Skull in a Dream

When the work I had invested years of my life in was declared to have been put into administrative purgatory after having effectively been there earlier, a friend of mine kept saying that there is no such thing as degrees or status after death. I found this comment a little bit grating because as I had entrusted in those years of work I had hoped to be given the "credentia" of the credential. I was also curious, though, about my friend's concept of death because apparently I have a notion that death is earned through one's labour; a form of tithe.
I cannot speak for other people but because I grew up with the Chinese classics before the Western ones, when I realise I have questions I rush to those books for some kind of orientation. Even if that impulse is not shared (I do not wish to promote a postured universalism) I am sure I am not alone in using some texts for divination, which may in fact describe reading with the heart and not the mind.
Behold what I found on death and honours in Zhuangzi 至樂 4:
"At midnight the skull appeared to him in a dream, and said, 'What you said to me was after the fashion of an orator. All your words were about the entanglements of men in their lifetime. There are none of those things after death. Would you like to hear me, Sir, tell you about death?' 'I should,' said Zhuangzi, and the skull resumed: 'In death there are not (the distinctions of) ruler above and minister below. There are none of the phenomena of the four seasons. Tranquil and at ease, our years are those of heaven and earth. No king in his court has greater enjoyment than we have.' Zhuangzi did not believe it, and said, 'If I could get the Ruler of our Destiny to restore your body to life with its bones and flesh and skin, and to give you back your father and mother, your wife and children, and all your village acquaintances, would you wish me to do so?' The skull stared fixedly at him, knitted its brows, and said, 'How should I cast away the enjoyment of my royal court, and undertake again the toils of life among mankind?'"
In  徐無鬼 4 we are given a list of people in different professions, each doing what he is skilled at but all sad when things do not go their way. This may be contrasted with the definition of complete enjoyment in 繕性 3, which Zhuangzi also calls the "attainmnet of the aim". The aim, however, is no fancy thing, which only affect the body and not its nature, being temporary, coming and going. One is not to be motivated by the wish to pursue things and one's wish to avoid distress is not to be the cause of one's learning. Both pursuits, however, may be enjoyable if one sees them as ways of freeing oneself from anxiety. "If now the departure of what is transient takes away one's enjoyment, this view shows that what enjoyment it had given was worthless. Hence it is said, 'They who lose themselves in their pursuit of things, and lose their nature in their study of what is vulgar, must be pronounced people who turn things upside down.'"




I see the skull that appeared in the dream. It said the work is only real if it is seen as a release from anxiety. The credential is akin to the transient thing that comes and goes.
This idea is contrary to the resume culture, which I have been thinking about a lot recently - thinking without any action. Is pressure regarding credentials also a class issue? But what about circumstance: Thomas Hardy's Jude is testament to how the able but misplaced soul may fail to thrive.
"Mencius said, 'A man's advancement is effected, it may be, by others, and the stopping him is, it may be, from the efforts of others. But to advance a man or to stop his advance is really beyond the power of other men. My not finding in the prince of Lu a ruler who would confide in me, and put my counsels into practice, is from Heaven." (梁惠王下 23).
But Heaven, 下, can be an ambiguous character, highlighting the paradoxes and inconsistencies in life and literature. As I get older I find that I crave such puns that stimulate the moral imagination. Laws may be perfect but man is not - which interferes with how the law is to be 'interpreted' to man, Aristotle teaches, which is not to say that Aristotle is a moral relativist or does not maintain ideals, laws. The play around meaning, and in verbal ambiguity, can be heuristic.
下 can mean nature but it can also mean social forces, and in a context like the one above it may signal the random counterforce to the normative, which I take to mean Heaven only if this is the moment one uses the provocative 下 to inspire the 下 of order, thereby "freeing oneself of anxiety". The word 下 is used because we are to be pushed to it: the negative is hiding the positive, vice versa, or both are hidden together in the pun. We are being pushed towards a positive value because Mencius elsewhere gives us the answer to when circumstance does not go our way.
"Mencius replied, 'Honour virtue and delight in righteousness, and so you may always be perfectly satisfied. Therefore, a scholar, though poor [ - exhausted all resources], does not let go his righteousness; though prosperous [達 - having attained sth], he does not leave his own path. Poor and not letting righteousness go - it is thus that the scholar holds possession of himself. Prosperous and not leaving the proper path - it is thus that the expectations of the people from him are not disappointed. When the men of antiquity realized their wishes, benefits were conferred by them on the people. If they did not realize their wishes, they cultivated their personal character, and became illustrious in the world. If poor, they attended to their own virtue in solitude; if advanced to dignity, they made the whole kingdom virtuous as well.'" 盡心上 46.
In other words, one is to make the best out of what one has, whatever it is. I wrote a letter to my father this morning, musing that no matter how prudent one thought one was in their decision making as a youth, it is not possible to keep off the moment of doubt, 下 is not in one's control, yet it is not an excuse to go around sulking. Maybe the point is not in what we achieve but in character building, in making something from what we have even if it sometimes isn't much - maybe just a skull in a dream... that shows us how to paint by number the fruits of bounty.



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