Language-Paradox-Poetics: A Chinese Perspective

Language-Paradox-Poetics: A Chinese Perspective

by James J.Y. Liu

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In attempting to define a "poetics of paradox" from a traditional Chinese standpoint, James Liu explores through a comparative approach linguistic, textual, and interpretive problems of relevance to Western literary criticism. Liu's study evolves from a paradoxical view—originating from early Confucian and Daoist philosophical texts—that the less is "said


In attempting to define a "poetics of paradox" from a traditional Chinese standpoint, James Liu explores through a comparative approach linguistic, textual, and interpretive problems of relevance to Western literary criticism. Liu's study evolves from a paradoxical view—originating from early Confucian and Daoist philosophical texts—that the less is "said" in poetry, the more is "meant." Such a view implied the existence of paradox in the very use of language and led traditional Chinese hermeneutics to a study of "metaparadox"—the use of language to explicate texts the meaning of which transcends language itself.

As Liu illustrates elements of traditional Chinese hermeneutics with examples of poetic and critical works, he makes comparisons with the works of such Western literary figures as Shakespeare, Mallarme, Pound, Ionesco, Derrida, and Shepard. The comparisons bring to light a crucial difference in conceptualization of language: Chinese critics, especially those influenced by Daoism and Buddhism, seem to have held a deitic view of language (language points to things), whereas Western critics seem to have thought of language as primarily mimetic (language represents things). Liu examines the consequences of these views, showing how both offer insights into the "meaning" of text and to what extent both have led to a "metaparadox of interpretation."

Originally published in 1988.

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Language â" Paradox â" Poetics

A Chinese Perspective

By James J. Y. Liu, Richard John Lynn


Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06741-4


The Paradox of Language

It should be made clear at the outset that I am concerned with the paradox of language rather than the language of paradox, which Cleanth Brooks identified with the language of poetry. Nor am I concerned with a general survey of Chinese and Western theories of language, for which I have little competence and less inclination. However, I shall touch on such theories as they are relevant to the paradox of language.

The paradox of language may assume one of two basic forms, which may be considered the two sides of the same coin. In the first form, which may be called the obverse side of the coin, paradox arises from the seeming contradiction between the allegation made by many poets, critics, and philosophers, Eastern and Western, in earnest or in feigned despair, that language is inadequate for the expression of ultimate reality, or deepest emotion, or sublime beauty, and the eloquence with which the allegation is made. At any rate, if language is adequate to express the reality about itself, then the allegation cannot be true. Even on the level of everyday discourse, when we say, "Words fail me," we are expressing some kind of feeling, and when we say of something, "It is indescribable," we are giving it a kind of description. In the second form, which may be called the reverse side of the coin, the paradox arises from the seeming contradiction between asserting that ultimate reality, or deepest emotion, or sublime beauty, can be expressed without words, and the very act of making this assertion in words. It was all very well for Sakyamuni to pick a flower and for his disciple Kasyapa to smile with instant understanding, without either of them saying a word, but those who recount this legend as an example of wordless communication cannot help using words.

The paradox of language features prominently in early Chinese philosophical texts of the Daoist school (Daojia, not to be confused with Daojiao, the later development of Daoism as an organized religion), especially the Lao Zi and the Zhuang Zi. Traditionally Lao Zi was said to have been an older contemporary of Confucius (551-479 B.C.); the appellation "Lao Zi" can be taken to mean simply "Old Master," although, according to one tradition, his name was Lao Dan. Another tradition has it that his name was Li Er. Modern scholars have doubted his existence, let alone his authorship of the work attributed to him. Zhuang Zi is identified as Zhuang Zhou, who lived in the fourth century B.C. Both books are probably collections of sayings and parables rather than works by individual authors. However, to avoid the awkwardness of writing "the Lao Zi says" or "the Zhuang Zi says," I shall sometimes refer to these two works by the names of their putative authors. My references are made to certain ideas and ways of thinking embodied in these works rather than to historical persons. Even when dealing with historically known authors, we need not regard the authors as the causes of the ideas expressed. As Jacques Derrida puts it: "The names of authors or doctrines have here no substantial value. They indicate neither identities nor causes. It would be frivolous to think that 'Descartes,' 'Leibniz,' 'Rousseau,' 'Hegel,' etc. are names of authors of movements or displacements that we thus designate. The indicative value that I attribute to them is first the name of a problem." In a similar fashion I refer to Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi as a way of discussing the problem of the paradox of language.

Not only do the Lao Zi and the Zhuang Zi contain numerous passages about the paradox of language, but their very existence constitutes an illustration of the paradox, since both deplore, or pretend to deplore, the limitations of language. The familiar words found at the beginning of any traditional edition of the Lao Zi assert the inadequacy of language as a means of describing ultimate reality.

The dao that can be dao-e d is not the constant Dao; The name that can be named is not the constant name.

Most commentators and translators, of whom there are legion, agree that in the first sentence the first and third occurrences of the word dao should be taken as "way," and the second occurrence as "speak." An exception among Chinese commentators is Yu Zhengxie (1775–1840), who interpreted all three occurrences as "speak" or "speech." His interpretation has been eloquently repudiated by the eminent contemporary scholar Qian Zhongshu in his monumental work, entitled with ironic modesty, Guanzhui bian, which may be freely paraphrased, "Collection of Limited Views."

Among Western scholars, Chad Hansen recently wrote: "The translation of the verbal use of tao [dao] is simply 'to speak.' Thus a tao reflects the features of a discourse or language." He therefore translated the first sentence as "speaking what can be spoken is not invariant speaking." This interpretation is too narrow and does not fit occurrences in many other passages where the Dao is described as the primary force of the universe. My translation attempts to preserve the pun involved (it is hoped that readers will realize that to be "dao-ed" is to be dubbed "Dao"). A freer version might say, "The way that can be weighed is not the constant Way," but purists will no doubt prefer the more orthodox rendering — "The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way," as given, for example, by D. C. Lau.

In contrast to Hansen, who thinks that the word dao means a total system of names, I think Lao Zi's remark can be interpreted as a denial of the possibility of any linguistic or semiotic system as such. In the terminology of Ferdinand de Saussure, Lao Zi is denying the possibility of language as langue but admitting the necessity of language as parole, for to call something Dao is a speech act, or an example of parole, but to think that this word is part of a constant system, or langue, would be a mistake. From Lao Zi's point of view, there could be no structuralist linguistics, which treats language as a closed system of signs. My using the terminology of Saussure, generally considered the founder of modern structuralist linguistics, to suggest that such a linguistics is not feasible is just another paradox.

Despite the assertion that the Dao cannot be named, Lao Zi nevertheless attempts to describe it in various ways and acknowledges the paradox in chapter 25.

I do not know its name, but force myself to nickname it "Dao," Force myself to name it "great."

While admitting that language is necessary as a makeshift, Lao Zi also warns us that words are not permanent embodiments of reality. His thought here is comparable to Martin Heidegger's crossing out of "Being" (Sein) or Jacques Derrida's putting words under erasure (sous rature): all three struggle to name the unnameable and implicitly accept the paradox of language in its first basic form.

A variation of the paradox appears in chapter 56.

One who knows does not speak; One who speaks does not know.

This couplet reminds one of the paradox presented by Epimenides (sixth century B.C.), the Cretan who declared, "All Cretans are liars." [This so-called liar paradox is an early example of logical paradox of the type "this statement is false."] As might be expected, some asked why, if this were so, did Lao Zi himself write anything, as the poet Bai Juyi [or Bo Juyi] (772–846) did in his quatrain "On Reading the Lao Zi."

"One who speaks does not know; one who knows is silent": This remark I have heard from the Old Master. If you say the Old Master was one who knew, Wherefore did he himself write his "Five Thousand Words"?

It is possible that Bai wrote this poem as a jeu d'esprit rather than as a serious refutation of Lao Zi, as Qian Zhongshu appears to take it. Qian takes Bai to task for failing to remember certain passages in the Zhuang Zi as well as various Buddhist sutras, all of which could have afforded ways out of the dilemma. Perhaps we may enter the spirit of the game and deal with the paradox without resorting to any other text than the Lao Zi itself by arguing as follows: since Lao Zi has spoken, he is not one who knows, and therefore his words cannot be taken as true, including the statement "one who speaks does not know," in which case this statement cannot be taken as proof that Lao Zi does not know. This circular argument could go on forever, but for our present purpose we had better stop.

We can avoid the above paradox by adopting Bertrand Russell's distinction between "object language" (i.e. language that talks about things) and "metalanguage" (i.e. language that talks about object language). However, we cannot retroactively prohibit an ancient philosopher from talking about language that talks about language. In any case, to say that "this statement is true of all language except language that talks about language" is to talk about language, and we are back where we started.

Another paradox occurs in chapter 45: "Great eloquence seems inarticulate." In chapter 3, we shall see how this seminal statement greatly influenced the poetics of paradox.

In chapter 78 of the Lao Zi, we find what may be called a definition of paradox: "Straight words seem contradictory." Even though this may be a remark added by a later commentator and not part of the original text, as the contemporary scholar Gao Heng believes, it would still represent the Daoist school of thought, which viewed language as a paradox. In fact, some translators have used the word "paradoxical" in translating the above quotation. This term seems to give the game away, however, for a paradox should not call itself such but should seem to be one.

In chapter 81 of the same work, the last chapter according to traditional numbering, appears a variation of the paradox from Chapter 56 that was quoted above.

True words are not beautiful; Beautiful words are not true.

The great critic Liu Xie (ca. 465–ca. 522) in his magnum opus, Wenxin diaolong (The literary mind: Dragon carvings), tried to explain the paradox away as follows: "Lao Zi disliked artificiality and therefore declared that 'beautiful words are not true'; yet his own 'Five Thousand Words' are refined and subtle, which shows that he did not really reject beauty." Actually, we can deal with this paradox in the same way as we have dealt with the paradox in chapter 56: since Lao Zi's words are beautiful, they cannot be true, including the words "beautiful words are not true," in which case this statement cannot be taken as proof that Lao Zi's words are not true.

Zhuang Zi deals with the paradox of language with even greater subtlety than does Lao Zi. In chapter 2 of the book that bears his name, having remarked (or perhaps paraphrased an existing saying, as A. C. Graham suggested that "the myriad things and I are one," Zhuang Zi then adds: "Since we are already one, how can I say a word? Yet since I have already called it 'one,' how can I say that I have not said a word?" A few sentences later he writes, "The Dao has never had boundaries, and words have never had constancy." He then goes on to say, "The great Dao is not called by name; great eloquence does not speak." The word translated here "eloquence" (bian) can also mean "discrimination" (bian; the written forms of these two characters were interchangeable) [the former derives from the basic verbal sense of "argue" or "discuss"; the latter, from the verbal sense of "distinguish"]; for this reason A. C. Graham translated the sentence "The greatest discrimination is unspoken." Actually, the two meanings are not mutually exclusive, for to speak eloquently or to dispute is, in effect, to draw distinctions. Since Zhuang Zi in the same chapter advises us not to make distinctions but to take things as they are in their undifferentiated state, he is faced with a dilemma. I consider later how he copes with it.

In chapter 13, Zhuang Zi elaborates on the paradox of language.

What the world values as speech are books. Books are nothing more than words; words have something that it valued. What is valued in words is meaning; meaning is derived from something. That from which meaning is derived cannot be transmitted in language. Yet the world, because it values language, transmits books. Although the world values them, I shall still think they are not worth valuing, because what the world values is not valuable. Therefore, what can be seen when one looks are forms and colors; what can be heard when one listens are names and sounds. How lamentable that people of the world should think that forms, colors, names, and sounds are adequate to capture the natures of things! If indeed forms, colors, names, and sounds are not adequate to capture their natures, then one who knows does not speak and one who speaks does not know. Yet how could the world know this?

This is of course the same paradox as Lao Zi's, but since the relative dates of these two works are uncertain, we do not know whether Zhuang Zi is echoing Lao Zi or vice versa. All we can affirm is that the presence of identical remarks in both works about the paradoxical nature of language is sufficient evidence that such a view of language was quite influential, if not predominant, in ancient China.

Meanwhile, let us look at Zhuang Zi's famous parable about the wheelwright, which comes immediately after the passage quoted above.

Duke Huan was reading a book in the hall, and wheelwright Pian was cutting a wheel below. Putting down his mallet and chisel, he asked Duke Huan: "May I ask what words you are reading, sir?"

The Duke replied: "These are the words of the sages."

"Are the sages alive?"

"No, they are dead."

"If so, then what you are reading are the dregs and lees of the ancients."

Duke Huan said: "I am reading here: how dare a wheelwright criticize? If you have an explanation, all right; if not, you shall die."

Wheelwright Pian replied: "I am looking at it on the basis of my own occupation. In cutting a wheel, if you are too slow, it will be 'sweet' and not firm; if you are too fast, it will be 'bitter' and will not go in. Neither too slow nor too fast, what is got by the hand and answered by the mind: that is something that I cannot tell in words, but there is an art in it. I cannot make my son understand it, and my son cannot learn it from me. That is why I am nearly seventy but still cutting wheels in my old age. The ancients and what they could not pass on are dead. So, what you are reading are the dregs and lees of the ancients."

This parable has been told almost ad nauseam throughout the centuries to illustrate that the intuitive mastery of any art cannot be conveyed in words, yet the parable itself is told in words and appears in a book!

The paradox of language in its second form, namely, asserting in words that words are not necessary [to express ultimate reality, sublime beauty, or deepest emotion], appears in chapter 24, where the fictional Confucius [invented by Zhuang Zi] first says, "I have heard wordless words," and then proceeds to describe them in words. In general, words to Zhuang Zi, as they are to Lao Zi, are makeshift devices. We have already seen the remark "the Dao has never had boundaries, and words have never had constancy," and in chapter 25 we read, "The name Dao is what we temporally adopt to make things go." This comment is strikingly similar to what Robert Magliola has said about certain terms used by Derrida: "They are 'provisional names' for the unnameable." then proceeds to describe them in words. In general, words to Zhuang Zi, as they are to Lao Zi, are makeshift devices. We have already seen the remark "the Dao has never had boundaries, and words have never had constancy," and in chapter 25 we read, "The name Dao is what we temporally adopt to make things go." This comment is strikingly similar to what Robert Magliola has said about certain terms used by Derrida: "They are 'provisional names' for the unnameable."

In chapter 26 we encounter another famous parable. "The purpose of the trap lies in the fish: when you get the fish, you forget the trap. The purpose of the snare lies in the hare: when you get the hare, you forget the snare. The purpose of words lies in the meaning: when you get the meaning, you forget the words. How can I get someone who forgets words to have a word with him? We shall have occasion to refer to this parable again, since it has exerted profound influence on Chinese poetics. For the time being, let us simply note the self-conscious paradox in the last sentence.

Not only does Zhuang Zi present the paradox of language, but he also hints at a way of resolving or transcending it, by questioning or even denying certain binary oppositions that are commonly taken for granted. A crucial passage occurs in chapter 2: "Now, is speaking not blowing air? One who speaks says something; it is just what he says has not been fixed. Has he really said something, or has he not said anything? If you think it differs from the twittering of a fledgling, is there really a distinction, or is there no distinction?" In translating the first sentence as a rhetorical question instead of a statement, as previous translators have done, I am following the commentator Ma Qichang (1855–1919), who identified the exclamatory particle ye [which occurs at the end of the sentence] with the interrogative particle ye. This reading seems more consistent with what follows, for it raises the question whether there is really any distinction between human speech and random, natural sounds, such as the sound of air blowing, just as the last sentence raises the same question with regard to the twittering of a fledgling.

In chapter 25, Zhuang Zi goes further by denying the distinction between speaking and not speaking. "Although his mouth speaks, his mind has never spoken." The point is elaborated at the end of the chapter. "If speech is adequate, then one can speak all day and fully describe the Dao; if speech is not adequate, then one can speak all day and [merely] fully describe things. The ultimate of the Dao and of things cannot be adequately carried either by speech or by silence. Neither to speak nor to be silent is the way to discuss the ultimate."


Excerpted from Language â" Paradox â" Poetics by James J. Y. Liu, Richard John Lynn. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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