Understanding, misunderstanding and failing to understanding the classics

Will Essays 3 Comments

I’m writing this from Bangor, where I’m at a conference on Cultural Translation and East Asia; and in about an hour’s time, I’ll be in a panel where I’ll talking about the Chinese classic the Yijing 易經 (I Ching) and about my novel-in-progress, A Book of Changes, which puts the Yijing to work as a kind of literature machine, giving rise to one story for each of the sixty-four chapters of the Chinese text. As I need to hurtle off and give my paper, this post will be necessarily brief.

As a linguist of only middling powers, I’m intrigued by questions of mis-translation, this being something I’m guilty of almost every day. I’m interested in the grains of indeterminacy that creep in when you translate between cultures and settings, and more broadly I am interested in the role of misunderstanding and non-understanding in the way that we relate to, and understand, the world.

After seven years of working with the Yijing on this curious literary project, I would still hesitate to say that I understand the text. I would be suspicious of anybody who claimed that they did, as if the Yijing had a single core of meaning that could be sought out by sustained reflection, study or meditation. In my failure to understand, I am in some ways similar to many Chinese readers of the text: it is very common for Chinese readers to say to me things like, ‘You are writing about the Yijing? Wow. When I was younger, I read the book over and over, but didn’t understand any of it…’

However, I am not sure that a Chinese reader failing to understand the text is failing to understand it in quite the same way that I, as a reader, am failing to understand. So the question that I’m starting my paper with is this: are all failures to understand equivalent?

This interests me because the failure to understand, or the sense one has that one has somehow failed to understand, is also a particular kind of relationship with the thing that one is failing to understand. An accomplished mathematician failing to understand a complex equation is not doing the same thing as I (with my basic algebra) am doing when I fail to understand the equation. Our relationships with the complex set of symbols on the page are utterly different. And when I read the Yijing now, I fail to understand it in a richer, more complex (but also more constrained, perhaps) way than I did before I set out on the path of learning Chinese, reading, studying, and writing these curious stories based on the Book of Changes.

One reason for the continuing fascination of the Yijing, perhaps, is that it is a book that has been constructed (or that has evolved) to be somehow inherently refractory to understanding; and that this is what leads to its considerable richness in its capacity to give rise to new thoughts. As twelfth century poet, diviner, philosopher and general good sort, Yang Wanli 楊萬里 once said — and I think I’ve quoted this before — “the profound implications of the Book of Changes are what plunges people of the world into doubts and makes them think” (quoted in Ming Dong Gu’s Chinese Theories of Reading and Writing). Or, to put it differently, non-understand and doubt can give rise to a degree of cognitive flexibility.

Anyway, I’m going to be talking about all of this by means of curious stories about fish that transform into birds, three-legged-crows, obsessive ichthyologists and such-like. And I’m very much hoping that my audience will do me the service of failing to understand what I’m talking about in all kinds of interesting ways…

Comments 3

  1. Maybe what can be understood is reduced to its meaning, and the best creative projects reach far beyond that, perhaps especially those steeped in myth and history. This mirrors our relationships to other people – we try to ‘get’ them, but it’s impossible to do. They’ll do something that doesn’t fit with our fabrication of who they are.

    But it’s the trying that counts, the frustration and the failing that make us expand ourselves.

    Hope you’re having a good conference!


  2. Chuckles! I’ve been chewing on the Yijing bone since 1975, in about five different languages, including whatever I can muster of classical Chinese, and I’d given up, about midway, the notion that it can be “understood” in a Cartesian sort of way. It is a liberating feeling, mind you, when you know that, no matter what sort of logical thinking you throw at it, full understanding is always a step ahead of you. Is like knowing that parallel lines meet in infinity but that you’ll never actually “contemplate” that meeting. I’m fine with that. There’s much, much to study, and use, of the Yijing in the meantime to make for a couple of lifetimes.

    I would be suspicious of anybody who claimed that they did, as if the Yijing had a single core of meaning that could be sought out by sustained reflection, study or meditation.,

    Exactly! I’d like to quote something from a book by a friend, Scott Davis, just published:

    A text such as the Zhou yi embodies the relations it comprises, so to “understand the meaning” of an element (or better, of a subsystem), one can “play it”–discover its compositional, structural logic. It is not a text that “contains” interesting ideas for readers to “get out” and “take away” as the words’ “meanings.” It operates meanings.

    “It operates meanings.” Well now, that’s a worthy epiphany!

    There are also some scholars, like Thorsten Pattberg, that believe (something that, in my humble understanding, I agree with) that some key terms, like shengren and junzi, should be left untranslated and become Western loan words for such concepts. Like grasping the meaning in the back of your mind and allowing shades of it to come forward contextually with what you are reading, or dealing, at the time.

    All the best,

  3. Post

    Luis, apologies. My spam filter really has it in for you. I’ll try to train it to behave better. Thanks for the Scott Davies reference. Another book to add to my list of essential reads. Operates meanings…. Indeed.

    Onwards (but not before getting some sleep — it’s been a long day!)



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