Ron Hogan — media journalist (GalleyCat, Beatrice), marketing strategist and the only literary blogger I know who’s been doing it as long as I have — has just published an unusual book: Getting Right With Tao: A Contemporary Spin on the Tao Te Ching.
It happens I share Ron’s fascination with the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese religious/philosophical text ascribed to a mysterious author named Lao Tzu, and with the set of ideas and traditions known as Taoism. The original Tao Te Ching is unquestionably a masterpiece, and the strong philosophy it presents has much in common with later movements like Buddhism, Transcendentalism and Existentialism. I still have my beloved, very beat-up Penguin Classic copy I bought in college; like Thoreau’s Walden or Emerson’s essays, this is a book you can pick up and return to often when you need inspiration or advice.
Ron Hogan first translated the Tao Te Ching into a vigorous modern dialect as an online experiment in the mid-90s, and he crowdsourced versions of the translations on Usenet groups until it evolved into the form presented in this paperback book. I asked Ron a few questions about the process of creating this book. Here’s a sample verse, followed by our interview.
Keep your head clear.
Watch as everything happens around you.
Everything reverts to its original state,
which was nothing.
And when something becomes nothing,
it gets right with Tao.
If you don’t understand that,
you’re going to screw up somewhere down the line.
If you figure it out, you’ll always know what to do.
If you get right with Tao,
you won’t be afraid to die,
because you know you will.
LEVI: Your first book (The Stewardess Is Flying The Plane!) was an entertaining look at popular 1970s film, and your second is a translation of an ancient text. Is there any connection at all between these two books?
Ron: Not as such. I mean, I could make a sweeping, holistic argument that leapt from Bruce Lee movies to Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation of the Tao Te Ching by way of Philip K. Dick novels, but the truth is that, like most people, I have a variety of interests, some of which are at best tenuously connected to the others. Actually, now that I think of it, if I’d studied my Greil Marcus harder as a graduate student, I could probably make that argument stick. Hmm …
Levi: Taoism is a religion, but many people also relate to it as a philosophy. How do you personally relate to it, and how has it affected your life?
Ron: What I’ve gleaned from Taoism — because “getting right with Tao” is at best an approximation of Taoism — has been very helpful as a philosophy, a way of approaching life. That said, it’s taken me years to get at what Lao Tzu was talking about, and to apply it to my life with anything remotely resembling consistency, and I still have trouble hitting the mark sometimes.
Levi: Rereading the Tao Te Ching in your version, I was reminded of the strong political aspect of the book. It can almost stand as a treatise on politics, along with The Republic and The Prince. Do you think a greater awareness of Taoist ideas can be relevant in modern politics, and if so, how?
Ron: Absolutely. Politicians can learn a lot from Lao Tzu about clarity of purpose, resolute commitment, and a willingness to make hard choices, but also about managing not to get caught up in one’s own hype or too enamored with the perks that power brings. It’s a fundamentally personal document, but it was tailored, after all, to a royal court — though we can all benefit from Lao Tzu’s advice on how to make our way through a world of confusion, his wisdom has particular application to anyone who aspires to a position of leadership — first of all, perhaps, by forcing them to confront why they want to be leaders in the first place.
Levi: I love your idea to render this text in “David Mamet”-inspired language (as you described it in your introduction). You mention in the book’s Afterword that you are beginning a new project involving another Chinese religious text, the I Ching. Do you think other religious classics like the Holy Bible, the Bhagavad Gita or the Koran could also survive similar interpretations?
Ron: The Bible has undergone any number of modernizations — The Message Remix is one of the ten most popular versions on Amazon as I write this — and Grant Morrison is in the midst of creating a graphic novel version of the Bhagavad Gita (which is, let’s remember, just one part of a sprawling war epic). Such retoolings always have their detractors — there are splinter branches of American Christianity, for example, for whom it’s King James or nothing — and certainly the vehemence with which radical Muslim groups respond to any imaginative deviation from a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran or its backstory suggests we shouldn’t expect this kind of “translation” any time soon.
Levi: Your new book is published by Channel V Books, which seems to have an unusual and innovative publishing model. Can you explain what Channel V is and why you chose this path for your new book?
Ron: Channel V Books is a print-on-demand publishing division that offers some of the best elements of a traditional publishing infrastructure on a smaller scale — enabling it to be more responsive to the market, and more able to take a chance on authors with strong but unrealized potential. I know the founder personally, so when she asked if I would be interested in writing a book for them, I had to be honest and admit that I didn’t have time to write a book in the timeframe she was suggesting… but I did have this e-book version of the Tao Te Ching that I’d been distributing for free online for several years, and would Channel V be interested in that? We quickly found a way to bring Getting Right with Tao to print while respecting my original commitment to release the text through a Creative Commons license. So Getting Right with Tao has new material, plus an invitation to join anewsletter where I’ll be working through the subject matter of what might turn out to be a follow-up book, dealing with the I Ching as a 64-step program for personal transformation.
Or my next book could be a collection of classic Beatrice interviews mixed in with newer conversations. We’ll see!