Literature Contra Ideology

Gaoxingjian4601 An interview with Gao Xingjian in the Guardian:

Aged 68, Gao lives in Paris’s 2nd arrondissement with Céline Yang, a novelist who left China after 1989. Gao, who also writes in French, has translated and directed plays in his adopted language, and was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 2000. He sees himself as a “fragile man who has managed not to be crushed by authority and to speak to the world in his own voice”. As he pointed out recently at Warwick University, on a rare visit to Britain, most of his life’s work has been done since leaving China. While the Swedish academy saw him as a “perspicacious sceptic” possessed of “bitter insights”, for Ma, Gao is a “tranquil yet engaged presence; a very composed, mild-mannered man, but a passionate reader and artist”. Speaking in French, smiling readily though he seems frail, Gao recalls the Nobel prize as a “whirlwind. I was carried away, and it was difficult to organise my life. Very soon after, I fell ill, and had two big heart operations one after the other. It was because of the fatigue and pressure. I became an ornament on the political scene.”

The official Chinese reaction to the Nobel was predictably hostile. The head of the Chinese Writers’ Association said the prize had been “used for political purposes and thus has lost its authority”. According to Ma, that body had “campaigned for years for the Nobel prize to be awarded to one of their state-sanctioned writers, so they were furious when it went to a political exile”. Yet Gao has also been attacked by dissidents – notably for his play Escape (1989), written within months of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the ostensible trigger for all his work being banned in China. Its three characters take refuge from the army crackdown in a warehouse, amid sexual tensions and cynicism about self-proclaimed heroes. “Exiled writers said my play blackened the democracy movement,” Gao says. “Even today, those attacks continue.” In Ma’s view, “It was criticised by the pro-democracy activists because it failed to show the students in a heroic light.”

According to Gao, a writer’s only responsibility is “to the language he writes in”. Determined to rid himself of others’ ideologies, to live, as he says, “without isms”, he advocates a “cold literature”, detached from both political agendas and consumerist pressures, whose purpose is to bear witness.