The Case for Literature

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

There is a curious paradox in the history of literary production and criticism over the past fifty years or so. On one hand, literary critics have increasingly bound themselves to a specific schoolMarxism, structuralism, feminism, deconstruction, new historicism, postcolonialismto name a few. Conversely, writers continue to insist on the autonomy and individuality of the author, on their independence from any program, school, or movementwhat Gao Xingjian would call “isms.” To some extent, this tension is understandable, perhaps even unavoidable: Critics must read from some perspective; no one can be entirely “theory free.” Authors, on the other hand, battle the demons of classification and in many countries the political or religious forces that dictate what a writer may or may not say, and how it may or may not be said.

In the first chapter of The Case for Literature, “Author’s Preface to Without Isms,” Gao attempts to defend his insistence on the author’s need to write without subservience to any “authority,” “trend,” “fashion,” or “ideology.” By the same token, he is not arguing for a brand of radical individualism, for “the judgments and experiences of the individual are only of relative significance and do not possess absolute value.” Summarizing Gao’s argument is not possible because the idea involves balancing a host of antithetical qualities; he comes closest to a succinct definition when he asserts: “ without isms is neither nihilism nor eclecticism; nor is it egotism or solipsism. It opposes totalitarian dictatorship but also opposes the inflation of the self to the status of God or superman.”

The importance of this idea to Gao’s philosophy is clarified by Mabel Lee’s helpful “Introduction: Contextualizing 2000 Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian.” Born in 1940, Gao grew up under the dictatorship of Mao Zedong, graduating from Beijing Foreign Studies University with a major in French literature in 1962. During the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution, he worked in the fields as a peasant, burning everything he had written to avoid prosecution. By 1975, he was back in Beijing working at the Foreign Languages Press, and in the 1980’s he published a number of novellas, stories, and essays, but his refusal to write to the dictates of the Communist Party eventually caused him to flee again to the countryside and from there to France in 1987. There he witnessed the brutal events of Tiananmen Square (1989), in response to which he wrote a play entitled Taowang (pr. 1989; Fugitives, pr. 1993), which pleased neither the Americans who commissioned it, the Chinese students who read it, or, of course, the Chinese authorities. Gao has since become a French citizen. Given these experiences, it is easy to see why he opposes any “ism” that would dictate form, content, or style, and why Lee summarizes his outlook by saying, “Gao posits that literature is the most important of human intellectual endeavours because it is capable of revealing many truths about human thinking and behaviour.” It may not be unfair to summarize his position, then, as that of a traditional humanist.

Eight of the eleven essays that follow the author’s preface and Lee’s introduction were delivered as speeches to various audiences between 1991 and 2002. As a result, there is no single thread of argument running through the book, though many ideas are repeatedly discussed. These ideas form the core of Gao’s thinking about literature and its place in today’s world. The title essay, delivered as his Nobel Prize lecture to the Swedish Academy, lays down several of these themesthat literature is the voice of a solitary individual, that as a consequence it and its creators wither and die when writers are silenced or forced to adhere to a party line, that language transcends national boundaries and the limits of time, and that through literature, writer and reader can develop a spiritual bond. These characteristics come together in what he calls “cold literature,” which exists “simply because humankind seeks an entirely spiritual activity beyond the gratification of material desires.” Another of his principles is that the writer is not some kind of superman or god, a rejection of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas strongly influenced Chinese writers of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and in Gao’s eyes perverted the role of the author.

“Literature as Testimony: The Search for Truth” emphasizes that literature “testifies to human existence” and is “subservient to nothing but truth.” This is an elaboration on his point that literature must be without “isms”; not that it cannot speak to...

(The entire section is 1933 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The Washington Post, November 3, 2007, p. BW10.

The Wilson Quarterly 31, no. 2 (Spring, 2007): 94-95.