Frail Voices, Not Great Laws
Gao Xingjian, the Chinese author of Soul Mountain who lives in exile outside Paris, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. The following is excerpted from his speech to the Swedish Academy upon receiving the prize.
A writer is an ordinary person. Perhaps he is more sensitive, but people who are highly sensitive are often more frail. A writer does not speak as the spokesperson of the people or as the embodiment of righteousness. His voice is inevitably weak but it is precisely this voice of the individual that is more authentic.
Literature can only be the voice of the individual and this has always been so. Once literature is contrived as the hymn of the nation, the flag of the race, the mouthpiece of a political party or the voice of a class or a group, it can be employed as a mighty and all-engulfing tool of propaganda. However, such literature loses what is inherent in literature, ceases to be literature and becomes a substitute for power and profit.
In the century just ended literature confronted precisely this misfortune and was more deeply scarred by politics and power than in any previous period, and the writer too was subjected to unprecedented oppression.
In order that literature safeguard the reason for its own existence and not become the tool of politics it must return to the voice of the individual, for literature is primarily derived from the feelings of the individual and is the result of feelings.
Chinese literature in the 20th century time and again was worn out and indeed almost suffocated because politics dictated literature: Both the revolution in literature and revolutionary literature alike passed death sentences on literature and the individual. The attack on Chinese traditional culture in the name of the revolution resulted in the public prohibition and burning of books. Countless writers were shot, imprisoned, exiled or punished with hard labor in the course of the past 100 years. This was more extreme than in any imperial dynastic period of China’s history, creating enormous difficulties for writings in the Chinese language and even more for any discussion of creative freedom.
If the writer sought to win intellectual freedom the choice was either to fall silent or to flee. However, the writer relies on language and not to speak for a prolonged period is the same as suicide. The writer who sought to avoid suicide or being silenced and furthermore to express his own voice had no option but to go into exile. Surveying the history of literature in the East and the West this has always been so: from Qu Yuan to Dante, Joyce, Thomas Mann, Solzhenitsyn, and to the large numbers of Chinese intellectuals who went into exile after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. This is the inevitable fate of the poet or the writer who continues to seek to preserve his own voice.
During the years when Mao Zedong implemented total dictatorship, even fleeing was not an option. The monasteries on faraway mountains that provided refuge for scholars in feudal times were totally ravaged and to write even in secret was to risk one’s life. To maintain one’s intellectual autonomy one could only talk to oneself, and it had to be in utmost secrecy. I should mention that it was only in this period when it was utterly impossible for literature that I came to comprehend why it was so essential: Literature allows a person to preserve a human consciousness.
It can be said that talking to oneself is the starting point of literature and that using language to communicate is secondary. A person pours his feelings and thoughts into language that, written as words, becomes literature. At the time there is no thought of utility or that someday it might be published, yet there is the compulsion to write because there is recompense and consolation in the pleasure of writing. I began writing my novel Soul Mountain to dispel my inner loneliness at the very time when works I had written with rigorous self-censorship had been banned. Soul Mountain was written for myself and without the hope that it would be published.
From my experience in writing, I can say that literature is inherently man’s affirmation of the value of his own self and that this is validated during the writing. Literature is born primarily of the writer’s need for self-fulfillment. Whether it has any impact on society comes after the completion of a work and that impact certainly is not determined by the wishes of the writer.
Literature is neither an embellishment for authority nor a socially fashionable item, it has its own criterion of merit: its aesthetic quality. An aesthetic intricately related to the human emotions is the only indispensable criterion for literary works. Indeed, such judgments differ from person to person because the emotions are invariably that of different individuals. However, such subjective aesthetic judgments do have universally recognized standards. The capacity for critical appreciation nurtured by literature allows the reader to also experience the poetic feeling and the beauty, the sublime and the ridiculous, the sorrow and the absurdity, and the humor and the irony that the author has infused into his work.
An aesthetic based on human emotions does not become outdated even with the perennial changing of fashions in literature and in art. However, literary evaluations that fluctuate like fashions are premised on what is the latest: that is, whatever is new is good. This is a mechanism in general market movements and the book market is not exempted, but if the writer’s aesthetic judgment follows market movements it will mean the suicide of literature. Especially in the so-called consumerist society of the present, I think one must resort to cold literature.
Ten years ago, after concluding Soul Mountain, which I had written over seven years, I wrote a short essay proposing this type of literature:
"Literature is not concerned with politics but is purely a matter of the individual. It is the gratification of the intellect together with an observation, a review of what has been experienced, reminiscences and feelings or the portrayal of a state of mind.
The so-called writer is nothing more than someone speaking or writing and whether he is listened to or read is for others to choose. The writer is not a hero acting on orders from the people nor is he worthy of worship as an idol, and certainly he is not a criminal or enemy of the people. He is at times victimized along with his writings simply because of other’s needs. When the authorities need to manufacture a few enemies to divert people’s attention, writers become sacrifices and worse still writers who have been duped actually think it is a great honor to be sacrificed.
"In fact the relationship of the author and the reader is always one of spiritual communication and there is no need to meet or to socially interact, it is a communication simply through the work. Literature remains an indispensable form of human activity in which both the reader and the writer are engaged of their own volition. Hence, literature has no duty to the masses.
"This sort of literature that has recovered its innate character can be called cold literature. It exists simply because humankind seeks a purely spiritual activity beyond the gratification of material desires. This sort of literature, of course, did not come into being today. However, whereas in the past it mainly had to fight oppressive political forces and social customs, today it has to do battle with the subversive commercial values of consumerist society. For it to exist depends on a willingness to endure loneliness.
"If a writer devotes himself to this sort of writing he will find it difficult to make a living. Hence the writing of this sort of literature must be considered a luxury, a form of pure spiritual gratification. If this sort of literature has the good fortune of being published and circulated it is due to the efforts of the writer and his friends. Cao Xueqin and Kafka are such examples. During their lifetimes, their works were unpublished so they were not able to create literary movements or to become celebrities. These writers lived at the margins and seams of society, devoting themselves to this sort of spiritual activity for which at the time they did not hope for any recompense. They did not seek social approval but simply derived pleasure from writing.
"Cold literature is literature that will flee in order to survive, it is literature that refuses to be strangled by society in its quest for spiritual salvation. If a race cannot accommodate this sort of non-utilitarian literature it is not merely a misfortune for the writer but a tragedy for the race."
This is an age without prophecies and promises. That is a good thing. The writer playing prophet and judge should also cease since the many prophecies of the past century have all turned out to be frauds. And there is no need to manufacture new superstitions about the future. It is much better to wait and see. It would be best also for the writer to revert to the role of witness and strive to present the truth.
When writing is not a livelihood or when one is so engrossed in writing that one forgets why one is writing and for whom one is writing it becomes a necessity and one will write compulsively and give birth to literature. It is this non-utilitarian aspect of literature that is fundamental to literature. That the writing of literature has become a profession is an ugly outcome of the division of labor in modern society and a very bitter fruit for the writer.
This is especially the case in the present age where the market economy has become pervasive and books have also become commodities. Everywhere there are huge undiscriminating markets and not just individual writers but even the societies and movements of past literary schools have all gone. If the writer does not bend to the pressures of the market and refuses to stoop to manufacturing cultural products by writing to satisfy the tastes of fashions and trends, he must make a living by some other means. Literature is not a best-selling book or a book on a ranked list and authors promoted on television engaged in advertising rather than in writing. Freedom in writing is not conferred and cannot be purchased but comes from an inner need in the writer himself.
The writer writes what he wants without concern for recompense not only to affirm his self but also to challenge society. This challenge is not pretense and the writer has no need to inflate his ego by becoming a hero or a fighter. Heroes and fighters struggle to achieve some great work or to establish some meritorious deed and these lie beyond the scope of literary works. If the writer wants to challenge society it must be through language and he must rely on the characters and incidents of his works, otherwise he can only harm literature. Literature is not angry shouting and furthermore cannot turn an individual’s indignation into accusations. It is only when the feelings of the writer as an individual are dispersed in a work that his feelings will withstand the ravages of time and live on for a long time.
Therefore it is actually not the challenge of the writer to society but rather the challenge of his works. An enduring work is, of course, a powerful response to the times and society of the writer. The clamor of the writer and his actions may have vanished but as long as there are readers his voice in his writings continues to reverberate.
Indeed such a challenge cannot transform society. It is merely an individual aspiring to transcend the limitations of the social ecology and taking a very inconspicuous stance. However, this is by no means an ordinary stance for it is one that takes pride in being human. It would be sad if human history is only manipulated by the unknowable laws and moves blindly with the current so that the different voices of individuals cannot be heard. It is in this sense that literature fills in the gaps of history. When the great laws of history are not used to explain humankind it will be possible for people to leave behind their own voices.
Translation by Mabel Lee