Finding Sources

GoodSometime we look too hard or too far to find connections or sources in deja-ku. In The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (Boston: Shambhala, 1996, pages 88–89), translators Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping present the following words by Wang Chuanshan (also known as Wang Fuzhi, 1619–1692), from Ginger Study Comments on Poetry:

Consider these lines:

Setting sun on the great banners.
In the braying wind, horses neigh.

—Du Fu

How can one say the source of this couplet is

The horses neigh and bray.
The banners slowly swell.

from The Book of Songs

With their different intentions, these sad and happy scenes cannot borrow from each other. This is only a coincidence of words. The problem with Song dynasty people is that they always are looking for the source of everything. Especially those who are sour nincompoops demand a source for every line, as if poetry were always the source of poetry. In this way they seek self-justification and a basis for their judgments.

Du Fu’s couplet goes:

I’m going to buy a gallon of wine
since I happen to have three hundred bronze coins.

On this basis, they figured out the price of wine in the Tang dynasty. But Cui Guopu’s lines state,

To buy one gallon of wine
only costs ten thousand bronze coins.

So if you buy wine from Du Fu’s vendor and sell it to Cui Guopu, you can make a profit of more than thirty times your investment! Those who go looking for sources produce imbecilities such as this.

Indeed, perhaps it is madness to look too much for sources for deja-ku, in that surely, no matter how far back you go, someone else probably said the same thing sometime before. As Ecclesiastes told us, there’s nothing new under the sun. Consider this oft-repeated anecdote from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (New York, Bantam, 1988, page 1):

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Here’s a relevant passage from Suzanne Brock’s Idiom’s Delight: Fascinating Phrases and Linguistic Eccentricities (New York: Times Books, 1988, pages 134–135) on how deeply our sources can go:

The French lay claim to [the idiom] Il n’est sauce que d’appétit (There’s no sauce like appetite). Dig deeper, and you’ll find it in medieval Latin: Fames est optimus coquus (Hunger is the best cook). Long before that, in Greece, Xenophon said, “There’s no condiment like appetite.” Cicero put it another way: “I hear Socrates saying that the best seasoning for food is hunger; for drink, thirst.”

The ancient Romans had a ready response to this sort of persnickety probing into authorship:

Pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerunt.

Freely translated this means: “To hell with those who said our good words before us!”

Also in Suzanne Brock’s book, we find the following idioms and commentary (pages 155 to 158):

It is art to conceal art.
Ars est celare artem.

—Ovid (43 B.C.–A.D. 17. Roman poet.)

A beautiful face is a silent recommendation.
Formosa facies muta commendation est.

—Publilius Syrus (Flourished 45 B.C. Roman writer)

The same thought occurred to Ovid: “A pleasing face is no small advantage.” And to Virgil: “Even virtue is fairer when it appears in a beautiful person.” The best such version is anonymous: Sat pulchra, si sat bona (Handsome enough is good enough).

There is always something new out of Africa.
Ex Africa simper aliquid novi.

—Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79. Roman naturalist, counselor to emperors.)

He’s paraphrasing Aristotle’s words: “There is always something new out of Libya.”

And yet we also find the following:

Do not do what is already done.
Actum ne agas.

—Terence (Circa 190–158 B.C. Roman comic dramatist.)

So even Ezra Pound wasn’t making it new when he said “Make it new.” But that’s not the only antecedent. In her essay “The Question of Originality” in Nine Gates, Jane Hirshfield notes that “New writers soon learn Ezra Pound’s injunction ‘Make it new,’” yet she points out that this injunction “is itself a variation of Tolstoy’s ‘Make it strange’” (47).


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