Literary Personalities in Search of A Story: Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain
FIn his The Failure of Criticism, Boston University Professor Eugene Goodheart bemoans the fact that “humanist criticism” is threatened in spirit by the advances of modernism. “What now passes for criticism is what I would call a mimetic criticism, which . . . has become a nonresistant imitation of modern art.” (p.16) Goodheart’s critical stand against modernism helps contextualize Gao Xingjian’s work, which is arguably a masterpiece of Chinese avant-gardism. The only political consideration for which the Nobel committee selected this work would be because, if I could presume, “Humanism in a totalitarian society embodies the values of imagination, decency, and justice. If it cannot express those values directly because of censorship, it implies those values through the obliquity of fantasy. …Solzhenitsyn’s art is a counter-didacticism to the didacticism of the regime, distinguished only by its devotion to the truth.”
How do we assess the power of a literary work written to show the powerlessness of art? To what extent can Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain be understood as a form of political radicalism directed against the realities of post-socialist China? In more ways than one, the work disappoints those who view literature as a vehicle for social change, in ways Eugene Goodheart reflects on the works by two groups of Western, mainly European authors, driven by the tension between the Protestant-inspired humanist tradition of Carlyle, Arnold, and D.H. Lawrence, and the decadent art of literary modernism represented by such Catholic writers as Joyce and T.S. Eliot. I find this dialectic useful in understanding Soul Mountain as a work of modernism that at times parodies the moral authority of literature. If anything, Gao Xingjian’s work conveys to the reader the futility of romance and idealism by way of literary character or persona whose search for meaning in life ends as illusion or self-deception.
The reality of disillusionment is one of the characteristics of all formalist avant-garde. Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain has been viewed as an intellectual reaction to social progress (industrialization and urbanization) as defined by the Chinese government. By rejecting literary realism which has been China’s official discourse on reality, and by adopting the aesthetics of Western modernism, Gao also accepts the powerlessness of literature to shape social change and diminishes the moral authority of criticism. The fictional fragments or episodes parody conventional forms of storytelling, social thought, or even science. The work, similar to those by Joyce and Eliot, tends to subvert ways in which meaning is normally constructed in a literary text through characters and plots. It achieves for Chinese literary writers the autonomy of aesthetic values. This moment comes when the reader realizes that the novel has no plot (mythos) or real character (ethos). Structurally speaking, the work is a process in which the nameless characters “I”, “you”, “she” and “he” search in vain for a story to which they can relate. Their identity is no more meaningful than pronouns without a context. The pronouns are probably the most primitive forms of human consciousness before it evolves into individual self-awareness, gender and cultural identities. The pronouns in Soul Mountain often collapse into one another to prevent or diminish distinctions, individual features, or personalities; they are but makeshift references or fictional spaces into which we deposit an identity. They signify nothing specific and remain recalcitrant to humanist criticism because, as Goodheart points out, “One of the conditions of humanist criticism is the implicit conviction that the critical act shapes as well as perceives its object. In order to have such conviction, criticism must be inspired by an order of value immanent, if not actual, in the world.” (p.51)
Soul Mountain gives the reader the essence of what Gao Xingjian refers to as “cold literature”. Gao Xingjian’s pronouns are truly what Roland Barthes would call “paper-beings” who would not develop into full-fledged characters such as Hamlet or Quixote with real passions and burning desires. They are mere literary devices or hallow spaces for stories the reader cares to extrapolate, because the narrator-author refuses to offer one as he constantly mocks and sabotages his own authority as a storyteller. In the first excerpt, the narrator, who appears as “I,” is engaged in a conversation with his one-time girl friend who tries to negotiate their relation by telling him a story of her past. It constitutes a moment in Chinese fiction in which the characters are just like those in Thomas Mann’s novel, who are, according to J.P.Stern, “connoisseurs of fiction too. The complicity, the close relation that we sense between the author and his characters, extends through all the working of the action, to the point where it sometimes seems that the characters have read the novel in which they exist; certainly there is a sense in which we feel that, in the process of its making, they have amended it.” (Modernism p.397).
In the second excerpt, we are led to understand the process that produces fiction rather than the story itself, when the “I” character confesses to the death of fiction.
You know that I am just talking to myself to alleviate my loneliness. You know that this loneliness of mine is incurable, that no-one can save me, and that I can only talk with myself as the partner of my conversation. In this lengthy soliloquy you are the object of what I relate, a myself who listens intensely to me, you are simply my shadow. As I listen to myself and you, I let you create a she, because you are like me and also cannot bear the loneliness and have to find a partner for your conversation. So you talk with her, just like I talk with you. She was born of you, yet is an affirmation of myself. You who are the partner of my conversation transform my experiences and imagination into your relationship with her, and it is impossible to disentangle imagination from experience.
Here we clearly see Gao Xingjian ignore the incommensurability between novelist and character. This confession to the difficulty of artistic creation, while itself the voice of a literary persona, debunks the literary characters with whom we as readers eagerly identify in the likes of Hamlet and Don Quixote. Literary creation no longer creates suspense; instead of inventing the human, it divests the literary character of his charm and purposefulness.
In the third excerpt, the exercise of self-deconstruction continues and “he” as a critic questions the very form of fiction in which he lives, in a soliloquy he has a dialog with himself:
But surely the I, you, she and he in the book are characters?” he asks. “They are just different pronouns to change the point of view of the narrative. This can’t replace the portrayal of characters. These pronouns of yours, even if they are characters, don’t have clear images they are hardly described at all”. … The critic is cowed and snarls, “This is modernist, it’s imitating the West but falling short.” He says then it’s Eastern. “Yours is much worse than Eastern! You’ve slapped together travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of your own invention, and are calling it fiction!”
Here, the author and his literary persona collapse together the way the background and foreground collapse together in Picasso’s abstract paintings, making the reader painfully self-conscious as playing a role in fiction, as painful as Hamlet’s self-awareness of his role in the fiction of avenging the murder of his father. Reading Gao Xingjian’s text is like in a studio watching an artist work on an unfinished project for no particular audience. What stands out in Gao’s novel is the autonomy of aesthetic values in which he tries to resist literary representations of reality.
Alternating between these generic pronouns, the narrator is able to appear both as the observing subject and the observed object. Often he removes quotation marks, blurring the lines between differing presentations of consciousness. Gao fragments his narrative and chops up his story into small blocks of time, into which he pours his own experience and aesthetic perceptions, sort of like Proust interested less in the story than in his unedited transcription of consciousness. He experiments with psychological time and narrative points of view, deliberately removing borders and boundaries between, say, (1) psycho-narration: the narrator’s discourse about a character’s consciousness; (2) quoted monologue: a character’s mental discourse; and (3) narrated monologue: a character’s mental discourse in the guise of the narrator’s discourse. (Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction by Dorrit Cohn,1978) All these efforts to revolt against conventional narrative techniques and syntax impede literary function of catharsis, disallowing us to purge our “pity and fear” through literary personae. Erich Kahler, the author of The Inward Turn of Narrative (1973), argues that the gradual loss of contact with the natural world of the common sense experience [is] observable in all of the greatest products of the modern artistic sensibility. Soul Mountain has little to do with travels in a tempo-spatial sense; it is a journey into the unconscious.
Soul Mountain thus might be viewed as blasphemy like Goodheart understands the works of Joyce. Decadent or even nihilistic, Gao’s novel is definitely a revolt against the convention of Chinese literary realism that has been the privileged mode of representation. The realists who have had great success reinventing and negotiating cultural identity in their works now see that national Self disintegrate and collapse in Gao’s text, which brings the reader one-step closer to a mode of literary knowledge in which the reality of Chinese modernity may prove to be an illusion. The pronouns represent, among other things, man’s inability to find a credible plot or meaningful role for himself. Their respective solipsism is an expression of the incommunicability between people living in post-socialist China. The book is an inward journey to the peculiar features and conditions for socialist beliefs, represented by a hero that disintegrates into different literary personalities and pronouns. If literary characters such as Hamlet help invent the human as Harold Bloom argues, then the pronouns of Gao Xingjian can be said to deconstruct the myth of the human as a moral being, who is but a modern day Sisyphus to achieve meaning.
(1) The affair started with the fashion show models. She wants you to listen to her, no, she says he said if she went onto the catwalk wearing the dark blue cotton dress she’d outdo these models. She said she knew she wasn’t voluptuous. However he said models didn’t need to have big breasts, only long legs and curves, and that she had a slender figure, especially when she was wearing that dark blue dress. She says she really liked wearing the dress to work as she had made herself, but whenever she wore it he would always eye her up and down. One day when she came out after changing, he looked at her in that way and invited her to have dinner with him. <… You said she actually doesn’t love anyone. <She says she only loves her son. <You say she only loves herself. <Maybe, maybe not. She says afterwords she left and wouldn’t see him on her own again. <But she still did? <Yes. <And again at his place? <She says she wanted to talk to him to clarify things— <You say it’s hard clarifying this by talking about it. <Yes, no. She says she hated him and hated herself. <And once again there was a bout of wantonness? <Stop talking! She was angry, she didn’t know why she wanted to talk about it, she just wanted it all to end quickly. <You ask how could it end? <She says she doesn’t know. (Ch. 40)
(2) You know that I am just talking to myself to alleviate my loneliness. You know that this loneliness of mine is incurable, that no-one can save me and that I can only talk with myself as the partner of my conversation. In this lengthy soliloquy you are the object of what I relate, a myself who listens intensely to me, you are simply my shadow. As I listen to myself and you, I let you create a she, because you are like me and also cannot bear the loneliness and have to find a partner for your conversation. So you talk with her, just like I talk with you. She was born of you, yet is an affirmation of myself. You who are the partner of my conversation transform my experiences and imagination into your relationship with her, and it is impossible to disentangle imagination from experience. (Ch. 52)
(3) But surely the I, you, she and he in the book are characters?” he asks. “They are just different pronouns to change the point of view of the narrative. This can’t replace the portrayal of characters. These pronouns of yours, even if they are characters, don’t have clear images they are hardly described at all”. … The critic is cowed and snarls, “This is modernist, it’s imitating the West but falling short.” He says then it’s Eastern. “Yours is much worse than Eastern! You’ve slapped together travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jotings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of your own invention, and are calling it fiction!” (Ch. 72)
(4) Nevertheless he is intrigued with using language to talk about women about men about love about sex about life about death about ecstasy and agony of the soul and flesh about people’s solicitousness for people and politics about people evading politics about the inability to evade reality about unreal imagination about what it is more real about the denial of utilitarian goals is not the same as an affirmation of it about the illogicality of logic about rational reflection greatly surpassing science in the dispute between content and form about meaningful images and meaningless content about the definition of meaning about everyone wanting to be god about the worship of idols by atheists about self worship being dubbed philosophy about self love about indifference to sex transforming into megalomania about schizophrenia about sitting in Chan contemplation about sitting not in Chan contemplation about meditation about the Way of nurturing the body is not the Way about effability or ineffability but the absolute necessary for the effability of the Way about fashion about revolt against vulgarity is a mighty smash with a racquet about a fatal blow with a club and Buddhist enlightenment about children must not be taught about those who teach first being taught about drinking a bellyful of ink about going black from being close to ink about what is bad about being black about good people about bad people about bad people are not people about humans by nature are more ferocious than wolves about the most wicked are other people and Hell in fact is in one’s own mind about bringing anxieties upon oneself about Nirvana about completion about completion is nothing completed about what is right about what is wrong about the creation of grammatical structures about not yet saying something is not the same as not saying anything about talk is unless in functional discourses about no-one is the winner in battles between men and women about moving pieces backwards and forwards in a game of chess curbs the emotions which are the basis of human nature about human beings need to eat about starving to death is a trifling affair whereas loss of integrity is a major event but that it is impossible to arbitrate this as truth about the fallibility of experience which is only a crunch about falling if one has to fall about revolutionary fiction which smashes superstitious belief in literature about a revolution in fiction about revolutionizing fiction. (Ch. 72)