Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The expulsion of the giants


There is a valiant but small tradition of scholars who see the connection between the so called Western tradition and that of the “East”: among whom the most famous is, perhaps, Martin Buber. Before writing his masterpiece in the twenties, I and Thou, Buber published a “translation” of the Chuang-Tzu that was really a translation of the English translation of the Chuang-Tzu made by James Legge. In a wonderful essay by Jonathan Herman, “The Mysterious Mr. Wang: the search for Martin Buber’s Confucian Ghostwriter” (one of those rare academic titles that evokes the Fu Manchu series by Sax-Rohmer), the background of Buber’s effort is exposed. Sinology was constructed in the German speaking countries in the 19th century on terms that were consistent with a long theme in German culture stemming from Herder, which on one reading promoted a basic equality between cultural productions around the globe. The idea that one should accept the Chinese philosopher as an equal in the dialogue of philosophy is still more valued in theory than in practice. Few really put in that work. But in the German countries, perhaps partly due to German imperial designs on China after the Boxer Rebellion, Chinese studies held a special place. One remembers that Canetti’s Peter Kien, the protagonist of Auto-de-Fe, is a Sinologist. It is through these grids – Sinology and Hassidic Tales – that Buber was enabled to think through the metaphysics of communication that is at the center of the I – thou book. Kafka, too, in The Great Wall of China, sees China through - perhaps - Buber's eyes.

This direct link, in the early twentieth century, and other links going back to Leibniz, should be backgrounded by a certain community of motifs. For instance: the giant. A too often forgotten figure in Western philosophy.

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. And that is a motif that has references pointing to the early modern era in Europe: this is when, as a sly maneuver, the writers who were inventing the “novel” used it 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. What James Scott calls the Little Tradition – the culture of the peasant and its characteristic skepticism – penetrates the Big Tradition – the tradition of the metropole, with its merchants, scholars, and natural philosophers, all bound together through an intricate system of patronage.
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.
Although there are many Enlightenment tropes that return us again and again to light, to seeing, to emancipation, the deepest trope, I think, is that which uses the chasses aux geants to make us think of the scale that has no scale – a viewpoint outside the divine.

No comments:

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...