Friday, March 02, 2012

Confucius said...

"First: get to the middle of the mind; then stick to your word" (Analects I.8). That's Ezra Pound's translation, and he appears to be reading something into it that isn't there. D.C. Lau renders it, "Make it your guiding principle to do your best for others and to be trustworthy in what you say." Pound's version seems to be influenced by his own translation of the Great Digest, which is about how "the intelligence increases through the process of looking straight into one's own heart and acting on the results" (1), and there is wisdom in it. The idea of being "trustworthy in what you say" is more complicated than keeping your word. It is about saying what you mean as well.

We can transfer this insight to writing. Consider your daily writing routine not so much as the process by which you speak words that you'll have to keep (that happens only when you periodically publish), but the process by which you look into your own heart, or, less dramatically, the process by which you get to the center of the mind. Notice, by the way, that he does not say the center of your mind. I think that's an intentional attempt at capturing the "ancient Chinese wisdom" of "the illusion of self". Don't feel as though you are "finding yourself". Just get to the heart of the matter.

Perhaps this is what Hemingway was talking about when he suggested beginning with "one true sentence".

The middle of the mind is where you can make a series of stable claims in simple, unambiguous, declarative sentences. The claims can be supported with evidence and argument, or can be elaborated with detailed descriptions (that is, they can be supported with a paragraph). When you speak from this center (what Pound/Kung also calls "the unwobbling pivot") your studies carry a certain weight. "A gentleman with no weight," Pound translates (I.8), "will not be revered, his style of study lacks vigour." You will not be afraid to speak your mind here because it is not just your mind, it is the mind, it is intelligence as such.

But this chapter of the Analects concludes with with a very important qualification. "Don't hesitate to correct errors." Lau renders it, "When you make a mistake, do not be afraid of mending your ways." You will be sticking by your word ("Yes, that is what I said") but you will also be open to correction, either from your own studies or those of others.

No comments: