Zhuangzi and Utter Weirdness

I’ve recently been engaged in a number of projects (some of which I’ll discuss in more detail in future posts here on UPJ), including writing a book on self-cultivation in various Eastern philosophical texts.   I’m currently working on a chapter on the Zhuangzi for this book.  Even at a basic level (this book is aimed mainly at people with little or no philosophical background, such as intro students or the general public), it is not easy to get a grasp on just what the Zhuangzi is trying to say, or whether it even had any overarching theme or goal at all.  I actually will suggest the latter in a post that will appear sometime soon on Warp, Weft, and Way (where currently Dan Robins has a very interesting post on the issue of Cook Ding’s “skill” in Zhuangzi chapter 3).

What’s been on my mind most recently concerning the Zhuangzi is the oddity of the text, and whether this has any significance as far as how we ought to interpret it.  Analytically minded philosophers such as myself tend to neglect stylistic issues (for the most part) in our interpretations (and I think this is why I’ve had such difficulty understanding the Zhuangzi for years), but I’m coming to think that for the Zhuangzi, the style might be a key to understanding the text.

I am also finding myself returning to the “Zhuangzi as skeptic” view I initially held concerning the text but abandoned years ago.  If the Zhuangzi offers us a kind of skeptical message, however, it is very different from that of the Academics or Pyrrhonians.  It doesn’t posit a distinction between appearances and reality at all, and so there is no “suspension of judgment” concerning something underlying ideas.  There is, as far as I can tell, no representationalism in the Zhuangzi.

Rather, the skepticism surrounds the idea that there is a narrowly right way to experience and perceive things–that seeing ourselves as humans rather than as the butterflies we think we are when dreaming is somehow more valuable, or that seeing the world through the preconceived notions of use/uselessness, right/wrong, etc. is the way we ought to see it.  If this is right, then the Zhuangzi is endorsing something like following the appearances, but concerning the value of experiences and how we ought to respond to them, rather than the accuracy of our judgments.  The Zhuangist sage simply acts as a butterfly when he experiences himself as a butterfly, responding to the world in a way a butterfly would, and acts as a human when he experiences himself as a human.  It is important to note here that there is no single standard for action that the Zhuangist sage then uses, he simply responds to situations.  There is no “self” then, insofar as this describes characteristic actions, values, or goals–rather there is openness and response to situations.  This, I think, is linked to the “fasting of the mind” discussed in chapter 4.

The weirdness and seemingly disjointed quality of the text can be instructive here.  Just like the Zhuangist sage will be one who responds to situations and doesn’t attempt to synthesize their experience into that of a coherent “self” with certain motivations, goals, values, etc., the ideal Zhuangist text will be one that is disjointed and impossible to fully synthesize as one coherent text with a central message.  Part of what may be going on here, that is, is that the fragmentary nature of the text may be part of the way the Zhuangzi attempts to move us away from the tendency to synthesize our experience, to see it as relating to a single self that acts and perceives in certain ways and that leads to the devaluation of experience that is seemingly incompatible with this self.  So, for example, we move away from rejecting or devaluing our experiences of being butterflies while dreaming on the basis of their incompatibility with our “real” existence as humans.

So my current view on the Zhuangzi, although it initially sounded defeatist to me when I first entertained it, now seems to me compatible with the style of the text and the possible purpose of this style.  Trying to synthesize and understand the theme or meaning of the Zhuangzi is to engage in the kind of devaluation of disjointed and individual or unrelated experiences that Zhuangzi decries.

Of course, there are problems with this reading as well, which I will try to raise in my WW&W post…

5 responses to “Zhuangzi and Utter Weirdness

  1. Interesting post. I agree that skepticism is something the book engenders in the readers. Quick comment: given the piecemeal nature, what are your thoughts regarding the ‘intended’ effects of the text? If what you’re saying is true, then it seems as though much has to be said for Guo Xiang’s editing of the text. After all, we have no idea what it really looked like before him (other than to know that it was bigger and less organized).

    Here’s a question: do you attribute to Guo Xiang (and any other editors) the intention of creating a text that prompts skepticism in the reader’s mind? Or, rather, was this the intention of the myriad voices that came to be incorporated into the text? Some passages seem to invite skepticism rather straightforwardly (the butterfly dream) whereas you seem be be implying something else–that the very way the text is put together is what leads to the skepticism (a slightly different claim). we can imagine an editor putting the text together with an aim to offer something coherent and systematic or piecemeal. Do you think the latter was a deliberate editorial move, or an accidental by-product?

    Does that make sense? I hate typing comments ‘on the fly’. 🙂

    BTW–you might be interested in this piece by David Wong, which would seem to be friendly to your interpretation of the text, especially his distinction between declarative and interrogative skepticism:
    http://www.jstor.org/stable/27745016

  2. good question. I imagine it could have been Guo Xiang who had this intention, or this could have been something that was in the text (or what there was of it) before Guo got his hands on it. My original thought was that the discordance was pre-Guo, and that he left this structure of the edited version in order to leave the original intention intact. This would be extremely hard to give textual or other evidence for, though. It could also have been the case that it was Guo’s intention to structure the text this way so as to create this effect.

    My evidence is scant, I admit, but the main idea is that when if we take the style of the ZZ as relevant to the message, this seems to further support the “skeptical” reading that we might entertain based on interpretation of parts of the text independently from considerations of style (the butterfly passage, Hui Shi and the gourd, the useless tree, etc.). It’s the “listening ridiculously” bit in ch. 2 that got me started on this line of thought.

    Insofar as the relevant bits of ch. 2 and ch. 4 (thinking mainly here of the “listening ridiculously” and “fasting of the mind” stuff) are pre-Guo, I think there’s some reason to think that a purposefully fragmentary construction of the text is also pre-Guo , as listening without looking for a central message could be what is meant by “listening ridiculously”, and could be one result of the “fasting of the mind”, where we get rid of the “self” that evaluates all its experiences through a narrow set of goals, values, etc.

    Thanks for the heads up on the David Wong paper, by the way–I’m surprised I missed this one! (I spent a bunch of time on the ZZ back around ’05.)

  3. Hi Alexus,

    re: “Insofar as the relevant bits of ch. 2 and ch. 4 (thinking mainly here of the “listening ridiculously” and “fasting of the mind” stuff) are pre-Guo…”

    I’ve been wondering lately if chapter 2 is not by Zhuangzi, but some later author – perhaps much later. I think Graham tried to show that many chapters come after chapter 2 (and the other inner chapters), but, Sima Qian only mentioned material from our present chapters 10, 29, 31, 32 and the Fuyang text (discovered in 1977) contained materials from chapters 6, 7, 11, 12, 18, 19, 21 and 22. Bruce and Takeo Brooks have had this to say: http://www.umass.edu/wsp/reviews/roth.html
    (Look under “The Challenge”) (I find the Brooks’ thinly-veiled ad hominem attacks of Harld Roth distasteful, to be honest. But they are intelligent and perceptive.) Any thoughts?

  4. I found you fine folks by chance, (if you believe in chance). I have been aware of, involved in and a student of Chinese culture and art for a number of years. For me, it has been a journey in love. In the past, New York City has been a cornucopia for those interested in the beauty and wisdom of Chinese antiquities. Nothing lasts forever. I am reaching out because of a single piece of jade. It is a jade that found its way to me. Everything you seem to find endearing in Zhuangzi and all that I have learned of Confuscian doctrine seem to be alive in this stone. Intentionally, this jade was made to be an outcast, a very old nephrite stone that caught a very old Chinese eye. For a very long time this piece and its creator “hid” , free from the greed and lust that surround jade. Now is the time to share it. If anyone is interested, please contact me and I will do my best with photopraphs and a document of what this stone has spoken. Thanks you for your time. Peace, michael

  5. Forgive me if the accepted spelling is “Confucian”. LoL. I have seen both.
    thanks again, michael

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