Sunday, February 07, 2010

Gibberish, Part One Redux Redux (Text Choice)

Dear Reader,

Text is perishable, so the original manuscripts of older texts are usually lost, leaving us to read copies, or copies of copies, or worse.

Comparing Red Pine's translation of these lines to the work of other translators - or even reading the Chinese text - might bring us closer to understanding Laozi's original meaning, but that's only true if Laozi wrote those words. New research has uncovered evidence that those two lines may have been added to chapter 81 long after it was written, replacing two very different lines.

Between 1972 and 1974, at Mawangdui in Changsha, China, three tombs were excavated: (1) the tomb of Xinzhui, Lady Dai; (2) the tomb of her husband Li Cang, the first Marquis of Dai and the chancellor of the Kingdom of Changsha, who died in 186 BC; and (3) the tomb of a man in his thirties believed to be a relative of Xinzhui and Li Cang, perhaps their son, who died in 168 BC. Although tomb two had been plundered repeatedly by grave robbers, in tomb three archaeologists found a treasure trove of manuscripts written on silk, including two copies of Laozi's Daodejing older than any other version we know of.

These older versions are clearly the same document overall, but equally clearly they are not identical. Studying, translating, and trying to explain the differences from the versions we know has helped keep a number of scholars busy since then.

Interestingly, chapter 81 is one of the chapters containing an interesting difference from the text we've all taken as authoritative. Here is the text as translated by Robert G. Henricks in his 1992 book Lao Tzu: Te-Tao Ching - A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts (Classics of Ancient China):

Sincere words are not showy;
Showy words are not sincere.
Those who know are not "widely learned";
Those "widely learned" do not know.
The good do not have a lot;
Those with a lot are not good.

The Sage accumulates nothing.
Having used what he had for others,
He has even more.
Having given what he had to others,
What he has is even greater.
Therefore, the Way of Heaven is to benefit and not cause any harm;
The Way of Man is to act on behalf of others and not to compete with them.

Contrast that first stanza with this more classic fusion version based on Red Pine but including Henricks's correction and with two parenthetical amplification from me to cover the range of translations:

True words aren't beautiful
beautiful words aren't true
A good (/knowledgeable/wise/virtuous) man does not argue;
He who argues is not a good (/knowledgeable/wise/virtuous) man.
the wise aren't learned
the learned aren't wise.

The first couplet matches, and the third couplet of the classic version matches the second couplet of the Mawangdui version pretty well, but then we're at the crux of the difference.

In the classic version, the second couplet repeats much of the meaning of the first couplet, recasting it in terms of the man rather than the words, and argumentation/persuasion rather than mere attraction. That is, it reads like an elaboration of the prior couplet. By contrast, in the Mawangdui version, the newly discovered (original?) third couplet sounds like a line out of Jesus's beatitude, blessing the poor in an eloquent echo of Rabbi Hillel before him, which here in chapter 81 is more of an original thought than an elaboration of the lines before, which better fits the terse style of the work overall.

This Mawangdui line seems to add a new dimension to the message of chapter 81. And thus, in a nutshell, the problem.

For two thousand years we thought that in chapter 81 Laozi wrote one thing, and now we come to find out he may have written something meaningfully different. Or did he? Are the newly discovered but older Mawangdui manuscripts more authentic than the classic but younger manuscripts? Or are they a parallel tradition, or maybe even an attempted editing of the classic line that died out because it was not authentic?

The immediate truth is, we just don't know.

But of course, the underlying truth always matters whether we think it does or not. It is not the responsibility of the cosmos to lay the truth in our laps for us. If we are not willing to work for the truth, sacrifice for the truth, suffer for the truth, then what we get as "truth" will be worth exactly what we paid for it.

We may not like the problem of having variant texts, but that's just our human foolishness talking. As Heraclitus wrote, It would not be better for men if they got what they want; or as the colloquial puts it, Be careful what you wish for. Up until 1972 or so, we didn't have this problem. We were "fortunate" enough to have only one version of chapter 81.

And it may have been the wrong one.

Your truly,