- Comparative Philosophies of Tragedy: Buddhism, Lacan, and Ashes of Time
In the year 676 CE, on the eighth day of the first month of the Chinese calendar, a Buddhist priest named Yinzhong gave a lecture on the Nirvān Sutra at the Faxing Temple in Guangzhou. Suddenly, there rose a gust of wind, and the flag started swaying. One monk suggested: “The agitation of the wind!” Another monk remarked: “No, it’s the agitation of the flag.” Huineng, a monk of humble origin who later rose to prominence in the Buddhist tradition, interjected: “What is in agitation is neither the wind nor the flag, but the human heart” (Yifa Pagoda Chronicles). This is the quote Wong Kar-wai projected onto a background of rising and falling waves at the beginning of his film Ashes of Time.1 The message is clear: what creates restlessness, what stirs motions and emotions in the universe, is desire. Ashes of Time is a film about desire and the memory it stirs, as well as the relationships of desire and memory to the tragic dimension of human existence. While Wong’s film displays a keen sensitivity to the Buddhist understanding of desire and pain, the final words of Ashes of Time embrace a perspective on existence which acknowledges, but ultimately departs from, this Buddhist wisdom. To analyze the role of desire and memory in [End Page 1163] relationship to tragedy in Ashes of Time, I will be comparing and contrasting insights from Buddhism and Lacan—two perspectives which display not only thematic but also historical continuities.2
The Buddhist notion of a cosmic will blindly struggling against itself is embodied by different characters throughout the film. In this paper, I will focus on the two protagonists, Huang Yaoshi and Ouyang Feng, nicknamed respectively Dongxie (“Perverse East”) and Xidu (“Malicious West”). Huang is deemed perverse because of his unconventional, Don Juan-type character. Ouyang is associated with malignity because he is consumed by envy, never having known happiness in life. Huang is a womanizer while Ouyang never makes advances towards any woman. Huang came from the East and Ouyang from the western outskirts of China. Despite these differences in character and in location, the two men fall in love with the same woman and meet the same fate—neither can touch her, and they both lose her forever when she passes away. Each learns in his own way the pain of desire through loving this woman. Each tries in his own way to deal with his anguish while she is still alive, and each finds a different response to suffering upon her death.
The woman beloved by the two men is from Ouyang’s birthplace— the White Camel Mountain. Admired by two men, the woman loves only Ouyang. Worried about being rejected, Ouyang sets his career above love and refuses to tell the woman that he loves her. Deeply hurt, the woman marries Ouyang’s brother to jilt him. Ouyang implores her to elope with him on her wedding night, only to be rejected. What he fears the most—rejection—is thus brought about by his own efforts to avoid rejection. Ouyang leaves and vows never to return to the White Camel Mountain.
Despite Huang’s affairs with different women, he never makes any advance on his dream woman. For him, the unattainable is the desirable. Because he truly loves this woman and because he wants to go on loving her, he refrains from approaching her sexually. However, because he loves her and wants to be around her, he obliges her request to visit Ouyang every year during the peach blossom season and bring her some news of him.
Finally, the woman passes away. Before she dies, she entrusts a bottle of Wine of Forgetfulness to Huang, asking him to give it to Ouyang so that he may forget her. Huang tastes the wine first, after which he forgets everything. The only vague memory he has is that he loves peach blossoms, and he retreats to an island populated with peach trees, calling himself Master of the Isle of Peach Blossoms. [End Page 1164]
At the news of the death of his beloved, Ouyang...