The New Mindscape
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The New Mindscape

Sartre’s gnarly tree root and Zhuangzi’s useless tree:

Does it give you nausea or does it make you laugh?

The New Mindscape #A3–4

What if we remove all mental concepts from the things we perceive? Let’s imagine that our minds are painting this phone silver. Our minds put the word ‘silver’ onto that phone, thus the concept of silverness and all those qualities such as “useful”, “high-tech”, “phone”; as if we were painting this object with different ideas. What if we strip those ideas away — let’s take away all of those concepts, qualities and characteristics until you see that thing in itself, without any qualities, in its absolute and unmediated ‘thingness’. What would it be?

What if we were to avoid escaping into an “unreal” world of the imagination, and strip away all abstract objects of consciousness, remove all “subjective” meaning and significance, in order to attain direct consciousness of objects in their pure materiality?

The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre attempted this in his first novel, Nausea, written in 1938. In one passage in the novel, the narrator, sitting on a bench in a park, gazing at the “knotty, inert, nameless” root of a tree under his foot, describes his experience of the pure, naked material existence of things, stripped of all names, descriptions, relationships, concepts, meanings and significances: “This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder — naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.” He is overwhelmed with a sense of nausea, at the absurdity, the futility and pointlessness of all things, which all come into existence and then vanish, ultimately leaving “not even a memory”. Looking at the trees, he saw not life gushing upwards, but “Tired and old, they kept on existing, against the grain, simply because they were too weak to die… Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.”

tree root
pixabay.com

Here is the full passage. In order to immerse yourself in Sartre’s sense of nausea, please read it fully:

So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision. It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of ‘existence’. . . . And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder — naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness. . . . We were a heap of living creatures, irritated, embarrassed at ourselves, we hadn’t the slightest reason to be there, none of us, each one, confused, vaguely alarmed, felt in the way in relation to the others. In the way: it was the only relationship I could establish between these trees, these gates, these stones. In vain I tried to count the chestnut trees, to locate them by their relationship to the Velleda, to compare their height with the height of the plane trees: each of them escaped the relationship in which I tried to enclose it, isolated itself, and overflowed. Of these relations (which I insisted on maintaining in order to delay the crumbling of the human world, measures, quantities, and directions) — I felt myself to be the arbitrator; they no longer had their teeth into things. In the way, the chestnut tree there, opposite me, a little to the left. In the way, the Velleda. And I — soft, weak, obscene, digesting, juggling with dismal thoughts — I, too, was In the way. Fortunately, I didn’t feel it, although I realized it, but I was uncomfortable because I was afraid of feeling it (even now I am afraid — afraid that it might catch me behind my head and lift me up like a wave). I dreamed vaguely of killing myself to wipe out at least one of these superfluous lives. But even my death would have been In the way. In the way, my corpse, my blood on these stones, between these plants, at the back of this smiling garden. And the decomposed flesh would have been In the way in the earth which would receive my bones, at last, cleaned, stripped, peeled, proper and clean as teeth, it would have been In the way: I was In the way for eternity. . . . Absurdity — the world of explanations and reasons is not the world of existence. A circle is not absurd, it is clearly explained by the rotation of a straight segment around one of its extremities. But neither does a circle exist. This root, on the other hand, existed in such a way that I could not explain it. Knotty, inert, nameless, it fascinated me, filled my eyes, brought me back unceasingly to its own existence. In vain to repeat: ‘This is a root’ — it didn’t work any more. I saw clearly that you could not pass from its function as a root, as a breathing pump, to that, to this hard and compact skin of a sea lion, to this oily, callous, headstrong look. The function explained nothing: it allowed you to understand generally that it was a root, but not that one at all. This root, with its colour, shape, its congealed movement, was . . . below all explanation. . . . And all these existents which bustled about this tree came from nowhere and were going nowhere. Suddenly they existed, then suddenly they existed no longer: existence is without memory; of the vanished it retains nothing — not even a memory. . . . The trees floated. Gushing towards the sky? Or rather a collapse; at any instant I expected to see the tree-trunks shrivel like weary wands, crumple up, fall on the ground in a soft, folded, black heap. They did not want to exist, only they could not help themselves. . . . Tired and old, they kept on existing, against the grain, simply because they were too weak to die, because death could only come to them from the outside: strains of music alone can proudly carry their own death within themselves like an internal necessity: only they don’t exist. Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance. . . . It was there on the trunk of the chestnut tree … it was the chestnut tree. Things — you might have called them thoughts — which stopped halfway, which were forgotten, which forgot what they wanted to think and which stayed like that, hanging about with an odd little sense which was beyond them. That little sense annoyed me: I could not understand it, even if I could have stayed leaning against the gate for a century; I had learned all I could know about existence. I left, I went back to the hotel and I wrote.[1]

Sartre described this experience as nausea. That was how he experienced the world — pure existence without any concepts, ideas, characteristics, qualities, and relationships. When he stripped away all these things that our minds have imagined, he felt nausea — the utter senselessness, purposelessness, the absence of significance and the absurdity of the world.

This connects to another French existentialist philosopher, Albert Camus. Camus started from a different perspective, but reached a similar conclusion about the absurdity of it all. He wrote about a Greek myth called the Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is a Greek hero who is punished by the gods. What he has to do is to take a huge boulder and push it up to the top of the mountain. He has to push and push with great effort all the way up to the top. But just when he is about to reach the top, the boulder will roll and tumble down to the bottom of the mountain. Then, he has to start the same process again, pushing the boulder so strenuously, so tiringly, so painfully, again and again for eternity. That’s all Sisyphus does: to push this boulder to the top, but he never quite makes it, and the boulder will tumble down, again and again, for eternity.

Camus stressed the “absurdity” of it all — the lack of intrinsic significance. As we get up in the morning, get out of bed, brush our teeth, get dressed, go to work, go to class, rush around to do this and that, come back home, have dinner, watch TV, brush our teeth, go to bed, get up, brush our teeth, get dressed, go to work, again and again and again, just like the Myth of Sysiphus. Intrinsically, in themselves, do these things have any significance at all? What if we remove all significance from them? When Sartre and Camus did that, they described the feeling of nausea and of the absurd.

Sartre and Camus have argued that there is no inherent meaning in the material world itself. The tree does not contain meaning; meaning does not spring out of the tree. Nor does this paper, this ink, or this screen contain any meaning. Where does the meaning come from, then? For Sartre and Camus, it comes from our own minds.

And when we experience angst in the face of absurdity, we should fully accept it; knowing this, we become fully free.

Camus wrote, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sysiphus happy”.

For Sartre, with that freedom, we build our own existence, without caring how others would define us: “… man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards.”

For Sartre and Camus, you are alone in a meaningless world. And it’s up to you, alone, to create your meaning, make your life, and find your happiness.

Zhuangzi’s useless tree and Laozi’s uncarved block

Sartre’s descriptions of a gnarly root and of an old, useless tree remind me of Daoist images — of Zhuangzi’s “useless tree” and of Laozi’s “uncarved block”. Both of these images are part of a Daoist attitude of breaking through human ideas, concepts and meanings, which to some extent seems to be similar to what Sartre described. Coincidentally, they came to the same conclusion, but they somehow drew very different implications from it. In the story, Huizi was talking about this tree to Zhuangzi, the early Daoist philosopher. Huizi described the tree as gnarled, similar to Sartre’s description. To him, it is a useless tree, no good for anything.

The Useless Tree (For the Chinese original, click here)

Hui Shi said to Zhuangzi, “I have a large tree. Its trunk is too gnarled for measuring lines to be applied to it, its branches are too twisted for use with compasses or T-squares. If you stood it on the road, no carpenter would pay any attention to it. Now your talk is similarly vast but useless, people are unanimous in rejecting it.”

Zhuangzi replied, “Haven’t you ever seen a wildcat or a weasel? It crouches down to wait for something to pass, ready to pounce east or west, high or low, only to end by falling into a trap and dying in a net. But then there is the yak. It is as big as a cloud hanging in the sky. But it can’t even catch a mouse. Now you have a large tree but fret over its uselessness. Why not plant it in the town of Nothing At All or in the wilds of Vast Nothing? Then you could roam about doing nothing by its side or sleep beneath it. Axes will never shorten its life and nothing will ever harm it. If you are of no use at all, who will make trouble for you?”[2]

In the story of the useless tree, it is precisely the uselessness of the tree that protects the life of the tree, saving it from being felled down by people for their own instrumental purposes. In another story in Zhuangzi, the useless tree is located at the altar to the earth god 土地公, which, traditionally, is the sacred centre of Chinese villages or neighbourhoods. Not only does the “useless tree” live longer than “useful” ones, it offers shade and protection to the sacred centre of social life.

One way to understand this story is that so-called “usefulness” refers to the ideas, concepts and functions that we attribute to things, in relation to our own instrumental needs and desires, and which ultimately destroy the things that we use for our own purposes. In its “uselessness”, the tree has its own, intrinsic value which is independent of human concepts and needs. And yet, left to live according to its own nature, it provides shelter and shade to the villagers who don’t pay much attention to it.

Zhuangzi’s position is clear — just let the useless tree be. Naturally, people will go under it for shelter, only because this tree is of no use. Now, is useless meaningless? At some level, it is. This tree is meaningless to Huizi, because he couldn’t see what he could use this tree for. When we give meaning to something, we often give it meaning in relation to ourselves, to our own personal needs and preferences.

This course is meaningful to me, because it will help me to get a grade, because it will help me understand this, or because it will help me to make friends. Something meaningful is something that has some use to me; likewise, something useless is usually something that is meaningless to me. But it seems that Zhuangzi was also inferring that the tree has it own intrinsic value and significance, which goes beyond the self-centred meanings and usefulness that we want to ascribe to it.

Now let’s consider the idea of “returning to the uncarved block” (復歸於樸) in Laozi’s Daodejing 道德經. Here is a passage from chapter 28 of the Daodejing (for the Chinese original, click here):

Know the strength of man,
But keep a woman’s care!
Be the stream of the universe!
Being the stream of the universe,
Ever true and unswerving,
Become as a little child once more.

Know the white,
But keep the black!
Be an example to the world!
Being an example to the world,
Ever true and unwavering,
Return to the infinite.

Know honour,
Yet keep humility!
Be the valley of the universe!
Being the valley of the universe,
Ever true and resourceful,
Return to the state of the uncarved block.

When the block is carved, it becomes useful.
When the sage uses it, he becomes the ruler.
Thus, “A great tailor cuts little.”[3]

The “uncarved block” can be understood as referring to the original nature of a thing, prior to being “carved up” by peoples’ ideas, concepts, desires and purposes, which change the form of the thing and distort its original nature. For Laozi, we should revert to the state of the uncarved block, a state of pure simplicity, like a baby in its pure authenticity.

uncarved block of wood
Uncarved block via fourthwaytoday.org

For Laozi, our concepts and ideas are constantly carving into the block. For example, we “carve” a certain object into this or that quality, black or white, big or small, useful or useless, new or old. By giving qualities, characteristics and attributes to things, we always carve them up. And we carve ourselves up. I’m a professor here, and a husband and father at home. I am always carving myself up into all these roles. But Laozi says, this is not all that we really are. So he says we should return to the state of the uncarved block — a pure piece of wood without any of these meanings, qualities and attributes. He also talked about being like a baby, which is like being an uncarved block. As a baby grows up, the baby’s mind is literally carved up into different ideas and concepts, the body is moulded and trained. For this reason, Laozi suggests people to go back to the state of the uncarved block, of the infant. The uncarved block is the natural spontaneity of who we truly are before adding any concepts, ideas, characters, attributes and so on.

Both Zhuangzi and Laozi, in these and many other stories and metaphors, advocate breaking “out of the box” of our webs of meanings and significances, and to apprehend things in their original state, prior to the human-imagined “usefulness” and “carving up.”

Are they not, then, doing the same thing as Sartre in La Nausée? But the result was to give Sartre a horrible sense of “Nausea”, and Camus said that we should confront our existential angst in the face of the absurd. Sartre and Camus argued that we should actively build our existence in the world, while the Daoists advocated natural spontaneity, wuwei. We know that Zhuangzi was always happy and joking, and Laozi conveys a sense of wisdom and serenity. Why such different outcomes for Sartre and the Daoists?

Sartre’s hopeless “Nausea” and Laozi’s mysticism are both logical outcomes of experiencing “matter” in its pure state, devoid of any mental ideas or meanings. Why do these two pairs of philosophers have such different responses and attitudes? They have starkly different responses to the same thing — the fact that the thing in itself seems to have no intrinsic use, meaning, qualities and attributes. But why did Laozi and Zhuangzi feel joy and serenity? And why did Sartre and Camus experience so much angst?

While Laozi and Zhuangzi cause us to break out of the mundane meanings, categories and concepts that clutter and carve up our mindscape, they point to an even greater, deeper meaning and significance. Both the useless tree and the uncarved block reveal something about “Dao”. Behind our short-sighted ideas, words and uses, there lies another, far greater significance. As we awaken to this greater reality, a sense of wonder arises, and we laugh at our own foolishness. But in Sartre, there is no deeper significance to discover in the world. All he could do was to “stifle at the depths of this immense weariness”, considering that “we are left alone, without excuse.”

For Sartre and Camus, underlying everything, there is nothing. If you take away the meaning, the significance and the concept, nothing remains, except that brute, naked and absurd thing in itself. Even you have no intrinsic meaning — the only meaning of your life is the meaning you give it through what you make of yourself.

But for Laozi and Zhuangzi, there is something else. When you strip away all the human meanings, significance, qualities, concepts and attributes, another world of meaning emerges. If you strip away one level of superficial concepts and appearances, there is another, deeper reality — something that you cannot describe, what Laozi called “Dao”. The infant or the uncarved block is closest to that something else, to Dao, to that invisible spirit or power. That is your true self. That is who you truly are. And who you truly are is deeply connected to everything else, because everything is connected to something deeper — Dao. If you connect to your true self, you will be in harmony with everything else in the universe.

We can see the spiritual dimensions that underlie Laozi and Zhuangzi. There is “something” — strip away the things you think you know, and you’ll find “something” else. This is what the spirit is seeking after — and it can be found in the depths of the body, or in the intrinsic value of a useless block of uncarved wood. But for Sartre and Camus, there is no ‘something else’. There is just that thing right in front of your eyes, without any meaning or purpose whatsoever — except the meaning you give to it.

Image: Cergio Cerrato via Pixabay

[1] See the full extract here: http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/nausea.htm

[2] Translation from Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, 2d ed. (New York: Free Press, 1993), pp. 28–31.

[3] Translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, Lao Tsu — Tao Te Ching, Wildwood House 1991, first published 1972.

This essay and the New Mindscape Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change, with the support of the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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David A. Palmer

David A. Palmer

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I’m an anthropologist who’s passionate about exploring different realities. I write about spirituality, religion, and worldmaking.