I’m reading, yes, but first I’m tossing coins. They must be three coins of the same size and weight so when they are thrown in the air fate has an even chance. If there’s a shortage on loose change, three flattened bottle tops will do, though coins are better. Here, heads have a value of three and tails have a value of two.
I’m consulting the I Ching or Book of Changes whose first layers of text have been traced to the end of the 2nd millennium BC. The version I have in hand is the one you would find in any second hand bookshop: black cover, red title, the Richard Wilhelm translation rendered into English by Carey F. Barnes, first published in 1951 and reprinted many times since.
I’ve been consulting what is now a raggy book for about 15 years. It’s a tool for divining but more a tool for reflecting, offering impressions on the process of change. Through 64 hexagrams and their interpretations it relates change to cycles that are easily observable in nature—seasons, day and night, the growth and death of plants, the generations of a family. In throwing coins, you contemplate and pose a question to the ancient wisdom that the book contains, in the belief that there is a certain wisdom appropriate for the time you are in.
Over the millennia, the I Ching has developed through a process of accretion. Zhou Gong Dan, son of King Wen who toppled the Shang Dynasty (1122 BC-256 BC), wrote an interpretation of the text with the intention of unlocking its meaning, as did Confucius later in 722 BC-481 BC. Still, it’s confounding. Make sense of the divination: ‘A shoal of fishes/Favour comes through the court ladies/Everything acts to further.’ Or: ‘Even if by chance a leather belt is bestowed on one/By the end of a morning/It will be snatched away three times.’ You can get a feeling for its meaning, though how to apply that wisdom may not be immediately obvious. As Richard Wilhelm writes in the modern edition: ‘The Book of Changes is a work that represents thousands of years of slow organic growth and that can be assimilated only through prolonged reflection and meditation.’ But it’s not all obfuscation. In divinations such as, ‘You are riding a horse that is bleeding from the neck,’ you could not say its message is unclear.
Today, I’ve thrown three coins six times to arrive at hexagram 56, ‘The Wanderer’. I’ve had this one before. And it’s certainly not the worst of what the I Ching has to offer. It’s akin to being a stranger in a strange land: ‘Strange lands and separation are the wanderer’s lot.’ It makes sense to me. I’ve just packed up my house to go travelling for six months. It counsels: ‘remain upright and steadfast’, ‘be cautious and reserved’ and ‘sojourn only in the proper places.’
In Monkey Grip, Helen Garner’s Nora consults the I Ching and so does Joan Didion’s Maria in Play It As It Lays. Nora is a keen diarist and she uses the I Ching to make sense of life and love in a share house in inner city Melbourne. Far away in Hollywood, failed actress Maria is tossing coins too: ‘I’ve been working very hard at not thinking about how everything goes. I watch the hummingbird, throw the I Ching, but never read the coins, keep my mind in the now.’ And then in what strikes me as Maria’s most grandiloquent gesture: ‘This morning I threw the coins in the swimming pool, and they gleamed and turned in the water in such a way that I was almost moved to read them. I refrained.’
Aside from the I Ching, what Maria and Nora have in common is that they are flailing at the edge of their known word. Their lives are moving along at the rate of no-to-little forward motion. They are aching for change but they are distrustful of what change might bring so they lock themselves into rigid patterns of feeling and action.
In Monkey Grip, Nora asks this question of the I Ching: ‘What about this way I’ve got of falling in love with people and just as easily out again.’ The reading Nora arrives at is hexagram 18, ‘Work on what has been spoiled (Decay)’. It counsels, ‘It is not immutable fate…that has caused the state of corruption, but rather the abuse of human freedom.’
Often, the I Ching, in line with the Taoist tradition, will prescribe reticence or non-action for the most maddening or consuming situations. Though occasionally it does recognise that it is time to ‘cross the great water’, to ‘push through’.
Today, I am advised to hang back, embrace my own strangeness. I can hardly argue. And I suppose that’s why I continue to take counsel from a book rather than a person. It doesn’t care if I take its advice or not and it doesn’t invite me to impress it. Its value is that I can turn up to it exactly as I am knowing that in over 4000 years it is likely there is no human question it has not heard.
Courtney Collins’ debut novel The Burial has been shortlisted for The Stella Prize, the NSW Premier’s Award for New Fiction and the Dobbie Award. It will be published internationally in 2013 and 2014. Her second novel, The Walkman Mix, is a work in progress. Courtney is a regular contributor for ABC Arts online, where she writes mainly about books. Follow her @CC_writer