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Posts Tagged ‘China’

philosophersWe start with Nietzsche and a few pop quotes, like: “god is dead” and “I am dynamite”. I don’t understand him, so I go back to his influences, namely Schopenhauer. But I don’t understand him either – plus he’s deeply morose and repulsively nihilistic. So I go back to Kant. Kant’s a bit more optimistic, but he’s also a life-time’s study. Even the Kant scholars are still arguing over what he wrote, and you’d think they would have settled him by now. So I step back to Aristotle, but I’m in a bit of a muddle, so rather than stepping back in time even more to Plato, I take a breath. Maybe philosophy’s not my thing at all.

The philosophers are certainly a breed apart. They don’t seem to add much to the ordinary life, but if you’re at all interested in what life’s about you can’t avoid them. They’re about “epistemology”, which is the theory of knowledge, and how we know things. And they’re about “ontology” which is the theory being, or meaning. They use a lot of other unfamiliar words as well, and when they run out of actual words, they make words up. Then they all have their take on “ethics” – that’s to say, how should we behave towards one another, and what is “good”?

They approach all this through logic. The Kantians tell us the faculties we’re born with are linked to what is knowable, and this comes out in language. So, by a process that resembles a cross between a word game, and basic algebra, they arrive at a story about what it means to be alive. More than that they try to get a handle on what it is we are alive in. I mean the universe – the nature of it, the nature of space and time, and being – in other words a creation story.

So it’s a big subject, but to the layman it’s difficult, or at least to me it is. Or maybe I’m too set in my ways now to squish my calcifying brain into a new way of thinking. I’m just this old engineer, steeped in deterministic ideas. I’ve always known they’re an incomplete model of the universe, because my teachers told me so. But they work at a practical level, so we use them to do things. And I’ve really liked being an engineer. We put a man on the moon – well not me – I was only nine at the time, but you know what I mean? There’s something satisfying about doing things, making things. As for proving something you can neither see nor touch, like the philosophers do, nor use in the process of making things, or doing things,… what’s the point of that? Well, it’s interesting. And if I have to wait another lifetime to be a philosopher, then so be it, and for now I’ll just skim this stuff, pick up what bits I can and make do.

If we skim Kant, we get the idea we can’t grasp the true nature of reality at all. All we’ve got are our senses, and a mind that’s structured in a certain way to intuit the universe. We can see things as they appear to us, but not how those things are in themselves. But the most challenging idea of all is what Kant says about space and time. He plays his word-game and deduces that space and time drop out of the equation altogether. They’re part of the perceptual toolkit we’re born with, which means we can never get a handle on the way things are when we’re not looking. This is not to say the world is an illusion. It’s just that the way we see it is the only way we can see it, while its true nature is hidden and unknowable.

This sounds like the opening of Dao De Jing, written in China two thousand years before Kant. It says what we can see and touch and put names to is not the same as the essence of those things in themselves. Chinese ideas were floating around in Europe at the time Kant was writing. They’re sophisticated philosophies because the Chinese got themselves organized into a literate culture early on. But to the semi-theocratic west, these were pagan ideas and it was dangerous for philosophers to make too much of them.

Still, I think it’s an important thing to know, this link, that two cultures, isolated, and thousands of years apart could come up with the same basic idea. It suggests they might have been on to something. But its also frustrating I’ve not the nous to make any more headway with it than that. I did try reading Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” once. I wanted to understand it, word for word, like I once understood fluid dynamics. But I couldn’t follow it in any meaningful depth. I was probably in my late thirties then, and no point trying again now.

Carl Jung read it when he was seventeen. He’d read Schopenhauer’s “Will and Representation” too. He understood both well enough to think he’d spotted a flaw in Schopenhauer’s reasoning. It’s schoolboys of that calibre who grow to influence in the world of thought. All laymen like me can do is hold on to their coat-tails, hoping for a line or two of poetry that will stick and sum things up for us.

Most of us don’t bother of course, and are no more enlightened in the philosophical intricacies than mud. Or maybe the essence of life and living are so obvious anyway, we don’t need to learn it from the philosophers, or perhaps it just doesn’t matter. Or should we be content to leave it to those cleverer than we are to make a difference in the world? But when you look at the way the west is disintegrating – our leadership and our key institutions – and how China has undergone repeated convulsions down the centuries, finally to evolve into an authoritarian techno-surveillance state, you wonder if more of us, east and west, shouldn’t be making a better effort with those philosophers after all.

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i chingThe idea of a life’s path is central to ideas of human development. But it’s not obvious what that path is, especially when we can only say we’re on it when we’re not deliberately trying to steer our course. And Ego likes to steer, likes to gain knowledge, skill, and to compete against other egos for positions of control in order to secure wealth and power. These are the aphrodisiacs of the material world, a world that divides us into predators and prey. There can be no other way, it says – no surviving life without combat.

Not true, says the Yi Jing.

The Yi Jing, or Book of Changes, is a strange text, one that first appeared in China’s Shang Dynasty, around 1600 BC. It came to the west in the late 19th century as a cultural curiosity, and was taken up by the psychoanalytical movement on publication of the influential Wilhelm (German) edition in 1923. It then became a companion to 60’s counterculture, and is still widely used today. While its core structure has remained untouched since antiquity, the language of its interpretation changes to suit whatever culture it finds itself taken up by. I have several versions of it, and wrote my own interpretation, available here, as a way of furthering my grasp of its curious concepts.

What we normally think of as our life’s path, says the Yi Jing, the path we can see and plot and manage, isn’t really our path at all, but simply our life situation. Our true path is more of an internal journey towards awakening. Our life situation is only relevant to the extent that we are able to adjust our relationship with it in order to prevent it from subverting a more vital inner path. The material world is a world asleep. Hold solely to its values, and you will remain asleep also.

The Yi Jing is unlike any other book you have read. You can talk to it. You ask it stuff, and it answers. The answers are complex, perceptive, and personal. There’s a lot of debate about exactly who or what it is we talk to when we talk to the Yi Jing. Some deify the book, picturing in their minds the spirit of a wise old sage, like Lao Tzu perhaps, or even God, and that’s fine if it’s how you want to see it. But everyone’s relationship with it is going to be different. My own feeling is that when we consult the book, we open a channel to a deeper part of our selves. We ask our question and are then directed to certain apparently random passages and subtexts, the combination of which form a narrative for reflection and interpretation. The answers then emerge in our own minds, riding in on a wave of sudden insight.

I don’t know how it works, and to be frank, I no longer think about it. The ego cannot crack it, but neither can it accept the Yi Jing without explanation, so there opens a divide. On the one side we have explanations that range from the vaguely plausible to the crackpot, and on the other a sour scientitsic rejection of the book as merely the work of an emerging, pre-rational culture. Others say we simply read into it whatever we want to hear, and that’s fine, though this does not explain the fact that if one is open enough, one always rises from the Yi Jing knowing or feeling something one did not know or feel before. Another of its characteristics is that it will never shy away from telling us what we don’t want to hear.

When I read back to my earliest conversations with the Yi Jing, I come across as a very different person, my questions very much concerned with my place in the world: job, relationships, house, kids, cars, holidays, financial ups and downs, struggles for publication,… and the answers read like repeated attempts to make me see I had the whole world upside down, that actually, none of it mattered, that the confusion and the frustration we so often feel in life is based on faulty thinking, and a resistance to events over which we have no control.

While we have no choice as beings in flesh but to operate at the material level of reality, the Yi Jing tells us we should always do so in cognizance of its inherent limitations, and the knowledge that greater understanding of the meaning of “being” comes from exploring the shifting patterns of our inner selves. As a guide to such things, the Yi Jing is without parallel. It is a text that remains as relevant today as it was in Neolithic times.

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Lady of the Lake - Ullswater - 2004In the summer of 2004 I took the old steamer, The Lady of the Lake, from Glenridding, Ullswater, as far as the jetty at Howtown, then made my way on foot into the remote valley of Martindale. There, on a bend, just before the narrow road gives out, there stands a massive yew tree, one of the largest and oldest in England. In its shadow lies the lovely, lonely old church of Saint Martins where, on a plain headstone, I chanced upon the following inscription:

Here lies the body of Andrew Wilson. Traveller. Orientalist and Man of Letters. Author of The Abode of Snow. Born at Bombay April 11th 1830. Died at Bank House Howtown June 8th 1881

I’m guessing many a pilgrim must have pondered this headstone in the hundred and thirty years it has lain there, but  for me it was to become a particularly significant encounter. My later thirst for knowledge of this man’s life was, and remains, something of an obsession. In 2004 I was soaking myself in various oriental and mystical philosophies, and therefore  open to all manner of related connections.  It was for this reason the word Orientalist struck home first, followed by the title of the book, which I recognised as a romantic phrase often used to describe the Himalaya – roof of the mystical east.

The grave of Andrew Wilson - MartindaleI took shelter in the chapel from the sweltering heat for a while, made some notes, then continued on my walk, pondering this odd syncronicity and telling myself I’d look that book up when I got home. It proved to be the beginning of a long journey of discovery. Indeed, it’s fair to say that through his work, much of it now obscure, this lost Victorian man of letters has become a kind of guru to me. I am broader now, deeper, and much less attached to things that simply do not matter than I was when I first did that walk. This is not to say  Wilson alone is responsible for this change in my outlook, his being just one of a company of voices, but he’s certainly been by far the most congenial companion along the way and I still take great delight at turning up yet one more snippet from my researches into his life and work – no matter how trivial.

The son of John Wilson, a famous Indian missionary and founding father of Bombay in the 1830’s, Andrew actually spent much of his early life in and around Edinburgh where he’d been sent to escape Bombay’s terrible insanitary conditions, and the risk he would follow his siblings to an early grave. His education took him to the Edinburgh Academy and then, like his father, along the path of training to be a minister in the Scottish church. But a profound crisis of faith caused him to veer off course, into what appears to have been a very modern kind of European Buddhism – a philosophy espoused by the likes of Schopenhauer and other gurus of the later German romantic period. Deeply troubled, he abandoned his training and took up a career in journalism, eventually editing newspapers in India and China, as well as the UK. But it’s in his personal works, rather than his day-job reportage that I have sought the man, and a very interesting man he turned out to be.

The Nineteenth Century saw many writers who were far more prolific and materially successful than Andrew Wilson, while as a traveller, there were others far more ground-breaking. It’s  for this reason he does not feature at all large in the role-call of Victorian celebrity. He enjoyed some public recognition with the appearance of The Abode of Snow in 1875. Sadly though, increasing ill health prevented him from building upon its  success. While he continued to write to the very end, his later years saw him slip into relative obscurity and disability, his retirement from the world’s dusty byways being funded by the writing of penetrating, and sometime acerbic critiques of other people’s books. Whatever his qualities as a writer, mealy mouthed he was not.

The Abode of Snow is the best introduction to his work, though it catches him at a point in life when he was very ill indeed – barely able to walk and with every breath he took being an effort of steely will. It is an account of a six month trek in the Himalaya, beginning on the sweltering plains of India in the summer of 1873 and rising to the borders of Tibet, then along the valleys and mountain ridges to Kashmir. It’s been described justly as one of the most epic journeys ever undertaken on horseback, a journey he began more in hope than in expectation that the cooler air of the higher altitudes of the northern frontier would restore his health.

Throughout the early stages of his narrative we get the impression he was not entirely confident he would survive, but survive he did, returning temporarily rejuvenated, to pen his memoirs, initially for serialisation in Blackwood’s magazine, but later for publication in book form. The result is at times an intensely personal travelogue, deeply reflective, but it is also typical of his work in that it provides us with  an entirely unaffected description of what was then a very remote part of the Victorian world, including the varied cultures and the people for whom those seemingly inhospitable wastes were home. The book found favour with a pubic greedy for romantic tales of exotic travel in corners of the world that were already fast disappearing under the steady march of Victorian imperialism. He had far more to offer this genre, but his own eccentricity and ultimately a return of his ill health meant the public was to hear no more of Wilson’s extraordinary travels.

Some time after publication, a copy of the Abode of Snow found its way into the hands of the novelist George Elliot, who read it aloud to a gathered company of friends in the drawing room of her home at Rickmansworth. Afterwards, in a  letter to John Blackwood, editor of Blackwood’s Magazine, she said: “But what an amazing creature is this Andrew Wilson,…”

When I first encountered Wilson I was naïve in imagining a linear life’s path, from Bombay to Westmorland, which had seemed curious enough to me, and worth investigating, but in fact I discovered his footsteps had circumnavigated a world of steam trains and sailing ships with  breathtaking dynamism – from India, to Hongkong, to China, America, and India again. He finally settled at Bank House, in those days a humble small-holding, where he rented rooms and penned much of the work that was to become the Abode of Snow. The place is still there, though nowadays it’s better known as an annex of the Sharrow Bay Hotel, beautifully situated overlooking Ullswater. By a strange quirk of fate then, you can still rent rooms there, but at rates I suspect Wilson would have found beyond his means. I also suspect he would find that amusing and worthy of a witty, or a philosophical aside, illustrated, as was his way, with a few lines of apposite poetry, deftly plucked from his prodigious memory.

Bank House - HowtownIt was here, at the age of 51 he endured a long and distressing conclusion to the illness that had dogged his steps for much of his life. Unmarried, childless, he passed away attended only by his landlady and was buried just a mile or so up the road at the Old Church of Saint Martins. This plain and lonely old chapel would be abandoned shortly afterwards, leaving Wilson – Orientalist, writer, thinker and prolific traveller – to rest in peace and final obscurity.

Most of his other works – his earlier travelogues from his days in China, Baluchistan, Switzerland, and Sutherland, also his poetry – are difficult to find, being published anonymously in Blackwood’s Magazine from 1857 onwards. You can uncover them  with the help of Wellesley’s guide to 19th century periodicals but one needs a dogged determination and even a slightly obsessive attitude to get at them properly. Most of those vintage periodicals however are now freely available online,  and I found them well worth the effort – and the tiny font –  not only in fleshing out Wilson’s entry in the dictionary of National Biography, but in experiencing more of that genial charm one encounters from a reading of the Abode of Snow – also his beguiling wisdom, a thing that manages to strike a curious balance between Victorian no-nonsense rationalism, and full blown nature-mysticism.

He was not universally admired in his day, being criticised by The Times as too sympathetic towards the Chinese, perhaps understandable at a time when our armed forces were busy setting fire to large parts of the Orient. Then, on passing through the United States in 1861, when commenting on the opening stages of the Civil War, he dismissed Abraham Lincoln rather sniffily as a small man caught up in large circumstances – a phrase I beg my American readers to forgive as a momentary aberration. Then there was an early stint as Editor of the Hong Kong “China Mail,” during which his journalistic recklessness landed him in court on a charge of libel. Duly found guilty he was fined the eye-watering sum of £1000 and bound over to keep the peace – this at a time a when decent salary was around a £300 a year.

Mealy mouthed, no. Recklessly outspoken,… at times, yes. But among his fellow literati he was much respected, spoken of with great affection, and viewed as something of a wayward genius, even a curiosity, with many a drawing room gathering of his old Edinburgh school chums beginning with the words: what news of Wilson?

I could fill a book on this subject, and probably will do one day, for the half a dozen people besides myself who would find it interesting,  but I’ll end this little homage here with Wilson’s own words. On the nature of life, he was no more eloquent than in this excerpt from a contribution he made to Blackwoods Magazine in March of 1858, titled Stories from Ancient Sind:

Experience and reason assure us that the fabled spontaneity of  perfect life is only a sickly dream; for the law of life is but the law of growth and labour; the golden ages of the past have germed in pain and grown with difficulty into full wide-branched glory; and behind every civilisation we find no primeval paradise but only the seething swamp with its slimy brood, the low tangled jungle with its self destroying life, and the hoary salts and the petrified flames of the pathless desert….

…So the world wends; in the light of life onwards, and backwards again under the cold inevitable shadow of death, and its life is ever beautiful and mystic, freshly joyous or infinitely sad, to the imagination of man, for it is in the nature of the human spirit – its highest exercise and noblest prerogative – not to confine itself within the narrow limits of its petty personalities,…

Andrew Wilson 1858

The Abode of Snow is still in print. You can also get an ebook copy for free from the Internet Archive here.

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