Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Ten Thousand Things

There's a book I'd like to recommend that I feel fairly certain that very few readers of this blog (or Americans generally) have ever heard of. I myself found out about it pretty much by accident when one of the people I follow on tumblr happened to mention this spring that it had just been published. It's a novel by a British writer, John Sterling, and it's called The Ten Thousand Things. You'd have to have studied Taoism at some point in your life to understand the significance of the title, but I have, and I did, and I wound up ordering the book on a hunch. ("The Ten Thousand Things" is a kind of shorthand in Taoism for the world of appearances, the universe in all its proliferation and profligacy and overwhelming specificity. It is a core principal of Taoist thought that the ten thousand things are in essence a mask for something deeper, something underlying, that cannot be named ("The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao") and yet exists as the ground of all being.)

The novel is an imaginative re-creation of the life of an actual historical character, Wang Meng, a fourteenth century painter now considered to be one of the four masters of the Yuan Dynasty. It is the era when the Mongols following Kublai Khan ruled China. Mongol rule created a sticky situation for any native Chinese, like Wang Meng, with a public following. If you chose to cooperate with the government, your friends and neighbors would likely see you as a traitor. If you chose not to cooperate, you might very well end up jailed, or tortured, or worse. Many people, including Wang Meng, for a time, chose to withdraw from public life entirely rather than risk the more extreme dangers on one side or the other; however, as you may well imagine, it was not always possible, or desirable, to live one's life completely out of the range of others.

The book deals with the life of Wang Meng, the choices he makes as an artist and a human being, and the consequences of those choices in his own life and in the lives of the people around him, many of whom are also based on historical figures. Along the way, the book has a lot to say about art, about politics, about Taoist philosophy, and about the compromises we all make in navigating the territory between our personal aspirations and the reality of our lived experience.

A couple of days ago I wrote about the dilemma of quantity vs quality in reading. If I were not out there on the fringes sampling new stuff, I would never have found this book. On the other hand, having found it, I feel like it's the kind of book I want to re-read, and write about, and talk about. So I'm basically doing all those things now. I spent about an hour just before writing this typing out some passages from the early part of the book, and I'm hoping to put together some sort of considered response over the next few weeks.

I should also just mention, the book is beautifully written. I was not familiar with John Spurling before, but he's a very impressive writer. (FWIW, he also has a web site.) I'm by no means an expert in eastern philosophy, but I know a fair amount about it both from my own reading and my own life experience, and my sense is that Spurling is both knowledgable and perceptive in his rendering of Wang Meng's life and thought. Reading the book is something like an extended meditation: calming, centering, and satisfying—corny as this may sound—to the mind and the heart. As soon as I started reading it I felt like somehow the book was speaking directly to me. Perhaps I am this particular book's ideal reader, to the exclusion of many others. But upon reflection, I don't think that's really the case. I just think it's a very good book.

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