An early essay in The Halls of Uselessness, Pierre Ryckmans’ elegant and enlightening collection of a prose, is a review of Christopher Hitchens’ The Missionary Position. That venomous tract, bearing a title no dignified publisher should have accepted, reminds Ryckmans of sitting in a café, enduring dull popular music, when the sound of Mozart’s clarinet quintet silenced the crowd. The atmosphere clouded into a sort of “puzzled concern” and a customer switched the radio to another station.
“Ignorance is not simply the absence of knowledge,” Ryckmans decides:
Obscurantism does not result from a dearth of light, bad taste is not merely a lack of good taste, stupidity is not a simple want of intelligence: all of these are fiercely active forces, that…tolerate no challenge to their omnipresent rule.
I would prefer “can” to “is” and “can be” to “are” but the point is well-judged and the conclusion inspired:
In every department of human endeavour, inspired talent is an intolerable insult to mediocrity…The need to bring down to our wretched level, to deface, to deride, to decide and to debunk any splendour that is towering above us is probably the saddest urge in human nature.
How, one might ask, do we identify splendour. Ryckmans made his name as a critic of Mao’s China and its purblind or opportunistic Western apologists. Here is a starting point: can it be described accurately in a manner that conveys it greatness? These criteria were manifestly unfulfilled by Mao and his sympathisers. Barthes produced a jumble of mundane observations that baffle Ryckmans by being collected and published. Ross Terrill was more engaging but “[avoided] all topics that might disturb, give offence or create unpleasantness”. Malraux, smug and self-righteous in his belief that he was interviewing Mao as an equal, ignored the tyrant’s tantalising hints of cultural revolution. One can find parallels between Mao’s apologists and those of militant Islam, such as in the false equivalence that they delight in drawing between communist and theocratic crimes and those of Westerners. (Ryckmans is morbidly amused when Terrill compares the Red Guards mutilating the fingers of a pianist who had played Beethoven with New Yorkers dying because their heating was turned off.)
As a critic, Ryckmans did not merely criticise. He was a staunch admirer of European literary and academic traditions (giving, in a brief review, Edward Said his due disdain). Chesterton, Orwell and Balzac, among others, stride about this book; their work and deeds brought clearly and thrillingly to life. Ryckmans is a strict but not unduly moralistic critic, detailing the sordid facts of Gide’s paedophilia without attempting to minimise his artistic achievements.
Ryckmans’ interest in China extended beyond Mao. He was a devoted sinologist, knowledgeable enough to translate Confucius into English. This book contains essays on history, calligraphy, literature and aesthetics. Ryckmans, who was born in Belgium, studied Chinese culture, lived in Australia and married a woman from Taiwan, was an attractively conservative cosmopolitan: rooted in his European background yet curious about others; respectful of difference yet open to inspiration. One can sense how much he admires the commitment and asceticism of Chinese calligraphers, for example, when he writes that “calligraphy is not just the product of their character – their character itself becomes the product of their calligraphy”. One shares his frustration when he notes that Westerners tried to “dominate the natural world” while the Chinese maintained “a state of communion” with it – and reflects that “the West, having reached the end of the road, belatedly discovers ecology…whereas China adopts with uncritical enthusiasm some of the disastrous of our earlier attitudes”.
I wrote that great things seem great when described accurately but it is important to qualify this principle. Ryckmans was a critic of that Western hyper-rationalism that deifies data. In an early article he writes:
History…does not record events: it merely records echoes of events…and, in doing this, it must rely on imagination as much as on memory. Memory by itself can only accumulate data, pointlessly and meaninglessly…The historian does not merely record; he edits, he omits, he judges, he interprets, he reorganises, he composes.
So far so inarguable. But Ryckmans’ defence of the imagination had a more mystical element. In a passage on “the power of emptiness”, “where a truth resides that cannot be approached or expressed”, he writes:
Any work of art – poem, painting, piece of music – plays the part of a “fisherman’s song”: beyond the words, forms and sounds that it borrows, it is a direct, intuitive experience of a reality that no discursive approach can embody.
This point is expressed implicitly and entertainingly in an essay on Richard Henry Dana, the lawyer, politician and occasional seaman:
It is often said that…Two Years Before the Sea is the most beautiful of all books of the sea, but this seems to me a somewhat poisoned compliment, as if one were to praise Madame Bovary for being the best account of adultery in Normandy…
A reductionist is one who turns the lights on in a room and claims to know all of its contents, without pausing to reflect on what the cupboards might contain. Ryckmans was, as his essays on Mao illuminate, a firm and thoroughly engaged believer in empirical truth, but he also appreciated the significance of those inexplicable implications of nature, society and art. If we do not then we are self-deluded or spiritually impoverished. Science has given us riches, and with them have come health, comfort, experience and entertainment, but myths, fables, faith, art and the environments of our homelands have given us riches of what can perhaps be called the soul. Neither can exist in a productive form without the other. We are obviously lost without empirical knowledge but if we avoid these more intangible elements of life we lose our inspiration to marvel, interpret and dream.
Another element of Ryckmans’ dislike of totalitarianism and reductionism was his love of messiness. He revelled those curiosities, eccentricities and ephemera that hang about the unswept corners of societies. In a collection of notes titled “Detours” he tells the story of a Japanese gardener who eyed clean, cultivated lawns with disapproval and then kicked a tree, allowing leaves to fall. Ryckmans disliked the degradation of that which is great but he also appreciated the wisdom of Augustine, who said, “Though the higher things are obviously better than the lower ones, the sum of all creation is better than the higher things alone.” He might not be remembered among the highest European minds but I think Pierre Ryckmans contributed significantly to the sum of their civilisation.