Chuang Tzu – “Independence” (4th cen. BCE)

Ah, the beauty of textbooks, which tell you what questions to ask.

1. What part of this story is the exposition? How many sentences does Chuang Tzu use to set up the dramatic situation?

Here’s the deal. There’s this guy who sits outside on the back fire escape coughing all day and all night. Literally. 5am? Yes. 3am? Yes. All daytime long? Yes. I checked city records to see who owned the place and it’s a woman. He caught me sneaking around trying to look inside his window and I told him I was looking for a three-legged cat. I’m convinced he works for the CIA pretending to be a deadbeat and that there’s someone more dangerous I should actually be afraid of.

The first line is the exposition: “Chuang Tzu was one day fishing, when the Prince of Ch’u sent two high officials to interview him…” That’s about all we need to know to understand what’s going on. Chinese man fishing, prince begs him to work in high government post. We can pretty much guess the rest. See: Wordsworth being asked to be poet laureate. As for the dramatic situation, I don’t have an answer for that, because it takes the whole rest of the one-paragraph story to set up what seems to me a dramatic situation. It ends with “ah hah! That jackass,” but the real drama is in wondering what happens when the servants go back to the prince and tell him that the old fisherman turned down the job by comparing himself to a turtle. Then, there’s some negotiation, and that’s real drama.

2. Why does the protagonist change the subject and mention the sacred tortoise? Why doesn’t he answer the request directly and immediately? Does it serve any purpose that Chuang Tzu makes the officials answer a question to which he knows the answer?

I assume he mentions the tortoise because it’s a contrived example–the tortoise belongs in the pond that Chuang Tzu is currently in, but now in an official post similar to that which Chuang Tzu has been asked to fill. Any other tortoise wouldn’t be as effective to discuss–“would a turtle rather be cooped up in an office, or in a pond? duh, me too.” The sacred tortoise, in the meantime, is already dead, and would surely prefer to be anywhere, doing anything, so long as he were alive–the point perhaps being that the tortoise’s role is as a dead tortoise, and that Chuang Tzu, being in a government position, would find it as death. But…let’s be honest…it’s a ridiculous sort of argument he’s making anyway. He should just say no. Why doesn’t he? Because he’s convinced the officials to reject the offer for him through their own logic. This is the question he knows the answer to, and now he doesn’t have to answer it, and if he’s lucky he won’t get his head chopped off.

3. What does this story tell us about the protagonist Chuang Tzu’s personality?

He’s a dick. He’s insufferable. An insufferable dick. A number of people I’ve looked to as wise have also fallen into this category, in which I begin to feel as if I cannot say anything at all without being condemned on some account. Eventually I just keep my mouth shut and I stop learning anything new. So, perhaps the lesson here is that if you’d like to learn something, you must become accustomed to suffering incessant humiliation.

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