Fuse Book Review: “The Book of Beginnings” — Vive les indifférences!

The French title indicates an attempt to “enter” a foreign way of thought and to study the “possibilities” and, by extension, “potential mindsets” of the human mind.

The Book of Beginnings by François Jullien, translated by Jody Gladding. Margellos World Republic of Letters series, Yale University Press, 152 pp. $26.


by John Taylor

Anyone fluent in at least two languages knows some things are easier to say in one language, while still other things are easier to say in the second language. So do any two languages always differ in a few fundamental aspects? Of course. Yet the same bilingual speaker builds bridges across the gaps, which can be semantic or syntactic in nature, and soon he or she scarcely thinks about the differences anymore. Imagine a city divided by a river over which span so many bridges that the terms “left bank” and “right bank” have lost nearly all their meaning for the inhabitants; and although the river is still visible here and there between the parallel parapets of two very close bridges, it has, for all practical purposes, become an underground stream. So do languages differ, after all? Well, perhaps, but only in insignificant ways. Bridges can be built; new bridges imagined. Languages can be translated. Even poetry can often be translated somewhat satisfactorily, pace Robert Frost, who thought it was precisely “what is lost in translation.”

Yet if I am speaking (somewhat optimistically) from my perspective as an American who has lived in continental Europe for two-thirds of his lifetime, the languages that I deal and dabble in all belong to the Indo-European family. What happens when two languages lie much further apart lexically and grammatically? What happens when the river separating the two banks seems an ocean? And what happens when we go back in time, to those myth-founding narratives of diverse cultures, and try to penetrate the language and the underlying mentality on their terms, not ours?

This is the challenge taken up by the provocative French sinologist and philosopher François Jullien in The Book of Beginnings, now available in Jody Gladding’s translation. Note the original title of this stimulating book first published in France in 2012: Entrer dans une pensée, ou Des possibles de l’esprit. The French title indicates an attempt to “enter” a foreign way of thought and to study the “possibilities” and, by extension, “potential mindsets” of the human mind. “To enter, if we define it most literally and introductorily,” explains Jullien in his study, which is at once scholarly and accessible to the layman, “is to pass from an outside to an inside.”

In an effort to explore the notion of getting “inside” a radically different way of thinking, Jullien analyzes the first sentence of three ancient classics: the Chinese Yijing (I Ching), the Hebraic Genesis, and the Greek Theogony written by Hesiod. These are the “beginnings” of the English title.

He takes the Chinese sentence not as it has previously been rendered in French or English, but rather “enters” the original lineup of words to give it a new, deep-probing translation, which, hopefully, will not unduly draw on his own Western presuppositions.

Difficulties begin immediately. The sinologist’s grappling with the opening sentence of the Yijing—“yuan heng li zhen”—makes him wonder if it is even a sentence. “Just four Chinese sinograms follow one another side by side,” he observes, “without anything to indicate rection or relationships of coordination or subordination between them. These four monosyllables are all equal, without anything arranging or hierarchizing them, but in their series they form a complete whole. In such a formula, is it even a matter of verbs, nouns, adjectives, or whatever function these words have?”

Jullien renders the phrase as “beginning expansion profit rectitude,” adding that “yuan heng li zhen” could just as well be glossed with verbs: “to begin—to expand rapidly—to profit/to turn to good account—to remain sound (solid).”

What engages him is sentence’s underlying worldview. According to his persuasive argument, the viewpoint implicit in the Chinese sentence contrasts fundamentally with the assumptions informing our Western languages, including Hebrew. Jullien sees this Chinese sentence as not “constructing” anything, as being “content with simultaneously unbinding and binding.” He notes that “each successive term takes over from the preceding one and deploys it,” that is, “proceeds from it, renews it, and carries it further.” The sentence is akin to “four points or pieces on an otherwise empty checkerboard, tracing a curve by themselves.”

The method he employs for extracting the essence of this Chinese sentence could be described as follows: he suspends his urge to construe meaning too quickly and lets himself absorb, not only putative “differences,” but also possible “indifference,” as he interestingly puts it. This latter term refers to how a way of thought might not be “concerned” with the other way of thought en face. “Indifference between ways of thought,” Jullien points out incisively, “is much more difficult to surmount than difference.”

As an ethnological illustration of indifference, he cites the case of Christian missionaries coming upon what he calls a “full” literary, philosophical, and spiritual world in China: “For a long time the Chinese Literati would not be taken in by them—not that they refuted those evangelists who came from their ‘Far West,’ but they could hardly be bothered: Did they need this imported Message? Was it meant just for them? Euclid’s Elements could certainly be put to good use, but the News of salvation hardly seemed to concern them; rather, it left them indifferent.”

This ethnological analogy helps us think about linguistic and philosophical otherness. That enigmatic Chinese sentence—yet isn’t “enigmatic” perhaps a Western notion?—induces Jullien to raise a question. He cannot hide his astonishment. “Can we imagine,” he wonders, “an opening that is less inventive, less postulated, and less adventuresome—less risky? Can we imagine a proposition less moved by choices, and especially those grammatical choices required by other languages (choices of person, gender, number, time, and so on)?” The sentence “Beginning expansion profit rectitude” does not “refer to anything in particular, it has no subject or complement, but it marks the stages and the justification of all development: it less has a meaning, strictly speaking, then it develops a coherence.”

Jullien goes on to compare this Chinese “beginning” with the Hebraic “beginning” as related in Genesis. Significantly, what evolves from his close reading of the respective texts is less an “opposition” than a “difference” or, rather, to cite that henceforth useful term: an “indifference.” “On the Chinese side,” asserts Jullien, “the beginning evoked does not detach itself but engages. Whereas the event of Genesis has inaugural value, whereas a first day breaks with splendor and majesty, this other beginning sets in motion—and, most important, in an imperceptible fashion—an operativity. The Genesis beginning opens a way of thinking of Time [. . .]; the Chinese beginning, a way of thinking of processes (claiming only unfolding and duration).”

These contrasting notions of “inauguration” and “process” bring us to the Greeks. In Jullien’s analysis, they are acutely aware of “the beginning as a question and even as a challenge for thought.” The Greeks’ “problematic orientation,” as he phrases it, starkly differs from the biblical account of the ‘beginning,’ which is announced “without justifying itself: it does not proclaim where it comes from or what authorizes it; it is uttered without author and without witness.” As for the Greeks, they harbor doubts about the world, about themselves, and about their authority to speak.

Jullien’s insight is based on the opening sentence of Hesiod’s Theogony: “Of the Muses of Helicon let us begin to sing.” He reads this incantation not as an example of lyrical effusion but rather as an expression of self-consciousness. The opening verb “to begin” (archometha), he argues, “is spoken by the author to himself in first person plural imperative, as this author introduces himself and overtly accepts his decision to begin. Because Hesiod does not want to celebrate the Muses in his poem so much as be authorized by them to express himself, he invokes them both as source and support for his statement at the same time as he is aware, from the outset, of the ambiguity belonging to speech: the Muses know how to speak ‘lies exactly like realities’ just as they are able, when they desire, ‘to proclaim truths.’” Hesiod’s opening line is thus categorically different from, say, “Let there be light.”

As Jullien deftly moves back and forth among these Chinese, Hebrew, and Greek first sentences, one question comes to this reader’s mind. Are there perhaps counterexamples that would raise doubts about the more or less single essential orientation attributed to each way of thought? It’s true that the author gives nuance to some of his initial statements, but his conclusions remain formidably clear-cut. For example, he declares that “in all of ancient literature, [. . .] before the affirmation of science and regardless of which culture we consider, there are only four ways of representing the advent of the world: through generation, combat, fabrication, and speech.” In his defense,  he bases his investigation on the earliest recorded documents available for the three cultures; counterexamples that come to mind—the self-questioning biblical Job, for instance, as an archetypal figure parallel to Hesiod’s self-aware narrator—must necessarily have appeared long after the three fundamental narratives in question.

In all events, the author brings three worldviews into a fascinating trilogue, even if he discovers that some categories of thought cannot truly “speak to” the categories of the discussion partner across the way. The “processive beginning” of the Chinese, for instance, cannot be grasped by our familiar Western notions, “whether they belong to one side or the other: from the temporal-factual (biblical) side, revealing to us a History, or from the self-essential, ontological (Hellenic) side, as a function of model and archetype.” “As wrenching and powerful as this duality of perspectives is,” continues Jullien, “it cannot continue to speak to us once we have passed into China. It ‘no longer speaks to us’—that is, it no longer encounters anything that integrates it and allows it to take on meaning and truth.”

Francois Jullien --

François Jullien — a provocative French sinologist and philosopher.

Jullien thus clarifies the “indifferences” concealed behind our blinding cultural concepts. We invariably see the Other as we are, whereas he helps us to see the Other as the Other is. If his exegesis initially comes off as an admission of failure, of impossibility—we cannot always “speak to” this remote Other— it actually opens up possibilities of cross-cultural communication. In other words, this book is about the importance of translation, the enduring relevance of its  issues and quandaries.

Although he contrasts three exceedingly different languages, all of which are at once ancient and very much alive, his way of interpreting a given cultural approach on its own terms can certainly be applied to the semantics and even the aesthetics of transferring any language into another. “In order to translate,” he counsels, “it is necessary to help another possibility get through, and not to hurry this translation; not to step over the difficulty, not to mask it, but, on the contrary, to unfold it. Because to translate is not to fall flat from one side to the other any more than it is to dream of a meta-language, beyond the two, that would integrate and reconcile them; it is, rather, to develop and deploy a threshold between the outside and the inside that effectively allows entry.”

Moreover, his vantage point revitalizes the potentialities of translation. “There are no insurmountable walls between languages any more than there are premade bridges,” he adds. “Which is to say that translating is not deceptive but effective, and thus is not falsifying but fascinating: it is a matter of maintaining oneself at the breach as long as possible, perilously but patiently, being open equally to both sides and maintaining the encounter between them until the possibility of one is equally recognized by the other and progressively finds there what, as a reflected condition, can also make its way in it.”

Now those are words and here is a book that any translator will wish to peruse and discuss.

John Taylor’s most recent translations of French literature include Philippe Jaccottet’s The Pilgrim’s Bowl (Giogrio Morandi) and Georges Perros’s Paper Collage (both available from Seagull Books), as well as José-Flore Tappy’s Sheds (Bitter Oleander Press). Forthcoming from Chelsea Editions is An Orchid Shining in the Hand, his selection of verse by the Italian poet Lorenzo Calogero, a project for which he won the 2013 Raiziss-de Palchi Translation Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets. His most recent critical work is A Little Tour through European Poetry (Transaction).

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