Powers and Names

E.P. Thompson

(With apologies to Szuma Chien)

      You have the power to name:
      Naming gives power over all.
But who will name the power to name?
                Asked the oracle.

Speech

Like a silkworm on a mulberry leaf
The unmannerly earth
Gnawed at the edge of the sky and bit out mountains.

Gorged with matter it dropped by the edge of the ocean,
Cocooned in unconsciousness and grass,
An existence unknown to itself,
Waiting to be spun by nimble tongues into languages.

Let us conciliate the powers by giving them names.
Let us swallow the worm.
Let us tame the world by taking it into ourselves.

Art

The dragons and the lions are furious.
They would like to eat us.
If we model their rage in clay
Will we drive terror away?

Naming the Gods

Ten suns flared in the sky.
They scorched the crops and hatched out of the clay
Fire-breathing demons. The great archer Yi
Chose from his pouch
Nine arrows flighted with a shaman’s charm
And slew one sun with each, and ever after we
Named Yi as deity.

But Heaven’s pillars cracked
And water gushed out of the broken arch,
Washing the corpses to the sea. So Nüwa raised
A paste of melted rocks
To patch the gashes in the sky, and from a giant turtle
She hewed its legs to prop Heaven back in place.
The goddess Nüwa be praised!

Then water must be educated
And led in levels to the fields. Yu the Great
Accomplished this in thirteen years of toil.
A winged dragon aided him
And once he changed himself into a bear
To scratch a passage through an obstinate hill.
We named Yu god of the soil

And Chi his son hereditary
Owner of all under Heaven, he and his family
In perpetuity. From that ancestral power
Sprouted the state:
Armies invented slavery: astronomy
Led the stars captive through the calendar:
Taxes invented the poor.

The Scholars

In scarcely a millennium
Spring diminished into autumn.
Was the world worse
In the time of incessant wars
Between the city states
Or were there benefits
For the autonomy of thought
In the competition of courts?

Congestion on the roads
As the scholars and their schools
Imagined luminous codes –
Ideologues and pedants,
An orator with an umbrella,
A sophist astride a mule,
A hermit in sandals of straw –
Pestered for audience,
Oppressed the courts of kings
And persecuted princes,
Urging them to restore
Obedience to Heaven’s law.

When Confucius was lecturing
Lord Ling, the Duke of Vei,
Enforcing Heaven’s rules
On the virtues of benevolence,
The Duke allowed his eyes
To leave his tutor and follow
Some wild geese in the sky.
At this indiscipline
Confucius took offence
And gathering up his school
Went off in a huff to Chen.

Says the Grand Historian:
It was a great mistake
To tutor power, for when
The law at last was learned
From legalist or mystic
By the Emperor of Chin
He ordered the imperial rule
Of benevolence to begin:
He buried the scholars alive
And the Book of Songs was burned.

O that Confucius
Had learned to keep his cool,
And had lingered to watch the geese
With the duke and his fool!

The First Emperor

In the 26th year of his reign the King of Chin
Assembled his counsellors.

In the desert of his nature little winds of boredom
Stirred eddies of dust. His throat was dry
And malice constricted his voice like that of a jackal.
Dust stirred in his slitted eyes. He said:
‘I have conquered six states. I have captured or killed their kings.
Whoever opposed me has been enslaved.
All between the four seas has fallen under my rule.
I have defined the laws, making known what is forbidden,
And discovering (to the surprise of some) 600 degrees of sin
Hitherto nameless and now made manifest to all.
I have closed up the gaps in the Great Wall and garrisoned it from end to end.
What is there left for me to be omnipotent in?’

The counsellors bowed and puffed their sleeves:
The first minister, the marshall, the grand censor,
The executioner and the eunuchs of the royal commission.
They said: ‘O thou ineffable Vocative!
Great Straightener, Almighty Regulator of All!
How couldst thou be more egregious than thou already art?
Thou hast brought letters level, made measures match,
And thou hast brought cash and morals into uniformity.
Men and women must now walk on different sides of the street,
Thanks to thy wisdom. Thou showest no favour no way.
Adulterers (if they are poor) may be boiled in cauldrons.
Officials abusing thy ordinances are always castrated.
Indeed, thy benevolence
Blesses the beasts in the fields, who press to the court,
Bleating to be thy meat. The water buffalo
Bellows thy name; the bees bring thee wax; the fish
Wish only to be thy dish; the rice crowds into the carts
And offers itself as tax ...’ Et cetera.

The King of Chin was gratified.
He ordered that their speeches be engraved upon stone
At the gateways to his 36 provinces.

Then he ascended a throne of alabaster
And, hiding his regal presence within veils,
Announced that Empire had commenced:

‘Hereby I augurate a new age.
Lo, let us begin by renaming all names.
Since I have swallowed six kings I now assume plurality.
It is ordered that henceforth we shall be us,
Becoming Our First Exalted Sovereign Emperor.
Whatever we want will be known as Heaven’s decree.
Our laws will be named edicts.
We hereby rename the poor our loyal black-headed people.
When we are satisfied all their wants are met.
When we eat the nation has been fed.
When we shit All have shat.
Oh, and since our brilliance will strike mortals blind,
Henceforth our imperial self will give audience only through screens
And we shall never be seen.’

The counsellors bowed and trembled for their balls.
They ordered to be engraved in stone on Mount Tai:
‘The Sovereign Emperor made decrees and edicts which all his subjects heeded;
Great and manifest, his virtue is handed down to ages yet to come, to be followed without change.
The sage Emperor who has pacified all under Heaven is tireless in his rule;
He rises early and makes marginalia on his officials’ reports;
He sets a standard of proper bearings and signs for all things;
The black-headed people are reformed; he surpasses the ancients and has never known error.
Oh gosh! he is so bright that he graciously saves our eyes by hiding behind screens.
His omnipotence knows no end, and his orders will be obeyed through eternity.’

The Emperor was pleased.
He sacrificed six white horses to the power of water,
Drowning them slowly. A picul of rice and a pig
Were ordered to be sent to every village in the land.
It was found (alas!) that demand exceeded supply,
But the intention (at least) was distributed to the poor,
Who raised their worn and empty hands
And blessed the Emperor.

Then he decreed that he had become immortal.
And was transmogrified. But was visited by doubt.
He sent boatloads of children out to find the fairy isles
Far in the misty eastern oceans where the immortals live.
They did not return. Perhaps they were stopped by whales?
He sent out alchemists to visit the barbarians,
In search of magic fungi and cunning elixirs.
But they were thwarted by demons ...

Behind his screens the Emperor raged and aged.
He issued an edict condemning time:
‘Whereas learning has confused our loyal B.H.P.,
We abolish all histories which do not mention our name.

Let only despotic sciences be preserved:
Geometry, census, the computation of tax,
Econometrics, caryatics, castrametation, casuistics,
Cacodoxy, calculus, calibration, nefandous necromantics,
Decapitation, doctrinarianism and the division of parts.
Let the arts be banned,
And the Book of Songs be burned and the Book of Music.
Whoever recalls the past shall be cut in half
And whoever fails to report these crimes shall be burned with brands.’
The counsellors clapped their hands.

The Emperor retired into 200 palaces
Whose walls hung with the fungi of sycophancy.
The marsh creatures of lust clung around him.
He fed on sharks’ fins and the pads of camels,
Tangerines, lychees and fantasies.
The white faces of treachery
Whispered around him and ministered to his lechery.

A eunuch hissed a signal of suspected treason.
The Emperor called in the scholars for a course of self-criticism.
They hastened to the court to incriminate each other.
Chuckling like a jackal he caused in the sands to be opened
A vault lit with dark lanterns
And stocked with the confiscated texts of Confucius.
460 sages were sent underground
To sound off in ghostly seminar through the ages.

Each day the Emperor rose and weighed his official reports.
He shifted half a picul of scrolls from his left to his right:
Ah, momentous inauguration of the dynasty of bumf!
According to auguries or according to the weather
He marked in the margins those he decreed to be dead.
On his capital errands
The palace eunuchs spurred with their imperial wands
In an incessant circulation of dread.

When he had first ascended to the throne of Chin
He had ordered work to begin on a bloody great tomb.
Now 700,000 castrati, convicts and slaves
Were impressed to Mount Li
To magnify his gigantic mausoleum
Which (however) the Emperor did not intend to go dead in,
Preferring to be an Eternal, whom water cannot wet,
Who rides on the clouds, impervious to fire,
And coeval with evil ...

Changed name again. Became pure spirit.
We became It:
And, to fox the evil eye, It became invisible.
It flitted in secret
In screened arcades between Its 270 palaces.
Places of ecstacy, what with golden orioles
Shouting in the flowering cherries, and the lakes stocked
With exotic goldfish. Everywhere bells and drums
Exhorted the Eternal to come,
As did the countless beauties attendant on its every will
With which the pavilions and secret chambers were stacked.
Sheathed in green gauze
They back-combed their hair into pyramids like orchids
And languished for Its cock
(It having decreed that each must bear It a son
Or else ...)
But were visited only by flaccid concupiscence
Since It could no longer fuck.

The Eternal flitted from palace to palace and moped.
It raged and aged.
It pawed and groped.
It wittered and moaned.
It decreed death
On any who disclosed where It was or where It might even be.
It issued an edict that It had ceased to exist
Except as despotic Essence.

You must imagine it now as pure vacancy

Here is Its Name:

           *      *      *

300 astrologers
Were abjured to conjure beneficent omens from the stars.
It ordered the spiritual purification of poetry:
The elimination of dentals, the utter ending of gutterals.
Musicians were ordered to oil their strings.
Ululation of sibilants and labials
As vowels howled in the shrouded corridors
And the pavilions wailed of immortality ...

And in the 37th year of ascending to the throne of Chin
Eleven years on from assuming the name of We
And two years from the annunciation of spirituality
A stranger thrust into the censor’s hand a disc of jade
On which was written The Primal Dragon Will Die!
And vanished in smoke ...
              In terror It fled.
It consulted oracles. It gave it out
That It had gone to inspect the empire’s extremities.
For fear of lurking assassins
It sent forward convicts to fell the forests ahead.
Archers with crossbows marched in the vanguard
With orders to shoot all whales.
It remained invisible within a covered litter
Carried by slaves. It decreed the pains of hell
Upon any who mentioned death.
                And at Pingtai
In the 7th month of the 38th year
It died.
    But, being invisible, who could tell?

The first minister, Li Szu, thought the moment inauspicious.
He wasn’t sure the old despot would stay dead.
Besides, he had designs on immortality himself,
By raising his creature, Hu-hai, to succeed as emperor
In place of the Crown Prince who had stayed in the capital.

Li Szu, Hu-hai, and the chosen eunuchs kept mum.

And so It continued on Its imperial progress
On the chariot roads in a swaying litter.
The B.H.P. abased themselves before It.
The eunuchs humbly entered the screens bearing dishes
(Which they scoffed with relish within), ushering out
Flourishing fresh imperial decrees (drawn up by Li Szu).
Ah, then It was truly Idea
Disincarnate, aseptic apotheosis of Power,
Which issued an edict condemning Its own son and heir
(Who stood in the way of Hu-hai) and the Lord High Marshall
(Whom Li Szu disliked). Who both duly died
Of the death-sting of the invisible Eternal
Who at length began to stink to high heaven.
The stench caused gossip. To cover the matter
A cartload of salted fish was hitched to Its litter.

And in this manner the bizarre procession
Re-entered Hsienyang, capital of the empire,
Where the Prince and Marshall’s heads grinned on the gates.
First came the outriders scouring for rice
Convicts with axes
Alchemists wishing for fungi
Augurers fishing for auguries
Archers warily watching for whales
The black imperial banners
Trumpeters, drummers
Then:
10,000 horsemen, 1000 charioteers
A myriad foot-soldiers sweating in full armour
Hu-hai, Li Szu, and the ministers of rank
The concubines swaying in palanquins
Eunuchs in rich insignia
Then:
The huge unfurled imperial dragon
The dead Eternal stinking in Its litter
And a cartload of salted fish.
A few explanations followed
Followed by exemplary executions.

After which It was borne
To the yawning mausoleum beneath Mount Li.
Laid in a coffin of copper
In a vault over which the constellations turned
And the floor was the world over which It had ruled
With the rivers and oceans sketched in mercury.
All the imperial palaces were modelled in jade:
Miraculous artifice guarded by gins and traps!
Oh, and those of the Eternal’s ladies who had fallen down in their function
Of bearing It heirs (viz. male) (i.e. nearly all)
Were given the honour of going in gorgeous weeds
Into the vault to tend Its ghostly needs
And rub unguent on the offal.

In an afterthought
It was ordered to close the inner and outer gates
Upon the artificers and labourers
Who were also immured in that foetid space
So that they wouldn’t betray the secrets of the place.

The Grand Historian erred
In neglecting to record where the fish were interred.

Rebellion

Suction of terror’s swirling hysteria
Drew inwards all that could move on wheels or legs
In an acceleration of dread:
The livestock (including maidens).
Conscripts to close the tomb. Droves of geese.
Carts of millet. Pigs. What difference did
It make to be marked as dead

Or only as listed to die? 900 villagers
Were trudging west when the roads were barred by floods.
They were under orders to garrison the Wall,
Led by a farmer’s son,
Chen Sheng who said: ‘Since it has been decreed
That if we are late for duty the offence is capital,
What is the point of it all?’

Strange lights showed in the temples.
The foxes howled in prophecy:
‘Heaven’s mandate is withdrawn from Chin Shih Huang.’
A fisherman
Found in the belly of a carp a silken cloth
Marked in vermilion lettering:
‘Chen Sheng will be the king.’

He killed the guards
And named himself as Magnifier of Chu.
The eastern provinces rose up against the west.
Villagers with their hoes
Cut down the governors, the collectors of tax,
And pillaged the palaces. In a ferocious harvest
They levelled and laid waste

All visible evidence of the Omnipotence
Who still lingered on as awe, an assertion of function
Unfulfilled, a need for Defence against the Huns.
It hissed in Its tomb
And advertised Its post as a vacancy
And from Its insatiate appetites began
The dynasty named as Han.

The Villagers

It had been the Emperor’s whim
To have his armies buried with him,
But when the exchequer was destitute
He graciously stopped the soldiers’ pay
And permitted them to substitute
Their persons precisely modelled in clay.

For an eternity the cows
Grazed round the tomb. No one could tell
Where under earth the warriors lay
Until in the time of immortal Mao
Labour brigaders sinking a well
Came on the mighty garrison
Still standing guard.
          As for the bones
Of the Emperor, the generations
Living beneath the ancestral mound
Have let two millennia pass:
It was best to leave It underground
And mow the last inch of grass.

The Warriors of Hsienyang

Clay-imaged warriors drilling in the sand
Stand ready to be inspected by war.
The kneeling archer has a lethal eye:
The deft fingers of the charioteer
Contain his mischievous horses as they shy.
The sergeant bullshits to belie his fear.
The browned-off soldiers waiting for commands
Are ready to fight but disinclined to die.

Rank upon rank their graven images
Stare through us into distant places.
We are their visions, like mirages
Which shimmer in the mirror of their faces.
Their scouts inspect us vacantly and say
That we are vapours plagiarising clay.

History Lessons

Neanderthal and Peking man
Barely survived the glacial age,
Neglecting to make a collective plan.

Accurate measurement of the brain
Reveals a capacity for speech.
This may be counted as a gain

And proves what Comrade Stalin said:
Tools manufactured humankind:
Necessity enlarged the head
And matter reflected itself as mind.

Art plays a contradictory role.
Scapulimancy was a trick
Used as a means of social control.

Magic’s arcane languages
Cowed the masses within the caves
And established the shaman’s privilege.

Astrologers served the ruling class
And sought in the stars a class reflection:
Society caught a religious infection
And primitive communism passed.

History marching through its phases
Found in the Emperor of Chin
A monarch to modernise its basis.

The superstructure united the nation
Determining a progressive mode
Of hydraulic civilisation.

However many the Emperor slew
The scientific historian
(While taking note of contradiction)
Affirms that productive forces grew.

The Rectification of Names

Heaven’s mandate swarmed the land like locusts:
Taxation’s inquisition racked the rocks and holes
Extracting the confession of their surplus.
The peasants hacked at famine with their hoes
And stirred the dirt to flower:
A hundred million hoes held up the vault of power.

Or was it propped up by the arch of awe
Whose proper name is self-expropriation?
If so, materialism turns a somersault:
We are the subjects of our own negation
And exploitation’s basis floats
On the cold surface of our confiscated thought.

Modes of production like electric grids
Transmit us as their errands to their ends:
From matter’s terminals to spirit’s terminus
The circuits run as strict as continence,
Their only business to enforce
Relations of production into intercourse.

Necessity determinates our paths
Into preordinates in history’s casette:
We utter into print-out, ruled by roles,
And ranked like terracotta warriors. Yet
How could necessity dictate
That immane mausoleum, that predatory state,

Unless the programmer was high on mescalin?
Some manic ego in the mask of destiny
Dreams on the highest stair of ritual,
Hallucinating those despotic dynasties
Which know no longer what they are,
Forgetful of their origins in that exotic air.

Who tutored time in power’s paradigms?
Did the Eternal on the stairs of Chin
Hallucinate our century’s malignancies
And programme on our skies a swarm of acronyms?
It seems the aim of modern man
Is to fulfil the Emperor’s two-millennial plan.

O starry Superalpha, terminal Amen!
Thou great First Cause, egregious Omega!
Our eunuchs and our censors clap their hands:
From day to day the unwearied media
Their great Original proclaim
And hallelujah their hosannahs to Thy Name.

O great totalitarian archetype
In whose ancestral influence we fall,
Who levelled all to uniformity and left
Humanity bisected by a Wall:
Know that all progress tends
To modernise Thy Means and end Thy Awful Ends.

The whale-oil gutters in the lamps below.
The vault is sealed. The women fear to stir
Their shadows which are threatening themselves.
Each sings and suffers with her sisters,
Ending as she began
In awe and incense and the categories of man.

Abstraction dreams of destiny again.
The mind is sealed with absolutist nouns
Which steal our names and alienate our powers:
The Emperor hisses in his funeral mound.
It’s time the oppressed arose
And cut down categories with their hoes.

From the green earth’s imagined holocaust
Arise ye starveling images and blow
Our servile minds out of their algorithms
And blow the fuse of history’s teleo:
Arise and repossess
The surplus value of your swindled consciousness!

Plato thought nature plagiarises spirit:
Being determines consciousness determined Marx:
But in the contradictions of the Way
The human dialectic osculates and arcs
And quarrels to insert
Some transient motive in the motiveless inert.

By getting right the proper names of things
Confucius said that order would commence,
And Taoism taught all would be kind
If they forgot about ‘benevolence’:
Cut down the props, the skies above
Will still hold up upon the menial rites of love

Whose needs are the material habitus
From which the goddesses and dragons came,
Whose archers will shoot down the nuclear fire,
Whose nameless pillars are imagination’s flames,
Whose arcane oracles proclaim
The rectification of the human name.

A Charm against Evil

Throw the forbidden places open.
Let the dragons and the lions play.
Let us swallow the worm of power
And the name pass away.