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Saturday, January 13, 2007

chasse aux geants

The first chapter of the Chuang-Tzu consists of a comparison between the giant and the small, beginning with the famed fish, K’un:

“IN THE NORTHERN DARKNESS there is a fish and his name is K'un.1 The K'un is so huge I don't know how many thousand li he measures. He changes and becomes a bird whose name is P'eng. The back of the P'eng measures I don't know how many thousand li across and, when he rises up and flies off, his wings are like clouds all over the sky. When the sea begins to move,2 this bird sets off for the southern darkness, which is the Lake of Heaven. (Burton Watson translation)

Against the wonder of the P’eng is set the laughter of the dove and the cicada:

The cicada and the little dove laugh at this, saying, "When we make an effort and fly up, we can get as far as the elm or the sapanwood tree, but sometimes we don't make it and just fall down on the ground. Now how is anyone going to go ninety thousand li to the south!

The chapter then proceeds through other giant/small contrasts in the style peculiar to it – each passage being at once unlinked from the proceeding one and yet bearing the distinct resemblance that one hand of cards bears to another. So giant and small face off against each other in wisdom, in status, in miraculous powers. The final contrast is between Hui Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Hui Tzu, given giant gourd seeds, plants and grows them, but the gourds are too big, so he smashes them Chuang Tzu laughs at this, saying that Hui Tzu, seems to be in thrall to the outward show of the gourds only: “Now you had a gourd big enough to hold five piculs. Why didn't you think of making it into a great tub so you could go floating around the rivers and lakes, instead of worrying because it was too big and unwieldy to dip into things! Obviously you still have a lot of underbrush in your head!"

So: what is the Daoist attitude towards the giant – are we looking at things from the perspective of the P’eng or the cicada? Surely Chuang Tzu’s tone of mockery is supposed to release us from the first impression of the giant – the impression of sheer wonder. That moment emerges in the early modern era in Europe as a sly maneuver to allow the writer to attack wonder itself , the glue that officially kept the sacred system together. Rabelais’ mock giants, the windmills that Don Quixote attacks, thinking that they are giants – this is about, in one sense, chasing the giants from the culture. Giordano Bruno uses the same mock heroic means in the Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast. In the Ash Wednesday colloquy, Nolan (Bruno himself) is extolled in terms that could plug into the Chuang Tzu:

“Now here is he who has pierced the air, penetrated the sky, toured the realm of stars, traversed the boundaries of the world, dissipated the fictitious walls of the first, eighth, ninth, tenth spheres, and whatever else might have been attached to these by the devices of vain mathematicians and by the blind vision of popular philosophers. Thus aided by the fullness of sense and reason, lie opened with the key of most industrious inquiry those enclosures of truth that can be opened to us at all, by presenting naked the shrouded and veiled nature; he gave eyes to moles, illumined the blind who cannot fix their eyes and admire their own images in so many mirrors which surround them from every side. He untied the tongue of the mute who do not know [how to] and did not dare to express their intricate sentiments. He restored strength to the lame who were unable to make that progress in spirit which the ignoble and dissolvable compound [body] cannot make. He provided them with no less a presence [vantage point] than if they were the very inhabitants of the sun, of the moon, and of other nomadic [wandering] stars [planets]. He showed how similar or dissimilar, greater or worse [smaller] are those bodies [stars, planets) which we see afar, compared with that [earth] which is right here and to which we are united. And he opened their eyes to see this deity, this mother of ours, which on her back feeds them and nourishes them after she has produced them from her bosom into which she always gathers them again -- who is not to be considered a body without soul and life, [33. This animistic world view precedes a slightly veiled affirmation of pantheism.] let alone the trash of all bodily substances.”

The moment of mockery, of the exorcism of the giants, gets its juice, its scoffing power, from the practical, from the peasant’s p.o.v. – it is, after all, through Sancho Panza that we know the giants are windmills in Don Quixote. (Although the voice of the trope starts singing in my head as I write this: aren't peasants notoriously credulous? Aren't these images out of tune? - ah, the malicious trope that tricks my every claim with a counter-claim!) However, it would be a retarded enlightenment indeed that remained frozen in the moment of mockery. The movement, as in the quote from Bruno above, is to another and more abstract view. In the Chuang Tzu, the scale by which the K’un is gigantic and the dove is small is itself neither gigantic nor small. The scale has no size. In Bruno, the attack on the giants is done in the name of a notion of infinity with which Bruno’s name is still associated. When Newton applies the laws of motion on earth to the heavenly bodies, his idea is related to this same notion of a scale of no size – of a force. Newton famously wrote that he saw further because he stood on the shoulders of giants – showing that he had learned something that would make him free from the reproach Chuang Tzu gives to Hui Tzu: "You certainly are dense when it comes to using big things!” In fact, there is a certain slyness to Newton’s phrase – he does not, as is usual with the phrase (tracked through every maze by Robert Merton in his book) call himself a dwarf – his own stature is, as it were, for the observer to determine.

LI is down with these two moments in the chasse aux geants – we can understand – or, more accurately, we feel no resistance to - the Dao, here. But there is a whole other dimension of the gigantic that we don’t understand at all. Lately, we’ve been thinking about this because we’ve been reading Roberto Callosso’s Ka. In Ka, Callasso retells the stories of the Indian sacred books – the Rg Vedas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana, etc. Being incredibly ignorant of these basic texts, we have been trying to catch up – you know, the old struggle for minimum cultural literacy. Reading Ka has been an uncomfortably dreamlike experience – the dream divided between nightmare and wet dream, the powers that rule over the inveterate masturbator’s nocturnal life. We will have more to say about this in our next post.


Le Colonel Chabert said...

Nice post woggia.

Here is everybody's favourite giant, Promethus, son of Giapetto:


(according to Vico, the theft of the fire was in the year of the world 1856.)

roger said...

LCC, I looked at the photo you link to. OMG, as they used to say on Olympus, Hercules' buttocks were definitely going over the golden mean! Obviously he'd gone a bit overboard on the spitted ox.

Le Colonel Chabert said...

all muscle! g'wan poke em! hard as granite.