An oblique universe

An oblique universe

The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays

by Simon Leys

Black Inc., $49.95 hb, 462 pp, 9781863955324

Nicholas Hordern

Nicholas Hordern

Nick Hordern took an Arts degree at the University of Sydney, concentrating on Indian history and Islamic studies, before joining the...

Simon Leys is the pen name of the distinguished academic Pierre Ryckmans, who came to notice, first as a sinologist, then as a critic and author. The essays in this collection, composed over more than three decades during which Ryckmans held appointments at the Australian National University and the University of Sydney, cover a wide range of subjects.

The earliest is a 1976 assessment of the newly dead Mao Zedong, whom Leys regards as an ‘exemplary’ example of a failed artist whose creative imagination, like that of Hitler, imploded with catastrophic results. The most recent is a 2010 piece on the American lawyer Richard Henry Dana, whose autobiographical Two Years before the Mast (1840) was instrumental in raising public awareness of the appalling working conditions on board ships in the merchant marine.

A disparate pair; but under Leys’s scrutiny a common theme appears. He argues that Dana, by his submission to the conventions of nineteenth-century New England society, deliberately stifled the creative genius so evident in his account of his youthful voyage of self-discovery, in order to keep at bay the ‘madness of art’. For Leys, the lives of both Mao and Dana illustrate the double-edged nature of creativity. And Leys can write with authority about creativity, because his fable The Death of Napoleon (published in French in 1986, in English in 1991) must be one of the more distinguished works of its type ever written by an Australian.

More broadly, his essays concern themselves with what is not: not apparent – like Zhou Enlai’s political power, usually wielded by proxy; not stated – like those subjects on which Confucius did not pronounce; not realised – like Dana’s literary potential; and not ‘useful’. Leys proclaims his intention in the book’s title, which was the name of a dwelling he once shared in Hong Kong, and reinforces it with a quote from the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zi on the utility of the useless. And this is not, as it first seems, paradoxical. The name of Leys’s Hong Kong home, ‘The Hall of Uselessness’, alluded to that phase in a brilliant career before it flourishes: later on, when long study bears fruit, the value of time spent in what seemed useless scholarly labour becomes apparent.

Due to their sporadic composition, a writer’s essays usually form a pendant to an established oeuvre. This is true of two of Leys’s favourite English authors: George Orwell and G.K. Chesterton. Both are known as novelists, and yet their essays may endure as long as their other work; this is certainly true of Orwell, whose novels – leaving aside the fable Animal Farm (1945) – were quite uneven in quality. And like Orwell and Chesterton, Leys uses the essay form for social as well as literary criticism: another of his enthusiasms is for Don Quixote, whose habit of tilting at windmills Leys applauds. He argues that, while ‘winners’ succeed by conforming to convention, progress depends on the efforts of ‘losers’ who, though they may be unhorsed in the process, jolt society’s complacency, as did Dana – before he became a renowned lawyer. And as Proust so justly observed, nothing is more irritating than the complacency the imbecile derives from the justness of his cause.

Leys’s targets include past and present writers on China such as Edgar Snow and Ross Terrill, whose claims to expertise he discounts. More generally, he shares Orwell’s disdain for ‘left-wing intellectuals’, doesn’t think much of journalists, and takes issue with the ‘manic fanaticism of the anti-smoking lobby’, and also with the late Christopher Hitchens over the latter’s criticism of Mother Teresa.

First published in ABR in 1997, the essay on Hitchens, ‘An Empire of Ugliness’, concludes with an insight into philistinism that exemplifies Leys’s acuity. It might be thought that Vladimir Nabokov’s essay ‘Philistines and Philistinism’ (published in the 1981 collection Lectures on Russian Literature) said all that could be said on the subject, but Leys manages to take it further. He once found himself in a café where the chatter of patrons blended into the ‘audio-pap’ of background noise. Suddenly, this ambience was disrupted when the radio started to play Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, so beautiful it brought conversation to a halt – whereupon someone jumped up and, to general relief, changed the station. This prompted Leys to an epiphany: the philistine is not, as is commonly held, one who cannot recognise beauty, but, on the contrary, one who instantly recognises it as a threat to general complacency, and acts quickly to remove it.

Another of Leys’s strong suits is France, and the book contains essays on Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, André Gide, and Georges Simenon (who, like Leys, was born in Belgium). Yet Leys’s relationship with France seems ambiguous. On the one hand he writes in French, says he feels at home in France, and is honoured there. On the other, he declares himself unable to share the obligatory French reverence for the novelist, adventurer, and ‘fabulist’ André Malraux, whom Leys regards as ‘phony’ – a view he shared, incidentally, with Hitchens. And he is capable of statements such as this: ‘The French greatly value wit … but humour often makes them uneasy … they do not have a word for it, they do not know the thing.’

One subject stands out: China. This is due as much to the persistence of Ryckmans, the lodger in The Hall of Uselessness, as it is to the acuity of Leys the critic. Ryckmans took up the study of China long before today’s great journalistic and political cliché, the bigness of China, became the hub around which not just Australian, but global, prosperity revolves.

The China Leys depicts is remarkable not for its bigness, its physical dimension, but for its lack of one; not for what is visible, but, like a carved seal that leaves its mark, for what is represented by its absence – hence the importance of allusion in Chinese aesthetics. Like the utility of uselessness, Chinese culture as described by Leys seems a paradox: the product of a society imbued with the past but that, except for specific antiquarian exceptions, cares little for its material remains. It is a society for which the past is ‘both spiritually active and physically invisible’. Then there is Chinese calligraphy, a whole art form for which no Western equivalent exists and which sublimates the virtue of innovation to that of the expression within a set repertoire of forms.

To those for whom civilisation is largely represented by buildings, artefacts, and individuals, Leys’s China seems a strange and contrary sort of place – an oblique universe. This is not so much to throw up one’s hands in the face of impenetrable mysteries, but to recognise that an appreciation of Chinese civilisation requires a thorough divestment of cultural preconceptions.

In contrast, Chinese politics can be brutally straightforward. Writing in 1989 about the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, Leys, answering the question as to why these events took the West by surprise, said, ‘The main problem with many of our politicians and pundits is that their memories are too short.’ He could add now that, even when looking at the present day, the view of politicians and pundits is too narrow, deliberately filtering out threats to general complacency.

Everyone is aware that Australia’s long boom is the result of China’s economic growth, which is why the bigness of China has become such a fetish. Few pundits – and very few politicians – want to think aloud about what happens when China’s extraordinary growth stops, let alone what might accompany such an event. We didn’t see Tiananmen coming; what aren’t we seeing now?

Published in February 2012 no. 338

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