On “good work” and the Tao

I have been (slowly, irregularly) making my way through Jonathan Star’s translation of, and commentary on, the Tao Te Ching. I read another translation of the Tao some years ago and remember little enough of it. I like this edition because Star offers not only a literary translation by line and verse but a verbatim translation: an analysis of the various possible meanings of each character in the original, thus giving the Westerner a better idea of just how difficult and dangerous a literary translation may be. As he explains in his introduction:

Ancient Chinese is a conceptual language; it is unlike English and other Western languages, which are perceptual. Western languages are rooted in grammar that frames events in real time, identifies subject and object, clarifies relationships, and establishes temporal sequences. Ancient Chinese is based on pictorial representations, without grammar. Characters symbolize concepts that can be interpreted as singular or plural; as a noun, a verb, or an adjective; as happening in the past, present, or future. (p. 3)

Any specific literary translation into English should therefore be held lightly—if not taken lightly; the concept is dear, but any specific perception of it is necessarily partial. I offer this as preface to everything I may say about the Tao: I know about enough to be dangerous, and anything I say should also be held lightly (if not, again, taken lightly).

I ought also to admit that I am approaching the Tao with a particular guiding question, which has to do with what I will loosely call good work. This is not the proper way to introduce that concept, but I’ll try to get around to an introduction later. What I mean right now by good work has to do particularly with technological making, and I’m guided to the Tao for insight into questions about work and technology by Alan Jacobs’ essay in the New Atlantis last year, “From Tech Critique to Ways of Living,” which I strongly recommend.

So. This morning I was poring over verse 3, in which the Sage “shows people how to be simple and live without desires,” which is boilerplate religious wisdom, but also “to be content and not look for other ways,” which could be taken as a repetition of the prior line but struck me as subtly and significantly different.

Approaching the Tao with the matter of good work in mind, I read ways as techniques. And according to Star, the thing one is to eschew (transliterated as chih)may be translated as knowledge, cunning, craftiness, knowing, erudition, strategy, clever, sly, etc. The word technique comes to me from Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society, where it means not merely a method of utilizing a specific tool but a relentless drive for efficiency, for the “one best way” that becomes an increasingly universal dogma and destroys choice and freedom. Technique in that sense seems squarely opposed to the Tao’s notion that we each should reach “our own perfection” (verse 6); there is, at least, a resonance there.

But Star’s phrase, “not look for other ways,” guides me to techniques, plural, in the simpler everyday sense, and reminds me of an observation I’ve often made about learning to cook. (I am prepared to argue that cooking is a kind of technological making and thus within the scope of my project.)

For a long time, food writing has emphasized the new. (“A long time” meaning since the 1850s, which is as long as food writing has been a thing.) Fashion arises whenever people have enough money and leisure to afford boredom, and the opening of increasingly global markets continually brings new ingredients and ideas, but the relentless pursuit of novelty is also a consequence of an industry that must sell ever more books, magazines, television programs, YouTube videos, etc., if it is to stay in business—no matter if the old ones would serve just as well, or better. Hence “the new way to cook,” “the way we cook today,” “the ingredient you need to be using now,” “the fresh, modern approach,” and so on. A particularly annoying example is Christopher Kimball’s new magazine Milk Street, whose tag line is “Change the Way You Cook,” with every issue chock-full of articles telling you why you have, until now, been making something wrong, and ought to re-think your approach entirely. But it is commonplace, and it reflects the spirit of the age.

If you are in your twenties and just learning to cook, it makes good sense—particularly if you did not grow up learning to cook at home, as most people don’t these days—to explore different traditions, avenues, cultures, etc. But if you actually mean to feed yourself and your family, and not just to throw the occasional dinner party and impress your friends, then the goal of this exploration needs to be figuring out what works for you. What will nourish you (figuratively as well as physically), sustainably, workably, day to day, through the ups and downs of your life. Once you have figured that out, you have the beginnings of a craft, and your efforts should turn gradually to refining it. Past that point, a continual quest for novelty will undermine your work. Feeding yourself day to day is about routines, stores of knowledge, experience.

If, by contrast, you are at fifty (let us say, that being my age) still hopping around from new technique to new technique, then it seems to me that you are not taking seriously the work of feeding yourself and your loved ones: you are only amusing yourself. Not that one ought to eschew all new ideas, but that the new must be absorbed into the whole of one’s craft, so that the whole may grow organically. It is the difference between cutting a channel to divert a stream and tending the existing banks. The former may keep you entertained, but the latter will actually accomplish something.

Or: think of craft as a pearl, which begins with a novel irritant but is built by patient accrual into something rare and beautiful.

That is, for this morning, how I read “be content and not look for other ways.” It may not be what the Sage meant, but that it is completely contrary to the spirit of the age makes me think that it may be.