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Shensi: Tracing Arthur Sze's Poetic Imagination between East and West

From: The Comparatist
Volume 37, May 2013
pp. 234-261 | 10.1353/com.2013.0031

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I want to mention my idea that the mind is a dragon. In Chinese culture, a dragon embodies magic, transformation, and energy.

Arthur Sze, The Silk Dragon (11)

"The spirit resides in the mind," says Liu Xie (ca. 465-520), one of the most important critics in the Chinese tradition: "Through the mystic subtlety of the imagination, the spirit and the things in the outside world are one in their excursion" (299). This is what he describes as shensi—in Chinese, shen means spirit while si thinking. "Liu conceives of the operation of shen," as Zong-qi Cai observes, "in terms of a flight of the mind out of the physical body to roam afar in defiance of time and space—a flight reminiscent of the soul's wandering in a shamanistic journey" (9). The major characteristic of shen, so to speak, is its ability to travel outside the body, as illustrated by the Taoist text Zhuangzi, in which the term shenren, or human shen, refers to a person who has obtained the absolute spiritual freedom to "go soaring around" and "wonder through the boundless" (32). For that reason, shen also has an adjective sense of being "miraculous" as found in the descriptions of the "element of the human mind or psyche that corresponds to the manifold divinities of the natural world" (Egan 102). Liu's idea of shensi, according to Shuen-Fu Lin, is "the concept in Chinese tradition that comes closest to the Western notion of imagination," but it "reveals some interesting, unique Chinese characteristics" (133-34). The word shen can be interpreted in two ways: "On the one hand, it qualifies si or thinking as an activity of a person's jingshen (spirit) that resides in his mind-heart. On the other hand, it connotes that this si has a marvelous, unfathomable, or daimonic quality." In addition, the term si carries a double meaning: it means "to cherish the memories of," or "to ponder." So, si expresses both emotional and intellectual content, suggesting "the Chinese predilection for seeing close connections between . . . reason and emotion" (Lin 135). Shensi is thus one of the most vivid expressions in Chinese which captures the power and freedom that the poetic mind enjoys in the process of creation.

In the West, the notion of shensi has been elucidated by some critics in terms of "daimonic thinking" which, according to Wolfgang von Goethe, suggests an extraordinary "indwelling energy or power not unlike that found in individuals of genius" (Nicholls 236). "My translation of the word shen as 'daimon,'" as Ronald Egan explains, emphasizes the point that "the shen is of course that element of the human mind," yet it "is essentially beyond human understanding." "A cardinal trait of the ancient human shen is its ability to travel abroad (you), as in the projections of the shen outward in shamanistic journeys" (102). Such a dynamic mode of thinking, or to be exact, mental traveling—either called "shensi" in the East or "daimonic" in the West—characterizes most of Sze's poems, which are apt to stretch the reader's imagination beyond its usual limits. "The whole point" about shensi, in Egan's opinion, "is that the individual stays put and sends his daimon distantly off. Moreover, the destination of this daimonic flight is not identical with the objective, physical world, since it is a realm in which the boundaries of time and space do not exist" (105-06). Venturing into the imaginative space of shensi, as Sze cautions, "a reader may become initially disoriented because there is no easy connection or causation. These moments of disorientation, however, may be extremely helpful and may resemble koans that stretch the mind" (Elshtain 206). The mind-stretching effects reveal a distinctive quality of Sze's poetry, which accommodates various cultural and literary traditions from the East and the West. By examining Sze's poetry, we will have a better understanding of what might be called modern shensi or spiritual diaspora, whose complex dimensions have not yet been fully mapped or recognized.

As an Asian diasporic poet, Sze's poetic mind reflects profound influences of Asian cultures and extraordinary imaginative power. "Our academic discourse of 'diaspora,'" as Stephen...

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