Writing, Work and Ease

In my last post on the notion of a Centre for Laziness, I suggested that valuable work does not arise simply out of effort, but it arises instead out of a combination of effort and ease, regulation and slackness, hard work and laziness. From this perspective, ease is not simply a necessary interlude, so that we might back to work refreshed. Instead, it is an integral part of what it takes to create and to sustain perhaps anything of value.

At the moment, I’m thinking about this in particular in relation to writing, as I’m currently reading Liu Xie’s Wenxin Diaolong (文心雕龍), in particular the chapter on yangqi 養氣 or ‘nourishing the vital spirits’.

I first came across Liu’s book long before I got into the serious study of Chinese. I stumbled Zong-Qi Cai’s A Chinese Literary Mind: Culture, Creativity, and Rhetoric in Wenxin Diaolong in a bookshop up in Newcastle some ten or fifteen years ago, and picked it up on a whim. I was immediately struck by the thought that Liu wasn’t just talking about sixth century Chinese literature, but that he was speaking more broadly about what it is like as a human being to deal with words and images, meanings and ideas.

In 2010, when I was in Hong Kong researching my novel, Sixty-Four Chance Pieces: A Book of Changes I picked up a translation of the book. Not long after, the poet Dave Bonta sent me copy of the Vincent Shih’s venerable and elegant English version, since it had been (I think Dave said at the time) mouldering on his shelves for years, doing nothing much. Since then, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by this book, and what it says about the art of writing.

What is particularly appealing about Liu Xie is that, rather than seeing writing as something exhausting and draining, he sees that it is an art that, potentially at least, can serve the fulness of life. Writers often like to talk about how they suffer for their art (as a corrective to this, I have to recommend my friend Clémentine Beauvais’s wonderful blog post 10 Writer Quotes That Really Resonate With Me). And no doubt some writers do suffer for their art. But the questions I want to ask here are these: Need they suffer? Is this the wisest approach to writing and to life? And, What are the other possibilities?

Liu Xie recognises that there are many writers who have indeed suffered in their pursuit of their art. The Chinese tradition, like the Western tradition, tends to valorise the suffering of writers and artists as a way of guaranteeing the quality of their work. But Liu is sceptical of all this. At the very least he sees those who have brought upon themselves self-inflicted suffering, born out of a desire for literary greatness, as poor models for emulation. Liu suggests that in their commitment to suffering, these writers have not only diminished their lives, but they have perhaps also diminished their works.

For Liu, it is possible to write well (if one is inclined to write at all), and for this writing to at the same time feed into a rich and significant life. Conversely, it is possible to live well, and for this to feed into the creation of rich and significant writing. The nourishment of life, this process of regulation and slackening, and the nourishment of writing, are parallel processes.

At the heart of Liu Xie’s reflections on the relationship between writing and life is this curious notion of yangqi, or nourishing the vital spirits. The idea of yangqi is closely related to the Daoist notion of yangsheng or ‘nourishing life’ (about which François Jullien has written a beautiful book). Here’s what Liu says about it.

是以吐納文藝 ,務在節宣,清和其心,調暢其氣,煩而即舍,勿使壅滯,意得則舒懷以命筆,理伏則 投筆以卷懷,逍遙以針勞,談笑以藥倦,常弄閑于才鋒,賈餘于文勇,使刃發如新,腠 理無滯,雖非胎息之萬術,斯亦衛氣之一方也。

Thus, the breathing in and out of the literary arts lies both in the knotting and in the freeing. Make the mind quiet and peaceful, regulate the unimpeded flow of the vital spirits. If you are vexed and irritable, then rest; do not allow yourself to be become blocked up. When you have attained to something meaningful, then let your heart, set at ease, command the brush. When the ordering principles cannot be seen, put down the brush and let your heart withdraw. Footloose freedom is a cure for grinding toil; talk and laughter are medicines for weariness. It is often in idle play that talent is at its sharpest, so be audacious in your literary courage, use the new blade amongst the ligaments and tissues of your work, without any impediment. Although this is not [the same as] the ten thousand arts of regulating the breath, it is still a way of protecting the vital spirits.

The language here is strongly influenced by Daoism. For example, tuna吐納 or ‘breathing in and out’ and jiexuan 節宣 or ‘knotting and freeing’ both relate to Daoist practices of regulating the breath. The reference to ‘footloose freedom’ comes from the Zhuangzi (and serves as the tagline for this blog — 逍遙遊 xiaoyao you, or ‘free and easy wandering’). So too does the reference to ligaments and tissues, which is a nod to the famous story of Cook Ding, who is so skilled in carving up oxen that he can move his blade without ever coming against any impediments, meaning that the blade never becomes blunt. However, Liu makes clear that he is not talking about this as a formal Daoist practice. Instead, he is using this set of bodily images and metaphors as a way of thinking through questions about the art of literature in relation to bigger questions about the art of living.

‘It is often in idle play that talent is at its sharpest’… As Wai-Yee Li (whose translation of this passage I have relied upon heavily in my version above) writes in his essay in Cai’s book, literature can be both play, and (in a broad sense) moral or ethical self-cultivation. In other words, literature can both be playful, and can also help in regulating our ethos, our way of relating to the world. There is a virtuous circle here that entirely does away with the tragic figure of the struggling writer who suffers for their art.

What I think Liu Xie is getting at is this: the question of the conditions that may be necessary for anything of value to arise and to be sustained. Liu is a writer and thinker who is opposed to life’s diminishment. And for Liu, there is an intimate relationship between our relationship to the practice of writing, and our relationship to life more broadly. If life suffers, he maintains, ultimately so does the writing that we produce as a part of that life.

If Liu Xie is right, then it is worth paying attention to this ‘breathing in and out’ of writing and of thinking and of living. I see in Liu Xie’s thoughts on yangqi the possibility of rethinking work as a kind of ease, and rethinking ease as a kind of work. Because knotting and freeing are not opposed to each other: they are aspects of the very same process. And only when we realise the fact that these two things depend upon each other, Liu maintains, does it become possible to pay proper attention to the nourishing of our lives, and thus to the nourishing of our works.

Comments 4

  1. I think that you should also pay some attention to oppressive external factors which prevent the life of ease or which make writers suffer. Think, for instance, of economic oppression, which almost all people suffer to some degree, and which facilitates other forms of oppression. And think of those writers whose writing, if known, will produce suffering because their writing is a form of speaking out. I agree entirely about the playfulness of writing, because good writing is often a sort of game, but it is also, I think, a form of play which needs to be taken seriously and done well, and which brings with it certain responsibilities. And when we take these points into consideration, it’s necessary to consider also the social, political and public responsibilities of the writer – unless that writing is to be an entirely private act.

  2. Post
    Author

    Thanks for these thought-provoking thoughts, Kathz. I agree with most of this, even though I think that Liu’s criticism of the idea that writing in and of itself entails suffering, his criticism of the idea that the pursuit of art requires exhaustion, is one that still stands.

    Here is the sticking point: what happens when writing that serves to nourish life is at the same time writing that is threatening to those in power? It is true that writers have throughout history suffered more directly for what they have written, due to the challenge that their writing offers to the interests of the powerful.

    So I’d like to see the notion of ‘nourishing life’ as a political, and not just a personal, notion: not just about nourishing my life, but also about setting in place the conditions that might nourish the lives of others as well.

    In this respect, Liu Xie does have quite strong things to say about the writer’s responsibilities — which I might get round to in a future post. The kind of ‘footloose freedom’ that Liu Xie is interested in is very different indeed from the popular notion that writers should have an absolute free rein to say whatever they like, and that they have no responsibility to anything other than their art.

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