Some Notes on the Necessity of Ignorance

This is a talk I gave in Beijing, China, at the Beijing Normal University Writing Center’s International Forum for Commemorating Chinese Avantgarde Literature on the 25th of November, 2015, having been invited there as an alumni of the Iowa Writing Center’s International Fall Residency Program.

Esteemed colleagues and hosts. I would like to begin this presentation by describing what happened when I began, as someone absolutely ignorant of Chinese avantgarde literature, to read the most accessible introductory text available to me, the anthology called China’s Avantgarde Fiction, edited by Jing Wang, and published by Duke University Press in 1998.

This paperback edition presents the work of seven writers of the avantgarde fiction movement of the late 80s and early 90s: Ge Fei, Yu Hua, Su Tong, Can Xue, Bei Cun, Sun Ganlu and Ma Yuan. I had heard of none of them prior to opening this anthology.

I must ask you to remember during my remarks that I am not a literary scholar but a poet. Therefore, it might seem to you that I will describe experiences that appear either banal or irrelevant, but I will at least try to convince you that I have sufficient reasons to consider them important to me.

Here is my first observation. The preface of the aforementioned anthology says that instead of the “sociopolitically centered and culturally invested subject invigorated with a teleological and utopian vision” the writers it collects presented “a rootless subject, devoid of memory”, “a subject without a core”, that they had “a penchant for trivial pursuits”, that they “flaunted the lightness of being as a mere instance of improvisation in narration”, but also, that this “group of rebels” opened up “a dangerous narrative space” and “consciously worked to shatter the myth of ‘man’ and utopia and to shock and alienate the traditional readership at home”.

Now, when I read such words, my associations are not of Chinese matters, but Western philosophical theories, literature and history, because that is where they are borrowed from — the historical avantgarde of the early twentieth century, the student movements of 1968, the left-wing radicalism and the postmodern philosophy connected with it: deconstruction, situationism, post-structuralism, and so on.

I also think: I do not understand the use of the word “dangerous” or the meaning of “shock” and “alienate”, because Western usage has defused these terms: to me they feel too often like rhetorical flourishes — but, I think, conscious of the ignorance I exhibit, perhaps in China, words can have more dangerous repercussions — and then I think: isn’t that what these statements are actually meant to mean, indirectly? Isn’t there a subtext here which, by denying the explicit political intention of these writers, makes them heroes of another kind of rebellion, one aligned with Western examples, the aforementioned ’68 radicals who — as we know — similarly gave up direct confrontation and rational debate in order to affect a revolution in language, in the means of representation? As such, what is political here is not the content but how this object, this book, this particular anthology of translations, performs its values in the game of cultural chess which politics has become.

This is the purport of my first engagement with this text: that as a book, it is not a neutral vehicle for pure literature, but full of politics, double-talk, secondary and tertiary meanings, conundrums and mysteries, and I wonder: does it represent Chinese avantgarde literature, or the preoccupations of its intended Western audience?

I don’t know, because I am ignorant of everything that would allow me to judge on such matters, but this leads me to my second observation. As I try to read the stories in the book from the point of view set up by the preface, I find myself constantly distracted by another kind of reading experience.

For instance, the first sentence of Yu Hua’s story “The Noon of Howling Wind”: “Through a windowpane free from the slightest cracks and perforations, rays of sun came intruding, intruding nearly as far as the trousers I had thrown over a chair”. I see in my mind — without them having been described — a room with blinders, sun pouring through them, painfully bright. It is an apartment in a large, high building. The building is in a suburb of a large city, but hardly anyone lives there. Everyone who does is dressed in a similar manner: in blue or gray workwear. The trousers mentioned in the sentence are similarly either blue or gray, and in the moment the storyteller is describing, everything is silent. The air outside is full of dust. The sun shimmers. There are no cars.

This spontaneous imagery fills my mind, and because I cannot force myself to picture a place that would be Chinese in an authentic way, my brain creates another place, an imaginary place, informed by my ignorance — I can see, as in a dream, my prejudices, my memories, my fantasies, my emotional reactions to things deemed “Chinese” mingling with my notion that there must be a political subtext to all of this, a diffuse, allegorical meaning, which suffuses the scenery with an odd atmosphere. At the same time, there is a feeling that the imagery attempts to translate the world of “literary postmodernism” into a “Chinese” version: I relate the emotional tone of the story to how I feel when I read Donald Barthelme’s work, or Robert Coover’s, perhaps, but does the translation produce this association and if so, is it intentional or not?

If I were a scholar, these thoughts would seem irrelevant, at most highly preliminary to what I ought to be doing, which is to interpret. But maybe, because I am a poet, I feel drawn to these ephemeral yet persistent experiences, to how they inform the way I relate to the story: as the protagonist leaves his apartment and goes outside, I see him in the shimmering air, on empty streets. I form these ideas quite without guidance by the text, in a relationship that seems oddly willful: I don’t care what you say, I will imagine your meanings in my way — and at the farthest edge of my consciousness, I even have the feeling that the first image of the light in the room has something to do with my memories of my first childhood home.

I think of these kinds of things constantly while I read: why do the characters say this or that, what are the buildings like, what makes up the everyday experience of these people, why do certain images trigger memories while others do not, why do people who are being described make certain facial gestures and why are these particular ones described rather than others, and so on, and so on. They are present in my mind as the index of my cultural illiteracy, my inability to project my own experience into the experience of another place and time, unless by making it conform to the shape and colour of my own ignorance, which is in truth nothing but my own actual experience.

But, as I become more and more conscious of this ignorance-as-personal-experience, it allows for something curious to occur. I have to explain it like this: for me, truth — or let us say, being — is not a universal, immortal condition, but a mortal vision, one that is disclosed historically to particular individuals, mediated by language and culture, and ultimately by the categories of our mind. Truth, or the truth of being, is, so to say, both shared and private.

What this means to me, personally, with regard to my theme here today, is that each individual reader or writer comes to their own not just as part of a community, but also absolutely individually, and has, quite distinct from the shared objectives and communally agreed-upon rules of discourse their own private ideas of what they are doing and why when they read and write: things which only they could have felt or come to have realised since it is only by living the life they have lived that everything has the value it has for them: they are, in a sense, radically ignorant.

Western philosophy and literary theory — though they often agree on the historical nature of truth and literature’s power to represent the particular — haven’t usually tried to deal with this experience of radical ignorance, of the absolutely personal, as an actual object of potential investigation. Perhaps this is so because the business of science is the general instead of the particular. Or, perhaps because personal experience is often seen as the stage for the kind of ideological ignorance and subjective bias which hinders the functioning of a democratic society, and which rational debate is supposed to alleviate if not eradicate.

But for me, my secret interior life reveals what I believe is the only thing we can share by writing and reading — the meaning of literature, its reason for being. That is ultimately why, when I read in the aforementioned anthology that Can Xue’s “disembodied and dehistoricized”, “anonymous” subjects are “depoliticized”, “empty” forms without content, “disengaged from history and internalized into a mere mental image” that is, as the “locale of authenticity”, “ultimately fictitious”, “hallucinatory” and “contingent”, I cannot agree, because in my personal experience of reading Can Xue, no matter how ignorant I might be of the context where she writes, and no matter how much I am aware of projecting my own bias and my own fantasies onto her text, I have not found such claims to be helpful.

On the contrary, what seem the most formal and contingent, most fictitious and hallucinatory aspects of her work are what produce in me the greatest recognition of an actual, personal, shared experience.

I only have a brief example. There is a text of hers I find in a translation of her work called Vertical Motion. It is the eponymous story which tells of strange beaked creatures who live underground, eating and excreting the soil and remembering their forebears. One of them begins to have dreams of seeing people and seeing the sky above, and the story recounts their vertical quest to rise to the surface. I have no clue if something is lost in translation, an obvious cultural meaning or reference, or whether to prefer allegorical, psychoanalytical or political interpretations — because for me, only one makes sense.

You see, I have suffered from clinical depression and a severe anxiety disorder for almost my whole adult life. Literature — writing and reading — is one of the very few things which help me to exist, to move through my pain instead of being overwhelmed by it.

Can Xue’s story is one such text. My engagement with its images and what happens in the course of it becomes not a rational but an intuitive grappling with my own feelings of “living under the ground” in non-human conditions, and beginning the long arduous trek towards transformation. It could easily be argued that this interpretation does violence to the text, forces it to become something it isn’t. I am even aware of doing that. Still, paradoxically, I feel that it is precisely because of the text’s deliberate dehistoricization, because of its non-locality, and also because of my own parallel ignorance of anything but my own experience, that Can Xue’s fiction can resonate with the intimate and the personal in me; or, to put it in other words, at the moment the text becomes indecipherable as the representation of an actual world, it also becomes the trace of the absolutely personal now experienced as the shared unshareable, the loneliness of a self-conscious pack animal.

What I sincerely believe is that literature’s power, its meaning in our lives, has something to do with how, though we are isolated bodies thrown into history and the material conditions of the natural world, we can, despite this original isolation, this conditionality and the radical ignorance it engenders, still manage to suspend the fact of our particularity and see past that which we cannot truly experience, the point of view of someone else, someone imaginary, textual, made up, and by doing so to find our unavowed community, as Maurice Blanchot has called it.

Can Xue, in a recent interview, talked about her writing process as a dictation which she receives from the Great Nature. What is the Great Nature she refers to? I do not know. But I am inspired by the thought, because it gives me another, one based on my own experience: that perhaps it is not, as we have thought in the West, by educating ourselves with facts, by representing truth correctly, that is, by knowing, that we come to the truth of being, but by another route, one more winding and much longer, more difficult to traverse: by being faithful to what we do not know, our unconscious nature, and by following its trace. For it is perhaps only through such becoming-not-to-know that we can be touched by what grounds us, the common earth of our shared destiny as human beings, whatever it is between us that is not merely passing, such as politics and culture, but the lasting unknown, our great nature, our own meaning, that which remains, as the poet Hölderlin sings.


for Aase Berg

They ask of us so many things:
To fill the silence in the center of words;
To measure the wealth and height of healthy man,
And be the foil to his fondest crimes.

Against the obligation to oblige,
Against the affirmation of what is subscribed
Stands only the molting mouth of a bite
That finds no satisfaction in smiles:

The negativity of the snake, the camouflage
Of the cold at heart, who only allow the sun to touch
Their seething scales to build up rage,
The fuel of their poisonous tongues.

O, let that patient gland that cooks
Bad breath, and sharp-voiced song
Be your protection, your own charmed pharmacy,
The factory of your ever-changing skin.

For nothing in our mammal mythology
Breeds us for birthing ourselves:
Only the ancient, hissing exigence
Of the oldest enemy, the critical one.

The Door Home

And still, something is there, is present:
something in you sings, when the maple
covers the opposite wall and white window sills
when you return, foreign tastes still

lingering, and greens will spill and splash
in the evening red, and past the bank of tulips,
past the young potato and cabbage
you feel again that pasture, your own yard —

cross the threshold, throw yourself to safety,
as if a homeless beast were out to discover you,
knew you by name, knew everything
you can only guess at yet, daunted.

Inside, sturdy steps ascend to a door,
which the same familiar key still homes towards,
and a low-lit room lets you sit down, unfound,
your own plate on a palm’s ground.

The State of Poetry

(A speech for the 51st International Poetry Spring Festival, Vilnius, Lithuania. I was unable to attend because of an illness, but here is the address, just to have it somewhere.).

The state of poetry: the concept sparks the mind to invent a fabulous fable, a possible past, where the bards Plato threw out of his rational state had, in exile, gathered on a mountain, perhaps like the one where Marsilio Ficino’s humanistic dialogues took place, a monastic mountain, after the manner of Karmel, to form their own polis, a closed cloister of monks each reciting the glory of their own, personal god. The mere image of that ivory tower sends shivers down the spine. Let prose guard us from such a possibility!

All humor aside, it is apparent that there is and can be no state of poetry, that it is, at best, a metaphor: either the timeless white page as a place of communion for the unavowable community of Blanchot or a diplomatic government of the tongue, where Ovid shakes hands with Seamus, and Zbigniew with Octavio. Continue reading

Lilac Vesper

At first, only a familiar, distant bristling,
like the claws of a hunter’s hand
brushing a hawthorn hedge:
hyenas, locked in a contest of strength.

How soon will vespers settle in a lilac shade,
daubed by blues that recede like breath
cooling welted flesh? Then,
a boy like a long lost brother

will venture the stifling evening roads
and return to the place where he came,
where even angels lack their place,
coralled by a dog star’s reign.

There’s no room in that land for us,
paupers of love, who grow not, diminish.
But you, wandering brother,
what pith do you feign?

Only your proud back remains.


What is one to do,
when the painful grasping of youth
returns to its reach,
not having captured its gain?

The incandescent orange
of a sky at dusk,
midwinter’s stark black
draws willow lines up from snow

blue-white, settled in to stay,
hard as concrete,
as real as anything gets.
This, too, shall pass.

It is only half of who we are.
A quarter, an inch –
comes a deluge, returns the drought,
the burden of harvest,

a season of doubt.


Ripe bats trickle down, dark leaves.
New graves distill in vagrant mist.
A thousand fat flowers sleep
in the deep mouth of a black ravine,

as a naked girl laughs and vomits.
A hard drunk boy in tall grass
worms towards the nymph. A stench
of willowherb chokes the riverbed.

A genial wind fans. The girl’s
virgin Vespa is safely secured
in the forest’s confident bosom.
A tarred boat sloshes in a weak stream.

From The Bad Mother (Paha äiti), 2012.

The Wanderer

From the pines’ embrace the wanderer plies
to a green stream’s niggard bank.
The restocked eider flounders to wing,
weakly sputtering water about.

Dusk crawls into a boring park.
A lazy deer starves in a copse,
its blunt snout snatching at a question.
Our mind is nothing but incursion.

An old pot boils on the fire.
Expensive fibre dries on a branch.
At night, our mustard’s yellow glitter
grinds the skin of charred banger.

From The Bad Mother (Paha äiti), 2012.

The Last Shore

On the last shore’s breast, the dusk of the sky-sand’s veil
gleams, abated torment, evening windows. Days felt

dealt what, in the end, came to pass, the elapsed
of the sun’s hill. What remained? The highway-hurrier’s

greying stain, the heart of the toothed wheel, glass
that burns in the twilight thresh: no more will the sight,

which burdens the pained, envelop the sky-veil’s span
at the night-shore’s calling: on the shin’s cusp

a lancing feeling falls through the right-then, where flashed,
in a while, the cart’s when. Frightened, the bridge’s linen

was gone and forgotten. Return to the matte, o blue,
far on the roads you have fared already, boil us

the frolicking red of our tears, the “still”, the “perhaps”.

From Futurama, 2010.

The Great Horned Owl

As children of the orange underwing
crawl out of currant leaves in the Spring,
barklice, blackflies, spiders ooze
from the entrails of plants rousing

from torpor, the sedge and reed warblers,
water fleas of a shallow pond,
gnats delivering parasites and conformity,
the yells of Biblical monkeys, spawn.

Hedgehogs budge, grasshoppers chirp,
small lizards with slimy feet in cut pebble,
baby roach like dolphins swarm
sweet lakes and rivers, thrive

as white waves surge down rapids and falls,
splashing is heard in the gloom of ponds.
Copses are filled, out of a dragon’s mouth
storks fly with a lazy beat of their wings

to find food. Millions of stars
are brighter than usual, swans lively,
keelback slugs grow fast, birdhouses
need to be straightened, blackberries,

grey uncles in their tavern playing checkers,
a raven in a spruce shakes feathers.
A cool breeze brings the smell of ferns.
There are no words, just 5 kilograms of pasta

and tomorrow, more from the store…
An easterly drizzle, I wanted to say something
about humans, but they went
and talked about themselves first.

What then? Kingcups are flourishing,
we are heading through summer
towards autumn, the horned owl
kills a rabbit on a car store lot.

From A Dragon’s Son (Lohikäärmeen poika), 2007.