Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Me today

Today I studiously avoided distractions, but as usual it feels like too little too late. I used the morning to scan half of the French dissertation on Yang Jiang's work, which doesn't look particularly useful but which I should have read through by now. I wrote a fair-ish paragraph introducing my subject and practicing for the AAS panel description I need to write, but I've lost the meaning of the thing. Once again I don't feel confident in the texts I want to study or with what I want to say about them. I'm at sea with my presentation for next Thursday. Sigh.

I did get through "Remembering My Third Aunt"again, and wrote a little bit about it, though the writing lacked soul for the most part. My chapter draft is a huge mess. Tomorrow I'll finish scanning the French dissertation and begin in earnest on the clean-up operation with this bit of writing. Oh, I wish I had given the writing to my teachers before I left for England!

Reading: New Formations

"Britain's most significant interdisciplinary journal of culture, politics and theory."

I read Roger Lockhurst's contribution to the special issue of new formations devoted to "life writing." I was hoping for some close reading's of Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, but instead I got a brief meditation on the significance of trauma memoir. I was interested, and found Lockhurst really hits the right note on this touchy genre: it's kind of bad to read about people getting hurt and dying, to witness the grief and pain of the author in the writing. But it's good in a way, because it prepares us for necessity of "magical thinking" in our own lives. And at its best, it can remind us of the need for "magical thinking" in life more generally -- Lockhurst does a great job implying a lot here, without going into excruciating detail.

There was one significant reading, however, on the subject of Didion's application of "repetitive syntactical structures," when she describes her experiences after her husband's. This repetitions (wish I could quote some to you but Lockhurst doesn't give an example) convey "both a sense of magical incantation to keep him alive, but also a kind of post-traumatic automatism - and these repetitions are accumulated throughout
the book to brilliant effect. These tropes are at the foundation of literature’s
elegiac function, at least according to William Watkin, who suggests that in
elegy ‘language’s assumed magical powers of naming, and thus of giving or extending life, is called upon in the service of intense grief.’" That last part certainly sounds nice, but I'm not sure I've digested it yet.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Public Sphere

Habermas, the philosopher of the moment

Writing today. Excruciating as it gets this close to presentation time.

Reading a bit too. Finally with the Habermas:
They already sprang from the needs of a bourgeois reading public that later on would find genuine satisfaction in the literary forms of the domestic drama and the psychological novel. For the experiences about which a public passionately concerned with itself sought agreement and enlightenment through the rational-critical public debate of private persons with one another flowed from the wellspring of a specific subjectivity.

Tomorrow: revise, supplement. Begin reading essay on Yang Jiang's aunt.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Progressive Bourgeois

Seems Like Old Times

I only watched the first few minutes of this film before it became apparent that neither Goldie Hawn nor Charles Grodin, and least of all Chevy Chase, do anything that is remotely funny to me. Still, I might have continued to watch because this is the story of a progressive bourgeois family that serves to re-inscribe the rules for behaving in the public sphere by focusing closely on what we owe to each other in our home life.

Formulated this way, the film does much the same work that Yang Jiang's essays about her childhood in a progressive Confucian home where her father was a lawyer, her mother a housewife with a social conscience, and their home a kind of salon and half-way house where free expression and help for the disadvantaged were the main motives driving daily life.

But it was after all a bad film, which is why A. wouldn't consent to watch it through. Homework viewing, perhaps?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Writing on my Own

Portrait of Modernity as an Old Man (Thanks, Tianya)

Productive day of writing on my own. I'll share a snippet of a portrait of Yang Jiang's Gatekeeper:
"I am the gatekeeper of the Yang household of Temple Lane. My name is Zhao Peirong. That's ‘Zhao’ 趙; ‘Zhao’ spelled with with a ‘xiao’ 肖 and a ‘zou’ 走.”
To this day his voice is still in my ears...He was in his fifties, thin, and of medium build. His back was slightly hunched, and his face was long and narrow. Hanging off the sides of his mouth was one of those mustaches in the shape of a ba 八, the strokes of the ba trailing off in a downward hang. He walked with the slow steps of an old person, or a scholar. When he spoke, his mouth always carried a certain smile, the lips pursed as if he were about to make an apology. And then he would always begin by saying "Zhege, zhege..." (this, this...), which with his Antown accent came out as "Guoge, shige..."

Tomorrow: finish "Remembering My Father," talk with SC, revising the Yang Bi essay.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Retreat, Day 11 (The Last Day)

Center for Writing's Homepage

On my evaluation of the retreat, I said that I am now convinced of the value of "community, structure and support" for writing. And it's true. This will change the way I teach and think about writing, probably forever.

Early this morning, we were given the following questions in bold as our pre-writing assignment for the first day.
As I continue to complete my dissertation, I will need to address the following questions:

How do I get past being blocked? (Read. Write in a different voice, as if in an email to advisor. Mindmap away from the computer. Look at your prospectus and grant proposals. Look up other dissertations.)

How do I put in a good day, every day?

How do I hold on to good taste? How do I continue to love literature?

What do I mean by rigorous? What can I say about theory?

How do I gain firmer control over my impulses?

Mechanical steps I need to complete in order to finish:

I need to oil up my mind and practice running it in different gears: reading Chinese, translation, commentary, full expository writing, brainstorming, revising, reading English, notating, reviewing, outlining. Responding. Eyes on the final product, writing coming out all the time.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Retreat 10

Old Lady Meng Handing out the Tea of Oblivion, reproduced in a book by Vera Schwarcz

I'm so sad that my retreat is almost over. I've gained a measure of discipline by working in this group, and in the meantime I have really gotten a glimpse at the scope of my dissertation, its limitations, and the work involved. It's all so emotional for me right now!

Today I began what I thought would be a short task of glossing over the preface to Yang Jiang's 1986 collection "About to Drink the Tea." I ended up writing a pretty nice piece that lays out the two main issues of interest in this preface, centered around the mythological motif of Old Lady Meng's Broth/Tea of Oblivion. It was the kind of researched, confident writing that comes with a central image - shown above - that I quite liked.

Later I went over part 1 of 7 of Yang Jiang's "Remembering My Father." I'm still very much daunted by this 50-plus page essay, but I'm convinced it deserves me as its first critical, literary reader in English. I made notes that are more readable than what I did for the essays in Memoires Decousus, but still its obvious I don't have much a thesis yet. It makes sense that I need to finish the essay next.

I began reading Chinese Reportage in earnest, again ashamed that I only sort of skimmed it before, not at all understanding its great value for my own work. I am correcting that now as I go over the text carefully. At first glance, Prof. Laughlin's own work seems to blow away mine because it takes on a wider scope of materials. However, I believe that I will be able to look at as many materials, though not of so great a scope. I need to proceed with a quick, intense reading of this book.

Overall, I'm feeling a bit better today.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Retreat Day 9

Rachel Carson, who I read a little bit about today

I'm in a worse mood as my writing deadline slips away, my draft seems flimsy and in need of so much more reading, my prospects for getting published look dimmer, and my prospects for ever getting a job look nil.

The worst thing about all this is that it kills the desire to work. Luckily, one great thing about the dissertation retreat is that I know I'm not alone, and there is a palpable energy that comes from having these people working together with me.

I need to breathe, exercise a bit, and then think again. Tonight I'll translate a bit and read. Tomorrow I'll begin by reading 10 more pages of the long essay by Yang Jiang on her father. I'll print out the section I finished today (making the draft 2/9 done) and begin thinking about the way to compress and revise. I think I better bring the book Chinese Reportage with me as well and begin going through that in earnest.


Today I took a little time to read from the journal New Literary History. There was an article by Bonnie Foote that I came on by searching for "network theory." It turns out Foote came up with a wide-scope literary theory Foote calls the "interaction model" by thinking through ecocriticism. Suddenly I remembered that Zhao Baisheng said that was his new interest. New Fulbright app, anyone?


Monday, June 7, 2010

Dissertation Day 8

Japanese Moving in on Suzhou, 1937

I'm feeling bad about myself again. This is just too damned hard, and I'm working far too slow. I'm less than 2/9 done with my chapter draft, which makes it nearly impossible to imagine myself finishing this up by the end of the week. I'll keep to that deadline though and just bite the bullet if I fail.

Next up, I need to bring the Yang Bi essay to its climactic close, and also read the essay "Remembering my Father."


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Criticism Exercise: M. Butterfly

M. Butterfly. M. Butterfly. by David Henry Hwang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Song Liling: Under the robes, beneath everything, it was always me. Tell me you adore me.
Rene Gallimard: How could you, who understood me so well, make such a mistake? You've shown me your true self, and what I love was the lie, perfect lie, that's been destroyed.
Song Liling: You never really loved me.
Rene Gallimard: I'm a man who loved a woman created by a man. Anything else simply falls short.

A. and I made it to the Guthrie's 2010 production of M. Butterfly just one day before it closed, and I'm so glad we did. I always had the feeling that I didn't need to see the play since I'd already seen (and liked) the 1993 film version with Willem Defoe.

But as Robert McKee rightly argues, it's a valuable experience to compare plays that have been adapted into films. Compared to the film, Hwang's play goes much further to make expansive and even pedantic statements about the Orientalism so effectively encapsulated in the story of Madame Butterfly, the tragic story of beautiful Oriental who falls for a Western man:
Rene Gallimard: You made me see the beauty of the story, of her death. It's, it's pure sacrifice. He's not worthy of it, but what can she do? She loves him so much. It's very beautiful.
Song Liling: Well, yes, to a Westerner.
Rene Gallimard: I beg your pardon?
Song Liling: It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.

In an example of the expansiveness I mentioned, our protagonist here, the Frenchman Gallimard, has an "extra-extra-marital affair," with a Swedish chick he meets at a party. After they have sex, she gets a big scene in which she theorizes that male aggression is all a matter of not being able to settle who has the biggest penis. Her monologue is truly funny, though at the same time vaguely reminiscent of conversations from undergraduate classes on war and colonialism. Most importantly, it's largely a step outside the central plot of the story, so of course in any movie adaptation it would most likely have to be cut.

The play production is also more expansive in terms of Hwang's technique of very fast scene changes, characters delivering dialogue in multiple scenes at the same time, and exposition in the play simultaneous to performances of the play-within-the-play, the opera Madame Butterfly. In the Guthrie production, scenes from the opera are briefly re-enacted on a small stage above the main floor of the Wurtele thrust. The effect of the much more powerful sounds of the opera scenes, with the players in the drama looking at the opera as we look at them looking at the opera, is a really classic meta-moment in a dramatic story, all geared towards revealing the way we each of us take up romantic fantasies through the art we love (Madame Butterfly may not be politically correct, but to think kids these days are subbing in television and video games can remind us that opera is not so bad...). The effect of "oh-my-gosh, we all do that sort of thing" is more palpable in the play version, at least when it is directed properly. The great amount of space commanded by the Wurtele Thrust is no doubt a big help as well.

As Hwang tells us, this story is much more than a condemnation of Orientalism. Song Liling is a tragic figure as well, a cynical manipulator of Orientalism who comes up with his own fantasy of inverting the Butterfly role and taking up the role of Pinkerton, the selfish and unfaithful Western lover, with his Armani suit and implication of big penis. But Gallimard manages to get back at Liling one last time by denying Liling this final advantage. Gallimard sticks truer to operatic tragic figure than Liling expected: he only loves an ideal, and realizing the impossibility of the ideal, is committed to destruction.

So goes what just has to be the flagship example of postcolonial tragic drama. (Geez, what play beat this one in the 1988 Pulitzer awards?)

View all my reviews >>

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Retreat Day 7; Writing Now

The Crazy Monk, with pouty lips 嘴唇尖呀尖

At long last, after completing a really decent outline, I got some real writing done that I feel good about. I chose to approach my chapter beginning with the second of three sections that form the first of three parts to the body of my chapter. So I estimate I'm 1/9 done with the body. That's excruciatingly slow progress, much less than I'd hoped for this morning. But typical of my revised estimates. I wrote about 2,000 words, which is a fair amount for one day's worth of work, I think.

I got stuck at one point when I decided to translate a line describing an old gatekeeper in a big manor home of Suzhou in the 1910s and 1920s:
...when the maid came back from buying vegetables, she would sit in the gateway and ask him to write out the invoice. He had many novels with tiny, densely-packed lines of print, like The Story of Jigong, The Story of Judge Bao, and Tales of Yue. In his spare time he'd put on his reading glasses and just read and read.
I'm just so fascinated when I see information on people's reading, and use of reading as characterization really drives me wild. I took the time to sketch out what will be the longest footnote of this section:
[footnote to say Jigong 濟公傳 is a cultural hero who rights wrongs and helps others. See Meir Shahar, p. for the probable edition and evidence that links the Jigong stories to the Boxers. Judge Bao is a popular story character in Baogongji, a "pure official" who is not afraid to prosecute powerful villains even if they are kin to the emperor. See Idema. The Tales of Yue (Shuo Yue) concerns the military achievements of Yue Fei, a Chinese general who fought against Jurchen people, ancestors of the Manchus who invaded northern China and established a Jurchen Jin dynasty in the 11th century. See James T. C. Liu. "Yueh Fei (1103-41) and China's Heritage of Loyalty." The Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 31, No. 2 (Feb., 1972), pp. 291-297. Incidentally, each of these fictionalized accounts of heroes are based on real individuals.]

Next up: my examination of the memorial essay for Yang Jiang's little sister Yang Bi.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Dissertation Retreat Day 6

The Poet Yu Jian 于坚

Still not dead, as one of my best friends says on his blog. The last week has been devoted to dissertation work in the mornings until 3:30, and my progress has been...distinctly satisfactory, I think. I've almost finished all of the readings I want to do for this chapter of my dissertation, and today the mean time I have created a really substantive outline. Tomorrow I will devote myself to choosing the passages that I will use.

Meanwhile, translation work continues apace. Here's my version of a poem by Yu Jian called "Death Scene for a Butterfly."

A butterfly died in the rainy season     A butterfly
In broad daylight I still see her alone, run through by the New York subway
I still worry    She might hurry home in the dark
That death surrounded by blue flashes
A golden, fuzzy blob    Dance partner to the sunshine and blue sky
Kicked by lightning and rain into deep mud.
By then the leaves clung closely to the tree     Closing eyes
Star after star drowning in the dark black water
This death makes the summer vexed     Dark days
Will continue this way till September
A butterfly died in the rainy season
This is a bit of small news
In the clear morning I walk past that puddle.
See those beautiful fragments
My heart suddenly struck by the small, small death
I begin to remember, during last night’s sturm und drang
I was sitting just out of hearing
Missing a butterfly.

一只蝴蝶在雨季死去 一只蝴蝶

就在白天 我还见她独自在纽约地铁穿过

我还担心 她能否在天黑前赶回家中


金色茸毛的昆虫 阳光和蓝天的舞伴


那时叶子们紧紧抱住大树 闭着眼睛


这死亡使夏天忧伤 阴郁的日子











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