Monday, April 08, 2013

The Humor of Zhuangzi; the Self-Seriousness of Laozi

Why do I love Zhuangzi (aka Chuang Tzu) so much, when I so loathe Laozi (aka Lao Tzu)? Aren't they both "Daoists"?

It has something to do with Zhuangzi's humor and Laozi's self-seriousness, when they say strange things.

Compare them on death. First Zhuangzi:

When Chuang-tzu was dying, his disciples wanted to give him a lavish funeral. Said Chuang-tzu

'I have heaven and earth for my outer and inner coffin, the sun and moon for my pair of jade discs, the stars for my pearls, the myriad creatures for my farewell presents. Is anything missing from my funeral paraphernalia? What will you add to these?'

'Master, we are afraid that the crows and the kites will eat you.'

'Above ground, I'll be eaten by the crows and kites; below ground, I'll be eaten by the ants and molecrickets. You rob the one of them to give to the other; how come you like them so much better?' (Graham, trans.)

Of course Zhuangzi's disciples will bury him. They're not going to throw his corpse under a tree! He's razzing them, using the occasion of his death to make a joke -- a joke with a point, of course. In fact, the joke has at least three points: the surface point of challenging the burial traditions taken so seriously by most of his contemporaries, but also points conveyed by his mood and tone -- rejecting solemnity and negativity about death, and undercutting his disciples' attempts to revere him. Challenging tradition, refusing to be unsettled by death, and undermining his own authority are all central themes in Zhuangzi. They come together so nicely here in a crisp joke! Although this fragment isn't from the Inner Chapters, it's a perfect slice of Zhuangzi.

Now Laozi on death:

To be courageous in daring leads to death;
To be courageous in not daring leads to life.
These two bring benefit to some and loss to others.
Who knows why Heaven dislikes what it does?
Even sages regard this as a difficult question.
The Way does not contend but is good at victory;
Does not speak but is good at responding;
Does not call but things come of their own accord;
Is not anxious but is good at laying plans.
Heaven's net is vast;
Its mesh is loose but misses nothing. (Ivanhoe, trans.)
No jokes here! (Or anywhere in the Daodejing.) Laozi is dispensing some serious advice: To be courageous in daring leads to death but to be courageous in not daring leads to life. Wait, "to be courageous in not daring"? What does that mean? Hm, maybe Laozi is advising us to avoid battle even if it means facing scorn? Or at least he's saying that doing so is likelier to preserve your life? Well, no surprise there! Naw, the passage can't be that vapid, can it?

The text continues: "These two bring benefit to some and loss to others." Okay, and...? For a moment, there seems to be a bit of self-doubt. He can't say why. I can almost hear the relief in his voice, though, when he says that even the sages find these questions difficult; there's no real threat to his self-esteem, even if he can't figure it out! And within two lines all is better, with Laozi back to the usual profound paradoxicalizing he seems to find so comfortable: "The Way does not contend but is good at victory", etc.

Laozi sounds so deep! But it is exactly this seeming-profundity I mistrust. It's easy to invent profound-seeming inversions. "The voice that speaks loudest is the one that that is most quiet. The Way is largest in its being tiny. The basketball that misses the hoop is the one that truly goes in." Try ten more as an exercise at home. See, anyone can do it! Almost reflexively, the reader responds with attempts to see the deep sense in such remarks: Is Schwitzgebel saying that one gains more from failure in basketball than from success? Or is he saying that, in life, we should most admire the nothing-but-net swish shot that doesn't even touch the hoop? Or...? Wow, it's so multi-dimensionally profound it can't fully be articulated!

So we come up against the limits of language, or at least seem to. Let's compare Laozi and Zhuangzi on that issue. Here's the famous opening passage of Laozi's Daodejing:

A way that can be followed is not a constant Way
A name that can be named is not a constant name.
Nameless, it is the beginning of Heaven and Earth;
Named, it is the mother of the myriad creatures.
And so,
Always eliminate desires in order to observe its mysteries;
Always have desires in order to observe its manifestations.
These two come forth in unity but diverge in name.
Their unity is known as an enigma.
Within this enigma is yet a deeper enigma.
The gate of all mysteries! (Ivanhoe, trans.)
Just in case you couldn't tell from the profound-seeming reversals, you are also told explicitly: This is enigmatic! In fact, it's an enigma within an enigma! And this book is your gate to all that.

I admit it, Laozi makes me crabby. Probably I'm too uncharitable in reading him, but I think he's a poser. "Here, I've got secrets. Secrets within secrets, even! Too profound for words! If you're really in tune with the Dao, though, reader, you can start to fathom my depths. If anything I say seems silly or wrong, it's either your fault or the inherent limitations of language."

Contrast Zhuangzi on the limits of language:

Now I am going to make a statement here. I don't know if it fits into the category of other people's statements or not. But whether it fits into their category or whether it doesn't, it obviously fits into some category. So in that respect it is no different from their statements. However let me try making my statement.

There is a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. Suddenly there is being and nonbeing. But between this being and nonbeing, I don't really know which is being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don't know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn't said something. (Watson, trans.)

Now, some interpreters (prominently, A.C. Graham) seem to think Zhuangzi is offering here a serious theory of not-yet-beginning-to-be-nonbeing. Really? It seems so clearly to me to be a parody! It wouldn't be the only parody in the Inner Chapters -- not by a long shot. Zhuangzi is gently mocking his friend the paradoxical logician Huizi and other philosophers advancing abstract general theories -- including maybe the folks who were putting together the Daodejing. But I don't see the humor here as mean-spirited or superior in tone; he brings his own language and theories within the umbrella of his mockery. He too finds his words collapsing around him, suspects his criticism applies to himself as much as it does to others. Once again, Zhuangzi undercuts himself where Laozi hypes himself. At least that's how I read it.

And to me, that difference in tone is all the difference in the world. A philosopher who says weird paradoxical things while undercutting those very things with humor and self-criticism is a very different philosopher from one who might say some superficially very similar-sounding weird paradoxical things while loudly insisting upon his own unfathomable profundity.

(For more hatin' on Laozi, see also this post. For more on Zhuangzi's self-undercutting uses of language see my essay here.)


philosophnic said...

I always thought the famous opening line of Laozi had *some* humor in by making a pun on the word 'dao':

"Dao ke dao fei chang dao" ("The Dao that can be Dao-ed is not the true Dao")

Then again, puns are the lowest form of wit ...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I don't hear it as a humorous pun but only as literal usage. If the text had other clearer instances of humorous puns, maybe I'd hear it differently? For word-play Zhuangzi is much more your man, I think.

Brett Chance said...

Humorless though he may be, I think there is no question that Laozi uses wordplay. And, (referring to the last two passages), I think that he expresses something very similar to what Zhuangzi does.

I like the translation of the Tao Te Ching by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo, in which the opening lines read:

"Tao called Tao is not Tao.
Names can name no lasting name."

I think this preserves Laozi's original language very nicely because it is simple, and uses "Tao" three times just as the Chinese text does. At the very least, I think that looking at this translation indicates more use of wordplay than the Ivanhoe translation does. And even if there isn't much humor in this wordplay, I think it expresses something along the same lines as Zhuangzi's words. When we name the Tao we bring it into a framework; but this framework is not the Tao. This clearly says something similar to Zhuangzi's statements about making statements that may or may not actually say things. And wordplay here seems even more important to Laozi's philosophy: the meter, the repetition, and the simplicity in his words are inseparable from the paradox he is trying to express.

I can understand if you prefer the humorous tone of Zhuangzi to the sterness of Laozi, but I think Laozi is pretty cool if you give him a chance. If anything, I hope you'll take a closer look at him and read him with more sympathy in the future. I also think it's great that an analytic philosopher of psychology is blogging about Taoism!

Daryl said...

All I see is evidence of Laozi's hilarity.

Lewis Powell said...

Relevant to your distrust of seeming profundity:

Michel Clasquin-Johnson said...

Hmm, this reminds me of a line in the movie "The Outlaw Josey Wales":

"Buzzards gotta eat, boy, same as worms."

Somehow Clint Eastwood's delivery does it for me better than Zhuangzi's. Does that make me a cultural imperialist? Or is it a hidden Taoist subtext in the Western movie genre?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Brett: You're right that there's a sense of "word play" in which Laozi is a master. What I don't think Laozi does is the silly, funny punning sort of wordplay that you sometimes see in Zhuangzi.

@ Daryl: After all, the greatest hilarity is the utmost seriousness!

@ Lewis: Terrific clip. I hadn't seen that one.

@ Michel: Great line!

Brad Cokelet said...

Maybe you are just a bad student of the way?

"When the best student hears about the way he practices it assiduously;
When the average student hears about the way it seems to him there one moment and gone the next;
When the worst student hears about the way he laughs out loud.
If he did not laugh it would be unworthy of being the way." (Chapter 41, Lau translation)

Of course, in a way, this just reinforces your point. Perhaps it is also worth noting the authoritarian political stuff in the DDC. Does anything like that show up in other Daoist texts. Maybe you dislike the text written by someone who was an adviser to those in political power, but like the one by a hermit...

Gary Williams said...

Hi Eric,

I don't think there is any reason to "choose" one thinker over the other given the different styles and purposes of the texts. Nor is there any reason to make judgments about who was "truly" Taoist and who was a mere poser (a harsh term for one of history's most well-regarded sages!) Some people have even argued that Laozi is a mythical construct that represents multiple past persons, and thus is not even a suitable substance to apply personal predicates to.

In any case, I believe some of the awkwardness or "pseudo-profundity" that you point out in Chapter 1 is due entirely to that particular translation (which seems bad to me, at least in comparison to others). Given there are hundreds of English interpretations to choose from, some more or less pseudo-profound than others, it seems unfair to chastise Laozi on the basis of one bad translation.

This page alone presents 100 different translations of the first chapter. As you can see, there is a broad spectrum of profundity, with some down to earth and others more mystical.

My fast-and-loose rendition of the first chapter is that Laozi is making a point about not confusing the map for the territory, a very Taoist (and Zen!) idea. That is, just because you have this term "Tao" does not mean that the linguistic concept captures everything there is about the concept, because the Tao is meant to include non-linguistic reality just as much as linguistic reality. So the lesson is to not be lulled into a false sense of understanding simply because you've learned some name for a theoretical concept. You must also experience Taoism, and not just talk about it to really "get it", a task easier said than done of course!

Moreover, I believe the "10,000 names" or "myriad names" is a way to refer to the human tendency to carve everything up into linguistic categories, some of which are of course more arbitrary and divorced from reality than others. So the lesson is just because we have names for things, don't be fooled into thinking something deep and substantial stands behind it (e.g. the concepts of "good" and "evil").

As for mysteries within mysteries (besides being a weird translation), I think that's just a poetic way of saying that both non-linguistic and linguistic-reality is puzzling, and that it would be a mistake to completely retreat to non-language or completely retreat to language. Either way has problems, so you should show moderation in your preference for abstract categorizing or concrete investigation. Both serve their purpose and you shouldn't think in absolutes, even when we can clearly apply absolute concepts.

Btw, Im not a Taoist scholar by any means, but I really enjoy Alan Watt's translation of the Tao Te Ching (as well as the beautiful photos), as it is both down to earth and profound with risking in pseudo-profundity.

For me, the best way to see Laozi and Changzi are as complementary approaches to the same topic, like Yin and Yang.

Howard Berman said...

Laozi is lousy
translate this into Chinese

Callan S. said...

I'm not familiar with either, but an alternate reading is that Zhunangzi is simply avoiding the topic by making jokes at other peoples expense, while Laozi attempts to touch on it and although he veers at the last second, that's pretty explicit instead of being papered over by a joke. Just an alternate reading.

To be courageous in not daring leads to life.
Presuming at the time of writing a status quo of an overall militaristic 'go kill yourself for the status quos greater good', it would take courage, as it does with any status quo, to go against that. Being a deserter always takes a kind of courage.

Anonymous said...

Hansen's book is dynamite. His "serious" phil of language treatment of Zhunagzi is rigorous but would provide a good framework for you to still distinguish between Zhuangzi and Laozi the way you want to.

chris h.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

@ Brad: I do think that reinforces my point. And yes, I also think that the political authoritarianism of the Daodejing is intimately connected with the authoritarianism implicit in obscurantism. I did a post on that topic back in 2007, called "The Dark Laozi".

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Gary: I've read several Laozi translations, including Watt's, and some of the passages in the original classical Chinese (which I can struggle through with the help of a dictionary), and I think the point carries for all translations. Furthermore, Ivanhoe is one of the most prominent English-language scholars of Chinese philosophy alive today -- so that's no second-rate translation! However, it is true that translators always have to make choices about what to try to preserve from the text (e.g., the three appearances of "dao" in the first line) and every choice is going to sacrifice something, given the imperfect match between languages.

I am on board with the point you raise about language, which Zhuangzi also makes. It's partly the agreement of Laozi and Zhuangzi on this point that justifies seeing them both as "Daoists". There are some points on which Laozi is probably correct; but that's true of any philosopher.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Callan: I see what you're saying, I think, but in my view Zhuangzi has a distinctive voice through the Inner Chapters that would tend to favor my interpretation. On your second point: I partly agree. And yet I think that unless there's a truly self-sacrificing Quakerishness about your refusing military service, it's suspiciously smug to say: I, who am the deserter, saving my own skin, am really the brave one, soldier!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Chris: Thanks for the tip! I read Hansen's book when it came out years ago and found it interesting, though I'm not ready to fully sign up for Hansen's rather unusual view about how nouns work in classical Chinese and the philosophical import of that. I don't have the book here in my office, and I can't recall how central that is to his discussion of the distinction between Laozi and Zhuangzi. Probably worth refreshing myself on....

Rodrigo said...

The problem with the translations is that most translators lived far from Nature and too close to books. How, then, can they begin to understand what is Dao about? Think of Dao as a synonym for Nature. Not something underlying Nature, but Nature itself, including us and other animals, plants, Earth, Sun, Moon, the stars, other universes, etc. Other point is that chang shouldn't be translated as "eternal", "constant", but as "common", "usual". It would be too rigid to ask someone to be "always without desires" as it goes completely against Nature (and "the flexible wins over the rigid"). But if you can be some time without desires (or "usually without desires"), then you'll be able to see Nature's wonders. The first line may read "The nature that can be described is not the common Nature" (i.e. the Nature that is everywhere around us). We lose the wordplay with 3 Dao here, but I think it's a better way to get the idea in our language. Also try translating De as "spontaneity" and see what happens. Laozi has the benefit of being short, VERY short. So people could just memorize it. And thus he left the space for being funny for others, and what a great benefit for us also having Zhuangzi to do it so well!

Anonymous said...

My response here: