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The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays

The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays

by Simon Leys

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An NYRB Classics Original

Simon Leys is a Renaissance man for the era of globalization. A distinguished scholar of classical Chinese art and literature and one of the first Westerners to recognize the appalling toll of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Leys also writes with unfailing intelligence, seriousness, and bite about European art, literature, history, and


An NYRB Classics Original

Simon Leys is a Renaissance man for the era of globalization. A distinguished scholar of classical Chinese art and literature and one of the first Westerners to recognize the appalling toll of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Leys also writes with unfailing intelligence, seriousness, and bite about European art, literature, history, and politics and is an unflinching observer of the way we live now.

The Hall of Uselessness is the most extensive collection of Leys’s essays to be published to date. In it, he addresses subjects ranging from the Chinese attitude to the past to the mysteries of Belgium and Belgitude; offers portraits of André Gide and Zhou Enlai; takes on Roland Barthes and Christopher Hitchens; broods on the Cambodian genocide; reflects on the spell of the sea; and writes with keen appreciation about writers as different as Victor Hugo, Evelyn Waugh, and Georges Simenon. Throughout, The Hall of Uselessness is marked with the deep knowledge, skeptical intelligence, and passionate conviction that have made Simon Leys one of the most powerful essayists of our time.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"What made Leys most remarkable was his depth, his continuous effort to try to get to the bottom of things, to understand them, and to render them with the great simplicity proper of the people who really worked through them." —Francesco Sisci, Asia Times Online

"He was a literary scholar in the Chinese literati tradition, that is to say, his scholarship was a form of literature." —Ian Buruma 

“That early on I developed a critical distance from the ideologies of the epoch I owe to writers like Simon Leys and Guy Debord. They kept me from being a dupe.”
—Olivier Assayas

“The message these pieces drive home with wit and uncommon clarity is this: there is a central truth that may—no, must!—be spoken. There is a manner by which life may be lived fully and well. And there is a richer, deeper, grander conception of human nature than we are currently given to understand. To see Leys’s essays assembled is to appreciate, if you haven’t already, the range of philosophical, artistic and literary interests that sustain even his slightest productions.”
—Geordie Williamson, The Australian

"No one in the China field has combined profound erudition and stiletto insight as well as Leys. For me he has been the North Star of China watching—equally as constant, and just as brilliant."
—Perry Link, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University


Product Details

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Read an Excerpt

Lies That Tell the Truth
            In art truth is suggested by false means.
                                    —EDGAR DEGAS
            Truth is only believed when someone has invented it well.
                                    —GEORGE SANTAYANA
            To think clearly in human terms you have to be impelled by a poem.
                                    —LES MURRAY
THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY an address to the annual conference of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. where its title, at the request of the organizers, was changed to 'Historical and Other Truths'
– which was deemed more appropriate for such a serious audience. For judges Me supposed to be serious; indeed. don't they wear wigs and gowns to convince us - and remind themselves - of their seriousness?
Serious people have little time for any form of fiction. With such a flippant title, my talk was not likely to attract many listeners. Still, the change left me slightly uneasy – since, strictly speaking, I am not a historian
– and I am glad to be able now to relinquish the false advertisement of which I was somehow guilty.
My article carries three epigraphs. Most lectures, addresses – and essays – are usually forgettable. Epigraphs should be memorable. My readers will naturally forget this article, but they should remember the epigraphs. The first one is by a painter, the second one by a philosopher.
the third one by a poet.
Painters, philosophers, poets, creative writers – and also inventors and scientists – all reach truth by taking imaginative short-cuts. Let us consider some of these.
Plato's dialogues remain the cornerstone of all Western philosophy.
Very often what we find at their core is not discursive reasoning but various myths - short philosophical parables. Myth is the oldest and richest form of fiction. It performs an essential function: 'what myth communicates is not truth but reality; truth is always about something—
reality is what truth is about' (C.S. Lewis).
At roughly the same time as Plato in the West, ancient Daoist thinkers in China also expressed their ideas in imaginative form. On the subject that occupies us here – how do our minds reach truth – there is one tale in Lie Zi that seems illuminating and fundamental.
In the time of the Warring States, horses were very important for military reasons. The feudal lords employed the services of experts to find good ones. Best of all was the super-horse (qian-li ma), an animal which could run a thousand miles a day without leaving tracks and without raising dust. Super-horses were most sought after, but they were also very rare and hard to detect. Hence the need for highly specialized experts; most famous among these was a man called Bole. Eventually
Bole became too old to pursue his field trips prospecting for super-horses.
Thus his employer, the Duke of Qin, asked him if he could recommend another expert to carry on with this task. 'Yes,' said Bole. 'I
have a friend, a pedlar of firewood in the market, who is quite a connoisseur of horses. ' Following Bole's advice. the duke dispatched this man on a mission to find a super-horse. Three months later, the man returned and reported to the duke: 'I have found one; it is in such-and-such a place; it's a brown mare.' The duke sent his people to fetch the animal, which proved to be a black stallion. The duke was not happy and summoned Bole: That friend of yours – he does not seem to be much of an expert: he could not even get the animal's sex and colour right!'
On hearing this, Bole was amazed:
“Fantastic! He is even better than myself, a hundred, a thousand times better than myself! What he perceives is the innermost nature of the animal. He looks for and sees what he needs to see. He ignores what he does not need to see. Not distracted by external appearances,
he goes straight to the inner essence. The way he judges horses shows that he should be judge of more important things than horses.”
And, needless to say, this particular animal proved to be a super-horse indeed, a horse that could run a thousand miles a day without leaving tracks and without raising dust.
In reflecting on the ways by which our minds apprehend truth, you may feel that a 2300-year-old Chinese parable is of only limited relevance.
But if so, let us consider something closer to hand: the mental processes followed by modern Western science.
Claude Bernard, the great pathologist whose research and discoveries were of momentous importance in the development of modern medical science, one day entered the lecture hall where he was going to teach and noticed something peculiar: various trays were on a table,
containing different human organs; on one of these trays, flies had gathered.
A common mind would have made a common observation, perhaps deploring a lack of cleanliness in the room or instructing the janitor to keep the windows shut. But Bernard's was not a common mind: he observed that the flies had gathered on the tray which contained livers – and he thought, There must be sugar there. And he discovered the glycogenic function of the liver – a discovery that proved decisive for the understanding and treatment of diabetes.
I found this anecdote not in any history of medical science, but in the diaries of the greatest modern French poet, Paul Claudel. And
Claudel commented: 'This mental process is identical to that of poetical writing ... The impelling motion is the same. Which shows that the primary source of scientific thought is not reasoning, but the precise verification of an association originally supplied by the imagination.'
Note that when I refer to 'poetry', I am taking this word in its most fundamental sense. Samuel Johnson, in his monumental dictionary of the English language, assigns three definitions to the word ' poet', in decreasing order of importance: first, 'an inventor'; second, 'an author of fiction'; and last, 'a writer of poems.'
Truth is grasped by an imaginative leap. This applies not only to scientific thinking but also to philosophical thought. When I was a naive young student in the first year of university, our Arts course included the study of philosophy - a prospect that excited me much at first, though I was soon disappointed by the mediocrity of our lecturer.
However, through family acquaintances I had the good fortune to know personally an eminent philosopher of our time, who happened to be also a kind and generous man. On my request, he drafted for me a list of basic readings: one handwritten page with bibliographic references of a selection of classic texts, modern works, histories of philosophy and introductions to philosophy. I treasured this document; yet,
over the years, wandering round the world, I misplaced it and, like many other treasures, eventually lost it. Now, half a century later, I
have long forgotten the actual items on the list. What I still remember is the postscript the great philosopher had inscribed at the bottom of that page - I remember it vividly because, at the time, I did not understand it and it puzzled me. The postscript said (underlined), 'Most important of all, don't forget: do read a lot of novels.' When I first read this note, as an immature student, it shocked me. Somehow it did not sound serious enough. For, naively, we tend to confuse what is serious with what is deep. (In the editorial pages of our newspapers, leading articles are serious, while cartoons are funny; yet quite often the cartoon is deep and the leader is vapid.) It took me a long time to appreciate the full wisdom of my philosopher's advice; now I frequently encounter echoes of it. And to the observation I have already quoted elsewhere, that one should prefer a medical practitioner who reads
Chekhov, I would add that, if I commit a crime, I hope to be judged by a judge who has read Simenon.
Men of action - people who are totally involved in tackling what they believe to be real life - tend to dismiss poetry and all forms of creative writing as a frivolous distraction. Our great Polar explorer
Mawson wrote in a letter to his wife some instructions concerning their children's education. He insisted that they should not waste their time reading novels, but should instead acquire factual information from books of history and biography.
This view - quite prevalent, actually - that there is an essential difference between works of imagination on the one hand, and records of facts and events on the other, is very naive. At a certain depth or a certain level of quality, all writings tend to be creative writing, for they all partake of the same essence: poetry.
History (contrary to the common view) does not record events. It merely records echoes of events - which is a very different thing - and,
in doing this, it must rely on imagination as much as on memory. Memory by itself can only accumulate data, pointlessly and meaninglessly.
Remember Jorge Luis Borges' philosophical parable 'Funes the Memorious'.
Funes is a young man who, falling on his head from a horse becomes strangely crippled: his memory hyper-develops, he is deprived of any ability to forget, he remembers everything; his mind becomes a monstrous garbage dump cluttered and clogged with irrelevant data, a gigantic heap of unrelated images and disconnected instants; he cannot evacuate any fragment of past experiences, however trifling. This relentless capacity for absolute and continuous recollection is a curse; it excludes all possibility of thought. For thinking requires space m which to forget, to select, to delete and to isolate what is significant. If you cannot discard any item from the memory store, you cannot abstract and generalize. But without abstraction and generalization, there can be no thought.
The historian does not merely record; he edits, he omits, he judges,
he interprets, he reorganizes, he composes. His mission is nothing less than 'to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect'. Yet this quote is not from a historian discussing history writing;
it is from a novelist on the art of fiction: it is the famous beginning of
Joseph Conrad's preface to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', a true manifesto of the novelist's mission.
The fact is, these two arts - history writing and fiction writing -
originating both in poetry, involve similar activities and mobilize the same faculties: memory and imagination; and this is why it could rightly be said that the novelist is the historian of the present and the historian of the novelist of the past. Both must invent the truth.
Of course, accuracy of data is the pre-condition of any historical work. But in the end, what determines the quality of a historian is the quality of his judgment. Two historians may be in possession of the same data; what distinguishes them is what they make of their common information. For example, on the subject of convict Australia, Robert
Hughes gathered a wealth of material which he presented in his Fatal
Shore in a vivid and highly readable style. On the basis of that same information, however, Geoffrey Blainey drew a conclusion that is radically different – and much more convincing. Hughes had likened convict
Australia to the 'Gulag Archipelago' of the Soviet Union, but Blamey pointed out that whereas the Soviet Gulag was a totally sterile machine designed solely to crush and destroy its inmates, in Australia, out of a convict system that was also brutal and ferocious, a number of individuals emerged full of vigour and ambition, who rose to become some of their country's richest citizens. In turn, they soon generated a dynamic society and, eventually, a vibrant young democracy What matters most in the end is how the historian reads events - and this is where his judgment is put to the test.
To reach the truth of the past, historians must overcome specific obstacles: they have to gather information that is not always readily available. In this sense, they must master the methods of a specialized discipline. But to understand the truth of the present time, right in front of us, is not the preserve of historians; it is our common task. How do we usually cope with it? Not too well, it seems.
Let us consider just two examples - still quite close to us, and of colossal dimensions. The twentieth century was a hideous century filled with horrors on a gigantic scale. In sheer magnitude, the terror perpetrated by modern totalitarianisms was unprecedented. It developed essentially in two varieties: Stalinist and Hitlerian.
When we read the writings of Soviet and East European dissidents and exiles, we are struck by one recurrent theme: their amazement,
indignation and anger in the face of the stupidity, ignorance and indifference of Western opinion and especially of the Western intelligentsia,
which remained largely incapable of registering the reality of their predicament.
And yet the Western countries were spending huge resources,
both to gather intelligence and to develop scholarly research on the communist world - all to very little avail. Robert Conquest, one of the very few Sovietologists who was clear-sighted from the start, experienced acute frustration in his attempts to share and communicate his knowledge. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, his publisher proposed to reissue a collection of his earlier essays and asked him what title he would suggest. Conquest thought for one second and said, 'How about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?’
Interestingly enough, the name of one writer appears again and again in the writings of the dissidents from the communist world – they pay homage to him as the only author who fully perceived the concrete reality of their condition, down to its very sounds and smells – and this is George Orwell. Aleksandr Nekrich summed up this view: 'Orwell is the only Western writer who really understood the essential nature of the Soviet world: Czeslaw Milosz and many others made similar assessments.
And yet, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a work of fiction - an imaginary projection set in the future of England.
The Western incapacity to grasp the Soviet reality and all its Asian variants was not a failure of information (which was always plentiful); it was a failure of imagination.
The horrors of the Nazi regime have long been fully documented: the criminals have been defeated and sentenced; the victims, survivors, witnesses have spoken; the historians have gathered evidence and passed judgment. Full light has been cast upon this entire era. The records fill entire libraries.
In all this huge literature, however, I would wish to single out one small book, extraordinary because of its very ordinariness: the pre-war memoir of a young Berliner, Raimund Pretzel, who chose to leave his country in 1938 on purely moral grounds. Written under the pen-name of Sebastian Haffner, it carries a fittingly modest and unassuming title:
Geschichte eines Deutschen (Story of a German), which was badly translated for the English edition as Defying Hitler. It was published posthumously only a few years ago by the author's son, who discovered the manuscript in his father's papers.
The author was a well-educated young man; the son of a magistrate,
he himself was entering that same career; his future prospects were secure; he loved his friends, his city, his culture, his language. Yet, like all his compatriots, he witnessed Hitler's ascent. He had no privileged information; simply, like any other intellectual, he read the newspapers,
followed the news, discussed current affairs with friends and colleagues.
He clearly felt that, together with the rest of the country, he was being progressively sucked into a poisonous swamp. To ensure a reasonably smooth and trouble-free existence, small compromises were constantly required – nothing difficult nor particularly dramatic;
everyone else, to a various extent, was similarly involved. Yet the sum total of these fairly banal, daily surrenders eroded the integrity of each individual. Haffner himself was never forced into participating in any extreme situation, was never confronted with atrocities, never personally witnessed dramatic events or political crimes. Simply, he found himself softly enveloped into the all-pervasive moral degradation of an entire society. Experiencing nothing more than what all his compatriots were experiencing, he faced the inescapable truth. Since he was lucky enough to have no family responsibilities, he was free to abandon his beloved surroundings and to forsake the chance of a brilliant career:
he went into voluntary exile, first to France and then England - to save
his soul. His short (unfinished), clear-sighted and sober memoir raises one terrifying question: all that Haffner knew at the time, many millions of people around him knew equally well. Why was there only one
Earlier on, I suggested that artists and creative writers actually develop alternative modes of access to truth – all the short-cuts afforded by inspired imagination. Please do not misunderstand me: if I suggest that there are alternative approaches to truth, I do not mean that there are alternative truths. Truth is not relative; by nature it is within the reach of everyone, it is plain and obvious – sometimes even painfully so.
Haffner's example illustrates it well.
At the time of the Dreyfus Affair - the most shameful miscarriage of justice in French modern history - one of the eminent personalities who came to Dreyfus's defense was a most unlikely figure. Marechal
Lyautey, being an aristocrat, monarchist, Catholic, third-generation military man, seemed naturally to belong to the other side – the side of rightist, anti-Semitic, clerical, militaro-chauvinistic bigots. He became a supporter of Dreyfus (who was falsely convicted of the crime of treason)
for only one reason: he himself had integrity. The pro-Dreyfus committee gathered to discuss what to call itself; most members suggested the name Alliance for Justice. 'No,’ said Lyauter 'We must call it
Alliance for Truth.’ And he was right, for one can honestly hesitate on what is just (since justice must always take into account complex and contradictory factors), but one cannot hesitate on what is true.
Which brings me to my conclusion. My conclusion is in fact my unspoken starting point. When I was first invited to speak on the subject of truth, it was a few days before Easter. During the successive days of the Christian Holy Week, we read in church the four Gospel narratives of the last two days in the life of Christ. These narratives each contain a passage on the trial of Jesus in front of the Roman governor,
Pontius Pilate; the concept of truth appears there in a brief dialogue between judge and accused. It is a well-known passage; at that time, it struck me in a very special way.
The high priests and the Sanhedrin had arrested Jesus, and they interrogated him. In conclusion, they decided that he should be put to death for blasphemy. But they were now colonial subjects of the Roman empire; they had lost the power to pronounce and carry out death sentences.
Only the Roman governor possessed such authority.
Thus they bring Jesus to Pilate. Pilate finds himself in a predicament.
First, there is the problem inherent to his position: he is both head of the executive and head of the judiciary As supreme ruler, he is concerned with issues of public order and security; as supreme judge, he should ensure that the demands of justice are being met. Then there is his own personal situation: the Jews naturally see him for what he is –
an odious foreign oppressor. And he distrusts and dislikes these quarrelsome and incomprehensible natives who give him endless trouble.
During his tenure, twice already there have been severe disturbances;
the governor handled them badly - he was even denounced in Rome.
He cannot afford another incident. And this time, he fears a trap.
The Jewish leaders present themselves as loyal subjects of Caesar.
They accuse Jesus of being a rebel, a political agitator who tells the people not to pay taxes and who challenges Caesar's authority by claiming that he himself is a king. Now, if Pilate does not condemn him, Pilate himself would be disloyal to Caesar.
Pilate interrogates Jesus. Naturally, he finds Jesus' notion of a spiritual kingdom quite fanciful, but it seems also harmless enough. The accused appears to be neither violent nor fanatic; he has poise; he is articulate. Pilate is impressed by his calm dignity, and it quickly becomes obvious to him that Jesus is entirely innocent of all the crimes of which he has been accused. Pilate repeats it several times: '1 can find no fault in this man.' But the mob demands his death, and the Gospel adds that,
hearing their shouts, 'Pilate was more afraid than ever.' Pilate is scared:
he does not want to have, once again, a riot on his hands. Should this happen, it would be the end of his career.
In the course of his interrogation, as Pilate questions Jesus on his activities, Jesus replies: 'What I came into the world for, is to bear witness of the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth, listens to my voice.'
To which Pilate retorts: 'The truth! But what is the truth?' He is an educated and sophisticated Roman; he has seen the world and read the philosophers; unlike this simple man, this provincial carpenter from
Galilee, he knows that there are many gods and many creeds under the sun …
However, beware! Whenever people wonder 'What is the truth?' usually it is because the truth is just under their noses – but it would be very inconvenient to acknowledge it. And thus, against his own better judgment,
Pilate yields to the will of the crowd and lets Jesus be crucified.
Pilate's problem was not how to ascertain Jesus' innocence. This was easy enough: It was obvious. No, the real problem was that, in the end -
like all of us, most of the time – he found it more expedient to wash his hands of the truth.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
“…one of Australia's superlative essayists and the closest thing we have to a scholar-artist on the classical Chinese model…To see Leys's essays assembled is to appreciate, if you haven't already, the range of philosophical, artistic and literary interests that sustain even his slightest productions." —Geordie Williamson, The Australian

Meet the Author

Simon Leys (1935 - 2014) is the pen name of Pierre Ryckmans, who was born in Belgium and settled in Australia in 1970. He taught Chinese literature at the Australian National University and was Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney from 1987 to 1993. Leys’s writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books, Le Monde, Le Figaro Littéraire, and other periodicals. Among his books are Chinese Shadows, The Death of Napoleon (forthcoming from NYRB Classics), Other People’s Thoughts, and The Wreck of the Batavia & Prosper. In 1996 he delivered the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Boyer lectures. He won many awards, including the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Femina, the Prix Guizot, and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

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