Essay: Benjamin Maddenon Simon Leys

Conceiving Otherness

The heroes of Australian culture have tended not to come from within the academy. It is conventional to bemoan this fact as evidence of our backwardness, and at worst, it can inspire amongst some intellectuals a facile loathing for Australia’s ‘ordinariness’. But I’d like to think this state of affairs might have a more constructive result as well: that Australian intellectuals might be able to take up their traditional role as gadflies, like Socrates or Zhuangzi, without inviting much more opprobrium than they receive as a matter of course.

Pierre Ryckmans, who frequently published under the nom de plume Simon Leys, experienced a very great deal of opprobrium in the world of European sinology following the 1971 publication of Les habits neufs du président Mao (published in English as The Chairman’s New Clothes in 1977). In that book, he laid bare some of the violence taking place in China under the auspices of the Cultural Revolution, and criticised its guiding ideology (so exciting to some Western observers) as a shallow pretext for Mao’s persecution of his factional enemies within the Communist Party. To say that this was a disconcerting revelation for those Western Marxists who, disillusioned by Stalinist violence and the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, had fixed their hopes for actually-existing Communism on Mao instead would be an understatement.

Ryckmans’s nom de plume creates an impasse for me in writing this essay: like most of his readers, I know Ryckmans better as Simon Leys, yet the work of his that will be of paramount importance to my argument here was delivered under his real name. But that work, and the argument I draw from it, nonetheless touches on the Leys persona’s origins in Ryckmans’s life and thought. Ryckmans first travelled to China as a student in 1955; this first encounter changed the course of his life and prompted him to study Chinese. His undergraduate studies were in law and art history; he remained an art historian throughout his scholarly life even as his public stature grew from his writings across several disciplines. Ryckmans published Les habits neufs under an assumed name at the suggestion of his publisher, so that he wouldn’t be permanently barred from the People’s Republic of China. What began as a response to a specific political exigency developed over time into a broader writerly persona expressing a particular relationship not only to China, but to intellectual life as a whole; we will see that this makes the interventions that Ryckmans chose to make under his own name even more significant.

Ryckmans settled in Australia in 1971, in the midst of the storm over his book, and did not have to wait long for some measure of vindication: as Deng Xiaoping consolidated power following the ousting of the Gang of Four in 1976, he repudiated the Cultural Revolution and allowed a measure of open discussion about its excesses. The European Maoists and the French intelligentsia were less agile, as Ryckmans’s famous clash with the Italian Communist Deputy and MEP Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi on the French talk show Apostrophes in 1983 demonstrated. About her book Della Cina (translated into French the same year that Les habites neufs du président Mao appeared), Leys remarked during the show, ‘the most charitable thing we can say [about it] is that it’s a total piece of stupidity.’ But, gradually, even former Maoists had to concede that Ryckmans had seen what they had not: when his essays on China were collected and published as a single volume in France in 1998, Philippe Sollers, former leader of the Tel Quel group, who had written the preface for the French translation of Della Cina, reviewed Ryckmans’s book in Le Monde and wrote, ‘Let’s put it simply: Leys was right, he continues to be right, he is an analyst and a writer of the first rank, his books and articles are a mountain of exact truths.’

Two years prior to this surprising apotheosis on the Left Bank, Ryckmans had made another rare foray into the mass media, this time on radio rather than television, and in his adopted home, Australia. Under his birth name, Ryckmans presented the 1996 Boyer Lectures on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National station. The Boyer Lectures began in 1959, and, like their British equivalent the Reith Lectures, remain a fixture of the cultural calendar. For a sinologist to deliver the Boyer Lectures, particularly one as globally eminent as Ryckmans, is an event in the history of Australia/China cultural relations, as it was no doubt intended to be.

Ryckmans titled his lectures ‘The View from the Bridge: Aspects of Culture,’ by way of allusion to one of the anecdotes of Zhuangzi. This is the passage in which the Zhuangzi’s frequent foil, Huizi, criticises his assertion whilst strolling near a dam across the River Hao that the fish below are truly happy: Huizi objects, ‘You’re not a fish – how do you know what fish enjoy’ and Zhuangzi, after having turned Huizi’s objection back on itself replies, ‘I know it by standing here beside the Hao.’ Ryckmans cautions us against making ‘a minute exegesis of such a piece,’ because to do so ‘would be as brutish as pulling off the wings of a butterfly’; he nonetheless glosses the parable as a warning against ‘the fallacy of a certain cleverness,’ and refers to a passage from C. S. Lewis: ‘A wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To see through all things is the same as not to see.’

What ‘certain cleverness’ does Ryckmans have in mind here? Given that these lectures were delivered in the mid-1990s, we ought to read his use of Zhuangzi’s parable as a polemic – however understated – against the various strains of postmodernism then still preeminent in intellectual life. One strain is a practice of critique so caustic and totalising that, in Lewis’s terms, the whole world becomes transparent, and reduced to one or another kind of illusion (power, discourse, etc.). The proposition that we cannot know the world is asserted just as dogmatically as the earlier dogmatisms it helped to dislodge. Another strain is a reverence in the face of difference expressed by Huizi’s objection, ‘You’re not a fish – how do you know what fish enjoy?’ There is an unavoidable echo here of our present balkanised approach to identity, according to which different kinds of people have experiences of the world so varied from one another as to be incommensurable. ‘Being human, how can one know the experience of fish’ becomes ‘belonging to one group, how can one know the experiences of other groups to which one doesn’t belong?’ The attempt to bridge these divides is held to be, at best, naïve liberal humanism, and at worst, violent erasure of the other’s experience. If what we used to call postmodernism has, as a matter of explicitly asserted doctrine, largely faded into history, it lives on as a style or attitude, and one that has spread beyond the confines of academia. In the face of these attitudes, Zhuangzi adopts a plain and robust stance: ‘I know it by standing here beside the Hao.’ This assertion wonderfully reverses the presuppositions of the postmodern stance: occupying a specific position and stance towards the world is not an obstacle to knowledge, but a prerequisite for it. Ryckmans casts Zhuangzi’s ‘knowledge’ of the fishes’ happiness as an act of faith: ‘The saying “to see is to believe” must be reversed: to believe is to see.’ To emphasise the artful bluntness of Zhuangzi’s reply, Leys compares it with Samuel Johnson’s famous rejoinder to Berkeley’s idealism, that is, to kick a large stone.

I want to pause to take note of Ryckmans’s procedure here, because it is typical of an approach he adopts throughout his writing. In his gloss of a passage from a Daoist classic, he invokes a passage from Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and another from C. S. Lewis; the origins of these three texts and the social contexts they represent are very dissimilar, and the comparison is made with such insouciance that one barely notices their incongruity. That is no doubt in part because of the precision with which Ryckmans selects his points of comparison: because his reading was uncommonly wide, in both the Western and Chinese traditions, they are unfailingly apt. More important is the assumption underlying these juxtapositions: ‘As they are all products of our common human nature, it is quite normal that all the great civilisations should cultivate values that are basically similar, but they go about it in different ways and without necessarily attaching to them the same importance.’ This quietly radical insistence on the basic commensurability of human experience across cultures and epochs marks Ryckmans’s whole oeuvre, which abounds in these startling juxtapositions between ancient and modern, ‘east’ and ‘west.’ Likewise, in an annotation to his translation of Confucius’s Analects, he remarks, ‘the concept of civilisation is of such universal and permanent relevance, that we hardly realise that the word itself is of fairly recent coinage, and that, at different times, in different cultures, other words were used in its stead.’ For many scholars then, as now, the phrase ‘our common human nature’ would seem obtuse, even antediluvian. But Ryckmans’s position is not that of the deskbound humanist scholar, serenely hypothesising about ‘human nature’ whilst comfortably ensconced in the heart of Europe. Instead, his perspective is that of a scholar who has spent his adult life immersed in a culture other than his own.

I want to do justice to Ryckmans’s position, and I mean this word in both its sense relating to propositions, and its sense relating to place. Ryckmans came from Europe, wrote about China, and settled in Australia; the specific affordances of each of these places combined in the oeuvre that Ryckmans produced, even if recent accounts of his work have emphasised his Europeanness at the expense of his Australianness. In order to give an account of that position, I will have to recapitulate the stages that have brought us to the point of reflexively distrusting a phrase like ‘our common human nature’ – and it will not surprise us to note that China plays an important role in this story.

The term ‘humanism’ describes the methods and procedures of a class of European scholars whose works constitute a fundamental part of what we still refer to as the Renaissance: the widespread revival of expertise in the classical languages, recovery and dissemination of texts written in those languages, and the development of new tools of textual analysis in the incipient field of philology. Together these would produce the core of a curriculum for that field of study we call the humanities which would last into the twentieth century. But during the twentieth century, ‘humanism’ also came to refer to an ideology or worldview that putatively underlies these techniques, or emerges from them. Renaissance humanism was, in its way, an uncanny moment of cross-cultural encounter: Christian Europe confronting a pagan past that both is and is not its own progenitor. Scholars during the Renaissance found in recovered classical texts an invitation to apprehend humanity not through the subordinating lens of its having been made in the image of God, and therefore only as a path to knowing divinity, but in and for itself. This is only one of the ways in which what we describe as ‘Western culture’ is an acquisitive hybrid, without a single point of origin. ‘Humanism,’ in Edward Said’s words, ‘is the exertion of one’s faculties in language in order to understand, reinterpret, and grapple with the products of language in history, other languages and other histories.’

With the tools of humanism to hand, Europeans would seem to have been ideally primed for the epoch-making encounters with non-European civilisations that would unfold from the fifteenth century onwards. Alas, intellectual curiosity about other cultures’ modes of life, to the extent that it existed, was subordinated to Europeans’ rapacious greed for land, wealth, and Christian converts nearly everywhere. By the eighteenth century, the greatest exception to this state of affairs was China. Stimulated by the stream of information sent westwards by Jesuit missionaries (pursuing, granted, an imperialism of the soul), representatives of Chinese civilisation became the imagined interlocutors of European intellectuals, and Chinese luxury goods began to percolate through European daily life. It has been the tendency in the post-colonial era to regard this Enlightenment fascination with China as, at best, insincere and superficial: so much intellectual chinoiserie. But Jürgen Osterhammel has recently argued that the eighteenth century did in fact witness an authentically cosmopolitan culture, in which the transformative effect of Europe’s encounter with otherness was registered not just in the parlours and studies of the Europe, but also throughout the colonial world. It is important to note that China had not been colonised at this point, allowing it to maintain, in the thought of, say, Montesquieu or Voltaire, the role of opposite civilisational pole to Europe. On this view, a decisive break occurs with the second wave of colonialism in the nineteenth century; not coincidentally, it was this second wave that established European domination over most of Asia, by then regarded in the West as a land of ‘enfeebled, degraded nations,’ in the words of Austrian economist Friedrich von Wieser.

Following the Second World War, the process of decolonisation has brought about an enormous, and still-incomplete, reassessment not only of the effects of colonialism itself but of the intellectual structures and attitudes that undergirded it. Post-colonial thought, in other words, continues to have a transformative effect on disciplines across the humanities and social sciences, in particular on how we do intellectual history. Where Asia is concerned (particularly what used to be known as the near- and middle-east), a decisive intervention came in the form of Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism. In it, Saïd draws on the discursive approach of Michel Foucault to argue not only for the deep imbrication of knowledge production about the east with the project of colonialism (it having been traditional in many quarters to assume the objectivity of that knowledge), but more profoundly that this knowledge was itself only a projection of the European imagination. The discourse that Saïd names ‘orientalism’ is thus ‘a hall of self-reflecting mirrors.’ In Said’s own words, ‘Orientalism is – and does not simply represent – a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with “our” world.’

In the wake of Said’s immensely valuable and long-lasting effect on postcolonial studies, it is easy to forget how carefully circumscribed were his claims in Orientalism. Said was acutely aware that the philosophical outlook on which he drew in framing the concept of orientalism, principally that of Foucault but also of poststructuralism in general, may lead some of his readers to the conclusion that the ‘orient’ as such does not exist: that it is only a discursive construct. But while the humanities have largely hoisted themselves out of the mire of a self-defeating socil constructivism, a lingering epistemological pessimism must be one of Said’s lasting legacies. Accepting the salutary effect of drawing heightened attention to the politics of knowledge production, and in particular knowledge produced by the West about ‘the orient,’ caution and diligence might sometimes shade into the assumption that any such knowledge must be illegitimate or even impossible. We confront a situation in which, in Jürgen Osterhammel’s words, ‘Every utterance made by a European about non-European civilisations then appears as a pure phantasm, valuable for what it reveals about European mentalities but unrelated to any external cultural reality.’

This is the point at which Ryckmans re-enters the story; in 1984, five years after the publication of Orientalism, he was among the Australian sinologists invited by the Asian Studies Association of Australia to discuss the relevance of Said’s arguments to their field. Ryckmans’s response was scathing, perhaps too much so, as he briskly summarises and dispatches Said’s principle arguments. One such summary is this: ‘The notion of an ‘other’ culture is of questionable use, as it seems to end inevitably in self-congratulation, or hostility and aggression.’ Ryckmans replies:

Why could it not equally end in admiration, wonderment, increased self-knowledge, relativisation and readjustment of one’s own values, awareness of the limits of one’s own civilisation?… there was never a more powerful antidote to the temptation of Western ethnocentrism than the study of Chinese civilisation.

Granted, Ryckmans and Said are talking past one another to an extent: it is obscure to what extent Said’s concept of orientalism should apply to sinology. What is clear, however, is that many of those who have taken up Said’s ideas since have discarded his scruples on this question. As for Ryckmans’s palpable disdain, recall that his early polemical enemies had been precisely a band of Europeans who had projected onto China a fantasy image: the Western Maoists of the 1960s and 70s. To be accused, however implicitly, of a similar folly might have been enraging. There is another irony to note here: earlier in this essay, I quoted Said himself on the definition of humanism; it was one of the preoccupations of his later intellectual life to defend the humanist tradition, explicitly pushing back against some of the tendencies in criticism that drew on his earlier work. He writes: ‘For a reader of texts to move immediately… from a quick, superficial reading into general or even concrete statements about vast structures of power… is to abandon the abiding basis for all humanistic practice.’

These movements in intellectual history make up the deep background of Ryckmans’s remarks in The View from the Bridge, and the basic questions they raise are with us still. The path forward that he offers runs by way of his own origins as a writer. The ‘Leys’ in Simon Leys was borrowed from the novel René Leys (1922), by the French poet and ethnographer Victor Segalen, in which the titular Belgian teenager, living in Beijing, traffics in gossip from inside the Forbidden City (the analogy with Ryckmans’s reportage on the Cultural Revolution is clear). In the final of his Boyer lectures, Ryckmans invokes Segalen’s Essai sur l’exotisme to make the following point: ‘For societies as well as for individuals, coming to terms with ‘otherness’ is a prerequisite for self-knowledge and for growth; it is a spiritual adventure which requires strength and courage.’ Ryckmans aligns himself with Segalen’s effort to revive the term ‘exoticism,’ discredited even by the early twentieth century, as a name for the kinds of knowledge that extend the self:

Exotic knowledge… is the knowledge of all that is distinct from the self. Exotic power is the power of conceiving otherness – the power to see differently… Exoticism… is not the perfect comprehension of what is distinct from ourselves; it is an acute and immediate perception of its permanent incomprehensibility. Let us not pretend that we can assimilate customs, races, nations – the others; on the contrary, let us rejoice in our inability ever to achieve such an assimilation: this very inability is a guarantee that we shall continue to enjoy diversity forever.

The two halves of this thought are not as contradictory as they might first appear. An adequate knowledge of the other is possible, if difficult and arduous to acquire, and what it offers is not mastery of the other, but a heightened awareness of the limits of our knowledge: an appreciation of sameness that does not obliterate difference. How do we know what fish enjoy? We know it by standing beside the Hao.

This is an edited version of an essay that will appear in the forthcoming collection Antipodean China, edited by Nicholas Jose and Benjamin Madden.

Works Cited

Boswell, James. Life of Johnson. London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Confucius, Simon Leys, and Michael Nylan. The Analects: The Simon Leys Translation [with] Interpretations. 2014.

Leys, Simon. The Hall of Uselessness. Collingwood: Black Inc, 2011.

Osterhammel, Jürgen, and Robert Savage. Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Ryckmans, Pierre. The View from the Bridge: Aspects of Culture. Sydney: Published by ABC Books for the Australian Broadcasting Corp., 1996.

Said, Edward W. Humanism and Democratic Criticism. Columbia Themes in Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. London: Penguin, 2003.

Watson, Burton, trans. The Complete Works of Zhuangzi. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.