Thursday, March 30, 2017

Perfect containers

Delayed a fortnight because of Snow Day and Spring Break, we've arrived finally at Xunzi, who's wonderful! To remind students that he was still working within the framework of Kongzi (Confucius), our discussion traversed two Odes, each referred to twice in the text, and ended with a more general reference to the importance of the Odes. Somehow it makes most sense to describe our trajectory in reverse. We ended here:

Music is joy, an unavoidable human disposition. So, people cannot be without music; if they feel joy, they must express it in sound and give it shape in movement. The way of human beings is that changes in the motions of their nature are completely contained in those sounds and movements. So, people cannot be without joy, and their joy cannot be without shape, but if it takes she and does not accord with the Way, then there will inevitably be chaos. (284)

This chaos the ancient Sage Kings forestalled by assembling the Odes, whose fully embodied performance perfectly expresses joy. For while it is a thing to be welcomed, joy can distract us from the Way. The Odes ritualize the expression, and even the experience of joy. In every case, ritual begins in that which must be released, reaches full development in giving it proper form, and finishes in providing it satisfaction. (276)

The Xunzi's discussion of joy comes after the chapter on ritual, whose focus is not joy but grief. Grief, too, is an "unavoidable human disposition." It too is to be welcomed and ritualized. Xunzi eloquently and quite movingly describes sacrificial funeral rites as the refined expression of remembrance and longing (284). They operate primarily (if not necessarily exclusively) for the benefit of the living, whose haphazard expressions of grief would otherwise leave all unsatisfied.

They are the utmost in loyalty, trustworthiness, love, and respect. They are the fullest manifestation of ritual, proper regulation, good form, and proper appearance. If one is not a sage, then one will not be able to understand them. The sage clearly understands them. The well-bred man and the gentleman are at ease in carrying them out. The officials take them as things to be preserved. The common people take them as their set customs. The gentleman regards them as the way to be a proper human being. The common people regard them as serving the ghosts… (284)

Much to discuss there! The second of the Odes we read was #209, which describes the arc of a sacrificial rite; the line Xunzi twice cites refers to the appropriateness of even the laughter and words during ceremonial feasting. Ritualized joy even as part of mourning! It's fascinating, and surprisingly persuasive, as ritual theory - and as psychology. But if it's the way to be a proper human more than it is part of a relationship with the dead, that doesn't mean it's only about currently living human beings. For Xunzi sees human beings living out the Way as providing the true pattern and indeed the refined expression of all the ten thousand things. The first Ode we read, #241, described Heaven's pleasure at an early King who cleared the dead wood out of forests, etc. This isn't just a metaphor for the work one must do on oneself, but an indication that nature is incomplete until cultivated by human beings. It's a shocking idea for Americans raised to think of nature as opposed to human use or at least independent of it.

But the human's place isn't above nature, as is arguably the case in the Genesis narratives. There's a deep kinship between human beings and the ten thousand things. You find it, for instance, in the dispositions whose perfected expression makes human culture. Like mourning!

Among all the living things between Heaven and earth, those that have blood and qi are sure to have awareness, and of those that have awareness, none does not love its own kind. Now if one of the great birds or beasts loses its group of companions, then after a month or a season has passed, it is sure to retrace its former path and go by its old home. When it does, it is sure to pace back and forth, cry out, stomp the ground, pause hesitatingly, and only then is it able to leave the place. Even among smaller creatures such as swallows and sparrows, they will still screech for a moment before being able to leave. (283)

It's all quite beautiful, I think, profound. Even as I'm still a little sorry to see Mencius left behind, I can see why Xunzi seems to speak more to us today. He's every bit as committed to ritual and the classics as the other Confucians, but, perhaps because he offers a theory of why they work, he allows one to imagine new containers beyond those of ancient China which might also do the precious work he describes.

"Xunzi," trans. Eric L. Hutton, in Philip J, Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden, eds., Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd. ed. (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 2001)

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