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  • Les corps dans le Taoïsme ancien: L’infirme, l’informe, l’infâme by Romain Graziani
  • Haun Saussy
Les corps dans le Taoïsme ancien: L’infirme, l’informe, l’infâme (Bodies in early Daoism: Feeble, formless, foul). By Romain Graziani. Realia 25. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2011. Pp. 358. €25, isbn 978-2-251-33836-1.

Readers of the Zhuangzi have seen many attempts to work out the “philosophy” or the “teaching” of its author, either by privileging certain sections and deriving from them an interpretation of the others, or by trying to differentiate the original Zhuangzi from the additions that have accompanied it since antiquity, or by dividing its authorship among the adherents of various schools (e.g., the School of the Tillers, the Primitivists, and so on).1 Romain Graziani’s excellent Bodies in Early Daoism: Feeble, Formless, Foul spares us such self-confirming exercises from the start, observing that “it is intrinsic to the art of Zhuangzi, as of his most talented followers, never to let the language he uses define him or to allow his thinking to be frozen in a lexicon” (p. 40). This resistance to set formulas goes far. As Graziani observes about one of the work’s conversion narratives, “reversal is one of the refraction-effects of the theme of change in the story itself: it suggests that every doctrinal position, even one which claims to be based on universal transformation, contains its own threat of immobility and obsolescence” (p. 102). Moreover, Graziani is not concerned to draw the boundary between the eponymous master and his “followers” too clearly: “Zhuangzi” for him is a movement, not an author, least of all an authority. If, as Borges suggested, “all men who repeat one line from Shakespeare are Shakespeare,”2 then perhaps anyone who does what Zhuangzi does can be Zhuangzi.

Graziani, accordingly, redirects our attention to what Zhuangzi does: this can mean what the character Zhuangzi or his alter egos in the book’s many tales and fables do, or what those stories are intended to do to us readers: all add up to the same thing. Zhuangzi (in this expanded sense) works on the embodied imagination of hearers and readers so as to open up unanticipated freedoms. The method of Zhuangzi is to be distinguished from philosophical argument as we are used to thinking of it since Socrates: it is not primarily concerned with establishing truth or removing error. Zhuangzi does not share the usual argumentative style of reformers, invoking norms, precedents, and best practices. “It is never a matter, as in the Mencius, of leading a sovereign to reflection by causing him to appreciate the superior interest of goodness and justice” (p. 120).3

Zhuangzi works on his interlocutors by reshaping their context. He often proposes to their imaginations a different order of things, one in which actions currently considered meaningful or necessary no longer have a place. A king addicted to competitive swordsmanship learns, by listening to a speech of the character Zhuangzi, that the supreme achievements of his stable of martial artists occupy only the lowest rung in a cosmology crowned by “the sword of the Son of Heaven” (chap. 30, “Shuo jian”):

Zhuangzi’s speech is addressed, as we see, not to the king’s faculty of reason but to his imagination. … Zhuangzi conceives of his intervention as a psychological manipulation [End Page 805] and an enterprise of seduction: he does not so much command the king to reform as he provokes in him, invisibly, a profound change through a clever procedure based on the sublimating power of images.

(pp. 134, 139)

To paraphrase Wittgenstein, the king cannot go on playing his game once he has learned a new game that supersedes the old one.

(p. 143)

Zhuangzi’s aim is not to achieve rational persuasion or moral adherence, but to operate a therapeutic or sportive change in the hearer’s world.

If this is manipulation, Graziani’s description does not shy from it, finding analogies in contemporary practices of hypnosis or non-insight-based “short therapy” (pp. 143, 145, 151). Here the willingness to consider Zhuangzi as something other than a philosopher with...


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