Sunday, January 27, 2013

Mutual Evocation

Scott Bradley


As he begins to draw the strings on what has in many ways been a speculative outpouring, Wu (The Butterfly as Companion) takes an inquisitive look back at himself in relation to what he has wrought. I find this helpful because he also asks the question for me who has similarly taken Zhuangzi as an occasion for a public self-examination.

One consideration concerns the relation between what Zhuangzi actually said and might have intended and what Wu has in some sense made him say. There is necessarily a disconnect. Even were the Zhuangzi a work whose precise meanings could be 'explained' (though it is not), it could still only be mediated through the thought and experience of another. Wu thus explains that his meditations are "a Chuang Tzu through myself". The most essential value of the Zhuangzi is that it can only evoke a response in and from us; whatever we come away with, it must be our own. Zhuangzi provides an occasion for us to think things through for ourselves.

This evocative character is made possible by Zhuangzi's purposeful ambiguities. Though distance, time and culture now add to the ambiguous mix, that ambiguity was there for the original readers, as well. "The guidelines within them [his writings] are undepletable, giving forth new meanings without shedding the old ones. Vague! Ambiguous! We have not got to the end of them yet!" exclaimed the author of the final chapter (while betraying a Confucian attachment to “guidelines”). (Ziporyn) For his part, Wu describes them with one of my favorite words: as a "mess". In other words, Zhuangzi never intended that we should learn the 'guidelines' of his philosophy so as to apply them, but that we should discover our own.

Wu points out that this is precisely what the Zhuangzi as a whole represents — a corpus of mutual evocation. Taking the first seven chapters (the Inner Chapters) as from the mind of Zhuangzi, we can see how most (but not all) of the 26 chapters that follow are unique personal responses to that thought. And Zhuangzi was himself writing in response to the responses of still others (Confucius, Mencius, Hui Shih, Yang Chu to name just a few).

I once sent an attempt at commentary to Dr. Ziporyn and his reply was to exclaim, by way of encouragement, that I was carrying on a tradition extending for more than two millennia (though he did not comment on the brilliance of my insights!). When I originally approached Trey with a view to sharing my writing on this site it was, in part, to find a place for an ongoing “mutual evocation”, a creative dialogue. Unfortunately, my very haphazard web accessibility has made that nigh impossible, though frankly, it does not seem that it would have happened in any case. No matter; Zhuangzi continues to evoke a response in me, and I in myself as I grapple with him, and, if you are reading this, it will be evoking something in you, one way or another. And that is the whole point. It does not matter that I am not a ‘teacher’; there is nothing to teach.

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

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