The Winter Solstice Lunar Eclipse: Surface and Symbol

We stayed awake until 3:30 this morning to watch the lunar eclipse. Since it was the first time that it’s fallen on the same day as the winter solstice in nearly 400 years, I insisted on seeing it and, though my husband Eric was exhausted and had to wake up four hours later for work, he stayed up with me. Unfortunately, it was cloudy. Still, we did get to see a little of it and I think it was worth staying up for. We first went out around 2:00 AM and stood in the driveway for fifteen minutes or so, staring at the sky and waiting for holes in the thick blanket of cloud to pass over the moon. After catching several glimpses of it, half-lit and half in shadow, we felt mostly satisfied and went to bed. Around 3:00 AM, my sister sent me a text that said she was watching the eclipse, so I woke Eric and we went into the office at the front of the house, pulled up the blinds, and searched the still-cloudy sky until, finally, we saw the hazy, fully eclipsed moon, brown-red with just a sliver of white on the edge. We stayed there by the window, sitting cross-legged like little kids, craning our necks until they cramped, and then holding them up with our hands until we were too tired to stay awake and went back to bed.

It’s always been important to me to catch rare celestial phenomena like this, to view something historic that hasn’t been seen by many others. It makes me feel closer to the past, more a part of the fabric of history, united for a moment with the last people to have seen it in 1638. Moments like this are a large part of what makes life so wonderful and worthwhile — seeing great, unusual things that we have played no part in creating, small and powerless as we are. It’s in these moments — in the silence and darkness, faced with something beautiful and strange — that I sense life’s mystery most acutely.

Oscar Wilde wrote in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “All art is at once surface and symbol.” Life, too, is at once surface and symbol: changing seasons represent the cycle of life and death for cultures the world over, as does the cycle of the moon, slowly growing until it reaches its fullest point, then slowly diminishing. Even the smallest wilting flower is a symbol of something else: life’s beautiful, inevitable transience. For a long time, people have considered winter a time of  hardship and death, and for good reason: vegetation withers; livestock are slaughtered; the days are short and the nights long. A total lunar eclipse — which occurs when the moon passes through the center of the earth’s shadow and, due to the effects of the earth’s atmosphere, turns the moon red — was an omen of evil for many people through the ages. Yet darkness doesn’t have to signify evil, even in death or times of hardship. For some, like myself, it’s purely visual mystery, and so the onset of winter and the lunar eclipse are symbols of the unknown. As such, they signify a time to contemplate mystery — not to resolve it, but to enjoy its presence, to appreciate not knowing.

Oscar Wilde: Victorian Taoist

I’m always interested in finding Taoist elements in Western literature, and I find a lot of them in Oscar Wilde’s work. In honor of the 110th anniversary of his death, I’ve decided to display a few of them here, along with corresponding Taoist quotes. Enjoy!

Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.
“The Way has never known boundaries; speech has no constancy. But because of [the recognition of a] ‘this,’ there came to be boundaries. Let me tell you what the boundaries are. There is left, there is right, there are theories, there are debates, there are divisions, there are discriminations, there are emulations, and there are contentions… As to what is beyond the Six Realms, the sage admits it exists but does not theorize. As to what is within the Six Realms, he theorizes but does not debate… So [I say,] those who divide fail to divide; those who discriminate fail to discriminate. What does this mean, you ask? The sage embraces things. Ordinary men discriminate among them and parade their discriminations before others. So I say, those who discriminate fail to see.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 2).

The well-bred contradict other people.  The wise contradict themselves.
“Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 2)
“Straightforward words / Seem paradoxical.” (Tao Te Ching 78.4)

To become the spectator of one’s own life is to escape the suffering of life.
“To serve your own mind so that sadness or joy do not sway or move it; to understand what you can do nothing about and to be content with it as with fate — this is the perfection of virtue.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 4)
“If you are content with the time [you have to live] and willing to follow along [with death], then grief and joy have no way to enter in.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 3).

Only the shallow know themselves.
“Tzu-ch’i said… ‘Now I have lost myself. Do you understand that? You hear the piping of men, but you haven’t heard the piping of earth. Or if you’ve heard the piping of earth, you haven’t heard the piping of Heaven!’ — Tzu-yu said, ‘May I venture to ask what this means?’ — Tzu-ch’i said, ‘ The Great Clod belches out breath and its name is wind. So long as it doesn’t come forth, nothing happens. But when it does, then ten thousand hollows begin crying wildly. Can’t you hear them, long drawn out? In the mountain forests that lash and sway, there are huge trees a hundred spans around with hollows and openings like noses, like mouths, like ears… They roar like waves, whistle like arrows, screech, gasp, cry, wail, moan, and howl… In a gentle breeze they answer faintly, but in a full gale the chorus is gigantic. And when the fierce wind has passed on, then all the hollows are empty again. Have you never seen the tossing and trembling that goes on?’ — Tzu-yu said, ‘By the piping of earth, then, you mean simply [the sound of] these hollows, and by the piping of man [the sound of] flutes and whistles. But may I ask about the piping of Heaven?’ — Tzu-ch’i said, ‘Blowing on the ten thousand things in a different way, so that each can be itself — all take what they want for themselves, but who does the sounding?'” (Chuang Tzu, Section 2).

A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
“Yen Hui went to see Confucius and asked permission to take a trip. — ‘Where are you going?’ [Confucius asked.] — ‘I’m going to Wei.’ — ‘What will you do there?’ — ‘I have heard that the ruler of Wei is very young. He acts in an independent manner, thinks little of how he rules his state, and fails to see his faults. It is nothing to him to lead his people into peril, and his dead are reckoned by swampfuls like so much grass. His people have nowhere to turn. I have heard you say, Master, “Leave the state that is well ordered and go to the state in chaos! At the doctor’s gate are many sick men.” I want to use these words as my standard, in hopes that I can restore his state to health.’ — ‘Ah,’  said Confucius, ‘you will probably go and get yourself executed, that’s all.'” (Chuang Tzu, Section 4).
“What starts out being sincere usually ends up being deceitful.” (Chuang Tzu, ibid.).

Always! That is the dreadful word … it is a meaningless word, too.
“Hence a gusty wind cannot last all morning, and a sudden downpour cannot last all day. Who is it that produces these? Heaven and earth. If even heaven and earth cannot go on for ever, much less can man.”  (Tao Te Ching 23.2).

Comparative Taoism

I first discovered Taoism in a World Humanities class while I was in undergrad. I’d spent years searching out various religions—different sects of Christianity, Judaism, Neo-paganism, Buddhism, etc.—but while I’d found things in each belief system that I could agree with, nothing I’d studied or practiced entirely coincided with (or even addressed) the things I wondered about and felt to be true. So when I was assigned to read parts of the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu, I felt like I’d reached a light in the darkness. I connected with Taoism’s sense of and respect for mystery, its resistance to dogma, its view of naming, language and categories as mutable and illusory, its doubts about one’s sense of self and reality as a whole, its belief in nonduality—the list goes on. I felt like I’d finally reached something familiar, something whole, something very, very wise. Since then, as I’ve continued in my studies in English literature and creative writing, I’ve stumbled upon ideas by various non-Taoist writers that are Taoist in nature, which is always really satisfying because it shows that Taoist concepts aren’t so foreign to the West — they’re just fragmented, scattered here and there over time. Anyway, it’s become a little hobby of mine to match quotes.

Two writers/poets who frequently convey Taoist concepts and beliefs in their work are Oscar Wilde and Wallace Stevens. Shakespeare also has some Taoistic quotes to offer. The following are some examples by these three, but there are more. Perhaps I’ll add to this list as time goes on and I make more discoveries.

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On the Value of Useless Things

“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” ~Oscar Wilde, “Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

“Now you have this big tree and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life, nothing can ever harm it. If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?” ~Chuang Tzu

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On the Fallacy of Right and Wrong

“Any preoccupation with ideas of what is right or wrong in conduct shows an arrested intellectual development.” ~Oscar Wilde, “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young”

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” ~Shakespeare, Hamlet 2.2

“How great is the difference between ‘eh’ and ‘oh’? / What is the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘evil’? / Must I fear what others fear? / What abysmal nonsense is this!” ~Tao Te Ching, Chapter 20

“If a man follows the mind given him and makes it his teacher, then who can be without a teacher? …But to fail to abide by this mind and still insist upon your rights and wrongs—this is like saying you set off for Yueh today and got there yesterday. This is to claim that what doesn’t exist exists.” ~Chuang Tzu

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On Sympathy

“No artist has ethical sympathies.” ~Oscar Wilde, “Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

“Heaven-and-Earth is not sentimental; / It treats all things as straw-dogs. / The Sage is not sentimental; / He treats all his people as straw-dogs.” ~Tao Te Ching, Chapter 5

“If benevolence has a constant object, it cannot be universal.” ~Chuang Tzu

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On Naming and Language

“Tired of the old descriptions of the world, / The latest freed man rose at six and sat / On the edge of his bed. He said, / ‘I suppose there is / A doctrine to this landscape. Yet, having just / Escaped from the truth, the morning is color and mist, / Which is enough…’” ~Wallace Stevens, “The Latest Freed Man”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” ~Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet 2.2

“Tao is always nameless. / …When once the Primal Simplicity [Tao] diversified, / Different names appeared. / Are there not enough names now? / Is this not the time to stop?” ~Tao Te Ching, Chapter 32

“Names should stop when they have expressed reality.” ~ Chuang Tzu

“Let it be! Let it be! [It is enough that] morning and evening we have them, and they are the means by which we live.” ~Chuang Tzu

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On Letting Go of One’s Sense of Self

“One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow… / and not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind, / In the sound of a few leaves, / Which is the sound of the land / Full of the same wind / That is blowing in the same bare place / For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” ~Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”

“Tzu-ch’i of South Wall sat leaning on his armrest, staring up at the sky and breathing—vacant and far away, as though he’d lost his companion. Yen Ch’eng Tzu-yu, who was standing by his side in attendance, said, ‘What is this? Can you really make the body like a withered tree and the mind like dead ashes?…’ Tzu-ch’i said, ‘You do well to ask the question, Yen. Now I have lost myself. Do you understand that? You hear the piping of men, but you haven’t heard the piping of earth. Or if you’ve heard the piping of earth, you haven’t heard the piping of Heaven!’ …Tzu-yu said, ‘By the piping of earth, then, you mean simply [the sound of] these hollows, and by the piping of man [the sound of] flutes and whistles. But may I ask about the piping of Heaven?’ Tzu-ch’i said, ‘Blowing on the ten thousand things in a different way, so that each can be itself—all take what they want for themselves, but who does the sounding?’” ~Chuang Tzu

“Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind! No, don’t listen with your mind, but listen with your spirit. Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but spirit is empty and waits on all things. The Way gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.” ~Chuang Tzu

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A Peaceful View of Death

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause: there’s the respect / That makes calamity of so long life; / For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, / The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, / The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, / The insolence of office and the spurns / That patient merit of the unworthy takes, / When he himself might his quietus make…” ~Shakespeare, Hamlet 3.1

“In the middle of the night, the skull came to [Chuang Tzu] and said, ‘You chatter like a rhetorician and all your words betray the entanglements of a living man. The dead know none of these! …Among the dead there are no rulers above, no subjects below, and no chores of the four seasons. With nothing to do, our springs and autumns are as endless as heaven and earth. A king facing south on his throne could have no more happiness than this!’ Chuang Tzu couldn’t believe this and said, ‘If I got the Arbiter of Fate to give you a body again, make you some bones and flesh, return you to your parents and family and your old home and friends, you would want that, wouldn’t you?’ The skull frowned severely, wrinkling up its brow. ‘Why would I throw away more happiness than that of a king on a throne and take on the troubles of a human being again?’ it said.” ~Chuang Tzu

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On Death and Dreaming

“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with sleep.” ~Shakespeare, The Tempest 4.1

“He who dreams of drinking wine may weep when the morning comes; he who dreams of weeping may in the morning go off to hunt. While he is dreaming he does not know it is a dream, and in his dream he may even try to interpret a dream. Only after he wakes does he know it was a dream. And someday there will be a great awakening when we know that this is all a great dream.” ~Chuang Tzu