- Reading Across Continents, Reading Differences
Reading Thinking Literature Across Continents by Ranjan Ghosh and J. Hillis Miller makes one encounter a lot of "crossings": the crossings effected over the geographical borders, between the East and West; the crossing over boundaries of different thoughts, Eastern and Western, ancient and modern; the crossing over of individuals, here and there, far and near, across continents. Consequently, the reader is led, very willingly, to join the crossing, with his own unique perspective arising from his own background. The two authors of the book adopt different positions, using different approaches to literary study, literary theory, and the teaching of literature. Ghosh's theories of literature are built around what he calls trans(in)fusion: a critical comparativity among a variety of sources and traditions, ideas and appropriations, without forgetting the legitimacy and competence of such literary-hermeneutic-theoretical acts: for instance, western critical theories, the Sanskrit concept of sahitya and Chinese classics such as Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. Miller's procedures in literary study are quite different from his. He often "starts from a literary work or some text, including theoretical and philosophical ones" and his aim is to "account inductively, for what some text says and how it says it" (Ghosh and Miller 2016, 9). Miller's commitments to literary study and the teaching of rhetorical reading and the use [End Page 855] of speech act theory are by no means universally accepted in the West (vii). He makes it clear that their book, by juxtaposing essays of two authors of different backgrounds, is devoted to encouraging the debate about what literature is, its ways, and how it should be written about and taught. Mutual understanding can come through such dialogical negotiations, such interactions across continents. It is here on this distinct note of cross-traditional and cross-epistemic negotiation that the present author comes to intervene. As a scholar of Chinese background, steeped in Chinese culture, with a major in English literature, I read contemporary western literary theory and Chinese literary thoughts within a dialogical framework—my own way of thinking across continents.
However, my positive engagement with western theories does not discount their occasional incompatibility with Chinese culture and Chinese tradition of thinking. As Miller points out that literature's import differs in different times, places, and societies (Ghosh and Miller 2016, 46), so is the case with literary theories. Talking about literature matters, Miller mentions a series of matters learned people of medieval Europe would speak of, including "the matter of Greece," meaning the Oedipus story that lay behind it. Indeed the Oedipus story, later transformed into the Oedipus Complex with Freudian psychoanalysis, is deeply rooted and weighs much in western minds. "Patricide" as one of the components of the Oedipus story has long become a theme of literature, though its representation takes various forms: some in the classic Oedipal manner, the actual murder, some only as threat and an unfulfilled murder. The ultimate motivation for the patricide, as Miri Kubovy puts it, lies in the development of the hero's consciousness which leads to the revelation of his own identity, and the awareness of his own place in the world in relation to his parents (1988, 369–70).
Contrary to the western cultural tradition, patricide is unthinkable in Chinese culture, no matter in what form or whether it is actually fulfilled or just attempted. The dominant Confucian ideology lays the solid foundation of the hierarchy of father-son, emperor-subject relation, with the former in the binary oppositions occupying the unchallenged authoritative position. The long-cherished ethics of filial piety and the practice of obedience to the father strengthens the father image as an absolute idol of the family. The father-son relation of Jia Zheng and his son Jia Baoyu in Dream of the Red Mansions well exemplifies the absolute obedience of the latter. Jia Baoyu does not study conscientiously as his father expects, and [End Page 856] for this he receives a good beating. He does not say or do anything as a revolt, on the spot or in the long time later, without even showing any sign of the awareness of the threat...