Blockbusters and the Tao Te Ching

Spring has sprung over here, the sun is shining and I feel it’s time, at this expansive point in the year to consider the meaning of life, or more accurately the theory of human flourishing. We all of us want to live contentedly in a world that seems full of riches and a community that enhances our spirit, no? So what promotes this state of affairs and what prevents it?

As ever, the serendipity of reading made me think about this, as I happened to be reading blockbusters last month alongside daily dips into the ancient Chinese manual of wisdom that is the Tao Te Ching. At first, the messages each contained for acquiring happiness seemed radically at odds, and then, most intriguingly, closer inspection seemed to indicate that the height of Eastern mysticism and the sagas of Western success were not so far apart philosophically after all.

The Tao Te Ching is a legendary document, supposedly written by the wise man Lao-Tzu around about 100 B.C. although these details are suspect. Supposedly the Royal House he served was in decline and Lao-Tzu left the capital and journeyed to the Han-ku Pass, where the Keeper there, understanding that he was about to withdraw from the world, asked him to write a book before doing so. Thus Lao-Tzu produced the eighty-one…well, what would you call them? Prose poems? Gnomic utterances? Poetic and philosophical riddles? In any case they remain with us today, descriptions of the Tao, or the underlying unifying Oneness that governs and produces the world, and the Te – or what we can get from it. I have no idea what the ‘Ching’ bit means. Maybe it’s a shortening of Ka-Ching! Or some sort of Eastern version of ‘there you have it’. Here is a classic example:

On tiptoe: no way to stand
Clambering: no way to walk
Self-display: no way to shine.
Self-assertion: no way to succeed.
Self-praise: now way to flourish.
Complacency: no way to endure.

According to TAO,
Excessive food,
Extraneous activity
Inspire disgust.
Therefore the follower of TAO
Moves on.

Essentially the Tao Te Ching’s message is one of human economy married with a gentle humility. It is all about gauging what ‘too much’ would look like and understanding excess and an inflated sense of our agency to be perpetual menaces in just about all modes of existing. Desire finds no favour with the Tao Te Ching, any kind of striving or trying or controlling (all of which amount to the same thing) are considered to be quick ways to lose what we most seek to master. At the same time, the ego, that scourge of the Western world, is taken to be the root cause of all our anxieties.

Favour debases us.
Afraid when we get it,
Afraid when we lose it.

The self embodies distress.
No self.
No distress.

The more we try to erect boundaries, defend property, take pride in ourselves or measure what comes into our hands, the more we lose touch with something utterly real and trustworthy, the teachings suggest. And this would be the TAO, the oceanic feeling of unity with what cannot be seen or described but which exists nevertheless as a deep guiding force to existence. As far as I understand it, the Tao Te Ching is about being very still and very quiet, in order that the Tao should become apparent. The more we distract ourselves with endeavour and busy-ness, the louder we shout out to the world with endless demands and recriminations, the less likely we are to be soothed by the innate harmony of existence, and the spirit that flows through all things in their natural state. In other words, we become lost when manically seeking what lies right beneath our noses.

Now it may already be obvious that blockbusters do not follow these principles. In fact, they are all about striving and controlling, their heroes and heroines wanting nothing more than to transcend their immediate circumstances. They are about gaining recognition for the self through love or wealth, marking out the individual from the mass of mankind as someone special and unusual. They are about fulfilling self-interest through work, passion or revenge. Certainly not in tune with the Tao Te Ching there – ‘No self-interest? Self is fulfilled’, it proposes, tersely. The blockbuster disagrees fundamentally with Chinese wisdom over issues like success, the outward expression of intense emotions, and of course, the pleasures to be had from materiality. The characters in these novels long for riches and opulence, they wallow in torrid and tempestuous relationships and they glorify themselves with fame. The blockbuster is excess personified, or at least dramatized, put center stage in order to thrill and awe its audience. And to think that it has less of a message than the Tao Te Ching would be to mistake the avidity with which readers consume them, and the steady upward pressure on standards of living and visible attainment that fuel our culture. But what do human beings actually need? Are we better off living lives of quiet abnegation, or more fulfilled when we reach for the stars?

I wondered whether I might just hit an impasse here, the clash of East and West with no possible resolution. But then I recalled the work of French anthropologist Roger Caillois who, when researching into the concept of the divine, discovered that all primitive societies had a belief in ‘a natural order of the world’, an order that would be a kind of default setting, and that would reassert itself in its inability to tolerate inequality. When the natural order of the world suffered an imbalance, war or famine or some such disaster would result. This struck me as quite illuminating. I could read in the Tao Te Ching a deep-rooted desire to respect the natural order of the world, to mess with it as little as possible and to live lightly and selflessly on the planet, attuned to its innate beauty. ‘Understanding the ordinary: Enlightenment’, it pronounces. Blockbusters, by contrast, give the natural order of the world a great big kick up the axis. But then, for all the dramas that result, there is still a sense that the natural order will reassert itself. All that happens is that the balance of credit is paid off by the characters later in their lives, or by subsequent generations. The bigger the blockbusting characters live, the greater the fall that will at some point afflict them, while much of their success has to be won by a struggle against the odds that few of us would ever cheerfully embrace.

Blockbusters are seductive, but their characters are often haunted by the obligation to ‘pay’ for what they get with grief, distress, or the simple loss of themselves, given over as they are to the relentless pressure of success. Perhaps it’s just the indication that I’m growing older, but it seems like a good idea to me not to mess with the natural order of the world, but to sit still with it, appreciating the ordinary and seeking enlightenment in the smallest and most delicate of things.

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16 thoughts on “Blockbusters and the Tao Te Ching

  1. What a wonderful small essay, Litlove. There is so much to think about in it, and it provokes further thought about our society’s contradictory values, for the tao (which I understand as the light), and at the same time for the magnification of the ego, for purposefulness, and for “the secret” ability to engage wishcraft in getting more stuff and status.

  2. I recently mentioned Erich Fromm’s ‘To Have or To Be’, which is very much along similar lines. It began, if I recall correctly, with a comparison of two short poems, both about a person seeing a beautiful flower growing along their way. The eastern poem [possibly Chinese] has the person admire the flower, experience its beauty and move on taking that experience with them, this representing being. The western poem [may have been by Tennyson] has the person uproot the plant and take it away with them, this representing having. When I consider how many things I have, many just sitting around ignored, it always puts me in mind of these two images of behaviour. It seems that in truth all we can possess are our experiences, even our memory of a favourite book is in us not in the book on the shelf. Somehow we have transferred the experience to the objects which represent them, a kind of recording of our lives in hard objects. Yes I know about Proust and his cake – we do need prompts – having our cake and remembering it! I think the Zola novel was The Beast in Man or The Beast of Man in the translation I read. I think it must be an ego/having novel!

  3. Pingback: Juxtaposition « The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul

  4. “Perhaps it’s just the indication that I’m growing older, but it seems like a good idea to me not to mess with the natural order of the world, but to sit still with it, appreciating the ordinary and seeking enlightenment in the smallest and most delicate of things.”

    Perhaps not growing older so much as growing wiser, being more settled into your own soul and having grown enough emotionally and spiritually to know what’s important and being content to sit still with the world and let it be. I think “blockbusters” in all their striving and confusion and yearning do paint a rather unfavorable picture of the kind of unrest we seem to foster in modern society.

    This was a lovely and thoughtful post :)

  5. This is lovely. I just read Tao Te Ching recently. My daughter is studying Oriental Medicine and once had an assignment to read the Tao Te Ching with her heart and write a paper. She called me, a little anxious, asking me how to read with the heart and write a paper. I was little help.

    She phone a week or so later and told me she was standing outside the director/teacher’s office. He had called her name along two other students to meet with him after class. She was convinced that he was going to kick her out of school because of her paper. Of course he didn’t. Their conference was short. He said something like this: “You are going to be a good doctor and will help many people. If you allow me, I will guide you.” She said, “Yes.” And they sat in silence for several minutes.

    Eastern thinking is very different from Western. I am deeply attracted to Eastern philosophy. I’m not certain I understand it, but I desperately want to at least glimpse into their world view.

  6. “I have no idea what the ‘Ching’ bit means. Maybe it’s a shortening of Ka-Ching!” LoL!! It means “classics” or “sacred book” or “scripture”. There you have it! ;)

  7. “the Tao Te Ching is about being very still and very quiet, in order that the Tao should become apparent. ” Oh this sounds like something I need to pick up. What a lovely tribute to the reminder to slow down and appreciate life.

  8. I do love the Tao Te Ching, it is such a lovely book with so much wisdom in it. I especially like the ones that remind us that flexibility, bending like reeds, is better than being stiff an unforgiving. What translation did you read? I’ve read Mtchell’s and Ursula Le Guin’s. I like the comparison to the blockbusters you’ve been reading. I think I’ll take the Tao’s approach to life though :)

  9. Thank you so much for sharing these ideas with us. The best advice I ever received was from a former boss of mine. He had a sign in his office that read “Be Still”.

  10. Lovely and thought-provoking, LL. Personally, I do think there is value in endeavouring to find harmony between these two philosophies. What is rest if there has been no exertion?

  11. Don’t you wonder what Lao-Tzu would make of modern society? There is so much ‘noise’ that I think people don’t like to be alone with their thoughts very much. Sometimes reading blockbuster sorts of books is a way of confirming how you don’t want to live! I should really read the Tao Te Ching–it sounds very calming.

  12. Lilian – thanky you! And I can see that this is something you’ve also thought a lot about. I like the idea of the tao as light, particularly in the link that makes to enlightenment.

    Bookboxed – I really must get hold of that Erich Fromm book. It is clearly a very intriguing read. I like that example of the flower enormously, and agree with your own extrapolation there. The only thing I really want to possess is books: try not to think too badly of me. ;) And oh my, Zola is most definitely an author of having, that about sums him up (and is actually a really interesting perspective on his work.)

    Becca – what a good word ‘unrest’ is! It seemed to really hit the nail on the head for me. And I like the idea of being wiser – I’ll buy that! :)

    Cora – how fascinating for you to be able to hear about your daughter’s experience. I wouldn’t be sure either what it would mean to read with one’s heart, but maybe that very not-knowing would be an interesting thing to bring into the reading experience. I’ve become very drawn to Eastern philosophy lately and I think that’s because it tallies with where I am in life and how I feel. It’s hard work, I think, to experience the way the Chinese philosophers suggest, but worthwhile, as far as I can see.

    Smithereens – why thank you! I do love blogging – you learn everything!

    Rebecca – it was such a peaceful and calming experience to read it! I was glad I did – I’d love to hear about your experience with it if you do pick it up.

    Stefanie – I’m pretty sure it was your suggestion (from a while back) that encouraged me to read this, and I was so glad I did. That idea about flexibility makes so much sense, and yet I find it one of the hardest things to do. I’m unconsciously convinced that it’s all about withstanding, and yet part of me knows that is not always the best idea. The translation was by Stanley Lombardo. I hadn’t heard of him, but I think it’s the most recent one (it seemed good!).

    Kathleen – how lovely! I’d like one of those!

    Doctordi – I readily admit that one of the reasons I love the Tao is that it comforts me in my sedentary and contemplative tendencies! I am useless at exertion, so it’s sort of nice to have something tell me I needn’t worry about that. But you do liveliness and physical vitality so well – I’m sure you could blend both together most succesfully.

    Danielle – I should think Las-Tzu would head straight back for the Han-Ku Pass if by any chance he got dropped in the middle of the Western world! :) I have really enjoyed both – the blockbusters and the Tao Te Ching, but just like you, I think I would rather not adopt the blockbuster mindset!

  13. The Self, the Anti-Self.
    That’s the one thing I keep picking up from Eastern/Western spirituality, They’re both so anti-Self.
    Like if they could just get rid of The Self they could get to where they want to go.
    Perhaps, I say, but once they got there how would they pick things up since The Self had the hands.

  14. Nigel – and yet we don’t have to think about our hands to use them. In fact it’s often overthinking that undermines our most innate abilities. We can’t lose the self – that’s impossible – only be less conscious of it. I feel that we have become so protective of our selves and so fascinated by them that Eastern philosophy looks like an attack on our precious sense of identity. But I don’t think it is at all – I think it’s a more economical and immediate way of accessing our skills and resources.

  15. This is a book I need to read at some point, I see. I love the idea of “sitting still” with the natural order and watching it and appreciating enlightenment when it comes.

  16. I love the way you have combined the two here. If blockbusters are about narcissistic striving and the Tao is about giving up the Self, then I vote for a happy medium between the two.

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