*Stones do an Epic Make: Musings on Visiting a Classical Chinese Garden

The Symphony of Stones, Yu Gardens, Shanghai.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 2009.

The Symphony of Stones, Yu Gardens, Shanghai. Photo: Vinay Lal, 2009.

I heard the eminent Chinese artists, Liu Dan and Liu Sola, talk about ‘stones’ today. Sola has written the music to the ‘Stones Project’, conceived by Liu Dan as something of a testimony to the critical importance of stones in Chinese landscape – and in representations of Chinese landscapes in painting, art and music. Yesterday, on a visit to Yu Gardens, the finest specimen of a classical Chinese garden in Shanghai, I was struck by the placement of stones in the garden landscape, their immense numbers, indeed their grandiosity. Water meanders in and around stones, breathes life into them, and gives shape to them; and yet the stones, standing forth as sentinels, as humans, half-humans, or animals, seemed to have enough of a life of their own. Stones have chiseled out the trajectories of rivers and streams, bending water to their will. Water and stones, together, create a swirling symphony in the classical Chinese garden.

When one writes music for stones, does one do so with the understanding that they are mute? Or perhaps with the awareness, as my friend Teshome Gabriel has written in his moving, lucid and characteristically suggestive meditation on stones [in The Future of Knowledge and Culture: A Dictionary for the Twenty-first Century], that stones speak a language that we do not understand? What kind of continuum is there between stones and humans? The story of Ahalya, first encountered in Valmiki’s Ramayana, comes to mind, though Tulsidas’s Ramacaritmanas is more apposite as a parable about not remaining stone-faced while thinking of stones. Brahma created Ahalya as the most beautiful of women: so beautiful was she that even the gods lusted after her, not least of them Indra. Ahalya is tricked into bedding Indra for the night; in his rage, her husband, Gautama Maharishi, condemns Indra to the woefully embarrassing display of a 1,000 vulvas on his body. (Indra, who could not henceforth venture out into the open, lest he should become the laughing stock of the world, performs severe penances and wins the approbation of Shiva, who agrees to transform the vulvas into eyes. But this is another story, with all the usual variations found in Indian traditions.) As for Ahalya, with Gautama’s curse she is turned into stone. Many years later, it is said, Rama and Lakshmana, as they are wandering around the forest, come by Gautama’s hermitage and are apprised of Ahalya’s story. Rama touches the stone with his feet, Ahalya – now absolved of her sins — springs to life, and Rama blesses her.

Humans work on stones and so make epics. That, at least, is the received narrative, and the Pyramids, Machu Picchu, and the Taj Mahal stand forth as testimony to this view. Human labor is transformative and we have long been accustomed to thinking of stones as inert and inanimate, requiring the labor and love of human beings to tweak some meaning out of them. That stones can move humans is amply clear, and the Kaaba and the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem equally suggest the manner in which stones themselves move through history. Increasingly, then, it seems to me that stones do an epic make. One Palestinian youth throwing a stone would be merely a miscreant; a few hurling stones would be viewed as a social nuisance; a few dozen of them throwing stones are treated as criminal elements, a threat to the social order; and thousands of them flinging stones become a wave that cannot be stopped. Thus was the Intifada of 1987, stones hurling through space and time and creating a revolution. The first lines of W. Hone’s “Canticle of the Stone” (London, 1817), seemed to have been written for the Palestinian Uprising: “O All ye workers of Corruption, bless ye the Stone: praise it, and magnify it as a Bullet for ever.”