Zeno and the Art of Archery ☆

| June 22, 2010
Horace Mann School. Children Dressed As Foresters, Playing On The Columbia Campus. Teachers College. (Date Not Known) (n/a, 1900-1950), by Photographer: Unknown

Horace Mann School. Children Dressed As Foresters, Playing On The Columbia Campus. Teachers College. This image is provided courtesy of the Gottesman Libraries at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Following up on the one about the bear, here’s another joke having to do with education:

A duke was hunting in the forest with his coterie of men-at-arms and servants, when he came across a tree with an arrow protruding, dead center, from a target painted on it. Marveling at the nice shot, they ride on.

Before long they come on another tree, with another target, and again, an arrow dead center. Eventually they see another, and another, until it seems like every tree in the forest has been painted with a target, each one pierced with unerring accuracy.

Riding on in astonishment, they eventually come across a small boy, carrying a bow and a nearly empty quiver. Pressed, the boy eventually admits to being responsible for this incredible display of marksmanship.

The duke suspiciously demands, “You didn’t just walk up to these targets and place the arrow in the middle, did you?”

“No, my lord, I shot them from a hundred paces. I swear it.”

“That is remarkable,” said the duke. “I hereby admit you into my service as a master archer.

“I just ask one favor in return: you must tell me how you managed to become such an amazing shot.”

“Sure,” said the boy, happy to oblige. “It’s really easy. First I shoot the arrow, then I take my paintbrush…”

This, of course, only works as a joke. Told straight, it is the lament of modern education: either it is a the sham of modern testing, in which the results can be manipulated to show whatever is convienent, or it is the critique of “kids these days” lazily gaming the system. In my day we had to earn an A.

But as a joke…

…as a joke, it deflates our dukish concern with displays of skill. Slipping past the suspicious defenses, it exposes the hidden gullibility of desire. And it does so by painting a circle around the more essential truth: that the proliferation of targets was meaningless to begin with. It takes a child to see the fun in running around, painting targets after the fact.

The slogan of exhausted parents and teachers: “do what I say, not what I do.” That is: will you just say it, and then act like you mean it? The child-archer’s modus operandi: do what you do, and then say it.

Everything hinges on the function of arrows.

Precision Guided Weapon of Choice

It is all about eye-hand coordination, internal and external relations. A question of angles. Precision. Here is an illustration from Descartes.

But more exactly it is a question of character. What kind of person are you? A test. This is the role of the arrow in Ulysses’ return home: to differentiate him from all of the improper suitors. Only Ulysses will be able to pull the bow well enough to thread the twelve rings. The arrow as indicator of true nobility, amidst corruption. This is also the story of Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow. The bow and arrow is the proper way to split hairs. Only the truly noble will master the skill, the rest are pretenders or pedants, in either case unfit for rule.

The true scholar, then, must be able to point accurately, to tell the real difference, ferret out the critical distinction. Or so it would seem. Is that not what is happening in this fresco portraying Zeno distinguishing the difference between the doors of truth and falseness?

Zeno Fresco

This is the money shot, the moment of truth. Poised to go either way. (Is it just me, or does this remind you of the moment at the elevators in Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice? “You can go with this, you can go with that…”)

Notice that although the whole scene is oriented in one direction, it is still undecided. Zeno’s shadow, in fact, falls right between the doors, and unlike the others, he is actually pointing with both hands, one to either side. Likewise, although he is clearly in motion, he is not heading through a door. Poised in flight,  it is as if he will never reach the target. This might lead us to think that something else is going on here than simply pointing the youth down the right path.

Zeno’s Arrow of Absurdity

One of Zeno’s more famous paradoxes was that of the arrow in flight. Defending Parmenides, who argued that the world was not made up of multiplicity but was one, Zeno takes up an unusual strategy. Instead of proving this to be the case, he sought to demonstrate the absurdity of the opposite claim. If we imagine a world in which time and space are infinitely divided, then an arrow in flight, at any instant, must be immobile. Absurd. Ergo, all is one.

The role of the arrow then, is to show that there was always only one. The illusion was to imagine that things were divided. Falseness is not one more thing, it is nothing.

This was the aim of the popular book, Zen in the Art of Archery, the realization that we are no different than the target. It is in the action that we discover the falseness of our designations. Thus war or sport are not the opposite of contemplation but its completion in the act.

Deleuze writes, in The Logic of Sense:

The sage is like the archer. However, this connection with the archer should not be understood as a moral metaphor of intention, as Plutarch suggests, by saying that the stoic sage is supposed to do everything, for the sake of attaining the end…. The relation to the archer is closer to Zen: the bowman must reach the point where the aim is also not  the aim, that is to say, the bowman himself; where the arrow flies over its straight line while creating its own target; where the surface of the target is also the line and the point, the bowman, the shooting of the arrow, and what is shot at. (146)

We should see the simple act of the child-archer in this vein. He was simply painting what was already the case. But if everything is one, we should not mistake this for the logic of identity. Above all, what we learn from the child is that there is never just one arrow: the final test. Instead identity is reduced to absurdity through the proliferation of arrows and targets.

A Hail of ArrowsWhat we always seem to manage to get wrong is putting this proliferation back in the service of noble identity.

In Asian epic cinema today—say in Hero—the hail of arrows always seems to go from the ordered and infinite imperial force towards the singular heroic target. While in Western tales the arrows blotting out the sun tends to go from multitude to multitude, raining down on the ranks. The sign of randomness. Who will fall? Which crack in the shields will be found? An arm, a leg. A game of fate. The hero is the one taking his chances like anyone else, while of course surviving for the true showdown when one shot will finish it. This would be the latest film adaption of Robin Hood, for example.

Are these our only choices? Perhaps what the child-archer must teach the sages is that the fun is in seeing where things will land.