The Dramatic and the Bland

Thursday December 10, 2009

Ni Zan

Once again, I have been finding myself thinking about drama, and about our obsession with drama. For it seems to me as if Western models of thought, of history, of ethics and even of ourselves are all, in one way or another, rooted in an essentially dramatic kind of thinking. Philosophy is the struggle of ideas; ethics is the drama of good’s triumph over evil; history is a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end, either an upward march towards some ultimate goal, or an interminable decline into disarray; and we depict ourselves (perhaps) as protagonists in our own dramas (albeit dramas that will always be curiously incomplete, as we will have to flee the theatre the moment before the curtain falls on the final scene). When I watch my own thought processes unfolding, Ican see this tendency to give things dramatic form coming up again and again.

I have written before about my scepticism about this propensity for drama; but it was something I was reminded of again whilst reading François Jullien’s book, In Praise of Blandness, which explores the various uses and transformations of the term 淡 (dan) in Chinese thought. In the original French, the term that Jullien uses to translate 淡 is fadeur (a term favoured by Verlaine). In the English version, the term blandness serves instead. Jullien sees blandness as occupying the “point furthest from Revelation” (45). It is a way of charactetrising the real, without “seasoning” it with any kind of message.

My own reading of this is that the notion of blandness might be a way of approaching things in which we sidestep our habitual attachment to drama. What happens to the taste of things when we refuse to see the world in terms of our habitual dramas? It is interesting, I think, to see meditation in the light of this notion of blandness. Often Westerners approaching meditation do so wanting big experiences, looking for some kind of story or plot or drama or revelation. But that was not what I found. Instead, I found something rather different. A stilling of stories and plots, and, yes, a kind of blandness. Along with this came something else, a kind of unease, the fear that, beneath the sound and the fury, beneath the clamour, beneath the stories that we weave, there might be nothing at all. “Does detachment really extinguish personality,” asks Jullien, “and does blandness render us numb?” This, after all, is old the criticism of certain approaches to Buddhist practice – they are anaesthetic in nature. In response to these questions, however, Jullien quotes the poet Su Dongpo, who records a dialogue with a Buddhist monk who wonders, after the subsiding of all dramas, what is left other than cold ashes. How can there be poetry, when the fires have gone out? The poet replies as follows:

If you want to perfect your poetic expression,
Do not reject encounters with calm and emptiness:
For calm brings the various movements to completion;
And emptiness embraces all possible worlds. (129)

The fear is that in the giving up of our habitual dramas, we are diminished. And in a sense, we are; but Su Dongpo suggests that we are also augmented. The world takes on a different aspect, and in losing our sense of our own dramas, other possible worlds begin to open up. There is poetry here, but it is not the poetry that we expect. It is not a poetry of high drama in which we play the heroic central role, but something quieter, something that is capable of bringing things to completion, or to a kind of fulness. As a meditator, it is good to remember this. Sometimes, when the dramas begin to subside, it can seem as if there is nothing there at all. It takes precisely this kind of attention to glimpse, there amid what seem to be cold ashes, a different kind of warmth, and a different kind of poetry. Jullien quotes the Tang dynasty poet, Sikong Tu.

Things rich in colour run out, dry up,
While things that are bland grow gradually richer.

This thought may be counter-intuitive to those hooked on drama; but experience, at least, seems to bear it out.

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#1 · Seinbeetre

10 December 2009

Nice post

You wrote:
“Along with this came something else, a kind of unease, the fear that, beneath the sound and the fury, beneath the clamour, beneath the stories that we weave, there might be nothing at all.”

I would call this unease, this fear still part of that very drama you describe. But once you pass that by to the point of complete ease, that is where there is no drama and no fear.

But I don’t know that one can say that no drama equals blandness. I feel one can then just realise endless variety of other tastes and fragrances without that one overpowering one of drama.

#2 · Will

10 December 2009

I agree about the fear being bound up in the drama.
The idea of “blandness” is one that Jullien uses with deliberate provocativeness. It is a blandness that does not exclude richness. It is a kind of setting-at-ease in which things have their place, but in which we are freed from obsession over just this or just that flavour. So, as you say, it opens up to the endless variety of tastes and fragrances.

#3 · Anittah

11 December 2009

Related: on Tuesday I attended a talk by the author of a book subtitled, “The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”

Our amygdala craves drama! Gimme gimme gimme!!!!!

#4 · litlove

11 December 2009

Very interesting. But perhaps drama appeals to people because it gives them the sense of authentic emotional engagement? We’re all conversant with the notion that three people can experience the same event in radically different ways. ‘Drama’ is precisely the representation of the event as filtered through the emotional layers of the soul – something quite mundane can be experienced as tragedy or oomedy depending on the emotional wiring of the witness concerned. It may well be excessive in terms of response, but the very loudness or insistence of that response gives people a chance to see themselves, feel themselves, in a way that seems genuine.

So I think it’s true that the event itself is rarely as dramatic as drama makes out, but I think also that drama serves a purpose for many people. Oddly enough I write this as someone who dislikes drama and has a distaste for it. But that’s because I equate safety with less emotional engagement. Detachment can itself be a state of fugue or a form of denial.

I do have sympathy also for your point of view – it’s like recovering alcoholics – without booze life can seem very grey until finally they regain their taste for it as it is, without the heightened awareness that drink can bring.

#5 · Janet

15 December 2009

What a beautiful post! Being “bland” (or allowing blandness) while others are exploding into colors around you…well, at first one can feel invisible, lonely, unappreciated, etc. (These uncomfortable emotions may be why we began to color our world, and so, in that sense, they may be unavoidable.) But, with a little more practice, patience…

Then, as you stated:
“Sometimes, when the dramas begin to subside, it can seem as if there is nothing there at all. It takes precisely this kind of attention to glimpse, there amid what seem to be cold ashes, a different kind of warmth, and a different kind of poetry.”

Thanks Will!

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