The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York Review Books (Paperback))

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9781590176207: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York Review Books (Paperback))

An NYRB Classics Original

Simon Leys is a Renaissance man for the era of globalization. A distinguished scholar of classical Chinese art and literature and one of the first Westerners to recognize the appalling toll of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Leys also writes with unfailing intelligence, seriousness, and bite about European art, literature, history, and politics and is an unflinching observer of the way we live now.

The Hall of Uselessness is the most extensive collection of Leys’s essays to be published to date. In it, he addresses subjects ranging from the Chinese attitude to the past to the mysteries of Belgium and Belgitude; offers portraits of André Gide and Zhou Enlai; takes on Roland Barthes and Christopher Hitchens; broods on the Cambodian genocide; reflects on the spell of the sea; and writes with keen appreciation about writers as different as Victor Hugo, Evelyn Waugh, and Georges Simenon. Throughout, The Hall of Uselessness is marked with the deep knowledge, skeptical intelligence, and passionate conviction that have made Simon Leys one of the most powerful essayists of our time.

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About the Author:

Simon Leys (1935 - 2014) is the pen name of Pierre Ryckmans, who was born in Belgium and settled in Australia in 1970. He taught Chinese literature at the Australian National University and was Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney from 1987 to 1993. Leys’s writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books, Le Monde, Le Figaro Littéraire, and other periodicals. Among his books are Chinese Shadows, The Death of Napoleon (forthcoming from NYRB Classics), Other People’s Thoughts, and The Wreck of the Batavia & Prosper. In 1996 he delivered the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Boyer lectures. He won many awards, including the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Femina, the Prix Guizot, and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Lies That Tell the Truth
 
            In art truth is suggested by false means.
                                    —EDGAR DEGAS
 
            Truth is only believed when someone has invented it well.
                                    —GEORGE SANTAYANA
 
            To think clearly in human terms you have to be impelled by a poem.
                                    —LES MURRAY
 
 
THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY an address to the annual conference
of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. where its title, at the
request of the organizers, was changed to 'Historical and Other Truths'
– which was deemed more appropriate for such a serious audience. For
judges Me supposed to be serious; indeed. don't they wear wigs and
gowns to convince us - and remind themselves - of their seriousness?
Serious people have little time for any form of fiction. With such a flippant
title, my talk was not likely to attract many listeners. Still, the
change left me slightly uneasy – since, strictly speaking, I am not a historian
– and I am glad to be able now to relinquish the false advertisement
of which I was somehow guilty.
 
My article carries three epigraphs. Most lectures, addresses – and
essays – are usually forgettable. Epigraphs should be memorable. My
readers will naturally forget this article, but they should remember the
epigraphs. The first one is by a painter, the second one by a philosopher.
the third one by a poet.
 
Painters, philosophers, poets, creative writers – and also inventors
and scientists – all reach truth by taking imaginative short-cuts. Let us
consider some of these.
 
Plato's dialogues remain the cornerstone of all Western philosophy.
Very often what we find at their core is not discursive reasoning but various
myths - short philosophical parables. Myth is the oldest and richest
form of fiction. It performs an essential function: 'what myth
communicates is not truth but reality; truth is always about something—
reality is what truth is about' (C.S. Lewis).
 
At roughly the same time as Plato in the West, ancient Daoist thinkers
in China also expressed their ideas in imaginative form. On the subject
that occupies us here – how do our minds reach truth – there is one
tale in Lie Zi that seems illuminating and fundamental.
 
In the time of the Warring States, horses were very important for
military reasons. The feudal lords employed the services of experts to
find good ones. Best of all was the super-horse (qian-li ma), an animal
which could run a thousand miles a day without leaving tracks and without
raising dust. Super-horses were most sought after, but they were
also very rare and hard to detect. Hence the need for highly specialized
experts; most famous among these was a man called Bole. Eventually
Bole became too old to pursue his field trips prospecting for super-horses.
Thus his employer, the Duke of Qin, asked him if he could recommend
another expert to carry on with this task. 'Yes,' said Bole. 'I
have a friend, a pedlar of firewood in the market, who is quite a connoisseur
of horses. ' Following Bole's advice. the duke dispatched this man
on a mission to find a super-horse. Three months later, the man
returned and reported to the duke: 'I have found one; it is in such-and-such
a place; it's a brown mare.' The duke sent his people to fetch the
animal, which proved to be a black stallion. The duke was not happy and
summoned Bole: That friend of yours – he does not seem to be much
of an expert: he could not even get the animal's sex and colour right!'
On hearing this, Bole was amazed:
 
“Fantastic! He is even better than myself, a hundred, a thousand
times better than myself! What he perceives is the innermost nature
of the animal. He looks for and sees what he needs to see. He ignores
what he does not need to see. Not distracted by external appearances,
he goes straight to the inner essence. The way he judges
horses shows that he should be judge of more important things than
horses.”
 
And, needless to say, this particular animal proved to be a super-horse
indeed, a horse that could run a thousand miles a day without leaving
tracks and without raising dust.
 
In reflecting on the ways by which our minds apprehend truth, you
may feel that a 2300-year-old Chinese parable is of only limited relevance.
But if so, let us consider something closer to hand: the mental
processes followed by modern Western science.
 
Claude Bernard, the great pathologist whose research and discoveries
were of momentous importance in the development of modern
medical science, one day entered the lecture hall where he was going to
teach and noticed something peculiar: various trays were on a table,
containing different human organs; on one of these trays, flies had gathered.
A common mind would have made a common observation, perhaps
deploring a lack of cleanliness in the room or instructing the
janitor to keep the windows shut. But Bernard's was not a common
mind: he observed that the flies had gathered on the tray which contained
livers – and he thought, There must be sugar there. And he discovered
the glycogenic function of the liver – a discovery that proved
decisive for the understanding and treatment of diabetes.
 
I found this anecdote not in any history of medical science, but in
the diaries of the greatest modern French poet, Paul Claudel. And
Claudel commented: 'This mental process is identical to that of poetical
writing ... The impelling motion is the same. Which shows that the primary
source of scientific thought is not reasoning, but the precise verification
of an association originally supplied by the imagination.'
 
Note that when I refer to 'poetry', I am taking this word in its most
fundamental sense. Samuel Johnson, in his monumental dictionary of
the English language, assigns three definitions to the word ' poet', in
decreasing order of importance: first, 'an inventor'; second, 'an author
of fiction'; and last, 'a writer of poems.'
 
Truth is grasped by an imaginative leap. This applies not only to
scientific thinking but also to philosophical thought. When I was a
naive young student in the first year of university, our Arts course
included the study of philosophy - a prospect that excited me much at
first, though I was soon disappointed by the mediocrity of our lecturer.
However, through family acquaintances I had the good fortune to
know personally an eminent philosopher of our time, who happened to
be also a kind and generous man. On my request, he drafted for me a
list of basic readings: one handwritten page with bibliographic references
of a selection of classic texts, modern works, histories of philosophy
and introductions to philosophy. I treasured this document; yet,
over the years, wandering round the world, I misplaced it and, like
many other treasures, eventually lost it. Now, half a century later, I
have long forgotten the actual items on the list. What I still remember
is the postscript the great philosopher had inscribed at the bottom of
that page - I remember it vividly because, at the time, I did not understand
it and it puzzled me. The postscript said (underlined), 'Most
important of all, don't forget: do read a lot of novels.' When I first read
this note, as an immature student, it shocked me. Somehow it did not
sound serious enough. For, naively, we tend to confuse what is serious
with what is deep. (In the editorial pages of our newspapers, leading
articles are serious, while cartoons are funny; yet quite often the cartoon
is deep and the leader is vapid.) It took me a long time to appreciate
the full wisdom of my philosopher's advice; now I frequently
encounter echoes of it. And to the observation I have already quoted
elsewhere, that one should prefer a medical practitioner who reads
Chekhov, I would add that, if I commit a crime, I hope to be judged by
a judge who has read Simenon.
 
Men of action - people who are totally involved in tackling what
they believe to be real life - tend to dismiss poetry and all forms of
creative writing as a frivolous distraction. Our great Polar explorer
Mawson wrote in a letter to his wife some instructions concerning
their children's education. He insisted that they should not waste their
time reading novels, but should instead acquire factual information
from books of history and biography.
 
This view - quite prevalent, actually - that there is an essential difference
between works of imagination on the one hand, and records of
facts and events on the other, is very naive. At a certain depth or a certain
level of quality, all writings tend to be creative writing, for they all
partake of the same essence: poetry.
 
History (contrary to the common view) does not record events. It
merely records echoes of events - which is a very different thing - and,
in doing this, it must rely on imagination as much as on memory. Memory
by itself can only accumulate data, pointlessly and meaninglessly.
Remember Jorge Luis Borges' philosophical parable 'Funes the Memorious'.
Funes is a young man who, falling on his head from a horse
becomes strangely crippled: his memory hyper-develops, he is deprived
of any ability to forget, he remembers everything; his mind becomes a
monstrous garbage dump cluttered and clogged with irrelevant data, a
gigantic heap of unrelated images and disconnected instants; he cannot
evacuate any fragment of past experiences, however trifling. This relentless
capacity for absolute and continuous recollection is a curse; it
excludes all possibility of thought. For thinking requires space m which
to forget, to select, to delete and to isolate what is significant. If you cannot
discard any item from the memory store, you cannot abstract and
generalize. But without abstraction and generalization, there can be no
thought.
 
The historian does not merely record; he edits, he omits, he judges,
he interprets, he reorganizes, he composes. His mission is nothing less
than 'to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by
bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every
aspect'. Yet this quote is not from a historian discussing history writing;
it is from a novelist on the art of fiction: it is the famous beginning of
Joseph Conrad's preface to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', a true manifesto of
the novelist's mission.
 
The fact is, these two arts - history writing and fiction writing -
originating both in poetry, involve similar activities and mobilize the
same faculties: memory and imagination; and this is why it could rightly
be said that the novelist is the historian of the present and the historian of
the novelist of the past. Both must invent the truth.
 
Of course, accuracy of data is the pre-condition of any historical
work. But in the end, what determines the quality of a historian is the
quality of his judgment. Two historians may be in possession of the
same data; what distinguishes them is what they make of their common
information. For example, on the subject of convict Australia, Robert
Hughes gathered a wealth of material which he presented in his Fatal
Shore in a vivid and highly readable style. On the basis of that same
information, however, Geoffrey Blainey drew a conclusion that is radically
different – and much more convincing. Hughes had likened convict
Australia to the 'Gulag Archipelago' of the Soviet Union, but Blamey
pointed out that whereas the Soviet Gulag was a totally sterile machine
designed solely to crush and destroy its inmates, in Australia, out of a
convict system that was also brutal and ferocious, a number of individuals
emerged full of vigour and ambition, who rose to become some of
their country's richest citizens. In turn, they soon generated a dynamic
society and, eventually, a vibrant young democracy What matters most
in the end is how the historian reads events - and this is where his judgment
is put to the test.
 
To reach the truth of the past, historians must overcome specific
obstacles: they have to gather information that is not always readily
available. In this sense, they must master the methods of a specialized
discipline. But to understand the truth of the present time, right in
front of us, is not the preserve of historians; it is our common task. How
do we usually cope with it? Not too well, it seems.
 
Let us consider just two examples - still quite close to us, and of
colossal dimensions. The twentieth century was a hideous century
filled with horrors on a gigantic scale. In sheer magnitude, the terror
perpetrated by modern totalitarianisms was unprecedented. It developed
essentially in two varieties: Stalinist and Hitlerian.
 
When we read the writings of Soviet and East European dissidents
and exiles, we are struck by one recurrent theme: their amazement,
indignation and anger in the face of the stupidity, ignorance and indifference
of Western opinion and especially of the Western intelligentsia,
which remained largely incapable of registering the reality of their predicament.
And yet the Western countries were spending huge resources,
both to gather intelligence and to develop scholarly research on the
communist world - all to very little avail. Robert Conquest, one of the
very few Sovietologists who was clear-sighted from the start, experienced
acute frustration in his attempts to share and communicate his
knowledge. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, his publisher
proposed to reissue a collection of his earlier essays and asked him what
title he would suggest. Conquest thought for one second and said, 'How
about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?’
 
Interestingly enough, the name of one writer appears again and
again in the writings of the dissidents from the communist world – they
pay homage to him as the only author who fully perceived the concrete
reality of their condition, down to its very sounds and smells – and this
is George Orwell. Aleksandr Nekrich s...

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