Even two centuries into the capitalist era, the literatures of East and West remain separate
A while back the vogue in San Francisco was to put your toddler into a Mandarin-immersion preschool. White yuppies got the idea that because China was the other pole in a newly-bipolar world, that it would confer some material advantage for their kids to know Mandarin. It made absolutely no sense. If you learn Spanish, there is a potential that you could continue learning Spanish throughout your life and eventually gain some adult proficiency. But few elementary, middle, or high schools offer Mandarin. Moreover, most of the Chinese community in SF are Cantonese speakers, so even if they are perfectly fluent there is a better than a coin flip chance that they won’t be able to understand the Chinese people in your neighborhood.
But what's odd is that despite this interest in the Chinese language, there is very little interest amongst white yuppies in Chinese history, culture, or philosophy.1 They feel anxious about China, but their response isn't to, say, assimilate the part of Chinese culture that is accessible and knowable--it is to attempt to grasp the part that is most difficult and intractable. Trying to get your kid to learn Mandarin is a way of reassuring yourself that China truly is inscrutable and alien. It's like the person who wants to learn about classical music, so they watch a Youtube video of the Beethoven’s 5th and then think well I made a good faith effort, but I just don't get it. Like...no girl, you did not make a good-faith effort, because a good faith effort would involve googling the question “How do I learn to enjoy classical music?”. Similarly, if an adult wants to know about China, they ought to, like, read a book about the country, not force their kid to try and pick up this famously difficult language.
When it comes to the Great Books, the East Asian sphere creates an interesting problem. The West forms one more or less continuous literary tradition. Ancient Egyptian literature directly influenced the literature of Ancient Greece, while that of Mesopotamia influenced the Bible, and then the two streams met in Christianity. Every literature written and conceived west of the Zagros mountains, from Iceland to Argentina to Lesotho to Russia, has a pretty strong cross-cutting connection.
But it's a huge stretch to say that Indian, Chinese, and Western literature are interconnected in even the way that, say, Sotho and Russian literature are interconnected. India and China are connected through Buddhism, but after Buddhism died out in India in the 3rd or 4th century CE, there's not that much cross-pollination between East and South Asia over the next 1500 years. And although Western ideas had a significant impact on East and South Asia starting in about the 19th century, it's not clear that the influence ever went in the other direction.
The peak of Asian influence on Western literature seems to have occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century. Then you have a number of artists and philosophers who were strongly influenced by Classical Chinese and Sanskrit culture (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, T.S. Elliott, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, etc). But does that state of influence continue? If you read interviews even with Asian-American writers, one sees little Eastern influence. Take Jhumpa Lahiri--she's clearly more influenced by Chekhov than by Kalidasa. In film and music, the influence of the East upon the West much stronger, but Eastern film and music are also much less distinct from Western film and music than Eastern literature and philosophy are. The Bhagavad Gita is utterly alien to Western sensibilities, with its denial of the material world and of observable reality, but RRR is basically just a 1980s-style action flick with one really good dance number.
The question isn't whether Indian or Chinese culture produces "good" cultural products. Obviously, they do. RRR is far better than any American action movie that came out last year. A country that has exported Batman vs. Superman to the rest of the world surely cannot get on its high horse when it comes to comparing the cultural products of two civilizations.
The question is whether, for an American in 2024 who wants to be cultured ought to read Don Quixote? Or should he read the Tale of Genji? (I use Don Quixote as an example, because it is surely one of the most indescribably dull of the Great Books. Everything you know about Don Quixote, whether it's the tilting at windmills or the sheep mistaken for giants, comes from the first 50 pages, because very few people manage to wade further into the mass of dreary interpolated tales).
But to straightforwardly debate which book is more "necessary" or "useful" is to beg the question. Because what do those terms really mean in reference to reading for personal pleasure and edification? Yes, if you read Don Quixote you will learn something both about the development of the novel and of the modern individualist sensibility. And if you read The Tale of Genji, you will learn considerably less about contemporary Western culture, because it's simply had much less influence. But...so what? Is that why we read these books?
We read the Great Books because they are influential. And yet the vision of culture we get from them can never be complete. The Great Books are certainly not the most influential books of all time: the writings of John Calvin have probably defined our time more than any novel ever could. Hell, if we only wanted to read influential works, we'd read The Moynihan Report. Influence is a necessary but not sufficient quality--the Great Books also need to be thought-provoking and artistically accomplished. But, I would also say that we in part read the Great Books precisely because they have not been fully assimilated into our culture. We read Don Quixote not because it resembles the modern novel of sentiment, but because of the many ways in which it does not resemble a contemporary novel (to me, the most interesting aspect of Don Quixote was its cruelty. The Don is constantly being beaten and tricked. To the other characters in the book, there is nothing Romantic or praiseworthy about Don Quixote, he is merely a fool and a figure of fun).
I don't think the Great Books can be extricated from their influence. There is a reason I'm not in the habit of anointing new Great Books. Because it is, by its nature, a collective designation. A Great Book is thrown up by our culture: it is the product of thousands of literate people saying that this book is unusually thoughtful, unusually beautiful). You can try and predict which books have that quality (Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Leo Strauss's Natural Right and History come to mind), but it's not something you can force into being.
And yet, a book doesn't become great merely by being influential; rather, a book's influence is a recognition of its greatness. Take, for instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh. It was lost for more than two thousand years. But upon its recovery and translation, it gained a large and growing reputation. Yes, there are parts of it that seem to resemble things we know (a version of the flood narrative, for instance), but the thing people respond most to (Gilgamesh's outsized sorrow over Enkidu's death, and his own resulting terror of death) are why people read and remember the book.
Which is to say, we have to separate the historical process that makes Great Books from the personal experience of being one human being reading a Great Book. On a historical level, a Great Book can only be recognized through its influence. Indeed, the process by which a Great Book is propagated through history depends on financial and political power (Gilgamesh, for instance, had to be copied down hundreds of times onto clay tablets by scribes, and achieve such fame that two thousand years after its composition the Assyrian Emperor, Ashurbanipal, would have several copies in his library, where they would be preserved for millennia after the burning of the library baked the clay tablets). And even in contemporary times, a book will not become a Great Book, which is to say, it will not gain the reputation of being influential and culture-defining, unless it is studied and extolled by thousands of people who themselves are the product of vast systems for concentrating educational and financial and political capital.
But to point out that the Great Books are created by a historical process is the same as saying that a culture only begins to produce great books at the point where it starts writing down its literature. That's not a judgement, it's a fact. But that doesn't mean those books are all equally great or equally worth the time of the reader in search of culture, nor that the cultured reader couldn't profit equally from listening to oral culture. To say that only literate cultures produce Great Books is merely to describe how the phenomenon of the Great Books operates in historical time.
Which brings us back to the Eastern classics. Here we see books whose reputation comes almost entirely because of processes that are separate from the equivalent processes in the West. In fact, there are great Chinese writers who aren't even translated. I've searched and searched for a translation of the work of the Tang Dynasty neo-Confucian scholar Han Yu (he occupies the same place in Chinese culture as Montaigne does in the West), but there is quite literally nothing available. Western presses have little incentive to translate what is, in the west, a not particularly influential writer.
I think it’s precisely the vastness and the separateness of the Eastern and Indian traditions that make them so fascinating. Here we see literature in which we are not reflected, literature that doesn’t implicate us. Nobody in the West is capable of adding to or detracting from the reputation of The Tale of Genji. To read the Great Books of East and South Asia is to truly stand outside them and read them as disinterested observers. In a way, it’s really an act of tremendous faith: we trust that the authorities of this foreign culture have, through their stewardship of their literature, created their own canon that is equally as worthwhile as our own.
Although we know the idea is foolish, I think when we read the Great Books we always, on some level, assume we are directly imbibing the spirit of the age. What is the relationship between Moby Dick and Leaves of Grass and early 19th century America? If you’re some kiddo working in a factory in New England, to what extent does Leaves of Grass partake of your “you-ness”. When we read this book do we have any experience of what it was like to be alive at that time and place? On a logical level…no, not really, the idea is absurd. The connection between the literature of a time and place and the life of that time and place is tepid at best. I discussed this a few weeks ago in reference to the democratic tradition: in Ancient Athens it is clear that there was a large class of peasants and artisans that was intensely proud of the democratic traditions of their polis. These are the folx who, for instance, condemned Socrates to death, because they saw him (rightly!) as subverting the will of the people and encouraging oligarchical rule. You do not get any flavor of their life from reading most ancient Athenian texts—only a small number of the plays (most notably the Oresteia) seem to give the flavor of what it was like to be one of the demoi of Athens.
So we know that our image of a time and place is only an image. And yet, when it comes to the Great Books, we are witnessing a self-constructed image. If you read The Tale of Genji and see Heian-era Japan as a languid world of poetry contests and gently-falling cherry blossoms and secluded women, you’re getting a carefully-constructed image, but it’s one that authorities in Japan have constructed themselves. This is not an image being imposed upon them by the West. So while you might not understand what life in Heian Japan was truly like, you do understand something about the sort of culture that would choose to hold up this book as an exemplar, and the ways that such a culture might, perhaps, differ very much from a culture whose great novel is Don Quixote or Middlemarch or Anna Karenina or Moby Dick.
The temptation whenever we come across any form of difference is to essentialize that difference. Indeed, without that kind of essentializing, the pursuit of difference becomes pointless. Take the emancipation of women—if we truly believed that women were exactly the same as men, emancipation would be rather dreary. It would still be the right thing to do, but it would be a sterile blossom: we would expect free self-determining women to express themselves in exactly the same ways as men do. But what drives the desire for emancipation is the intuition that free women might behave in radically different ways from men. That women, if freed, might, for instance, campaign against alcoholism, or desire more public regulation of safety. We seek out difference not because we want to be reassured that the other is essentially the same as ourselves, but because we want to see how it is different!
And yet, if it was too different, then we would be unable to span that difference! In literature, we at times are struck by difference and at other times by similarity. I find that literary critics are, even after a hundred years, still under the heavy sway of Russian formalism, and they have a strong tendency to claim that any difference is really structural difference. But when you read East Asian literature, you find that the amount of structural difference is really over-played. Yes, there are huge structural differences between Eastern and Western literature, but considering that, say, Confucius had absolutely no concept of or contact with Western philosophy, it is striking that what his work—the aphoristic treatise—is pretty similar in format to, for instance, the sayings of Diogenes the Cynic. Similarly, Daniel Defoe likely hadn’t read The Tale of Genji, but the 18th-century English-language picaresque bears a striking structural similarity to Genji. The truth is, much of the difference between literatures lies not in the structure, but in the content, in the situations, in the patterning, in the modes and patterns of life. For instance, while the episodic structure of Genji is thoroughly comprehensible, the social mores are intensely alien. We understand seclusion of women, but what’s strange in Genji is not women’s seclusion, but the fact that their seclusion is combined with tremendous political, financial, and cultural power. Women in Ancient Rome (at least in the upper classes) were equally secluded and equally jealous of their honor and had, to some extent, equal ceremonial and civic roles, particularly in the later Empire, but they were always viewed as adjuncts to men in ways that Heian-era women were not. And because of those patterns of life, Heian literature sheds a light on relations between the sexes that Western literature cannot match.
In a previous post I made fun of Substackers whose cultural referents remain fixed. One of my enduring interests are the Chinese and Japanese classics. And now that I’ve imported my whole archives into Substack, I can link to a few posts in my archive (some dating back more than a dozen years!) where I wrote about my first encounters with Heian literature. The posts are all paid—as are all my archives. Some of the writing is very rough (I wrote the first post when I was 24!), and I figure if I’m going to be embarrassed I ought to at least get paid for it.
One of the most frustrating experiences of my writing career has been the fallacies that white literati like to spread about how Japanese and Chinese stories are structured; it’s become such a shibboleth to say “Oh, not all national literatures are structured around conflict”, but if you know one thing about a person who talks this way, it’s that they’ve never read even a contemporary Chinese or Japanese novel, much less an ancient one. By positing that other cultures are inscrutably different, the speaker not only essentializes and others them, they also free themselves from the burden of any sustained engagement with those cultures in their actuality.