Primordial wonton

I’m in a bibliophiliac ecstasy. Yesterday I got two new books in the mail: Robert Alter’s magnificent translation and commentary on the Pentateuch – The Five Books of Moses (Norton, 2004) – and the “philosophical translation” of the Daodejing by Roger T. Ames and David T. Hall (Ballantine, 2003), a groundbreaking work. I am going back and forth between them like a dog with two supper dishes, or a bigamist who can’t decide which wife to spend the night with.

Dividing my attention this way – especially between two such contrasting works – may not seem like such a good idea. Eventually, of course, I’ll have to settle down with each in turn, take them to bed with me, read them with all the slowness and attention they deserve, lingering over each beautiful footnote. But in the meantime, this compare-and-contrast exercise has already yielded some tasty fruit. Last night, in the Appendix to Ames and Hall, I found the following:

Daoist cosmogony does not entail the kind of radical initial beginning we associate with those metaphysical cosmogonies that describe the triumph of Order over Chaos. In fact, the Zhuangzi‘s well-known account of the death of Lord Hundun – often translated negatively as Lord Chaos, but perhaps better rendered positively as Lord Spontaneity – provides a rather strong Daoist objection to the “One-behind-the-many” reading [of passages in the Daodejing that appear to refer to Dao as a kind of first principle]:

The ruler of the North Sea was “Swift,” the ruler of the South Sea was “Sudden,” and the ruler of the Center was “Hundun, or Spontaneity.” Swift and Sudden had on several occasions encountered each other in the territory of Spontaneity, and Spontaneity had treated them with great hospitality. Swift and Sudden, devising a way to repay Spontaneity’s generosity, said: “Everyone has seven orifices through which they can see, hear, eat, and breathe. Spontaneity alone is without them.” They then attempted to bore holes in Spontaneity, each day boring one hole. On the seventh day, Spontaneity died.

But why according to Zhuangzi shouldn’t one wish to bring order out of hundun? A reasonable question, indeed, if hundun is the confusion and disarray – the formless surds – that other cosmogonies describe as primordial Chaos. But if hundun is the spontaneous emergence of novelty that honeycombs all construals of order in the continuing Daoist present, then the imposition of order upon it means the death of novelty. After all, it is spontaneity that makes the life experience deliciously indeterminate and, in some degree, unpredictable. To enforce a given design is simply to select one of a myriad candidates for order and to privilege that one over the rest. Swift and Sudden have transformed the unsummed and causally noncoherent dao into a single-ordered world.

Well, yeah. But every act of artistic creation, every authentic making represents such a privileging, regardless of its origins in spontaneity. That’s the tragic beauty of life, it seems to me – and that is why I continue to draw so much inspiration from the great expressions of theistic faith, such as the Bible. This notion of a seven-day-long process of imposing a creative and destructive will sounds awfully familiar! But again, Chaos and Order are modern – or at least Hellenic – categories that don’t always fit the most ancient parts of the Bible. (After all, as a god of storm and whirlwind, as the agent of watery or fiery destruction, YHWH works as often through “chaos” as against it.)

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And it was evening and it was morning, first day.

Alter says about “first day” that, “Unusually, the Hebrew uses a cardinal, not ordinal, number. As with all the six days except the sixth, the expected article is omitted.” So perhaps we would do better to translate as if this were a Mayan text: “And it was evening and it was morning, Day One.” Because these are the days that will recur week after week and year after year until the end of time, no? I find it difficult to credit that the original authors of this passage understood divine creation as a one-time event. The mythic imagination doesn’t work that way.

Alter’s note for “welter and waste” points up the contrast with the Zhuangzi‘s hundun.

The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later Biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce word coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Tohu by itself means “emptiness” or “futility,” and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.

But that desert, or wilderness, remains an essential testing ground for spiritual heroism and a major locus of theophany throughout the Bible, so perhaps we are meant to understand tohu as empty more in the way that a womb might be construed as empty, rather than as a mere nullity or vacuum. Tohu wabohu could perhaps be seen as Openness – a close cousin of Spontaneity. And indeed, in this cosmogony God shapes or distills things from this omni-potential matter; there is no creation ex nihilo in the Bible.

Set against the vivid language of Genesis, the Daoist allegory may seem a little dry. And I’ll admit, I’ve never been a big fan of allegory as a genre, which may explain why I never focused on this passage in A. C. Graham’s translation and commentary (Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters, Hackett, 2001 – another philosophically and philologically informed effort).

Graham, I discover, chose to leave “Hun-t’un” untranslated, supplying the following note:

Hun-t’un is the primal blob which first divided into heaven and earth then differentiated as the myriad things. In Chinese cosmology the primordial is not a chaos reduced to order by imposed law, it is a blend of everything rolled up together; the word is a reduplicative of the type of English “hotchpotch” and “rolypoly”, and diners in Chinese restaurants will have met it in the form “wuntun” as a kind of dumpling.

So there’s God in his white apron at the Panda House restaurant, rolling out the dough to make dumplings. Thus, at least, the pictures taking shape in the tohu-bohu of my mind, all higglety-pigglety.

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