Chapter 23: Nothing and Not
“Nature doesn’t make long speeches.
A whirlwind doesn’t last all morning.
A cloudburst doesn’t last all day.
Who makes the wind and rain?
Heaven and earth do.
If heaven and earth don’t go on and on,
Certainly people don’t need to.
People who work with loss
Belong to what’s lost.
Give yourself to loss
And when you’re lost you’ll be at home.
To give no trust
is to get no trust.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
In a desperate, funny, probing essay, “Against Nature Writing,” Charles Foster confronts the gulf between word and world:
“All names fall short of the shining of things,” wrote Andrew Harvey.3 To talk about mountains—to talk even about a squirt of bird shit—is to parody and misrepresent them sacrilegiously. It is a process of re-creating them in our own image. We don’t hear the wind at the summit ridge; we hear our own voice. We don’t smell the moth wings and digestive juice in the bird shit; we smell our own deodorized armpit.
If we earn money by writing about the natural world (as I do), this is bad news. I’m a fraud.
What’s to be done?
It’s a scary question. The next few paragraphs will decide whether there’s an honest way to pay my mortgage.
Much more is at stake than our dear writer’s mortgage. What is at stake is whether we human beings and our logos—both our strange power of speech and reason and, less vauntedly, the logos we stick onto the 10,000 things—are in any sense at home in the world. What is at stake is the whole ball game.
Lao-Tzu does not say that nature doesn’t speak—just that it doesn’t drone on. It somehow both takes its time and gets right to the point. Nature is all pith and marrow, yet leisurely nurtures both. Like Gandalf, nature is never late. It arrives precisely when it means to. And like Gandalf, it speaks in spells.
But the magic it practices often appears to us as dark; so dark that we cease to deem it magic and call it plain cruelty. If there is a wizard behind the veil of maya, he must be a dark one. This is Job’s suspicion. The whirlwind that takes his family and fortune and health doesn’t last all morning. Nor does the whirlwind from which God speaks to him near the story’s end. At bottom, Job’s case is “This doesn’t make sense. I followed the rules. You’re kind of a fucked up wizard. WTF?”
But when Job relents, everything changes. When he rests his case, he gets everything back twofold. The temptation is to conclude that this means Job was right all along, but that would be mistaken. Job’s case is the human attempt to make sense of the world through rule and line, to justify existence, and our main tool to make our case is language. When Job relents, he confesses to and embraces the weakness of the logos. Not it’s futility, but its weakness. But precisely in this way, the author of the prose-poem of the Book of Job summons language’s great power. Foster points to poetry as the solution to his bind:
Poetry can show the way. By allowing words to stand for themselves, poetry can escape many of the charges I’ve leveled against language by using language against itself: by subverting language. If we let words do that, they never stand for long; they fizz and spark like Roman candles, and set on fire all the words around them until the display looks like nothing the poet could ever have devised.
The ancient words of the Orthodox liturgy, or the Om mani padme hum, or the Upanishads, have an incantatory power—a power of invoking that which they seek to invoke—because they have been repeatedly uttered. But they have been repeatedly uttered because millions have trusted them. To take etymology really seriously is to trust words.
When we return to the root of a word, a sleepy spell is broken. I love telling my students that the root of our word religion is related to the word for “ligament.” All of a sudden, the entire cluttered constellation of ideas and memories and factoids and prejudices evoked by that odd region of human experience is veiled by clouds, and they must look down at the binding in their own bodies to see it anew. When we return to the root of a word, we remember, with Emerson, that “every word was once a poem.” And beyond that, every child’s first word is a poem. Far from being the most high-brow and sophisticated literary form, poetry is, at bottom, the most natural language.
There is no orientation toward life regarded as more impractical than the poetic. Yet there is no orientation that gives us a better chance at not only bearing the burden of being and the loss it entails, but receiving the gift of grace. When loss leaches away what we have come to call home, what calls us back is our original relation to things.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”