Upstream From Subject-Object: Introductory Notes Toward a Dao of Writing by Eric Darton

Katie Kehrig. "The Reach." Digital photograph. 2011.

Katie Kehrig. “The Reach.” Digital photograph. 2011.

Within the mind there is yet another mind.

That mind within the mind: it is an awareness that precedes words.

            —from Nei-yeh (Inward Training) XIV[1]


What follows is neither essay, argument, nor attempt to persuade. My intention is to suggest that literature possesses a communicative efficacy that operates invisibly, at once beneath the threshold of aesthetic appeal and above our affinity for narrative structures. In my view, the efficacy of literature is rooted in its capacity to grant access to reality in a way that is distinct from other modes of expression. Put metaphorically, but without exaggeration, literary practice (its production and consumption) constitutes an open and potentiating space within the rigid, yet evermore fragmented and discontinuous culture of the West.

The pages below bear witness to the merger of two streams of awareness within my lived experience which, in conjoining, have allowed me to read one of Kipling’s more declarative couplets: East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet / Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat, as more a sigh of wish-fulfillment than a description of load-bearing actuality.

Specifically, these notes grow out of the convergence of three score years enmeshment in, primarily, Western literature, and more than a decade’s practice of Ba Gua Zhang, an internal martial art whose roots extend back to predynastic China. The quite unplanned coming together of these divergent modalities presented me with an opportunity to harmonize my work as a reader-writer in the English language with techniques of movement, breathing and meditation derived from ancient Daoist sources. I have found to my surprise and delight that, over time, the “twain” need not operate at loggerheads, or even dialectically, but may develop into a co-generative process.

More inclusively, these passages evidence the ways in which a writer’s cultural grounding in the European tradition of theological, philosophic and scientific thought may shift in response to immersion in a deeply embodied Asian practice – a practice that, knowing no duality, never evolved a distinct separation between spirit and matter, being and non-being, subject and object. In Daoist thought there can be no yin that does not contain yang, no yang that does not incorporate yin, neither truth without falsehood, nor vice versa. A reciprocal, mutually generative dynamic exists between polarities, and animates the world in which we live, and breathe.

Perhaps paradoxically, but in any case ineluctably, my engagement in Daoist arts has confirmed a long-held suspicion that in the West, poetry, and by extension, the novel – particularly in the modern era – have constituted and still maintain a quasi-autonomous zone of non-dualistic coherence that neither philosophy, religion, nor scientific rationalism have been able to fully “occupy.” By virtue of its tilt, albeit ever so slightly, toward the processive over the deterministic, literature continues to open up fields of compossibility otherwise foreclosed by a perceptual bias toward extreme focalization, whether on the aesthetic, analytic, or technical aspects of reality. Thus the thumb of literature presses the scale of awareness gently toward the undifferentiated fount from which forms arise and achieve concretion, and into which they disperse, only to return as “new” forms.

By eluding the Scylla of faith on one hand and the Charybdis of reason on the other, writing and reading – imbued as they are with the qualities of respiration – have provided and continue to offer a potentiating space in which a limitless play of human sense-emotionality may emerge and deploy. Viewed this way, literary practice becomes less a matter of representation and more a manifestation of the breath-energy permeating the world around and within us.

It is not, therefore, via her powers of perception that the writer grants us access to an enhanced awareness of the personal, the social or the natural, nor by virtue of her creativity or inventiveness per se, but rather as a result of her capacity to make herself available to, and resonant with, the sound of that which arises.



Detour, Access and Letting Pass


I would like to briefly explore, without at once getting mired in comparative theory, a key divergence between Western and Chinese approaches to language. Put succinctly, where we prize the direct, immediate and confrontational, the Chinese tend toward the oblique, the indirect, the allusive. [2]

Here I will cite a bracingly un-Western idea of the function of words, one which pulls up short of using them as building blocks for the creation of concretized distinctions and instead avails itself of indirection and detour as a mode of efficacy acting within an all-inclusive real.

The Zhuangzi, a foundational 3rd century BCE corpus of Daoist thought, speaks of “fluctuating words”: words which refuse, or, more accurately, refrain from, partiality. According to the eminent contemporary French sinologist François Jullien, such words “do not grant access to something else, such as a sense of a beyond on another level – a metaphysical or religious conception of the heavens – as the allegorization in Greek myths or biblical tales does. Words need only overflow the limitations of language, no longer approaching the real in a compartmentalized and arrested way – in short, they need only ceaselessly be an allusive variation to allow us to rejoin the spontaneous coexistence of things and to give us access to the natural.”[3]

The allusive mode allows space to remain open, hence the capacity for communication and movement within a text, as within the structures of a human body. As is evident in the experiences we have all had in reading linguistically and spiritually depleted poetry and prose, the writer’s attempt to overdetermine meaning has foreclosed the process from which meaning emerges. If meaning has no space in which to potentiate, it becomes stuck and turns necrotic, impermeable – its structure unable to absorb the hygiene of respiration, or act as a conduit for the fluid energy of language.

One further instance of the efficacy of indirection will suffice for the present. According to Jin Shengtan, a seventeenth century theorist, it is via “meandering concatenation” that the theme of a profound literary work may gradually appear. He cites an eighth century poem by Du Fu, “The Jade Flower Palace,” whose first lines describe the narrator’s discovery of a ruined royal temple:

At the bend in the stream – the wind in the pines [stretches] far,

Rats slip by – [under] ancient tiles.

I know not what king owns this temple...

Here, the reader is led along a “natural” concatenation that, image by image, sensitizes one to the state of abandonment. “A less skillful poet, Jin concludes, would have described the temple in the first line ‘by exclamation.’”[4]

Such images may trigger myriad associations, but two that immediately came to my mind were those of the fog-laden river Thames, occurring early on in Dickens’ Bleak House, and the “false” clarity in the opening lines of Melville’s “Benito Cereno.” While the indistinction and muckiness in Bleak House serves both allegorical and allusive purposes, it also works to short-circuit any premature moves on the reader’s part toward partiality and determination. In “Benito Cereno,” the narrator’s flat, depositional recounting of facts and a nearly clinical focalization on the details of sky and sea – in short an extreme lack of atmospherics – undermines our faith in the veracity of what is presented from this single point perspective and pushes the reader toward more “primitive” mechanisms of knowing. In both cases, we are drawn into the narrative more by smell, i.e. something isn’t right here, than via the externally-directed power of the analytic eye. Here the metaphorical meets the real, since excessive fog and “severe clear,” as with any dyad of extremes, can equally blind one to the nature of the unfolding phenomena.[5]

One further idea I want to introduce here will bring matters closer to home. You may have noticed that the journal you are reading has a motto, a well-intended one, designed to signal openness and inclusivity: We hold the gate open. These words evoke a happy image for the writer seeking shelter for her or his work, weary of bouncing off the surface of hermetically-sealed publications defended by unspoken, yet nonetheless impassible barriers.

But here we reach the border between East and West, for to “hold the gate open” evokes an image of concerted effort – perhaps even a heroic test of strength and will. What is implied is that if we do not exert main force, the gate may slam shut, potentially crushing us, or, worse yet, injuring a guest. It raises the question of how long we can maintain this posture before we become exhausted. Via the intention embodied in a single sentence, we have traversed millennia of cultural topography to arrive, once again, at the siege of Troy.

By comparison, the traditional Chinese character for “between” 間 presents an another image of the gate. Jullien writes that “according to the etymological commentary, the main gate has to be closed at night but, though it is closed, you can still perceive the brightness of the moon because there is a median space between the leaves of the gate that allow the moon’s rays to pass through. That internal emptiness – opening or fissure – that lets light through is also what allows for play within the very articulations structuring beings and things.”[6]

In relation to the body, Chinese physiology and Daoist meditation practices locate several “gates” along the ren and du meridians, which respectively run down the front and up the back of the human body. These gates regulate passage of qi-breath and open and shut naturally with our respiration. Forcing qi-breath through them, or restricting its passage can be equally harmful.

Returning to Jullien: “Neither ‘without’ nor ‘in’ but between: that ‘between’ is the modality of the nonontological. Whereas without makes us abandon the concrete and deprives us of it, and the in makes us stick to the concrete and get bogged down in it, between lets us move freely (spiritually) through the concrete and keeps it communicating-operative. Early on, [beginning in the 5th century] the Chinese treatises on painting gave a name to the virtue of that between, which opens the thing wide from the inside and, allowing passage through it, keeps it deployed. ...[But] it is not really a name but a binomial, implying play between the two terms and letting pass: qi-yun, ‘breath-resonance’ (or ‘energy consonance’).”[7]

This “breath-resonance” confers “life and movement,” in this case within painted figuration, but applicable as well (without exerting effort) to the images evoked in the poetics of prose.



The Cycle of Breath


In light of the above, I want to touch again on an overarching, underlying theme that will continue to flow through these notes, particularly in relation to the writing-reading process. The goal of Daoist inner cultivation via breathing meditation is not to draw us into another world, or establish a transcendent plane of existence, but to connect us as fully as possible with the here and now. In focusing on the respiratory cycle, on the qi/breath that animates heaven, earth and the “ten thousand things” emanating from yin and yang, these practices seek to establish a unity between our internal environment and the external world so we can engage with life in a clear and present way. I believe that this has profound implications for those of us whose gong fu lies in expressing our sense of reality on the page.

Like profound writing, Daoist symbolism bypasses everyday language formulations and thought patterns, and shifts our consciousness subtly at a very deep internal, even molecular, level. In this sense it is subversive of all established, concretized orders. In Daoist thought, images are inseparable from texts: they are manifestations of the same energy in different states.

In the most basic way, the practice of respiratory inner cultivation techniques re-turns us to a still place of non-differentiation, wu-ji, where, amidst the myriad stresses, distractions, and partialities of the world, the known and the knower are one. It is here, that breath initiates movement, whether of the pen across the page, the play of fingers on a keyboard, or in the closing or opening of the door to that room of one’s own.

It is by virtue of its cyclic, ongoing nature: inhalation shading into exhalation in successive waves, that breath-awareness may move us upstream of any clear subject-object divide. It works to mediate the dualism inherent in our language with another coherence: that of a unitary consciousness.

Will practicing these techniques make us more powerful writers? Deeper readers? I would sidestep the opportunity to argue along that line. Rather, I would say that breath awareness changes our idea of what writing and reading are by shifting our emphasis subtly from events to processes, from the “why?” of causality to the “so...” of incitement-arousal. Further, the non-partiality of a respiratory logic – by decentering the primacy of perception – may clarify our observations, allowing the breath-energy of the world to more readily flow through our words.

One does not, after all, invent Mount Taishan. The clouds lift, and we see it.


I realize that the ideas I have sketched above speak to a very different logic than that which inheres in the structures of European languages and thus underpins Western knowledge even beneath the threshold of thought. That said, I am less inclined to explore the rift between Chinese and Western concepts than to suggest ways in which writers and readers may avail themselves of the potentiating, life-sustaining emptiness that allows communicative power to animate our web of words. It will be an enduring paradox of this writing that the “spiritual” dimension of breath-energy, rather than being transcendent, remains immanent within literary practice and helps constitute its efficacy. In future issues, I will expand on, and hopefully elucidate, some of the concepts introduced here. As these notes unscroll, I hope readers will feel free to correspond with me at

While there are many useful sources of information on Daoist thought, one book I can wholeheartedly recommend is Tom Bisio’s Decoding the Dao: Nine Lessons in Daoist Meditation, Outskirts Press, 2013. The author provides a clear and systematic step by step guide to the breathing meditations I’ve referred to and lays out a comprehensive basic grounding in Daoist ideas and images.




[1] Harold D. Roth, Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. p. 72. This 4th century BCE text, focused on breathing meditation practices, is thought to predate the Laozi.

[2] This quality is also central to Chinese literati painting as well as military strategy and internal martial art. In the latter, direct confrontation is avoided and one defeats an adversary not by pitting one’s strength against his, but by moving away from his line of force and “turning his corner.” This deprives him of his center and allows one to deliver strikes from an unexpected angle. The image commonly presented is that he falls into the space you have emptied for him.

[3] François Jullien. Detour and Access. Sophie Hawkins, trans. New York: Zone Books, 2000. p. 332.

[4] Ibid, p. 345.

[5] Bleak House:

“Benito Cereno”:

[6] “Not Quitting, Not Sticking,” in The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Non-object Through Painting. Jane Marie Todd, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, p. 94.

[7] Ibid, p. 95.