The Case for Literature by Gao Xingjian

For those of us who find sports boring but literature exciting, an upcoming Olympics brings expectations of a special sort.

Olympic cities increasingly stage a “Cultural Olympics” before their Summer Games. Barcelona celebrated its leading artists in fields from architecture to poetry to sculpture. Atlanta invited the world’s living Nobel Prize laureates in literature, gathering a dazzling cast that included Joseph Brodsky, Kenzaburo Oe, Octavio Paz, Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott.

Since China, the 2008 host, has already violated all its promises to world governments and Olympic officials to restrain its authoritarian suppression of free speech, free politics and free literature under the charmless reign of Hu Jintao — a colorless bureaucrat who doesn’t even break into karaoke like his predecessor — coming up with a cool showing in the “Cultural Olympics” competition should test Beijing’s best minds.

Executing a few dissident writers with bullets to the head, just as the Olympic torch reaches Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, would certainly be an attention-getter. Or, given the inspired dubbing of China’s coming moment by Mia and Ronan Farrow as the “Genocide Olympics” (a nod to China’s support of Sudan’s massacre of its own citizens in Darfur), perhaps an exhibition of Sudanese writers expressing their eternal fraternity with the Chinese people?

Here’s a third suggestion for China’s commissars of cut-rate, cutthroat capitalism: Invite back Gao Xingjian, 2000 Nobel laureate in literature and still the only Chinese writer to win the prize. The Swedish Academy praised Gao “for an oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama.”

Permit him to give major lectures. Don’t harass or arrest him. Don’t tap his phone, hotel room or friends’ apartments. Finally — listen to him. Learn what it means to be a free Chinese mind, to think about more than flooding the world with junk.

Born in 1940 in Ganzhou, Gao took a degree in French literature at the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute, then was a translator and editor at Beijing’s Foreign Language Press. During Mao’s “cultural revolution” from 1966 to 1976, he had to burn two decades of his manuscripts for fear of rampaging Red Guards.

Gao intermittently faced further trouble in the 1980s even as he introduced Chinese readers to modern European literature, and particularly modern French literature. Party officials denounced his short critical book, Preliminary Explorations Into the Art of Modern Fiction (1982). His avant-garde plays, Bus Stop (in which buses keep passing people by without stopping) and Wild Man, drew similar rebukes and bannings during one of those wonderfully named Chinese government pogroms against art, the “Oppose Spiritual Pollution” campaign. Gao repeatedly had to flee to the countryside.

In 1987, fearing the “extreme hardship” often visited on Chinese intellectuals, he decided to live in Paris. Two years later, after the Chinese government massacred student protesters in Tiananmen Square, Gao tore up his Chinese passport and denounced the government in the European press.

In 1997, he received citizenship in France, where he is now a well-honored intellectual, much-exhibited Chinese ink painter, and sophisticated international man of letters who writes easily of Celine and Barthes, Gombrowicz and Pessoa. Like all Nobel literature laureates, Gao has slowly seen his work published around the world. English editions include his major novel, Soul Mountain (2000), and The Other Shore (1999), a collection of plays.

The Case for Literature brings together Gao’s major statements and speeches on his title subject, including his Nobel address. You can imagine how intensely Chinese leaders would like him back.

Gao’s signature credo remains that writers should live “without isms,” the title of one of his essay collections. By a life without isms, Gao, an atheist by conviction and pragmatist by bent, means a humane, tolerant acceptance of life’s uncertainty coupled with joy in life itself. The writer without isms “opposes totalitarian dictatorship but also opposes the inflation of the self to the status of God or Superman.” (Gao hates Nietzsche’s egoistical vision of man, and he denounces the German philosopher as much as he does political suppression of the individual.)

Gao frames his position as a human-rights issue. “To be without isms,” he writes, “is the minimum right of a human being,” the core of “intellectual freedom,” a “form of resistance against death by a life that is full of vitality.”

Literature, consequently, “has no duty to the masses,” has “nothing to do with politics,” and “can only be the voice of an individual.” Imagine that frail young man who stood before the tank in Tiananmen Square to be a writer, and you pretty much have Gao’s view.

Literature for Gao comes from “the surging of blood in the writer’s own heart.” It is “subservient to nothing but truth” and “has no taboos.” Once “literature is contrived as the hymn of a nation, the flag of a race, the mouthpiece of a political party or the voice of a class or group,” it is nothing but “propaganda.” Gao advocates what he calls “cold literature,” a literature in which observation “is superior to and loftier than judgment.”

The irony is that Gao is not a political writer. Rather, he insists on the writer’s freedom from political impositions, a circumstance he finds provided by the West, where he insists “a writer’s freedom of expression is universally recognized.”

The Case for Literature thus abounds in issues of purely literary aesthetics. Gao himself often writes in an experimental mode, with pronouns replacing characters. He reads his prose aloud to a tape recorder to check and recheck its musicality.

Particularly eye-opening here to a non-Chinese reader will be the essay titled “The Modern Chinese Language and Literary Creation.” In it, Gao declares that a second problem afflicts modern Chinese literature beyond its stultification by “isms.” In his view, the “Europeanization of the Chinese language,” through compound words and convoluted syntax, has made it “intolerable” and “unreadable.” Gao seeks, instead, “a pure form of modern Chinese.”

Should Gao and others preach to the Chinese as 2008 approaches? The other day, at a Google shareholders meeting, a resolution banning the company from obeying censorship dictates by China and other authoritarian countries was roundly defeated by shareholders.

China’s working slogan for the 2008 Olympics? “One World, One Dream.” Can we tweak that to “One World, One Spineless Attitude”? Chinese leaders can take comfort — there’s plenty of shame to spread around.