Mort de Simon Leys: Hommage aux hérissons rusés ! (The worst way to be wrong: Looking back at an intellectual by any other name)

Sa vigilance nous manque déjà. Sartre (à la mort de Gide)
On ne sait pas si le président russe, Vladimir Poutine, où l’un de ses subordonnés, a donné l’ordre de faire sauter en vol le Boeing 777 de la Malaysia Airlines. Mais il y a déjà cinq fois plus de civils innocents massacrés à Gaza, ceux-là soigneusement ciblés et sur l’ordre direct d’un gouvernement. Les sanctions de l’Union européenne contre Israël restent au niveau zéro. L’annexion de la Crimée russophone déclenche indignation et sanctions. Celle de la Jérusalem arabophone nous laisserait impavides ? Peut-on à la fois condamner M. Poutine et absoudre M. Nétanyahou ? Encore deux poids deux mesures ? Nous avons condamné les conflits interarabes et intermusulmans qui ensanglantent et décomposent le Moyen-Orient. Ils font plus de victimes locales que la répression israélienne. Mais la particularité de l’affaire israélo-palestinienne est qu’elle concerne et touche à l’identité des millions d’Arabes et musulmans, des millions de chrétiens et Occidentaux, des millions de juifs dispersés dans le monde. Ce conflit apparemment local est de portée mondiale et de ce fait a déjà suscité ses métastases dans le monde musulman, le monde juif, le monde occidental. Il a réveillé et amplifié anti-judaïsme, anti-arabisme, anti-christianisme (les croisés) et répandu des incendies de haine dans tous les continents. (…) N’ayant guère d’accointances avec les actuels présidents du Conseil et de la Commission européens, ce n’est pas vers ces éminentes et sagaces personnalités que nous nous tournons mais vers vous, François Hollande, pour qui nous avons voté et qui ne nous êtes pas inconnu. C’est de vous que nous sommes en droit d’attendre une réponse urgente et déterminée face à ce carnage, comme à la systématisation des punitions collectives en Cisjordanie même. Les appels pieux ne suffisent pas plus que les renvois dos à dos qui masquent la terrible disproportion de forces entre colonisateurs et colonisés depuis quarante-sept ans. L’écrivain et dissident russe Alexandre Soljenitsyne (1918-2008) demandait aux dirigeants soviétiques une seule chose : « Ne mentez pas. » Quand on ne peut résister à la force, on doit au moins résister au mensonge. Ne vous et ne nous mentez pas, monsieur le Président. On doit toujours regretter la mort de militaires en opération, mais quand les victimes sont des civils, femmes et enfants sans défense qui n’ont plus d’eau à boire, non pas des occupants mais des occupés, et non des envahisseurs mais des envahis, il ne s’agit plus d’implorer mais de sommer au respect du droit international. (…) Nous n’oublions pas les chrétiens expulsés d’Irak et les civils assiégés d’Alep. Mais à notre connaissance, vous n’avez jamais chanté La Vie en rose en trinquant avec l’autocrate de Damas ou avec le calife de Mossoul comme on vous l’a vu faire sur nos écrans avec le premier ministre israélien au cours d’un repas familial. (…) Israël se veut défenseur d’un Occident ex-persécuteur de juifs, dont il est un héritier pour le meilleur et pour le pire. Il se dit défenseur de la démocratie, qu’il réserve pleinement aux seuls juifs, et se prétend ennemi du racisme tout en se rapprochant d’un apartheid pour les Arabes. L’école stoïcienne recommandait de distinguer, parmi les événements du monde, entre les choses qui dépendent de nous et celles qui ne dépendent pas de nous. On ne peut guère agir sur les accidents d’avion et les séismes – et pourtant vous avez personnellement pris en main le sort et le deuil des familles des victimes d’une catastrophe aérienne au Mali. C’est tout à votre honneur. A fortiori, un homme politique se doit de monter en première ligne quand les catastrophes humanitaires sont le fait de décisions politiques sur lesquelles il peut intervenir, surtout quand les responsables sont de ses amis ou alliés et qu’ils font partie des Nations unies, sujets aux mêmes devoirs et obligations que les autres Etats. La France n’est-elle pas un membre permanent du Conseil de sécurité ? Ce ne sont certes pas des Français qui sont directement en cause ici, c’est une certaine idée de la France dont vous êtes comptable, aux yeux de vos compatriotes comme du reste du monde. Rony Brauman, Régis Debray, Edgar Morin et Christiane Hessel
Puisqu’ils ont osé, j’oserai aussi, moi. La vérité, je la dirai, car j’ai promis de la dire, si la justice, régulièrement saisie, ne la faisait pas, pleine et entière. Mon devoir est de parler, je ne veux pas être complice. Mes nuits seraient hantées par le spectre de l’innocent qui expie là-bas, dans la plus affreuse des tortures, un crime qu’il n’a pas commis. (…) C’est un crime d’avoir accusé de troubler la France ceux qui la veulent généreuse, à la tête des nations libres et justes, lorsqu’on ourdit soi-même l’impudent complot d’imposer l’erreur, devant le monde entier. C’est un crime d’égarer l’opinion, d’utiliser pour une besogne de mort cette opinion qu’on a pervertie jusqu’à la faire délirer. C’est un crime d’empoisonner les petits et les humbles, d’exaspérer les passions de réaction et d’intolérance, en s’abritant derrière l’odieux antisémitisme, dont la grande France libérale des droits de l’homme mourra, si elle n’en est pas guérie. C’est un crime que d’exploiter le patriotisme pour des œuvres de haine, et c’est un crime, enfin, que de faire du sabre le dieu moderne, lorsque toute la science humaine est au travail pour l’œuvre prochaine de vérité et de justice. (…) Je le répète avec une certitude plus véhémente : la vérité est en marche et rien ne l’arrêtera.  (…) Je l’ai dit ailleurs, et je le répète ici : quand on enferme la vérité sous terre, elle s’y amasse, elle y prend une force telle d’explosion, que, le jour où elle éclate, elle fait tout sauter avec elle. On verra bien si l’on ne vient pas de préparer, pour plus tard, le plus retentissant des désastres. Emile Zola (J’accuse, 1898)
Chaque jour j’attache moins de prix à l’intelligence. Chaque jour je me rends mieux compte que ce n’est qu’en dehors d’elle que l’écrivain peut ressaisir quelque chose de nos impressions passées, c’est-à-dire atteindre quelque chose de lui-même et la seule matière de l’art. (…) Mais d’une part les vérités de l’intelligence, si elles sont moins précieuses que ces secrets du sentiment dont je parlais tout à l’heure, ont aussi leur intérêt. Un écrivain n’est pas qu’un poète. Même les plus grands de notre siècle, dans notre monde imparfait où les chefs-d’œuvre de l’art ne sont que les épaves naufragées de grandes intelligences, ont relié d’une trame d’intelligence les joyaux de sentiment où ils n’apparaissent que çà et là. Et si on croit que sur ce point important on entend les meilleurs de son temps se tromper, il vient un moment où on secoue sa paresse et où on éprouve le besoin de le dire. La méthode de Sainte-Beuve n’est peut-être pas au premier abord un objet si important. Mais peut-être sera-t-on amené, au cours de ces pages, à voir qu’elle touche à de très importants problèmes intellectuels, peut-être au plus grand de tous pour un artiste, à cette infériorité de l’intelligence dont je parlais au commencement. Et cette infériorité de l’intelligence, c’est tout de même à l’intelligence qu’il faut demander de l’établir. Car si l’intelligence ne mérite pas la couronne suprême, c’est elle seule qui est capable de la décerner. Et si elle n’a dans la hiérarchie des vertus que la seconde place, il n’y a qu’elle qui soit capable de proclamer que l’instinct doit occuper la première. Marcel Proust (préface de  « Contre Sainte Beuve », édition posthume, 1954)
Les hommes dont la fonction est de défendre les valeurs éternelles et désintéressées, comme la justice et la raison, que j’appelle les clercs, ont trahi fonction au profit d’intérêts pratiques. Julien Benda (La Trahison des clercs, 1927)
Cherchant à expliquer l’attitude des intellectuels, impitoyables aux défaillances des démocraties, indulgents aux plus grands crimes, pourvu qu’ils soient commis au nom des bonnes doctrines, je rencontrai d’abord les mots sacrés : gauche, Révolution, prolétariat. Raymond Aron
Si la tolérance naît du doute, qu’on enseigne à douter des modèles et des utopies, à récuser les prophètes de salut, les annonciateurs de catastrophes. Appelons de nos vœux la venue des sceptiques s’ils doivent éteindre le fanatisme. Raymond Aron (L’Opium des intellectuels, 1955)
L’écrivain est en situation dans son époque : chaque parole a des retentissements. Chaque silence aussi. Je tiens Flaubert et Goncourt pour responsables de la répression qui suivit la Commune parce qu’ils n’ont pas écrit une ligne pour l’empêcher. Ce n’était pas leur affaire, dira-t-on. Mais le procès de Calas, était-ce l’affaire de Voltaire ? La condamnation de Dreyfus, était-ce l’affaire de Zola ? L’administration du Congo, était-ce l’affaire de Gide ? Chacun de ces auteurs, en une circonstance particulière de sa vie, a mesuré sa responsabilité d’écrivain.  Sartre
Intellectuels : personnes qui ayant acquis quelque notoriété par des travaux qui relèvent de l’intelligence abusent de cette notoriété pour sortir de leur domaine  et se mêler de ce qui ne les regarde pas. Jean-Paul Sartre
Cette violence irrépressible il le montre parfaitement, n’est pas une absurde tempête ni la résurrection d’instincts sauvages ni même un effet du ressentiment : c’est l’homme lui-même se recomposant. Cette vérité, nous l’avons sue, je crois, et nous l’avons oubliée : les marques de la violence, nulle douceur ne les effacera : c’est la violence qui peut seule les détruire. Et le colonisé se guérit de la névrose coloniale en chassant le colon par les armes. Quand sa rage éclate, il retrouve sa transparence perdue, il se connaît dans la mesure même où il se fait ; de loin nous tenons sa guerre comme le triomphe de la barbarie ; mais elle procède par elle-même à l’émancipation progressive du combattant, elle liquide en lui et hors de lui, progressivement, les ténèbres coloniales. Dès qu’elle commence, elle est sans merci. Il faut rester terrifié ou devenir terrible ; cela veut dire : s’abandonner aux dissociations d’une vie truquée ou conquérir l’unité natale. Quand les paysans touchent des fusils, les vieux mythes pâlissent, les interdits sont un à un renversés : l’arme d’un combattant, c’est son humanité. Car, en ce premier temps de la révolte, il faut tuer : abattre un Européen c’est faire d’une pierre deux coups, supprimer en même temps un oppresseur et un opprimé : restent un homme mort et un homme libre ; le survivant, pour la première fois, sent un sol national sous la plante de ses pieds. Sartre (préface aux damnés de la terre, 1961)
J’ai résumé L’Étranger, il y a longtemps, par une phrase dont je reconnais qu’elle est très paradoxale : “Dans notre société tout homme qui ne pleure pas à l’enterrement de sa mère risque d’être condamné à mort.” Je voulais dire seulement que le héros du livre est condamné parce qu’il ne joue pas le jeu. En ce sens, il est étranger à la société où il vit, où il erre, en marge, dans les faubourgs de la vie privée, solitaire, sensuelle. Et c’est pourquoi des lecteurs ont été tentés de le considérer comme une épave. On aura cependant une idée plus exacte du personnage, plus conforme en tout cas aux intentions de son auteur, si l’on se demande en quoi Meursault ne joue pas le jeu. La réponse est simple : il refuse de mentir. (…) Meursault, pour moi, n’est donc pas une épave, mais un homme pauvre et nu, amoureux du soleil qui ne laisse pas d’ombres. Loin qu’il soit privé de toute sensibilité, une passion profonde parce que tenace, l’anime : la passion de l’absolu et de la vérité. Il s’agit d’une vérité encore négative, la vérité d’être et de sentir, mais sans laquelle nulle conquête sur soi et sur le monde ne sera jamais possible. On ne se tromperait donc pas beaucoup en lisant, dans L’Étranger, l’histoire d’un homme qui, sans aucune attitude héroïque, accepte de mourir pour la vérité. Il m’est arrivé de dire aussi, et toujours paradoxalement, que j’avais essayé de figurer, dans mon personnage, le seul Christ que nous méritions. On comprendra, après mes explications, que je l’aie dit sans aucune intention de blasphème et seulement avec l’affection un peu ironique qu’un artiste a le droit d’éprouver à l’égard des personnages de sa création. Camus (préface américaine à L’Etranger)
Le thème du poète maudit né dans une société marchande (…) s’est durci dans un préjugé qui finit par vouloir qu’on ne puisse être un grand artiste que contre la société de son temps, quelle qu’elle soit. Légitime à l’origine quand il affirmait qu’un artiste véritable ne pouvait composer avec le monde de l’argent, le principe est devenu faux lorsqu’on en a tiré qu’un artiste ne pouvait s’affirmer qu’en étant contre toute chose en général. Albert Camus
Le besoin de se justifier hante toute la littérature moderne du «procès». Mais il y a plusieurs niveaux de conscience. Ce qu’on appelle le «mythe» du procès peut être abordé sous des angles radicalement différents. Dans L’Etranger, la seule question est de savoir si les personnages sont innocents ou coupables. Le criminel est innocent et les juges coupables. Dans la littérature traditionnelle, le criminel est généralement coupable et les juges innocents. La différence n’est pas aussi importante qu’il le semble. Dans les deux cas, le Bien et le Mal sont des concepts figés, immuables : on conteste le verdict des juges, mais pas les valeurs sur lesquelles il repose. La Chute va plus loin. Clamence s’efforce de démontrer qu’il est du côté du bien et les autres du côté du mal, mais les échelles de valeurs auxquelles il se réfère s’effondrent une à une. Le vrai problème n’est plus de savoir «qui est innocent et qui est coupable?», mais «pourquoi faut-il continuer à juger et à être jugé?». C’est là une question plus intéressante, celle-là même qui préoccupait Dostoïevski. Avec La Chute, Camus élève la littérature du procès au niveau de son génial prédécesseur. Le Camus des premières oeuvres ne savait pas à quel point le jugement est un mal insidieux et difficile à éviter. Il se croyait en-dehors du jugement parce qu’il condamnait ceux qui condamnent. En utilisant la terminologie de Gabriel Marcel, on pourrait dire que Camus considérait le Mal comme quelque chose d’extérieur à lui, comme un «problème» qui ne concernait que les juges, alors que Clamence sait bien qu’il est lui aussi concerné. Le Mal, c’est le «mystère» d’une passion qui en condamnant les autres se condamne elle-même sans le savoir. C’est la passion d’Oedipe, autre héros de la littérature du procès, qui profère les malédictions qui le mènent à sa propre perte. […] L’étranger n’est pas en dehors de la société mais en dedans, bien qu’il l’ignore. C’est cette ignorance qui limite la portée de L’Etranger tant au point de vue esthétique qu’au point de vue de la pensée. L’homme qui ressent le besoin d’écrire un roman-procès n’appartient pas à la Méditerranée, mais aux brumes d’Amsterdam. Le monde dans lequel nous vivons est un monde de jugement perpétuel. C’est sans doute le vestige de notre tradition judéo-chrétienne. Nous ne sommes pas de robustes païens, ni des juifs, puisque nous n’avons pas de Loi. Mais nous ne sommes pas non plus de vrais chrétiens puisque nous continuons à juger. Qui sommes-nous? Un chrétien ne peut s’empêcher de penser que la réponse est là, à portée de la main : «Aussi es-tu sans excuse, qui que tu sois, toi qui juges. Car en jugeant autrui, tu juges contre toi-même : puisque tu agis de même, toi qui juges». Camus s’était-il aperçu que tous les thèmes de La Chute sont contenus dans les Epîtres de saint Paul ? […] Meursault était coupable d’avoir jugé, mais il ne le sut jamais. Seul Clamence s’en rendit compte. On peut voir dans ces deux héros deux aspects d’un même personnage dont le destin décrit une ligne qui n’est pas sans rappeler celle des grands personnages de Dostoïevski. » René Girard – Critique dans un souterrain, Pour un nouveau procès de l’Etranger, p.140-142)
Attention, l’Amérique a la rage (…) La science se développe partout au même rythme et la fabrication des bombes est affaire de potentiel industriel. En tuant les Rosenberg, vous avez tout simplement esayé d’arrêter les progrès de la science. Jean-Paul Sartre (« Les animaux malades de la rage », Libération, 22 juin 1953)
Les groupes n’aiment guère ceux qui vendent la mèche, surtout peut-être lorsque la transgression ou la trahison peut se réclamer de leurs valeurs les plus hautes. (…) L’apprenti sorcier qui prend le risque de s’intéresser à la sorcellerie indigène et à ses fétiches, au lieu d’aller chercher sous de lointains tropiques les charmes rassurant d’une magie exotique, doit s’attendre à voir se retourner contre lui la violence qu’il a déchainée. Pierre  Bourdieu
Manet a deux propriétés uniques […] : premièrement, il a rassemblé des choses qui avaient été séparées, et […] c’est une des propriétés universelles des grands fondateurs. […] Et, deuxième propriété, il pousse à la limite les propriétés de chacun de ces éléments constitutifs de l’assemblage qu’il fabrique. Donc, il y a systématicité et passage à la limite. Pierre Bourdieu
Dans la grande maison du symbolique, l´I.T. occupe le palier supérieur parce qu´il a reçu de l´histoire et de l´inconscient collectif le supérieur en charge : la lyre, plus la morale. Position princière. Comme le roi Charles X disait au dauphin, de Chateaubriand venu le visiter en exil à Prague, avec un respect mêlé d´effroi : attention, mon fils, voici « une des puissances de la Terre » . Un magistrat de l´essentiel, qui a « le secret des mots puissants. (…) La capitale, qui excite l´intellectuel, gâte l´artiste. L´iode et la chlorophylle entretiennent les vertus d´enfance ; poètes et enchanteurs, enfants prolongés (c´est un labeur), vieillissent prématurément dans nos bousculades. Calme et silence. Avec son optimisme végétal, Rilke a dit l´essentiel. S´en remettre au lent travail des profondeurs intimes, « laisser mûrir comme l´arbre qui ne précipite pas le cours de sa sève. (…) Quiconque veut se mettre en mesure d´écouter sa musique d´enfance aura tout à gagner à se montrer dur d´oreille aux trompettes et violons qui font frémir les cœurs dans le voisinage. Car il en va des inspirations comme des civilisations : si elles s´ouvrent trop aux autres, elles perdent leur sève et le fil. C´est en quoi l´artiste, au contraire de l´intellectuel, cet être de débat, d´échange ou de collectif, a intérêt, s´il ne veut pas diminuer ses chances, à ne pas trop communiquer avec son époque, le public et les autres artistes. Régis Debray (I.F. suite et fin, 2000)
Il importe de rapporter l’état ultime d’une figure à son état princeps pour déceler ce qui unit et distingue l’I.O. et l’I.T. D’embrasser d’un même trait l’élan, l’inflexion et la chute ; reconnaître la continuité depuis le point de lancement sans déguiser la déconvenue de l’arrivée. L’héritier du nom est à la fois le continuateur du dreyfusard et son contraire. L’I.F. fut un éclaireur, c’est devenu un exorciste. Il accroissait l’intelligibilité, il renchérit sur l’opacité des temps. Il favorisa la prise de distance, il s’applique à resserrer les rangs. Ce fut un futuriste, c’est, tout accrocheur qu’il soit, et volumineux, un déphasé, qui n’aide plus personne à devenir contemporain. Et c’est de lui qu’il faudrait maintenant s’émanciper. Régis Debray (I.F. suite et fin, 2000)
Certes, les attaques faciles où Bourdieu traite Reagan et Bush de « bellâtres de série B », n’étaient pas indispensables… En revanche, quiconque a ressenti la contrainte des rues à angle droit, funestes à toute improvisation, ce commandement totalitaire de sympathie, de familiarité, de véridicité qui rend normal de promettre sur une fiche de douane qu’on ne vient aux Etats-unis ni pour tuer ni pour répandre une infection mortelle, ne peut qu’approuver le diagnostic bourdieusien devant une société déterminée par des principes d’inexorable bienveillance et la conviction de la dichotomie entre logique et éthique. Marie-Anne Lescourret
The idea that art, ethics, and matters of the spirit, including religious faith, come from the same place is central to Leys’s concerns. All his essays, about André Gide or Evelyn Waugh no less than the art of Chinese calligraphy, revolve around this. Leys once described in these pages the destruction of the old walls and gates of Beijing in the 1950s and 1960s as a “sacrilege.” The thick walls surrounding the ancient capital were “not so much a medieval defense apparatus as a depiction of a cosmic geometry, a graphic of the universal order.” Pre-modern Chinese politics were intimately linked with religious beliefs: the ruler was the intermediary between heaven and earth, his empire, if ruled wisely, a reflection of the cosmic order. Classical Beijing, much of it built in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was deliberately planned to reflect this order. It survived almost intact until the 1950s. Apart from a few pockets, such as the Forbidden City, nothing of this old city remains. Critics over the years have attacked Leys for being an elitist, a Western mimic of Chinese literati, an aesthete who cares more about high culture than people, more about walls and temples than the poor Beijingers who had to live in dark and primitive alleys, oppressed by absolute rulers and feudal superstition. But this misses the point. It was not Leys’s intention to defend the Chinese imperial or feudal system. On the contrary, he lamented the fact that Maoists decided to smash the extraordinary artifacts of the past instead of the attitudes that made feudalism so oppressive in the first place. The stones were destroyed; many of the attitudes, alas, remained, albeit under different rulers. Iconoclasts, not only in China, are as enthralled by the sacred properties of the objects they destroy as those who venerate them. This much we know. But Leys goes further. In his view, Maoists didn’t just reduce the walls of Beijing, and much else besides, to rubble because they believed such acts would liberate the Chinese people; they smashed Yuan and Ming and Qing Dynasty treasures because they were beautiful. Yet beauty, as Leys himself insists, is rarely neutral. His use of the term “sacrilege” suggests that there was more to Maoist iconoclasm than a philistine resentment of architectural magnificence. Leys quotes Guo Moruo, one of the most famous mandarins of the Chinese Communist revolution, on the city walls in Sichuan where the scholar and poet grew up. People approaching a town near Guo’s native village felt a “sense of religious awe when confronted with the severe majestic splendor” of the city gate. Guo notes the rarity of such superb walls outside Sichuan—“except in Peking, of course, where the walls are truly majestic.” Guo was a Communist, but not a vandal. He paid a common price for his love of the wrong kind of beauty. Persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, he was forced to declare that his books were worthless and should be burned. Two of his children were driven to suicide, and Guo had to write odes in praise of Chairman Mao for the rest of the Great Helmsman’s life. The point about the walls is, of course, not merely aesthetic, nostalgic, or even to do with awe. Heinrich Heine’s famous dictum—“Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people”—applies to China too. It wasn’t just buildings that were shattered under Chairman Mao, but tens of millions of human lives. In one of his essays, Leys refers to the first Communist decades in China as “thirty years of illiterates’ rule,” which might be construed as snobbish; but the relative lack of education among the top Communist cadres is not actually the main issue for Leys. His targets are never uneducated barbarians, people too ignorant or stupid to know what they are doing. The objects of his devastating and bitterly funny barbs are fellow intellectuals, often fellow academics, most often fellow experts on China, people who faithfully followed every twist and turn of the Chinese Communist Party line, even though they knew better. Such people as the writer Han Suyin, for example, who declared that the Cultural Revolution was a Great Leap Forward for mankind until she observed, once the line had changed, that it had been a terrible disaster. (…) Still, the reasons why Leys finds Orwell attractive might be applied in equal measure to Leys himself: “[Orwell’s] intuitive grasp of concrete realities, his non-doctrinaire approach to politics (accompanied with a deep distrust of left-wing intellectuals) and his sense of the absolute primacy of the human dimension.” Both Orwell and Chesterton were good at demolishing cant. Leys is right about that: “[Chesterton’s] striking images could, in turn, deflate fallacies or vividly bring home complex principles. His jokes were irrefutable; he could invent at lightning speed surprising short-cuts to reach the truth.” When Confucius was asked by one of his disciples what he would do if he were given his own territory to govern, the Master replied that he would “rectify the names,” that is, make words correspond to reality. He explained (in Leys’s translation): If the names are not correct, if they do not match realities, language has no object. If language is without an object, action becomes impossible—and therefore, all human affairs disintegrate and their management becomes pointless. Leys comments that Orwell and Chesterton “would have immediately understood and approved of the idea.” If this reading is right, Confucius wanted to strip the language of cant, and reach the truth through plain speaking, expressing clear thoughts. But Leys believes that he also did more than that: “Under the guise of restoring their full meaning, Confucius actually injected a new content into the old ‘names.’” One example is the interpretation of the word for gentleman, junzi. The old feudal meaning was “aristocrat.” But for Confucius a gentleman’s status could be earned only through education and superior virtue. This was a revolutionary idea; the right to rule would no longer be a matter of birth, but of intellectual and moral accomplishment, tested in an examination system theoretically open to all. (…) To be sure, words are used to obfuscate and lie, as well as to tell the truth. Leys believes that grasping the truth is largely a matter of imagination, poetic imagination. Hence his remark that the “Western incapacity to grasp the Soviet reality and all its Asian variants” was a “failure of imagination” (his italics). Fiction often expresses truth more clearly than mere factual information. Truth, Leys writes, referring to science and philosophy, as well as poetry, “is grasped by an imaginative leap.” The question is how we contrive such leaps. Ian Buruma
Le renard sait beaucoup de choses mais le hérisson une seule grande. Archiloque
Mieux vaut les critiques d’un seul que l’assentiment de mille. Sima Qian
People all know the usefulness of what is useful, but they do not know the usefulness of what is useless. Zhuang Zi
Hamlet was my favourite Shakespearean play. Read in a Chinese labour camp, however, the tragedy of the Danish prince took on unexpected dimensions. All the academic analyses and critiques that had engrossed me over the years now seemed remote and irrelevant. The outcry ‘Denmark is a prison’ echoed with a poignant immediacy and Elsinore loomed like a haunting metaphor of a treacherous repressive state. The Ghost thundered with a terrible chorus of a million victims of proletarian dictatorship. Rozencrantz and Guildenstern would have felt like fish in the water had they found their way into a modern nation of hypocrites and informers. As to Hamlet himself, his great capacity for suffering gave the noble Dane his unique stature as a tragic hero pre-eminently worthy of his suffering. I would say to myself ‘I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’, echoing Eliot’s Prufrock. Rather I often felt like one of those fellows ‘crawling between earth and Heaven’ scorned by Hamlet himself. But the real question I came to see was neither ‘to be, or not to be’ nor whether ‘in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, but how to be worthy of one’s suffering. Wu Ningkun
As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am. The companion begs me to repeat it. How good he is, he is aware that it is doing me good. Or perhaps it is something more – perhaps he has received the message, he has felt that it had to do with him, that it has to do with all men who suffer, and with us in particular; and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders. (…) I have forgotten at least twelve lines; I would give today’s soup to know how to connect the last fragment to the end of the Canto. I try to reconstruct it through the rhymes, I close my eyes, I bite my fingers, but it is no use, the rest is silence. Primo Levi
Let each one examine what he has most desired. If he is happy, it is because his wishes have not been granted.  Prince de Ligne
The madness of tomorrow is not in Moscow, much more in Manhattan. It has been left to the very latest Modernists to proclaim an erotic religion which at once exalts lust and forbids fertility. The next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality, and especially on sexual morality. G.K. Chesterton (1926)
I do not believe for instance that it is a mere coincidence that we are witnessing simultaneously the development of a movement supporting euthanasia and the development of a movement in favour of homosexual marriage. Simon Leys
S’il est une chose dont le Belge est pénétré, c’est de son insignifiance. Cela, en revanche, lui donne une incomparable liberté – un salubre irrespect, une tranquille impertinence, frisant l’insouciance. Simon Leys
La pire manière d’avoir tort c’est d’avoir eu raison trop tôt ! Simon Leys
Dans une controverse, on reconnait le vainqueur à ce que ses adversaires finissent par s’approprier ses arguments en s’imaginant les avoir inventés.  Simon Leys
Whenever a minute of silence is being observed in a ceremony, don’t we all soon begin to throw discreet glances at our watches? Exactly how long should a ‘decent interval’ last before we can resume business-as-usual with the butchers of Peking? (…) they may even have a point when they insist, in agreeing once more to sit at the banquet of the murderers, they are actively strengthening the reformist trends in China. I only wish they had weaker stomachs. Simon Leys
The other day, I was reading the manuscript of a forthcoming book by a young journalist – a series of profiles of women living in the Outback – farmer wives battling solitude and natural disasters on remote stations in the bush. One woman was expressing concern for the education and future of her son, and commented on the boy’s choice of exclusively practical subjects for his courses at boarding school. « And I can’t say I blame his choice, as I too, would prefer to be out in the bush driving a tractor of building cattleyards rather than sitting in a classroom learning about Shakespeare, which is something he will never need… » (…) Oddly enough, this disarming remark on the uselessness of literature unwittingly reduplicates, in one sense, a provocative statement by Nabokov. In fact the brave woman from the outback here seems to echo a sardonic paradox of the supreme literate aesthete of our age. Nabokov wrote this (which I shall never tire of quoting, perhaps because I myself taught literature for some time): ‘Let us not kid ourselves; let us remember that literature is of no use whatever, except in the very special case of somebody’s wishing to become, of all things, a Professor of Literature.’ And yet even Professors of Literature, when they are made of the right mettle, but find themselves in extreme situations – divested of their titles, deprived of their books, reduced to their barest humanity, equipped only with their tears and their memory – can reach the heart of the matter and experience in their flesh what literature is really about: our very survival as human beings. Simon Leys
The need to bring down to our own wretched level, to deface, to deride and debunk any splendour that is towering above us, is probably the saddest urge of human nature. Simon Leys
L’intuition de Chesterton est que le christianisme a renversé la vieille croyance platonicienne que la matière est mauvaise et que le spirituel est bon. Simon Leys
Comme Chesterton et comme Bernanos (autres écrivains de génie qui ont montré quel art le journalisme peut et doit être), Orwell a semé des perles un peu partout ; là, il faut donc tout lire, ce n’est pas une obligation, c’est un régal. (…) Chez Orwell, la qualité qui frappe le plus, c’est l’originalité. La vraie originalité, c’est le fait d’un homme qui, ayant d’abord réussi à devenir lui-même, n’a plus qu’à écrire naturellement. L’originalité échappe invinciblement à qui la poursuit pour elle-même, ne trouvant que la fausse originalité – cette lèpre qui ronge les lettres… Or un homme vrai ne saurait se réduire à des simplifications abstraites, à des définitions à sens unique (gauche, droite, progressiste, réactionnaire) ; c’est un noeud naturel de contradictions, un vivant paradoxe, comme Orwell l’a bien suggéré en se décrivant lui-même comme un « anarchiste conservateur ». (…) Orwell a explicitement récusé une façon de lire 1984 comme une description d’événements à venir. Il a lui-même défini son livre comme une « satire », développant les implications logiques de la prémisse totalitaire. Il serait donc vain d’essayer de mettre 1984 à jour. Anthony Burgess a jadis commis un 1985 qui montrait seulement sa profonde incompréhension du livre. Le vrai maître d’Orwell, c’est Swift, qu’il lisait et relisait sans se lasser. Comment concevoir une révision des Voyages de Gulliver ? À la lecture d’une intéressante interview que le professeur Jacques Le Goff vient de donner au Point (n° 1777, 5 octobre), je suis frappé par cette remarque qu’exprime le grand historien en passant : « Je déteste un livre comme 1984 d’Orwell à cause de sa non-insertion dans l’histoire. » Mais, précisément, c’est là le sujet même dont traite Orwell. Car le totalitarisme en action, c’est la négation de l’histoire – à tout le moins, sa suspension effective et délibérée. Orwell en eut la première intuition lors de la guerre d’Espagne ; et l’on peut voir dans la révélation qu’il eut alors comme le premier germe de1984. Il en fit la réflexion à Arthur Koestler, qui avait partagé cette même expérience : « L’Histoire s’est arrêtée en 1936. » Ainsi, la propagande stalinienne effaça toutes traces de batailles gagnées par les républicains lorsqu’il s’agissait de milices anarchistes et inventa de grandes victoires communistes là où nul combat n’avait été livré. Dans la presse communiste, l’expérience du front qu’avaient vécue Orwell et ses camarades se trouva frappée de totale irréalité. L’exercice du pouvoir totalitaire ne peut tolérer l’existence d’une réalité historique. Simon Leys
Le divorce de la littérature et du savoir est une plaie de notre époque et un des aspects caractéristiques de la barbarie moderne où, la plupart du temps, on voit des écrivains incultes tourner le dos à des savants qui écrivent en charabia. Simon Leys
Il est normal que les imbéciles profèrent des imbécillités comme les pommiers produisent des pommes, mais je ne peux pas accepter, moi qui ai vu le fleuve Jaune charrier des cadavres chaque jour depuis mes fenêtres, cette vision idyllique de la Révolution culturelle. Simon Leys
Je pense… que les idiots disent des idioties, c’est comme les pommiers produisent des pommes, c’est dans la nature, c’est normal. Le problème c’est qu’il y ait des lecteurs pour les prendre au sérieux et là évidemment se trouve le problème qui mériterait d’être analysé. Prenons le cas de Madame Macciocchi par exemple — je n’ai rien contre Madame Macciocchi personnellement, je n’ai jamais eu le plaisir de faire sa connaissance — quand je parle de Madame Macciocchi, je parle d’une certaine idée de la Chine, je parle de son œuvre, pas de sa personne. Son ouvrage De la Chine, c’est … ce qu’on peut dire de plus charitable, c’est que c’est d’une stupidité totale, parce que si on ne l’accusait pas d’être stupide, il faudrait dire que c’est une escroquerie. Simon Leys
Une nouvelle interprétation de la Chine par un “China watcher” français de Hongkong travaillant à la mode américaine. Beaucoup de faits, rapportés avec exactitude, auxquels se mêlent des erreurs et des informations incontrôlables en provenance de la colonie britannique. Les sources ne sont d’ordinaire pas citées, et l’auteur n’a manifestement pas l’expérience de ce dont il parle. La Révolution culturelle est ramenée à des querelles de cliques. Alain Bouc (Le Monde)
Une sinologue, Michelle Loi, publie en 1975 un court livre intitulé Pour Luxun. Réponse à Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys) (Lausanne, Alfred Eibel éditeur), dont le titre dévoile le nom réel de Simon Leys, au risque de lui interdire de pouvoir retourner en Chine. Wikipedia
« La “Révolution culturelle‘ qui n’eut de révolutionnaire que le nom et de culturel que le prétexte tactique initial, fut une lutte pour le pouvoir, menée au sommet entre une poignée d’individus, derrière le rideau de fumée d’un fictif mouvement de masses […] En Occident, certains commentateurs persistent à s’attacher littéralement à l’étiquette officielle et veulent prendre pour point de départ de leur glose le concept de révolution de la culture, voire même de révolution de la civilisation (le terme chinois wenhua’ laisse en effet place à cette double interprétation). En regard d’un thème aussi exaltant pour la réflexion, toute tentative pour réduire le phénomène à cette dimension sordide et triviale d’une ‘lutte pour le pouvoir sonne de façon blessante, voire diffamatoire aux oreilles des maoïstes européens.  Simon Leys
Le spectacle de cet immense pays terrorisé et crétinisé par la rhinocérite maoïste a-t-il entièrement anesthésié sa capacité d’indignation ? Non, mais il réserve celle-ci à la dénonciation de la détestable cuisine qu’Air France lui sert dans l’avion du retour : «Le déjeuner Air France est si infect (petits pains comme des poires, poulet avachi en sauce graillon, salade colorée, chou à la fécule chocolatée – et plus de champagne !) que je suis sur le point d’écrire une lettre de réclamation ». […] Devant les écrits ‘ chinois ’ de Barthes (et de ses amis de Tel Quel), une seule citation d’Orwell saute spontanément à l’esprit : ‘ Vous devez faire partie de l’intelligentsia pour écrire des choses pareilles ; nul homme ordinaire ne saurait être aussi stupide.‘  Simon Leys
Nos admirations nous définissent, mais parfois elles peuvent aussi cerner nos manques (par exemple, un bègue qui admire un éloquent causeur, un écrivain crispé et taciturne comme Jules Renard qui vénère la tonitruante prolixité de Victor Hugo, ou un romancier concis et pur comme Chardonne qui célèbre le formidable flot deTolstoï…). Quand on rend visite à quelqu’un que l’on souhaiterait mieux connaître, on est naturellement tenté de regarder les livres de sa bibliothèque: ce n’est pas plus indiscret que de regarder son visage -c’est tout aussi révélateur (bien que parfois trompeur). Simon Leys
Je crois à l’universalité et à la permanence de la nature humaine; elle transcende l’espace et le temps. Comment expliquer sinon pourquoi les peintures de Lascaux ou la lecture de Zhuang Zi (Tchouang-tseu) ou de Montaigne peuvent nous toucher de façon plus immédiate que les informations du journal de ce matin? Pour le meilleur et pour le pire, je ne vois donc pas comment les intellectuels du XXIe siècle pourraient fort différer de ceux du siècle précédent. Malraux disait que l’intellectuel français est un homme qui ne sait pas comment on ouvre un parapluie (je soupçonne d’ailleurs qu’il parlait d’expérience; et personnellement je ne me flatte pas d’une bien grande dextérité). Du fait de leur maladresse et de leur faiblesse, certains intellectuels seraient-ils plus vulnérables devant les séductions du pouvoir, et de son incarnation dans des chefs totalitaires? Je me contente de constater mélancoliquement la récurrence du phénomène -je ne suis pas psychologue. Simon Leys
Comme je l’évoque dans le post-scriptum de mon essai sur Liu Xiaobo, par la faute d’un agent consulaire belge, mes fils (jumeaux) se sont trouvés réduits à l’état d’apatrides. La faute aurait pu être rectifiée; malheureusement, elle était tellement grotesque que les autorités responsables n’auraient pu le reconnaître sans se rendre ridicules – aussi fallait-il la cacher. Comme toujours dans ce genre de mésaventure administrative, la tentative de camouflage est cent fois pire que ce qu’elle tente de dissimuler. Le problème devient monumental et rigide, il s’enfle et gonfle comme un monstrueux champignon vénéneux qui, en fin de compte, ne contient RIEN: un vide nauséabond. Ayant jadis passé pas mal de temps à analyser et à décrire divers aspects du phénomène bureaucratique au sein du totalitarisme marxiste, j’ai découvert avec stupeur qu’il avait son pendant naturel dans un ministère bruxellois: des bureaucrates belges placés dans le plus toxique des environnements pékinois se seraient aussitôt sentis comme des poissons dans l’eau. Je voudrais tâcher de dépasser l’anecdote personnelle pour cerner une leçon universelle. De nombreux lecteurs, victimes d’expériences semblables, m’ont d’ailleurs offert des rapports d’une hallucinante absurdité. J’envisage donc de faire une petite physiologie du bureaucrate. Cela pourrait s’intituler Le Rêve de Zazie -par référence à l’héroïne de Queneau: comme on demande à Zazie ce qu’elle voudrait devenir quand elle sera grande, elle répond: « Institutrice! -Ah, fort bien et pourquoi? -Pour faire chier les mômes! » Simon Leys
 No tyrant can forsake humanity and persecute intelligence with impunity: in the end, he reaps imbecility and madness. When he visited Moscow in 1957, Mao declared that an atomic war was not to be feared since, in such an eventuality, only half of the human race would perish. This remarkable statement provided a good sample of the mind that was to conceive the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution.” The human cost of these ventures was staggering: the famines that resulted from the “Great Leap” produced a demographic black hole into which it now appears that as many as fifty million victims may have been sucked. The violence of the “Cultural Revolution” affected a hundred million people. If, on the whole, the Maoist horrors are well known, what has not been sufficiently underlined is their asinine lunacy. In a recent issue of The New York Review, Jonathan Mirsky quoted an anecdote (from Liu Binyan, Ruan Ming, and Xu Gang’s Tell the World) that is so exemplary and apposite here that it bears telling once more: one day, Bo Yibo was swimming with Mao. Mao asked him what the production of iron and steel would be for the next year. Instead of replying, Bo Yibo told Mao that he was going to effect a turn in the water; Mao misunderstood him and thought that he had said “double.” A little later, at a Party meeting, Bo Yibo heard Mao announce that the national production of iron and steel would double the next year.3 The anecdote is perfectly credible in the light of all the documentary evidence we have concerning Mao’s attitude at the time of the “Great Leap”: we know that he swallowed the gigantic and grotesque deceptions fabricated by his own propaganda, and accepted without discussion the pleasing suggestion that miracles were taking place in the Chinese countryside; he genuinely believed that the yield of cotton and grain could be increased by 300 to 500 percent. And Liu Shaoqi himself was no wiser: inspecting Shandong in 1958, and having been told that miraculous increases had been effected in agricultural output, he said: “This is because the scientists have been kicked out, and people now dare to do things!” The output of steel, which was 5.3 million tons in 1957, allegedly reached 11 million tons in 1958, and it was planned that it would reach 18 million in 1959. The grain output which was 175 million tons in 1957, allegedly reached 375 million tons in 1958, and was planned to reach 500 million in 1959. The Central Committee solemnly endorsed this farce (Wuchang, Sixth Plenum, December 1958)—and planned for more. Zhou Enlai—who never passed for a fool—repeated and supported these fantastic figures and announced that the targets laid in the Second Five Year Plan (1958–1962) had all been reached in the plan’s first year! All the top leaders applauded this nonsense. Li Fuchun and Li Xiannian poured out “Great Leap” statistics that were simply lies. What happened to their common sense? Only Chen Yun had the courage to remain silent. Graphic details of the subsequent famine were provided in the official press only a few years ago, confirming what was already known through the testimonies of countless eyewitnesses. As early as 1961, Ladany published in China News Analysis some of these reports by Chinese travelers from all parts of China. All spoke of food shortage and hunger; swollen bellies, lack of protein and liver diseases were common. Many babies were stillborn because of their mothers’ deficient nutrition. Few babies were being born. As some workers put it, their food barely sufficed to keep them standing on their feet, let alone allowing them to have thoughts of sex. Peasants lacked the strength to work, and some collapsed in the fields and died. City government organisations and schools sent people to the villages by night to buy food, bartering clothes and furniture for it. In Shenyang the newspaper reported cannibalism. Desperate mothers strangled children who cried for food. Many reported that villagers were flocking into the cities in search of food; many villages were left empty…. It was also said that peasants were digging underground pits to hide their food. Others spoke of places where the population had been decimated by starvation. According to the Guang Ming Daily (April 27, 1980), in the North-West, the famine generated an ecological disaster: in their struggle to grow some food, the peasants destroyed grasslands and forests. Half of the grasslands and one third of the forests vanished between 1959 and 1962: the region was damaged permanently. The People’s Daily (May 14, 1980) said that the disaster of the “Great Leap” had affected the lives of a hundred million people who were physically devastated by the prolonged shortage of food. (Note that, at the time, China experts throughout the world refused to believe that there was famine in China. A BBC commentator, for instance, declared typically that a widespread famine in such a well-organized country was unthinkable.) Today, in order to stem the tide of popular discontent which threatens to engulf his rule, Deng Xiaoping is invoking again the authority of Mao. That he should be willing to call that ghost to the rescue provides a measure of his desperation. Considering the history of the last sixty years, one can easily imagine what sort of response the Chinese are now giving to such an appeal. Deng’s attempts to revive and promote Marxist studies are no less unpopular. Marxism has acquired a very bad name in China—which is quite understandable, though somewhat unfair: after all, it was never really tried. Simon Leys
In any debate, you really know that you have won when you find your opponents beginning to appropriate your ideas, in the sincere belief that they themselves just invented them. This situation can afford a subtle satisfaction; I think the feeling must be quite familiar to Father Ladany, the Jesuit priest and scholar based in Hong Kong who for many years published the weekly China News Analysis. Far away from the crude limelights of the media circus, he has enjoyed three decades of illustrious anonymity: all “China watchers” used to read his newsletter with avidity; many stole from it—but generally they took great pains never to acknowledge their indebtedness or to mention his name. Father Ladany watched this charade with sardonic detachment: he would probably agree that what Ezra Pound said regarding the writing of poetry should also apply to the recording of history—it is extremely important that it be written, but it is a matter of indifference who writes it. China News Analysis was compulsory reading for all those who wished to be informed of Chinese political developments—scholars, journalists, diplomats. In academe, however, its perusal among many political scientists was akin to what a drinking habit might be for an ayatollah, or an addiction to pornography for a bishop: it was a compulsive need that had to be indulged in secrecy. China experts gnashed their teeth as they read Ladany’s incisive comments; they hated his clearsightedness and cynicism; still, they could not afford to miss one single issue of his newsletter, for, however disturbing and scandalous his conclusions, the factual information which he supplied was invaluable and irreplaceable. What made China News Analysis so infuriatingly indispensable was the very simple and original principle on which it was run (true originality is usually simple): all the information selected and examined in China News Analysis was drawn exclusively from official Chinese sources (press and radio).  (…) What inspired his method was the observation that even the most mendacious propaganda must necessarily entertain some sort of relation with the truth; even as it manipulates and distorts the truth, it still needs originally to feed on it. Therefore, the untwisting of official lies, if skillfully effected, should yield a certain amount of straight facts. Needless to say, such an operation requires a doigté hardly less sophisticated than the chemistry which, in Gulliver’s Travels, enabled the Grand Academicians of Lagado to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and food from excreta.  (…) Without an ability to decipher non-existent inscriptions written in invisible ink on blank pages, no one should ever dream of analyzing the nature and reality of Chinese communism. Very few people have mastered this demanding discipline, and, with good reason, they generally acknowledge Father Ladany as their doyen. Simon Leys
 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.” The many enemies of French philosopher Jean-François Revel (1924-2006) often attempted to dismiss him as a mere journalist which, of course, he was among many other things, and very much in the Chestertonian fashion. At first he may seem odd to associate these two names: what could there be in common between the great Christian apologist and the staunch atheist, between the mystical poet and the strict rationalist, between the huge, benevolent man mountain and the short, fiery, nimble and pugnacious intellectual athlete (and, should we also add, between the devoted husband and the irrepressible ladies’ man)? One could multiply the contrasts, yet, on a deeper level, the essence of their genius was very much alike. Revel was an extrovert who took daily delight in the company of his friends (…) Always sparring with his interlocutors, he was passionately commited to is ideas, but if he took his own beliefs with utter seriousness, he did not take his own person seriously. Again, one could apply to him what Chesterton’s brother said of his famous sibling: “He had a passionate need to express his opinions, but he would express them as readily and well to a man he met on a bus.” Revel’s capacity for self-irony is the crowning grace of his memoirs, The Thief in an Empty House. Personal records can be a dangerous exercice, but in his case it eventuated in a triumphant masterpiece. His humour enchanted his readers, but kept disconcerting the more pompous pundits. The French greatly value wit, which they display in profusion, but humour often makes them uneasy, especially when it is applied to important subjects; they do not have a word for it, they do not know the thing. Whereas wit is a form of duelling – it aims to wound or to kill – the essence of humour is self-deprecatory. Once again, a Chestertonian saying could be apposite: “My critics think that I am not serious, but only funny, because they think that ‘funny’ is the opposite of ‘serious’. But ‘funny’ is the opposite of ‘not funny’ and nothing else. Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or in short jokes is analogous to whether he chooses to tell the truth in French or German.” What compounded the dismay of Revel’s pretentious critics was his implacable clarity. One of his close friends and collaborators said he doubted if Revel, in his entire career, had written a single sentence that was obscure. In the Parisian intellectual world such a habit can easily ruin a writer’s credit, for simple souls and solemn mediocrities are impressed only by what is couched in opaque jargon. And, in their eyes, how could one possibly say something important if one is not self-important? With the accuracy of his information and the sharpness of his irony, Revel deflated the huge balloons of cant that elevate the chattering classes. They felt utterly threatened, for he was exposing the puffery of the latest intellectual fashions upon which their livehood depended. At times they could not hide their panic; for instance, the great guru of the intelligentsia, Jacques Lacan, during one of his psychoanalytical seminars at the Sorbonne, performed in front of his devotees a voodoo-like exorcism. He frantically trampled underfoot and destroyed a copy of Revel’s book Why Philosophers?, in which Lacan’s charlatanism was analysed. Yet such outbursts weere mere circus acts; far more vicious was the invisible conspiracy that surrounded Revel with a wall of silence, well documented in Pierre Boncenne’s Pour Jean-François Revel: Un esprit libre (Plon, Paris, 2006), a timely and perceptive book that takes the full measure of Revel’s intellectual, literary and human stature. A paradoxical situation developed: Revel’s weekly newspaper columns were avidly read, nearly every one of his 30-odd books was an instant bestseller, and yet the most influential “progressive” critics studiously ignored his existence. His books were not reviewed, his ideas were not discussed, if his name was mentioned at all it was with a patronising sneer, if not downright slander. Revel was quintessentially French in his literary tastes and sensitivity (his pages on Michel de Montaigne, Francois Rabelais and Marcel Proust marry intelligence with love; his anthology of French poetry mirrors his original appreciation of the poetic language), in his art of living (his great book on gastronomy is truly a “feast in words”) and in his conviviality (he truly cared for his friends). And yet what strikingly set him apart from most other intellectuals of his generation was his genuinely cosmopolitan outlook. He had spent abroad the best part of his formative and early creative years, mostly in Mexico and Italy. In addition to English (spoken by few educated French of his time) he was fluent in Italian, Spanish and German; until the end of his life he retained the healthy habit to start every day (he rose at 5am) by listening to he BBC news and reading six foreign newspapers. On international affairs, on literature, art and ideas, he had universal perspectives that broke completely from the suffocating provincialism of the contemporary Parisian elites. In the 18th century, French was the common language of the leading minds of continental Europe; 20th-century French intellectuals hardly noticed that times had changed in this respect; they retained the dangerous belief that whatever was not expressed in French could hardly matter. Revel never had enough sarcasm to denounce this sort of self-indulgence; on the bogus notion of le rayonnement français, he was scathing: “French culture has radiated for so long, it’s a wonder mankind has not died from sunstroke.” He fiercely fought against chauvinist cultural blindness, and especially against its most cretinous expression: irrational anti-Americanism. At the root of this attitude he detected a subconscious resentment: the French feel that when Americans are playing a leading role in the political-cultural world they are usurping what is by birthright a French prerogative. By vocation and academic training Revel was originally a philosopher (he entered at an exceptionally early age the Ecole Normale Superieure, the apex of the French higher education system). He taught philosophy and eventually wrote a history of Western philosophy (eschewing all technical jargon, it is a model of lucid synthesis). However, he became disenchanted with the contemporary philosophers who, he flet, had betrayed their calling by turning philosophy into a professional career and a mere literary genre. “Philosophy,” he wrote “ought to return to its original and fundamental question: How should I live?” he preferred simply to call himslef “a man of letters”. Ancient Greek poet Archilochus famously said: “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Revel was the archetypical fox, but at the same time he held with all the determination of a hedgehog to one central idea that inspires, pervades and motivates all his endeavours: The belief that each individual destiny, as well as the destiny of mankind, depends upon the accuracy – or the falsity – of the information at their disposal, and upon the way in which they put this information to use. He devoted one of his books specifically to this issue, La Connaissance Inutile (Useless Knowledge), but this theme runs through nearly all his writings. Politics naturally absorbed a great amount of his attention. From the outset he showed his willingness to commit himself personally, and at great risk: as a young man in occupied France he joined the Resistance against the Nazis. After the war, his basic political allegiance was, and always remainded, to the Left and the principles of liberal democracy. He was sharply critical of Charles de Gaulle and of all saviours and providential leaders in military uniforms. Yet, like George Orwell before him, he always believed that only an uncompromising denunciation of all forms of Stalinist totalitarianism can ensure the ultimate victory of socialism. Thus – again, like Orwell – he earned for himself the hostility of his starry-eyed comrades. Simon Leys

Attention: un intellectuel peut ne pas en cacher un autre !

Belge de naissance, chinois de coeur, australien de résidence, chrétien revendiqué, admirateur de Chesterton, Bernanos, Orwell,  ami de Revel et Mario Vargas Llosa, intellectuel ayant fait de la nécessité de l’ « insignifiance » supposée de sa nationalité vertu, vendeur de mèche des secrets de sa tribu maolâtre et antichrétienne ayant osé dénoncer les habits neufs de l’empereur et défendre Mère Teresa, intellectuel n’hésitant pas à critiquer l’anti-intellectualisme tout en se méfiant de l’intelligence, à appeler un imbécile un imbécile,  à pratiquer tout en restant vigilant le meilleur des journalismes, à  mettre en doute  des conquêtes de l’humanité aussi grandes que l’euthanasie et le mariage homosexuel et même à révéler et remercier ses propres sources …

En ces temps étranges où, sur fond de purification ethnique et de génocide revendiqué des derniers chrétiens et juifs du Moyen-Orient …

Et où, après la tentation du fascisme, du nazisme, du communisme, du stalinisme, du maoïsme et de l’antiaméricanisme primaire, ceux qui ont toujours préféré avoir tort avec Sartre semblent repartis à la case départ de l‘antisémitisme qui avait justement, avec le fameux « J’accuse » de Zola, marqué leur acte de naissance …

Comment ne pas repenser à l’occasion de la récente disparition du sinologue Pierre Ryckmans (dit Simon Leys) dont la vigilance, pour reprendre le mot de Sartre à la mort d’un Gide dont ladite vertu lui sera hélas de peu d’utilité,  nous manque déjà …

A tous ces véritables intellectuels que nos médiacrates actuels ont indûment éclipsés quand, à la manière de l’ancien compagnon de route de Che Guevara et ex-conseiller spécial de François Mitterrand Régis Debray, ils ne les ont pas confondus avec leur version française et n’en ont pas fait l’acte de décès ?

Comment ne pas voir protégés peut-être par leur nationalité ou résidence étrangères à l’instar du sinologue belgo-australien qui fut aussi critique littéraire et écrivain …

Que ce sont aussi ceux qui correspondent le plus à la définition canonique que fit de cette version moderne des prophètes juifs d’antan après Benda et avant Bourdieu, le petit camarade d’Aron et de Camus si fier en son temps  de sa « stricte obédience stalinienne » ?

A savoir non d « ‘abuser » mais d’utiliser la notoriété acquise par leurs travaux pour défendre les « valeurs éternelles et désintéressées » de la justice et de la raison …

Mais aussi, refusant le compartimentage et l’amputation de  l’une ou l’autre des grandes voies d’accès à la vérité telles que la religion, l’art, la philosophie et la science et à l’image de Proust,  se  méfiant sans la rejeter de l’intelligence, de résister aux dérives du temps qui virent la plus grande indulgence aux plus grands crimes et de ne pas hésiter, au prix fort, à vendre la mèche sur sa propre tribu ?

Et quel meilleur hommage leur faire que ces deux textes et sortes d’autoportrait en creux dans lesquels Leys fit l’éloge de deux des intellectuels dont ils partageaient la volonté farouche d’allier la connaissance et le goût de la théorie du renard à la détermination et à l’intérêt pour le  travail de terrain du hérisson mais surtout  l’amour par dessus tout de la précision et de la vérité …

A savoir le père et sinologue polonais, Laszlo Ladany dont il ne taira jamais l’inspiration et l’essayiste qui fut l’un des rares intellectuels français à le soutenir Jean-Francois Revel ?

The Art of Interpreting Nonexistent Inscriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page
Simon Leys

The New York Review of Books

OCTOBER 11, 1990 ISSUE
The Communist Party of China and Marxism, 1921––1985: A Self Portrait
by Laszlo Ladany, foreword by Robert Elegant
Hoover Institution Press, 588 pp., $44.95
1.

In any debate, you really know that you have won when you find your opponents beginning to appropriate your ideas, in the sincere belief that they themselves just invented them. This situation can afford a subtle satisfaction; I think the feeling must be quite familiar to Father Ladany, the Jesuit priest and scholar based in Hong Kong who for many years published the weekly China News Analysis. Far away from the crude limelights of the media circus, he has enjoyed three decades of illustrious anonymity: all “China watchers” used to read his newsletter with avidity; many stole from it—but generally they took great pains never to acknowledge their indebtedness or to mention his name. Father Ladany watched this charade with sardonic detachment: he would probably agree that what Ezra Pound said regarding the writing of poetry should also apply to the recording of history—it is extremely important that it be written, but it is a matter of indifference who writes it.

China News Analysis was compulsory reading for all those who wished to be informed of Chinese political developments—scholars, journalists, diplomats. In academe, however, its perusal among many political scientists was akin to what a drinking habit might be for an ayatollah, or an addiction to pornography for a bishop: it was a compulsive need that had to be indulged in secrecy. China experts gnashed their teeth as they read Ladany’s incisive comments; they hated his clearsightedness and cynicism; still, they could not afford to miss one single issue of his newsletter, for, however disturbing and scandalous his conclusions, the factual information which he supplied was invaluable and irreplaceable. What made China News Analysis so infuriatingly indispensable was the very simple and original principle on which it was run (true originality is usually simple): all the information selected and examined in China News Analysis was drawn exclusively from official Chinese sources (press and radio). This austere rule sometimes deprived Ladany’s newsletter of the life and color that could have been provided by less orthodox sources, but it enabled him to build his devastating conclusions on unimpeachable grounds.

What inspired his method was the observation that even the most mendacious propaganda must necessarily entertain some sort of relation with the truth; even as it manipulates and distorts the truth, it still needs originally to feed on it. Therefore, the untwisting of official lies, if skillfully effected, should yield a certain amount of straight facts. Needless to say, such an operation requires a doigté hardly less sophisticated than the chemistry which, in Gulliver’s Travels, enabled the Grand Academicians of Lagado to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and food from excreta. The analyst who wishes to gather information through such a process must negotiate three hurdles of thickening thorniness. First, he needs to have a fluent command of the Chinese language. To the man-in-the-street, such a prerequisite may appear like elementary common sense, but once you leave the street level, and enter the loftier spheres of academe, common sense is not so common any longer, and it remains an interesting fact that, during the Maoist era, a majority of leading “China Experts” hardly knew any Chinese. (I hasten to add that this is largely a phenomenon of the past; nowadays, fortunately, young scholars are much better educated.)

Secondly, in the course of his exhaustive surveys of Chinese official documentation, the analyst must absorb industrial quantities of the most indigestible stuff; reading Communist literature is akin to munching rhinoceros sausage, or to swallowing sawdust by the bucketful. Furthermore, while subjecting himself to this punishment, the analyst cannot allow his attention to wander, or his mind to become numb; he must keep his wits sharp and keen; with the eye of an eagle that can spot a lone rabbit in the middle of a desert, he must scan the arid wastes of the small print in the pages of the People’s Daily, and pounce upon those rare items of significance that lie buried under mountains of clichés. He must know how to milk substance and meaning out of flaccid speeches, hollow slogans, and fanciful statistics; he must scavenge for needles in Himalayan-size haystacks; he must combine the nose of a hunting hound, the concentration and patience of an angler, and the intuition and encyclopedic knowledge of a Sherlock Holmes.

Thirdly—and this is his greatest challenge—he must crack the code of the Communist political jargon and translate into ordinary speech this secret language full of symbols, riddles, cryptograms, hints, traps, dark allusions, and red herrings. Like wise old peasants who can forecast tomorrow’s weather by noting how deep the moles dig and how high the swallows fly, he must be able to decipher the premonitory signs of political storms and thaws, and know how to interpret a wide range of quaint warnings—sometimes the Supreme Leader takes a swim in the Yangtze River, or suddenly writes a new poem, or sponsors a ping-pong game: such events all have momentous implications. He must carefully watch the celebration of anniversaries, the noncelebration of anniversaries, and the celebration of nonanniversaries; he must check the lists of guests at official functions, and note the order in which their names appear. In the press, the size, type, and color of headlines, as well as the position and composition of photos and illustrations are all matters of considerable import; actually they obey complex laws, as precise and strict as the iconographic rules that govern the location, garb, color, and symbolic attributes of the figures of angels, archangels, saints, and patriarchs in the decoration of a Byzantine basilica.

To find one’s way in this maze, ingenuity and astuteness are not enough; one also needs a vast amount of experience. Communist Chinese politics are a lugubrious merry-go-round (as I have pointed out many times already), and in order to appreciate fully the déjà-vu quality of its latest convolutions, you would need to have watched it revolve for half a century. The main problem with many of our politicians and pundits is that their memories are too short, thus forever preventing them from putting events and personalities in a true historical perspective. For instance, when, in 1979, the “People’s Republic” began to revise its criminal law, there were good souls in the West who applauded this initiative, as they thought that it heralded China’s move toward a genuine rule of law. What they failed to note, however—and which should have provided a crucial hint regarding the actual nature and meaning of the move in question—was that the new law was being introduced by Peng Zhen, one of the most notorious butchers of the regime, a man who, thirty years earlier, had organized the ferocious mass accusations, lynchings, and public executions of the land reform programs.

Or again, after the death of Mao, Western politicians and commentators were prompt to hail Deng Xiaoping as a sort of champion of liberalization. The Selected Works of Deng published at that time should have enlightened them—not so much by what it included, as by what it excluded; had they been able to read it as any Communist document should be read, i.e., by concentrating first on its gaps, they would have rediscovered Deng’s Stalinist-Maoist statements, and then, perhaps, they might have been less surprised by the massacres of June 4.

More than half a century ago, the writer Lu Xun (1889–1936), whose prophetic genius never ceases to amaze, described accurately the conundrum of China watching:

Once upon a time, there was a country whose rulers completely succeeded in crushing the people; and yet they still believed that the people were their most dangerous enemy. The rulers issued huge collections of statutes, but none of these volumes could actually be used, because in order to interpret them, one had to refer to a set of instructions that had never been made public. These instructions contained many original definitions. Thus, for instance, “liberation” meant in fact “capital execution”; “government official” meant “friend, relative or servant of an influential politician,” and so on. The rulers also issued codes of laws that were marvellously modern, complex and complete; however, at the beginning of the first volume, there was one blank page; this blank page could be deciphered only by those who knew the instructions—which did not exist. The first three invisible articles of these non-existent instructions read as follows: “Art. 1: some cases must be treated with special leniency. Art. 2: some cases must be treated with special severity. Art. 3: this does not apply in all cases.”

Without an ability to decipher non-existent inscriptions written in invisible ink on blank pages, no one should ever dream of analyzing the nature and reality of Chinese communism. Very few people have mastered this demanding discipline, and, with good reason, they generally acknowledge Father Ladany as their doyen.

2.

After thirty-six years of China watching, Father Ladany finally retired and summed up his exceptional experience in The Communist Party of China and Marxism, 1921–1985: A Self Portrait. In the scope of this article it would naturally not be possible to do full justice to a volume which analyzes in painstaking detail sixty-five years of turbulent history; still, it may be useful to outline here some of Ladany’s main conclusions.

The Communist party is in essence a secret society. In its methods and mentality it presents a striking resemblance to an underworld mob.1 It fears daylight, feeds on deception and conspiracy, and rules by intimidation and terror. “Communist legality” is a contradiction in terms, since the Party is above the law—for example, Party members are immune from legal prosecution; they must be divested of their Party membership before they can be indicted by a criminal court (that a judge may acquit an accused person is inconceivable: since the accused was sent to court, it means that he is guilty). Whereas even Mussolini and Hitler orginally reached power through elections, no Communist party ever received an electorate’s mandate to govern.

In China, the path that led the Communists to victory still remains partly shrouded in mystery. Even today, for Party historians, many archives remain closed, and there are entire chapters that continue to present insoluble riddles; minutes of decisive meetings are nowhere to be found, important dates remain uncertain; for some momentous episodes it is still impossible to identify the participants and to reconstruct accurately the sequence of events; for some periods one cannot even determine who were the Party leaders!

As Ladany points out, a Communist regime is built on a triple foundation: dialectics, the power of the Party, and a secret police—but, as to its ideological equipment, Marxism is merely an optional feature; the regime can do without it most of the time. Dialectics is the jolly art that enables the Supreme Leader never to make mistakes—for even if he did the wrong thing, he did it at the right time, which makes it right for him to have been wrong, whereas the Enemy, even if he did the right thing, did it at the wrong time, which makes it wrong for him to have been right.

Before securing power, the Party thrives on political chaos. If confronted with a deliquescent government, it can succeed through organization and propaganda, even when it operates from a minuscule base: in 1945, the Communists controlled only one town, Yan’an, and some remote tracts of countryside; four years later, the whole of China was theirs. At the time of the Communist takeover, the Party members in Peking numbered a mere three thousand, and Shanghai, a city of nine million people, had only eight thousand Party members. In a time of social and economic collapse, it takes very few people—less than 0.01 percent of the population in the Chinese case—to launch emotional appeals, to stir the indignation of the populace against corrupt and brutal authorities, to mobilize the generosity and idealism of the young, to enlist the support of thousands of students, and eventually to present their tiny Communist movement as the incarnation of the entire nation’s will.

What is even more remarkable is that, before 1949, wherever the population had been directly exposed to their rule the Communists were utterly unpopular. They had introduced radical land reform in parts of North China during the civil war, and, as Ladany recalls,

Not only landowners but all suspected enemies were treated brutally; one could walk about in the North Chinese plains and see hands sticking out from the ground, the hands of people buried alive…. Luckily for the Communists, government propaganda was so poorly organised that people living in regions not occupied by the Communists knew nothing of such atrocities.

Once the whole country fell under their control, it did not take long for the Communists to extend to the rest of the nation the sort of treatment which, until then, had been reserved for inner use—purging the Party and disciplining the population of the so-called liberated areas. Systematic terror was applied on a national scale as early as 1950, to match first the land reform and then the campaign to suppress “counterrevolutionaries.” By the fall of 1951, 80 percent of all Chinese had had to take part in mass accusation meetings, or to watch organized lynchings and public executions. These grim liturgies followed set patterns that once more were reminiscent of gangland practices: during these proceedings, rhetorical questions were addressed to the crowd, which, in turn, had to roar its approval in unison—the purpose of the exercise being to ensure collective participation in the murder of innocent victims; the latter were selected not on the basis of what they had done, but of who they were, or sometimes for no better reason than the need to meet the quota of capital executions which had been arbitrarily set beforehand by the Party authorities.

From that time on, every two or three years, a new “campaign” would be launched, with its usual accompaniment of mass accusations, “struggle meetings,” self-accusations, and public executions. At the beginning of each “campaign,” there were waves of suicides: many of the people who, during a previous “campaign,” had suffered public humiliation, psychological and physical torture at the hands of their own relatives, colleagues, and neighbors, found it easier to jump from a window or under a train than to face a repeat of the same ordeal.

What is puzzling is that in organizing these recurrent waves of terror the Communists betrayed a strange incapacity to understand their own people. As history has amply demonstrated, the Chinese possess extraordinary patience; they can stoically endure the rule of a ruthless and rapacious government, provided that it does not interfere too much with their family affairs and private pursuits, and as long as it can provide basic stability. On both accounts, the Communists broke this tacit covenant between ruler and ruled. They invaded the lives of the people in a way that was far more radical and devastating than in the Soviet Union. Remolding the minds, “brainwashing” as it is usually called, is a chief instrument of Chinese communism, and the technique goes as far back as the early consolidation of Mao’s rule in Yan’an.

To appreciate the characteristics of the Maoist approach one need simply compare the Chinese “labor rectification” camps with the Soviet Gulag. Life in the concentration camps in Siberia was physically more terrifying than life in many Chinese camps, but the mental pressure was less severe on the Soviet side. In the Siberian camps the inmates could still, in a way, feel spiritually free and retain some sort of inner life, whereas the daily control of words and thoughts, the actual transformation and conditioning of individual consciousness, made the Maoist camps much more inhuman.

Besides its cruelty, the Maoist practice of launching political “campaigns” in relentless succession generated a permanent instability, which eventually ruined the moral credit of the Party, destroyed much of society, paralyzed the economy, provoked large-scale famines, and nearly developed into civil war. In 1949, most of the population had been merely hoping for a modicum of order and peace, which the Communists could easily have granted. Had they governed with some moderation and abstained from the needless upheavals of the campaigns, they could have won long-lasting popular support, and ensured steady economic development—but Mao had a groundless fear of inner opposition and revolt; this psychological flaw led him to adopt methods that proved fatally self-destructive.

History might have been very different if the original leaders of the Chinese Communist party had not been decimated by Chiang Kai-shek’s White Terror of 1927, or expelled by their own comrades in subsequent Party purges. They were civilized and sophisticated urban intellectuals, upholding humanistic values, with cosmopolitan and open minds, attuned to the modern world. While their sun was still high in the political firmament, Mao’s star never had a chance to shine; however bright and ambitious, the young self-taught peasant was unable to compete with these charismatic figures. Their sudden elimination marked an abrupt turn in the Chinese revolution—one may say that it actually put an end to it—but it also presented Mao with an unexpected opening. At first, his ascent was not exactly smooth; yet, by 1940 in Yan’an, he was finally able to neutralize all his rivals and to remold the entire Party according to his own conception. It is this Maoist brigade of country bumpkins and uneducated soldiers, trained and drilled in a remote corner of one of China’s poorest and most backward provinces, that was finally to impose its rule over the entire nation—and, as Ladany adds, “This is why there are spittoons everywhere in the People’s Republic.”

Mao’s anti-intellectualism was deeply rooted in his personal experiences. He never forgot how, as a young man, intellectuals had made him feel insignificant and inadequate. Later on, he came to despise them for their perpetual doubts and waverings; the competence and expertise of scholarly authorities irritated him; he distrusted the independence of their judgments and resented their critical ability. In the barracks-like atmosphere of Yan’an, a small town without culture, far removed from intellectual centers, with no easy access to books, amid illiterate peasants and brutish soldiers, intellectuals were easily singled out for humiliating sessions of self-criticism and were turned into exemplary targets during the terrifying purges of 1942–1944. Thus the pattern was set for what was to remain the most characteristic feature of Chinese communism: the persecution and ostracisim of intellectuals. The Yan’an brigade had an innate dislike of people who thought too much; this moronic tradition received a powerful boost in 1957, when, in the aftermath of the Hundred Flowers campaign, China’s cultural elite was pilloried; nine years later, finally, the “Cultural Revolution” marked the climax of Mao’s war against intelligence: savage blows were dealt to all intellectuals inside and outside the Party; all education was virtually suspended for ten years, producing an entire generation of illiterates.

Educated persons were considered unfit by nature to join the Party; especially at the local level resistance to accepting them was always greatest, as the old leadership felt threatened by all expressions of intellectual superiority. Official figures released in 1985 provide a telling picture of the level of education within the Communist party—which makes up the privileged elite of the nation: 4 percent of Party members had received some university education—they did not necessarily graduate—(against 30 percent in the Soviet Union); 42 percent of Party members only attended primary school; 10 percent are illiterate….

The first casualty of Mao’s anti-intellectualism was to be found, interestingly enough, in the field of Marxist studies. When, after fifteen years of revolutionary activity, the Party finally felt the need to acquire some rudiments of Marxist knowledge (at that time virtually no work of Marx had yet been translated into Chinese!), Mao, who himself was still a beginner in this discipline, undertook to keep all doctrinal developments under his personal control. In Yan’an, like an inexperienced teacher who has gotten hold of the only available textbook and struggles to keep one lesson ahead of his pupils, he simply plagiarized a couple of Soviet booklets and gave a folksy Chinese version of some elementary Stalinist-Zhdanovian notions. How these crude, banal, and derivative works ever came to acquire in the eyes of the entire world the prestige and authority of an original philosophy remains a mystery; it must be one of the most remarkable instances of mass autosuggestion in the twentieth century.

In one respect, however, the Thoughts of Mao Zedong did present genuine originality and dared to tread a ground where Stalin himself had not ventured: Mao explicitly denounced the concept of a universal humanity; whereas the Soviet tyrant merely practiced inhumanity, Mao gave it a theoretical foundation, expounding the notion—without parallel in the other Communist countries of the world—that the proletariat alone is fully endowed with human nature. To deny the humanity of other people is the very essence of terrorism; millions of Chinese were soon to measure the actual implications of this philosophy.

At first, after the establishment of the People’s Republic the regime was simply content to translate and reproduce elementary Soviet introductions to Marxism. The Chinese Academy of Sciences had a department of philosophy and social sciences but produced nothing during the Fifties, not even textbooks on Marxism. Only one university in the entire country—Peking University—had a department of philosophy; only Mao’s works were studied there.

When the Soviet Union denounced Stalin and rejected his History of the Communist Party—Short Course, the Chinese were stunned: this little book contained virtually all they knew about Marxism. Then, the Sino-Soviet split ended the intellectual importations from the USSR, and it was conveniently decided that the Thoughts of Mao Zedong represented the highest development of Marxist-Leninist philosophy; therefore, in order to fill the ideological vacuum, Mao’s Thoughts suddenly expanded and acquired polyvalent functions; its study became a reward for the meritorious, a punishment for the criminal, a medicine for the sick; it could answer all questions and solve all problems; it even performed miracles that were duly recorded; its presence was felt everywhere: it was broadcast in the streets and in the fields, it was put to music, it was turned into song and dance; it was inscribed everywhere—on mountain cliffs and on chopsticks, on badges, on bridges, on ashtrays, on dams, on teapots, on locomotives; it was printed on every page of all newspapers. (This, in turn, created some practical problems: in a poor country, where all paper is recycled for a variety of purposes, one had always to be very careful when wrapping groceries or when wiping one’s bottom, not to do it with Mao’s ubiquitous Thoughts—which would have been a capital offence.) In a way, Mao is to Marx what Voodoo is to Christianity; therefore, it is not surprising that the inflation of Mao’s Thoughts precluded the growth of serious Marxist studies in China.2

No tyrant can forsake humanity and persecute intelligence with impunity: in the end, he reaps imbecility and madness. When he visited Moscow in 1957, Mao declared that an atomic war was not to be feared since, in such an eventuality, only half of the human race would perish. This remarkable statement provided a good sample of the mind that was to conceive the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution.” The human cost of these ventures was staggering: the famines that resulted from the “Great Leap” produced a demographic black hole into which it now appears that as many as fifty million victims may have been sucked. The violence of the “Cultural Revolution” affected a hundred million people. If, on the whole, the Maoist horrors are well known, what has not been sufficiently underlined is their asinine lunacy. In a recent issue of The New York Review, Jonathan Mirsky quoted an anecdote (from Liu Binyan, Ruan Ming, and Xu Gang’s Tell the World) that is so exemplary and apposite here that it bears telling once more: one day, Bo Yibo was swimming with Mao. Mao asked him what the production of iron and steel would be for the next year. Instead of replying, Bo Yibo told Mao that he was going to effect a turn in the water; Mao misunderstood him and thought that he had said “double.” A little later, at a Party meeting, Bo Yibo heard Mao announce that the national production of iron and steel would double the next year.3

The anecdote is perfectly credible in the light of all the documentary evidence we have concerning Mao’s attitude at the time of the “Great Leap”: we know that he swallowed the gigantic and grotesque deceptions fabricated by his own propaganda, and accepted without discussion the pleasing suggestion that miracles were taking place in the Chinese countryside; he genuinely believed that the yield of cotton and grain could be increased by 300 to 500 percent. And Liu Shaoqi himself was no wiser: inspecting Shandong in 1958, and having been told that miraculous increases had been effected in agricultural output, he said: “This is because the scientists have been kicked out, and people now dare to do things!” The output of steel, which was 5.3 million tons in 1957, allegedly reached 11 million tons in 1958, and it was planned that it would reach 18 million in 1959. The grain output which was 175 million tons in 1957, allegedly reached 375 million tons in 1958, and was planned to reach 500 million in 1959. The Central Committee solemnly endorsed this farce (Wuchang, Sixth Plenum, December 1958)—and planned for more. Zhou Enlai—who never passed for a fool—repeated and supported these fantastic figures and announced that the targets laid in the Second Five Year Plan (1958–1962) had all been reached in the plan’s first year! All the top leaders applauded this nonsense. Li Fuchun and Li Xiannian poured out “Great Leap” statistics that were simply lies. What happened to their common sense? Only Chen Yun had the courage to remain silent.

Graphic details of the subsequent famine were provided in the official press only a few years ago, confirming what was already known through the testimonies of countless eyewitnesses.

As early as 1961, Ladany published in China News Analysis some of these reports by Chinese travelers from all parts of China.

All spoke of food shortage and hunger; swollen bellies, lack of protein and liver diseases were common. Many babies were stillborn because of their mothers’ deficient nutrition. Few babies were being born. As some workers put it, their food barely sufficed to keep them standing on their feet, let alone allowing them to have thoughts of sex. Peasants lacked the strength to work, and some collapsed in the fields and died. City government organisations and schools sent people to the villages by night to buy food, bartering clothes and furniture for it. In Shenyang the newspaper reported cannibalism. Desperate mothers strangled children who cried for food. Many reported that villagers were flocking into the cities in search of food; many villages were left empty…. It was also said that peasants were digging underground pits to hide their food. Others spoke of places where the population had been decimated by starvation.

According to the Guang Ming Daily (April 27, 1980), in the North-West, the famine generated an ecological disaster: in their struggle to grow some food, the peasants destroyed grasslands and forests. Half of the grasslands and one third of the forests vanished between 1959 and 1962: the region was damaged permanently. The People’s Daily (May 14, 1980) said that the disaster of the “Great Leap” had affected the lives of a hundred million people who were physically devastated by the prolonged shortage of food. (Note that, at the time, China experts throughout the world refused to believe that there was famine in China. A BBC commentator, for instance, declared typically that a widespread famine in such a well-organized country was unthinkable.)

Today, in order to stem the tide of popular discontent which threatens to engulf his rule, Deng Xiaoping is invoking again the authority of Mao. That he should be willing to call that ghost to the rescue provides a measure of his desperation. Considering the history of the last sixty years, one can easily imagine what sort of response the Chinese are now giving to such an appeal.

Deng’s attempts to revive and promote Marxist studies are no less unpopular. Marxism has acquired a very bad name in China—which is quite understandable, though somewhat unfair: after all, it was never really tried.

1
Looking at this phenomenon from an East European angle, Kazimierz Brandys made similar observations in his admirable Warsaw Diary (Random House, 1983).↩

2
Epilogue: in 1982, a People’s Daily survey revealed that over 90 percent of Chinese youth do not have an inkling of what Marxism is.↩

3
The New York Review, April 26, 1990.↩

Voir aussi:

Cunning like a hedgehog

Cunning like a heldgehog. In memory of Jean-François Revel, man of letters, man of integrity, friend

Simon Leys

The Australian Literary Review, 1 August 2007

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.”

The many enemies of French philosopher Jean-François Revel (1924-2006) often attempted to dismiss him as a mere journalist which, of course, he was among many other things, and very much in the Chestertonian fashion.

At first he may seem odd to associate these two names: what could there be in common between the great Christian apologist and the staunch atheist, between the mystical poet and the strict rationalist, between the huge, benevolent man mountain and the short, fiery, nimble and pugnacious intellectual athlete (and, should we also add, between the devoted husband and the irrepressible ladies’ man)? One could multiply the contrasts, yet, on a deeper level, the essence of their genius was very much alike.

Revel was an extrovert who took daily delight in the company of his friends:

I am the most sociable creature; other people’s society is my joy. Though, for me, a happy day should have a part of solitude, it must also afford a few hours of the most intense of all the pleasures of the mind: conversation. Friendship has always occupied a central place in my life, as well as the keen desire to make new acquaintances, to hear them, to question them, to test their reactions to my own views.

Always sparring with his interlocutors, he was passionately commited to is ideas, but if he took his own beliefs with utter seriousness, he did not take his own person seriously. Again, one could apply to him what Chesterton’s brother said of his famous sibling: “He had a passionate need to express his opinions, but he would express them as readily and well to a man he met on a bus.”

Revel’s capacity for self-irony is the crowning grace of his memoirs, The Thief in an Empty House. Personal records can be a dangerous exercice, but in his case it eventuated in a triumphant masterpiece.

His humour enchanted his readers, but kept disconcerting the more pompous pundits. The French greatly value wit, which they display in profusion, but humour often makes them uneasy, especially when it is applied to important subjects; they do not have a word for it, they do not know the thing.

Whereas wit is a form of duelling – it aims to wound or to kill – the essence of humour is self-deprecatory. Once again, a Chestertonian saying could be apposite: “My critics think that I am not serious, but only funny, because they think that ‘funny’ is the opposite of ‘serious’. But ‘funny’ is the opposite of ‘not funny’ and nothing else. Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or in short jokes is analogous to whether he chooses to tell the truth in French or German.”

What compounded the dismay of Revel’s pretentious critics was his implacable clarity. One of his close friends and collaborators said he doubted if Revel, in his entire career, had written a single sentence that was obscure. In the Parisian intellectual world such a habit can easily ruin a writer’s credit, for simple souls and solemn mediocrities are impressed only by what is couched in opaque jargon. And, in their eyes, how could one possibly say something important if one is not self-important?

With the accuracy of his information and the sharpness of his irony, Revel deflated the huge balloons of cant that elevate the chattering classes. They felt utterly threatened, for he was exposing the puffery of the latest intellectual fashions upon which their livehood depended. At times they could not hide their panic; for instance, the great guru of the intelligentsia, Jacques Lacan, during one of his psychoanalytical seminars at the Sorbonne, performed in front of his devotees a voodoo-like exorcism.

He frantically trampled underfoot and destroyed a copy of Revel’s book Why Philosophers?, in which Lacan’s charlatanism was analysed.

Yet such outbursts weere mere circus acts; far more vicious was the invisible conspiracy that surrounded Revel with a wall of silence, well documented in Pierre Boncenne’s Pour Jean-François Revel: Un esprit libre (Plon, Paris, 2006), a timely and perceptive book that takes the full measure of Revel’s intellectual, literary and human stature.

A paradoxical situation developed: Revel’s weekly newspaper columns were avidly read, nearly every one of his 30-odd books was an instant bestseller, and yet the most influential “progressive” critics studiously ignored his existence. His books were not reviewed, his ideas were not discussed, if his name was mentioned at all it was with a patronising sneer, if not downright slander.

Revel was quintessentially French in his literary tastes and sensitivity (his pages on Michel de Montaigne, Francois Rabelais and Marcel Proust marry intelligence with love; his anthology of French poetry mirrors his original appreciation of the poetic language), in his art of living (his great book on gastronomy is truly a “feast in words”) and in his conviviality (he truly cared for his friends).

And yet what strikingly set him apart from most other intellectuals of his generation was his genuinely cosmopolitan outlook.

He had spent abroad the best part of his formative and early creative years, mostly in Mexico and Italy. In addition to English (spoken by few educated Fench of his time) he was fluent in Italian, Spanish and German; until the end of his life he retained the healthy habit to start every day (he rose at 5am) by listening to he BBC news and reading six foreign newspapers.

On international affairs, on literature, art and ideas, he had universal perspectives that broke completely from the suffocating provincialism of the contemporary Parisian elites. In the 18th century, French was the common language of the leading minds of continental Europe; 20th-century French intellectuals hardly noticed that times had changed in this respect; they retained the dangerous belief that whatever was not expressed in French could hardly matter.

Revel never had enough sarcasm to denounce this sort of self-indulgence; on the bogus notion of le rayonnement français, he was scathing: “French culture has radiated for so long, it’s a wonder mankind has not died from sunstroke.” He fiercely fought against chauvinist cultural blindness, and especially against its most cretinous expression: irrational anti-Americanism. At the root of this attitude he detected a subconscious resentment: the french feel that when Americans are playing a leading role in the political-cultural world they are usurping what is by birthright a French prerogative.

By vocation and academic training Revel was originally a philosopher (he entered at an exceptionally early age the Ecole Normale Superieure, the apex of the French higher education system). He taught philosophy and eventually wrote a history of Western philosophy (eschewing all technical jargon, it is a model of lucid synthesis).

However, he became disenchanted with the contemporary philosophers who, he flet, had betrayed their calling by turning philosophy into a professional career and a mere literary genre. “Philosophy,” he wrote “ought to return to its original and fundamental question: How should I live?” he preferred simply to call himslef “a man of letters”.

Ancient Greek poet Archilochus famously said: “The fow knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Revel was the archetypical fox, but at the same time he held with all the determination of a hedgehog to one central idea that inspires, pervades and motivates all his endeavours:

The belief that each individual destiny, as well as the destiny of mankind, depends upon the accuracy – or the falsity – of the information at their disposal, and upon the way in which they put this information to use.

He devoted one of his books specifically to this issue, La Connaissance Inutile (Useless Knowledge), but this theme runs through nearly all his writings.

Politics naturally absorbed a great amount of his attention. From the outset he showed his willingness to commit himself personaly, and at great risk: as a young man in occupied France he joined the Resistance against the Nazis. After the war, his basic political allegiance was, and always remainded, to the Left and the principles of liberal democracy. He was sharply critical of Charles de Gaulle and of all saviours and providential leaders in military uniforms.

Yet, like George Orwell before him, he always believed that only an uncompromising denunciation of all forms of Stalinist totalitarianism can ensure the ultimate victory of socialism. Thus – again, like Orwell – he earned for himself the hostility of his starry-eyed comrades.

Revel’s attempt at entering into active politics was short-lived, but the experience gave him an invaluable insight into the essential intellectual dishonesty that is unavoidably attached to partisan politicking. He was briefly a Socialist Party candidate at the 1967 national elections, which put him in close contact with François Mitterrand (then leader of the Opposition). The portrait he paints of Mitterrand in his memoirs is hilarious and horrifying.

Mitterrand was the purest type of political animal: he had no politics at all. He had a brilliant intelligence, but for him ideas were neither right or wrong, they were only useful or useless in the pursuit of power. The object of power was not a possibility to enact certain policies; the object of all policies was simply attain and retain power.

Revel, having drafted a speech for his own electoral campaign, was invited by Mitterrand to read it to him. The speech started, “Although I cannot deny some of my opponent’s achievements…” Mitterand interrupted him at once, screaming: “No! Never, never! In politics never acknowledge that your opponent has any merit. This is the basic rule of the game.”

Revel understood once and for all that this game was not for him and it was the end of his political ambition. Which proved to be a blessing: had politics swallowed him at that early stage in his life how much poorer the world of ideas and letters would have been. (And one could have said exactly the same about his close friend Mario Vargas Llosa, who – luckily for literature – was defeated in presidential elections in Peru.)

Dead writers who were also friends never leave us: whenever we open their books, we hear again their very personal voices and our old exchanges are suddenly revived. I had many conversations (and discussions: different opinions are the memorable spices of friendship) with Revel; yet what I wish to record here is not something he said, but a silence that had slightly puzzled me at the time. The matter is trifling and frivolous (for which I apologise), but what touches me is that I found the answer many years later, in his writings.

A long time ago, as we were walking along a street in Paris, chatting as we went, he asked me about a film I had seen the night before, Federico Fellini’s Casanova (which he had not seen). I told him that one scene had impressed me, by its acute psychological insight into the truth that love-making without love is but a very grim sort of gymnastics. He stopped abruptly and gave me a long quizzical look, as if he was trying to find out whether I really believed that, or was merely pulling his leg.

Unable to decide, he said, “Hmmm” and we resumed our walk, chatting of other things.

Many years later, reading his autobiography, I suddenly understood. When he was a precocious adolescent of 15, at school in Marseilles, he was quite brilliant in all humanities subjects but hopeless in mathematics. Every Thursday, pretending to his mother that he was receiving extra tuition in maths, he used to go to a little brothel. He would first do his school work in the common lounge and, after that, go upstairs with one of the girls. The madam granted him a “beginner’s rebate”, and the tuition fee generously advanced by his mother covered the rest.

One Thursday, however, as he was walking up the stairs his maths teacher came down. The young man froze, but the teacher passed impassively, merely muttering between clenched teeth: “You will always get passing marks in maths.” The schoolboy kept their secret and the teacher honoured his part of the bargain; Revel’s mother was delighted by the sudden improvement in his school results.

I belatedly realised that, from a rather early age, Revel had acquired a fairly different perspective on the subject of our chat.

At the time of Revel’s death in April last year, Vargas Llosa concluded the eloquent and deeply felt obituary he wrote for our friend in Spanish newspaper El pais: “Jean-François Revel, we are going to miss you so much.” How true.

Voir encore:

To the Editors:

Bashing an elderly nun under an obscene label does not seem to be a particularly brave or stylish thing to do. Besides, it appears that the attacks which are being directed at Mother Teresa all boil down to one single crime:she endeavors to be a Christian, in the most literal sense of the word—which is (and always was, and will always remain) a most improper and unacceptable undertaking in this world.

Indeed, consider her sins:

She occasionally accepts the hospitality of crooks, millionaires, and criminals. But it is hard to see why, as a Christian, she should be more choosy in this respect than her Master, whose bad frequentations were notorious, and shocked all the Hitchenses of His time.
Instead of providing efficient and hygienic services to the sick and dying destitutes, she merely offers them her care and her love. When I am on my death bed, I think I should prefer to have one of her Sisters by my side, rather than a modern social worker.
She secretly baptizes the dying. The material act of baptism consists in shedding a few drops of water on the head of a person, while mumbling a dozen simple ritual words. Either you believe in the supernatural effect of this gesture—and then you should dearly wish for it. Or you do not believe in it, and the gesture is as innocent and well-meaningly innocuous as chasing a fly away with a wave of the hand. If a cannibal who happens to love you presents you with his most cherished possession—a magic crocodile tooth that should protect you forever—will you indignantly reject his gift for being primitive and superstitious, or would you gratefully accept it as a generous mark of sincere concern and affection?
Jesus was spat upon—but not by journalists, as there were none in His time. It is now Mother Teresa’s privilege to experience this particular updating of her Master’s predicament.

Simon Leys
Canberra, Australia

Christopher Hitchens
DECEMBER 19, 1996 ISSUE
In response to:
In Defense of Mother Teresa from the September 19, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

Since the letter from Simon Leys [“In Defense of Mother Teresa,” NYR, September 19] is directed at myself rather than at your reviewer, may I usurp the right to reply?

In my book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa In Theory and Practice, I provide evidence that Mother Teresa has consoled and supported the rich and powerful, allowing them all manner of indulgence, while preaching obedience and resignation to the poor. In a classic recent instance of what I mean—an instance that occurred too late for me to mention it—she told the April 1996 Ladies’ Home Journal that her new friend Princess Diana would be better off when free of her marriage. (“It is good that it is over. Nobody was happy anyhow.”) When Mother Teresa said this, she had only just finished advising the Irish electorate to vote “No” in a national referendum that proposed the right of civil divorce and remarriage. (That vote, quite apart from its importance in separating Church from State in the Irish Republic, had an obvious bearing on the vital discussion between Irish Catholics and Protestants as to who shall make law in a possible future cooperative island that is threatened by two kinds of Christian fundamentalism.)

Evidence and argument of this kind, I have discovered, make no difference to people like Mr. Leys. Such people do not exactly deny Mother Teresa’s complicity with earthly powers. Instead, they make vague allusions to the gospels. Here I can claim no special standing. The gospels do not agree on the life of the man Jesus, and they make assertions—such as his ability to cast demonic spells on pigs—that seem to reflect little credit upon him. However, when Mr. Leys concedes that Mother Teresa “occasionally accepts the hospitality of crooks, millionaires, and criminals” and goes on to say, by way of apologetics, that her Master’s “bad frequentations were notorious,” I still feel entitled to challenge him. Was his Jesus ever responsible for anything like Mother Teresa’s visit to the Duvaliers in Haiti, where she hymned the love of Baby Doc and his wife for the poor, and the reciprocal love of the poor for Baby Doc and his wife? Did he ever accept a large subvention of money, as did Mother Teresa from Charles Keating, knowing it to have been stolen from small and humble savers? Did he ever demand a strict clerical control over, not just abortion, but contraception and marriage and divorce and adoption? These questions are of no hermeneutic interest to me, but surely they demand an answer from people like Leys who claim an understanding of the Bible’s “original intent.”

On my related points—that Mother Teresa makes no real effort at medical or social relief, and that her mission is religious and propagandistic and includes surreptitious baptism of unbelievers—I notice that Mr. Leys enters no serious dissent. It is he and not I who chooses to compare surreptitious baptism to the sincere and loving gesture of an innocent “cannibal” (his term) bestowing a fetish. Not all that inexact as a parallel, perhaps—except that the “cannibal” is not trying to proselytize.

Mr. Leys must try and make up his mind. At one point he says that the man called Jesus “shocked all the Hitchenses of His time”: a shocking thought indeed to an atheist and semi-Semitic polemicist like myself, who can discover no New Testament authority for the existence of his analogue in that period. Later he says, no less confidently, that “Jesus was spat upon—but not by journalists, as there were none in His [sic] time.” It is perhaps in this confused light that we must judge his assertion that the endeavor to be a Christian “is (and always was, and will always remain)” something “improper and unacceptable.” The public career of Mother Teresa has been almost as immune from scrutiny or criticism as any hagiographer could have hoped—which was my point in the first place. To represent her as a woman defiled with spittle for her deeds or beliefs is—to employ the term strictly for once—quite incredible. But it accords with the Christian self-pity that we have to endure from so many quarters (Justice Scalia, Ralph Reed, Mrs. Dole) these days. Other faiths are taking their place in that same queue, to claim that all criticism is abusive, blasphemous, and defamatory by definition. Mr. Leys may not care for some of the friends that he will make in this line. Or perhaps I misjudge him?

Finally, I note that he describes the title of my book as “obscene,” and complains that it attacks someone who is “elderly.” Would he care to say where the obscenity lies? Also, given that I have been criticizing Mother Teresa since she was middle-aged (and publicly denounced the senile Khomeini in his homicidal dotage), can he advise me of the age limit at which the faithful will admit secular criticism as pardonable? Not even the current occupant of the Holy See has sought protection from dissent on the ground ofanno domini.

Christopher Hitchens
Washington, DC

On Mother Teresa

Simon Leys
JANUARY 9, 1997 ISSUE
In response to:
Mother Teresa from the December 19, 1996 issue

The following is a reply to Christopher Hitchens’s letter in the December 19, 1996, issue.

To the Editors:

If Mr. Hitchens were to write an essay on His Holiness the Dalai Lama, being a competent journalist, he would no doubt first acquaint himself with Buddhism in general and with Tibetan Buddhism in particular. On the subject of Mother Teresa, however, he does not seem to have felt the need to acquire much information on her spiritual motivations—his book contains a remarkable number of howlers on elementary aspects of Christianity (and even now, in the latest ammunition he drew from The Ladies’ Home Journal, he displayed a complete ignorance of the position of the Catholic Church on the issues of marriage, divorce, and remarriage).

In this respect, his strong and vehement distaste for Mother Teresa reminds me of the indignation of the patron in a restaurant, who, having been served caviar on toast, complained that the jam had a funny taste of fish. The point is essential—but it deserves a development which would require more space and more time than can be afforded to me, here and now. (However, I am working on a full-fledged review of his book, which I shall gladly forward to him once it comes out in print.)

Finally, Mr. Hitchens asked me to explain what made me say that The Missionary Position is an obscene title. His question, without doubt, bears the same imprint of sincerity and good faith that characterized his entire book. Therefore, I owe him an equally sincere and straightforward answer: my knowledge of colloquial English being rather poor, I had to check the meaning of this enigmatic title in The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1993, 2 vols.—the only definition of the expression can be found in Vol. I, p. 1794). But Mr. Hitchens having no need for such a tool in the exercise of his trade probably does not possess a copy of it. It will therefore be a relief for his readers to learn that his unfortunate choice of a title was totally innocent: when he chose these words, how could he possibly have guessed what they actually meant?

Simon Leys
Canberra, Australia
T’IEN HSIA
An Interview with Pierre Ryckmans
Daniel Sanderson
The Australian National University
The following interview was originally published in the Chinese Studies Association of Australia Newsletter, No.41 (February 2011). It was conducted via correspondence between Daniel Sanderson, the editor of the Newsletter, and Pierre Ryckmans. China Heritage Quarterly takes pleasure in reproducing it here with permission and adding it to our archive related to New Sinology.

In The Hall of Uselessness: collected essays published in mid 2011, Professor Ryckmans includes the text of a speech he made in March 2006 entitled ‘The Idea of the University’. Discussing the tension between intellectual creativity at universities and the creep of managerialism that has increasingly benighted the life of the mind at universities he made the following observation:

Near to the end of his life, Gustave Flaubert wrote in one of his remarkable letters to his dear friend Ivan Turgenev a little phrase that could beautifully summarise my topic. ‘I have always tired to live in an ivory tower; but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.’ These are indeed the two poles of our predicament: on one side, the need for an ‘ivory tower’, and on the other side, the threat of the ‘tide of shit’.
—’The Idea of the University’, in Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness—collected essays, Collingwood, Victoria: Black Inc., 2011, p.398.
From September 2011 over four issues of this e-journal we will serialize Professor Ryckmans’ Boyer Lectures, Aspects of Culture: A View From the Bridge, originally broadcast by ABC Radio National in 1996.—The Editor

An internationally renowned Sinologist, Professor Ryckmans spent seventeen years teaching at The Australian National University and six years as Professor of Chinese at the University of Sydney. Having retired from academic life in 1993, he remains a regular contributor to a range of publications including The New York Review of Books, Le Figaro Littéraire and The Monthly. Throughout his career, Ryckmans has combined meticulous scholarship and a vigorous public engagement with contemporary political and intellectual issues. His elegant yet forthright style is evident in these responses to questions submitted by the CSAA Newsletter.—Daniel Sanderson
Daniel Sanderson: Can you tell us about your childhood and teenage years? Where were you born? Where did you grow up? What kind of family life did you have as a child?

Pierre Ryckmans: I was born and grew up in Brussels; I had a happy childhood. To paraphrase Tolstoy: all happy childhoods are alike—(warm affection and much laughter—the recipe seems simple enough.)
The main benefit of this is that later on in life, one feels no compulsion to waste time in ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’—a rather foolish enterprise: as if happiness was something you could chase after.

DS: What form did your early education take?

PR: A traditional-classic education (Latin—Greek).

DS: Was China in any way an element of your childhood? Was there, for instance, any scope to study Chinese history or politics, or the Chinese language, at school?

PR: No—nothing at all (alas!).

DS: You studied law and art history at the Université Catholique de Louvain [now the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven]. This seems an unusual combination. What drew you to these subjects? Were you influenced particularly by any of your teachers?

PR: I studied Law to follow a family tradition, and Art History to follow my personal interest.
At university, personal contacts, intellectual debates and exchanges with friends and schoolmates (many of whom came from Asia and Latin America) were far more important, enriching and memorable than most lectures. Lately I noted with pleasure that John Henry Newman already made a similar observation in his great classic The Idea of a University (1852).

DS: I understand you visited the People’s Republic of China with a group of Belgian students in 1955. How was this visit arranged? What was your impression of the New China at that time? Did you ever return to the PRC? If so, under what circumstances? Do you think that some experience of living in China is necessary for the scholar of China?

PR: The Chinese Government had invited a delegation of Belgian Youth (10 delegates—I was the youngest, age nineteen) to visit China for one month (May 1955). The voyage—smoothly organized—took us to the usual famous spots, climaxing in a one-hour private audience with Zhou Enlai.
My overwhelming impression (a conclusion to which I remained faithful for the rest of my life) was that it would be inconceivable to live in this world, in our age, without a good knowledge of Chinese language and a direct access to Chinese culture.

DS: What did you do after completing your undergraduate degree? Did you progress directly to further study? Did you ever consider a career outside the academy?
PR: I started learning Chinese. Since, at that time, no scholarship was available to go to China, I went to Taiwan. I had no ‘career’ plan whatsoever. I simply wished to know Chinese and acquire a deeper appreciations of Chinese culture.

DS: I would like to learn something about your PhD. What was your topic? Why was it important to you?

PR: Loving Western painting, quite naturally I became enthralled with Chinese painting (and calligraphy) – and I developed a special interest for what the Chinese wrote on the subject of painting: traditionally, the greatest painters were also scholars, poets, men of letters – hence the development of an extraordinarily rich, eloquent and articulate literature on painting, philosophical, critical, historical and technical.
We are often tempted to do research on topics that are somewhat marginal and lesser-known, since, on these, it is easier to produce original work. But one of my Chinese masters gave me a most valuable advice: ‘Always devote yourself to the study of great works—works of fundamental importance—and your effort will never be wasted.’ Thus, for my PhD thesis, I chose to translate and comment what is generally considered as a masterpiece, the treatise on painting by Shitao, a creative genius of the early eighteenth century; he addresses the essential questions: Why does one paint? How should one paint? Among all my books, this one, first published forty years ago, has never gone out of print—and, to my delight, it is read by painters much more than by sinologists!

DS: You lived for some years in Taiwan, also spending time in Hong Kong and Singapore. Do you think your time spent on the ‘periphery’ of China has influenced your approach to the study of China?

PR: During some twelve years, I lived and worked successively in Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong (plus six months in Japan). It was a happy period of intense activity—living and learning in an environment where all my friends became my teachers, and all my teachers, my friends. I am fond of a saying by Prince de Ligne (a writer I much admire): ‘Let each one examine what he has most desired. If he is happy, it is because his wishes have not been granted.’ For some years, I had wished I could study in China; but now, in retrospect, I realise that, had I been given such a chance at that particular time (1958-1970), I would never have been allowed to enjoy in China such rich, diverse, easy and close human contacts.

DS: You arrived in Australia in 1970 to take up a position at the Australian National University. How did this come about? What was your role? Can you tell me a little about the atmosphere at ANU during your early years there?

PR: Professor Liu Ts’un-yan (Head of the Chinese department at ANU) came to see me in Hong Kong and invited me to join his department. Thus, with my wife and four (very young) children, we moved to Canberra for what was supposed to be a three-year stay, but turned out to become our final, permanent home. Professor Liu was not only a great scholar, he was also an exquisite man; for me, working in his department till his own retirement (fifteen years later) was sheer bliss—it also coincided with what must have been the golden age of our universities. Later on, the atmosphere changed—for various politico-economic and other reasons—and I took early retirement. The crisis of Higher Education is a vast problem, and a world phenomenon; I have spoken and written on the subject—there is no need and no space to repeat it here.

DS: The 1970s were a period of great political division within the field of Chinese Studies, and across society at large. The iconoclasm of the Cultural Revolution was attractive to many in the West. It was in this context that your book, The Chairman’s New Clothes, appeared in 1971, bursting the Maoist bubble. This was followed in 1976 by the equally controversial Chinese Shadows. Both these works stirred considerable debate in Europe. What was the reaction in Australia, particularly within the Chinese Studies community? Were you ever attracted to the Maoist experiment yourself?

PR: My own interest, my own field of work is Chinese literature and Chinese painting. When commenting on Chinese contemporary politics, I was merely stating common sense evidence and common knowledge. But at that time, this may indeed have disturbed some fools here and there—which, in the end, did not matter very much.

DS: Do you think political engagement is a necessary part of the intellectual life?

PR: In a democracy, political engagement is a necessary part of everyone’s life. (The political views of the greatest philosopher on earth may well be more silly than those of his ignorant housekeeper.)

DS: You spent seventeen years at ANU and a further six years at the University of Sydney engaged in the study and teaching of Chinese literature. Can you comment on the changes you saw within Chinese Studies at those institutions, and in Australia more generally, during that time?

PR: I am poorly informed on more recent developments (I left academic life sixteen years ago). When things began to change (education becoming mere training) and took an orientation that corresponded no longer to what I always believed a university ought to be, I opted for early retirement. In front of younger colleagues who keep bravely fighting the good fight, I feel like a deserter, ill-qualified to make further comments.

DS: It is perhaps a reductive question, but I wonder whether you could tell me what it is about the literature of China that you find appealing?

PR: The virtue and power of the Chinese literary language culminates in its classical poetry. Chinese classical poetry seems to me the purest, the most perfect and complete form of poetry one could conceive of. Better that any other poetry, it fits Auden’s definition: ‘memorable speech’: and indeed, it carves itself effortlessly into your memory. Furthermore, like painting, it splendidly occupies a visual space in its calligraphic incarnations. It inhabits your mind, it accompanies your life, it sustains and illuminates your daily experiences.

DS: Why, in your opinion, is the study of China necessary in Australia? Or, indeed, is it necessary at all?

PR: Why is scholarly knowledge necessary in Australia? And why culture?

DS: A large proportion of your writing has been aimed at a general readership. Do you think academics, and China scholars in particular, bear a responsibility to communicate with the public?

PR: Sidney Hook said that the first moral obligation of an intellectual is to be intelligent. Regarding academics and China scholars one might paraphrase this statement and say that their first duty is to master their discipline. Yet communicating with the public is a special talent; very learned scholars do not necessarily possess it.

DS: Though based in Canberra, you continue to take part in European political and cultural life through your writings in French. Do you think your physical distance from Europe affects your approach to these issues?

PR: Distance also has its advantages.

DS: What are you reading at the moment?

PR: Leszek Kolekowski, My Correct Views of Everything; F.W. Mote, China and the Vocation of History in the Twentieth Century—A Personal Memoir; and for bedside reading, I keep constantly dipping into two huge collections of sardonic aphorisms (gloriously incorrect!) by two eccentric and lonely geniuses: Cioran’s posthumous notebooks (Cahiers) and Nicolás Gómez Dávila’s Escolios a un texto implícito (my Spanish is very primitive, but have the help of two volumes of French translations).

DS: When you reflect on your career as a whole, what makes you proudest?

PR: I had various (rather disjointed) activities—not exactly a ‘career’ on which I can ‘reflect’.

DS: Do you have any regrets?

PR: Regrets? Usually what we regret is what we did not do. Let me think about it.

DS: What are your thoughts on the current state of Chinese Studies in Australian universities? Do you think Australian scholars have particular strengths or weaknesses when it comes to the study of China?

PR: As I said earlier, I left academe some sixteen years ago. I am really not in a position to assess the current state of Chinese Studies in Australian universities.

DS: What are your hopes for the future?

PR: May cultural exchanges further develop! (In our capital city, ANU seems particularly well placed for discharging this important task.)

DS: Do you have any advice for aspiring scholars of China?

PR: First of all, learn the Chinese language to the best of your ability (and spend as much time as possible in a Chinese-speaking environment). Language fluency is the key which will open all doors for you—practically and spiritually.

The Man Who Got It Right
Ian Buruma

The New York Review of Books

AUGUST 15, 2013
The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays
by Simon Leys
New York Review Books, 572 pp., $19.95 (paper)
Buruma_1-081513.jpg
Ray Strange/Newspix
Pierre Ryckmans, who writes under the name of Simon Leys, Canberra, Australia, June 2009
1.

Near the beginning of Simon Leys’s marvelous collection of essays is an odd polemic between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens, fought out in these very pages. Leys takes Hitchens to task for attacking Mother Teresa in a book entitled The Missionary Position. He writes: “Bashing an elderly nun under an obscene label does not seem to be a particularly brave or stylish thing to do.” Hitchens replies: What do you mean, obscene? You know perfectly well, answers Leys. And so on and on.

What interested me about this exchange was not the relative merits of the arguments put forth by two writers who had at least one thing in common—a love of George Orwell and G.K. Chesterton, possibly for the same reasons, to which I shall return a little later. The most interesting thing, to me, was the 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. The desire to destroy beauty, according to Leys, applies not just to aesthetics but as much, if not more, to ethics: “The need to bring down to our own wretched level, to deface, to deride and debunk any splendour that is towering above us, is probably the saddest urge of human nature.”
I’m not sure whether the deeds of Mother Teresa can really be compared usefully to Mozart’s music. An alternative explanation for the behavior of the man in the café might be that he disliked Mozart’s music out of class resentment. The “philistines” wouldn’t put up with something they associated with people who might sneer at their lack of refinement. Perhaps. In fact, there is no way of knowing what really went through the man’s head. But the idea that art, ethics, and matters of the spirit, including religious faith, come from the same place is central to Leys’s concerns. All his essays, about André Gide or Evelyn Waugh no less than the art of Chinese calligraphy, revolve around this.

Leys once described in these pages the destruction of the old walls and gates of Beijing in the 1950s and 1960s as a “sacrilege.”1 The thick walls surrounding the ancient capital were “not so much a medieval defense apparatus as a depiction of a cosmic geometry, a graphic of the universal order.” Pre-modern Chinese politics were intimately linked with religious beliefs: the ruler was the intermediary between heaven and earth, his empire, if ruled wisely, a reflection of the cosmic order. Classical Beijing, much of it built in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was deliberately planned to reflect this order. It survived almost intact until the 1950s. Apart from a few pockets, such as the Forbidden City, nothing of this old city remains.

Critics over the years have attacked Leys for being an elitist, a Western mimic of Chinese literati, an aesthete who cares more about high culture than people, more about walls and temples than the poor Beijingers who had to live in dark and primitive alleys, oppressed by absolute rulers and feudal superstition. But this misses the point. It was not Leys’s intention to defend the Chinese imperial or feudal system. On the contrary, he lamented the fact that Maoists decided to smash the extraordinary artifacts of the past instead of the attitudes that made feudalism so oppressive in the first place. The stones were destroyed; many of the attitudes, alas, remained, albeit under different rulers.

Iconoclasts, not only in China, are as enthralled by the sacred properties of the objects they destroy as those who venerate them. This much we know. But Leys goes further. In his view, Maoists didn’t just reduce the walls of Beijing, and much else besides, to rubble because they believed such acts would liberate the Chinese people; they smashed Yuan and Ming and Qing Dynasty treasures because they were beautiful. Yet beauty, as Leys himself insists, is rarely neutral. His use of the term “sacrilege” suggests that there was more to Maoist iconoclasm than a philistine resentment of architectural magnificence. Leys quotes Guo Moruo, one of the most famous mandarins of the Chinese Communist revolution, on the city walls in Sichuan where the scholar and poet grew up. People approaching a town near Guo’s native village felt a “sense of religious awe when confronted with the severe majestic splendor” of the city gate. Guo notes the rarity of such superb walls outside Sichuan—“except in Peking, of course, where the walls are truly majestic.”

Guo was a Communist, but not a vandal. He paid a common price for his love of the wrong kind of beauty. Persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, he was forced to declare that his books were worthless and should be burned. Two of his children were driven to suicide, and Guo had to write odes in praise of Chairman Mao for the rest of the Great Helmsman’s life.

The point about the walls is, of course, not merely aesthetic, nostalgic, or even to do with awe. Heinrich Heine’s famous dictum—“Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people”2—applies to China too. It wasn’t just buildings that were shattered under Chairman Mao, but tens of millions of human lives.

In one of his essays, Leys refers to the first Communist decades in China as “thirty years of illiterates’ rule,” which might be construed as snobbish; but the relative lack of education among the top Communist cadres is not actually the main issue for Leys. His targets are never uneducated barbarians, people too ignorant or stupid to know what they are doing. The objects of his devastating and bitterly funny barbs are fellow intellectuals, often fellow academics, most often fellow experts on China, people who faithfully followed every twist and turn of the Chinese Communist Party line, even though they knew better. Such people as the writer Han Suyin, for example, who declared that the Cultural Revolution was a Great Leap Forward for mankind until she observed, once the line had changed, that it had been a terrible disaster.

I recognize the type, since they were to be found among the Dutch professors who taught me Chinese literature and history at Leyden University in the early 1970s, when the Cultural Revolution was still raging. None of them was a Maoist, in the sense that they would have advocated Mao’s politics in their own country. But China, whose unique culture my professors spent their lives studying, was different. Ordinary Chinese, one world-famous expert of early Chinese Buddhism explained to us, loved the revolutionary operas that replaced the popular classical operas, which were banned. Presumably, they also didn’t mind being cooped up in rigidly controlled state communes, and believed in the justice of “struggle sessions” against “revisionists,” “bourgeois splitists” and other “enemies of the people” who were humiliated, tortured, and often murdered in public. In any case, was it not a smug illusion to think that we were so free in our Western democracies? And apart from anything else, it was important not to ruin one’s chances to visit China. It really wouldn’t do to upset the Chinese authorities.

So when Leys first published his scorching polemical essays against the idiocies of Western apologists for Mao’s misrule in the 1970s, some of my professors were very annoyed. And yet, in the fierce debate that followed, they kept curiously aloof. They simply dismissed Leys.3 His writings on China did, however, spark strong arguments among journalists and intellectuals, which had less to with China itself than with local concerns with student protest, ideological conflict, and the colonial past.

If Leys’s views were unwelcome in Leyden, this was even more true in France, where Maoism had captivated the minds of many more intellectuals. One conspicuous feature of the European Maoists in the 1970s was their obliviousness to actual conditions in China. The Chinese were discussed almost as an abstraction. Leys, who cared deeply about the Chinese, became a hate figure in Paris. I remember watching him on a French television chat show. The host, Bernard Pivot, asked him why he had decided to take on what seemed like the entire Parisian intellectual establishment. Leys replied with one word: chagrin—grief, sorrow, distress.

2.

Simon Leys is actually the nom de plume for Pierre Ryckmans, a French-speaking Belgian with a Flemish name. He fell in love with Chinese culture when he visited China as part of a student delegation in 1955. After studying law at the Catholic university in Louvain, Leys became a scholar of Chinese, living for several years in Taiwan, Singapore, and in Hong Kong, where he made friends with a young Chinese calligrapher who, in a traditional flourish of stylish humility, named his own slum dwelling the Hall of Uselessness. Ryckmans spent two “intense and joyful years” there, “when learning and living were one and the same thing.” The name Leys is a homage to René Leys, the wonderful novel by Victor Segalen (1878–1919) about a seventeen-year-old Belgian who penetrated the mysteries of the Chinese imperial court just before the revolution of 1911.4

Ryckmans/Leys went on to become a highly distinguished professor of Chinese literature in Australia, where he still lives today, writing essays and sailing boats. Few, if any, contemporary scholars of Chinese write as well about the classical Chinese arts—calligraphy, poetry, and painting—let alone about European literature, ranging in this collection from Balzac to Nabokov. None, so far as I know, have written novels as good as his Death of Napoleon. Leys is perhaps unique in that his prose in English is no less sparkling than in French.

Unlike in the 1970s, few people now dispute that Leys was right about the horrors of Mao’s regime. Even the Chinese government admits that more than fifteen million people died of starvation as the direct result of Mao’s deranged experiments in the late 1950s. Recent scholarship shows that the real figure might be as high as forty-five million deaths between 1958 and 1962 (see Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, 2010). The Cultural Revolution, although Mao’s own leading role in it can still not be discussed openly, is commonly referred to as the “great disaster.” One of the questions raised by Leys is why most people got it so wrong when Maoism was at its most murderous. Was it a matter of excusable ignorance about what was then a very closed society?

Leys has a tendency to overdo his expressions of humility, a bit like Chinese mandarins in old comic books: “My little talk,” “My readers will naturally forget this article,” and so on. But he is surely right in claiming that his insights into the Maoist terrors inflicted on the Chinese people owed very little to superior expertise. Famous apologists for Mao’s regime, such as the filmmaker Felix Greene, the once-popular author Ross Terrill, or indeed Han Suyin, had traveled far more extensively in China than Leys had. He hadn’t even set foot there between 1955 and 1972. All he did was listen to Chinese friends and “every day…read a couple of Chinese newspapers over breakfast.” The information he gleaned was freely available in English as well, in the superb China News Analysis, for example, published weekly in Hong Kong by the Jesuit scholar Father Laszlo Ladany, to whom Leys pays tribute in one of his essays. Ladany’s publication was read by every serious follower of Chinese affairs at the time.

So why were the “China experts” (we might as well leave other famous dupes, such as Shirley MacLaine, aside) so obtuse? As in the case of the man who couldn’t tolerate Mozart, Leys dismisses ignorance as an explanation. His answer: “What people believe is essentially what they wish to believe. They cultivate illusions out of idealism—and also out of cynicism.” The truth can be brutal, and makes life uncomfortable. So one looks the other way. This aspect of dealing with China, or any other dictatorship where interests might be at stake, has not changed.

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? Exactly how long should a ‘decent interval’ last before we can resume business-as-usual with the butchers of Peking?”

Well, not long, as it turned out. Businessmen, politicians, academics, and others soon came flocking back. Indeed, as Leys says, “they may even have a point when they insist, in agreeing once more to sit at the banquet of the murderers, they are actively strengthening the reformist trends in China.” Then he adds, with a little flick of his pen: “I only wish they had weaker stomachs.”

Which brings me back to Orwell and Chesterton, so much admired by Leys and Christopher Hitchens. Orwell has served as a model for many soi-disant mavericks who like to depict themselves as brave tellers of truth. The case for Chesterton, as Hitchens acknowledged in his very last article, is a little more complicated. Chesterton’s opinions on Jews and “negroes,” though not uncommon in his time, were not entirely in line with the great wisdom Leys attributes to him. The much-vaunted “common sense,” claimed as the prime virtue of Orwell and Chesterton by their admirers, might sometimes be mistaken for philistinism. And Leys’s love of Chesterton occasionally leads him down paths where I find it hard to follow. When Chesterton huffs and puffs that modern people, especially for some reason in Manhattan, “proclaim an erotic religion which at once exalts lust and forbids fertility,” Leys adds, as though his hero’s statement were the pinnacle of prophetic sagacity, that it is surely no coincidence that people in our own time are supporting euthanasia as well as homosexual marriage. Whatever one thinks of euthanasia or homosexual marriage, lust surely has very little to do with it.

Still, the reasons why Leys finds Orwell attractive might be applied in equal measure to Leys himself: “[Orwell’s] intuitive grasp of concrete realities, his non-doctrinaire approach to politics (accompanied with a deep distrust of left-wing intellectuals) and his sense of the absolute primacy of the human dimension.” Both Orwell and Chesterton were good at demolishing cant. Leys is right about that: “[Chesterton’s] striking images could, in turn, deflate fallacies or vividly bring home complex principles. His jokes were irrefutable; he could invent at lightning speed surprising short-cuts to reach the truth.”

3.

When Confucius was asked by one of his disciples what he would do if he were given his own territory to govern, the Master replied that he would “rectify the names,” that is, make words correspond to reality. He explained (in Leys’s translation):

If the names are not correct, if they do not match realities, language has no object. If language is without an object, action becomes impossible—and therefore, all human affairs disintegrate and their management becomes pointless.
Leys comments that Orwell and Chesterton “would have immediately understood and approved of the idea.”

If this reading is right, Confucius wanted to strip the language of cant, and reach the truth through plain speaking, expressing clear thoughts. But Leys believes that he also did more than that: “Under the guise of restoring their full meaning, Confucius actually injected a new content into the old ‘names.’” One example is the interpretation of the word for gentleman, junzi. The old feudal meaning was “aristocrat.” But for Confucius a gentleman’s status could be earned only through education and superior virtue. This was a revolutionary idea; the right to rule would no longer be a matter of birth, but of intellectual and moral accomplishment, tested in an examination system theoretically open to all.

The question of language and truth is the main theme of Leys’s fascinating essays on classical Chinese poetry and art. We commonly assume that speech preceded the written word. In China, however, the earliest words, carved into “oracle bones” some 3,700 years ago, could have been read by people who would not have understood one another in any spoken language. Since these earliest Chinese ideographs, still recognizable in Chinese script today, had to do with forecasting harvests and military affairs, they were, as Leys puts it, “intimately associated with the spirits and with political authority.”

In a way this is still true. Chinese rulers, including the Communists, all like to display their prowess as calligraphers; banal maxims, supposedly written in their hand, are plastered all over public buildings, and even mountainsides, to show the rulers’ mastery of the word, and thus of civilization. The same custom persists not only in Japan but even in North Korea, where words of the Great Leader, or his son, the Dear Leader, or soon, no doubt, his son, General Kim Jong-un, are to be seen everywhere. The magical properties of the word were plainly believed by Red Guards who were quite ready to kill someone “sacriligious” enough to soil one of Mao’s Little Red Books.

To be sure, words are used to obfuscate and lie, as well as to tell the truth. Leys believes that grasping the truth is largely a matter of imagination, poetic imagination. Hence his remark that the “Western incapacity to grasp the Soviet reality and all its Asian variants” was a “failure of imagination” (his italics). Fiction often expresses truth more clearly than mere factual information. Truth, Leys writes, referring to science and philosophy, as well as poetry, “is grasped by an imaginative leap.” The question is how we contrive such leaps.

Leys identifies a basic difference between the Chinese and what he calls, perhaps a bit too loosely, the Western traditions. Classical Chinese poetry or paintings do not set out to mimic reality, to make the world look real in ink, or in poetry to express new ideas or come up with fresh descriptions. The aim is, rather, to make art into a manifestation of nature itself, or indeed vice versa—the found object in the shape of a perfect rock, for instance. The best traditional Chinese artists express themselves by breathing new life into old clichés—the mountains, the rivers, the lonely dwellings, etc. For poets, in Leys’s words, “the supreme art is to position, adjust and fit together…well-worn images in such a way that, from their unexpected encounter, a new life might spark.”

This is almost impossible to convey in translation, because the same images expressed in another language can lose their spark and easily become banal or incomprehensible. For that reason, Leys praises Ezra Pound’s efforts to render classical Chinese poetry in English, despite Pound’s gross linguistic misunderstandings. Pound understood that a Chinese poem “is not articulated upon a continuous, discursive thread, but that it flashes a discontinuous series of images (not unlike the successive frames of a film).”

Western artists often arrived by instinct at a similar understanding of art. Picasso, for example: “The question is not to imitate nature, but to work like it.” Or Paul Claudel: “Art imitates Nature not in its effects as such, but in its causes, in its ‘manner,’ in its process, which are nothing but a participation in and a derivation of actual objects, of the Art of God himself.”

Claudel was a devout Catholic, and thus perhaps (like Chesterton) especially dear to Leys, who makes his attachment to the Roman Church quite clear. But in this, as in other matters, Leys has a cosmopolitan spirit. Although keen to stress Chinese uniqueness in many respects, Leys also stretches himself as far as he can to find common spiritual ground between East and West. He is sensitive to the spirituality of many other traditions (though perhaps not so tolerant of people who reject organized religion per se, hence his spat with Christopher Hitchens). Classical Chinese art, in painting and in poetry, constitutes, as Leys puts it, “the visible manifestation” of “China’s true religion, which is a quest for cosmic harmony, an attempt to achieve communion with the world.”

This would seem, however, to take us a long way from George Orwell’s trust in plain speaking. Or at least, when it comes to spirituality, plain speaking clearly reaches its limits. The spiritual truth of Chinese art—and not only Chinese art—often lies in what is left unsaid or unpainted, the spaces deliberately left blank. In modern Western art, one thinks of the early paintings (White on White, say) by Malevich. But then he came from a Russian tradition, which also sees artworks as spiritual objects. Leys does not mention Russian icons; perhaps they are not part of a “Western” tradition. In any case, he quotes a modern Chinese critic, named Zhou Zuoren, to illustrate an essential part of classical Chinese aesthetics that would apply to many Western modernists as well: “All that can be spelled out is without importance.”

And yet the word remains. 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.

People in the Chinese cultural sphere, and perhaps beyond, did not traditionally share the common Western defiance of mortality. The idea of erecting monumental buildings meant to last forever would have seemed a naive illusion. Everything is destined to perish, so why not build impermanence into our sense of beauty? The Japanese took this aesthetic notion even further than their Chinese masters: the cult of cherry blossoms, for example, fleetingness being the essence of their unique splendor. Chinese capital cities in the past were frequently abandoned, and new ones established elsewhere. What is considered to be historic in China is the site, not the buildings that happen to be there at any given time. Buddhist temples and Taoist halls, built a few years ago in concrete, on the same site where older buildings once stood, are still called “ancient” in the tourist guides.

But if even the strongest works of man cannot in the end withstand the erosion of time, what can? Leys’s answer: “Life-after-life was not to be found in a supernature, nor could it rely upon artefacts: man only survives in man—which means, in practical terms, in the memory of posterity, through the medium of the written word.” As long as the word remains, Chinese civilization will continue. Sometimes memories replace great works of art. Leys mentions the legendary fourth-century calligraphy of a prose poem whose extraordinary beauty was celebrated by generation after generation of Chinese, centuries after the original work was lost. Indeed, it may never even have existed.

With a civilization built on such an adaptable, supple, constantly self-replenishing, and indeed beautiful basis, who needs big city walls? But I would not wish to end my tribute to a writer I much admire on such a note of sacrilege. Better to end with a line from a poem by Victor Ségalen, deploring the barbaric Western habit of building monuments for eternity, which might equally apply to the modern Chinese habit of building dreadful kitsch on the ruins of their past:

You, sons of Han, whose wisdom reaches ten thousand years, no tens of tens of thousands of years, beware of such contempt.
1
“ Chinese Shadows,” The New York Review, May 26, 1977; reprinted in Simon Leys, Chinese Shadows (Viking, 1977). ↩

2
This line, from Heine’s play Almansor, actually refers to the burning of the Koran by the Spanish Inquisition. ↩

3
Although rumor had it that at least one tried to sabotage a Dutch translation of Leys’s first book on modern China, Les Habits neufs du président Mao [ The Chairman’s New Clothes ] (Paris: Champ libre, 1971). ↩

4
New York Review Books, 2003. ↩

Après Simon Leys : lettre ouverte aux sinologues et défenseurs des droits humains
Gregory B. Lee | sinologue
Rue 89/Le Nouvel Obs
16/08/2014

Depuis quelques jours nombre de sinologues et autres personnalités se succèdent pour rendre hommage à la mémoire de Pierre Ryckmans, le grand écrivain et sinologue belge qui écrivait sous le pseudonyme de Simon Leys.

Dans ses écrits, il a démasqué la réalité de la Chine révolutionnaire de Mao que tant d’intellectuels et d’écrivains n’ont cessé de louer jusqu’à la fin des années 1970.

Mais cette Chine-là, en dépit des vastes réformes économiques, reste un état totalitaire qui refuse à ses citoyens la liberté d’expression. Qui plus est, les autorités chinoises, non contentes de bâillonner leurs citoyens, tentent également d’imposer leur propre image de la Chine à travers le monde.

Il y a un mois, le prétendu « soft power » chinois, sous l’égide du réseau des Instituts Confucius, a été exposé comme un pouvoir dur et impitoyable, lorsque pendant le grand congrès bisannuel de la sinologie européenne, qui se tenait cette année au Portugal, les représentants du gouvernment chinois ont fait arracher des programmes une page d’information concernant la Fondation Chiang Ching-kuo de Taiwan.

Mais, pendant ce temps les médias avaient d’autres préoccupations que celles des sinologues : la situation épouvantable dans la bande de Gaza que notre gouvernement a eu tant de mal à condamner (sic), a choqué la vaste majorité des gens. Enfin, depuis une semaine nous avons également redécouvert les ravages occasionnés par les forces djihadistes de « l’état islamiste » en Iraq.

« Spectateur depuis mon canapé »

En tant que spécialiste de la Chine, que puis-je faire ? Je ne peux qu’assister en spectateur depuis mon canapé et exprimer mon désarroi et ma profonde indignation. Est-ce là vraiment tout ce que je peux faire ?

Simon Leys à aucun moment de sa carrière ne s’est limité à la seule observation et critique de la Chine. En tant que socialiste, dans le moule d’un Orwell, en tant qu’humaniste, il s’est intéressé à un large éventail de questions, de problèmes et de cultures. Et si sa critique de la Révolution culturelle et du régime qui lui a succédé fut si percutante c’est parce que l’intérêt qu’il portait aux Chinois était en tant qu’êtres humains et non pas en tant que constructions de nos propres fantasmes exotiques occidentaux.

Pour Leys, la Chine n’était pas un objet, mais une partie intégrale de l’histoire vécue et du présent de notre commune humanité.

Nous ne pouvons pas tous, hélas, prétendre à la grandeur humaniste d’un Pierre Ryckmans. Dans notre monde professionnalisé, spécialisé et micro-disciplinaire, nous avons déjà du mal à nous maintenir dans la petite sphère d’expertise que nous nous réservons.

Et pourtant nous sommes sensibles aux questions qui touchent à nos métiers, ou plutôt à l’image idéalisée que nous projetons de nos métiers. En tant qu’écrivains, scientifiques et universitaires nous sommes tous concernés par les questions de l’indépendance de l’écrivain, de la liberté d’expression des journalistes et des intellectuels.

Quel que soit notre domaine d’expertise, nous sommes tous, plus ou moins, prêts à prendre position et à faire preuve de solidarité quand nous décelons une privation ou un refus de ces droits essentiels à nos collègues.

En tant que membre de la classe intellectuelle, en tant qu’universitaire et chercheur, je dois constater que nous sommes rarement prêts à nous engager de manière collective ; individualistes, nous avons du mal à travailler en équipe.

Diplomatie culturelle chinoise

À cela il faut ajouter notre réticence à nous éloigner de ce qu’attendent de nous ceux qui contrôlent les avancements professionnels de nos carrières strictement encadrées et délimitées. Certains, cependant, à l’instar de nos collègues américains l’anthropologue sinisant Marshall Sahlins, le sociologue Perry Link ainsi que le sinologue Victor Mair, sont toujours prêts à s’élever contre ce que l’on targue de diplomatie culturelle chinoise et qui n’est en fait que tyrannie politico-culturelle.

Enfin, mon ami David Palumbo-Liu, professeur à l’université de Stanford a récemment mené courageusement campagne contre la politique de son gouvernement en Palestine, et est de surcroît un ardent défenseur de la liberté de pensée et d’expression dans le monde universitaire.

La question qui me préoccupe tout particulièrement depuis plusieurs mois est le sort réservé à mon collègue Ilham Tohti, professeur à l’Université Centrale des Nationalités de Pékin. Arrêté au mois de janvier 2014, il doit être jugé pour séparatisme dans un futur très proche.

La suppression des libertés universitaires, l’interdiction d’exprimer son opinion personnelle sur des questions sociopolitiques me révoltent où qu’elles se manifestent. Dans ce cas particulier et pour des raisons personnelles, je me sens encore plus interpellé par le cas de ce collègue et il me faut prendre position en sa faveur. Il se trouve que j’ai établi depuis de longues années des échanges universitaires et une collaboration de recherche étroite entre l’université d’Ilham Tohti et la mienne.

J’y connais plusieurs enseignants-chercheurs dont la carrière a été stoppée en raison de leur engagement courageux lors des événements de 1989 et leur refus de se rétracter. J’ai également dirigé de nombreux étudiants en Master et en doctorat de l’Université des Nationalités. Je me sens donc tout particulièrement concerné et je me dois d’exprimer ma solidarité avec Ilham Tohti accusé d’un « crime » passable de la peine de mort ou de la détention à perpétuité.

Le sort d’Ilham Tohti

Au cours de ces dernières semaines je me suis demandé pourquoi on entendait si peu parler d’Ilham Tohti dans les médias traditionnels et sur les réseaux sociaux en France. Est-ce parce qu’il est difficile d’obtenir des informations exactes, ou est-ce parce que la situation de la minorité ouïgoure que défend Tohti est trop difficile à expliquer au lecteur lambda ?

Le nom d’Ilham Tohti n’a peut-être pas suffisamment de consonances chinoises, mais il est chinois, citoyen de la République Populaire de Chine. Il défend sa minorité ethnique qui endure des problèmes semblables à ceux des Tibétains. Les Ouïgours n’ont que peu ou pas de pouvoir sur leur propre destin. Ils sont assujettis à une politique officielle d’immigration chinoise « Han » qui a pour but de diluer leur présence sur leurs terres.

Alors que le Tibet, fantasme exotique occupant une place privilégiée dans l’imaginaire occidental et dont la cause politique est personnifiée par le personnage charismatique du Dalaï Lama, bénéficie d’une grande attention de la part des Occidentaux, le Xinjiang demeure peu connu.

Le Xinjiang – ça se prononce comment ? (Les speakers radiophoniques ont déjà assez de mal à dire Beijing alors comment peuvent-il s’extirper du mot Xinjiang ?) Xinjiang, Nouvelle Frontière, nom chinois pour un territoire peuplé de non-Chinois. Je viens d’utiliser le terme de « Chinois » en référence aux Chinois Han, ce que font tous les non-initiés, ce que nous faisons tous dans la conversation de tous les jours.

Mais le terme « Han » me pose également problème : c’est un terme qui couvre une réalité beaucoup plus complexe, qui a été inventé pour désigner une ethnie majoritaire visant à rendre encore plus minoritaires les autres ethnies officiellement constituées en Chine Populaire, elles-mêmes produits d’une classification ethnologique officielle au service de la politique étatique.

Je pourrais rédiger des centaines de pages sur comment traduire « chinois » en « chinois », mais je me contenterai de me reprendre comme suit : Xinjiang, Nouvelle Frontière, (anciennement dénommé Turkestan chinois, ou connu sous le terme de Turkestan oriental), un nom en langue chinoise donné par l’état chinois à un territoire sous sa juridiction et peuplé de Ouïgours, Kazakhs, Kirghizes, Ouzbeks, Tadjiks, Hui, Mongols et de Chinois Han. L’essentiel étant que la majorité des habitants sont musulmans.

Méthodes disproportionnées

Même si depuis des semaines, des mois, des années nous assistons à la télévision aux bombardements et au massacre dans tout le Proche Orient, de musulmans, ces derniers, en raison de leur appartenance religieuse, sont toujours apparentés à des terroristes islamistes. C’est peut-être ce que nous avons le plus de mal à concevoir en regardant les bombardements de la Bande de Gaza : les responsables de la mort de près de 2000 personnes n’étaient pas musulmans. (sic)

Ce fait a bouleversé notre récit dominant de la malédiction islamiste et de la nécessité d’une alliance internationale contre la terreur (islamiste) qui a donné « carte blanche » à l’état chinois pour traiter comme de la « terreur » toute résistance et dissidence venant des peuples musulmans du Xinjiang.

Alors qu’Ilham Tohti est détenu à Urumqi, capitale du Xinjiang, des événements, émeutes et manifestations ont été réprimés dans une violence semblable à celle utilisée contre les Palestiniens de la Bande de Gaza sic). L’Etat chinois, qui n’a jamais hésité à utiliser des méthodes disproportionnées pour réprimer la dissidence au Xinjiang, a effectivement déclaré la guerre à sa population musulmane : les femmes voilées et les hommes barbus sont automatiquement soupçonnés de terrorisme.

La situation au Xinjiang est exacerbée par le fait qu’il existe très peu d’informations en provenance de sources indépendantes, et que les gens ordinaires, comme partout ailleurs sur le territoire chinois, n’ont pas la liberté de s’exprimer ou de nous informer de ce qui se passe réellement. Ainsi les médias étatiques chinois ont-ils toute liberté de diffuser leur récit unique sans aucune crainte d’être contredits.

En France, un commentateur respecté qui passe régulièrement, et pratiquement exclusivement, à la radio et à la télévision, quand on lui pose la question des droits humains en Chine répond en substance :

« Donnons encore 50 ans aux Chinois pour qu’il se démocratisent, après tout nous, nous avons bien mis deux siècles. »
Comme s’il suffisait de se réjouir du « miracle économique chinois », et que l’expérience de l’histoire démontrait que l’expansion massive du capitalisme était gage incontestable de démocratie à venir.

En fait, ce discours est ancré dans l’idée que les Chinois sont si différents de nous, ou nous sont si ’extérieurs’, que contrairement à Ryckmans, nous ne pouvons les traiter pas comme des sujets humains mais comme une catégorie à part. Personne ne devrait devoir attendre cinquante ans de plus pour bénéficier des droits humains essentiels.

Je ne suis ni viscéralement anti-Chine, ni anti-Chinois, ceux qui m’ont lu peuvent en témoigner. Je ne suis pas non plus anti-Chinois « Han », je sais pertinemment que l’immense majorité de la population de la Chine souffre de la même pauvreté, des mêmes catastrophes environnementales et de santé publique, du même manque d’autonomie et de la même incapacité de maîtriser leur propre destin.

Vers un procès spectacle

Cependant en ce moment précis, ce sont les musulmans du Xinjiang qui sont les plus touchés et qui se trouvent dans la situation la plus pernicieuse. Loin de l’attention internationale, cachés dans une région d’Asie centrale souvent rendue inaccessible aux visiteurs, et à un moment où l’Islam est considéré comme un credo terroriste, qui va leur venir en aide ?

Un homme, l’un des leurs, discrètement, savamment et avec diplomatie, a tenté d’attirer l’attention sur la réalité et la vérité des conditions d’existence de la population du Xinjiang. Pour cela il va lui falloir endurer un procès spectacle.

En tant que « China-watchers », commentateurs, journalistes, et universitaires notre devoir est de dénoncer cette injustice. Je suis sûr que c’est ce qu’aurait fait Simon Leys. De plus, je suis convaincu qu’il aurait apprécié le courage de cet homme confronté à la puissance de l’état.

Peut-être que Leys aurait alors évoqué une de ses citations préférées de l’historien chinois Sima Qian (145-90 av. notre ère), citation dont nous ferions bien de nous souvenir :

« Mieux vaut les critiques d’un seul que l’assentiment de mille. »

Simon Leys quitte la Chine pour l’éternité
Il ridiculisa les maoïstes de tous les pays
Causeur
14 août 2014

Pierre Ryckmans, plus connu sous son pseudonyme éditorial Simon Leys, est décédé, le 11 août, à l’âge de 78 ans, dans la lointaine ville de Canberra, improbable capitale administrative de l’Australie, où il résidait avec sa famille depuis le début des années soixante-dix du siècle dernier. Qu’on ne se méprenne pas à propos des louanges post mortem que  consacrent aujourd’hui les grands médias français à cet immense sinologue belge. L’encens qu’ils répandent aujourd’hui autour de son cercueil ne saurait dissiper l’odeur nauséabonde des tombereaux d’ordures qu’ils déversèrent sur lui lors de la publication de ses ouvrages consacrés à la Chine de Mao et à la Révolution culturelle, notamment Les habits neufs du président Mao , paru en 1971. Ce livre survient alors que la France intellectuelle est en pleine hystérie maoïste post soixante huitarde : de Normale Sup à Vincennes, la GRCP (Grande Révolution Culturelle Prolétarienne) la geste maoïste est venue au secours des orphelins d’une révolte tombée en quenouille. La fine fleur de l’intelligentsia hexagonale, Roland Barthes, Philippe Sollers, Michel Foucault, Jean Paul Sartre se font les chantres zélés de la geste maoïste, dont Louis Althusser et ses disciples Benny Lévy, les frères Miller (Jacques-Alain et Gérard), Jean-Claude Milner sont les coryphées. Et voilà qu’un obscur universitaire d’outre Quiévrain, inconnu au bataillon des habitués de la Closerie des Lilas, se permet, armé de sa seule connaissance de la langue, de la civilisation et de la société chinoise de démonter le mythe d’une Révolution culturelle émancipatrice de l’humanité entière.

Pour Ryckmans, devenu pour l’occasion Simon Leys pour ne pas obérer ses possibilités de retourner en Chine, cette GRCP se résume à une sanglante lutte de pouvoir au sommet de l’Etat communiste, où Mao et ses sbires instrumentalisent la jeunesse pour éliminer ceux qui l’avaient écarté du pouvoir réel à Pékin : Liu Shao Shi, Deng Hsiao Ping, puis Lin Biao. Cette interprétation, aujourd’hui universellement admise, fait alors scandale : en quelques lignes,  Le Monde  exécute l’ouvrage d’un « China watcher travaillant avec les méthodes américaines » et « comportant des erreurs et des faits incontrôlables en provenance de la colonie britannique ». Ce libelle est signé des initiales d’Alain Bouc, correspondant du  Monde à Pékin, dont la ferveur envers le «  Grand Timonier » justifiera la qualification, par les situationistes de Guy Debord,  du quotidien de la rue des Italiens de « principal organe de presse maoïste paraissant hors de Chine ».

Pierre Ryckmans, rejeton de la grande bourgeoisie belge, est pourtant tombé dans la controverse politique à son corps défendant. S’étant pris de passion pour la Chine lors d’un voyage d’étudiants belges dans les années cinquante, il se consacre à l’étude de la langue, de la littérature et des arts de ce pays. La politique, au mieux l’indiffère, au pire lui fait horreur, comme à celui qu’il reconnaîtra plus tard comme l’un de ses maîtres à penser, George Orwell. Un événement, pourtant, le précipite dans la controverse qui va marquer sa vie et son œuvre : en 1967, alors qu’il se trouve à Hong Kong, contractuel au consulat général de Belgique, un artiste de variété Li Ping est sauvagement assassiné devant sa porte par des sbires du régime de Pékin, coupable d’avoir brocardé Mao à la télévision hongkongaise. Il peut voir également chaque jour les cadavres des suppliciés de la Révolution Culturelle s’échouer sur les plages de la colonie, emmenés par milliers par le courant des fleuves se jetant dans la mer de Chine. Mettant de côté ses chères études sur la calligraphie et la peinture chinoise ancienne, il se plonge dans la sinistre langue de bois des publications maoïstes pour y déceler la part de vérité qui peut s’y cacher : un travail de décryptage dont le précurseur est un père jésuite, Lazlo Ladany, éditeur à Hong Kong de l’hebdomadaire China news analysis, épluchage minutieux des publications officielles. C’est ce qui rend le discours de Leys inattaquable : tout ce qu’il rapporte provient d’écrits dûment tamponnés par la censure maoïste, dont il suffit de connaître les codes de langages, de présentation et de mise en scène pour les décrypter. Qu’on fête, ou non, l’anniversaire d’un dirigeant national ou local, un recul ou une avancée dans la liste des personnalités présentes à une manifestation officielle, le choix des photos en une du «  Quotidien du peuple » constituent un métalangage qu’un travail de bénédictin permet de décrypter.

« La pire manière d’avoir tort c’est d’avoir eu raison trop tôt ! » dira Ryckman-Leys bien des années après avoir pu constater qu’en Occident, principalement en France, la cabale des dévots du maoïsme, de gauche comme de droite, réussira, pendant de nombreuses années, à confiner ses écrits dans la confidentialité. Il fallut attendre 1989, et la chute du communisme soviétique pour que  Les Habits neufs du président Mao soient édités en poche, et 1998 pour qu’une sélection de ses écrits sur la Chine soit publiée dans la collection «  Bouquins » à l’initiative de Jean-François Revel, l’un des rares intellectuels français ayant soutenu Ryckmans. Bernard Pivot, prudent comme de coutume, attendit 1983 avant de le convier à une séance d’Apostrophes sur le thème «  Les intellectuels face au communisme » 1. Il n’eut pas à le regretter : en quelques minutes, Ryckmans mit en pièces la maoïste de salon Maria Antonietta Macchiochi, qui avait commis un livre de 500 pages à la gloire du Grand Timonier à l’issue d’un mois de visite guidée à travers la Chine en 1971. Ryckmans «  Ce livre est stupide, c’est le plus charitable que l’on puisse en dire… si ce n’est pas une stupidité, alors c’est une escroquerie, ce qui est beaucoup plus grave… ». Pivot n’en est pas encore revenu : c’est la seule fois de sa carrière où un livre présenté à Apostrophes, celui de Macchiochi, a vu le rythme de ses ventes baisser après  l’émission…

« Dans une controverse, on reconnait le vainqueur à ce que ses adversaires finissent par s’approprier ses arguments en s’imaginant les avoir inventés » constatait encore Ryckmans dans un article de la  New York Review of Books  en hommage Lazlo Ladany, son maître en «  maologie ». Le triomphe de Ryckmans fut modeste, trop content qu’il était de pouvoir, enfin, se consacrer à ses passions littéraires, artistiques et maritimes à 20 000 km de Saint Germain des Près. La morgue de ses adversaires, en revanche, ne s’est en rien atténuée, trouvant dans d’autres passions exotiques matière à pontifier.

On peut se procurer cette émission pour la modeste somme de 2,99 euros sur le site de téléchargement de l’INA. C’est donné pour un moment jubilatoire… ↩

Voir aussi:

A propos de Pierre Ryckmans, alias Simon Leys, et des sources qui ont inspiré ‘Les Habits neufs du président Mao’
Eglise d’Asie

21/08/2014

Le sinologue et écrivain belge Pierre Ryckmans est décédé en Australie à l’âge de 78 ans. Il s’est éteint le 11 août 2014, à Canberra, capitale fédérale australienne, où il vivait et enseignait depuis les années 1970.

Pierre Ryckmans parlait peu des raisons de son exil en Australie, mais …

… les années qu’il avait vécues Hongkong, auparavant, avaient été pour lui les plus marquantes et les plus fécondes mais aussi les plus éprouvantes.

Avant tout sinologue à la culture encyclopédique, il a traduit Lu Xun et Les Entretiens de Confucius mais il restera dans la mémoire des observateurs de la Chine comme celui qui a courageusement dénoncé, avant tous et presque seul contre beaucoup, les monstruosités de la Révolution culturelle lancée par Mao de 1966 à 1976 en Chine. Son livre publié en 1971, Les Habits neufs du président Mao, dénonçant la nature meurtrière du communisme de Mao, fit l’effet d’un véritable coup de canon dans le monde des « maoïstes européens », si nombreux à l’époque qu’ils monopolisaient les informations concernant la Chine.

Ils accusèrent Pierre Ryckmans d’être un traitre et un faussaire, de colporter des ragots venus de Hongkong et des analystes de la CIA. Le fait d’avoir été si précoce dans sa dénonciation avait rendu ses propos inacceptables pour les sinologues de l’époque, admirateurs de Mao, qui refusaient de voir la véritable nature du régime chinois, habilement masquée par une intense propagande. C’est ce qui a probablement provoqué son exil en Australie. Pierre Ryckmans avait pris parti pour les victimes de la Révolution culturelle, y compris pour les milliers de chrétiens, protestants et catholiques, martyrisés par le régime.

Ce qui est moins connu, à propos de Pierre Ryckmans, c’est l’influence qu’a eue sur lui le sinologue, savant et  jésuite hongrois Laszlo (Ladislaus) Ladany (勞達一), qui dirigeait, à Hongkong, un centre qui rassemblait et analysait les informations sur la situation en Chine. Il publiait chaque mois un bulletin, China News Analysis, remarquablement bien informé et de très haut niveau. Les ambassades et consulats de la région y étaient tous abonnés malgré son prix exorbitant.

Dès le début de la Révolution culturelle, le P. Ladany avait compris que cette agitation était un conflit de personnes et une immense lutte pour le pouvoir. Il a voulu le dire haut et fort. Cependant, ses affirmations n’atteignaient pas les intellectuels d’Europe et des Etats-Unis et le P. Ladany avait le sentiment de prêcher dans le désert, jusqu’à ce que Pierre Ryckmans s’intéresse à ses écrits et les répercute dans le monde entier. Ce dernier a reconnu bien volontiers avoir puisé dans China News Analysis, notamment ses numéros 759, 761, 762, 763 (mai à juillet 1969) pour écrire son livre. Le fait est que c’est le P. Ladany qui a inspiré à Pierre Ryckmans, lui qui était un spécialiste de la littérature classique chinoise, toute sa vision de la Révolution culturelle par le biais de China News Analysis.

China News Analysis bulletin a été publié de 1953 à 1998 (1). En 1997, les jésuites avaient transféré la rédaction de Hongkong à Taipei de manière à éliminer tout risque d’éventuelles pressions politiques après la rétrocession de la colonie anglaise à la Chine continentale. Un an plus tard cependant, le bulletin était arrêté.

(eda)
Notes(1) En décembre 1982, lorsque le P. Ladany (1914-1990) se retire de la rédaction de China News Analysis, il rédige les ‘dix commandements’ qui, selon lui, devraient guider tout China Watcher digne de ce nom :
1. Remember that no one living in a free society ever has a full understanding of life in a regimented society.
2. Look at China through Chinese spectacles; if one looks at is through foreign glasses, one is thereby trying to make sense of Chinese events in terms of our own problems.
3. Learn something about other Communist countries.
4. Study the basic tenets of Marxism.
5. Keep in mind that words and terms do not have the same meaning in a Marxist society as they do elsewhere.
6. Keep your common sense: the Chinese may have the particular characteristics of Chinese, but they are human beings, and therefore have normal reactions of human beings.
7. People are not less important than issues; they are probably more so. A group may adopt the programme of those who oppose it in order to retain power.
8. Do not believe that you know all the answers. China poses more questions than it provides answers.
9. Do not lose your sense of humour. A regimented press is too serious to be taken very seriously.
10. Above all, read the small print!

Voir encore:

Le sinologue belge Simon Leys est décédé
Philippe Paquet

La Libre Belgique

11 août 2014

BELGIQUEPierre Ryckmans, alias Simon Leys, décédé à l’âge de 78 ans dans la nuit de dimanche à lundi à Sydney, où il était traité pour un cancer, est avant tout le sinologue belge devenu australien qui, avec « Les Habits neufs du président Mao » et « Ombres chinoises », fut le premier à faire voler en éclats le mythe maoïste, au début des années 70. Il démonta les rouages de la Révolution culturelle et exposa les réalités du régime communiste chinois avec une persévérance qui lui attira la haine tenace d’une certaine intelligentsia européenne, parisienne en particulier, mais aussi avec un talent littéraire qui vaut à ses « Essais sur la Chine » (réédités dans la collection « Bouquins ») d’être toujours aussi appréciés aujourd’hui.

Ce fils d’éditeur était, toutefois, aussi un romancier (quoique d’un seul roman, « La Mort de Napoléon », récit d’une imaginaire autant que rocambolesque évasion de Sainte-Hélène), un critique littéraire (aussi à l’aise avec Hugo et Cervantes qu’avec Conrad et Chesterton), un essayiste politique (passionné par George Orwell et Simone Weil), un caricaturiste amateur (à qui l’on a trouvé des airs de ressemblance avec Daumier), un amoureux de la mer (depuis que, encore adolescent, il avait fait les bancs d’Islande sur un chalutier ostendais)… Cependant, c’est peintre qu’il aurait voulu être, et il n’apprécia rien de plus que les cours pris auprès du talentueux Jacques Laudy. L’université, dirait-il, le détourna tristement de ce projet.

Une grande famille belge

Pierre Ryckmans est né, le 28 septembre 1935, à Uccle, dans une maison de l’avenue des Aubépines qui existe toujours. Dans une grande famille belge aussi, aux origines malinoises et anversoises (le grand-père, Alphonse, fut échevin de la métropole portuaire, avant d’être vice-président du Sénat). Son oncle et homonyme Pierre Ryckmans fut le meilleur gouverneur général du Congo, selon David Van Reybrouck. Un autre oncle, qui fut aussi son parrain, Gonzague Ryckmans, professeur à Louvain, était une sommité mondiale de l’épigraphie arabique. L’un et l’autre exercèrent une influence d’autant plus forte sur le futur Simon Leys qu’ils se substituèrent à un père mort prématurément, quand le jeune homme n’avait que dix-neuf ans.

Après avoir brièvement fréquenté l’école des Servites de Marie, à deux pas de la maison familiale, Pierre Ryckmans fit toute sa scolarité au collège Cardinal Mercier de Braine-l’Alleud. Il n’en garda pas un souvenir exagérément ému, se rappelant surtout les trajets en tram dans un décor qui était encore champêtre, mais aussi les leçons d’un maître, l’abbé Voussure, qui acheva d’ancrer en lui une foi chrétienne inébranlable. Inscrit à Louvain en 1953, il y fit des études de droit, pour se plier à une tradition familiale, et d’histoire de l’art, pour se faire plaisir.

Un voyage en Chine en 1955

C’est le hasard qui décida de la suite, exceptionnelle : Pierre Ryckmans fut convié de façon inattendue à se joindre, en avril 1955, à une délégation de la jeunesse belge invitée par une Chine avide de reconnaissance internationale. Le séjour eut beau être court et très encadré, il déclencha la passion d’une vie. L’étudiant en revint subjugué et transformé. Il lui sembla désormais impossible d’ignorer « l’autre pôle de l’expérience humaine », comme disait Malraux, et impensable de ne pas apprendre le chinois. Comme il n’était pas possible d’aller au-delà d’une simple initiation en Belgique, une fois diplômé de Louvain, il partit pour Taïwan, nanti d’une modeste bourse du gouvernement de Chiang Kai-shek.

Sur l’île qu’on appelait Formose, ou encore la « Chine libre » par opposition à la « Chine rouge » de Mao, Pierre Ryckmans s’éprit de littérature et de peinture chinoises (il eut pour professeur Pu Hsin-yu, un cousin du « dernier empereur » Pu Yi), amassant les matériaux pour la future thèse de doctorat qu’il consacrerait à Shitao, lettré du XVIIe siècle, et qui établirait d’emblée sa réputation dans le monde de la sinologie classique. C’est là aussi, et surtout, qu’il s’éprit de Hanfang, qui deviendrait son épouse et sa muse. Le couple eut quatre enfants : Etienne, Jeanne, et des jumeaux, Louis et Marc.

« Coopération au développement »

Sa formation taïwanaise terminée, Pierre Ryckmans fut ravi de profiter d’une nouvelle législation belge sur l’objection de conscience pour troquer son service militaire contre trois années de « coopération au développement » en Asie. Il étudia et enseigna en chinois à Singapour grâce à Han Suyin – avec qui il croiserait plus tard impitoyablement le fer. Suspecté de sympathies communistes (!) par le régime paranoïaque de Lee Kuan Yew, il dut plier bagage et s’installa en 1963 à Hong Kong, où il décrocha un emploi précaire au « New Asia College », embryon de la future Université chinoise. Le jeune sinologue produisit là-bas ses premiers travaux sinologiques (une traduction de Shen Fu, publiée aux… éditions Larcier que son père avait rachetées, une monographie sur le « peintre rebelle et fou » Su Renshan, couronnée par le prestigieux prix Stanislas Julien, des dizaines de notices sur les peintres chinois pour l’ »Encyclopædia Universalis »).

Mais, pour soutenir une famille nombreuse, il fallait trouver d’autres ressources. Pierre Ryckmans donna des cours à l’Alliance française de Hong Kong et – ce qui était bien plus captivant – alimenta le consulat de Belgique dans la colonie britannique en rapports bimensuels sur la Révolution culturelle, à partir de la presse chinoise qu’il dépouillait et du témoignage des réfugiés qu’il interviewait. Un jeune sinologue français de passage à Hong Kong, René Viénet, convainquit le « China watcher » en herbe de rassembler ses notes et de les publier. Il en résulta en 1971 « Les Habits neufs du président Mao » et une célébrité bientôt planétaire.
Attaché culturel à Pékin

C’est à la même époque que Pierre Ryckmans reçut une proposition qui l’enthousiasma : revoir la Chine en devenant l’attaché culturel de l’ambassade que la Belgique rouvrait à Pékin. Cet intermède diplomatique de six mois, aux côtés de Jacques Groothaert et Patrick Nothomb, serait l’occasion d’aventures mémorables en territoire maoïste et fournirait la matière d’ »Ombres chinoises ». Dans l’intervalle, pour éviter de froisser les Chinois, Pierre Ryckmans, le sinologue et diplomate, prit le pseudonyme de Simon Leys pour publier ses pamphlets, pseudonyme trouvé comme l’on sait dans un roman de Victor Segalen (« René Leys »), mais qui fait aussi référence – ce qu’on ignore généralement – à une dynastie de peintres anversois dont le plus célèbre fut Henri Leys.

Peu avant de partir pour Pékin, le hasard avait encore souri à Pierre Ryckmans. Un collègue rencontré à Hong Kong l’invita à venir enseigner temporairement à l’Université nationale d’Australie. Ce qui devait être une expérience de deux ou trois ans, le temps d’offrir aux enfants un cadre de vie plus aéré, allait être un voyage sans retour, choix que ni le professeur de chinois à Canberra, puis à Sydney, ni sa famille n’auraient de raisons de regretter. Aux antipodes, d’où il enverrait de savoureuses lettres au « Magazine littéraire » (elles seront réunies dans « Le Bonheur des petits poissons »), Ryckmans serait à l’abri des tempêtes parisiennes soulevées par le maoïsme et pourrait ainsi poursuivre tranquillement son travail. Car, dirait-il, « en Australie, on ne reçoit pas moins de bons livres. On a seulement plus de temps pour les lire ».

Des livres, Simon Leys – le pseudonyme finit par supplanter l’état civil – en lirait, et en critiquerait. Tout en continuant d’interpréter les convulsions de la Chine dans des essais souvent caustiques (« Images brisées », « La Forêt en feu », « L’Humeur, l’honneur, l’horreur »), il donna libre cours à toutes ses passions, sans se préoccuper du caractère apparemment disparate de son œuvre. Il consacra nombre de textes à la littérature, tant française qu’anglo-saxonne (l’installation en Australie fit aussi de lui un écrivain de langue anglaise, ce dont il se félicitait) ; on les retrouve dans « Protée et autres essais », « L’Ange et le Cachalot », « Le Studio de l’inutilité ». Il passa aussi beaucoup de temps « en mer », traduisant le chef-d’œuvre méconnu de Richard Henry Dana « Deux années sur le gaillard d’avant », racontant le naufrage du « Batavia », assemblant sa monumentale « Anthologie de la mer dans la littérature française ».

Dans toutes ses activités, Pierre Ryckmans s’amusa beaucoup – on le mesure en parcourant « Les Idées des autres idiosyncratiquement compilées par Simon Leys », un recueil qui était au départ un cadeau de Noël pour Hanfang. Ce n’est qu’exceptionnellement qu’il se résigna à feindre le sérieux (qui n’est pas le contraire d’amusant, se plaisait-il à rappeler en citant Chesterton), par exemple quand il accepta de rejoindre l’Académie royale de langue et de littérature françaises de Belgique, où on l’élit en 1990 et où il fut reçu deux ans plus tard (le temps de revenir d’Australie…). Le cadeau était empoisonné car il y succédait à Simenon, un homme et un écrivain pour lequel il n’avait qu’une admiration relative. Leys refusa, en revanche, l’invitation (pourtant inhabituelle) que lui adressa l’Académie française, dont il redoutait les contraintes mondaines.

Un « dernier combat » ubuesque

La retraite anticipée qu’il prit en 1994, parce qu’il était profondément inquiet de la mercantilisation de l’université (il la dénoncerait onze ans plus tard dans un discours iconoclaste prononcé à l’UCL lors de la remise d’un doctorat honoris causa à l’initiative du doyen Heinz Bouillon), devait être paisible et heureuse. Elle le fut jusqu’en décembre 2006, quand une bourde de notre administration priva Marc et Louis Ryckmans de leur nationalité belge. Ne mesurant pas à quel point cette grossière bévue blessait un homme resté si profondément attaché à la Belgique, le ministère des Affaires étrangères s’entêta dans l’erreur, obligeant Simon Leys à mener pour ses fils ce qu’il appela son « dernier combat ». Un combat qu’il gagna haut la main, en justice, sept ans plus tard, mais qui, aussi, le rongea.

Cet homme foncièrement bon aurait sans aucun doute mérité que sa patrie d’origine lui permît de terminer sa vie d’une façon plus paisible. Dans l’intimité, Simon Leys était en effet tout le contraire du pamphlétaire impitoyable que révélaient ses écrits. Pétri de gentillesse et de simplicité, il formait avec Hanfang, après cinquante ans de mariage, un couple extraordinairement attachant.

Voir aussi:

Quand « Le Monde » étrillait Simon Leys… avant de l’encenser
|Thomas Wieder

Le Monde

12.08.2014

Dix lignes seulement, mais dix lignes assassines. C’est ainsi, le 19 novembre 1971, que Le Monde rend compte des Habits neufs du président Mao, de Simon Leys : « Une nouvelle interprétation de la Chine par un “China watcher” français de Hongkong travaillant à la mode américaine. Beaucoup de faits, rapportés avec exactitude, auxquels se mêlent des erreurs et des informations incontrôlables en provenance de la colonie britannique. Les sources ne sont d’ordinaire pas citées, et l’auteur n’a manifestement pas l’expérience de ce dont il parle. La Révolution culturelle est ramenée à des querelles de cliques. » L’article est signé « A. B. », les initiales d’Alain Bouc, qui sera nommé en 1973 correspondant du Monde à Pékin.

La nécrologie : Mort du sinologue Simon Leys

Plus de quarante ans plus tard, Gérard Guégan, cofondateur de Champ libre, où parut le livre, se souvient parfaitement de ces quelques lignes. Et notamment du tract que ses amis situationnistes rédigèrent à l’époque contre leur auteur, sous le titre « Un Bouc qui pue »…

« SILENCE DE MORT »

S’il se rappelle lui aussi très bien de la « brève dédaigneuse du Monde », Raphaël Sorin, autre ancien de Champ libre, garde surtout en tête le « silence de mort » qui entoura la parution en France du livre de Simon Leys. A part Le Nouvel Observateur, qui publia une critique positive, mais en l’accompagnant prudemment d’un point de vue opposé, la presse fut avare de comptes rendus. Ce qui ne veut pas dire qu’il n’y eut pas de réaction. « Il y a eu quelques incidents notables avec les maoïstes », se souvient ainsi Gérard Guégan. Ils ont fait un jour une descente à la fac de Vincennes pour détruire les stands où on vendait le livre. Ils sont aussi venus à la maison d’édition pour distribuer quelques coups de poing… »

RECONNAISSANCE TARDIVE
L’ostracisme dont Simon Leys fut victime en France mit des années à se dissiper. Dans Le Monde, le changement de regard fut très progressif. En 1975, quand paraît Ombres chinoises, André Fontaine se contente d’évoquer un livre qui « dénonce sur le mode de la causticité allègre les tares d’un régime a jadis beaucoup admiré ». En 1979, quand le livre est réédité, Nicole Zand est nettement plus louangeuse. Rappelant que le livre fut « diversement accueilli à sa publication », ce qui est sans doute une allusion à ce qu’avait écrit André Fontaine non sans quelque ironie fielleuse, la journaliste note que « les événements de ces dernières années ne contredisent pas, c’est le moins qu’on puisse dire, l’analyse de Simon Leys ».

Pour ce dernier, la pleine reconnaissance de sa lucidité prémonitoire ne viendra cependant qu’une vingtaine d’années plus tard. « Leys, le juste », titre « Le Monde des livres », en 1998, lors de la réédition, chez Robert Laffont, des Essais sur la Chine. Signé Francis Deron, le portrait, élogieux, est accompagné d’un texte dithyrambique de Philippe Sollers saluant ce « déchiffreur immunisé contre la propagande totalitaire ». Une façon, pour le journal comme pour l’écrivain, dont la très maoïste revue Tel Quel n’avait pas été épargnée vingt-cinq ans plus tôt par Simon Leys, de reconnaître sur le tard leurs égarements d’antan.

Voir encore:

Are Books Useless?
An extract from the 1996 Boyer lectures
Pierre Ryckmans
Australian Humanities Review

Are books essentially useless? I suggest that we indeed subscribe to such a conclusion. But so long as we remain aware that uselessness is also the hallmark of what is truly priceless. Zhuang Zi summed it up well: « People all know the usefulness of what is useful, but they do not know the usefulness of what is useless ».

The other day, I was reading the manuscript of a forthcoming book by a young journalist – a series of profiles of women living in the Outback – farmer wives battling solitude and natural disasters on remote stations in the bush. One woman was expressing concern for the education and future of her son, and commented on the boy’s choice of exclusively practical subjects for his courses at boarding school. « And I can’t say I blame his choice, as I too, would prefer to be out in the bush driving a tractor of building cattleyards rather than sitting in a classroom learning about Shakespeare, which is something he will never need… »

In this passing remark, there is something which I find simply heartbreaking. For a woman who single-handedly raises and cares for a large family, while sharing in many of the men’s tasks – worrying about mortgage repayments, fighting loneliness and depression, bolstering her husband’s crumbling self-respect in front of looming bankruptcy, fending off the menaces of alcoholism and social disintegration, and who meanwhile, drives tractors and handles cattle, and faces a thousand emergencies – it would appear indeed that Shakespeare is something one will never need. And on what ground would we dare to challenge her view?

Oddly enough, this disarming remark on the uselessness of literature unwittingly reduplicates, in one sense, a provocative statement by Nabokov. In fact the brave woman from the outback here seems to echo a sardonic paradox of the supreme literate aesthete of our age. Nabokov wrote this (which I shall never tire of quoting, perhaps because I myself taught literature for some time): ‘Let us not kid ourselves; let us remember that literature is of no use whatever, except in the very special case of somebody’s wishing to become, of all things, a Professor of Literature.’

And yet even Professors of Literature, when they are made of the right mettle, but find themselves in extreme situations – divested of their titles, deprived of their books, reduced to their barest humanity, equipped only with their tears and their memory – can reach the heart of the matter and experience in their flesh what literature is really about: our very survival as human beings.

I know of one Professor of Literature at least, who would be qualified to teach the good woman from the outback how, even for people in her situation, particularly for people in her situation, there may be a very real need for reading Shakespeare.

The name of that Professor is Wu Ningkun. He is an elderly Chinese scholar. Nearly 50 years ago, moved by patriotism, he gave up a promising, and cosy, academic career in the United States where he was teaching English literature, and returned to China, knowing that his talents and expertise were sorely needed there. But under Maoism, there was no place in China for refined, cultivated and cosmopolitan minds. He was immediately suspected, ostracised, persecuted, and for the next 30 years became a victim of the totalitarian paranoia that sees humanist culture as a betrayal, intelligence as an ideological crime, and presumes that whoever reads T.S. Eliot in the original must be a dangerous international spy.

He has written a book about his experiences, A Single Tear , which is, to my mind, the best written and most essential reading on a subject on which so much has already been published, and yet so little is understood.

The darkest depth of his ordeal was reached when he was sent to a labour camp in the barren wilderness of North-Eastern China, close to the Siberian border. Around him, many inmates were crushed to death by the horrors of the camp – they were dying of starvation, brutal treatment, exhaustion and despair. Under such conditions, physical resilience was not enough to stay alive – one needed spiritual strength. Wu Ningkun sustained his spirit with poetry. He had succeeded in smuggling with him two small books: a copy of Hamlet and a collection of the Tang dynasty poet, Du Fu. Formerly, he had only studied Shakespeare; now, for the first time, he was truly reading it. Occasionally, when a blinding blizzard blew from Siberia, and the prisoners had to spend the day cooped up in a cell, he could come back to Hamlet:

« Hamlet was my favourite Shakespearean play. Read in a Chinese labour camp, however, the tragedy of the Danish prince took on unexpected dimensions. All the academic analyses and critiques that had engrossed me over the years now seemed remote and irrelevant. The outcry ‘Denmark is a prison’ echoed with a poignant immediacy and Elsinore loomed like a haunting metaphor of a treacherous repressive state. The Ghost thundered with a terrible chorus of a million victims of proletarian dictatorship. Rozencrantz and Guildenstern would have felt like fish in the water had they found their way into a modern nation of hypocrites and informers. As to Hamlet himself, his great capacity for suffering gave the noble Dane his unique stature as a tragic hero pre-eminently worthy of his suffering. I would say to myself ‘I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’, echoing Eliot’s Prufrock. Rather I often felt like one of those fellows ‘crawling between earth and Heaven’ scorned by Hamlet himself. But the real question I came to see was neither ‘to be, or not to be’ nor whether ‘in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, but how to be worthy of one’s suffering. »

That a man may survive for quite a while without food, but cannot live one day without poetry, is a notion which we tend to dismiss too lightly, as a sort of 19th century romantic hyperbole. But our gruesome century has provided enough evidence: it is true, in a very literal sense. Wu Ningkun’s testimony which I just invoked, confirms from the other end of the world an earlier testimony from another House of the Dead – the voice of Primo Levi who, having survived Auschwitz, wrote the classic account of the camps, If This is a Man and devoted one entire chapter to an experience very similar to the one described by the Chinese scholar.

One day, as Levi and another inmate were on duty to fetch soup for the entire barrack, on their way to the kitchen, with the heavy soup bucket hanging from a pole which they carried on their shoulders, they enjoyed the brief respite of a summer day, and started chatting. The other prisoner was a clever young Frenchman with a gift for languages. Levi, who had been teaching him some Italian, suddenly was moved by a crazy and irresistible impulse to introduce him to Dante. He began to recite a passage from The Divine Comedy, the Canto of Ulysses, clumsily translating it for the other man, verse by verse: « Here, listen, open your ears and your mind, you have to understand, for my sake. »

The effect of this recitation of a few stanzas was « As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am. The companion begs me to repeat it. How good he is, he is aware that it is doing me good. Or perhaps it is something more – perhaps he has received the message, he has felt that it had to do with him, that it has to do with all men who suffer, and with us in particular; and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders. » Then, sudden catastrophe: memory fails at the end of one stanza – to reach the end of the Canto, a crucial connection is missing: « I have forgotten at least twelve lines; I would give today’s soup to know how to connect the last fragment to the end of the Canto. I try to reconstruct it through the rhymes, I close my eyes, I bite my fingers, but it is no use, the rest is silence. »

The depth and truth of this particular moment were such that thirty years later – the year before he died – Levi returned to it in the last book he wrote, The Drowned and the Saved. Summing up his experience of the death camp, he concluded, « Culture was important to me, and perhaps it saved me. When I wrote ‘I would give today’s soup to know how to retrieve the forgotten passage’, I had neither lied nor exaggerated. I really would have given bread and soup – that is, blood – to save from nothingness those memories which today, with the sure support of printed paper I can refresh gratis whenever I wish, and which therefore seem of little value. »

In Auschwitz, the forgotten poem became literally priceless. In that place, at that instant, the very survival of Primo Levi’s humanity was dependent on it.

Pierre Ryckmans is an internationally renowned novelist, writing under the name Simon Leys, as well as a scholar, Sinologist, artist and calligrapher. His books include Chinese Shadows and The Death of Napoleon. From 1988 he was Chair of Chinese Studies at University of Sydney from where he has recently retired.

The Boyer lectures were broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Commission on Radio National. The book and cassettes of the six Boyer lectures are now available from all ABC bookshops.

 

4 commentaires pour Mort de Simon Leys: Hommage aux hérissons rusés ! (The worst way to be wrong: Looking back at an intellectual by any other name)

  1. […] quel meilleur hommage leur faire que ces deux textes et sortes d’autoportrait en creux dans lesquels Leys fit […]

    J'aime

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