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  • Aesthetics, Dialectics, and Desire in Yang Mo's Song of Youth
  • Peter Button

No doubt, one of the numerous difficulties that remain in our account of the socialist realist literary canon in China lies in our uneasy relationship to its theoretical mentor, dialectical materialism. At worst, references to dialectical materialism are unintended chilling reminders of the totalitarian system of literary and artistic control to which the socialist realist novel pays morally (and aesthetically) defeated, craven homage. But even those mildly sympathetic to Chinese leftist literary and artistic production have been taught to regard dialectical materialism as both politically suspect and philosophically empty.1

I propose a reading of the canonical socialist realist novel Song of Youth (Qingchu zhi ge), first published in 1958. Illustrating my conjecture that the novel really does concern itself with what it claims are issues of philosophical and aesthetic substance, Song of Youth offers us an intelligent, passionate, young woman whose love of country is as strong as her commitment to the [End Page 193] truth embodied in the law of "the negation of the negation." I ask what we might learn from the novel if we take more seriously such queries as the following posed by the novel's heroine, Lin Daojing:

"Xu Ning, do tell me: Are metaphysics and formal logic the same thing?"

"Since the three principles of the dialectic can be applied in every situation, then how do we explain the negation of the negation?"

"Why hasn't the Soviet Union started a communist society yet? What will China be like under communism?"

" . . . ."

These were some of the questions to which she sought an answer.2

Having plowed fearlessly, if somewhat uncomprehendingly, through Engel's Anti-Dühring and Marx's Poverty of Philosophy, such questions swarm in Lin Daojing's head. They challenge her to transform dialectically her relation to the world, refashioning herself as she remolds that world. The novel itself will offer no answer to these weighty matters. What it does give readers is a compelling portrait of the powerful effects that the desire to understand such questions can arouse in a young woman who is both frightened and disgusted with a world that at every turn seems hell-bent on her spiritual destruction. Such questions and the conviction that they are answerable through a fully self-conscious engagement both with the world and with a series of theoretically advanced (anti-)philosophical works,3 serves as the wellspring for what one might term the revolutionary equivalent of religious faith.4 In practical terms, taking seriously Chinese Marxist aesthetics would mean that we pay attention to exchanges such as the following in order to ask ourselves whose political slogans really are empty-those of the heroine, Lin Daojing, or those of her soon-to-be-ex lover, Yu Yongze.

"I think [the political situation] is beyond us, Daojing. What can palefaced scholars with bare hands accomplish? . . . Of course, it is easy enough to shout empty slogans! . . . We have a home, we'd better keep out of harm's way . . . "

"How can you be such a fool?" She cut him short vehemently. "You're the one shouting empty slogans! I never thought you would turn out to be such a coward!"5 [End Page 194]

The novel's wager is obviously stacked against Yu Yongze, whose allegiance to the Nationalist Party, simple nationalism, and bourgeois scholar Hu Shi is a clear measure of Yu's ideological befuddlement/corruption. But if, when we read the novel, we see in it only a series of positions existing in isolated indifferent opposition to one another-Yu's slogans/Lin's slogans, Kuomintang (KMT)/Chinese Communist Party (CCP), fascism/communism, positivity/negativity, etc.-we have failed to regard the work dialectically, in the manner that its mentor, dialectical materialism, asks of us. Song of Youth calls upon us to identify Lin as occupying the position of the dialectic. This is what Hegel describes as the "indwelling tendency outwards by which the one-sidedness and limitation of the predicates of the understanding is seen in its true light."6 My proposal to read the novel according to the active, dialectical oppositions it describes is not meant...