Laozi in Lisbon

I read this morning in Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet the following passage (§163):

Direct experience is an evasion, or hiding place, for those without any imagination. Reading about the risks incurred by a man who hunts tigers, I feel all the risks worth feeling, save the actual physical risk, which wasn’t really worth feeling, for it vanished without a trace.

Men of action are the involuntary slaves of the men of reason. The worth of things depends on their interpretation. Certain men make things which other men invest with meaning, bringing them to life. To narrate is to create, while to live is merely to be lived.

This captures a reality I have often felt: that the value in things lies in the way we describe them—and they admit so many contradictory descriptions. Why does Nietzsche’s life seem so remarkable? For no other reason than that he was able to describe its joys so vividly, and to describe them as triumphing over its sorrows. What good was it for Chōmei to build his little house and live in it? Nothing, but for the fact that he told the world about it in such a charming fashion.

But the knowledge that the single event admits of multiple descriptions that ascribe to it competing values raises a problem. How are we to know which description is the right one? What value should we actually ascribe to this, or that? Start asking these questions, and it soon appears as if these values are merely imposed on the event from without, by the sheer will to power of the narrator. And that is why Pessoa is right, at least in one sense, to say that the man of action is the slave of the man of reason, to the man who describes him.

At this point I think of the second poem in Laozi’s Daodejing, which I give in the translation by Addiss and Lombardo:

Recognize beauty and ugliness is born.
Recognize good and evil is born.

Is and Isn’t produce each other.

Hard depends on easy,
Long is tested by short,
High is determined by low,
Sound is harmonized by voice,
After is followed by before.

Therefore the Sage is devoted to non-action,
Moves without teaching,
Creates ten thousand things without instruction,
Lives but does not own,
Acts but does not presume,
Accomplishes without taking credit.

When no credit is taken,
Accomplishment endures.

One way to read the ideal of accomplishing without taking credit is to see it precisely as accomplishing silently, not insisting on this or that (generally self-glorifying, though of late self-deprecation has come in vogue) description of what one has accomplished.

Laozi makes the interesting claim that “When no credit is taken, / Accomplishment endures.” This seems to conflict rather directly with the passage from Pessoa. There, narration is defended precisely because it lends something of endurance to a feeling that otherwise would vanish “without a trace.” I am not so sure, however, that they actually conflict. The feeling as described does indeed endure in a way in which the physical feeling does not. So Pessoa is correct. At the same time, because description is fickle, because it will serve any master who calls on it, every particular description is unstable, liable to be displaced by some other. (If you don’t believe me, ask Columbus. He knows.) Only the event as it occurred, regarded silently, endures, and can never be undone. So Laozi, too, is correct. The only dispute between them is this: are we to prefer the permanence of having occurred, or the ever-renewing endurance of being described?

This attempt to show how Laozi and Pessoa take the same reality and ascribe it diametrically opposed values nicely illustrates Pessoa’s point, and we must take him to have won the dispute. But then we should not be surprised that the side that is permitted to speak will win a debate, and we should remember that to get the better of an argument and to be correct are not the same.



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