David Hinton’s Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape
Reviewed by Andrew C. Gottlieb
Shambhala Publications | 2012 | 160 pages
The size of a book may belie the true weight of its contents. So it is with David Hinton’s first collection of essays, a small book barely a half inch thick and with the dimensions of a 5” x 7” photograph. A quick read it’s not, however. Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape is a dense meditation on language and place, on the philosophy of living, and on the inescapable link between the grammar of a language and our experience of the world.
Hinton is a well-known scholar and translator of ancient Chinese poetry: if you’ve read an English version of the Tao Te Ching or perhaps a collection of poems by either Tu Fu or Li Po, there’s a good chance you’ve had a Hinton translation at your fingertips. If the list of previous works at the front of the book is complete, Hunger Mountain is his 16th book, but it’s only the second (after his poetry) that’s not a translation of another writer. So as a reader I was eager to dive in to this tome on mind and landscape that comes from a master translator, a chance to hear from Hinton himself. The promise is large, the potential great.
We’re not let down. There’s a magic that comes from the combination of scholarly work—language, time period, spiritual history, place— that Hinton has studied and mastered over the years. The focus is Taoist theory and thought, “in part because it represents such a remarkably contemporary worldview. It is secular, and yet deeply spiritual,” he tells us. “It is what we now call ‘deep ecology,’ meaning it weaves human consciousness into the ‘natural world’ at the most fundamental level. In fact, the West’s separation of ‘human’ from ‘nature’ is entirely foreign to it.” What Hinton also brings to the work is a deep understanding of the language, allowing him to parse graphs and their development, to follow the evolution and construction of a series of graphs that reveal the thought process behind the Chinese language. And understanding the language leads to new ways of thinking.
So what are we reading about? Well, language and place. Hinton musing on his place in life, his own life. The world, our relation to it. We begin with a history lesson. “In south China, there is a mountain so revered . . . that countless poets and artists and monks devoted themselves to its wisdom.” Now a World Heritage Site, this mountain is called Thatch-Hut (Lu in Chinese), and it was a place for a pilgrimage’s end, where sages spent their time pondering, writing, thinking. Fast forward to the 21st century. Hinton anchors the book around his own mountain, Hunger Mountain, a small mountain in Vermont that he hikes up frequently, the walks becoming the meditative muse for his writings.
Then the lectures begin, these short essays, oratorical in tone, 21 brief pieces, brief in length but not in depth. Titled simply with a Chinese graph or two, the English translation in parentheses below—(Dragon), (Gate), (Mountain), (Absence)—we are drawn in to learn what we might think of as the wisdom of ancient China or the failing of modern Western thought. In (Friends) Hinton teaches of the structure of ancient Chinese, often lacking subjects and objects. “Prepositions and conjunctions are rarely used, leaving relationships between lines, phrases, ideas, and images unclear. The distinction between singular and plural is only rarely and indirectly made. Verbs are not uncommonly absent, and when present they have no tenses, so temporal location and sequence are vague.” So what are we left with, pondering a language so abstract? A more direct connection to the world, to the landscape, or, to flip things around, a lack of our Western perceived distance between man and nature.
Hinton contrasts the mythology of a human consciousness directly tied by language and thought to a mountain or a river (a landscape implicit in one’s existence) with the subject-laden (I, I, I) Western thinking that separates man and nature, a thinking that “has facilitated catastrophic environmental destruction, for it reduces earth to nothing more than a collection of resources for our use.” What Hinton is slowly achieving with these essays and walks is a creation of his own monkhood, a poet’s thought system recreating ancient Chinese philosophy and thinking in Western language. He’s aware of Hunger Mountain as a separate object, yet central to his own identity. “Wandering through this mountain’s topography, of forest and stream and rock, its weather and history, I’m wandering through myself in the form of a mountain that eludes me perfectly.”
How does Hinton teach us about the graphs and language? To explain the feeling of “heart-mind” in consciousness, he takes us through a history lesson of the language. With symbols/graphs removed: “Mind . . . is simply a picture of the heart . . . the thinking mind is not distinguished from the feeling heart. . . . To think is . . . a heart beneath a skull . . . the skull appears alternately as fieldland.” Hence, the idea of thinking is portrayed as “heart-mind” + “field” which might be rendered as something like “heart-mind in the presence of fieldland.” This is a poor simplification paraphrasing Hinton’s explanations, but must suffice to give the sense of his writing. Some of his graphs appear to come from a Chinese symbol-font character set, while others appear hand-drawn to replicate ancient versions of graphs, neither system of which I can lean on for this review.
The prose styling is pristine. Crisp, clean, direct, accurate. Lyrical, poetic, and even including Hinton’s own poetry for a few pieces. We’re in the hands of a stylist who’s spent years pondering the differences between the slightest variations in tone, style, structure, and meaning. In this modern pondering of the 10,000 things, one gets a glimpse of the thinkers and poets of ancient China, brought to life through the mind of this scholar.
“Things are themselves only as they belong to something more than themselves: I to we, we to earth, earth to planets and stars, countless stars more themselves mirrored in the eye for a moment and then vanishing there, forgotten completely and leaving room to spare for whatever comes next,” Hinton tells us, in the opening sentence to this small, generous book. We are grateful for this instance of, finally, David Hinton translating David Hinton.
Andrew C. Gottlieb is the reviews editor for Terrain.org. His work can be found online, in many print journals, and in his poetry chapbook Halflives (New Michigan Press). Find him at www.AndrewCGottlieb.com.