Lester Lee – Chinese/English translator and freelance writer

This blog will host articles and other works authored by me in various fields – poetry, philosophy, science, history, politics, current affairs, music – and anything else which seizes my attention and imagination!

Late Night Thoughts


Late Night Thoughts

on Listening to Mahler and Four Hindustani Masters



The night is deep and eerily quiet.   I have had a long day, up since five in the morning and after finishing a busy day shift in the hospital I have worked on a lengthy translation for several hours in the evening.   For many years now I have been keeping to such a full schedule, and my stamina at work has long amazed the few people who know me well, not least my long-suffering wife, who sometimes calls me Superman.    It is nothing to me to stay up till two or three in the morning only to get up at six for work.  I often maintain that time is precious and should not be squandered by sleeping it away, quite contrary, I know, to scientific opinion.    I am tempted to add that I forgo sleep because of my zest for life, but “zest for life” is a little high-sounding and I am not sure I live life fully enough to brag about it.   I also feel embarrassed when asked what I do with all that extra time at my disposal, for I have nothing to show for it.   However, I can at least say that, despite what my jargon-loving colleagues would call “sleep deprivation” I have seldom known tiredness, even at the ripe age of 58, though I know that I have aged at least ten years in my last three, for very good reasons.  


In this small hour of the night one is entitled to soliloquise a bit, but it is still good form to apologise for thus beating about the bush.   While ramblers generally bore, the likes of Colin Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould and Lewis Thomas  – whose books are sitting on the side table – have developed rambling styles that are truly magnificent.   These are great writers and can get away with flouting all the rules of good writing as taught by professors.   Colin Wilson rambles because he has, on his own admission, an “untidy mind”.  Gould rambles and digresses through sheer exuberance, to share with readers his prodigious learning and passion for words, with edifying results.  Lewis Thomas rambles too, though to a lesser extent.   Both Gould and Thomas are ardent admirers of Montaigne, perhaps the greatest rambler of them all, who keeps waffling on about himself (alas there are too many “I”’s in my opening paragraph) in his famous essays but is never boring because he is talking about all humanity at the same time.  


The Song of the Earth


I have just finished reading A Report on the Violent Man, a chapter in A Criminal History of Mankind by Colin Wilson, and am immensely saddened by the current world situation as terrorism grips the U.S. and the Americans are bombing Afghanistan.   Wilson cited the archaeological findings near Peking at the time of “the Rape of Nanking” by Japanese soldiers.   It appeared that the ape-men were already capable of smashing the skulls of fleeing enemies from the back.   This reminds us that cruelty has been an abominable feature of the human species from the beginning.  We certainly are not such noble or sublime creatures as we would like to believe.


It is a depressing feeling, and it hangs over the mind like a black pall.   What zest for life, with the spectre of cruel death staring us in the face?  I get up from the lounge and brew myself a pot of “dragon-spring” tea, and feel like listening to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).   It was 15 years ago when I bought that record but I have listened to it only two or three times since.  It is a song about death as much as about the earth.


I always find Mahler fascinating – because of his Jewish background, his complex, neurotic personality and his life-long preoccupation with the meaning of life and death.  Mahler the Jew interests me perhaps because I am Chinese: the Jews and the Chinese have so much in common and are yet so different.  The Jews are as religious as the Chinese are agnostic and philosophical.   Both belong to old civilisations, have great reverence for tradition and learning and are resilient and hard-working beyond compare.   I admire the Jews for offering the world such noble figures as Jesus Christ and Spinoza and dazzling geniuses like Einstein, Bohr, Menuhin and Horowitz, just as I revere Laotse, Confucius, Li Po and Su Tungpo.   I think of the epic struggle of the Jews against persecution and discrimination since the Diaspora, and of their great suffering, harrowing and hallowing at the same time, perhaps even greater than what overseas Chinese people have been through down the centuries.   As I grow older I feel more and more respect for people who suffer a great deal.  And Mahler suffered a lot from anti-Semitic manoeuvres even in the musical world.


Besides being a fanatical idealist, Mahler was a neurotic with a strong mother-fixation.   Five of his eleven siblings died in infancy, a sixth died at thirteen, a seventh of a brain tumour, an eighth committed suicide.   This made him nervous and superstitious about death, and he apparently consulted Freud regularly at one stage.  I know that Freud, despite his commanding influence in psychology, has been branded “pseudo-scientific” by Karl Popper. For my part, I have treated Science as God for three decades, but in the last few years I have lost much of my interest in the scientific and intellectual realms.   While still an atheist, I am increasingly drawn to the mystical .   It’s a frightening change.  Might it not be a retrograde step, a regression to superstition and obscurantism?   I can only say that after studying science for many years I have found it unable to offer satisfactory answers to the essential problems of life, and of death.


I pour a hot cup of tea and put Mahler’s record on.  The opening outburst in the horns forbodes the turmoil ahead.   This is “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery”, the first in a cycle of six.  Rather like an opium addict reaching for his pipe, I indolently pick up a volume of Li Po’s poems from the side table.      It is a bad habit of mine: trying to read and listen to music at the same time.   Invariably the mind wanders between book and music, doing justice to neither and leaving me unsatisfied and feeling foolish.


But on this occasion the music and the book do go together.   Mahler’s song cycle is written as a kind of “symphony” based on a collection of ancient Chinese poems translated into German by Hans Bethge.  From the English translation of that German translation I am able to trace one, and only one, of the songs to its Chinese source.  How very frustrating! 


 The first song is very dark in mood.   Four of its five strains end with the announcement “Dark is life; dark is death”.   It was 1907, a disastrous year for Mahler, then 46.   In July his favourite daughter Putzi died.   In August he had to resign as Director of the Opera in Vienna.   His wife Alma was on the verge of a breakdown, and to humour her Mahler jokingly undertook to be medically examined, only to learn that he had a fatal heart condition.   Mahler the neurotic was now certain of his impending death, and his life-long yearning to find the meaning of life and death would become his constant obsession.


The second song is called Autumn Loneliness.   It sings about lotus flowers drifting on the water.   Oh, the lotus!   For us Chinese it is a symbol of purity and wisdom: pure despite stemming from dirty mud;  and wise because of its associations with the Buddha.  But even the lotus will wither like anything else.  The mood of this song is one of loneliness and desolation:  “Mein Herz ist mude” (My heart is weary) in the third stanza says it all.  


The third song is about youth and there is some sunshine for a while.  The fourth song is called Beauty.    Both songs sing of life’s poignant beauty, only too ephemeral. 


Next comes Der Trunkene im Fruhling (The Drunkard in Spring) , a rendition of a poem by Li Po, which I am able to find in the volume I am flipping through.   As I listen to the German lyric, my mind shuttles between the English translation on the record jacket and the Chinese verse by Li Po himself.   I am trying to figure out from the English text whether the German translation does justice to the original Chinese.   It sounds complicated but I am quite used to such an activity as a translator.  Poetry is what is left out in translation, according to Robert Frost, and when it is a translation upon a translation of a poem one can be sure that absolutely no poetry of the original is left.   But this particular translation reads well enough, though there are omissions and additions and Mahler is known to have revised the poems freely to suit his purposes.  The translator, however, has made a mistake right at the beginning.   “Life is but a dream” is rendered as “If life is but a dream”.   The difference may be only subtle but important.   Li Po drinks to seek oblivion because he firmly believes, with many Taoists, that life is but a dream.  


The last song, entitled Der Abschied (The Farewell), is a long rumination on Death, and the process of it through gradual dissolution, portrayed musically in a rarefied atmosphere in pianissimo, seems to be accepted with resignation, but not quite in peace.


Mahler’s Ninth Symphony


Montaigne quoting Cicero says that to philosophise is to learn to die.   The Song of the Earth certainly invites me to ponder the theme, and in this mood I take out Mahler’s Ninth Symphony from the record cabinet.    Mahler having finished his Eighth Symphony was uneasy about writing a ninth, because he feared it would be his last, mindful that Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner all wrote nine symphonies and then died.   He treated the Song as the ninth “symphony”, and that completed he quickly moved on to write another symphony which he thought would be the Tenth, so death would be cheated.   But that was not to be.   This “Tenth” he had in mind is properly the Ninth, and the true tenth symphony he were to write was left unfinished when he died.  


Late night.   Mahler.  Mahler’s Ninth.   Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.   I fetch the slim volume with that title essay by Lewis Thomas.   


       I had read two volumes of essays by Lewis Thomas, viz. The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher and The Medusa and the Snail, eight years ago, when I was sailing through Life’s relatively calm waters and had no inkling of what was to come.   I was no baby even then – at 50, the age when Confucius professed to know all about Fate and Destiny – and had been through ups and downs like everybody else.  But till then I had always been able to find my own little niche of order amid the maelstrom of existence, by eschewing things that didn’t agree with me, rather like a paramecium zapping away from unpalatable diatoms, a realm Lewis Thomas often wrote about.   My way of coping with hostile environment has always been to shirk rather than confront, so to this day I am still rather raw and thin-skinned.   An escapist I have been called, even a coward, but I don’t really mind.   The truth is I don’t feel particularly weak or vulnerable.   And this is because, call it good fortune if you will – though I have no use of the ideas of good luck or bad luck any more – I  have always been able to find space to back into, and also find sustenance from such master spirits as Laotse, Su Tung-po, Mozart and Schubert.   So when I first read Thomas, life seemed snug and comfortable enough for me, though by no means perfect.


       The Ninth Symphony is purely orchestral.   I lie back and follow the unfolding of the long first movement.   Andante comodo, a “convenient” and smooth pace.   It is certainly very spacious, but not overtly so like Bruckner’s music.   This movement is full of premonitions, once again of death.   There are the ominous horns, prophetic drums and gentle bells.   It is moody and heavy with longing and desolation.   The end of the movement is bleak and sad as the themes die away, rather inconsolably.   


       The second movement is in parts dance-like, with woodland hunting horns drifting in and out.  The simple themes seem to be an ironic expression of the hollowness and futility of existence.  Here is the discordant conjunction of the trivial and the tragic reality of life itself.  The third movement (Rondo-Burleske) reveals an anguished soul confronting certain death, bitter and horrified at the same time.  The mood, as Kenneth Dommett describes it in the accompanying notes, is one of “almost demented despair”.


       The Finale brings out all the nostalgia and yearning in face of the inevitable, and ends in resignation.  


       I can identify with Mahler’s feeling as Death knocks at the door.   It  is both personal and universal.    On the one hand, it reflects Mahler’s particular outlook and circumstances: the neurotic facing the great unknown.   On the other hand, there is this unmitigated feeling of cosmic loneliness and anxiety gnawing at the heart of modern humanity.   “Nor dread nor hope attend/A dying animal;/ A man awaits his end/Dreading and hoping all.”  And hasn’t Auden called this the Age of Anxiety?


        “There was a time, not long ago, when what I heard, especially in the final moment, was an open acknowledgment of death and at the same time a quiet celebration of the tranquillity connected to the process.   I took this music as a metaphor for reassurance, confirming my own strong hunch that the dying of every living creature, the most natural of all experiences, has to be a peaceful experience.   I rely on nature.   The long passages on all the strings at the end, as close as music an come to expressing silence itself, I used to hear as Mahler’s idea of leave-taking at its best.  But always, I have heard this music as a solitary, private listener, thinking about death.” Lewis Thomas wrote, “Now I hear it differently.   I cannot listen to the last movement of the Mahler Ninth without the door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought:  death everywhere, the dying of everything, the end of humanity.   The easy sadness expressed with such gentleness and delicacy by that repeated phrase on faded strings, over and over again, no longer comes to me as old, familiar news of the cycle of living and dying.   All through the last notes my mind swarms with images of a world in which the thermonuclear bombs have begun to explode, in New York and San Francisco, in Moscow and Leningrad, in Paris, in Paris, in Paris.   In Oxford and Cambridge, in Edinburgh.   I cannot push away the thought of a cloud of radioactivity drifting along the Engadin, from the Moloja Pass to Ftan, killing off the part of the earth I love more than any other part.”


       Thomas was contemplating the threat of the ultimate holocaust, at a time when the Cold Warriors were armed to the teeth with nuclear missiles.   I understand the feeling only too well.   I see images of hydrogen bombs exploding not only in America and Russia, but also in China, India, the Middle East, Africa, South Africa… everywhere.  


I cannot agree with Thomas that Mahler’s acceptance of death is wholly tranquil or in any way celebratory.  But it is true that whatever tranquillity Mahler might have felt is drowned out by the cacophony of universal death as mankind tries to wipe itself out.   From the wanton destruction of life in the World Trade Centre to the bombings of Afghanistan, from chemical and biological to nuclear warfare, it is abundantly clear that Homo sapiens has lost the plot, comprehensively.


       Life-weary cynics would say that universal death may not be such a bad thing, for that would be the end of the “sorry scheme of things entire”.   There would be no fear, for there is nothing left to fear any more.   Or could that even be seen as a kind of universal nirvana, albeit accomplished the wrong way?   Could universal nirvana be achieved by all human beings eschewing parenthood until every one currently alive dies, thereby achieving the ultimate objective of the end of the birth and death cycle?   Or might there be another karmic mechanism of birth, through “immaculate conception” or other unknown means, so life and death will go on until universal enlightenment is achieved?   These may be flippant and irreverent speculations, but are we not desperate?  


Ali Akbar Khan


       The nuclear scenario pondered by Lewis Thomas is real enough.   Can we still say with the poet that Death shall have no dominion?   No answers.  


I take a sip of my “dragon-spring” tea and savour its slightly bitter taste.     Now the English word “bitter” (as taste) and the Chinese equivalent for it (a character romanised “ku”) have other meanings which are not the same for both languages.   “Bitter” in English also means feeling hate or resentment, but not the Chinese word “ku”;  whereas “ku” also means pain and suffering, but not quite the English word “bitter”.   In the Chinese language ,“bitter medicine” often means good medicine;  a good mentor giving advice we don’t quite want to hear is often alluded to as having a “bitter mouth”.   And “bitter-mouth mentor” is a picturesque synonym for tea.   It is only natural that, being philosophical in temperament, the Chinese are such great tea drinkers, for the bitter taste of tea reminds us of suffering whence comes the wisdom of the sober philosopher, just as wine (also called “happy soup” in ancient China) symbolises the passion and fancy of the Dionysian poet. 


The tea clears my mind rather nicely.   I next put on the disc of Hindustani music I bought the other day.   It begins with a prayer piece called Guru Bandana, composed and played by Ali Akbar Khan and sung by Asha Bhosle.   Right from the first note, I am mesmerised by its timeless and mystical music as if transported to a higher world.  When the piece ends I realise that it is only five and half minutes long.   There seems enough magnificence therein to fill all eternity.


The musical notes explain the meaning of the song thus:   “…the Guru is the basis of meditation;  the feet of the Guru are the basis of worship;  the words of the guru are the basis of mantra;  the Grace of the Guru is the basis of liberation.   Whatever you would like to do, anything in your life you always give due to your Guru, especially in knowledge, any kind of knowledge.   You must always keep your Guru in your mind and that song in its wording is just like a prayer to Guru.”


I used to tell people that there are huge gaps in my education.    I went to 19 schools and feel that I have never had a good teacher in flesh and blood.   In my school days I envied those who had good teachers.   Then I began to read Bertrand Russell, and came to value self-reliance and independence of mind more than anything else.   I arrogantly thought that I could rely on myself for everything.  For more than thirty years, my idea of a hero was an “intellectual” independent and strong in mind and spirit.   But that has changed over the past several years.   The intellectual element has gone by the wayside, as the limitations and shortcomings of the intellect become increasingly clear to me.  As for strength, it is the gentler kind of strength I now value.   And while I still admire people with an independent mind,  I tend to value modesty and humility a little more.  The modesty and humility of a disciple in the presence of a great master.   I should have known better, being Chinese and born at a time when the great tradition of respecting teachers was still much alive.   My attitude toward mentors has thus turned full circle. 


Rag Bhimpalasi, Rag Tilak Kamod


After listening to Ali Akbar Khan and Asha Bhosle, I feel reassured.  There seems to be a way out.


I put on another disc, featuring Rag Bhimpalasi and Rag Tilak Kamod performed by Ustad Imrat Khan’s three sons.   Wonderful sitar, surbahar and tabla music.    From the first sound of Rag Bhimpalasi, the impact is immediate and total. 


For twenty minutes or so, the tune of the surbahar moves and lingers at the same time. The sound of the instrument is deep and resonant, sensuous yet dignified, at once mesmerising and clarifying.  The melody and the strumming of the sympathetic strings between them produce a tone beautiful and peaceful beyond imagining. 


After some sinuous passage work at the upper register a deep mellow tune emerges which slowly grows in texture and gathers pace until the surbahar breaks into an orgiastic dance of exultation and celebration.  The music fades away as peace is restored by a series of lingering notes.


Rag Tilak Kamod is a sitar piece.   It begins with a leisurely passage of great freedom.   The tabla is superb and sensitive in accompaniment.


The music of the sitar and turbahar accompanied by the tabla carry a deep message indeed.  It is reminiscent of the great Ganges meandering through various landscapes, cutting through gorges, plunging in cascades and rolling timelessly into the sea.  For me, it is not the torrent but the quiet and spacious flow that has the greatest impact.  Quietly Flows the Don.   Quietly Flows the Yangtse.  Quietly Flows the Ganges.


In my mind’s eye, I see the dust of ignorance of humanity, layers upon layers upon layers, numberless as the sand of the Ganges.   I see arrogant men of science claiming soon to write down the “final equation”, mistaking the game for the real thing.  I also hear the poet yearning to see the Yellow River become clear.   But as I experience the magic of the Khan brothers’ music, I see the mystical clarity that eludes the logical mind.   A clarity that can only be seen with an understanding that is transcendental, even as Spinoza’s understanding of the Universe – which he calls God – is intellectual.   I begin to see human folly being slowly washed away, like the sand of the Ganges.  


I see humanity writhing in pain and suffering without end.   Unsatisfied desires,  injustices, darkness of mind.  Blood flowing from gaping wounds inflicted by humanity upon humanity.   The music of these three masters gives me great insight into the human condition.   It opens my eye to Infinity, beside which my personal suffering is insignificant.   For human suffering, however great it seems, is essentially finite: humanity will not suffer more than is brought on by itself.   And suffering is linked to the condition of being partial and incomplete, which is created by our delusion of the self.    Suffering cleanses too, and the tears shed by humanity will in time quell the fire of its ignorance, ire and desire.   


I see Death in all its forms and shapes, mainly fearful and violent, and am mortified to see that Life has undone so many.  I can identify with the longing and torment of Mahler, anxious and confused at Death’s door.   I see that whatever tranquillity he eventually achieved is so miniscule, and that despite his life-long seeking he has missed the point.   The point will be missed as long as life and death is felt to be a personal affair.  The tragedy will perpetuate, and suffering and death shall have dominion until we are done with all notions of separateness.    For all phenomena are linked, as in Spinoza’s universe, but minus its determinism.   Everything comes under.  No self, no merit, no superiority, no picking and choosing.  No sanctuaries.  Exclude and we will continue to lose the plot.    Embrace all.    The Guru has spoken.

The night dies as the early birds burst into full-throated songs.   Meanwhile, the wayfarer rises and sets off again.



















I dedicate this essay to a beautiful and intelligent young woman who came to do a graduate programme at our hospital.   She enjoyed chatting to me.   We talked science, music, art, poetry, philosophy, but no shop!   Like a spring breeze she has come and gone, now off to India on an early pilgrimage.   She’ll go far.    (Dec. 2001)






I dedicate this essay to a beautiful and intelligent young woman who came to do a graduate programme at our hospital.   She enjoyed chatting to me.   We talked science, music, art, poetry, philosophy, but no shop!   Like a spring breeze she has come and gone, now off to India on an early pilgrimage.   She’ll go far.    (Dec. 2001)


May 22, 2008 - Posted by | English essays

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