the small dark light

What seeks to shrink
must first have grown;
what seeks weakness
surely was strong.
What seeks its ruin
must first have risen;
what seeks to take
has surely given.

This is called the small dark light:
the soft, the weak prevail
over the hard, the strong.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

I make a distinction on all of these that this is Ursula K Le Guin’s version of the Tao Te Ching, which may seem like an odd thing since I’ve yet to clarify it, so I’ll do that now.

Le Guin is not a Chinese translator. She says as much in this book. She’s not even transliterating. What she’s done is go through the various different translations of the text (there have been many), and then with the help of translators, she’s tried to reach back to the source of what Lao Tzu wrote. So in certain ways, this is more of an interpretation than a translation (though all translations are interpretations) with the goal being fidelity to Lao Tzu, rather than fidelity to the text. Which, again, is a bizarre distinction, maybe.

Anyrate, I mention this here because Le Guin makes a big editorial change to this poem. Here are her notes:

There is a third stanza in all the texts:

Fish should stay underwater:
the real means of rule
should be kept dark.

Or, more literally, “the State’s sharp weapons ought not to be shown to the people.” This Machiavellian truism seems such an anticlimax to the great theme stated in the verses that I treat it as an intrusion, perhaps a commentator’s practical example of “the small dark light.”

So here is the first real change to the text that Le Guin makes, and it’s an interesting one. I’m inclined to agree with her, but I also think it should be kept in the poem itself, rather than moved to a footnote.

It does change the poem a great deal, and it almost feels like something at odds with Lao Tzu’s writing throughout the text, so I understand why Le Guin does this. It seems the only place where he advocates that the State be above its people, since much of the text can be interpreted to be fairly anarchistic, or at least advocating for the subversion of power structures.

The poem seems to reinforce persistence and openness over subterfuge and power, which the last stanza seem to advocate. The first two stanzas remind me of water, which, as we have seen, is a central image to the Tao. Water persists and it shapes the world, from every river valley carved out by running water to every stretch of land shaped by shifting glaciers.

Of course, the small dark light may, in practice, involve no small amount of subterfuge and scheming. I think, now, of Vietnam’s fight against imperial powers in the 60s and 70s. That tiny, seemingly insignificant nation, cowed the most advanced military powers in the world by way of the small dark light.

That’s not to say that the Vietnamese behaved as Taoists! But more to illustrate how a practical demonstration of a metaphor can mean things that were not necessarily intended.

But I feel, now, as if I’m rambling, and it might be the headache burning in my skull.

And so I’ll think more about growth, strength, ruin, and giving. I’ll think more about what the small dark light might be, and how it remains a constant part of our lives. For no matter how you describe the small dark light, there’s a contemporary parallel to be found.

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