Just a quick post this, as I have a train to catch up to Newcastle, and—before that—a lost mobile phone to track down (that’s the trouble with mobile phones: they move around, so it’s hard to remember where you last put them… I like my phones affixed to the wall). I’m heading up to Newcastle for a conference on Working Wonder, back in the Fine Art department where I did my undergraduate degree. I’m looking forward to being in what is probably my favourite city.
I’m doing a paper on the diviner Guo Pu (郭璞), and an interesting tale that I first came across in Writing Against the State: Political Rhetorics in Third and Fourth Century China by Dominik Declercq. The tale concerns Guo Pu’s encounter with a strange creature. The account Declercq draws from comes from the seventh century compilation, the Jin Shu 晉書, but this is drawn in turn from the fourth century Sou Shen Ji 搜神記 (see here). Here’s the passage I’m talking about.
From the Sou Shen Ji
Guo Pu crossed the river, and the head of Xuancheng prefecture, Yin You, made him a military adviser. Once there was a creature, large like a water-buffalo, grey in colour, with stumpy legs, its legs like an elephant, its chest at the front and the tip of its tail white, very strong and dull-witted; and it came up to the city walls. The crowd were all astonished. Yin You got his men to stalk and trap it. Then he ordered Guo Pu to perform a divination. He got the hexagrams “dùn” [䷠ 遯/遁 “fleeing – retreat”] changing to “gǔ” [䷑ / 蠱 “work on what has been spoiled”]. Having performed appropriate divinations, he said its name was “Donkey Rat.” One of the men who had stalked it pricked it with a spear, a foot deep. A prefectural official went to the temple to ask if it should be killed. The oracle said, ‘The temple god is displeased. This [creature] was sent from Lake Gongting by the Lord of Donkey Mountain [Mount Lu, 廬山 Lushan, with Lü / 驢 here substituted for Lu 廬]. It came as far as Jingshang, and recently passed by me here. You must not touch it”.
What my paper is about is the question of where the wonder is in this tale. I’m interested in the Western imperative to wonder—which appears everywhere from Brian Cox’s mop-headed stargazing, to the homilies of the religious on BBC radio’s Thought for the Day, to the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the artists. Roughly, my argument (and it is rough) is that wonder is a curious kind of notion that has an ethical force in the West, and that is in need of further examination, and that what we take for wonder may be rooted in a particular relationship to the unknown (or the unknowable) that is not as universal as we imagine. Along the way I’m going to be talking about great chains of being, flat ontology, and—of course—the 萬物 or ten thousand things. All in fifteen minutes. Well, I can but try…
The main reason I’m saying any of this, however, is that it is an excuse to show you the following picture I made of a donkey-rat, a piece of photoshopping of which I am inordinately proud. If you see one of these wandering around your way, do let me know. I’d love to meet one…