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Us and them.

With the topic at hand, one can begin almost anywhere and still be in bounds. Let me begin about nine centuries ago, on the evening of the 12th of August 1082 (to be precise), one night after the full moon, when the great poet Su Shih went boating with friends on the Ch'ang Kiang outside Huang-chou in eastern Hupei. With a gentle breeze freshening the waves in the moonlight, they chanted verse and sang to a melancholy flute. When one of the friends lamented the too-brief sojourn of a man's lifetime, Su Shih responded to him, "You must know, don't you, of the river and the moon? The one streams on like this but never goes away, the other waxes and wanes like that but finally neither wastes nor grows at all. I assume if you look at it from the angle of mutability, then Heaven and Earth do not thereby last an instant. If you look at it from the angle of immutability, then we and everything are each of us interminable, and what is there to envy?" What interests me in this passage today (which the sinologists in the audience will have recognized as being from the poet's "First Rhapsody on Red Cliff") is Su Shih's insistence on the equal truth of considering from contrasting perspectives, and also his stressing of the aspect less usually adopted--in this case, that of immutability. Here, without fuss or swagger, is just, in Nietzsche's words, "that double vision of the world that all great insights share," or an earlier voicing of Blake's plea to be kept from "single vision and Newton's sleep." We shall return later to this passage, reserving for a while the remainder of Su Shih's comments. I intend now, if you'll allow me, to doff for a few moments my sinological robes and make some remarks of a more general, rather than specialist, nature. I hope I'll be forgiven if some of what follows seems faintly blasphemous. When I was first informed of the topic assigned for this morning's session, I thought I had some understanding of what it meant. However, after observing the thrasonical smirks on the faces of colleagues from English and Comparative Literature when I mentioned my task to them and, some weeks later still, when I came up for air after immersion in the essays of Barthes and Derrida, I was no longer so sure. One thing was certain, though, and that was--all the techniques of philological and verbal, to say nothing of rational, skill I had learned over the years were as nothing compared to the techne of encratic and acratic sociolects, of transgressive sememes, hegemonic signifiers, and endoxal deviance. I even began to write sentences like the following: "The decentered ego inscribed in the paratactic formal praxis of medieval Chinese poetry betrays by its pervasive absence of reference to the Feminine-as-Other the well-nigh pathological preoccupation of the pre-capitalist oppressor class with the panoptic but monologically repressed guilt encoded in a radically phallocratic regime, the bipolar transformative power of which they had on all accounts to disclaim--as a function of bodily corpus--while simultaneously valorizing it through an overdetermined negative emphasis in the literary corpus."

Just as I was feeling comfortable as Satan cleaving my way through the surging smokes of this nethermost abyss, I came upon a book called The Mirror of Herodotus by Francois Hartog, subtitled (and this was what caught my eye) The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History. Eagerly I read. And this, believe it or not, is what I discovered about midway through: "To speak of the 'other' is to postulate it as different, to postulate that there are two terms, a and b, and that a is not b. For example, there are Greeks and there are non-Greeks. But the difference only becomes interesting when a and b become part of a single system." The sheer vapidity of this was stunning: a (which is not b) and b (which is different from a); Greeks and non-Greeks; self and other. A host of such minimal systemic pairs suggested themselves, as I'm sure they're already doing to you: body and spirit, I and Thou, ancient and modern, AOS and AAS, text and critic, philology and theory, text of pleasure and text of bliss, pencil and computer, Macintosh and IBM, natural grass and artificial turf. The game was up: "I am Lazarus come from the dead. . . ." Afterward how could I read again with a straight face the bizarre manifestos on "New Philology" in the January 1990 number of Speculum, the journal of the Medieval Academy of America (published just down the street), or some of the pronouncements in the published papers of the conference on "What is Philology?" sponsored by Harvard's Center for Literary and Cultural Studies in March 1988? In a couple of the sillier essays from the latter collection we can learn, for instance, that our correct aim, as scholars, is "to encounter the Other" in the text (this phrase reminds me quaintly of Star Trek's introductory slogan--"to seek out new life . . .") and that our proper activity is to "study the estrangement of the text"--a fatuous tautology if ever there was one. Of course, every text, indeed every thing, to each of us, is--in the manner of Prof. Hartog--something other. But where, we may ask, does this get us, apart from manufacturing obfuscation out of the obvious and fostering the juvenile illusion that, merely because we have learned to say we've "engaged in discourse with a circular disk arranged so as to revolve on an axis," we have ourselves invented the wheel and for that merit kudos and a chaired professorship (probably at Duke, no doubt!--a university whose press markets without shame a series of volumes under the impossible rubric "Post-Contemporary Interventions"). Of course there is another cardinal principle of the Hunters of Other: the text cannot be trusted to mean either what it says or what it implies, or often even anything at all, except what the reader wants it to mean. Yet if the deconstructors are right in saying that language is fundamentally and thoroughly a cheat, how are we to put any credence in that very claim itself, when it is undeniably transmitted by the same medium, linguistically? We seem to find ourselves here in the old paradox about the man who always lies but who at this moment states he now is lying. To which we may wish to exclaim, as Augustine did of Jacob's lie: non est mendacium sed mysterium. Or, later, in the words of Paul Simon: "A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest." But we may take some reassurance from our own common sense, and also from W. H. Auden who knew a thing or two about language and who observed, "A poem might be called a pseudo-person. Like a person, it is unique and addresses the reader personally. On the other hand, like a natural being and unlike a historical person, it cannot lie. We may be and frequently are mistaken as to the meaning or the value of a poem, but the cause of our mistake lies in our own ignorance or self-deception, not in the poem itself." All the frippery and brummagem of Disintegrationism is not sufficient to refute what our human minds and hearts reveal to us. I am cheered in this view also by an opinion from an unlikely quarter: I recently came across an aside from no less an authority than Michel Foucault, characterizing the work of his fellow hierophant, Jacques Derrida. He said of Derrida: "He is the kind of philosopher who gives bullshit a bad name." But let's be honest. Do you not have the feeling that much contemporary theory of the sort I've been referring to is but a highly camouflaged avoidance of hard work? Especially the hard work of learning languages (remarkable, isn't it, how many "theorists" do not command any language other than English?--not even French!) and particularly the even harder work of teaching languages, teaching them, that is, to classes of increasingly illiterate youths who mistake Rimbaud for Rambo and have maximum attention spans of forty-five seconds. Yet upon the hard work of teaching languages--as well as the tools of critical respect--to such as these depends our legacy, if legacy we are to have in the brave new, post-contemporary world. How much easier to profess the catechism of "politics" and "power," for isn't that what all literature, all texts, all human behavior are reducible to? This strikes one as a queer inversion of the comical reductio ad absurdum of the '60s, with regard to heroin addiction: you recall, since 90% of heroin addicts smoked marijuana previously, marijuana must be the cause of heroin addiction--but, it was pointed out, since 100% of heroin addicts drank milk in their formative years, shouldn't we outlaw milk first? The logic behind that was a conscious, if feeble, joke; but what we see on campuses today--the declaration from many of our colleagues that, since some spineless worm of politics may be unearthed (even if squashed beyond recognition) from under every literary rock, then politics and power are the cause and sole focus of literature--this joke is equally ridiculous, except that its proponents neither acknowledge nor apprehend its reductive absurdity. Lack of wit (often in both senses) is probably the sorriest failing of the New Philo-Theorists. I can't help feeling it's a sad misuse of talent. As William Arabin (1773-1841), Judge of the Sheriff's Court in the 1820s is said to have exclaimed once, while pronouncing sentence: "Prisoner, God has given you good abilities, instead of which you go about the country stealing ducks."

I must say, though, as a student of medieval China, I feel at home with the topic, "Self and Other." For what could be more "other" to me, a live white male, as most--but I'm happy to say, not all--of us in this room seem to be (although we shall, too soon, be dead white males whose writings, under the coming reign of Otherness, will be condemned to molder unread, unless they be scrutinized for their core of supposed political, economic, or sexual repression and guilt)--what could be more "other" to me than the world of medieval China, to the study, yes, even love, of which I have chosen to devote most of my life? But perhaps, as I am not already "other," this should not be allowed. And yet, it's strange that the encounter with what is Other, with those areas of experience that have purportedly been marginalized in our society and scholarship, are now very often the only fast requirements in undergraduate curricula. Marginality, it seems, has captured the middle; the Other is become the center; "diversity" has aced the field. But then in the utopia (or is it "dystopia"?) of the University of Marginal States, I would expect to see permanent seats--if not endowed chairs--given to East Asia, South Asia, the Near East, both modern and ancient. But this we do not find, as all of us know. It is only the proximate Other that is marginal enough to be central: that is, Asian-American studies, African-American studies (what we might literally call "self-indulgent studies"). To study China, India, the Near East in their own historical and cultural settings is too diverse even for politically-correct diversity. It's also, as we noted before, hard work. Here is the ultimate contradiction in the reformers' creed. Professor Said and his eager disciples will have it that anyone who is "other" to the culture he is studying can only distort or misread it; and yet we are told simultaneously that the right motive of our study is to seek out the Other in the text, to estrange the text. The truth seems to be that the only acceptable Others are the Others that are already Us. If we choose to talk in such simplicities, we must die by them too. Unless we can say with Rimbaud (i.e., Antonin, not John), "Je est un autre." (My French teacher would have insisted on his saying, "Je suis . . . "; Rimbaud, however, was aiming at something else and knew what he was doing.) But there, of course, he is emphasizing in his famous letter to Paul Demeny the psychological estrangement that must be felt by any careful writer when he watches and listens to the unfolding of his own thoughts. Here I put on again my sinological garb and invoke Li Po, "China's greatest poet" (to steal a phrase from Tu Fu partisans), writing of a different rift of consciousness, but one born of a disordering of the senses that would have pleased the young Rimbaud. This is the first of Li Po's four poems on "Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon": Amidst the flowers--with a whole pot of wine; I pour it off alone, with none to share affections. So, raising the cup, I invite the luminous moon, Then face my shadow--and that makes us three! Still, the moon does not know how to drink, And shadow can only follow after me. But I'm pals for now with moon and my shadow too, Running riot, and sure to keep up with spring! Let me sing--the moon wavers and wanders; Let me dance--shadow shakes and staggers. When I'm drinking, we are joined close in gladness; Once I'm drunk, each scatters away on his own. But we are pledged forever to jaunts beyond desire, Promising to meet again in the far-off Milky Way!

I can't bear to think what a lethal deconstructive analysis would do to this lively piece of Li Po's genius--although a Freudian analysis, on the other hand, might prove very enlightening.

Let us, for a few moments, give Otherness the stage fairly. Certainly China's green and pleasant land (at least it was so in ancient and medieval times, the books say) provides a likely spot to build the Jerusalem of Self-and-Other. We would, for instance, begin with the familiar notion of China as the Middle Kingdom, to which all other peoples are seen as peripheral and uncouth. We might consider the powerful role played by the written language in the maintenance across several millennia of the unique, high culture of the learned elite--a culture founded on and perpetuated through knowledge of Classical Chinese, the written language of authoritative texts manipulated by a meager but self-consciously conspicuous minority. In more specific linguistic and social terms, we could fruitfully examine the difference between the basic Confucian virtues of jen and i: i, the sense of allegiance and duty owed to the "we-group" of family, clan, or state (i.e., Self), as set off against jen, the more abstract, inclusive ideal of a shared humanity relating to all men (i.e, Other). We could look again at Chinese relations with their Central Asian, Korean, and Japanese neighbors, or at the image of the Feminine as created and depicted by the males who effectively monopolized the written language, or at the medieval Taoist poetry of outer space and inner consciousness. Or, taking a different tack, we might observe the development and application of the term "medieval" itself--a radical recognition of Otherness, since only a past that can be regarded as having a character distinct from the present and also from a remoter past can be so designated. (I wish I had time to pursue this today. Not to be sly, however, it may be of interest to know that, according to the first such periodization made in China, the medieval period was seen as that of King Wen and the Duke of Chou--that is, the very beginning of the Chou dynasty, around 1000 B.C. But details of this, and the shifting nature of the term, must await a separate communication, to be entitled "How the Chinese Invented the Middle Ages.")

Obviously the fields of Otherness lie wide in Sinology. Virtually anything--as far as I can tell--can somehow be interpreted as a study of Self and Other. Indeed there is even, thanks to Chuang Tzu, an early discussion of the concept itself. And I think it is handled better by him than it has been by anyone since--as is often so with Chuang Tzu. Writing in the late fourth or early third century B.C. (this is found in the "Ch'i-wu lun" chapter of the text that was given his name), he conned the subject from all angles. This is what he says: There is no thing that is not "other"; there is no thing that is not "this." Regard yourself as "other," and you don't see it; know of yourself, and you're aware of it. Hence "other" and "this" are born in parallel.

However, being born in parallel, they die in parallel; dying in parallel, they are born in parallel. Both being admitted, both are inadmissible; both unadmitted, both are admissible. Following from what is "so," it follows from what is "not so"; following from "not so," it follows from "so." This is why the Sage does not go by this course, but shines forth the light from Heaven, this being likewise a "following from what is 'so.'"

"This" is likewise "other"; "other" is likewise "this." If the "other," for its part, is in its wholeness "so" and "not so," and the "this" is likewise in its wholeness "so" and "not so," then is there actually "this" and "other," or is there actually no "this" and "other"? Where neither "other" nor "this" finds its opposite partner--that we refer to as "the axis of the Tao." When this axis finds itself centered in a ring, it thereby responds without limits. What is "so," in its wholeness, is inexhaustible, as likewise what is "not so," in its wholeness, is without limits.

This, I think, is not only the very first word on the subject; it might also be pretty well the last. If only our troops had known Classical Chinese, how much paper could have been saved!

I might as well lay all my cards on the table now, if they've not been revealed plainly enough. I do not see, I am not persuaded, that any valuable or even new subject of study or critical method has been added to scholarship through the current shibboleth of "Self and Other." In fact, all of the topics I mentioned a few minutes ago have been or can be studied, exhaustively and insightfully, with no recourse to the term. "Self and Other" seems nothing more than a calling of familiar things by a new label. If it be this season's catchphrase, so be it: "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But the term may have already--in the space of just a few years--decayed to the point that only its falsely glittering husk remains. At least, so says Professor Said, one of the saints of the Cult of Otherness, who writes in an article published last month: "The word |Other~ has acquired a sheen of modishness that has become extremely objectionable." But this is to be expected of all such fads that give the illusion of enhanced reality or excitement but without substance--similar to the periodic shifts in mass-media entertainment or advertising strategies, or presidential campaigns. If this is the "triumph of theory" that J. Hillis Miller was vaunting a few years back, it has proven a hollow and effete victory.

I would suggest in conclusion that one of the chief reasons for the lack of staying power of such fads is their fundamental disregard for humane values and their extreme reductionism, their inability to hold in suspension the vital complexities--even seeming opposites--of thought and expression that inform and quicken our own lives, as they do every literary text potent enough to outlive the mortal breath of its creator.

Let us return, then, to Su Shih whom we left speaking of the consolation that comes from a combining or larger vision of ourselves and of the world we have been given. "If you look at it from the angle of immutability |he said~, then we and everything are each of us interminable, and what is there to envy? Now then |he concludes~, between Heaven and Earth each thing has a master and whatever least thing there be that is not mine, even a single downy hair, cannot be secured by me. Yet the clear breeze upon the Kiang and the luminous moon amid the mountains is made into sound when caught by the ear or formed into beauty when discovered by the eye--one secures them without let, uses them inexhaustibly. This is the interminable storehouse of the Shaper of Things, which I and you are able to enjoy together." There is a notion of Self and Other that I cordially applaud, whether it be on a moonlit autumn evening on the Yangtze or an overcast spring morning in Cambridge. There is the difference and the differance that I too would wish for us all.
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Title Annotation:Paul W. Kroll speech
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Transcript
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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