Who’s Joking?

Note: Hello, readers! My name is Dylan. I am an old school friend of Raffi’s, and he has graciously invited me to post from time to time on his blog. My “specialties” (I’m basically a dilettante all around) are contemporary Chinese and American lit, politics and soul music. Hope you enjoy.

On many occasions Liu Ling, under the influence of wine, would be completely free and uninhibited, sometimes taking off his clothes and sitting naked in his room. Once when some persons saw him and chided him for it, Liu Ling retorted: “I take heaven and earth for my pillars and roof, and the rooms of my house for my pants and coat. What are you gentlemen doing in my pants?” (trans. Richard B. Mather)

Raffi starts his post with a joke that isn’t really funny; I start my post with a joke that’s undeniably funny, but might not really be a joke. At least I think it’s funny; this selection from A New Account of Tales of the World (Shishuo xinyu) always makes me laugh, but as Raffi points out, particularly with jokes, there’s no accounting for taste. The problem is, as I said at the start, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a joke.

Let’s break down for a moment why we think it’s funny. We are laughing because we believe that Liu Ling is either a) exaggerating for comic effect, possibly parodying certain conventions of esoteric forms of Buddhism and Daoism, or b) that he is so drunk he is unintentionally making a buffoon out of himself by making the ridiculous, grandiose claim he makes. Either Liu Ling is in on the joke or he isn’t. We assume, however, from the outset that there’s an irony here, whether it’s intentional or unintentional. But why should we automatically dismiss his claim as not serious? If Liu Ling takes the rooms of his house as his pants and coat, then those gentlemen are indeed in his pants. And what’s really stopping Liu Ling from defining his house as pants? If pants are only what cover Liu Ling from the outside world, he can certainly define his house as pants, as unusual a choice as it might be. Instead of a Liu Ling who is simply making a joke, we have a Liu Ling who is challenging the constraints of language and dramatically redefining his reality. By misattributing intentionality (or better put, attributing intentionality without complete justification), we close off more radical possibilities hidden within the text.

This misattribution of intentions appears again in the poem “Deer Fence” by the Tang dynasty Buddhist mystic Wang Wei:

Empty hills, no one in sight,
only the sound of someone talking;
late sunlight enters the deep wood,
shining over the green moss again. (Trans. Burton Watson)

For me, the most striking element of this poem is the rapidity with which the described world expands. The reader is initially told that there are no people whatsoever, and then, in the very next line, a person suddenly appears. In the last line, with the adverb “again” (in the original), the duration of the moment described by the poem shifts dramatically from a specific afternoon (the “late sunlight” of the third line) into a month, a year, even a lifetime. One way to misread this poem is to view these sudden shifts as an impressive feat of realism, which meticulously records Wang Wei’s changing perspective. Wang Wei doesn’t see anyone, then he suddenly hears someone, then he sees the sunlight on the moss. The problem with this reading is that there’s no “I” here (and this is borne out by the original text) except for the one we construct as readers. It’s not that the reader’s perspective shifts, and he or she therefore gets a better look at what’s going on; instead, as the text changes, the image described by the text necessarily also changes. A change in perspective is only an illusion.

The reader errs here, however, not by mistaking objective information for subjective perspective or vice versa. The central error is trying to distinguishing too clearly between the two. As Zhuangzi puts it:

Everything has its “that,” everything has its “this.” From the point of view of “that” you cannot see it, but through understanding you can know it. So I say, “that” comes out of “this” and “this” depends on “that”–which is to say that “this” and “that” give birth to each other. . . .Therefore the sage does not proceed in such a way, but illuminates all in the light of Heaven. He too recognizes a “this,” but a “this” which is also “that,” a “that” which is also “this.” . . . A state in which “this” and “that” no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way. When the hinge is fitted into the socket, it can respond endlessly. Its right then is a single endlessness and its wrong too is a single endlessness. So I say, the best thing to use is clarity.

Zhuangzi’s clarity, as unclear as it may seem to the rest of us, is recognizing that objective data are shaped by subjective reading, and that objective data in turn shape subjective readings. The relationship is dynamic, a tightly entangled feedback mechanism. Critical errors in judgment are made when a reader (or a Supreme Court justice) makes too great an insistence on separating what he or she considers objective from their own viewpoint, or the opposite error of relativism. Zhuangzi proposes that we instead seek to recognize and be aware of our ideologies, biases and schemas–and the basic human limitation of being unable to completely escape them.

It’s a difficult notion to wrap one’s head around (Oddly enough, Erykah Badu, when asked by a reporter why she no longer wraps her head, came closest to describing this phenomenon precisely. She told the reporter that “I no longer wrap my head because I am the head wrap”). It is a phenomenon that defies attempts to describe it based in the discourses of logic and language, because it is the phenomenon that necessarily limits those discourses. For this reason, it makes far more sense to write a poem to describe it. Or a joke. Whichever.

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