Boomerang

by MT

Again the week has past without much achieved, except for a few pages of translation. The good thing is that, without diving too much into each subject, fragmented chapters or paragraphs of books and magazines I read still resonated with one another. The article of the week is the front piece of Harpers Magazine (May 2007) written by Lewis Lapham on Time Travel, by which he meant historical consciousness. He quoted Cicero who said “Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child,” and the wonderful historian Arthur Schlesinger who hammered the superficiality of quick resolution:

“Problems will always torment us, because all important problems are insoluble: that is why they are important. The good comes from the continuing struggle to try and solve them, not from the vain hope of their solution.”

Along the way Lapham also quoted Herodotus and T. E. Lawrence, and mentioned Edward Gibbon, Montaigne, and the last Ming emperor and his eunuchs. After bashing on the Iraqi war, the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Rudy Giuliani, and of course the Bush administration, Lapham’s outspoken critique culminates in the end by saying

“The national shortage of adult minds suits the purpose of a government that defines its task as a form of child-rearing and guarantees the profits of the consumer markets selling promises of instant relief from the pain of thought, loneliness, doubt, experience, envy, and old age.”

The merit of Lapham’s article is his focus on historic consciousness, which reminds me a popularly forwarded article in Taiwan written by the Swiss anthropologist David Singer. [http://www.mass-age.com/report_article.php?id=1091&pagea=1, for English translation, please see: http://blog.yam.com/sabin/article/8526824] After touching lightly on the political history of Taiwan, including the retreat of Chiang Kai-shiek after 1949 and the enforcement and lifting of the Martial Law, the author dived into the middle-class anxiety typical in the culture of modernity, as in the renowned comments made by Baudelaire in the mid-19th century or by Marshall Berman in late 20th century. Perhaps this is telling regarding the historical amnesia in the middle-class in Taiwan and America alike. It is as if the life of people in Taipei (taken to be representing the whole Taiwan in the inappropriate title) between the end of the war and 1949 is blank. I guess the busy business in putting up all those memorial monuments and parks all over the island to commemorate the lesson of February 28th, 1947, is as irrelevant as the business putting up MacDonalds, while the debate over the cause, effect, and meaning of the event are quickly hushed by the media and those who lost votes for this. The greatest disadvantage of this ignorance is to look at the pattern of the society as a thin slice, while overlooking the causality of the current dynamic structure, thus presenting the place as a static, outsiders view.

Now back to Lapham. His sharpness and erudition is admirable. But this, I thought, is really going to irritate many people, who might well call him a cynic. I happened to learn the etymology of this word this week, which means a dog and alluded to its barking. (see here) In the Chinese translation of the term, they tagged the word “ru”, a Confucianist, behind the word dog “Chuan”, adding up Chuan-ru (Quanru)—a barking Confucianist. Chinese people are so good at euphemism, but still the term represents a sour agitation toward someone who is skeptical of human nature and motives.

I have not forgotten, however, Lapham’s description of Cicero’s tragic death, whose cut-off head displayed in the Forum, right hand nailed to the Speaker’s Platform, and the tongue torn out and pierced with hairpins. Perhaps intellectuals past and now enjoyed making themselves martyrs of honesty and shrewdness. By nature and by try-and-errors, I am a bit doubtful with this messiah-like attitude. But rather than denouncing it once and for all, I am curious about the efficacy of presenting oneself as Mr. who-know-everything. To be true, the world is “sleepwalking into future,” (to quote Kunstler) but how much will you achieve if people began to see you arrogant and feel offended?

Then it has become a matter of style. I am reminded of Jacques Barzun’s words on “The Positive Side of Negatives,” in A Word or Two Before You Go: Brief Essays on Language (1986). Though he was talking about writing, his three principles—economy, courtesy, and accuracy—are equally useful when it comes to the way an intellectual present oneself. Barzun said,

“Courtesy . . . consists in keeping the reader and listener always in mind. They come first; they are our guests, and hence to be well treated. For nobody on earth has taken a pledge to read or listen to us. It therefore behooves us to make the encounter comfortable, indeed pleasant, as we would certainly try to do if it were a matter of entertaining acquaintances at home.” [p.14]

He is not alone in this. T. E. Lawrence, John Ruskin, and Jean-Jacques Rouseau, all have similar moralist tone in their writing. But, for all my affection to these authors, sometimes they sounds too moralist to the point of being hypocrite. Is this, then, a quarrel between style and content? By way of a haste conclusion, style and content support each other in good writtings, historical or general alike, as Peter Gay has shown in his fine analysis of Edward Gibbon (See “Gibbon: A cynic among ancient politicians,” in Style in History [1974]). Furthermore, there is nothing wrong in analysis and skepticism, so I told myself. I have felt that, in Taiwan, and perhaps other East Asian countries as well, “style” as decorum, that is, the representation of social hierarchy, has prevailed, but the practical manner to achieve style in writing and reasoning is still wanting. In other words, this gap between style and content is so big in my education that such question on style has perplexed and worried me for so long. For this reason, perhaps, everything I read and thought has become a boomerang.