Is the Author back from the Dead?

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).

File:Roland Barthes Liburutegiko plaka Ahurtin.jpgIf, 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).

File:Reading-jester-q75-760x753.jpgAs 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.

 

Between Occident and Orient: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

In Tasman Ile’s (Alan Palamountain) novel Shanghai Nights, published by the author in 1929 (), the metropolis’ status as a gateway between east and west is portrayed through the metaphor of a split-up household: For once the seductive/destructive power of Shanghai is not only played out in the stereotypical romantic relationship between a Chinese woman and a European or American man. Rather it is the union of a wealthy Chinese merchant and an impoverished British woman, which produces the ethnically mixed offspring that is Shanghai.

Alas, far from resulting in harmony between the Occident and the Orient, the daughter despises both her parents: “Her feelings were then double-barreled – scorn for her mother for having married a Chinese; hate of her father for being one.” (36)

Not surprisingly, she is herself the victim of the same cultural logic, which makes it impossible for her to accept her parents. Unable to bridge the two cultural spheres of her parents, she fails to belong to either side: “a girl upon the world who from her birthday wore a double yoke – unwanted by the Occident; despised by the Orient.” (37)

Zhang Ailing’s (张爱玲) ‘Aloeswood Incense’ (沉香屑·第一炉香) is another example of how the traditional motif of the seductive/destructive metropolis is transposed and complexified. In this short story, first published in 1943, the Shanghainese protagonist develops a taste for Hong Kong high society and falls in love with the dashing ‘mixed-blood’ playboy, George Qiao.

Here, in contrast to Shanghai Nights, being poly-ethnic seems desirable as witnessed by the unsurpassed popularity of George’s sister: “This was Zhou Jijie, peerless among the party girls of Hong Kong’s younger set. Her genealogy was said to be very complicated; it included, at the minimum, Arab, Negro, Indian, Indonesian, and Portuguese blood, with only a dash of Chinese.” (Zhang 2006: 38, translated by Karen S. Kingsbury)

Yet the practical problems facing these jet-setters, as a result of cultural agoraphobia and plain racism, are the same: “We can’t marry Chinese – we’ve got foreign-style educations, so we don’t fit in with the pure Chinese types. We can’t marry a foreigner, either – have you seen any whites here who aren’t deeply influenced by race concepts?” (ibid. 44)

Though Ile’s novel quickly descends into a cliché narrative of the Shanghai seductress, these two stories never the less add an interesting multiethnic perspective to the cosmopolitan status of Shanghai and Hong Kong, reminding their readers that what we embrace today as multiculturalism was often a carefully managed coexistence of separate groups with difficult lives in store for the few who transgressed the cultural boundaries.

Traveling to Hong Kong with imaginary tram

ding_ding_tram_on_hennessy_road_in_hong_kong“With a number of twists and turns, the tram skirts Victoria Park and the Tin Hau Temple (one of Hong Kong’s oldest) on its way to North Point, Quarry Bay, and Shau Kei Wan at the eastern tip of the island. The ride is convenient, if not comfortable, and the panorama of buildings and people moving by in slow motion gives one the feeling of travelling backward through time – a nostalgic antidote for the stomach-churning, competitive pace of Central Business District.”

This is how literary scholar Leo Ou-fan Lee describes a ride on the Hong Kong tram (established in 1904 nicknamed the Ding Ding 叮叮) in his highly enjoyable introduction to Hong Kong history, culture and literature City Between Worlds: My Hong Kong. The idea that the pace of transportation itself, rather than the appearance of the tram cars which have changed a lot over the past 100 years, induces a sense of, and longing for, the past is fascinating.

Reading about nostalgia in Shanghai, it seems to me that the past is often evoked by imagery (think of all the reprints of old photographs, picture postcards, commercial posters), sometimes by audio (1930s jazz) and less commonly but very potently by smell (imported perfumes, hair oil, coffee). But thinking about pace should prove very interesting indeed, though not a simple case of then=slow, now=fast I should imagine.

For me, planning my first ever visit to Hong Kong, Lee’s narrative tram ride is a much more effective point of entry into unknown territory than any map would be. It reminds me of Michel de Certeau’s distinction between the two dimensional, ‘readable’ city space seen from above and the city space you ‘enunce’ when you walk its streets (‘Walking in the City’ in The Practice of Everyday Life). Perhaps the tram ride is somewhere in between: From the second story of a tram, you see watch the streets unfold beneath and before you, slightly elevated from the hustle and jostle, yet unable to see the whole picture as your line of vision in tantalizingly blocked by buildings, street signs and fellow passengers.

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Would you like another ride? Take a Hong Kong tram from 1970s or  2015. South China Morning Post has made a history of the Hong Kong tram, but here you have to imagine the pace from still photos. In Shanghai, trams were in service 1908-1970s, then, in 2010, the Zhangjian/Translohr monorail trams were introduced. Some of these videos are really home videos, which just goes to show that there are still a lot of tram enthusiasts (and nostalgics) out there. (Quite a few of the are here: www.hktramstation.com)

A little closer to (my) home, there were trams in Aarhus untill 1971 and in Copenhagen untill 1972 while Stockholm still has a few (lovely old footage complete with very nostalgic song hits).