Tuesday, June 19, 2007

THE CASE FOR LITERATURE is the title of Gao Xingjian’s Nobel Lecture, delivered upon his acceptance of the 2000 Nobel Prize for Literature, and also the title of this slim but powerful collection of his essays published by Yale University Press. It also represents the effect of the other books briefly reviewed here—they all make a case for literature as a living, crucial source of nurture and a noble human activity, in these times of doltish cynicism, profit-taking ignorance and commercially manufactured discouragement.

Gao Xignjian achieved his first success in China in the early 1980s with plays, and continued to write for the theatre, as well as fiction and literary essays through years of shifting political winds until he went into exile towards the end of the decade. His output only increased in the 1990s. Though his autobiographical novel, Soul Mountain, was published in the U.S. in the same year as his Nobel Prize, and remains his best known work in America, it was completed shortly after he left China.

For Gao, the purpose of literature is simple: the search for truth. “…its value lies in discovering and revealing what is rarely known, little known or thought to be known, but in fact not very well known, of the truth of the human world.” “For the writer, truth in literature approximates ethics, and is the ultimate ethic of literature.”

But this truth is not in the realm of metaphysics or ideology. “Truth is perceptual and concrete. Full of life, truth is available for human observation at any time and in any place; it is the interaction between subject and object.” It is the individual’s “testimony of his times.”

“The language required by literature comes from spontaneous speech that goes straight to truth.” Gao is a particular champion of the auditory. “The human need for language is not simply a need for the transmission of meaning; language is also needed for one to listen to, and for affirming one’s own existence.”

“It is my view that the only responsibility a writer has is to the language he writes in.” And that language must sing. “The musicality of language is of extreme importance, and music provides me with more insights than any sort of literary theory.” “If I fail to hear music in the sentences I have written, I acknowledge defeat…”

Gao stresses this rigorous program for the writing of literature, which earns it a place on my own short shelf of indispensable and inspirational books on writing. But the individual expression Gao champions should not be confused with the self-indulgent and programmatic confessionals lining the bookstore shelves. “In this postmodern age, which is concerned only with consumerism, the unchecked bloating of the individual is already a far-off myth…” Though he rejects ideological purposes, he does believe literature has social benefit, in the creation of empathy. “Yet through literature there can be a certain degree of communication, so the writing of literature that essentially has no goal does leave people a testimony of survival. And if literature still has some significance, it is probably this.”

Gao writes about his own approach to fiction and theatre, and (especially in a terse but harrowing chapter near the end) his battles with Chinese authorities, but all within the context of this literary purpose. Agree or disagree with his assertions, this is a book anyone involved in literature must read. In the main, it is a book that everyone should read to understand the activity of literature—the single voice singing a surviving truth beyond the amorphous noise.

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