Simon Leys: An appreciation
By Francesco Sisci
The void left in both Western and Eastern culture by the death on August 11 of Sinologist Pierre Rickman (aka Simon Leys), aged 78, will be felt possibly only in the years to come. Rickman/Leys had a unique voice on China and on literature in general, which has been very influential for many China watchers and will possibly be more important in the future, as China becomes even an bigger focus of attention with its rise.
Rickman, born in Belgium in 1935, took the pseudonym of Simon Leys in the 1970s to avoid becoming persona non grata in China. He gave some scathing descriptions of the cultural and political destruction during the Cultural Revolution and denounced the
hypocrisy of the revolution’s Western defenders. Yet he was always careful in drawing a distinction between the faulty leaders and the common Chinese people.
There are many ways to approach China and the study of its culture, or Sinology as it has been called for over a century in the West. One can concentrate on the erudition, and China offers ample room for that, with so much to learn and such great differences from Western culture: thousands of characters, thousands of texts to memorize and pile up in a gigantic tower of memory. Others can concentrate on politics: again, there is much to learn there, with the obscure machinations of modern and ancient plotting. Others still can concentrate on the beauty of its arts, so different and yet so fascinating, almost mesmerizing, and so forth.
Simon Leys, unlike most and like a few others, preferred to avoid all of that, skirting all of the above and concentrating on the truth, the essence, as he wrote in his collection of essays "The Hall of Uselessness".
He explained that the task of the Chinese artist was not to reproduce objects of reality, it was not to reproduce the effects and illusions of the vision, it was not even to create something beautiful. These were all approaches proper to Western culture and art. The task of the Chinese artist was to capture the essence of a spot, a situation, a moment, and to communicate this essence in the most effective way. This was to try to be oneself in the truest way.
In the essay "Ethics and Esthetics" he quotes calligrapher Liu Xizai as saying, "In calligraphy, it is not pleasing that is difficult; what is difficult is not seeking to please. The desire to please makes the writing trite; its absence renders it ingenuous and true." And to further clarify the point, he quotes Stendhal, writing, "I believe that to be great at anything at all, you must be yourself," and Wittgenstein, commenting on Tolstoy, "There is a real man who has a right to speak."
This was the approach Leys took to Chinese culture. The effort surely was so hard, so difficult, and so deep that it must have given Leys an extra talent to see through all other things. This knack, refined through decades of deep thinking, is what gave him a unique ability to capture the essence of anything he laid eyes on, be it from the East or the West.
Leys was in fact not simply a Sinologist but someone who deeply understood Chinese classical artistic power to go to the essence, to the truth, and expanded his gaze on Western culture and politics.
He wrote in an essay that Chinese artists were amateurs, and it was demeaning for them to be paid for their work. They worked because their conscience demanded it, searching for a deep truth within themselves and in what they were doing. This ethical dynamic in their work was what made their work great.
This is a lesson Leys found expounded in China, but certainly it is true of any artist or writer, like himself. The honest effort to think hard and thoroughly is what gives life to any real work of art or any solid writing.
China provided Leys more than anything with an ethical instrument to look at reality. For this reason, his essays are equally compelling whatever he writes about. It is not his erudition that shines through (although he was greatly erudite), not his politics (although he had a clear stand, being an ardent Catholic), not even the beauty of his prose (very beautiful, although English was possibly his third language, after Flemish and French).
What made Leys most remarkable was his depth, his continuous effort to try to get to the bottom of things, to understand them, and to render them with the great simplicity proper of the people who really worked through them.
With Leys the world has lost a unique eye onto things, an eye of intellectual honesty and depth, something that should be the hallmark of any intellectual. May his lesson not be lost with him, as now more than ever we need great efforts and even greater honesty to write about the world and especially about China, which is today more difficult than ever.
Rephrasing him one must say, he was a real man with a right to speak. One should only hope to deserve the same right.
Francesco Sisci is a Senior Researcher associated with the Center for European Studies at the People’s University in Beijing. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent in any way those of the Center.
(Copyright 2014 Francesco Sisci.)