Friday, January 09, 2015

Hunger Mountain

In the clip I've embedded above, David Hinton introduces his book Hunger Mountain (2012)The eponymous peak is in Vermont, where Hinton lives and works on the translations of Chinese poetry often referred to here (see for example this post from 2006: 'Lit dew shimmers').  Hunger Mountain uses walks on the mountain to frame a discussion of the 'spiritual ecology' he has found in the old poets and philosophers. It begins with the notion of 'sincerity', expressed as a character that combines a person standing and words rising from a mouth.  Although he doesn't mention it, this Confucian term is also the first Chinese character in The Cantos, where Ezra Pound applies it in praise of the sixth US president John Quincy Adams.  Hinton uses it to discuss 'a more fundamental sense of sincerity as an identification of outside and inside', a deep feeling of belonging to the cosmos.  This is evident, for example, in Tu Fu's poem 'Moonrise' (a different poem to 'Full Moon', which I quoted here in an earlier post on moonlit landscapes). 'Moonrise' doesn't simply project an emotion into the landscape, it describes a fundamental identity between the poet and the world. By the time Tu Fu wrote his poem, the character for 'friend' was being written as it still is as two moons side by side (below).  Hinton sees a form of 'friendship' in the way Tu Fu, his modern reader and the wider cosmos are united through contemplation of the moon.

The idea that consciousness is like a lake or mirrored pool is common in Chinese literature.  One of the four masters of southern Sung poetry, Yang Wan-li, wrote of the lake's 'mind': a gaze 'holding the mountain utterly.'   The character for mind is derived from the image for a heart, suggesting that thinking and feeling are deeply connected.  'Thinking' is written as this symbol for heart-mind underneath the character for 'fieldland'.  'Feeling' is a stylized version of the heart-mind symbol written next to the character for the blue-green of landscape.  In light of this it seems unsurprising that poets expressed themselves by writing directly about nature.  Hunger Mountain is quite dense in places with speculations on the connection between language and natural processes, something that has fascinated poets since Ezra Pound published Ernest Fenollosa's The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry in 1918.  It is a subject I have written about here before in connection with Cecilia Lindqvist's wonderful book China: Empire of Living Symbols.  The extent to which these ideas are widely accepted is something I am not qualified to judge, but they are certainly inspiring to read about.

It remains possible that even poetry drawn directly from the the rivers and mountains will be a kind of barrier.  Hinton talks about the risk that ultimately 'we can say nothing about the world without creating in some sense a breach between consciousness and landscape'.  In one of his many wine poems the poet T'ao Ch'ien, discussed in an earlier post here, wrote that whenever he started trying to explain Lu Mountain, 'I forget words altogether'.  Lu Mountain is the range of peaks that have been central to Chinese landscape poetry (the subject of another post here). Throughout the book Hunger Mountain stands in for Lu and Hinton tries to learn, like the poets, from his frequent walks to the summit. Su Tung p'o, who came to Lu seven centuries after T'ao Ch'ien, stayed at the East Forest Monastery, but said he learnt more from the mountain's streams and mirrored pools.
'Su Tung p'o established himself as a master of Tao's mental dimensions when he described flowing waters as the form of mind negotiating the exigencies of life, a spontaneous and crystalline responsiveness working its way through, taking shape according to whatever it encounters.  This is mind moving through the occasions of its attention like water through stones and branches and colourful leaves, adapting itself to the forms it encounters, becoming sometimes loud and othertimes silent, sometimes seething with light and other times lost in shadow.'
Attributed to Jing Hao, Mount Lu, c.900

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