Wednesday 1 January 2014

Brecht in the Mountains

It's 2014 - a New Year.
I just signed off on the old year at a mountain pass in Armenia.  There an army of Greeks was going home.  An hour later, I was reading about another mountain pass across which an old man and a boy are going into exile. They are stopped by a customs official because the pass is the border to the kingdom and asked if they have anything to declare.  Not a lot is the answer because the ox which travels with them is only really able to manage the weight of the old chap and a tuthree blankets.  But the boy also affirms that the old man was a teacher.  Of what? calls forth a strange answer:
Doch der Mann in einer heitren Regung
Fragte noch: 
"Hat er was rausgekriegt?"
Sprach der Knabe: 
"Daß das weiche Wasser in Bewegung
Mit der Zeit den harten Stein besiegt.
Du verstehst, das Harte unterliegt.
As Bertolt Brecht renders the story in his "Legende von der Entstehung des Buches Tao Te King auf dem Weg des Laotse in die Emigration" or Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao Te Ching on Lao-Tsu's Road into Exile: then the man, in cheerful disposition//asked again: `how did he make out, pray?'//said the boy: `he learnt how quite soft water, by attrition//over the years will grind strong rocks away.//in other words, that hardness must lose the day.'.  Read the rest of the poem with rhyming English parallel-text translation here.  But the short story is that the old sage Lao Tsu is induced by the official to stay a few days and write down what he has learned in a long life.  After a week, a manuscript containing 81 aphorisms had been created.  This was left with the official and the old man and his disciple continued downhill into the unknown.  #59 starts: "For regulating the human condition and rendering proper service to the heavenly, there is nothing like moderation . . .".  Ah So!
And Ah Dang! because I can see that I'm going to have to spend some time this year reading the rest with some care and attention.  There's a double synchronicity here, because Lao Tsu may have been a contemporary of Xenophon's although most claim that he lived a couple of centries earlier.  Aurel Stein, whom we've met before, excavating a cave in Central Asia, found a number of copies of the Tao Te Ching. The earliest known copies of the from about the time of the Xenophon's Anabasis.  The tradition that Lao Tsu was a contemporary of Confucius may have arisen to give parity of esteem to these two Eastern philosophers. Xenophon's teacher Socrates was probably a contemporary of the Buddha.  All these people give us a clue about the big question over which we have some control: how to live.

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