Reading the Zhuangzi in a Zhuangist Way

Recently I’ve been working on a couple of articles on the Zhuangzi, and have been thinking about the critically important question of how we read the text, and how this influences our interpretations.  The last few times I’ve read the text through, I’ve tried to approach it in a much different manner than I used to, and this, I’ve found, has both opened up a deeper layer of meaning in the text, and perhaps most strangely, simplified its themes and arguments.  I want to talk briefly here about first, a way of reading the text, and second, a possible misunderstanding of some of the seemingly extreme claims made in the Zhuangzi.

I wrote a post some time ago at Warp, Weft, and Way about ways of reading the Zhuangzi, in particular that perhaps part of the lesson of the Zhuangzi (insofar as it can be taken to have one) is that we shouldn’t be looking for coherent “explanations” of major themes, goals, etc. of the Zhuangzi.  That’s simply not the kind of thing Zhuangzi endorses, and the authors of Zhuangzi write the way they to to jar us out of this kind of mindset.  While I do think there are certain themes in the text and clear messages it intends to get across, I also think these messages are often missed because we look too closely at the language, take what is said too literally, and look too deeply for something “profound”, because the Zhuangzi is supposed to be a “great work”.  Part of the point of one of the articles I’m working on now is that the Zhuangzi text is something very different than, for example, the Lunyu, Mozi, Mengzi, Xunzi, or even Daodejing.  However, if we look at how it is often presented, it is side by side with these texts (as an “early Chinese philosophical text”), presented as if it is doing something very similar.  To my mind, this is like putting a script of Monty Python’s “And Now For Something Completely Different” beside Kripke’s “Naming and Necessity” and Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice”.  This is not to say that Zhuangzi is philosophically unimportant, but rather that it is a different kind of text, with different aims than those it is often associated with.

I can refer to another Monty Python example to explain this, actually.

In the classic “argument clinic” skit, we can clearly isolate a number of themes and derive particular claims about the nature of argument, human interaction, etc.  But what if we approach this skit asking the question: “what is it trying to tell us?” we’re likely going to see strange specters of meaning everywhere and contort ourselves into all kinds of strange interpretive configurations to try to supply such a meaning.”  Indeed, what does this Python skit mean?  What is it’s intention?  Is it trying to tell us that argument is useless?  Meaningless?  That’s it’s really nothing more than irrational disagreement?  Is it making a point about modern human interactions?  Most of us would recognize that asking these questions of this skit is to misunderstand the purpose of the skit.  It’s simply using ambiguities in our language and certain applications of language to construct a humorous situation.  The point is that we laugh.

And, for all the philosophical content of the Zhuangzi, perhaps its point is not to make a philosophical point, insofar as it expresses a position about anything in particular.  But the question becomes: “what then is the point of the Zhuangzi?”  Perhaps, just like the point of the Monty Python skit is that we laugh, the point of the Zhuangzi is that we stop conceptualizing, stop forming identities, based on things (wu), stop making points.

This leads into my second point (I’m a bad Zhuangist):  we often read in the Zhuangzi ringing endorsements of the strangest kinds of characters–bums of various kinds, madmen, deformed and otherwise warped people, the extremely ugly, the seemingly brainless.  And we read (in ch. 4 specifically) that in order to be successful in life one should literally eschew one’s identity, such that one becomes like (Zhangzi’s version of) Yan Hui, who undergoes “fasting of the mind” such that he is able to see himself as “no longer beginning to be Hui”.  How do we make sense of all of this?  Does the Zhuangzi really advocate that the ideal person is one who wanders around like an idiot and knows nothing, not even his or her own name, or even that he or she is an individual?  I don’t think so–in fact, I think Zhuangzi’s ideal person is someone who will look a lot like a normal person, but without the various neuroses that tend to characterize our lives.  Indeed, I think that’s part of Zhuangzi’s point in attacking values like de, for example.  Mirroring the dao is a matter of allowing to happen the natural ways of life that will unfold when one avoids the identity construction and conceptualization that Zhuangzi thinks is so problematic.  If we give up our striving to be virtuous, we won’t thereby stop caring for our families and communities.  Indeed, we can often care for our families and communities better by focusing on manifesting our natural concern for them, rather than on the artificial value of attaining virtue, which inevitably ends in alienation (the kinds of cases Michael Stocker discussed, visiting a friend in the hospital because it’s one’s duty, rather than simply from spontaneous concern).

What the madman and idiot represent are people with the ability to avoid falling into the trap of conceptualization and identity construction that leads to such alienation.  They don’t engage in these things themselves, and there is no one in the world who can make them do so.  If you offer them the empire (which would normally turn one into a “ruler”, and give them “responsibilities”), they’ll just throw it away.

Lots of not-completely-worked-out thoughts here as I try to read through the Zhuangzi again, in a more Zhuangist way, and work on two related papers.  But I’ll end on a fun note.  I heard a story on NPR this morning in which someone said something that struck me as very Zhuangist, both in style and content.  There was an interview with Peter Lassally, the executive producer of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, who explained a bit about his approach to hosting talk shows.  He talked about working with Craig Ferguson, a Scottish comedian, and his advice to him about being a successful talk show host.  Later on, when the black comedian D.L. Hughley asked Lassally for his advice about the hosting talk shows, Lassally said “I gave him the same advise I gave Craig Ferguson: ‘don’t be too Scottish.’ ”  He said Hughley laughed and said “oh, I get it.”

The reason this struck me as particularly Zhuangist was, as I mentioned, both the style and content.  Regarding the style:  telling D.L. Hughley “don’t be too Scottish” was clearly part joke, part serious advice.  On the surface, this advice is meaningless, because Hughley isn’t Scottish.  But to look at it this way is to both miss the humor and the advice.  Regarding the substance: what Lassally was really telling Hughley was “don’t be too black”, and what he meant by that was shouldn’t just turn himself into “the black guy,” trying to get too much play out of his racial identity, but rather to construct his own stage persona through authentic and spontaneous response to his particular audience.  The comedian Garry Shandling says of Lassally:  “One of Peter’s real strengths is getting the host to understand how to listen, how to ask the questions that an audience might want to hear, and to listen to the answer and to not be thinking ahead with the joke.”

This all strikes me as very Zhuangist, and Lassally’s advice to Hughley seems to me just the kind of thing Zhuangzi’s Confucius was trying to tell Yan Hui in ch. 4 of the Zhuangzi.  Yan Hui wanted to travel to Wei to reform its ruler, and asked Confucius for his advice.  Basically, what Confucius told Yan Hui was “if you go to Wei as Yan Hui, trying to reform the ruler, you’re going to fail.  You have to lose that identity, and the conceptualization it’s based on.”

“Hui, don’t be too Scottish.”

2 responses to “Reading the Zhuangzi in a Zhuangist Way

  1. I’m afraid the figures (deformed persons) are not meant to stop the author from forming identity, neither are the points from making points. Your reading, like most Western scholars, is in danger of westernizing Zhuangzi, who is an ancient Chinese thinker. I would suggest you to improve your Chinese, to carefully read Analects of Confucius and Daodejing, and to try to find the connection between Zhuangzi and either of them.

  2. I beg to differ from Wills comment. You are trying to understand Zhuangzi through Zhuangzi, and he is telling you to go to the “safe” academic route of comparing X and Y and thinking something great is accomplished by it. Good post.

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