Chinese Whispers

By: alexanderlewin

Apr 21 2016

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Category: Cinema, Taoism

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Camera:Lumia 520

Watching Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker‘ for the nth time recently — whilst recovering from a particularly virulent bout of ‘flu, which rendered me more susceptible to the film’s numinous energy — I was struck by a sequence early on in the second half of the film.  After observing a chemically-coated circle of well-water swirl and shift (resembling a deformed yin-yang moon in the process of change) having been apparently disturbed in some way (later on Writer does actually chuck a brick down a well shaft) we watch the eponymous Stalker laboriously edge his way out of the square window across a seemingly-precarious ledge and into the round window.  All the while we are treated to a voice-over of Stalker reciting some gnomic text. When I say I was struck by this sequence, I mean to say that I recall having partially recognised the second part of this text the last time I watched the film. So I resolved to hunt down the source, having a strong sense that it was a quote from the Tao Te Ching, the 6th century BC text attributed to Lao Tzu, the legendary father of Taoism. A quote translated perhaps directly from the Chinese into Russian and then into English; perhaps via another language along the way. The end result is quite charmingly clumsy and awkward, even if the meaning is still relatively clear. (I should like to track down this quote in the actual screenplay and see if it is more felicitous.) The first section of the voice-over seems more Biblical or prophetic in tone, but I can’t place it; but its closing emphasis on the virtue of weakness leads nicely into chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching. After the version that we read in the subtitles of the film, follow a number of different translations and transliterations that have been made over the years, and which illuminate different facets of this jewel-like verse. If you click on the green Stalker link at the top of this post you’ll hear some of the haunting and timeless soundtrack composed by Edward Artemiev.  It has a Central Asian feel to it which reflects Tarkovsky’s preoccupation with an East-West philosophical synthesis; this same theme is also apparent in the merging of Prophetic and Taoistic concepts in Stalker’s voice-over. The final version of Chapter 76 by Ursula LeGuin brings us full circle by finishing with a reference to the Sermon on the Mount.

stalker climb (5)

Let everything that’s been planned come true.
Let them believe and let them have a laugh at their passions.
Because what they actually call passion is not some emotional energy,
but just the friction between their souls and the outside world.
And most important, let them believe in themselves,
let them be helpless like children.
Because weakness is a great thing and strength is nothing.

When a man is born
he is weak and flexible.
When he dies he is hard and insensitive.
When a tree is growing,
it’s tender and pliant,
but when it’s dry and hard it dies.
Hardness and strength are death’s companions.
Pliancy and weakness are expressions
of the freshness of being;
because what has hardened will never win.

Stalker’s Voice-over (1979)

stalker climb (6)

When he is born, man is soft and weak;
In death he becomes stiff and hard.
The ten thousand creatures and all plants
And trees while they are alive are supple and soft,
But when they are dead they become brittle and dry.
Truly, what is stiff and hard is a “companion of death”;
What is soft and weak is a “companion of life”.
Therefore “the weapon that is too hard will be broken,
The tree that has the hardest wood will be cut down”.
Truly, the hard and mighty are cast down;
The soft and weak set on high.

trans. Arthur Waley (1934)

stalker climb (1)

Alive, a man is supple, soft;
In death, unbending, rigorous.
All creatures, grass and trees, alive
Are plastic but are pliant too,
And dead, are friable and dry.

Unbending rigor is the mate of death,
And wielding softness, company of life:
Unbending soldiers get no victories;
The stiffest tree is readiest for the axe.
The strong and mighty topple from their place;
The soft and yielding rise above them all.

trans. Raymond Blakney (1955)

stalker climb (2)

A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.

Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.

Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.

The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.

trans. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English (1972)

stalker climb (3)

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.

trans. Stephen Mitchell (1988)

stalker climb (4)

A baby’s body is soft and gentle.
A corpse is hard and stiff.
Plants and trees are tender
and full of sap.
Dead leaves are brittle and dry.
If you are rigid and unyielding,
you might as well be dead.
If you are soft and flexible,
you are truly alive.
Soldiers trained to fight to the death will die.
A tree that cannot bend with the wind
will snap.
Here’s a useful saying:
The harder they come,
the harder they fall.
Here’s another:
The meek shall inherit the earth.

trans. Ursula LeGuin (1998)

stalker moon (3)


This may only be available temporarily but click here for a link to a recent Radio 3 programme about Stalker and its wider cultural implications.


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