Sunday, March 13, 2016

Description of the World - Part 60

John S. Robsenow, A Chinese-English Dictionary of Enigmatic Folk Similes (Xieyouyu) (Although it would be hard to devise an excuse for buying this book, especially since it was rather expensive; but few volumes in my library have given me more pleasure. I ran across it in the textbook section of the San Francisco State bookstore where I was supposedly seeing what math texts were on order—I edited math books in those days. The sheer perversity of acquiring a big collection of Chinese folklore probably appealed to me. Or perhaps it was the frontispiece that lured me in, a drawing of a Chinese sage fishing with a barbless, unbaited hook. The picture illustrated the saying “Jiang Tai Gong going fishing—whoever gets hooked does so of his own free will.” That line could serve as an epigraph for inanis et vacua since it perfectly encapsulates my approach to literary self promotion. Many of the similes are drawn from Chinese history or timeless agrarian situations (“killing a rabbit while cutting grass—incidentally”), but there are references to anti-aircraft guns, Mao, and even Elizabeth Taylor, who the Chinese apparently regarded as an overstuffed frump. What I call objective delirium, the shared cultural detritus of a society, is like the unconscious. It is indifferent to contradiction and innocent of chronology. Robsenow’s book was probably used in classes on advanced Chinese. You are hardly fully fluent in a language if you simply understand its grammar and lexicon. That’s perhaps especially true in China. It may not be a case of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, but a great deal goes over your head if you don’t catch allusions. The one drawback of the book is the difficulty of looking anything up in it. I’ve been using one simile for years now but can’t find where I saw it and wonder if I’m quoting it right. “Throwing boiling water on your lice: it won’t kill ‘em but it will scald ‘em.”)

Literary Debate: Texts and Contexts—Postwar French Thought Volume II, ed Denis Hollier and Jeffrey Mehlman (My reading of this very rich anthology has been regrettably selective. I mostly just picked out a few favorite authors—Ponge, Bachelard, Serres—but I did reread Sartre’s writing on political commitment fairly recently and was surprised to find it so cogent. I came into the theater just as Sartre was being hustled out, but perhaps he’s becoming relevant again. Of course he wrote a great many absurd things, but to recognize that is not to set him apart from the rest of us. It’s like discovering that some politician or artist you like behaved badly in a sexual way as if human sexual behavior weren’t generally deplorable.)

Fernand Braudel, The Identity of France: Volume One: History and Environment (I’m a reader of the late works of famous authors, the books everybody ignores—Ovid’s Fasti, the last five cantos or Orlando Furioso, the Cantos on Mutability of Spencer, Hegel’s Larger Logic, the Mythologiques of Levi-Strauss. It’s probably my way of protesting against mortality as it also was for some of the authors. The old guys have to stick together. Braudel has a different take. In at writing at last about his home country, he celebrates a homecoming. “I have saved my white bread until last: there is still some left for my old age.” I don’t know if there is anything in this work that is novel from a historiographical point of view, but looking at France geographically makes sense of much of its history—I certainly wish that other historians would begin their syntheses with a deep description of the landscape of the events they will narrate and explain. Anyhow, I love the idea of pays, i.e., the distinct nooks and crannies of a country.)

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