Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Usefulness of Uselessness, Part II

The Usefulness of Uselessness, Part II
by Scott Bradley


Huizi, providing Zhuangzi with a metaphor demonstrating the uselessness of his "big words", tells him about the gourd he grew from a gifted seed. It became so huge that it was useless. If used to store water, it could not sustain the weight. If cut in half for use as a dipper, it was too large to pass the mouth of a container. So, he smashed it to pieces.

From the tone of his response, we can assume that Zhuangzi first had a good laugh at his friend's silliness. Then he told him that he sure didn't know how to make use of big things.

What Huizi did not know how to do was to let things be what they are, and thereby show him where their usefulness lay. Instead, knowing that gourds are good for storage and dipping, he smashed his when it did not meet his expectations. Why did he not instead, Zhuangzi inquired, use it as a boat with which to drift about carefree on the rivers and lakes?

What Huizi had taught Zhuangzi, through his logical deconstruction of the foundations of reason, was that "the understanding consciousness" could not answer the human hunger for transcendence. But whereas Huizi used this realization to "smash" both reason and those aspirations, Zhuangzi used it as a springboard to realize a transcendence untethered to knowing and its concomitant values of purpose and meaning. He let the limited show him the unlimited. He let the bounded show him the boundless. He allowed the useless to reveal its usefulness.

We can see a parallel development, I believe, in the various expressions of existentialism. Faced with the inability of modern man to believe in any 'revealed' transcendent verities, on the one hand, and his inability to construct them himself, many existentialists declared the human experience 'absurd'. (Camus, for instance.) Because reason can find no way to transcendence, the project was "smashed". Others, like Unamuno, saw the apparent rational absurdity of the human condition as an opportunity to find other ways of affirming the human experience.

Saying "No' to life as it is expressed is ultimately a rationalist's decision. Affirmation allows life to be itself and big gourds to reveal their usefulness.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

1 comment:

  1. It should be pointed out that the bottle-gourd referred to has great symbolism in Taoism as a miniature replica of heaven and earth, uniting the two in its shape. This might add some layer of meaning to the story. It is associated with Li Tie-guai, one of the eight immortals. It is one of my favorite Chinese motifs; I was drawn to it before I knew anything about Taoism.

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