Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Man Who Got it Right

The man in question, Pierre Ryckmans aka Simon Leys, is a a French-speaking Belgian with a Flemish name who writes about China and lives in Australia. This article by Ian Buruma in the NYRB is about him. What he was right about, ostensibly at least, was the evils of Mao's rule of China. But the article is about much more than that, and suggests that Ryckamns/Leys was right, or at least interesting, about much more.

Below are some bits from the essay to whet your appetite (or to let you know that you don't want to read it).
"[There is an] anecdote related by Leys at the end of his account, about sitting in an Australian café minding his own business while a radio is blaring musical and spoken pap in the background. By chance, the program switched to a Mozart clarinet quintet, for a moment turning the café “into an antechamber of Paradise.” People fell silent, there were looks of bafflement, and then, “to the huge relief of all,” one customer “stood up, walked straight to the radio,” turned the knob to another station, and “restored at once the more congenial noises, which everyone could again comfortably ignore.” Leys describes this event as a kind of epiphany. He is sure that philistinism does not result from the lack of knowledge. The customer who could not abide hearing Mozart’s music recognized its beauty. Indeed, he did what he did precisely for that reason." Perhaps, as Buruma points out. But it's worth considering. And it's worth remembering that censors and iconoclasts have to know and understand what it is that they wish to destroy, perhaps even more than those sympathetic to the other side of the debate.

"In an essay written after the “Tiananmen Massacre” in 1989, Leys remarks that the mass killings of demonstrators all over China offered everyone, even the most thickheaded, a glimpse of truth; it was so glaring that it was impossible to avoid. But this, too, would pass: “Whenever a minute of silence is being observed in a ceremony, don’t we all soon begin to throw discreet glances at our watches?”"

"In one of Leys’s most interesting and provocative essays on Chinese culture, he tries to find an answer to an apparent paradox: why the Chinese are both obsessed with their past, specifically their five thousand years of cultural continuation, and such lax custodians of the material products of their civilization. India and Europe are full of historic churches, temples, cathedrals, castles, forts, mosques, manor houses, and city halls, while contemporary China has almost nothing of the kind. That this cannot be blamed entirely on Mao and his vandalizing Red Guards is obvious; far more of old Beijing disappeared at the hand of developers after Mao’s death than during the Cultural Revolution. European travelers already complained in the nineteenth century of the fatalistic indifference displayed by Chinese toward their ancient monuments." It is a feature of China that strikes the idle traveler as very odd: where do we find the Old Town or the Medina - you know, the bit with the quaint little roads and charming old houses, not necessarily great monuments in their own right, but pleasant for a stroll and littered with little features for guidebooks to point out ('so and so lived here', for example, or 'note the ornate plasterwork and wrought-iron balcony on number 32')? Nowhere. So where is all this history that China has? Is it just in a handful of monuments that have been so heavily restored that they look as if they were put up yesterday? Leys has an answer for it (although you should be aware that China is not alone in this: Samarkand is the same, so perhaps Communism does have something to do with it too).

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