Wednesday, September 22, 2021

521. Monsters as metaphors

In the preceding item in this blog I mentioned that the literature of Tao, in particular the Zhuangzi, one of the central texts of Daoism, uses metaphors and stories to liberate us from the shackles of established ideas and values. This is connected with the Daoist notion of ‘wu-wei’. This is presented as a plea for inaction, but does not mean doing literally nothing but getting freed from the shackles of established, pre-conceived goals, methods and values It is also called ‘wandering’, having no prior fixed goal or path. ‘The path emerges from the walk’. It is a form of spontaneity. Rather than giving abstract argumentation, the Zhuangzi uses illustrative narratives and parables of craftsmen, animals, trees, mountains, lakes, sages, rulers.

Allinson (2015) proposes that in the Zhuangzi they are systematically built up from. a range of ‘monsters’, freaks that serve to shock us out of taken-for-granted values. A monster as biological violation of the rule of nature stands for a violation of social rules (Allinson, 2015: 100). Being so different, they have no fear, and can get away with saying things that ordinary people cannot. Their shock creates a ‘suspension of conscious evaluation’ that captures us in ordinary thought. Another function of the monster is to indicate that if the subnormal can achieve the deviation, anyone can (Allinson, 2015: 101). Use is also made of narratives of sages, but these can be shrugged off as too good to be true. The monster is an image and thereby subliminal more than discursive (p 112), sneaking past analytical thought.

The monsters, Allinson shows, are built up in degrees of freakishness, starting with the case of a mere cripple, who is otherwise normal, and performs the function of, say, a military commander. This is followed by a more repulsive hunchback, and in the end a madman, without bodily deformation, a mental monster, who shouts the most outrageous provocations. One of his pronouncements is: ‘happiness is light as a feather, but no-one knows how to bear it.’Another trope is that of someone who is ugly and yet attractive to women, yielding the opposite of beauty as a force of attraction.

Language, built up from established meanings, is imperfect, constrained and constraining, as discussed in the preceding item in this blog. A monster who personifies the imperfection of language is ‘No-lips’. He has a tongue to speak with, and wishes to communicate, but cannot form appropriate words.

The Zuangzi also uses humour to unhinge established values. To illustrate how we should accept adversity in alacrity, it tells the following. Someone falls ill and gets terribly deformed. When asked if he cares, he says that if the creator of things would transform his left arm into a rooster, he would crow the daybreak, and if he would transform his right arm into a crossbow, he would use it to shoot an owl and roast it for dinner.

Allinson, R.E. 2015, ‘How metaphor functions in the Zhuangzi: the case of an unlikely messenger’,in: polarity’in: in: New visions of the Zhuangzi, (L Kohn, ed.), Three Pines Press.


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