This first video is in fact a cover of the Swedish band Teddybears’ song (which you can listen to here). But while their song is an interesting mix of reggae and punk, Robyn turns it entirely into her own thing. There’s a clarity, and pure danceability, to her version absent in the original. And she does change some of the lyrics: “You sit around and plan to put girl in fridge” was not in the original (it was apparently “Siddung and a plan fi come put man pon fridge” and I’m not entirely sure what that means). The girl in a fridge is a common complaint about how women, especially in comic books, are only victims. By changing that lyric, Robyn turns the song into an act of female power, rejecting the roles that men often want to force them into and asserting female agency.

Finally, there is a pure joy in watching paint being thrown on the set and musicians in the video. The pastel colors on white are simply effervescent. I could watch the video all day, sound or no sound. It is because of this pure joy that I’ve placed this video first: though several of her songs are more serious, it is this underlying hopefulness and elation that I identify Robyn with.

This is perhaps the most feminist of Robyn’s songs and it is wonderful. Contrasting herself with good girls, who live only to fulfill men’s expectations, Robyn asserts her own independence. “Good girls are sexy like everyday/I’m only sexy when I say it’s okay.” And this song is sung directly to a man:

Let’s play a game that you’ve never tried
You be the girl and I’ll be the guy
Let’s pretend everything has changed, and then
Would you love me any different?

I wouldn’t doubt that many woman find this to be a feminist anthem, a song they can identify with (after all, there are in fact no good girls–Robyn and her backup singers “know there’s no such girl”–they are simply figments of men’s imaginations), but it is aimed at confronting men with female agency and making them realize that that is something they must accept and empathize with. If they don’t, then she (or any woman) “won’t let you love me until you really try.” And that is a much needed lesson, tied up in a wonderful pop song.

Continuing with a serious bent, is “Dream On”, from Christian Falk’s album “People Say.” While not a Robyn song per se–she merely sings it–seemingly hopeless situations that are transformed as the song progresses is a Robynesque theme. She no doubt approved the song’s affirmation of the transformation that our imagination can wrought on the world. And in a way, that is exactly what the best pop music (and Robyn is indeed one of our best pop artists) does: our lives, our loves are invariably messy. Without ignoring that messy reality, the best pop music provides a hopefulness, beauty and order to our feelings and experiences. While this may only be dreaming, the song (and video) is hopeful that our dreams can in fact change the world. This is particularly true of the next song: “Indestructible.”

I’ll ignore the video–for some reason there is a blandly attractive woman making out with a similarly blandly attractive man and not enough Robyn in it. That the music is catchy is undeniable, and entirely expected. What appeals to me the most about this song is the verse:

And I never was smart with love
I let the bad ones in and the good ones go
But I’m gonna love you like I’ve never been hurt before
I’m gonna love you like I’m indestructible.

These lyrics are potentially quite misleading. One should read them closely. To begin with, the claim that, “I never was smart with love/I let the bad ones in and the good ones go” should not be taken literally. Instead, there is a triple act of seduction occurring. At the most basic level, she is seducing the person (a gender is never specified) she is singing about by hinting that they are one of the good ones and that this time she is going to be smart with love. Similarly she seduces the listener–male or female–who naturally identifies with the good ones. An attractive singer singing to you is hard to resist. But the final seduction is the most interesting: she is seducing herself.

In fact, it is unlikely she has gotten much smarter. Or that people can be so neatly divided into good and bad ones. But while the lines may not be true, they are perhaps necessary lies. By convincing herself that her previous partners were bad ones, and her current flame is a good one, she is able to ignore the pain that went with the previous relationships (and it is hard to imagine any relationship, especially one that has ended as being free of pain), and commit herself whole-heartedly to her new relationship.

And this is where the final two lines are quite powerful. Robyn does not assert that she is indestructible. She knows too well that she is not. However, she is nevertheless going to love them like she is indestructible. Ultimately she realizes she is decidedly not indestructible. But while an important part of any relationship is making oneself vulnerable, one should not flinch from that vulnerability. There is a certain needed heedlessness that getting hurt in previous relationships can dampen. Loving someone like you are indestructible paradoxically allows you to embrace the vulnerability of loving.

“With Every Heartbeat” is, unlike the other songs, a song of quiet, shimmering despair. The song is beautiful and catchy–pop music at its best. But the video is hard to watch–Robyn ends up literally and figuratively crushed.

This is a song I sympathize, not identify, with. My relationships have gone on for too long, not ended too early. Looking back is a temptation, but not because I look back yearningly. Mostly I wonder what went wrong and how that has affected me. That obviously has dangers of its own, but they are not what the song is about.

However, the fact that this song (and video, which like most of Robyn’s videos is extraordinary) moves me so attests to its power. Unlike most of the other songs, however, it is not one I can listen to repeatedly. It is too overwhelming. So while there are other sorrowful songs in Robyn’s oeuvre–Be Mine! in particular is a fantastic examination of how the possessiveness of love can cause pain–let’s move on to a final, happier song.

“Call Your Girlfriend” is the best way to end this post. On one hand, it is dealing with a painful subject: Robyn is telling her new boyfriend (though in truth the gender isn’t specified) he must break up with his old girlfriend. Yet what could be a quite cruel situation is turned into something deeply sympathetic and almost positive. While the breakup no doubt will cause his ex pain, it is necessary. And more importantly, Robyn gives advice on how to do it in the least painful way possible. Lines like:

Don’t you tell her how I give you something
That you never even knew you missed
Don’t you even try and explain
How it’s so different when we kiss

could be taken as cruel gloating. Instead they both affirm the pleasure of the new relationship and put the feelings of the ex first. She does not need to hear about how good the new relationship is.

And the song is filled with what one needs to hear when breaking up. Though they will no longer be dating, they will still be friends because she is still important to him. Moreover, she should move on–and that advice is to be given in a deeply sympathetic and caring fashion. One could easily imagine him telling his girlfriend she should move on in a manner that made it clear that he would now blame her pain on her inability to do so. But that is not what Robyn advises. Done properly, that advice is an act of great tenderness.

In short, the song recognizes the inevitable pain the new relationship will cause, but does its best to lessen that pain and through the sheer infectiousness of the song and Robyn’s dancing transforms the pain into something of great beauty. And that, perhaps, is the best justification for any art.

Abuse and Objectification

In “Woman-Battering and Harm to Animals”, Carol Adams claims that the abuser objectifies the abused.1 At first, I was planning to deny that. Certainly that need not be how it seems from the perspective of the abused.2 But the longer I considered the matter, the more truth it gained. What it lacks, however, are two things. First, being objectified is a process. One is not so much treated like an object as made into one through activities such as gaslighting. Furthermore, becoming aware that one is being objectified is also a gradual process. Second, as one realizes one is being treated like an object, it is one’s abuser who paradoxically seems to turn into an object. An object that no longer enchants.

Before discussing those points however, I should give a quick account of objectification.

Objectification means treating a person as an object and is, unsurprisingly, a complex and disputed concept. For the purposes of this essay I will use the seven notions that Martha Nussbaum uses in her essay “Objectification,”3 which while more fleshed out that Adams’ account, is similar to hers. It also matches well with my own understanding of objectification. Her seven notions are:

1. Instrumentality. The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.

2. Denial of autonomy. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.

3. Inertness. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.

4. Fungibility. The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type and/or (b) with objects of other types.

5. Violability. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.

6. Ownership. The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.

7. Denial of subjectivity. The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.4

From my experience, all seven notions apply to abusive relationships, though each may have to be tweaked a bit. Furthermore, it is not clear to the abused at least that all seven are at play from the beginning. One discovers them gradually. Fungibility is perhaps the last to emerge. So instead of going through the list in Nussbaum’s order, I will attempt to go through the order in which I became aware of being objectified.

The denial of autonomy was the most obvious one, and perhaps the most important. As one does in fact have autonomy, it must be undermined. This is why gaslighting–the activity of causing someone to mistrust their own judgment–is important for the abuser.5 One effective gaslighting method is to criticize one’s past decisions, to show they were poorly chosen or even immoral. To some degree one is even allowed to act in the present (though note that it is allowed to act). However, most of those choices are ones in which no matter what you do, you choose wrongly. The effect is to further undermine one’s confidence in one’s judgment. Nonetheless, there is a second effect, one that works to undermine the abuser’s power. The second effect is that it gradually becomes clear that when the abuser is expressing how she feels, that act is aimed not at disclosing herself, but at affecting the abused. We shall see that it is by this failure to disclose, a failure that the abused (hopefully) becomes more aware of, that the abuser transforms into an object.

Violability comes next. Rarely is the denial of autonomy left to specific areas. Instead, every aspect of one’s life becomes besieged. Little is left private. This can be attractive when seen as a sign of how intertwined ones’ lives are. Since one’s decisions affect one’s partner, every aspect of your life is also part of your partner’s. This, I believe, is a thoroughly wrong-headed view of romantic relationships, though a common one.6 Violability has another much more harmful affect: it also leads to the abuser causing the abused to cut ties with family and friends. This is because it is not enough to deny the abused autonomy. The abused must trust the abuser alone. The abused must not only be inert (which the denial of autonomy in conjunction with violability causes), making few if any decisions on their own, but their possession.

While in an important sense one does not feel owned, since ownership implies one can belong to someone else, one does feel intimately connected to the abuser, as if you belong to them alone. Often when thinking about abusive relationships, it seems that the abused becomes dependent on the abuser and thinks that they cannot live without them. This is no doubt often the case, especially when the abuser is a man. That is because women are often expected to be dependent on men; in many respects the difference between a traditional male-female relationship differs from an abusive one only by degree. Marital rape, after all, is a recent idea.

But it needn’t be simply the abused who feels dependent on the abuser. An abusive relationship is (paradoxically) an extremely close, intimate, caring (if one-sided) relationship. The abuser often makes the abused feel that they are important to them and only the abused can help the abuser. The abused may feel that they truly are helping the abuser and that they are the only ones who can. The abuser is made touchingly vulnerable. It is this, perhaps, that makes leaving the abuser so difficult, even more so than distrusting one’s judgment. One’s most meaningful relationships are often those that involve care. What one cares about, and for, help constitute who one is. Moreover, care is particular: it is a particular person caring about or for a particular thing. Being in a relationship where one is frequently told that only you can help them makes one feel quite important and unique. It is for this reason that fungibility is the last notion to be realized.

Once one realizes that one is spending so much effort caring for the abuser, realizing that the abuser does not care for your feelings is a natural next step. This is the denial of subjectivity. At first it may seem to be the result of the abuser having so much to work through and one will discount one’s own needs. But one eventually realizes that one’s needs are scarcely acknowledged. The needs of the abuser always trump the abused’s. For me, it was the inability of my partner to take joy in me being happy. Instead, something would arise that would cause her displeasure and that would become the focus.7 This is the denial of subjectivity. One’s feelings and needs do matter. This also reinforces the sense of being owned.

Finally, one realizes that one is treated as an instrument. Any relationship should involve reciprocity.8 Once one realizes one’s subjectivity is denied, it is clear there is no such reciprocity. One is treated as an object that should care for one’s abuser. But here a difficulty enters: the abuser by treating the abused as an object, fails to disclose her needs. Language is used to manipulate and hurt (often unconsciously so) and not to reveal.9 But just as the abused seems most like an object, it is here that one can break out, and the abused becomes an object.

It is largely through language that we become aware of the needs and agency of others. Certainly language is not required for such awareness–we can draw inferences from actions as to what motivates people–but it is the most direct method. But when someone uses language as a tool for manipulation, speech becomes just another action. It no longer discloses their subjectivity. Therefore, the partner who one thought one knew is revealed as an illusion; a black box takes its place. One has no idea what is inside it, if anything. All one sees is what it does. In this, it is no different from a rock or a machine. There is no accessible or visible interiority. One knows it must exist, but only through analogy. One does not see the partial glimpses within that language can reveal. And thus, the objectifier becomes the object and love ends. The abused is set free with a new feeling of agency, an agency it is no longer clear the abuser has.

Finally, fungibility. Objects are interchangeable, without any real individuality, and one can only have relationships with individuals. But as mentioned before–particularly when discussing ownership–an abusive relationship feels intimate and personal. After all, even the abuse is personal. The abuser can be quite good at targeting specific weak-points. And one does feel that at times one really did mean something to one’s abuser, not as a mere object, but for who one is. Thus it is that fungibility is the last notion to be realized. Abusers are rarely abusive in only one relationship. It forms most, if not all, of their relationships. While they certainly can change, I suspect such changes are rare. Consequently shortly after separation–a separation they may have (sincerely) claimed they could not bear–they will find themselves in another relationship. One is replaced. But while this may mean the abuser from their position finally objectified you, you realize–perhaps more than ever–that you are in fact not an object.

And there I might have ended this post, on a probably hortatory point. But that feels false. That is because one is constantly changing, even while writing. It is impossible to fully capture your thoughts let alone yourself. And while that is true generally, it seems especially true of this post. Therefore a more opened-ended ending is needed. The call for action, of further acknowledging you are not an object, is not enough. For while the future is yet undetermined, so, in many ways, is the past. In “All the King’s Men” Jack Burden speaks of a memory of Anne swimming in the ocean, saying that it was full of layers that were gradually revealed over time. To some degree that feels right about my past relationship. Its significance to me will change over the years. Aspects that I never thought of may become freshly relevant. And I suspect the abuse will become less and less important. The relationship was brief enough that (I hope) no permanent damage was done, though it has probably shaped me a great deal. Already one of the ways it has affected me is by making me less moralistic and more concerned with making others feel safe intellectually and emotionally.10 And because of the relationship I finally managed to become a vegan and more of a feminist.11 That is, however, no justification for abuse. Good results can be produced by bad means, but unless only those means could have produced those results, the results do not justify the means–especially if the results were achieved unintentionally.

But the general point–that the significance of the past is undetermined–stands. It will be interesting to observe how it unfolds.

ETA: This was briefly public after I wrote it, but I quickly changed it to private. However, as it has been a number of years, I’ve decided to make it public again. (1/1/17)


1. Unfortunately I am working from memory and hope I am not misrepresenting her. In any case, it is only a jumping off point.

2. Since I am finding it difficult to keep the veneer of impersonal objectivity, I should state outright that this post is about me trying to understand a past relationship. I am unsure if it accurately captures that relationship let alone other abusive relationships. Also, to some degree I am almost certainly too harsh on her–it was, at times, a wonderful relationship, and she is in many ways a wonderful person and, like everyone, deserves happiness and care. However, for various reasons the relationship (I am reluctant to simply state “she”) became emotionally and physically abusive and the bad has driven out the good. I now feel that most of the good was in the promise of good times to come. They rarely did.

3. Found here.

4. Nussbaum, “Objectification”, p. 257

5. It should be said I do not believe that many abusers act deliberately. Certainly I do not think mine did.

6. And one that Nussbaum touches upon in “Love’s Knowledge.”

7. Mundane example: we went to watch a movie I was excited about. What should have been a pleasant trip became a disaster because the smoothie store she wished to go to was closed when the movie ended.

8. Nagel’s essay “Sexual Perversion” examines this brilliantly.

9. One suspects that the dissatisfaction that the abuser often displays at the decisions her partner makes to care for her are less attempts to deny autonomy (though that is what they cause) and more the result of not knowing or expressing her actual needs which must be known to the care giver for there to be care.

10. These were important aspects that were not part of the relationship. If I may allow myself a brief aside, I am now mostly convinced that one should not judge friends, family or lovers. Everyone needs a safe place where they feel they will not be condemned or rejected.

11. The feminist aspect may be overselling things. She brought issues to my attention, but more to condemn me for not already knowing about them and less to inform me. Most of what I have learned has been on my own.

Parting by Fan Yun

別詩 範雲 Parting by Fan Yun

洛陽城東西, In Luoyang, from east to west,
長作經時別。 A long way to travel when saying farewell.
昔去雪如花, When I left, the snow was like flowers,
今來花似雪。 Now when I return, the flowers are like snow.

This is a poem I translated years ago, probably because the last two lines are simple yet beautiful. But their appeal is obvious–by simply switching snow and flowers, it is clear how much time has passed. Moreover, that it looks like nothing has changed stresses how much the traveller has probably changed. That nature remains the same, yet people change, is a common motif in Chinese poetry. Li Qingzhao, for instance, does it in the following poem (probably written after her husband’s death, though certainly they are separated):

偶成 By chance completed

十五年前花月低, Fifteen years ago, flowers under the moon,
相從曾賦賞花詩。 Walking together, we composed poems about them.
今看花月渾相似, Now I look and see the flowers and the moon are the same,
安得情懷似往時! How come my feelings are not like before?

But when I originally translated Fan Yun’s poem, I think the first two lines somehow confused me. What it portrays–marvelously and indirectly–is the pain of separation. Fan Yun is leaving the city, but is delayed because he is saying farewell. 長 means both long in distance and in time, so while on the surface he could simply be saying he has to travel a long ways to leave the city, what is actually occurring is that it is taking him a great deal of time to leave.

There is a pleasing simplicity in many pre-Tang poems I enjoy, though it has been a number of years since I’ve read many. Even in its indirectness, the poem is pretty straightforward (even if I find the second line a bit odd). Li Qingzhao’s poem, in contrast, seems much richer, laden with meaning and sentiment. It also feels much more complex yet structured (Fan Yun was writing in the 5th century when Chinese poetry was working towards regulated verse). Part of that is probably because she was the superior poet. Nonetheless, I wonder if by being simpler, Fan’s poem is not more universal and moving. Plus, it’s still hard for me not to love “snow like flowers/flowers like snow.” There is a freshness to Fan’s (and other early Chinese poets’) work that often is not captured in the more sophisticated poems that followed. There are advantages to coming at the beginning of a tradition.

The Saddest Story

“In all matrimonial associations there is, I believe, one constant factor–a desire to deceive the person with whom one lives as to some weak spot in one’s character or in one’s career. For it is intolerable to live constantly with one human being who perceives one’s small meannesses. It is really death to do so–that is why so many marriages turn out unhappily.”1

That statement runs counter to most of what I believe about relationships. They should be places where one exposes one’s vulnerabilities, one’s flaws, one’s failures, and they are accepted. There is of course a strong temptation not to expose them–there is no assurance that one’s partner will not be repelled or use your vulnerability to hurt one. But no such assurances are possible: one must trust one another.

And that statement may run counter to The Good Soldier. So much of what unfolds does so between uncommunicative couples. One wonders, with the narrator, if only people would talk to one another so much suffering could have been avoided. Perhaps not: John Dowell, the narrator, in his only act of passion beats his black servant thereby frightening his new wife, and the Leonora Ashburnham is Catholic and refuses to divorce Edward. But nonetheless it is hard not to imagine more forthright communication would have greatly improved matters. The strain of pretending to each other and the world at large that they were “good people” proves, in the Ashburnhams’ case at least, to be too much.

But there is a sense in which that quote may be all too true. Almost certainly one should avoid deceiving one’s partner. It is not clear, however, whether or not one can, or should, avoid deceiving oneself.

Dowell is a famously unreliable narrator. Much of the pleasure of reading the book is reading between the lines, trying to figure out what did in fact happen, what people were really thinking. But that, in a way, is a mistake. Dowell’s opening claim that “This is the saddest story I ever heard”2 is unwittingly true. The book, ultimately, is about him and not the Ashburnhams. And the deceptions that underlie the entire book are his self-deceptions, starting with his blindness that Florence is often cuckolding him and ending, perhaps, with his belief that much of what made Edward such an admirable fellow is also in him, if a bit muted. The Good Soldier is indeed one of the saddest stories ever heard, but it is sad because of what happens to him and to the end he seems oblivious to it all. The teller of the tale is perhaps the only one who has not heard the story.

And this may indeed be true. The flaws I identify in myself are often either quite small or vaguely flattering ones. That my nose is too big is a small flaw; that I read too much is a flattering one. What can be cutting about hearing about oneself by others is that so often they see you and your flaws so much better than you do. That I talk without authority, like a book; that I love being the smartest person in the room; these are some of the flaws that others have brought to my attention, flaws far more serious than any I would indict myself with despite them being plain for anyone, including myself, to see.

And perhaps it is this that fatally undermines my belief that a relationship is where one should expose one’s vulnerabilities, flaws, and failures. It presupposes one knows what they are. Far too often we don’t. The real danger to a relationship may not be in exposing one’s flaws, etc. to one’s partner, but one’s partner revealing one’s own flaws to oneself.

To this danger, I have no ready answer. Certainly I want to believe that I can live without self-deception, that my friends and partners help me learn more about myself, and that I am constantly improving. But that may be my greatest, and most necessary, self-deception.

1. Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier, p. 130
2. ibid, p. 5

Two Poems about Peng

晚泊湘江 宋之問


Mooring at the Xiang River at Evening by Song Zhiwen

At the five peaks,1 a tired traveler,
At the three rivers,2 a haggard face.
When the autumn rain clears,
Everywhere3 one can see Hengshan.4
The road following the Peng’s trip south,
Heart joining the gooses’ return north.
Who sees my tears for my hometown,
Complete the dappled bamboos’ spots?

贈人 杜光庭


Given to a friend by Du Guangting

A quiet spirit meditating, looking up towards the dark expanse,
This night, in a wide sky, falling stars.
On the ocean at night hearing the Peng’s wings,5
In the world at dawn seeing the crane’s shape.6

Quick comments: Song lived during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian. His poem is quite elegant with its parallel construction. Du Guangting, on the other hand, was 22 when the Tang dynasty fell and was a prominent Daoist, as evinced by the Peng and crane references.

1. Five mountain ranges in southern Hunan.
2. Yet another place in Hunan.
3. Literally “Inside and outside”–often referring to one’s inner thought and outer appearance– but I think it must mean “everywhere” here.
4. A sacred Buddhist mountain in Hunan.
5. According to Zhuangzi, the peng flies at an altitude of 90,000 li (about 30,000 miles). Consequently it cannot be seen.
6. The crane is associated with Daoist immortals.

The light dove

In the introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason Kant writes that “[w]hen the light dove parts the air in free flight and feels the air’s resistance, it might come to think that it would do much better still in space devoid of air.”1 While Kant is talking about metaphysics, this insight is applicable to nearly any field. Art is produced because of, not in spite of, rules and tradition; choices are made because of habit and character. A work of art that breaks the rules or an uncharacteristic action obtains its significance because it opposes the norm. When anything goes, everything is of equal value and worth nothing.

Nonetheless, it is impossible not to feel cramped at times. And one is tempted to say that accepting constraints is defeatism. Larkin expresses this feeling many times, perhaps best in “The Life with a Hole in It.”

When I throw my head back and howl
People (women mostly) say
But you’ve always done what you want,
You always get your own way

— A perfectly vile and foul
Inversion of all that’s been.
What the old ratbags mean
Is I’ve never done what I don’t.

So the shit in the shuttered chateau
Who does his five hundred words
Then parts out the rest of the day
Between bathing and booze and birds
Is far off as ever, but so
Is that spectacled schoolteaching sod
(Six kids, and the wife in pod,
And her parents coming to stay)…

Life is an immobile, locked,
Three-handed struggle between
Your wants, the world’s for you, and (worse)
The unbeatable slow machine
That brings what you’ll get. Blocked,
They strain round a hollow stasis
Of havings-to, fear, faces,
Days sift down it constantly. Years.

As this poem says, life never turns out as expected, we are determined not so much by what we choose as by “what happened to happened.” Yet we often think others are absolutely free, no doubt because they are free of a few of the things that limit us. But restrictions always remain.

The permanence of restrictions is best shown in the second of his poems that resonates with the quote from Kant, “High Windows.”

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds.
And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

High Windows as read by Larkin

I always imagine that Kant’s dove is attempting to fly outside in the deep blue air.

According to this poem, we are constantly looking from our perspective into other people’s lives, imagining that someone is free from the restrictions that seem to hem us in. But there is no such perspective. Though tempting, the deep blue air is ultimately nothing and nowhere because paradoxically it is everywhere (endless).

But while this may seem pessimistic, exchanging one cage for another, the beauty of that freedom–even if illusory–draws us onward. And progress is perhaps made, even if complaints remain. After all, it is better to worry about sex than damnation. How one determines if progress is made, however, is outside the range of either poem (and this blog post).

1. A5/B8; Pluhar’s translation, p. 50

Sima Qian After Dark


When the First Emperor came into maturity, the empress dowager’s dissipation did not end. Lu Buwei feared that this would bring disaster upon himself.1 Therefore he himself sought out a man with an enormous penis, Lao Ai, and made him a servant. Sometimes at parties he would command Ai to put his penis in a wheel and walk around with it.2 As a result, the empress dowager heard of it, and it interested her. After the empress dowager heard, she desired to have him for herself. Lu Buwei then in order to present Lao Ai to her falsely accused Lao Ai of a crime deserving castration. Buwei secretly spoke to the empress dowager, saying “It is easy to fake a castration; then you can get him to hold office in your quarters.” The empress dowager then secretly gave gifts to the official in charge of castration, who falsely announced it had been done, and plucked Ai’s beard and eyebrows, and then got him to wait on the empress dowager. The empress dowager began an affair with him,3 and greatly loved him. Becoming pregnant, the empress dowager feared people would find out, faked a divination that to avoid inauspicious times she should move her residence to Yong. Lao Ai followed, and was bestowed so many riches that all affairs were decided by him. Lao Ai’s servants numbered several thousand, and all sorts of guests seeking office made the number of his servants even greater…4In the ninth year of the First Emperor’s rule, someone told him that Lao Ai was not truly a eunuch, but was engaged in dissipation with the empress dowager, who had given birth to two sons, all of which they hid. With the empress dowager he plotted, saying “Once the king5 dies, our sons will succeed.” Therefore the King of Qin commanded his subordinates to investigate and all was revealed, and the affair implicated the prime minister, Lu Buwei. In the ninth month, Lao Ai and three sets of his relatives were exterminated and the two sons the empress dowager had given birth to were killed, and the emperess dowager was ordered to remain in Yong. All of Lao Ai’s servants lost their homes and were sent to Shu.

–from Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, chapter 85

The Records of the Grand Historian is probably the greatest historical work ever written. However, it is also filled with wonderful stories like this one. Lao Ai is famous even today.6

1. She was Lu Buwei’s former concubine and he may have been the First Emperor’s biological father.

2. I tried to see if this was possible. Since I stumbled across a video of a man (apparently Bulgarian) pulling a car with his penis on a TV show, I guess it is.

3. Interestingly, the word for “an improper sexual relationship” can also mean “to understand comprehensively”. I was tempted to translate it as “to know in the Biblical sense.”

4. Skipping over an irrelevant section.

5. The First Emperor was not emperor yet, but merely the King of Qin.

6. He was portrayed in Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin.