“The true life is elsewhere.” —Rimbaud
Über lit-blogger and director of e-marketing strategy at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Ron Hogan is the author of Getting Right with Tao, a contemporary and highly vernacular riff on the philosophical classic by Lao Tzu. When you spend as much time as Ron has reading, thinking, and writing about the Tao te Ching, some of its grandeur will rub off on you. I know this to be true because Ron, bless his pure, unruffled soul, hasn’t finished any of the Pynchon novels he’s started — yet is free from guilt, shame, or embarrassment. His favorite novelists include Dawn Powell and Philip K. Dick. For more on Ron, please visit Beatrice.
BtL: How’s your inner Tao?
Ron: I’m feeling good! I’m not perfect, not by a long shot, but getting this book out feels like a fantastic step in the right direction.
BtL: Well, let’s start with the quandary: We can’t talk about Tao. We can’t name it, touch it, hear it, or desire it. So what the hell is Tao?
Ron: I’m going to skip all the fancy koan answers I could give and just say it’s a process, or a way of being. I was going to say state of existence, but that implied a condition of stasis that I didn’t really think applied. And then I was going to say it was an approach to life, but “approach” implied a deliberate, conscious effort — and that’s partially true but I think when you get right enough with Tao, the process becomes more natural. You don’t do the right thing because you’re setting out to do the right thing, you do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.
BtL: Ok, so Tao isn’t a thing. It’s not even the totality of things. But it’s a way of being. At the risk of sounding Heideggerian, it’s a way of being in the world. Not all ways of being are equally right with Tao, yeah? Some ways are better than others. Can you say something about desire and possession and how they corrupt Tao?
Ron: Let’s frame getting right with Tao for the moment as an attitude of radical openness, a receptive stance that enables you to accept any set of circumstances or conditions on its own terms, and determine the best course of action by understanding what the situation truly requires. By that definition, desire and possession — the valuing of one thing over another —”corrupt” Tao by privileging our preferences over objective appraisal. That’s not to say that our preferences can’t coincide with objective appraisal; simply that we should be mindful not to confuse the two.
BtL: This passage here caught my eye. It does a nice job of capturing some of the key themes of Taoism. I’ll quote it here in full as a prelude to a question.
Get rid of morality.
People will respect each other and do what’s right.
Get rid of value and profit.
People will not steal if they do not desire.
If that’s not possible, go to Plan B:
Be simple. Be real.
Do your work as best you can.
Don’t think about what you get for it.
Stay focused. Get rid of all your crap.
BtL (continued): U.S. consumer culture is rife with materialism. After all, without our iPod or Wii or Old Navy cargo shorts or Prius or Elmo Tickle Hands or Trader Joe’s Chocolate Joe Joe, we grow sullen and moody. Isn’t Taoism really a form of anti-Americanism?
Ron: I can’t speak for “Taoism,” which is no more a single set of beliefs than “Christianity” is, and I suspect many people who self-identify as Taoists would say I’ve grossly misrepresented what they believe… which is probably true. But, heck, why limit ourselves to anti-Americanism when we can be ruthlessly anti-nationalist? Or maybe the point isn’t to reject national/cultural identity altogether, but to recognize its arbitrary, artificial qualities and realize that you’ve chosen to “be an American,” and you could just as easily choose to be another type of American. (Those of you reading this in other lands, feel free to substitute the relevant descriptors.) Which actually raises the interesting point of whether “U.S. consumer culture” is the most accurate representation of “being an American,” doesn’t it?
BtL: It does, absolutely. I love the Declaration of Independence, for instance, but not the Second and Twenty Sixth Amendments, which are pretty daft in my opinion. I love Melville, Thoreau, and Cormac McCarthy but feel a twinge of fear or disgust when I hear a Republican or Democrat talking about the “axis of evil” or “hope, unity, and change.” That’s the trouble with being a “good” American — it’s not at all clear what it means. At least not to me. There’s much to love in our country, to be sure — beautiful landscapes, democratic ideals, egalitarianism, and so on. But there’s much to sorrow over, too.
Ron: I was actually thinking along these lines as I was pondering the background questions you posed me — I’d tapped Richard Rorty’s Truth and Progress as one of my all-time favorite books, in that it’s had a deep and lasting impact on my thinking even though it’s been well over a decade since I last looked at it, but while I was rifling through my mental card catalog I’d remembered another book of his, Achieving Our Country, where he explicitly links his brand of pragmatism to a particular strain of American political reform, particular visions of what American society was meant to be. Rorty’s probably my favorite late modern philosopher, when all’s said and done, because of his beliefs about what philosophy was intended to DO — I’m grossly oversimplifying, but he basically said, look, we can sit around and argue about what human nature is, OR we can decide what we want our society to be like and then go out and do things that could make it be that way. He’s about confronting the problems that are right there in front of you instead of looking for some fundamental Truth with a capital T, and I feel like that resonates with a lot of what I found in Lao Tzu.
BtL: In your book, you point at Tao by saying what it’s not. It’s not greed. It’s not ambition. It’s not personality worship. But sometimes, you point at Tao by saying what it is. You describe it as water, wind, or rain. As a river, an ocean, or a wave. These metaphors suggest that Tao is simple, pure, and natural. But contemporary culture isn’t any of these things, mediated as it is by broadcast and social media, by mobile devices, and other pervasive technologies. What concrete suggestions do you have for simplifying our lives? How do we step out of the cultural hubbub? And does Taoism give us any norms of behavior in an increasingly mechanized world?
Ron: “Plan B” seems like a fairly explicit norm of behavior, doesn’t it? We could approach this by pointing to Rousseau’s assertion that ALL culture has a corrupting influence on men and women (which can be mitigated by establishing the proper social contracts), and asserting that modern technology is only a more pervasive form of “mediation” — although in place of that term, I’d prefer to reference Althusser’s “ideological state apparatuses” if we’re going to be talking about cultural institutions that reinforce codes of behavior — because, as Althusser notes, ANY ideology is an expression of an “imaginary” (or, to use your language, “mediated”) framing of our existence in the material world. And once we agree that whatever ideology we’re living under now is “imaginary,” we can entertain the possibility of choosing another way to imagine our lives — and one way that we can choose is “getting right with Tao.” But, as impressive as name checking Rousseau and Althusser might have been, you didn’t want philosophical justifications, you wanted concrete steps. And the answers I have on that front aren’t especially radical, and you’ve probably heard them from other people: Honor people’s dignity. Pay more attention to what’s going on around you. Meditation helps. Alternatively, Brave Combo’s “Do Something Different” is maybe the most Taoist song I know:
BtL: We learn that Tao is neutral, that Masters treat everyone the same. They don’t worry too much about good or evil. This sounds edifying until I’m reminded of Dick Cheney or former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, and other agents of malady. How I wish a four-star general of Tao would give them a good dressing down! Doesn’t morality require the very things Taoists caution us against, things like worry, concern, anxiety, engagement, judgment, and action?
Ron: Taoism isn’t about sitting on your ass and smiling blissfully, and it’s not about ignoring what’s wrong with the world; there are a lot of passages in the Tao Te Ching about warriors and about going to war, for example. So it’s very much a philosophy of engagement and action… and of careful judgment. It recognizes that sometimes the solution to a pervasive problem is deeply unpleasant, but that it needs to be done — think the pivotal scene of “Old Yeller” here. The retort to this is obvious — Cheney and his cohorts believed they were executing the necessary solution to a pervasive problem — and, honestly, if I had a better counterargument than “well, they were wrong and I’m right,” I’d have laid it out and crushed their schemes with my keen intellect years ago. As for “worry, concern, and anxiety,” I don’t believe that these responses to circumstance are NECESSARY to morality, although they are certainly capable of informing it.
BtL: You write, “If a leader gets right with Tao, people will follow him on instinct.” In a recent CNN poll, we learn that 49% approve of President Obama’s job performance while 50% disapprove. Clearly, people aren’t following him on instinct. Can we safely conclude that Obama ain’t right with Tao? What should he do to improve his Tao quotient?
Ron: I said “people,” not “everyone.” OK, nitpicking aside, “getting right with Tao” isn’t like having an on/off switch where you’re out of whack and then, click, you’re aligned with the cosmos. It’s a process, and some days are better than others, and progress doesn’t prevent you from making mistakes. Now, a man who went from being a state legislator to the president of the United States in four short years clearly appeals to more than a few people on an instinctive level. Does that mean he’s perfect? Of course not. What could he do better? I risk presumptuousness, but I believe that Obama’s otherwise noble desire for consensus-building has, in some cases, impeded progress. Yes, we would probably have had a long, drawn-out fight over health care if the Democrats had built their strategy around a simple majority rather than the filibuster-proof “supermajority.” But that fight could have been helpful in revealing peoples’ characters, which in turn might have changed other peoples’ perceptions. So I guess my advice would be: People gave you this power for a reason; don’t hesitate so much about using it.
Ron: The irony is obvious, but I wouldn’t say I’m “troubled” by it – I mean, one ought to have sufficient grounds to question the wisdom of this particular policy without invoking the mythology of the Nobel — a mythology that was invested in President Obama without any anticipation or expectation on his part. Frankly, if there’s a disconnect, the root cause to me wouldn’t be “President Obama is not conducting himself like a Nobel laureate ought,” but “This Peace Prize was awarded in a manner inconsistent with the Nobel tradition.”
BtL: You write, “Masters get their point across without saying a word.” Interestingly, that’s all novelists use — I mean words, sentences, and other tricks of the narrative trade. If language is often a barrier to higher truths, how do master novelists elicit transcendent experiences? Who among them helps us grasp the eternal mystery of Tao? What works of theirs should we read?
Ron: I feel like this is starting out with too simple a conflation, although part of that is my own fault for writing such stark passages as the one you quote or “those who talk, don’t know.” That said, it’s good you qualified that question with the word “often.” Maybe it would’ve been more accurate for me to have said “Masters get their point across without saying any more than they have to,” although that’s not quite as exciting, is it? What’s the Coleridge line about prose: words in their best order? I don’t know that I can do to improve on that — the more I think about this topic, frankly, the more I find myself dwelling on the idea of “eliciting transcendent experiences” and eliciting imitations or impressions of transcendent experiences, and extending this beyond the novel to other art forms, and then at some point circling around to the Stargate sequence from 2001.
BtL: I agree. Music, painting, and movies can work amazing magic. But let’s stick with novels, if you don’t mind. Besides hitting absinthe and Scotch like it’s 1999, novelists are also very good at using words, at describing things, at evoking people, places, moods. But language and the things it describes, the stories it tells, and the characters it creates aren’t Tao. In your opinion, which novelists are especially good at helping us get right with Tao? What novels have profoundly impacted you in this respect? Of course, I worry that these questions are bogus, Ron. But what I’m trying to get at, and having precious little success, I worry, is the connection between Tao and the readerly life, a life that’s devoted to sentences, characters, and stories. Perhaps you can say something about that connection?
Ron: There’s a passage in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon that has stuck with me since I read it about 15 years ago, which I’d like to share with you:
If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation. To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all. The reception of aesthetic power enables us to learn how to talk to ourselves and how to endure ourselves. The true use of Shakespeare or of Cervantes, of Homer or of Dante, of Chaucer or of Rabelais, is to augment one’s own growing inner self. Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen. The mind’s dialogue with itself is not primarily a social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.
Ron (continued): Maybe that’s a form of getting right with Tao; it sure feels like one to me.
Beyond that, the novel I’ve read more times than any other in the last quarter-century is Masks of the Illuminati by Robert Anton Wilson — and I keep coming back to that book because I think it’s one of Wilson’s best articulations of the need to constantly question one’s experience of “reality,” to understand how that experience is being framed and to train oneself to see what is outside those frames. And, as loose as it is, it’s still the sharpest fiction Wilson produced. I once proposed that it was the greatest American novel of the back half of the 20th century, and I was not being facetious.
BtL: Can I confess something?
BtL: I wanted to criticize your book. I mean, I wanted to read your book in order to criticize it. I’ve read it now many times and was bound to find something to niggle over. But, initially, the wanting to find a problem was very important to me. And guess what—I found it, the problem. Your book isn’t the Tao te Ching. Not by a country mile. But then I realized that the Tao te Ching isn’t the Tao. And if the Tao te Ching isn’t the Tao, what does it matter if yours isn’t the Tao te Ching. It doesn’t. Neither catches Tao like a monkfish in a net. They’ve got that in common. This realization was very liberating. It allowed me to read and re-read your book, enjoy its observations, its simplicity and humor, and come away from it pleasantly reminded of the things that matter most. So thank you. I feel well shriven!
Ron: Thank you! I’d be the first to admit what I’ve done isn’t Lao Tzu; my goal was more to give voice to the inspiration I found in the Tao Te Ching, and to do it in a voice that could convey that inspiration effectively to a contemporary audience. I hope anyone who reads my version treats it as a starting point rather than a culmination. And by that I don’t just mean that you should go read a translation by somebody who actually knows Chinese — I hope readers will think about Lao Tzu’s advice and how it might apply to their own lives on an ongoing basis.