The secret to good literature is simple enough, abstractly considered. Humans are complicated and beguiling. They talk to each other and fail to talk to each other, often simultaneously. They are disappointingly predictable, and yet resist easy summation. Good literature should capture this perplexity while still maintaining some sense of order. It should chart a path through the murky waters of human life without pretending the waters are clear.

Lorrie Moore’s “Dance in America”, the third story in her collection Birds of America, does this well. It begins with two tragedies of different orders, the broken life and breaking body of the narrator, and the foreseeable death of her friend Cal’s young son, Eugene. These intersect when the narrator, a dance instructor, goes to visit Cal, who she has not seen in a dozen years.

Moore’s handling of these two tragedies is masterful. That Eugene is dying of cystic fibrosis is laid out upfront, but, once the narrator starts interacting with Eugene, it fades into the background. It sets the mood of these interactions, lurks in the background, but becomes explicit only in small details, as when, in the middle of a pre-bedtime dance:

…Eugene suddenly sits down to rest on the sofa, watching the grown-ups. Like the best dancers and audiences in the world, he is determined not to cough until the end.

These moments are touching, but not maudlin. And that is appropriate, for the story belongs to the narrator, and Eugene’s disease is not her tragedy. It belongs to Cal, to his wife Simone, and of course to Eugene. For the narrator, it is background, is an element of the tone of her experience reconnecting with her friend.

Much more at the center of her mind is her own tragedy. This is twofold: her marriage has failed, and her body is starting to break down. She cannot dance as she once did, and is transitioning into the mode of an instructor. And though this is less devastating than, not just the death of one’s child, but living with the knowledge that that death is coming, it is nonetheless more prominent in the narrator’s mind, and understandably so. Though she shows few outward signs of being upset about the failure of her marriage, it creeps up on her, until:

All I can think of is how Patrick said, when he left, fed up with my “selfishness,” that if I were worried about staying on alone at the lake house, with its squirrels and call girl-style lamps, I should just rent the place out—perhaps to a nice lesbian couple like myself.

This charge of selfishness weighs heavily upon her, and comes to a head in the most charged passage in the story. Cal, Simone, Eugene, and the narrator are all dancing before Eugene goes to bed. As we have seen, Eugene has stopped dancing mid-song to rest. The narrator goes to draw him back in:

“Come here, honey,” I say, going to him. I am thinking not only of my own body here, that unbeguilable, broken basket, that stiff merinque. I am not, Patrick, thinking only of myself, my lost troupe, my empty bed. I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn. This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body—so what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?

This passage refuses to be simplified. I will need three passes to cover it, and that is only because I will not discuss an aspect of it that would require a fourth.

First, then, take the narrator’s perspective for granted. She is not, she says, being selfish, and indeed she is not. She is helping Eugene to dance, is overcoming her broken body to help another, even more broken. She is putting another first.

But we cannot rest in that reading. Is she not, after all, making her “selfless” act about herself, an attempt to prove to Patrick that his accusation was false? And is she not also making it about her aging, her inability to dance as she once did? It is almost a paradox: precisely by insisting that her act is not about all this, she ensures that that is precisely what it is about.

In the end, though, we cannot rest in that second reading, either. The conception of the philosophers, that the selfless act requires a certain inner purity of mind, has always been a caricature. Humans are complicated. They may act for another and yet be unable to escape themselves—such is the position of the narrator here. She is at once selfless and selfish, reaching out across the gap between minds to interact with the life of another and, simultaneously, trapped within her own mind. But that is what human communication is. Lorrie Moore is only doing justice to the facts. The secret, as I said, is simple enough.

An especially apt passage from Pessoa, in light of my recent post:

The highest honour for a superior man is to not know the name of his country’s chief of state, or whether he lives under a monarchy or a republic.

He should be careful to position his soul in such a way that passing things and events can’t disturb him. Otherwise he’ll have to take an interest in others, in order to look out for himself.

I was struck, today, by another concordance between Laozi and Pessoa and, nestled within this concordance, another disagreement. Laozi first this time, again in the wonderful Addiss and Lombardo translation (easily superior, at least as English poetry, to the Hinton and Ivanhoe translations that I also own):

Thirty spokes join one hub.
The wheel’s use comes from emptiness.

Clay is fired to make a pot.
The pot’s use comes from emptiness.

Windows and doors are cut to make a room.
The room’s use comes from emptiness.

….Having leads to profit,
….Not having leads to use. (11)

This poem strikes me as (in part) an elaboration of an earlier bit of advice, from the eighth poem: “Keep your mind deep.” The eighth poem advocates non-contention, and suggests that keeping the mind deep is one of the things one must do to avoid contention. I understand the advice to keep the mind deep as counseling a kind of non-possession of, non-attachment to one’s thoughts. Let the mind be deep enough to house them so long as they linger, but not detain them. I will return to the way that the eleventh poem elaborates on this, but first Pessoa (I give selections of a substantially longer passage in The Book of Disquiet):

Art frees us, illusorily, from the squalor of being. […]

Love, sleep, drugs and intoxicants are elementary forms of art, or rather, of producing the same effect as art. But love, sleep and drugs all have their dissolution. […] But in art there is no disillusion, since illusion is accepted from the start. […]

Since the pleasure we get from art is in a sense not our own, we don’t have to pay for it or regret it later.

By art I mean everything that delights us without being ours – the trail left by what has passed, a smile given to someone else, a sunset, a poem, the objective universe.

To possess is to lose. To feel without possessing is to preserve and keep, for it is to extract from things their essence. (§270)

Pessoa, like Laozi, appears to praise a kind of non-possession of one’s one feelings and sensations. Here, art is recommended as a way to have sensations that one knows are illusory from the start, that one never expects to possess and so never must relinquish. Pessoa, in his own way, advocates keeping the mind deep. (Many other passages in The Book of Disquiet bear this out; §270 simply happens to be the one I read today.)

The difference between Pessoa and Laozi lies in the relation they see between keeping the mind deep and activity. Pessoa is the patron saint of inactivity, which in prominence is perhaps second only to disquiet itself in The Book of Disquiet. He puts it succinctly: “To see clearly is to not act” (§275). (I cannot resist inserting a third voice into the mix, that of Emerson, from his essay “Experience”: “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection. The whole frame of things preaches indifferency.”)

Keeping the mind deep by turning to art, where art is understood as Pessoa understands it, is to avoid possessing one’s sensations by ensuring that those sensations are produced in response, not to the world itself, but to something at one remove from the world. Art does not call for action. To seek one’s sensations in art, knowing that art is illusory, is to keep those sensations sequestered from action, from interaction with the world.

This is where Laozi, as I read him, disagrees. I take the eleventh poem of the Daodejing as suggesting that non-possession of one’s thoughts, sensations, etc. is precisely the way in which to make the mind useful. And it’s easy for me to see why this should be, especially in these troubled times. The near-constant fretting over the state of my country that has of late beset renders me little better than worthless, a quivering mass. To achieve some kind of distance from these agitations, to let them pass through me without wholly owning them, I suspect will help me to act. It is too early to say: I have only just begun to make the effort.

At the same time, I know only too well, from past experience, that attempts to attain such non-possession can easily turn into an entirely inward focus on my own peace of mind, never bringing the promised usefulness. Relatedly, my wife (who is Chinese) made a very interesting comment today when I was discussing this with her. She said that Chinese people have looked more to Confucius in good times, more to Laozi in bad times. These turns to Confucius were connected to an eagerness to contribute. The turns to Laozi, conversely, were connected to a turning away from engagement. This, if true, corroborates on a large scale my private experience. As a certain friend of mine very often insists, the gap between abstruse philosophy and practical action is wide indeed.

The last time I put Laozi and Pessoa in conversation, I declared Pessoa the winner of the debate, though I cautioned against taking this too far. This time, again, past experience forces me to declare Pessoa the winner. But, again, this judgment comes with a caveat: time may yet prove Laozi right, at least in my own case.

For as much as I claim to agree with Emerson that self-reliance is the basis of all virtue, I often feel as if I have no self, no natural state of thought and feeling that is distinctly mine, and on which I can stubbornly rely. Rather, I find within myself many competing voices, all engaged in a continual struggle for power. And I find, further, that what I choose to read plays a substantial role in this power struggle.

I first noticed this when reading Cioran. His dour pessimism seemed to enliven the more melancholy voices within me, to give them an advantage over those that opposed them. And I am noticing the same thing with Pessoa. His praise of a certain form of lethargy rouses what in me inclines to torpor, and I become more torpid. Why, then, read Pessoa? What in his work provides value that overcomes this negative effect?

I had this thought after reading the following passage from The Book of Disquiet:

Whether I like it or not, everything that isn’t my soul is no more for me than scenery and decoration. Through rational thought I can recognize that a man is a living being just like me, but for my true, involuntary self he has always had less importance than a tree, if the tree is more beautiful. That’s why I’ve always seen human events – the great collective tragedies of history or of what we make of history – as colourful friezes, with no soul in the figures that appear there. I’ve never thought twice about anything tragic that has happened in China. It’s just scenery in the distance, even if painted with blood and disease. (§165)

This is a thought that I do not, on balance, endorse. If needed, I could argue with this passage, point out the one subtle flaw that unravels it. But that is not the point. There is a part of me that thinks this way, and when I read this passage that part is emboldened, for it has been externally validated. No amount of arguing rids me of it, nor particularly do I want to be rid of it. At most I want to control it, to allow it to contribute to the richness of my experience without destroying me.

The main value in reading Pessoa is that he has taken this voice, which is not unique to me, and fleshed it out into an entire person, one who is, if not fully consistent, at least more persistently under the thumb of this mood and feeling than I am. Bernardo Soares, the invented author of The Book of Disquiet, is a magnification of this element of myself. In reading this book, I am thus able to study this element writ large without fully giving myself over to it. It is a highly useful means of self-scrutiny.

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.