Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang

Lin Yutang was a prolific and popular author of the mid-20th century, writing in both Chinese and English, based, it seems, sometimes in Shanghai where he founded and edited newspapers, and sometimes in New York, where he ruminated on modern life and published many "a John Day book" with the firm of Reynal & Hitchcock. Somehow, one imagines Lin (who liked being incorrectly called "Mr. Yutang" because it sounded so Chinese) circulating happily at Manhattan cocktail parties, sipping tea and explaining his new book to an attentive and well-coiffed Mrs. Day.

The Importance of Living is at once delightful, peculiar, frustrating, and very lovely. What he wants to say is summed up in a quote just after the title page: "Only those who take leisurely what the people of the world are busy about can be busy about what the people of the world take leisurely" -- said Chang Ch'ao. Lin agrees, and wants to offer this book as personal testimony to what makes life worth living. The penultimate scene of Manhattan has Woody Allen's character lying on a couch and recording into a microphone much the same things. He lists favorite books, favorite art, favorite foods, and finally " 'Tracy's face.' " Lin devotes the first half of his book to outlining why these things are the most important things in the world, more important to the individual than terrific subjects like social justice, politics, or personal salvation in a future heaven.

His rationale is simple. We are all given one human body, which is frail and will endure only fifty or sixty years. This helps recall what life expectancies were in 1937. Only when the body is healthy and fed can we even begin to think of the gigantic things that are supposedly the bedrock of a well lived and well-thought life. He challenges any philosopher to philosophize while his intestines are not working. (Very true -- there is that perfect, ingenious twist to the plot of Walker Percy's novel The Second Coming, in which the hero who devises a plan to prove the existence of God must give up his plan upon the eruption of a severe toothache. "A nauseated man is a sane man," he notices.)

All human happiness, Lin says, is sensuous, because we can only know the world through our five senses. And all human happiness is individual, private, moment to moment, because we only live in one room at a time, and interact with this or that person at a time, having this or that plan in our immediate future and the memory (or anticipation) of this or that meal in our bellies. The Chinese, he says, pay great respect to the stomach, and use it as a euphemism for all kinds of human characteristics which Westerners like to place loftily in the mind. What else is man, Lin asks, but a step above the monkey -- he is thinking of the ancient Chinese "Monkey Epic," not Darwin -- busy, curious, demanding, foolish, sometimes dignified, usually emotional, and always hungry?

Therefore, why deny that the "thirty-six thousand mornings" of life are best honored by savoring, as much as possible, the small physical things that comprise them? A large portion of those mornings are going to be taken up with sorrow, worry, "and rushing about" anyway. To deny the supreme importance of thoroughly enjoying a good chair, a good pipe, a summer afternoon lolling about reading and watching clouds, is to cast your lot instead with all that earnestness and hard work, a struggle for some great cause perhaps, that take up enough of life as it is and won't prevent you from dying, too. And there go your thirty-six thousand mornings, the only ones you had and you could have enjoyed. Are you sure, are any of us sure, that the cause and the work and the efficiency were that important?

In the second half of the book Lin gets down to sensuous specifics. There are chapters on lying in bed, on sitting in chairs, on food and drink, on rocks and trees, on flower arranging, on the pleasure of cutting a watermelon on a scarlet plate in June. He is at pains to point out that the leisure and pleasures he is talking about are not associated only with the rich, as young, earnest Chinese critics at the time accused. (Recall that in 1937, Mao did not yet govern -- an earnest type if ever there was one -- and young intellectuals agonizing over the loss of China's ancient greatness in comparison to Western progress perpetually asked themselves how to "save" China. The political references in the book are jarring in general. The three most prominent leaders in the world at that time were Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler, all three of whom Lin could mention with patience because two of them had not yet become full monsters. And all three, he notes, were terribly serious teetotalers bent on what they considered social justice and a better world.)

No, Lin writes, in fact the Chinese ideals of the enjoyment of life actually come from the experiences and writings of impoverished and isolated men. The poor scholars who had failed the Imperial examinations, the exhausted bureaucrats sick of kowtow and official cant, were the ones who retreated into the mountains to arrange flowers, look at the moon, and practice calligraphy that no one would ever see. ("I am all for amateurism.") What Lin and his many "friends" from Chinese literature are saying is not that we all need to take a break sometimes -- still less rush about spending money on expensive leisure -- but that if we acknowledge it, happiness comes from little, positively monkey-like things that we may as well acknowledge we like, such as ... well: "To keep three or four spots of eczema in a private part of the body and now and then to scald or bathe it with hot water behind closed doors. Ah, is this not happiness?" It's from Chin Shengt'an's Thirty Three Happy Moments (17th century), "moments when the spirit is inextricably tied up with the senses." The Western reader, or at least this Western reader, looks at that and thinks, eew. Rather peculiar. But then again ....

The best passages in the book are the long translations from Chinese literature, which seem to breathe more fully the spirit of gentle delight in the everyday world than Lin can quite convey by telling us how overworked, efficient, and stifled Western man is, or by delving into whimsical formulae assessing national traits. (Americans, he thinks, can be summed up roughly as R-3, D-3, H-2, S-2, in other words on a scale of 1 to 4 having pretty middling scores for the traits of Realism, Dreams, Humor, and Sensitivity. The French are scored about the same, and the English get low scores for everything. Germans, Russians, and Japanese all score very low on Humor, and the Chinese score highest of all on Realism. And there's the theme of the book.) I especially enjoyed quotes from The Travels of Mingliaotse in Chapter XI, "The Enjoyment of Travel." What is frustrating about the book -- and I mentioned frustration some time ago -- is the conflict between the author's wonderful ideals of leisure and daily pleasure, and the fact that Western hard work and efficiency, or for that matter Chinese hard work and efficiency, are probably the prime guarantors that comfortable and safe surroundings, decent food, and working intestines will free us to loaf, drink tea, and read poetry while "wife and concubines edit stories of flowers" (from the great treatise on flower arranging by Yuan Chunglang, late 16th century). Lin admires Thoreau, to whom local women brought pies while he wrote of the joys of isolation at Walden Pond. Thereby hangs a tale, many a tale I'll bet, about a leisured and lofty-thinking man.

Nevertheless, the book is not one to give up on, even when it seems to dawdle down to something too effete to bother with. That impatience with the supposedly ephemeral is exactly the attitude that Lin is trying to expose and criticize. And, really, although this may seem a backhanded compliment, to go back and re-read puzzling chapters is to realize he was no lightweight.

And now here is a small pleasure that would delight Mr. Yutang: as I write this, I have not yet finished reading The Importance of Living. Perhaps if he were a blogger today, and I am sure he would blog for it is a great, private, amateurish pleasure, he would say: to sit typing at a desk on a summer morning, while a white cat and a calico cat look out the window and you look forward to an old author's chapters on the arts of reading, writing, and thinking, and to his "Why I am a pagan" (knowing also that he returned to Christianity in glorious old age) -- ah, is this not happiness?

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