Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Chuang Tzu via Thomas Merton — 2009.12.15

The Way of Chuang Tzu (莊子).
Published by New Directions
(by Mclelland & Stewart, Ltd. in Canada), 1969.
ISBN: 0-8112-0103-1

(Excerpts and references refer to The Texts of Taoism translated by James Legge.)

This book was a nice little find in a used book store man years ago. I grabbed it in my ongoing effort at collecting, serendipitously, translations/versions of Chuang Tzu's works. When I first looked at it, I thought it was okay, and gave it three stars (out of five).

Today I re-visited it, and am delighted by it! I will now upgrade this to a full five stars.

I either forgot or skipped past Merton's introduction, which, today, I thoroughly enjoyed.

For example:
[My] 'readings' [of Chuang Tzu] are not attempts at faithful reproduction but ventures in personal and spiritual interpretation. Inevitably, any rendering of Chuang Tzu is bound to be very personal. Though, from the point of view of scholarship, I am not even a dwarf sitting on the shoulders of these giants, and though not all my renderings can even qualify as 'poetry,' I believe that a certain type of reader will enjoy my intuitive approach to a thinker who is subtle, funny, provocative, and not easy to get at (9).
This book is not intended to prove anything or to convince anyone of anything that s/he does not want to hear about in the first place. In other words, it is not a new apologetic subtlety ... in which Christian rabbits will suddenly appear by magic out of a Taoist hat.

I simply like Chuang Tzu because he is what he is and I feel no need to justify this liking to myself or to anyone else. He is far too great to need any apologies from me (10).
And some of the excerpts are delightful. Okay, so that is not so much a product of Merton, but of the genius of Chuang Tzu. Today, for some reason, from the many delightful bits, this is the one that prompted me to blog it:
Three Friends [vi.11]

There were three friends
Discussing life.
One said:
'Can men live together
And know nothing of it?
Work together
And produce nothing?
Can they fly around in space
And forget to exist
World without end?'
The three friends looked at each other
And burst out laughing.
They had no explanation.
Thus they were better friends than before
… (54).
Part of my enjoyment comes, likely, because it echoes of one of my favourite all time poems by Robert Francis:

Four Tao philosophers as cedar waxwings
chat on a February berrybush
in sun, and I am one.

Such merriment and such sobriety –
the small wild fruit on the tall stalk –
was this not always my true style?

Above an elegance of snow, beneath
a silk-blue sky a brotherhood of four
birds. Can you mistake us?

To sun, to feast, and to converse
and all together – for this I have abandoned
all my other lives (139).
From News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness, ed by Robert Bly. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980.

Then, even more delightfully, is that the ending reminds me of the pivotal scene in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, when Feste, Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek are carousing to the annoyance of the point precise Malvolio (2.3). In both cases an embodiment of formality is castigated by the living carousing on the sadness of life!

Here's Chuang Tzu:
Then one friend died.
Sent a disciple to help the other two
Chant his obsequies.

The disciple found that the one friend
had composed a song.
While the other played a lute,
They sang:
'Hey, Sung Hu!
Where'd you go?
Hey, Sung Hu!
Where'd you go?
You have gone
Where you really were.
And we are here –
Damn it! We are here!'
Then the disciple of Confucius burst in on them and
Exclaimed: 'May I inquire where you found this in the
Rubrics of obsequies,
This frivolous caroling in the presence of the departed?'

The two friends looked at each other and laughed:
'Poor fellow,' they said, 'he doesn't know the new liturgy! (54).

Now for Shakespeare, from Twelfth Night, 2.3. Feste sings a supposed song of love because Sir Andrew Aguecheek 'cares not for good life.'
O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear; your true love's coming,
That can sing both high and low:
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man's son doth know.

What is love? 'tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,
Youth's a stuff will not endure.
Sir Toby Belch reacts to this sad song with a cry to life:
But shall we make the welkin dance indeed? shall we
rouse the night-owl in a catch that will draw three
souls out of one weaver? shall we do that?
And then proceeds to bang pots and pans and sing with his two friends until the unctuous Malvolio comes down to stop them.

And, like Sung Lu's friends castigating the officious disciple of Confucius, Sir Toby snaps at Malvolio:
Out o' tune, sir: ye lie. Art [thou] any more than a
steward? Dost thou think, because thou art
virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?
And, I hadn't made the association between Chuang Tzu and Shakespeare in quite this way before, even though I have long thought of Shakespeare as the best Taoist writing in English for many years. And today I realized that that correspondence extends to the naming jokes in this play,which have a great affinity to the naming jokes with which Chuang Tzu riddled his stories.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Epictetus: Discourses — Re-Begun 2009.11.30

I began reading Epictetus at the beginning of the year, on the web.

I looked him up because Mark Kingwell mentioned him in his book Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac. Since then I have been looking in the used book stores for my own hard copy of Epictetus. Rather difficult to find! I here give great thanks to Peter Gribble, the proprietor of my large local used bookstore, Booktown, for pointing out to me that Epictetus's Discourses are included in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica's Great Book series, Volume 12. And it so happened that he even had one on hand, and that by lucky(?) happenstance this volume also includes Marcus Aurelius and Lucretius — whom I will now be reading in the near future, I imagine. Especially M.A. because with his inclusion in this volume arises one of the oddest little fushigis I can imagine — about 4 years ago one of my co-workers was been given, by me, the nickname Marcus Aurelius!
However, the reason I'm writing this out is because of a nice little fushigi that I came across in the writings of Epictetus. It applies to my place of work and the recent discussions I've had with a couple of my work co-podders. Our recent discussions, over morning coffee the last few days before knuckling down work, have been about the power (or lack of power) we individuals have to change that annoying other person, be it kith, kin or co-worker.

And to extend the fushigi just a wee bit, Epictetus comments on dreaming and dreamers. And dreams have also recently started to become a morning coffee topic of discussion with my pod-mates. (For example, the other night I dreamt I was in New York with Regis Philbin taking in the sites and looking for real-estate while NR dreamt he was walking across an upper floor of a small hotel that was covered in mangled, dead and dying baby ducks. He was unconcerned about them as he wended his way through them to get to the stairwell and to the main floor which was having some kind of reception or event.)

And as a great bit of philosophical dessert, and that I find particularly fascinating, is how Epictetus's dream comment contrasts with that of my favourite ancient eastern philosopher, Chuang-Tzu (莊子).

Anyway, here's Epictetus on the nature of personal obstinacy and what can be done to change it (in others):
Book I Chapter V.
Concerning the Academics.
It is said that there are those who will oppose very evident truths, and yet it is not easy to find a reason which may persuade such an one to alter his opinion. This may arise neither from his own strength, nor from the weakness of his teacher; but when a man becomes obstinate in error, reason cannot always reach him.
Now there are two sorts of obstinacy: the one, of the intellect; the other, of the will. A man may obstinately set himself not to assent to evident truths, nor to quit the defence of contradictions. We all dread a bodily paralysis; and would make use of every contrivance to avoid it: but none of us is troubled about a paralysis of the soul. And yet, indeed, even with regard to the soul, when a person is so affected as not to apprehend or understand anything, we think him in a sad condition; but where the emotions of shame and modesty are under an absolute paralysis, we go so far as even to call this strength of mind!
[Epictetus then takes his 'obstinancy' argument into a strange direction, that of dreams. He continued the above with:]
Are you certain that you are awake? — “I am not,” replies such a person, “for neither am I certain when in dreaming I appear to myself to be awake.” Is there no difference, then, between these appearances? — “None.” Shall I argue with this man any longer? For what steel or what caustic can I apply, to make him sensible of his paralysis? If he is sensible of it, and pretends not to be so, he is even worse than dead. He sees not his inconsistency, or, seeing it, holds to the wrong. He moves not, makes no progress; he rather falls back. His sense of shame is gone; his reasoning faculty is not gone, but brutalized. Shall I call this strength of mind? By no means: unless we allow it to be such in the vilest debauchees, publicly to speak and act out their worst impulses.
I included the last bit for a couple of reasons. In part because, as I mentioned, we have been talking about dreams, lately, but also because of how the existence of 'lucid dreaming' perhaps refutes Epictetus's argument! But that is not the only, nor even the main, reason I included it. I included it because Chuang-Tzu, the Chinese philosopher of about 300 B.C. or so (Epictetus died in 135 A.D.), also comments on the problem of dreams:
Once upon a time Chuang dreamed that he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting about happily enjoying himself. He didn't know that he was Chou. Suddenly he awoke and was palpably Chou. He did not know whether he was Chou who had dreamed of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that he was Chou. Now, there must be a difference between Chou and the butterfly. This is called the transformation of things.
Chuang Tzu. Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1994. Translated by Victor H. Mair, p. 24.
What is most interesting about this, in comparison to Epictetus, is that Chuang-Tzu does not dismiss as irrational the person who couldn't tell whether or not he was dreaming. How Chuang-Tzu puts it is very interesting, because he says that there must be difference – even if it is impossible to distinguish the two. Basic western philosophy, of which Epictetus here is clearly enunciating, is so fixated on the power of the mind that he cannot conceive of two ostensibly disparate things so alike that the mind cannot distinguish between the two. He has failed to observe that the heart/soul knows truths the mind cannot grasp, despite his use of 'soul' here and elsewhere. Curious.