of Chinese Studies
Volume 1 Number 1 March 2001
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How do we carve the Zhuangzi into sense? How do we confront, as readers, this astonishing sequence of parables, stories, narratives, descriptions, dialogues and glosses that continuously intertwine, intersect and echo each other in the space of its 33 chapters? How do we go beyond all the contradictions, obstacles, obscurities, paradoxes, ironies, and allusions that populate this text, and truly join Zhuangzi, whoever that may be, in his free and easy wandering?
The answers to these questions are indeed multiple, and the differences between them are particularly subtle: Zhuangzi's skepticism, his relativism, perspectivism, contextualism and anti-foundationalism, as well as his naturalism, mysticism, primitivism, antirationalism, aestheticism, idealism, monism or romanticism, all of them in various shapes and sizes, have been offered as as many solutions. His most competent readers have closely and carefully explored the major articulations of the text, its dominant features, its nodal points, those lines of force that build up its very fabric of ideas and, after all, its very essence, re-reading, redefining and reformulating them into one coherent theory or another.
One may have noticed that even though some of the answers above may look as distant from each other as Chu from Yue, they are yet, in another sense, as close as gall and bladder: they are, each and everyone, an -ism. Each of them starts from one predetermined picture of coherence and goes on to patiently identify it and sometimes even build it in the interstices, empty spaces and crevices of the text. In anticipation of any possible objections, the Zhuangzi is from the very beginning unequivocally reduced to its first seven chapters. These are considered, as it is well-known, to be the closest to Zhuangzi himself and therefore more entitled than the rest of the text to constitute a solid basis for the theoretical developments soon to follow. They are also believed, after all, to be outside the quick sand status of the outer and miscellaneous chapters, which come from many sources and whose textual fluidity may thus prove dangerous even to experienced readers. When all precautions have been taken and all footnotes have prominently exposed the self-imposed textual limits, interpretation may safely and triumphantly proceed. And indeed, so it does, as analytically as possible, removing in the process many of the webbed toes and extra fingers of the fragments that do not fold along the linearity of the major -ism in question.
Accordingly, one forgets the use of uselessness and that the useless is actually useful. One also forgets that he whose hand has an extra finger would scream if he were to remove it and that seabirds, even when receiving kingly honors, die because of unsuitable treatment. Spitting images of the Duke of Lu, we tend to treat the text ritually and carve it according to all rules of ceremony; still, it seems that most often we do not know how to use the light.
And this happens in spite of the fact that Zhuangzi told us, I believe, how to read him, how to undo and carve into explication his own text or, for that matter, any text. All we need to do is make the effort to accept that, all in all, a text is an ox, just as any explication is, as the etymology of the word jie shows, just a carving up, a dissection, an undoing.
Let us, then, reread the well-known Butcher Ding story and see what Zhuangzi had to say about undoing oxen and, indirectly, undoing texts:
To carve an ox means, it seems, to operate rhythmically. This, in turn, means activating all your limbs, concurring in rhythm and rhyme and harmonizing with onomatopoeic sequences, zipping, whooshing, and zapping, so that fine ears tune in to the subtle noises of skin falling from flesh and flesh rolling from bones and attentive eyes perceive the all-encompassing syntax of your movements, which are as swift and coordinated as the verbs that create it. To carve an ox is, then, a matter of order, correspondences, and echoes, a matter of dynamics that is perfectly unified in its variety. Dynamics, to put it otherwise, in which all things respond to each other canonically, in the highly ritual canon of the "Mulberry Grove," a dance that comes, as tradition would have it, from the times of Tang the Victor, or the "Managing Chief," a piece that has been passed on from the olden days of Yao.
Confronted with this polyphony, it is no wonder that the educated watcher that the Prince shows himself to be has the immediate awareness of the profound aesthetic act that he is witnessing and, sighing with admiration, he questions the butcher:
In spite of the canonical character of the music pieces, the Prince is no Ji Zha and cannot interpret coherently and ritually every new theme in the performance he has just witnessed; moreover, his understanding seems doomed to remain exclamatory, as he is overwhelmed by the whole performance and cannot perceive patterned sequence behind simultaneous actions. Or maybe the Prince has this ability, but can only express it in exclamations: he is not, after all, a master of the fine points of language, as his inappropriate questions to Mencius clearly show. And just as the Confucian philosopher taught King Hui of Liang to speak of human-heartedness and righteousness, the Daoist cook is now teaching Prince Wen Hui (one and the same person as the King above) to speak about the Dao. As such, apart from being a lesson about how to read and interpret things, the butcher's lesson will also touch on the thorny issue of speaking the Dao, the well-known Dao that cannot be spoken of; the lesson here joins, thus, the long series of paradoxes centered on the inability of speaking that haunt this text, just as they hunt many other Daoist texts. Let us read it:
The ways, the methods, the daos, maybe the Dao itself, can be followed, told of, untold of, practiced, trod on, floated on, wandered on, and so on: they can also be loved, and it is this act of love that brings the butcher his musicality. His harmonic capacity, the one that has impressed the Prince, is beyond technique and close to the Dao. Incidentally, this does not imply that human technique and the Dao are fundamentally separated: the two terms are both part of an uninterrupted and infinite series, like rings on the chain that link all things with all that are beyond things. Proof of that comes from chapter 12, that connects in a sequence the Dao, the De, administration, and skill:
Let us go back to the butcher's love story. The history of this love-story, a story 19 years in length, as we will soon discover, is a history of carving, cutting, undoing, and explicating. The butcher "ex-plicates" the ox, he unfolds it and deploys it along its connecting lines, unveiling its details, exposing its articulations, undoing its joints. And explication is certainly not just simple penetration tong or a reaching da into the interior of things, both of which may result in self-illumination ming, but rather a form of release: the butcher will release the ox's texture in the same way the transformation of things will release Lao Dan or Master Yu from life's fetters and in the same way Cloud General is advised to set his heart-mind free, probably from the burden of its own confusion or bad inclinations, if not from under the ice that prevents all of us from becoming "perfect men" - as Laozi explicates to Nanrong Chu.
It is this kind of explicatory release, revealing the pleats and folds of the ox's texture, which gives sense to the butcher's activity. His carving will be, of course, quite clumsy at the beginning, his major mistake being that he can see only the whole: not the whole as a sum total of its parts or as the meeting place of all inner and outer individual characteristics, but rather the overwhelming whole, the "whole" whole. It takes three years for the ox not to be this overwhelming and frightening whole, this flux of outerness, which is rich, and detailed, and intricate, and which may well have blinded his eyes and deafened his ears. What is it that truly happened during these three years? How much carving practice did he accumulate? How much mastering of exuberant oxness, how much sitting and forgetting, how much fasting of the heart? We do not know. We do know, however, that now his senses finally know where to stop and do not let themselves be lured any more by the deceiving extravaganza of colors and textures: his "ministers", as the butcher calls his sense organs, assume the proper ritual position and stay behind his spirit, "the daemonic in him", in Graham's words, which ventures to explore the ox while possessed by a strange desire to advance. It is the spirit that "runs into" the ox, almost by accident if we are to read the direct sense of the verb, in the process of inner wandering: the text-ox is no longer outside, a blinding object for a blind analysis, but inside, something you stumble across in your free and easy wandering.
Every ox (and every text), it would seem, is somewhere inside of you, and every (explicatory) carving would seem to be some sort of self-explaining.  But this does not mean that deconstruction is a random process, a game without rules and direction. Here is what the butcher has to say about this:
There exists, therefore, as Chinese commentators like to say, "a methodless method," which would seem to consist in relying on the natural structures, the "heavenly structuring lines li," as the text calls them: the outcome of this method is that one becomes capable of going along with the way things are and mold oneself to the actual unique makeup of the ox-text that is to be carved. This incessant adjustment to facts, this flexible adaptation to any momentary configuration appears to govern the laws of reading as well as the laws of all efficiency.
A question has been lurking for a while in the background, waiting for its turn to be asked: how exactly does the analogy I have built operate, if at all, in terms of the instruments? To put it otherwise, if a knife is that by which one carves an ox, what is that by which one carves a text?
The answer is hard to find and Zhuangzi is in no hurry to provide it. He tells us about, or rather further confuses us with, the strange way a skilled carver uses his carving instrument: the butcher strikes empty spaces, guides his knife through the void, doing nothing that one is supposed to do with a knife: he does not cut, he does not hack, he acts without acting and it seems that the ox unfolds by itself in front of his blade. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that the text tells us that what the butcher carves with is actually a non-knife:
"Extremely thin" is the basic way in which commentators read the butcher's words about the blade that is devoid of thickness. But we know very well, just as the commentators or Zhuangzi himself do, that there are no things devoid of thickness and that what creeps and freely wanders in the empty places of the ox's joints must be something else. Something else that is, of course, much harder to grasp and much harder to circumscribe and which, strangely enough, is the very thing that warrants the superposition between an ox and a text which I have been suggesting. This something is figure. Figure is that which has made possible the analogy until now and figure is that which has allowed us to read the whole anecdote as a mise-en-abîme for the whole text of the Zhuangzi, as a key to its undoing. Again, it is figure once more that we have to appeal to now: as our eyes cannot see the thickness-less knife, our spirit has to see it as a non-knife, a figure that disguises something else, maybe spirit itself roaming freely or maybe non-discriminating intellect. This, incidentally, could be a possible answer to the question above.
But I do not think that unveiling the figure, undoing it and unfolding it and approximating it, as the commentators quoted above tried to do, is what matters most here; instead, it seems wiser to plainly recognize it as figure and accept its figurative role. Once we have admitted that figures, in all guises and shapes, are the basic stuff on which we can tentatively build our reading, than we can backtrack and see how the butcher may be a figure for any interpreter, how carving the ox may be a figure for the way in which we should read a text and also maybe discern why the text is made up of this complex sequence of anecdotes, dialogues, narratives, and explanations - figures upon figures upon figures that attempt to say to us what cannot be said. And should we need any further incentive to read figuratively and do a multi-layered carving of the text, let us remember that, according to his interpreter in chapter 33, Zhuangzi himself was, as we have seen, very good at "responding to change and explicating/undoing things."
And now, for a proper ending, another figure:
It seems that, as usual, Zhuangzi is playing games with us. Did he not tell us that the butcher saw nothing with the eyes and that his senses stopped? Did he not suggest that his movement was rather a movement of the spirit? Whence cautiousness, whence intent realized? And who is it that we are talking about now, anyway? Is the assertive wu here the same as the deferential chen from above? Why bring Ding back to the world of sensation, emotion, and intent? What motivates this deviation from the image of hermeneutic perfection of the ox carver?
One possible solution, suggested by Robert Eno (in Kjellberg and Ivanhoe, 1996, 135-6), would be to read the passage in light of the beginning of the Butcher Ding story, where we witness his music-like performance in front of the Prince. We can easily imagine that a more difficult score than the usual one may interrupt the flux of automatic movements of the butcher and force him to refocus on conscious execution or even to undergo, again, some strenuous practice. Still, it is quite puzzling that the degree of efficiency of this second performance, of this carving with the senses, is not at all different from the first one, in which carving was entrusted to the spirit.
Maybe the answer lies somewhere else. Maybe Zhuangzi wants to tell us that what we have been reading so far is a figure and that this figure, like all figures, has to be abandoned, like all fish-traps and rabbit-snares: we have to go beyond figure if we are to understand whatever that figure wants to tell us, just as we have to go beyond all the metaphysics of the Dao if we want to see it in ants, panic grass and the like. To put it otherwise, only exposing the figure qua figure may reveal the figure's figurativity and make us wonder about its meaning. Zhuangzi does not miss the opportunity to do exactly that, undoing everything he has done and bringing the butcher full-circle back among us, making him one of us. And after his knife has proved to be a non-knife, here it is again, just a knife, but a hidden one, one removed from sight - from the same sight which at first saw, than saw no more, and now sees again. It is in these empty figurative spaces, these rifts, fissures, and paradoxes that the butcher's intent is realized and, I think, Zhuangzi's intent as well. We do not know now much more about the butcher's change of status, but maybe we do not want to ask the question any more.
However, a question may still be worth asking: what is, after all, this undoing? What does the performing of the textual score mean? Prince Wen Hui, who reads in his turn the figure, may provide the answer:
It is not difficult to see what the Prince has learned from the story. All we have to do is read this story in connection to the previous passage in the Zhuangzi, which it is said to illustrate. Let us review the context.
The Prince, it seems, reads the butcher's adjusting to all situations as an instance of the principle of constancy and keeping the middle that enables one to live a long life. But are we sure that this is what he reads in the story? Can we know for a fact that he reads what the butcher has to say in the same way as we do?
We are not the Prince, so we do not know why the Prince has read the story the way he has. On the other hand, from here above the River Hao, where we imagine ourselves to be, his reading looks appropriate. But it seems to me that more significant than what he reads is that he reads something. The Prince does not let the story go, he interprets it, he undoes the butcher's story along its articulations, meanings and structuring lines, li: he makes it signify by contextualizing it, explaining it, and relating it to something else, in this case the abstract way of nourishing life. By his very act of interpretation, the Prince teaches us the same lesson that the butcher has taught him: that undoing is adjusting, responding each time as the situation requires it, echoing in the concert of correlative connections. And also that, indeed, a story is, after all, an ox.
For someone who needed so many interviews with Mencius, the Prince proved to be a quick and skilled practitioner of hermeneutics. Maybe we should attempt to emulate him too, and to this end I will now follow, after the thread of undoing, the thread of doing, as it is woven in Wheelwright Bian's story. In the end I will try to highlight once more the way in which, I believe, these stories should function as figures for the way in which the Zhuangzi itself should be read and rewritten.
Just like Butcher Ding's, Wheelwright Bian's story looks somewhat different from the other "knack stories." If the butcher's story carves itself out of the group by the almost mystical skill reached by the butcher or by his unmatched playfulness, the wheelwright's figure stands out mainly because of its ability to become a figure: from all the anecdotes in the Zhuangzi, this seems to be the most often quoted, paraphrased and alluded to story in the medieval texts of literary criticism. Let us read it, too, step by step, hoping that by undoing it we shall be able to find a story about doing:
The anecdote starts more abruptly than Butcher Ding's story and seems to proceed at a faster pace. I do not think that the one to impose this rhythm is the Duke, even though the hesitant, sometimes cowardly, personality of Duke Huan of Qi, did prompt him on more than one occasion to take rash and impulsive action; it is rather the wheelwright who sets the pace, as he abandons work and does the unthinkable, i.e. he goes up and adopts the dialogic position, the position of discursive equality with the duke. Through this act, the structural rules of the anecdote, as they are sublimated in the sum total of formulas and conventions that govern the inferior-superior confrontations in traditional discourse, are blatantly violated. As such, Zhuangzi can be said to signal out that his story will not be part of this tradition, that it will not confirm it, but rather attack it, infirm it, subject it to endless irony.
That this is indeed the case is further demonstrated by the positioning of the story immediately after a discourse on the futility of language and writing. Thus, the anecdote becomes a perfect illustration of this very futility: the distrust in the power of discourse almost forces the anecdote into being, it almost calls for little fables that can exist by themselves, cut off from any context, and are far better qualified to sneak in like a knife or spin like a wheel, thereby avoiding the meandering of a linguistic discourse about the inadequacy of anything linguistic.
Going back to the story, let us notice that by going up into the hall, perpetrating the aggressive interruption of his superior's action and then submitting the Duke's reading to blunt and undisguised evaluation, the wheelwright violates a multitude of rules. Before taking a closer look at these violations, let us review the scene as it looks at the beginning: in the upper position, the superior, reading; in the lower position, the inferior, chiseling. Their actual actions seem to echo their positions, and the opposition that is created between them seems maximal: the opposition between reading and chiseling is the opposition between the interpretive undoing attempted by the Duke and the creative doing of the wheelwright. But his doing is chiseling, and chiseling is, come to think of it, also undoing, the taking away of extra material from the uncarved block. As such, the opposition can hardly be called maximal, and it is maybe this awareness that prompts the wheelwright to transgress the rule.
In any case, by climbing up into the ritual space of the hall, the wheelwright marks from the very beginning his distance from Butcher Ding. The butcher was just the subject of some musical curiosity on the part of his master, his right to a discursive posture being conferred to him, not demanded by him; the wheelwright, on the other hand, imposes himself, by his very move upwards, as an equal partner of dialogue for Duke Huan. In other words, Bian sets himself as an independent discursive subject. That is why his words cannot be an explication, an undoing of some teaching, as the butcher's turned out to be, or a disquisition of some sort, as the Duke seems to expect; his will be prescriptive words, words that will continuously build in the background a performative rhetoric, an institutional alternative to the misbehaving of his reading master. By going up into the hall, the wheelwright assumes the ministerial position, setting himself up as an institution and performing the normal function of such a unit: chastising, remonstrating, and advising. The Duke himself understands very well that he is in for some prescription or another, and that action, not commentary or interpretation is requested from him: accordingly, he himself states the two possible courses of action that his confrontation with Bian may lead to (the wheelwright's death or survival), while refraining from any interpretation, now or later. This is everything he has to say, and he will not be coming back at the end of the anecdote with any figure reading of the kind performed by Prince Wen Hui.
We should pause for a while and cast a glance at the dialogue. By this point in the text, the Duke's questioning has already been done, and it has been done in an ordinate fashion: the wheelwright asked about the kind of words Duke Huan was reading and obtained a response bearing not on their kind, but on their origin. The Duke shows thus himself to be an obviously poor reader, one who steers his course by appealing to prestige and authority as arguments and for whom origin prevails over meaning, form, or direction. Consequently, the second question of the wheelwright will have to gauge the performative efficacy of these words: if the Sages were alive, their utterances, closely connected to the prestige of their authors, might somehow acquire some perlocutionary effect, produce some change in reality. When the answer is once again inappropriate, the wheelwright knows enough to feel enabled to express his judgment: the words that Duke Huan was reading are but the dregs and the dross, the ungraceful remains and the dead substance of a once living (and efficient) logos. This denial of the value of the logos when separated from its speaker brings to memory not only the unwanted hypomnesic effects referred to by King Thamus in his rejection of the gift of writing, but also the whole logocentric tradition in which Derrida finds his centerless center. However, let us defer comparison for another time, because the wheelwright differs and seems to want to chisel a slightly different story.
Before reviewing it, we should perhaps go back to the courses of action opened by Duke Huan as a reaction to the wheelwright's transgression and highlight there what needs highlighting: the wheelwright, the doer, is required to prove his undoing ability or die. He has to explain himself, to undo his judgment by means of living words in order to avoid death. The equation here, which is so different from the butcher's formula of nourishing life, connects in an disquieting way doing, undoing, life and death, and the already anticipated end of the story, when the Duke will not interpret, but act, strengthens this inquietude: has Bian escaped death? Or has he failed in his persuasion?
We do not know. Let us read on, and maybe we will find out that life and death are but a pair like any other in our never-ending series of binary linguistic constructs by means of which we busy ourselves passing exclusive judgments over the world. Also, maybe we will discover that both doing and undoing are but carving and chiseling. Finally, maybe we will be able to see that all we need to do (should we learn how to) is solve the ubiquitous language problem, jie it and jie ourselves from it. Then the equation above, like all others, will melt into meaninglessness in the center of the circle of things where the axis of the Dao is located. So let us proceed:
The wheelwright's offensive is built, as one can easily see, around a figure. The very first sentence he utters in the explicatory process by which he will unfasten the Duke from the ties of his poor brand of interpretation, that relies on authority and uses all the wrong reading strategies, shows to us that we will witness analogical reasoning at work and nothing more: the wheelwright has no intention of discussing the actual words of the Sages, or any words for that matter. He will just expose analogically and attempt to drive the point home by his figurative approach. Like any good minister, the wheelwright will use the power of example; however, in contrast to the traditional sovereign-minister dialogical situations, we are told explicitly that Bian will use a figure, an analogy, which he places from the very beginning in the contemplative horizon guan of his "thing," shi. As this is the word used par excellence for the official affairs of the state, this subtle transposition further strengthens the figure we are now ready to discover.
The analogy, acknowledged as such, is not as vivid as the fast-paced description at the beginning of Butcher Ding's story, but is still built in a rhythmical fashion and with some short rhyme patterns. Chiseling the wheel, carving it out so that the proper dialectics between curved and straight, full and void, axle and wheel or hub and spokes be properly realized is an orderly act, just like carving the ox. However, this time we have something to do with doing and not with undoing: or maybe, as we may have already guessed, there is no true difference between the two?
That is the way things seem to be, and that is how they should be in light of many other arguments one may bring to defend this point: undoing and doing, de-textualizing and textualizing, "interpreting" and "creating" are operations that abide by the same principles and have the same purpose, which is proper adjustment, correlation, fitting. Using one and the same material, which is language, both doer and undoer stick to a poetics of casting and paring in their encounters with the world of words. Under these circumstances, the anxieties that will haunt equally all medieval poetics, in spite of their differences, will be directed fundamentally towards solving one single problem, i.e. how to find the words that are able to render, and, most of all, be the "knack" that Wheelwright Bian is unable to verbalize.
There is something else at the end of this story, something that might explain why the wheelwright was more often invoked in later medieval texts than the butcher or other "knack story" figures: unlike the butcher's case, where Zhuangzi himself had to undo the figure for us in order to have us go beyond it, here it is the wheelwright who both constructs the figure (the analogy) and then deconstructs it, exposing it qua figure. Therefore, as I have already said, we do not get to see Duke Huan draw any lesson at the end of the story or do any analogical effort by himself, as Prince Wen Hui did: Bian did and undid everything, both for him and for us. Accordingly, even though the wheelwright's story seems to have been less efficient in the short run, it has certainly proved more effective in the long run: the wheelwright's awareness of the lack of adequacy of language will echo in many a work and, moreover, his own name will become emblematic for his story, a figure for a figure, as in Lu Ji's Rhapsody on Literature.
Let us remember where it is that we started. Let us remember that what we have been in search of was just a manner of interpreting this textual ox or this swift, slow, rhythmical and musical wheel that is the Zhuangzi. I do not know if this has been the right manner to find such a manner and I do not know whether or not I have disfigured figures in my attempt to say something. I do know, however, that any -ism that is too easily applied to the text seems to me quite suspect, because I suspect it of offering a reading that is self-centered and linear.
The alternate reading I have been trying to suggest here starts from a different spatialization: I have tried to show that a reading that winds and meanders and volutes, floating and sinking along with the text, may prove more rewarding than one that purports to draw strong directions and lines. More plainly, I am pleading for a circular, repetitive, allegorical and essentially insecure reading, a fundamentally fragmentary reading. A new figure for reading implies new difficulties for reading: it seems to me, however, that this is a better way to let the Zhuangzi keep its integrity quan without seeing it as a whole quan. Or maybe it is simply a way to let it be what it is, a net of words that confirm, contradict, develop, contract, reduce, enlarge, continue, and discontinue each other, a net that enmeshes us in its polyphonic orchestration the more we try to cast it away.
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© 2001, by Sempre Publishers