CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 28, December 2011


The View from the Bridge | China Heritage Quarterly

The View from the Bridge
Aspects of Culture

Pierre Ryckmans

In 1996, Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys) presented the ABC Boyer Lectures. Subsequently published under the title The View from the Bridge the lectures are now being serialised in China Heritage Quarterly with the permission of the author. Herewith we present the second essay, Reading. For the Introduction and the first essay, Learning, see here. Links to articles on reading and libraries published in previous issues of China Heritage Quarterly can be found at the end of this essay.—The Editor


In the memoirs of a contemporary Chinese writer, I found an intriguing anecdote. During the war, the author had fled the Japanese invasion and taken refuge in the countryside. For a man who only knew modern city life, the sudden discovery of a traditional peasant world that had hardly changed in two thousand years proved full of surprises. One day, as he had to write an article for a magazine, he went out in the fields, in search of inspiration. He sat under a tree, scribbled a couple of pages, but, feeling dissatisfied with his work, threw the draft away and pursued his walk. An old peasant who had been watching him for some time, ran after him with the discarded manuscript, and, invoking all the authority of age, gave the young man a stern dressing down: 'Shame on you! You are an educated man, you ought to know better! One does not treat writing like garbage!' Taken aback at first, the writer finally understood—and was moved: in this remote corner, the illiterate villagers still respected writing as something sacred—for it was a rule in traditional China that no writing of any sort should ever be randomly discarded; manuscripts and papers bearing inscriptions, if no longer needed, had to be carefully stored while waiting to be incinerated on a certain day of every year, all at once, in the local temple of Confucius.

The script is at the root of Chinese civilization in a way that has no real equivalent anywhere else in the world. Western literary culture, on the contrary, developed at first from the oral tradition of the Homeric poems; and later on, in the classical period, it was still the spoken word that continued to dominate the intellectual and literary life, through the major disciplines of theatre and eloquence. In China, by contrast, the written word has played the commanding role from the very beginning. The script was vested at first with magical power; eventually it became the exclusive key to political power—hence the prestigious aura that always surrounded it.

Fig.1 'Cultural Cataclysm' 摧殘文化, by Feng Zikai 豐子愷 (TK)

Of course, this is not the place to examine how and why, in China, the written word came to occupy a position of such exalted importance, but since this chapter is devoted to books and their function in our lives, it seems to me that passing reference to the Chinese experience might be of some relevance. After all, the Chinese have enjoyed a particularly long and rich acquaintance with books (in fact, by the end of the eighteenth century, more books had been published in China than in all the rest of the world). Sometimes, one wonders if their particular reverence for books might not be missing in our modern world?

Some years ago, Peter Weir directed a film in the United States, Dead Poets Society, which was shown here to considerable acclaim. I generally admire the works of this director, and I accept that this particular film has genuine merits—yet it provoked in me a genuine revulsion, which, I think, bears examination.

The film describes the experiences of an original and inspiring young teacher in a very conservative and elitist boarding school. Against the heavy conformity generated by the school discipline, the teacher—who is also a poet—displays a refreshing iconoclasm. Importantly, he succeeds in communicating to his students his enthusiasm, his love of literature, and his respect for individual expression. At the end of the year, a tragedy occurs; the teacher is victim of a slanderous accusation, and is dismissed from the school; yet, as he leaves, we can see that a majority of his students will remain faithful to the spirit of his teachings.

Obviously, the general theme of the film is morally uplifting and unimpeachable. An early incident in the plot, however—of considerable symbolic importance—not only alienated my sympathy, but placed me completely at loggerheads with the director's intentions. The textbook prescribed by the school authorities for the literature course was an anthology of English poetry compiled and introduced by a pompous moron. The brilliant young teacher explains to his students why this introduction is philistine and stupid; in conclusion, he advises them to discard it—not metaphorically, but literally and physically. In front of them, he tears the offending pages from his own copy of the anthology, and he instructs them to submit theirs to the same treatment. Initially, the students are shocked and perplexed, then hesitantly at first, one of them begins tearing pages from his textbook, and is soon followed by others, and in no time nearly the entire class explodes in a joyous iconoclastic frenzy. Only two or three dour conformists (who, in the end, will prove to be traitors) resist the movement—and we are meant to despise them. All along, the film director was tugging at our emotions with rather thick strings—but at this early point, he lost me for good: I rebelled and broke free. My heart went to the villains—after all, alone among their peers, they became the brave minority that dared to swim against the new tide—and, in the end, I even felt that the school principal, for all his despotic, ugly and obtuse ways, basically did the right thing when he sacked a teacher who, however idealistic and talented, would instruct his students to tear pages out of a book.

I am still at a loss to understand how an intelligent and sensitive film director could have hit such a jarring note. It was as if in a noble and lofty romance, one were suddenly exposed to a passage of gross pornography. Could it be because Weir, being an Australian working in America, belongs in fact to two young cultures equally blessed with the same innocence? I mean, both Australia and the United States, in their short histories, have been spared the direct experience of totalitarian terror—this rape of the collective consciousness, which finds its most basic expression in the destruction of books. Conversely, for anyone who has cultural roots in Europe for instance—or in China—the sight of books being ripped apart by a mob of enthusiastic young people presents necessarily a connotation of unspeakable brutality and horror: it is the quintessential Fascistico-Nazi, Stalino-Maoist gesture; in no context could it ever conceivably be turned into a metaphor for liberation; it is a plain and arrogant display of barbarity, immediately conjuring up Orwell's memorable image of a jackboot crushing a human face—forever.

It is within civilizations where books were most revered that their periodic destruction has been pursued with the greatest ferocity. This fury is a measure of the prestige and authority that are usually vested in them. Without a sense of the sacred, no sacrilege is possible. Illiterates can have no real quarrel with books.

The first emperor of China, a fearsome tyrant who achieved the unification of the country two thousand two hundred years ago, remained notorious through the ages for two crimes against the spirit: he buried scholars alive, and he burned all the books. These two deeds have been viewed with equal horror by later generations. The point is not that a book can be considered to have as much value as human life, but that, simply, when a man is bent on destroying books, you know that he is capable of anything, since his aim is not merely to kill people, but to kill their souls.

Yet the destruction of books was perpetrated at different times for a variety of reasons. In a later period, a highly cultivated emperor who had gathered an immense and priceless library, was eventually overthrown by a rebellion. As the victorious rebels reached the gates of his palace, the ruler set his library on fire: he had read all these books, yet found himself incapable of saving his throne. All this accumulated wisdom had proved pointless in the end, so he felt that these books deserved to be turned into ashes.

Thus, one despot destroyed books out of fear: they contained a power that could challenge his rule; and another destroyed them out of resentment: they had failed him at the moment of greatest need. In both instances, however, books were equally supposed to exert decisive action, to deliver effective solutions.

Fig.2 'Reading' 讀書, from a couplet in the Khoo Gong Si family temple, Penang (photography by GRB)

Such a view, in fact, is far more universal than one might imagine. Some time ago, a popular literary program on French television conducted an interesting inquiry. The same question was put to various writers, artists and intellectuals: is there any book that has actually affected your life? Try to play this game for yourself; if you strive to answer the question with absolute sincerity, without any attempt at impressing the public, you might find your own answer disconcertingly anticlimactic. Shall I confess what I came up with?

In George Orwell's essays, there is a whimsical little piece on the subject of tea drinking. Orwell explains that you cannot really enjoy tea unless you drink it without sugar or milk and he challenges any dissenting reader to an experiment: for three days, force yourself to drink your tea without putting anything in it. It will taste bitter and unpleasant at first, but you will progressively get used to it; in the end, you will prefer the new taste to such an extent, that you will never revert to your former habit. Of course! as regards tea, having lived for some years in East Asia, I knew long ago the advantage of drinking it straight; but I wondered if Orwell's experiment could not be extended to coffee. And indeed, his forecast proved absolutely accurate; in fact, it took me much less than three days to effect a complete and definitive conversion in my coffee-drinking habits. I had enjoyed sweetened coffee for the first twenty-five years of my life; but since the Orwellian experiment, the taste of coffee with sugar has become genuinely and utterly revolting to me.

Now, returning to the original question: I have been an avid reader for more than half a century; yet, in the end, if I have to make an honest, conscientious assessment of the most real and concrete impact that any of these thousands of books ever directly exerted upon my life, I am afraid I can only point to this single item—ridiculous, absurd and irrelevant: I do not put sugar in my coffee anymore.

Before you dismiss this testimony of mine as frivolous, contrived or flippant, please carefully examine your own experience, and see if you can produce something more significant and impressive.

Should we then conclude that books are essentially useless? I would indeed suggest that we subscribe to this conclusion, so long as we remain aware that uselessness is also the hallmark of what is truly priceless. Zhuang Zi (from whose wisdom I have already drawn in the first chapter, and who will guide me again later on) summed it up well: 'People all know the usefulness of what is useful but they do not know the usefulness of what is useless'.[1] On this theme, he developed a number of parables such as this:

A carpenter on a journey came to a village where he saw an enormous tree—so huge that the villagers worshipped it as their local Spirit. It was broad enough to give shade to several thousand oxen, and its trunk measured a hundred spans round. It was taller than the surrounding hills, and its lowest branches were seventy feet up. It had dozens of boughs out of which you could have carved entire boats. The crowd of people gazing at it was like the throng in a market; but our carpenter did not give it a glance, he passed straight on, without even stopping. But his apprentice stood staring at the tree for a long time, and then ran after the carpenter and said: 'Master, since I first took up the axe to serve you, I never saw timber as splendid as this. But you did not even bother to look, and went straight on your way, without stopping. Why is that?' 'Forget it, say no more,' replied the carpenter. 'This tree is useless: make boats from its timber and they will sink; make coffins and they will rot; make vessels and they will break at once; use it for making doors, and it will sweat its sap; turn it into posts and pillars, and the worms will set in. This tree is wretched timber—of no use whatsoever. And that is why it was able to remain undisturbed for so long, and to grow to such proportions.' The same night, as the carpenter was asleep, the tree appeared to him in a dream and said: 'What would you compare me with? Would you compare me with useful trees? The cherry-apple, the pear, the orange, the persimmon—as soon as their fruit is ripe, they are torn apart, ripped of their fruit, and their limbs are subjected to abuse. Their usefulness makes life miserable for them; they die in mid-journey without lasting out the full span of years which Heaven had allocated them. Such is the fate of all creatures who fall prey to worldly vulgarity. As for me, I have always endeavoured to remain of no use at all; it was not always easy, but I finally made it. I am absolutely useless, which proved to be of the greatest use to me, since it is thanks to my uselessness that I was allowed to grow undisturbed to my present size.[2]

* * *

The other day, I was reading the manuscript of a forthcoming book by a young journalist—a series of profiles of women living in the Outback—farmer wives battling solitude and natural disasters on remote stations in the bush. One woman expressed concern for the education and future of her son, and commented on the boy's choice of exclusively practical subjects for his courses at boarding school. She remarked: 'I can't say I blame his choice, as I too would prefer to be out in the bush driving a tractor or building cattleyards rather than sitting in a classroom learning about Shakespeare, which is something he'll never need. But it worried me to think that if in a few years time he decides to do something else, but cannot qualify because he lacks the required school subjects, then it will be my fault, because I didn't supply him with the education he needed...'

In this passing remark, there is something which I find simply heartbreaking. For a woman who single-handedly raises and cares for a large family—while sharing in many of the men's tasks—worrying about mortgage repayments, fighting loneliness and depression, bolstering her husband's crumbling self-respect in front of looming bankruptcy, fending off the menaces of alcoholism and social disintegration, and who meanwhile drives tractors and handles cattle, and faces a thousand emergencies—it would appear indeed that 'Shakespeare is something one will never need'. And on what ground would we dare to challenge her view?

Oddly enough, this disarming remark on the uselessness of literature unwittingly reduplicates, in one sense, a provocative statement by Nabokov: in fact the brave woman from the Outback here seems to echo a sardonic paradox of the supreme literary aesthete of our age! Nabokov wrote this (which I shall never tire of quoting—perhaps because I myself taught literature for some time): 'let us not kid ourselves; let us remember that literature is of no use whatever, except in the very special case of somebody's wishing to become, of all things, a Professor of Literature.[3]

And yet even Professors of Literature, when they are originally made of the right mettle, but find themselves in extreme situations—divested of their titles, deprived of their books, reduced to their barest humanity, equipped only with their tears and their memory—can reach the heart of the matter and experience in their flesh what literature is really about: our very survival as human beings. I know of one Professor of Literature at least, who would be qualified to teach the brave woman from the Outback how, even for people in her situation—particularly for people in her situation—there may be a very real need for reading Shakespeare.

The name of that Professor is Wu Ningkun. He is an elderly Chinese scholar; nearly fifty years ago, moved by patriotism, he gave up a promising (and cosy) academic career in the United States, where he was teaching English literature, and returned to China, knowing that his talents and expertise were sorely needed there. But, under Maoism, there was no place in China for refined, cultivated and cosmopolitan minds. He was immediately suspected, ostracized, persecuted, and for the next thirty years, became a victim of the totalitarian paranoia that sees humanist culture as a treason, intelligence as an ideological crime, and presumes that whoever reads T.S. Eliot in the original must be a dangerous international spy.

He has written a book about his experiences, A Single Tear, which is, to my mind, the best written and most essential reading on a subject on which so much has already been published, and yet so little is understood.

The darkest depth of his ordeal was reached when he was sent to a labour camp in the barren wilderness of north-eastern China, close to the Siberian border. Around him, many inmates were crushed to death by the horrors of the camp—they were dying of starvation, brutal treatment, exhaustion and despair. Under such conditions, physical resilience alone was not enough to stay alive—one needed spiritual strength. Wu Ningkun sustained his spirit with poetry. He had succeeded in smuggling with him two small books: a copy of Hamlet and a collection of the Tang dynasty poet, Du Fu. Formerly he had only studied Shakespeare; now, for the first time, he was truly reading it. Occasionally, when a blinding blizzard blew from Siberia, and the prisoners had to spend the day cooped up in a cell, he could come back to Hamlet:

Hamlet was my favourite Shakespearean play. Read in a Chinese labour camp, however, the tragedy of the Danish prince took on unexpected dimensions. All the academic analyses and critiques that had engrossed me over the years now seemed remote and irrelevant. The outcry 'Denmark is a prison' echoed with a poignant immediacy and Elsinore loomed like a haunting metaphor of a treacherous repressive state. The Ghost thundered with a terrible chorus of a million victims of proletarian dictatorship. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would have felt like fish in the water, had they found their way into a modern nation of hypocrites and informers... [As to Hamlet himself], his great capacity for suffering gave the noble Dane his unique stature as a tragic hero pre-eminently worthy of his suffering. I would say to myself 'I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be...' echoing Eliot's Prufrock. Rather I often felt like one of those fellows 'crawling between earth and heaven' scorned by Hamlet himself. But the real question, I came to see, was neither 'to be or not to be' nor whether 'in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune', but how to be worthy of one's suffering.[4]

That a man may survive for quite a while without food, but cannot live one day without poetry, is a notion which we tend to dismiss too lightly, as a sort of nineteenth-century romantic hyperbole. But our gruesome century has provided enough evidence: it is true, in a very literal sense. Wu Ningkun's testimony which I just invoked confirms from the other end of the world an earlier voice from another 'House of the Dead': Primo Levi who, having survived Auschwitz, wrote the classic account of the death camps, If this is a Man, devoted one entire chapter to an experience very similar to the one described by the Chinese scholar. One day, as Levi and another inmate were on duty to fetch soup for the entire barrack, on their way to the kitchen, with the heavy soup bucket hanging from a pole which they carried on their shoulders, they enjoyed the brief respite of a summer day, and started chatting. The other prisoner was a clever young Frenchman, with a gift for languages. Levi who had been teaching him some Italian, suddenly was moved by a crazy and irresistible impulse to introduce him to Dante. He began to recite a passage from the Divine Comedy, the Canto of Ulysses, clumsily translating it for the other man, verse by verse: 'Here, listen, open your ears and your mind, you have to understand, for my sake.' The effect of this recitation of a few stanzas was 'As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am... [The companion] begs me to repeat it. How good he is, he is aware that it is doing me good. Or perhaps it is something more... perhaps he has received the message, he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all men who suffer, and with us in particular; and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders.' Then, sudden catastrophe: memory fails at the end of one stanza—to reach the end of the Canto, a crucial connection is missing. 'I have forgotten at least twelve lines... I would give today's soup to know how to connect the last fragment to the end of the Canto. I try to reconstruct it through the rhymes, I close my eyes, I bite my fingers—but it is no use, the rest is silence.'[5]

The depth and truth of this particular moment were such that, thirty years later—the year before he died—Levi returned to it in the last book he wrote, The Drowned and the Saved. Summing up his experience of the death camp, he concluded: 'Culture was important to me, and perhaps it saved me... When I wrote "I would give today's soup to know how to retrieve the forgotten passage", I had neither lied nor exaggerated. I really would have given bread and soup—that is, blood—to save from nothingness those memories which today, with the sure support of printed paper I can refresh gratis whenever I wish, and which therefore seem of little value.'[6]

In Auschwitz, the forgotten poem became literally priceless: in that place, at that instant, the very survival of Primo Levi's humanity was dependent on it.

* * *

Earlier on, I made the point that no book in particular can actually affect your life, except in a ludicrously limited sense. Having said that, I must now hasten to add: if individual books have no such power, what can most certainly transform your life is the very experience of reading itself. In fact, reading not only transforms your life, sometimes it competes with it—even eclipses it—a situation which was memorably evoked by Logan Pearsall Smith: 'People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading'.

Jorge Luis Borges (whose real importance as a writer is perhaps still debatable, whereas his supreme excellence as a reader is definitively established) was once asked by an interviewer if he did not regret having spent more time reading than actually living. He replied: 'There are many ways of living, and reading is one of them... When you are reading, you are living, and when you are dreaming, you are living also.'

Anyone with a passion for reading has measured the truth of this observation. Looking back into your own past, among the landmarks of your life, you will find that great readings occupy a place no less significant than actual happenings—for instance, a long and adventurous journey through strange lands, which you undertook in a certain year, may in retrospect appear no less memorable than your first exploration of A la recherche du temps perdu; or again, you might realize that your encounter with Anna Karenina, or with Julien Sorel proved more momentous than meeting most of your past acquaintances. Who is to assess the relative significance, the specific weight that should be ascribed to these diverse experiences in the shaping of your personality?

Our minds are an incredibly complex cluster of thoughts and emotions, of beliefs and passions, of facts and feelings, of images, impressions, memories and dreams, of reality and myth. Our actions are the outcome of this rich chemistry. Who is to determine in what proportion this creative mixture was made fecund by the actual happenings of our life, or by our readings? As Borges pointed out, our readings too were real events, and without them our life would have been different and certainly the poorer.

The classic statement on the experience of reading was made by C.S. Lewis, at the end of the last book he wrote. It is worth quoting at length, and pondering at leisure:

Literature enlarges our being by admitting us to experiences not our own. They may be beautiful, terrible, awe-inspiring, exhilarating, pathetic, comic, or merely piquant. Literature gives the entree to them all. Those of us who have been true readers all our life, seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense, but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. My own eyes are not enough for me. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me ... Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog... . In reading good literature, I become a thousand men, and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in a Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.[7]

* * *

It is said that the ancient Greek philosopher Antisthenes advised his disciples not to learn how to read. A modern commentator observed cynically: Antisthenes was right, for reading is not something that can be learned.[8]

True readers are very rare indeed. This affirmation seems at first to be given a spectacular refutation by the industrial development recently achieved by the great publishing houses, and by the impressive stacks of best-selling books piled up in bookshops, just like tins of sardines in supermarkets. But are these bestsellers real books? Or, when they are, are they read by the people who buy them? The fact is: we are now witnessing a proliferation of non-books (a subject which I have already dealt with elsewhere): they present the physical appearance of books, but an essential book-component is missing: time. Hastily conceived and produced, their life expectancy is as ephemeral as that of yesterday's newspaper. Like the secret instructions of Mission Impossible, the non-book self-destructs after you have read it—sometimes even before.

Still, there are best-sellers which also happen to have genuine, or even outstanding merit. By accident, or by the prowess of a publisher's salesmanship, copies suddenly sell in the hundreds of thousands, but they are not necessarily read; or, if they are read, they are largely misunderstood. A law of diminishing returns has been defined by perceptive experts: a good writer who is read only by a thousand readers can expect to be understood by ninety per cent of them; if he is read by ten thousand readers, he will probably be understood by a mere ten per cent; and if he is read by a hundred thousand readers, it is most likely that no more than one per cent will get his point. In other words, although the figures of sales may greatly vary (for reasons that have little to do with the book itself), the size of the genuine readership remains roughly constant. For an author, the price of popular success is widespread misunderstanding. This sort of misunderstanding, however, has a sweet financial compensation, but then, the least a good writer should expect from his bad readers is that they should make him rich—even though this is not his original motivation. On being asked why he wrote, E.M. Forster replied that he did it merely to win the approval of two or three individuals whom he respected. This defines nicely the responsibility of a true reader. Conversely, to an obviously incompetent reader who had sent him some very nasty critical comments, Lamartine replied finally, and immortally: 'Sir, it is not for you that I write.'

To analyze the absurd mechanism that can turn an excellent book into a best-seller for the wrong reason, a good case may be provided by a study of the recent success of Robert Hughes: Barcelona. This work is remarkable for its intelligence, scholarly information and wit, but its topic is highly specialised. Without a strong curiosity about Catalan cultural history, and about the phenomenon of provincial culture, I doubt if many readers would have the time and patience to read it from cover to cover (it took me nearly a month). Yet copies of the book sold in industrial quantity: the publisher had had the preposterous and brilliant idea of putting it on the market at the time of the Barcelona Olympic Games. Now, here is an intriguing problem of Logic:

1. Only a person interested in Catalan culture would enjoy reading Barcelona.
2. Any person interested in Catalan culture would naturally curse the Olympic Games and avoid visiting Barcelona on such a moronic occasion.
3. Only a moron would wish to attend the Olympic Games.
4. Evidently, no moron will ever read Barcelona.

These are all the elements of the riddle posed by the extraordinary popular success of Hughes's book. Try and solve it if you can.

* * *

All the people who have been taught how to read, think they can read. In this sense, one could say on the subject of reading what La Rochefoucauld noted about love: 'Most people would never love, had they not firstly been told about it'.[9] (And indeed, the fact is: we would never have the ambition to direct a symphonic orchestra, or to compose a great epic poem, without first possessing a very particular talent and training—whereas we all naturally presume that we should be able to love someone else for a lifetime—an undertaking that requires a much more rare genius.[10] But this is another story.)

Love and reading provide good metaphors for one another. There can be no meaningful reading without loving what you read. Nabokov was right to say that a book is either for the bedside table or for the waste-paper basket: either you enjoy passionately its company—so much so, that you cannot bear to part from it; or it does not mean much to you, and you should not be wasting your time with it.[11] And this is precisely the reason why literature and scholarship are so often at loggerheads. A 'literary scholar' appears to be a contradiction in terms: a scholar must read all the books that are relevant to his research—however mediocre, dreary and boring. A true lover of literature only reads the books he loves. The conflict between the two can sometimes become acute, and though there are a few instances of good writers who are also literary scholars, on the whole, there is little sympathy wasted between the two camps.

Novelists love to lampoon academic critics; thus for instance, with an unerring ear for fashionable cant, Vikram Seth caught this snippet of dialogue between literary pundits: 'What utter nonsense! ... Don't pay any attention to him: he's just a writer, he knows nothing about literature!'[12] And the academics retaliate with their own weapons: for example Nabokov was denied a Chair of Comparative Literature at Harvard—his appointment having been rejected by the Faculty Committee after a senior scholar had argued that 'One does not appoint an elephant as Professor of Zoology'.[13]

An entire anthology could be compiled from the various gibes which creative writers never tire of addressing to scholars and critics. The artist's impatience towards the parasitic and artificial sophistication of literary theoreticians was best expressed by Chekhov, who, with his characteristic contempt for empty rhetoric, stated that all books were simply divided into two categories: those which he did like, and those which he did not.[14]

But it is probably Jules Renard who identified the true reason at the heart of the writer's hostility towards the critic: 'I refuse to know how people who have got talent are being judged by people who have got none.'[15]

Sometimes a creative writer may be forced by circumstances into the position of literary academic. Such a predicament can be experienced as sheer torture. Indeed, it was movingly described by the Polish writer Kazimierz Brandys, who, having had to flee the Communist regime of his country, became a political refugee, and had to teach in France and in America for a living:

I am now teaching Polish literature at Columbia University. I have some twenty students. My objective is to make then understand that they are in front of a man who is in total despair—a man who, since he was a child, always hated all analyses of literary works, but who now needs to analyse literary works in order to earn a living... What an absurd task it is to teach people how to understand a work of literature! I have never read any book with the purpose of understanding it. To read and simultaneously to explain is as inconceivable for me as it would be to complete the act of love with a medical examination. I was not devouring books—books were swallowing me. They spoke to me about life and death, they spoke to me about myself, whereas I myself never had anything to say about them... I knew a student from Yale; one day, as he saw Faulkner in front of a bookshop on a corner in Fifth Avenue, he had the impulse to go down on his knees and to kiss his hand. To my mind, such a gesture is exemplary: it is the only suitable attitude towards literature.[16]

Brandys then issued a cautionary warning, which seems very important to me, and is too often overlooked:

It may sound strange, but there are people for whom an acquaintance with works of art can be harmful: it puts on them obligations that are beyond their means; it forces them to abandon their own original simplicity; they suppress their own qualities, fearing that, in being natural, they might appear common. When in contact with art, these people fall under an evil charm, they become deeply disturbed and anxious. Uncertain of their own taste, not daring to trust their own eyes and their own ears, they seek salvation in artificiality; they worship and they condemn in pure conformity with conventions. They turn into monsters of insecurity, their mouths are permanently twisted into a grimace of contrived admiration or contempt. I know many people of that sort—specially women—who are being damaged by art.[17]

Brandys here reminds us of a profound truth: the handling of all things spiritual is always fraught with dreadful perils: if you wish to use them for your own purposes, they will turn against you with a vengeance. Naturally, it is in religious matters that this phenomenon can be observed with the greatest clarity. Thomas Merton noted in one of his diaries: 'Religion is not understood. Those who wish themselves pious in order to admire themselves in that state are made stupid by religion. What is needed is to lose ourselves completely in God; what is needed is perfect silence. Pious talk has something revolting about it.'[18] In this passage, if you transpose the religious terms into literary concepts, the statement retains its full relevance: 'Literature is not understood. Those who wish themselves cultured in order to admire themselves in this state are made stupid by literary studies. What is needed is to lose ourselves completely in literature; what is needed is perfect silence. Literary theory has something revolting about it.'

Related material from China Heritage Quarterly:


[1] Zhuang Zi, Chapter 4 'In the world of men'.

[2] In A.C. Graham's translation, see op. cit., pp.72-3; in Burton Watson's, pp.63-4.

[3] V. Nabokov: Lectures on Literature, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980, p.125.

[4] Wu Ningkun: A Single Tear, London & Sydney: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993, pp.100-101.

[5] Primo Levi: If this is a Man, London: Abacus, 1987, Chapter 11, 'The Canto of Ulysses', pp.115-2l.

[6] Primo Levi: The Drowned and the Saved, London: Abacus, 1988, p.112.

[7] C.S. Lewis: An Experiment in Criticism (1961), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Canto, 1992, pp.137, 139 & 140-141.

[8] J.-F. Revel: introduction to Sade: 120 Journées de Sodome, Paris: Pauvert.

[9] La Rochefoucauld: Maxims, CXXXVI: 'Il y a des gens qui n'auraient jamais été amoureux s'ils n'avaient jamais entendu parler de l'amour.'

[10] It is in fact, in a very literal sense, a supernatural feat. But, as Chesterton said, if you take the supernatural away, you are left with the unnatural.

[11] On this point, see Anthony Burgess: Homage to Qwertyuiop, London: Abacus, 1968, 'The Nabokov–Wilson Letters', p.456.

[12] Vikram Seth: A Suitable Boy, London: Phoenix House, 1993.

[13] Andrew Field: VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov, New York: Crown, 1986, p.263; also Brian Boy: Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, London: Chatto and Windus, 1992, p.303.

[14] The very idea of literary criticism filled Chekhov with horror. He wrote: 'When I am told of what is artistic and inartistic, of what is stageworthy and unstageworthy, of commitment, realism and all that, I am baffled I tentatively nod agreement, and I answer with banal half-truths not worth a brass farthing. I divide all works into two kinds: those I like, and those I don't like. I have no other yardstick, and if you ask me why I like Shakespeare and don't like Zlatovratsky, I shall have no answer. Perhaps I shall grow wiser in time and acquire a criterion, but meanwhile all aesthetic discussions just exhaust me and seem like continuations of scholarly disputes with which people wearied themselves in the Middle Ages.' (Letter of 22 March 1890, quoted in Ronald Hingley: A Life of Anton Chekhov, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p.126.)

[15] Jules Renard: Journal (entry of 22 April 1899): 'Je refuse de savoir ce que peut penser des hommes de talent un homme qui n'en a pas.'

[16] Kazimierz Brandys: Carnets: Paris-New York-Paris 1982-1984, Gallimard, Paris, 1987, pp.115-117.

[17] ibid, p.119.

[18] Thomas Merton: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, New York: Doubleday, 1966, pp.153-154. (Here, Merton was quoting Julien Green.)