Friday, August 9, 2013

Daoism and Inexact Comparisons

We all get down sometimes.  We start comparing ourselves to other people, or even to ourselves (the last novel / short story / whatever was so easy! we moan, eyes heavenward, forgetting that we felt this lost at least midway on *that* book's journey); we look at our work and think, why are my characters weak, why does my dialogue meander, why am I so *bad* right now?

At times like that I like to remember an early passage from the Daoist writer Zhuangzi.  Here's an excerpt from James Legge's translation:

"1. In the Northern Ocean there is a fish, the name of which is Khwan,-- I do not know how many lî in size. It changes into a bird with the name of Phang, the back of which is (also)-- I do not know how many lî in extent. When this bird rouses itself and flies, its wings are like clouds all round the sky. When the sea is moved (so as to bear it along), it prepares to remove to the Southern Ocean. The Southern Ocean is the Pool of Heaven.

There is the (book called) Khî Hsieh,-- a record of marvels. We have in it these words:-- 'When the phang is removing to the Southern Ocean it flaps (its wings) on the water for 3000 lî. Then it ascends on a whirlwind 90,000 lî, and it rests only at the end of six months.' (But similar to this is the movement of the breezes which we call) the horses of the fields, of the dust (which quivers in the sunbeams), and of living things as they are blown against one another by the air. Is its azure the proper colour of the sky? Or is it occasioned by its distance and illimitable extent? If one were looking down (from above), the very same appearance would just meet his view.

2. And moreover, (to speak of) the accumulation of water;-- if it be not great, it will not have strength to support a large boat. Upset a cup of water in a cavity, and a straw will float on it as if it were a boat. Place a cup in it, and it will stick fast;-- the water is shallow and the boat is large. (So it is with) the accumulation of wind; if it be not great, it will not have strength to support great wings. Therefore (the phang ascended to) the height of 90,000 lî, and there was such a mass of wind beneath it; thenceforth the accumulation of wind was sufficient. As it seemed to bear the blue sky on its back, and there was nothing to obstruct or arrest its course, it could pursue its way to the South.

A cicada and a little dove laughed at it, saying, 'We make an effort and fly towards an elm or sapanwood tree; and sometimes before we reach it, we can do no more but drop to the ground. Of what use is it for this (creature) to rise 90,000 lî, and make for the South?' He who goes to the grassy suburbs, returning to the third meal (of the day), will have his belly as full as when he set out; he who goes to a distance of 100 lî will have to pound his grain where he stops for the night; he who goes a thousand lî, will have to carry with him provisions for three months. What should these two small creatures know about the matter? The knowledge of that which is small does not reach to that which is great; (the experience of) a few years does not reach to that of many. How do we know that it is so? The mushroom of a morning does not know (what takes place between) the beginning and end of a month; the short-lived cicada does not know (what takes place between) the spring and autumn. These are instances of a short term of life. In the south of Khû there is the (tree) called Ming-ling, whose spring is 500 years, and its autumn the same; in high antiquity there was that called Tâ-khun, whose spring was 8000 years, and its autumn the same. And Phang Tsu is the one man renowned to the present day for his length of life:-- if all men were (to wish) to match him, would they not be miserable?"

There's a lot going on here, but the Peng (which Legge transliterated as Phang) is the gateway to the passage: a bird so big it needs more than a thousand miles of runway to take off.  And the little birds, which flit easily from tree to tree at a whim, wonder what use it is for the Peng to traverse the world from ocean to ocean in a single voyage.

The way I read Zhuangzi, he's saying the world is full of different kinds of perspectives that interact objectively but remain subjective--that we can claim the flight of the Peng is longer than that of the dove and cicada in terms of horizontal distance, but in terms of their own perspectives the two can't be compared.  They might as well be in different worlds.  The dove and cicada laugh because, to them, the Peng's journey is borderline incomprehensible, and thus hilarious; to the Peng, meanwhile, the dove and cicada don't even register, little mote-lives lost in the blue of distant earth.

Which is just to say: in writing, as in life, it helps to resist the urge to compare, even to yourself.  The Peng, after all, starts its life as a fish; before transformation, that fish would probably have laughed at the thought of growing wings and flying 90,000 miles south.  Each new project brings new challenges, dangers, opportunities.  Best to treat them with a spirit of laughter, and play.  Otherwise, it's all too easy to end up miserable.

1 comment:

  1. It's taoism/taoist--with a "T"-- though it sounds like daoism/daoist with a "D".

    Otherwise, interesting post.


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