Homeless in the world: War, narrative, and historical consciousness in Eileen Chang, Gyorgy Lukacs, and Lev Tolstoy.
Marxist thinkers have explored the complicated relationship between capitalism and global imperialism (Marx and Engels 1998, 35-36). Rosa Luxemburg, in particular, was prescient in elucidating how the dynamics of capital necessitate inevitable global expansion and crisis. As capitalism produced far more surplus value than it could possibly realize as profit, the only way it could sustain its accumulation was to export this surplus into "non-capitalist strata," that is, in colonial territories that had not yet developed capitalist modes of production. As such, capital is forced to "[ransack] the whole world," as it must "dispose ever more fully of the whole globe" (Luxemburg 2003, 338). In her formulation, the two agonistic positions typically occupied by bourgeois and proletariat have been transformed into capital, personified as a colossal juggernaut, and the world, its relentlessly exploited victim.
This essay takes up the ways in which modern literature about war examines two questions: first, in the face of violence and destruction, how might literature figure a world of safety and wholeness away from historic trauma? Second, how might literature promise a form of critical engagement with the world as it is in the hope of finding the conceptual and political clarity necessary to reclaim a future world closer to the ideal? These two questions, when juxtaposed side by side, invite both conceptual conjunction and disjunction. One may argue that literature should be able to fulfill aesthetic and political ideals all at once, or conversely, that aesthetic and political concerns stand at odds against each other. This essay proposes a triangulated reading of the work of Eileen Chang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1920-1995), Gyorgy Lukacs (1885-1971), and Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910) as a way of exploring these simultaneous conjunctions and disjunctions. The linking of these authors is motivated by Lukacs and Chang's discussions of Tolstoy's War and Peace (serialized 1865-1867, published as book in 1869) during the global crisis of the 1930s that would usher in the Second World War. War and Peace depicts the Napoleonic Wars that heralded a new ordering of the world under triumphant British imperialism. As such, all three writers engage with the seemingly ceaseless chain of global conflicts and crises that are inseparable from the turbulent trajectory of imperialism, and which only found a partial, uneasy respite in the Cold War.
War and its associated displacements impacted all three authors in deeply personal ways. Both Lukacs and Chang found themselves repeatedly enacting the role of peripatetic exiles, straddling the borders of geopolitical contention. Tolstoy saw combat firsthand in the Crimean War, an experience that profoundly affected his life, philosophy, and fiction; War and Peace narrates in moving detail the burning of Moscow and the journey of its denizens to seek refuge away from Napoleon's troops. All three authors thus articulate a poetics of imperial traversal. While the logic of capital is already a spatial, mobile dynamic, it also compels another form of movement: the mobility of humans across imperial borders. Such traversal engages a constant somatic and epistemic negotiation with borders that are themselves structured by capital's irrepressible and occasionally catastrophic dynamics. This challenge evokes a notion of world as universal battleground, while at the same time relentlessly complicating the very possibility that a common world can even be thought of as such. And yet, occasionally, while such traversal can be traumatic, it can also spur a powerful aesthetic response. While both Lukacs and Chang found themselves profoundly affected by a common world-historical horizon, their readings of War and Peace, and moreover, their conceptions of what literature can and/or should do in the midst of global crisis, were nearly polar opposites. Lukacs represented a ceaseless striving for a conjunction between literature's aesthetic capabilities and political transformation. Chang, on the other hand, stalwartly insisted upon the disjunction between the world of literature and the world on the ground.
Dreamworlds: the 2008 Beijing Olympics and War and Peace
A very brief contemporary detour: the official slogan of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, held in Beijing, was "One World, One Dream" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. The Opening Ceremonies, directed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], featured extraordinary tableau after tableau that sought to induce what Harsha Ram (2003) has termed the "imperial sublime" (68). (2) One set piece saw the emergence of a giant blue sphere in the middle of the stadium. Traversing upon this blue orb, one seemingly without borders, were performers in all-white body suits suspended by wires. Defying gravity, they glided upon the globe in all possible directions with a sense of wanderlust and freedom that would be hardly thinkable in the real world.
This blue sphere was thus a dream manifestation of the slogan itself--a world without borders, without differences, upon which people could cohabit peacefully all while being completely free in their movement. For all of the beauty of "one world," it begs the question of who, or what, can bring it about. Nevertheless, the idea of a unified world as exemplified by the Olympic Games bears an uncanny resemblance to a pivotal scene in War and Peace where the protagonist Pierre Bezhukhov, captured by Napoleon's army, is grieving over the death of his friend Platon Karataev, a wise peasant shot by French troops because of his inability to keep up with the march. One night shortly after Platon's death, Pierre has a dream of a quivering, yet hopeful, world:
And suddenly a long forgotten, meek old teacher, who had taught him geography in Switzerland, emerged in Pierre's mind as if alive. "Wait!" said the old man. And he showed Pierre a globe. This globe was a living, wavering ball of no dimensions. The entire surface of the ball consisted of drops tightly packed together. And these drops all moved and shifted, and now merged from several into one, now divided from one into many. Each drop strove to spread and take up the most space, but the others, striving to do the same, pressed it, sometimes destroying, sometimes merging with it. "This is life," said the old teacher. "How simple and clear it is," thought Pierre. "How could I not have known it before ?" "In the center is God, and each drop strives to expand in order to reflect Him in the greatest measure. It grows, merges, and shrinks, and is obliterated on the surface, goes into the depths, and again floats up. Here he is, Karataev, see, he spread and vanished. Vous avez compris, mon enfant," said the teacher. "Vous avez compris, sacre nom!" shouted the voice, and Pierre woke up. (Tolstoy 2007, 1064) (3)
In Pierre's dream, his Swiss tutor presents him with a magical globe that, rather than reflecting continents, instead reflects God in all His infinite magnitude. But while Pierre dreams of a blissful sphere the real world is undergoing conflagration. The drops of water that seamlessly join together on the globe figuratively transmute the invasion and pillage occurring in the actual world into a benign aesthetic wonder. International conflict and its attendant horrors are quite often the foreground in the novel for cosmic transcendence; the historical world that is overrun by violence is suddenly engulfed by a greater cosmos that induces epiphanic realization. Lukacs, among others, reminds us of that famous moment in the battle of Austerlitz where Andrei, wounded on the chaotic battlefield, all of a sudden notices the world grow still, and in the midst of catastrophic violence, finds an affirmation of life itself. (4)
Can the glorious world in a dream ever reconcile with a world torn apart by war? Or are such worlds forever running asymptotically parallel to one another, never touching? Perhaps the paradoxical relation between the two, between dreamworld and reality, is symptomatic of the world's inability to come to terms with itself. The inability to hold onto a world that is immanently stable and secure also finds its parallel in the inability of fictional narrative to bring about a final sense of closure. War and Peace, for all its efforts in inducing a narrative panorama that encompasses a totality of human experience, is itself ridden with a multitude of false starts and shaky endings. That Tolstoy must rely on a spatial figure of global oneness to encapsulate and resolve the conundrums of infinite narrative and chronological development seems to suggest narrative's inability of ever reaching a satisfying closure.
The similar dreamworlds featured in Tolstoy's novel and the Beijing Olympics index the impossibility of realizing these Utopian allegorical forms into reality. While figuring a perfectly round world with no borders, no differences, upon which people can seamlessly glide to and fro, these dreamworlds are themselves formal manifestations of a monumental and melancholic loss, an ironic reminder that there is no future that will come and save us all. Lukacs and Chang's reactions to Tolstoy are also informed by these concerns about the possibility of figuring such a world through narrative in times of global crisis. Moreover, what binds Lukacs and Chang's reflections about narrative, war, and the world is the ironic logic of global capital; on one hand, capital's dynamic, transnational, and transimperial mobility makes thinkable notions of a unified world, but on the other, the profound dislocations it leaves in its wake points to how capital exhausts the world at the very same time that capital brings it into being. Time, both narrative and historic, becomes a conundrum, a function of the traumatic spatiality that marks the world's emergence. Precisely in the violent and rapid cleavage of so many spaces (personal, social, national, and generic) into "one world," there arises a profound nonsynchronicity in local, intimate experience (Bloch 1977, 29). (5) It is as if we were all, and at all times, in a jet-lagged daze that we may confuse with epiphany.
Roundedness and Totality: War and the World in Gyorgy Lukacs
The early work of Gyorgy Lukacs, a philosopher very much inspired by Tolstoy prominently features the notion of a world emerging in the background of crisis. However, it often seems in Lukacs that the world is a place where one is not rather than where one is. His early Theory of the Novel, completed in the winter of 1915, was inspired directly by the outbreak of First World War. In this treatise Lukacs (1971a) differentiates between the ancient Greeks, who had recourse in their epic works to a finite world, a "circle whose closed nature was the transcendental essence of their life," against modern subjects who live in a world whose form is essentially "broken" (33). Lukacs frequently makes reference to the comforts of the world's lost roundedness that seems to have become a jagged edge in modernity. He famously describes this experience of displacement as "transcendental homelessness"; to be in the world is, essentially, to be away from home, causing one to eternally search for the way back. Novel writing is an attempt to recreate, in aesthetic form, a world that has already been lost. Lukacs contrasts modern novel writing to ancient epic, where the world's immanence, while still at a remove from the present, is still close enough to be glimpsed by the epic poet. For the Lukacs of Theory of the Novel, Tolstoy is a unique writer who came closest to assimilating such epic insight within novelistic narration. But what Lukacs points out is that Tolstoy's fiction also suggests the very impossibility of reconciling novelistic narration with epic epiphany.
Lukacs would find the answer as to why the world had been lost in modernity after his conversion to Marxism in the early 1920s, and most importantly, in his elaboration of the concepts of reification and totality in History and Class Consciousness. There, he extends Marx's argument on commodity fetishism onto the formation of consciousness itself. He narrates how a consciousness under the spell of capitalist reification fragments the world into discrete, unconnected monads metabolizable by consciousness's already reified categories. Bourgeois consciousness thus claims to discover a world it has already a priori created (Lukacs 1971b, 128). (6) In order to break out of the falsity of this "second nature," Lukacs advocates for the rediscovery of the dialectical relations between those reified objects so they constitute a universal totality; this critique can only be carried out by adopting the standpoint of the proletariat, the world-historical "subject-object" of capitalism, at once an exploited commodity as well as a critical agent that can overturn capital's dominion over bodies and souls.
Lukacs's 1937 The Historical Novel, written in Moscow after he fled Nazi persecution for the relative sanctuary of Stalin's Terror, locates the birth of the eponymous genre squarely in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, whereby history becomes a "mass experience" that draws millions of people directly into the historical process, and engenders a new form of historical consciousness (Lukacs 1983, 23). While Lukacs emphasizes the importance of these wars in fostering nationalism among the peoples of Europe, he also reminds us that these national struggles took place on a global scale. In his words "the whole of Europe becomes a war arena," and ordinary people became aware "of the connection between national and world history" (Lukacs 1983, 24-25). History thus unfolds in ever larger geopolitical frames of space. The "world" that was lost in The Theory of the Novel is, as it were, regained in The Historical Novel--it was always in front of us, but shielded from view by our own reified consciousness.
Lukacs spends considerable time in his essays of the 1930s insisting upon the international reputation of Tolstoy as a consummate realist, one who revived the mode's fortunes against what Lukacs viewed was the decadent, naturalist turn in Western European realism after 1848. Tolstoy thus constituted a Russian intervention into an increasingly moribund Western European realism, one that not only rejuvenated the mode, but also reoriented its geographic parameters. The stridency of Lukacs's polemics and their sense of historic urgency were founded in part by the perilous times which Lukacs, as a Hungarian-Jewish exile who escaped Nazism, experienced during the writing of these essays. His "Tolstoy and Western European Literature," which attempts to ensconce the former as a paragon of world literature, is informed by Lukacs's (2002) deeply felt sense that he was living in a "world-cataclysm" (261). His commentary on Tolstoy in the background of a new world war thus suggests that a proper reading of Tolstoy was conducive to grasping the global situation. Tolstoy thus can help the critical reader, in times of globally cataclysmic crisis, not only interpret the world, but go one step further, and perhaps even change it.
Lukacs's polemics against the modernists of the 1930s can only be truly appreciated by taking into context his sense of the immense global stakes involved. Some scholars have regarded Lukacs's work on realism as marking a break from the radical philosophical positions of History and Class Consciousness (Nadal-Melsio 2004, 62). Attacked by Stalinists forhis theory of "imputed consciousness," his essays on realism are often read as a capitulation to Stalinist political orthodoxy and outdated literary dogma. (7) Reified consciousness and its solution, the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat, seem to fall out of the picture. But scholars such as Fredric Jameson (2010, 205-7) and Sara Nadal-Melsio (2004, 70) would encourage us to read Lukacs's writings on realism as a continuation, not a rejection, of the themes of History and Class Consciousness. However, it is not merely a continuation of the same; instead, the essays on realism mark a turn to the aesthetic as a possible terrain for dismantling reification. As Nadal-Melsio (2004) notes, Lukacs's defense of realism should not be read as a dogmatic normative judgment that posited realism as always "better" than modernism, but instead as part of a rigorous polemic in the background of the literary and cultural situation of the 1930s (64).
In considering the trajectory of Lukacs's writings from the First World War to the Second, I suggest that we see his treatment of "the world" as a hermeneutic exercise that evolves from a meditation on the world's "loss" and its attendant homelessness in the early work, to an analysis in History and Class Consciousness of how capitalism engineers this sense of alienation, and finally toward a recovery of the concrete historic world through literature. His notion of totality cannot be separated from the increasingly global space in which such totality unfolds. However, for Lukacs, totality is not a closed, finite system, but rather a process that is simultaneously ontological and hermeneutic--it denotes the dialectical linkage between all social phenomena enmeshed with the ongoing effort of consciousness to ascertain this process. No wonder, then, that narrative, in its temporal mode of unfolding and becoming, is the aesthetic form that Lukacs relies on to suggest totality as both ontological and epistemological process. The world thus stands as a spatial figure that implies this process--on the other hand, the very finiteness of such a figure runs the risk of foreshortening a much more open-ended process. We may ask in what ways Lukacs's reflections on totality become a critical corollary to Pierre's dream of a watery globe, a Utopian hermeneutics that seeks to wrest meaning from global cataclysm, a search to recover the world's "roundedness."
In Lukacs's 1938 polemic with Ernst Bloch, Lukacs (1977) affirms that literature can provide such comprehensive insight into social relations: "We will never achieve [knowledge of totality] fully, but insistence on all-round knowledge will protect us from errors and inflexibility" (33). Lukacs conflates two forms of worldly space into one within his conception of totality--metaphysical space as aesthetic form, and absolute geopolitical space, the monopoly control over which is contested by capitalist powers. (8) Thus his post-conversion conception of the world constantly wavers between a more concrete historical conception and a more idealistic, Utopian iteration. This oscillation is in some ways necessary, for the world to be created is one that dialectically transcends both pure aesthetic form and the confines of historic actuality under conditions of capitalist domination. The wavering between ideal form and historic ground in Lukacs's conception of the world lies in his acknowledgement to recognize reality as is under capitalist social relations (thus absolute space), but also seek to dialectically overcome it (hence the move toward ideal space).
The parallel between Lukacs's notes on the increasing resonances between narrative and global history and his own increasingly peripatetic status as a literally homeless exile, moving across borders and through empires, reveals how war had a direct impact on his views of literature. Though it is difficult to draw a causal relation between personal experience and theoretical insight, Lukacs's travails as an object of far greater historical forces, buffeted back and forth between nations, in all likelihood had profound impact on his understanding of transcendental homelessness. One wonders if, as an intellectual whose own existence was directly subject to the vagaries of geopolitical conflicts, Lukacs was afforded a certain measure of worldly insight. For Lukacs, this insight manifests in the form of Theory as a truly global, master code that can unlock the polyglot conundrums of contemporaryworldly existence. Theory thus becomes a transparent diamond that can cut through the illusory appearances of a reified world, and reveal the essence of a comprehensive social totality. Theory's transparency offers not just a spatial sense of immanent totality, but also a temporal sense of ultimate synchronicity--theory thus has the power to transpose nonsynchronous time scales back to their proper, universal measure.
In just the same way that Lukacs identified a transcendent, epic quality in Tolstoy's novels, it is hard not to feel a similar epic quality in his evolving theory of literature. Lukacs's aesthetic theory is one of epic scale, a revelation of totality through literary critique that aims to induce a feeling of epistemic thrall. Lukacs's critics mocked his allegiance to a literary mode that, when compared to modernist creations, seemed utterly nostalgic. But Lukacs's commitment to realist aesthetics was founded on the conviction that realism's interest in narrative form was uniquely capable of revealing the otherwise hidden mediations of a complex social totality, mediations that were obscured or denied both by capitalist ideology and modernist abstraction. Lukacs's enduring belief in the power of the realist text to uncover and illuminate approaches an ecstatic fervor closely akin to religious hermeneutics.
The Limits of Theory: Eileen Chang and Her Refusal of Totality
Eileen Chang's celebrated work, much of it written during years of Japanese occupation, provides a counterexample to Lukacs's ideas about literature's comprehension of the world. Chang's writings encourage us to reflect upon the very contexts in which we find ourselves reaching out to a world that can be saved, even in times of profound crisis. Chang reminds us that to think of "the world" is always to dance on that razor edge between, on one side, dialectical illumination, and on the other, glib cliche.
The settings of Chang's early fiction, Shanghai and Hong Kong of the early 1940s, are separated from Tolstoy's wartime Europe by several generations. And yet her geopolitical world was directly influenced by the historic transformations depicted in War and Peace. Britain's defeat of France heralded, in E.J. Hobsbawm's (1975) words, the "eliminat(ion of) their chief competitor on the way to achieving total predominance of the trade in the European markets, the total control of the colonial and overseas markets, which in turn implied the control of the high seas" (83). British imperial dominance would batter down China's "Great Walls" impeding free trade, resulting in the Opium Wars that led to the cession of Hong Kong as a Crown colony, and the opening of Shanghai as international port, the two "edges of empires" featured most prominently in Chang's work. The British hegemony achieved in the beginning of the nineteenth century would presage China's violent interpellation into a new economic global order. In the wake of economic globalization came cultural integration, whereby the Chinese, seeking answers to their sovereign predicament, explored all facets of Western culture and science; literature constituted a major part of this exploration, and by the late-Qing period many intellectuals were already conversant with the riches of the Western novelistic tradition. Both of the port cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong, products of China's violent encounter with Western capitalism, would each in turn be seized by a Japanese Empire asserting its role as imperial hegemon of Asia.
Chang, a preternaturally gifted writer in her early twenties, was catapulted into literary fame (and controversy) following the publication of her collection of short stories, Romances [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Chuanqi, 1944), towards the end of the Sino-Japanese War. As the title implies, her stories centered on the usually romantic travails of her heroines, and sought literary inspiration not only from Western European novels, but from the indigenous forms of vernacular novel as well. Her popularity, however, contrasted with the politically committed, socially conscious writing of the May Fourth New Culture Movement. Chang's domestic, popular literature thus evoked strong reactions from those who thought her work trivial and frivolous. That her first husband was revealed to be a collaborator with the Japanese did not help her fortunes after the War, and she soon found herself exiled to Hong Kong and, finally, the United States, where she would live out the rest of her life in relative obscurity, dying alone in her Los Angeles apartment in 1995. Like Lukacs, Chang was an exile for much of her life, her existence subject to the vagaries of both the Second World War and the Cold War. Whereas Lukacs spent his later days as a precarious intellectual in a Soviet satellite, Chang remained as a nearly forgotten exile in the "free world."
In Chang's 1944 essay, "Writing of One's Own," she mentions War and Peace in regards to her own writing. Chang was responding to Fu Lei's critique of her work published in the May 1944 issue of Wanxiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Panorama). Fu Lei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a literary and art critic, was also the definitive translator of Balzac's novels (he would work on Pere Goriot towards the end of that year). (9) While lauding Chang's exquisite narrative artistry, Fu Lei nevertheless felt that her talents were still immature and betrayed an overuse of artifice. He argued that a lack of both intellectual and lived maturity would prevent a writer from making sense of the world in times of crisis, and would result in indulgence in fantasy. Social scientists, Fu Lei (1998) noted, use the power of logic to reveal how seemingly "random occurrences are in fact the outcomes of a long fermentation" (173). (10) For Fu Lei, the consequences of not being guided by theory are dire:
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ([One] will always think that the world is under the spell of something akin to a magic wand [moshu bang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], that every new calamity seems to have fallen from heaven, and that happiness and tragedy are to some extent out of our control.) (Fu 1998, 173)
In order for writers to gain a clear sense of the world they narrate, they must undergo a long apprenticeship:
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Regardless of whatever "-ism" (zhuyi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) one follows, if one does not have a deep understanding of life, true life experience, a perceptive and sharp sense of observation, a well-honed writing technique, and a vital and rich imagination, then one cannot create even a passable work. Moreover, one must undergo a long period of difficult practice. War and Peace went through seven drafts; we all know what a prodigious writer Tolstoy was [although this prodigiousness bordered on the excessive].) (Fu 1998, 174)
While approving of Chang's raw literary talent, Fu Lei argued that her lack of literary apprenticeship, coupled with a corresponding lack of analytical acumen, resulted in a narrative world riddled with superstition and triviality.
Chang opened her response to Fu Lei's charges by remarking on the place of literary theory alongside that of literary creation. For Chang, while theory was at times useful, it pales in comparison to the concrete particularity of literature itself. For her, literary theory could never jump ahead of literary creation. In her words, "Theory is not a driver seated on high, brandishing a whip" (Chang 2005, 16). Although Chang concedes a role for theory, it is for the most part purely technical. Whereas Fu Lei accuses Chang of wielding a magic wand in order to conjure an improbable and illogical world, Chang counters that for Fu Lei, "theory" is an overbearing driver. Chang reads Fu Lei as conceiving of the literary work as a mere representation of a larger theoretical truth. By framing "theory" tightly under the auspices of literary technique, she not only denies the role of grand theories in unlocking reality's conundrums, but also installs the aesthetic as a terrain of feeling and experience that is impervious to cognitive and rational elucidation.
Her relegation of theory to a minor, secondary role is mirrored inher response to Fu Lei's idea that War and Peace was emblematic of a mature, theoretically assured narrative forged through repeated revision:
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Take War and Peace, for instance. Originally, Tolstoy intended his story to revolve around the religious and collectivist philosophies of life that were popular at the time, but, as it turned out, the unfolding of the story itself eventually vanquished his predetermined theme. This is a work that was rewritten seven times, and with each revision the predetermined theme was forfeited still further. In the end, what remained of the theme was little more than an aside, becoming in fact the most awkward section of the novel, and there was no new main theme to replace it. This is why Tolstoy felt himself somewhat at a loss after having finished the novel. In comparison with Resurrection, the main theme of War and Peace does seem rather indistinct, but it remains much the greater work. Even now, every inch of the text comes alive as we read.) (Zhang 2006, 16; Chang 2005, 19-20)
Chang turns Fu Lei's citation of Tolstoy on its head: the seven drafts were not proof of the evolving maturity of his novel. Instead, each draft confirmed the increasing serendipity of the narrative, to the point that the main theme was made indistinct, lost in a sprawling narrative more about the intricate details of everyday life. She argues that War and Peace attempted to contrive a kind of narrative closure but failed, and yet the novel triumphs precisely because of this failure. War and Peace's great revelation, then, is not about the grand concerns that are eponymously noted; instead, the novel reveals the irreducible power of contingency and indeterminacy, a constantly moving force that Chang equates with life itself. The process of its creation, Chang suggests, demonstrated the very truth revealed in the novel's content. This is in marked contrast to the far more didactic later novel Resurrection, which Chang regards as aesthetically diminished even if thematically more coherent and focused. Chang evokes Tolstoy's novel but completely ignores the issue of either war or peace, and refrains from an acknowledgement of a connection between Tolstoy's treatment of world affairs and her own work. As she notes in an earlier moment of the essay, "all I really write about are some of the trivial things that happen between men and women. There is no war and no revolution in my works" (Chang 2005, 18). However, in the passage noted above, war appears as a metaphor to mark the triumph of the literary over the theoretical: "the unfolding of the story itself eventually vanquished his predetermined theme" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] emphasis mine). Thus, the only battle Chang wishes to engage in is in defense of the autonomy of the aesthetic from worldly concerns. Chang, ever the pessimist, does not believe that anything can save the world, let alone art; art, however, can provide a needed consolation.
Chang's contemporaneous critique of H.G. Wells sheds even more light on her global pessimism. In an essay detailing her own experience of living through the battle of Hong Kong, Chang argues that historical reality is too ridden with random contingencies and sudden reversals that it makes no sense to try to locate a clear narrative thread. It is precisely this forced coherence that leads her to conclude that Wells's The Outline of History "cannot stand as a proper history [...] it is a little too rationalized, chronicling as it does the struggle between the individual and the group from start to finish" (Chang 2005, 40). Wells's The Outline of History, a magisterial global history of mankind, begins with the origins of the universe, and ends with a Utopian description of a future unified "world state," whereby national borders will dissolve and all of mankind will govern as one. In his introduction, Wells points to the destruction of the First World War as that which prompted him to undertake such a world history:
The need for a common knowledge of the general facts of human history throughout the world has become very evident during the tragic happenings of the last few years [...] War becomes a universal disaster, blind and monstrously destructive; it bombs the baby in its cradle and sinks the food-ships that cater for the non-combatant and the neutral. There can be no peace now, we realize, but a common peace in all the world [...] (Wells 1920, vi)
Wells's desire to transition from historic catastrophe to global epistemological clarity constitutes a conceptual jump that Chang is unwilling to take. Whereas Wells sought to salvage from the chaos of the First World War an epistemological insight of how the world can be set right again for the cause of "common peace and prosperity," Chang evinces a powerful cognitive skepticism if any such salvational knowledge can be gained. For Chang, modern geopolitical cataclysms inflict so much stress upon consciousness itself as to render any kind of epistemic recuperation impossible.
Chang's negation of war and revolution, however, must be read against the fact that her fiction features a narrative landscape indelibly shaped by the forces of war, revolution, imperialism, and capital. But Chang insists on a conscious refusal to recognize these things as such, a self-imposed bar on properly historical consciousness. Chang's refusal against such consciousness and how this may complicate our understandings of Lukacsian totality is exemplified in her story, "Love in a Fallen City" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], first serialized in Zazbi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in 1943, and which narrates the 1941 Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, provides a case study for Chang's complication of the relationship between literature and global history.
"Love in a Fallen City" begins as a society novella before it undergoes a drastic generic twist in the end with its depiction of the Battle of Hong Kong. Bai Liusu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a divorced woman nearing thirty from a declining gentry family in Shanghai, is desperately seeking escape from her degenerate relatives through a successful remarriage before she is condemned to stay in the family home forever as a much maligned spinster. She musters up what Fu Lei (1998) perceptively called "her very last store of capital" (181) in order to attract the attentions of Fan Liuyuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a western-educated rake whose father earned his fortune through property development in the South Asian British colonies of Ceylon and Malaya. In a gamble both entrepreneurial and romantic, she heads to Hong Kong in a last ditch attempt to secure herself in marriage and win over Fan Liuyuan. Bai Liusu's erotic capital duels against Fan Liuyuan's far more formidable financial capital. Liusu initially fails to win over Liuyuan's affections, and is sent back to Shanghai, where she becomes the laughing stock of her horrific family. Finally, Liuyuan recalls Liusu back to Hong Kong, and Liusu, now reduced to a sexual commodity sent back and forth between empires, decides in desperation to obey Liuyuan's will and become his kept woman. Demonstrating his utter power over Liusu, Liuyuan promptly beds Liusu upon arrival, and then announces that he will leave for London for a year, leaving Liusu to tarry about alone (Chang 2006, 151-55).
However, Liusu gains an unexpected "victory" over Liuyuan when the Japanese attack Hong Kong. A narrative that had confined itself to the parameters of a rather simple romantic comedy suddenly zooms out to a vastly larger spatial frame: a global battleground of imperialist warfare. Liuyuan, unable to leave Hong Kong, finds himself returning to Liusu--moreover, the crisis has severed his ties to his overseas bank account, thus rendering him suddenly dispossessed of his capital. As a result of this sudden narrative pivot, Liusu is able to secure marriage to Liuyuan and thus earns "victory":
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Hong Kong's defeat had brought Liusu victory. But in this unreasonable world, who can distinguish cause from effect? Who knows which is which? Did a great city fall so that she could be vindicated? Countless thousands of people dead, countless thousands of people suffering, after that an earth-shaking revolution...Liusu didn't feel there was anything subtle about her place in history. She stood up, smiling, and kicked the pan of mosquito-repellant incense under the table. Those legendary beauties who felled cities and kingdoms were probably all like that.) (Zhang 2003, 63; Chang 2006, 167)
Here we see classic Chang truisms reflected in this passage--the idea of a world governed by unreason, not held together by any consistent logic and beholden to the violent whims of contingency; the existential irony that one's happiness, or in this case, "victory," is produced through the suffering of others, an irony then demonstrated by Liusu's triumphant kicking of the incense pan. What causes the ironic twist, whereby "defeat" is transmuted into "victory," is not so much an issue of narrative reversal as it is the paradoxical product of the collision between different frames of generic and social space. What was a fight between two lovers wielding their stores of rather petty capital, a fight confined within the distance between Shanghai and Hong Kong, suddenly enlarges into a world battleground between empires struggling over the global store of wealth and power. To repurpose Marx's (1990) phrase, "between equal rights, force decides" (344), except here force belongs neither to Liusu nor Liuyuan, but to the world-cataclysm itself, one that renders the sequence of cause and effect null and void. In this sense, we can read the "victory," and its implication of agency to those famous Chinese court women who "toppled kingdoms" ironically, for Liusu does not actually do anything. However, perhaps Chang is implying that against the face of historic and economic inevitability, it is literature and narrative in their serendipitous reversals that claim victory over the laws of the world.
A strong materialist reading of Chang's story would conclude that her insistence against trying to make reason of the world is due to the fact that Chang's characters, as well as herself, are ultimately so reified and atomized that they are unable to transcend their status as objectified commodities that traverse the world. (11) For Tolstoy, however, it is precisely when his characters are stuck in the most compromising of historical situations that they gain insight and spiritual agency. While buffeted by the winds of history across continents, they remain seekers of meaning. Chang's characters, while traveling global circuits as human commodities, do not achieve such insight into the conditions of their existence. Perhaps they don't need it.
Her ironic stance reveals the danger of relying too much on a shorthand of totality, an insistence on world as figure that risks rendering it cliche. We are constantly reminded in the story about the sheer instability of a world that can barely be representable. After the bombing of Hong Kong, when Liuyuan and Liusu cling to each other for comfort, the narrator reflects Liusu's feelings on the same point: "Here in this uncertain world, money, property, the permanent things--they're all unreliable. The only thing she could rely on was the breath in her lungs, and this person who lay sleeping beside her" (Chang 2006, 164).
Chang's insistence on a world that is unreasonable and illogical, contingent and capricious, cannot simply be read as a petty-bourgeois mystification of the broader systemic forces that are forging this world. Her refusal, contra Lukacs, to emerge from an experience of catastrophe to a reclamation of the world through a process of insight, rests upon an insistence that such a figural foreshortening mutes the complex experience of pain and bewilderment that such global catastrophes evoke. When Chang describes the battle of Hong Kong in her story, she first notes the date (8 December 1941), adopting a historical voice. However, the reverberations of the air attack "shredded the nerves. The light blue sky was ripped into strips that drifted on the winter wind. Countless shreds of nerves also floated by" (Chang 2006, 158). Chang's catachresic description of shredded nerves floating in the atmosphere bespeak a consciousness rendered utterly decimated and turned inside out, one for which historical dates and the temporal sequence they index have no meaning.
Chang's work thus suggests the insight made available precisely through disordered, cluttered, "bad" consciousness, for the role of the non-knowledge that rests between catastrophe and understanding. In response to Fu Lei's injunction that she should write more like Tolstoy and seek to analyze the logic behind the world, Chang argued that what we get from Tolstoy is not a programmatic narrative, but the very narrative expression of contingency itself, one that is, however, pulsing with "life." Chang's disavowal of war and revolution in her work was not political naivete, but a refusal to believe that totality can be of much use in the throes of disaster. This refusal rests on her conviction that, as she wrote in her critique of Wells, "rigid and unswerving worldviews, be they political or philosophical, cannot help provoke the antipathy of others" (Chang 2005, 40).
Continental Drift: The Eruptions of World History
The purpose in thinking through Lukacs's and Chang's aesthetic responses to twentieth-century global crisis, and mediated by their differing views of Tolstoy, is to see them both as obverse, yet complementary thinkers about the modern world. Both can be easily caricatured; Lukacs as one who imposes a rigid system of totality upon history, and Chang as one who insists far too strongly on a world of randomness and contingency that renders existence pointless. And yet those are the two poles between which narrative, and more broadly, history, is constantly wavering--in Tolstoy's formulation in the second Epilogue to War and Peace these are the poles of necessity and freedom. Despite their differing views, what remains compelling is how all three writers' reflections upon the world are undeniably mediated through a process of global, historic integration, whereby the disparate spaces of Europe, Russia, and Asia are being cleaved together, often catastrophically, onto a common ground, one that renders all local times and spaces suddenly out-of-joint, a global synchronicity that effects myriad, small scale nonsynchronicities.
Tolstoy argues in his second Epilogue that one of the central tasks of modern history is to explain the mass movement of people across continents. Indeed, what are the forces that can spur whole populations to move across borders, to discover the world's terrain, and thereby find themselves transformed by this movement? In the particular case of his novel, history constituted the mass movement of people from Paris to Moscow, and then back to Paris, in the two decades encompassing the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. (12) As we know, the novel that remained unfinished was the story of the Decembrists, radicalized by their experience of French Republicanism during the Napoleonic Wars, and which culminated into a passage of exile further east from Moscow and St. Petersburg into Asian Siberia. (13) Tolstoy's focus on geopolitical, imperial movement is vivid in its sense of unprecedented expansiveness:
In 1789 a ferment arises in Paris; it grows, spreads, and expresses itself in a movement of people from west to east. Several times this movement directed to the east comes into collision with a countermovement from east to west; in the year twelve it reaches its utmost limit--Moscow; and, with remarkable symmetry, the countermovement from east to west is accomplished, drawing within itself, as the first movement had done, the peoples of the center. The countermovement reaches the point of departure in the west--Paris--and subsides. (Tolstoy 2007, 1179-80)
Beginning with the world-historical event of the French Revolution, Tolstoy charts a circuitous movement by which peoples are moved across continents and then back again, inscribing within such a movement a peripatetic loop that charts a traumatizing gathering together of the world. While Tolstoy's expressed concern, which he hammers out in the sections following, is the nature of power in its ability to compel whole populations across borders, one can also find striking parallels between this historical movement and the ever dynamic movement of capital as it inscribes the entire globe within a closed loop. The two movements described here, one historical (populations on the move), the other economic (capital on the move), are linked to the extent that modern political economy conjoins value production to the very labor of the working masses whether they be proletarians, peasant farmers, or slaves. These same masses are conscripted as soldiers defending imperialist capitalist accumulation.
Lukacs and Chang were writers caught up in the epic continental drifts whose trajectory Tolstoy so compellingly charted, drifts that continue to the present day. As earthquakes can spawn waves that progress in myriad different directions, so did Lukacs and Chang confront the reverberations of the global cataclysms of the Second World War that engulfed them in divergent ways. Their thoughts, their lives, and their texts persist as testimony to how literature simultaneously can and cannot make sense of a world in crisis. Perhaps all three authors can offer some wisdom and solace as history continues to drift on.
Bloch, Ernest. 1977. "Nonsynchronism and the Obligation to its Dialectics." Translated by Mark Ritter, New German Critique 11: 22-38.
Buck-Morss, Susan. 2009. Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press.
Chang, Eileen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. 2005. Written on Water. Translated by Andrew F. Jones. New York: Columbia.
--. 2006. "Love in a Fallen City." In Love in a Fallen City. Translated by Karen Kingsbury and Eileen Chang. New York: NYREV.
Chari, Anita. 2015. A Political Economy of the Senses: Neoliberalism, Reification, Critique. New York: Columbia University Press.
Feuer, Kathryn. 1996. Tolstoy and The Genesis of War and Peace. Edited by Robin Feuer Miller and Donna Tussing Orwin. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Fu, Lei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. 1998. "Zhang Ailing de xiaoshuo" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In Wenxueji: Wenxuejuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Hefei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]: Anhui wenyi chubanshe [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].
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Lukacs, Gyorgy. 1971a. The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature. Translated by Anna Bostock. Cambridge: MIT Press.
--. 1971b. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge: MIT Press.
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Roy Bing Chan
Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures University of Oregon
(1) I would like to thank audiences at Harvard University, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Washington, and the University of Hong Kong for their comments and feedback. Andrew F. Jones, Irina Paperno, Rossen Djagalov, Kristof Van den Troost, and Lucas Klein provided valuable ideas and insights. Ilya Kliger's careful reading and support convinced me not to abandon this project. The anonymous readers at the Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese provided encouragement and needed critical comments that have improved the essay.
(2) For a discussion of the visual spectacle of Chinese masses in both the Olympic Opening Ceremonies and contemporary Chinese films, see McGrath (2013, 51-79).
(3) I consulted this Russian edition: Tolstoy (1996).
(4) Tolstoy (2007, 281). Susan Buck-Morss (2009) argues that it is precisely moments of historic "rupture" which afford glimpses into a global humanity: "(H)uman universality emerges in the historical event at the point of rupture. It is in the discontinuities of history that people whose culture has been strained to the breaking point give expression to a humanity that goes beyond cultural limits" (133).
(5) Bloch (1977) ascribes Germany's nonsynchronicity (Ungleichzeitigkeit) and the attraction of Nazism to the uneven development of capitalist social relations within the country despite the fact that Germany was an imperialist power. As such, huge strata of the population still remained within "outdated," lagging social forms, and were attracted to the mythic nostalgia of the Nazis rather than the prospects of the proletarian movement (24-31).
(6) Anita Chari's (2015) recent discussion of History and Class Consciousness provides a most lucid explanation of Lukacs's argument. While she does not engage with Lukacs's literary criticism, her book also seeks a turn to the aesthetic as a place where reification can be undone in neoliberal times (114-128).
(7) Even while residing in Moscow under the watchful eye of the Stalinist authority, Lukacs continued to quietly defend the positions of History and Class Consciousness. See John Rees's (2000) introduction to Lukacs (26-32).
(8) David Harvey (2006) notes how capitalism "entails an absolute conception of space, one of the most important properties of which is a principle of individuation established through exclusivity of occupation of a certain portion of space--no two people can occupy exactly the same location in this space and be considered two separate people." (339)
(9) Despite his bona fides as a major conduit of Western realism into China, he suffered persecution during the Mao era, finally committing suicide with his wife during the Cultural Revolution.
(10) All translations of Fu (1998) are mine.
(11) Moreover, Lin Zou (2011) has argued that in Chang's fiction private emotions themselves become reified as objects of market exchange (29-51).
(12) Here Susan Buck-Morss's (2009) exhortation for us to pay attention to "universal history," that is, the "temporal unfolding of collective, human life...in a global context" is instructive (109).
(13) Kathryn Feuer (1996) discusses the relationship between the four chapters of The Decembrists Tolstoy wrote before turning to War and Peace. See Feuer (39-53).
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|Author:||Chan, Roy Bing|
|Publication:||Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2017|
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