Ideograms in China

Ideograms in China

by Henri Michaux, Gustaf Sobin


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Previously available only as a limited editon, Henri Michaux's Ideograms in China is now available as a New Directions paperback. Peerlessly translated by the American poet Gustaf Sobin, this long, beautifully illustrated and annotated prose poem was originally written as an introduction to Leon Chang's La calligraphie chinoise (1971), a work that now stands as an important complement to Pound and Ernest Fenollosa's classic study, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.

Allen Ginsberg called Michaux a genius, and Jorge Luis Borges said that his work is without equal in the literature of our time. Henri Michaux (1899-1984) wrote Ideograms in China as an introduction to Leon Chang’s La calligraphie chinoise (1971), a work that now stands as an important complement to Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa’s classic study, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Previously available only as a limited edition, Ideograms in China is a long, gorgeously illustrated and annotated prose poem containing a very deep consideration of the world’s oldest living language. Poet Gustaf Sobin’s luminous English version beautifully captures the astounding and strange French original. For Michaux, the Chinese culture ranked as the world’s richest, a culture grounded in its written language, which bound China together through three millennia and across its enormous territories. Ideograms in China presents an oblique history of that culture through the changing variety and beauty of the ideograms: Michaux looks into a dozen scripts––from ancient bronze vessels bearing ku-wen script to running script to standard k’ai-shu characters––and the poem carries the rhythms of someone discovering the soul of a civilization in its impression of ink on paper.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780811214902
Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation
Publication date: 02/28/2002
Pages: 58
Sales rank: 899,176
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.20(d)

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Chapter One

    Lines going off in all directions. In every which way: commas, loops, curlicues, stress marks, seemingly at every point, at all levels: a bewildering thicket of accents.

    Cracks, claw marks: the very beginnings appear to have been suddenly checked: arrested.

    Without form, figure, or body, without contour, symmetry, or center, without evoking any known property whatsoever.

    Without any apparent rule of simplification, unification, generalization.

    Neither stripped nor refined, lacking sobriety.

    Each seems, at first sight, as if scattered.

    Ideograms devoid of all evocation.

    Characters of an unending variety.

    The page, containing them, like a lacerated void.

    Lacerated by a multitude of undefined lives.

    There was a time, however, when the signs still spoke, or nearly; when, already allusive, they revealed —rather than simple things or bodies or materials—groups, ensembles, situations.

    There was a time ... There were others, as well. Without making any attempt to simplify or condense, each period obfuscating for its own particular sake, setting things to rout, learned how to manipulate the characters, to separate them even further in some new way from their original reading.

Interval. What won out, finally, was thetendency to conceal. Reserve, prudence won out, a natural restraint, and that instinctive Chinese habit of covering one's tracks, of avoiding exposure.

    What won out was the pleasure of remaining concealed. Thus the text, henceforth, covert, secret: a secret between initiates.

    A long and involved secret, not readily shared, the requisite for belonging to that society within a society. That circle which, for centuries, would remain in power. That oligarchy of the subtle.

    The pleasure of abstraction won out.

    The brush freed the way, and paper made the going easier.

    One could now readily abstract from the original reality, from the concrete and its closely related signs; could abstract, move swiftly with abrupt brushstrokes that slid, unhesitating, across the paper, giving Chinese an entirely new appearance.

    Withdrawal, self-absorption won out.

    Won out: the will to be mandarin.

    Gone, now, were those archaic characters that had stirred the heart. And those signs, so palpable, that had overwhelmed their own creators and amazed their very first readers.

    Gone, too, were the veneration and simplicity, the earliest poetry, the tenderness that arose from the surprise of the first "encounter." Gone, the still "pious" brushstroke and the gliding ease. (Still absent, yet to come, the intellectuals with their deft tracings: the tracings of intellectuals ... of scribes).

    All contact cut, now, with the beginnings ...

    Innovating, at first, with prudence, but with a growing disrespect and with the joy at seeing that "it worked," that one was still being followed, understood ...

    Carried away by the seductive effrontery of their own pursuits, the inventors—those of the second period—learned how to detach the sign from its model, deforming it cautiously, at first, not yet daring to sever form from being: the umbilical, that is, of resemblance. And, in so doing, detached themselves, rejected the sacred from that earliest equation: "word-object."

    Religion in writing was on the decline; the irreligion of writing had just begun.

    Gone, now, were the "heartfelt" characters, so dependent upon reality. Vanished from usage, from language. They remained, however, upon the slabs of the oldest tombs, on the bronze vases dating from the earliest dynasties. Remained, too, upon divinatory bones.

    Later, those early characters, sought after everywhere throughout the Middle Kingdom, meticulously compiled and recopied, were interpreted by scholars. An inventory, a dictionary of original signs, was established.

    Rediscovered, and rediscovering, at the same time, the emotion inherent in those calm, tender, tranquil first writings.

    The characters, restored to their original meanings, came back to life.

    In this perspective, any written page, any surface covered with characters turns into something crammed and seething ... full of lives and objects, of everything to be found in the world, in the world of China,

full of moons and hearts, full of doors full of men who bow who withdraw, grow angry, and make amends full of obstacles full of right hands, of left hands of hands that clasp, that respond, that join forever full of hands facing hands of hands on guard, and others at work full of mornings full of doors full of water falling, drop by drop, out of clouds of ferryboats crossing from one side to another full of earth embankments of furnaces of bows and runaways and full, too, of disasters and full of thieves carrying stolen goods off under their arms and full of greed and meshed armor and full, too, of true words and gatherings full of children born with a caul and holes in the earth and of navels in the body and full of skulls and full of ditches and full of migratory birds and newborn children—and so many! and full of metals in the depths of the earth and full of virgin land and fumes rising from swamps and meadows and full of dragons full of demons wandering across the open country and full of everything that exists in the world such as it is or assembled in some other fashion chosen deliberately by the inventor of signs that they be brought together scenes that lend themselves to reflection scenes of all sorts scenes that proffer a meaning, or several meanings, that they be submitted to the spirit that they issue forth: clustered that they might end in ideas or unravel as poetry.

    Part of that original treasure remains lost. There still exist, however, enough etymologies of an indisputable nature to permit an accomplished scholar to recognize often, running throughout, the particular origins and—in the instant of tracing the characters in their present form—to draw inspiration from the distant past.

    No matter how far removed the new character is from the old, the scholar can still bring fresh life to the object by means of the word.

    This is the direction he's drawn in, what his graphics aim for.

    He needs no further skills, thanks to the nuance of his subtle brushstrokes.

    Chinese: a language perfectly suited for calligraphy. One that reduces, provokes the inspired brushwork.

    The sign, without insistence, allows one to return to the object, to the being that, in the running text, need only be inserted into this expression quite literally expressive.

    For ages the Chinese had been subject, in this field and others, to the charm of resemblance: to an immediate resemblance, at first, and then to a distant one, and finally to the composition of resembling elements.

    An obstacle, as well: it had to be overcome.

    Even that of the furthest resemblance. There was no returning; all similitude was to be abandoned forever.

    Another destiny awaited the Chinese.

    To abstract means to free oneself, to come disentangled.

Excerpted from IDEOGRAMS IN CHINA by Henri Michaux. Copyright © 1975 by Henri Michaux. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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