The Hall of Uselessness MOBI õ The Hall MOBI
An essential collection of essays from an eminent criticSimon Leys cultural and political commentary has spanned four decades, with no corner of the arts escaping his sharp eye and acerbic wit The Hall of Uselessness forms the most complete collection yet of Leys fascinating essays, from Quixotism to China, from the sea to literatureLeys feuds with Christopher Hitchens, ponders the popularity of Victor Hugo and analyses the posthumous publication of Nabokov s unfinished novel He offers valuable insights into Mao s Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge, and discusses Orwell, Waugh and Confucius He considers the intertwined nature of Chinese art, culture and history alongside the joys and difficulties of literary translation The Hall of Uselessness is an illuminating compendium from a brilliant and highly acclaimed writer a long time resident of Australia who is truly a global citizen I am of the opinion that Simon Leys was the greatest essayist of the second half of the twentieth century I have had this book for two years, and still open it up when I need a respite from the drudgery and obscurity of the world I believe I have read every essay by now, some surely than twenty times.Simon Leys is especially famous for being the first scholar to recognize the terrors of Maoism this recognition of the truth required, he writes, a great foolishness But Simon Leys is no fool he merely understands what he does not know.That said, the depth of Mr Leys s knowledge is very satisfying the breadth is astonishing He was extraordinarily well versed in English, Chinese, and French language and culture, and writes on all of them extremely persuasively and humbly Mr Leys s style is a delight Every single sentence he offers, without exception, is a knife, be it butcher s, bread, or butter always cutting through the nonsense Yet he does so almost entirely using others words his powers of quotation were without equal Here are some examples.On the atrocities of the USSR Robert Conquest, one of the very few Sovietologists who was clear sighted from the start, experienced acute frustration in his attempts to share and communicate this knowledge After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, his publisher proposed to reissue a collection of his earlier essays and asked him what title he would suggest Conquest thought for one second and said, How about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools Leys has some opinions, like praise of Conquest, a hatred of the modern university, and a deep, abiding Catholicism, which suggest he is somewhat conservative in his outlook But thankfully for me his approach to the world transcends this label What he is after is the truth One essay, attacking the many occidental scholars of China who ignored the terrors of Maoism, begins Paris taxi drivers are notoriously sophisticated in their use of invective H , va donc, structuraliste is one of their recent apostrophes which makes one wonder when they will start calling their victims China Experts If these two quotes make Mr Leys sound jaundiced, he surely is Some people seem to know everything and understand nothing, he writes But his love for literature, life, and good company countermands this studied bitterness with an almost fatherly warmth.Leys, on his greatest literary love G.K Chesterton, whose formidable mind drew inspiration from a vast culture literary, political, poetical, historical and philosophical once received the naive praise of a lady Oh Mr Chesterton, you know so many things He suavely replied Madam, I know nothing I am a journalist In this situation, it is clear that Mr Leys is Chesterton, and I, dear readers, am the naive lady To read Simon Leys is to spend time with the best sort of literary lover one who carries all his friends, and even his enemies, around in his heart, and shares them with everyone willing to listen Simon Leys is only one man this is technically true But the feeling Leys gives me, which has remained untarnished for several years, is that of sitting down to dinner with a great big royal family. Critical RealityTwo approximate descriptions of the indescribable Simon Leys Harold Bloom without the arrogance or the Shakespearean idolatry or Terry Eagleton with an understanding of Asian as well as continental culture With the wit, erudition and style of both The unique can t be categorised And Leys is certainly that a unique literary and social critic.Fiction, in fact all writing, for Leys is depiction of reality as opposed to the expression of truth, which is an entirely different matter science is after all fiction of a particular genre Poetry as the apotheosis of fiction is the grasping of reality, the naming of what actually is Literary criticism is the poetic uncovering of a reality that even the author of the work criticised may be unaware of Since reality provides an infinite scope for story telling, neither fiction nor its criticism has any obvious boundary and therefore leads to social commentary.This view on the world produces lots of profoundly engaging judgements on European literature and the society that produces it Balzac displays the aesthetic sense of a prosperous Caribbean pimp Victor Hugo is a Trumpian but endearing figure of French literature Malraux is essentially phony sic The orientalist Edward Said is a Palestinian scholar with a huge chip on his shoulder Roland Bathes bestows a new dignity upon the age old activity of saying nothing at great length.Leys s judgements of are perhaps even interesting for Europeans who are novices in Chinese literature the persistence in Chinese culture of spirituality within a landscape largely devoid of material ancient monuments, the self expressiveness of writing per se as an artistic and quasi sacred frame for literary content, the modernity of Confucian thought in its openness and adaptability, China itself as a sort of recipe for cosmic order with the main ingredient as a virtue ethics that could come from Thomas Aquinas, the lethally seductive charm of Zhou Enlai, Mao s complete lack of personal charisma, Communist literature as rhinoceros sausage Simon Leys died just short of two years ago His legacy is profoundly rich. I read this last year, and wrote a short essay about it that I then failed to have published anywhere I d forgotten about it Well, here are my thoughts about Leys and World Literature, and a few other things I haven t edited it When I was a teaching assistant for a class on world literature, we had our students define the subject in a short paper One freshman argued, or less, that world literature was invented by Goethe to exclude literature from outside Western Europe Precocious, but this really happened World literature makes it impossible for Eastern European, African, and Asian writers to gain the audience they deserve The concept must be destroyed Pierre Ryckmans, the sinologist, novelist and essayist who publishes as Simon Leys, would have been aghast Leys was born in Belgium and settled in Australia in 1970 His pen name comes from Victor Segalen s novel Ren Leys, whose narrator, Victor Segalen, is a sinophile living in Pei king under the final Qing emperor Ren Leys fools Segalen, telling him that he s had a child with the Empress and is head of the secret police in the Forbidden City Leys dies, and Segalen realizes he s been duped, but he chooses to idealize his friend rather than remember him as a liar Just as Segalen kept his faith in Ren , Simon Leys still believes in literature s power and importance Of course, he s not alone This quarter s n 1, for instance, includes a history of world literature despite Goethe s efforts, literature ended up becoming less international, and less political, in the 19th century Today s world literature is an apolitical sop to the middle class politics turns up only in historical fiction, because past horrors, unlike contemporary ones tend to be events liberal readers agree about and liberal readers buy world literature The market demands that contemporary world literature ignore contemporary injustices Just as my freshman did, n 1 argues, not without cause, that this depoliticized Global Lit needs to be destroyed and replaced with an internationalist literature of the revolutionary left that will oppose power, tell the truth, and create a taste for revolutionary politics Most importantly, it will not treat literature as a self evident autonomous good Leys would disagree, obstinately, but sensitively Many of the best essays in The Hall of Uselessness are about writers who were particularly open to the languages and literatures of other peoples, and Leys shares their openness The Hall includes formal academic essays, literary criticism, public lectures, reviews, polemic, parables and forewords about, among other things, European and East Asian literature, history, and politics Leys knows that, because of this breadth, specialists might suspect him of frivolity or irresponsibility his essay on Chinese aesthetics suggests a response It describes the sinologist s conundrum specialisation is necessary because no individual can hope to understand all of Chinese culture but specialisation is impossible because if he is not guided by a global intuition, the specialist remains forever condemned to the fate of the blind men in the well known Buddhist parable, who each grope one part of an elephant, and then argue about what they re touching a snake A pillar A broom This is also the conundrum of world literature If we want to read, we need to specialize to some degree We can t read everything But we also can t just read at random we need to be guided by a global intuition For Leys, we should be guided by the apolitical idea that the literary tradition is an autonomous, useless, and self evident good We should read and write literature for its own sake That s not to say that politics has no place in Leys s essays Many of them are political, though many of the political essays are, unfortunately, among his least likable Leys writes well about the tyrants of Asia his essay on Mao is as balanced as anyone could expect But that only makes his splenetic attacks on the intellectuals who covered up the famines and genocides of China and Cambodia bizarre It often seems that Leys is offended by the fools e.g., Alain Badiou telling us not to allow reactionary critics to neutralize and negate Stalin, Mao, Tito and Hoxha than he is by the executives of genocide To his credit, Leys tries to understand why people like Badiou say what they do his best answer is that they suffer a failure of the imagination Even when they know all about atrocities, some intellectuals don t really grasp what they know Here Leys follows Orwell, who said that people without expertise e.g., according to himself, Orwell can still have the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in Even if you don t know how many people the Khmer Rouge murdered, you can still grasp that the Khmer Rouge was a brutal, horrible regime This is the imaginative grasp that people like Badiou don t have Literature can help us remedy that lack by stimulating our imagination Leys uses Don Quixote as an example Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in order to make money and mock knights and damsels stories Such profiteering and parody aren t usually conducive to greatness, but we still read Don Quixote, because Quixote transcends Cervantes s aims Cervantes began with the thought that Quixote is a madman, and a fool we follow him when we use quixotic to mean hopelessly na ve and idealistic But hopelessly na ve and idealistic can also be a complimentary description of literature, set against the world, insisting that we should be just, beautiful, and loving than we are Cynics dismiss Quixote as na ve and idealistic, but for most readers his naivety and idealism are as inspiring as they are amusing And Quixote s imagined world looks much charming than the one we have to live in So, ultimately, politics and literature come together in Leys s essays, because he thinks that the imaginative power we develop through reading helps us better understand social and political events It also gives us ideals by which to judge them The Chinese writer and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo, for instance, had an epiphany when he was teaching in New York He realized both that his own learning was nothing compared to the fabulous riches of the diverse civilizations of the past, and that the Western answers to mankind s modern predicament were no better than China s So he vowed to use Western civilization as a tool to critique China , and to use his own creativity as a tool to critique the West the ideals of the West and those of China can be used to criticize the societies of each I don t know if Liu will be able to hold on to those ideals while he suffers in prison I doubt I could But his imprisonment does show that a broad engagement with world literature gave him a great capacity for critical thought If, like Liu, we can understand the ideals and flaws in the thought and art of different peoples, we ll give ourselves the best chance we have to criticize injustice So where revolutionaries demand a new world literature, Leys points to what we already have a tradition that started long before writing, and will continue long after everybody s b tes noires, Naipaul and Rushdie And, rather than demand democratization, Leys argues that the products and subjects of world literature truth, intelligence, beauty and love are elitist They are the goals of an education, ruthlessly aristocratic and high brow , in which a chance is given to men to become what they truly are All this can sound like a humanistic platitude But Leys s elitist, formalist understanding of world literature actually has far reaching, radical political content literature helps us to understand and hold onto an ideal of human happiness, in which as many people as possible are at leisure to be liberal, but liberal in the ancient sense to be free from poverty and oppression, and so able to act in one s own interests In recent years this ideal has been threatened by one of the paradoxes of capitalism the wretched lumpenproletariat is cursed with the enforced leisure of demoralizing and permanent unemployment, whereas the educated elite, whose liberal professions have been turned into senseless money making machines, are condemning themselves to the slavery of endless working hours Those who have the time to be happy have no money those who can afford to be happy have no time for it Today s radicals tend to ignore the paradox and reject the ideal, but at least one old revolutionary understood the problem and sought a solution for the former, rather than the destruction of the latter At the end of Capital s third volume, Marx wrote of his hope that, one day, we d be able to enter the true realm of freedom, and accept the development of human powers as an end in itself Bad press to the contrary, he wasn t talking about our ability to produce ever rubber widgets The human powers are the artistic and moral abilities that Marx, among many others, thought were exemplified in the traditions of world literature When we find an old conservative like Leys defending the same ideals as an arch revolutionary like Marx we should probably conclude that there s something to them Note Leys isn t immune to failures of imagination In one essay here, published in 2000, he suggests that clergy should remain celibate, because married clergy would be too cruel and unfair to their children Aside from ignoring the experiences of protestant churches and Maronite Catholics, Leys must have known about the child abuse taking place in too many Catholic dioceses in Australia the group Broken Rites has been publicizing cases since 1993 His homophobia is another case of this failure. Simon Leys is a carefully kept secret by anyone who loves contradictory people, people who are averse to fashionable or politically correct thinking, just go their own way and are not ashamed to row against the tide This Belgian writer, with his real name Pierre Ryckmans 1935 2014 , was an eminent sinologist, one of the best connoisseurs of China in the 20th century He was among the first to uncover and denounce the cruel excesses of Mao s ideological campaigns, but he was not taken seriously by the predominant, especially Sartre controlled omert of the sixties and seventies That he was a professing Catholic probably didn t help either His analyses of China and Chinese culture were not appreciated until the 1980s, but his influence always stayed limited, partly due to a form of charming unworldliness.This bundle of essays naturally includes several excellent articles on China and Chinese culture, but the main emphasis is nevertheless on his literary criticism Because it appears that Leys was enormously well read, and also expressed opinions about the monstres sacr s of Western literature that regularly went against prevailing opinions It is no coincidence that this book opens with an ode to Don Quixote, who is not a loser at all for Leys, but someone who in all simplicity has set a goal and consistently adheres to it It s odd, but when I look at images of Leys at a later age, I can see a certain physical similarity between him and the classic representations that have been made of the Spanish anachronistic knight Or is that my imagination If I have to ascertain 2 attractive qualities in Leys, then these are his authenticity and his humanism To a large degree both are old fashioned these days This is foremost a characteristic of his literary criticism writers such as Chesterton, Orwell and Simenon are lauded for their astute authenticity, others such as Andr Malraux and Roland Barthes are ruthlessly cracked for their mythomania and ideological conformity.Reading these essays, one is impressed by Leys erudition and lucidity But I have the impression that in the course of time he has started to somewhat cultivate his own obstinacy He regularly in an ironic way of course refers to his lack of knowledge and insight, which he invariably blames on laziness, but he uses this weapon to deal mercilessly with people of another opinion And apparently, he knows all too well how his blatant Catholicism deviated from the spirit of the times just look at his sharp, provocative polemic with Christopher Hitchens about the latter s critical book on Mother Teresa Oh, well, perhaps these are just the petty traits of a brilliant genius I am pleased that thanks to this collection of essays I have been able to become acquainted with the valuable, be it somewhat old fashioned universe of Simon Leys.