Meng’s [Meng Yujian, (active ca. 1325-53)] paintings were popular during his lifetime but critical opinion was not entirely favorable; the T’u-hui pao-chien says of him: “His works are very delicate and pretty, but he cannot avoid an air of skillfulness.” To accuse an artist of being skillful was, of course, to relegate him to a lower rank.
—James Cahill, Hills Beyond a River: Chinese Painting of the Yuan Dynasty
Last summer the Berkeley Art Museum uncharacteristically rotated the Cahill collection out of its set of by-appointment-only cabinets, and I only managed to go see it once. More recently I found myself in a beautiful reading room of the campus Asian studies library, facing thousands of books I couldn’t read; so I went looking for volumes with pictures and got lost in Cahill’s account of the Yuan.
Su Shi, in the Song era, is tagged as the first to have said that “anyone judging painting on the criterion of likeness is the next thing to a child.” He would have been already exiled from court when he said it, without others around to take up the provocation. So he kept going on his own, painting weird rocks and trees:
instead of comprehensible academy landscapes in the Guo Xi manner:
It wasn’t until after the Mongol conquest that Su’s aesthetics were more broadly taken up, because all at once the country’s entire educated class found itself in Su’s position. They couldn’t get jobs at court (and if a job was offered, tended to reject it out of principle); centuries of prejudice against artisans barred them from painting for money. They gathered far from Kublai Khan’s capital, around the lakes of Suzhou, and with Su as a model began to elaborate an intellectually demanding coterie art, aggressively amateurish in technique and defying court and marketplace alike. Looking back from the Ming, the painter-writer Gu Ningyuan wrote that they “were all men of great virtue and succeeded in concealing their technical skill. They were afraid of becoming famous through their painting and of not being able to avoid the entanglements of the world. Only Zhao Mengfu stood out brilliantly and competed with the famous masters of the Tang and Song periods. He was very bold, but when he became a high official, he must nevertheless have found his great skill in art an embarrassment.”
Their works are often compared to primitivist and expressionist movements in Western art, but in this social context they remind me of nothing so much as underground rock—any of those indie or art-punk modes that deploy bluntness and naivete as a code, because only the right people are supposed to get that it’s smarter, and is working much harder, than it seems.
The scholarly class was trained in calligraphy rather than painting, and not only are these new paintings suddenly covered in writing, the forms themselves are written with the calligrapher’s brush. Each leaf and petal of Zheng Sixiao’s orchids records a single stroke, and is thus subject to the performative demands of calligraphy. Every nuance of the hand’s motion is recorded, and can’t be erased or revised once it’s laid down, making for a record of performance as intimate and unsparing as two-track tape. The concept of qiyun (氣韻) had been a touchstone of art criticism for centuries, and had seen many redefinitions; for the Yuan, it meant the signature expression of the artist’s temperament, as opposed to technical skill or verisimilitude. Art books render the term as “spirit resonance” or “spirit consonance,” but surely what we’d call it over here is “soul.” The Yuan take on qiyun is whatever makes two chords on Lou Reed’s guitar Lou Reed chords and nobody else’s; whatever makes a line into a Lou Reed line as soon as he opens his mouth.
The famous story about Zheng’s orchids is that someone asked him why the orchids were rooted in empty space. Where was the earth? “The earth has been stolen by the barbarians,” said Zheng. The painting’s space used to be emptier than it is now—the seals and much of the writing were added by later admirers—but one passage on the left is in Zheng’s own hand. “If you ask me for it, you won’t get it,” he says; “if you don’t ask for it, I might give it to you.” That’s as arch toward its audience as any liner notes I can think of, and quite a familiar gambit of the dispossessed.
At Home With the Moirai
We got R. an Easter sewing set with twenty-odd colored spools and at dusk she portioned them out for me: “This [dark gray] is darkness—that’s a challenge for you—this [light gray] is dimness—you will have to go through dimness—this [light green] is the leaves of the tree and this [dark green] is the trunk...” Then I followed her through color-coded quests in the yard, clutching one spool at a time. “How old are you? Thirty-eight... you have to go around these bricks thirty times, or eight times.” She pulled herself up to the fence in her nightgown, left wrist still in a cast, and spied on the neighbors’ flowers. “The flower of love... no, the flower of the truth.”
I’ve been trying to nail down words for a few songs and came across Nadezhda Mandelstam’s extraordinary account of the process (in Hope Against Hope):
A poem begins with a musical phrase ringing insistently in the ears; at first inchoate, it later takes on a precise form, though still without words. I sometimes saw M. trying to get rid of this kind of “hum,” to brush off and escape from it. He would toss his head as though it could be shaken out like a drop of water that gets into your ear while bathing. But it was always louder than any noise, radio or conversation in the same room.
Akhmatova told me that when “Poem Without a Hero” came to her, she was ready to try anything just to get rid of it, even rushing to do her washing. But nothing helped. At some point words formed behind the musical phrase and then the lips began to move. The work of a poet has probably something in common with that of a composer, and the appearance of words is the crucial factor that distinguishes it from musical composition. The “hum” sometimes came to M. in his sleep, but he could never remember it on waking. I have a feeling that verse exists before it is composed (M. never talked of “writing” verse, only of “composing” it and then copying it out). The whole process of composition is one of straining to catch and record something compounded of harmony and sense as it is relayed from an unknown source and gradually forms itself into words. The last stage of the work consists in ridding the poem of all the words foreign to the harmonious whole which existed before the poem arose. Such words slip in by chance, being used to fill gaps during the emergence of the whole. They become lodged in the body of the poem, and removing them is hard work. This final stage is a painful process of listening in to oneself in a search for the objective and absolutely precise unity called a “poem.” In his poem “Save My Speech,” the last adjective to come was “painstaking” (in “the painstaking tar of hard work”). M. complained that he needed something more precise and spare here, in the manner of Akhmatova: “She knows how to do it.” He seemed to be waiting for her help.
I noticed that in his work on a poem there were two points at which he would sigh with relief—when the first words in a line or stanza came to him, and when the last of the foreign bodies was driven out by the right word. Only then is there an end to the process of listening in on oneself—the same process that can prepare the way for a disturbance of the inner hearing and loss of sanity. The poem now seems to fall away from the author and no longer torments him with its resonance. He is released from the thing that obsesses him. Io, the poor cow, escapes from the gadfly.
If the poem won’t “go away,” M. said, it means that there is something wrong with it, or something “still hidden in it”—a last fruitful bud from which a new shoot might sprout.
There is nothing to report on the theatre. Fiaminna, which everyone is talking about, is rubbish. Question d’argent is a piece of witty chat, but tedious. The French have lost all capacity for truth in art, and art itself is dying out here. With which, addio.
—Turgenev to P.V. Annenkov, 15 April 1857
Just imagine what it is like to have left an area where cholera is raging: I am eating radishes! lettuce!! cucumber!!! and drinking cream!!!! and all in huge quantities, and I’ve given up mint!!!!! I am definitely beginning to feel the presence within me of some heroic spirit.
—Turgenev to V.Y. Kartashevskaya, 31 March 1859
Le soir, j'ai été voir les "Cinq sens", ballet. C’est inimaginablement absurde. Il y a, entre autres, une scène de magnétisme (Grisi magnétise M. Petitpa pour lui faire naître le sens du goût) qui est quelque chose de colossal en fait de stupidité! Il y avait beaucoup de monde, on a beaucoup applaudi. Grisi a fort bien dansé, en effet. Mais c’est ennuyeux, un ballet—des jambes, des jambes et puis des jambes,... c’est monotone.
In the evening I went to see a ballet, The Five Senses. It was unspeakably absurd. Among other things it had a scene of magnetism (Grisi magnetises M. Petitpa to awaken in him the sense of taste) utterly colossal in its stupidity. In fact Grisi danced very well, but a ballet is a tedious thing—legs, legs and more legs: monotonous.
—Turgenev to Pauline Viardot, 29 April 1848
...entirely preoccupied by the appearance of a large and colorful woodpecker which busily climbed up the slender trunk of a birch tree and looked anxiously from behind it to right and left like a musician looking out from behind the neck of his double-bass.
—Turgenev, First Love, tr. Richard Freeborn
Signs of Spring
Every nice day, this time of year, is a drop in the oncoming tide of disaster, and it is not an actual sin to enjoy the nice days, right? They always happened in some context, more often or less.
Been delighted by Chuck Berry on the New Wave (via josh): “If you’re going to be mad at least let the people know what you’re mad about... I like the bass a lot. Good mixture and a real good flow. The singer sounds like he has a bad case of stage fright...”
As a reaction to Unknown Pleasures, I get “the instruments may be different but the experiment’s the same.” I don’t understand it for “I Am the Fly.”
A: Could you stand to do a bunch of writing-for-exposure, beyond what you’ve done, or would it be too soul-killing? That mercenary shit is so much a part of the literary landscape now. I don’t know. Nonfiction is the price of fiction.
Similarly we wish it weren’t necessary for rock songs to be used in commercials, but... that’s the way it is? I don’t know if that’s a valid analogy. Economies of attention are what we’ve got, though.
B: I think the analogy is not licensing your song to a car commercial, which no one minds any more, but having to go spend two weeks of every month busking at the auto dealership.
Without quite intending it, I took to Vancouver mostly books from Asia or Asian America. Along with Sōseki’s Grass by the Wayside and Inoue’s The Hunting Gun (two cloudy gems of the “Is life worth living? Meh” school) I read Yiyun Li’s new essay-memoir on solitude, mental illness and suicide, disavowal of her first language, Turgenev, and other such matters. She has such a tenacious mind. It’s arresting, and seems a favor, to watch that mind at work. I can’t say whether her pathologies feel close to my own; that sort of closeness isn’t the point. She hates to write the English I, she says, and finds relief in Chinese sentences with implicit subjects. I’m sick of my own first person too, but have no way around it that’s not a dodge.
The Sun Yat-Sen garden was much as I remembered except for some maintenance work going on in the pond, which had lowered the water level to the point that the resident heron could finally stalk across it, as (I was told) it had always longed to do.
The interpretive signage explains that this is a scholar’s garden: here is the path down which the scholar walks, here the window through which the scholar contemplates the landscape arrangement, here the study where the scholar reads and writes poetry. I love this ghostly scholar who is needed to complete the architecture, and I stayed in the study a while because I much preferred being the scholar to being myself. The last time I failed to sell a book, I found an escape hatch in studying Greek and Japanese. There’s a great deal of shame in this, I said to J. She mentioned a quote from Kotsko: “from a psychoanalytic perspective, the presence of shame indicates that enjoyment has taken place,” and speculated that shame must then be the forcible conversion of pleasure into its opposite. It must have been the pleasure of imagining myself above my station, supposing the bench in the study had been set out for me.
Watery Vancouver, where the light comes late. I sat in the hotel (won’t go to the conference just yet, not quite yet) and imagined myself in a pencil sketch of a building, a crosshatching full of white space.
“The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilisation is already dead.” But it’s not a challenge at all. It’s all too easy to understand, to carry it around morning to night as a double exposure laid over catching the train, ordering dinner. Between small plates and the entrée at one of the best establishments in the city, “Idioteque” came on the sound system, the last thing I ever thought I’d hear in a restaurant... women and children first... and we kept drinking, suits and dresses, and money changed hands.
Biking home, moonrise looked so large and kind over the hills that it was easy to give the mineral sphere the aspect of a friend (ché travagliosa / era mia vita: ed è, né cangia stile, / o mia diletta Luna); and I remembered an impulse from childhood, to take as friends the rocks that would survive drought and dearth.