- In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics
A book praising "blandness"—which is the translator's English word for the French fadeur, which is the author's translation of the Chinese dan!—and a book that is at once fascinating and "repellent" (to use the translator's description of his tortuous search for an equivalent of fadeur and dan), In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics by François Jullien is a "globalizing" philosophical essay bent on stopping readers in their tracks at every twist and turn of the text. Is it worth the trouble? I shall venture a response in this review.
More than once while reading this book, I was reminded of Plato's Sophist, where the difficulty in locating the sophist is described in such intricate detail. First he is here, but then he is over there; on the other hand, he could be hiding near by— but wait, maybe he has disappeared. So it is also with blandness. And perhaps it should be so, because once you have located the bland, it ceases to be bland and turns into something else. To take a fix on blandness Jullien throws it against a number of traits, qualities, experiences, and events: strength, music, sounds, signs, landscapes, painting, tastes, literature, ideology, margins and centers, and, finally, the fact that "transcendence is natural." At the same time, the author weaves these contrasts and comparisons through the history of Chinese culture, especially in the evolution of its painting and poetry. [End Page 484]
Foremost among the qualities associated with blandness is inner detachment. What come immediately to mind are Daoism, Chan Buddhism, and aspects of Confucian teaching. Jullien has already given us a splendid treatise in his The Propensities of Things, and in some ways this volume rings many changes on that study of Chinese culture. But there is more to blandness than causal efficacy. It also suggests openness and a mood of friendliness toward the other, the different, and all things strange. Further, blandness is similar to harmony in the sense that it does not insist on its own presence. Rather, it constantly blends together opposites through its own power.
It is power and its expression that is at the heart of the author's project. He attempts over and over again to show how the seemingly weak is actually the strong, that the far away is really close to hand, that emptiness is charged with spontaneous creative energy. Thus, what lingers is not yet finished expressing itself. And the translator tells us that a gustatory sense is the primary base of fadeur, dan, and blandness. The body is the region within which the bland can have its most powerful effect. Think of Chinese medicine, where "the web that has no weaver" (the title of Ted Kaptchuk's brilliant book) is the object of the physician's art. Or consider the power of water to yield and then conquer all. Or remember the Mahāyāna Buddhist's invocation of śūnyatā as the source of healing and renewal. Or recall the many times that Confucius advises silence rather than words. All these moments are akin to what Jullien calls "blandness."
One way to grasp the insight into Chinese culture that Jullien is struggling with is to express it by way of Neoplatonism and Spinoza. What is often forgotten in expositions of these formidable philosophies is the way in which they use a novel doctrine of causality to bind together different realms of beings. For Plotinus and Spinoza the cause never really leaves the effect but remains there, hidden but effective. It is through this lingering presence that transcendence and immanence, body and soul, and God and the World remain conjoined. The image of the ladder so frequently found in these texts must be understood to run in both directions—up and down. So also, blandness is a dao that opens up experience to further depths and heights.
Jullien's major concern is aesthetics...