When the French Left Fell Out of Love with Maoism

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The Sideways Gaze: Roland Barthes’s Travels In China
Dora Zhang
Los Angeles Review of Books
June 23, 2012

I am an unabashed fanboy of the Los Angeles Review of Books, for several reasons. First, the publication was pulled together by a group of literary critics that had been marginalized since Tribune & Company all but disowned serious coverage of the arts in the Los Angeles Times. The very existence of LARB is a thumb in the eye of both the Times and the local alternative press. Perhaps more important, it stands as testament that the vibrancy of culture in California does not depend on the support of mainstream media: the Golden State has become a center of the arts and literature to rival New York and Paris nearly ex nihilio.

The third reason I am such a fan is that LARB under co-founder and publisher Tom Lutz chose Megan Shank as Asia Co-Editor. That Lutz was motivated to give Asia such a profile in the publication spoke volumes both about the publication and the comparative short-shrift the region is given among other mainstream publications. That he chose Shank, who spent six years living in and covering China, speaks volumes about how serious he wants that effort to be.

A great example of the fruit of that effort is Dora Zhang’s excellent review of Roland Barthes’ Travels in China. Zhang offers more than an essay extolling the book’s virtues and vices. What she offers instead is a chronicle of how in the wake of a 1974 trip to China, the elite of the French left fell out of love with Maoist China.

In the process, she holds up a mirror to those of us who, at some point in our lives, believed with perhaps a tad too much credulity that China represented the birth of a new world order. We may sneer at the gullibility of those French Maoists of the 1960s and 1970s, but what of we pale-faced Dengists of the 1990s and 2000s? Did some of us not believe that China would grow rich and strong and change the world, even for the better? Do some of us yet bristle and lash out at those who criticize the Middle Kingdom? And why do we do so?

Even at its most inscrutable moment in modern history as the Cultural Revolution reached its final crescendo in the mid 1970s, China beguiled outsiders. Zhao focuses on Barthes not because he was the least beguiled, but because his disenchantment was incited by small things that with others might have been dismissed or unnoticed. Try as he might, Barthes could never “connect” with China on his terms. I come away from Zhao’s review wondering if each of us, in our own time, will find ourselves disconnected from China, and thence disenchanted.

What then?

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