UNDER HEAVEN XLIII

Recontextualizing our desires within a cosmic perspective we will “see the subtle”. Subsequently exercising our desires we will “see the manifest”. What are these?

The manifest is easily enough imagined—it is all that we imagine. Or we can also say that it is all that we imagine exists, which is not to say that it does or does not exist. It is “the world” and how we see ourselves within it. More mundanely, it is the stuff of the world and our “selves” within it.

The subtle, on the other hand, is not so easily imagined; and when we do imagine it, it reverts to the manifest.

Rather than “subtle”, some translate “spiritual” (Legge) and others “mystery” (Suzuki). Since whatever word we use will prove both inadequate and self-contradictory, there is little to choose between them.

Whatever the word may be in the Chinese (to which I am not privy) we might consider an interpretive “empty” given Laozi’s metaphoric use of the term to illustrate what he has in mind here.

“A wheel has thirty spokes, but the empty hub makes it useful. Clay makes a vessel, but its emptiness is its usefulness. An empty interior makes a room, and windows and doors make it habitable. The manifest is valuable, but the empty makes it useful.” (11)

This is Zhuangzi’s “usefulness of the useless”. But the useless must retain its uselessness if it is to continue to be useful. It must remain empty. Naming it a conceivable Nonbeing or a metaphysical Dao renders it immediately useful and thus robs it of its emptiness.

The “subtle” might thus be described as emptiness, limitlessness, open-endedness—none of which can in fact be imagined except as invitations to experience the unimaginably subtle.

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