Friday, October 21, 2011

'Peintures' Victor Segalen

Filling ones eyes, the waters of the long river;
Richly verdant, the mountains of an unknown district
The hastening of ten thousand miles
All in the frame of a single window.
Chen Yu Yi (1090-1138)

This unclassifiable masterpiece is a series of prose poems describing Chinese paintings, which do not exist. The four completed works of Segalen's China years: Rene Leys, Peintures, Steles, and Equipe represent an attempt to marry Eastern and Western aesthetics, to instil Daoist and Buddhist ideas within Western forms: literary fiction, painting, verse, and travel writing respectively.

Segalen's Chinese antecedents for this are the histories of Chinese art from the Tang Dynasty, especially the famous Li Tai Ming Hua Ching by Chang Yen Yuen, which provide the only source for biographies of artists and descriptions of much older paintings which are now lost. The European antecedents for this project are the prose poems of Baudelaire's Paris Spleen, of Rimbaud's Une Saison en Enfer and Les Illuminations, and Mallarme's Anecdotes and Poemes.

But Segalen here is going beyond merely stretching the boundaries of versification and of what's possible in French, as his illustrious predecessors did with the form.  Before we look at how Segalen marries Eastern and Western aesthetics here, it's necessary to examine briefly some of the salient features of Chinese painting which are pertinent to Segalen's descriptions.

In which we look at some paintings

Chinese painting -in contrast to Western painting- may be said to have the following characteristics:

·      Perspective in line art (architecture, furniture and so on) is characterised by lack of a vanishing point. Buildings and furniture appear wonky to Western eyes, who see things from a Western perspective with one vanishing point. In line art perspective is avoided so that objects in front will not obscure objects at the back.
·      Perspective in landscape is either non-existent, or multiple. In landscape paintings the surface plane is divided up into different areas, each one of which has its own perspective, and its own viewpoint. The effect of distance is created by composition, size, layers and fading colours.
·      Composition reflects the principles of void and substance. The surface plane of the picture always includes empty space, called 'remaining white', (or liu pai) which can be interpreted by the viewer as the effect of clouds or water.
·      Colours represent the thing in itself, not the optical effect of the thing under the light. Gaugin, for example, famously painted his White Horse blue, because that was how he saw it in the shade of the tree. In Chinese painting, things are painted the colour they are in reality, and no attempt is made to depict light.
·      There is a kind of synaesthesia between writing and picture making. Calligraphy underpins the brushstrokes of painting, and occupies a place in the overall composition. The characters used in calligraphy also, of course, are extreme reductions of pictures.
·      The painting contains a poem, and the poem has a pictorial quality. Both  poem and painting strive for a glimpse of the beyond, the painting tries to capture 'the world beyond the image', the poem, 'the flavour beyond the words'. The preeminent figure in this regard was the poet painter Wang Wei, widely regarded as the most influential painter of the Tang dynasty, but none of whose paintings have survived, although his poetry has.

These characteristics may be said to embody in artistic form the basic principles of the Dao. The correct, unclouded apprehension (guan) of the ten thousand things of nature (wan wu) can be seen in the shifting perspectives and representational attitude towards the use of colour; this is a reluctance to impose, finally, a fixed perspective or viewpoint, and by this means to refrain from a 'naming' (ming) of the things and their relationships to each other.
The importance of Nothing (wu) as an organising principle of the universe is seen in the use of voids.

Peintures: within the poem is a painting, within the painting is a poem

The book consists of an opening prelude, and then three sections, the first of which describes 16 'Magical Paintings', the second, a scroll painting (these are common in Chinese art: the scroll is like a long picture book and is unrolled from right to left by the viewer so that you only see one section at a time), and the third, 16 portraits of the last Emperors of the various dynasties of Chinese history. The prose is heightened, fragmented, rich, colourful, digressive, evocative, extremely visual, witty, and achingly, searingly beautiful, even in translation (which here is excellent).

Segalen's text attempts to provide a similar synaesthesia between word and image which we find in Chinese painting, and to reach beyond both to an expression of the Dao: you did not expect a representation of things? Behind the words I am about to pronounce, there have been objects from time to time... or in other words, 'the world beyond the image', 'the flavour beyond the words'.

This synaesthesia between word and image is represented in the text by a synaesthesia between writing and speech. For the Western mind, writing is an encoding of speech in graphic form; a distinction is made between them; writing is seen as something removed, something 'having reference to' or 'representing'  speech. This is a threefold process: Western writing has reference to meaning only by referring first to the spoken word. Chinese writing, in contrast, is a twofold process: Chinese pictograms, by representing graphically the meaning of a word, bypasses language as voice. Chinese characters can be read by speakers of all the different Chinese languages, even though they might pronounce the words differently.

Peintures blurs the distinction between language as voice and language as graphic constantly. The first sentence of the work refers to the reader 'listening' to the text. Later we are told This is not written to be read, but to be heard. This is not made complete by being heard, but must be seen. Later we are told to listen to the clouds. Peintures blurs the boundaries between seeing, hearing and naming.

There is a double focus here: Segalen is both trying to recreate the method by which Chinese painters reflect the Dao in visual art, and at the same time to reflect the Dao in his method of verbal art. We see the Dao twice: in the non-existent paintings he describes, and in his method of describing them.

(This is my term, not Segalen's; the introduction is left unnamed) The Prelude signals the work's Daoist/Buddhist intentions very clearly. It begins with a sublime image of the imaginary paintings unrolled on scrolls and hanging from this rafter, encircling the viewer/reader in a panoply of images. This can be seen as a metaphor for the Buddhist view of reality as little more than projections from an empty self, as insubstantial as imaginary paintings. The 'rafter' is a reference to  the Supreme Ultimate, the Pole Star. In Daoist thought, the heavens are suspended from the Pole Star, and the term for this highest point is taiji, which means literally, a ridge pole, or rafter. The same image of a beam is repeated later in the introduction.

Do not rely on any organized effect, the text goes on to warn us, not one of those fugitive mirages with which Western perspective makes play, and defines without hesitation....a reference to the aperspective nature of Chinese painting, and to the Daoist principles of guan/xu which underline it.

I. Magical Paintings
Daoist themes of circularity are signalled in the title of the first picture presented in this section, which is also the last: Ronde des Immortels (In Daoism, 'immortals' are those who have achieved transformation of their bodily substance). True to Daoist principles, the descriptions are presented before their names, so that the reader has no peg on which to hang his reading. In the Dao de Jing, seeing comes before naming. The effect on the reader is one of disorientation, but an enhanced seeing.

We are presented with pictures made of lacquer, of porcelain, of weaving, of paintings on silk and paper, and at the end, the Daoist principles of renewal and circularity and the Buddhist view of reality as an illusion are proclaimed again: The end is given at the outset, the final number is included in the first, and that in the infinite. One is one. Even two is one, if you wish. Nothing of what you touch each day is solid. All that you have just seen exists, if you but knew how to see it...

II. Corteges and Trophies of the Tributes of Kingdoms
Perhaps the most famous of the panoramic scrolls in Chinese art is the Song dynasty Along the River in the Qing Ming Festival, made by Zhang Ze Duen. This scroll is over 5 metres long, and is designed to be unrolled from right to left. It shows daily life in the Song and is absolutely crammed with detail. The river is a structuring device running all through it. One can only view a section at a time: a picture of the overall whole is impossible, only a successive dwelling on details.

In this middle section of the book, Segalen imagines a similar scroll depicting the tributes from all the kingdoms brought to the Emperor. The connecting device of this imaginary scroll is a roadway through mountains and plains. It is then a horizontal procession of precious things coming from all over the earth going towards the same destination in order to form in the same place at the feet of some ONE. It is therefore also the Journey  - power in wide spaces, the presence of what is not here [wu], which comes from afar and which is sought after so far away. DIVERSITY, which is not that which we are, but other...

This compares with the description of the Dao in various places in the Dao de Jing, for example, this from stanza 42:
The number one of the Way was born
A duad from this monad formed.
The duad next a triad made
The triad bred the myriad...
 The Way gave birth to the One, which gave birth to two (ying and yang), then two to three, and then the ten thousand things. In our scroll, the journey is made backwards along the road to the One, who is portrayed as the Emperor. The scroll then is a pictorial meditation of the journey, the Way. For Daoists, the Dao is both the goal and the journey, the prime cause of the universe, and the way to that prime cause.

III. Dynastic Paintings

In this final section of the book, Segalen presents a series of imaginary portraits of the last Emperor of each Dynasty, these ruinous ones, the destructive ones, the Ultimates of each dynastic fall...Not only does this reflect the Daoist belief in circularity, but it also reflects the Daoist notion of the encapsulation of opposites, which we find expressed in lines 7 -11 of Stanza 2 (and elsewhere) from the Dao De Jing:
The long the short decides
And higher lower measures,
Bronze gongs jade chimes join,
And former latter sequence form,
Ever round and round again...
The end of one dynasty is always also the beginning of another. As Segalen puts it here: How can one renovate, how to restore order without first of all installing disorder?

The sequence starts with the fall of the half legendary Hsia dynasty, and ends with the last days of the mysterious Kuang Hsu Emperor, the infant Pi Yu and the Regent Chung, of the ill starred Qing dynasty of Segalen's own time.  These verbal portraits contain oblique references to episodes from the chronicles, reimagined as details from a painting. For example, here is the description of the tomb of the infamous First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang of the short lived Qin dynasty, he of the terracotta army: They trail off out of sight, three thousand diminutive personages as tall as your hand, delineated in hard semi relief. Each next to its fellow, without overlapping or concealment... We are reminded here of the attitude to perspective  in line drawings, in which objects must not obscure each other. Also, we remember that the terracotta army was only discovered in 1974, 55 years after Segalen's death.

The Spirit of the Dao
The twin poles of Chinese culture are Daoism and Confucianism. These two represent the ying and the yang of Chinese thought and its artistic expression. Confucianism is concerned with social mores, the stability of the state, the individual's position in the state. The Analects are didactic, straightforward, prescriptive, assertive, unambiguous, positivist. In contrast, Daoism is concerned with the survival of the individual in the state, with the development of the inner state of the individual, with metaphysics, concerns which Confucius largely stays away from. Daoist texts such as the Dao De Jing and the Chuang Tzu are characterised by a spirit of playful paradox, ambiguity, a gentle satirising of Confucianism, a general lack of assertiveness, a mood of negativism, or nihilism. This spirit is everywhere apparent in Peintures.

The text is full of authorial interventions and addresses to the reader, full of the kind of paradoxes and ambiguities Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu delight in, in addition to the central paradox of creating pictures which do not exist. Confucianism is gently satirised in the introduction to the Dynastic Portraits section (which poses spuriously as an excerpt from Mencius): the sage and very official saint, Patron of Teachers, Moderator in the pay of Princess - Confucius, from the country of Lou, walking one day, one foot decently after the other, in the old palace of Chou of Lo Yang, modestly raising his eyes to the walls perceived the painted figures...
Confucius appears in Peintures, but the elusive Lao Tze does not. 

Peintures is never far away from the idea of the hoax. In semiotic terms, the literary hoax is a sudden displacement of the relationship between sign and signified: the signified is suddenly revealed to be unreal, absent, therefore the sign is hollow, independent, autonomous. This is the method of Peintures: the real pictures represented by the signs do not exist. At the same time, the hoax can also stand for the central paradox of the Dao: if the Dao can be named, it is not the Dao. At the heart of the Dao is the idea of wu, the inarticulable Nothingness, expressed succinctly in stanza 40 lines 3 and 4 of the Dao De Jing:
Becoming begets all beings below
Becoming begotten of negation.
The heart of Peintures is similarly non-existent; and the text is also full of lacunae, reflecting in detail what is going on in the whole: She, the Inspiration, is absent from all these paintings.

The spirit of Daoism is also present in the glimpses of the drunken Painter the text gives us from time to time, a Daoist figure, a drunkard, a poet, a wastrel, a seer, a creator, the elusive narrator of the text, in short everything the Confucian scholar is not. The Taiwanese art historian Wang Yao Ting in his book Looking at Chinese Painting writes about intellectuals' position in Chinese culture: outwardly in their social roles they are Confucians, inwardly they preserve the Daoist's commitment to self-cultivation... The Chinese scholar lives in the mundane world but he longs for the freedom of nature. Locked in the dusty straightjacket of social affairs, he dreams of carefree whistling among rocks and streams. The drunken painter we glimpse in the text seems to be an amalgam of Wang Wei, whom we have already mentioned, Wu Tao Zu, a Tang painter of whom the legend says that he disappeared through a door in one of his own paintings, and perhaps 'Inky' Wang, whose technique consisted of throwing the paint around when he was in a drunken state, and then completing the picture when he was sober. (It is also said of him that he smeared paint on his bum, sat on a piece of paper to make an imprint, added a stalk and some leaves, and named the resulting painting 'Glorious Autumn Peaches'.)

Yet this inebriated vision, this piercing gaze, this clairvoyance can replace for some people - of whom you are one? - all the reason of the world and of the god.

These are spoken paintings.

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