Thursday, 23 December 2010

'They leave each other in peace while they grow old and die' The persistent problematic weather in the UK, blown-in on the prevailing bitterly cold politico-economic weatherfront, has brought plenty of appropriate calls for us all to look out for older people in our neighbourhoods. I think this is genuine and welcome change: politicians, councils, broadcasters and newspapers have reminded people, and local websites have reinforced the message. Coincidentally I found myself reconsidering the penultimate chapter of the Tao; as you do. The poet writes of, and appears to favour, a small sparsely populated country. In the famous translation of Feng and English: 'They are happy in their ways. Though they live within sight of their neighbours, And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way, Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.' This is deceptive: can Lao Tsu be condoning un-neighbourly behaviour? I wouldn't rule it out; and if you have a neighbour with noisy livestock, there may be a temptation to, er, contemplate their demise. But the poet seems not to be referring to neighbours in the sense of local co-residents. As I understand it, throughout the section he is being prescriptive about how citizens should relate to nearby countries. This sense emerges from other, less seductive editions, where you feel the translators struggling while trying to be more explicit. Here for instance: 'The neighbouring place can be overlooked, can be so near that one may hear the cocks crowing in it, the dogs barking; but the people would grow old and die without ever having been there.' Or in this rather ungainly version (trans. James Legge): 'There should be a neighbouring state within sight, and the voices of the fowls and dogs should be heard all the way from it to us, but I would make the people to old age, even to death, not have any intercourse with it.' Well there you go: I think this means that in Lao Tsu's model state, you would be content but not be granted a passport. Whether this favouring of segregation was contrasted with a proactive attitude to cohesive residential neighbouring, we do not know, but it would not be that unusual.

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