Dàodéjīng 4: in a pluralistic mode

Ways are empty, but sometimes using them does not fill them.

An abyss! They seem to be the countless creatures’ ancestors.

They blunt their edges.

Untangle their threads.

Soften their light.

Share their dust.

Fathomless! They sometimes seem to exist.

We do not know whose children they are.

Their image preceded the Lord.

Notes on the version:

The unusual bit here is rendering dao (道) as the plural ‘ways’, instead of the more usual ‘the way’. I did this for a couple of reasons. It’s a handy way of preserving the ambiguity of ‘their’ in ‘blunt their edges’ etc, which is difficult in English when dao is singular. More importantly, this gives prominence to what I called the metaphorical descriptive, the way someone does something, and the metaphorical normative, the way someone should do something.

I think this brings out a slightly Greek reading, which focusses on the gap between ideals and reality. In it, the first line is saying that ideals have no content of their own and yet sometimes practice fails to reaches them. This ‘abyss’ seems a very Socratic sort of irony to me.

This emphasis on dao as concrete and normative ways of doing things also adds an unexpectedly Darwinian undercurrent to the second line – patterns of behaviour and striving do indeed form creatures.

In the four lines in the middle, it is unclear whether ways are blunting the edges of creatures or ways are blunting the edges of ways (in the singular, the way is blunting its own edge). I find the former reading more natural, but have tried to preserve the ambiguity.

I adopted ‘the Lord’ from Henricks. It’s the only rendering I know of that remains properly ambiguous between ‘Emperor’ and ‘God’.

Anachronistically, another version of the first line counters a popular exaggeration of Wittgenstein: to speak is empty, but sometimes its use does not fill it. Meaning is not always just use: a point Wittgenstein himself allowed, but which is sometimes forgotten.


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