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Two Pieces About Ambiguous Language Inspired By the Daodejing

19th of September, 2020

This piece was originally published on the website The site only offers the ability to review music and film, but since all my work was already there and I had found friends and a very small audience there I decided to carry on posting my written work there. I end this on a quote from Tanner Wood, who is one of my best friends. He is a musician and a devout Orthodox Christian who is endlessly fascinated by philosophical and artistic interpretations of God from both East and West. His piety and kindness are inspiring.

My copy of the Daodejing is the Oxford World’s Classics edition with Edmund Ryden’s translation. All quotations are of this translation.


There is, embedded within the word 'sculpt' an ambiguity between modelling (the addition of material) and carving (the subtraction), such that when the process of creation is complete and one has an art object described as a 'sculpture' the nature of its creation is a mystery. We do have the words 'carving' and 'model' but it would be seen as incorrect to describe Michaelangelo's David as a carving. This is a peculiarity of some languages which is absent from Russian. Andrei Tarkovsky named his own style of film-making 'Запечатлённое время', which literally means 'captured time'. In Russian, the terms are more distinct, 'резать' for a carving via subtraction and 'лепить' for a model. The English translation of 'Запечатлённое время' by Kitty Hunter-Blair, Sculpting in Time, comes from the use of a metaphor that Tarkovsky employs to explain what he means.

Time, which he takes to mean not just the physical framework of time but also the things that happen within this framework, is raw material, perhaps a white marble. The artist uses her camera first to capture a giant block of this marble, and then she uses filmic editing to sculpt out a piece of art from it. It is both stages of artistic intervention in which some poetry emerges—time is captured and the rhythms of reality are in some way offered to us, the way in question characterised by the filmmaker's artistry. My reading is that Tarkovsky had in mind a sort of subtraction, such that art is a lesser subordination of reality. The English word 'sculpting' is used with the understanding that we are to take it to be synonymous with 'carving'. Modelling in time would suggest building upon reality, which is either impossible (reality already encompasses everything that could ever possibly exist) or necessarily happens all the time (literally everything we do builds upon the material of existence by our adding of an idealist dimension by our experience).

“Of ways you may speak,
ㅤbut not the Perennial Way;
By names you may name,
ㅤbut not the Perennial Name.”

In the immortal opening lines of the Daodejing, the Way is described in negative terms. Laozi takes the approach of a carving sculptor, shaving away parts of reality until Her likeness is captured. The likeness that one reaches with words is subject to the inherent ambiguity of language, and is not so static as a form in marble. The form in marble is doubly bounded in a way—the marble is solid and so the surface of the sculpture is bounded from within, unable to fall inwards. The outside surface is bounded by transparent air such that the outside can be observed by us and in this way bounded by our experience. The physical material that constitutes it works in harmony with the subjective ideal by which the sculpture itself, and not just its constituent atoms, could be said to exist. We immediately understand, via the undeniable physicality of its material, that a marble sculpture is rigid. Whatever delicacy is involved in the form it takes is tempered by the understanding that, whether we understand its realness in materialist or idealist terms, it is essentially unyielding. The negative literary definition of the Way is only singularly bounded, its realness is so delicate that trying to come across a description of what it is is liable to ensure its non-existence. The unambiguous negative description defines exactly where the Way cannot be: we know what it isn't, but what is it? Definition pushes inwards such that the Way increasingly appears to refer to nothing at all—the internal structure of the thing collapses in on itself because of atmospheric pressure. The Way retreats: after being forced to swallow itself it disappears.

Incidentally, modern efforts to define what ‘art’ is have exactly the opposite effect. Art is full—its positive force constantly pushes our idea of what it is outwards to encompass a greater and greater scope. We might want for art as a category of thing to include some things (Leonardo, Duchamp) and exclude others (clouds, traffic) such that the word can be used to describe a distinct subsection of reality according to prescribed necessary and sufficient conditions. The only outside force pushing in is the compulsion for definitions that avoid redundancy. Definition in this way doesn't suit art, so a mutual consensus of the way the word is used has to suffice. The result is that art's scope inflates to fill conceptual space like a balloon blown up inside a small box. That art eludes negative definition in this way tells us something important about how the term is distinct from the rest of reality. It becomes increasingly hard to ever pin down what art isn't.


The Chinese language, especially the language as used by Laozi, appears astonishingly amenable to divergent interpretation. An introduction to my text written by Benjamin Perry gives an illustration. The opening lines of Chapter 6 in the Ryden translation read 'The gully's spirit does not die; She is called "the mysterious cleft".' For the ancient interpreter Wang Bi, the spirit of the gully refers to 'the non-gully within the gully', a reinforcement of the metaphysical assertion of the primacy of void. This is alluded to in other parts of the text, such as Chapter 11's reminder that the essential character of the wheel is the space in the centre where the spokes meet, as well as the more obvious essential emptiness of door frames and clay pots. Wang Bi suggests then that the gully's spirit therefore opposes nothing, nor moves anything around it. It occupies the lowest position, and therefore is the highest of things, which is very much in line with Daoist ethics. 'If you make it so that the astute dare not act, Then you will discover there is nothing you cannot govern.' (Chapter 3)

Another ancient interpreter, Heshanggong, suggests that the character for 'gully' should be read as 'nourish' while 'spirit' refers to the spirits of the five internal organs. Thus, it is taken to mean: 'if you nourish the spirits of the five internal organs you will not die.' This interpretation is rather quaint in comparison but I have no reason to assume it isn't correct, insofar as any interpretation can be. There are still many others which have equally divergent meanings.

Laozi writes in Chapter 14 that: 'there is nothing brighter above Her nor darker below Her.' This is also true of every single conceivable number; natural, real, or otherwise. That is, as long as you're willing to jiggle your adjectives about a bit, and in light of the radical ambiguity of the text that seems fine to me. Brightness, coupled with darkness, is something which can be generated by the correlative cosmology of Yin and Yang:

“Being and beingless generate each other;
ㅤDifficult and easy form each other;
Long and short shape each other;
ㅤHigh and low complete each other”

Brightness and darkness massage each other. Laozi's poetry does something that great philosophy does: it draws attention to something that seems obvious once understood but clearly isn't, because until one reads it one never noticed. 'There is nothing brighter above Her nor darker below Her.' A gradient, such as the continuum of time (which is a gradient from past to future), is composed of points which, if adopted as individual perspectives, suggest a perfectly ordered positioning between that which is above and that which is below. Positioned at one of these points without the ability to see from other perspectives, an observer might conclude that the universe, by divine providence, is ordered such that no possible improvement could be made. Indeed, she would observe a perfectly calibrated cosmology. The thing which then becomes obvious is that along the gradient there are infinitely many such points which all appear to be perfect, and in fact are.

“Whole is the soul when she beholds and embraces ever-present completeness.”
—Tanner Wood