September 3, 1999
The Travels of Mr. Derelict
Every good book is a story, not the story in the book but the story of the reading of the book. It's the encounter that makes the book good, the kind of encounter that can only take place at a particular moment in one's life, which is itself bound to time and circumstance, history and culture, equally particular and beyond one's choosing or control. A good book is something that only happens, so the speak, on the road. It's a chance meeting, not with an author--one can never know an author, they barely know themselves--but with the distant possibility of some vague other, invariably some misty projection reflected back of oneself, traveling some other road, also particular, also bound to time and circumstance, to another history, another culture. A good book is an accident. One stumbles across something written to which, then and there, one feels compelled to respond, "That is true."
Of course, I use the term book loosely. It doesn't have to be a bound book. It doesn't have to be prose, a story, or be of any special length. It can be almost anything one just happens to read, at the right moment. Perhaps a scroll hung on a pillar:
When he reached the temple he looked southward and saw on the other side of the lake the Mount of a Thousand Buddhas. There were temples and monasteries, some high some low, scattered among the gray pines and green cypresses: the red were red as fire, the white as white as snow, the blue as blue as indigo and the green as green as emerald, while here and there were a few red maples. It looked like a big painting by Zhao Qianli, the Song-dynasty painter, only made into a screen a dozen miles long. Mr. Derelict was delighting in the scene when suddenly he heard the chant of a fisherman, and when he looked down he saw the lake as clear as a mirror. The inverted image of the mountain was reflected with great distinctiveness in the lake, and the pavilions and trees upon it looked exceptionally bright, so that it seemed even more beautiful and clear than the real mountain above. Ascending the south bank of the lake one came to the city again, but the sight was screened by reeds. It was blossom time and a canopy of white flowers in the setting sun, with the mist rising from the water, seemed like a pink carpet strewn as cushions between the two hills, presenting a most curious spectacle.
"Since the scenery is so beautiful," thought Mr. Derelict, "how is it that there are no people here enjoying themselves?" He looked for a while then turned back and saw on the pillars inside the great gate a couple of scrolls on which was written:
Lotus on four sides, willows on three,
Mountains within the city and lakes over half the city.
He nodded and said to himself, "That is true."
When I was younger, studying literature for my Ph.D., I didn't have any patience with this kind of descriptive fluff. Sure, there are some interesting figural things going on here: the too pure, more than real scenery that seems to acquire its beauty because it isn't really seen, partially obscured by reeds, mist, the setting sun, and taken in only as inverted and reflected by the lake, by the memory of a painting, by the lines of a poem, by the eye of Mr. Derelict who forgets he's not alone--the chanting fisherman is also there enjoying himself, moved to song. But these figural games are common enough in literature, and this was originally written in Chinese, I know not which dialect. And it would take me a another decade I don't have to learn the necessary language, history, literary and aesthetic conventions, schools, debates, and so on, before I could even begin to say what this passage and this book are "about."
Moreover, even the translation, as I have it, has been butchered by some supposed scholar and publisher holding posts in communist China in 1983. They've cut out six and a half chapters, episodes containing prophecies and a murder story, because parts may have been "written by the author's son," as if that couldn't possibly be interesting, but more because those episode include "a large supernatural element...quite alien to the realism of the first part of the book."
If there's realism in this book, I can't find it. The first chapter's deliberately heavy-handed political allegory turns into a nightmare of death by drowning, from which Mr. Derelict and the reader are suddenly awakened in the first paragraph of the second chapter. I suppose realism or the pretense of realism was and perhaps still is required of literary publications in communist China, especially of a turn-of-the-century work by an author who "supported feudalism" and opposed even "bourgeois democratic revolution...and struggles against imperialist aggression." Heavy strikes. Very incorrect. And so to say properly what this book is "about," there's yet another history, another set of literary and aesthetic conventions, schools, debates and so on to master, those of contemporary communist China. I was right to be so impatient when I was young. There are only so many roads one can travel, before one awakens to realize there was only ever one.
It is said that when Mr. Derelict was on the fishing boat he was attacked by people and sank into the sea, and, knowing that he could not escape his death, he closed his eyes and resigned himself to his fate. He felt like a falling leaf, floating and fluttering, and soon he sank to the bottom of the sea. Then he heard someone shouting in his ear: "Sir, you had better get up now. The meal has been ready in the dining-hall for a long time."
Mr. Derelict hurriedly opened his eyes and said in bewilderment, "Oh, so it was only a dream."
The book is The Travels of Lao Can by Liu E (1857-1909). Lao Can is "Mr. Derelict," and the book was written in 1905 when Liu E was feeling rather derelict himself, beginning what was to be the final down slide of his fourth and last career, as a kind of public works adviser on mines, railways and, especially dear to his heart, the annual flooding of the Yellow River. His first three career attempts, scholar, physician and businessman, hadn't turned out that well either.
The Travels of Lao Can is Liu E's final musing upon all his failed careers and the overarching misfortune of living at his particular moment in Chinese political and cultural history, under a bureaucracy paralyzed by its own size, internal corruption and infighting, and xenophobic over-reaction to very real foreign threats. The book's thin plot line meanders from episode to episode, seemingly without motivation, never hurried, always finding time enough to record a beautiful scene, a line of poetry on a wall, or each of the endless free meals and warm coats Mr. Derelict tries to refuse. But Liu E campaigned all his life for dredging the Yellow River rather than widening it, and there's not a turn in The Travels of Lao Can without a whole lot of dredging--fictional, allegorical, metaphorical, political, psychological, cultural--going on
I always say a man's most bitter portion is that he can't talk; yet there are people who think that a man can talk all day long, and wonder how I can say that he is unable to talk. The fact is that people speak in two ways: when they speak from the heart those are their own words; but when they speak from the throat that is just polite conversation. Now these people in the provincial capital are either my superiors or my inferiors; those who are my superiors look down on me so that I can't talk with them, and those who are my inferiors are jealous of me, so that I can't talk with them either. Still, you say, there must be some people who are on an equal footing with me; but even if there are people whose positions may be more or less equal to mine, at heart we are actually different, for some think themselves vastly superior to me and look down on me, while the rest think themselves inferior and therefore envy me. That's how I find myself unable to talk.
I ran across The Travels of Lao Can a little over four years ago in a trashy little storefront on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach, California, lots of sunshine, surfers and babes in bikinis but not exactly the reader capital of the world. Actually, the bookstore specialized in books on tape and its clientele mostly drove in from elsewhere in San Diego, especially La Jolla. I suspect the small classic books section was stocked entirely by parents and grandparents of recent UCSD graduates who had ransacked their now departed kids and grandkids rooms for potential trade-ins for tapes; after all, they had paid for them and no one was ever going to look at them again. In any event, the selection betrayed all the warning signs of a politically correct university curriculum, and that's why I was there, just keeping tabs on what was going on, digging around amongst what absolutely nobody had any use for.
The Travels of Lao Can probably made the UCSD curriculum by pure ethnic tokenism as a Chinese novel. A century later, Liu E is still not a good candidate for the academy. Not only is he a political reactionary but his book's longest and best episode concerns a night Mr. Derelict and an old friend, Mr. Huang, spend talking, eating, drinking and smoking opium with two very young prostitutes (seventeen and fifteen years old), whom they eventually "rescue" in a rich gentlemanly way by buying them as concubines. Heavy strikes, again. Very incorrect, still.
But for that reason, after quickly flipping through the plot, I snatched up this mistake in the modern American politically correct pantheon of world literature, bought it, and took it to enjoy at the cafe directly across the street. The cafe is still there; the books on tape store is gone. The owner and his wife hated that cafe with a passion, standing every day at their counter, between cage after cage of miniature twitting tropical birds, muttering about illiterate punks and bimbos spoiling their neighborhood. They hated it so much that one day they picked up and moved closer to their affluent clientele. I missed the books in their classics section, but there was some satisfaction in knowing they failed miserably in their new upscale location.
Mr. Derelict stayed in Dongchang for another two days, and found that the books of the Liu family were indeed locked away in large cases, so that not only were outsiders unable to see them, but even members of the Liu family could not catch a glimpse of them. This depressed him considerably, so he took his brush and wrote the following poem on the wall:
This well-know scholar's family
Has a library built up from the books of four families;
But this collection in Dongchang District
Is locked up in chests to feed bookworms.
After writing this he sighed and went to bed, and there we shall leave him for the time being.
Mr. Derelict has trouble with books and ink throughout his travels. Books seem almost always locked away or otherwise inaccessible, and at the end of his night with Mr. Huang and the two young "singing girls," his two irreplaceable Song-dynasty editions are lost forever in a hotel fire. His ink is always in danger of freezing. By the end, it's so cold that even his tears for China freeze halfway down his face, and the hotel fire has to be extinguished with blocks of ice. It's not exactly subtle: Mr. Derelict has lived beyond the age of literacy and learning, and the humanity they represent. Everything that is culture must now be carried in the head or written furtively on hotel walls which in all likelihood will be whitewashed the next morning for the next guest. Nobody cares. All have abandoned themselves to a blind rush to get ahead, to pursue power and wealth in the easiest direction possible, but crowding against each other in a mad frenzy they have blocked even that direction. Mr. Derelict is always sighing, but he goes on writing on the walls.
These days, I have that feeling all the time, of having lived past the age of literacy. And it's not simply a matter of how few now read; it gets down to the ability to comprehend anything other than simple declarative or interrogatory sentences. Just last night I was in my favorite bar and some band's cover of the Grateful Dead's "Scarlet Begonias" came on the jukebox. I'd never heard it before and was curious to know the band, but it took four tries before I found one person who even understood the question, "What's that band that's trying to raise the dead?" Mind you, each one I asked knew the answer to the question. They just couldn't understand the way I put it. My mistake. The only wit one's allowed these days must be derived directly from television commercials or sitcoms, and even then they must have been aired or rerun very, very recently, preferably the night before. If you don't watch a enough primetime, you're effectively a tongue-tied dolt.
Of course, in teaching college I've seen first hand what produces this, or at least what fails to remedy this. My first encounter with Mr. Derelict came at a fortuitous moment, when it was becoming increasingly obvious that the Dean who had hired me and I were going to lose our battle to take education beyond the absolute minimum necessary to assure regular WASC reaccredidation of the "adult learner" university that employed us. As I learned later, it might have been sometime around then that the Board of Trustees, pleased with the President's dramatic reversal of the school's financial position, made the extent of his already extravagant retirement benefits contingent upon further cost cutting. In any event, the university's ambitious mission "to become the premiere educational institution for adult learners" decidedly shifted to mean "to become the not-for-profit educational institution with the best bond rating in the country." There's a distinction that no longer makes a difference between a for-profit institution that serves the stock market and a not-for-profit institution that serves the bond market.
Although the boat was two hundred and forty feet long, it was damaged in many places. One part about thirty feet long on the north-east side was already broken through, letting the water pour in, while another part, about ten feet long on the east side, was letting water in too; and there was no part that was not battered. The eight men at the sails really had their heart in their work, but each worked at his own task as if they were on eight different boats, so there was no co-operation between them. As for the sailors, they did nothing but run about among the men and women passengers on board, and at first it was not clear what they were doing; but when the three friends watched them carefully through their telescopes they saw that they were robbing the passengers of their rations and stripping them of their clothes.
A kind of reign of TQM terror descended. Paperwork skyrocketed. Everyone's ideas on everything were solicited, but used primarily to ferret out "troublemakers" and to discover unprincipled weasels who could guess what was wanted and so were worth promoting. Simple truth became intolerable. Users' lists of what was wrong with the university's always crashing computer system had to be collected with guarantees of anonymity and by the office of an outgoing Academic Vice President, because the system, by marketing fiat, was the finest available. Discussion of issues in the Faculty Senate became impossible, because who said what and who reacted how were reported by faculty spies to the President before the Senate Chair could make it down the hall to her office and then to the President's for their regular post-Senate session. Staff left in droves, especially after faculty and administrative offices were removed to a new complex to solve what the Vice President for Institutional Research actually called "the anomaly of classrooms and offices in the same location." The rumor circulated that the new complex was built on an Indian burial ground, because so many stressed-out staff members were having auto wrecks driving there.
Faculty were blamed for fomenting rebellion whenever students complained about the quality of their education or the facilities. Nothing was done about educational quality, but the university launched an "educational quality assessment effort," which quickly became an exercise in discovering innovative ways to generate paper showing constant improvement. "Portfolio assessment" became the byword, seemingly when it dawned on the administration that no accreditation agency would ever have the patience to wade through all of them. Any hint of simple pre- and post-testing was prohibited: new sets of hard statistics might show the same results as previous confidential internal studies, that the longer students had attended the institution the poorer they performed on standardized measures of college achievement. By the time they forced out the Dean who hired me, he was effectively crippled by back pain. (His subsequent recovery remains a mystery of medical science.) And I was offered $10,000 from who knows what slush fund to quit six months before the end of my contract, which I had announced I had no desire to renew. The President receives awards for administrative excellence and numbers among the highest paid private university presidents in the country, higher than the Presidents of Harvard and Yale.
Mr. Derelict had nothing to do, for his books were still in the case and not easily accessible, so he sat there gloomily. Then he felt so moved that he took out a brush and ink from the casket by his pillow, and wrote a poem on the wall about the district magistrate. The poem was as follows:
Greed is in the marrow of his bones,
Impatient to achieve renown;
Thus injustice darkens the city
And his cap-button is stained red with blood.
Everywhere owls hoot,
On every hill tigers roar;
For killing his people as one kills an enemy
This magistrate has become a general.
Then he appended his name and district, and after that he had lunch.
Lunch is important. Dinner is important. Beautiful scenery is important. A poem, books here and there are important. And it's easy to forget how and in what ways they are important when history itself seems on the wrong course and needing to be righted. But history is not the story of individuals with the right ideas at the right time. That is a lie taught to justify what is and those who benefit most from what is, no more. On the contrary, history is filled with Mr. Derelicts, and what counts is only rarely "what is to be done." The river goes on flowing. Perhaps what counts comes down to a few evenings in a lifetime, say a few cold winter nights spent with friends old and new, men and women, stuck with nowhere to go, nothing to do except enjoy each other's company. Perhaps what makes a difference, what justifies education, experience, knowledge and the living it takes to get them is being able to bring all to bear on a moment when nothing matters except the present. Perhaps the highest goal is just a matter of being ready, willing and able to write on the wall what only friends and random strangers will ever read and maybe appreciate.
Mr. Derelict laughed and said, "you really are a troublemaker." So he stood on the bed, dipped his brush in ink from the ink-stone, warmed it with his breath and started writing on the wall. Emerald Ring feared that the ink on the stone might freeze, and warmed it all the time with her breath. The brush was nevertheless covered with a layer of ice, which became thicker and thicker until the poem was finished. It read as follows:
The earth is cleft asunder with the howling of the north wind;
Long slabs of ice rush down the darkening river.
The ice behind pushes the ice in front,
Attacking each other and struggling in rivalry.
The river is swiftly ice-bound,
A silvery bridge erected over the frozen rocks.
People longing to return home sigh,
And travelers fret in vain.
Thus on account of a single river
The carts cannot pass.
Let us have girls and music and a fine feast
To enliven this chilly night.
Mr. Huang read it and said, "Good, good. Why not put your name to it?"
"Supposing we put your name?" suggested Mr. Derelict.
But Mr. Huang said, "That would never do. I should be accused and lose my job for feasting with prostitutes, only to get the name of a poet. It is not worth it."
Accordingly Mr. Derelict signed his name and jumped down on the bed. The two girls put down the ink-stone and candlestick and warmed their hands at the brazier, and noticing that the charcoal was nearly burnt out, they added some fresh pieces. If you want to know what happened afterwards, you must read the next chapter.
The Travels of Lao Can is an unfinished work....
You can read it. You can write it. The wall is here.