Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Monday, August 1, 2011

Notes on Liu Xie

I seek here only to draw attention to the extraordinary 5th century work of Chinese literary theory by Liu Hsieh (Liu Xie), The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons. The book is available in translation by Vincent Yu-chang Shih (along with the original text). A more recent version by Yang Guobin using the same title is doubtless more accurate. I had not seen it when I first studied Liu and came upon it only in the final stage of writing these notes. I hope I do not confuse readers by my use of the now accepted pinyin form of Chinese words while also quoting from Shih’s book which uses Wade-Giles.

Though its most recent translator Yang Guobin says The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons has “attracted . . . unprecedented interest in the recent decades,” its reputation among Sinologists has not brought non-specialists even the barest acquaintance with its ideas. Rather like the medieval rhetorics of Matthew of Vendome, Geoffrey of Vinsauf, and John of Garland, Liu systematized a theory of literature revering antiquity yet allowing for innovation. He surveyed the nature of literature itself as well as the conventions of his tradition, its genres and figures and the place of the canonized classics.

His work to some extent reflects ideas similar to those familiar in Europe: the distinction between content and form, for instance, suggested by the title, and the Horatian formula of “teach and delight.” His comments on the emotional core of lyric, on style as a mirror of the individual, and on the organic form of a work of art will also sound familiar to Westerners.

Further, Liu agrees with his medieval European counterparts in his understanding of how convention as a dynamic and flexible code facilitates signification, allowing the unique density of meaning in literary discourse. Just as all language depends upon a considerable common base in order to communicate at all and yet allows every utterance to be unique, poetry requires an audience competent in its specific system of convention. For Liu, Lao Zi and Confucius (as well as the “classics” associated with Confucius’ name) provide the base of the literary code, a position similar to that of the Greek and Latin classics in the European literary tradition. Liu’s reverence for these texts is such that he declares that he would write poetry were it not that he could not hope to improve upon the great works of antiquity. In his final chapter (I use Yang’s translation again here) he criticizes contemporary writers, saying, “We are now far removed from the time of the sages, and the ways of writing have degenerated. Writers of rhyme-prose love the exotic and like to use shocking and frivolous language. . . .They deviate ever more from the norm and head towards fallacy and excess.” For him the classics are “the starting point” for any poet. (25)

Yet Liu clearly recognizes the role of innovation. For him, while genre is set, “the very essence of style” is its “adaptability to new modes and cadences,” adding that “only by observing this truth can a writer gallop on a road that does not end in an impasse, or drink out of a spring which is inexhaustible.” (232) Just as Geoffrey of Vinsauf wrote of Poetria Nova, saying that literature must constantly rejuvenate itself, Liu says literature “renews itself from day to day.” (236) His 45th chapter surveys Chinese history indicating how the work of every era reflected the historical conditions as “the process of transformation circles endlessly.” (344)

Liu can perhaps point out a new solution to the problem of language’s mimesis. He explicitly denies the adequacy of language yet avoids the opprobrium of Plato’s “imitation of an imitation.” His chapter on Imagination (shensi) recalls Longinus yet cautions “The subtle meanings beyond our thought and the profound inner workings of the heart inexpressible in words are not to be reached with language; here one should know enough to halt his brush.” (220) And, even more clearly, “words do not completely express ideas; it is difficult even for the Sage to find it otherwise. If one’s knowledge is by nature limited to the capacity of a jar or tube, how can he be expected to offer all the general principles?” (6) Finally, in his postscript (omitted from Shih’s version) he notes “Language cannot exhaust meaning.”
This limitation is, however, illusory because, as his first chapter makes clear, for Liu literature reflects the Dao. A successful work, one which is “true” will necessarily arise from this universal principle. The legendary figures who established literature “drew their literary embellishments from the mind of Tao.” (12)

This entails a profound realism and a dedication to truth. The word wen refers to literature as in the book’s title, but also to patterns of any sort. Beasts have patterns in fur or feathers, heavenly bodies in their revolutions, and humankind, too has patterns in mind which may be made concrete in poetry. Indeed, none of the other patterns that indicate the beauty of the cosmos could be perceived without mind, and humans uniquely possess mind. Just as all natural phenomena have characteristic patterns, man, as a signifying animal, creates symbolic patterns in art such as literature generated by his own nature. In this way even poems which fail to perfectly represent reality, precisely and accurately represent human nature and thus arise from the Dao. As the book’s opening words declare, wen is as old as creation.

The parallelism so characteristic of Chinese poetry, far from being ornamental, as it often seems in Cicero, reproduces for Liu the creative dialectic most familiar as yang/yin. According to Liu just as “nature, creating living beings, endows them with limbs in pairs” the mind, creating literary language “organizes and shapes one hundred different thoughts, making what is high supplement what is low, and spontaneously producing linguistic parallelism.” (270) Thus for him what might seem an artificial literary convention is instead altogether natural.

He does not distinguish between poetry and philosophy, saying that “words with pattern indeed express the mind of the universe. The sage is the poet, and poetry, no less than plants and animals, is among the “natural, organic expressions of the divine.” (10)

1 comment:

  1. Love it! I read the Chinese one.
    the questionable part that language is a bridge or tool, it only gets reader to a location or fashion a jar, but viewing the landscape or pour wine into the new container is readers' job.
    So “Language cannot exhaust meaning.” and literature reflects the Dao are not in conflict.
    another exp. Everyone reads Bible, but not everyone understands God's word. Everyone writes, but not everyone can compose real poem. A poet can skip grammar check, but an editor's well thought essay often bores me:D