Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Another Look at the Laozi VII

Scott Bradley


In an ancient post I made mention of an experience I had while sitting in front of one of Monet's later paintings of lilies in a pond beneath an ornamental bridge. This was at the museum Monet et Ses Amis which is located in his home not far from Paris. At first, I had no idea what I was looking at, though the pond itself would have been visible through a nearby window. It appeared to be just a profusion of color. Suddenly, I saw it — the pond, the lilies, the bridge. Or perhaps I should say, suddenly I experienced it; for something had to happen in me in order for me to unite my perception with the artist's vision (and he had been nearly blind at the time of its painting).

This, I would suggest, is reflective of something of the benefit of the ironic in the Laozi and the Zhuangzi (and probably the mondo and koans of Zen). We are invited to see things in a different way, and this requires a movement within, a paradigm shift in which we suddenly experience a perspective previously hidden from us. We might be able to work it through intellectually; I could have read a history of Monet's work, gone to the window to see the pond, and returned to the painting and figured it out; but this would not have been to have experienced it. "Understanding" the ironic is not experiencing it. Thus, all Ziporyn's discussions of the ironic in the Laozi, my attempts to relate them here, and indeed, Laozi's words themselves, cannot give us this experience. When we do experience them, we make a tiny leap from knowing to knowing by way of not-knowing. We realize a different perspective.

Laozi has been ridiculed for having said, "Those who know do not speak", and then going on to write his book (none of which is likely the case). This simply reveals a failure to have experienced the ironic. Those who "know" are free to speak to their heart's content, even as Zhuangzi said, "Where is the man who has forgotten words that I might have some words with him?"

Ziporyn speaks of the ironic dyadic a priori, the inescapable, non-empirical, mutual arising of opposites (though in the context of his use he refers to the necessity of every intelligible coherence [our chosen means of making sense of the world] being obliged to cohere with what must ultimately be unintelligible [the “unhewn”]). To speak of the "good" is to create the "bad". ("Embrace the right, and the wrong shall rule." — Chen Jen) Experiencing this does not eliminate one's moral or aesthetic sense; only it informs them in such a way as to free us of bondage to them.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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