An Unhelpful Thought

Zhuangzi– the great Zhuangzi, who seems to go everywhere with me these days– is credited with a nugget of wisdom that in virtually all translations reads similarly. 荃者所以在魚,得魚而忘荃;蹄者所以在兔,得兔而忘蹄;言者所以在意,得意而忘言。吾安得忘言之人而與之言哉?

I take Burton Watson’s translation as the baseline for English versions: ‘The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?”

Fair enough. No need to paraphrase. Zhang Longxi pointed out that “a man who has forgotten words” wouldn’t be much use as a conversation-partner, so we should probably read that clause as meaning “a man who will forget words” (and, by implication, capture my meaning). Also good.

But one problem remains, and that’s the parodic quality of Zhuangzi. He constantly picks up some pearl of wisdom, fits it into a slingshot, and uses it to shatter another vessel of wisdom that had been gathering dust on the shelf. Were it not for the lack of corroborating texts, I would be tempted to think that the first three segments, about fish, rabbits, meanings and their respective traps, were quoted from some source that took them straight as a proof of the priority of meaning over words; and that then Zhuangzi (whoever that might be) took things to their logical endpoint by saying, “Well, if you think that, then you’d probably advise me to find somebody who has forgotten words and have a word with him, right?” In other words, the problem Zhang Longxi fixed might not be the problem that needs fixing; Zhuangzi might have been laughing at the solemn ends-and-means calculus of conventional attitudes about language. The first three segments would be as it were in quotation marks, and the absurd conclusion would be where our author wants to go. Zhuangzi fans, your reaction? Or have you all obediently forgotten words? (Must go check on those fish-traps.)