The Unwobbling Pivot (part 1)
At the beginning of 1957, Dag Hammarskjöld wrote a surprising letter to the poet Ezra Pound. "It may amuse you to hear," he wrote, "that your Confucius, especially The Unwobbling Pivot, is one of the books to which I have most often returned during the past years when most policy-making has been of a kind somewhat different…from the one our Chinese friends recommended. Anyway, you have in me a follower in your admiration for the political philosophy to which you, through your translations, have given us such splendid access"
(Nelson, 90). "Our Chinese friends" are Confucius and his disciples—key voices of the Axial Era, the 5th century B.C.E.
What did Dag Hammarskjöld read for political insight during his years as secretary-general? He was a committed, continuous learner—but from what did he learn? This entry may initially seem like a literary tea party—there are details to set in place—but it moves quickly toward something else and better.
Like everyone aware of the situation, Dag Hammarskjöld made a sharp distinction between the literary works of Ezra Pound and the furious insanity of the poet’s later years, for which he was committed to a mental institution in the United States after World War II. Prof. Marie-Noëlle Little, a literary critic and scholar, has shed light on Hammarskjöld’s effort in cooperation with prominent American authors to persuade the US authorities to release the very elderly Pound on humanitarian grounds (biblio., Little ). Hammarskjöld especially valued Pound’s version of the Chung Yung, variously translated as The Unwobbling Pivot
or The Doctrine of the Mean, attributed to Confucius’ grandson, Zisi.
And here the adventure begins. This book of ancient political wisdom, expressed in highly condensed language, often with Pound’s unmistakable crackle, became a living source for Hammarskjöld. He was able to translate its compact, often abstract thought into guidelines endowed with moral force. There is no end of practical pointers in the book, but also severe inspiration—as in the following short passage, which Hammarskjöld transcribed with slight changes into Markings
Who has this great power to see clearly into himself
without tergiversation, and act thence, will come to
his destiny (that is a high destiny). (Pound, 135)
What changes did Hammarskjöld make? He left out the phrase about "high destiny"—it must have seemed beside the point to him or pretentious; he knew perfectly well that as secretary-general he was engaged with a high destiny. And he italicized the words "and act thence", as an indication of their importance to him. "Tergiversation" is a marvel of a word, compounding the Latin for "back" and "turning"—therefore, turning your back.
Hammarskjöld found in these few ancient words powerful reminders of his own working wisdom: to recognize self-knowledge as the basis for sound and creative dealings with others, to go after self-knowledge with great sincerity and, insofar as possible, without fear or evasiveness, and then not to stop there, but to act on this basis, to enter into the life of the world. His emphasis on those oddly formal words in the passage—to "act thence"—reflects in a poignant way his willing immersion in events and his unwillingness to drown in them.