The Book of Toinette Lippe

Toinette_LippeI have added this basically unknown name to my list of books because Toinette Lippe is a magnificent example of how people whom we might call “ordinary folk” can have the same huge insights as the great masters like Ramana Maharshi and Osho.

Around 1970 she was an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, in New York City, when the receptionist called her to say that there were two people waiting outside with a manuscript. Their names were Gia-fu Feng and Jane English and they wanted to see her. But she had no idea who were they were, nor knew anything about anything they had published. But something stopped her from telling the receptionist to ask them to leave the manuscript and tell them she would get in touch with them later when she had read it.

 

Instead, as she would subsequently write in a 1985 article entitled “What Constitutes a Necessary Book” published in the Fall Issue of The Collegiate Review: “I found myself walking out to the receptionist and returning to my office with a small Ho Chi Minh-like figure, complete with wispy beard, and his tall strong American companion. I sat them down and asked what brought them there.”

“They told me that Macmillan whose offices were across the street had published Gia-fu Feng’s first book Tai Chi – A Way of Centering – and I Ching but that his editor had left and the young man who had read the new manuscript and liked it was also leaving at the end of the week, so there was no one at Macmillan with any enthusiasm for the book. The young man recommended that it be shown to me. I was very taken aback …. The man at Macmillan had not known …. that I practiced the ancient Chinese exercise of tai chi chuan … but had simply felt that I might be open to the possibility of publishing their new book which was a translation of the Tao Te Ching. He was right. I sat and turned the pages in wonder. Each verse was accompanied by Chinese calligraphy and an exquisite photograph. I persuaded them to leave the manuscript with me so I could show it to the editor-in-chief.

When I took it to him, he saw immediately that the photos were magnificent but he also pointed out that I knew nothing about publishing photographic books. I agreed with him but said that I had a hunch about this book. He believed me for some curious reason, and I started work immediately….

Which she then describes in great detail in the next couple of paragraphs of her article, at which point she finally arrives at what we might call the moment of truth, which she describes this way:

At last, when the book was nearly ready for publication, comes the moment every editor dreads — the writing of jacket copy – when the whole essence of the book has to be expressed in a few sentences so that anyone picking up the book will know by perusing the cover what is to be found within. How could I possibly reduce this sixth-century B.C. classic to a single paragraph? Weeks had gone by and finally I had only twenty minutes left. I sat down before the typewriter and my mind went blank. [“Not deliberately”, she would add in a later text]. I waited a little while and then began to type. I’m still amazed at what appeared on the page for while I might now change quite a lot of the translation, I wouldn’t alter a single word of what appears on the outside of the book.

And twenty-five years later in a new Introduction to this Anniversary Edition, Jane English will write:

Finally, we hear from Toinette Lippe, our editor for all these years about how the Tao was at work in the publication of this book. Like the sage in the Tao Te Ching who “… works without recognition.” (ch.77), she was an integral, but not mentioned part of the creation of this book. Her story is delightful!

So, here, finally is Toinette’s long paragraph on the outside back cover that sums up the simple, but profound, philosophy of Lao Tsu and which shows so clearly, with her last two words, that she really understands it too. And that is why she is here on this web-site:

Accept what is in front of you without wanting the situation to be other that it is. Study the natural order of things and work with it rather than against it, for to try to change what is only sets up resistance. Nature provides everything without requiring payment or thanks, and also provides for all without discrimination – therefore let us present the same face to everyone and treat all men as equals, however they may behave. If we watch carefully, we will see that work proceeds more quickly and easily if we stop “trying”, if we stop putting in so much extra effort, if we stop looking for results. In the clarity of a still and open mind, truth will be reflected. We will come to appreciate the original meaning of the word  “understand,” which means “to stand under.” We serve whatever or whoever stands before us, without any thought for ourselves. Te – which may be translated as “virtue” or “strength”—lies always in Tao or natural law.” In other words: Simply be.
(Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu, translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, 25th Anniversary edition, Vintage Books, New York, 1997).

Footnote: Toinette Lippe stayed with Alfred A Knopf for thirty-two years during which time, and among other things, she founded BellTower, an imprint of Crown/Harmony, and published another seventy books. In 2009, when her son went to work, she gave all that up ~ “ I felt I had paid my dues to society” ~ and, it seems to me, began to follow her own advice of working less hard. She took up East Asian brush painting, did a lot of travelling, cultivated a garden plot, and so on. In short, as Joseph Campbell would say, she is now “following her bliss”.

Her floral paintings are exquisite as you will see at www.toinettelippe.com

But this, which came as a complete surprise, is what I learned when I recently exchanged e-mails with her:

In the summer of 2010 Jane English ~ Gia-fu Feng had died in 1985 ~ approached Toinette with an eye to revising their text to eliminate gender-specific language. Consequently, the two of them, along with a woman named Carol Wilson, who had written a biography of Gia-fu entitled Still Point of the Turning World, which I have just read and which is an amazing story, met with Professor Jacob Needleman, who had written a brilliant Introduction and notes to a small study text ~ minus photographs, that had been published earlier ~ and in Toinette’s words “took a long clear look at the translation to see where we needed to adjust a word or a phrase”. 

The result is a new edition with some significant changes ~ the previous one had sold over a million copies in North America alone. First, Jane replaced over a hundred of the original photos with some simply magnificent ones she had taken later. Second, Professor Needleman’s Introduction was included, and, third, Toinette Lippe changes from being the writer of an Afterword in the earlier version to the author of the Foreword in the new one. And, more importantly, is now listed on the cover ~ along with Gia-fu Feng and Jane English ~ as one of the translators: A fitting point in a friendship with Jane that has lasted for more than forty years and another example of how things happen when they are supposed to.

Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu, translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English with Toinette Lippe, Third Vintage Books Edition, New York, October 2011.