The Asia Institute Seminar
December 29, 2011
Interview with Haun Saussy
University Professor of Comparative Literature
University of Chicago
Professor Haun Saussy is a leading scholar of Chinese and comparative literature, has been named University Professor of Comparative Literature in the Division of the Humanities and the College at the University of Chicago. One of the few figures with a deep understanding of both the Western classical and Eastern tradition, who has advanced arguments for a new global approach to comparative literature. Professor Saussy is the 17th person ever to hold the title of University Professor at University of Chicago, an honor given to distinguished scholars.
Saussy’s first book, The Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic (Stanford University Press, 1993), discussed the tradition of commentary that has grown up around the early Chinese poetry collection Shijing. His most recent book is Great Walls of Discourse and Other Adventures in Cultural China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2001), an account of the ways of knowing and describing specific to China scholarship.
He received his B.A. (Greek and Comparative Literature) from Duke University in 1981. He received his M.Phil and Ph.D from Yale University in Comparative Literature . Saussy was previously Assistant Professor (1990-95) and Associate Professor (1995-97) at University of California, Los Angeles. He was Associate Professor, Full Professor, and chairman of the comparative literature department at Stanford University, prior to joining the Yale faculty in 2004.
Photograph of Professor Haun Saussy (credit Jason Smith)
We both began in Nashville, Tennessee, and we both had fathers involved in music. Asia was not anywhere around us at the beginning. If anything, our families were very deeply committed to the Western classical tradition. And yet ultimately Asia would become central in both of our lives.
In my case, there was a Chinese restaurant near our home in Saint Louis that we would go to regularly. It was quite intriguing to me even then as I wrestled with chopsticks, suggesting another tradition out there. More important was my move to San Francisco in high school. From that time forward I had a significant number of Chinese American friends. Although I did not actually learn Chinese, I did start to think about the culture. Interestingly, Robert Campbell, who now teaches at the department of comparative literature at University of Tokyo (where I received my M.A.), also went to Lowell High School. Robert Campbell is the only American I know who writes academic papers at a high level of sophistication in Japanese.
Like you, I was always aware of the existence of Asia, which, for Americans of our generation, put us somewhat ahead of the game. I grew up in a town where the nearest thing to an Asian environment was the one Cantonese restaurant. I would stand near the kitchen door listening to the cooks argue: what was that, was that a language, I wondered. When I took Greek later, I noticed that, somehow, the Japanese phonetic inventory was similar to the Greek, with its long “o” and “e” distinct from short “o” and “e,” but I did not have the time to follow up on that observation as an undergraduate.
At one point I wrote an undergraduate essay comparing Lu Ji’s “Wen fu” (which I read in the translation by E. R. Hughes) with the Greek literary critic Longinus’ writings on the sublime. So I was ready by then to take the plunge. The opportunity finally arose when I was in Paris studying linguistics and obsessed by François Cheng’s book on Chinese poetic writing. It always seemed to me a good experimental method, to test concepts that were familiar to me by comparing them with concepts other people were using in other languages. It worked for Greek and English and it only got better when I added Chinese to the mix.
We both started out seeped in the Western tradition, and then plunged into the Chinese tradition. Of course you did a much more careful survey of the Western tradition than I did. We must admit that there were challenges from the beginning. Could we make a meaningful connection between East and West? Could the East Asian tradition be taken seriously by our peers in the United States when it lacks certain markers of high seriousness required by so many Western intellectuals? Now major geopolitical shifts have led many to rethink those points, but we are still in a world in which Newton or Darwin have a universal status that no one in China, Japan or Korea has. Why is that?
It’s hard to make any generalization from people so exceptional as Newton and Darwin. But they lived in a time when very few countries possessed much of a scientific establishment, and they were connected to most of their peers through the intellectual networks that existed at the time. Further, they were lucky to come along at a time when a great deal of information had been gathered in their fields, and the need for a big theory was felt but not satisfied. Both of them offered a few singularly valuable insights. We don’t know who the next Newtons and Darwins will be, or which field will they work in. It seems that genetics, neurobiology, and physics are accumulating a lot of results that so far resist elegant analysis, and whoever in those fields finds a way to make the results cohere with a new pattern of thinking will be the new Newton.
These three fields are being cultivated in all parts of the globe, with intense communication among researchers everywhere, so the likelihood of the next big figure in genetics, say, being a non-Euro-American is pretty high. Science has become a perfectly cosmopolitan domain. In most labs I know in the United States, you’ll find more foreigners, at every level of authority, than you’ll find in most foreign-language departments, proportionally speaking! In some ways, the natural sciences have built the world society that the rest of us have been dreaming about for centuries.
But the question for us would be, was there something in the Western tradition that was unique, say in establishing a universal structure for inquiry that will serve as the platform for all investigation from here on out? Or could it be that geopolitical shifts will revise our perception of the world, our basic schemata of inquiry to a degree to which the aspects of the Asian tradition which could serve as a universal standard will return to that position?
I do think there are universal structures for inquiry: processes of testing the accuracy of statements, judging the fairness of social arrangements and so on. And if they work for most or all human beings, then it doesn’t matter so much where they originated. Any tradition will have some parts that feel very provincial, mixed in with the parts that promise to extend more generally. And of course it’s the interpreter who sifts out the universal (or promising-to-be-universal) from the rest. When I read, for example, the Mahabharata with my students, a text that I’m incapable of appreciating in the original, I spend a lot of time painting in the background, but I do this so that we can concentrate on the conflicts and issues that step out of the background and seem to address us more or less directly as human beings.
In a sense, we are led by our work on East Asia to understand something about ourselves. In a sense even the simplest forms of Asian studies are inherently comparative, even if they do not draw attention to that aspect. As T. S. Eliot once wrote, “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
I often wonder whether the Western tradition looks very much like a tradition when seen from an Asian cultural point of view. Nobody in Western Europe could read Homer or Aeschylus for a millennium or so (between 500 – 1500 AD), and now those writers are among the central authors in any modern account of the “Western tradition”! You can’t imagine such a massive blank space in the Chinese tradition. Texts were lost in China too, of course, and texts were forged—and sometimes forged texts took the place of more authentic texts. Yet in China, if a text was deemed important, it remained important for critics, writers and librarians, and was constantly reevaluated and renewed within the ongoing cultural conversation, through reference, reinterpretation, revision and adaptation. From that point of view, the Europeans look like cultural fumblers.
The other useful thing about constantly thinking about the West from a non-Western perspective is that it reminds us how chancy everything is. There’s an inbuilt tendency in people to think that the history of the world ineluctably leads to them. We tend to make the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement seem like inevitable products of the Western march of progress. That argument is powerful if you want to be a famous historian or critic, although it may not make you a good one. Reflecting on another historical tradition that took other pathways helps to break down that tendency.
If we talk about something like “world literature” we are assuming that there is a general phenomenon called “literature” that can be found everywhere. And yet, although we all started looking for that universal experience that ties all men together, in fact we find it extremely difficult to actually nail down such a universal. There certainly is nothing like the Second Law of Thermodynamics that pulls together all forms of “literature.”
Our terms as literary scholars are mainly drawn from a narrow sampling of the world’s traditions. One has to assume that “verbal art,” if I can use that as a more general term than “literature,” is at least possible wherever people are using language. As far as I know, every human group has stories, tells jokes, sings songs and manipulates words to delineate out both public and private meanings. Whether or not every group has a set of texts that they treat in an equivalent way to our “literature” is less certain and also not very important. Having a broad category like “verbal art” is useful in that it allows us to see “literature” as a difference, as an internal exception, within the range of possible artistic uses of language, and no longer as a putative universal. I think that approach is helpful.
Certainly the introduction of such a term as “verbal art” serves to complicate the process and allow us as critics to identify more complex phenomena. Part of the problem is that there is some confusion as to whether as literary critics we are like entomologists, studying literature objectively as one might study beetles, or whether we are connoisseurs, appreciating great works and giving our seal of approval to what embodies “high seriousness.”
An analogy would be how people talk about religion. So often when someone uses the term “religion,” he or she is referring to his or her religion. He or she will have considerable difficulty understanding that the religions of others are not just an impoverished, or distorted, versions of his or her own religion. An anthropological account of the process would need perforce to start from a broad category and then limn the idiomatic, culturally-specific, variants of that category with care. One would want to undertake this process in a hypothetical way– that is to say, we should not assume that, just because an anthropologist is anthropologizing about a subject, the result will be objective necessarily. Naturally we are all bound to a cultural frame of some kind, though we may have the wish to be less completely trapped in it.
But some would say that this “literature” is merely a historically specific idea and that a “world literature” is just a twisted form of projecting the values of the Europeans on other cultures, domesticating the alien, as it were. At this point in history, such an argument is too simplistic, but you are most certainly aware of the risks involved in trying to find universals. Just look at the efforts made over the last 2000 years. Many look hopelessly dated and subjective. And yet, and yet we are compelled to look for universals that can bring us together.
What you say is exactly why I’m skeptical about “world literature” as an academic field. It seems to hurry to its conclusion a little too quickly. Also, there’s the danger of being understood to use “literature” as a reward term, as when we say, “Now THIS is really a work of world literature.” I hear such pronouncements and I can already feel the next shift of taste coming, which will make it all seem outmoded, quaint and absurd. “A worldwide investigation of literatures”– I’d be glad to be a part of that.
Let us look at the present and future. At present, the Holiday Inn in Beijing, or Seoul, or New York City features the same themes taken from Georgian interior design (playing on Greek and Roman motifs). One could argue that these motifs have reached around the world because of English imperialism, or larger geopolitical fault lines. But looking forward, could it be that some hotel will exist in these cities twenty or seventy years from now that will play on Song dynasty patterns? I must admit that when I started back in 1983, I honestly believed that within 20 years or so we would see Chinese reverting to traditional themes in their interiors, in their writings. But that did not happen. Of course it did in little pieces, but the particular cultural configuration that is perceived as “advanced culture” has been quite stable. It could also be that the die has been cast for eternity.
As for the articulation of cultural prestige: it’s true that the Western norm prevails in most contexts. But that’s often not where the good conversations are found. The most interesting artists in China today are doing work that takes account of what’s been done in Paris and New York over the last 50 years, but they’re paying attention to the living world around them and using materials and ideas that wouldn’t be recognizable, or wouldn’t mean anything, to most Parisians or New Yorkers in the art world.
However, you’re onto an important question, having to do not with highly individual and reflective works of art (like those of, say, Xu Bing or Ai Weiwei, just to take the most prominent ones), but the anonymous, ordinary, taken-for-granted design of public spaces and the like. Ordinary, functional architecture and decoration: what does it say about the world and the people inhabiting it? Where are the windows, for example, how large are they, what do they look on, what about the sunlight? This sort of thing is probably more informative, sociologically speaking, than big setpieces of design.
We must remember that modernity whether in literature, architecture, or in institutions, came to Asia fairly suddenly and took control quite completely. There weren’t many pockets of resistance against Western-centric universal norms.
Let me give an example of the sorts of comparisons that can be made and that may lead to a richer dialog between East and West. I am writing a short essay about the adaptation of the concept of Li (礼, “propriety”) in the present age. I make the argument that Li is in fact much more appropriate for addressing and resolving many of the problems we encounter today, say in social networks, than constitutional law, criminal law, or common law. Li gives us a means of addressing differences in status that, although critical, are not covered by law in the West. Li uses similar terms to address issues at a personal, familial, and community level, and Li works in terms of models for behavior rather than punishment. I think it could be applied broadly today, not just in Asia, but around the world. That tradition is seen as something of the past now—a tradition not that relevant to the future. I think it could be extremely relevant. In fact, in the case of social networks, we need desperately the concept of li.
Let us give a minute to our students to ask directly a few questions to Professor Saussy.
What do you think are the strengths of the Asian literary tradition? What works of Asian literature have had real impact in the West?
The funny thing about literary influence, or impact as you say, is that it often has more to do with the people receiving the influence than with those giving it. For example, Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa, whose understanding of Chinese poetry revolutionized the writing of poetry in the English language, thought Chinese poetry was terse and simple. It could be terse, in the sense that the poems are short, but in fact it was rarely simple. The apparent brevity included many allusions and references that were invisible to Pound and Fenollosa.
The experience of a Chinese, Japanese or Korean reader who is presented with a poem by Du Fu or Wang Wei is utterly different from that of an English-language reader who lacks the background. Nonetheless, the bareness and simplicity that appeared (mistakenly) to be the essence of an Asian poem was exactly what English-language poetry needed just then. That historically specific need drew attention to Asian writing in the West. There are lots of these “lucky mishaps” in intercultural communication. I try to be grateful for them.
The contribution of China and Japan to Western modernity, whether the impact of Du Fu on the poems of Ezra Pound or the influence of Hokusai’s woodblock prints on the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, was real. It was not so much Asia coming to Europe. It was rather a part of an internal discourse, a search for alternatives outside the tradition. For that matter we can talk about how the civil service system of China gave the inspiration, the kick in the pants, Europe needed to develop the modern nation state. The dialog has been quite rich, if not always visible.
The modernist movement in poetry, and the rationalization of the civil service, were both felt as needs before they were concrete movements or practices. Without the examples from Asia, the needs might have developed quite different solutions. Luckily there were those examples to (mis)appropriate.
Lucky for us. We were already encountering Asia even before we were aware of it.
About the question of which Asian works have had impact: this problem has more than anything to do with the talent of translators. Pound’s “Cathay” contains just 15 Chinese poems. But it had a huge influence and was widely imitated in obvious, and non-obvious, ways. Arthur Waley’s translations made an impression too, especially his “Tale of Genji” version that made that Japanese novel of the eleventh century a central part of the canon. David Hawkes’s “Story of the Stone” is readable to a degree that few translations of Chinese fiction are. I grew up in a very provincial town, but we had on the shelves Lin Yutang’s book “My Country and My People,” which inspired in me a sympathy for Chinese humanism. All these are cases where the works from abroad satisfied a need, one which may not have resembled any need felt by the author’s original audience.
Let us take the case of a Korean student who does not have the time to read all the great works of the Western tradition, but wants to know something about the Western tradition. What one or two books would you recommend?
A short guide to the Western tradition? It’s hard to choose, as with any tradition. But here are a couple of suggestions. I would have people read Plato– not all the dialogues but maybe the “Symposium,” which is both serious and funny, and the “Phaedrus,” which includes a theory of education and the soul. Then take a look at Aristotle with a focus on the “Nicomachean Ethics.”
Plato and Aristotle are indispensable because they were appropriated into both the Christian and Islamic philosophical traditions, although the concepts were taken in different directions. Next, read Montaigne, and Diderot’s “Jacques le Fataliste.” Then move on to Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.”
This isn’t a list of my favorite reads—you will notice that there’s no poetry and no fiction. I think these texts are useful, and probably raise the most provoking questions for people in any culture. And I think my suggestions are well under 600 pages.
The Korean Poet Ko Un has been nominated repeatedly for the Nobel Literature Prize. There are several great novelists in Korea who deserve recognition. Do you think we are getting near a time when a Korean can win the Nobel Peace Prize? What thoughts do you have concerning the internationalization of Korean literature?
I don’t really know much about the procedure whereby the Nobel Committee decides on its awards. They certainly get a lot of nominations from everywhere! As for the Peace Prize, didn’t Kim Dae-jung already receive it? If a really convincing translation of poetry or fiction into English or Swedish has been done, that seems to increase a writer’s chances.
This question of what internationalization of Korean literature means is critical. Some see that process as a bit of global goodwill, but sometimes it is something interpreted as more an extension of neo-liberalism. Something like saying: Korean literature, culture, is now a high end product that we can sell for the luxury market. That issue, the commodification of literature, scholarship, education, deserves attention.
The international reach of Korean writers has been growing. But it depends on translators and publishers who are willing to make some sacrifices: they must put in a lot of effort and capital in order to create a market that may not grow very fast. In France, for example, there have been two or three publishers who consistently produce fine, readable translations of modern Korean authors, usually novelists. By “consistently,” I mean there are at least two or three titles every year. That keeps something new always in front of the French readers’ eyes, and keeps the image of modern Korean literature from being reduced to one figure (as happened for example to modern Chinese literature when for about 40 years the only author anyone knew about in other countries was Lu Xun). Culture as a luxury product– this is a complicated issue that probably deserves another seminar.
Yes, the quality of the translation is critical, but how you get to a high quality translation is part of the problem. We have extremely sophisticated Korean novels like Chili san (Mount Chili) by Byungju Lee. The work completely unknown outside of Korea, let alone being translated into English.
Sadly, most American intellectuals still see Korea through the lens of MASH. Intellectuals in the United States are not drawn into Korean literature early on, I fear.
“Through the lens of MASH”– hilarious but unfortunately true. In the best case, readers might “know” Korea through the work of Teresa Cha, Chang-rae Lee or Myung-mi Kim, perhaps Younghill Kang for the older generation. They are all wonderful writers, especially the contemporary ones, but they use English as their medium and I think they would be hesitant to be categorized as “Korean writers.” Maybe this is a stage or phase that has to be gone through, and eventually the Asian-American writers initiate the American readers into the Asian tradition to which they relate most closely. Or am I too optimistic?
We are seeing such interest in Korea here and there, but at the same time, the effort required to learn Korean language is a barrier. The problem is not just the difficulty of Korean syntax. Korean language courses tend to be run for Korean Americans, and the non Koreans, who might end up being the great translators, are discouraged and drop out. And oddly, although Korea is the hottest country in the world these days in terms of culture, Americans are not that drawn to it.
On one hand, books are amazingly cheap today. What is expensive is the time to read them, and getting the education that you might need in order to be a really good reader of certain books. Modernist books in particular—think of the attention and knowledge required to be a good reader of Ulysses—require a major investment. The paradox is that our societies of incessantly increasing efficiency and productivity are not societies of plenty in this regard; we are always being interrupted by our jobs, by the marketplace, by bureaucracy, by media, and so forth.
If I could introduce one social reform, it would be this: guaranteeing a decent if minimal subsistence to anyone who was ready to spend a few years reading books. Since there are a lot of unemployed people, this would seem to be a way to keep them from feeling that their lives are going to waste, and might be welcomed by some as a gift. But as long as we see education as a luxury product or a stepladder to worldly success, ideas like this one won’t go anywhere.
That is an excellent idea: time to read books as a form of public service. Probably needs to be combined with seminars to talk about what you read.
But let us go back to Korea and how it is perceived. At the University of Chicago, in the Department of Comparative Literature, for example, if you say we have to include some works of the Korean tradition in the World literature program, what would be the response? Probably not a big problem. But then what if you said we need as many teachers of Korean literature as French literature? What would the response be then?
And to top it off, what if we went to the Department of Classics and said, the department must offer courses in Chinese, Korean and Indian classics as well?
Your suggestions are radical and interesting. One effect of such a questioning might be to make the departments in question define themselves less grandiosely and provincially. The Classics department might discover that their object of inquiry is not “what is classic” in a general sense, but “Mediterranean pre-imperial and imperial cultures.” If they described themselves in those terms, perhaps they would find it easier to converse with specialists in other pre-imperial and imperial cultures. Some thoughtful classicists have been asking the question, “what is a classic?” in a less provincial way. We have a conference next April at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing on this topic.
It is one of those paradoxes of the US. In trade, in technology and increasingly in business, we are tied to Asia, even part of Asia. But in terms of cultural identity, there is a real hesitation to make that high level commitment to reimagining the culture itself in light of these massive geopolitical shifts. As many Korean studies professors as Italian studies professors? Well, that would be overkill, but the argument is still one that should be made.
As for comparative literature, we are required to be open-minded. At the same time there has to be something that we can put in our “open minds.” I have served on numerous search committees. I learned that if you announce a search in a very broad way, say a position in fiction and the theory of fiction, 60% of the applications you receive will be from people working entirely in English (more than half of those in 20th century), 20% will be from those in English and French, 10% in English and German, and the last 10% from experts in all the other fields. It’s really too bad; it’s like the famous Steinberg illustration, where 10th Avenue is four times as wide as Japan: a truncated, limited view of the world.
I like to go back, mentally, to the beginning of the 20th century when the US was a young and curious country and there were plenty of cultural figures who looked over the Pacific, not over the Atlantic, to find our future spiritual companions. Ernest Fenollosa was the most enthusiastic and large-minded of these. His ideas were formed in the course of conversations with Okakura Tenshin, whose ideas later, alas, were used as a template for the ideology of those who enlarged the Japanese empire. But the basic idea, that a new country freeing itself from European dominance had a lot in common with the nations of Asia who were also seeking to resist that dominance, was good.
Unfortunately, the US spent much of the 20th century trying to patch up those European empires or replacing them. I think what we need very badly these days is an understanding of Asian literary traditions that leaves behind some of the stereotypes that identify Asia with everything an American is primed to resist. I mean the whole bit about Asian cultures as harmoniously integrated unities where the inferiors are grateful for the guidance of the superiors, and so on. If you can read an Asian book, that whole myth doesn’t survive for long.
If you want to include a response to this interesting point, here is what I said (feel free to drop it too, if it wasn’t dropped inadvertently):
About “li,” I would certainly agree that it’s a better way to live than by constitutional law, at least in one’s daily dealings with intimates. Otherwise it’s as if we had to summon a lawyer to get someone to pass the salt, or decide what color the walls should be. I wouldn’t like to live in such a household. But in dealing with total strangers, an impersonal code of law is pretty nice. What we call manners, custom, morals, character (remembering that these can always be bad as well as good)– these can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to law. I can imagine a future condition (not likely to be realized any time soon, you understand) in which we have a chemical explanation for every imaginable bit of human behavior. As long as I’m fantasizing, let’s say that chemistry would be able to explain, on a chemical and not cultural basis, the different behaviors you see in different cultures. Well then, in such a situation I would still advocate using words like li, manners, character, personality to talk about the behavior of human beings, even if I knew those words referred to mere epiphenomena of the chemical causes! There’s a kind of middle zone, not too prescriptive but not too clinical, not too lawlike but not too anecdotal, where I think a livable human life and terms to explain it are found.