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 take up the burden of what we cannot truly experience, the point of view of someone else, someone who could be, and possibly is, absolutely imaginary, completely textual and made up, and yet, and still, someone real.

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.

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