Monday, October 10, 2011

'Rene Leys' Victor Segalen

It's always like that in China.
Rene Leys
18 November 1911

It is a city in the evening: a strong and powerful crenellated city of which we are both the guests and the masters...

Introduction: In which is briefly outlined the historical background

Beijing. February 1911. The Manchu dynasty is in its last gasps; even its grand depravities are now diminished.  For the last decade or so, the Empire has been as if in a drug induced torpor, a kind of uneasy trance; the government reduced to lackeys, perhaps, of the Foreign Powers, who hold tightly the reins of policy.

The foreigners, having gained the upper hand as a result of their victory over the Boxers eleven years before, are confined to the Legation quarter in the Tartar City. Their sequestration notwithstanding, they have control of all the branches of government that really matter in the modernising world: railways and communications, customs, excise and tax collection, monopolies of trade, and of course the supply of opium, to which the country is enslaved.

The main players in this great game against the Qing dynasty are the British, the French, the Belgians, the Dutch, the Portuguese, The Russians, the Japanese, and, to a small extent, the Americans.

The current - and as it will turn out, the very last-  Qing Emperor, Pu Yi, is  a little boy of 4 years old.  His father, the 28 year-old Prince Chun, is Regent and ruler. The little boy's aunt, Princess Long Yu, 43, the widow of the previous Emperor, is the current Empress Dowager. It has only been 3 years since the death of the previous Emperor, the mysterious Kuang Hsu, and his aunt, the previous Empress Dowager, the terrifying and terrible Princess Tsu Hsi, also known by her Manchu name as Lady Yehunara, and by nearly everyone else, ironically, as Old Buddha.

The  Kuang Hsu Emperor died in mysterious circumstances, and speculation raged as to the causes. Some said it was on the death-bed orders of the 73 year-old, long-ill Old Buddha, who then died the day after her nephew. Others said it was on the orders of Yuen Xi Kai, ally of Old Buddha, Minister and Governor of Shandong province.

The Kuang Hsu Emperor's life had been as mysterious as his death. At the start of his reign he had engaged with the foreigners in a policy of opening up China. During the One Hundred Days of 1898 he had carried out strenuous reforms to various branches of government. These included the drastic modernisation of the centuries old examination system, which had been the mainstay of social order in Chinese life for millenia; greater freedoms for his subjects, the Han Chinese; greater protection under the law for trade and investment.

The 'spring' of the One Hundred Days had ended abruptly, however, after a palace coup carried out by Yuen Xi Kai but engineered by Old Buddha, who wanted to retard the gradual transfer of power over China from the Manchus to the foreigners and the Han Chinese.

In the autumn of 1898, the Kuang Hsu Emperor had been put under house arrest in a palace on an island in a lake in the middle of the Forbidden City, and his favourite concubine, the Pearl Concubine, had been thrown down a well on the orders of Old Buddha. Isolated from the rest of the world, perpetually entranced with opium and grief, in stupendous luxury, with his concubines and eunuchs and ever present guards, he lived thus for a further 10 years, dying in 1908 at the age of 37. His mysterious death only increased the hallowed aura with which modernisers, including educated Han Chinese and foreigners, now regarded him.

For this act of treachery against the Son of Heaven, however, Old Buddha and her allies suffered karmic retribution when the Foreign Powers extracted unfair and humiliating reprisals against the Qing and against China after the Boxer rebellion in 1900. 

Since then, the government has been supine, with the new Emperor conveniently young, and the Regent unimaginative, inexperienced and no match for court factions and foreign domineering.  In the cities and countryside, unrest among the Han Chinese is simmering. Dr Sun Yat Sen and his revolutionaries are active in the south and along the Pearl River Delta, China's commercial and industrial heartland. Anti Manchu and anti Foreigner feeling is high.

In this seething pot of intrigue and opportunity a  34 year-old French resident in Beijing by the name of 'Victor Segalen' (by no means to be confused with the real Victor Segalen, the author) is trying to learn Chinese.

Part 1: First Reading

The Book that Never Was
Rene Leys
28 February 1911

I. In which are briefly described both the plot and discourse of the novel

Segalen's (We call the character Segalen, and the author VS to avoid ambiguity) aim in learning Chinese is to penetrate the mystery of the life and death of the Kuang Hsu Emperor, with whom he has an obsession, and to write a book, probably a novel, about him. He trawls Beijing looking for informants, and a way in to the Forbidden City, where he hopes to interview some of those who had known the Emperor. He engages two teachers: one Chinese, Master Wang, a teacher known to the expat community; and the other, a young European lad of 18 or thereabouts, the preternaturally gifted son of a Belgian resident of Beijing, Rene Leys.

Rene Leys has been educated in Europe, and has only been in Beijing for about three years, but already he is fluent in Shanghaiese, Mandarin, and Manchu, is an expert in Chinese life and culture, and has secured the post of professor of political economy in the College of Nobles, an exalted position for a foreigner of his age and circumstances, but one that it was not unusual for foreigners to hold in that time and place.

Segalen gradually befriends the lad, and when Leys pere decides to return to Europe, Rene moves into Segalen's house, where their lessons continue. Over the course of the summer, Rene Leys reveals to Segalen that he is an intimate of the Royal Family. He was the only friend of the Kuang Hsu Emperor, and is now the advisor to the Regent, who has awarded him a concubine for his services. He further reveals, after swearing Segalen to secrecy, that he is the chief of a Secret Police force; that he runs a network of spies and informants among the sing-song girls and prostitutes of the red light district, the Chien Men Wai; and that he has constant but secret access to the Forbidden Palace on payment of large sums to the eunuchs who guard the place. He further reveals that he is the lover of the Empress Dowager, Princess Long Yu; and that she is the instigator of several assassination attempts on the Regent, all of which have been foiled by Rene and his police force. Rene is tormented by divided loyalties, to the Regent, and to the Empress Dowager. In other words, Rene Leys is deeply embroiled in Palace intrigues, his ultimate loyalty is to the Manchus, and he is heavily invested in their continuing to rule China.

The summer turns to autumn. When the revolution breaks out in October, Rene Leys and his Manchu employers are caught off guard. Faced with the prospect of the defeat of the Manchus, and the installation of Yuen Xi Kai as first (provisional) President of a new Republic of China, Rene Leys, afraid of reprisals, and stunned with anguish at the collapse of his world, commits suicide. Segalen decides to leave Beijing, his book about the Kuang Hsu Emperor unstarted, unfinished.

The novel is presented in the form of a diary kept by Segalen, charting his attempts to learn Chinese, his relationships with other expatriates, his trips around the city on horseback in the company of his young teacher, conversations, trips to the brothels and theatres of Chien Men Wai, daily life, the weather. It starts on the 28 February, and ends on the 22 November.

The prose is gorgeous, and is one of the chief pleasures of reading the novel. The descriptions of Beijing in the last days of the Qing are miraculously evocative, poetic, and laden with colour. Segalen is a thoughtful, witty and observant diarist, and writes like a dream, capturing details of his experiences and conversations almost as they occur.

On the other hand, his diary is also laced with sardonic asides at the stupidity of his hosts and the other expatriates. (These are the kind of comments one is still likely to hear in expatriate bars all over the Far East): I am making progress with my Chinese (such a practical language it is: it does away with syntax by reducing all the rules to three)  Segalen notes on his linguistic efforts, and he sneeringly calls the White Tower - a Nepalese stupa in the heart of the Forbidden City- an example of art nouveau.

The discourse is not burdened with historical hindsight - the Wuhan uprising on October 10 which leads to the Revolution is related in the diary on the 11 October as an interesting but insignificant item in the newspaper- and has all the freshness and roughness of lived experience rather than the finished polish of a novel. It is a fictional, eyewitness account of the fall of the Qing.

II. West and East: Fantasies and Fears

"I maintain, d'you see, that the only way to deal with the Chinese is in the Chinese fashion. Otherwise you're wasting your time...They don't trust you... You'll never get anything out of them..."
Rene Leys
9 May 1911

Colonial literature of this type articulates to a more or less conscious degree one major fantasy, and one major fear. (This remark is no less true of  long term  expatriates in real life than it is of literature.) The fantasy is that the foreigner could run the country much better than the natives, if only the natives would get out of the way and let them do so. The fear is that the birth culture or identity will become subsumed in the cultural identity of the Other. Rene Leys articulates both these illusions  in an entirely conscious way.

First, the fantasy. The whole career of Rene Leys, as he reveals it to Segalen, is an articulation of this fantasy. Rene, the ephebic foreigner, is gradually, on account of his remarkable gifts, given positions of authority by the government of his adopted country. By protecting the Regent, he in effect becomes the government. "You have gone further in your penetration of China than any other European known or unknown"... Segalen tells him.

The fear of the Other is articulated in a much more subtle way. Apart from Rene's ability to assume temporarily the identity of the Other through his linguistic gifts, the discourse is marked by ambiguity as to Rene's real identity. It's clearly stated that his mother is French and his father Belgian, but the discourse itself emphasises several times his matte skin, his slimness, and his black hair.  Segalen has to remind himself -and remind Rene - several times that he is not Chinese, that he is European. When Segalen and Rene discuss the possible consequences should Rene be discovered on his nocturnal visits within the Forbidden City, the lad says that nothing will happen to him: "I am European!", as if reminding himself, and reminding Segalen (and the reader) that he is not Chinese. Rene has no foreign friends, apart from Segalen, and consorts only with Chinese: his students, his network of spies, and his group of friends. He is in fact, in danger of going native, a physical expression of subsuming one's own cultural identity to that of the Other.

His role as tutor in the language and the culture of the Other also creates the momentary illusion that he is Other. In fact, Segalen remarks at the beginning of his studies, that it is against all the dictates of logic to have a European as a teacher of Chinese, and not a Chinese. Later, Segalen records that he is carefully noting the Chinese influence emanating from this master of Pekingese life, an influence that logically can only come from the Other.

III. The Old China Hand: In which Sir Edmund Backhouse does not make an appearance
" ...  "
Rene Leys
12 May 1911

These colonial fantasies and fears are embodied in the figure of the Old China Hand, the Westerner who has lived in China for years. There are several Old China Hands in the novel, both real and fictional. The latter are represented by Segalen himself, Leys pere, and Segalen's neighbour, the awful Jarignoux, who has taken Chinese citizenship, a Chinese wife and concubine and has secured for himself a position in the Ministry of Communications. References to real life Old China Hands include Marco Polo and Sir Robert Hart, who had been appointed by the Qing as Minister for Customs and Excise, and was one of the most powerful Westerners in China.

Now, for all expatriates in the Beijing of the time -both real and fictional- the archetypal Old China Hand was Sir Edmund Backhouse. Backhouse (pronounced 'Baccus'), an English Baronet, and scion of an ancient Cornish family, had been in Beijing since 1899 where he had established himself as a scholar of Chinese. He knew more about China than any other foreigner living, could speak and write Chinese and Manchu (as well as Russian and Japanese). In 1910, one year before Segalen's Chinese lessons, he had co-authored a notorious book called China Under the Empress Dowager (that is, Old Buddha herself), which had established his reputation internationally. He was also the main informant on Chinese life and current affairs to George Morrison, the Chief China Correspondent of The Times - and therefore the main international news source for what was happening inside China - who, amazingly, knew not one word of Chinese, and who therefore was totally reliant on the insights and information given to him by Backhouse.

Backhouse had gone completely native. He refused to associate with the foreigners in Beijing (apart from the contacts necessary for work), associating only with Chinese. He wore Chinese dress, ate Chinese food, and was openly homosexual. (He was to remain in Beijing in fact until his death in 1944 having survived all the vicissitudes of modern Chinese history). Naturally, such a figure was regarded with suspicion by the foreigners of the Legations, who veered between hating him for having 'let down the side' and 'gone native' and being in awe of his knowledge and gifts, and finding them indispensible for their own purposes.

Backhouse does not appear in Rene Leys. But nonetheless, his presence haunts the book in many ways. Here we note that like Rene Leys, Backhouse had gone further in his penetration of China than any other European known or unknown. Many of the details of Old Buddha's life and what Segalen calls the thrice immured Kuang Hsu Emperor had been uncovered first by Backhouse - based on information gleaned from the private diary of a Manchu courtier, which Backhouse had found in the smouldering ruins of a looted library during the Boxer rebellion-  and exposed in his book. The whole basis of Segalen's obsession can be said to be founded on Backhouse's book, (although nowhere is the book mentioned in the text of Rene Leys). VS would have known of -if not known-  Backhouse, as would the characters in the novel itself. In fact, any foreign resident of Beijing would have been aware of Backhouse, if only through the scandalised gossip of the Legation clubs. Backhouse's presence is therefore stated and not stated in the novel.

An Honest Interlude

At this point it becomes incumbent upon me to urge those of my audience who have not yet read Rene Leys to stop reading this essai. Such honesty on the part of a writer anxious to secure readers might appear strange and self defeating. But, in what follows I shall reveal certain spoilers, not on the level of plot, but on the much more important and subtle level of VS's whole project and the inner meaning of the novel. Once this project and meaning has been articulated here, it will be impossible for you to read the book with virgin eyes. Your purity of response will have been compromised, making it impossible for you to experience for yourself the inner meaning of the book. For it is this self- experiencing that is the essence of the book, that which gives it its extraordinary power, magical, and prophetic. So, gentle reader, step back now. For those who have already read Rene Leys or who are eager to have their innocence spoiled, let us continue.

Part 2: Second Reading

IV: Three Epiphanies and Three Questions.  In which everything that went before is thrown into doubt, and in which spoilers are revealed

Or is it that Empire and Palace and all are but a historian's dream, and everything I have written on the subject but smoke playing upon the dross of nonsense?
Rene Leys
15 October 1911

On 14th November, one day after Yuen Xi Kai enters Beijing, throwing the City and Empire into a turmoil of uncertainty, Segalen has an epiphany that everything Rene Leys has told him is a lie, a fiction, a fantasy, a hoax, and that he has been played. This puts him in a quandary, because he is reluctant to relinquish the fantasy he has built up in his mind, a fantasy created by the lad; and he hangs on to the (increasingly remote) possibility that it is all true: I tell myself one should not be afraid of the miraculous side of the whole adventure. One should not turn one's back on on the mysterious and the unknown.... He tries to use logic to distinguish truth from fantasy: Today, though, by a habit of logic, be it worldly or philosophical, I simply must try and distinguish the true from the false,... the possible from the probable...the credible from the disconcerting. He resolves to confront Rene with his doubts.

Four nights later, in their last encounter together, Segalen puts three questions to the lad:  1) How did Rene become the friend and companion of the Kuang Hsu Emperor? 2) What was the exact sum Rene spent on admission to the Palace for his trysts with his concubine? 3) Has Rene - yes or no - lain with the Empress Dowager?

Segalen chooses these questions because he believes they will separate fact from fiction. Rene does not answer the first one, says he can't remember to the second one, and affirms categorically that he has lain with the Empress, and that the proof is that she has just given birth to his child. That aggravating habit of having an answer to everything! Segalen is plunged back into belief, saying that Leys should be with his child and its mother, not hanging around in Segalen's house, and warns the lad that he is in danger now of being poisoned, having polluted the blood line of the Manchus. Segalen pushes his doubts away. He turns to the start of the narrative, where he quotes what has written: I shall know no more then. I shall retire from the field. He underlines these two sentences and adds a third: and I do not wish to know any more. He in effect steps back from the abyss of revelation, to the firmer ground of what he already knows and believes.

Two days later Rene Leys is dead, and Segalen is called on to identify the body. Staring at the naked corpse of this beautiful ephebe, he reckons that the only cause of death could have been poison, but by whom? He realises that the only clue for this, and the secret identity of the poisoner, might lie in his own diary, the first-hand, day to day account, written to the minute, of Rene's reports to Segalen of his involvement with the Manchus. He reads his dairy through, carefully. 

And now comes the second epiphany. Segalen realises that in fact the boy's death was caused by Segalen's warning, which Leys took as a suggestion: I accuse myself of having fed him exactly four days ago that too-suggestive cue: "Don't forget poison...". He replied "Thank you for  mentioning it to me", made the suggestion his and abode by it. ...I have established with certainty the fact of my own guilt....the poison: it was I that offered it to him.

Then, Segalen has his third epiphany, that every tale told to him by Leys in fact originated as a suggestion from Segalen himself, in his obsession with the Kuang Hsu Emperor, in his questions to the lad in their lessons and conversations, and his quest to gain entry into the Within, the Forbidden City. Leys took these questions and suggestions from Segalen, and built up from them an edifice of falsity and fantasy and fed it back to Segalen: ...from the very moment of our first meeting...Everything I said, he did. In doing this, Rene Leys  was able to take advantage of Segalen's ignorance of the language and the culture, and of Segalen's prior concerns. Segalen, in his turn, was easily mulled because he had already imposed his questions on the world, and could only see the culture through the framework of his obsessions.

Faced with fact that Segalen has discovered his lies, the boy kills himself. He preferred to lose his life if it meant saving face, if it was the only way of not being false either to himself or to me, of neither breaking faith nor forfeiting my esteem... By choosing this way out, Rene Leys has in fact become Chinese.

V: Circularity, Anticipation and Indeterminacy: A Narrative pas de deux  

It is possible that he is playing some contemptible game of fabrication... of subject and story...
14 November 1911
Rene Leys

The effect of all this on the reader is electrifying.  Not so much because of the hoax - one can see that coming a mile away- but because of the modernist pas de deux the narrative now dances with the reader. By quoting an adjusted version of the opening of the diary, Segalen sends the reader back to the beginning, and the whole narrative takes on a different perspective. The next day, Segalen follows the reader in reading his narrative through.

A number of things now reveal themselves. The first is circularity. The reader is sent back to the beginning at the moment in the text when Segalen underlines the beginning of the text. It is Segalen's rereading of his diary from the beginning which causes his last two epiphanies. The novel is now seen as a loop, with no real beginning.

The second is anticipation, which together with circularity, is revealed as one of the ordering principles of the narrative and one of its main themes. The doubts and the process of epiphany happens in the mind of the reader just as it does in the mind of Segalen, but the reader's doubts and epiphanies anticipate Segalen's. The reader anticipates Segalen's own rereading of his diary, which then happens later. The reader is always one step ahead of Segalen. Segalen's obsessions and questions anticipate -and in a sense create -the stories Rene later tells him.

The third is the way that, suddenly, all the indeterminacies of the text, all the lacunae, all the nagging doubts as to the realism and veracity of Rene's accounts of his exploits, which the reader (like Segalen) has skated over, ignored or put aside in his rush forwards through the narrative, now foreground themselves. These indeterminacies may be grouped as follows:

Indeterminacies about Rene Leys:
We have already seen how Rene's identity is blurred between European and Chinese. The text is also unclear about his age, which appears to range from 17 to 20. Other questions posed by the narrative include: whose is the carriage that Segalen sees him climbing into? Was it really Rene Leys that Segalen saw in the Regent's body guard?

Indeterminacies about his stories:
The reader has anticipated Segalen and has already formulated the same questions Segalen has about Rene's stories.

Indeterminacies about Segalen:
We do not know exactly what Segalen is doing in Beijing - the text hints that he is a doctor, but it also implies that he is not; nor do we know how long he has been there. How did he first meet Rene Leys?

Indeterminacies about narrative structure:
What is the meaning of the enigmatic first three paragraphs of the novel? It appears that at the start of the diary, Segalen has decided to abandon his attempt to write a book about Kuang Hsu, but he still nurses his obsession. Why? Why does Segalen tell us that he has underlined the first two sentences of the diary and added another? Why do we not see this other sentence when we read it the first time? Finally, at the close of the book, are we to take it that Rene's tales were true or false? What does Segalen ultimately believe about Rene Leys? Why does the narrative end on a note of suspension, with a question?

At this point the reader is reminded of the kind of narrative strategies used by Italo Calvino in If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. But whereas Calvino was exploring the psychology of reading, here the narratives games have an important philosophical function, which is to examine the different cultural attitudes towards indeterminacy itself.

The West, we can simply say, regards indeterminacy as problematic. The Western mind, trained in the precision of Aristotelian scientism and the Socratic syllogism, seeks to resolve indeterminacy into an either-or, or at least, tries to establish a clear boundary between component or antithetical elements of an entity. This is reflected in Indo-European, inflected languages, whose driving force is in the direction of disambiguation.

The East, on the other hand, is much more comfortable with indeterminacy, with  vagueness. Chinese characters embody several ideas and the distinctions between them are not sought; the Chinese language, with its lack of distinction between nouns and verbs, lack of pronoun use and so on, is much more capable of sustaining ambiguity. Indeed we can go further and say the whole language and culture privileges indeterminacy, and that the search for clarification, for disambiguation, is not its main direction. For the Chinese, the process of clarification carries with it the inherent danger of creating false distinctions where none exist in nature, of the false imposition of mind on matter, of the name obscuring the thing, of a wrong seeing.

The Western mind seeks either-or distinctions; the Chinese mind is unperturbed by dwelling in a state of what Keats called 'negative capability'.

The Chinese American theorist Wei Lin Yip writes: Underlying the classical Chinese aesthetic is the primary idea of the noninterference with Nature's flow.
The idea of the noninterference with Nature's flow is the heart of the ancient Chinese book of wisdom, the Dao Der Jing, the work of Lao Zi, the ying to the yang of Confucius in Chinese thought, and it is to this that we now turn.

Part 3: 'Rene Leys' and the 'Dao De Jing'

 VI: Three stanzas from Lao Zi

He was clearly unaware of the great Daoist principle: "All may be turned end to end, nothing will be changed."
Rene Leys
 5 October 1911

VS was a student of the Dao De Jing. In fact, his entire oevre maybe thought of as an attempt at a synthesis between Western and Eastern - especially Daoist - aesthetics and ideas, and this dialogue is at the heart of Rene Leys.  The three themes we have looked at above: circularity, anticipation and indeterminacy are also among the key concerns of the Dao De Jing.

In what follows we look at parts of three stanzas in particular of the Dao De Jing which are relevant to our reading of Rene Leys, focusing on a number of key concepts adumbrated in the Dao which are essential for an understanding of VS's project in the novel. (All translations of the Dao De Jing by Moss Roberts.)

Stanza 16 (lines 1 - 6)
By reaching utmost receptivity
and keeping steadfast stability
I, as the ten thousand things come forth in profusion,
Contemplate their circulation.
All multiply in fruitful growth
Then bend homeward to their root.

1) 'The ten thousand things' (wanwu) is a metaphor for the plethora of phenomena in the world. The 'ten thousand things' have no order, no hierarchy. They exist independently of any attempts to observe them, and may be thought of in Western terms as something akin to Kant's 'extensive manifold'.  Note also the circularity.

2) 'Receptivity' (xu) this can be thought of as an inner emptiness, a receptivity to the ten thousand things without prior concepts about them, that is, without prior 'naming' of them.

3) 'Contemplate' (guan) can be thought of as a process of simply seeing, observing without determining. These two terms are often found together in the Dao De Jing, or are interchanged in the different source texts.

Stanza 2 (lines 12- 17)
This is why the man of wisdom
Concerns himself with under-acting
And applies the lesson
Of the word unspoken
That all the ten thousand may come forth
Without his direction...

4) 'Under-acting' (wuwei), the key virtue of Daoism, is difficult to grasp. The term wu (a different word from the wu of the 'ten thousand things') combines two concepts usually regarded as antithetical to the Western mind, that of absence and presence. As a noun it means 'what is absent', an un-manifestation, a lacuna. As a verb it may mean 'to lack', 'to be absent'. It carries an inherent negation. If one considers the ontological ambiguities of 'to be absent' in English, the 'be' implies a presence, while the 'absent 'negates it. Thus we have a present absence. Likewise with 'have a lack'. The border between presence and absence, between being and not being, between having and not having, is indeterminate,  encapsulated in the word. The term wei means action, or guiding forward.

Stanza 1 (lines 1-2)
The Way as 'way' bespeaks no common lasting way,
The name as 'name' bespeaks no common lasting name...

5) 'Name' (ming) also means the process of definition, in semiotic terms, assigning a sign to a signified, but in philosophical terms, of the imposition of a way of seeing the ten thousand things through a tissue of language. This opening couplet of the Dao De Jing, then, warns against the false imposition of names on the things of the Way. An early 20th century commentator on the Dao De Jing writes: Names appear after the Way is lost, and Moss Roberts writes about naming: For Laozi, naming is the basis for dominating.

It now becomes clear, I hope, that VS's project in Rene Leys is to offer a parable about the dangers of imposing names on things, about the hazards of disambiguation, about the perils of seeing China through Western eyes. Let's see how.

First, Segalen is not clearly seeing the ten thousand things - the real life of Rene Leys, and the truth of their relationship and Rene's tall tales- because he comes already burdened with his obsessions about the Within, about the mysterious Kuang Hsu Emperor, about his book. These obsessions frame, or 'name' the things he sees, obscuring their real reality, and because of this, Rene is able to feed him the things he already wants to know.

Secondly, he names things before he sees them, and then sees them only through the frames he has already imposed on them, through the names he has already given them. A characteristic of Segalen's diary is the use of the future tense to describe certainties: I know in advance all that will happen, and all that is... all that remains impossible. Elsewhere he writes: it has got to the point with Rene Leys where I can almost guess what the dear boy is going to tell me next...The first sentence of the novel is in the future tense. This goes beyond a mere 'Orientalist' (in Said's sense of the word) interpreting the world in terms of one's construct of the Exotic Other.  For the Daoist, the correct sequence for perception of the Way is: seeing, knowing, naming, acting. Segalan disrupts this sequence by 'naming' first, and only then follows by (falsely) seeing. As we have seen, this anticipation works on the structural level of the narrative as well as on the thematic. In the Dao De Jing, when naming comes before seeing and knowing, it is accompanied by disaster and the destruction of kingdoms.

Thirdly, Segalen is locked into a Western imperative of seeking to resolve indeterminacies. The indeterminacy frustrates him, and he wants to have done with it:  it was the desire to know once and for all who and what he is. He does this by trying to discern (impose?) boundaries: Have you -yes or no-, lain with the Empress?  The terms of enquiry, the perception of the ten thousand, is already limited by the imposition of yes- no: the terms of the question define the scope of the answer. As W.H. Auden puts it, Segalen is baiting with the wrong request/ the vectors of his interest.

Further, he is under the (Western) illusion that facts are indisputable: I was waiting for FACTS... the THE fact, the crudely palpable event that I could touch with my fingers. The Dao De Jing specifically warns against privileging one thing over another: all the things of the ten thousand are equal under the Way, and facts are not privileged simply by virtue of being facts as they are in Western epistemology.

Finally, all these Western methods of attaining knowledge that we have outlined may be understood (from the point of view of Lao Zi) as ways of reordering phenomena through the operation of a kind of psychic force: This time I mean to force an explanation out of him. Naming is dominating.

We can say then, that in Daoist terms, Segalen lacks xu, and because he lacks it, is incapable of guan, of seeing the ten thousand things correctly. This of course makes it impossible for Segalen to be capable of wuwei, and the consequences are tragic. Segalen finally arrives at guan, but as always, he is too late.

VII: A Glimpse of the Dao

 Is it all true then, "Chinese fashion"?
Rene Leys
22 November 1911

However, Rene Leys is not only merely a parable. It must be remembered -and it's easy to forget this until the text reminds us - that Rene is not Chinese. This is not a dialogue between Western modes of perception and Chinese modes of perception embodied in the identities of two main characters who each represent their respective cultures. No. The circular, anticipatory structure of the novel, and the fact that Rene Leys is a European lad ensures that the dialogue between West and East happens in the mind of the reader, not only on the page. Through reading the novel -twice- the reader, like Segalen, also undergoes the process of clear seeing (guan) the ten thousand things. The novel is VS's attempt to embody the teachings of the Dao De Jing within a Western schematic, and in a way which allows those teachings to be experienced by a Western mind, rather than just read about.

We have noted already how the novel compels a second reading, a second chance, for both reader and Segalen. In this way, structurally, the novel opens up more than one possibility of seeing, more than one perspective. Wei Lim Yip, writing again about the Daoist aesthetic of vagueness in Chinese literature, says: ...This opens up an indeterminate space for the readers to enter and re-enter for multiple perceptions rather than locking them into some definite perspectival position or guiding them in a certain direction. Which remark might just as well apply to the structure, themes and indeed the whole project of Rene Leys. What at first sight looks like a definite perspectival position becomes on second reading an indeterminate space.

At the end of the novel, before Segalan closes his diary for the last time he writes: I was his friend. - I ought to say with the same emphasis, the same loyal regret, without going any further into what exactly our friendship consisted in... for fear of killing him, or of killing him a second time ...or - which would be even more unpardonable - of being suddenly called upon to answer my doubt myself and finally pronounce: yes or no?

'Without going any further into what exactly'... 'without fear of being suddenly called upon to answer my doubt'.... 'or finally pronounce: yes or no'.  These are all signifiers of xu or guan, or an ability to abide in negative capability "Chinese Fashion" without falling victim to the imperative of Western determinacy. Segalen, at the end, applies the lesson of the word unspoken and has his glimpse of the Dao. The great, wondrous beauty of this book is that the reader glimpses it before he does.

Epilogue: In which Sir Edmund Backhouse does not make a second appearance

I should very much like to have written this poem, which I venture to dub 'occasional' with a single stroke of the brush in the style of the ancient Chou bronzes. I had to content myself with translating it into French - from a non-existent Chinese original.
20 September 1911
Rene Leys

In 1913, the year Rene Leys was written, Sir Edmund Backhouse made the first of many bequests of ancient Chinese documents to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, and continued to do so for the next few years. Hailed as one of the greatest collections of Chinese literature in the world by contemporary scholars, it still forms the backbone of the Library's Chinese collection. In 1918, however, rumours began to circulate that not all of these documents were real, and that many of them had been faked by Sir Edmund himself. These rumours proved true, and to cut a long and complex story short, Backhouse was revealed as one of the century's most outrageous and successful hoaxsters. Like Rene Leys, he had relied on the ignorance and preconceptions of the West to give them what they wanted.

The revelation of the Bodleian Library hoax casts doubt on the veracity of everything Backhouse wrote on China; and the truthfulness or otherwise of all his work remains to this day controversial, and impossible to finally determine. However, if the documents given by Backhouse to Oxford were non-existent, forged by himself, this means that Backhouse was a literary genius - in Chinese.

His 'translations' and 'recreations' of ancient Chinese documents are similar to the literary strategies that VS himself employed: his book Steles presents itself as translations of inscriptions on non-existent Chinese grave markers; his volume of prose poems Peintures presents itself as descriptions of Chinese paintings, which likewise do not exist; while Equipee recounts a non-existent expedition into the interior of China. What saves these works from being hoaxes is that their unreal provenance is not hidden but displayed.

The mystery of the ways in which the fictional story of Rene Leys anticipates the real story of Sir Edmund Backhouse only deepens when we learn that in his memoir, Decadence Mandchoue, which has only this year been published, Backhouse, also like Rene Leys, claimed to have been the secret lover of his Empress Dowager (old Buddha), and to have had intimate knowledge of the workings of the Manchu Dynasty. VS died in 1919, however, and knew nothing of Backhouse's disgrace.

Another source for Rene Leys has been seen in the Frenchman Maurice Roy, who also regaled VS with tall tales of his doings with the Princess Dowager Long Yu and the Manchus. However, for me, Backhouse is a much more convincing influence on the novel for the very reason that he is not in the book. Backhouse was a consumate hoaxster -unlike the unconvincing Roy- and VS, as we have seen, was attracted to the indterminate status of the hoax, seeing in it a parallel with the Dao. Backhouse, then, remains the presence and the absence, the wu, at the heart of the novel.

There remain those inexplicable moments...glimpses, flashes... insights, words no one could have made up, things no one could have fabricated... all his confidences really did inhabit an essential Palace built upon the most magnificent foundations... and the sets he conjured up ... and that teeming ceremonial and secret Pekingese life that no truth as officially known will ever begin to suspect...
22 November 1911
Rene Leys

So many things, half seen, can never be seen.


Unknown said...

Um, nice book you wrote there, Murr!

Unknown said...

... and I swear I didn't read past your "Honest Interlude". I'm off work today, heading to the largest used store in my vicinity with a pal, and this Rene Leys is fixed in my sights ...

Chris said...

That was an absolutely brilliant analysis of Rene Leys (which I've read). Thank you for writing it - the book deserves to be much better known.

Murr said...

Thanks for your comments!

sex shop market said...
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hi from Tenerife
It's any posibility to get the book: Rene Leys in pdf format, online?
Felicidades for your blog!!!!

My e-mai:


Hi from Tenerife!

It's any possiblity to get the book (Rene Leys) in pdf format online?

Congratulations for Your Blog!!!!

My e-mail:

Tank You

Pim Wiersinga said...

Dear Mr. Murr,

What an exquisite, contextual, and comprehensive review - nay essay - on 'René Leys' have you written - not to mention the flashes of literary brilliance you display yourself. 'To be plunged back into belief': wonderful phrasing! And I can't help wondering: are you a sort of latter-day Taiwenese 'Baccus', hiding your novelist's name for all the world to ignore?

I am not exaggerating, dear Sir. Your exposition vividly brought back the days I was preparing my novelistic debut ('Honeybirds', not yet translated in English; about an Antwerp girl of mixed descent, who fled racism there and [later in life] allegedly finds herself one of the Guangxu Emperor's consorts and befriends the unfortunate Pearl Concubine); indeed you cover large swaths of that arduous trajectory - a feat I hardly deemed possible.

Gasping for gratitude, I can only thank you so, sooo much!

Pim Wiersinga