Are Books Useless?: An extract from the 1996 Boyer lectures

by Pierre Ryckmans

© all rights reserved

Are books essentially useless? I suggest that we indeed subscribe to such a conclusion. But so long as we remain aware that uselessness is also the hallmark of what is truly priceless. Zhuang Zi summed it up well: “People all know the usefulness of what is useful, but they do not know the usefulness of what is useless”.

The other day, I was reading the manuscript of a forthcoming book by a young journalist – a series of profiles of women living in the Outback – farmer wives battling solitude and natural disasters on remote stations in the bush. One woman was expressing concern for the education and future of her son, and commented on the boy’s choice of exclusively practical subjects for his courses at boarding school. “And I can’t say I blame his choice, as I too, would prefer to be out in the bush driving a tractor of building cattleyards rather than sitting in a classroom learning about Shakespeare, which is something he will never need…”

In this passing remark, there is something which I find simply heartbreaking. For a woman who single-handedly raises and cares for a large family, while sharing in many of the men’s tasks – worrying about mortgage repayments, fighting loneliness and depression, bolstering her husband’s crumbling self-respect in front of looming bankruptcy, fending off the menaces of alcoholism and social disintegration, and who meanwhile, drives tractors and handles cattle, and faces a thousand emergencies – it would appear indeed that Shakespeare is something one will never need. And on what ground would we dare to challenge her view?

Oddly enough, this disarming remark on the uselessness of literature unwittingly reduplicates, in one sense, a provocative statement by Nabokov. In fact the brave woman from the outback here seems to echo a sardonic paradox of the supreme literate aesthete of our age. Nabokov wrote this (which I shall never tire of quoting, perhaps because I myself taught literature for some time): ‘Let us not kid ourselves; let us remember that literature is of no use whatever, except in the very special case of somebody’s wishing to become, of all things, a Professor of Literature.’

And yet even Professors of Literature, when they are made of the right mettle, but find themselves in extreme situations – divested of their titles, deprived of their books, reduced to their barest humanity, equipped only with their tears and their memory – can reach the heart of the matter and experience in their flesh what literature is really about: our very survival as human beings.

I know of one Professor of Literature at least, who would be qualified to teach the good woman from the outback how, even for people in her situation, particularly for people in her situation, there may be a very real need for reading Shakespeare.

The name of that Professor is Wu Ningkun. He is an elderly Chinese scholar. Nearly 50 years ago, moved by patriotism, he gave up a promising, and cosy, academic career in the United States where he was teaching English literature, and returned to China, knowing that his talents and expertise were sorely needed there. But under Maoism, there was no place in China for refined, cultivated and cosmopolitan minds. He was immediately suspected, ostracised, persecuted, and for the next 30 years became a victim of the totalitarian paranoia that sees humanist culture as a betrayal, intelligence as an ideological crime, and presumes that whoever reads T.S. Eliot in the original must be a dangerous international spy.

He has written a book about his experiences, A Single Tear , which is, to my mind, the best written and most essential reading on a subject on which so much has already been published, and yet so little is understood.

The darkest depth of his ordeal was reached when he was sent to a labour camp in the barren wilderness of North-Eastern China, close to the Siberian border. Around him, many inmates were crushed to death by the horrors of the camp – they were dying of starvation, brutal treatment, exhaustion and despair. Under such conditions, physical resilience was not enough to stay alive – one needed spiritual strength. Wu Ningkun sustained his spirit with poetry. He had succeeded in smuggling with him two small books: a copy of Hamletand a collection of the Tang dynasty poet, Du Fu. Formerly, he had only studied Shakespeare; now, for the first time, he was truly reading it. Occasionally, when a blinding blizzard blew from Siberia, and the prisoners had to spend the day cooped up in a cell, he could come back to Hamlet:

Hamlet was my favourite Shakespearean play. Read in a Chinese labour camp, however, the tragedy of the Danish prince took on unexpected dimensions. All the academic analyses and critiques that had engrossed me over the years now seemed remote and irrelevant. The outcry ‘Denmark is a prison’ echoed with a poignant immediacy and Elsinore loomed like a haunting metaphor of a treacherous repressive state. The Ghost thundered with a terrible chorus of a million victims of proletarian dictatorship. Rozencrantz and Guildenstern would have felt like fish in the water had they found their way into a modern nation of hypocrites and informers. As to Hamlet himself, his great capacity for suffering gave the noble Dane his unique stature as a tragic hero pre-eminently worthy of his suffering. I would say to myself ‘I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’, echoing Eliot’s Prufrock. Rather I often felt like one of those fellows ‘crawling between earth and Heaven’ scorned by Hamlet himself. But the real question I came to see was neither ‘to be, or not to be’ nor whether ‘in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, but how to be worthy of one’s suffering.”

That a man may survive for quite a while without food, but cannot live one day without poetry, is a notion which we tend to dismiss too lightly, as a sort of 19th century romantic hyperbole. But our gruesome century has provided enough evidence: it is true, in a very literal sense. Wu Ningkun’s testimony which I just invoked, confirms from the other end of the world an earlier testimony from another House of the Dead – the voice of Primo Levi who, having survived Auschwitz, wrote the classic account of the camps, If This is a Manand devoted one entire chapter to an experience very similar to the one described by the Chinese scholar.

One day, as Levi and another inmate were on duty to fetch soup for the entire barrack, on their way to the kitchen, with the heavy soup bucket hanging from a pole which they carried on their shoulders, they enjoyed the brief respite of a summer day, and started chatting. The other prisoner was a clever young Frenchman with a gift for languages. Levi, who had been teaching him some Italian, suddenly was moved by a crazy and irresistible impulse to introduce him to Dante. He began to recite a passage from The Divine Comedy, the Canto of Ulysses, clumsily translating it for the other man, verse by verse: “Here, listen, open your ears and your mind, you have to understand, for my sake.”

The effect of this recitation of a few stanzas was “As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am. The companion begs me to repeat it. How good he is, he is aware that it is doing me good. Or perhaps it is something more – perhaps he has received the message, he has felt that it had to do with him, that it has to do with all men who suffer, and with us in particular; and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders.” Then, sudden catastrophe: memory fails at the end of one stanza – to reach the end of the Canto, a crucial connection is missing: “I have forgotten at least twelve lines; I would give today’s soup to know how to connect the last fragment to the end of the Canto. I try to reconstruct it through the rhymes, I close my eyes, I bite my fingers, but it is no use, the rest is silence.”

The depth and truth of this particular moment were such that thirty years later – the year before he died – Levi returned to it in the last book he wrote, The Drowned and the Saved. Summing up his experience of the death camp, he concluded, “Culture was important to me, and perhaps it saved me. When I wrote ‘I would give today’s soup to know how to retrieve the forgotten passage’, I had neither lied nor exaggerated. I really would have given bread and soup – that is, blood – to save from nothingness those memories which today, with the sure support of printed paper I can refresh gratis whenever I wish, and which therefore seem of little value.”

In Auschwitz, the forgotten poem became literally priceless. In that place, at that instant, the very survival of Primo Levi’s humanity was dependent on it.

Pierre Ryckmans is an internationally renowned novelist, writing under the name Simon Leys, as well as a scholar, Sinologist, artist and calligrapher. His books include Chinese Shadows and The Death of Napoleon. From 1988 he was Chair of Chinese Studies at University of Sydney from where he has recently retired.

The Boyer lectures were broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Commission on Radio National. The book and cassettes of the six Boyer lectures are now available from all ABC bookshops.

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