Wednesday, February 24, 2010

My Archive

This page will remain under construction.

Once again, I attempt to create a unifying mechanism which will contain my dissertation. Be contained, you!

This time, taking a page from Lauren Berlant, I call it "My Archive" :
One does not find the materials of the patriotic public sphere theorizing citizenship in either beautiful or coherent ways. These materials frequently use the silliest, most banal and erratic logic imaginable to describe important things, like what constitutes intimate relations, political personhood and national life. In this book I am conducting a counterpolitics of the silly object by focusing on some instances of it and by developing a mode of criticism and conceptualization that reads the waste materials of everyday communication in the national public sphere as pivotal documents in the construction, experience and rhetoric of quotidian citizenship in the United States. The very improvisatory ephemerality of the archive makes it worth reading. Its very popularity, its effects on the law and on everyday life, makes it important. Its very ordinariness requires an intensified critical engagement with what had been merely undramatically explicit. -- Berlant, The Queen of America, p. 12

My Archive: An Outline in Progress

  • Snippet: Chapter 3
    field.jessel's note: This outline was made with Checkvist, a free tool for making and exporting outlines. Cool, huh?
    • Chapter 3: The Essays of Yang Jiang 楊絳散文
      • Core Texts: Yang Jiang's Essays
        field.jessel's note: Note: I'm not sure exactly how many essays to look at. Is it possible to make comments about them all?
        • My First Time 'Downunder' 第一次下鄉
      • Motivating Texts (AKA "Theoretical Framework")
        • Tang Xiaobing on Melancholic Subjects (link)
        • Laurent Berlant, "Theory of the Infantile Citizen" (link)
          field.jessel's note: Here we ask, is Yang Jiang an infantile citizen?
      • Reviews and Ephemera
        • A young douban reader reacts to the essays, 2009


Translating: Mei Yaochen

Mei Yaochen, tonight's featured poet

Untitled (Thoughts of a 30 Year-Old Man in Ancient China)

Suddenly I wake to find my oak of wisdom has grown thin.
Lazy, I open the precious mirror to put on my face.

With the approaching wind, I fear exhaustion will make me quit,
Like herb of yi-shan, my song of fear grows long.

Green cassia perfumes my airy clothes,
Magic tallies adorn my silken bookbag.

The Western neighbor rhapsodies in vain!
Indissoluble, I arrive at my lord's side.



(Translation under construction)

I've been meaning to study Chinese poetry again formally and now a most wonderful opportunity has come: someone wants to pay me to translate a few poems! Why I want to translate Chinese poetry:

This first poem is by Mei Yaochen 梅尧臣 (1100s, to 1130-something, I think) one of the few poets of the Northern Song dynasty who was celebrated as truly great, and who mastered the supposedly Tang-dynasty art of regulated verse: four closely parallel couplets with intricate internal and external structures of rhyme, theme, parallelism of image and action, and so on. There are many guides to reading such poems, and a few readers seem truly to love them, but I confess that after a brief affair in the years 2002 and 2003, I can really not see the art in them, at least from the point of view of the modern English reader. From this end of things, the poems are evil little games played against one by the Chinese tradition. Nothing means what it seems to mean on the surface; ever noun and verb and image and sound is some kind of allusion, some sliver of an old text that serves to wink at the viewer if he knows it, and stare dully at him if he doesn't.

How could poetry like that ever appeal to any English reader?

Well, for one thing, there are English readers who study the Chinese language. I am of course one such reader. For us, the poem can be a nice game where you write out each character's English gloss and simply stare at the whole array of words to see if you can make some sense of it:

When that immediately doesn't work, you turn to a nice dictionary like and Google, and you begin to hack away at the often completely mysterious allusions. As it happens, this poem comes from Mei's early years when he was highly influenced by a particularly allusive bunch -- Prof. Michael Fuller describes them as "insiders." So it's not surprising that this poem is dense with strange allusions, viz.:
琼枝 qiong zhi, a character for a jade pendant of some sort, and the character for "branch." But this word refers to neither of those things; it is the name of a mythical tree, apparently. But the tree also isn't what is referred to here, but most likely is a metaphor for the talent of the worthy official 喻贤才; hence my sheepish "oak of wisdom." Our poet wants to do well in his job.
And so it goes, making each term and then each line a long adventure that a certain kind of reader might find not find tiresome for awhile.

A second class of reader is the reader who does not know Chinese, but perhaps wishes to read Chinese poetry because he or she hopes to catch sight of Chinese aesthetic principles: parallelism will shine through, as will images of plants, animals and people, often quaint and splendid in their variously exotic forms. I hope to write for this last group of people certainly. As a translator for them, I have a chance to shape their reception of what they perceive as Chinese in poetic arts. I will try not to be stuffy or orientalist if possible.

Finally, there is the holy grail: readers of English poetry. These people aren't picky when it comes to nationality -- they'd love to see decent poetry from China, in English. But they want form, humor, meta-awareness of the craft of poetry and all its foibles and tensions. I don't expect to be able to reach these readers right away, if ever at all. But hey, it's something to keep in mind while we practice, right?


Wandermonkey Podcasting 1: Wilson Comes to Lu

Attempting to channel the dead souls of the warring states

I commence podcasting! Yay! This .mp3 records an original story I wrote for a class in creative literature I took with Allegra Lingo.

Text of story:

For several days, Wilson had awakened each morning to the sounds of the boatmen’s oars, slicing gently through the brackish river water, the gentle chirping of waterfowl nesting near the river bank, and, beyond, in the dark woods that surrounded both banks, the cries of monkeys which occasionally emerged.

This is good, Wilson thought to himself as he rode down river in the hired boat. No talking, no banquets, none of the fake smiles and banal errands that were his usual lot, back in the capitol city, Chang’an.

At peace, on his boat, the calm sounds of pure nature lodged, reflected and then helped to shape Wilson’s own inner calm. He could feel waves of calm – probably they looked like the waves made by the boatman’s oar, cutting gently past the dark wooden prow.

But this morning, that calm began to erode again. They had reached the town of Lu – an ancient capitol in its own right, birthplace of Confucius. Now long-conquered by the mighty Han, Lu was essentially just a market town, a large bazaar. On this morning, Wilson knew he was entering Lu because he could hear the talk of the town, at first distant murmurs, as well as the higher shouts of hawkers. He looked up to see the boat pass under the colorful Chang’an Arch Bridge, and abruptly the voices of the crowds of market-goers and merchants erupted from their former dull roar into a louder polyphony in which he could distinguish individual voices. “Gali! Gaaa-li!” cried one hawker, offering the pungent spice powders of Indu in large sacks displayed beneath a umbrella fashioned ingeniously out of straw, and straw twine.

As the boatman pushed on, the early sun began to burn away the morning mist, and Wilson could make out through the haze the outlines of large buildings at the center of town, their familiar dipped archways announcing their function as Confucian halls of ritual. His father had sent him to patronize these sacred places of learning, part of the grand tour of the empire Wilson was taking before he replaced his dying father as Grand Historian of the Han court.

Hmph. Wilson’s mind always made spurnful noises involuntariliy when he said the words “Grand Historian” to himself. For there was nothing “grand” about the job. Not anymore – not since the new Emperor had turned away from taking dusty star charts and boring annals of battles, marriages and speeches of the past as guides to formulate policy. No, the new guy, a truly fearsome man who now called himself Wudi, “God-king of Martial Strength,” was much more interested in men who built steel foundries, men who could handle horses – barbarous, fantastical creatures! – and in men who traveled on big boats – over oceans, not rivers – men with gold.

Hmph! Well, hadn’t Wilson heard it all before? After all, he knew history. South of the Yangze, a mere three hundred years before, Wilson’s predecessor in Chu had tried to convince his king that a deal with Qin was a deal with death and destruction. That a kingdom seeking after profit must always fail to find it , though death and destruction were always close by.

The old statesman had failed to persuade his king. Chu, the great kingdom of the south, was at once on the brink of destruction, though none of its inhabitants knew of this then, except the elder historian, who promptly threw himself into the river. Before he drowned, or so the legend goes, he recited one last poem, a mournful ballad proclaiming his own wisdom and deploring the greed of certain dark men, as well as the benightedness of certain others. The poem contained the lines,

The Way is long. So long, aiyah!

And I have gone so slow.

Near and far, above and below,

I search, and I search, soul in tow.

How often Wilson had recited these to himself on his own travels. On his way, young Wilson had sought his own Way. His heart was torn – history was the family business, a hereditary honor, one he was duty-bound to inherit. But Wilson was a born wanderer, with a fevered mind that ranged over the land, with its winding rivers and jagged mountains. Yet nature was not his own calling, clearly, for of late his concerns more often than not returned to a single image, that of Jessica.

Jessica, the newest addition to Wudi’s harem, first glimpsed by Wilson when she arrived in the retinue of General Fan Cai. The august General had just crushed her beloved kingdom of Yue in the name of world-uniting Han. General Fan’s hordes had shredded the ancient Yue defenses with their bronze-piercing steel crossbows, and then they rode down the pitiful Yue royal guard with a new kind of regiment mounted on horses and known as a “cavalry.” Jessica, daughter of the murdered Yue king, had been set up as the grand trophy of this adventure, delivered to the Han court on a horse herself. Though bound hand and foot, she looked glorious clothed in solid gold thread, astride a jet-black Arabian stallion saddled and armored in solid, brilliant-white jade, which was in turn carved on every square inch in the mottled and grotesque abstract forms of the ancient Han gods. So beautiful and striking was Jessica, with her head held high, auburn hair flowing unbound down her shoulders, and hazel eyes – a mystical rarity in Han women, though more common among the sea-faring Yue – that rumor quickly spread that she was some earthly incarnation of the famed Goddess of the Luo, who legend said once made love with King Hui of Chu, and so caused to the whole Yangzte river valley to be choked with clouds and rain.

Wilson had been attending on his aged father, who was in turn a member of the Emperor’s ceremonial retinue. Gathered on the Dragon Terrace to receive the returning armies of the south, all of the Emperor’s servants had gasped as this beauty emerged through the city gates. Wilson, though, had attempted to resist. Hmph! He forced himself to think. How ridiculous, all this hoopla for a single girl – how could she have been worth the cost? The loss of life? Didn’t the others see that Wudi was out of control, crushing the old order wherever he looked? Wilson intended to scrutinize the girl head to toe merely to provide fuel for his own private expressions of indignance and fear for the future of the Han race. But suddenly, those light brown eyes (or were they green? He must look closer) seemed to lock on to his, plow straight down his eye sockets and into his heart. His jaw first slackened, and then dropped.

Hmph! Suddenly Wilson in a boat entering Lu, the seat of all learning, realized that his jaw was slack again, all because of a wandering mind and the image of a beautiful woman. What was happening to him? His calm utterly destroyed, Wilson worked in vain to settle his mind once again to the business of learning, of history, and duty.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Bravura Performance: Checking Out Tang Xiaobing

Wang Anyi, whose profile proclaims "has written more than five million Chinese characters, winning important awards from both home and abroad dozens of times." My favorite Anyi quote at the moment: "An infinite number of misfortunes weighs us down every day."

Finally, as if I've been searching all this time without really even knowing it, I find some academic writing that I'm willing to say, "OK, I should imitate this. For my dissertation, and right now. This is the way to write." But I shouldn't have been surprised -- it's an essay on contemporary Chinese literature by Tang Xiaobing.

Xiaobing, Tang. "Melancholy Against the Grain: Approaching Postmodernity in Wang Anyi's Tales of Sorrow." boundary 2: Vol. 24, No. 3, Postmodernism and China (Autumn, 1997), pp. 177-99. Tang Xiaobing interprets the short fiction and autobiographical essays of Wang Anyi as postmodern reflections on the melancholic subject. Chinese literature is largely feeling sad, and Wang Anyi is singularly good at saying so, and why.

I'll be reading his essay analytically, but I'd like to leave just a few notes from my first, inspectional reading, here:

Skipping the opening gambit and main narration of Wang Anyi's early short story "Our Uncle's Story," we must mention that the third section requests a conceit that is notable as I search for similar ways to apply literary theory in English, preferably originally in German:
3. "The same sharp sorrow suddenly arose
from the vast ocean"

To draw a not entirely improbable comparison, Our Uncle's Story, in Wang Anyi's literary imagination, may occupy the same position as The Origin of the German Play of Mourning does in Walter Benjamin's historical thinking. In his study of the seventeenth-century baroque Trauerspiel as a historical structure of feeling, Benjamin develops his messianic hermeneutics and asserts that a theory of Trauer can only be secured "in the description of the world which emerges under the gaze of the melancholic." By reconstructing this mournful gaze, in the words of Max Pensky, Benjamin delineates a "melancholy subjectivity" that dialectically unifies insight and despair and thrives on a symbiotic connection between a contemplative subject and the desacralized world of objects. Central to this form of critical subjectivity is the resurrected notion of heroic melancholy, to which I will return at the end of this essay. With the completion of Our Uncle's Story, Wang Anyi seems to have discovered a passage to historical depth by way of sadness or melancholy. The unhappy tales that have ensued are intensely subjective and are often centered on intriguing anamnestic images. If Our Uncle's Story offers a self-conscious narrative of the origin of her melancholy writing, in her 1993 novella Sadness for the Pacific, Wang Anyi gives a global expression to melancholy subjectivity through revisiting a family history of sadness.
Note that Tang's application of a theoretical conceit in the work of Walter Benjamin is actually presented via a secondary work: there is no evidence that Tang consulted Benjamin in toto.

12. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of the German Play of Mourning, quoted in Max Pensky, Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993), 90.
13. Pensky, Melancholy Dialectics, 107; see chap. 2, "Trauerspiel and Melancholy Subjectivity," 60-107.
The essay climaxes in a grand summary of two main currents in Chinese literature of the 1980s:
The pathos of the 1993 "patrilineal myth" seems to have drawn on two narrative modes that best define Chinese literature of the 1980s. One is the earlier and widely influential movement of cultural root seeking, which helped establish an anthropological concept of tradition and naturalistic vitality as critical antidotes to turbulent state politics as well as to the ills of modernization. The other development, loosely called either experimental, or even avant-garde, is one in which writers such as Mo Yan and Su Tong, by pursuing family genealogy as a personal and often redemptive project, push further the same intellectual and emotional concern with historical representation that underlies root-seeking literature. To these literary movements Wang Anyi has been an attentive and contributing contemporary. In Our Uncle's Story, the narrator makes a point of presenting the root-seeking movement as an intellectual watershed between the uncle's generation and that of younger, more cosmopolitan writers (Shushu, 38-39). On another occasion, Wang Anyi singles out Su Tong's novella Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes (1988) as a pivotal text in the experiment of fictionalizing family genealogy. The title alone is fascinating enough, she writes, for the word escapes already evokes a concrete mode of existence and suggests a perennial human condition of fleeing flood, war, and famine. This fascination with desperate flight leads Wang Anyi to rediscover her family genealogy in light of the turn-of-the-century Chinese diaspora over the South Pacific. A broadened cultural geography in her narrative consequently helps reveal the historicity of such formations as the nation-state and national identity.
This is largely a bibliography of imaginative literature -- the literary equivalent of a scale. This is not to subtract it from the powerful analysis it makes here, just an effort to summarize the structure of the prose. This is a closely-spaced scale, scattering at the shape of recent works; Tang is also capable of broader strokes:
Throughout the centuries, especially in the wake of great social upheaval, continual heroic encounters with melancholia have generated different legends, memories, and images. More often than not, the melancholy figure emerges as the mournful and profound, bitter but compassionate individual endowed with an artist's sensitivity and imagination. For with the onset of melancholia, not unlike in the liminal experience of madness, insight and darkness are fused together, and the afflicted individual gains access to the ultimate truth only to compound his or her incapacitating sadness and pain. This brings about such an intensely private suffering that any effort to ease it through externalization is bound to result in ever greater despair. Hence the "abyss of sorrow,"the "noncommunicable grief" that constitutes Kristeva's melancholia.
This simple statement performs logically exactly what I want the first chapter of my dissertation to do (all I shall add to this is an example or two of memories and images). It also broaches a type of subject, one that is presumed to cross cultures via the postmodern ether, a subject that is at least similar in both Kristeva and Wang Anyi. Here the postmodern is the daughter of the modern, as Kristeva is the daughter of Freud, so Wang Anyi is the daughter of the story of her uncle, her father, and other elders, at least as she tells it.
What the narrator reassembles, from the unfamiliar tropical landscape, is the same central bildungsroman of the generation of Chinese who, as the spiritual
offspring of the May Fourth era, turned into the revolutionaries of the 1940s. It has the universal modern plot of an individual actively seeking to participate in a greater national historical enterprise. Her father's passionate longing for the mainland is first expressed as the indefatigable enthusiasm with which he joins the Malay Chinese theater troupe and its tour of the peninsula to promote the cause of the Resistance. Eventually, it will lead him to Shanghai and, after many self-doubts and
trepidations, to the Communist base in southern Jiangsu. By then, he has consciously overcome his initial uneasiness with a crude communal life and matures into a "true soldier" (Shangxin, 371). He welcomes and enjoys the trip to the barren hinterland
as a peaceful return to the warm interior of a maternal body.
Here Tang elaborates very generally on a fragment of narrative from a literary work about a particular character, to suggest that the particulars of this created subject are generalizable and comparable. The written subject of Wang Anyi crafts something that we can all understand, finally, in its truth content as well as its craftedness:
From British colonialism to Lee Kuan-yew's successful rule in postcolonial Singapore, from the modern rubber industry to the worldwide Great Depression, from the course of World War II to the Comintern's determination to prevent the Japanese from attacking the Soviet Union, her multifocal narrative explores the tension between textbook knowledge on the one hand and concrete images and personal stories on the other.
I can certainly see that the tension between textbook knowledge and concrete images and personal stories is one that crucially offers the potential for new stories. And this is a general rule, not just something about China. I would not, I admit, have taken this tension to such a negative end, as it seems many in the postmodern world do:
The ever deepening gap between a conceptual history and anamnestic concentrations makes unavoidable the question of historical failure and success, which proves to be a determining question for a melancholy subjectivity.
In fact, I'm not at all sure that I dare to face up to this deduction that some have apparently made.

The melancholic subject is of broad interest to the postmodern culture critic because such a critic is necessarily mourning, feeling the loss of the modern grand narrative. The postmodern culture critic identifies with this feeling of loss, a feeling vaguely associated with urbanization and the growth of the market. Tang somewhat lamely asserts in his conclusion that surely this melancholic mind usefully protests when contemporary cultural politics begins to outlaw melancholy. This does remind me of my (also lame) metaphor of Yang Jiang as a sprout, a leaf amidst rubble. But I'll have to do better. This just isn't clear enough, nor punchy enough:
melancholy, as I have tried to show here, is the origin and content of Wang Anyi's recent tales of sorrow. It expresses the profound ambivalence that the writer, conscious of the approaching end of a century, sustains toward the course of twentieth-century Chinese history, in particular its human dimension. Utopian longings, generated by grand historical visions that are brought into focus at moments of collective action, inevitably turn into traumatic experiences for the individual,
but the rapid dissipation of idealistic passion in a postrevolutionary contemporary world also seems vastly depressing. The loss of genuine excitement, therefore,
becomes the historical moment in which Wang Anyi, through a discourse of melancholy, examines the dialectics of success and failure. This structure of feeling generates the central plot of her late genealogical "myths": a melancholic individual in the contemporary world trying to recall and reconcile herself with historical failures as human triumphs. For this reason, my claim that Wang Anyi's recent fiction articulates a "postmodern melancholy" does not mean that melancholy itself becomes postmodernist sentiment. Rather, it acknowledges the postmodern condition that Wang Anyi's melancholic writings critically reveal and even interrupt. We may even conclude that her melancholy, in which the longing for a modern longing causes the deepest sorrow and ambivalence, gathers its historical content and relevance only in an age that deems itself "post" and beyond all ideologies of the modern. In other words, Wang Anyi's postmodern melancholy may be read as a critique of a transnational postmodernism that, in the words of Ross Chambers, is nonmelancholic, "a kind of modernism without its pathos of lack." Melancholy against the grain: This may explain why in contemporary Chinese literature there is an increasingly pronounced mood of sorrow, particularly among a new generation of women writers. This latest development raises complicated issues of gender, aesthetics, and subjectivity that ought to be engaged at greater length. It also adds renewed urgency to a famous question, posed by Gustave Flaubert in 1853, about historical necessity: "Whence come these fits of historical melancholia, these affinities from century to century, etc.?"31 To begin answering this inquiry, we will have to enter the mournful and searching gaze that a melancholic directs at the world.
There is a real humanism -- "history, in particular its human dimension" -- but it is too buried here, as is the utility of "Melancholy against the Grain." Just what that utility is will have me thinking -- and going over this essay again.

Further Reading List (Partial, but I'll update):

Anyi, Wang; Michael Berry (Translator), Susan Chan Egan (Translator) (January 30, 2008). The Song of Everlasting Sorrow. Columbia University Press. Wang Anyi's most important novel, translated by the film critic!

Years of Sadness: Autobiographical Writings of Wang Anyi. Translated by Lingzhen WANG & Mary Ann O'DONNELL. With an introduction by Wang Lingzhen. Another new translation, though I still don't see the Chinese texts that Tang Xiaobing mentioned.

"Shushu de gushi" [Our uncle's story] in Xianggang de qing yu ai. Beijing: Zuojia chubanshe, 1996.The story of Wang's 1980s and 1990s writing becomes a little chaotic in the midsection of Tang's paper:

15. Wang Anyi, Shangxin Taipingyang (Sadness for the Pacific), in Wang, Xianggang de qing yu ai, 306. I translate shangtong as "sharp sorrow." The Chinese conveys both a physical sensation and a mental state, evoking what Freud
once described as Schmerz-unlust in his essay "Mourning and Melancholia." Hereafter,
this work is cited parenthetically as Shangxin.

16. Wang Anyi, "Wo de laili" (My origins), in Xiao Baozhuang (Baotown) (Shanghai: Shanghai Wenyi Chubanshe, 1986), 100-30. Wang Anyi has another loving portrait of her father in the essay "Huashuo fuqin Wang Xiaoping" (About my father Wang Xiaoping), in Pugongying (Dandelions) (Shanghai: Shanghai Wenyi Chubanshe, 1988), 78-86.

17. Wang, "Wo de laili," 121-22.

18. See Wang Anyi, Fuxi yu muxi de shenhua (Patrilineal and matrilineal myths) (Hangzhou: Zhejiang Wenyi Chubanshe, 1994). Both parts of this book, Sadness for the Pacific and Jishi yu xugou (Records and fictions), were first published separately in the journal Shouhuo (Harvest) in 1993. An unabridged version of Records and Fictions was also published as an independent novel in 1993 (see note 20). 19. Wang's 1985 story "Baotown," for example, is often regarded as a representative work in the mode of critical root seeking. See "Xiao Baozhuang" (Baotown), in Wang, Xiao Baozhuang, 243-339. An English translation of this story is available in Wang Anyi, Baotown, trans. Martha Avery (New York: Penguin, 1989).
Like all Chinese authors, Wang Anyi repackages material often. This kind of publication history is something I really neglect to write when it comes to writers of my own interest.


Pleasure Reading: Memoirs of Hadrian

Antinous, from the statue at Eleusis

Yourcenar, Marguerite. Memoirs of Hadrian. Translated by Grace Frick and Marguerite Yourcenar. New York: Farrar Straus and Young, 1954. The Emperor Hadrian is near his death, about 138 AD, and decides to write the story of his life, how he became emperor, and the great (queer, pederastic) love affair of his middle age (which in the ancient world counted old age; Hadrian died at 60).

I just finished this book and was mightily impressed. I can't help but compare it to a couple of volumes of American fantasy genre lit (Sir Apropos of Nothing comes to mind) and this comparison makes the French historicist Yourcenar seem even more powerful -- almost god like in her ability to weave fantasy. To readers and writers like Peter David: here is what I mean when I say I want to read fantasy.

First, Yourcenar's imagination channels the voice and persona of man unlike any a modern reader has ever met, but which must be familiar to any who study the classics: a ruler and egoist of the ancient world. This ruler persona sketches in adventures in a world of battles, political intrigue and affairs of the heart and we gladly travel along so that we can imagine ourselves taking on great power, or accepting the pains and pleasures of great passion. More importantly, we learn something of the layers and masks of any powerful ruler, of the many kinds connections he forms with other people, and we sense that a certain richness immanent in his identity is after all not that different in any modern identity:
Different persons ruled in me in turn, though no one of them for long; each fallen tyrant was quick to regain power. Thus have I played host successively to the meticulous officer, fanatic in discipline, but gaily sharing with his men the privations of war; to the melancholy dreamer intent on the gods; the lover ready to risk all for a moment's rapture; the haughty young lieutenant retiring to his tent to study his maps by lamplight, making clear to his friends his disdain for the way the world goes; and finally the future statesman. But let us not forget, either, the base opportunist who in fear of displeasing succumbed to drunkenness at the emperor's table; the young fellow pronouncing upon all questions with ridiculous assurance; the frivolous wit, ready to lose a friend for the sake of a bright remark; the soldier exercising with mechanical precision his vile gladiatorial trade. And we should include also that vacant figure, nameless and unplaced in history, though as much myself as all the others, the simple toy of circumstance, no more and no less than a body, lying on a camp bed, distracted by an aroma, aroused by a breath of wind, vaguely attentive to some external hum of a bee. But little by little a newcomer was taking hold, a stage director and manager. I was beginning to know the names of my actors, and could arrange plausible entrances for them, or exits; I cut short superfluous lines, and came gradually to avoid the most obvious effects. Last, I learned not to indulge too much in monologue. An gradually, in turn, my actions were forming me.
Here the trappings of fantasy literature -- "the privations of war," for example -- are forged in tandem with a more universal experience of maturing. The vision of a "young fellow pronouncing upon all questions with ridiculous assurance; the frivolous wit, ready to lose a friend for the sake of a bright remark" brings a wince and a smile to this reader, who sees in the line someone very much like himself, observant and interrogating by mind but nevertheless and after all limited by self-absorption in the end. This is meta-fantasy: the emperor figure in the fantasy is also admittedly a fantast, and points the way for the reader to realize that we are all always already pretenders.

Of course, lurking behind all this is Yourcenar the researcher and reader, a personality one of my teachers described as "creepy." I think the novel is at its weakest when this persona shines through with its eccentric and vaguely elitist tastes, and for me at least this seemed to happen more often in later passages of the novel:
...among the ancient poets Antimachus especially won me: I liked his rich but abstruse style, his ample though highly concentrated phrases, like great bronze cups filled with a heavy wine. I preferred his account of Jasno's expedition to the more romantic Argonautica by Apollonius: Antimachus understood better the mystery of voyages and horizons, and how ephemeral a shadow man throws on this abiding earth.
As the last sentence indicates, this is part of a longer passage describing the progress of Hadrian's mourning, but too often Yourcenar is not able to achieve the pathos either of grief or of true love -- both fold back into artfully fluffed-up reading notes that reveal nothing to me so much as the writing subject ensconced for emotional and social reasons behind the covers of old books. This is also revealed in scene after scene that should be charged with overt eroticism, but ends up a sketch completed with only to broad a brush. The best passage describing Hadrian's lover Antinuous seemed a great start:
If I have said nothing yet of a beauty so apparent it is not merely because of the reticence of a man too completely conquered. But the faces which we try so desperately to recall escape us: it is only for a moment ... I see a head bending under its dark mass of hair, eyes which seemed slanting, so long were the lids, a young face broadly formed, as if for repose. This tender body varied all the time, like a plant, and some of its alterations were those of growth. The boy changed; he grew tall. A week of indolence sufficed to soften him completely; a single afternoon at the hunt made the young athlete firm again, and fleet; an hour's sun would turn him from jasmine to the color of honey. The boyish limbs lengthened out; the face lost its delicate childish round and hollowed slightly under the high cheekbones; the full chest of the young runner took on the smooth, gleaming curves of a Bacchante's breast; the brooding lips bespoke a bitter ardor, a sad satiety. In truth this visage changed as if I had molded it night and day.
Still, we can tell from the opening of the passage that our author does not really want to dabble to much in erotica (that job of examining the scenario with a stronger magnifying glass perhaps falls to another writer!), and this impressionist sketch really is just as much of boy beauty as we ever get to see. More often it comes in tiny fragments weighted with bland words like "beauty."


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Philosophy: Ursprung in Benjamin

Angelus Novus, by Paul Klee (1920). Benjamin would focus on this and other similar images to come up with a peculiarly backwards-looking teleology: by consuming history in the manner of great angels, we construct the future.

Last Thursday, I attended a job talk delivered by an applicant for a new job at my school. I sort of liked his presentation on the ways to pick out signs of traumatic memories in 1950s Korean melodramas, and pointing towards the 1961 film "Stray Bullet" as an example of a breakthrough in overcoming convention to say something about the invisibility of state violence in Korean lives.

B., one of the more theoretically sophisticated members of the department, asked the applicant whether he had considered the "limitations" of the genre he had chosen -- melodrama, a popular form of Korean film loosely resembling American film noir. B. pointed to Walter Benjamin's work on the trauerspiel as an example of trying to figure out the "limitations of the capacity to represent allegory as a result of the history of the form." Or so I have in my notes -- no doubt I did not catch the words exactly. The applicant responded quite well, I think, by saying that that was why he wanted to emphasize the origins of the Korean melodrama in the Japanese colonial period, as an imported, but nevertheless popularly re-appropriated genre. Certain Korean melodrama makers were also involved in the production of Japanese-supervised war propaganda, for instance. But I think B.'s point is well taken if, looking back, the applicant did not exactly say why it's important that the rules of Korean melodrama have a certain history. Indeed, when I go over my notes, it seems that the applicant's only comment on the continuity of the careers of directors like Choi In-gyu, from propaganda to nation-nurturing melodrama, was that they perhaps exhibit "irony," and no further elaboration.

This was perhaps a bad mistake, or perhaps not. It's always difficult to state the correct scope of research in arts and literature in the age of cultural criticism. What is so often necessary, and repugnant for the Asian studies scholar, is a return to a canon of cultural studies founding fathers. Walter Benjamin is a particularly troublesome CSFF, because his theory seems at first glance to be a grand allegorical narrative that runs parallel to some weird middle-class European Jew's myth of the Messiah, language, and being itself. In fact, there is no doubt that this is what Benjamin is about; but questions persists as to the practical use-value of Benjamin's narrative. Is B. correct that it at least provides an example by which to question the limitations of a genre? Probably, or so it seems to me. Thus, there's nothing for it but to try to understand something of what Benjamin is about.

Here are my opening notes regarding such an endeavor, arranged bibliographically, of course:

Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Translated by John Osborne and with an introduction by George Steiner. London: NLB, 1977.

Since Benjamin's take on the PhD dissertation left two entire departments at the University of Frankfurt utterly confused and, moreover, resentful, I am going to take my time with approaching the text. Even the Wikipedia article contains a warning that its own description of the work may be unclear and confusing, which offers more evidence that this is a work for which I require guides - previous readers who have stated well what is at stake in the text itself and its reception since the late 1920s. As for Wikipedia, it offers up that Benjamin takes the Trauerspiel as an example of a monad, which as I picture it now is an idea that penetrates and propagates through cultural history that can be grasped from two distinct perspectives at once: from one perspective the monad is a tiny fragment of the larger system, with a distinct shape like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle. But unlike ordinary jigsaw pieces, monads contain information that can be used to deduce the entire remainder of the puzzle. The implication seems to be that a single monad reveals a universe of history, all the way back an origin. Whoa -- it kind of freaks me out just to write that!

Pizer, J. “History, Genre and Ursprung in Benjamin's Early Aesthetics.” The German Quarterly 60, no. 1 (1987): 68–87. This essay offers new insights to Benjamin's work on the German tragedy, or Trauerspiel, for English readers who have German and are already familiar with the basic notion of the Trauerspiel and other European imaginative literature. I don't have this preparation, but I plunged ahead anyway, reading aloud the German passages at first, then passing over them lightly because I simply don't what many words mean.

Back to the ability of the monad to reveal history all the way back to the origin. "Origin" translates Benjamin's German term "Ursprung," which is just one of the difficult philosophical constructs involved in Benjamin's theories. There is the mystic grand narrative we mentioned before, the stakes of which are hazy in the best of times, a fact attested to by the wide variety of readings we see in professional philosophy literature on this point. Thus Pizer begins:

All serious explorations of the early aesthetics of Walter Benjamin have attempted to come to grips with his complex critical telos of redeeming the origin ("Ursprung") of the creative word of God by liberating language from its post-Adamite role of defining objects. Only by treating literary texts with a view to recovering language in its divine primordial condition, prior to the Fall and the division of subject and object, can such a redemption be approximated. As Richard Wolin constantly emphasizes in his book on Benjamin, "Origin is the goal,"' and Benjamin feels this goal can only be approached by abandoning the treatment of literary texts as external constructs to be
analyzed and demystified. Only an immanent approach can transcend the work's historical imprisonment and glean its truth content. This truth content always points towards an understanding anchored in the divine origin of the logos.
It is Pizer's chosen work to evaluate and reconcile readings of Benjamin -- Wolin wins consistently, but only a broad reading can capture all the significance of Ursprung as a property inhering in the Trauerspiel as an abstract idea. Grasping Ursprung does not mean that one is exploring an idea ahistorically, but somehow the inverse, that it marks out the traces of history around it in all directions:
This brief overview of some of the past critical struggles with "Ursprung" shows a remarkable range of opinions concerning the interrelationship postulated in Benjamin's theory between history and genre. To sum up: "Ursprung" establishes the historical character of the genre, transcends the historical character of the genre, overcomes the ahistorical character of the usual view of genre, establishes the pre- and post-historical character of the genre, and transcends the accidental character of the history of the genre. Other treatments of "Ursprung" have emphasized the telos motivating the relationship of history and structure within the genre/work.
For Ursprung to do so much work seems impossible, but this is no mere idea or property we are talking about, but a monad.
Most interpreters of "Ursprung" have ignored its Leibnizian derivation. An important exception is Wolin, who indicates "the category of 'monad' serves as an additional illustration of the being and specificity of the idea. Like origin, the monad knows history not in terms of its extensive empirical being, but as something integral and essential." This is also true in relation to the literary genre. The Leibnizian monad is characterized by "plenitude, continuity and harmony." The plenitude -Benjamin uses the term "Totalitat" of form grounded in the "Wissenschaft vom Ursprung" is based on its ideational character. The idea is the configuration of the apparently contradictory
extremes of phenomena. This gives the idea a plenitude redeeming it from the linear character of history. ...In The Monadology (1715), Leibniz comments that "although each created monad represents the whole universe, it represents more distinctly the body which is particularly affected by it and of which it is the entelechy."
The term "entelechy" is a new and difficult one for me. According to Wikipedia, its something like the potential inherent in one body to become some other body, in a certain context. How's that for obscure? Wood, for example, may have as one entelechy the state of being made into boards and then a house, at least in consideration of wood as a building material, which of course happens when you are building a house. Similarly, a society can take on the entelechy of decline, sort of like the wood seeing itself as a burnt-down house, I suppose, which it might see if it was burning. I presume that Leibniz wanted society not to take on the entelechy of decline, but of progress, and this would be its chief engine towards that end. It's like when your coach tells you that keeping your eye on the ball will result in your catching the ball, that kicking the ball towards the goal will put the ball in the goal, and then you find that indeed it does, at least much of the time. This is part of Leibniz's grand dream that all the potential and possibility for a civilized society exists inside any particular fragment of the society, as long as the receptive mind was there to see it. As for the receptive mind, this is ideally the Enlightenment subject, an abstract consciousness that is a self portrait of Leibniz himself, but also at the same time God, as well. As Pizer continues (and runs a bit beyond my ability to comprehend fully):
The internal, perfected nature and form-engendering energy of Aristotle's entelechy imparts to the Leibnizian monad its self-sufficient integrity. The fact that the monads find their final cause and sufficient reason in God establishes harmony and continuity among them. But the Discourse on Metaphysics (1686), which prefigures The Monadology epistemologically, establishes the fundamental immanence of all ideas. They are only linked externally by God.
Seriously, this for me is a nearly inscrutable way to conclude the discussion, though I do gather some sort of sarcastic humor is at work here.

But back to basics. The point of all this is that Benjamin at first looks like he is asking people who write about arts and literature to ignore the historical circumstances in favor of what the work gives of its own accord, but on closer inspection he is actually saying that when we look at a work in close enough detail, with enough intensity of philosophical reflection, then we can see all the history we need inside the work itself:
Whereas Der Begriff der Kunstkritik equates the idea of form with a continuum of forms, Benjamin represents the idea in the Trauerspiel book as a unique originary essence.24 This shift is necessary in order to establish an important thesis: the German Trauerspiel is not part of a continuum of the symbolic Greek tragedies. Rather, its "Ursprung" is grounded in a unique historical-philosophical moment, producing ideas embedded in the individual works. The task of the critic is to evoke these ideas through philosophical contemplation.
This certainly sounds very tough, if not impossible for a clumsy thinker such I as know myself to be. But as Pizer continues, it starts to seem like the basic idea behind most expository writing on arts and literature: we point out what crosses boundaries, and we do so that we may better understand how fine the art is:
The rejection of the establishment of a normative system of literary genres from both an inductive and a deductive position leaves Benjamin in the apparent position of endorsing a critical relativism which treats each particular work as an original category in toto. As such a view is foreign to Benjamin's aesthetics, it is natural that he distanced himself from it through a critique of the foremost modern proponent of the complete formal integrity of the individual work of art, Benedetto Croce. On the foundations of his refutation of Croce's nominalism, Benjamin formulates his concept of origin. He expresses support for Croce's rejection of the grouping of individual works of art into aesthetic categories, and the attempt to use genres to mediate between the universal and the particular. Benjamin deviates from Croce's rejection of the literary genres in endorsing the tragic and the comic as useful ideas. Unlike the concepts of "pure tragedy" and "pure comic drama," informed by the artificial inclusiveness of rule-based genre theories, the genre as idea is an internal structure. As such, it is neither prescriptive nor empirically comprehensive. Rather, as a monad, its totality is established by its incorporation of both the pre- and post-history of phenomena, including works of art. This indicates the fundamental link between origin and monad. A criticism based on the immanent totality of the idea rather than the extensive categories created by traditional genre poetics seeks what is generically exemplary in the individual work....A significant work is a transgressive work. The paradox that the "transgressive work will become a norm or a generic paradigm" precisely as it does away with norms is rooted in the principle of "Ursprung.
It seems that Benjamin wants to look to the edges of genres like Trauerspiel to see the greatest, because most transgressive, examples, which question the values and present something indicative of historical change, which we me reflect upon. That is one seed from which I must eventually grow my own idea of why we must continue to write about arts and literature.

Benjamin has a very subtle theory of how genre happens in history to be observed and reflected upon. The ideas for making art and literature come out of the ether of history, the mass unconscious, the cultural politcs, and then they coalesce onto the phenomena of history to form genre. Thus the Germans with Trauerspiel; thus the Chinese with wound literature; thus the Americans with The Simpsons and Family Guy. Water molecules coalesce onto bits of jagged surfaces to crystalize into ice; so the ideas and concerns of a people are caused by circumstance to arrange themselves into genre. The ability to see backwards from the genre -- here the Trauerspiel, coupled with contemporary reflection -- here Romantic criticism (oops, forgot to mention that before) to grasp the historical pattern behind it all is the hope and goal of Leibniz's theory of the world, and this is what Benjamin asks us to consider when we write about art and literature.

I will consider it. But I am thinking now back to a line from my first reading on Habermas, that younger and less pious member of the Frankfurt School, with a perhaps more fraught position among the CSFFs:
Habermas's basic philosophical endeavor was to develop a more modest, fallibilist, empirical account of the philosophical claim to universality and rationality. This more modest approach rids Critical Theory of its vestiges of transcendental philosophy, pushing it in a naturalistic, “postmetaphysical” direction (1988b). Such a naturalism identifies more specific forms of social-scientific knowledge that help in developing an analysis of the general conditions of rationality manifested in various human capacities and powers.
A dim vision appears in my head, of a vast and complex disagreement between the mystical and naturalistic branches of critical social theory. Habermas is over there grappling with sociologists, quantitative types who make tables and take polls. He is outside, in the air. Benjamin stays in, preferably in a place that is cool and not too brightly lit. He requires attention not to humans capacity to behave as nodes in a large chaotic system, for this is insulting to his sense of dignity and respect for the species. Instead he must look to what is immanent, to the godly self, a microworld filled with all the history of the entire world in every detail, wrapped up tightly in every genre, every work, every person and every idea if only conceived of and reflected upon with the proper depth of perspective.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Pauline Yu, "Charting the Landscape of Chinese Poetry"

Du Fu 杜甫. It turns out that hundreds of years passed before he began to be seen as China's greatest poet. This shot is from his "thatch hut" in Sichuan, where you can take a tour for only 20 yuan.

Yu, Pauline. “Charting the Landscape of Chinese Poetry.” Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR) 20 (1998): 71–87. This essay contains a lovely introductory portion that asks us to picture Chinese anthologies as gardens -- a sophisticated design principle. Then, a bravura exposition illustrates the most basic principle in choosing the peaks of Chinese poetry: peaks happen when poetry has real political potential.

I read this essay mainly to help with a professional translation gig, one that concerns poetry developments during the Northern Song dynasty. Since Pauline Yu does not concern herself with this period, I was at first not certain the piece would be useful to me.

However, it was useful. This piece has an even more important insight than any particular historical narration: it helps us begin to understand Chinese poetry historians. To Yu writing in 1998, many current historians refused to see the poetry landscape of their imagination, with its massive, highest peak in the High Tang and in the person of Du Fu, was in fact a historical development itself. I can sympathize with them: they might not wish to do understand this, because it would reveal a political agenda in poetry criticism that might seem to cheapen the art. I call that the Harold Bloom complex (glib, I know, but I can be glib when I'm talking to myself. And I'll correct myself later if this is wrong.).

A very, very brief outline of the historicization work Yu performs:

Lynn, Richard John. “The Aesthetics of Orthodoxy: Gao Bing’s 高棅 (1350-1423) Tangshi pinhui 唐詩品彚 (A Critical Anthology of Tang Poetry)” appears in Richard John Lynn, ed., Essays in Memory of James J. Y. Liu 劉若愚 (forthcoming), a manuscript of 28 pages. Prof. Lynn seems to have done much of the groundwork for Yu's statements on the roles of Yan Yu, Gao Bing and others on the formation of a Tang canon with Du Fu on top. See especially note 17, p. 77:

As noted by Richard John Lynn in his "Alternate Routes to Self-Realization in Ming Theories of Poetry," in Susan Bush and Christian Murck, eds., Theories of the Arts in China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 319. Lynn also discusses Yan Yu's poetics and its implications in several other articles, among them: "Orthodoxy and Enlightenment: Wang Shih-chen's Theory of Poetry and Its Antecedents," in Wm. Theodore deBary, ed., The Unfolding of Neo-Confucianism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), pp. 217-269; "Tradition and the Individual: Ming and Ch'ing Views of Yuan Poetry," Journal of Oriental Studies, 15.1 (1977), pp. 1-19; and "The Talent-Learning Polarity in Chinese Poetics: Yan Yu and the Later Tradition," Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews, 5 (1983), pp. 157-84.
Perhaps Yu's best achievement is her extremely stylish and well-spoken elucidation of this point. Yu, p. 80:
Gao Bing's pedagogical aspirations are also evident in the third set of boundaries he delineates, that of elaborately articulated rankings of the poems in the collection. He systematically groups all of the works included first by prosodic type, then by rank, and then, within each rank, by author. The tradition of grading individuals-especially government officials-or works had deep roots going back to the Han dynasty, and the nomenclature of Gao Bing's categories underscores both the political implications of such evaluations and his particular esteem for the High Tang....[p. 83]
Tang literary culture appeared to have institutionalized more dramatically than any other era the mutual implication of self and society, the links between the individual and the body politic that informed the discursive identity of the elite as upholders of culture and the imperial order. This had been evident above all in the inclusion of a section on poetic composition on the most literary and most prestigious civil service examination in the Tang, one that led to the degree ofjinshi art or "scholar presented" to the emperor for office.

A Canon of Canon Formation:

note 1, p. 71:
See, for example, "Poems in Their Place: Collections and Canons in Early Chinese Literature," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 50.1 (June 1990), pp. 163-196; "Song Lyrics and the Canon: A Look at Anthologies of Tz'u," in Pauline Yu, ed., Voices of the Song Lyric in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 70-103; "The Chinese Poetic Canon and Its Boundaries," in John Hay, ed., Boundaries in China (London: Reaktion Books, 1994), pp. 105-123; and "Canon Formations in Late Imperial China," in Theodore Huters, R. Bin Wong, and Pauline Yu, eds., Culture and State in Chinese History: Conventions, Accommodations, and Critiques (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), pp. 83-104

Knechtges, David R. “Culling the Weeds and Selecting Prime Blossoms: The Anthology in Early Medieval China.” In Scott Pearce, Audrey Spiro, and Patricia Ebrey, eds. Culture and Power in the Reconstitution of the Chinese Realm, 200-600. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003, 200-41.

note 7, p. 73
See, for example, Alan Golding, "A History of American Poetry Anthologies," in Robert von Hallberg, ed., Canons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 279-307, and Jane Tompkins, "'But Is It Any Good?': The Institutionalization of Literary Value," in Sensational Designs (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Lindenberger, Herbert. The History in Literature: On Value, Genre, Institutions. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.


Classical Chinese: Rouzer, Lesson 1

Liu Xiang 劉向, Archivist and Collector.

Rouzer, Paul. A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, distributed by Harvard University Press, 2007. It's clear enough now that for my teaching and even my PhD work, I need better classical chops. I'm beginning at the beginning -- back to my teacher's basic textbook.

I have a recurring dream that I have to go back to elementary school, because it turns out I didn't actually finish some crucial credits. It's not entirely a nightmare, because I always imagine that I would do quite well in grade school, seeing as how I spell and write sentences at or above my grade level. Reading this book from the beginning, I get that feeling again. The first few lessons at least are quite easy, but of course they are also rabbit holes as well -- practically any line of classical Chinese, no matter how short or seemingly insignificant, seems capable of supplying adventures of the literary and linguistic kind.

Lesson 1: A Few Proverbs


He who knows Fate does not complain to Heaven; he who knows himself does not complain to men.


Bad fortune is born of the desire for gain; good fortune is born of self restriction. The sage uses the mind to guide ear and eye; the inferior person uses ear and eye to guide the mind.


Those who are good, Heaven repays with inner virtue; those who are not good, Heaven repays with bad fortune.

A Few Notes:

Proverb 1


He who knows Fate does not complain to Heaven; he who knows himself does not complain to men.

The term yuan , which I translate here as the simple verb "complain," is also sometimes translated as "rancor," and refers to the deep indignation of a person who has not got what they want -- the classic example is the Confucian whose king will not listen to his advice. Yuan-rancor is a fraught concept because it demands expression but can only remain honorable if it is not whining. Hence the virtuous trait yuan'er bu nu 怨而不怒, to have rancor without complaint. This proverb perhaps gives us more clarification of yuan-rancor: its expression as a frustrating song to Heaven must mean that the singer does not "know" Fate; that is to say, he is not resigned to the workings of Fate, but has a strong desire to establish his own will.

In the second statement, whining is suspicious activity because there is the distinct possibility that the truly knowledgeable person would know to blame only himself. I could imagine arguing that a person of true understanding could at all times see that the decisions they have made have got them to this imperiled state, and so that person would not blame anyone else for his problems.

One sort of wants to link these statements together: on the one hand, you should not blame Heaven since Fate is fickle and everything crashes down at some point anyway. And on the other hand, you are most likely a big factor in any bad situation that arises in your life, so you should not whine about yourself too much. There is a strong sense of "shut up or put up," of learning to simply bear adversity in good form, without whining.

Proverb 3:


Those who are good, Heaven repays with inner virtue; those who are not good, Heaven repays with bad fortune.

As we saw in the second proverb, "bad fortune" 禍 is more likely to be opposed with good fortune, but here it is paired with de, one of those rich philosophical terms whose meaning has been the subject of conversation for thousands of years. I haven't read Benjamin Hoff's book The Te of Piglet yet, but this proverb gives me a sudden desire to do so, because I think Hoff may have been on the right track by associating De (="Te") with the smallness, modesty, and general self-abnegation of Piglet. Hoff's message, I presume, is that we should all be a little like Piglet. Reading liberally, we might have it that in this proverb, the term shan , "good," describes the basic motivation to improve the self in an honest way, and the Chinese opinion is that the virtues of smallness, modesty and more generally the ability to adjust to the situation at hand will be the result of this basic good motive.

A little context:

The Shuo yuan 說苑, or "Garden of sayings," is a first-century BCE compilation by the great archivista Liu Xiang. To Liu Xiang, working hard every day in the Han Imperial Library, the work must have been like so many files that I have created to store little stories, images, sayings -- snippets, really -- that don't seem to go anywhere else but somehow seem to the reader who encounters them that they should not be lost, that they have some utility, either as wisdom or as records, but always because they bring the past back to life.

If you go over to The Chinese Text Project, a tremendous undertaking by Donald Sturgeon (thanks, Mr. Sturgeon!) you can see the entire text of the "Garden." You will see first of all that it is divided into twenty sections; all of these proverbs come from the 16th section, titled Tan cong 談叢, or "Grove of conversation." This metaphor of a garden, which contains little "groves," seemed whimsical to me at one point, and then quaint later, but Pauline Yu points out that it is actually a sophisticated design principle:

...[I]n fact, in the Chinese tradition if a large collection of works by more than one author is not called a "grove of letters" (wen lin 文林), then it will more than likely be named some variety of "literary garden" (wen yuan 文苑). Anthologies, indeed, are in many respects very much like gardens, for they are usually carefully designed, with individual works or plants selected and ordered according to a particular scheme or sequence. (from "Charting the Landscape of Chinese Poetry")

I unfortunately do not know much about the "Garden of sayings," and so won't go into the possible schemes and sequences in it here -- though I really feel like doing that right now rather than working on my dissertation.

Section 16, "Grove of conversation," has 74 short texts, all of which seem to be proverbs or long paragraphs of proverbs. Paul takes his first proverb from entry 22, which is the longest of them all:

無不為者,無不能成也;無不欲者,無不能得也。眾正之積,福無不及也;眾邪之積,禍無不逮也。力勝貧,謹勝禍,慎勝害,戒勝災。為善者天報以德,為不善者 天報以禍。君子得時如水,小人得時如火。謗道己者,心之罪也;尊賢己者,心之力也。心之得,萬物不足為也;心之失,獨心不能守也。子不孝,非吾子也;交不 信,非吾友也。食其口而百節肥,灌其本而枝葉茂;本傷者枝槁,根深者末厚。為善者得道,為惡者失道。惡語不出口,苟言不留耳;務偽不長,喜虛不久。義士不 欺心,廉士不妄取;以財為草,以身為寶。慈仁少小,恭敬耆老。犬吠不驚,命曰金城;常避危殆,命曰不悔。富必念貧,壯必念老,年雖幼少,慮之必早。夫有禮 者相為死,無禮者亦相為死;貴不與驕期,驕自來;驕不與亡期,亡自至。踒人日夜願一起,盲人不忘視。知者始於悟,終於諧;愚者始於樂,終於哀。高山仰止, 景行行止,力雖不能,心必務為。慎終如始,常以為戒;戰戰慄慄,日慎其事。聖人之正,莫如安靜;賢者之治,故與眾異。

All of the statements here seem to be proverbs, though there a fun and interesting variation in their quality. I'm out of time right now, but I will make an exercise out of translating each of these little proverbs in turn. To begin:


He who has nothing that he does not do has nothing he cannot complete; he who has nothing he does not want has nothing he cannot obtain.

He who tries it all can finish it all; he who desires it all can get it all.

The first translation is an effort to represent the literal meaning of the Chinese, which applies double negatives and nominalization to achieve a Yoda-like effect of wisdom. In the second, I try to rewrite it as a proverb more congenial to Western standards (suggestions eagerly accepted).

This first proverb seems a little unwise, doesn't it? Unless I've made some major mistake (quite possible), it seems to recommend that we should be infinitely ambitious and greedy. I suppose it was intended to be spoken to lazy boys who are too self-satisfied, but still, I can't imagine ever using this proverb.

More to come!


Inspirational: Teaching in China and Japan

Counterspinning Revisionist History 1

Chronicle illustration; Timothy Cook for The Chronicle Review

I stumbled on this article by David McNeill as I ritualistically cleaned my inbox this morning. More and more lately, I've come to dislike reading the The Chronicle of Higher Education, but this was the kind of refreshing exception that always has me turning back to it.

Right now I feel I can hold up this piece whenever anyone asks why I'd want to teach abroad, or indeed, why I or anyone should do humanities:

February 14, 2010

Reading History in Japan

The query sounded harmless enough, though in hindsight it was laced with political arsenic. What did I think of Yoshinori Kobayashi? It came after the first class I taught this semester on media and politics in Tokyo's private Sophia University, and the questioner was a standout student: sharp, motivated, and with unusually well-formed opinions for a Japanese undergraduate. He wants to be a lawmaker with the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, whose views I find toxic.


Kobayashi is one of Japan's best known and more controversial cultural figures, a neoconservative manga author who trades in historical revisionism. For example, he calls the 1937 Nanjing massacre, in which historians say Japanese imperial troops slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians, a "communist lie." He says the thousands of "comfort women" recruited from across Asia and forced by the Japanese military to perform sexual services for the troops during World War II were "prostitutes." He claims that Japan rescued Asia from the evils of white European colonialism.

Such formerly fringe perspectives have become more mainstream in Japan in recent years. Former Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso were known supporters of revisionist views, and a combined force of newspaper editors, academics, and ruling lawmakers has tried several times over the last decade to force a textbook expounding similar views onto the curriculum of the nation's high schools. But it is Kobayashi who may have done the most to popularize them among the young with his manga comics.

I chatted with the student for a while, telling him my standard line on revisionists: that they invariably ignore the mountain of documentation for Japanese war crimes by focusing on the molehill of tainted evidence that refutes them. He looked unconvinced. Kobayashi resonates with many young men who grow up in a country still trying to digest the disaster of 1933-1945, which ended with the American firebombing of 67 Japanese cities and the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I find Japan's drift toward historical myopia especially disturbing because before arriving in Tokyo I spent a year teaching at a Chinese university, where I saw Japan through a reverse mirror. Most students I taught at the Guangdong University of Technology knew chapter and verse of Japanese war crimes, especially those of Unit 731, a Nazi-style biowarfare unit some believe responsible for a million deaths. Few Japanese students have heard of it. For years, the Nanjing atrocity topped the list of university polls on the single event that Chinese students most associate with Japan.

Both sides have their reasons for playing up, or down, these crimes. Japanese nationalists bemoan the "masochistic" teaching of history at the nation's high schools, which they say has taught generations of citizens to hate their own country. China, like many postcolonial nations, defines itself against its old enemy and spends valuable study time rehashing Japan's wartime atrocities while ignoring its own blind spots. Try criticizing Chairman Mao Zedong, defending Taiwan or Tibet, or telling Chinese students that Japan has been at peace for 64 years.

I see my challenge with my students as avoiding a drift into postmodernism—the notion that the quest for "truth" is quixotic and that historical issues must be viewed through the prism of nationalism. Both progressive and conservative scholars from Japan and China are devising a joint historical curriculum and textbook. But a joint panel of Japanese and Chinese experts—the Japan-China Joint History Research Committee—after four years of research has failed to narrow differ­ences on Nanjing and other war crimes. So for now, students increasingly get their knowledge of history from pop culture, not academe.

To sidestep the political issues, I've been trying to encourage a multiplicity of viewpoints: I give students information they're missing and tell them to make up their own minds. In Japan, for example, I assign research into Unit 731, one of the darker chapters from Japanese—and U.S.—history. Some students are astonished to learn that Japan's top scientists carried out grotesque experiments, including vivisections on live prisoners of war and mass poisonings of Chinese villages, farms, and wells, before being allowed to escape justice after the war by the United States, which offered a quid-pro-quo deal for the experiments' results. Many of the unit's scientists went on to sterling careers in postwar Japan. "Why have we never heard about this?" is a typical student response, the prelude, I hope, to a much more profound question: If I didn't know this, what else don't I know?

In China, these exercises were trickier. My teaching contract explicitly prohibited discussion of politics, religion, and sex. Each class in Guangdong had a "monitor" reporting to the dean, who could have me fired. Challenging orthodoxy on Japan, for example, or hacking away at the stale hagiography of Chairman Mao by discussing his responsibility for the death of millions or alleged fondness for sleeping with young girls was asking for trouble.

I decided to dive right in, steering clear of the school's approved textbooks and distributing photocopies from biographies of Mao I had bought in Hong Kong, which are banned in mainland China. We read articles from American magazines written by Chinese dissidents who had fled the country in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. We discussed Japan's pacifist postwar constitution and whether the anti-Japanese rhetoric of China's state education was out of date.

The reaction wasn't always pleasant. One red-faced student angrily denounced the Chinese writer of a Time magazine article as a "traitor" and demanded to know why I had made him read it in class. I said that the best way to understand any issue is to read as many sources as possible, and to distrust the ones spoon-fed to you by officialdom. How can I trust you? he asked. You can't, I replied: Make up your own mind.

My reward was some of the most engaged—and argumentative—essays I've ever read. And I kept my job. (I assume I was reported, but two things may have worked in my favor: The school was desperately short of foreign-language teachers and couldn't afford to lose one in mid-term; and I was otherwise reasonably popular.)

Obviously this is not an issue confined to China and Japan. As an Irishman who once taught at a British university, I was often amazed at how little students knew about the key signposts of Irish history, including the 1840s famine and Bloody Sunday (January 30, 1972), the British Army's killing of 14 civilians that changed the course of modern history between the two nations. Textbooks in France whitewash that country's colonial rule over Algeria. High-school history in the United States has been accused of being shockingly selective in its reporting of the Vietnam War.

I'm a sociologist, not a historian, and am way outside my area of expertise when confronted by budding revisionists like my Japanese student this semester. But I find it hard to sit back and watch the vertiginous slide into historical relativism. So I read up on the cartoonist Kobayashi and studied his arguments. They were easy to rebuff after a quick trawl through alternative sources, which I took back to my class.

Try reading some of these and let me know what you think, I told my conservative student. If you like, we can devise an essay assignment so you can explore these issues. He glanced at the list without much enthusiasm. I recognized the look he gave me: Here was a smart, confident youngster who had been challenged and didn't particularly like it. But he didn't say no either.

David McNeill teaches at Sophia University's Faculty of Liberal Arts in Tokyo and covers Japan and Korea for The Chronicle.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Job Talk: Korean Culture

An example of this genre of film, popular in the 1950s in S. Korea

Today I encouraged my class to come down to a job talk for a new position opening up at my school, teaching Korean literature and culture.

Dr. Travis Workman,Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, UCLA. "Traces of the Postwar: Violence and Memory in South Korean Cinema." February 18, 4:00 p.m. 306 Folwell Hall.

Overall, the talk was chock full of interesting close readings but also what Ouyang Xiu would call "lofty and obscure" at times -- it's not that he was incomprehensible, but that he didn't do enough to hold the audience's attention. There weren't enough sticky spots, to use Yang Jiang's phrase. This was mainly a factor of his nervousness, though, I realize.

Actually I'm quite sympathetic, especially since it became clear over the course of the talk that he does have some genuine insights into the nature of the connection between family and domestic spaces on the one hand and the state and political allegory on the other hand. That in a nutshell is what I am working on as well.

Raw notes, for my own purposes only:

"Traces of the Postwar: Violence and Memory in South Korean Cinema"

I will show three clips or so in the middle.

The Korean war rarely appears in commercial melodramas. State violence <-> Film, narrative. Not necessarily war films, but rather post war melodrama. Not direct representation, but indirect. Spectral present in the post war condition. "The Hand of Destiny" 1954. Occlusion of violence, intimacy and personal ethics instead. Late 1950s, "Hell Flower," 1958. More complex historical consciousness. Experimental film: "Stray Bullet," 1961. (In)visibility of violence.

No peace treaty after 1953. so "post war" is a problematic term. Films, 1953-1961. Trauma and hope for family reunion a common theme in the cinema. The melodramatic form: Kim's characteristics..."Cinematic Reconciliation." Latter two films were working against the grain for the day. Aesthetic of romantic intimacy and familial belonging. (Violence and social conflict). Melodrama also a staple during J Colonial Period. 40s-50s directors were under Chosun, monitured by J Colonial Gov't. Chae Ying-yu (sp?) 1944, J propaganda film. 1946, "Hurrah, Freedom." Is his career somewhat ironic? Continuity between propaganda, commercial melodrama. cf. "Madame Freedom," etc. director____. "Children of the Sun" -- propaganda. Defense ministry work.

"The Hand of Destiny." A character's gradual break with communism and embrace individual ideals. Counterespionage agent. Romance turn away rom communism. Save her man from the N Korean commander. The romance between two spies gives aesth quality of J colonial films. Opposes N/S K identity. One capable of feeling, one is completely cold and calculating. And faceless. Scene. Face vs. Faceless. Faceless v. Romantic scenes.

The Hand of Destiny (Unmyeong-ui son) (1954)

Director : Han Hyeong-Mo
Production Company : Han Hyeong-Mo Production
Date of Theatrical Release : 1954-12-14
Running Time : 85 min.
Opening Theater : Sudo Theater
Genre : Anti-Communism

Romance converges with political allegory. cf. "Military Train," 1938. Not seeing the faces creates a paranoid effect. Vs. Camera gets intimate in romance scenes. Melodrama technique. Affective force. First onscreen kiss in K. cinema. The humanistic bond between two characters. Opposed to Communist ethos. K. McCarthyism. Manichean universe. It's a post war film from only two years after. The colonial relationship with the USA never appears. No national division. Gender, class relations. All this comes later.

"Hell Flower." Pays closer attention to the characters on the ground. Their personal decisions. Oppositional identities. Culture of US bases and black market around them. Domestic poverty. Econ conditions. Amer occupation. New subject positions. S = moral sentiment. N = ideology. A comedic tone to prostitution: Korean women prostitutes work near the bases. Gang can use the allure to steal goods. A gratuitous dance. A distraction. Satire of base culture. [Reference to a volume on this subject] After all it's still a melodrama. Innocence, experience, virtue, corruption, evil. Crazy plot: Sonia the object of anxieties about the tenuousness of memory. In contrast to Judy, Sonia's strategizing...prevents her from having shared history. impossible dream of escape. Life before doesn't bolster her. Visibility v. invisibility. Clip: "Even you give me an embarrassed look." Nostalgia redeemed at the end when Dong-shik invites Judy to come back to the countryside. Judy and her boo both die. DIsinterest with the past is a strategy for survival. Viewer is implicated in this problem of what can be said, what not. Judy's memory of violence is not visible. Film is flipped -- it can show, but it doesn't. Tension: screen and intuition. unvisualized. unsaid. nostalgia and narrative present. There is a momentary disruption.

"Stray Bullet," One of the best films from S. Korea. Very aware of the war going into the present. The problem of visibility. Knows its a film. Neo-realist attention to economic crises. Formal dimension of cinema's relationship to the past. Two scenes. 1. Self-reflexivity on commercial cinema. 2. Characters remember, but we don't see it. We see them dreaming, hallucinating. Waking dream space of a terrified mother. How to respond to the present, the visible? Quick cuts. Mediation. The war comes into the post war. His tooth -- upset. Get me out of here!

I read Hell Flower and Stray Bullet against commercial melodrama. Challenge perceptions.

Questions. They must have been familiar with film noir and American melodrama. Why Women? Women in 1950s, social conservatism, gendered anxiety about losing something from the past. Is Stray Bullet maybe not generically a melodrama? A comment on the difficulty of producing a memory that isn't melodramatic, perhaps? Is it invisible because their is a refusal to exploit the wound? Is it to resist the wound at that time? Address the question of how to articulate or represent war memory. Looking to not commercialize the war wound. It always seems to become sensationalized. Is cinema particularly the media where this can happen? The image, which need not use language. Privilege for exploring the problem of memory. And film noir -- shadow, black and white.

What are the limitations of a melodrama? The 1950s audience, more open and able to experience the war, has something which is not represented directly. If its political allegory, what limitations might it have? Benjamin on the Trauerspiel -- the limitations of the capacity to represent the allegory as a result of the history of the form. Absolutist states. Benjamin's interest is in figuring out these limitations. The melodrama traces to the colonial period. State/korea as family. Or as a kind of sentimental love relationship. (The Origin of German Tragic Drama) Resolutions have difficulty engaging with politics. Stray Bullet feels like a more political film.

Form allows you to fit into a censorship context, perhaps. Just as in the USA with noir. Able to critique our society beyond the Cold War.

The trace being part of the dream of the present.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Peeking back at Chinese Politics

Bo Xilai 薄熙来, China's "maverick" leader (rightmost, shedding a tear with the elders. I think I see the memories in the shot too...

It's definitely time to start reading about the very top of Chinese politics again, in preparation for the transfer of power in the next couple of years. A line in this story caught my attention.

Bo got to where he is partly because he is the son of Bo Yibo, one of
China's "eight immortals" - the tag for an exalted club of revolutionaries
who lived long enough to stamp their marks on China's reform era history.

I'm not sure what I'll be doing with this yet, but the buzzword is: "generations."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Yang Jiang, "First Time Sent Down"

Yang Jiang and her family of three. Judging from her daughter's apparent age, this would have been from the 1950s. So Yang Jiang looked a bit like this when she went from Beijing to a mountain village to work with peasants.

About a month ago I mentioned that I would translate Yang Jiang's personal essay "The First Time I was Sent Down." I kept putting that off, but now I am coming back to it finally.

The essay is from 1991, and I'm slightly ashamed to say I still don't know its publishing history. I do know it was not in the 1994 volume Za yi yu za xie (Memoires Decousus), which is where I thought I had originally encountered it. For now, I feel like I can put off understanding where the essay came from while I worry about reading it very carefully.

Yang Jiang 杨绛. "Di yi ci xia xiang" 第一次下鄉 [The first time I was sent down]. ? : 1991. [I'm taking the text off]

1. A Socialist Education

When we first went down to the countryside, one of my fellow senior scholars waved at one peasant woman, saying, "Look at that! Doesn't she resemble Mona Lisa?"

"She does. She really does!"

From then on, we called her "Mona Lisa."

On the threshing floor, beside a triangular chicken coop, there was a very tall and very thin old man grasping a long bamboo pole. His head was facing straight up, and he was waving his beard. Another colleague said, "Look at that! It's Don Quixote!"

"Ha! No way!"

So then we called him "Don Quixote."

This was after the "pulling white flags" of 1958, in the late fall of the "Great Leap Forward." Our corps of over twenty or so people went down to the countryside to get an education in socialism. To remold our selves. But these senior scholars were still looking through capitalist intellectual lenses. By continuing to think of things subjectively, they had actually managed to remold the characters of the peasants!

I had heard that female comrades over forty five did not have to go down to the countryside. I didn't dare to believe it, and didn't want to, either. I had seen with my own eyes how "Lao Zhang" and "Xiao Wang," younger comrades, had become so intimate with each other, while I had remained always the "older woman," someone to respect, but also keep one's distance from. And I too was not satisfied with myself.

Of course, going down to the countryside was "voluntary." I was a true volunteer, not out for political gain in any way. But it's true that my motives were not pure. First, I was curious. I wanted to know what it would be like to live in a thatched hut. Second, curiosity again: I had heard that the ability or inability to form a strong connection to the peasants marked whether one was a true revolutionary or not. I wanted to know, once and for all, whether I was a revolutionary, or not.

Going down to the countryside of course presents many difficulties. Our only daughter, had already gone to work in a factory, smelting steel. The two of us would then go down to the countryside to smelt ourselves -- even if the Ahyi who looked after the house was unreliable. Mocun went down a month after I did, so I was not able to pack all his luggage for him; I couldn't stop worrying about this. I also was also a little afraid that I was to old and weak myself to adapt to collective life. Still, before Liberation I had already experienced a few years of bitter struggle to survive, so I new this chicken fluff would hardly count.

Notes: Since reading Berlant's "Theory of the Infantile Citizen," I have begun to suspect that Yang Jiang can be described as infantile in some respects. She is interested in what it would take to make her a "revolutionary," which was at the time, we might say, a crucial criteria for citizenship in China. In one reading, Yang Jiang is like Lisa Simpson going out on a bike ride -- she hopes to gain a sense of what it means to be a citizen (a "revolutionary" at least) by checking whether she can gain a connection with the peasants, just as Lisa and other American pilgrims hope to commune with nature. So here the peasants are a bit like nature, and indeed, they are associated with nature. Perhaps even more importantly, like American pilgrims, Yang Jiang must submit to "education," or "re-education;" both terms call to mind the negation of the adult's satisfaction with his role in society and the need to approach the state as an infant, to learn to be something else.

But like The Simpsons, Yang Jiang's prose is a source of irony, and even at times sarcasm perhaps. This complicates what she is saying. She may well be undermining the predominant, hegemony-helping role of the "sent down" narrative even as she sort of confirms it in her own way.

For example, Yang Jiang writes, "But these senior scholars were still looking through capitalist intellectual lenses. By continuing to think of things subjectively, they had actually managed to remold the characters of the peasants!" If we take Yang Jiang to be earnestly seeking to become a revolutionary, then this is a criticism and a distancing gesture. But if we take Yang Jiang as speaking with a resigned sense that she already knows she was no revolutionary, then she actually sympathized with her colleagues. The presence of Don Quixote here seems important: Don Quixote had long become a symbol of her stubborn resistance, located in her hard work, fortitude, persistence, humor, learned capacity for satire, learned in the ways that ideology can cloud the brain, etc. So I would like to think that Yang Jiang is being ironic when she criticizes her colleagues. But actually I get the feeling that there is a mixture of irony and earnestness here. Part of her earnestly wants the experience of pure, magical entry into the club of "revolutionaries," and part of her is proud, or at least wry, in articulating the ways that she stands outside that club.

We might also note the use of quotation marks, particularly around that term "voluntary," which seems to point to a system of power that could call something voluntary when it really was not.

On the concept of a self in Chinese literature: it's obvious even from this opening passage that Yang Jiang is highly engaged with the business of investigating the self, and the big issue that underlies her story here is the question of whether she could change her 'self' to match the needs of the revolution. In this piece, she does seem to be at least partly earnest in her quest to do so -- that's what makes it especially interesting to me right at this moment, because I feel that in more famous texts like Six Chapters of a Cadre School and We Three, there is no question that she could not change her 'self,' but the question is much more open here.


Terms and topics

About Me

My photo
We are all wanderers along the way.