Wednesday, 26 December 2012
If I start on the Classics I shall never get to History
This is the eighth in a series of pieces about the book in poetry released at this blogspot.
A Poem by Yüan Mei (1716–1797)
Everything else in life is easy to break with;
Only my books are hard to leave behind.
I want to go through them all again,
But the days hurry by, and there is not time.
If I start on the Classics I shall never get to history;
If I read philosophy, literature goes by the board.
I look back at the time when I purchased them—
Thousands of dollars, I never worried about the price.
If passages were missing, the pains I took to supply them,
And to fill out sets that were incomplete!
Of the finest texts many are copied by hand;
The toil of which fell to my office clerks.
Day and night I lived with them in intimacy.
I numbered their volumes and marked them with yellow and red.
How many branches of wax-candle light,
How many drops of weary heart’s blood!
My sons and grandsons know nothing of this;
Perhaps the book-worms could tell their own tale.
Today I have had a great tidy-up,
And feel I have done everything I was born to do….
It is good to know that the people in the books
Are waiting lined up in the Land of the Dead.
In a little while I shall meet them face to face
And never again need to look at what they wrote!
The translator of this Chinese poem is Arthur Waley (1889-1966), the Englishman who did more to bring Chinese and Japanese literature into English than anyone else in the 20th century. The lucid logic of the poem speaks for itself. Commentary is superfluous.
One student of Arthur Waley later in his life was the Japanese scholar Carmen Blacker, who wrote of Waley’s domestic situation in 1962: “To add to his anxieties he had been told that by the following year he must leave the flat where he had lived for forty years because London University intended to appropriate that entire side of Gordon Square. In face of the difficulties of moving his library and of the almost certain prospect that his right hand would never write again, he had decided to give up Oriental studies altogether.”
This picture of Arthur Waley at the end of his life has about it details of weight and import that belong in one of the great Chinese works he spent his life translating into English. We ponder the painful move from familiar surroundings that comes at an age when life should be more settled. We are presented with his health conditions, in particular the hand that produced such books as the first English versions of Monkey, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, The Secret History of the Mongols and who knows what else, a hand now incapacitated. And our eye alights upon the word ‘library’. In this one word we are left to imagine what kind of library, what kind of books, constituted the private reading world of a scholar like Arthur Waley.
Waley’s book on Zen Buddhism was published in 1922, five years before Dr D. T. Suzuki’s first books in English, so maybe the earliest treatment of Zen in any Western language. Zen is such a basic component of contemporary religious language, we forget that it is a 20th century concept to the English-speaking world. Arthur Waley has been described as representing “a junior, exotic branch of the now historical Bloomsbury group.” (David Hawkes) He worked many years in the Oriental Department of the British Museum, then around 1930 seems to have decided that his life would be spent most productively in dedicated translation of Asian classical works. So determined was he on this path, and on rejection of an academic existence, that later in life he refused many honours, including the Chair in Chinese at Cambridge University, remarking of that prospect, “I would rather be dead.” Life, for Arthur Waley, was to be found elsewhere.
The editor of the Penguin Classic series mid-century, J. M. Cohen, called Waley a re-creative rather than an imitative poet. An imitative translator tries to get the exact meter and rhyme of the original, while a re-creative translator in an “interpretive artist”, something we see whether in Waley’s versions of the Japanese Noh Plays, Chinese Tao poems, or the Buddhist Tripitaka. Waley is praised for catching the right tone of the work in hand. For him, free translation is necessary for transmitting the poetic quality of a work. We see this, for example, in his translation of the voluminous medieval novel The Tale of Genji, where the main value is literary, not literal, “where any pedantically ‘accurate’ translation will vitiate their character in a far more damaging way – by making them unreadable.” (Ivan Morris) Waley is one of the main people responsible in the last century for turning the literatures of China and Japan from “the preserve of specialists and of dabblers in quaint exotica”, into “part of the main stream of intelligent reading in the West.” (Ivan Morris again)
Strangely, he never visited Asia, despite many invitations; theories for this include “he did not choose to destroy his visionary images of Japan and China.” (Peter Quennell) When we stand back from Arthur Waley’s achievement we see that it is the result of an exceptional ability to live imaginatively in places not his own and remote in time. We see too that this could only happen within a world of books. I am talking not about a nostalgic belief in books and their contents, not about a collector’s enclave of special editions and market prices, but about a vital, practical use of books for ends that widen everyone’s perceptions and knowledge, that connect West with East, that go down to the roots of language where one nation may recognise another nation. His library provided the poet-translator with the means whereby one person may meet another across continents, borders, and centuries. Like the books in the poem of Yüan Mei, the library of Arthur Waley mentioned by Carmen Blacker is a working collection, a slowly accumulated memory bank there to serve the solid working years of a real scholar. And like Yüan Mei’s collection, we wonder where all those extraordinary books went upon the death of their owner.
All quotes in this essay, including the poem itself, are found in Madly Singing in the Mountains : an Appreciation and Anthology of Arthur Waley, edited with a preface by Ivan Morris. (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1970)