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Stuart came up to me excited about a book he had just read, explaining an Asian philosophical system.

“It was written in the 16th Century,” he tells me. “By a Buddhist monk in southern China. It is a largely forgotten offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism, with a heavy dose of Taoism, a bit of Tantric Buddhism thrown in, and just a touch of Vedantic philosophy, although heavily filtered by Confucianism.”

“Sounds like quite a jumble,” I said. 

“Maybe, but it’s really interesting.” The things Stuart finds interesting is extensive, and doesn’t always translate. 

“It’s known as the ‘Way of the Seven Effluents,’ although it is sometimes called the Seven Exudations.”


“Yes,” he says. “It’s always fun finding the way so many Asian religions, or philosophies like to number and count. Like so many Scholastic philosophers in the Middle Ages. They had the Seven Deadly Sins and the Nine Rings of Hell, but in India and China they counted up the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the Five Ranks, The Four Invisibles, the Four Dharma Realms, the four Varnas and the thousands of numbered sub-castes, the Eight Immortals, the Four Moods of poetry and art.”

“It can get quite bizarre,” I said. “I remember reading the Kama Sutra when I was in college and it numbered all the possible coital positions, as if they had been catalogued by Linnaeus. We’re confusing several religions and philosophies here, of course — India, China, Tibet, Japan — but there does seem to be a shared cultural compulsion to count and divide.”

“It shows up everywhere,” Stuart said. “Like Lao-tzu wrote: ‘The five colors will blind sight; the five sounds will deafen; the five tastes will spoil the palate.’ Number, number, number. Have you ever tried to read any of the Upanishads? Lists and divisions. It can be overwhelming.

Well, Hsing Tao has his own list,” Stuart continued. “He lists the seven substances produced by humans which exit the body to enter the world. They each have a function for the proper ordering of the body and its organs, and a function in the larger world they enter.”

“These are actual things?” I asked. “Or are they like the subtle substances of Eastern philosophies, the seven chakras — real but not corporeal?”

“No, they are quite real, quite ordinary, really. Interesting you should mention the chakras, because there is some similarity with the effluents, although not strict. Actually, kind of vague.

“But they are — starting from the bottom of the body, quite literally —  feces, urine, semen, sweat, saliva, mucus and tears.”

“What about ear wax?” I said.

“Not a part of this system,” he said. I’m sure there are other possible exudations, but these are the seven.”

“So far, the thing that stands out is how male-centric this system is. It includes semen, but not milk. Does Hsing Tao not recognize the other half of humanity? And what about the monthlies? Do they not count as an ‘exudation’?”

“I’ll get to that. But it is true. Still you should remember that most thought systems worldwide either don’t take women into account at all, or place women in some lower position. Let’s not be so proud about ourselves. Did you see the recent study that showed that medical trials almost never take account of women’s bodies, but study only men, as if women were somehow aberrant. But Hsing Tao does make allowances for women. I’ll get to that in a moment.” 

“OK, please go on. Tell me about them.”

“Simply put, feces eliminate the waste of the body; urine keeps the body isostatic; semen is for reproduction; sweat regulates body temperature; saliva renders dry food digestible; mucus moistens the air we breathe; and tears regulate the pressure of internal emotions.”

“As opposed to external emotions?” 

Stuart was not put off by my sarcasm. “Yes,” he said. “Emotions, according to Hsing Tao, are a substance that can expand inside the body, rather like a full stomach, and when the pressure inside is too great, in times of great sorrow or joy, the pressure equalizes through weeping. It is really a very mechanistic philosophy, at least for an Asian system.

“It is a machine, sort of, which processes food into feces and the leftovers must be eliminated. But here is where the public functions of the exudations comes in: Collected ‘night soil’ fertilizes the crops for all of us.

“Hsing Tao is quite forward looking when it comes to pee. Most of us tend to think of kidneys cleaning the blood of toxins, but the most important renal function is to keep the water pressure inside our bodies even. For Hsing Tao, you drink to keep the body from drying out, and you urinate to keep things evened out, so the body does not become turgid. 

“Saliva turns solid food, with the help of the teeth, into semi-liquid chime that we swallow and digest. It is also used to solemnize oaths. This is something that seems to happen around the world in most cultures. We spit in our hands or spit on the ground to seal the deal or punctuate a curse. Thus, a public function for an otherwise personal substance.

“Mucus is a bit trickier. For Hsing Tao, it moistens air so that when we breathe, we do not dry out our insides. This is also part of the process of isostasis. Lungs must not dry out, or they will get leathery, according to the book.”

“Fine, but what about women? Surely a philosophy cannot allow only men to populate its street corners.”

“Most Asian philosophies see the introduction of opposites as a product of maya, or illusion. Just as in Galatians, the apostle Paul says that in Christ “there is neither male nor female,” in Hsing Tao, the ultimate reality is neither male nor female, but as in the Tao Te Ching, “The unwrought material, when divided and distributed, forms vessels,” or in the world of phenomena, the one divides into the many and as it arises from the void, humanity divides into male and female. 

“In the third chapter, or sutra, or whatever you want to call it — the third canto — the author makes the equivalence between semen and milk. They both bring forth life, semen from the male, milk from the female. Both necessary for the propagation of the species.”

“And, of course, semen is usually rather milky.”

“You mock,” Stuart says, “but in fact, Hsing Tao makes this very point. He seems to think that they are the same thing, but one endowed with maleness and the other with femaleness, and therefore a mother’s milk cannot inseminate another woman.”

“This is all very weird. But there is still another body output you haven’t mentioned. And it seems rather important. Certainly more than mucus.”

“You mean the menses. I’m afraid Hsing Tao doesn’t count that among the exudations.”

“A notable omission.”

“For us, yes, but for Hsing Tao, the expulsion of monthly blood is not a simple product of body function, like the others, but a physical embodiment of a spiritual conception. It’s not like any of this is, by modern terms, scientifically defensible, but in his scheme of the cosmos, the monthly cycle is the work of the gods — or the void — and when a woman is not pregnant, the spirit invested in her has no fetal body to enter and so is expelled and it takes blood with it.”

“I’m not sure why this doesn’t count, though, as another exudation. Why is it not included? Why are there not eight — or for that matter, nine — exudations?”

“What? You want any of this to make sense? What religion or philosophy you know of makes any sense at all? Any of them breaks down at some point. Humans try to regularize the world and make sense of it, when none of it makes sense, at least not in any way the human mind can surround.”

“Then why bring it up in the first place?”

“I like to see different ways the world can be organized, the way we have fought against incoherence, found patterns where none exist, insisted that somehow, it all makes sense. Every schema breaks down at some point. Every ideology is provisional, ever solution a transition.

“When we look back through the history of ideas, what we see is constant change, or rather, constant replacement of currently accepted ideas by ideas that seek to clarify the obvious shortcomings of the previous. People like to think that this change, like the change in art styles, is propelled by mere fashion, but really, it is dissatisfaction with the version we were born into and an attempt to fix it. But the fix is always just as partial as the inherited belief.

“I like to see these earlier ideas as all equally true, in some sense, out of a humility that our current understanding is finally the right one. The four humors? The four elements? All previous creation myths? All some version of the partial truth. And so, I think of Hsing Tao.”

Stuart went on. “In this sense, at least. It feels as if we are always trying to alleviate the internal pressure of our bodies, or our feelings. The human being is expansive and the body cannot easily accommodate the fullness. So, if we see Hsing Tao as metaphorical rather than medical, there is truth in his philosophy. I know, when I have an idea, I can’t wait to let it out.”

“So, I see,” I said. “You have forgotten the most important ‘exudation.’ The one for which you are the patron saint.”

“What is that?” Stuart had a quizzical look on his aging face.

“The thing your body most expresses are words. Words words words. Speech is also something that leaks from the body. And perhaps, in your terms, the most important pressure valve for that internal build-up. Which leads me to the obvious.”

“Which is?”

“That there is no book. No ancient book of Asian philosophy. This is all a figment of your imagination. A great joke you play with yourself. You made up Hsing Tao, didn’t you?”

“Caught me.”

A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

Church Iceberg flotante, 1859

There are so many books I have overlooked. There is no way to tally up the consequence of reading most of them: Such cumulation is like measuring the rain that fills the sea bed.

But I want to pick out several of the idiosyncratic ones, outside the usual suspects (Camus, Dostoevsky, Lawrence, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway, et al.), which can be assumed. My taste has always gravitated to the forgotten, abused and out-of-fashion. There is something in my sensibility that just flat-out enjoys complex, baroque sentences and the kind of observational intensity that you find most developed in those authors hovering on the edge of custom or sanity.

Part of this preference comes from a desire for transcendence, and transcendence never comes in conventional form.

Longinus explains why my tastes may run to the extravagant.

“The startling and amazing is more powerful than the charming and persuasive,” he writes.

His On the Sublime is a sometimes numbing description of rhetorical tropes, but several times in their midst, he breaks free and discusses the big issues. In the climactic 35th chapter, he breaks out:

etna erupting“What was it they saw, those godlike writers who in their work aim at what is greatest and overlook precision in every detail? … (W)e are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, or the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean.  … nor do we consider out little hearthfire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and boulders or at times pour forth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth.

“We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”

It is that great writing that attracts me to Henry Thoreau and Herman Melville. Both have a foundation in a kind of biblical tone, a King James timbre, full of striking metaphor and cosmic awareness.

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”

Or: Herman Melville 1885

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

That ain’t Hemingway.

But it isn’t only Walden and Moby Dick; I have spent many hours in happy lucubration over the pages of Thoreau’s Journals, collected in two giant volumes by my favorite publishing house, Dover Books. And I can hardly pass up re-reading most of Melville’s short stories, I and My Chimney, The Apple-Tree Table and Piazza. I read them over the way one listens to a favorite tune, waiting for your favorite chorus to set your toe tapping.let us now praise cover

But for intense unreadability married to heartbreaking self-flagellation and obsessive observational skill, you cannot beat James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a volume of such personal journalism that it makes Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson look like disinterested sub-sub-librarians.

The book is an investigation of tenant farmers in Alabama during the Depression and Agee spends a portion of his life living with one of the families he reports on. And he spends an entire chapter describing the shanty room he is sitting in late in the night under a kerosene lamp as the family sleeps in the other room. He describes, it seems, every knot in the wood of the walls he stares at, every hook holding up every potholder or towel. It approaches the insane, but in the same way the fevered eyes of Vincent Van Gogh looked at the wheatfield and crows. Every bush is the burning bush.

The intensity, the engagement is the thing. 2006.13.1.8 002

“Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another,” he writes. “The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor … Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding…”

Perhaps Agee attempts more than is possible in sewn signatures and binding, and maybe he is a fool for even trying, but I am his target and he hits me in the quick.

Official acceptance means becoming part of an unexamined and cataloged orthodoxy: Things settled so you don’t have to parse them out all over again. The problem with that is:

“The way that can be named is not the constant way.”tao te ching

The Tao Te Ching can be read as an ambiguous and mystical series of woo-woo New-Age aphorisms, or it can be taken as precise and direct in meaning. Most of its readers, and many of its more recent translators opt for the former, turning it into a kind of text to daze its readers and perhaps sell them a regimen of dietary supplements.

I take the latter view, that it means what it says and means it directly.

If there is one thing at the core of my intellectual being, as a dense molten iron core of the planet, it is a recognition — I cannot call it a belief, because it is too obvious — a recognition of the primacy of diversity and fecundity in the cosmos. A sense that existence is too complex ever to be summed up in a political philosophy, theology or epistemology. Every esthetic and intellectual movement comes a cropper against the largeness and variety of the universe. As the Tao puts it, any time you name something, you have lied.

The way that can be named is not the constant way: Our cultural world view and our personal understanding of the structure and meaning of the world — our umwelt — changes over time, and changes in ways that are largely predictable, at least in wider outline, even if details surprise us.

These are the waves hitting the shores that we see over and over — a pendulum swinging back and forth — over the centuries, and embodied in cultures we name as pairs: Hellenic and Hellenistic, Romanesque and Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, Neoclassical and Romantic. It is the same pendulum slowly rocking.

Most people take sides, like T.S. Eliot’s angry brief against John Milton, but some of us step back and observe them as two sides of the same coin. Taking sides is self-limiting: “mind-forged manacles.”

“It is the way of heaven to show no favoritism.”

For me, the most interesting times are those on the cusp of one or the other named moments: the change itself, rather than the brief second when the pendulum stills on one end of the arc or the other.

maistre book 2And it leads me to such peculiar books as Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room, a travel book — or a parody of a travel book — about the room de Maistre is trapped in during a house arrest in 1790, at just the point that the classicism of the 18th century was melting into the weirdness of the coming age. But it also takes seriously — if that is the word — the possibility that one might invest a description of one’s daily surroundings with the same majesty one might use to describe, say, Goethe’s journey over the Alps. Every bush, again.

Oh, I wish I could go on. I have left out Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy; I have left out the Mahabharata and its Bhagavad Gita; I have snubbed Yeats’ A Vision. Villon’s Testament; the Daybooks of Edward Weston — I have inherited for the meat of my bones the DNA from my parents, for better or worse, but I have inherited my intellectual genes from all the books I have had the happiness to encounter.

NEXT: The books age with their reader