Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 11, 2007


By Gao Xingjian

Translated from the Chinese by Mabel Lee

Yale Univ. 178 pp. $25

For Gao Xingjian, the first Chinese writer to be honored with the Nobel Prize (in 2000), literature is supremely the realm of the individual. A true artist resists all political or ideological constraints and strives to free himself from what Gao labels "isms." He or she must "say no to power, custom, superstition, reality, other people and the thinking of other people." For literature should never be "contrived as the hymn of a nation, the flag of a race, the mouthpiece of a political party or the voice of a class or a group"; otherwise, one ends up with nothing but propaganda. Ideologies, after all, just want "decorations for their various agendas."

Such views can hardly surprise anyone familiar with the cultural oppression during the Maoist era when self-sacrifice rather than self-expression was the norm. A Chinese writer conformed to the uplifting socialist ideals set forth in Mao's famous Talks at the Yenan Forum -- or else. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s -- a period of fanatical thought policing -- the young Gao Xingjian actually burned a suitcase of his plays, stories and essays rather than risk being incriminated by them. He then fled Beijing to spend five years in seclusion in a remote mountain village. When he finally returned to the city, Gao cautiously published some new stories and eventually saw three of his dramas produced before enthusiastic audiences. But then "Bus Stop" (1983) -- in which a group of people wait years for a ride that never comes -- was described by a senior cultural official as "the most poisonous play written since the founding of the People's Republic of China." Wisely, Gao again disappeared into the hinterlands. This time he wandered along the Yangtze River, slowly working out the complex structure of a novel, the now celebrated Soul Mountain (published in Chinese in 1990), which blends a spiritual journey with a panorama of contemporary Chinese life and mores. In "Literature and Metaphysics," one of the essays in The Case for Literature, Gao explains his book's most noted innovation -- the fragmenting of the semi-autobiographical narrative voice into various personal pronouns:

"I had succeeded in working out the primary structure of the book, involving the first-person pronoun 'I' and the second person pronoun "you," in which the former is travelling in the real world while the latter, born of the former, is making a magical journey of the imagination. Later, 'she' is born of 'you,' and later still the disintegration of 'she' leads to the emergence of 'he,' who is the transformation of 'I.' "

This intense interest in who is speaking and the consequent notion of testimony characterizes Gao's general aesthetic. To Gao, the "writer would do well to revert to the role of witness and simply put effort into presenting the truth." In particular, he insists on the importance of conviction, that what one writes must pulse with life and a "surging of [the] blood in the writer's own heart": "Imagination that is divorced from authentic feelings, and fabrications that are divorced from life experiences, can only end up insipid and weak. Works that fail to convince the author will not be able to move readers." Yet personal witness doesn't necessarily mean a strict adherence to impartial truth:

"As long as authentic human feelings are captured, where is the boundary between fact and fiction? While that boundary may be useful for verifying an author's biography, as far as literature is concerned, it is of no significance. What is of significance is the depth to which human nature is probed and whether or not truth in human life is revealed." For, in the end, "all literature, from ancient times to the present -- not only literature that takes real people and historical events as its material -- is a testimony to the existential predicament of human life."

That existential seriousness characterizes all the essays in The Case for Literature. For Gao, art is a matter of life and death, and he has nothing but scorn for commercialism and trendiness.

"Modernism . . . has already succumbed to the dynamics of commodity marketing in postmodern consumerist society. Fashions are continually created yet have no impact on society, and the principle that only the new is good has become meaningless and fails to generate any fresh thinking." After all, "literature loses its life if nonstop changes in form result in a loss of connection with the real world. I attach importance to form, but I attach more importance to reality." He adds that "for me, literary creation is a means to salvation; it could also be said that it is a means to life. It is for myself, not to please others, that I write. And I do not write to change the world or other people, because I cannot even manage to change myself. For me, what is important is simply the fact that I have spoken and the fact that I have written."

Gao recognizes that to realize any highly personal vision generally means to resist the allures of the marketplace and refuse to "stoop to the manufacturing of cultural products by writing to satisfy fashions and trends." Instead of hoping to crank out a best-selling property, the real artist should aim to create "cold literature," unconnected with whatever is hot, but distinctly his own, original, sui generis. A poet or novelist should consequently expect to be lonely and either to live on the margins of society or to earn a living by means other than his pen. Only by repudiating the easy, meretricious and commercial can a writer gain at least the possibility of producing works that are "actually worth reading" and are not just "pandering to readers."

Other essays in The Case for Literature discuss the character of the Chinese language (which "prizes spirituality and instinct" over logic and reason); Gao's key notion that we are all "fleeing" from something (he himself now lives in exile in Paris); and his career in the Chinese theater. Along the way, we learn that Gao composes his books and plays by first speaking them into a tape recorder, while listening intently to the music of his sentences, and that he is as devoted to his ink drawings as he is to writing.

At once provocative and pontifical in themselves, the essays in The Case for Literature also provide a good overview of Gao Xingjian's career, especially when supplemented with the perspicacious "contextual" introduction by Gao's translator, Mabel Lee. Anyone who has enjoyed the much-acclaimed Soul Mountain or would like to learn more about one of the least well-known Nobel laureates should start with this book. ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company