow distant. And nothing is more ominous than parents and children growing distant from one another.” (Mencius, 7.18; adapted from the Hinton translation)

In an age that encourages maximum parental involvement in every aspect of a child’s upbringing, Mencius’ statement seems heretical and outrageous: how could it possibly be true that if you shuffle off all educational responsibilities to a family friend you will have a more harmonious relationship with your children?

Children care deeply about what their parents think of them. This caring may be one of the most important facts of our lives, influencing us well into adulthood. We care about our parents’ opinion of us even when we don’t particularly respect them as human beings. I have seen 40-year-olds lash out at their parents for what appear to be minor criticisms, or even reacting to well-intended parental advice by deliberately taking the opposite course. Resistance to parental advice and resentment of their criticisms are an integral part of our bond with them; I hesitate to call it love, because it may be more profound than any of the things we think of as love.

What Mencius means by “teach” includes not only schooling but also upbringing. In our attempts to bring our children up “right,” with regard to morality, practicality, health, hygiene, and so on — think of the daily fights about brushing teeth, going to bed early, picking clothes up off the floor, table manners —  we end up correcting them throughout the day, and with many parents at least half the time we spend with our kids is consumed by our attempts to correct them and their resistance to us. Rarely does a child just say, “Ok, thanks for telling me” — and if they do say it, you can bet that they are just concealing their annoyance. If there were no schools to send them to during the day and no teachers to do the correcting, we would be correcting our children in eighty percent of our interactions with them. No relationship can survive that without being seriously damaged.

Mencius is matter-of-fact about this state of things. He resorts to no shoulds. All people, including children, have a basic pride threshold. If they receive what they think is criticism from someone whose approval and respect they crave, they will react with hurt and bristling; if they get it most of the day for many years, they will experience the relationship as made up of a string of small humiliations. We all know this when we have a romantic partner who is constantly correcting us, yet how much more sensitive children are because they care so much for the parents’ approbation. On the other side, he is not saying that the teacher should get angry, just that people do get angry: after saying the same thing for the seventh time, or watched the child’s attention drift off as we are telling him something important, we would have to be saints not to get irritated. And if we have the self-discipline to control the irritation, our children will nonetheless detect it. The parent-as-teacher throws a stronger emotional punch than a mere teacher. Even if they are barely conscious of it, our parents know how to push all our buttons — and we know how to push theirs. We can hurt each other in so many ways, and we do. Mencius also sees astutely that we are hurt not only by the fact of being criticized by our parents, but by their having the arrogance to suppose that they have the capacity to sit over us and evaluate our every action — when, as their closest observers, we are well aware of all their imperfections and believe that there are few people out there quite as exasperating as our own parents. We know all their faults, they know all our faults: we have been watching each other since our births. How could we possibly respect the assertions and judgments that come from each other’s mouths?

Therefore it is better that our children be taught by our most trusted friends, in a context that is less defensive or embattled, and bearing no toxins from a long history of being stung. If parents spend only a small part of their time in correcting their children, the relationship can be built on reciprocal contentment and appreciation. At any rate there is far less perceived aggression — or, as modern kids tend to experience it, attempts to control, because, as we know, our parents only want to control us and turn us into them. For a modern child the constant criticism is read as an ancient war to crush their free spirits — and perhaps there is a little truth to that. All this is why, as friends of mine have pointed out, parents who hand their kids to the care of nannies usually have a far healthier relationship to their children than we more involved parents do.

Mencius’ remarks lightly and gracefully point the way to a more thoroughgoing re-orientation of our attitudes — for what he says about the parent-child relationship applies to all relationships. We tend to think that we are competent to judge the people around us, and the closer they are, the higher the standard becomes. We tend not to be angered by poor judgment in our friends’ parents, but silly pontifications from our own parents can drive us into a frenzy of rage. The great ruiner of relationships is our expectation of perfection in people whom we know to be imperfect, and who know us to be imperfect. Even if we never say anything, the expectation is always felt; there is no one more eloquent than someone who is biting her tongue.  “The bane of mankind,” says Mencius,  “is that we all want to teach others” (7.23) — for as long as we occupy a seat above the other person, no relationship is possible.


Clinging for Dear Life (1): Vocation



Could my life’s work also be a result of craving and clinging?

Let’s revisit that first taste of ice cream. When we try, we find that we can observe our moment-by-moment experience of sensory pleasures to catch those exact points at which a feeling of liking turns into a compulsion to have more, and the compulsion to have more turns into the necessity of securing the permanent availability of that pleasure: this process is the turn from feeling to craving to clinging, which can happen in an instant and feel completely natural and unavoidable.  But when we pay attention to our  experience, we discover that we can put our spoon down whenever we want, and that if we never experience this pleasure again that will be just dandy. Clinging or attachment (I use these words interchangeably to translate upadana) is basically the need to repeat, even though we know that we can never repeat anything anyway, because nothing stays the same. It is clinging that then creates the systems and structures to guarantee the repetition: the money we pay for our tub of ice cream is not just so that we may have it in our fridge, but so that it continues to be made and transported, and our favorite grocery store continues to stock it. Our clinging to sense pleasures — edibles, potables, wearables make up just a small part of them — commits us to maintaining a vast supply line of labor and production, which then holds us in cycles of securing and security that soon feel like prisons. Our attachment to the myriad benefits of petroleum, for instance, while it may begin as a liking, creates a world that is full of trouble and impossible to maintain. There is nothing wrong with liking that first spoon of ice cream, and indeed nothing wrong with what follows — just that if we move automatically from liking to clinging, we will lose the sharpness and definition of the first encounter in the increasing dullness of something like an addiction. And the attempt to secure an attachment will usually lead to conflict (as the Buddha explains in a long passage in the Mahanidana Sutta).

Craving and clinging occur not only in attraction to sense objects, but also in aversion to them. A chronic avoidance of exercise, for example, might be a craving for comfort that becomes a clinging. Fear of the pain of toothaches leads to a craving to avoid them, which then creates dental insurance and the hours of work needed to pay for that. Indeed, fear of pain, in illness or dying, generates an abundance of avoidance strategies.

Our experience of sense objects can be watched, slowed down, and analyzed with some acumen. Sometimes thinking through the consequences of clinging can be enough to make us not want to have the experience again — for instance, when we know the health effects of certain foods. But what about objects of experience that are not sensory? The Buddha mentions craving for mental objects (Mahanidana Sutta, 7) and in addition to clinging to sense pleasures, he mentions clinging to views, clinging to precepts and observances, clinging to a doctrine of self (Mahanidana, 6). These are much more difficult to notice, and just noticing them may require more disciplined training. We will go more into views and doctrines of the self in another essay, but here I would like to offer a couple of examples of craving for mental objects as the tiny first shoots of what might become a mighty, many-branched tree of investigation. Mental objects pass from feeling to craving to clinging in much the same way as a taste of ice cream does.

Here is a teenager who reads a lot. She begins the first volume of a new fantasy series, loves it, is immediately “hooked.” She has to finish the whole book. Then she has to finish the whole series. Probably she will buy it in order to have it available for re-reading, or just to know that she has it. Her buying it is the beginning of a collection, because after this first series she will have to read more complete fantasy series; and after this, all the works by the same authors. When she has read this, whenever she goes to the Amazon website or into a large bookshop, she will feel quite tangibly a craving for similar writings. Of course, the craving cannot be satisfied, because nothing will be the same as the first read, and if she seeks to replicate her formative experience she is going to feel something like a twinge of empty futility. At this point often the craving, having run out of things of the same kind to read, has to change its focus if there is to be even the semblance of satisfaction, and our young reader starts reading grown-up authors, but with the same hungry compulsiveness. The attachment is already deep — because if she were deprived of anything to read, she would be unhappy, and might even feel a terrible desperation.

However, the next stage of attachment is more interesting: the need to secure the enjoyment of reading. Because of her highly developed skills as a reader, by now she shines in certain subjects at school and has been given some encouragement. “I am going to study literature in college,” she decides — and from there it is a short step to “I am going to be a writer” or “I am going to be a scholar.” The attachment has been transformed into a sense of vocation, which may linger in this person for decades, even though they spend those decades working in a law office or a business. I am not saying this is how it works for everyone; it was like this for me, and for many people I know. The attachment can be complex, a compounding of different people’s attachments: for example, when a father’s deep clinging to a security and success that he himself never attained gets projected onto the son, who takes it as his own.

In fact usually our sense of vocation or inner attraction to a career is composite, made up of other people’s clingings of which we are barely aware. It never simply is. But as we grow older in our various occupations, and indeed become soft-wired by them to think and act in certain ways, it becomes harder to look at our relationship with them objectively. We become identified with them, and find it difficult to detach ourselves from the identification.

The same difficulty exists in cases where we identify with vocations that we have not pursued and that have lingered in the background of our lives. I once met a woman at a party who seemed miserable and close to tears. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me she had that day had a vivid realization: she had for forty years considered herself as an artist, and thought that that was what she was meant to be — but she had done no art for all that time — and so she could not possibly be an artist, could she? What she saw clearly was that the artistic identity had formed early and was honest and powerful at the time, but since then she had changed and was no longer that person — while all the time thinking of herself as that person. For some reason that she had yet to figure out, it had been important for her to think of herself as an artist. To perceive now that she was in truth not an artist but a fantasized artist was a shattering blow to her, because something fundamental to her self-image had been eradicated. She did not know who she was any more. She had seen her own clinging to a specific self-image, and her current misery came from witnessing the degree of this attachment; she felt broken. Was it a good thing to have had this realization? Most people at this point will replace the broken self-image with a new illusion, but this woman bravely preferred to sit with it.

Everything changes; we change. One day we walk out of our houses and see that there are buds on the trees: “Oh, spring’s here. My, it came suddenly.” But in fact nothing happened suddenly, it all happened moment by moment at its usual pace, and we failed to notice this: we were still living in winter while winter had already turned to spring. Just so, with ourselves: we do not notice ourselves changing, we assume that we stay still while everything else changes, and all of a sudden — often through some crisis — we discover that we have lost ourselves. We had been living in our own clinging to a static self-image that has become harder and harder to change because the rest of our lives has organized itself around preserving it.

Thus in our hurtling onto a life path we find feeling turning to craving turning to clinging. The initial love of a book did not have to lead to reading the whole series. I could have stopped there, and then decided to read something different, or not read at all. Continuing to read also did not have to lead to a life built around reading, although at the time the alternatives seemed inconceivable. I could have enjoyed reading, and then decided to build my life on something else. None of the transitions was necessary — but it all felt necessary: “I have to do this.” Seeing this clearly for what it is, namely the usual natural-feeling move from feeling to craving to clinging, we might still choose the same things we chose, but we wouldn’t feel compelled. Indeed, the absence of compulsion is nothing other than freedom.

Do the same insights apply to that other great hurtling — our love life, the hurtling of our hearts?






The Balrog: Dread from the Depths


“A Balrog,” muttered Gandalf. “Now I understand.” He faltered and leaned heavily on his staff. “What an evil fortune! And I am already weary.” (321) The Balrog’s abrupt appearance is the action-climax of The Fellowship of the Rings, and the confrontation with Gandalf may be one of the most memorable moments in all of fantasy literature. It is not just another terrifying monster, but it elicits a dread that is close to despair. Why? And what is it about the Balrog’s coming that makes Gandalf falter? To get at these questions we have to ponder the setting of this encounter, some of the overtones of the “Bridge of Khazad-dum” chapter, and why the encounter has to happen at this particular point in the book. The chapter is a rich and thrilling example of Tolkien’s narrative art at its best.

Our team of heroes has just attempted to go over the mountains: they are thwarted by height and snow, and forced to retreat and to go down and through. The attempted ascent is given somewhat desultory treatment in the “Journey in the Dark” chapter, which is thin in description, and with no characteristic building of tension, as if Tolkien is interested in it primarily as a means to get to get into the mines. The spiritual symbolic drift is almost a platitude: we generally try to go up and over, but life circumstances will obstruct that and force us to go down. The soul only makes progress not by ascent but through descent into the depths. It would have been a feasible narrative alternative, in a different book, if the heroes had attempted the short cut through the bowels of the mountain, found it obstructed, and then had to make the arduous journey through the blizzards of the summit. This would have played into the heroic mythos of conquest, surmounting, and transcending — and it would have felt psychologically, and spiritually, false. To enter both Lothlorien and the lands of Sauron, Frodo has to go down into the dark night, and he has to lose his guide. He can only go on when he is his own person, and being his own person means being able to be alone. The fight to get through the mines of Moria is for him both a rite of passage and a birth.

But what does this descent mean? In an alternative version of this story, the writer might not choose ancient mines, but rather vast natural caves menaced by their primal denizens. In that version, it would be a descent into a chthonic underworld that precedes civilization and even meaning. In the version that we have, the Mines of Moria are a made landscape, the vast artifact of a defeated civilization. The very entrance is a matter of words and knowledge, not effected by any kind of mute insensate power: “…these doors are probably governed by words.” (297) “From the outside nothing will move them save the spell of command. They cannot be forced inwards.” (299) This world responds to the right utterance. This is important, because these caverns embody a complex civilization that has chosen to go subterranean, to live where the minerals live. The dwarves are the technologists and industrialists of Middle Earth; and essentially, Moria is both mine and factory, bowels of production for the whole world. It is a factory that has been excavated even underneath what shouldn’t have an underneath — the mountains themselves — and there is a feeling of violation and desecration about these halls and tunnels, as of nature being dug to her limits.

The mines of Moria are an underworld, but they are not the Underworld. We are continually being reminded that there are spaces, holes, cracks in this artificial underworld, often by the sound of water somewhere:

There were not only many roads to choose from, there were also in many places holes and pitfalls, and dark wells beside the path in which their passing feet echoed. There were fissures and chasms in the walls and floor, and every now and then a crack would open right before their feet. The widest was more than seven feet across, and it was long before Pippin could summon enough courage to leap over the dreadful gap. The noise of churning water came up from far below, as if some great mill-wheel was turning in the depths. (303)

When they halted for a moment they heard nothing at all, unless it were occasionally a faint trickle and drip of unseen water. (304)

Suddenly Frodo saw before him a black chasm. At the end of the hall the floor vanished and fell to an unknown depth. (320)

The sense of unease at these moments comes from an intuition of circumambient hostility, an intensified version of the unfriendliness of the trees in Tom Bombadil’s land. We know that something has been disturbed, angered, and pushed back, pushed down, in all this excavation, and it lurks beneath the cracks, certain to emerge again. There may be many such things down there, but if the Balrog is one of them — and at this point we barely know anything about it — then it comes as the retaliation of nature. It is not evil, because it precedes the moral polarities of this cosmos; it is elemental, fiery, a mindless reaction, and as such cannot be tamed or spoken to. The Balrog represents the darkness in the earth that things came from, and that they will return to: perhaps it has become a darkness only because it has been repressed. Gandalf falters and is weary because he knows all this, and this is why the orcs are also scared of the Balrog: it obeys no one, it seeks no allies, it is dark beyond the dark of Sauron, which is a dark that defines itself by its opposition to goodness. There is something elemental about it, and its assault on Gandalf is like the assault of extreme weather on animate fragility: ...but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm. (322)

In this chapter, Tolkien evokes the atmospheres of two very different books: Dante’s Inferno, and Beowulf. The Mines of Moria, with their chasms, cliffs, and bridges, are  reminiscent of Dante’s underworld, and Gandalf, who is to Frodo as Virgil is to Dante, sometimes even speaks like Dante’s Virgil:

“There is some new devilry here,” he said, “devised for our welcome, no doubt. But I know now where we are: we have reached the First Deep, the level immediately below the Gates. This is the Second Hall of Old Moria; and the Gates are near: away beyond the eastern end, on the left, not more than a quarter of a mile. Across the Bridge, up a broad stair, along a wide road, through the First Hall, and out!” (320)

Listen also to how Dante, in Longfellow’s translation, describes the arrival of a new and unknown danger:

And now there came across the turbid waves
The clangour of a sound with terror fraught,
Because of which both of the margins trembled;

Not otherwise it was than of a wind
Impetuous on account of adverse heats,
That smites the forest, and, without restraint,

The branches rends, beats down, and bears away;
Right onward, laden with dust, it goes superb,
And puts to flight the wild beasts and the shepherds.

Mine eyes he loosed, and said: “Direct the nerve
Of vision now along that ancient foam,
There yonder where that smoke is most intense.”

Even as the frogs before the hostile serpent
Across the water scatter all abroad,
Until each one is huddled in the earth.

More than a thousand ruined souls I saw,
Thus fleeing from before one who on foot
Was passing o’er the Styx with soles unwet. (Dante, tr.Longfellow, Inferno 9)

The feel of this is quite close to the way in which Tolkien builds up the approach of the Balrog, through hints and guesses, until it finally appears:

The ranks of the orcs had opened, and they crowded away, as if they themselves were afraid. Something was coming up behind them. What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-made shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it. (321)

The orcs behave something like a mob of infernal souls, or crowd of frogs in a pond, and Tolkien is adept at rendering how they gasp and scatter at the approach of one from another world who cannot be understood in this world.

In the Inferno there is also that other monster Geryon, a creature of puzzling ancestry, who also lives in a realm of darkness, waters, and abysses, like the beginning of the book of Genesis.. Just as the Balrog does, Geryon also seems to materialize out of his the darkness of his place:

I followed him, and little had we gone,
Before the sound of water was so near us,
That speaking we should hardly have been heard.

Even as that stream which holdeth its own course
The first from Monte Veso tow’rds the East,
Upon the left-hand slope of Apennine,

Which is above called Acquacheta, ere
It down descendeth into its low bed,
And at Forli is vacant of that name,

Reverberates there above San Benedetto
From Alps, by falling at a single leap,
Where for a thousand there were room enough;

Thus downward from a bank precipitate,
We found resounding that dark-tinted water,
So that it soon the ear would have offended.

I had a cord around about me girt,
And therewithal I whilom had designed
To take the panther with the painted skin.

After I this had all from me unloosed,
As my Conductor had commanded me,
I reached it to him, gathered up and coiled,

Whereat he turned himself to the right side,
And at a little distance from the verge,
He cast it down into that deep abyss.

“It must needs be some novelty respond,”
I said within myself, “to the new signal
The Master with his eye is following so.”

Ah me! how very cautious men should be
With those who not alone behold the act,
But with their wisdom look into the thoughts!

He said to me: “Soon there will upward come
What I await; and what thy thought is dreaming
Must soon reveal itself unto thy sight.”

Aye to that truth which has the face of falsehood,
A man should close his lips as far as may be,
Because without his fault it causes shame;

But here I cannot; and, Reader, by the notes
Of this my Comedy to thee I swear,
So may they not be void of lasting favour,

Athwart that dense and darksome atmosphere
I saw a figure swimming upward come,
Marvellous unto every steadfast heart,

Even as he returns who goeth down
Sometimes to clear an anchor, which has grappled
Reef, or aught else that in the sea is hidden,

Who upward stretches, and draws in his feet. (Dante, Longfellow, Inferno 16)

Geryon, like the Balrog, feels more ancient than the moral polarities that Dante lives in, and this is why it is not summoned with words, but with the seemingly nonsensical  gesture of tossing a cord into the darkness. [Note Sam’s earlier statement in response to the chasms: “Rope!” muttered Sam. “I knew I’d want it, if I hadn’t got it!” (303)]

The atmosphere of Beowulf also hangs in the air in this chapter: a band of warriors on a search, cliffs and waters again, the sense of a nameless dread as of something not in nature but beneath or beyond the bounds of nature and impossible for us to comprehend or befriend:

The footprints led
along the woodland, widely seen,
a path o’er the plain, where she passed, and trod
the murky moor; of men-at-arms
she bore the bravest and best one, dead,
him who with Hrothgar the homestead ruled.
On then went the atheling-born
o’er stone-cliffs steep and strait defiles,
narrow passes and unknown ways,
headlands sheer, and the haunts of the Nicors.
Foremost he fared, a few at his side
of the wiser men, the ways to scan,
till he found in a flash the forested hill
hanging over the hoary rock,
a woful wood: the waves below
were dyed in blood. The Danish men
had sorrow of soul, and for Scyldings all,
for many a hero, ’twas hard to bear,
ill for earls, when Aeschere’s head
they found by the flood on the foreland there.
Waves were welling, the warriors saw,
hot with blood; but the horn sang oft
battle-song bold. The band sat down,
and watched on the water worm-like things,
sea-dragons strange that sounded the deep,
and nicors that lay on the ledge of the ness —
such as oft essay at hour of morn
on the road-of-sails their ruthless quest, —
and sea-snakes and monsters. (Beowulf, tr. Gummere, 21)

The sitting down is powerful: they cannot stand, their knees cannot support them, and the sitting down expresses dread and despair in the face of some dark, violent mystery: the brutality at the heart of the world itself, which cares nothing for goodness or nobility,and is capable of no response. Grendel’s mother, like the Balrog, is essentially alone — therefore incomprehensible. This act of sitting down is also something the heroes of Homer never do, and it may be an action more at home in northern dimness, twlights, and fogs; and there is a contemplative side to it, as these Anglo-Saxon warriors sit there beholding the strangeness of their world. In contrast, this is how Tolkien’s heroes react to Gandalf’s death when they have leisure to do so: Grief at last wholly overcame them, and they wept long: some standing and silent, some cast upon the ground. (323) The word “grief” seems inadequate to what they have just experienced, but it seems right to give them two different kinds of reaction — neither of them contemplative in the teeth of dread, one the appropriate gesture of a stoic warrior, the other that of a devoted friend and follower.

Gandalf has simply slid into the abyss (322); even strength and wisdom has succumbed, because in this underworld of pitch darkness and precipices it is possible to disappear suddenly, either by falling or by being taken. Here, no merit guarantees safety — and if Gandalf can be swallowed by the darkness, anybody can. The Balrog exposes the futility of martial heroism and wisdom; this is why Aragorn and Boromir, running to the bridge with their swords, seem just silly. A hobbit, if he is to succeed, needs something new.









Books with Bones


“I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge, nor help out anyone who is not anxious to explain himself. When I have presented one corner of a subject to anyone, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson.” (Analects,  7.8, tr. Legge) I was given a surprising new perspective on this famous saying of Confucius’ one day in, of all places, a class in Greek geometry.

It was an icy December morning. We were sitting around the elongated octagonal table awaiting the arrival of the few remaining students, excited to dig into the proposition in which Apollonius introduces the parabola. Now the Greek geometers usually teach by giving us a corner at a time: while the book as a whole may seem to be a progression of linked proofs in which all the steps are laid out, a student who is alert and passionate to learn will see that most proofs in Euclid and Apollonius are really only a single corner. The other three corners become apparent as one goes further into the book and understands more, but they are present nonetheless to be discovered b the geometrically spirited. A good example in Euclid would be the Pythagorean theorem, which appears at first as the climax of Book 1 (beyond which many people do not read) but which is delved into through books 2 and 3, and then reaches its most general and most interesting form in Book 6. The famous 1.47 thus turns out to be the tip of an iceberg. This applies even more to Apollonius, who characteristically sweeps snow over his tracks and mystifies us with brilliant and uncanny constructions: What could he have seen that would have caused him to think this might be true? Descartes accused him of showing off, of wanting to dazzle by pulling impossible rabbits out of his hat — but it’s more likely that he is trying to provoke his students into finding the other three corners. Reading Apollonius often means reading several inches behind the surface of the page, and developing habits of mulling and searching even as we meet something for the first time.

About to launch into an investigation of how Apollonius arrives at the construction for finding a parabola, by way of small talk and warm-up I looked to the two students from mainland China and said: “Last night I had the worst Chinese food I’ve ever had in my life.” They perked up and grinned in anticipation, since Chinese food in this town is usually not very inspiring. “It was from a Mexican-Chinese buffet restaurant called JCs. There were hardly any vegetables, only large chunks of meat in various thick sauces. I took some home, but when it cooled off it just smelled of old lard.” We then discussed other Chinese options in town. By then the whole class was present and we were ready to begin, but I asked a question: “What’s the main difference between real Chinese food and American Chinese food?”

Both students stopped to think, then replied simultaneously: “No bones! They laughed at their own unanimity. “No bones in American Chinese food.”

This was a wonderful answer. I found myself reflecting on my experiences eating meat in China, and recalled that my first reaction to Chinese butchery was dismay at a failure to follow the natural lines in separating meat from bone; instead, the animal was chopped up ruthlessly into chopstick-sized squares, bones and all. But my dismay changed as I learned how to eat. My friends would pick up a piece and then work it with their whole mouths, delicately picking out all the tiny bits of meat, sucking the marrow, enjoying the smoothness off bone and the juices from it. Best of all, every single piece would be different, with a different ratio of bone to meat, a different shape of bone — and when the bone is present, tendons and ligaments also become defined to the tongue. The bones are not just “trash,” but essential to texture and taste. They slowed down the eating, but also made it more mindful and therefore more satisfying: each taste would be multi-textured, delightfully varied, fascinating — and more nutritious, because there is magic in the marrow!

A cuisine that discards all bones as trash is motivated mainly by a sterile notion of “efficiency”: maximum protein in the minimum time. It is about speed and quantity. Such a cuisine also values homogeneity: there shall be no difference between chicken breast and chicken breast, each chunk of white meat is meant to go down the throat in the same way, every hamburger is the same. The food is “fast” both in production and in consumption: indeed, there is only consuming, not eating. No bones means no savoring, no attentiveness, no fascination; sensory enjoyment is diminished as much as possible, and pushed to the peripheries of mind. We can eat without even noticing it. The relishing of bones, on the other hand, necessarily involves careful, conscious preparation — because people who enjoy tasting food will always notice. Boneless eating starts as a symptom of the Puritannical fear of pleasure, which is really fear of our own weakness; but then it becomes a habit.

No bones has become for me a perfect phrase to describe what passes for education in many places today. It is epitomized in the culture of thick textbooks, which strive to transmit large amounts of information and theory with as little hindrance as possible. It is an education that works by the ingestion of conclusions — and avoids the indigestion of questions. All four corners are given, it seems; the students are not expected to find them, or to hurt themselves trying to find them. They are found already, so why bother? — someone just tell me. In contrast, all classical writing is meat with bones — not just the geometers and Confucius, but Plato, Aristotle, the Buddha, Laozi, Zhuangzi — and many moderns too: Machiavelli and Hobbes require delicate chewing, as do Chekhov and Flaubert. It may be that boneless eating and boneless writing both came to prominence in the industrial age, which privileges quantity over depth — indeed, quantity over any quality that cannot be measured. My students’ observation about no bones illuminated Confucius for me in this way: he does not mean that getting the other corners is the aim of studying, the end that makes the labor worthwhile — but that the true student likes the activity of searching seriously, and only because of this finds it satisfying to encounter the other corners when eventually the present themselves. If all we want is the conclusion, books with bones can only be frustrating. But teachers like Apollonius want us to grow the power of mind that can see as deeply into things as he does, and this is why they tease us, jolt us, resist us, forcing us to work over the bone with our minds’ tongues. Resistance is our friend when we want to become stronger.

An old friend of mine in China, Professor Gao Jian, who was one of the great translators of English literature into Chinese, used to light up with joy whenever we started discussing the 19th century essayists. He would reach for his book and read aloud slowly from Hazlitt or Lamb; and every few sentences he would pause, beaming, shaking his head fondly, as he murmured: “Ah, the flavor, the flavor!”


The Confucian Art of Living Well


What is the key to happiness? In classical Chinese philosophy there is as much disagreement about this as about any other big question, but the most startling assertion, the most bizarre, comes not from the wild men, Zhuangzi or Liezi,  but from the “straight guy,” Mencius:

Mencius said, “The substance [or fruit] of [humaneness] is nothing other than serving your family, and the substance of Duty nothing other than obeying your elders. The substance of wisdom is to understand these two things and [not to depart from] them always. The substance of Ritual is to shape and embellish these two things. And the substance of music is to infuse these two things with joy. Once joy wells up, how can it be stopped? And if joy can’t be stopped, hands and feet will soon strike up a dance of their own.” (Mencius, tr.Hinton, 7:27)

Each one of these five primary elements of the good life — humaneness, duty, wisdom, ritual, and music — is unfathomably deep and demands careful consideration, but for now I’ll offer a simplified version of Mencius’ thought in this passage. If you fulfill your inclination to humaneness by serving your family, your inclination to duty by serving your elders, your capacity for wisdom by understanding the meaning of these and keeping faith with  them, your feeling for ritual by making these beautiful, and then bring music to them — then, as happiness starts welling out of your soul and body, you will find yourself spontaneously dancing for joy. How can it be, one wonders, that the life of dutiful service can lead to spontaneous dance? How can a life of service, which to an individualistic society is almost synonymous with grim self-sacrifice, unleash unstoppable physical ebullience — something like the classical Chinese equivalent of Whitman’s “barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world” (which might actually be more willed, less spontaneous, than Mencius’ dance)?

In interpreting Confucius, one of the things Mencius draws into the foreground is that a good human life is built upon a foundation of well ordered primary relations: fundamentally, our relation to our parents and elders, and after this our relationships between siblings,  friends, and husband and wife. The relationship between ruler and ruled also ranks high in important human relationships, but Mencius usually talks about this as something that depends on the quality of the more “natural” relationships.This in turn depends on our conduct, our capacity for self-reflection, and how well we understand people; indeed, our social and political difficulties are always determined by what we understand and misunderstand about people. One of Confucius’ most piercing insights is that we can understand what is “far away” by investigating very carefully what is “near at hand”: that is, grand concepts such as “people,” “society” and “the state” are far away, abstract, but what informs them are the immediate relationships that we actually already have and live within, and these are all “near at hand.”When we count the hours, we find that we spend most of our mental and emotional energy on our parents, spouses, siblings, children, and close friends; even when our daily occupation involves losing ourselves in cogitations about other things, our thinking about these relationships lies simmering just under the surface waiting to bubble up, often in the form of regret, desires, frustrations. We are almost never alone; the small crowd of intimates is always with us.

Since this is so, and our individual lives are not only inextricable from but also somehow constituted by these close relationships, it is reasonable to infer that our happiness is dependent on the quality of our relationships. This is why for a Confucian an education in the primary relationships is more important than education about other things — and besides, if we don’t have a clear understanding of the “near at hand,” to which we have direct access in our own experience, how will we understand the “far away,” which is mostly available to us through a compendium of other people’s experiences? Nearly everything we need to know about living can be learned by paying attention, moment by moment, to our close relationships, and reflecting on them. With parents, siblings, and children, we know much more than we can handle, and entertain very few illusions; this is why it makes little sense to think about family members in terms of “like” and “dislike,” because those are categories that operate in a realm where we think we can pick and choose. We participate more superficially in our wider social world; there, people reach as as projections or personae, and it is only when we get to know them well — through money dealings, say, or through a major crisis, or a crime — that the surface wears off, and we can start to see into them more deeply. But we cannot reach this depth with people from the wider world if we have never reached it with our closest relationships, the “near at hand.”

It’s worth pausing to marvel at this insight: it seems obvious, but it wasn’t obvious to all. In the West, philosophy rarely addresses the closest relationships. Aristotle can talk at length about happiness as the “activity of excellence,”  and of friendship as founded in excellence, without seriously considering our relationships to parents, siblings, spouses, or children. It is as if philosophers have no biology, no society; they exist by themselves in a birthless world of ideas, with other philosophers. They are self-creating, or created by ideas, but the relationships they are in have made up no part of them. This lack is astonishing, and goes some way to explain the weirdly abstract feel that Plato and Aristotle can have: an “intellectualism” about the human soul that doesn’t pay much attention to most of what goes on there. If we have terrible relationships with parents, siblings, spouses, and children, we cannot be happy, no matter how excellent we are in other respects; our hearts will feel no satisfaction, let alone joy. We know that when a parent dies we can take years to heal, and the healing is much harder if the relationship is unreconciled. In contrast, our tragedians and novelists know that a family contains the whole world, if we look intelligently enough — but our dramas and novels usually present these relationships when they are at the point of breakdown (murder, adultery) and not in their ordinary, day to day state. Mencius would have enjoyed Jane Austen tremendously, and Austen might have enjoyed Mencius, since both are intensely interested in the apparently mundane decisions and interpretations on which all our happiness rests.

For Mencius the most essential of all relationships is that of child to  parents, which requires what in Chinese is called xiao and in English is often translated “filial piety.” I do not like this translation because it evokes the Roman veneration of statues of their ancestors, and perhaps even their veneration of their parents as living statues. It is not a religion, because it is based on the simplest fact of our lives — that we are not our own origin, but the child of these parents. We are born into relationships with specific people, who have personalities, histories, flaws, scars, open wounds; we are probably unable to change these people, but as we navigate and negotiate through our relationships with them, we have to understand and take account of their particularities, which are also changing all the time, often in response to what we say or do. From day to day this can encompass misunderstandings, perceived offenses, intricate cycles of blame and apology, evasions and denials. “Filiality,” outlined in countless texts, involves a complex activity of mind, and reflects the living, motile, risky relationship that we experience in actual, warm-blooded dealings with human parents.

Mencius is not naive about the parent-child relationship. He knows that it is often a very difficult relationship, and that parents and children can be impossible and harsh to one another. His hero was the Emperor Shun, a model of filiality, who would always approach his parents with respect; and yet these same parents, along with his brother, several times attempted to kill him, setting his house on fire and burying him in a well, and in almost all their actions both father and son appear to be thoroughly unpleasant, wicked pieces of work. Mencius describes how Shun, laboring in the fields, would weep in resentment and sorrow. Of course he would, says Mencius, because this is how a noble heart feels when his own parents disown and denigrate him; if Shun did not feel this way, he would not be fully human and therefore unqualified to be emperor. Yet to the bitter end Shun never ceased to engage with his parents as their best possible selves; even while knowing clearly that they have failed time and again, he never gives up on holding them up to the ideal. Mencius respects Shun for his strength of soul. His ability to love such parents, while seeing clearly what they are, is the foundation of his ability to love other people as they are given to us, not just as we wish them to be. Loving them only as we wish them to be is sure to end in disappointment, embitterment, and perhaps tyranny when we cease to regard other people as “worthy.” Mencius himself never gives up on the tyrants he talks with, no matter how evasive or threatening they may be; he never relinquishes hope that there is something good in them that can be built upon.


Relationships for Mencius are not things that we have and then contemplate as finished objects, but rather they are dynamic things that we live in  and that we can practice. The essence of this practice is serving: “The substance of humaneness is nothing other than serving your family.” The word “humaneness” translates the Chinese concept of ren, which is often translated “benevolence”; ren is an openness of heart through which we can be moved by other people, and without which we are not human. It is the root of compassion, love, fellow-feeling, but it has to be cultivated, just as a tree has to be fed and watered if it is to grow. For Mencius this cultivation occurs nowhere else than in the activity of “serving our family,” of doing what is best for them, taking care of them, helping them too to grow — and described in this way, it seems innocuous enough. But when we think about how difficult particular family  members can be, how resistant to all our efforts, and how hard their words and actions can be to interpret, then serving becomes another complex activity of intelligence and heart at the same time. Consider, for example, what it takes to care for a chronically ill family member, who may be in pain and crabby all the time. To know what is truly good for “the family” as a group of individuals, we need to think, ponder and weigh, and we need to have empathy with these people, who can be the most annoying, recalcitrant people we know. Serving the family  necessitates not only a caring heart, but also fortitude, toughness, patience, thoughtfulness, and insight — all of which are included in ren, which is thus much more than a feeling or disposition.

Similarly, Duty is much more than a set of injunctions, as we shall see in subsequent essays. Wisdom consists in understanding the meaning of Duty and Humaneness, and, when we understand, it is wise to persist in the practice. This is crowned with the arts of Ritual and Music, which bring beauty and refinement. If we do all of these well, we will naturally find ourselves spilling over with irrepressible happiness, and dancing for joy. It is a joy that lies deep in our organic being, because it can percolate up from the depths and move our limbs to our own delight and surprise. But it is a joy that I have not yet encountered in myself or in anyone close to me, but then — as Confucius himself remarked of his own contemporaries — no one I have known has tried this path wholeheartedly. On the other hand, if we take the advice to heart and consider what is “near at hand,” it is easy to see how our lives will feel unfinished, ragged, tormented, if we neglect or ignore our primary relationships.





Tolkien and the Fuzzy Distance



“The Council of Elrond,” the longest chapter in The Lord of the Rings, may be the most ambitious and at the same time most opaque and depressed chapter of the book. It is ambitious not only because it is long —  by far the longest in the book, 32 pages of small print — but because in it Tolkien attempts to give the core of the “back-story,” weaving accounts by Elrond, Gandalf, Gloin, Aragorn, and others. Elrond and Gandalf have lots to say: Elrond because he has lived a long time and seen almost everything, Gandalf because he is wise and has learned much through study and investigation — and both are shrewd at making connections. This is the chapter in which large amounts of background information are gathered before the main action can really begin. This action could have been given by the narrator at the beginning, but Tolkien has chosen to delay it until now and to voice it through different characters — as if to signal that the picture of the background we are receiving is not beyond question, since it does not come through an omniscient speaker but instead comes fragmented, through the minds of characters who are themselves struggling to comprehend. Even after reading it a few times it is very hard to give a coherent summary.

Elrond in particular is difficult to grasp; he speaks as though his vast longevity has filled him with a different sense of time than we have, one that makes compactions, obscurities, and extravagations in the telling because he can no longer grasp how mortals need to comprehend events:

“There in the courts of the King grew a white tree, from the seed of that tree which Isildur brought over the deep waters, and the seed of that tree before came from Eressea, and before that out of the Uttermost West in the Day before days when the world was young.” (238)

We get lost in the seed of the seed of the seed, and what is the “Day before days,” and does “when the world was young” modify “Day” or “days”? It doesn’t seem to matter because it sounds beautiful and mysterious, but it also sounds like a rambling super-grandfather who speaks as if everyone knows the friends of his youth.

In trying to do so much Tolkien sometimes dozes off, especially when describing martial characters — for example, the introduction of Boromir, who comes across as a plastic made-in-China action figure: And seated a little apart was a tall man with a fair and noble face, dark-haired and grey-eyed, proud and stern of glance. (234) Also, when Gandalf inexplicably launches into the strange language on the Ring, it is hard to take the cartoonish solemnity seriously: The change in the wizard’s voice was astounding. Suddenly it became menacing, powerful, harsh as stone. A shadow seemed to pass over the high sun, and the porch for a moment grew dark. All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears. (248) This is unnecessary and juvenile melodrama.

Moreover, Tolkien always has a hard time doing group conversations. Compare, for example, with almost any story in Balzac that has a frame conversation: characters don’t only sit there, but in the conversation they get up, move around, gesture, provoked by a thought or other inner impulsion; individuals are looking at each other all the time, even when they are not speaking; there is food, drink, the sounds of movements in the room, and ambient sounds as of people coming and going. In Tolkien the configuration is much stiffer: everyone assumes their places and stays there for the whole discussion, which in this case lasts at least ten hours; there is almost nothing physical in the descriptions, very little movement, very little sense of bodies — and if Gandalf addresses Elrond, for instance, there is no intimation  of how Boromir or Legolas might be hearing differently what is being said. Tolkien has an astonishingly clear feel for the topography of a landscape, but a very impoverished feel for indoor settings; he does not notice how rooms are laid out, and is not really interested in things as things, or in bodies as bodies, which can be touched, smelled, heard. The overall effect is of talking heads, a disembodied conversation between representative figures that could have taken place on Skype.

Yet these failures contribute to the overall powerful effect of the chapter. This is a pervading sense of being mired in the past. For the Elves this involves being trapped in a memory too long for any being to handle: so many triumphs and so many failures, so much beauty and nobility. It can as a whole make no sense to anyone who is not an elf, and even for an elf it must be drain the ability to exist fully in the present. They are world-weary, even slightly bored; Elrond’s resistance to Sauron has a here-we-go-again feel. For the dwarves it means dwelling on loss, betrayal, resentment. For the wizards it consists of a kind of burial in books and old languages, a constant attempt to decipher the murk of the long-extinct: “And yet there lie in his [Denethor’s] hoards many records that few even of the lore-masters now can read, for their scripts and tongues have become dark to later men…” (246)  “It is fashioned in an elven-script of Eregion, for they have no letters in Mordor for such subtle work; but the language is unknown to me.” (Isildur, via Gandalf; 246) For the men, it is an obsession with the epic persona, with all its characteristic features of defending narrow places like bridges, fighting to the death, and infatuation with honor while at the same time confessing the practical hollowness of it:

“I was in the company that held the bridge, until it was cast down behind us. Four only were saved by swimming: my brother and myself and two others. But still we fight on, holding all the west shores of Anduin; and those who shelter behind us give us praise, if ever they hear our name: much praise but little help.” (239)

This is of course Boromir, who contrasts with the more tired Aragorn in his more passionate investment in the frills of warrior glory. Boromir also has the egoism of the epic hero, eager to shoulder all burdens himself in order to outshine his peers:

“Therefore my brother, seeing how desperate was our need, was eager to heed the dream and seek for Imladris; but since the way was full of doubt and danger, I took the journey upon myself.” (240)

Boromir gets the only particularized portrait in the chapter:

He was cloaked and booted as if for a journey on horseback; and indeed though his garments were rich, and his cloak was lined with fur, they were stained with long travel. He had a collar of silver in which a single white stone was set; his locks were shorn about his shoulders. On a baldric he wore a great horn tipped with silver that now was laid about his knees…(234)

— and what this portrait emphasizes is his emblem, the war-horn, something that is in itself no aid to warrior prowess but merely an accessory of it, since its only role is to draw attention to the blower. Most traditional epic heroes are figuratively blowers: they can fight, but they must also blow, because in the end it has to be all about themselves. In contrast, Aragorn is more subdued, more functional in his dress, because he seems weary of the epic persona: Strider was sitting, clad in his old travel-worn clothes again…(233) In contrast, Boromir’s horn is a flamboyant fetish of masculine strength, just as the Ring is a fetish of infinite power: both are able to influence people because they can stir the deep-seated need to fetishize. Perhaps this is why Tom Bombadil, happy in himself and in the things around him, is untouched by it. Boromir, on the other hand, is imprisoned in a conventional mindset that too easily makes power the property of a thing, which we then have to possess: “Let the Ring be your weapon, if it has such power as you say. Take it and go forth to victory.” (260-1) The same applies to one of the more interesting characters introduced to us in this chapter, Saruman, who wants the Ring also because of its power, but this time with a more stereotypical Machiavellian frame of mind; he is also a type of the powerful technocratic scientist who knows how to make things happen and believes he can ultimately control all the forces of the universe. He may be the kind of inventor-scientist who can split white into a rainbow, but his thinking is still conventional, narrow.

All these figures are tired, bogged down, stultified. If we had only them, the chapter would be dreary, populated by figures capable of thinking only in old tropes and exaggerations. Perhaps this is why the narrative here has to be meandering, dimly lit, and oblique. In spite of their appearance of greater wisdom and authority, they are all actually lost — stuck within their old horizons, able to understand the conflict in front of them only in terms of the old tedious polarities, needing help. They are all incarcerated in the ancient cycle, and because of it the chapter feels like a pall of depression.

A friend of mine from Bolivia once told me that the best thing about his own country was the lack of a burden of greatness: no great literary tradition, no great wars won, not even a great soccer team — and with no crushing burden of expectations to live up to, they could just be themselves. The hobbits are like that. Elves, sorcerers, dwarves, men, all live under the shadow of greatness, and this shadow is as deadly as the shadow of Mordor: under it, they cannot truly live. This is one reason they need the hobbits.

Frodo has the mental freedom to dream, to seek for far horizons: “I feel ready for anything,” answered Frodo. “But most of all I should like to go walking today and explore the valley. I should like to get into those pine-woods up there.” He pointed away far up the side of Rivendell to the north” (233) It is characteristic of him to live partly here, partly in the distance: He wished he was far away (240) — for it is the distance that draws him, and that keeps him free from the paralysis of the past.

In the paintings of Renaissance masters of perspective, most adults are fascinated by the mathematical rigor of the receding parallels that organize the space of the painting: they are something to know, a stable set of techniques by which we can grasp the structure of the painting. The geometry makes the unfamiliarity of real space into the familiarity of known space; we already comprehend how triangles relate, so how wonderful and comforting it is to be able to capture the Annunciation in parallel lines and triangles. Most of the characters in “The Council of Elrond” are like most adults in this respect: they live in the remembered and habitual, but are also depressed in the sterility of this. There is too much focus and direction in the mastery of perspective: vision has actually been dulled through technology. Most children, however, are like Frodo: when looking at a Leonardo, what attracts them are the blurry cliffs in the background, the vague castle, the extraordinary clouds — because there anything can happen, and there is hope of something new opening up.