A Room of His Own

by Kenneth Champeon, Apr 3, 2006 | Destinations: China / Beijing

When Gao Xingjian became the first Chinese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, English-speaking and especially American readers must have been a little flummoxed. At the time, only one of Gao's major works, Soul Mountain, had been published in English. Prior to the publication of Gao's new novel One Man's Bible (2002) -- which he apparently describes as "a laughable and meaningless yawn" -- the only other translation of Gao's works widely available was a pricey, academic monograph called The Other Shore, containing five of Gao's 13 or so plays. Of the 33 major productions of his plays between 1982 and 1999, only 3 performances took place in England or the US, with most occurring in Beijing, Hong Kong, and continental Europe. In matters artistic as much as political, the Anglo-American steamroller often takes a direction different from the rest (which is most) of the world.

I read The Other Shore on a Taiwanese flight to Taipei and Seattle, and thus was surrounded by people who are, like Gao, exiles from mainland China. Standing in line at US immigration, I saw green cards, passports from everywhere, and sometimes two passports in one hand; and I heard English spoken in a Chinese accent and vice versa. The in-flight magazine was bilingual, and between the Chinese ideograms odd, apparently (untranslatable) English words appeared in (parentheses). Far, far too much is made of globalization -- a phenomenon noticed and enjoyed primarily by the rich -- yet here it was in all its polyglottal, multinational splendor and confusion.

Gao Xingjian has repeatedly written that he is a man without a country and an opponent of all isms. (When pressed, Gao calls this rejection of isms "none-ism"). He is Chinese, he says, only insofar as he writes in Chinese, and he despises theorizing ("to hell with 'should be'"), philosophy ("philosophy can go to hell"), and, most especially, politics (which he compares to a card game run by a sinister croupier). He maintains that there is nothing new under the literary sun, and he writes only to entertain himself, to escape from himself, to feed a habit. Still, his writings are largely embellished memoirs.

Like many seasoned writers, Gao is suspicious of language, for though language binds humans together, it also divides them. Leaders use language to manipulate their subjects, and lovers use it to manipulate each other. In pure unity, there is no place for words, especially the words 'you' and 'I'. It's no surprise that Gao's fame rests as much on his paintings as on his writings: paintings do not explain.

Gao studied contemporary French literature and, despite his distrust of isms, seems to peddle a kind of existentialism. The dramas of The Other Shore betray these influences. Characters seldom have proper names; settings are vague, props few, plots obscure; actions are often spontaneous and unwarranted; individuals fail to connect and communities either dissolve or become hateful mobs. It is not that the individual chooses to be alone, but loneliness is often the price of self-preservation and peace of mind.

Gao seems to derive an almost sadistic pleasure from modifying how characters address themselves and each other, with 'you' or 'he/she' appearing where 'I' would be expected. In Chinese, as in many other Eastern languages, such juggling of subjects is easy to effect, and it reflects those cultures' relatively low estimation of individual importance. Gao downplays his Chinese roots; but to write in Chinese is to think, and ultimately be Chinese. For as Gao himself says, to use words is to be, and vice versa.

In reaction to the increasing dehumanization of human beings, many contemporary artists have tended to glorify primitive human instincts, particularly of a sexual or violent nature. Romanticism countered the Enlightenment's emphasis on reason by emphasizing emotion and imagination, just as the Enlightenment sought to emphasize reason over religious faith. The new artists, Gao among them, tend to emphasize lust, but for the same reason: to give purpose, a spring to action. Religious faith has been assailed, if not erased; reason and imagination built monstrosities like the nuclear bomb and Auschwitz and emotion led to their use. Man's gifts have only magnified his lowest animal urges; a return to those urges alone may spell his salvation.

But the shift can never be total, for to be human is precisely to be part mind, part heart, and part appetite. One must merely keep the three in balance, which often requires a push toward one or the other. The history of the individual as well as the species consists of such corrections. "Everyone," writes Gao in the play "Nocturnal Wanderer", "has to become either this or that problem, and if he can't find any problem, he loses all reason for living." And: "Your problem is exactly that you don't want to do anything." And again: "My life is sustained by my wishes, or by wine." And still again: "Apart from the instinct to survive, there's no other meaning you can think of, no other reason for you to keep on living."

The single thing that Gao deems worthy of pursuit is freedom: artistic, moral, and political. And freedom is most likely to be found in the solitary creation of art. What Gao most fears is external control, whether it comes in the form of overbearing women or a repressive state. But he is perhaps equally afraid of ennui, in which the desire for release from the self becomes almost frantic.

Unfortunately, freedom and ennui are intimately related, ennui being a kind of paralysis brought about by an excess of choices, an inflation of the self. True freedom can be obtained only when the tyranny of the self has been obliterated. "Life is so simple when you see through it," writes Gao, "close your eyes and let it take you anywhere." Simple, that is, until society, or your own pestering conscience, calls you to account.

Hoping to confirm a suspicion of mine, I once asked various people to rank the following values in importance to them: peace, freedom, and truth. I suspected that my American friends would place freedom or truth at the top of their lists, and peace at the bottom, and so they did; whereas my Asian friends, also predictably, favored peace, with truth generally taking up the rear. It seemed to me that this little impromptu survey helped to explain the infamous East-West schism. It may also explain why Gao Xingjian can say of himself, time and time again, that "you're a stranger, destined to be a stranger for ever." To him, freedom seems to be paramount, peace unattainable, and truth a term deserving of nothing but derisive laughter.

- The End -

Review of Gao Xingjian's The Other Shore, Chinese University Press, 2000.

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