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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Decoding the Mo Yan Fuss

Chinatown, San Francisco
Watching the Ship Traffic
2108 hrs.

The war of words that has erupted over Mo Yan‘s receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature has been earnest and vituperative, and a fair amount of the critique has been framed so eloquently (like this excellent essay in the Kenyon Review by Anna Sun) that the casual reader might suspect that the Nobel committee suffered from its linguistic remove. Yet after reading Brendan O’Kane’s rather more balanced take on the controversy, the suspicion grows something more than literary opprobrium hides behind some of the more passionate writing on both sides.

Having failed to determine the question either way based on the arguments offered, I strolled from my hotel to the City Lights bookstore in North Beach and picked up a paperback of Mo’s Republic of Wine. After I get through Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years, I’ll pick up Mo and let you know my take.

 

Hunter is Laughing Somewhere Tonight

Hunter S. Thompson, Miami Book Fair Internatio...

Hunter S. Thompson, Miami, 1988 (Image via Wikipedia}}

Book Review: Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone – WSJ.com.

In what has to be one of the most enjoyable book reviews I have ever read – and without question the best book review I have ever read in The Wall Street JournalMatt Labash explains why Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone deserves a spot on the bookshelf of anyone who appreciates new journalism.

Labash is no fanboy. He, too, shakes his head at the self-caricature that Thompson became not long after Ronald Reagan took office, when his antics and legend outshone his writing. But Labash reminds us that underneath all that was a man who, from about 1965 to 1980, was one of the best writers in America.

Thompson was a musician in prose, his words his rhythm section. He was Buddy Rich and Tito Puente and John Bonham rolled into one. His paragraphs kept perfect time—never laying a false beat. He often wrote to music, which he called “fuel.” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was written entirely to a live version of the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil.” Thompson felt writing should resemble a great song, that, like music, it should move people through the ear. Frequently, he would have guests at his Woody Creek, Colo., compound read passages aloud, telling them to slow down and just how to punch the emphasis, as he enjoyed the sound of his sentences hitting like blunt rocks. As a young writer, he’d gone so far as to re-type the works of Dos Passos and Fitzgerald, just to feel their cadences vibrate through his fingers.

I won’t take a stance either way. I’m biased, as Thompson more than any other writer inspired me to write.

Before I go and put the book in my Amazon shopping cart (for delivery when I make it back to my own writer’s retreat in December), though, I cannot help but imagine The Good Doctor’s mirth if he could only read the plaudits written about his Rolling Stone writing in the Wall Street Journal of all places.

Selah.

Editorial: Letters Ex Manhattan

One of the great blessings of American literature is that, unlike that of many less diverse nations and cultures, ours benefits from the inspiration offered in the geographic diversity of the land. It is sad, therefore, that so many intelligent champions of American letters would prefer that we have but a single literary Mecca. A nation can only have one intellectual capital. As France has Paris, so must America have New York. To defend such a proposition, and perhaps to justify living in a city that is as likely to brutalize an author as it is to celebrate him or her, some of New York’s most ardent boosters go to great pains to make the case that for the writer or the book-minded, there is no place to be but New York City.

In an article entitled “City Lights,” writer and biographer Stefan Kanfer offers us a notable example of such Metropolitan hyperbole. To support his point, he gives endless examples of writers from Washington Irving to Jonathan Franzen who have made New York their home.

Kanfer is most loquacious when answering the infidel literati who rejected the Big Apple:

Ernest Hemingway found the literary city repulsive; in Green Hills of Africa, he called New York writers “angleworms in a bottle.” And H. L. Mencken demanded, “Have you ever noticed that no American writer of any consequence lives in Manhattan? Dreiser tried it (after many years in the Bronx), but finally fled to California.”

Mencken, notorious for his contrarian screeds, was wrong. So was Hemingway. In addition to Singer, five recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature have found New York’s attractions too powerful to resist: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, and Toni Morrison. Philip Roth and John Updike took apartments there; Norman Mailer never left town. Along the way, The New Yorker stopped being quite so closed and began to publish the likes of J. D. Salinger, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alice Munro, and Vladimir Nabokov.

Indeed.

This is exactly the kind of defensive self-justification cum effusive self-congratulation for which New York must own the patent given its frequent use by the city’s fanboyim. A steady flow of this tiresome spew has poured from the pens, typewriters, and laptops of Gotham for over a century, and the sole effect outside of New Amsterdam’s legion of besotted admirers has been a roll of the eyes and a turn of the page.

I submit that there are far simpler and less mystical reasons for New York’s role as a literary gravity-well than Mr. Kanfer’s pean would seem to suggest. Those include:

  • New York is where the publishers are, and most writers find it convenient to be near the largest critical mass of markets for their work, whether they want to be there or not. One of Kanfer’s Nobel Laureates, Toni Morrison, came to New York to be an editor in a publishing house, not because of some mystic magnet.
  • Writing is a lonely profession, and the proximity of a sympathetic support group of peers, both more and less talented, is a comfort to all, especially the struggling and the poseurs, (the latter whom find it much easier to justify their unpublished status to their loved ones and themselves because at least they are in the center of the action.)
  • New York is home to an overlarge community of grossly wealthy idle and nouveau riche, especially from among the financial community, who patronize the belles letters as a means of embellishing their unearned or under earned lucre with a patina of culture.
  • Writers are celebrated, tolerated, and venerated in New York like nowhere else on the planet. Such ego infusions are heady, addictive stuff.

Hardly the stuff of impassioned tributes, I know, but without doubt more reflective of some basic truths that reflect the uglier side of the vocation of letters.

As for me, I side with Mencken, Hemingway, Drieser, Hunter Thompson, Raymond Chandler, and all of the others who had the fortitude and dignity to ply their craft far from the shores of the Hudson. How much greater the triumph of a writer laboring without the support of editors, agents, patrons, and fellows in close proximity.

And, for the record, New York has no especial claim on Nobel Laureates in Literature: Steinbeck did his best work in California, Lewis in Washington, DC, Bellow in the Midwest and Boston; Hemingway, Pearl Buck and Joseph Brodsky avoided the place.

The truth is, America is blessed to have a geographically diverse literary tradition, so much so that one could almost make a lifetime study of the literature of New England (less New York City), of the South, of the West, and California.

Dismount your horses, Tribunes of Gotham. You are all wonderful and do great work. To pretend that literature begins and ends in your precincts does an injustice to literature and an injustice to New York.