The Human Limit: Notes from Far Off

In the Human World, a chapter of the Chuang Tzu, there's a story upon which I've often reflected:

Carpenter Shih went to Ch'i and, when he got to Crooked Shaft, he saw a serrate oak standing by the village shrine. It was broad enough to shelter several thousand oxen and measured a hundred spans around, towering above the hills. The lowest branches were eighty feet from the ground, and a dozen or so of them could have been made into boats. There were so many sightseers that the place looked like a fair, but the carpenter didn't even glance around and went on his way without stopping. His apprentice stood staring for a long time and then ran after Carpenter Shih and said, "Since I first took up my ax and followed you, Master, I have never seen timber as beautiful as this. But you don't even bother to look, and go right on without stopping. Why is that?"
"Forget it - say no more!" said the carpenter. "It's a worthless tree! Make boats out of it and they'd sink; make coffins and they'd rot in no time; make vessels and they'd break at once. Use it for doors and it would sweat sap like pine; use it for posts and the worms would eat them up. It's not a timber tree - there's nothing it can be used for. That's how it got to be that old!"

After Carpenter Shih had returned home, the oak tree appeared to him in a dream and said, "What are you comparing me with? Are you comparing me with those useful trees? The cherry apple, the pear, the orange, the citron, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs - as soon as their fruit is ripe, they are torn apart and subjected to abuse. Their big limbs are broken off, their little limbs are yanked around. Their utility makes life miserable for them, and so they don't get to finish out the years Heaven gave them, but are cut off in mid-journey. They bring it on themselves - the pulling and tearing of the common mob. And it's the same way with all other things.
"As for me, I've been trying a long time to be of no use, and though I almost died, I've finally got it. This is of great use to me. If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large? Moreover you and I are both of us things. What's the point of this - things condemning things? You, a worthless man about to die-how do you know I'm a worthless tree?"

When Carpenter Shih woke up, he reported his dream. His apprentice said, "If it's so intent on being of no use, what's it doing there at the village shrine?" 15

"Shhh! Say no more! It's only resting there. If we carp and criticize, it will merely conclude that we don't understand it. Even if it weren't at the shrine, do you suppose it would be cut down? It protects itself in a different way from ordinary people. If you try to judge it by conventional standards, you'll be way off!"

My weird history of happiness seems a very book driven enterprise. I seem to be unearthing a mass of texts and bookish instances and finding a pattern among them, a confabulation, which may or may not exist outside of my own head. Yet the reality is quite different. My point is to find a way of saying something that seems like nonsense to the people I know, and sometimes even to myself, which is that making the world wholly human is a bad project. This idea has grown in me outside of the world of reading. It has grown in me from traffic jams and suburban developments, from ordering burgers at the drive through window and going to grocery stores, from watching over the years the number and types of birds that come in spring dwindle. It has grown in me out of asphalt and insulation. It has grown in me out of jobs in roofing and jobs as a secretary. It has grown in me as, year after year, I find I have less to say to the people I meet, less small talk. And I have less to say to people I love, less rapture. And less love. It has grown in me because it turned out, astonishingly enough, that experience is a burden – while for years to me it was an imperative: experience more.

Thus, I am no anti-humanist because of some philosopher. I am not an anti-humanist because I believe in deep ecology, or environmentalism. It is because I bear in myself the impress of living in a society in which there is no human limit. The only human limit recognized, in my childhood, was that presented by the atom bomb. Here, indeed, was a limit, the destruction of the human race materialized in actual instruments built by humans. But even that was a perverse source of human pride, another form of the equation that would make human beings equal to the planet. Of course, I’ve spent my whole life in an artificial paradise, a built and overbuilt environment, and I’ve witnessed a thing that I have a hard time coming to terms with: this artificial paradise has made people genuinely happy. Happy, at least, in the general sense: that is, the sense that a kind of broad access to happiness is the net affect of their lifestyles. And those lifestyles, in the human world, are slowly but surely driving other emotions into extinction. The time of the species crash is also the time of the culling of emotional ranges.

All of these are effects of the creation of a totally human world, one which was prefigured, in flashes of insight and dreams, by “pre-modern” societies. What is pre-modern about these societies is not the lack of technology, or the lack of progress on some scale in which systems of production are lined up from the simple to the more complex. They are pre-modern because they recognize a human limit. Carpenter Chih dreamed about that limit. The great, useless oak tree in his dream spoke from that limit. What I want to produce is a sort of time lapse series showing the gradual disappearance of that limit. That disappearance is the full meaning of the triumph of happiness.


P.M.Lawrence said…
"...make coffins and they'd rot in no time". Well, of course - it's oak. You should use elm for things that need to hold up in the damp conditions underground.

(And it's spelled axe, ha ha.)
roger said…
Mr. Lawrence, you are a man of parts! Coming from a family of cremators, I have little knowledge of the coffin trade. Elm sounds a bit expensive to me, though. How about ash? Or the larch?
Anonymous said…
you don't know how much i love chuang-tzu, and especially that bit you quoted. thanks for the upload.
roger said…
Mr. Traxus! This post is actually a sidelong look at something you wrote in a comment at Culturemonkey, re anti-humanism. I did ponder that note.
I'm glad you liked the quote, too. One of my favorites.
P.M.Lawrence said…
Well, you wouldn't use elm for coffins anyway, precisely because you do want them to rot (plus it has poor working qualities - and it's pretty poor fuel, too). But they do use it as part of platforms under foundations, and they did use it for sewer pipes. Only, it doesn't last forever, and a lot will need replacing around the same time - and there isn't much available now, after Dutch Elm Disease.