- The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays by Simon Leys
(New York: New York Review of Books, 2013), 576 pp.
In China, there is a legendary beast, the qilin (a horned creature with a leonine head, dragon’s claws, scales, and sometimes a train of flames), that turns up to signal the reign of a great ruler or the birth of a great sage. If the qilin appeared at any time during the twentieth century, it surely whimpered and then disappeared.
Simon Leys (pen name of the Belgian-born scholar Pierre Ryckmans) describes the twentieth century as the most violent in world history, a statement to which one assents with sickening regret. Even more sickening, though, is the number of missed chances for heading off or at least reducing the great surges of calculated violence that exterminated, in turn, populations of Armenians, Jews, Russian and Chinese peasants, Cambodians with glasses, Hutu, and many others. Leys, as a sinologist with a unique perspective on China from inside China, was the first to denounce the Cultural Revolution for what it was: a movement deliberately provoked by Mao to engage his restive adolescent population in bleeding the country white and freezing everyone else in fear and misery. By now, that observation seems less an insight than a straightforward fact. But when Mao granted André Malraux a brief and very one- sided audience in 1965, he “dropped a tantalizing hint, indicating that writers and intellectuals were deeply corrupted by ‘revisionism,’ but that the youth might be mobilized against this counter-revolutionary evil.” Malraux was unable to pick up even this obtrusive thread. Mao abruptly ended the interview. Not that Malraux could have stopped the Cultural Revolution in 1966. He did not read or understand a word of Chinese. But what the many observers who could do so had to offer was not what Western governments wanted to learn. In speaking truth to power, Leys was at the time alone. [End Page 329]
The first section in this book of essays is titled “Quixotism,” and Leys’s alliance with the hero of Cervantes’s novel explains his own spiritual survival through his own benighted century. Don Quixote rose and rose again, refusing to adapt his vision to what his creator represented, hatefully, as the “real world.” Riffing on Bernard Shaw, Leys concludes his essay “The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote” with this adage: “The successful man adapts himself to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.”
Dore J. Levy is professor of comparative literature and East Asian studies at Brown University. Her books include Chinese Narrative Poetry: The Late Han through T’ang Dynasties and Ideal and Actual in “The Story of the Stone.”