May 11, 2016

Could Confucius Change Your Life?

In an panicked moment, maybe what we need most is a new set of eyes—or a very old one. Whatever you may find to be the problem—capitalist excess or teens “keeping it real,” digital isolation, widespread anxiety, Trumpian ...

In an panicked moment, maybe what we need most is a new set of eyes—or a very old one.

Whatever you may find to be the problem—capitalist excess or teens “keeping it real,” digital isolation, widespread anxiety, Trumpian narcissism, bad governance, or all of the above—Confucius has something to say to you.

That may be why Confucius and his followers—who taught and wrote almost 2,500 years ago—are resonating anew in the hearts of Chinese citizens. One of our guests, the great podcaster Kaiser Kuo, sees Confucian thinking as “baked-in” to the so-called Chinese character, as permanent as Plato.

Not to mention at Harvard, where, in the hands of beloved professor Michael Puett, Confucius provides counterintuitive wisdom to a bunch of self-aware, overwhelmed overachievers.

Confucius raises self-cultivation to the pursuit of a lifetime. Every encounter is a learning experience; every mundane action is a ritual to be perfected. All of it is in the service of the good life—reworking your desires, constraints, and impulses to promote ren—“goodness” or “humaneness”—in all you do.

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Imagine the “superior person” as like an archer:

He rectifies himself, and seeks for nothing from others, so that he has no dissatisfactions. He does not murmur against Heaven, nor grumble against men…

The Master said, “In archery we have something like the way of the superior man. When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns round and seeks for the cause of his failure in himself.”

Maybe it’s this part that makes sense to the perfection-prone Harvard student. Imagine if all that striving were less about world takeover and more about nonstop inward renovation of the mind and heart.

Confucian thinking can put one in mind of superhuman social talents: Stefan Zweig‘s lost generation of hyper-refined Viennese (or Ralph Fiennes‘s M. Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel)—officials, artists, peerless hosts and hostesses with not a thread out of place, kind, warm, and accommodating down to their souls.

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Stefan Zweig in his domicile in Salzburg. Photography. 1931. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images) [Stefan Zweig in seinem Salzburger Domizil am Kapuzienerberg [?]. "Der Schriftsteller Stefan Zweig feiert am 28. Nov. 1931 seinen 50. Geburtstag" (No. 2698a). Stefan Zweig (1881 Wien - 1942 Petropolis, Brasilien, Selbstmord) begann als Lyriker des Wiener Impressionismus, entwickelte sich durch seine Freundschaft mit Emile Verhaeren und Romain Rolland zum pazifistisch-humanistischen Schriftsteller. aehnlich wie Hugo von Hofmannsthal fuehlte er sich als einer der letzten der buergerlich-europaeischen Kultur, die er in zahlreichen Novellen, Romanen und seiner Autobiographie ?Die Welt von gestern? (1942) beschrieb. In der Sammlung "Kaleidoskop" (1924) und dem kurzen Roman "Der begrabene Leuchter" (1937) beschaeftigte er sich eingehender mit dem Judentum, nachdem er vor dem aufkommenden Nationalismus aus Salzburg geflohen war (1934).]

Michael Puett argues that Confucius still points a path to that kind of orderly, rewarding mutual life. And he’s making his pitch in an exciting new book called The Path, cowritten with Christine Gross-Loh.

We’ll talk about the comeback of the great sage—long in arriving—and what it could mean for your life.

You can hear a longer version of our conversations with our favorite people living Confucianism today, at least at a deep cultural level—Tu Weiming, Gish Jen, and Kaiser Kuo—below:

 

By the Way • November 25, 2015

Colm Tóibín’s Working on his Sentences

This is provincial Ireland, a place of long winters but not freezing winters. There’s drizzle as much as there’s rain. You’re trying to find a style just to bring things down to size, maybe bring ...

This is provincial Ireland, a place of long winters but not freezing winters. There’s drizzle as much as there’s rain. You’re trying to find a style just to bring things down to size, maybe bring the melody down to a minor key, as though you’re making drawings instead of paintings. You’re attempting a sort of insistent rhythm which might make its way into the reader’s nervous system… You’re working really with a sort of muted music arising from pain, from things that are difficult, arising from loss. And in that world of small holdings, small houses, small hopes, people are good at leaving things out, not saying them.

Colm Tóibín in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, November 2015.

Of course you want to put Colm Tóibín to music — his literary prose in novels like Brooklyn and Nora Webster. Also his gab, as here. Perhaps the hot / traditional Irish band The Gloaming is called for. That bewitching Irish volubility, including his own, Tóibín says, is rooted in a love of silence. It’s a point of his connection with the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, whom he’s reading aloud here, to stunning effect. Tóibín in the southeastern Wexford County, Ireland and Bishop in Nova Scotia seem both to have taken to language as a device to constrain or “restrain” experience. “I have a close relationship with silence,” he says. “With things withheld, with things known and not said. I think there is an impression abroad that Irish people are very garrulous — that there’s an awful lot of talking in Ireland. This may be the case but it’s often there to mask things that nobody wants to talk about.”

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Colm Tóibín’s great teachers are Henry James — of whom he’s written and spoken volumes; and James Joyce, especially in Dubliners (1914) — for the melancholy realism, the “scrupulous meanness,” as Joyce put it to a publisher; but also the lyrical pulse of poetic rhythm that has a force of its own.

Joyce charged defiantly into exile, self-consciously a breaker of convention, drawing a bead on “history” as the “nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Colm Tóibín casts himself differently — not a conservative exactly, but as the man who observes continuity under the easy impression of rupture in Ireland a century after the Easter Rising of 1916. Ireland is in broad and deep turmoil again — the Celtic Tiger economy still in shambles after the meltdown, its government discredited, church rule overthrown by the same-sex marriage rules enacted by an overwhelming referendum last Spring. But Tóibín is remarking on traditions being extended in Ireland — in the best-read young writers like Eimear McBride in A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing; or Colin Barrett in the stories of Young Skins; also by Martin Hayes and other rock-star musicians in the fiddle tradition; and most specially in the gay-marriage vote:

“The great example was Mary McAleese, a former president of Ireland. She was able to say: ‘I have twins, and one of them is gay. Who is to tell me that child of mine is to be discriminated against in this country.’ The campaign was studiously about presenting people as Irish and family members before being gay. It was not about a marginalized group looking for rights. It was about making Ireland seem a traditional place — with a tradition of including people.”

Podcast • January 2, 2014

Reading Chekkov I: “Vanka”

“Reading Chekhov” is the name of this game – a podcast experiment and safe indoor sport with, by all accounts, the greatest short-story writer of them all, the medical doctor who was also the “Cherry ...

“Reading Chekhov” is the name of this game – a podcast experiment and safe indoor sport with, by all accounts, the greatest short-story writer of them all, the medical doctor who was also the “Cherry Orchard” playwright, Anton Chekhov.  It began last summer just for kicks with an Albanian actor and friend, Nijazi Jusufi, who had read Chekhov growing up.  It expanded to a circle of a dozen friends passing a book around in my living room.  Why?  Because Chekhov (1860 – 1904) is ageless and everywhere – “the voice of twilight Russia,” it’s been said, and one of the great pre-revolutionary visionaries – but also a literary influence on Joyce and all the moderns and still a contemporary, almost.  For many readers today he has the rare effect his friend Maxim Gorky observed.  In Chekhov’s presence, Gorky said, “every one involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one’s self.”  The several actors in our group keep discovering, and demonstrating, that Chekhov’s phrases, scenes and lines keep expanding when they’re spoken aloud.  For me he has the further peculiar effect of inviting digressions as we go – conversations and asides about all manner of things, philosophical and emotional, and not at all specially Russian.  We begin with a tiny tale that has the feel of Dickens, about a 9-year-old orphan in Moscow, pining for his grandpa in the village, his only vestige of family.

Most of us are reading from the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky.  Listeners out there, we’d be delighted to hear your take on the story and on our impressions of it.  Leave a comment please on our new and improved website, radioopensource.org.  Next on our list, if you’re inclined to read ahead, is Chekhov’s little drama of a tramp, titled “Dreams.”

Mary McGrath produced and edited this first crack at Reading Chekov.  Special thanks to the audio master Jim Donahue who wired us all for sound.  And thanks to our chorus of friends and commentators in my living room.

Podcast • April 21, 2011

Arnold Weinstein: The Dimensionality of Reading

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Arnold Weinstein (53 minutes, 26 mb mp3) [Scott Kingsley for the Brown Alumni Magazine] Brown University literature professor Arnold Weinstein is recalling a half-century of reading and teaching ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Arnold Weinstein (53 minutes, 26 mb mp3)

[Scott Kingsley for the Brown Alumni Magazine]

Brown University literature professor Arnold Weinstein is recalling a half-century of reading and teaching books. He’s tracing the “Morning, Noon, and Night” — in the title of his new book — of his literary life. He begins, in this conversation, with two books that he read as a senior at Princeton: Melville’s Benito Cereno and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

Benito Cereno is the story of a Spanish captain and his cargo of enslaved Africans who rebel and depose him.  In  Weinstein’s telling, it is a narrative of misunderstood power that resonates with America’s modern misadventures abroad. It is also, he says, the most cinematic writing of the 19th century. His long-held dream is to make it into a film.

It was in reading The Sound and the Fury that Weinstein began to understand the tussle between the “there and then” that dominates our inner lives and the “here and now” that constitutes our movement through public life.

I think each one of us lives exactly that ballet. We are always juggling what’s roiling inside of us versus the moves or steps in our public lives. Faulkner taught me that. … Once you see past the picturesqueness of Faulkner’s world, or the evils of both racism and sexism, … then you are confronting an extraordinarily rich picture of human maneuvering room: how you live with your inner ghosts, how you try to reach to the other. Books in that sense are profoundly ethical.

I think books are mirrors for readers. But they’re not mirrors in the lazy narcissist sense, that it’s kind of facile self-reflection. There’s labor in it. Call it a distorting mirror. It’s a picture of who you are, but it’s perhaps an elemental version of you that either you’ve never noticed, or never wanted to notice.

Arnold Weinstein with Chris Lydon in Providence, April 2011.

Professor Weinstein is sharing a profound faith in the essential nutrients of books, paired with a healthy dislike for the literary theory that has dominated the academy over the last four decades. We should read for emotion and experience, he reminds us, and remember that literature is not, as the theorists exhort, more “complex” than we realize, but rather richer and more resonant.

He’s learned, in years of leading celebrated courses on the tough masterpieces — his favorite is “Proust, Joyce and Faulkner” — that teaching literature is carrying out an injunction “that says we’re part of an ongoing life. They’re young, I’m three-score-and-ten, and these book are in many cases centuries old. There’s a kind of parallel between the blood-line in students, the blood-line in faculty and the blood-line in books. We’re there to keep these alive.”