Friday, August 25, 2006

Changes, The Book (Part Two)

(This is part two of a two-part post; read part one here.)

By the end of part one I had gotten to the following question: given that the I Ching is useless for actually predicting the future, what value, if any, does it have?

Well, the first answer is simple: it has literary value.

For example, Frances FitzGerald's 1972 book on the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake drew its title from the I Ching. She quotes in her book from the Wilhelm/Baynes translation of Hexagram 49, "Revolution (Molting"):
Fire in the lake: the image of REVOLUTION.
Thus the superior man
Sets the calendar in order
And makes the seasons clear.
A striking image, without a doubt.

A far more complex literary use of the I Ching occurs in Philip K. Dick's splendid novel The Man in the High Castle. I shan't go into all the details here, but Dick uses the I Ching frequently in the book: many of his characters appeal to it, and its text shapes their choices -- literally, in fact, since I believe that Dick himself cast hexagrams when his characters did, working the result into his novel. Whatever one thinks of the I Ching's fortunetelling, its use in Dick's novel is superb. (PKD, ironically (but characteristically) didn't always agree: he once blamed the I Ching for the novel's ambiguous ending.)

Okay. So the book has had some literary uses. But is that it? Is there any more to it?

Well, maybe. Yale law professor Jack M. Balkin, at least, argues that there is.

Balkin's argument can be found in his 2002 book The Laws of Change: I Ching and the Philosophy of Life. First off, props to Professor Balkin for writing something so far outside of his field of expertise: I am against intellectual tunneling, in general, and find it refreshing when people produce uncharacteristic works. Interestingly, it also got good reviews from serious I Ching users, which is pretty impressive. Balkin's book is a hundred-page introduction to the I Ching -- its history, its philosophy, its use -- followed by a translation and commentary.

Balkin's argument for why the I Ching is useful for things other than fortune telling is made throughout his book, but perhaps is most concisely put in this blog post wherein he asked the I Ching about the war in Iraq. (And check out what it said. Seriously.) There he wrote:
The I Ching does not predict the future. All it does is give you something to chew on, stimulate your unconscious mind. There is absolutely no evidence that randomly throwing coins predicts future events. But reading selected passages from the book itself is quite good at shaking up your accustomed patterns of thought. And sometimes it can be eerily on point, in part because the reader brings his or her own unconscious thoughts and desires to the reading of a text that is by nature ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations.
This -- as I trust will be clear -- is a perfectly reality-based argument for the I Ching's use. There's no mysticism here: just a sense that, when one is stuck, picking up a random text can "stimulate your unconscious mind" and "shak[e] up your accustomed patterns of thought."

Okay. But why the I Ching then? Why not open any book randomly?

For that, we turn to Balkin's book. On page 6, he writes:
What is truly important is the underlying philosophy of the book. By formulating specific questions, contemplating the answers, and applying the book's principles and metaphors to their own situation, people who use the Book of Changes are gradually introduced to its characteristic philosophy of life in concrete contexts. Precisely because the book is structured not as a treatise but as an oracle, its philosophy is revealed not through memorizing a specific set of abstract doctrines, but through application and problem solving. In this way people assimilate over time an intuitive understanding of the book's approach and its distinctive take on the laws of change.
In other words, the reason to consult the I Ching rather than simply pick up a random text is its quality as a text -- not simply its literary quality, but its philosophical quality. This is not quite "philosophy" in the contemporary academic sense (which he describes in a truly bizarre way -- do any philosophers " memoriz[e[ a specific set of abstract doctrines"?) -- in fact, it is more like the common popular use, the one invoked when people talk about a 'philosophy of life'. It is a set of principles towards the problems of living a life -- principles best absorbed, Balkin says, in concrete situations.

Is the text as good as Balkin claims? I don't know. Or, perhaps I should say: I don't know yet. Because I must admit I am intrigued. Unlike the fortune-telling use, this description of a possible use is perfectly plausible: one can imagine a handbook of maxims for life that, over time, guides and shapes one's outlook in a positive direction. I don't know it much better than the I Ching, but my sense is that the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is one such book. There's no reason that the I Ching couldn't be another.

Thus I think that the scorn that the Raving Atheist (who, it should be remembered, is quite raving, and seemingly less atheist than he used to be) had for Balkin was unwarranted. RA pooh-poohed Balkin's disclaimer about not predicting the future -- unfairly, I think: I take Balkin at his word -- and certainly does not offer any answer to the notion that a particular text might in fact be a useful stimulus for thought and decisions.

I'll digress a moment to note that this is hardly a unique idea of Balkin's. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from Samuel R. Delany's Nova, an SF novel, first published in 1968, but set in the Thirty-Second Century. ("The Mouse" is just a nickname that one of the characters goes by.) The characters are talking about the Tarot deck:
The Mouse dared half the distance of the rug. "You're really going to try and tell the future with cards? That's silly. That's superstitious!"
"No, it's not, Mouse, Katin countered... "Mouse, the cards don't actually predict anything. they simply propagate an educated commentary on present situations--"
"Cards aren't educated! They're metal and plastic. They don't know--"
"Mouse, the seventy-eight cards of the Tarot present symbols and mythological images that have recurred and reverberated through forty-five centuries of human history. Someone who understands these symbols can construct a dialog about a given situation. There's nothing superstitious about it. The Book of Changes, even Chaldean Astrology only become superstitious when they are abused, employed to direct rather than guide and suggest."
The Mouse made that sound again.
"Really, Mouse! It's perfectly logical; you talk like somebody living a thousand years ago." (p. 101 of the Bantam paperback edition)
This isn't precisely what Balkin is saying, but it's certainly in the same ballpark: an attempt to understand fortunetelling devices in a non-superstitious way. I would be extremely skeptical about the idea that astrology can do this, and fairly skeptical about Tarot -- but Balkin has talked me into the idea that, maybe, the I Ching has something to say even for those who believe that it doesn't "actually predict anything "

Okay. But why random? What's the point of that aspect (which is the other part that the Raving Atheist most aggressively sets into)? Balkin's defense of it is as follows:
First, the book began as a divinatory text and it has traditionally been understood as one. Second, many people prefer a more mystical approach in which the book appears to speak directly to them. The third reason, however, is the most important. Life is often simply very complicated, and it is often quite difficult to know how to characterize events. The best reason to choose a hexagram at random is that you do not know the sort of situation you are facing. Moreover, a great advantage of random consultation is that it opens you up to possibilities on the situation that you may not have thought of. (p. 75)
The first reason boils down to tradition. The second could be misread as approving of a mystical approach, but I don't think that that is what Balkin means: he says that people prefer "a more mystical approach in which the book appears to speak directly to them". In other words, for the I Ching to do what Balkin claims it can -- shape one's philosophy of life through encounters with it in specific situations -- one has to take it seriously as a text: the appearance of mystical connection helps one take the text seriously, to truly open one's mind to whatever unconscious stimulation it has to offer. In other words, the appearance of the mystical helps us get at what is real -- wisdom, if the book has to offer it.

The third reason -- which is offered, I should explain, in the context of the frank suggestion that "if you already know what sort of situation you are facing, you can simply consult the hexagram judgment that is closest to the situation" (p. 74) -- also makes sense given Balkin's claim for the text. The point here is to use a random stimulus to jog one's thinking, in connection with a rich, stimulating and wise text. This is simply taking an aspect of how the human brain works, and manipulating it to one's advantage. (Nor is it that dissimilar from other things people do -- lots of artists, for example, employ random stimuli to get themselves going (which is one reason why the I Ching in particular probably worked for Philip K. Dick.))

Okay. But is the text that good? Is it really worthwhile?

Only one way to find out. I've purchased a copy of Balkin's book, and intend to ask it questions when the occasion arises, and see what I think. I've already asked it one question -- no, I won't tell you, it's private -- and it's advice was, I suppose, good. So we'll see.

There is, of course, a danger to doing this -- a danger, that is, apart from wasting a little time (which is easily compensated for by the fact that it's kind of fun, in a parlor-games way -- and no harm in that). The danger is that one might find oneself -- perhaps unconsciously -- taking the book seriously as prophecy. That the book can tell the future is, as previously mentioned, a totally nonsense notion. But the human mind has a tendency to be overawed by (imagined and imposed) connections -- there's a reason why psychics' random mumblings seem prescient -- and one might find oneself thinking that it actually all means something. When, of course, it doesn't.

This isn't to say that the advice the I Ching offers mightn't be good advice -- of course it might, just as Marcus Aurelius's Meditations do. From what I've seen thus far, it's a sensible, balance-and-moderation-is-key Confucian* approach to life. It's just that one shouldn't get too hung up on the idea that the particular hexagram(s) one tossed are particularly meaningful for that situation -- since they could just as easily have been any others.

Still, while I certainly think I could be hoodwinked -- I try to be rational, reasonable and reality-based, but people are weak and I'm no exception -- I think I'm aware enough of the dangers here to risk it.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Though come to think of it, there's a second danger, too. My immediate assumption is that anyone who takes astrology, Tarot or I Ching seriously is a flake, an idiot, someone not worth taking seriously. And that's probably largely true... since normally what 'taking such things seriously' means is to believe in their mystical powers -- which is, once again, sheer nonsense. Now, I think that the argument in this post (Balkin's argument, basically, that I've summarized) is a good one -- that there are some ways of taking (at least) the I Ching seriously which are not necessarily stupid: that, basically, even if it clearly can't predict anything, it might still be a text worth reading. Nevertheless, people of sense have a knee-jerk reaction against such things -- and reasonably so, since they are largely used for silly purposes, or in silly ways. (I presume that this is what was going on with the Raving Atheist, for instance.) I bet that the moment most people read "I Ching" they'll think "bozo" without even pausing to hear the nuances -- or rebutting the argument.

Oh well, maybe I just won't tell anyone. It's not like I've posted an essay about it on a public blog or anything. Besides, it seems that one ought to have the courage of one's convictions, even in the face of ridicule. (Balkin, for instance, did quite well at this.) I'm not particularly courageous -- nor am I particularly convinced. But perhaps I'll try anyway.

Incidentally, if anyone else is interested, Balkin's book seems to be a good place to start. The review I linked to above says that Balkin's book is "a good choice for anyone who is beginning to get into the I Ching". Another review on an I Ching site says that "I can't think of any other published book with so much I Ching information in one place," and that while "some of the commentary will sound very familiar: there are parts that are basically just rephrased and elaborated from Wilhelm/Baynes. But... [T]here's also considerable use of modern scholarship (though nothing radical) - and then there's Balkin's own insight." So the reviewers like it. Of course, they all note that Balkin doesn't take the fortune-telling aspect seriously -- but, for me, that is a feature not a bug.

If you're interested in buying Balkin's book, it was published by Shocken Books, and it is ISBN: 080524199X. It was originally published for the exorbitant price of $32.50, but now there seem to be a bunch of copies floating around for $5 - $6, and you may even find one a dollar or two cheaper. Try the various used book aggregators I recommended here.

The Wilhelm/Baynes, by the way, is an older translation that was standard for a long time -- it's Baynes's English translation of Wilhelm's German translation. You can find it online here. Balkin's translation is reportedly heavily indebted to it. But it's not the same. Just for a sense of the difference, the quatrain quoted above (from the Wilhelm/Baynes translation) reads as follows in Balkin's version:
Fire in the lake:
This is the image of Revolution.
Thus the superior person
Sets the calendar in order
To illuminate in accordance with the times.
-- Largely the same, but a key change in the last line.

To be continued -- maybe.

* I'd be far more worried that I was misapplying my ignorant sense of what Confucius actually said -- I've never read him -- if I hadn't learned from Balkin's introduction that the classic commentaries on the I Ching (parts of which are translated along with the base text -- sort of like the Gemara to the Mishna,** I think -- and which shape all subsequent interpretations of it) were, for many centuries, actually attributed to Confucius; and, while this is apparently no longer believed, they were in fact written by various Confucian disciples.

** Less you think that that is an overly grandiose metaphor, Balkin says that "to the Chinese the Book of Changes is as important as the Bible is to the West." (p. 3)

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