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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Case for Literature

Gao Xingjian

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To purchase The Case for Literature

Title: The Case for Literature
Author: Gao Xingjian
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (Eng. 2006)
Length: 166 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Case for Literature - US
The Case for Literature - UK
The Case for Literature - Canada
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Mabel Lee
  • Essays and lectures originally published between 1990 and 2002

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting perspectives, useful introduction to his work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Washington Post . 11/3/2007 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "That existential seriousness characterizes all the essays in The Case for Literature. For Gao, art is a matter of life and death, and he has nothing but scorn for commercialism and trendiness. (...) At once provocative and pontifical in themselves, the essays in The Case for Literature also provide a good overview of Gao Xingjian's career, especially when supplemented with the perspicacious "contextual" introduction by Gao's translator, Mabel Lee." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Case for Literature collects twelve essays, lectures, and prefaces by 2000 Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian (including his Nobel lecture). Though there is quite a bit of overlap among the pieces, the small volume serves as a useful introduction to the author and his work, with a focus on several aspects of literary creation that are of particular interest to the author.
       One of the longest pieces is actually translator Mabel Lee's Introduction, 'Contextualizing 2000 Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian', and while the threat of "contextualizing" anyone (or thing) might scare some readers off, she does offer a decent chronological overview of Gao's life and evolution as a writer (though there is, again, some overlap with some of Gao's own autobiographical pieces in the collection, notably 'Wilted Chrysanthemums', in which Gao describes the cultural-political difficulties he faced in China in the 1980s). An Appendix also offers bibliographies of Gao's own writings, as well as of books and articles about him; specifically in the case of the chronology of Gao's major publications a separate secondary listing restricted to what is available in English (and where -- many of the pieces are in anthologies) would have been useful. (All the English-language publications are included, but mixed in with the rest.) Nevertheless, these parts of the book also make it a useful reference work for those just getting started on Gao.
       Gao returns to several major themes in the pieces collected here. A major point he repeatedly makes is that he has no patience for or interest in "isms". Two pieces focus on that: 'Without Isms' and an 'Author's Preface to Without Isms'. (Somewhat confusingly, the two pieces are not presented in succession: the preface opens the collection, but two later pieces are then presented before 'Without Isms'.) This specific idea is an aspect of a larger attitude -- the primacy of the individual, especially as a writer -- over systems, collectives, ideologies.
       He insists:

     To be without isms is not to be without opinions, standpoints or thoughts.
       And he reduces it to:
Without isms is in fact simply speech without outcomes.
       As becomes even clearer in some of the later essays, Gao wants to avoid ideology at all cost. His experiences in China, and specifically in the Cultural Revolution have marked and scarred him: that way was the wrongest way, and so he encourages:
     Say goodbye to ideologies and instead return to the truth of being human -- that is, return to the true perceptions of the individual, return to this instant, and stop manufacturing lies about tomorrow.
       And he maintains:
     If literature is to transcend political interference and return to being a testimony of man and his existential predicament, it needs first to break away from ideology. To be without isms is to return to the individual, to return to viewing the world through the eyes of the writer, who relies on his own perceptions and does not act as a spokesman for the people. The people already have rulers and election campaigners speaking in their name.
       Of course, one of the weakness of Gao's argument is apparent in that last line: the rulers and election campaigners ostensibly speaking in the name of "the people" in fact generally offer also only fiction, narratives meant to sway or silence, and rarely at all a reflection of the aspirations, hopes, or desires of individual citizens or any grouping of masses. There's always been room -- and, arguably, a desperate need -- for writers willing to subvert what's spoken in the people's name, for a political (and social) literature.
       But, of course, Gao also has a point: much political literature -- specifically 'official' literature, as fostered and approved of by the authorities, in China and elsewhere -- has been both dreadful and led to dreadful things.
       Gao ignores the collective (and any such notion of the 'greater good' arising out of that) and denounces ideology (the very basis of the Chinese Communist system). He argues for the complete antithesis of the Maoist system:
     The individual's most rudimentary freedom today is to be without isms.
       (Even just the focus on the individual is radical in a way that Western audience might not fully appreciate.)
       Beside this focus on the individual, and on writing as a very personal experience, Gao also discusses the challenges of writing in Chinese, and the change the (literary) language has undergone. Much of this is fascinating (and one wishes he'd written a whole book devoted solely to this subject-matter). Gao discusses the differences between Chinese and Western languages -- noting how classical Chinese "does not have strict grammatical rules as Western languages do" and, for example, that "gender, number and case inflections found in Western languages do not exist". But with both the simplification of the character-writing-system since the 1950s, as well as the influence of Western literature translated into Chinese, he finds the language has lost much of what it had.
       The idea that translations (especially bad ones) of Western works affect the language is particularly interesting. Gao also finds the proliferation of neologisms troubling ("it is too easy to create words from Chinese characters") and so:
In my writing I avoid neologisms and popular sayings, except when they provide a fresh perspective within a particular linguistic context.
       Gao does explain how his approach to writing (both 'without isms', as well as regarding his use of language) have affected his works, but familiarity with these certainly helps in fully appreciating what he means. Nevertheless, The Case for Literature serves as a useful introduction to the writer even for those unfamiliar with his work -- and is probably a good guide in determining whether a reader might find his plays or works of fiction of interest. And, though there's only limited (auto)biographical detail, it also serves as a decent survey of a remarkable literary career.

       Note: disregard of the political is all well and good, but Gao does himself no favours when, in a single paragraph, he writes things like:
     Then what about contemporary plays ? At this point the deceased German-language playwright Thomas Bernhard, whose plays were banned in his homeland of Austria during his lifetime, was discovered. (...) England's Ezra Pound was still alive, but he was already over sixty.
       Where to begin ? Possibly there are translation issues, but "banned" implies the authorities would not permit his plays to be performed; in fact, of course, it was Bernhard who wanted to forbid performances of his plays in Austria (and that never really took: except for a brief period around his death, Bernhard has consistently been one of the most-performed playwrights in Austria for the past four decades or so).
       And Ezra Pound as English ? Surely, he's as American as can be. Not only that -- how does he enter into this discussion of contemporary plays ? And, born in 1885, he was "over sixty" by the end of World War II (and dead by 1972 -- around the time Bernhard was being discovered ...).
       It's not the only baffling part of the book -- but fortunately Gao is generally on more solid footing elsewhere.

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The Case for Literature: Reviews: Gao Xingjian: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Gao Xingjian (高行健) was born in 1940. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000.

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