Last week, I had the pleasure of attending Heidi Yu Huang’s lecture ‘Worlding Hong Kong Literature: Dung Kai-cheung’s Atlas’ at the University of Gothenburg’s Bernhard Karlgren seminar series.
One of the interesting side issues that cropped up during question time was the relevance of biographical information in academic literary analysis. Dr. Huang confessed herself fascinated by Dung Kai-cheung’s private life as well as his creative work, and was able to point to many direct influences (Dung wrote his dissertation on Italo Calvino, a fact that will surprise no one familiar with his work) and amusing anecdotes (Dung’s fictional universe is highly geographical and apparently certain sites in his works correspond to places where important events in his own life took place).
If, like me, you have received an education heavily influenced by the structuralist dictum “the author is dead,” you will find yourself shrinking from engaging with any kind of biographical reading. However, in the case of Dung Kai-cheung (and perhaps many postmodern writers), his writing self-consciously portrays literature of any kind as an invented reality that mirrors not the ultimate reality but a conglomerate of personal realities.
Even academic readings always take place from a personal perspective (albeit, hopefully a rigorous and well-informed one), so does writing for that matter, as well as any kind of communication, which is, I think, partly what Dung’s stories make so clear; reality is always already mediated.
So in the spirit of Dung’s pseudo-academic literary style, where do we draw the line between fiction and life? I’m still to brainwashed to do biographical readings, but I’ve stopped discouraging my students from doing so (with the added factor that biographical criticism is much stronger in the Chinese academic tradition).
As long as what we are seeking from the author’s life is not a fact sheet (any search for intentionality still seems both impractical and pointless to me), but rather just another perspective, which, along with socio-historical context, literary theory and previous scholarship might help make our independent analysis more interesting, it might not be such a bad thing to include.
As Paris-Sorbonne professor of English literature, Frédéric Regard puts it in a humorous but rather apt essay on this conflict between inclination and indoctrination: “I therefore find myself in an awkward position: I am in desperate need of a theory capable of reconciling my degenerate tendencies [reading literary biographies] with my enviable filiation [as part of the academic establishment]. At the same time, I find myself unable to support nostalgic attempts at reintroducing the ideal of a fixed, ‘authorised’ meaning: the recovery of the author’s ‘intention’ as the unique source of the text is not on my agenda.”
Barthes, Roland (1977): ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image—Music—Text. New York: Hill and Wang.
Dung, Kai-cheung 董啟章 (2014/1997): Dituji 地圖集. Taipei: Linking Press.
Dung, Kai-cheung (2011): Atlas: The archaeology of an Imaginary City. (Translated by Dung Kai-Cheung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall). New York: Columbia University Press.
Regard, Frédéric (2000): ‘The Ethics of Biographical Reading: A Pragmatic Approach.’ The Cambridge Quarterly, Volume XXIX, Issue 4, 1.