i. The Huai Nan Tzu, a Taoist book from the 2nd century B.C.E., tells the story of a man from ancient times, Kung Yu-ai, who for seven days was turned into a tiger. Fur grew over his body; his hands turned into claws; his teeth were those of a wild animal. His brother went to take a look; the tiger leapt and mauled him to death.
The tiger never knew he had once been a man. The man never knew he would someday be a tiger. The tiger was happy being a tiger, following his tiger nature. The man was happy being a man, following his human nature. Both enjoyed the happiness of being themselves, and neither suspected that they were equally happy as something entirely different.
ii. The Lieh Tzu, a Taoist book from the 3rd century C.E., tells the story of a man who couldn’t find his axe, and suspected the boy next door of stealing it. For days he studied the boy, and from the boy’s demeanor, his overly friendly way of saying good morning, his averted glance, and even his way of walking, it was obvious that the boy was the thief.
A few days later the man found his axe in the garden. The next time he saw the boy, there seemed to be nothing suspicious about him at all.
iii. In the Midwest, a student told me how she lay awake at night, planning what she would wear the next day, including an alternate set of clothes in case there was a sudden change of weather. The most important element in her wardrobe was the socks. When wearing tennis shoes, the socks must match their color. However, when wearing leather shoes, the socks must match the blouse or sweater. The color of the pants or skirt served merely as a transition between socks and top.
These strictures, articulated at some length, went far beyond, or deeper than, fashion sense. In her childhood she had seen the Judy Garland movie Meet Me in St. Louis and had been impressed, not by the clang clang clang of the trolley, but by—she used the phrase—the mise-en-scène. All of the details of the furnishings and the clothes were historically accurate, and yet they had been color-coded to create a seamless, however unreal, world. The student felt that by similarly color-coding herself, she was transforming her own world and somehow entering into the perfection of that Technicolor Vincente Minnelli St. Louis. An outsider would have been unable to perceive the difference with any other student in a baggy white sweater, blue jeans, white cotton socks, and black leather shoes, but those socks—that is, the whiteness of those socks—were the key to her happiness or a solace in her unhappiness.
iv. According to the T’ang poet Liu Tsung-yüan, there were no donkeys in Kweichow, until a man, “fond of curiosities,” brought one in on a boat. He soon found the donkey useless, and let it loose in the hills.
A tiger came across the donkey and, because of its enormous size, mistook it for a god. When the donkey brayed, the tiger’s heart turned weak. Nevertheless, the tiger kept watching the donkey. He tentatively circled closer, then closer, and finally brushed against the donkey’s side. The donkey kicked out in annoyance.
The donkey had revealed what it was. The tiger roared, leaped, and ripped open its throat
v. On a cold, rainy, February night in New York, I remembered the story André Malraux used to tell—and which, at some remove, was told to me—about Mallarmé’s cat, whose name, almost needless to say, was Blanche.
On a cold, rainy, February night in Paris, a thin and bedraggled alley cat, wandering the streets, looks in the window of Mallarmé’s house and sees a white, fat, and fluffy cat dozing in an overstuffed chair by a blazing fire. He taps on the window:
“Comrade cat, how can you live in luxury and sleep so peacefully when your brothers are out here in the streets starving?”
“Have no fear, comrade,” Blanche replied, “I’m only pretending to be Mallarmé’s cat.”