In vernacular Chinese, the Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢) by Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) is regarded as the supreme novel. In classical Chinese, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (聊齋誌異) by Pu Songling (蒲松齡) has the equivalent status. Mao Zedong claimed to have read the Red Chamber five times. I say you need to read Strange Tales two times.
Read it in English the first time. I discover Pu Songling through Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. Experience how Kafka and Borges read Pu, and recognize their voice and practices in Pu’s work. The three together grasp the absurdity and weirdness of the civilized world and human conditions.
Read it in classical Chinese the second time. Appreciate Pu’s humour, playing and twisting with the classical text that he was obliged to memorize and digest as a member of the Chinese literati. This is at heart a revolutionary work.
The works of Pu, Kafka and Borges are dark and understated. Some advice from 19th century commentator Feng Zhenluan (馮鎮巒) on how to read Strange Tales would apply to all three authors: Read these tales properly, and they will make you strong and brave; read them in the wrong way, and they will possess you.
Before Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we are always in a state of ignorance. The moment we decided to escape, we sank into the faint light of fake knowledge. The good news is that, from Leo Tolstoy, Franz Kafka, to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, we are slowly finding our way back.
In War and Peace, Tolstoy expressed frustration at mankind’s inability to know all connections and causality. Like mathematical integration, he thought we could arrive at the laws of history by summing up the infinitesimal contributions of all individuals. Isaiah Berlin criticized him as a fox, who knows many things, wanting to be a hedgehog, who knows one big thing. Kafka’s more superior The Castle is a quiet acceptance of the puzzles and perplexities of life. He told us to fully immerse ourselves in our suffering. Our contemporary Taleb takes one step further. How do we thrive in ignorance and uncertainty, and comprehend what is deliberately beyond our comprehension? He calls it the philosophy of antifragility.
Come, gentle night
I run away from the Crystal Palace,
and aspire to be a sick man, a spiteful man, an unattractive man.
Greedily storing up impressions,
one day I, too, will emerge from the underground,
and master the path to chaos.
Kafka’s Great Wall of China, with the system of piecemeal construction, is filled with gaps and does not offer protection from barbarism. Likewise, the builders of the Tower of Babel, who purport to found a universal language, end up inviting God’s punishment, speaking different languages and becoming barbarians to each other.
Rather than failures, I subscribe to the view that these constructions succeed in their objective. Consider this: What we secretly desire are differences and barbarisms. What if the goal is not the wall but the gaps between the blocks which enable the flow of barbarians? What if we trick God into giving us the punishment so that we can escape from a unified humanity which speaks a single language?
Who has one voice and yet becomes three-footed and two-footed and four-footed? Sophocles’ Oedipus, the most suffering figure of the Greek tragedy. Oedipus crawled on three as a baby (because his ankles were pinned together by his parents who abandoned him), limped as an adult, and walked on four legs as an old man (blinding himself after he learnt that he killed his father and married his mother, he is led by his daughter Antigone).
As fate would have it, he got to his destiny by solving the riddle of the Sphinx: which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed? If Oedipus grasped the riddle’s irony, he would recognize that he is the exact opposite of “human”, who should be ignorant. Wisdom is an unnatural abomination. Nietzsche saw it in the terrible trinity of Oedipus’ fates: the same man who solves the riddle of nature must also destroy the orders of nature by murdering his father and marrying his mother.
Sophocles’ closing line of the play is more eloquent yet: “Do not seek to be master in everything, for the things you mastered did not follow you throughout your life.” Given that we want to be wise, why do we not prefer to be ignorant?
A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, as Herbert Simon said. When attention is scarce, secrets can be hidden. Dialogues from G. K. Chesterton’s The Sign of the Broken Sword illustrate this vividly.
Father Brown: Where does a wise man hide a pebble?
Flambeau: On the beach.
Father Brown: Where does a wise man hide a leaf?
Flambeau: In the forest.
Father Brown: What does he do if there is no forest?
Flambeau: What does he do?
Father Brown: He grows a forest to hide it in. A fearful sin.
Flambeau did not answer.
Father Brown: And if he wished to hide a dead leaf, he would make a dead forest. And if a man had to hide a dead body, he would make a field of dead bodies to hide it.