Chaos and Oblivion

It is firmly established that the stories of the Zhuangzi accreted over an extended period and are not the work of a single hand. Even the traditional view that Zhuang Zhou himself wrote only the inner chapters (1-7) is suspect. Hell, not even the mere historical existence of Master Zhuang is above doubt. Nevertheless.

Nevertheless, there is a thematic unity to the inner chapters that dissipates (but does not vanish) in the outer and miscellaneous chapters. It is there that Zhuangzi seems most himself, if I may use a most un-Zhuangist expression. To this I add that the inner chapters possess an interesting structural unity, which also encourages viewing them as an autonomous unit, as the core of the text, and the remainder as a kind of extended commentary and addendum.

This unity is visible in the first and last passages of the inner chapters. Here is how the Zhuangzi begins:

There is a fish in the Northern Oblivion named Kun, and this Kun is quite huge, spanning who knows how many thousands of miles. He transforms into a bird named Peng, and this Peng has quite a back on him, stretching who knows how many thousands of miles. When he rouses himself and soars into the air, his wings are like clouds draped across the heavens. The oceans start to churn, and this bird begins his journey toward the Southern Oblivion. The Southern Oblivion—that is the pool of heaven. (p. 3) [This and all subsequent translations are by Ziporyn.)

And here is how the inner chapters end:

The emperor of the southern sea was called Swoosh. The emperor of the northern sea was called Oblivion. THe emperor of the middle was called Chaotic Blob. Swoosh and Oblivion would sometimes meet in the territory of Chaotic Blob, who always waited on them quite well. They decided to repay Chaotic Blob for such bounteous virtue. “All men have seven holes in them, by means of which they see, hear, eat, and breathe,” they said. “But this one alone has none. Let’s drill him some.” So every day they drilled another hole.

Seven days later, Chaotic Blob was dead. (p. 72)

Certain parallels are immediately obvious. Most obviously, the central locations are the same: the northern and southern oceans, of course, and then the middle region where Chaotic Blob reigns supreme, and through which the Peng journeys on its flight between the oceans.

Moreover, the opening passage is best read as a kind of cosmogony (I forget to which scholar I owe this insight). The unimaginably huge Kun is simultaneously the smallest of fish (“kun” 鯤 means fish egg), and in this paradox, as well as the subsequent transformation and journey, lies the origin of all things. The closing passage inverts this, seeming to tell of a final end, the death of chaos. So it appears the inner chapters tell the complete story of the birth and death of all things.

One further connection bears note: an inversion. In the opening passage, the northern and southern seas are placed in a superior position. The northern houses the Kun; the southern is the pool of heaven. The middle, by contrast, is inhabited by small creatures too limited to comprehend the Peng’s flight:

The cicada and the fledgling dove laugh at him, saying, “We scurry up into the air, leaping from the elm to the sandalwood tree, and when we don’t quite make it we just plummet to the ground. What’s all this about ascending ninety thousand miles and heading south?”

In the closing passage, this is reversed: the northern and southern seas have become the homes of the bumbling Swoosh and Oblivion, and the middle region is the domain of Chaotic Blob—chaos and disordered order having been well-established, in the inner chapters, as a desirable ideal. (Where Ziporyn has “Swoosh” and “Oblivion”, Mair has “Lickety” and “Split”, which better captures the negative attitude Zhuangzi takes toward these wayward emperors.) Such an inversion of previously established values is a most Zhuangist trick, refusing to allow the reader to settle into any fixed perspective.

This suffices, I should think, to establish that someone intended for the inner chapters to stand a self-sufficient unit. Whether this someone was Zhuang Zhou himself, or Guo Xiang (who edited the text into its current form), or one of the many anonymous hands that altered and added to the text in the 500 year interim, I do not know. (It probably wasn’t Guo Xiang, but that hardly narrows it down.) But what, if anything, are we to make of this unity?

I see two major interpretive paths, one intuitive and sensible and the other, I think, correct (whatever that means). The intuitive reading takes the closing passage as a genuine ending: just as the opening gave us an account of the origin of all things, so the final passage gives us an account of the end of all things, in the destruction of the chaos that sustains them. This allows for a loosely linear reading of the text: it starts at the beginning, and ends at the end. The stories in between, while not themselves linearly ordered, all fall between these temporal endpoints. It is an appealing, logical reading of the text, and I am quite confident it is incorrect.

The Zhuangzi is meant as a guidebook. It depicts a vision of the good life, critiquing alternative visions along the way. If it ends in the destruction of all things, its value as a guidebook is diminished. Now, one might read that last passage as merely foretelling a possible future (or perhaps as fatalistically predicting it)—say, the future we will get if we do not wander freely and easily, as Zhuangzi recommends. I will not say that this reading is unsustainable, but it has at least lost its easy intuitiveness. That is reason enough to seek an alternative.

I propose reading the final passage as an explanation of where we are now. Among Zhuangzi’s central concerns was the critique of Confucian moralism, which involved the imposition of fixed rites on human behavior, of limiting humans to fixed forms. For the Confucians, the basis of these rites lay in the “characteristic human inclinations”, and Zhuangzi was clear that this needlessly limited us:

Huizi said to Zhuangzi, “Can a human being really be without the characteristic human inclinations?”

Zhuangzi said, “Yes.”

“But without the characteristic human inclinations, how can he be called a human being?”

“A course gives him this demeanor, Heaven gives him this physical form, so why shouldn’t he be called a human being?” (p. 50)

The imposition of Confucian rites, limiting humans to a fixed form, is a human analog of drilling holes in Chaotic Blob—holes that themselves give Chaotic Blob a characteristically human form. The final passage of the inner chapters thus gives us, not a depiction of the end of all things, but an explanation for our current, fallen state: we have drilled holes in chaos.

On this reading, there is something atemporal about the stories of the Zhuangzi. The story of the Kun/Peng does not precede the death of Chaotic Blob. After all, the former contains many characters who have arguably drilled holes in chaos, limiting themselves to narrow perspectives (e.g., the cicada and dove). The Zhuangzi, we might say, is an equilibrium model, outside of time. Within this, a pseudo-temporal order re-emerges, as we move from creation to destruction. (Here it is tempting to allude to Mark Wilson’s reflections on how temporal language frequently infects the language we use to discuss equilibrium models, and I shall not resist the temptation.) But this temporal order is spurious. What we really have is a collection of coinciding explanations of how we got here.

If this is correct, then the Zhuangzi leaves us with a clear task: we must revitalize chaos.