The Importance of Living was first published in 1937. In the preface to my edition, it starts thus:
This is a personal testimony, a testimony of my own experience of thought and life. It is not intended to be objective and makes no claim to establish eternal truths. In fact I rather despise claims to objectivity in philosophy; the point of view is the thing.
Yes, the point of view is the thing. So, what is Lin Yutang's point of view?
Mankind seems to be divided into idealists and realists, and idealism and realism are the two great forces moulding human progress. The clay of humanity is made soft and pliable by the water of idealism, but the stuff that holds it together is after all the clay itself, or we might all evaporate into Ariels. The forces of idealism and realism tug at each other in all human activities, personal, social and national, and real progress is made possible by the proper mixture of these two ingredients, so that the clay is kept in the ideal pliable, plastic condition, half moist and half dry, not hardened and unmanageable, nor dissolving into mud.
Sounds interesting. But hold on!
Very fortunately, man is also gifted with a sense of humour, whose function, as I conceive it, is to exercise criticism of man's dreams, and bring them in touch with the world of reality. It is important that man dreams, but it is perhaps equally important that he can laugh at his own dreams. That is a great gift, and the Chinese have plenty of it.
Do they? I should remind readers that he was writing in 1937, and there are those who claim his China and his Chinese are long gone. I should also mention that he felt, at least in certain key aspects (see below) that men and women were different, that they had different needs and perspectives. Still, where he says "man" I suggest we read "man and woman" unless the context precludes it.
Reality + Dreams + Humour = Wisdom
In the first chapter, he rates various countries according to their levels of Realism, Humour, Dreams, and Sensibility. He concludes that the Chinese are most similar to....
It is easy to see that I regard the Chinese as most closely allied to the French in their sense of humour and sensitivity, as is quite evident from the way the French write their books and eat their food...
But there are differences, of course.
...while the more volatile character of the French comes from their greater idealism, which takes the form of love of abstract ideas (recall the manifestoes of their literary, artistic, and political movements.)
Overall, though, Lin's point is a simple one.
The world, I believe is far too serious, and being far too serious, it has need of a wise and merry philosophy.
If only. If only. But what could this wise and merry philosophy be? Before we get onto that we need to sort out our basic premises.
The modern man takes life far too seriously, and because he is too serious, the world is full of troubles. We ought, therefore, to take time to examine the origin of that attitude which will make possible a whole-hearted enjoyment of this life and a more reasonable, more peaceful and less hot-headed temperament.
Okay. The groundwork is laid. Where to go from here?
VIEWS OF MANKIND
Lin Yutang wants us to understand the differences between world outlooks. Here's his take on Christianity:
All in all, there is still a belief in total depravity, that enjoyment of this life is sin and wickedness, that to be uncomfortable is to be virtuous, and that on the whole man cannot save himself except by a greater power outside.
The Greeks were a whole other kettle of seaweed:
On the whole, it was accepted by the Greeks that man's was a mortal lot, subject sometimes to a cruel Fate. That once accepted, man was quite happy was he was, for the Greeks loved this life and this universe, and were interested in understanding the good, the true and the beautiful in life, besides being fully occupied in scientifically understanding the physical world.
And the Chinese? Can we take Lin Yutang's word for anything he says about such a vast subject? After all, his father was a Christian minister, and Lin was educated by missionaries. He says himself that he is half-east and half-west, or vice versa.
I'll take him as I take any historical writer I enjoy reading--with a pinch or two of salt--and leave it at that, for now.
So, anyway, the Christians are still caught in guilt, the Greeks were caught in fate. And the Chinese?
...the Chinese takes an attitude toward man himself, as toward all other problems, which may be summed up in the phrase: "Let us be reasonable."
Yes, let us be reasonable.
And what is life, after all?
I think that, from the biological standpoint, human life almost reads like a poem. It has its own rhythm and beat, its internal cycles of growth and decay. It begins with innocent childhood, followed by awkward adolescence trying awkwardly to adapt itself to mature society, with its young passions and follies, its ideals and ambitions; then it reaches a manhood of intense activities, profiting from experience and learning more about society and human nature; at middle age, there is a slight easing of tension, a mellowing of character like the ripening of fruit or the mellowing of good wine, and the gradual acquiring of a more tolerant, more cynical and at the same time a kindlier view of life; then in the sunset of our life, the endocrine glands decrease their activity, and if we have a true philosophy of old age and have ordered our life pattern according to it, it is for us the age of peace and security and leisure and contentment; finally, life flickers out and one goes into eternal sleep, never to wake up again.
Yes, yes. For some maybe. But what about all those who are suffering? What about all those who are being bombed into eternal youth--destined never to pass Lin Yutang's second stage?
One should be able to sense the beauty of this rhythm of life, to appreciate, as we do in grand symphonies, its main theme, its strains of conflict and the final resolution. The movements of these cycles are very much the same in normal life, but the music must be provided by the individual himself. In some souls, the discordant note becomes harsher and harsher and finally overwhelms or submerges the main melody. Sometimes the discordant note gains so much power that the music can no longer go on, and the individual shoots himself with a pistol or jumps into a river. But that is because his original leit-motif
has been hopelessly over-shadowed through the lack of a good self-education. Otherwise the normal human life runs to its normal end in a kind of dignified movement and procession.
Life is what you make it, perhaps. And perhaps feeling miserable because other people are miserable is doubling misery, not doing something about it. Perhaps. Certainly, for many, times are tough. And why is that?
OUR ANIMAL HERITAGE
One of the most important consequences of our being animals is that we have got this bottomless pit called the stomach. This fact has coloured our entire civilisation.
What follows is a rhapsody about eating as only the Chinese (and French) can, and this is followed by a proposal that our dietary requirements affect our basic character.
The characteristic of the carnivorous is a certain sheer delight in pugilism, logrolling, wire-pulling, and in double-crossing, outwitting and forestalling the enemy, all done with a genuine interest and real ability, for which, however, I confess I fail to have the slightest appreciation. But it is all a matter of instinct; men born with this pugilistic instinct seem to enjoy and revel in it, while real creative ability, ability in doing their own jobs or knowing their own subjects, seems at the same time usually to be underdeveloped.
Is this over-determinism? Is it true? Does it ring any bells? Enough of my questions. Let's get to the heart of the matter.
ON BEING HUMAN
The very basis of human civilisation started with the emancipation of the hands consequent upon man's assuming an erect stature and becoming a biped. Such playful curiosity we see even in cats, the moment their front paws are relieved from the duty of walking and supporting the body. It might have been quite as possible for a civilisation to be developed from cats as well as monkeys, except for the fact that in the case of the monkeys, the fingers were already well developed through the clasping of branches, whereas the cat's paws were still paws--merely lumps of flesh and cartilage.
Okay, a society of cats walking on hind legs. What does this have to do with us?
I believe the mystery of the origin of sexual modesty in man, which is totally absent in animals, is [due to our] erect posture. For by this new posture, which Father Nature in his scheme of things probably never intended, certain posterior parts of the body at one stroke came to occupy the centre of the body, and what was naturally behind came in front. Allied to this terrible new situation were other maladjustments chiefly affecting women, causing frequent abortions and menstrual troubles. Anatomically, our muscles were designed and developed for the quadruped position. The mother pig, for instance, carries its litter of pig embryos logically suspended from its horizontal spine, like wash hung on a line with its weight properly distributed. Asking the human pregnant mother to stand erect is like tipping the wash line vertically and expecting the clothes to remain in position. Our peritoneal muscles are badly designed for that: if we were originally bipeds, such muscles should be nicely attached to the shoulder, and the whole thing would be a more pleasant job. Anybody with a knowledge of the anatomy of the human womb and ovaries should be surprised that they keep in position and function at all, and that there are not more dislocations and menstrual troubles.
Is this misogynist, or fascinating, both or neither? There's more.
This, then, led to the subjection of women and probably also to the development of human society with its present characteristics. I do not think that if the human mother could walk on all fours, she would have been subjected by her husband at all.
I'll be sued if I type out the whole book, so, given that we didstart walking upright...
WHO CAN BEST ENJOY LIFE?
The only problem unconsciously assumed by all Chinese philosophers to be of any importance is: how shall we enjoy life, and who can best enjoy life? No perfectionism, no straining after the unattainable, no postulating of the unknowable; but taking poor, mortal human nature as it is, how shall we organise our life that we can work peacefully, endure nobly, and live happily?
Yes, how will we enjoy life? And who is best designed to enjoy it?
The ideal character best able to enjoy life is a warm, carefree and unafraid soul.
Being disinterested ("not influenced by private feelings or considerations; not deriving personal advantage; impartial; unselfish, generous") seems to be one of the many keys to our making the most of our brief sojourn on this blue and green spinning ball, infinitesimal specks on an infinitesimal speck in this unimaginably huge universe we inhabit. Yes! Thoughts! Ideas! Surely these leap out and stretch away? Surely they don't settle down like hobbits?
Let us take the supposedly higher pleasures of the mind and the spirit, and see to what extent they are vitally connected with our senses, rather than with our intellect. What are those spiritual pleasures that we distinguish from those of the lower senses? Are they not parts of the same thing, taking root and ending up in the senses, and inseparable from them?
Yes, of course. We are animals, endowed with animal appetites. We have stood up, for better or worse, and so...and so?
The feast of life is, therefore, before us, and the only question is what appetite we have for it. The appetite is the thing, and not the feast. After all, the most bewildering thing about man is his idea of work and the amount of work he imposes upon himself, or civilisation has imposed upon him. All nature loafs, while man alone works for a living.
Why oh why did we invent such a ridiculous way to pass our days?
He works because he has to, because with the progress of civilisation life gets incredibly more complex, with duties, responsibilities, fears, inhibitions and ambitions, born not of nature, but of human society.
Of course, the Chinese, in Lin Yutang's opinion, love to loaf. But hold on. Human Society. What's it for, eh?
It has seemed to me that the final test of any civilisation is, what type of husbands and wives and fathers and mothers does it turn out? Besides the austere simplicity of such a question, every other achievement of civilisation--art, philosophy, literature and material living--pales into insignificance.
I need to backtrack. This is getting heavy, getting serious, getting...no! Lin! Mr. Lin! Mr. Yutang!
All people are too serious and half-insane when they declare a war against other people. They are so sure that they are right and that God is on their side.
Sounds good, but I need some humour!
It is amazing how few people are conscious of the importance of the art of lying in bed, although actually in my opinion nine-tenths of the world's most important discoveries, both scientific and philosophical, are come upon when the scientist or philosopher is curled up in bed at two or five o'clock in the morning.
Take any Chinese redwood furniture and saw off its legs a few inches, and it immediately becomes more comfortable; and if you saw off another few inches, then it becomes still more comfortable. The logical conclusion of this is, of course, that one is most comfortable when one is lying perfectly flat on a bed. The matter is as simple as that.
Ah yes. The enjoyment of lying on a bed and...falling asleep. And then we wake up and...do what?
THE ENJOYMENT OF LIVING
The central part of his book is a disquisition on various elements of life--and how to enjoy them. Headings run as follows: "On Conversation", "On Tea and Friendship", "On Food and Medicine", "On Rocks and Trees", etc.
Here he is on Lady Nicotine:
The world today is divided into smokers and non-smokers. It is true that smokers cause some nuisance to the non-smokers, but this nuisance is physical, while the nuisance that the non-smokers cause the smokers is spiritual. There are, of course, a lot of non-smokers who don't try to interfere with the smokers, and wives can be trained even to tolerate their husbands' smoking in bed. This is the surest sign of a happy marriage.
1937, mate. Nineteen thirty seven! We are children of the twenty first century. Smoking in bed? Is he mad? We know that smoking is terrible, don't we? Passive smoking kills, right? Smoking is just, ugh! It's 'orrible!
It is sometimes assumed, however, that the non-smokers are morally superior, and that they have something to be proud of, not realising that they have missed one of the greatest pleasures of mankind. I am willing to allow that smoking is a moral weakness, but on the other hand, we must beware of the man without weaknesses. He is not to be trusted. He is apt to be always sober and he cannot make a mistake. His habits are likely to be regular, his existence more mechanical and his head always maintains its supremacy over his heart. Much as I like reasonable persons, I hate completely rational beings. For that reason, I am always scared and ill at ease when I enter a house in which there are no ash trays. The room is apt to be too clean and orderly, the cushions are apt to be in their right places, and the people are apt to be correct and unemotional. And immediately I am put on my best behaviour, which means the same thing as the most uncomfortable behaviour.
He also discusses wine, tea, flowers, and etc. but here's a summation of his overall approach:
The reason I don't like dictators is that they are inhuman, and anything which is inhuman is bad. An inhuman religion is no religion, inhuman politics is foolish politics, inhuman art is just bad art, and the inhuman way of life is the beast's way of life. This test of humanness is universal and can be applied to all walks of life and all systems of thought. The greatest ideal that man can aspire to is not to be a show-case of virtue, but just to be a genial, likable and reasonable human being.
Yes, yes, you cry, but come on, smoking is stinky and we just don't like it. Did he mention flowers?
There are only two flowers for whose fragrance I am willing to forgo the orchid, and they are the cassia and the narcissus. The last is also a special product of my native city, Changchow, and its import into the United States in the form of cultivated roots at one time ran to hundreds of thousands of dollars, until the Department of Agriculture saw fit to deprive the American people of this flower with a heavenly fragrance, in order to protect them from possible germs.
The flower cognoscenti among you can comment on the above. He also has some comments on rocks.
For the fullest appreciation of all uses of stone in the house and gardens, however, one has to back to Chinese calligraphy. For calligraphy is nothing but a study of rhythm and line and composition in the abstract. While really good pieces of rock should suggest majesty or detachment from life, it is even more important that the lines be correct. By line one does not mean a straight line, or a circle or a triangle, but the rugged lines of nature. Laotse, "The Old Boy," has always emphasised in his Taoteching the uncarved rock. Let us not tamper with Nature, for the best works of art, like the best poem or literary composition, is one which shows no sign of human effort, as natural as a winding river or a sailing cloud, or as the Chinese literary critics always say, "without axe and chisel marks."
Well, he's describing Chinese tastes. If we all shared the same everything, we'd all be the same, right? And therefore no better than ourselves. Bah! Humbug!
There follows a chapter on travel, which can be summed up as follows:
A true traveller is always a vagabond, with the joys, temptations and sense of adventure of the vagabond. Either travel is "vagabonding" or it is no travel at all. The essence of travel is to have no duties, no fixed hours, no mail, no inquisitive neighbours, no receiving delegations, and no destination. A good traveller is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveller does not know where he came from. He does not even know his own name and surname.
Well, I am skimming past many sections. The end of the book approacheth. We now move on to
THE ENJOYMENT OF CULTURE
Art is both creation and recreation. Of the two ideas, I think art as recreation or as sheer play of the human spirit is more important. Much as I appreciate all forms of immortal creative work, whether in painting, architecture, or literature, I think the spirit of true art can become more general and permeate society only when a lot of people are enjoying art as a pastime, without any hope of achieving immortality.
That is to say, I am for amateurism in all fields.
As for reading, he quotes Yuan Chunglang.
"You can leave the books that you don't like alone, and let other people read them."
There can be, therefore, no books that on absolutely must read. For our intellectual interests grow like a tree or flow like a river. So long as there is proper sap, the tree will grow anyhow, and so long as there is fresh current from the spring, the water will flow. When water strikes a granite cliff, it just goes around it; when it finds itself in a pleasant low valley, it stops and meanders there a while; when it finds itself in a deep mountain pond, it is content to stay there; when it finds itself travelling over rapids, it hurries forward. Thus, without any effort or determined aim, it is sure of reaching the sea some day. There are no books in this world that everybody must read, but only books that a person must read at a certain time in a given place under given circumstances and at a given period of his life.
I feel the end approaching fast. What's that? Writing? What does he have to say about an activity so many Euro Tribbers have an interest in?
Writing is good or bad, depending on its charm and flavour, or lack of them. For this charm there can be no rules. Charm rises from one's writing as smoke rises from a pipe-bowl, or a cloud rises from a hill-top, not knowing whither it is going.
They can't get enough of nature, these Chinese sages. Cities are freak environments unless filled with green. Why don't we grow vegetables in our front gardens? Because cars will poison them? Imagine food everywhere. Fresh and ready to eat. We were discussing writing.
Clear thoughts expressed in unclear language is the style of a confirmed bachelor. He never has to explain anything to his wife.
Read "husband" as necessary. Swap "he" for "she". Change "man" to "woman", then change it back again, join them together, entangle them, make love to them and be their babies. Where were we?
There is a period of gestation of ideas before writing, like the period of gestation of an embryo in its mother's womb before birth. When one's favourite author has kindled the spark in one's soul, and set up a current of live ideas in him, that is the "impregnation." When a man rushes into print before his ideas go through this period of gestation, that is diarrhoea, mistaken for birth pains.
Watch out! So, how will we know when we're on the right track?
When a writer feels violent convulsions like an electric storm in his head, and he doesn't feel happy until he gets the ideas out of his system and puts them down on paper and feels an immense relief, that is literary birth.
Hence writing is always better when it is one's own, and a woman is always lovelier when she is somebody else's wife.
RELATIONSHIP TO GOD
Yes, religion. I would use the word spirituality, but he chooses religion to describe....to describe....you know.
Man is important enough; he is the most important topic of our studies: that is the essence of humanism. Yet man lives in a magnificent universe, quite as wonderful as the man himself, and he who ignores the greater world around him, its origin and its destiny, cannot be said to have a truly satisfying life.
So, what is religion?
Is religion a glorification of the status quo with mystic emotion? Is it certain moral truths so mystified and decorated and camouflaged as to make it possible for a priestcraft to make a living? Doesn't revelation stand in the same relation to religion as "a secret patented process" stands in relation to certain advertised nostrums?
Yes, yes, and yes. But, you see, Lin was a Christian in his youth, but as he grew older he lost bits and pieces, then more bits and pieces. Still, he had one last problem.
Finally my salvation came. "Why," I reasoned with a colleague, "if there were no God, people would not do good and the world would go topsy-turvy."
"Why?" replied my Confucian colleague. "We should lead a decent human life simply because we are decent human beings," he said.
THE ART OF THINKING
And so we come to the end of the book. Thinking. What is it?
Thinking is an art, not a science. One of the greatest contrasts between Chinese and Western scholarship is the fact that in the West there is so much specialised knowledge, and so little humanised knowledge, while in China there is so much more concern with the problems of living, while there are no specialised sciences.
As I understand it, the Yellow River is toxic, and modern China can't get enough of the motor car. The universities of modern China produce 700,000 engineers a year. Is Lin Yutang talking of a vanished time? Well, he takes a broad sweep. Chinese history is vaster and more far-reaching than any other. And, circling back to the beginning, we have this at the beginning of Chapter One:
Four thousand years of efficient living would ruin any nation. An important consequence is that, while in the West, the insane are so many that they are put in an asylum, in China the insane are so unusual that we worship them, as anybody who has a knowledge of Chinese literature will testify.
So, the number of insane people is a measure of efficiency.
THE RETURN TO COMMONSENSE
The Chinese hate the phrase "logical necessity" because there is no logical necessity in human affairs. The Chinese distrust of logic begins with the distrust of words, proceeds with the abhorrence of definitions and ends with instinctive hatred for all systems and theories.
What? Is this is a cultural truth? Time for a parable.
Once during the collapse of a dynasty, a rich Chinese official was able to secure as his cook a maid who had escaped from the palace kitchen. Proud of her, he issued invitations for his friends to come and taste a dinner prepared by one he thought an Imperial cook. As the day was approaching, he asked the maid to prepare a royal dinner. The maid replied that she couldn't prepare a dinner.
"What did you do then?" asked the official.
"Oh, I helped make the patties for the dinner," she replied.
"Well, then, go ahead and make some nice patties for my guests."
To his consternation the maid announced: "Oh, no, I can't make patties. I specialised in chopping up the onions for the stuffing of the patties of the Imperial dinner."
Some such condition obtains today in the field of human knowledge and academic scholarship. We have a biologist who knows a bit of life and human nature, a psychiatrist who knows another bit of it; a geologist who knows mankind's early history; an anthropologist who knows the mind of the savage man; an historian who, if he happens to be a genial mind, can teach us something of human wisdom and human folly as reflected in mankind's past history; a psychologist who often can help us to understand our behaviour... But along with the process of specialisation, there has not been the urgently needed process of integration, the effort to integrate all these aspects of knowledge and make them serve the supreme end, which is the wisdom of life.
So many words! What does he have to say about them? Words, I mean.
Man's love for words is his first step toward ignorance, and his love for definitions the second. The more he analyses, the more he has need to define, and the more he defines, the more he aims at an impossible logical perfection, for the effort of aiming at logical perfection is only a sign of ignorance. Since words are the material of our thought, the effort at definition is entirely laudable, and Socrates started the mania for definition in Europe. The danger is that after being conscious of words we define, we are further forced to define the defining words, so that in the end, besides the words which define or express life itself, we have a class of words which define other words, which then become the main preoccupation of our philosophers.
Didn't Wittgenstein say something similar? And, wait, there's something worse than "words, words, words."
But if words by necessity cut up our thoughts in the process of expression, the love of system is even more fatal to a keen awareness of life. A system is but a squint at truth, and the more logically that system is developed, the more horrible that mental squint becomes. The human desire to see only one phase of truth which we happen to perceive, and to develop and elevate it into a perfect logical system, is one reason why our philosophy is bound to grow stranger to life. He who talks about truth injures it thereby; he who tries to prove it thereby maims and distorts it; he who gives it a label and a school of thought kills it; and he who declares himself a believer buries it. Therefore any truth which has been erected into a system is thrice dead and buried. The dirge that they all sing at truth's funeral is, "I am entirely right and you are entirely wrong." It is entirely immaterial what truth they bury, but it is essential that they do the burying. For so truth suffers at the hands of its defenders, and all factions and all schools of philosophy, ancient and modern, are occupied only in proving one point, that "I am entirely right and you are entirely wrong."
I think it was Robert Anton Wilson who wrote that "realities" has no singular form.
And so to the end. Remember, Lin Yutang was writing in 1937, two years before the outbreak of World War Two. His was a cautionary tale, one that may have had some effect in certain hearts and heads, but the war still happened. In the following quotes, the names may have changed, but the essence is, for me, as true today as ever it was.
In the sphere of politics, there is something terribly inhuman in the logic of the minds of men and conduct of affairs in certain states of Europe. And I am less terrified by the theories of Fascism and Communism than by the fanatical spirit which infuses them and the method by which men push their theories doggedly to logical absurdities. The result is a confusion of values, a weird mixing-up of politics with anthropology, art with propaganda, patriotism with science, government with religion, and above all an entire upset of the proper relationship between the claims of the state and the claims of the individual. Only an insane type of mind can erect the state into a god and make of it a fetish to swallow up the individual's right of thinking, feeling and the pursuit of happiness.
He sees, in short, that the logical extrapolation of abstractions leads to absurdities which crush individual human beings, not to mention the environment. Or, in even shorter, if you believe in [add your pet theory here] more than in the individuals who will need to [insert your preferred method here]...well...(drum roll)...we are at the end. After all these words, what is it that Mr. Lin Yutang proposes for us? I will let the man with the mighty pipe finish.
In contrast to logic, there is common sense, or still better, the Spirit of Reasonableness. I think of the Spirit of Reasonableness as the highest and sanest ideal of human culture, and the reasonable man as the highest type of cultivated human being. No one can be perfect; he can only aim at being a likable, reasonable being. In fact, I look forward to the time when the people of the world will be informed with this reasonable spirit, both in their personal and their national affairs. Only in a world of reasonable beings can we have peace and happiness. The Reasonable Age, if that should ever come about, will be the Age of Peace. It will be the age in which the Spirit of Reasonableness prevails.