The Belgian-born scholar Pierre Ryckmans, more widely known to the world by his adopted name of Simon Leys, was widely hailed in the Australian press at his death in 2014 as ‘one of the most distinguished public intellectuals’ of his adopted country, where he had lived and taught for many years – first in Canberra, later in Sydney – and where, after a titanic battle with the Belgian bureaucracy, he chose shortly before his death to become a naturalised citizen.
‘Public intellectual’ aptly describes one side of Ryckmans’s complex character, though it doesn’t quite tell the larger story. It befits the man who, near the time of Nixon’s and Whitlam’s earliest visits to China, famously alerted the Western world to the lesser known aspects of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and who dipped controversially from time to time into other areas of public debate. But in his courteous, reclusive, and faintly eccentric way, Ryckmans was also what might be called a private intellectual, quietly immersed in art and books and scholarly pursuits that he loved, regardless of their immediate relevance or appeal to a wider public. Pleasing Myself, the title that Frank Kermode gave to a late collection of his own critical essays, is a phrase that seems equally to capture the motive and spirit of many of Ryckmans’s writings.