- Unexpected Affinities: Reading Across Cultures
What does it mean when texts from multiple traditions share basic metaphors in the absence of genealogical relations or direct influence? For Zhang Longxi, such affinities support Northrop Frye’s investigation of literary works as systematically connected through shared themes and archetypes. For anyone who has ever found, as has Zhang, that “certain critical insights are available only from the cross-cultural perspective of East–West studies” (xii), Zhang’s elegant cross-cultural examples will be a welcome contribution to Frye’s project.
Zhang frames this volume, an expanded version of his 2005 Alexander lectures, as a counter-argument to prevailing theories of cultural incommensurability, which he views as a misguided, non-pluralist relativism. When desires to differentiate harden into contrastive principles, ethnocentric dichotomizing ensues. To refute such fallacies, Zhang finds parallels in the logic underlying French sinologist François Jullien’s Greek-Chinese polarities, early twentieth-century Chinese intellectuals’ beliefs about a dynamic West and a static China, and contemporary scholar Ji Xianlin’s contrast of Eastern synthesis with Western analysis.
To dispute notions of cultural homogeneity and simplistic East–West dichotomies, Zhang demonstrates that tensions exist within given literary cultures and subcultures as much as between them. To critique Jullien’s dichotomy between Western truth-seeking and Chinese focus on practical wisdom, for example, Zhang points out that truth among Greek thinkers traversed objectivist, relativist, and skeptical positions. The Confucian concept of the rectification of names [zheng ming], by contrast, shares strong affinities with correspondence theories of truth. Many seemingly prominent differences in texts are, moreover, “matters of degree, not of kind” (20), and standing back allows the perception of thematic and structural affinities. Thus, whereas Zhang recognizes that Chinese poets, such as Tao Yuanming, more often voice a tranquil acceptance of life and death without recourse to divine validation, in this regard he finds Shakespeare closer to these Chinese poets than to many of his English compatriots.
To open a wider view of literary themes, poetic images, genres, and rhetorical devices, Zhang examines diverse writings, from Buddhist sutras [End Page 522] and medieval poetry to Dante’s Commedia, and the sixteenth-century Chinese novel Journey to the West. In placing texts in dialogue, Zhang reveals affinities not only of images and expressions, but also of ideas and themes. Though sympathetic to Mallarmé’s conviction that poems are made not of ideas but of words, Zhang centers his arguments on George Lakoff and Mark Turner’s premise that “metaphor resides in thought, not just in words” (36).
This idea raises questions about whether thought can exist without symbolic representation. Zhang seems to sympathize with those who emphasize the inadequacy of language. In comparing Plato’s distrust of language to that of Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, for example, Zhang alludes to the Chan Buddhist metaphor whereby language is to reality as a finger is to the moon to which it points. A mind that clings to superficial material phenomena may see only the finger and miss any vision of spiritual contemplation. Zhang clarifies this allegory’s meaning by comparing it to St. Augustine’s lament that he cannot supply sight to those blind even to his finger as he points to celestial bodies. Yet later Zhang also emphasizes ways the material, especially through literary images, “leads us to the spiritual” (121).
Zhang illustrates the connectedness of different literary traditions with examples grouped around three main conceptual and thematic affinities. His first cross-cultural study highlights the pearl as a metaphor for the cathartic effect of poetry. This metaphor for tears or dewdrops is commonplace in both English and Chinese literature. Zhang also finds Chinese poetry’s frequent emblematic use of pearls and jade as poetry itself echoed in a German discussion of Heine and in Alfred de Musset’s concept of poetry as “making a pearl out of a tear” (50). Zhang then traces affinities between a fifth-century Chinese literary critic’s claim that great literature stems from painful experiences, “like pearls that come out of the disease of suffering...