The Book of Beginnings [Book Review]

Common Knowledge 22 (3):500-500 (2016)

Barry Allen
McMaster University
What is it to enter a way of thought? No way of thought can be summarized. Translation is unreliable. Following a historical development is exhausting and remains external to the vitality of the thought. For Jullien, a way of thought can be entered effectively only by beginning to work with it, which for him means passing through it in order to learn how to question something beyond doubt. What we cannot imagine doubting may suddenly alter under the oblique effect of another way of thought that cannot share, or even imagine, our certainty. Jullien reads a single Chinese sentence, the beginning of the Yijing, or Book of Changes, “China’s oldest book.” He reads the sentence from close up and far away, literally and set into play with other inaugurations from Genesis and Hesiod. Yijing begins not with a word but a line. One unbroken line repeated six times. {—}. This sign has a name: {qian}, which Jullien translates “initiatory capacity.” The first line of the text is a commentary on the hexagram. It consists of four monosyllables, all equal, without tense, without subject or complement, making a complete series without hierarchy. {Yong heng li zhen} “Beginning expansion profit rectitude.” The sentence (it is a sentence) “opens widely but does not bump up against anything,” lacking passions we may think significance requires. Its subtle, almost irresistible power is to unfold the obvious and hold sway without seeming to constitute a point of view. Alluding to that other canonical commencement, Genesis, Jullien observes that the Chinese sentence includes humanity without singling us out. We are duly swept up in the “ten thousand things.” Where the biblical sentence sets a history in motion, the Chinese sentence discloses a regulating mechanism. Its beginning is not the rupture of a first day. Instead, it names an unfolding that occurs everywhere at every moment and never runs dry. China does not fit into the opposition of Greece and the Bible (“Athens or Jerusalem”). “Might these alternatives have been too hastily sealed?” A question that probably would not be felt as vital without the detour through China.
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DOI 10.1215/0961754X-3622385
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