New York Review of Books Classics has re-printed Simon Leys’ The Hall of Uselessness: Selected Essays. This makes him the first Sinologist to crack the NYRB Classics list as one of the masters of world literature, this despite the fact that the original book of these essays only came out in 2011. Leys write about all sorts of things, from Orwell to Cervantes to Zhou Enlai, but his chief claim to fame, at least for me, was his caustic criticism of westerners who had been taken in by the Maoist myth.
Why read this book? Well, he writes well, both in the sense of being able to describe things and in the sense of knowing exactly when to stick the knife in. From the piece on Zhou En-lai
Alone among the Maoist leaders, Zhou Enlai had cosmopolitan sophistication, charm, wit and style. He certainly was one of the greatest and most successful comedians of our century. He had a talent for telling blatant lies with angelic suavity….Everyone loved him. He repeatedly and literally got away with murder. No wonder politicians from all over the world unanimously worshipped him…
..no interlocutors ever appeared to small, too dim or too irrelevant not to warrant a special effort on his part to charm them, to wow, them..He was..the ultimate Zelig of politics, showing tolerance, urbanity and a spirit of compromise to urbane Western liberals, eating fire and spitting hatred to suit the taste of embittered Third World leaders; displaying culture and refinement with artists; being pragmatic with pragmatists, philosophical with philosophers, and Kissingerian with Kissinger.
Most China scholars don’t write like that, but Leyes is not a China scholar, he is a Sinologist, and while he is certainly a scholar he is rightly sceptical about the modern academic world. You can see this pretty clearly the essay on Said’s Orientalism. In this essay Leys was trying to figure out if Said’s work had any relevance for China folk. This is a topic that has been hashed out a bit. Said did not make it clear what the “east” was for him, and while ome East Asia folk use and talk about the idea others don’t. What is Leys’ take?
Edward Said’s main contention is that “no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim the author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances.” Translated into plain English, this would seem to mean simply that no scholar can escape his original condition: his own national, cultural, political and social prejudices are bound to be reflected in his work. Such a common-sense statement hardly warrants debate. Actually Said’s own book is an excellent case it point: Orientalism could obviously have been written by no one but a Palestinian scholar with a huge chip on his shoulder and a very dim understanding of the European academic tradition (here perceived through the distorted prism of a certain type of American university, with its brutish hyper-specialization, non-humanistic approach, and close, unhealthy links with government.)1
In general East Asia folk seems to be less afraid of getting the Orientalist cooties than Middle East people, and and Leys helps explain why. Part of Orientalism is worrying that you are essentializing the “timeless East” and while Leys has no patience with anyone foolish enough to lump everything from Syria to Shandong into an “East” he points out that ”Western sinology in its entirety is a mere footnote appended to the huge sinological corpus that Chinese intellectuals have been building for centuries to this day.” Although Leys does not point it out, if you want essentialization of Chinese culture 漢學 is a good place to look, and if you want to understand China Chinese scholars are the first people you should talk to.
For Leys the study of China is not part of euro-american empire2 or ‘othering’, but part of humanistic education. “Chinese should be taught in Western countries as a fundamental discipline of the humanities at the secondary-school level, in conjunction with, or as an alternative to, Latin and Greek.” Actually, if we wanted to put good old fashioned Classical Studies back in American High Schools I would guess making them Chinese classical studies would be the way to do it. More likely to be useful in Shenzhen.
While I like reading Leys his flavor of Sinology sometimes leaves me cold. In his essay on Confucius he claims that the Analects was written withing 75 years of Confucius’s death and shows a single voice. He compares those who claim that the text was compiled over a much longer period to those scholars who question the Gospels, and here he enlists the novelist Julien Gracq.
Gracq first acknowledged the impressive learning of one of these scholars as well as a devastating logic of his reasoning; but he confessed that, in the end, he still found himself left with one fundamental objection: for all his formidable erudition, the scholar in question simply had no ear-he could not hear what should be so obvious to any sensitive reader-that, underlying the text of the Gospels, there is a masterly and powerful unity of style which derives from one unique and inimitable voice.
I think he is wrong there, both about Jesus and about Confucius, but far worse is the footnote to his claim that in the Analects “there are very few stylistic anachronisms: the language and syntax of most of the fragments is coherent and pertains to the same period.” The note reads “On these problems of chronology and textual analysis, see E. Bruce Brooks, The Original Analects (Columbia University Press, 1998)” This is a pretty serious failure of scholarly courtesy, first in erasing Brooks’ co-author, but more importantly enlisting him in support of the claim that Analects is a coherent text.3 What’s the point in reading books and citing them if you are just going to make up things about what is in them? I would like to think it is possible to be both a scholar and a sensitive reader, but Leys is not helping me here.
This goes farther than just sloppy scholarship. Leys wants to uncover the real Confucius under the distortions of “Imperial Confucianism [which] only extolled those statements from the Master that prescribed submission to the established authorities.” This seems wrong to me and more importantly leaves you uninterested in the period from the Han to the present when the ru were always intertwined with the state. Leys’ condemnations of the dupes of Maoism are always fun to read, and lord knows he was fighting the good fight4 when he took them on. While he has some real insights on the period, he is not a very good guide to the Mao era, which for him was grotesque and alien. Grotesque certainly; In “The China Experts” he skewers Edward Friedman, Han Suyin and Ross Terrill.
Perhaps we should not be too harsh on the these experts; the fraternity recently suffered a traumatic experience and is still in a state of shock. Should fish suddenly start to talk, I suppose that ichthyology would also have to undergo a dramatic revision of its basic approach. A certain type of “instant sinology” was indeed based on the assumption that the Chinese people were as different from us in their fundimental aspirations, and as unable to communicate with us, as the inhabitants of the oceanic depths; and when they eventually rose to the surface and began to cry out sufficiently loudly for their message to get through to the general public there was much consternation among the China pundits.
Leys gives us lots of examples of China pundits (mostly Terrill) swallowing the most absurd nonsense about how the Chinese loved Chairman Mao. The problem of course, is that the Chinese did love Chairman Mao. You can’t start a Cultural Revolution memoir without explaining your youthful loyalty to the red, red sun of Chairman Mao, and you can’t treat Mao period as something alien to China. How can you write about people becoming disillusioned unless you can explain how they became believers in the first place? Leys’ China is as much a place to find Simon Leys as a place to find Chinese people, (just like Europeans used to do with Greece and Rome) and while I like reading him on Said or Terrill, I suspect he would not be as helpful for reading Mark Edward Lewis or Elizabeth Perry.
- Yes, I am quoting a lot, but Leys is a hard guy to paraphrase. [↩]
- Almost the only mention of East Asia in Said is an approving comment on the Concerned Asian Scholars, who he praised for their condemnation of American imperialism in Asia while for Said they ‘failed most scandalously in their moral responsibilities toward China and the Chinese people.’ [↩]
- Which seems the obvious way to read that note for me. [↩]
- at some risk to his reputation in academic circles, which does not seem to have worried him [↩]