John Atkinson created irreverent summations, in the fewest words possible, of some of the most famous works of literature. Here are my own for the Four Great Classic Novels of China:
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Empire splits into three parts. Then reunited.
- A Journey to the West: A monk, a monkey and a pig take forever to get to India.
- The Water Margin: 108 outlaws vs. government. Government wins.
- The Dream of the Red Chamber: A rebellious rich kid is spiritually awakened.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses two criteria to filter ideas and books. First, the Lindy Effect: the more the book has been around, the longer its future life expectancy. Second, the more skin in the game, the more convincing the idea is. In practice, I am attracted to books that look ancient, and look at how far the author is prepared to pursue his/her ideas.
In most Chinese cities, I seldom find bookstores where you can buy the Book of Lord Shang (商君書) and Guiguzi (鬼谷子) together, except in Beijing. I think the only reason is that readers in Beijing have skin in the game as they rub shoulders with Leviathans and Machiavellis every day.
Shang Yang (商鞅) and Guiguzi (鬼谷子) predated Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli by over 1,500 years. And unlike today’s members of the “intelligentsia”, they have real skin in the game, more so than their rival Confucians. Shang Yang was literally torn to pieces for executing his reform ideas which paved the way for Qin’s universal rule. Guiguzi bred Su Qin (蘇秦) and Zhang Yi (張儀), two preeminent rhetoricians that are rivalrous yet mutually-reinforcing in the Warring States period. In the end, one was (again) torn to pieces, the other died in exile.
Therefore, their books are great, per Lindy Effect and skin in the game. The same principles apply to other fields. Among Republican China’s men of letters, I think Wang Guowei (王國維) is the best. He was a rarity by drowning himself in Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace in 1927. Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) personally experienced the fall of his illustrious family from its height, dying in poverty. Hence, I think the Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢) is infinitely better than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. I too love Nietzsche, who died of insanity, and Yukio Mishima (三島由紀夫), who committed ritual suicide.
Skin in the game is something to aspire to.
I like lasting beauty. Of all art forms, my liking is limited to literature. I loathe music, live performance, or flower arrangements. These things fade and vanish instantly. Even architecture and paintings decay. Of all literature, I love those written with blood. I suppose they don’t want to be read, until by readers a century later.
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.