Archive for April 2008

Daoism, The Tillers, Yang Chu, The Primitivist, and Zhuangzi

April 30, 2008

I-2: Tillers and Daoism

Communication between the Tillers and the Daoists was certainly possible; some scholars consider the utopian Laozi 80 a tract borrowed from the Tillers (Graham 82). “Oh for a small country with few people!” it exclaims.  The people have boats, carriages, armor, and weapons, but do not need to use them.  Other states are within sight, but the people are happy with their own food, clothes, and customs, so they grow old and die without leaving their borders.

The School of the Tillers, as reconstructed by Graham, also shares the following arguments with the Laozi: (1) a leader should not interfere with his people through laws, regulations, or punishments; (2) a leader should humbly place himself below his people; (3) covenants should be faithfully and unselfishly honored.

According to the Tillers, the ideal ruler Shen-nung did not write any laws; he merely promulgated certain agricultural injunctions which the people thought were practical (84).  He did not put anyone to death, and he eschewed punishment of criminals in general (72).  The House of Shen-nung made sure to never conscript its people during the critical harvest season (84), a relevant critique since Mozi accused his contemporaries of ruining the people this way.  “Shepherding the people was easy,” say the Tillers, echoing the wu-wei attitude of the Laozi: “Tao invariably Does Nothing, and nothing remains not done” (37[1]).  The Laozi, in turn, contends that rules and restrictions make people poorer (57).  The state is like an Uncarved Block; cutting it up with rules and names will ruin it (32).  The death penalty is also ineffective (74).  If the ruler does not tire the people with taxes and restrictions, they will not tire of him (72).  The Tiller histories and Laozi 31 both condemn the warlike for the suffering they bring to the world.

“If in the prime of life a man does not plough, someone in the world will go hungry because of it,” notes the Law of Shen-nung, so the king and queen of the time worked alongside the people (67-68, 76-77).  This image is a direct challenge to the lavish rulers of the Tillers’ time.  The Laozi itself says a farmer would be the ideal governor: because he starts early and works diligently, he can eventually accomplish anything (59).  By working for others, he increases what he himself possesses (81).  The king excels by making himself and his speech low, even last among the people (66).  A ruler is best if people are not aware of his existence (17), which is one better than the humility of Shen-nung.

According to the Chuang-tzu, Po Yi and Shu Ch’i reject the state of Chou because it does not meet the standard of Shen-nung.  In his time, people faithfully kept their contracts and covenants, and there was no need to record promises in triplicate because everyone trusted each other (87-88).  The Laozi instructs us to repay our debts and fulfill our contracts without thinking of what is owed to us (79).

I-3: Yang Chu and Daoism

I think the loneliness the Daoist recounts so movingly in Laozi 20 is the best evidence of Yang Chu’s influence on the text.  Emerson credits Yang Chu with the “discovery of the body,” or the distinction between the individual and society.  People of this time did not think of themselves as anything more than the sum of their family, work, and political relationships, but the narrator does not mention his family at all.  He says he is all alone not only because the lacks the traits society values but also because of his beliefs: “I am alone, different from others – treasuring the nourishing Mother.”  The Daoist thus follows the individualistic bent of his predecessor Yang.

It is also of interest that the narrator mentions the “ceremonial feast” given Emerson’s use of the feast as a symbol of the elaborately ritualized society that Yang Chu calls on the Chinese to disregard.  Laozi rejects wealth, fame, and reputation as worthy goals of the wise person (13, 44).  The ritual entertainment of the elite “makes people’s minds go mad,” and classical standards lead them astray (12).  Nor does he consider etiquette important: “’Yeah’ and ‘yes sir’ – is there a big difference between them?” (20)  Respecting something just because others respect it is “craziness” (20).

Yang Chu also cautioned his followers to “Preserve life, maintain the real, don’t get entangled in things.”  The Dao in turn advises its readers to embrace emptiness and stillness (16).  It also contends that there are thirteen life-givers but also thirteen death-bringers, and living lavishly makes the body parts into death spots (50).

It was also said that Yang Chu would not serve in the army or in a besieged city.  This is compatible with Laozi 31’s condemnation of war, and it is sounds much like Laozi 73: “One who shows bravery by being daring will get killed / one who shows bravery by not being daring will survive.”  Further, the best soldier is not warlike, and the best fighter shows no anger; because he is rational, he can survive longer, and a living soldier is certainly more productive than a dead one (68).

Mencius’s famous accusation that Yang Chu “would not sacrifice a hair from his leg to profit the whole empire” indicates a potential conflict with Daoism, however, because the Laozi often admonishes the reader to put others first, a classic example being the passage that Heaven and Earth last so long because they do not live for themselves (7).  Whereas Yang Chu advocates ignoring social norms in order to better benefit oneself or possibly one’s family, Lao Tzu thinks inaction is what most benefits society.  The revolution starts with the individual and then inspires everyone:

Cultivate It in your person, its Te will be pure

Cultivate It in the clan, its Te will be abundant

Cultivate It in the village, its Te will be lasting

Cultivate It in the state, its Te will be ample

Cultivate It in the empire, its Te will be all-embracing. (54)

II-2: Wu-wei or “non-action” in leadership

“Governing a large state is like cooking a small fish” (Laozi 60).  The Daoist’s statement that government intervention harms society is also of the premises of American conservatism, and it seems like the most practical application of wu-wei in the era of the welfare state.  As I noted in the section on the Tillers, Lao Tzu advocates freedom of movement and from taxation (72) and opines that rules and restrictions make people poorer (57).  He would reject Great Society-style social projects, saying “the world cannot be worked on” (29), and might even advocate social regress, as he calls on rulers to abandon education and focus merely on sustenance (3, 19).

Daoist foreign policy would probably not make the Republican platform, however: the great state, the author says, is like an easy woman, because it embraces, serves, protects, and yields to others (61, 66).  Such a nation might participate in international peace accords (UN), donate to suffering countries (Asia post-tsunami), and give in to the monetary demands of aggressors (North Korea).  Lao Tzu’s admonition “Do not use weapons to change the world” (30) seems especially applicable to the current administration.

The text does not wholeheartedly advocate incompetent leadership.  It upholds a diligent farmer as the ideal leader (57) and defines good management as “excellence in setting things right” (8).  A great ruler makes no rules just as a great carver does no cutting (28), but since slicing meat is the carver’s job, Lao Tzu must mean the lawmaker’s work is so subtle and natural that it seems effortless.  In this light we can understand Lao Tzu’s challenge to “take over the world by not working” (48, 57) as taking care of official business without breaking a sweat about it (73).

Laozi 17 claims that the worst ruler is despised; the one held in awe is less bad; the one who is universally loved is good, but the best is disregarded.  Hence we can interpret wu-wei in another light: the stronger the people’s feelings about a ruler, the more he is interfering with their lives.  If they love him, he must have saved them from invasion or natural disasters which were plaguing them; if they don’t know him, then such threats were averted altogether.  The people have more contact with the local authorities to whom the ruler has devolved responsibility and power (17, 49).

A dull leader engenders pure subjects while a sharp one owns a bad lot (58).  This does not require the leader to be stupid; rather, it is a statement that even the most intelligent politician cannot know what is best for every person in a state.  “Work but don’t rely on this; preside but don’t rule” (10).  The wu-wei leader hence allows other individuals and nations to order themselves (37), and the choices they make are better than anything the leader could have imagined: “Tao invariably Does Nothing, and nothing remains not done.”

II-3: Primitivist’s denunciation of morality

The Primitivist compares morality to webbed toes or a sixth finger: it issues from man naturally, and we would feel pain if we lost it, but it is superfluous (200).  Depending on morality, like depending on the L-square or compass, weakens one’s instincts and keeps him from attaining what is truly important: contentment.  “The benevolent people of the present age get bleary-eyed worrying about the age’s troubles, the malevolent rip apart the essentials of their nature and destiny by gluttony for honors and riches” (201).

The moralist sages like to think that doing evil has consequences, but robbers often thrive: for example, T’ien Ch’eng and his family stole and held the righteous state of Ch’i for twelve generations securely (207).  The one who dies for good is just as broken as the one who dies for evil, so there is no use being a hero (202).  The sages think they follow a higher way, but they are bartering in the marketplace of ideas just like the rest of us (201).

Those who barter happiness for morality are pitiable, but the sages are horrible.  Just as trainers wreck horses to suit their purposes, sages wreck men (204-205).  Before, everyone was happy with what he had, but after the sages introduced the concept of a “better” way to do things, men became obsessed with profit (206, 209).  There are more evil men now than there were before (208), and because they have learned to circumvent the rules, they are even more dangerous than they were before, the way horses smash crossbars and gnaw through bits (204-205).  Until we kill the sages and destroy all proof of moral standards, we will never be happy (208-209).

The Primitivist tries to make a historical argument, but beyond tales of Shen-nung he has no evidence for his utopia, so it is really just a thought experiment.  I would counter his state of nature with that of Thomas Hobbes, who argued that before men made society, life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short because individuals warred with each other in competition for scarce resources.  Whose account is correct?  The two agree that scarcity of resources or the perception of such is the cause of suffering, so methodologically they are not far apart.  I believe that every society contends with natural disasters or at least droughts.  Besides, humans are innately creative beings, so someone would have created an object to envy.  I prefer Hobbes.

The Primitivist’s analogue for morality is also shaky.  A sixth finger is an uncommon birth defect, but almost every person or society has a sense of right and wrong.  Since the Primitivist’s arguments are themselves based on sweeping generalizations about the utility of education, I have no qualms about countering with natural law theory.  Morality espouses against killing, adultery, theft, thinks the Primitivist thinks impossible in his utopia.  How, then, could morality have ruined it?
III-1: Individuals praised in the Zhuangzi

The individuals praised in the Zhuangzi seem disparate.  Some have excellent qualities: of these, some arrived at them naturally while others developed them over time.  Another group has excelled while having qualities that we would normally despise.  Finally, there are individuals who have emptied themselves but in doing so have gained great power over others.  Zhuangzi employs irony in all his accounts because he wants to challenge our opinions about what is desirable and lead us to something greater.

Zhuangzi never praises anyone in the outright style of an ode; rather, the protagonists of various tales express opinions which speak for him.  This pattern begins on the very first page, before we even know Zhuangzi is a skeptic: K’un, a massive fish, can become P’eng, a great bird, and soar over everything else in the skies (23-25).  His tiny avian critics simply do not understand his greatness.  Sung Jung-Tzu would have laughed at them just as he laughed at all his peers who tried to judge him by their own values.

P’eng is superior because that is his essence; however, most humans must work for greatness.  One such man is simply clever: he buys the recipe for a small-town medicinal remedy, employs it in a large battle, and receives a fief in return (28-29).  Another, Cook Ding, honed his craft over time (46-47).  The Cook at first saw the ox in the same way we did, but after so many years he can maneuver it with his eyes closed.  Because he follows the contours as they were meant to be cut, he never wears out his knife.  At certain complicated places, he has to work slowly and carefully, but always the ox falls apart before him.  Upon completion, he is reluctant to move on from this achievement, but he must, and he does.  No less an authority than the King says that Cook Ding knows how to care for life.  The cook for his part says he is beyond skill: what he follows is the Way.  Because it is the Way, we can apply the same principles to our own lives.

Sometimes people must overcome personal hardship on the way to honing their gifts.  The Commander of the Right, Wang T’ai, Shen t’u-Chia, and Shu-Shan No-Toes all lost feet to fate or punishment but have their minds and valor intact (48-49, 64-68).  Those who prejudge them are later scorned.  Shen t’u Chia regards his lost appendage as unimportant as “a lump of earth thrown away.”  The Woman Crookback, for her part, still looks young because she has The Way (78).  Lame-Hunchback-No-Lips and Pitcher-Sized-Wen are ministers so skilled that after talking with them, the king doesn’t notice their deformities anymore and instead compares normal people unfavorably to them (71).

“All men know the use of the useful, but nobody knows the use of the useless” (63).  A classic example is the gourd which Huizi destroyed for being too big but which Zhuangzi would have used to ride down the river (29-30).  Likewise, the oaks which have no use for the carpenters are the ones that are never chopped down, so they become respected for their age (58-62).  Because Crippled Shu can live off charity and no one makes demands on him, he can justifiably say his disability has given him a good life (62).

Finally, Zhuangzi praises those who empty themselves and know that all are one.  He first assigns this quality to those who have mastered the environment, perhaps so our awe of them will move us to do the same: Lieh Tzu in his limited power could ride the wind for fifteen days (26), while Chieh Yu and Lien Shu know of an old man who sucks the wind, drinks the dew, and rides dragons (27).  Natural disasters do not affect the True (or Ideal) Man, nor do profit and loss.  He “could climb the high places and not be frightened, could enter the water and not get wet” (73-74).  The Four Masters, on the other hand, were subject to all the cruelties of nature but didn’t let anything perturb them (80-82).  They get sick and die but simply laugh about it.

Others express their emptiness through psychological mastery.  Ugly Ai T’ai-t’o seduces others because he is like water, which guards what is inside and shows no movement outside (68-70).  Men mirror themselves in the still water or the constant mind, for in this stillness they can see the stillness of other things (65).  Clansman T’ai’s virtue is perfectly true: in his dream-wanderings, he often forgets his very humanity (89), like Chuang Chou who dreams of being a butterfly (45).  Hu Tzu bests an outwardly impressive shaman in psychological combat because he can constantly change his soul (92-94), and this power brings him closer to the true nature of man (77).

All this ties into Zhuangzi’s ideal: the sage “has the form of a man but not the feelings of a man” (71-72).  He binds with others but doesn’t let feelings or moral laws affect him.  “Knowledge is an offshoot, promises are glue, favors are a patching up, and skill is a peddler…Massive and great, he perfects his Heaven alone.”  For the Cook, this is carving; for the gourd, the river.  So in my humble opinion, Zhuangzi is not advocating total relativism but rather an intuitive personality, free of input from society, which follows the way it finds most interesting and natural.  Usually, worldly anxiety prevents us from focusing enough to have Cook Ding’s flow.  Confucius, despite his moments of brilliance (87), cannot become a true sage because his obsession with society has shackled his mind (68).  This is tragic because only fate can answer the “big questions,” and flow is too beautiful to be sacrificed on the altar of other people’s opinions.  We are so worried about life, death, love, and pain that we can never take to the skies like P’eng.


[1] I used the LeFargue translation of the Laozi.

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Robert Pinsky’s Theological Universe

April 23, 2008

Poetry and The New York Times Book Review, whose appraisals of The Want Bone appealed to Robert Pinsky’s publisher so much that excerpts of them now reside on the book’s back cover, say that “Pinsky seems most at home in the Hindu tradition” and “The Want Bone is about the conflicting and overlapping metaphysics of Judaism and Christianity,” respectively.  The tension between these two generalizations makes a good starting point for understanding the collection’s theology.  Pinsky may identify strongly with his family’s Jewish tradition, as his Talmud, Sandy Koufax, and circumcision references belie, but his writing is altogether too humanist to fit into traditional Western theology.  Jehovah and the saints are a group of moral exemplars, and believers are always striving to measure up to their standards.  To become like Jesus and Mary, says the catechism, is to become more human than one was before.  Pinsky’s theology places man, not God, at the center, “numberless faces all spokes from one trunk[1].”  Divinity either acts like us or needs us.  What is most holy is not the gods but our language: the heart, hammer of love, is hammered itself by the hammer of words[2]The Want Bone’s afterlife of choice is reincarnation, perhaps because the human heart is too vigorous to die but too restless to be satisfied with heaven.

One cannot accuse Pinsky of having too local a perspective.  His work references not only Christian, Hindu, Greek, and Norse[3] gods but also local Middle Eastern gods Baal and Gog as well as the Zodiac[4].  The ocean is called an immense blue Pagan, recalling the desiccated, immobile giant in “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”  Pinsky even mentions Priapus, the Greek god cursed with a giant, constantly erect but impotent penis, in the same breath as Jehovah[5].  Surely he does not believe in all these gods; he is more like an anthropologist studying them to understand us.  As a whole, the gods are bland, thirsty, and languorous[6].  As individuals, they yearn and want as much as their subjects.  Pinsky refutes the Buddha with a love song from Lee Andrews, a Philadelphia soul singer and a messenger angel from God, and that is the last he has to say about asceticism.

Jesus Christ, both fully God and fully Man according to the Council of Nicea, is the perfect vessel of Pinsky’s theology.  “From the Childhood of Jesus” and “Jesus and Isolt” both highlight the contradiction between Christ’s divine responsibilities and his human desires.  In the former poem, the Savior of Men is an impetuous child who uses supernatural powers at a whim.  In the latter, he is an impetuous adult who receives permission for his actions from his mild and patient mother.  He considers his divinity a leash and paradoxically wishes for the “unquenchable” days of living and dying.  The sexual activity of the angels frustrates him, perhaps because he is jealous.  The death cult of chivalry, rather than infuriating him as it offends our modern sensibilities, instead attracts him:

The Jewish soul of Jesus, pragmatic, ethical, logical, found in the passionate and self-defeating codes of romantic love and knightly combat some of what he lacked in the jeweled pavilions of Heaven…The boyish code of knighthood fascinated the Savior, with its heroes who hacked at one another all afternoon, according to rules immutable as the musical scales, making the ground slippery with blood, and then kissed and swore promises and escorted one another to chapels to be confessed by suffragans.

Whereas Jesus sates his desire by lashing out, Shiva and Parvati turn inward: barely listening to their supplicants, instead “turning to embrace beyond reason.”  They are described as singular and then plural in the third stanza, “penetrated and also penetrated” to represent that they no longer even differentiated between male and female..

With gods like these, what is truly sacred?  Pinsky elects our words, the poetry and song that proceed from prophets and auto mechanics and even shark bones.  The gods satiate themselves with us: in the middle of the night, they take long train rides to factories where they can drink our literature and our language, “steeped, brewed, and spent” by individuals, enriched by eons of war, invasion, and communication between polylingual tribes.  After we perish, our myriad songs will disappear, the gods will resuscitate our books, turn them into plumes of smoke, and blow them over the sea, inspiring all the creatures on earth to sing “to keep from bursting” and hum “oblation to what our mouths once made[7].”

Religious ritual is accomplished through words: a construction worker listening to the Talmud, a congregation repeating tautological prayers, a cantor singing the Kol Nidre[8].  Two of the pieces about the Jewish tradition provide the most poignant representations of the sanctity of words: “Memoir” and “Pilgrimage.”  “Memoir” is about phylacteries, boxes containing handwritten verses of the Torah which many Jews tie around their hands, arms, and heads during prayer in order to remember their deliverance from Egypt and keep the words of God inside their hearts and souls.  Phylacteries also set the Jews apart: “It was like saying: I am this, and not that.”  The grand finale of “Pilgrimage” is the reading of the indecipherable scroll of the Ark of the Covenant with its infinite regress of secret names.  Even if the readers do not understand the words, they have power.  The adherents “read themselves into the unchangeable Book,” imagining their own place in God’s words and hence his universe[9].  Pinsky’s Christ also emphasizes words: the Child Jesus is chided for “offending the Word” and establishes his authority by claiming that his name is written on the jewel of the throne in the center of creation.  The ciclogriff Christ tells gossip stories to Isolt to entertain her, while Tristan sings her epic poetry.  The tongue, whose percussion makes speech possible, is connected to other powerful implements in “The Ghost Hammer.”

This thread is not a fabrication of Pinsky’s, for words as words are indeed crucial to Judaism and Christianity.  The most valuable possession inside the priceless Ark of the Covenant was the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments.  The name of the God of the Israelites, Jehovah, was considered too sacred to be uttered.  The prophets spoke the word of God to the people, and Pinsky writes of two prophets of the Babylonian Exile, Daniel and Ezekiel, in his collection.  The Bible calls Jesus himself “The Word[10],” deifying communication.

There are, however, points in which Pinsky’s theology disagrees with the Judeo-Christian canon.  Given his erudition, perhaps these discrepancies are intentional and are meant as criticism against the prevailing view or poetic license taken to strengthen the theme.  The Ark of the Covenant, so prominently featured in “Pilgrimage,” did not contain a wizened scroll with secret names scorched on its leather but rather stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments.  The dancers could not lovingly brush their fingers against the Ark because God killed anyone who touched it.  “The Uncreation” tells of the gods coming back to earth after a flood destroys all of mankind, but God already promised never to flood the world again.  The plot of “From the Childhood of Jesus” comes not from the Bible but from one of the Gnostic Gospels (and the clay pigeons are also mentioned in the Koran).  The angels touch and fondle each other “gently and mutually, just as St. Augustine says they do.” Augustine writes of angels in City of God but not of their sexual intercourse – he is even uncomfortable about the human version – so perhaps Pinsky means John Milton, whose Raphael says angels’ coupling is “easier than air with air[11].”  “Our Lord Jesus Christ in the shape of a ciclogriff” is the constant companion of Tristram and Isolt, and Pinsky acts like we all know what a ciclogriff is, but the word returns exactly four results on Google, all of them related to this piece, and a cursory search of Tristram and Isolt did not uncover evidence of the bird.  Jesus is “the most unfortunate of all his Father’s creations,” but according to the doctrine of the Trinity, Jesus is not a creation of the Father but rather an equal part of the Trinity who has existed as long as the Father has.  Finally, many Christians would consider Jesus’s actions in his two poems, from making the child wither to withholding knowledge of salvation from Tristan and Isolt until the last moment, simply incompatible with his divine nature.  No matter.  Such discrepancies weaken Pinsky’s academic argument but do not confound his message.

On the last page of his collection, the author pivots from a description of Pleasure Bay, heretofore a nice vacation spot with some tragic history, to a myth of what happens to the soul after the body dies: after a few days of watching those it loved before, it follows singing across the river and into the dark, where it encounters a group of sleeping bodies.  The soul has consensual relations with a body, and at the climax, it flies into that body and begins the process of life again.  It never returns to Pleasure Bay the same way twice, as the catbird there never sings the same phrase twice, and as one can never step in the same river twice because reality is always in flux (Heraclitus).  Another well-known work finished this way: The Republic.  According to Er, a virtuous soldier returned from death to prophesy to his fellow man, souls first spend hundreds of years in hidden chambers of the universe being rewarded for their goodness or punished for their evil, then process from a meadow meeting-place to the spheres, where they can choose one of countless potential lives to lead next.  After the Fates tie them to their new selves, the souls cross through the Plain of Forgetfulness to the River of Unmindfulness, where they drink to forget their old lives.  In the night, a thunderstorm and an earthquake impel these sleeping souls to new birth.  So Pinsky’s and Plato’s accounts both feature souls walking a literal path to reincarnation, but whereas free choice is the catalyst in Plato’s afterlife, desire moves Pinsky’s, and tellingly, sexual hunger drives the soul even after the body is gone[12].  Christ is bored in heaven, but the soul is too resilient for death.

Dante wrote that the heart which is attuned to God is turned like a wheel by the Creator.  Pinsky’s theology spins the will in a different direction.  Man is wrenched along the wheel of fortune, his emotions dropping into the Zodiac of intentions with all the rest.  Shiva and Parvati rotate into each other, not outward to embrace everyone.  Man’s worship is his song into the wheel: the mechanic singing to the tire and the driver singing to the steering wheel are each faces on the same spoke.  The heart, producing its own energy as if it were a waterwheel, turns and turns.


[1] “Shiva and Parvati Hiding in the Rain”

[2] “The Ghost Hammer”

[3] “Window”

[4] “Immortal Longings”

[5] Conspicuously absent from this display are Allah and Mohammed, perhaps because they did not have literary interest but perhaps because popular reception of The Satanic Verses, published just two years before, made magical realism about Islam a risky proposition.

[6] “The Uncreation” and “The Refinery”

[7] “The Refinery” and “The Uncreation,” respectively

[8] “Lament for the Makers” and “The Uncreation,” respectively

[9] “The Bible Code” played to the same desire.

[10] “Logos” in the Greek version.  Logos generally means “speech,” but it could also signify “action.”  The current Keeper of the Keys, Benedict XVI, called logos “creative reason.”

[11] Paradise Lost VIII:626

[12] It’s like the old joke that men still have sexual desire until ten minutes after they’re dead.