Poem in the Paris métro, April 2, 2003:
Un boeuf gris de la Chine
Couché dans son étable
Allonge son échine
Et dans le même instant
Un boeuf de l’Uruguay
Se retourne pour voir
Si quelqu’un a bougé
Poem in the Paris métro, April 2, 2003:
Un boeuf gris de la Chine
Couché dans son étable
Allonge son échine
Et dans le même instant
Un boeuf de l’Uruguay
Se retourne pour voir
Si quelqu’un a bougé
These are a few notes on a recent French book that compares how a long European tradition and an even longer Chinese interpretation have framed their notions of landscape and painting. In Vivre de paysage ou l’impensé de la raison (Paris: Gallimard, 2014), François Jullien sets out to understand their vastly different approaches and suggest that something very important can be learned from the Chinese tradition of thought.
Reading the first pages on the notion of landscape was problematic. I thought first of all about the multitudes preoccupied by their means of survival in a rather dangerous and often unjust world, who not only dwelled but labored in a familiar, close-by, unforgiving, recognizable country (a “pays”), and who could not easily take their distances from what European painters conceived of as landscape from the fifteenth century on, and what the Chinese artists, much before even—about a thousand years—thought of as mountain(s) and water(s). In my childhood, as best I can recall, no usage of the word or concept of landscape as something extracted from the surrounding cosmos by the bourgeois, politically empowered subject, no possibility of retreat—a retreat mediated by the servants and massive labor at the service of elites—from the natural world, however mediated by hand tools and animals. One had to obey the seasons and the rhythms of a vacation-less working year. Two memories on this topic: a man using the Breton word kaer (idea of beauty and abundance rolled into one, quite different from koant = pretty, and brav = beautiful) to describe a field of ripening wheat, without wild oats, behind the cowshed, flat like a table. Not to describe the field itself, surrounded by embankments and gently sloping towards the creek, but the wheat that had grown, a threatened miracle that came from long days of preparation and sowing, rains and sun in season, all things one couldn’t (or didn’t dare to) expect and contemplate as acquired objects. Kaer like a young wife with children, but also the family through her. Second memory: another man reminiscing on his return at the end of May 1945, after five and half years as a war prisoner, and telling of his emotion when he saw the beautiful country from the height of Belle-Vue before la Roche-Derrien, in Brittany, on his way, on foot, to see his mother and family. There too, no usage of the word or concept of landscape, no attempt at transcending the country, no daring to set oneself epistemically above or before things, but the shock of having been separated from his milieu and recognizing life and the land that allows it as miraculous gift.
But back to Jullien’s book on the concept of landscape in European and Chinese thinking and art. Its basic question concerns the turn that European languages and thought have given since the fifteenth century to a perspective on the world (or: in reverse, how our perspective on the world became enshrined in our language). Our perspective, our vision, is based on a radical separation of subject and object. Does this transcendental perspective prevent us not only from being in the world but even from thinking about it properly (politically for instance), when we could have continued to be immersed in it and kept thinking about this immersion in the mode of Chinese thinkers, poets, and painters? To rethink our relationship to the world like Chinese thinkers would mean to abandon any ontology (Jullien 80). No creator god, no transcendence—I add no world outside—but dynamically bound polarities (82–83). No domination of an object by a subject narrowly and rigidly set as spectator or voyeur, no paralyzing assignation. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, some progress was finally made in Europe, or rather this deranged objectification of the world began to be questioned in many attempts to abandon ontological purity and epistemological superiority. European painting, music, literature, and even perhaps politics, reached fitfully for a pre- or post-modern stance, for a world beyond objectification. Jullien argues that Chinese intellectuals had reached that view more completely and organically already at the beginning of our era, sometime at the beginning of the fourth century. In other words, Europe has begun reevaluating its old “investments” in the matters of truth and freedom, and there is a chance that it has become seriously interested (inter-esse!) for now a century and a half in the landscape and milieu in which it lives.
Reading this book led to two questions. The first one concerns the origin of this Chinese intellectual way of thinking about their world. The work of food production and its accompanying transformation of the landscape, as I already suggested above, who accomplished it and at what cost? Jullien quotes two or three poems that make clear allusions to this aspect but he does not pursue the matter (I quote them below). He suspends or even avoids all social and political analysis—or at least this is the impression he gives. A landscape, whether it is a belated product of a European visual abstraction (since the sixteenth century) or a much older Chinese encounter of “mountain(s) and water(s),” is partly generated by the long, cross-generational work of a majority of the people in these agrarian societies. Rivers, plains, terraces, cultivated plants, forests, all are partly the product of unceasing, difficult work and engagement with a nature that becomes such through them.
My second question is inchoate. It concerns the nature and rhythm of the long economic, social, political and religious developments of those two large human groups (Chinese and European). Why in China did one continue to look at the world and humankind as constituting their horizons and infinity (beyond the horizon) from within themselves and achieving their balance in themselves? Why did Greek thinkers, so differently, begin to posit a separation of spirit or soul and matter, and especially why did Israel develop a faith in a creator god radically other than its creation? Jullien reflects on Greek thought—positively regarding Heraclitus and his polarities, since they do not seem antinomic to Chinese notions, but negatively regarding Plato and the dualism we inherited from his tradition—. He pays no attention at all to monotheism, which is surprising in a book that takes the long view on Europe. It seems to me that a proper history of monotheism would show it emerged as a powerful critique of politically domineering and conquering mythologies in which precisely the absence of radical horizon and termini went together with an ideology of permanent equilibrium. Something perhaps not so different from the Chinese political configurations and wisdom of the past and not necessarily as properly balanced as Jullien imagines?
One would have to understand better once more how this monotheism was radicalized by the messianism of Jesus’ followers and how it eventuated into a temperate or negotiable dualism in which the status of the world has long been intensely debated. The most fundamental aspect of it is the sense that the life of many at its most material—production of food, reproduction of life, poverty of means, health, etc.—was transformed by the belief in the incarnation. The fact that the language and idea of “landscape” or “paysage” appear in sixteenth-century Europe seems to be a new development tied in part to this Greco-Christian dualism, as Jullien says only in passing. It is made especially possible by the new economic developments in the European sphere. Jullien speaks of science but very little of the economy. These economic developments can hardly be separated from religious faith. The influence of the notion of incarnation and creator god remained clear in paintings of biblical scenes in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. I like to think it was still profound in the inhabited landscapes of Brueghel and Bosch.
Human labor briefly appears in a discussion of what Jullien calls “connivence” [= complicity], which he insists he finds in Chinese thought because it was not encumbered by the radical separation between subject and object that all too long burdened European thought. Pages 225–26, he quotes the Tang period’s poet Liu Zongyuan who describes this complicity:
First, the land had to be reclaimed: to scythe the rotten grass, cut the worm-eaten wood and burn it. From the pruning a landscape is born: ‘Great trees rose up, beautiful bamboos appeared, strange boulders showed up.’ ‘It is from within this that one began to contemplate.’
Jullien misses the point when he continues somewhat indifferently: “Here contemplation is born from ‘the milieu.” Much more is at stake or then one has to explain “milieu”. The poet invites us to think of contemplation as grounded in a landscape where human labor can be conceived of as dwelling, receiving from nature, giving in return, and in turn being received by others.
One of the last quotations by Jullien comes from the thinker Shitao (eighteenth century) who most radically spoke of a co-birthing of the self and the landscape (Jullien 233). Jullien thinks that
this is precisely how landscapes become such: it is not me, autonomous subject, initiating subject (knowing subject), who uses it [= dispose de lui], but the landscape lays me out as well [= me dispose]. Most exactly, ‘ego’ and ‘landscape’ give birth to each other [= chacun des deux met l'autre au monde].
It seems to me that Jullien is contradicting his own vision by using the notion of landscape as a separate ontological category. Concerning this reciprocal birthing, Jullien could have paid much more attention to the role played by human labor in tension with the natural world (nature = naturus, about to be born), each giving itself to this making of the world as well as offering itself to taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight.
Prasenjit Duara gave a talk yesterday at UCSC, in the sequoia-surrounded Humanities building at Cowell. It was a clear introduction to the way he thinks about the bond between modern history writing and the development of modern nations, a theme he has long explored, for instance in Rescuing history from the nation: questioning narratives of modern China (and in many other publications, such as: The global and regional in China’s nation-formation; Duara and Bose, Asia redux: conceptualising a region for our times; Decolonization: perspectives from now and then). The link is clear, and the need to criticize and overcome it urgent, especially as nation states are now up against much larger issues that they are ill equipped to tackle or control. I suppose Duara agrees with thinkers such as Manent, who see that modern nation states have quickly become very weak agents the world over and have lost their position as mediums between modern citizens and all kinds of forces exerting their influence daily on them: Metamorphoses of the city (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013). Let’s call them the lure and organizing chaos of capitalism. Duara sees local, regional, inter-regional histories as necessary counterpoint. By systematically developing these narratives and abandoning the artificial, falsely unifying supra-narrative dependent on nation states and often subservient to them, one would in fact also be resuming, reinforcing, or going back to an older tradition, still alive in pockets of culture, but displaced since the eighteenth century by histories at the service of conquering nations, their subsequent imitators, and the behind-the-scenes all-consuming capitalism. To abandon the linear history he thinks undergirds national histories would mean going back to pre-eminently cultural, infra-national accounts, leading to more open, adapting, circulating (as well as circular) and multi-focus histories.
Duara mentioned the role of transcendence in these stories at the beginning of his talk and the few sentences I’m putting together now on this topic may not do justice to what he meant. I need to do more reading of his work, and found for instance this essay by Duara, which introduces a chapter to appear in his forthcoming book on the historical field of Chinese religions. It deals with the difference between the notion of transcendence in the Abrahamic and Chinese tradition. I’ll have to return to this text in a later blog. In the talk yesterday, he made a remark in passing on the potential role of sacredness and the need to integrate it in what I take to be the new theoretical and narrativistic mediations he is calling into being. One example he gave, in relation to this notion of sacred, was of the sizable chunks of natural resources that states, as still eminent representatives of the public (of the people’s will, or also divine will?), control all over the world, something he called a form of “commons” at another point in his talk. I understand him to mean that pre-modern outlooks (still very alive of course in many regions of the world though buried under the still spreading and dominant rationalist versions of history) are predicated on a notion of transcendence that rationalist theories of politics, economics, and society have abandoned (or rather invested with new meanings invoked to their own advantage in their own secular form of it: modern ontologies naming state, nation, people, race, etc. as new grounds beyond discussion). In consequence, they have cut themselves off from theoretical possibilities and viewpoints that would be most useful when confronting such large, supranational issues as climate change. In other words, local, interlocking belief systems not only need to be taken into account when telling the story of what really unites and divides people but they are our main chance to avoid a type of history writing that has as much value and no more than the weakening national idea it has temporarily been linked to.
Nobody sees a problem, I suppose, in weakening—or showing the weakness and artificiality of—a historical framework all too often at the service of national and military power, itself at the beckon and call of capitalist instantiations. But what does it mean to appeal to other ontological ground than the “people’s will,” or “rationalism?” What does it entail to pay due attention (and return) to notions of transcendence and sacredness? Duara remarked on one of the great changes happening to large numbers of people since the eighteenth century and especially the past half century or so. Children used to begin to work and become peasants at the earliest possible time, from the age of five or thereabouts. Now, in very many places, in great part thanks to state agency, they go to school until sixteen or so. Childhood takes on a new meaning. When so many people leave behind agrarian systems in which one began to work early and enter capitalizable networks of relations, do they bring with them their own sense of mystery or transcendence and their old stories connected to that, or do they abandon them when they migrate to booming cities and when they switch to television- and internet-based story telling? What can “sacred” times and places mean for them?
Ursula LeGuin spoke at the Rio tonight. Theme was: always coming home… and be patient enough to become rock or leaf. I walked to the Rio Theater then walked back and got soaked by a splendid drizzle. Any fine rain is home. Hence this poem of Armand Robin who spent much time listening to foreign radios in the many languages he knew and writing (righting) what he called Listening Reports:
Sans parole, je suis toute parole; sans langue, je suis chaque langue. D’incessants déferlements de rumeurs tantôt m’humectent et me font onde, tantôt m’affleurent comme un destin de calme promenade et me font sable, tantôt me choquent et me font roc. Je m’allonge en très immense et très docile plage où de vastes êtres collectifs, nerveux et tumultueux, abordent en gémissant élémentairement. (p. 14 of the edition by F. Morvan, ed. Le temps qu’il fait, 1979)
Speechless, I am every speech. Tongueless, I am every tongue. Ceaseless crashing rumors now moisten me and make me water and wave, or come flush like a quiet afternoon walk and make me sand, or yet are bolts and make me rock. I lay down, immense and very docile beach where vast collective beings, swift and thunderous, land with elemental groanings.
I just read about the McCutcheon decision taken by the Supreme Court. It makes it easier for rich people to infuse even more dollars more often into electoral cycles. What would the biblical prophets say? Modern representative political systems are about the Word: spoken, amplified, written, published, filmed, internet-searched and promoted. The spoken and written word is still free and unrepressed but quiet. The amplified and copied form is the modern form of ancient baalism. Its size and gilding confuse those hoping to hear truth. Plutocrats will be able to exercise more fully their democratic rights to speak—demo-cratic: power to the people!—, the court opines. But this is not at all about speaking the Word. It is about a capacity to copy, amplify, flood. What is a plutocratic Word likely to be if not about defending and extending plutocratic interests, power to collect more symbols of power. How? By removing all limits to the ability to shape and satisfy the most hidden desires of the populace. By going down as low as possible. By speaking the Word of desire. Plutocrats have one Word to say: greed. Three words: greed is good! Twelve words: My Greed meeting your n(gr)eed on the market produces adorable, shareable wealth!
The cherry blossoms at the library move to the breeze under immobile, somber sequoias. Eternal profusion of an erupting sea over the peeling, dark silver, lichen-covered bark. Miraculous light that disarms the white and pink palette of the mind. A wondrous canopy will have dared spring up again, offer its abode, and quiz eye and heart.
Two quotes from John Gray’s March 13 review in the New Stateman of new books by Peter Watson—The age of nothing— and Terry Eagleton—Culture and the death of god:
If Yeshua (the Jewish prophet later known as Jesus) had died on the cross and stayed dead, that would have been a tragedy. In the Christian story, however, he was resurrected and came back into the world. Possibly this is why Dante’s great poem wasn’t called The Divine Tragedy. In the sense in which it was understood by the ancients, tragedy implies necessity and unalterable finality. According to Christianity, on the other hand, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed by divine grace and even death can be annulled.
Complete misreading of Christianity, to think of the resurrection as a trick, a deus ex machina of the kind featured at the end of some classical plays. One doesn’t need to believe in the resurrection and the messianic interpretation to see that Gray here is assuming a very old posture that was of course rejected by the gospels themselves. But to think Jesus’ death is not seen as a tragedy in Christianity: No need to know what tragos and victimization mean to consider that what is splashed everywhere from churches to house walls, not to mention paintings and scuptures, for centuries now, and perhaps coming to an end (but I wouldn’t bet on it) is the belief that Jesus is forever both on the cross and resurrected. The real problem Greeks had with the passion—many would have agreed with John Gray—cannot be evacuated so easily. As for redemption of everything by divine grace: Christianity struggled mightily with this notion. Surely there are things that are unforgiveable? And yet, no matter the terrible failures of Christianity (-ies), the invisible and sotto voce call for boundless forgiveness, that is what keeps sounding. As for Gray calling Jesus Yeshua, that is fake historicization, part of his unthinking attempt to evacuate the problem. By problem I mean a tragic vision of life that incomprehensibly hearkens to forgiveness and a transformation of life mechanics into another, barely imaginable life, here and now. And here is another quote showing Gray’s willful misunderstanding:
The anti-tragic character of Christianity poses something of a problem for Eagleton. As he understands it, the Christian message calls for the radical dissolution of established forms of life – a revolutionary demand, but also a tragic one, as the kingdom of God and that of man will always be at odds. The trouble is that the historical Jesus seems not to have believed anything like this. His disdain for order in society rested on his conviction that the world was about to come to an end, not metaphorically, as Augustine would later suggest, but literally. In contrast, revolutionaries must act in the basic belief that history will continue, and when they manage to seize power they display an intense interest in maintaining order. Those who make revolutions have little interest in being figures in a tragic spectacle. Perhaps Eagleton should read a little more Lenin.
… And John Gray the gospels. What this author calls Jesus’ disdain for order in society was a refusal of the disorder and anarchy parading as order.
The need to know the dates of birth of my parents made me discover the digitized archives of the Côtes d’Armor, a département in Brittany—one of 96 in France. I could not find my parents’ dates in these digitized archives because they cover the years from 1467 (the date of the earliest registry of births in the collection, in Latin at the time) to 1902, sometimes 1906. My parents were born in 1906 and 1913 and the record of their births probably has not been digitized. It is still in the mairies‘ registries of their villages of origin.
Why don’t I know their dates? The main reason is that when we were growing up in the fifties in traditional Catholic villages in Brittany (and I suppose this is true of the rest of the traditional Catholic world at the time) we didn’t celebrate birthdays, or at least not our parents’. Saints’ days were celebrated or kept in mind and advertized by collective celebrations (pardons), the imagined days of a glorious entrance or birth into heaven after the travails of life. Like that of Saint Gildas, a sixth-century Welsh saint whose traces are celebrated from northern to southern Brittany, such as at this island below, called l’île Saint Gildas in French. The photograph taken from heaven comes from the Henrard collection and was bought by the Archives départementales where I found it. Photo taken in the late fifties (dates given: 1948–72)?
The newspaper was an interesting splash of contradictions this morning. On one side of the opinion page, ideas about the reduction of inequality and the pursuit of social justice here in the US by Krugman (let’s do it now, Mr President) and Brooks (let’s take our time: it takes a generation to raise social mobility). On the other, Timothy Egan who applauds Gates’ proclamation that the end of massive poverty is in sight. Almost, 2035. According to Gates, an increase in private philanthropy and governments’ foreign aid (low at the moment) remain essential to the goal of bringing it about. Life expectancy is on the rise, epidemic diseases are being pushed back or eradicated, and birth rates are about to stabilize, not explode, as poverty recedes. The Davos chalet crowd can be satisfied and not worry too much about the cry from Oxfam that inequality is massively increasing and threatening the security of everyone. See its report. Quotes from the second page:
• Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
• The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
• The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.
• Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
• The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
• In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.
Not that Oxfam is a radical organization. It accepts the modern view that the pursuit of personal desires is providential—Adam Smith’s invisible hand—and creates better conditions for everyone all around. Quote from the second paragraph on the first page:
Some economic inequality is essential to drive growth and progress, rewarding those with talent, hard earned skills, and the ambition to innovate and take entrepreneurial risks. However, the extreme levels of wealth concentration occurring today threaten to exclude hundreds of millions of people from realizing the benefits of their talents and hard work.
The first word of this paragraph speaks volumes. How much is “Some economic inequality?” The replacement of a deprecated theology of divine providence (= the Church’s economy of salvation) by a supposedly rational belief in the claimed automatisms of a transcendental economic rationality looks less and less like progress.
The US public doesn’t want a war with Iran and supports the diplomatic avenues finally opened by our administration. See Susan Lazare’s article on Juan Coles’s Informed comment. Key passages:
According to the latest count, 59 senators—16 of them Democrats—have thrown their public support behind the Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013 (S. 1881), which would advance further sanctions on Iran and impose near-impossible conditions on a final agreement — in what critics, including the Obama administration, say amounts to a call for war.
Many organizations are calling for diplomacy and pressuring those 59 senators to consider realities:
Sixty-two organizations …. released an open letter (pdf) to U.S. senators declaring, “By foreclosing diplomatic prospects, new sanctions would set us on a path to war… We strongly urge you to withhold co-sponsorship of S. 1881 and delay consideration of new Iran sanctions while negotiations are ongoing.”
Realities: the 2003 war against Iraq had disastrous consequences, and the war-type sanctions meant to bully Iran into submission and curtail its potential power in the region haven’t achieved the goal. More of the same would make it unlikely for Iran to exercise their power and help with Syria, Kurdistan (in common with Turkey), proper constitution in Iraq, security in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It means sharing resources in the Persian Gulf area. It means more important actors being engaged in this redistribution of resources, especially Russia, China and India. The plurality of actors could be good for peace and help the US negotiate the difficult and necessary down-tuning of its military power. Diplomatic progress towards a multi-polar world would mean greater security for everyone, including Israel.