The Butterfly Dream

Literature is the time-travel tourists’ Baedeker, an excellent way to visit the experience and outlooks of those no longer alive. Setting the Wayback Machine now…

The 4th century B.C.E. was a pretty busy time for philosophy. Over in Greece Aristotle was homeschooling some teenager who’d become Alexander the Great. For some reason I had teachers back in my teenaged years who were Thomists—so I myself got a limited dose of Aristotle back in those only slightly less-ancient years.

Not enough to conquer the world apparently.

In some other reality, perhaps I’d have been exposed to the Chinese classics. And from what I understand another 4th century worthy, Zhuang Zhou,*  is a pretty big deal there, not only in philosophy but in Chinese literature and arts.**  His collected teachings, the Zhuangzi,  is a core Taoist text alongside Taoism’s founder Lao Tzu’s.

Anyway, I’ve just started searching for an available English translation of Zhuangzi,  and I may have found one a couple of days ago, but just as I am no scholar of Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle, I at this point know little about Zhuang’s writing. One thing that the overviews of it let me know is that he used humor extensively.

painted tapestry showing Zhuang and two butterflies

Picture of two butterflies dreaming of Zhuang Zhou, or…

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So how did I come upon Zhuang if I haven’t read him? Back in October I presented a poem I wrote earlier this year called “Two Butterflies.”   It’s been connected with a famous parable from the Zhuangzi,  usually known as “The Butterfly Dream.”   And so, to throw some light on whatever unconscious connection my muses may have had to the Zhuangzi,  I figured I’d perform a rendition of Zhuang’s famous parable that you can hear below.

Late Fall - a leaf in new lake ice photo by Heidi Randen 1024

A picture taken today at the shore edge of Lake Superior. Zhuang also wrote: “They cling to their position…sure that they are holding onto victory. They fade like fall and winter—such is the way they dwindle…they drown in what they do.”

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Musically, I had a couple of itches to scratch with today’s piece. One? I’ve been listening again recently to some modern disciples of a school of acoustic guitar playing that is sometimes called “American Primitive Guitar.” I don’t care much for that label, even if it was coined by John Fahey, it’s chief progenitor. It traditionally uses flat-top, steel-strung, acoustic guitars (a design variation perfected in the United States before WWII) and it’s informed by some of the tunings and techniques of early 20th century Afro-American Blues musicians, mixed with an appreciation for a variety of Asian musics and some Modernist “classical” composers. The other personal desire? I’ve been missing playing bass in the mode that makes it a lyrical equal to the rest of an ensemble. As a composer, I know the value of the simple bass line too, but sometimes I want it to sing away.

The player gadget to hear my recounting of Zhuang Zhou’s “The Butterfly Dream”  should be below. If you don’t see it (some blog readers and reader view options don’t show it) you can use this highlighted link to play it. I apologize to any Chinese speakers for my attempt at pronunciation of Zhuang’s name. I did my best on that, though I’m likely wrong.

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*OK, you probably know the drill if you’ve followed along with this project’s presentation of other classical Chinese authors. Zhuang’s name is also rendered as Chuang Tzu, Chuang Tse, and Chuang Chou. And he also was referred to as Zhuangzi, which seems to be the more settled name for the book of his parables and teachings. The shorter part of his name is an honorific, meaning “master,” but given the difficulties with spelling out Chinese names in the western alphabet, I’ve decided not to call him Jam Master Zhuang.

**The later master poet Li Bai would be one example of a writer highly influenced by the Zhuangzi.  How far can Zhuang and Taoism’s influence be found? Martin Buber referenced him, and Wikipedia says that Taoist thought has been claimed by anarchists as foundational to their political philosophy.

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