Mon cher Degas

On the side of our refrigerator, I have a quotation from the 19th century poet Stéphane Mallarmé, speaking to his friend, the painter Edgar Degas, who was complaining about the difficulty of converting his ideas for poems into actual poems:

“Ce n’est point avec des idées, mon cher Degas, que l’on fait des vers. C’est avec des mots.” (It’s not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one makes verse. It’s with words.)

— From Paul Valéry, [mis]quoted in Harper’s Magazine.

On the other hand, the quotation from Chuang Tzu at the top of the right-hand column on this page seems to be saying just the opposite. It speaks to the common Tao/Zen aversion to words, in particular the futile use of words to explain the inexplicable. The resolution of this seeming conflict is that a poet must use words, however indirect the resulting meaning may be. Whereas to a Taoist, the most meaningful experience is inherently ineffable. In other words (pun intended), words > meaning and meaning > words may look like the inverse of each other, but that “verbal look” is an example of the kind of misleading or false impression that Tao/Zen seeks to avoid.

So then, how come I have so many books, full of so many words, about Taoism and Zen? And how come UPS brought three more from amazon.com just this afternoon? Talk about inexplicable!!! The best answer I know comes from Ray Grigg, author of one of my favorites, The Tao of Zen (but quoted here from The Tao of Being):

We are not to understand thinking and doing, as the form of spoken and written language suggest we should, as a one-thing-at-a-time string of awarenesses but as a multi-dimensional experience that is not writing about apples but walking in an orchard and eating them.

Anyone who thoughtfully uses language should realize that words are not a replication of experience but a representation…. Words always create vicariousness. [Our task] is to empty of words rather than fill with them, to move out of a clarity of apparent certainty into a profound uncertainty and receptivity. We approach the Tao by untying the concepts imposed by language, by finding the direction of direct experience, by getting the joke rather than the explanation of the joke.

How apt that he mentions jokes, since humor expressed through contradiction is a hallmark of Tao/Zen but also an effective attention-getter. Witness the second paragraph of the passage from Chuang Tzu (top right). Or even better, this from the Afterword in Howard Fast’s volume of short stories, Time and the Riddle:

Of all the thousands of definitions of what Zen is, I like best the one given by the Zen master who was asked by a Western person to tell him the difference between his own belief and the belief of Zen. “To your way of thinking,” the Zen master replied, “your skin is a thing which separates and protects you from the outside world. To my way of thinking, my skin is a thing which connects me and opens me to the outside world, which in any case is not the outside world.”

But while I like it, I must assure you that it is hardly a definition of Zen.

Just so.

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