Duke Hwan and the Wheelwright

The world values books, and thinks that in so doing it is valuing Tao. But books contain words only. And yet there is something else which gives value to the books. Not the words only, nor the thought in the words, but something else within the thought, swinging it in a certain direction that words cannot apprehend. But it is the words themselves that the world values when it commits them to books: and though the world values them, these words are worthless as long as that which gives them value is not held in honor.

That which man apprehends by observation is only outward form and color, name and noise: and he thinks that this will put him in possession of Tao. Form and color, name and sound, do not reach to reality. That is why: “He who knows does not say, he who says, does not know.”

How then is the world going to know Tao through words?


Duke Hwan of Khi,
First in his dynasty,
Sat under his canopy Reading his philosophy;
And Phien the wheelwright
Was out in the yard Making a wheel.
Phien laid aside
Hammer and chisel,
Climbed the steps,
And said to Duke Hwan:
    ”May I ask you, Lord,
    What is this you are

The Duke said:
    ”The experts. The authorities.”
And Phien asked:
    ”Alive or dead?”
    ”Dead a long time.”
    ”Then,” said the wheelwright,
    ”You are reading only
    The dirt they left behind.”
Then the Duke replied:
    ”What do you know about it?
    You are only a wheelwright.
    You had better give me a good explanation
    Or else you must die.”
The wheelwright said:
    ”Let us look at the affair
    From my point of view.
    When I make wheels
    If I go easy, they fall apart,
    If I am too rough, they do not fit.
    If I am neither too easy nor too violent
    They come out right. The work is what
    I want it to be.

    You cannot put this into words:
    You just have to know how it is.
    I cannot even tell my own son exactly how it is done,
    And my own son cannot learn it from me.
    So here I am, seventy years old,
    Still making wheels!
    The men of old
    Took all they really knew
    With them to the grave.
    And so, Lord, what you are reading there
    Is only the dirt they left behind them.”

Means and Ends

The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish,
        and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten.
The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits.
        When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten.
The purpose of words is to convey ideas.
        When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words?
        He is the one I would like to talk to.

- Chuang Tzu


Ladies and gentlemen, ghosts and children of the state,
I am here because I could never get the hang of Time.

This hour, for example, would be like all the others
were it not for the rain falling through the roof.

I’d better not be too explicit. My night is careless
with itself, troublesome as a woman wearing no bra
in winter. I believe everything is a metaphor for sex.

Lovemaking mimics the act of departure, moonlight
drips from the leaves. You can spend your whole life
doing no more than preparing for life and thinking,
“Is this all there is?” Thus, I am here where poets come
to drink a dark strong poison with tiny shards of ice,
something to loosen my primate tongue and its syllables
of debris. I know all words come from preexisting words
and divide until our pronouncements develop selves.

The small dog barking at the darkness has something to say
about the way we live. I’d rather have what my daddy calls
“skrimp.” He says “discrete” and means the street
just out of sight. Not what you see, but what you perceive:
that’s poetry. Not the noise, but its rhythm; an arrangement
of derangements; I’ll eat you to live: that’s poetry.

I wish I glowed like a brown-skinned pregnant woman.

I wish I could weep the way my teacher did as he read us
Molly Bloom’s soliloquy of yes. When I kiss my wife,
sometimes I taste her caution. But let’s not talk about that.

Maybe Art’s only purpose is to preserve the Self.

Sometimes I play a game in which my primitive craft fires
upon an alien ship whose intention is the destruction
of the earth. Other times I fall in love with a word
like somberness. Or moonlight juicing naked branches.

All species have a notion of emptiness, and yet
the flowers don’t quit opening. I am carrying the whimper
you can hear when the mouth is collapsed, the wisdom
of monkeys. Ask a glass of water why it pities
the rain. Ask the lunatic yard dog why it tolerates the leash.

Brothers and sisters, when you spend your nights
out on a limb, there’s a chance you’ll fall in your sleep.

- from Terrance Hayes “Lighthead”


Do not go gentle into that good night, 
Old age should burn and rage at close of day; 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right, 
Because their words had forked no lightning they 
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright 
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, 
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, 
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight 
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height, 
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray. 
Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Being humble

If a man is crossing a river and an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
even though he be a bad-tempered man he will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat, he will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again, and yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty, he would not be shouting, and not angry.

If you can empty your own boat crossing the river of the world,
no one will oppose you, no one will seek to harm you….

Who can free himself from achievement, and from fame, descend and be lost amid the masses of men?
He will flow like Tao, unseen, he will go about like Life itself with no name and no home.
Simple is he, without distinction. To all appearances he is a fool.
His steps leave no trace. He has no power. He achieves nothing, has no reputation.

Since he judges no one, no one judges him.
Such is the perfect man:
His boat is empty.

- Chuang Tzu

On “Hipsters”

1. We agree that to denigrate and vilify someone based on their point of view and how they choose to express it, is egotistical and arrogant prejudicial bigotry, right?

2. We agree that what constitutes being “a hipster” is so subjective, like, say, beauty, that it is just as much “in the eye of the beholder.” You, very likely, are a hipster in someone else’s reckoning.

That means that every time you call someone else a hipster, you are saying much more about yourself than of them, nevermind contributing to a vicious cycle of discrimination.

It’s like the inverse of “You wouldn’t care so much what others think of you if you knew how little they did.”

(Besides, far more interesting and useful is understanding the causes and effects of human cultural phenomena, finding the overlaps and commonalities… rather than pointing and laughing.)


The loss.
The loss of control.
The loss of control of risk.
The loss of control of risk of loss.
The loss of control of risk of loss of agency.
The loss of control of risk of loss of agency to survive.


Have we lost control over our agency with technology?

(A quick rumination regarding the questions raised by Juha van ‘t Zelfde's Dread Exhibition, which I am sad to have missed the opening of.)

Leaving things alone

- Chuang Tzu, translated by T.M.

I know about letting the world alone, not interfering.
I do not know about running things.
Letting things alone:
    so that men will not blow their nature out of shape!
Not interfering,
    so that men will not be changed into something they are not!
When men do not get twisted and maimed beyond recognition,
    when they are allowed to live,
    the purpose of government is achieved.

Too much pleasure?
Yang has too much influence.
Too much suffering?
Yin has too much influence.
When one of these outweighs the other,
    it is as if the seasons came at the wrong times.
The balance of cold and heat is destroyed;
    the body of man suffers.

Too much happiness, too much unhappiness,
    out of due time, men are thrown off balance.
What will they do next?
Thought runs wild. No control.
They start everything, finish nothing.
Here competition begins,
    here the idea of excellence is born,
    and robbers appear in the world.

Now the whole world is not enough reward for the “good,”
    nor enough punishment for the “wicked.”
Since now the world itself is not big enough
    for reward or punishment.
From the time of the Three Dynasties men have been running in all directions.
How can they find time to be human?

You train your eye and your vision lusts after color.
You train your ear, and you long for delightful sound.
You delight in doing good, and your natural kindness is blown out of shape.
You delight in righteousness, and you become righteous beyond all reason.
You overdo liturgy, and you turn into a ham actor.
Overdo your love of music, and you play corn.
Love of wisdom leads to wise contriving.
Love of knowledge leads to faultfinding.
If men would stay as they really are,
    taking or leaving these eight delights would make no difference.
But if they will not rest in their right state,
    the eight delights develop like malignant tumors.
The world falls into confusion.
Since men honor these delights,
    and lust after them,
    the world has gone stone-blind.

When the delight is over,
    they still will not let go of it:
    they surround its memory with ritual worship,
    they fall on their knees to talk about it,
    play music and sing,
    fast and discipline themselves in honor
    of the eight delights.
When the delights become a religion,
    how can you control them?

The wise man, then,
    when he must govern,
    knows how to do nothing.
Letting things alone,
    he rests in his original nature.
He who will govern will respect the governed
    no more than he respects himself.
If he loves his own person enough to let it rest in its original truth,
    he will govern others without hurting them.
Let him keep the deep drives in his own guts from going into action.
Let him keep still, not looking, not hearing.
Let him sit like a corpse,
    with the dragon power alive all around him.
In complete silence, his voice will be like thunder.
His movements will be invisible, like those of a spirit,
    but the powers of heaven will go with them.
Unconcerned, doing nothing,
    he will see all things grow ripe around him.
Where will he find time to govern?

Language of time

There is so little evidence of time in our natural environment, and what there is is of such a scale to evade notice of its accretion—e.g. the rings in a tree, sediment layers in the ground—that we have no in-bred mechanisms for thinking of and communicating the passage of time. Our awareness of it is so recent, our means still so rudimentary.

There is so much research in this, and the culture has been tackling it, wrestling with it for centuries… and I get the sense that it is coming to a head now. Because our technological capabilities are getting us there, and our progress demands it.