CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 29, March 2012


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 serialised in China Heritage Quarterly with the permission of the author. Herewith we present the third lecture: Writing. For the Introduction and the first lecture, Learning, see here. The second lecture, Reading, can be found here.—The Editor


Léon Bloy wrote a curious little volume, called Exegesis of Common-place Sayings. He collected the pearls of wisdom that idle bourgeois, cabdrivers, hairdressers and doorkeepers love to exchange daily as they pontificate on all sublunary topics. He showed how, seen under a certain angle, these sententious platitudes can actually become pointers towards deeper truths.

Some time ago, I listened to a radio interview with a novelist who had just been awarded a literary prize. The interviewer briefly outlined the plot of his novel (which was based on a rather clever conceit), then proceeded to ask: 'What is your message?'. The writer who obviously had little experience of the world in general, and of radio interviews in particular, sounded disconcerted, and eventually mumbled an evasive and confused reply that seemed to miss the point altogether. Fortunately the interviewer somehow sensed his perplexity, and without insisting, moved on to other questions.

Fig.1 Ian Fairweather, 'Bridge at Foochow', c.1941, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

I must confess, the writer's fumbling impressed me favourably. Conversely, had he been able to develop with ease and confidence an articulate explanation of the deeper meaning of his fiction, I would have felt serious misgivings regarding his creative talent. The reason is very simple: no genuine novelist can conceivably answer this hackneyed query, to which the only fitting retort was once provided by Hemingway: 'When I need to send a message, I go to the Post Office.'

Yet, like Bloy's Common-place Sayings, the notion that all creative writing should somehow convey 'messages' is so widespread, even among the literate public, that it certainly bears exegesis.

There are skilful Chinese craftsmen who manage to carve entire literary essays on a single grain of rice. On such a tiny scale, these artisans need to work with the help of a powerful magnifying glass. But precisely because the characters they carve are so minute viewers can hardly see anything, let alone read the text of the essay, without relying upon another magnifying glass of similar calibre. The sharpest wit of modern China, Lu Xun, invoked this example to illustrate the absurdity of cultivating a certain form of Chinese classical prose. To write in this particular style, authors make use of special dictionaries of historico-literary allusions; these dictionaries enable them to encode their essays in a suitably elegant and abstruse form. Then, in their turn readers have to consult similar dictionaries in order to decode the obscure, allusive language of these essays, and to reconstitute the author's original meaning. Lu Xun therefore suggested that it might be more sensible and economical for both writers and readers to discard their special dictionaries, and, bypassing all esoteric allusions, to communicate directly in plain language.

The same remark could be applied with even more relevance to the art of fiction. If a writer really wishes to communicate a certain 'message', what need is there for him to encode it in a novel? If the message is truly urgent and important, he ought better spare himself—and his readers—all fictional detours, and go straight to the point. And if the message is unimportant and unnecessary, why bother writing it?

What characterizes any valid literary creation—be it a novel, a poem or a play—is that it cannot be adequately accounted for in any other form. The novelist who could fully 'explain' the 'meaning' of his novel, would merely demonstrate that there was no need to write that novel in the first instance: simply to supply the explanation should have been sufficient. And the poet who can develop in discursive prose the gist of his poem is a mere versifier—instead of writing poetry, he might as well employ his talent to solving crossword puzzles.

'What is the message of your novel?' As we just saw, the question is naïve, and any attempt to answer it in earnest would be fatuous—but not only for the reason which I already invoked. Another aspect must be considered now—more essential and less obvious.

Without doubt, the author may be in a unique position to supply a wide variety of rich and rare personal information that could help us indirectly to acquire a better understanding of some of his motivations, but the paradoxical fact remains that, being the author, he is certainly not in the best position to comment on his work. Harry Mulisch observed:

Whoever rails at the critics who draw more out of a work than the writer 'has put into it' understands nothing. A work which does not have more to offer than the writer 'put into it' is undersize and should, according to the Fisheries Code, be thrown back into the water.

For the point is precisely that a good novelist does not 'put things into' his novel. A novel is not a sort of suitcase that can be packed to capacity with ideological socks and underwear. Neither is literary creation a mechanical fabrication, it is an organic growth, on which the author exerts only limited control, and of which he may even have limited understanding. The literary work is to the writer what a child is to his mother: it is in turns (or simultaneously) a cause for worry, for joy, for despair; a delight, a torment—an enigma.

The old American-French novelist Julien Green, looking back on his long career (which nearly spanned our entire century), concluded in his Diary: 'All my books were written by someone else, whom I do not know.' Georges Bernanos, the most sincere and least vain of all writers, assessing his own masterpiece, Journal d'un curé de campagne, confessed: 'I love this book, as if it had not been written by me.' One could easily multiply these echoes of Rimbaud's haunting cry, 'Je est un autre' ('I' is another man).

The heart of the matter is that every artistic creation (I mean genuine creation, as opposed to fabrication, which does not concern us here) is not merely the work of a man—it is the work of a man who is inspired.

The concept of 'inspiration', with all its vague and romantic connotations of dishevelled poets wandering through dark and stormy nights, has acquired a dubious reputation. Yet it remains essentially valid, and alone can help us to grasp a specific phenomenon which is found at the core of the creative experience in the most diverse artistic and cultural contexts.

Nine hundred years ago, the Chinese painter Guo Xi wrote a treatise on the art of painting. This document carries a note by his son, describing how the artist used to prepare himself before starting a new painting. Guo Xi would first clean his studio; then he purified himself with ablutions, and finally he burned some incense—proceeding (the son noted) 'as if he was expecting the visit of an important guest'.

This observation is strikingly accurate: the creative artist is indeed a visited man—and the notion has been frequently reaffirmed through the ages. At different times, in different societies, painters and poets have expressed the same awareness—and most often in a language that refers to the religious experience (the word religion being understood here in its original meaning: what links man to what is beyond him). For example, E.M. Forster (who can hardly be suspected of religiosity) plainly stated: 'Creation comes from the depths—the mystic will say from God'.[1] Ian Fairweather, who always eschewed all cant (actually, he hardly even talked to anyone), tersely hinted at the deeper significance of his pictorial activity: 'Painting is a personal thing. It gives me the same kind of satisfaction which religion, I imagine, gives to some people.'[2] D.H. Lawrence had much less reticence on this subject: 'One ought to be able to pray before one works—and then leave it to the Lord... One has to be so terribly religious to be an artist.'[3]

Whether or not he is susceptible of being visited by inspiration is what distinguishes the creative artist from the mere craftsman. Traditionally, Chinese painters and philosophers have paid particular attention to the spiritual preparation that is the prerequisite for any creative activity. Once again, Zhuang Zi offered a parable on this subject:

Prince Yuan wished to have some paintings done. Many painters came to his palace. Having bowed to the Prince, they began immediately to busy themselves with their work, licking their brushes and preparing their ink in front of him. One painter, however, arrived long after the others, quite at leisure. He made a casual bow and then immediately disappeared into a back room. Quite puzzled, the Prince dispatched one servant to find out where he had gone. The servant reported back. 'He has taken all his clothes off and sits there half-naked and doing nothing.' 'Splendid!' the Prince exclaimed, 'This one will do, he is a real painter!'[4]

The greatest European artists all understood equally well the inner discipline that had to precede and sustain the creative process, even though their employers were not always as enlightened and perceptive as Prince Yuan. For instance, according, to Vasari, when Leonardo da Vinci was working on The Last Supper in the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, the Prior became more and more worried at his habit of sometimes wasting half a day at a time, merely contemplating what he had done so far. 'If the Prior had had his way, Leonardo would have toiled like one of the labourers hoeing in the garden, and never put his brush down for one moment.' Finally, the Prior asked Duke Sforza to intervene, and 'Leonardo, knowing that he was dealing with a Prince of acute and discerning intelligence was willing (as he had never been with the Prior) to explain his mind at length, and so he talked to the Duke for a long time about the art of painting. He explained that men of genius sometimes accomplish most when they do the least.'[5]

T.S. Eliot coined a phrase to describe the state of inner emptiness (which is pure receptivity) that is the necessary prelude to creation: 'intense apathy'. (In a somewhat similar spirit, when Saint-Pol Roux went to bed at night, he used to hang on his bedroom door a sign that said 'POET AT WORK'.)[6]

Yet let there be no mistake here: to achieve inner emptiness and pure receptivity is a most arduous discipline, which at times would even dishearten monks and hermits. The task of the creative artist is often like the crossing of a desert: it requires a stoic determination to march on doggedly across arid wastes, day after day, without any oasis in sight.

But when the artist finds himself unexpectedly blessed with a 'visitation', he can literally experience feelings of rapture. Lloyd Rees—again, a man whose integrity and self-discipline left no room for any sort of affectation or conceit—explains in a personal record how, in the execution of a good painting, 'The picture takes control of you'. On a work with which he was particularly pleased, he observed: 'I have no memory of painting it, and I find that this lack of memory of the actual execution of the work is very much associated with the paintings I most highly esteem.' Again, on what he deemed to be his masterpiece (The Evening Star) he added: 'I have no memory of painting it, because I believe that the spirit of creativity leads to complete forgetfulness of the manner in which it was expressed.'[7]

D.H. Lawrence knew the feeling well—actually, he would ruthlessly reject whatever work had not eventuated as the outcome of an ecstatic outburst. 'Happy, intense absorption in any work which is to be brought as near to perfection as possible, this is a state of being with God, and the men who have not known it, have missed life itself.'[8]

Inspired creation is indeed a blissful experience, but it is fraught with painful risks: it largely escapes conscious control; its achievement is exceedingly rare; and it is intoxicating and therefore also cruelly addictive.

It escapes conscious control: an interviewer once asked Nabokov where he found his inspiration. Nabokov replied: 'I do not find it. It finds me.'[9] For the process originates out of reach of the artist's will. Henri Michaux (arguably the greatest poet in the French language this century) confirmed this view: 'Poetry is a present from Nature, a grace,—not a work. The mere ambition to write a poem kills it... Purposefulness is the death of art.'[10] In a private letter, Jules Renard (who, at the time, was already a successful and well-established writer) confessed to a friend: 'By now, I ought to have some professional experience of writing; and yet, each time I am invited to write something—anything—I feel as much anguish as if I were writing the very first line of my life. This is because I am making no progress, and I write only when it comes—and I always fear that it might not come.'[11] Hemingway compared daily writing to drawing regularly a few buckets of water from a well; each time the underground water will naturally rise back to its original level; if, however, you suddenly pump out a huge quantity all at once, you might find yourself without water for some time:'[12] The significant point of this metaphor is that it refers to an obscure force that lies in deep and remote darkness, obeying only its own mysterious laws, out of our control. What if, one day, the water does not return? The panic of the writer who frantically digs at the bottom of his dried-up well has been described in countless testimonies. Consider for example the martyrdom of Flaubert, who screamed in agony, in hundreds of letters to his friends, as he found himself bogged down, half-way through the writing of each one of his great novels. His condition moved Léon Bloy to comment that the frustration of the artist who 'vainly tries to extirpate from inside his belly the seditious tapeworm of Inspiration'[13] is a sight both pathetic and faintly grotesque. Some eighteen hundred years ago, Juvenal had already suggested that writing is neither an art, nor a science: it is a disease.[14] Joseph Conrad would certainly have subscribed to such a diagnosis; to his literary agent who had inquired about the progress of his work he replied:

I sit down religiously every morning, I sit down for eight hours every day—and the sitting down is all. In the course of that working day of eight hours, I write three sentences, which I erase before leaving the table in despair… It takes all my resolution and power of self-control to refrain from butting my head against the wall. I want to howl and foam at the mouth, but I daren't do it for fear of waking the baby and alarming my wife.[15]

Inspired writing is an exceptional occurrence: the clearest evidence of this harsh reality is, to be found in poetry, (All creative writing: is poetic in its essence, note, however, that poetry is not necessarily expressed in verse, and not all verse is poetry).

Perceptive critics have repeatedly observed that the poetical genius not only is exceedingly rare, but also that it is rarely manifest in the very individuals who possess it.[16] Ted Hughes has remarked that even great poets succeed in writing at most four or five pages of poetry—the rest is mere verse. Randall Jarrell said: 'A good poet is someone who manages in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times.'[17]

Examined in this light the intriguing fate of Arthur Rimbaud is probably exemplary. Rimbaud, who revolutionized the entire literary landscape of Europe by introducing a new diction and a new vision into French poetry in the late-nineteenth century, had a strange life. He burst into the literary scene in Paris at age sixteen, like a shooting star: for three short years, his poetical genius bedazzled the connoisseurs—and then, he suddenly disappeared overseas. He gave up poetry—forever. He enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch colonial army, was sent to Indonesia, deserted, and then went to Arabia and East Africa. He was involved for many years in gun-running, and other shady traffics in Abyssinia. Then he fell ill and came back to France to die at the age of thirty-eight, obscure and destitute, in a public hospital. As an adolescent, he had been an obnoxious hooligan; in his maturity, he turned into a ruthless and unscrupulous businessman, totally absorbed by his dangerous, vulgar and brutish activities. Yet, for three years—from age sixteen until nineteen—he created immortal poetry, with the voice of an exiled angel. But after this brief interlude, he fell completely silent for the rest of his life. Later on, in Africa, whenever a rare visitor, vaguely aware of his previous literary fame, attempted to mention his poetic past, he would at once dismiss the subject with a curt sarcasm.

Countless critics and biographers have pondered over the enigma of Rimbaud's life. Volumes have been written in an attempt to solve the riddle of his later silence. I confess I feel this universal puzzlement rather pointless. The mystery of Rimbaud is not that he stopped writing poetry; the real wonder is that he ever started.

And this is a common miracle he shares with all other poets—past, present and future.

Inspired writing is cruelly addictive: after having feasted with the gods, how can one possibly revert to feeding on earthly fare?

At the funeral of Louis McNeice, Auden said in his eulogy: 'In this age, to die at 55 is, statistically speaking, to die early, but worse things can befall a poet than an early death. At least Louis McNeice was spared that experience which some poets have had to endure, and for many years: the experience of being condemned to go on living with the knowledge that the Muse has abandoned them.'[18]

When the poetic tide withdraws and the poet's boat is left high and dry on the bleak mudbank of everyday life, he suddenly realises: writing could be hell, but not writing is worse. A writer who has ceased to write is a snail without a shell: dreadfully naked and hurt, wretched, shivering and vulnerable.

Philip Larkin, the poet of gloom, was particularly well qualified, as he himself entered this terminal state, to outline its grim horizon:

…Don't ask me
Why I stopped, I didn't stop, It stopped.
In the old days, I'd go home at six
And write all evening on a board
Across my knees, But now... I go home
And there is nothing there.
I am like a chicken
With no egg to lay.[19]

Popular imagination, which always relishes drama, likes to think that poetical genius is some sort of dark curse, and that it leads the unfortunate poets to their doom.

Sometimes it would seem that literary history confirms such a crude and lurid view; a good case in point could be provided, for instance, by the 'demonic' generation of American poets, who developed more or less around, or in the wake of Robert Lowell—the most brilliant among them being John Berryman. Their beginnings were startling; their achievements were impressive—but nearly all of them had brief and tragic careers, often interrupted by episodes of sadness, or derailed by alcohol and despair, and ending, for most of them, in suicide.

A superficial reading of these lives would seem to reinforce the old stereotype of the poète maudit—the poet for whom his very gift proves to be a malediction. Closer analysis, however, reveals clearly that the exact opposite is true. It was only when their poetry dried out that the light went out of their lives, and they became despondent, they began to seek the false comfort of drink and drugs to substitute for an inspiration that was now failing them. But the pain of having to live without poetry became unbearable, and they escaped into madness and death.

The withdrawal of their Muse literally killed them—for it was poetry that had kept them alive.

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[1] E. M. Forster: Two Cheers for Democracy, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972, 'Anonymity: an Enquiry', p.95.

[2] Quoted in Murray Bail: Ian Fairweather, Sydney: Bay Books, 1981, p.170.

[3] Letter of 24 February 1913 to Ernest Collings; used by F. R. Leavis as an epigraph to The Great Tradition.

[4] Zhuang Zi, chapter 21 'Tian Zifang'.

[5] Giorgio Vasari: Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987, vol.I, pp.262-3.

[6] Marie-Alain Couturier: La verité blessée, Plon, Paris, 1984, p.308.

[7] Lloyd Rees: An Artist Remembers, Seaforth: Craftsman House, 1987, p.123 and p.51.

[8] D. H. Lawrence: Phoenix; quoted in Richard Rees, Brave Men, London: Gollancz, 1958, p.96.

[9] In 1964, the London publication Time and Tide asked Nabokov how he wrote, when he wrote, where he wrote, and how he found inspiration. Nabokov replied (using, as it was his practice, his wife as a shield):

Dear Sir,

My husband asks me to send you his answers to your questions of Dec. 27th.
1. Pencil
2. Anyhow
3. Anywhere
4. It finds me.
Yours truly,
Mrs Vladimir Nabokov.

(V. Nabokov; Selected Letters 1940-1977, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990, pp.352-3.)

[10] H. Michaux: Epreuves, exorcismes, quoted in Gaetan Picon: Panorama des idées contemporaines, Paris: Gallimard, 1957, p.415.

[11] Jules Renard: Correspondance, Paris: Flammarion, 1954; quoted in Jean Paulhan: Chroniques de Jean Guerin 1953-1964, Paris: Editions des Cendres, 1991, vol.2, p.69.

[12] Hemingway made this comparison in an interview with The Paris Review. (See Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Kay Dick [ed.], Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972, p.182.) Actually Mark Twain had already used a similar image in 'My Literary Shipyard' (Mark Twain: Speeches, Essays and Sketches, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994, pp.407-8.

[13] 'Flaubert donna alors le spectacle inouï d'un pauvre home courageuex autant que tous les lions, mais acharné sur une idée imbécile, s'efforçant, vingt années, d'extraire de son intestine le ténia séditieux et inextirpable de l'Inspiration.' (Quoted by Bernard Pivot, Les critiques littéraires, Paris: Flammarion, 1968.)

[14] Quoted in Bernard Levin: All things considered, Cape, London, 1988, p.ix.

[15] Letter to Edward Garnett, 29 March 1898, reporting on his work on The Rescue. See The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, vol.2, p.49.

[16] This point was excellently made by J.-F. Revel, in his anthology of French poetry: 'Il y a très peu de grands poètes, et la plupart des grands poètes ont le plus souvent écrit très peux de beaux poems. Le genie poétique n'est pas seulement rare, il se manifeste rarement chez ceux qui le possedent.' (Une anthologie de la poésie française, Paris: Laffont, 1984, p.1.)

[17] Quoted in Jeffrey Meyers: Manic Power: Robert Lowell and his circle, London: Macmillan, 1987, p.75.

[18] Quoted by Eileen Simpson: Poets in their Youth, London: Faber & Faber, 1982, pp.244-5.

[19] Quoted by George Hartley in Philip Larkin 1922–1985: A Tribute, London: The Marwell Press, 1988, p.5. (Larkin's words were actually incorporated into a poem by Andrew Motion.)