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A Cold Literature

Antony Tatlow

Aesthetics and Creation, by Gao Xingjian, (transl Mabel Lee), Cambria Press, 272 pp, €109.99, ISBN: 978-1604978360

Gao Xingjian (b 1940), the first Chinese recipient of a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000 and since 1998 a naturalised French citizen, is officially persona non grata in the country of his birth. Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, a teacher of literature and human rights activist, is serving an eleven-year sentence for state subversion. To be considered a cultural and political dissident by the Chinese government is a tough profession.

Gao first made his mark in the early 1980s with a book on modern fiction and four unusual plays. China has no tradition of avant-garde dramatic writing. The party preferred socialist realist or so-called revolutionary romantic works, idealist in character, with an aspiring or heroic working class, whose enemies, in Cultural Revolution drama, were often in league with foreigners with red hair, like demons, intent on destroying the communist revolution.

Gao studied Western literature, translated French texts and knew about Brecht’s theatrical practice. He called for real human characters, not heroes or villains, the gods or monsters of propagandist fantasy. The plays broke with what passed in China for Stanislavsky’s dramaturgy, exciting the audience and alarming the party. From 1982 to 1986, they moved from depicting imaginable social behaviour, through satirical to philosophical and Buddhist explorations of the unconscious in Chinese cultural life and social behaviour.

I saw his first play, Warning Signal, in the Beijing Capital Theatre in February 1983. Set in a goods train, symbolising economic distribution during the emerging process of modernisation, the play features a guard’s assistant who offers a free ride to a young woman. A boyfriend joins them with an older criminal acquaintance, intent on robbery. Allegorically distributed, the characters represent behavioural choices. Cinema-type flashbacks, probing the characters’ feelings, and dreams, darkening the stage and spotlighting with different colours, indicate whether the character is remembering, speaking in the present, or imagining a future. At the moment of decision the young man makes the right choice, influenced by his love for the girl. He suffers a flesh wound as he kills the professional crook with a knife. Against the background of the moribund contemporary theatre, the play was enthusiastically welcomed for breaking new aesthetic ground.

After Warning Signal’s success, Gao’s next play, in spite of official suspicion, was allowed a production, but Bus Stop, indebted to Beckett, represented the frustration of a group of Beijingers waiting for a bus that never comes or never will. It broke political taboos and was stopped after ten performances. At a 1985 seminar I heard Gao describe how Brecht had shown him that “the rules of theatre and acting could be completely different from those of Ibsen or Stanislavski”. He did not see a method to be applied but a practice that stimulated creativity. Inspiring Gao to develop his own ideas, Brecht stimulated a deeper search for Chinese narrative forms and cultural traditions, validating not just a totally different approach to writing plays, no longer dependent on the artifice of constructed dialogue, but also fundamentally affecting the position of the audience. Abandoning the pretence of being what is represented, narrative automatically relativises performance, implying other perspectives. Audiences are differently engaged in interpreting what occurs. Brecht, Gao observed, “makes them aware of themselves”.

In Wild Man (1985), Gao developed polyphonic narratives in what he called “total theatre”, juxtaposing radically different styles from realist dialogue to shamanist chanting and songs that invoke a lost traditional world. An ecologist attempts to halt the rapid destruction of the forests for profit as the media search for a Wild Man, who only communicates with a child. A mythical past, an untenable present and unknowable futures are presented through different styles and topics. Actors were warned not to work with the author.

His next play for a never established experimental theatre, The Other Shore (1986), explores states of mind, emotional experiences provoked by frustrated longings for an impossible mental peace and emotional contentment. Human relations are mostly exploitative. Though centred on private feelings and also caricaturing the inevitable disappointments of writing, the play shows the gulf between individual sensibility and mass behaviour, which swings from desire for leadership to hatred and violence. In a vision of life as alienation, time is indefinite as it moves “from the real world to the nonexistent other shore”, which signifies in Buddhist belief the state where desires are overcome, popularly called nirvana. Stopped at the rehearsal stage, the play was later directed by Gao in a performance in the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.

Gao left for Paris in 1987 and never returned. He survived by selling his Chinese ink paintings as he wrote two substantial novels, Soul Mountain (1990), based on journeys along the Yangtze River in 1983-84, undertaken to escape being sent to a labour camp, and One Man’s Bible (1999), on experiences during the Cultural Revolution. He wrote essays on his aesthetic views, his painting, on the nature of the Chinese language, on philosophical interests, and further experimental plays, which combine gestural theatre with dance and film and draw on Buddhist beliefs and practices. These, to my mind, essentially performance texts are not to be judged primarily as literary works. Five are available in The Other Shore (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1999). Separately published, Snow in August (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2003), is about the sixth patriarch, Huineng (663-713), who developed Chan or Zen Buddhist practices in opposition to orthodox teaching. Silhouette/Shadow. The Cinematic Art of Goa Xingjian (Paris: Contours, 2007) explores his use of images and film in relation to texts. An earlier collection of critical essays, The Case for Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), ably translated by Mabel Lee, who is also responsible for translating the two major prose works, offers an introduction to Gao’s topics.

The current publication consists of essays, the first four prepared for a Taiwan university in 2007, on the need for cold eyes to create a cold literature that both escapes political language and transcends the market in order, like Kafka, to find another language to capture the “innate nature” of being human; on fiction investigating the self by means of different pronouns, which separate levels of experience in the past and present; on theatre’s potential to externalise the inner mind, where words and signs become less important than movement and action for externalising emotional states; and on the aesthetics of suggestion, as in JWM. Turner’s expressive ambiguity between the figurative and the abstract, where images always differ, whereas words remain the same.

There follows a seventy-page manifesto-essay, entitled Another Kind of Aesthetics, a retranslation of Gao’s introduction to a reproduction of his Chinese ink paintings, Return to Painting (New York: Perennial, 2002). The void in these paintings, as psychological space, creates depth by arranging black, white, and grey to suggest a false perspective. He has no interest in imitating visual experience. Even if there is no overtly Chinese flavour, there is this feel of the spirit of ink, reflecting a mental state, though not expressing it. The aim is emptiness and spirituality: a state of mind akin to the spirit that pervades classical Chinese poetry. It first appears through contemplation of this moment now, not of tradition, nor the trend of the day. Brush strokes are clearer than language. Painting begins where language fails and one has ceased to speak. It returns to luminosity, to dreams, sadness, solitude, illusions, guilt, desires. What counts is the eternal moment that can change in the blink of an eye. For artists, defiance and critique of society are aesthetic, not ideological acts. The “real” in art is not reality. The real is individual visual perception and a kind of candour. Though art, beholden to nothing beyond itself, needs and seeks no justification, it stands for the right not to be expropriated and put into service.

The other essays include Gao’s views on the actor as a neutral figure, neither himself nor represented character but like the author’s cold third eye that contemplates experience, and his views on the possibility of “freedom” as the space for individual self-affirmation and inquiry unaffected by supermen saviours.

In his Nobel Prize speech Gao describes literature as a conversation with yourself. The writer, not a prophet, must tell the truth and articulate difference, fleeing to survive if need be. The only criteria are aesthetic quality and truth to the emotions. Freedom is in the heart and cannot be exchanged. His novel Soul Mountain was written without any thought of publication. In the essays between 1990 and 2001, what he calls “cold literature” does not seek to change the world.

One needs to have followed what passed for literature in contemporary China to understand Gao’s desire to restore the potential of language. He contrasts the stifling orthodox, feudal, Imperial, Confucian ethical rationalism developed in the northern Yellow River basin with the earlier southern cultures along the Yangtze river. The Confucian scholars transformed culture into doctrine and obscured Southern folk culture that was anti-Confucian and has retained its vitality. Gao declares he has no affinity with the Yellow River culture, preferring the more inchoate Classic of Mountains and Seas (also admired by Lu Xun) to Confucianism’s Four Books. Daoism and Buddhism are not repressive because they have not been assimilated to state philosophy, so Gao turns to Daoist shamans and Chan Buddhism, to Laozi, Zhuangzi and nature-based philosophies, to the myths, legends, customs, song, dance and storytelling of the people.

China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution produced extraordinary narratives. So singular and so awful, that the barest accounts of the effect on people’s lives are often utterly compelling. The autobiographies of systematic and casual cruelties, of tortured minds, lives crushed and families torn apart, told with varying degrees of distancing from the events themselves, constitute the unforgettable history of its victims, written by the survivors, and seem to leave no room for differently constructed, more reflective narratives.

The conventions for writing that protean or shape-changing form which English calls a novel, vary over time and across cultures. The very name implies that putative rules will be disregarded, since stories that are truly “new” must be differently told. Gao Xingjian’s second novel, One Man’s Bible, in every sense an exceptional response to the turmoil of that historical period, is driven by something more complex than anger at what was done, which energises most accounts, whether primarily fired by moral outrage or by the colder need to satirise folly. This novel is more distanced still and at the same time focused by an immediate and confronted subjective complicity. The written “you”, objectifying a suppressed and anonymous autobiographical “I”, is an unregretful emigrant with a French passport, who is nevertheless fixated by the effect of what happened to that former self or “he”. No amount of distancing, whether geographical, political, or emotional, can expunge the bond between them or disguise the similarity in their strategies for escaping a now past, but once destructive present, whose recollection returns as an insidiously present past.

This separated “you” is not an exile longing to return, or waiting to rectify wrongs done solely by others, both because of “his” own complicity and of the inherent impossibility of such a task. But the narrative is nevertheless written in a language and about an abandoned culture, which permeates “you” and that you, therefore, wherever you may be, can never not inhabit. It is not a question of dreaming of a return from exile, but of an emigrant’s attempt to find a way of continuing to live, while escaping from a nightmare, which will not go away, because this you/he is inextricably caught within the configuration that caused it. How, under these circumstances, is it possible to ground a “self”, unless it be by seeking to comprehend, and perhaps thereby escape, its potential for schizophrenic disintegration?

“You” cannot escape China’s ambivalent attraction, nor shed the memories that re-present themselves, since you can neither lobotomise yourself nor deny the existence of that past “he” and the impulse to write about his experiences that you cannot forget. But how can writing convey truthfully the experience of that earlier self? You and he must negotiate their status on the basis of their personal experiences, since that is what is left to them, at the risk of collapsing into solipsistic self-preoccupation. You has no plan for saving the culture, no grand national agenda. But to experience this as a dilemma reveals both a cultural unconscious and a superego that even now must be resisted, if the self seeks its own, different justification.

Waiting by a Beijing building, from which five people jumped to their deaths last month, for buses to the station where a train, following one of Chairman Mao’s directives, will bring about a hundred of them to the countryside, they have paper flowers pinned to their chests, a sign that reform through labour is glorious. He volunteered in order to get away from the intense factional fighting in “this beehive of insanity, this building that manufactured death”.

At the station, parents are seeing off Middle School students. A propaganda team leads some children, banging gongs and drums, creating the sense of an occasion. The stationmaster blows his whistle, but the train does not move. For a long time nothing happens, until military police suddenly appear and form a line. Their prisoners, heads shaven, holding enamel bowls and their folded bedding, march across the platform to windowless carriages that have been hitched to the end of the train, chanting “softly” as they walk: “Strive hard to remake yourself, to resist means death.” Ten minutes later, when the train leaves, the artificial excitement has vanished. The only sound is the weeping of children and adults. “You are striving to describe in simple language the terrible contamination of life by politics, but it is very difficult.”

What makes it so difficult is the degree to which “he” was complicit in persecution, when even keeping classical poems in a drawer was evidence of “anti-Party, anti-Socialist longings for the paradise of the past” or when a woman whose husband has just gassed himself must write a poster denouncing him because he has “cut himself off from both the people and the Party”. The book contains a catalogue of cruelties, stretching back into history, as bandits and guerrillas use the same methods to terrify and control their enemies or victims. The paranoia of everyday life extends to a fear of self-betrayal when asleep, since someone might overhear you speaking in your dreams. In the May Seventh Cadre School, you were spied on even in the lavatory. The first stage of Mao’s eventual paradise is Hell with regular purges of the “Ox Demons and Snake Spirits”.

It is impossible not to be contaminated in a world where all values are perverted, where the sole purpose of what is called “study” is to eliminate learning and eradicate “thinking that failed to conform to what had been stipulated by the Party at a particular time”. Hence the attempt to withdraw entirely into private life and the longing for a life without “isms”. He had escaped into the countryside, secreting his writing in a hollowed-out broom handle. Not even the tranquillity of a moonlit night can alleviate the paranoia of being watched by people waiting for him to betray himself so that they can bring him to trial and execution.

To me, Gao’s account of escaping to an alternative China, Soul Mountain, is his masterpiece. This seemingly self-absorbed text, so different from other accounts of life in post-1949 China, also declares its own ambition to give

expression to the sufferings of life and fear of death, distress and joy, loneliness and consolation, perplexity and expectation, hesitation and resolve, weakness and courage, jealousy and remorse, calm and impatience and self-confidence, generosity and constraint, kindness and hatred, pity and despair, as well as lack of ambition and placidity, humility and wickedness, nobility and viciousness, cruelty and benevolence, fervour and indifference, and aloofness, and admiration, and promiscuousness, and vanity, and greed, as well as scorn and respect, certainty and uncertainty, modesty and arrogance, obstinacy and chagrin, resentment and shame, surprise and amazement, lethargy, muddle-headedness, sudden enlightenment, never comprehending, failing to comprehend, as well as just allowing whatever will happen to happen.

Is this ambition achieved? The extraordinary, imagined, somehow experienced events and observations claim only their own “reality”, not any greater coherence, but constitute an absolute refutation of the arbitrarily focused, ideologised world that casually reeked havoc on so many lives.

One chapter concludes with this haunted account of fleeting moments of privacy, when lying with a woman in a small canopied boat, punted down a river at night by a boatman, who “sings”:

I vaguely hear the wailing again, the groans of a distorted soul, unrealizable desires, weary and laboured, in ashes fanned by the wind is a sudden spark then darkness again. There is only the warmth of her body and the rich reverberating sensations, her fingers and mine grip one another tightly at the same instant. […] He is clearly absorbed in his memories and is using all sorts of phrases to give them linguistic expression. The words don’t necessarily have specific meanings but transmit direct perceptions to arouse sexual feelings which flow into the song, it seems both like wailing and lamenting. A long piece finally ends and she pinches my hand, then lets go. No-one moves.
The old man is coughing and the boat is heaving. I sit up and open the canopy a fraction. The surface of the river is infused with pale lights, the boat is passing a small town. On the shore the houses are huddled close to one another and under the streetlights the doors are all shut, there are no lights in the windows. The old man is coughing continuously and the boat is rocking badly. I can hear him urinating into the river.

How does this novel end? It can have no conclusion: “The fact of the matter is I comprehend nothing, I understand nothing. This is how it is.”

That, in other words, is life. And this is literature.
27/01/2014

Antony Tatlow is currently Honorary Professor in the TCD Drama Department, was Professor of Comparative Literature and Coordinator of the Graduate Centre for Arts Research there from 1996 to 2006 and before that Professor and Head of Comparative Literature in the University of Hong Kong. He has written about the relationship between East Asian and Western cultures mostly in respect of drama and poetry - See more at: http://www.drb.ie/ESSAYS/the-chinese-playboy#sthash.hJQu13Ey.dpuf

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