Two notes on Taoism

1. A recent translation of the Lao Tzu relies on the old scheme of “correlative cosmology” and nicely illustrates the persistence of what is apparently a lack of rigor between distinguishing Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist (meta)axiologies and cosmologies. But even if, for example, we succeed in distinguishing, e.g., the Tao of the Lao Tzu from the Confucian Tao of the I Ching appendices, the ambiguities in the term “correlative cosmology” seem to indicate less a mere problem of equivocation than a deficiency in the very structure of the problem. “Correlation” is a distinctively modern European concept—the very problematic simply does not exist for the classical Taoists; so too the notions of identity/difference, sub/object. This is evident from the very first lines of the Lao Tzu: nowhere does the Taoist need to posit that “difference is simply what there is (such that the problem is unity)” or, conversely, that “the world is my representation and idea”. The scholarly literature is abysmally lacking in this respect (with one notable exception): either we begin with a general apologetic for the incommensurability of conceptual schemes or we wax exotic about the “striking similarities” between the unified thought of the Axial Age from Greece to China. Both constitute, as opposite sides of the same coin, the fundamental obstacle for anyone trained in our philosophical institution really to read the Taoist texts and to say anything more than superficial about anything in common between Derrida and Taoism (Graham, Clarke), the “intrinsic ontology” of the Chinese language and predicate logic (Graham again), or presocratic necessity (Needham). A great step forward was taken by I.A. Richards (surprisingly!), Ames, and Cheng whose hermeneutics are especially suited toward the injunction “to seek the way” in Taoism (see the “Great Appendix” to the I Ching). But what our philosophical institution will never be able to see is the Taoist thinker is not, strictly speaking, a thinker. The Taoist sage is not the one who has knowledge of the truth but also the one who experiences (and teaches) the good—and the only Greek equivalent here is Plato.

2. The real meaning of Cioran’s question—“of what use is Taoism and Buddhism to us?”—is not historical but, rather, political. The real contradiction is between politics—especially in its educative and moral manifestations—and Taoist solitude. This is not quite the romantic lament of a Rousseau with respect to the dualism of nature and culture but, rather, a structural contradiction between the silence of Taoist practice and the ideologies of discourse in any political practice. And what Cioran has said about history is also true for politics: for us, politics is compulsory—we cannot not be interpellated by the political demands precisely of those who are unable to make such demands because they have been reduced to silence and mark their existence in only a sob, a scream, or in banality.

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The law of the mother (notes on MacLeod’s The House of Yes)

How is it possible for psychoanalysis to speak of a “law of the mother”? Could Lacan have been right? Is such a law not the law of a prohibition but the “just barely” … Real? This is at least a hypothesis.

The experiment begins with graffiti on a bathroom wall: “We are living in a house of yes”. The location of this utterance effectively erases its initial meaning—not so much the fact that it is written in a bathroom (even though the bathroom is exemplary site of the legal “no”) but that it is a public utterance. The interpellated “we” cannot be those who live in a “house of yes”.

But what is the “house of yes”? Two tropes are juxtaposed here. On the one hand the house is not an economic site if for no other reason than that to speak of a house necessarily requires the entry of a third. In politics the third takes the form of law (public/private); in literature the third usually takes the form of a narrator or some other character (in MacLeod’s work, to which we shall turn shortly, it is of course Lesly). There is no house (i.e., the institution of the family) without the entry of the third party.*

*A brief synopsis of relevant features of the play: Marty arrives home on Thanksgiving, eagerly awaited by his mother (Mrs. Pascal), twin sister (Jackie), and younger brother (Anthony). To the family’s surprise, he brings his fiancee Lesly, who threatens the health of the family and, in particular, Jackie who has always wanted her brother for herself. Jackie had recently been released from a mental hospital and Anthony has dropped out of Princeton to be with the family. Mr. Pascal so no longer with the family, we are told, either because he left them on the day of the Kennedy assassination or because he was shot by Jackie (which is presumably the reason she was institutionalized). After the assassination, Jackie and Marty had made a game of re-enacting the Kennedy assassination (hence Jackie prefers to be called Jackie O) as a sort of foreplay to their relationship. To get rid of Lesly, Jackie convinces Anthony to seduce her, but the only way he is able to do so is to reveal the nature of Marty’s past relationship with Jackie (which he himself had just discovered). Lesly sees the Kennedy re-enactment (confirming Anthony’s accusations) and confronts Marty, who begs her to take him away from the family. Mrs. Pascal insists that Lesly leave, and Anthony tries to convince Lesly to take him away instead of Marty. Sending everyone out of the room, Marty confronts Jackie, but Jackie begins the re-enactment again, only with real bullets. Marty, knowing that the gun is loaded, agrees to do it “one more time”.

But it is also the third party that redoubles the “yes” and, consequently, allows the “yes” to appear (“just barely”). As Anthony reveals, Lesly is the first guest ever to enter the house (Scene 2). But in this case it is Lesly who attempts to pronounce the prohibition. But why? Mrs. Pascal tells us:

“My husband. Precisely. I didn’t know he was my one great passion until he was gone. Until he was one my one great passion was the man I met that night at a party. My one great passion was any man I met that night at a party who could use a new adjective to describe me. I have no idea who my children belong to. All I know for sure is that Jackie and Marty belong to each other. Jackie’s hand was holding Marty’s penis when they came out of the womb. The doctors swore to me. It’s in some medical journal somewhere.” (Scene 1)

But what is this “yes”? Although Mrs. Pascal tells Lesly that “Jackie can have everything her way. She always has” (Scene 10), she never names the forbidden relationship between the siblings, even when Lesly attempts to do so: “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about. / Lesly: I’m sure you do. / Mrs. Pascal: Sure? One can never be sure” (Scene 9).

The relationship is doubly mediated by the repetition of the particular fantasy of the Kennedy assassination (it makes no difference if Mr. Pascal left the family on the day of the assassination as we are told or if he was shot by Jackie as is suggested). But the relationship remains impossible despite the repetition: Jackie (O) loads the gun and Marty allows her to pull the trigger—and in that moment what is impossible becomes possible and the Real bursts through … but just barely, not in pleasure but in blood.

This play admits no staging where the mother is permitted to weep at the final curtain. The mother imposes no authority—she does not succeed in banishing Lesly from her house, for example—nor does she strictly speaking sanction the incestuous relationship (insofar as she never names it). The mother can only stand witness (a witness, however, without testimony). It is only through this witness that the Real exists … but just barely, for the “yes” remains impossible, unspoken, except in the explosion of a gunshot.