A Year without Pierre

Today, 11 August 2015, marks the first year since the passing of Pierre Ryckmans, known to most of his readers by the nom de plume, Simon Leys.

Pierre Ryckmans was a mentor and inspiration to many students of China, in particular those he taught at The Australian National University from 1970 to 1987. A prolific author and translator, Pierre was above all a littérateur, a man of letters; his scholarship was itself literature. His essay collection, The Hall of Uselessness, was published in 2011, and his last translation, which appeared in 2013, was of Simone Weil’s On the Abolition of All Political Parties. His work profoundly influenced the development of New Sinology 後漢學, the intellectual underpinning of the Australian Centre on China in the World, the building of which is located next to the lecture theatres where Pierre taught Chinese, literature and calligraphy.

At the Centre we are marking this solemn anniversary with the screening of The Emperor’s New Clothes, a film adaptation of Pierre’s 1991 novel, La mort de Napoléon. Of the film, Pierre himself observed with characteristic acerbity: that this ‘latter avatar [of the novel] … was both sad and funny: sad, because Napoleon was interpreted to perfection by an actor (Ian Holm) whose performance made me dream of what could have been achieved had the producer and director bothered to read the book.’

As universities in Australia, as well as the study of China and Asia, enter yet another phase of intellectual diminution, we offer here, in memoriam, ‘Learning’, the first of Pierre’s 1996 ABC Boyer Lectures, View from the Bridge, which he previously gave me permission to reproduce in China Heritage Quarterly. The title of these lectures, and the parable from Zhuang Zi that Pierre discusses below, inspired our naming of the art work by Guo Jian 郭建, an Australian-Chinese artist ejected from China last year over commemorations of June Fourth 1989, that graces the boardroom of the Australian Centre on China in the World (the work itself was a gift from Carrillo Gantner and Ziyin Wang-Gantner to the Centre on the occasion of my sixtieth birthday, 4 May 2014). 

— Geremie R Barmé, Founding Director, Australian Centre on China in the World


View from the Bridge

Aspects of Culture

The 1996 Boyer Lectures

Pierre Ryckmans



The other day I paid a visit to an old friend, who is a philosopher. I found him in his garden, pruning his roses. I could not resist making the observation that this seemed a most befitting occupation for a philosopher, but my remark made him laugh. He was quick to remind me that a number of famous philosophers had in fact shown a strong allergy to such earthy hobbies. In our own time, for instance, think of Jean-Paul Sartre: the protagonist of his most representative novel Nausea, has a sudden intuition of the fundamental absurdity of existence while crossing a public garden; the very sight of an old tree-root grotesquely twisted over the ground triggers this dreadful awareness in his mind, and the experience is of such intensity, that it makes him literally vomit—hence the title of the book. (By the same token, one might even wonder if modern existentialist philosophers would not need to take sea-sickness pills before undertaking any gardening.)

Still, I do believe that my naive observation did, in a way, hit upon a deeper truth. It was not meant to be a facile reference to Voltaire’s well-known precept (as you will remember, at the end of his philosophical tale Candide after countless horrific tribulations, Candide and his companions, having experienced all the trials, disasters, miseries and anguish that generally characterize man’s predicament, at last find shelter and rest, and discover the ultimate secret of wisdom—which is to cultivate one’s own garden). No, what I had in mind, was something even more basic. It was simply the instinctive and universal awareness that the quest of the philosopher is as ancient and as essential to the human endeavour as the primeval occupation of the peasant. The magnificent statement on spiritual development, which John Henry Newman came to use almost as a proverb—’Growth is the only evidence of life’—might as well have been issued by an old farmer. Since the dawn of civilization—actually, since neolithic times when prehistoric man first began to settle down, to sow, to plant and to harvest—culture has sustained and defined us, and it is not by chance that we use the same word when we speak both of cultivating our gardens, and of cultivating our minds.

Indeed, culture is the true and unique signature of man. A prehistoric cave that presents material evidence of ancient occupation, may have been inhabited by pithecanthropes or other ape-like creatures, infinitely remote from us. Yet one single picture engraved or painted on its wall, however sketchy, rough, faint and faded, at once tells us a different story: a long time ago, Man was here-our ancestor, our brother. His individual presence is as immediate, unmistakable and overwhelming as that of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.

Culture is the very means through which we realise the fullness of our humanity. Inasmuch as we are human, we are all producers and consumers of culture; we all experience culture in diverse forms.

In these pages, I wish simply to draw from my own personal experience: I was a teacher, I am a writer—and I shall therefore offer some reflections on a series of topics, which I would call respectively, Learning • Reading • Writing • Going Abroad and Staying Home.

Learning will deal with the question of education: its object, and its present crisis. Reading will address the role played by books in our lives, and the issue of literary criticism. Writing deals with the creative experience. Going abroad is the discovery of the outside world; the meaning of ‘otherness’. Finally, Staying Home is the exploration of the inner world-the contemplative life. These topics will not be methodically tackled in symmetrical segments; their treatment will be uneven; at times their connections may seem loose, or their contents may overlap. But the experience of life itself is not always coherent. Often it is fragmented, and never tidily cut and packed, and on these issues it would certainly not be wise to veer too far away from life. The overall title of the series is The View from the Bridge. What is meant by this phrase (which defines the general perspective of the book) will (I hope) become clear shortly.



Pierre Ryckmans (2010), by Matthew Lynn


ONE: Learning

In the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there is a passage which I have always found singularly affecting. (Well, actually, there are a great many passages in the Confessions that are singularly affecting. Whatever you may think and feel regarding Rousseau—some people have idolized him, while others loathe his continual floods of tears and his cumbersome self-pity—one thing is certain: among all the great writers of the eighteenth century, he specially strikes us by his modernity: he has a strange power to move us as if he were our contemporary. What is at times so touching, and at other times so disturbing, in what he says, is that he is actually expressing some of our own experiences, innermost thoughts and feelings.) Anyhow, in the passage I had in mind, Rousseau is recalling how he was once summoned to appear before the Council of his local Church, which suspected him of heresy. Since the Council was comprised of country bumpkins, Rousseau, who was already famous throughout Europe for his inspired and passionate eloquence, had good reason to feel complete confidence regarding the outcome of the confrontation. Things, however, turned out quite differently, to his own astonishment and dismay, once in front of his Philistine judges, he found himself virtually speechless. Unable to improvise any effective reply to their bigoted accusations, he eventually had to leave the meeting, humiliated, confused and defeated. Later on, walking alone in the night on the long way home, he pondered over his disastrous performance, replaying in his mind the proceedings of the day. But now, suddenly, the inspiration that had failed him earlier in the day, returned with cruel vengeance. A flow of brilliant ideas surged in his mind-he thought of all the irrefutable arguments and witty retorts with which he could so easily have confounded his opponents. But the opportunity was lost forever… He cried with frustration, and beat his own head with his fists.

Have you ever had a similar experience? I suspect that many people, when reading this episode, must have said to themselves, ‘Oh yes! How well I know that feeling!’ Life throws many challenges at us, and when we fail to live up to them, they leave burning memories of shame and loss, and an intense desire to be granted the impossible chance to re-enact the test in which we disgraced ourselves. Still, in our misfortune, we may perhaps derive some melancholy comfort from the thought that, in this respect at least, we have something in common with a genius… .

In my own case, I vividly remember an incident which occurred many years ago. You may find it small and trivial—and I myself still remain puzzled by a sense of disproportion between what seemed the trifling nature of the actual episode, and the imprint it left on my memory. Perhaps it is only now, as I am (in a certain way) re-enacting this ancient test which I so miserably failed, that I come to measure its full import and begin to understand its original meaning.

It was during a scholarly conference organised in one of our leading universities. A guest speaker had been invited from abroad to address the conference. He was a fairly distinguished elderly academic, already retired, who had come to Australia specially for this occasion. He was a rather frail and refined old gentleman, and he spoke with erudition and feeling on the topic which had occupied him for his entire life, Chinese literati painting. When the old professor finished his talk, a young local academic stood up, and instead of addressing questions to the lecturer, launched himself into a lengthy and passionate denunciation of the lecture that had just been delivered. In brief, his argument was that to attach such an exclusive value and importance to what China’s feudal oppressors had deemed to be superior art, merely reflected the speaker’s narrow bourgeois elitism—whereas the true art of China, which was produced by the broad working masses, was being systematically ignored or dismissed by the academic mandarins, etc.

The violence of the attack took the old gentleman by surprise, but he remained silent and impassive. The chairman of that particular session, a rather shy and ineffectual man, was visibly shaken, and appeared totally unable to resume control of the proceedings. One could feel widespread embarrassment and discomfort among the public; unfortunately the usual reaction of decent people who are being confronted with a gross indecency is to pretend studiously that nothing happened. A younger segment of the audience, however, had obviously come in the expectation of watching the fireworks of their local hero; his show was geared towards them, and they cheered loudly. (I was suddenly reminded of a similar scene in a novel by Saul Bellow; Bellow’s image has remained engraved on my mind: in his story, a young mob was compared to a certain species of big ape-baboons, I seem to remember: whenever a trespasser ventures into their forest, the baboons frantically defecate in each other’s hands and bombard the hapless visitor with their own excrement.)

The young academic talked nearly as long as the original speaker, interrupted only by the applause of his supporters. When he concluded at long last, there was no more time for discussion, and the entire session was hastily brought to an end.

For all its aggressive energy, the improvised speech by the spokesman for the baboons was in itself quite banal. It merely rehashed some slogans which, for a time, the Chinese ‘Cultural Revolution’ had made fashionable among smart academics in our universities. Its actual argumentation was trite, and could easily have been disposed of: after all, to state that an artist (or an art historian, for that matter) is a bourgeois (or a proletarian, or an aristocrat) is exactly as pertinent and as informative (no more, no less) as to observe that he has red hair or flat feet. No, the truly disturbing aspect of his intervention did not reside in what he said, but in the reaction of the audience—or rather, in the lack of reaction from the audience. This absence of reaction, in turn, reflected something ominous about the state of the university, and about ourselves as academics. It became suddenly evident to me that most of us were dead, and had been dead for many years already—and the stench made one gasp for air.

For the larger part, the audience was composed of scholars who, being educated and courteous, naturally deplored the poor manners displayed by their young colleague; but, as to the content of his intervention, even though some of them might have had reservations about what he said, all apparently believed that, in a so-called intellectual debate, every opinion should be granted a fair hearing. None of them, it seemed—and this is what truly frightened me—perceived that what they had just heard was not one opinion among many, but a statement which, if validly issued, certified the fully consummated demise of the university.

Indeed, what the young academic had proclaimed (without provoking any challenge) was the impossibility and intellectual illegitimacy of all value judgments. From his perspective, value judgments were necessarily a form of cultural arrogance; any attempt to assess objective qualities was doomed to remain a vain and subjective expression of social prejudice.

But such a view, in turn, must reduce all scholarly endeavour to a hollow comedy, and, in this regard, I am irresistibly reminded of an old cartoon by Michael Leunig, portraying a trendy modern cleric. The caption read: ‘Reverend So-and-So does not believe in God, but needs the job’. For, clearly, to deny the existence of objective values is to deprive the university of its spiritual means of operation. Values are the prerequisite of any inquiry into art, letters and the humanities. For example, how can you study literature without passing literary judgment and making reference to literary quality? Without having recourse to aesthetic appreciation, what enables you to assess that Jane Austen truly pertains to your discipline—but not Barbara Cartland? Is such a discrimination truly a mere expression of subjectivity and intellectual arrogance? If, in the name of a spurious scientific objectivity, every bit of printed matter has an equal right to call upon the literary scholar’s attention, on what basis should he exclude from his scrutiny lawnmower handbooks and Superman comics? The actual fact is that, nowadays, he does not. In these areas, the most grotesque imagination is always overtaken by stark reality, and I should not be surprised if I were to learn that, right now, in the English Literature Departments of our vanguard universities (duly renamed Departments of Human Communications and Sociocultural Deconstruction), there are earnest candidates for the doctoral degree, hard at work ‘deconstructing’ the telephone directory.

A true university is (and has always been) anchored in values. Deprived of this holding ground, it can only drift at the caprice of all the winds and currents of fashion, and, in the end, is doomed to founder in the shallows of farce and incoherence.

In a private letter (posthumously published), Hannah Arendt provided a striking insight on the relation between truth and thought that could provide an illuminating paradigm for the dependence of any scholarly investigation upon a pre-existing concept of values. Arendt wrote:

The chief fallacy is to believe that Truth is a result which comes at the end of a thought process. Truth, on the contrary, is always the beginning of thought… Thinking starts after an experience of Truth has struck home, so to speak. The difference between philosophers and other people is that the former refuse to let go, but not that they are the only receptacles of Truth… Truth, in other words, is not in thought, but… it is the condition for the possibility of thinking. It is both beginning and a priori.[1]

The view that Truth is not a conclusion, but a premise—and the very condition for any intellectual inquiry—is important and profound, but not as new as Arendt thought. Two thousand three hundred years ago, the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zi (one of the greatest thinkers in the universal history of ideas, and a wonderful writer) expressed a similar idea in one of his rich and enigmatic parables, which could be paraphrased in English as follows: Zhuang Zi and his friend the logician Hui Zi were taking a stroll on the bridge over the River Hao. It was a beautiful day, and they stopped for a moment to watch the little fish below. Zhuang Zi said, ‘Look at the fish, how free and easy they swim-that is their happiness!’ But Hui Zi immediately objected, ‘You are not a fish; whence do you know that the fish are happy?’ ‘You are not me,’ replied Zhuang Zi, ‘how can you possibly know that I do not know if the fish are happy?’ Hui Zi said, ‘We’ll grant that I am not you, and therefore cannot know what you know. But you must grant that you are not a fish, and therefore cannot know whether the fish are happy or not.’ Zhuang Zi replied, ‘Let us return to the original question. When you asked me “Whence do you know that the fish are happy?” your very question showed that you knew that I knew. Still, if you insist on asking whence I know, I will tell you: I know it from this bridge.'[2]

To make a minute exegesis of such a piece would ruin it—it would be as brutish as pulling off the wings of a butterfly. Still, I merely wish to underline one point. Hui Zi’s attitude represents the fallacy of a certain cleverness. With his abstract logic, he attempts to erode Zhuang Zi’s living grasp of reality. But Zhuang Zi, in turn, develops his unanswerable riposte in two movements, on two different levels. In a first move, he shows Hui Zi that he can beat him at his own game, countering logic with logic. Indeed, on a strictly formal level, a question of the type ‘Whence do you know’ does not put your knowledge into question—it takes it for granted, and merely queries the starting point of your inference. But Zhuang Zi does not stop there; to win a sterile contest of wits is unsatisfying. In his final move, with a pun, he breaks free from the fetters of empty intellectual games, and enters the realm of reality, which in the end, alone matters. Borrowing Hui Zi’s original word whence, he transforms its meaning: whereas Hui Zi had used it in the abstract sense of logical deduction, Zhuang Zi now takes it in its literal sense—’from which point in space’—and he answers it literally. But the literal answer proves also to be the most profound-more profound even than the truth, for any truth can only be about reality, whereas here we reach what truth is about: reality itself, which is irrefutable: I know it from this bridge. Here, one is reminded of Samuel Johnson’s powerful retort to an interlocutor who had invoked Berkeley’s idealism, questioning the reality of reality: without a word, he vigorously kicked a rock of good size, that was lying on the ground.[3]

Looking from the bridge, to know that the fish are happy is ultimately an act of faith. The saying ‘to see is to believe’ must be reversed: to believe is to see.

He who believes in nothing, sees nothing. The trap of ‘seeing through’ things was best exposed by C.S. Lewis, at the conclusion of his memorable essay in defense of values, The Abolition of Man:

The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too. It is no use trying ‘to see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To see through all things is the same as not to see.[4]

* * *

A recent episode in Australian politics did shed a revealing light upon our attitude towards education. Do not misunderstand me: I am not making a political comment here—I won’t even name the protagonists of the incident. The leader of what was then the Opposition lost his post during an inner-party struggle. The new leader, for the sake of party unity, had to offer him some sort of position within the shadow cabinet—not too menial, and yet not genuinely influential either. In consequence, the former leader was offered the Education portfolio, but he refused it, as he found that it was ‘not important enough’. In our political context, he made the right decision, of course—any experienced politician would have done the same. But the objective reality illustrated by this incident is that, in this country, it is publicly accepted and universally perceived that education does not greatly matter.

Actually nothing should matter more for a modern nation.

Some of our neighbours, realized this long ago, and we can see the benefits they have now reaped. At the risk of appearing lazy and pretentious in quoting my own words (normally, to quote one’s own writings is a fatuous habit) I shall repeat once more what I formerly wrote in an Introduction to The Analects of Confucius—and I shall continue to repeat it in the future, whenever the opportunity arises:

It is often remarked that the most successful and dynamic societies of East and South-East Asia (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) share a common Confucian culture. Should one therefore conclude that the Analects of Confucius might actually yield a secret formula that would make it possible elsewhere to inject energy into flagging economies, and to mobilise and motivate a slovenly citizenry? The prosperity of a modern state is a complex phenomenon that can hardly be ascribed to one single factor. Yet there is indeed one common feature that characterizes the various ‘Confucian’ societies—but it should be observed that this same feature can also be found in other social or ethnic groups (for instance some Jewish communities of the Western world) which are equally creative and prosperous, and yet do not present any connection with the Confucian tradition, and it is the extraordinary importance which these societies all attach to education. Any government, any community, or any family which would be willing to invest into education as considerable a proportion of its energy and resources, should be bound to reap cultural, social and economic benefits comparable to those which are currently achieved by the thriving ‘Confucian’ states of Asia, or by some dynamic migrant communities of the Western world.[5]

If it is true that, nowadays, the state of the economy commands the entire political life of a country, one should not forget that, in turn, the economy itself is dependent upon the level of culture and education of the nation. On this point, leading economists and political scientists are now in agreement, and their scholarly conclusion confirms what common sense already knew, ‘Human resources—the talents of the people—will be far more crucial to the prosperity and competitiveness of a nation than any natural resources and capital’.

* * *

Although it would be difficult to conclude these reflections on education without making some reference to my own experience as a former academic, I still think I should refrain from making specific comments on the University. I chose to leave Academe before my time was up, but seeing my former colleagues still there, on the frontline, battling bravely in a hopeless struggle, I feel like a deserter; and since I cannot encourage them, it would be disgraceful for me—a man cosily sheltered away from the action—to aggravate their predicament with what might appear as heartless comments. Anyway, the situation has already reached a point that is probably beyond remedy. Huge and ancient institutions take a very long time to die; in human affairs the process of decay, transformation and regeneration is often slow, erratic and blind. The main problem is not so much that the University as Western civilization knew it, is now virtually dead, but that its death has hardly registered in the consciousness of the public, and even of a majority of academics themselves. In principle, I do not mind the idea of a reform in Higher Education, however drastic it might be; what I do mind is the intellectual muddle and confusion. We obstinately insist on calling ‘universities’ institutions that correspond less and less to what is normally meant by this name. In their intriguing lack of awareness, our education ministers, vice-chancellors and other senior academics resemble strangely the early leaders of the Protestant Reformation, as described in a recent scholarly work on the history of the Church:

Melanchton and Calvin claimed to be ‘catholic’ until the end of their lives—and all the while, they were attacking the followers of the old faith as ‘papists’. The faithful long clung to Mass and to their saints but the Church regulations introduced by Lutheran magistrates took over many catholic customs—even processions and pilgrimages. The bulk of the simple faithful never understood that the ‘Reformation’ was not a reform of the Church, but the construction of a new Church set up on a different basis. In retrospect, one must therefore maintain: the schism of the Church succeeded by nothing so much as by the illusion that it did not take place at all.[6]

How long can the illusion persist? The University increasingly resembles the cardboard theatrical props that were used on Elizabethan stage, or in Peking Opera, and on which was written in big characters: ‘THIS IS A CASTLE’ or ‘THIS IS A FOREST’—it amounts to little more than a symbolic signboard: ‘THIS IS A UNIVERSITY’. Can such a fiction retain credibility with the public? Malcolm Muggeridge once observed that the main reason why many people previously looked at universities with a certain feeling of awe and respect was that so few of them had actual access to it. But once everybody goes to the university, they will get another view of it.[7] This healthy awakening has been accelerating lately, and it will be complete on the day—now not very distant—when we shall see Universities of Catering, Car Driving Instruction and Quilt Making.

Anyway, on this subject we probably need not get too worked up. After all, any intelligent young person will always happily survive mediocre or inept university teaching, whereas no one can escape unharmed from a mediocre or inept primary school education. This should be the issue of greatest concern. I can think of no news more ominous than a recent report on ABC Television according to which it appears that one-fifth of all pupils finishing primary school are functionally illiterate. This information is most frightening for the future of the country—and by comparison, all the problems of Higher Education pale into insignificance.



* For the other lectures in this series, see here.

[1] Carol Brightman, ed., Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975, London: Secker & Warburg, 1995, pp.24-25.

[2] Zhuang Zi, chapter 17, ‘Autumn floods’. For English translations, see Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, New York & London: Columbia University Press, 1986, pp.188-9; see also A. C. Graham, Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, London & Sydney: Unwin Paperbacks, 1986, p.123.

[3] ‘After we came out of church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that everything in the universe is merely ideal. I observed that, though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a larger stone, till he rebounded from it, “I refute it thus”. This was a stout exemplification of the first truths of Père Bouffier, or the original principles of Reid and of Beattie, without admitting which we can no more argue in metaphysicks, than we can argue in mathematicks without axioms.’ Boswell, Life of Johnson (entry of 6 August 1763).

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1943), Collins Fount Paperbacks, 1986, p.48.

[5] Simon Leys, The Analects of Confucius, Norton, New York, 1998.

[6] This passage from Fr Hubert Jedin was quoted by B.A. Santamaria, The Australian, 21-22 January 1995.

[7] ‘I suspect that the prestige of a university education is almost entirely due to the yearnings of those who feel they have been deprived of one, and the present decline in its prestige comes of there being fewer and fewer who feel so deprived. Perhaps when there are none to feel deprived, its prestige will sink to nil—one of the few benefits to be expected from the institution of free university education.’ Malcolm Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time: The Green Stick, London: Collins, 1972, p.49.