Keynote address given by Li Er
First presented at The Bookworm International Literary Festival, Beijing
Li Er Keynote Text: “Talking About the Future of the Novel in China”
The novel, as we know it today, though its origins are in myths, epic poems, fables, legends, is actually the product of capitalism and civic societies.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel came straight out and said it: The novel is the civic class’s epic poem, and it shows a realistic world using characteristics of the essay. In the 1930s, Mikhail Bakhtin further explored Hegel’s point. Bakhtin talked about the novel as the epic poem’s descendant and a burgeoning form, a new literary form that accompanied the development of the citizen society and the conflicts of capitalism. The novelistic form hadn’t yet fixed itself, and was full of unlimited possibilities. Bakhtin emphasized the subjectivity of the individual: Dostoyevsky’s fictional world is, to Bakhtin, the world of the individual. Each individual and each voice is accorded an equally important status; everyone has their say. There are as many voices as there are people.
But what’s interesting is, almost during the same period, Walter Benjamin published a famous piece of criticism called “The Storyteller.” Benjamin’s viewpoint was the opposite of Bakhtin’s. He thought that in a highly-developed society the value of the individual depreciates. He used a German proverb to explain: “When someone goes on a trip, he has something to tell.” Storytellers, people who have returned from afar, have tales, different knowledge and values, and divergent experiences. The German proverb is almost the same as a Chinese one, which goes, “A monk from afar knows how to chant.” The fundamentals of the novel are created by relating different experiences. However with the advent of capitalism and modern media, Benjamin believed that faraway horizons have been flattened, and differing experiences have cancelled each other out. How the faraway monk reads his scripture has all but been shown on television; on radio; on Weibo. In other words, the idea that novels have a duty to express individual experience has almost lost its reason to exist. This deeply saddened Benjamin. He went on to say that, with the development of the media, people no longer needed to learn about the world or enhance their accomplishments by reading works of literature. Bad news has become good news, and the worst news the best news. Thus people let an increasing amount of negative news into their lives, and only the worst and most evil will arouse our interest. When people aren’t getting to know the world through literature but through the news, they become more superficial, and contemporary society becomes an “uncivilized civilization.”
Bakhtin and Benjamin’s assessments of literature are obviously tied to the context of their lives: when Bakhtin was studying Dostoyevsky’s novels and emphasizing the individual, he had just returned from exile imposed by Stalin. And when Benjamin wrote “The Storyteller,” he was just beginning a life on the run from Hitler. In this sense, critics’ assessment of novels and their history are closely connected to their own experiences. The implementation of their criticism could, however, strike through the limitations of their own beliefs. Bakhtin, a Marxist critic, had deep feelings for capitalist civilization; similarly, Benjamin, another so-called Marxist critic, actually cherished the classical period. But what’s more interesting is despite their opposing points of views they had this commonality: they both emphasized the value and the subjectivity of the individual.
Everyone knows that, compared to when Bakhtin and Benjamin were still alive, the current circumstances of Chinese society are more complicated. This complexity is more than my novelist colleagues in the west can imagine. We can say wholeheartedly that whatever crime and punishment Bakhtin saw in Dostoyevsky’s novels is ubiquitous in China, while at the same time the influence of mass media now wholly permeates people’s lives. Chinese people who live in the remote countryside receive information from the media practically simultaneously to people living in Beijing, London, or New York. Censorship in publishing and the media has, by and large, no effect on the reception of information. Chinese society has become a combination of premodern, modern, and postmodern societies. It’s just like a sandwich.
The value of individual existence has never been as strong. But the power of the system, the power of capital, the power of industrialization and technology, has formed a new system-level force that can devour anything new, and is constantly draining the individual’s subjectivity. Facing it is like facing a dinosaur of a system; it exists as a gigantic alienation of the self. People in these circumstances – or more specifically “the Chinese people’s circumstances” – might make you laugh out loud. I’m told that laughter is the highest wisdom of the human race. But this laughter, better yet, this sound of wisdom, might as well be a sigh of pity.
For Chinese novelists, the complex problem is this. Because of the affirmation of the individual’s value, story, plot, the characters, the personalities, their actions, fate, the completeness of incidents, the law of causality – these classic narrative modes remain effective still. But on the other hand, when a person’s subjectivity has been erased and is made to live with the realities I’ve described, these narrative modes are not real enough. The contemporary Chinese novelist, if he is a serious novelist, must then look for a new narrative method in order to establish a corresponding relationship between the novel and present social realities, and must respond as best as he can to the complexity of Chinese reality. These responses first of all arise out of my questioning of how to preserve my true self in contemporary society. What kind of method is there to use in order to preserve at least a shred of the individual’s subjectivity? How to converse with others using personal experience is, I believe, the most crucial reason for the existence of the novel under our current heightened systematization. In particular, this is the most potent motivation for continued self-regeneration in the novel form.
Copyright: Li Er. February 25th 2013, Beijing
Translated by Alice Xin Liu