The Hall of Uselessness eBook ↠ The Hall eBook

The Hall of Uselessness An essential collection of essays from an eminent criticSimon Leys’ cultural and political commentary has spanned four decades with no corner of the arts escaping his sharp eye and acerbic wit The Hall of Uselessness forms the most complete collection yet of Leys’ fascinating essays from uixotism to China from the sea to literatureLeys feuds with Christopher Hitchens ponders the popularity of Victor Hugo and analyses the posthumous publication of Nabokov’s unfinished novel He offers valuable insights into Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge and discusses Orwell Waugh and Confucius He considers the intertwined nature of Chinese art culture and history alongside the joys and difficulties of literary translation The Hall of Uselessness is an illuminating compendium from a brilliant and highly acclaimed writer – a long time resident of Australia who is truly a global citizen

10 thoughts on “The Hall of Uselessness

  1. says:

    Critical RealityTwo approximate descriptions of the indescribable Simon Leys Harold Bloom without the arrogance or the Shakespearean idolatry; or Terry Eagleton with an understanding of Asian as well as continental culture With the wit erudition and style of both The uniue can't be categorised And Leys is certainly that a uniue literary and social criticFiction in fact all writing for Leys is depiction of reality as opposed to the expression of truth which is an entirely different matter science is after all fiction of a particular genre Poetry as the apotheosis of fiction is the grasping of reality the naming of what actually is Literary criticism is the poetic uncovering of a reality that even the author of the work criticised may be unaware of Since reality provides an infinite scope for story telling neither fiction nor its criticism has any obvious boundary and therefore leads to social commentaryThis view on the world produces lots of profoundly engaging judgements on European literature and the society that produces it Balzac displays the aesthetic sense of a prosperous Caribbean pimp Victor Hugo is a Trumpian but endearing figure of French literature Malraux is essentially phony sic The orientalist Edward Said is a Palestinian scholar with a huge chip on his shoulder Roland Bathes bestows a new dignity upon the age old activity of saying nothing at great lengthLeys's judgements of are perhaps even interesting for Europeans who are novices in Chinese literature the persistence in Chinese culture of spirituality within a landscape largely devoid of material ancient monuments the self expressiveness of writing per se as an artistic and uasi sacred frame for literary content the modernity of Confucian thought in its openness and adaptability China itself as a sort of recipe for cosmic order with the main ingredient as a virtue ethics that could come from Thomas Auinas the lethally seductive charm of Zhou Enlai Mao's complete lack of personal charisma Communist literature as rhinoceros sausage Simon Leys died just short of two years ago His legacy is profoundly rich

  2. says:

    I read this last year and wrote a short essay about it that I then failed to have published anywhere I'd forgotten about it Well here are my thoughts about Leys and 'World Literature' and a few other things I haven't edited it When I was a teaching assistant for a class on world literature we had our students define the subject in a short paper One freshman argued or less that “world literature was invented by Goethe to exclude literature from outside Western Europe” Precocious but this really happened “World literature makes it impossible for Eastern European African and Asian writers to gain the audience they deserve The concept must be destroyed” Pierre Ryckmans the sinologist novelist and essayist who publishes as Simon Leys would have been aghast Leys was born in Belgium and settled in Australia in 1970 His pen name comes from Victor Segalen’s novel René Leys whose narrator Victor Segalen is a sinophile living in Pei king under the final ing emperor René Leys fools Segalen telling him that he’s had a child with the Empress and is head of the secret police in the Forbidden City Leys dies and Segalen realizes he’s been duped but he chooses to idealize his friend rather than remember him as a liar Just as Segalen kept his faith in René Simon Leys still believes in literature’s power and importance Of course he’s not alone This uarter’s n 1 for instance includes a history of world literature despite Goethe’s efforts literature ended up becoming less international and less political in the 19th century Today’s world literature is an apolitical sop to the middle class; politics turns up only in historical fiction because “past horrors unlike contemporary ones tend to be events liberal readers agree about”—and liberal readers buy world literature The market demands that contemporary world literature ignore contemporary injustices Just as my freshman did n 1 argues not without cause that this depoliticized ‘Global Lit’ needs to be destroyed and replaced with an “internationalist literature of the revolutionary left” that will oppose power tell the truth and create a taste for revolutionary politics Most importantly it will not treat “literature as a self evident autonomous good” Leys would disagree obstinately but sensitively Many of the best essays in The Hall of Uselessness are about writers who were particularly open to the languages and literatures of other peoples and Leys shares their openness The Hall includes formal academic essays literary criticism public lectures reviews polemic parables and forewords about among other things European and East Asian literature history and politics Leys knows that because of this breadth specialists might suspect him of frivolity or irresponsibility; his essay on Chinese aesthetics suggests a response It describes the sinologist’s conundrum “specialisation is necessary” because no individual can hope to understand all of Chinese culture; but “specialisation is impossible” because “if he is not guided by a global intuition the specialist remains forever condemned to the fate of the blind men in the well known Buddhist parable” who each grope one part of an elephant and then argue about what they’re touching a snake? A pillar? A broom? This is also the conundrum of world literature If we want to read we need to specialize to some degree We can’t read everything But we also can’t just read at random; we need to be guided by a global intuition For Leys we should be guided by the apolitical idea that the literary tradition is an autonomous useless and self evident good We should read and write literature for its own sake That’s not to say that politics has no place in Leys’s essays Many of them are political though many of the political essays are unfortunately among his least likable Leys writes well about the tyrants of Asia; his essay on Mao is as balanced as anyone could expect But that only makes his splenetic attacks on the intellectuals who covered up the famines and genocides of China and Cambodia bizarre It often seems that Leys is offended by the fools—eg Alain Badiou telling us not to allow “reactionary critics to neutralize and negate” Stalin Mao Tito and Hoxha—than he is by the executives of genocide To his credit Leys tries to understand why people like Badiou say what they do; his best answer is that they suffer a “failure of the imagination” Even when they know all about atrocities some intellectuals don’t really grasp what they know Here Leys follows Orwell who said that people without expertise eg according to himself Orwell can still have “the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in” Even if you don’t know how many people the Khmer Rouge murdered you can still grasp that the Khmer Rouge was a brutal horrible regime This is the imaginative grasp that people like Badiou don’t have Literature can help us remedy that lack by stimulating our imagination Leys uses Don uixote as an example Cervantes wrote Don uixote in order to make money and mock knights and damsels stories Such profiteering and parody aren’t usually conducive to greatness but we still read Don uixote because uixote transcends Cervantes’s aims Cervantes began with the thought that uixote is a madman and a fool; we follow him when we use ‘uixotic’ to mean “hopelessly naïve and idealistic” But “hopelessly naïve and idealistic” can also be a complimentary description of literature set against the world insisting that we should be just beautiful and loving than we are Cynics dismiss uixote as naïve and idealistic but for most readers his naivety and idealism are as inspiring as they are amusing And uixote’s imagined world looks much charming than the one we have to live in So ultimately politics and literature come together in Leys’s essays because he thinks that the imaginative power we develop through reading helps us better understand social and political events It also gives us ideals by which to judge them The Chinese writer and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo for instance had an epiphany when he was teaching in New York He realized both that his own learning was nothing compared to “the fabulous riches of the diverse civilizations of the past” and that the “Western answers to mankind’s modern predicament” were no better than China’s So he vowed to “use Western civilization as a tool to critiue China” and to use his “own creativity as a tool to critiue the West”—the ideals of the West and those of China can be used to criticize the societies of each I don’t know if Liu will be able to hold on to those ideals while he suffers in prison; I doubt I could But his imprisonment does show that a broad engagement with world literature gave him a great capacity for critical thought If like Liu we can understand the ideals and flaws in the thought and art of different peoples we’ll give ourselves the best chance we have to criticize injustice So where revolutionaries demand a new world literature Leys points to what we already have a tradition that started long before writing and will continue long after everybody’s bêtes noires Naipaul and Rushdie And rather than demand democratization Leys argues that the products and subjects of world literature—truth intelligence beauty and love—are elitist They are the goals of an education “ruthlessly aristocratic and high brow” in which “a chance is given to men to become what they truly are” All this can sound like a humanistic platitude But Leys’s elitist formalist understanding of world literature actually has far reaching radical political content literature helps us to understand and hold onto an ideal of human happiness in which as many people as possible are at leisure to be liberal but ‘liberal’ in the ancient sense—to be free from poverty and oppression and so able to act in one’s own interests In recent years this ideal has been threatened by one of the paradoxes of capitalism “the wretched lumpenproletariat is cursed with the enforced leisure of demoralizing and permanent unemployment whereas the educated elite whose liberal professions have been turned into senseless money making machines are condemning themselves to the slavery of endless working hours” Those who have the time to be happy have no money; those who can afford to be happy have no time for it Today’s radicals tend to ignore the paradox and reject the ideal but at least one old revolutionary understood the problem and sought a solution for the former rather than the destruction of the latter At the end of Capital’s third volume Marx wrote of his hope that one day we’d be able to enter “the true realm of freedom” and accept “the development of human powers as an end in itself” Bad press to the contrary he wasn’t talking about our ability to produce ever rubber widgets The ‘human powers’ are the artistic and moral abilities that Marx among many others thought were exemplified in the traditions of world literature When we find an old conservative like Leys defending the same ideals as an arch revolutionary like Marx we should probably conclude that there’s something to them Note Leys isn’t immune to failures of imagination In one essay here published in 2000 he suggests that clergy should remain celibate because married clergy would be “too cruel and unfair to their children” Aside from ignoring the experiences of protestant churches and Maronite Catholics Leys must have known about the child abuse taking place in too many Catholic dioceses in Australia the group Broken Rites has been publicizing cases since 1993 His homophobia is another case of this failure

  3. says:

    Simon Leys is a carefully kept secret by anyone who loves contradictory people people who are averse to fashionable or politically correct thinking just go their own way and are not ashamed to row against the tide This Belgian writer with his real name Pierre Ryckmans 1935 2014 was an eminent sinologist one of the best connoisseurs of China in the 20th century He was among the first to uncover and denounce the cruel excesses of Mao's ideological campaigns but he was not taken seriously by the predominant especially Sartre controlled omertà of the sixties and seventies That he was a professing Catholic probably didn't help either His analyses of China and Chinese culture were not appreciated until the 1980s but his influence always stayed limited partly due to a form of charming unworldlinessThis bundle of essays naturally includes several excellent articles on China and Chinese culture but the main emphasis is nevertheless on his literary criticism Because it appears that Leys was enormously well read and also expressed opinions about the monstres sacrés of Western literature that regularly went against prevailing opinions It is no coincidence that this book opens with an ode to Don uixote who is not a loser at all for Leys but someone who in all simplicity has set a goal and consistently adheres to it It’s odd but when I look at images of Leys at a later age I can see a certain physical similarity between him and the classic representations that have been made of the Spanish anachronistic knight Or is that my imagination?If I have to ascertain 2 attractive ualities in Leys then these are his authenticity and his humanism To a large degree both are old fashioned these days This is foremost a characteristic of his literary criticism writers such as Chesterton Orwell and Simenon are lauded for their astute authenticity others such as André Malraux and Roland Barthes are ruthlessly cracked for their mythomania and ideological conformityReading these essays one is impressed by Leys’ erudition and lucidity But I have the impression that in the course of time he has started to somewhat cultivate his own obstinacy He regularly – in an ironic way of course – refers to his lack of knowledge and insight which he invariably blames on laziness but he uses this weapon to deal mercilessly with people of another opinion And apparently he knows all too well how his blatant Catholicism deviated from the spirit of the times just look at his sharp provocative polemic with Christopher Hitchens about the latter’s critical book on Mother Teresa Oh well perhaps these are just the petty traits of a brilliant genius I am pleased that thanks to this collection of essays I have been able to become acuainted with the valuable be it somewhat old fashioned universe of Simon Leys

  4. says:

    Way back in 1978 I got entangled in an argument with a hysterical seminary student I'd made some withering remark about the current chic fascination with Chairman Mao and my fellow student exploded that I had no right to judge to refer to freedom and civilization when people were starving I replied that even if this were true in China millions had starved precisely as a result of Mao's Great Leap Forward I was dismissedI recalled this incident when I picked up Simon Leys' new book of essays because my Comments of 1978 had been inspired by Leys' Chinese Shadows which I'd discovered through a review by Jonathan Spence in the NYRB Leys had pointed out the dark side of Mao which in the mid 70s even many sinologists were reluctant to acknowledge His philippic carried the charge it did because Leys passionately valued Chinese civilization and admired the character of the Chinese people – a passion that reappears repeatedly in these essays The Hall of Uselessness is a collection written over the past thirty odd years It's an uneven assortment A few pieces which expose Leys at his most curmudgeonly I would have been happy not to have read A few others most notably the first five essays on China are superb I'll cite only one extended passageFor a layman at first sight Chinese painting may appear rather limited and monotonous; landscapes for instance are invariably built on a combination of mountains and rivers organised on the basis of a few set recipes These stereotyped forumlas are themselves filled with conventional elements – trees rocks clouds buildings figures – whose treatment is standardised in painting handbooks that are straightforward catalogues of forms The range of poetry is eually narrow it uses a rigidly codified symbolic language a set of ready made images the song of the cuckoo that makes the traveller feel homesick; the wild geese that fail to bring news from the absent lover; the east wind with its springtime connotations; the west wind and the funereal feelings of autumn; mandarin ducks suggesting shared love; ruins of ancient monuments witnessing the impermanence of human endeavours; willow twigs exchanged by friends as a farewell present; moon and wine; falling flowers; the melancholy of the abandoned woman leaning on her balcony In a sense one could say that Chinese poetry is made of a narrow series of clichés embroidered upon a limited number of conventional canvases And yet such a definition although it would be literally accurate would nevertheless miss the point a deaf man could as well describe a Bach sonata for cello as a seuence of rubbings and scratching effected upon four gut strings stretched over an empty box 302 These essays echo decades of scholarly insight Any work of art – poem painting piece of music – plays the part of a 'fisherman's song' beyond the words forms and sounds that it borrows it is a direct intuitive experience that no discursive approach can embody For someone like me who sees both Du Fu's poetry and Bach's Cello Suites as works of art which constitutively alter the sense of life this is an enticing summaryOn the other hand some of the other essays on China are a bit tetchy Even if Leys has earned the right to crow at his detractors it isn't edifying – a risk he recognizes but cannot entirely forgo And do we really need another snide evisceration of Said's already snide Orientalism? Leys' editor did him no favors hereSimilarly the essays on politics and literature are sometimes rich and provocative and sometimes ill tempered Throughout Leys' judgments are informed by his Catholicism which depending on your taste is either or a good or a bad thing In this respect he reminds me of another writer I greatly admire – John Lukacs Leys values Catholic writers G K Chesterton Simone Weil Paul Claudel even Evelyn Waugh far than I He's given to remarks such as For our true motherland is eternity; we are the mere passing guests of time This warmth leaves me coldI only mention this because he like Lukacs is so deeply skeptical of political illusions in the perspicuous manner of Albert Camus Raymond Aron George Orwell Leys offers an excellent aphorism from Orwell The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians For me Catholicism falls on the authoritarian side of this divide But this is merely an irritation in an original curious collection by a thoroughly intelligent writer Fittingly NYRB is scheduled to publish this book next June in its Classic Original series When I spotted this notice I hunted down the Australian edition I read – so it's only just to promote the NYRB edition

  5. says:

    I bought this book on a whim knowing nothing about Simon Leys not knowing for instance that Simon Leys was the pen name of a man actually named Pierre Ryckmans Now I feel like I know Leys very well for several weeks he has been a constant endearing companion in my lifeThis collection covers a wide range of topics but is unified by Leys' own voice and personality which are highly distinctive if not exactly uniue Indeed Leys belongs to a very particular type although if the type has a name I'm not sure what it isHe's the kind of man who values anecdotes paradox humor and the incidental over broad and general ideas The kind of man who though aware of how bleak the human world can be seems animated by a kind of faith bordering sometimes on complacency in the basic goodness and wonder of day to day life the boundless surprises that live in the details Outspoken and sometimes brutally witty he is nonetheless the exact opposite of a radical he is not at home with systems and general descriptions and suspects that any hope without blemishes is a lie He loves G K Chesterton and George Orwell; he excoriates Christopher Hitchens and Roland BarthesAs it happens Leys is famous for having pointed out the dark side of the People's Republic of China at a time when doing so was controversial among Western intellectuals Although he has many interests besides the flaws of Chinese communism it seems fitting that this is his claim to fame because he fits the role so well he is the very image of the genial sort of anti communist not right wing or reactionary but simply possessed by a sense that all that is valuable in life lives at too fine a scale to be captured in Marxist theory or reported in rosy utopian accounts from European and American visitorsI imagine some people find this type inherently obnoxious and would thus not enjoy this book; to anyone without that kind of opposition it is likely to be very enjoyable indeed Leys is brilliant at being himself Committed as he is to the importance of fine detail he packs his essays many of which are little than series of anecdotes with endless riches of hilarious and fascinating minutiae The best in my mind are Leys' essays about individual authors each of which paints its subject as a fascinatingly uniue and colorful character Almost every such essay and there are a lot of them in the book made me want to read the author he described I have never had any particular interest in Balzac but Leys' essay convinced me that I must read him the only problem was that before I could get my hands on anything by Balzac I happen to read on to the next essay and discover that I also had to make time for Victor Hugo The most dazzling stretch of the book is Portrait of Proteus a 52 page essay on Andre Gide structured as a dictionary in which significant concepts and people in Gide's life are listed in alphabetical order and defined by corresponding mini essays If that sounds tedious trust me it isn't There is nothing that Leys cannot make funThe major flaw of this book is that while Leys is very good at being himself he does not seem to be good at being anything else 490 pages is a lot when you're reading someone this distinctive and especially since the best parts are mostly in the first half of the collection the unchanging uality of Leys' voice can become grating There is something overly untroubled about him something smug about his ability to live with paradox to casually visualize hidden strings of similarity connecting people across different cultures and across millennia to dispatch with a witty uip anyone who disturbs his splendid harmonious universe His mind makes its way across topic after topic the representation of the sea in French literature the aesthetic standards of traditional Chinese painting the nature of Belgian identity the mendacious self mythologizing of Andre Malreux the voyage of Magellan the decision to publish The Original of Laura and at no moment seems truly perturbed by what it sees Leys' mind can accept and in a way has already accepted everything except that which is dogmatic or uninteresting In his descriptions of writers who he treasures for their glittering eccentricities as though they were Faberge eggs he is oddly forgiving of ualities like racism or in Gide's case pedophilia He praises hesitation but he does not himself hesitate; he praises imperfection but his own vision of the world feels a little too perfectThis is most apparent when Leys ventures into the realm of abstract ideas his natural enemy One of the collection's lowest moments is a transcript of an inane speech Leys gave of the purpose of universities in which he trots out all the usual pieties about how universities should not see themselves as commercial enterprises exist to educate students and not merely please them should be devoted to pure thought independent of all considerations of usefulness etc It is easy to see that at least without some added subtlety this view of the university is nonsensical after all if we try to remove all considerations of practical use from our conception of pure thought we lose the ability to say why one kind of thought is better than another and are unable to explain why universities should not pay people to say compute very long but mathematically trivial sums or to develop useless taxonomies like Borges' Celestial Emporium of Benevolent KnowledgeIn general Leys could use a little subtlety a little less piety a bit disuiet to disfigure the perfection of his pacific and unified universe That said he is and funny and charming brilliantly vicious when he needs to be and otherwise warm and inviting and in possession of all kinds of fascinating facts and stories I recommend you get to know him I'm glad I did

  6. says:

    Towards the end of this book of essays Simon Leys uotes the following from a forgotten source Past a certain age we read nothing perchance I must be of a certain age for I picked up this book just at a time when I was falling into despair at the ignorance and stupidity that prevails in our time Simon Leys is one writer who is possessed of intelligence wide learning facility for the written word and a clear minded logic that cuts through to the core of the matterThis book is a collection of essays and speeches that Leys the pen name of Pierre Ryckmans a well regarded Sinologist has written and given over the last thirty years or so They are divided into six sections uixotism Literature China The Sea University and MarginaliaThe one thing that holds this varied collection together is the author's commitment to the highest levels of criticism and the eschewal of anything that strikes of relativism or current fads in social s The following uote from the book is in a small coda to his essay which effectively eviscerates Christopher Hitchens demolition of Mother Teresa I think it sums up Leys' attitude to life and literature and is a good indication of the uality of this work Philistines are not people who are incapable of recognising beauty; they recognise it all too well; they detect its presence anywhere immediately and with a flair as infallible as that of the most sensitive aesthete but for them it is in order to be able better to pounce upon it at once and to destroy it before it can gain a foothold in their universal empire of ugliness Ignorance is not simply the absence of knowledge obscurantism does not result from a dearth of light bad taste is not merely a lack of good taste stupidity is not a simple want of intelligence all these are fiercely active forces that angrily assert themselves on every occasion; they tolerate no challenge to their omnipresent rule In every department of human endeavour inspired talent is an intolerable insult to mediocrity If this is true in the realm of aesthetics it is even true in the world of ethics More than artistic beauty moral beauty seems to exasperate our sorry species The need to ring down to our own wretched level to deface to deride and debunk any splendour that is towering above us is probably the saddest urge of human natureIn first piece in the collection an essay about Don uixote Leys begins his project in the first paragraph by stating he doesn't worry about what he should read he reads for pleasure This seemingly obvious statement in fact it is obvious expands into a rumination on the status of classic works of literature of which all were initially written for people to enjoy not to endlessly pick apart and theorise over Leys makes the point by showing that Cervantes initially intended his book to be a polemic against the literature of chivalry which is almost completely meaningless to readers of today In fact he goes on to point out that any message that might be in a piece of creative literature as in the case of Don uixote becomes redundant or is crowded out by the messages drawn from it by successive generations of readers Therefore true works of art ones that survive through time will have meanings that their writers may never have intended or realisedThe section on literature covers authors from Orwell to Chesterton but the weight of pieces refer to the masters of French Literature of the past century or so Balzac Hugo Gide Simenon and Malraux I have not read much French Literature off the top of my head I can think of Barbusse Camus Proust Vol1 and all of that in translation but Leys' essays steer me in the direction of reading Gide and Simenon and giving Malraux a miss Given Leys' facility in at least three languages English French and Chinese one would expect some insights into the pitfalls of translation and he does deliver pointing out that some authors can be translated easily Greene Simenon and others not so and why this is the case He discusses poetry in particular Chinese verse in some detail explaining the difficulty in trying to express verse in languages other than that of the original versifier's In this spirit he comes to the defence of Ezra Pound's attempts to translate Chinese poetry Ezra famously knew no Chinese and his translations have been scorned by many by pointing out that Pound mostly captures the structure and rhythm of the poems if not their exact languageThe section on China was very illuminating for me with uite deep discussion of Chinese poetry art and calligraphy along with Chinese attitudes to the past and the use and mis use of Confucius Leys has published a translation of the Analects The second half of the China section consists of essays on the Chinese leadership from the revolution and the work of various China experts from the west With his clear headedness and knowledge Leys was always one step ahead of many of these experts in his understanding of the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and in the knowledge that to understand China one must take account of what is not said or written just as much as what is One essay is entitled The art of interpreting non existent inscriptions written in invisible ink on a blank page which is an apt description of trying to negotiate the realities of Communist ChinaThe Marginalia at the end of this book are mostly a series of vignettes that Leys either hasn't or couldn't work up into bigger pieces All of them have insights into human nature a few about the pleasures of smoking one on the great importance of doing nothing a subject on which I am in total agreement with Leys an interesting couple of pages on provincialism in particular the paradox that cosmopolitanism is easily achieved in a provincial setting whereas life in a metropolis can insidiously result in a form of provincialism which is something to think onThe last piece in the book is entitled Memento Mori and is a short meditation on the passing of time I hope that this piece is not an indication that Leys who is 76 is laying down his pen We need writers such as himI have in my mind a list of civilization books books that if all other books were unavailable for some reason you could recall most of the glories of our civilization by reading this one book The list is short but it has now increased by oneUnlike most Australian publishers these days this book is well published in hardback with a useful index of names Check out my other reviews at

  7. says:

    I read Leys’s collection of essays which though among the whole are well above average still turned into a drag before segueing into the promised segment about ChinaLeys the person seems to be intellectually clear headed but at the same time very much unapologetic and somewhat cantankerous This is a man who is an unabashed Catholic Belgian smoker relativist and elitist Those are the kind of sharp edges that used to be rare and these days are nearly impossible to find in a public person The shift in perspective they offer makes this collection of essays worth readingStill because of the timespan we are covering every essay isn’t going to be eually relevant One that sticks out is his defense of Mother Theresa where he picks a beef with Hitchens’s demolition of the old lady In that essay Leys strikes a contra contrarian perspective is relevant to an issue that some of us might have discussed or at least vaguely remember and reaches lyrical heights providing access to something that not all of us have the meaning of being CatholicTalking about beefs Leys also has some choice hate for Edward Said which is a notable asideThe first part on uixotism and indeed Don uixote himself is very strongThe second part on Literature including the shorter biography reviews on French literature are a nice introduction though probably better if you have already read a bunch of Hugo and Balzac I could have done without the reams on the notorious French pederast André Gide One long essay about an unknown Belgian writer I outright skipped Reminders of the enduring value of Chesterton Waugh and Orwell are still very welcome The odds and ends on literature are nicely found though hardly interestingWhat sets Leys apart and amplifies his value to international intellectual life is his linguistic bridging It is rare enough to find somebody fluent in both French and English deeply knowledgeable about French and English literature and publishing in both languages Rarer still that that person would be a translator of ChineseThe third part on China is in fact the motherlode of this collection For us it is hard to realize what a big deal being an anti Maoist in those times was Having eyes open to the truth and such a lack of fucks to be able to tell the French avant garde to shove it were not given to everybody Those politics are now outdated and the charlatanesue China connoisseurs have been superseded though not at all eradicated Much interesting are Leys’s essays on China’s history and the Chinese perspective on aesthetics There too he provides us with immensely valuable access to a thing that is alien for most of us We are treated to the greats of Chinese philosophy and arts most of whom are totally unknown to most of usThe final parts are comprised of a bunch of odds and ends The summary of the book on Magellan’s expedition “Voyage de Magellan 1519 1522” is as gripping as its conclusion is disappointing that however detailed the descriptions because of the distance of time ‘Magellan and his companions appear to us utterly unknowable’We are left with both a huge richness of intellectual life captured in this collection of essays and with massive gaping holes which I would have liked seen filled with Leys’s perspective if only he were still alive In particular I’d like to read his essays on Julien Benda the Netherlands colonialism situationism and child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church

  8. says:

    Brilliant an excellent introduction to the thinking and writings of this rare polymath and genuine renaissance man It may seem a contentious thing to say in this day and age but you don't need to agree with all of Simon Leys' political or religious positions to appreciate and celebrate the brilliance of his mind and contribution to intellectual life

  9. says:

    With the witty and humble title of the book The Hall of Uselessness; fun intelligence great writing and entertainment are sure to ensue However you wouldn't think that after reading the second part of the title collected essays jesus collected essays sounds boring than textbook at first glance; this of course stirs up feelings of academic complacency With this conflicting dilemma of being boring and good at the same time one is reminded of the old cliche you can't judge a book by its cover This is very true in the instance of this book by the late Simon Ley's The book is as good as reading a well written fiction and non fiction at the same time it is a talent rarely found and executed so intellectually elegantly The book can be very insightful into what happened under Mao's China and depressing and the Khmer Rouge is touched on which is eually depressing but profound and exemplary in Ley's writing Sprinkled with Conrad Balzac Chesterton Kafka and Orwell references among other great writers from time to time this book has an excellent combination of art culture politics history specifically asia and literature Great source for recommendations so far Fascinating book so far already can tell from reading to page 29so farI am pleasantly surprisedThis guy was very witty and intelligentRIP it is sad he is not well known If you don't believe he's a good writer checkout some uotes belowWhen we first enter upon the stage of life it is as if we were only given masks that correspond to our respective roles If we act our part well enough the mask eventually turns into our true face'Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture'The successful man adapts himself to the world The loser persists in trying to adapt to the world to himself Therefore all progress depends on the loserBeware beware good can choke up a soul as much as evilBut if someone does not do it how will good be done?live so that by the sanctity of thy life all good will be performed involuntarilytrue Philistines are not people who are incapable of recognizing beauty; they recognize it all too well; they detect its presence anywhere immediately and with a flair as infallible as that of the most sensitive aesthete but for them it is in order to be able better to pounce upon it at once and to destroy it before it can gain a foothold in their universal empire of ugliness Ignorance is not simply the absence of knowledge obscurantism does not result from a dearth of light bad taste is not merely a lack of good taste stupidity is not a simple want of intelligence all these are fiercely active forces that angrily assert themselves on every occasion; they tolerate no challenge to their omnipresent rule In every department of human endeavour inspired talent is an intolerable insult to mediocrity If this is true in the realm of aesthetics it is even true in the world of ethics More than artistic beauty moral beauty seems to exasperate our sorry species The need to bring down to our own wretched level to deface to deride and debunk any splendour that is towering above us is probably the saddest urge of human naturewhoadeep shitIt is far better to have a good imagination than a good memoryEmerson said that 'books are nothing but to inspire' Sperm was for him Balzac an emission of pure cerebral substance once having spent the night with an enchanting creature he turned up at the house of a friend crying 'I just lost a book'halife is a prison and only imagination can open its windows'I feel that my parents were satisfied with mediocrity and for that I shall never forgive them''Let us not flatter ourselves by thinking that we can assimilate customs races nations others; on the contrary let us rejoice in our never being able to do so and thus guarantee the enduring pleasure of experiencing Diversity'None of the activities that really matter can be pursued in a merely professional capacity; for instance the emergence of the professional politician marks the decline of democracy since in a true democracy politics should be the privilege and duty of every citizen When love becomes professional it is prostitution You need to provide evidence of professional training even to obtain the modest position of street sweeper or dog catcher but no one uestions your competence when you wish to become a husband or a wife a father or a mother and yet these are full time occupations of supreme importance which actually reuire talents bordering on geniusTo impress the fools you must be obscureEvening Here dies another dayDuring which I have had eyes ears handsAnd the great world round me; And with tomorrow begins anotherWhy am I allowed two?'What I need is constant change I dislike all habits''What bothers me is to have to outline my opinion to formulate it; I hate to have anything cast in concrete; and in the end there is hardly any subject on which I have not changed my mind''I have two different ways of being it is the best protection against error'I often feel as if I were a horrible hypocrite; I have such an acute need for sympathy I virtually melt into the other party With complete sincerity I adopt other people's opinions and thus give them a misleading impression of agreement I would inevitably disappoint my own side if I had oneOrwell's revulsion towards all the smelly little orthodoxies that compete for our souls explains also his distrust of and contempt for intellectualsWhat sickens me about left wing people especially intellectuals is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen I was always struck by this when I was in Burma and used to read anti imperialist stuffI George Orwell don't mix much in literary circles because I know from experience that once I have met and spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him even when I feel that I ought toOrwellIf a man cannot enjoy the return of spring why should he be happy in a labour saving Utopia?if the poem is really good displace one word and the entire piece collapsesThe greater a work's originality and perfection the greater its vulnerability to the risk of later ill treatment at the hands its creator An inspired work is one which has by its very definition escaped its author; this creates the danger that the author will want to recapture it and strive maladroitly to regain control over itIn this distressing circumstance he was interviewed by an American journalist who asked him a very American uestion 'Are you receiving any therapy or counseling? Hugh Grant replied No In England we read novelsThe finished work is to the spiritual experience of the artist as the graph recorded by the seismograph is to an earthuake What matters is the experience; the work itself is a mere accidental conseuence a secondary result a visible or audible leftoverAs Erica Jong has observed 'There is nothing fiercer than a failed artist The energy remains but having no outlet it impplodes in a great black fart of rage which smokes up all the inner windows of the soul And sometimes it drives a man into politicsThis phenomenon of the failed artist as a statesman of political leadership as self expression out some day to be properly analysed; in the course of such a study Mao could provide one of the most exemplary cases p 385What people believe is essentially what they wish to believe They cultivate illusions out of idealism and also out of cynicism They follow their own visions because doing so satisfies their religious cravings and also because it is expedient They seek beliefs that can exalt their souls and that can fill their bellies They believe out of generosity and also because it serves their interests They believe because they are stupid and also because they are clever Simply they believe in order to survive And because they need to survive sometimes they could gladly kill whoever has the insensitivity cruelty and inhumanity to deny them their life supporting liesBetter than the assent of the crowd The dissent of one brave manAs Pascal said 'Trust witnesses willing to sacrifice their livesJoseph Conrad remarked that the love of literature does not make a writer any than the love of the sea makes a sailorThe cultivated public always follows the directives of a few propaganda commissars there is much conformity among intellectuals than among plumbers or car mechanicsSartre had an unuestionable geniusBorges was perhaps better euipped he had a sense of humor which is also the other side of a genuine humilityIn one respect smokers do enjoy a spiritual superiority over non smokers or at least they possess one significant advantage they are immediately aware of our common mortalityWhen a bird is about to die his song is sad; when a man is about to die his words are true

  10. says:

    I am of the opinion that Simon Leys was the greatest essayist of the second half of the twentieth century I have had this book for two years and still open it up when I need a respite from the drudgery and obscurity of the world I believe I have read every essay by now some surely than twenty timesSimon Leys is especially famous for being the first scholar to recognize the terrors of Maoism; this recognition of the truth reuired he writes a great foolishness But Simon Leys is no fool; he merely understands what he does not knowThat said the depth of Mr Leys's knowledge is very satisfying; the breadth is astonishing He was extraordinarily well versed in English Chinese and French language and culture and writes on all of them extremely persuasively and humbly Mr Leys's style is a delight Every single sentence he offers without exception is a knife be it butcher's bread or butter always cutting through the nonsense Yet he does so almost entirely using others' words; his powers of uotation were without eual Here are some examplesOn the atrocities of the USSR Robert Conuest one of the very few Sovietologists who was clear sighted from the start experienced acute frustration in his attempts to share and communicate this 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 Conuest thought for one second and said 'How about I Told You So You Fucking Fools?'Leys has some opinions like praise of Conuest a hatred of the modern university and a deep abiding Catholicism which suggest he is somewhat conservative in his outlook But thankfully for me his approach to the world transcends this label What he is after is the truth One essay attacking the many occidental scholars of China who ignored the terrors of Maoism beginsParis taxi drivers are notoriously sophisticated in their use of invective ' Hé va donc structuraliste' is one of their recent apostrophes which makes one wonder when they will start calling their victims 'China Experts'If these two uotes make Mr Leys sound jaundiced he surely is Some people seem to know everything and understand nothing he writes But his love for literature life and good company countermands this studied bitterness with an almost fatherly warmthLeys on his greatest literary love GK Chesterton whose formidable mind drew inspiration from a vast culture literary political poetical historical and philosophical once received the naive praise of a lady 'Oh Mr Chesterton you know so many things' He suavely replied 'Madam I know nothing I am a journalist'In this situation it is clear that Mr Leys is Chesterton and I dear readers am the naive lady To read Simon Leys is to spend time with the best sort of literary lover one who carries all his friends and even his enemies around in his heart and shares them with everyone willing to listen Simon Leys is only one man; this is technically true But the feeling Leys gives me which has remained untarnished for several years is that of sitting down to dinner with a great big royal family

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