More on those four great mysteries…

When I was in Suzhou a few weeks ago, I gave a talk about my [amazon text=Sixty-Four Chance Pieces&asin=B00W0LPFDO] at the wonderful Bookworm bookshop, called ‘Four Great Mysteries’ (see the blog post here). In preparation for the talk, I scrawled the following notes, and although the talk itself diverged occasionally wildly from what I’ve written here (the wine helped, as did the fun of working with two exceptional interpreters), I thought that I’d share the text for anyone who might be interested.

~O~

Introduction

I’m delighted to be here in Suzhou to talk about my new book, Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, a novel of sorts based upon the Yijing, or the Chinese Book of Changes. And I’m very grateful to the Bookworm for generously hosting this event. What a beautiful place Suzhou is, and what a lovely place the Bookworm here in Suzhou is! It’s really a pleasure to be here.

I’m here because, several years ago, I decided to write a kind of novel based upon the Yijing. Now, if there is anything that almost everybody knows about the Yijing, it is that it is a very mysterious book. So what I’m going to talk about today are what I am going to call Four Great Mysteries related to the Yijing, and to my own book that is based upon the Yijing, Sixty-Four Chance Pieces. So I’ll talk a little bit about these Four Great Mysteries, and then I’ll read a story from the book, to give you a flavour of the what I’m doing. Then we can open the floor up to questions.

So what are these Four Great Mysteries that I want to talk about? Let me put them down as briefly as I can.

  • Mystery number one: What the hell is the Yijing?
  • Mystery number two: What the hell does the Yijing mean? What is it for? What is its purpose?
  • Mystery number three: How the hell did a foolish and ignorant laowai like me come to get involved in all this stuff?
  • Mystery number four: What the hell is Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, this book I ended up writing as a result? Is it travel-writing? Is it fiction? Is it non-fiction? Is it philosophy? Is it an unholy mess? Or is it all of these, or none of these?

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Some jet-lagged reflections on travel

I’m a bit jet-lagged and weary, after a long journey back from India that has involved (in this order) a rickshaw, a train, a taxi (one of Kolkata’s glorious yellow Ambassadors), a lift from a friend, a plane, another plane, two tube journeys, and now another train, after which it is just a quick hop in a taxi to find my way home once again.

I’ve only been away for a couple of weeks, but in truth it feels a lot longer. It seems to me that subjective time is measured, at least to some extent, by the experience of change; and this being so, it feels as if it was along time since I left the UK. The final few days in India were I spent in Rabindranath Tagore’s university town of Santiniketan, reading, thinking and making a great many new friends and connections; and it was a humbling experience to meet with so many warm and generous people, and to find myself engaged in so many fascinating and enriching conversations.

So—partly to stave off the jetlag a while longer, and to keep myself awake, so that I don’t end up falling asleep and finding myself missing my stop and ending up in Nottingham by mistake—I thought I’d write a few idle notes on the subject of the virtues of travel. Nothing that I’m writing here is particularly new or startling; but (the issue of staying awake on one side) I thought it worth saying at least as a reminder to myself.
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A. C. Graham on the Uses of Divination

I thought that this was worth sharing. It comes from A.C. Graham’s [amazon text=Disputers of the Tao&asin=0812690885], and is about the creative potential of divination techniques such as the Yijing, even if we accept (as I do) that the divinatory process is simply an exercise in playing with randomness.

 

An openness to chance influences loosing thought from preconceptions is indispensable to creative thinking. In responding to new and complex situations it is a practical necessity to shake up habitual schemes and wake to new correlations of similarities and connexions […] There is no reason to doubt that divination systems do help many people to reach appropriate decision in situations with too many unknown factors, and that the Yi is among the more successful of them.  Unless we are to follow Jung in postulating an a-causal principle of synchronicity, we must suppose that the Yi serves to break down preconceptions by forcing the diviner to correlate his situation with a chance sequence of six prognostications. If their meaning were unambiguous, the overwhelming probability would be that the prognostications would be either obviously inapplicable or grossly misleading. Since on the contrary the hexagrams open up an indefinite range of patterns for correlation, in the calm of withdrawal into sacred space and time, the effect is to free the mind to take account of all information whether or not it conflicts with preconceptions, awaken it to unnoticed similarities and connexions, and guide it to a settled decision adequate to the complexity of factors. This is conceived not as discursive thinking but as a synthesising act in which the diviner sees into and responds to everything at once, with a lucidity mysterious to himself. The Yi is not a book which pretends to offer clear predictions but hides away in tantalising obscurities; it assumes in the diviner that kind of intelligence we have discussed in connexion with Chuang-tzu, opening out and responding to stimulation in perfect tranquility, lucidity and flexibility. (p. 368-370)

 

Image: Grinding Cinnabar and Annotating the Yijing.

An Afternoon of Uselessness

What better way to spend a rainy afternoon than talking idly about Chinese philosophy over a good cup of tea? Today we had our first East-West Salon here at DMU where I work. It’s been a fun event. I decided to set up a salon with my colleague Sam Bamkin after his return from the ‘Infusing Asian Studies’ institute at the East-West centre in Hawaii (www.eastwestcente.org). Our aim is to provide a forum for looking at East Asian thought, and mulling over the implications of taking East Asian traditions seriously for how we go about thinking, teaching and leading our lives.

Our first session was free-ranging, starting from the first chapter of Sarah Allan’s wonderful book The Way of Water and the Sprouts of Virtue, and talking about root metaphors in Chinese and Western thought. We had long and interesting excursions into contemporary politics — in particular Xi Jinping’s notion of the “China Dream” (中国梦), thanks to Dr. Amy Barnes’s reflections on the recent conference of the same name at the University of Leicester — whilst also drawing connections with deeper-rooted philosophical themes.

We set up the group quite deliberately as something open-ended, something that serves no particular agenda, and something that is part of no wider ‘research strategy’. The group was born out of an concern in having interesting conversations. And no more.

This calculated uselessness may turn out to have its benefits. As Zhuangzi puts it, “人皆知有用之用,而莫知無用之用也,” or, “Everyone knows the usefulness of the useful, but there is none who knows the usefulness of the useless.” Which means, of course, that our non-strategy may be, in truth, some kind of strategy after all…

Next up, we may be talking about the addiction to knowledge, which seems a potentially worthwhile thing to talk about in a university, where the corridors are haunted by knowledge-junkies who wander about like hungry ghosts. I’m looking forward to it.

A note on conversation

One good thing about France is the bookshops. Proper bookshops, filled with proper books — books that are about stuff, shelves of philosophy and science and all kinds of other things (there are reasons that French bookshops are good and British bookshops not so good, but I won’t go into these at the moment). So I made use of last week’s holiday in France to indulge in a buying frenzy — paperback editions are also reasonably priced — and to get hold of a number of books about philosophy, Chinese studies and so on. It’s good to be giving my French a work-out, and I like the style of French sinology, which tends to be more speculative than Anglo-American traditions.

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Knowing, not knowing and teaching

I’ve just been sending off the edits for a paper that I’ve been writing for China Media Research, who are running a special issue on communication and Chinese philosophy. The paper is about education as a matter of communicating not just knowing, but also not-knowing, something that I’m arguing through a reading of the Laozi and the Zhuangzi.

In talking about not-knowing, I am not, I think, advocating anything particularly mysterious or mystical. Instead I am more interested in the fact that most of our lives are lived in what I am calling epistemological chaos, in which knowing and not-knowing exist alongside each other, and in which we don’t always know what we know, what we don’t know, or what the boundary is between the two (unlike Socrates, who always seems mightily—one might say ‘improbably‘—certain of his lack of knowledge). I’ll post here again when the paper is published, but here is a very short extract.

a rich educational context is one in which knowing and not-knowing, assurance and non-assurance swirl around each other chaotically; and teaching is as much about communicating not-knowing, tentativeness, uncertainty, flights of fancy, hypotheses, puzzles, conundrums, bafflements and confusions, as it is about communicating knowing, assurance, certainty, well-mapped paths, proofs, solutions, clarifications, illuminations and clarities.

Review in Frontiers of Philosophy in China

I was very pleased to see a review of my Levinas book (which is only very loosely connected to things Chinese), Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling, in the most recent edition of the excellent Frontiers of Philosophy in China. The link is here. It is a thoughtful and thorough review, by German phenomenologist Annette Hilt, who seems to have enjoyed the book, whilst taking me to task very gently for not saying more about the ‘saying’ and the ‘said’ (which is a fair point, I think). Anyway, have a look at the review if you have a subscription to FPC.

Ontological Claustrophobia – A Short Story

So there I was, sitting amongst philosophers, and we were all talking about ontological claustrophobia, the fear of being, that kind of thing.

The room was getting a bit stuffy. We’d been there a long time, talking and talking and talking. Suddenly I felt out of breath. ‘How about opening the window,’ I suggested. ‘That will help, I’m sure. Then perhaps we can talk about something else.’

The philosophers grumbled. ‘You don’t understand,’ they said. ‘You never understand.’ Read more

Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling now in paperback

Just a quick post to say that my book, [amazon_link id=”1472581598″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling[/amazon_link], is now available in paperback. The hardback was priced beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, but the paperback is much more reasonably priced. There’s more information on the Bloomsbury website.

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