VI. Glimpses of the Glue
Yet he went on to write 5,000 characters concerning it, while pausing for a cup of tea with the gatekeeper before disappearing into the unknown territories.
What can be said about the Way that is not banal from its perspective, arcane and irritatingly empty from without it?
There is no foolishness like the foolishness of a man trying to write about the Tao.
To write about the way the Way appears in these writings. Foolish, distracted by Spring, without ambition.
When I was fifteen and one of a lonely handful of weirdos in our suburban high school, I stayed up late nights with Tony, another, helping him to transcribe tapes of Alan Watts' interminable lecture series over KPFA -- our introduction to non-Western religions and metaphysics. This was in 1955, just after McCarthy fell, when the Thaw was beginning. What Tom Parkinson calls Pacific Basin Culture was cresting in its first coherent surge; and from the hills all around the San Francisco Bay, alienated liberal kids like us came drifting into City Lights Bookstore, to poke into the Beat ambiance and pick up on its influences.
So I suppose it was there that I got the Mentor paperback on the Tao. (1) It was a wretched translation, and what's more, I misread it with all the undisciplined and introverted romanticism of my adolescence, mistaking alienation for the indifference of the sages. Over the next few years I came back a few times to its eighty-one brief poems, receiving them with a mind that I now recognize as empty, but that then seemed vague, lethargic, and baffled. I felt slightly ashamed that I never quite managed to ponder Lao-tzu's epigrams deeply, nor applied to their text the same analytical energy I devoted to themodynamics. I would never have claimed myself a serious student of the Way; and if on fifty jillion college forms asking my race and religion I wrote human and Taoist, I meant no more than an arcane fuck you.
But the joke was on me. Unbeknownst, the purity of that metaphor had infected me; a metaphorical virus of mind and/or an intangible virus of the central nervous system was at work reorganizing the patterns of my energy and perception. Slow as water, invisible as steam.
When I was twenty-three I met Karen, and we began a long interplay. At first it was phrased consistently in the gross Western mode, all Yang the man's domain and Yin hers. Of course, the fine texture was richer, but you know what I mean. For the time being, we were too busy finding out how we supported the shape of each other's needs, and building a flexible bond on the strength of this, to question the roles in which an exploitive Yang culture had schooled us, or to realize the extent of our imprisonment in them.
During our second summer, when acid was new and tripping a precious investigation, we tripped together and experienced fusion down endless changes. Seasons later, in the moist lace green of a Big Sur ravine, we went beyond, into the integral state from which all forms reappear.
These journeys had much to do with unlocking that frozen balance. Karen was already engaged with the elaborate permutations of the I Ching, which traveled in the same circles as acid. Thus experiences from the core and the surface interlaced. Seeking terms to read out our transcendent adventures and their shadow on our everyday relationship, those we came to were heavily polar.
Sometime in the third year of exploring our complementarity, we turned over in bed. I don't mean physically, we'd done that early. But now, in this grounding-place of our energies, we began seriously to develop our stunted Aspects -- my receptive sexuality, her aggressive -- and to seek new balance. This went on for years, while each tried to help the other with the freakiness and joy of learning a broader being as man and woman.
Slowly we spread reconfiguration from this center through our lives, learning to lead and to follow one another in season. We took turns at the Yang of economic coping, to free each other at times of major change when the Yin-tentative needed space and protection. After the third time, we learned that breaking up was not the end -- though its terror was always live -- but a phase in a chosen cycle in which coming together and splitting apart gave rise to each other naturally. In the spaces between, I began learning forgiveness and to indwell in my body; and she her anger and to make things with her hands. All this took place in halting rhythms of progress/retreat/stagnation/break-through which we learned to recognize and accept and tried to move in harmony with; and is going on still.
Our fifth summer I spent in jail reading, besides Keniston, Friedenberg, and Joyce, Legge's edition of The Texts of Taoism. (2) In this lull of rest between action and action I read, besides Lao-tzu again, the 255 tales of Chuang-tzu. They slipped through my mind like fish through dark water.
In our seventh year we had a wedding. On the boughs over the piled stone altar hung the great Yin/Yang banner Barbara made. While we celebrated our investigation of the polar Mysteries, the guns were sighting in on the People's Park. Race: human. Religion (or whatever): Taoist. Why not? We went off to honeymoon at an ed reform conference where we did our first serious work as a team. Later, while the baby was perking, we carried this on into extended workshops in sexuality and political behavior, sexuality and learning -- some of the richest work I shared in as an organizer. (3)
When we got back from the honeymoon, Karen hung the wedding banner on the bedroom wall. Even in the baroque jungle of our cottage it pulses like a sun. Each morning at home for a year now our son Lorca has absorbed the gentle impact of its mandala, symbol pure in a wheel of trigrams. Sometimes when I manage to touch him gently I remember how innocently it entered me.
By such intimate processes the infections of Metaphor spread, like sacred clap.
I. I feel obliged to account for the spotty Taoist readings of my text. I feel puzzled at this sense of obligation, irritated, mistrust it, fear it will lead me to play the wrong kind of fool. After a prayer, I construct a post-facto biographical rationalization for my yinyang uses, thinking to indicate one depth of the roots of thought. I wonder what fraction of my readers will believe that I did not work to decorate my work with polar references -- but that these thrust themselves upon me, welled up with such incomplete power that I finally grew weary of the discipline of expressing them only in oblique language, and instead just let them stand like disconnected outcroppings of a deeper stratum in my landscapes. I reconsider my feeling of obligation, compare myself to a man who left his door unlocked and must account for the presence of an inscrutable Oriental who has appeared in the living room and has come, through simple inaction, to dominate the family conversation. I overindulge in metaphor (is such a thing possible?). Imagining the chronological progression of these essays, I think of my consciousness as a sea, one I look down on from slightly above, and recall how through the years in certain weathers I have seen the dolphin backs dark in the water, their schools of quick hieroglyphics rising through seasons closer to surface and broader in play.
2. My applications of a Taoist framework are incomplete and misleading, reflecting the immaturity of my grasp of Tao concept. How much of this immaturity is slovenly, and how much a natural consequence of the Way's terms having begun to engage me consciously only as I neared mid-life? Whichever, there is a pattern to what I see and what I do not see: and its character is the signature of an early stage in a biography deeper than my own.
The pendulum rises to one height of imbalance, is still for an instant; falls wholeheartedly toward the opposite pole, modulating its impulse in transit: arrives to again invert the cycle of energy, whose balance is this interplay.
I seem obsessed with the moment of first fall, pay scanty attention to the balanced and mobile character of the cycle. I rationalize this indulgence in terms of journalistic responsibility, reading my theory in history as reportage about the first broad breakings-away from Yang culture. But my choice of emphasis is equally the product of an apocalyptic personal psychology, itself shaped by the age.
So I speak of the usefulness of opening space, but not of the usefulness of closing it. I advocate decentralization as a principle without honoring the manner in which centralization gives rise to it as need and potential, and is generated by it anew. On the gross level I emphasize release and slight control, and on the fine I avoid dealing with how these necessitate each other. Overall, my shadow of the Tao is neither balanced nor dynamic -- like a frozen snapshot of the pendulum starting its descent.
3. From here, the way of development is:
4. If your way is reading about the Way, Lao-tzu is the writer -- though for several millennia his slick purity has left his students unable to deal critically with the vision he opens, or to grasp "his" version as early, limited in history and culture, and capable of radical enlargement. The matter of translation may matter, despite the earlier anecdote. The version by Witter Bynner is much in vogue now. But of all available translations of the Tao Te Ching, I prefer the grand old clunker by James Legge, now almost a century old. People see its idiosyncrasies as laughable and its misinterpretations as gross. Yet this is the fate of any translation of this elusive attempt to mark an elusive vapor, even if it be vibrant and poetic where Legge's is pedantic and mawkish in its verse.
The unique virtue of his rendering is that he reads Lao-tzu from a perspective so distant from our own that we can see much of what he adds to and subtracts from the old boy naked. Legge was a translator in the missionary tradition of the English upper class, with the fine narrow arrogance of its education and spirit, well-versed in the intricacies of Christian dogma, in whose light he cannot refrain from remarking upon the theological inadequacies of Taoism. Still he is humble enough to admit himself often at a loss in grasping what he transcribes; and at crucial points in the text confesses his interpolations by brackets. All in all, his obscurations are open, while those of contemporary translations (and of Lao-tzu himself) are still sly to our eyes.
Control over the rhythm of opening and closing is essential for group development, and even for group survival in this time when each beginning, insofar as it’s open and authentic, attracts a swamping deluge of people hungry to connect. A shared group culture develops slowly, in organic rhythms, and the openness on which it depends is easily overloaded. Even when membership is closed and visibility restricted to the publicity of example, the stress of openness generates the protective rhythm of closure, or else dispersion.
The first commune in one mid-western college town (Champaign-Urbana) began from a core, opened its membership (selectively), closed it upon overfilling space, consolidated a pattern of collective relationship. Their door was open to curious friends of friends, whose trickle swelled to a river come to dig the ambiance of people trying to live differently, or to trade at this countercultural information nexus. This current, though enriching, grew to overstrain the resident community, taking space and energy from its inner needs; the doors closed sharply for a time. and then re-opened under severer regulation. (4)
Symmetrically, the closure processes of groups generate the need for opening processes to balance them. "Strongly interacting groups" are well known from contexts of therapy and political action. They rapidly become difficult to enter or leave (closed); this is reflected in their development of unique micro-languages which exclude outsiders and which insiders find rich and are reluctant to relinquish. Such groups are by nature centripetal: they generate and depend upon energies and patterns of interaction that constantly draw the group more tightly in upon itself. There comes to be not simply a wall but a central magnet that impedes escape. Most strongly interacting groups grow more and more intense at their centers, and eventually collapse through enervation and the accumulation of poisonous social wastes within a closed system.
This tendency afflicts impartially political collectives and marriages. In the deliberate stewardship of groups, it can be balanced by the introduction of centrifugal components and programs, which open group space by motion across the ingroup/outgroup interface. This centrifugal ventilation can be resolved into conjugate modes:
Commentary on the Previous Chapter
Concepts reflect the social order that generates them.
In the China of Lao-tzu and the I Ching, women were bound in sexist social roles, characterized as inferior, weak, emotional, receptive, etc.; and these qualities in turn were perceived as intrinsically female. As a society's sexism pervades all aspects of life within it, weighting them with sexual value, so the interplay of polar forces throughout nature came to be seen as sexual, and the Yin was taken as The Female.
Bound by the chauvinism of our own culture, it is easy to go on that way, seeing the Yang clench of our society as a male phenomenon. Certainly it has been organized through the dominant offices of men. Yet to assume that in an inverse culture women would be incapable of landing us in our present predicament is to presume that certain qualities are, on balance, inherently male, and that women are "by nature" more empathic, more respectful of the earth, etc. For the sake of what we are trying to build, I'm now reluctant to believe this. As a biological class, men may be predisposed to aggression, territoriality, and so on. (Though the ethological studies indicating this can also be interpreted politically, as research to shore up the foundations of a threatened class order.) But cultures are known in which the women tend to social affairs and sexual aggression, and the men nourish the children; and the organ transplants and genetic research of present bioscience suggest that some great-grandson of mine may be able to bear a child. The only way to tell how much our biology determines our sexuality is by trying to change.
There may indeed be great polar flows of energy in the universe. The old texts of Acupuncture and Kundalini Yoga describe them in the body, and Soviet bioparapsychologists have begun to map them electronically. Yet even the biochemistry and neuroanatomy of our brains record the influence of our society. As we cannot transcend our culture, it is impossible to prove that one flow is inherently male. Suppose one were able to, suppose the balance of the flows had these potential ranges for men and women:
Such a society would see the white flow as manifest more typically in men. But how are we to know which case is ours?
So I think we are free to remake the tool of Taoist analysis in the image of the order we would create. To continue using the metaphor of Male and Female is impossible without prejudice -- for it's pointless to think of qualities like nurture or Inaction as female, if you believe them to be equally appropriate to men.
From this perspective, the principle of Division must be understood in a sex-free way. And we can still use a polar frame to understand the broad motions of men and women in our time, taking the present imbalances to be rooted more in social history than in our sexual endocrinology:
It is tempting to say that men need to grow in the Yin qualities and women in the Yang; and I continue to use these classical terms in the next chapter to describe broad categories of qualities that seem to be related.
But again, it is impossible to determine how much of the "naturalness" of these groupings is due to our cultural perspective. Even the urge to classify all qualities into two abstract types may be an expression of our bipolar sexuality, intensified by our obsession with the primary contradictions of sexism and classism. In a time of awakening democratic sentiment, Riemann postulated that through a given point not one but many parallels could be drawn to a given line: his geometry was found to describe the "real" world more richly than Euclid's. Just so, as a non-chauvinist society emerges, it may conceive that to each pole correspond not one but many conjugate poles.
Whatever, reality is too subtle to be described by a simplistic mesh of Yin and Yang. The forces that move are not named by any of their manifestations, even so abstractly. Perhaps it is best to use these terms very lightly, wary of their tyranny over the intricate polar flows whose dynamics they remind us of.
Commentary on the Following Chapter
The Tao yields a technology of conception, a lens to re-organize vision. As such, it is a pragmatic tool for realizing social change, and one purpose of these notes is to soften the mystification with which it has been surrounded.
If Taoist emphasis seems foreign in discussion of the technologies of revolution, this is because of the disrepute brought by its false use as cover for the corruptions of the Chinese emperors, and because we in our categorical culture approach it as a "religion." True, the classical texts are normally read to warn against technological art. But they must be seen in their historical context, rather than as revealed truth. They condensed at a time when the revolution to male dominance was still fresh in their culture, as an organizing node for the repressed Yin. For this reason the Taoist texts -- precisely as Lao-tzu warns -- do not manifest the balance of their topic; and later commentators have rightly seen them as expounding a predominantly Yin social philosophy (in their dialectic with the culture's dominant Confucianism), a Way which puts inferior emphasis upon the Action in Inaction. There is also the matter of their having formed in a time whose condition and conception of technology were radically different from those which open to us. All in all, like Marx, Lao-tzu needs to be brought up to date. (My fumblings in this direction are visible here.)
(1) Lao-tzu, The Way of Life; Tao Te Ching, tr. by R. B. Blakney (New American Library, 1955).
(2) James Legge, The Texts of Taoism. The Julian Press, Inc.; New York, 1959. In paperback, Dover Publications; N.Y., 1962.
(3) Through five weeks of travel campus-to-campus practicing them, the thoughts of the previous chapter came together.
(4) At the two-year choice point. the commune fragmented benignly, subgroups dispersing to seed other communes, in particular the first political commune in lawn. By then, catalyzed by the primal example, a dozen independent communes were sprouting in the student ghetto. (See Chapter X for such patterns of development.)