Oyster Boy Review 19  
  Fall 2010
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Breaking the Rules: Laozi's daode jing

J. P. Seaton

Laozi's daode jing
  Daode Jing.
Thomas Meyer, translator.
Flood Editions, 2005.
111 pages, $13.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 0974690279.

Thirty-some years ago, I made an absolute rule to turn down book review requests for any book that I couldn't give an unqualified rave. Thomas Meyer's daode jing has made me break my rule.

Let me try to simply list the reasons, the pros that made me want to break the rule, and the cons I had to overcome. Oh, it's not so simple. I read Chinese (more, at least, than most folks who have dealt with this particular book), and Tom doesn't, so there are quite a few places where I could point out words and phrases that are flat impossibilities. That's a con, certainly, if only because if I should choose to take that approach I would bore almost every reader who's not a vulture by nature, and more importantly, I'd probably fatally distract many readers from the good points, both small and large, that this work of understated art possesses. Example: although the author makes the daring, but I think excellent decision to leave the uninterpretible terms Dao (still more commonly recognized as Tao) and de (Te) un "translated." On the other hand, he chooses to write them as daode in the title of the book, daode jing. Most readers of this magazine, and a good portion of America's "intelligentsia" know what the two terms are trying to mean. Readers of Chinese know that the two syllable term daode, means morals, or maybe even morals and ethics. Though the book is neither immoral nor unethical (or even amoral, or even morally relativistic when read deeply), neither dao nor de alone means anything having to do with morals or ethics. I think this example is irrelevant, and I haven't found, among the many, many minor misinterpretations of the dictionary, anything that significantly distorts the Tom Meyer's take on Lao Tzu's message. It is an ambiguous, paradoxical message, open to many interpretations: as a translator of classical Chinese, I find this author's interpretations most often well within the range of possible readings. As a reader and lover of Chinese poetry and Taoist and Zen (Taoist inspired) philosophical works, let me move to the pros.

Like the choice of using dao and de as counters for the meanings that context gives them, on the macro level Meyer's decision to let the text run straight on, without cutting the text ceremoniously into numbered verses is a good one, if only because it escapes entirely the scholar's foolish hassling over where certain passages begin and end (and that is certainly not the only thing it accomplishes). At the micro level, the similar decisions, to do entirely without capitalization, and to do entirely without punctuation, seemed to me, at first, a little capricious. Of course the text has no capitals. Of course, the text, in pre-twentieth-century editions, also has no punctuation at all. So where's the problem? Well . . . good question, as the old Professor knows is what you say when you're caught out on a limb you're sawing off (in front of a room full of eager, or incredulous, students). Many of the ambiguities of the original are put back into play by these simple adherences to the structure of the original.

Bill Gates tells me that before I began this paragraph I'd already gotten to 527 words. So, fun as this is, I'll close with the real reasons, or just a few of the real reasons.

I chose to break my rule and review a book I'd have to say some negatives about. I love this book's well-chosen words, clearly transposed ideas, beautiful rhythmic phrases written in spoken English . . . I'm always happy to be astounded by these things, from wherever they come, ripples from still water:

its hard to handle
a cup filled to the brim

and better to know
when to stop pouring [9] *

That's singing simplicity, to my ear. Go to the book, pages five, six, and seven, to see how well the typographical decisions allow the ambiguity of lines, phrases, and joined verses to vivify and amplify the ambiguity and paradox of these passages, bringing the words closer to visible reality than many, or even most, translations.

Those who hold to the de know the score

While those who do not hold to the de
only know how to settle the score. [79]

At $13.95, buying this book might be considered stealing. Dare it.

* The numbers indicate the order of the passages in the more traditional organizational scheme. They are provided, unobtrusively in another nice design decision, in the margins of the running text in the Meyer version.