Friday, September 18, 2020

Dashed Off XXI

This begins the notebook that was begun in August of 2019.

God as Creator is principle of Scripture (exitus); Christ as Redeemer is end of Scripture (reditus)

a freedom adequate for virtue

"The body charms because the soul is seen." Frances Reynolds
"It is cultivation that gives birth to beauty, as well as to virtue, by calling forth the visible object to correspond with the invisible intellectual object."

Benenti & Meini (2018): contour theory should be thought of in terms of perception of 'manifestations that are similar' rather than perception of similarity
-- NB that they take it to apply to visual arts insofar as they convey dynamic information

Augustine's criticism of Neoplatonism (DT Bk IV, ch. 4)
-- Note that he grants that Neoplatonist contemplation is veridical. His argument is that it is irrelevant to temporal matters like the resurrection of the body or the eschaton, and our full purification requires temporal mans. Thus faith is needed.

"In what we may call 'the analogy of speech-acts,' the Father ('who spoke [est locutus] by the prophets') locutes, the Son is the illocution, the promise of God, teh Spirit is the 'perlocution,' the effect achieved through (per) the speech-act." Vanhoozer

the Lord's Supper achieves all five of Searle's illocutionary points (Melvin Tinker, "Language, Symbols, and Sacraments: Was Calvin's View of the Lord's Supper Right?")

Without a principle of sufficient reason, there is no way to assess the adequacy of explanations.

Nationalism is the product of a long-successful progressivism; it is the result of progressives pushing national identity over local identity in order to facilitate their reforms. (This is seen especially when looking at the history of progressivism's intersection with Romanticism.)

'Secularization' as a word originally meant the seizure and liquidation of the property of the Catholic Church. It then was used metaphorically for the repurposing of religious things and practices by people like Dilthey and Weber.

It is important not to confuse charity and meddling: the latter is often pride's aping of charity.

"The major poetic idea in the world is and always has been the idea of God." Wallace Stevens
-- Modern poetry, he notes, in trying to get away from this idea can only adapt it in a new way, or find a subsitute for it, or find a way in which it is unnecesssary, which "probably mean the same thing".

I went to the world;
it whispered of truth,
it spoke of itself
in chant and in hymn,
the chant of the stars
in regular course,
the hymn of the stars
in argentine light.

"The soul, he said, is composed / Of the external world." Stevens "Anecdote of Men by the Thousand"

the external world as the foundation of indispensability arguments
--perhaps self and other minds are co-equal?

"To share in the rationality of a craft requires sharing in the contingencies of its history, understanding its story as one's own, and finding a place for oneself as a character in the enacted dramatic narrative which is that story so far." MacIntyre

(1) The human body plays a major role in one's constitution as a human person, not a minor one.
(2) We can distinguish modification of the body itself from ornamentation of it or correction of it for the purposes of improved bodily function.
(3) Our body is part of what connects us to other people within human society.
(4) The body is a precondition for human action in the world, and a sort of ecosystem for its incubation.
(5) We are born into a normative web interconnecting with our body, which can change and shift but also resists change, not being infinitely malleable. This web is social, medical, and jural in character.

the modulation of basic goods by and in humanitarian traditions

Humanitarian traditions give a local direction of progress to moral ideas and activities.

There are many who can only trust to God's mercy if they can dictate how it will work.

Hume's Dialogues as an implicit account of religious imagination: analogies, natural inferences, social relations/contexts, imaginative indeterminacy

The people insist on rights to protect themselves; states insist on rights to extend their power. Every practical consolidation of rights in law and institution has been some structure of governance extending its power.

The possibility of death is inherent in bodily life.

The only teleology of analytic philosophy is problem-formulation, and thus the only direction of progress visible in it is the better formulation of problems.

parsimony as a form of the doctrine of the mean
(Every reasonable conclusion consists in a mean between going too far beyond the evidence and not going far enough with the evidence.)

It is impossible to formulate the atheistic argument from evil without conceiving of the world as a failure.

If we take ? as a modal operator, how would we interpret ~?~
~?~ → T → ?

Many errors in politics and ethics arise from assuming that because someone is the principal authority, he or she is the absolute authority, or an authority of unlimited scope in that domain.

We are stakeholders in each other.

Sensible ideas (phantasms) underdetermine concepts.

One must beware of 'due process' protections that are really 'diffusion of responsibility' protections for people who are denying real due process to others.

To demand that people always act optimally is perverse.

Capital punishment can only be proportionate in dealing with one who is both dangerous (periculosus) to and corrupting (corruptivus) of the common good.

static vs dynamic analysis of argument
labtesting vs fieldtesting of arguments

To love another well, oneself loving well must be loved well.
To love well, one must love well what one's well-beloved loves well.

modal operator variations
(1) strong-weak hierarchies
(2) n-ary
(3) operator indexes
(4) ordered vs unordered
(5) interacting vs non-interacting

approximative quantities [several]
range quantities [1-5]

simultaneity // colocation // compossibility // overlap

Intentionality reveals itself as the possibility of prudence.

In terms of Heidegger's notion of maintaining the force of primordial words, the Neoplatonist is always better situated than Heidegger himself.

Neither flesh nor abstraction can substitute for tradition.

followable way is not equal to stable way,
to follow what can be followed is not changeless following,
doctrines that can be spoken are not the doctrines that last

NB that Kant thinks that an a priori proof of "All thinking things are simple substances" would insuperably block the Kantian approach to critique.

"A vice, indeed, turns into heresy when it is defended by arguments dependent on false doctrine." Peter Damian
"...if the prince is God's agent who dispenses retribution to the offender, he who gently pats criminals and villains on the head is undoubtedly the agent of the devil."
" is from holy preachers within the Church that we learn how to resist all perverse and wicked men who seek deceptive goals."
"The same Scriptures, moreover, while instructing us in the practice of patience, also sustain us with consoling hope."
"Truly God's provident will must be praised, since when he cuts, he cures, when he strikes, he instructs, and when he wounds, he restores us to health."

"The love of the beauty of the world, while it is universal, involves, as a love which is secondary and subordinate to itself, the love all the truly precious things which bad fortune can destroy." Simone Weil

There are four kinds of true success for boys and men: great deeds of body, like exploring or military heroism; great deeds of mind, like discovery and profound teaching; forming a family so that it thrives; and living a priestly, cenobitic, or eremitic life of prayer. Those men are greatly to be pitied to whom none of these options are open.

Aesthetic judgment is subjective only in the sense that it incorporates reference to the real action & effect of things on the mind.

Certain arguments please us by their structure, inspire us as argument with a kind of disinterested favor, and so may be called beautiful; this is not a mere personal preference but the form of its communicability to the rational mind.

ornament as charm supplementing beauty (vesting charm) vs. ornament as secondary beauty vs ornament as vesting beauty

the play of arguments

"In any dimension of warfare, victory is achieved by reducing the connectivity of the opposition's network while improving your own network's connectivity." John Robb

(1) beauty of chance things
(2) intelligible beauty
(3) moral beauty

Perfection gains by beauty and beauty by perfection, good and beauty being interlinked.

God as the 'Ideal' (in the Kantian sense) of the Intelligible, the Moral, the Beautiful, the Sublime

"The good the soul turns to in order to be good is the good from which it gets its being soul at all." Augustine
"Whoever loves men should love them either because they are just or in order that they might be just."

Beauty in argument tends to apply more to the reasoning, sublimity in argument more to the understanding.

beauty under the note of novelty, of harmony, of virtue, etc.

Augustine (DT X.3.8): the mind thinks it is a body through an excessive love of sensible images. Cp. also X.3.11
DT XI.3.14: "The limits of thinking are set by memory just as the limits of sensing are set by bodies."

Attacks on the History of Philosophy as a discipline are generally attempts to bully historians of philosophy into support for a particular narrative of the actual history of philosophy.

Hume's account of the galley effect does not give any reason why it would actually convey a notion of a limit, rather than just indefiniteness.

Kant's noumena as underlying infinites

the sublimity of humility as dividing religion from superstition (Kant)

In metaphysics, from the very beginning, reason has achieved great things, had many triumphs. But so vast is the field that the greatest of our victories are but little steps in comparison.

(1) Intellectual beauty and sublimity are the first and primary forms of beauty and sublimity.
(2) Intellectual beauty, including moral beauty, is to be loved as well as respected.
(3) All sensible beauty is suggestive of intelligible beauty.

landscape gardening and the picturesque from many perspectives
-- similar to the ornamental aspect of architecture
-- landscape gardening as extending ornament outward

Populism is not a political position but a strategy.

moral necessity (law), moral actuality (character), moral possibility (freedom)

personal relationships as involving the habit of presence

beauty, sublimity, symbolic order, instrumental order, system

The Kantian judgment0functions approach to definition, while not as useful as the genus-species approach or the four-cause approach, does seem to get good results, especially with more formal concepts.

"For beautiful art, Imagination, Understanding, Spirit, and Taste are requisite." Kant

Kant: complete communication requires articulation, gesticulation, and modulation (word, deportment, and tone)

Kant divides the fine arts into those of speech, form, and play (of sensations), but it seems better to treat each art as mapping differently on a 'grid' of these three, each one involving something of each (even the most static visual art draws on our linguistic classifications and subtle variation according to circumstances), but in a different measure.

Policies can only be fruitfully debated when the participants recognize that there are things more important than policies or debates about them.

Doctrine and prayer are so intimately bound together that depreciation of one is depreciation of the other.

'Coolness' in any generation is associated with competitive superiority.

Thursday, September 17, 2020


Today is the feast of St. Roberto Francesco Romolo Bellarmino, SJ, Doctor of the Church. Born in 1542 in the province of Siena, he was the nephew of Pope Marcellus II. He was a prodigiously bright student, and he eventually went on to join the Jesuits. He spent quite a few years teaching theology, but the tumultuous politics of the day, as well as his own reliability and loyalty to the Church, resulted in the popes repeatedly drawing on his expertise in difficult missions. He died at the age of 78, on September 17, 1621. He was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930, and declared a Doctor of the Church the next year.

From his catechism, which for a very long time was the most influential catechism in publication:

S. In what arrangement are these mysteries understood in the most holy sign of the Cross?

T. When we make the most holy sign of the cross we say, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," and we sign ourselves in the manner of the cross. We touch our forehead with our right hand while saying, "In the name of the Father," next the breast when saying, "of the Son," and lastly, we raise our right hand, moving it from the left shoulder to the right while saying, "and of the Holy Spirit." The phrase "in the name of," signifies the unity of God, for we say, "in the name," not names; likewise, it shows the Divine Power that is in the three persons alone. Next, the words, "of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit," point out the persons of the Trinity. Moreover, the manner of signing oneself with a cross not only represents the Passion, but consequently also the Incarnation of the Son of God. The progression from the left to the right shoulder (but not from right to left), while using the right hand means we have been transported from transitory to eternal things, and from death to life.

[Robert Bellarmine, Doctrina Christiana, Ryan Grant, tr. Mediatrix Press (2016) pp. 8-9.]

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

But You Can Name a Man the Same

The Dog with the Curly Tail
by John Holland

I've often thought in many a spot,
How men are strong and frail;
One is a sheep, to make him leap
You never can prevail;
One is a sword, whose every word
Will pierce a coat of mail;
In many a man you'll surely scan
A dog with a curly tail.

One is a whale, to spout and sail
Through seas of stagnant lore;
One is a bird, whose notes are heard
Resounding o'er the shore;
One is a rock, to bide the shock
Of every wind and wave;
One is a bell whose funeral knell
Keeps tolling to the grave.

One is a calf, by more than half,
Who bellows where he stands;
One is a star which gleams afar
A light to distant lands;
One is a mill, to turn and wheel
His tongue from morn till night,
And overhaul his brethren all,
And set their business right.

One is a fool, though many a school
Hath crammed his senseless brains;
He early found the dunce's ground,
And there he still remains;
He is so Frenched and so entrenched
Behind his glassy eyes,
He has become as one born dumb,
And's dead before he dies.

One is a child, so soft and mild,
A whistle suits his ear--
He beats the tongs in tune to songs
That Indians love to hear;
One breathes the air of summer fair,
And spreads a joy around;
One from the north comes freezing forth,
And roots us to the ground.

There's not a thing that you can sing
In this queer world of ours,
But you can name a man the same,
With observation's powers ;
But treat them kind, nor madly blind
Against the species rail,
But soothe them all and softly call
The dog with a curly tail.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Academic Activism

Anh Le has an interesting argument for academic activism, primarily arguing against Thomas Wells's argument that academic activism erodes public trust in academics. Given what I've said before, it comes as no surprise that I am utterly unconvinced by the response; I think Wells has the better of the argument. (Wells actually gives three arguments; Le only responds to one of them. The other two, that academic activism is bad for activism and that academic activism is bad for society, are, I think, relevant to why Le's argument against the claim that academic activism is bad for academia is itself implausible.) A few points.

(1) First, Le makes the common error of assuming that if someone is an activist and an academic that they are an academic activist; this is not true, and it is in fact entirely possible to maintain a clear distinction between activism as a citizen and activism as an academic. Activism as a citizen is not any different for academics than it is for plumbers and fry cooks. The question at hand is activism specifically as an academic.

(2) Le also drastically exaggerates the centrality of activism to political response:

Rawls puts that every citizen has a duty to correct unjust institutions and activism has historically proven as the best method to achieve that goal (the Vote for Women campaign, the Civil Rights Movement, etc.)....But once the evidence has been gathered and the facts established in accordance with the best available evidence and information one can have (the question of epistemic justification is a different one and deserves a post of its own), it is indeed everyone’s duty to change the unjust social, political and economic arrangements through activism.

This is not at all true. There is a sense in which it is, all other things being equal, one's duty to change social, political, and economic arrangements that are unjust; it is illicit to jump from this to the assumption that it is one's duty to change through activism, which is merely one of a wide range of options available to citizens in different circumstances. Nor is it always or even usually the best for most people in most situations. In practice, our primary duty with respect to injustice in society is to work on improving our own interactions with other people. Activism is not something to which most people have a duty; it is something done (ideally) in service to a community, precisely because most people are not in a position to engage in the kind of activism that is relevant to a specific problem. Activists are facilitators; their purpose as activists is not to act on their own behalf but to help bring options onto the table that are not generally available without someone specifically working to get them on the table.

It's important to avoid activism inflation, which treats everything important as if it were activism. (One gets this in recruiting pamphlets and websites, where, attempting to encourage first steps, it is often said, "Activism is just taking action to achieve social change." This ignores the 'ism' of activism, and in practice they never actually include all the actions people do in fact take to achieve social change -- prayer and being nicer to people, for instance, are pretty much never discussed despite being among the most common actions taken for achieving social change.) This would make 'activism' a largely useless category; everyone would turn out to be an activist already, just by going to vote or donating to a charitable organization. Most of our essential civic work -- and this includes our responses to injustice -- are not activist in nature, but either interpersonal or self-educational, and this is so because these are in fact the fundamental aspects of life as a citizen, and arguably as a human being. Activism is something we develop as a sort of instrument to these actions.

(3) Le likewise fails to recognize the risks of activism. Activism is sometimes quite necessary, but it is always carries at least some risk of being counterproductive. Serious improvement of society requires not just having good intentions; it requires having means that are themselves good and appropriate, and this is harder than it sounds. Activists sometimes put communities into the awkward position of trying to defend excesses; activists embarrassing the people they are supposed to be serving by speaking for them in inappropriate ways is, unfortunately, a common occurrence. Indeed, activists themselves generally recognize that this is inevitable and that you just have to tolerate some of this if you are to accomplish anything at all. Every politically active community has its fringe counterproductive embarrassments who are tolerated because it would be even more counterproductive to try to shake them off, but it's also the case that even sane and experienced activists slip up on a regular basis. Activism regularly deals with slippery and complicated problems, and sometimes you will simply fail to read the situation correctly. There are always risks; activism is not something you can afford to engage in with starry-eyed optimism, as if it were a royal road that gets you to the destination by magic. Activism is difficult; not everyone is well suited for it, and even those who are often fail in pretty serious ways.

Le, in the passage quoted above, gives a few examples of successes of activism in support of the idea that activism is the best way to correct unjust institutions. What he fails to consider is that most activist projects fail. This is common knowledge among serious activists; the most successful always insist that you need to diversify your approaches to addressing problems because you often don't know what will work in a given situation.

(4) But the point at which I am consistently most skeptical of Le's argument is in his characterization of academics. Here are some examples:

The nature of academic research is such that we are often in the position to come across many disturbing facts before the general public is aware of them. The training we receive also enables us to ask difficult questions, the answers to which might not be welcomed by everyone....

It is, therefore, true to put that academics, owing to their special training, have a role to play in establishing the facts....

None of these, I think, are plausible characterizations in general. The training academics receive quite clearly does not usually "enable" us to ask difficult questions relevant to political issues; academics are only rarely better situated than non-academics with regard to "disturbing facts" that are relevant to political activism; and academics are likewise rarely the people establishing the facts most relevant to just society. Academics have a tendency to contribute theory, not activism, and this is for the very obvious reason that academics are usually better equipped for developing theories and hypotheses than for solving social-political problems, which is the sole and total reason for activism. I have noted before that academia tends to teach academics to overestimate the practical significance of purely reputational and symbolic concerns, leading them to try to achieve things by pure reinterpretation. It's notable that of the three activists Le mentions -- Kate Manne, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Jr. -- only Manne is actually an activist qua academic, and her primary contribution is a theory. King was a pastor and preacher, and that is where he found the skills to engage in the work he did; Davis learned her activism in the Communist Party, and while she did have a career as an academic, most of her activism occurred well outside her role as an academic, for the obvious reasons that go with being a Communist academic in the United States during the Cold War. (Nor is she a particularly good example of academic activism; she has had a long history of actively supporting some horrendously oppressive regimes on purely ideological grounds.)

(5) There is an ironic unsuitability for academics to address the problem Le thinks especially important:

We live in an unjust world where inequality remains high, especially among Western democracies, the treatment of those less fortunate – refugees, homeless people, benefits claimants – often fails to meet the demand of justice (Professor Philip Alston, the UN special repertoire, for instance, criticises the UK’s treatment of those living in poverty, stating that it has inflicted great misery on the poor).

It is odd to think that academics have a direct role to play in solving a problem constituted by inequality because academia is an inequality-making profession. The whole purpose of the profession is to create haves that are distinguishable from the have-nots, to make a significant difference in outcomes between those who go to college and those who don't, and many colleges are quite clearly supported by states and governments on the assumption that such an investment will at least sometimes yield an advantage over other states and governments, whether directly (e.g., by providing researchers in key areas) or indirectly (e.g., by expanding the potential of the labor force). People who are literally paid to create inequalities are perhaps not the best people to criticize others for a problem rooted in inequality.

Nor do academics themselves have a good track record in treating well the relevant have-nots (those without college educations); and a vast portion of even academic labor (adjuncts) is consistently and increasingly exploited by other academics. It's difficult to see how it's a good idea for academics, who quite clearly can't even keep their own house tidy, to go around pretending that they can, as academics, clean the city.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Four Poem Drafts

Manifestior Via

The world of sense is always moving on
in shifting, changing, metamorphosis;
the early bud turns bloom, the dark to dawn,
and joy is turned to grief and then to bliss.
But what can change can only change in act,
an act that must begin in prior source;
what can be made will thus become a fact
as what is moving turns by outside force,
but infinite the series cannot go,
nor yet can every changer be thus moved,
and so it all begins in some first cause.
Through things that change we surely come to know
an unchanged source of change, and thus is proved
that God exists, who gives to change its laws.

Causing to Cause

The net of causes forms with different laws;
the nexus may be made of time or source
or other things; but causes caused to cause
exist and are the clearest form of force.
What has its causing through the cause before
is causing through an interlocking chain
of causes, none of which we can ignore,
until upon a first we can remain.
As ball is moved by stick, and stick by hand,
which acts from choice do get their shape and kind,
each chain its nature from the firstmost draws.
So then the causes-caused a first demand,
a first in causing causing we will find;
thus God exists, the first efficient cause.

Generation and Corruption

Throughout the world we find enduring things
that come to be and cease to be; and each
from something more enduring clings
until an all-enduring thing we reach.
An all-enduring thing, which does not end
and never has begun, may still be made,
but then it from enduring cause descends
until a first enduring is displayed.
What is, is so as it has strength to be;
if strength is caused, it from a stronger flows;
if not, it necessarily exists.
Thus necessary being do we see;
an all-enduring cause we thereby know,
a God, from which enduring things subsist.


We find both more and less pure forms of true,
of good, sublime, of noble and of one,;
they each completion bring to mental view
as they completeness more or less have won.
But what is more or less takes less or more
from purity, completeness found as such,
from what itself holds fullness in its store,
from which the lesser is by measured touch.
So true is more and less, as it partakes
of truth itself, the measure of its kind,
and that in which its fullness must consist.
Thus all of these gradations, pureness makes--
the True, the Good, the Noble, we will find,
thus God, the measure of all things, exists.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Mouth of Gold

Today is the feast of St. John Chrysostom, Doctor of the Church. From his Homilies on Philemon:

What excuse, tell me, shall we have in things that appear difficult, when we do not do even a light thing, attended too with so much gain and so much benefit, and no trouble? Can you not despise wealth? Can you not spend your substance on the needy? Can you not will anything that is good? Can you not forgive him that has injured you? For if you had not so many things to answer for, and God had only commanded you to forgive, ought you not to do it? But now having so many things to answer for, do you not forgive? And that too, knowing that you are required to do it on account of things which you have from Him? If indeed we go to our debtor, he knowing it, receives us courteously, and shows us honor, and pays us every attention in a liberal way; and that though he is not paying off his debt, but because he wishes to render us merciful in our demand of payment: and thou, who owest so much to God, and art commanded to forgive that you may receive in return, dost not thou forgive? And wherefore not, I beseech you? Woe is me! How much of goodness do we receive, and what wickedness do we show in return! What sleepiness! What indolence! How easy a thing is virtue, attended too with much advantage; and how laborious a thing is vice! But we, flying from that which is so light, pursue that which is heavier than lead.

Here there is no need of bodily strength, nor of wealth, nor possessions, nor of power, nor of friendship, nor of any other thing; but it is sufficient only to will, and all is accomplished. Hath some one grieved you, and insulted you, and mocked you? But consider, how often you have done such things to others, and even to the Lord Himself; and forbear, and forgive him it.

Fortnightly Book, September 13

Why did Balzac choose this little-known battle? Possibly because, at Essling, the nature of war changed.

In the 1830s, Honoré de Balzac began a project to write a historical novel on military life in the times of Napoleon, with a centerpiece of it intended to be La Bataille, on Napoleon's first significant defeat, the Battle of Aspern-Essling. It was his ambition to turn all the arts of novelistic realism to giving readers a view of the battlefield from the battlefield, with all of its beauty and horror. It was to give the tale of Napoleon's defeat with Napoleon mostly offstage, the battle and defeat as seen from the soldiers, most of whom, of course, did not spend their time interacting directly with the general. Balzac, alas, never completed the task, although he kept pulling together the notes for it.

Patrick Rambaud was intrigued by the project, and set out to complete it, and his work, completed in 1997, gives us the next fortnightly book, The Battle. I will be reading it in Will Hobson's English translation, put out by Grove Press. It is May 16, 1809, in the midst of the War of the Fifth Coalition. The army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has arrived outside Vienna to attempt to stop the apparently unstoppable Napoleon, and the prospects do not look very good. But in the fight to exhaustion that ensues, Napoleon will pay a high price.

Derniers moments du Maréchal Lannes à la Bataille d'Essling (Albert Paul Bourgeois)
Albert Paul Bourgeois, Last Moments of Marshal Lannes at the Battle of Essling

Guérin - La Mort du maréchal Lannes, duc de Montebello
Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, The Death of Marshal Lannes, Duke of Montebello

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Kim Man-jung, The Nine Cloud Dream


Opening Passage:

There are five great mountains beneath Heaven. To the east is T'ai-shan, Grand Mountain; to west is Hua-shan, Mountain of Flowers; to the south lies Heng-shan, the Mountain of Scales; to the north another Heng-shan, Eternal Mountain; and in the center stands Sun-shan, the Exalted Mountain. These are known as the Five Peaks, and the highest of them is Heng-shan, south of Tung-t'ing Lake, encircled by the river Hsiang on three sides. Upon Heng-shan itself there are seventy-two peaks that rise up and pierce the sky, some jagged and precipitous--blocking the paths of clouds--their fantastic shapes evoking wonder and awe, their auspicious shadows full of good fortune. (p. 3)

Summary: Hsing-chen is a young Buddhist monk of exceptional promise studying under the Great Master Liu-kuan, who teaches The Diamond Sutra on the Lotus Peak of Heng-shan. Everybody knows that he is so exceptional, he will certainly succeed Liu-kuan. One day Liu-kuan, whose health is failing, sends Hsing-chen as a messenger to the Underwater Palace of the Dragon King. At the Dragon King's palace, he is convinced to break his monastic vows and drink a cup of wine; he heads home, but decides to bathe in a stream to shake himself out of the intoxication before he gets back to the monastery. Then he sees eight fairy maidens, attendants of Lady Wei of the Southern Peak, a Taoist Immortal; it is spring and they are disporting in the streams and blocking his path over the bridge. (Symbolic, that.) They refuse to let him pass unless he shows them some supernatural powers such as great Buddhist monks are said to have, and he responds by flirtatiously taking a branch of eight peach blossoms and turning its blossoms into exquisite jewels. When he gets back to the monastery, he tries to deceive his teacher as to why he returned late. Liu-kan dresses him down over it, and sends him away from the monastery (because his actions show that this is what he wants); in particular, he calls up the constables of hell and hands him over to King Yama who rules over the dead. Yama is astounded to find Hsing-chen coming before him, since Yama had expected that he would achieve enlightenment; but karma is inexorable law, and so Hsing-chen must be reincarnated again to work out his failures in a new life.

He is born again as Shao-yu, his mother a poor peasant and his father a wandering hermit who soon leaves. But karma is inexorable law, and all of the excellence of Hsing-chen's former life shines through his fortune. He is brilliant, growing more so over time, and when he takes the civil service examination, he will outshine all his peers; this will set him on the path to become the prime minister of the empire, and its foremost general, and its foremost diplomat. He is handsome, and as he goes through life, he will meet eight women -- Ch'in Ts'ai-feng, Kuei Ch'an-yüeh, Ti Ching-hung, Cheng Ch'iung-pei (who will become adapted as Princess Ying-yang), Chia Ch'un-yün, Li Hsiao-ho (also known as Princess Lan-yang, the sister of the Emperor), Shen Niao-yen (an assassin of superhuman ability), and Po Ling-po (the youngest daughter of the Dragon King), each of them extraordinarily beautiful and brilliant, all of whom will become either his wives or his concubines. This doesn't quite capture it, though. This harem does not really arise from his own efforts (although his success and talent as well as his good looks are the reason for it); from Shao-yu's perspective it almost just seems to spring up, although we also get something of how things look from the perspective of the women and there is an impressive amount of scheming and maneuvering going on of which Shao-yu is largely not aware, and the arrangement is not pursued by Shao-yu but more or less invented by the women themselves, and mostly when Shao-yu is away on business. What is more, all the women become close friends, and, despite their extraordinary differences in status, treat each other with respect, always, which is the unimaginable icing on the already extraordinary cake.

It is, of course, not an accident that there are eight. Fairy maidens, too, are bound by karmic law.

This is a book of illusions. Nothing is ever exactly as it appears. Shao-yu at one point dresses as a woman to see a potential bride; he pays for this in more ways than one, as one of the women, playing a practical joke, manages to fool him into thinking first that she was a fairy and then that she was a 'hungry ghost'. One woman gets close to him by pretending to be a page-boy. Niao-yen, who is basically the Chinese equivalent of ninja, literally materializes in his tent out of the darkness. The Emperor, Empress Dowager, and several of the wives and concubines play an extremely elaborate practical joke in which they convince Shao-yu that one of them has died. Dreams are scattered throughout. And, of course, the tale itself is, as it says in the title, is itself a cloud-dream tale. It is all a dream. But as with Zhuangzi's butterfly, is it Hsing-chen dreaming that he is Shao-yu, or Shao-yu dreaming that he is Hsing-chen? As Liu-kuan notes, the question has no meaning.

Which ties in with the theme from The Diamond Sutra:

All things conditioned
are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows--
like dewdrops, like a flash of lightning,
and thus shall we perceive them. (p. 214)

It is pointless to argue over which of the lives is 'real' and which is 'dream', because there is nothing but the unconditioned, found in enlightenment, and the dreams within dreams within dreams the cover it over. The Buddhist monk takes a vacation in the perfect Confucian life as the superior man, and comes to perceive what he should have perceived from the beginning, that it has no more substance than a dream; but this is not a criticism of Confucianism itself. The book does show a preference for Buddhism as the highest path; as Shao-yu puts it toward the end of his long and happy and beyond-prosperous life:

"There are three ways in the world--the way of Confucius, the way of the Buddha, and the way of the Taoists. Buddhism is the highest. Confucianism exalts achievements and concerns itself with the passing down of names to posterity. Taoism is mystical, but it is unreliable, and though it has benefited many, its truths cannot be wholly known...." (pp. 210-211)

But notice that this is just an ordering. That the Confucian life (and the Taoist life) is mired in illusion is true, but Buddhism is not an exception to this. As Hsing-chen learned the hard way, he was still mired in illusion as a Buddhist, and it took the punishment of being given everything he found attractive about the world for him to see that he was still bound by attraction to the world. Buddhism gets the higher place because it recognizes that the dream is a dream; but Hsing-chen still has to learn as his last lesson that Hsing-chen could as much be said to be a dream of Shao-yu as vice versa. And this perception is the beginning of what is finally required for the only happily-ever-after possible for this fairy tale: that Hsing-chen and the eight fairy maidens "became bodhisattvas and the nine entered, together, into Paradise."

Favorite Passage:

Ling-po drew a small lute from her sleeve and began to play. The sound was clear and plaintive, like water flowing deep in a valley or wild geese crying far off in the sky. The guests shed tears without knowing why. Reedy grasses trembled and leaves fell from the trees.

The prince was mystified. "I did not believe earthly music could change the way of Heaven," he said. "But you have changed spring into autumn and made the leaves fall. Could an ordinary human being possibly learn to play like this?"

"It is only the remnants of old melodies," said Ling-po. "There is nothing marvelous about it that anyone could not also learn." (p. 190)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

Kim Man-jung, The Nine Cloud Dream, Heniz Insu Fenkl, tr., Penguin (New York: 2019).