The Daodejing as a dispersed network

 It is generally agreed that the Daodejing, like many scriptures, is a composite text (not really “an anthology”) which includes material from many different sources and from more than one period. Beyond that there’s little agreement about the process by which the present state of the text was reached. The theory that it has been accidentally jumbled or disarranged is no longer widely held, and there’s probably a consensus that the text was put together by some kind of editing process. But the difficulty of finding a thread of argument, the scattering of certain themes throughout the text, and the many puzzling juxtapositions, even within a single chapter, lead some to suspect that the editing process was rather haphazard.

What I propose is that the various editors, above all the final editor, were quite aware of the variety of their materials, but rather than putting similar things together and sorting the text according to kind, the editor deliberately tried to distribute the various sorts of writing fairly evenly so that readers (or hearers) would, on the one hand, be forced to imagine the connections between seemingly-disparate strands of the text (“What does this have to do with that?”), and on the other, frequently be reminded of distant passages (“Haven’t I read something like that before?”).

What we would call an orderly, sequential argument, or a clear separation of the tendencies within the text, was never the goal – quite the opposite. The Daodejing is a collection of aphorisms, philosophical and devotional poems, and rudimentary arguments sketching a cosmology, a devotional framework, a stripped-down ontology,  an economical philosophy of language, an approach to ethics, and lessons on strategy and politics. These aspects are not sorted, but mixed together, and each of them is intended to reinforce the others. And it is because of the interweaving and resonances that what might be thought to be a disorganized collection of aphorisms and poems can be treated as a unified virtually systematic book which, like the  Yijing, really has no beginning or end.

This approach to the Daodejing came to me while I was trying to figure out what to do with the chapters in the text which conlcude with a passage introduced by the phrase “Therefore the Sage….” (shiyi shengren / SYSR). I had originally concluded that this phrase marks editorial interventions, and I assigned all 19 chapters including the phrase to the Late Layer (where 8 of them already were.) Later on I realized that these passages were unlikely to have been added by the author of chapters 67-81 (the core or culmination of my Late Layer), since many of them were present in the Guodian manuscript. I also felt that in many cases (chapters 67-81 plus the Primitivist chapters – 8 chapters) the concluding phrase was an integral part of the chapter, so that the phrase was an editorial marker only in some cases (as many as 11). Furthermore, in only a few cases did the SYSR seem to give a late political interpretation to earlier medititational or mystical writing, and in fact, in some cases the SYSJ tag tacked early-layer themes onto opening passages that seemed to be from a later period. From this I concluded that in many cases the SYSR phrase did mark editorial additions, but that the editor’s intention was to link passages from different layers to each other and into the network, rather than to reinterpret early Daoism in terms of Huang-Lao.

Chapter Two can serve as an example, and I suspect that this chapter was constructed and given its   prominent  place at the beginning of the text in order to present as many of the dispersed strands as possible together with one another. Chapter 2 echoes or responds to 17  other chapters in the Daodejing, and its paradox sequence and the phrases wuwei and shiyi shengren link it to a couple of dozen more. 

Chapter 2.   Elsewhere in the Daodejing
The whole world recognizes the beautiful to be beautiful, yet this is only the ugly. Between good and evil, how great the distance?: Chapter 20
Something and nothing produce one another….. Something and nothing are contrasted:Chapters 11, 40, and 43. Similar sequences of paradoxes: 10 other chapters.
*Note and sound harmonize with one another….. The great note is rarified in sound: Chapter 41
*It gives them life yet claims no possession….. Similar passages: Chapters 10, 51, and 77.
*It accomplishes the task yet   lays claim to no merit….. Similar passages: Chapters 9, 17, 34, and 77
*Therefore the sage keeps to the deed that consists of taking no action and practices the teaching that uses no words….. “No words”: chapters 43 and 73. Passages on teaching in chapters 17, 56 and 81 on teaching are more distantly related. Wuwei “no action” is seen in nine other chapters.
*Therefore the Sage…..
This introductory formula is seen in 18 other chapters.

My earlier assignment of all SYSR chapters to the Late Layer now seems overambitious. I now think of the 11 SYSR chapters not already assigned to the Late layer as mixed chapters which were probably patched together by an editor and dispersed throughout the book. A few of them (chapters 29, 47, and possibly 7) could fit quite neatly into the late core in chapters 67-81. Others (chapters 57, 58, 63, 64, and 66) seem to represent politicized Huang-Lao Daoism of a rather different kind than that of chapter 67-81. Others (2, 22, 27) are hard to place. Out of them all, only chapter 7 that it might be an early tag given a political spin, and its beginning seems to follow chapters 4, 5, and 6 quite naturally: Heaven and Earth are enduring. The reason that they are able to be enduring is that they do not give themselves life. Thus they are able to be long-lived.

I have thuis, in effect, assigned an ambiguous mixed status to chapters 2, 7, 22, 27, 29, 47, 57, 58, 63, 64, and 66, replacing their earlier Late Layer assignment: something like “mixed, but more late than early.” (In the next section I will wrap up my periodication of the Daodejing.)

Published in: on December 1, 2009 at 6:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

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