In Nanjing it is raining. On Jiuhuashan, the holy mountain whose temples equal in number the days of the year, dense fog descends. In Zhenjiang the hotel is closed. The Shanghai commercial district of Pudong is all brash modernity. In Hangzhou it is raining.
The annoyances of travel are everywhere in László Krasznahorkai’s Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens (Seagull, 2016), but they are merely incidental to the central frustration of his quest, conducted over months spent in regions around Shanghai, to see if the classical culture of China might still be found living, and being lived. To this end the author, with his interpreter in tow, visits a wood carver, a calligrapher, a museum curator, a theater director, talks to poets and scholars, and is granted a few minutes by a fashion designer who drops by while he is having dinner. Everyone either denies there is a problem (Yao Luren, literary scholar: “My sense is that ever-more students are interested in traditional Chinese culture”) or denies it is unique to China (Xiao Hai, poet: “Contemporary art is floundering in various muddied formal objectives, and, as far as I can judge, in Europe the situation is the same”).
Originally published in 2004, Destruction and Sorrow was the book Krasznahorkai wrote immediately before Seiobo There Below, which was to share and diversify its search for a creative and recreative practice whose deep roots would guarantee its fresh growth and allow it, most importantly, to draw down the divine. The two books differ in that Seiobo is a novel, its diverse instalments spiraling through history and around the globe, while Destruction and Sorrow, described as “reportage,” fixes on a particular place observed now. Here is the beleaguered author, visiting sites he has been led to believe will offer evidence of a culture that is surviving, if only in refuge, and being soundly disappointed. At the monastery of Jinshan, in Zhenjiang, for instance, he and his interpreter find that “once again they are confronted with the infinite damage done by the system of reconstruction in New China, the monstrosity of crudely vulgar taste, the implacable lack of understanding and the plethora of ignoble results, so radically at odds with the refined sensibilities of the authentic Chinese spirit.” This is the destruction of which the title speaks, and this is the sorrow, the added phrase “under the Heavens,” Ottilie Mulzet informs us at the head of the notes in her fluent and painstaking translation, referring to the whole earth, which for the ancient Chinese was coextensive with China.
To record his journey of disillusion, Krasznahorkai writes of himself in the third person under an assumed name. In the Hungarian text he is László Dante, guide to the denizens of the hell of ignorance and malappropriation he sees China as having made of itself. In the English version this persona is abandoned, probably wisely, and he becomes László Stein. There is, however, no disguising his disgust, no mistaking his voice: “You and your compatriots,” he says to Yao, when he has had enough of the latter’s placid reassurances, “live the second-rate mass culture that goes with the so-called modern market economy, as well as so-called elite culture, dredged up from the squalid vortex of the market.” This is the familiar Krasznahorkai trope, the rage and grief of one who, having been a young man when his native Hungary subsided into consumerism, blames all decline on the new rule of money.
There is no question about how convinced he is, only about how convincing. For one thing, his furious despair, repeated in instance after instance, begins to sound like an unconsidered reflex. For another, one might question whether “the market” was responsible for turning culture (lived) into heritage (visited), or whether, when other measures of value were already in decline, money rushed in. There is also Xiao’s point that what pains and angers the protagonist is by no means exclusively a Chinese phenomenon, though it may have been amplified in China by the long survival of cultural traditions and by the rapidity of change.
Other interview subjects reasonably ask how well Krasznahorkai knows this “classical culture” he claims to venerate. Does he read Chinese? No. Well then, as Yang Qinghua, an elderly, cultivated man, points out: “This is a culture built upon the unconditional primacy of writing.” And he goes on: “Our language is comprised of characters contained in squares.…There is great meaning to this.” The European traveler is also faulted on his lack of familiarity with Chinese history. For another poet, Xi Chuan, “China was destroyed by the Japanese and Western alliances” in 1919, and even before that its culture had been stagnant for six and a half centuries, since the ousting of the Song dynasty by Kublai Khan, when “development was halted.”
One may wonder, too, if Krasznahorkai was not bound to find—even seeking out—the dire conditions he catalogues. The most cursory web search would show anyone how Jinshan has become Chinese Disneyland—though we should remember that in 2002, when Krasznahorkai made his tour, Google Images and Tripadvisor were both in their infancy. Of course, there were guidebooks, but of these the formidable writer is scornful (“the unbelievably crappy Lonely Planet guide to China”). He did, however, have his own experience to go on. He tells us at one point that he had been visiting China since 1990 and witnessing “an unrelenting process…destroyed monasteries…expensive entrance fees…uncommonly aggressive merchandising, deception and lies.”
Why keep going back? There are two answers. One is that Krasznahorkai, like Thomas Bernhard before him, feels the obligation to scathe, and modern China gives him the opportunity to scathe much of the time masterfully, often in those characteristic long, strong sentences that curl back on themselves to repeat the indictment or indignation with hammering force. And of course China here is only the Babylon of the global dominion that supplies our material needs while divesting us of all that matters.
The second reason for Krasznahorkai to have gone on with his investigations is that just occasionally he finds what he is looking for. In Shaoxing the millennium-old Dashan pagoda still stands “in the most beneficial neglect.” Near the end, an experience in a Song-dynasty garden in Suzhou—sitting with fellow intellectuals into the darkness, drinking tea, being offered hermetic poetic improvisations, hearing bird song—affords a rare epiphany.
Even so, perhaps the most telling encounter comes in the port city of Ningbo, where a sixteenth-century mandarin, Fan Qin, created a great library for himself and his descendants: Tianyi Ge. There, seated on a Ming chair in a pure Ming interior, Krasznahorkai is impressed by everything he hears from the library’s director, Gong Liefei—until the latter reveals that nearly all the library’s books, nearly all its calligraphic works and paintings, are housed in a new building made for them. To Krasznahorkai this is a sundering image of China’s spiritual emptying of itself: “Tianyi Ge, the pride of the nation, the last thing that remained, and they lock it up in a safe?”
Well, what else were they to do? One problem with a living culture is that it has to be also in part dying. As Gong told it, of Fan’s seventy thousand volumes, only thirteen thousand remained at the beginning of the 1950s, and the work of preservation from insect attack, in former times, involved placing pieces of hooked spikemoss and lotus petals between the leaves. For better or worse, we live in a world that cannot tolerate the depredations worked by time and weevils on venerable documents. Are we wrong to seek to keep these things, for as long as we possibly can, or at least until we have worked out what a living culture might mean again? And are we wrong to exchange labor-intensive and surely inefficient remedies for serene modern control of temperature and humidity—and doors securely locked against the six-legged?
This is something else that Krasznahorkai’s analysis elides, how the classical culture of China, or anywhere else, depended on two things: a secure knowledge that divinity could sometimes be brought to earth, if only by the greatest artists, and the unquestioning support—perhaps on account of that promise—of a large mass of people who would neither create nor enjoy but mutely serve. We seem, as Krasznahorkai goes on bewailing, to have lost our gods. We have not lost our culturally disenfranchised, but they have lost us.
Paul Griffiths was born in Wales in 1947. A music critic for thirty years, he has published several books on music, as well as librettos and novels.