Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Simon Leys:
Navigator Between Worlds

by philippe paquet
translated by julie rose
la trobe, 720 pages, $59.99

It is a curious fact that Communist dictatorships were at their most popular among Western intellectuals while they still had the courage of their brutality. Once they settled down to gray, everyday oppression and relatively minor acts of violent repression (judged, of course, by their own former high, or low, standards in this respect), they ceased to attract the extravagant praises of those intellectuals who, in their own countries, regarded as intolerable even the slightest derogation from their absolute freedom of expression. It is as if not dreams but totalitarian famines and massacres acted as the Freudian wish fulfillment of these Western intellectuals. They spoke of illimitable freedom, but desired unlimited power. 

Mao Zedong was the blank page or screen upon which they could project the fantasies that they thought beautiful. China was a long way off, its hundreds of millions of peasants inscrutable but known to be impoverished and oppressed by history; its culture was impenetrable to Westerners without many years of dedicated and mind-consuming study; Western sinologists, almost to a man, upheld the Maoist version of the world, some of them for fear of losing their access to China if they did not, and thereby created the impression that Maoism was intellectually and morally respectable; and so perfect conditions were laid for the most willing and total suspension of disbelief. Mao’s Thoughts—that is to say, clichés, platitudes, and lies—were treated by intelligent and educated people as if they were more profound, and contained more mental and spiritual sustenance, than Pascal’s. As so often before, mere reality as experienced by scores of millions of people was of little interest to intellectuals by comparison with the schemata in their minds and their own self-conception. “Let the heavens fall so long as I feel good about myself” was their motto. One didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Into this modern equivalent of an intellectual pastoral entered the then-unknown figure of Pierre Ryckmans, writing as Simon Leys, a Belgian sinologist of immense intelligence and erudition, whose interests had been until then more aesthetic than political. The first published book of this learned connoisseur of Chinese art was an extremely detailed and footnoted translation into French of an early eighteenth-century Chinese treatise on painting, Remarks on Painting by Shitao, published by the Belgian Institute of Higher Chinese Studies. Recherché as this may seem to the overwhelming majority of Western readers, one may find even here the sensibility that endured for the rest of Ryckmans’s life and is evident in all his work. I quote Shitao, or rather my translation of his translation of Shitao: “Once stupidity has been eliminated, intelligence is born; once vulgarity has been swept away, clarity becomes perfect.”

Leys’s books about the so-called Cultural Revolution (neither cultural nor a revolution in his view, but a sordid struggle for power in which once again Mao was willing to sacrifice the lives of millions of his countrymen on the altar of himself) were occasioned, or provoked, by the willful blindness and, worse still, indifference of Western intellectuals to what was actually happening in and to the China that he loved so passionately. In The Chairman’s New Clothes, Chinese Shadows, and Broken Images, he revealed himself to be a polemicist of genius, though one with a scrupulous and scholarly regard for truth. From the very first line of what he wrote, he established an authority which was simultaneously that of someone in possession of the relevant facts and of the most evident moral probity (by no means coterminous). He was one man against many, but his biting wit, his contempt for special pleading and intellectual legerdemain, his profound common sense prevailed, and his books will survive while whole shelf-loads of works by his opponents, detractors, and calumniators, and assorted academic Maoist thurifers, will molder unread in the reserve collections of libraries. As it happens, I possess quite a few of these works, mainly because I cannot bear to dispose of any books once I possess them. 

Leys had a mind that excelled in both selection and exclusion: the selection of the essential and exclusion of the irrelevant. Perhaps this was a result of his year of study of Chinese painting, in which what is not depicted is as important as that which is depicted, but whatever its origin, this exquisite faculty is evident in all he wrote. Who cannot at once grasp the hinterland of meaning of the anecdote with which he opens Chinese Shadows?

We all know the story of the recent mishap of an American journalist: like everyone else, he wrote an account of his trip to China. The only thing is that he never went. When this was finally discovered, there was a scandal and the poor devil found himself dismissed. What is surprising in this story is that his hoax was ever uncovered.

From this we know at once, incontestably and without appeal, that a whole genre, a whole library of books of so-called eyewitness testimony, is utterly worthless. (The famous economist, J. K. Galbraith, wrote one of them.) Not a few authors must have blushed when they read this: They had visited China without experiencing it any more than had the American journalist who never set foot in it.

Again, the very title of one of his essays, “The Art of Interpreting Non-Existent Inscriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page,” tells you the essentials of what you needed to know about the decipherment of publications coming out of China and the kind of regime that made such an arcane art necessary, and why anyone who took official declarations at face value was at best naive and at worst a knave or a fool.

What Leys wrote in 1984 in a short book about George Orwell might just as well have been written about him: “In contrast to certified specialists and senior academics, he saw the evidence in front of his eyes; in contrast to wily politicians and fashionable intellectuals, he was not afraid to give it a name; and in contrast to the sociologists and political scientists, he knew how to spell it out in understandable language.”

Leys drew a distinction between simplicity and simplification: Orwell had the first without indulgence in the second. Again, the same might be said of Leys—who, of course, like Orwell, had taken a pseudonym, and with whose work there were many parallels in his own.

But immense as was Leys’s achievement in destroying the ridiculous illusions of Western intellectuals, as Orwell had tried to do before him, it was a task thrust upon him by circumstance rather than one that he would have chosen for himself. He was by nature an aesthete and a man of letters, and I confess that great was my surprise (and pleasurable awe) when I discovered that he was, in addition to being a great sinologist, a great literary essayist.

Among his gifts was that of the most precise and mordant quotation. But perhaps “gift” is not quite the word, for it took immense erudition and highly disciplined discrimination to quote so appositely. Nevertheless, it was a kind of genius, for effort alone would never have produced the same results. Indeed, Leys published a delightful book of quotations, The Ideas of Others, in which the quality of his own mind is clearly reflected—the quality of being able to see the obvious but hidden truth, or the truth that we have hidden from ourselves:

The moment good taste knows itself some of its goodness is lost.
–C. S. Lewis
Great writers and artists should take part in politics only as a defence against politics.

In that last quotation lies the explanation of how a man as fundamentally indifferent or even hostile to politics as Leys should not only have written so much about it, but have written so well about it. Only a man for whom politics is a regrettable distraction from what is most important in life has the detachment to be so clear-sighted.

Leys’s essays often combine delicacy with deep irony—a combination that few writers, especially in our times of stridency and parti pris, achieve. Here, for example, is the beginning of his essay “An Introduction to Confucius”: “If we consider humanity’s greatest teachers of wisdom—the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Jesus—we are struck by a curious paradox: today, not one of them could obtain even the most modest of teaching posts in any of our universities.” We laugh—which, of course, is the best tribute to the seriousness of the point that he is making. He goes on to explain, “The reason is simple: their qualifications are insufficient—they have published nothing.”

In two sentences, Leys has pinned, like a butterfly to an entomologist’s board, the bureaucratic sickness that has overtaken our institutions of higher learning (and not only those institutions). There is no madness more difficult to treat than that which believes itself sane, and there is no irrationality greater than that which believes itself perfect. It is no surprise that Leys retired early from his university chair because the university no longer bore any resemblance to what it had once been and misled students and the rest of society into believing it still was. A community of scholars had become an organization of foremen on a production line.

In his beautiful essay about the opening sentences of novels, Leys relates how he was browsing in a bookshop when he came across the first words of G. K. Chesterton’s novel, until then unknown to him, The Napoleon of Notting Hill: “The human race, to which so many of my readers belong . . .” He bought the book and left quickly, because the spectacle of an old man (as he called himself) laughing out loud to himself was likely to cause alarm. The rest of the book could not live up to its first eleven glorious words, but it was not without its virtues and witty lines: “Just as a bad man is nevertheless a man, so a bad poet is nevertheless a poet.”

He then compares Chesterton’s opening line with that of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite, when Ali announced that the archbishop was here and wanted to see me.”

Leys had compared the opening sentence of a book with a fisherman’s lure, and he says of Burgess:

In the event, the angler had his bite—because I bought the book—but he did not succeed in landing the fish on to the bank (at least where I was concerned), since this massive volume has continued for nineteen years to gather dust majestically on my bookshelves: I still haven’t read it.

He goes on to analyze what is wrong with Burgess’s opening line by comparison with Chesterton’s:

I wondered, moreover, if, even in its cunning, this first sentence of Burgess’ novel was not to true literature what an artificial fly is to a real insect. . . . Burgess had certainly fabricated a striking beginning to his Earthly Powers; the only problem was that it smelt of fabrication.

And this fabrication in turn suggested a general problem in our culture:

A frequent danger for writers of talent is that, in their desire to impress the public, they come to ruin their most ambitious efforts. In the modern world, this temptation to throw dust in the eyes, to which so many artists succumb, reflects the domination exercised by the publicity industry over practically all aspects of culture.

Leys’s literary criticism is always of wider significance than a mere evaluation of books, important though such evaluation is to him, just as his writings on China reflect on the West as much as they do on China. Leys is truly a philosophe, in the eighteenth-century sense of the word.

I do not want to set him up as having been infallible, however. No one can write as much as he wrote without error; nor, I think, would he have wanted anyone to think so. (He quoted Orwell on the subject of Gandhi’s supposed sanctity.) For example, in criticizing the realpolitik of Nixon, Kissinger, and Alain Peyrefitte, the Gaullist politician and intellectual who argued that human rights, not being a Chinese concept, meant nothing or were inapplicable to the Chinese, Leys quotes Claude Roy with approval: “The real cleavage between right and left resides in the [moral] privilege accorded or denied to the men of power.”

This is an astonishing statement, given all that had gone before in Leys’s work, demonstrating that many on the left had welcomed, supported, and extolled a tyranny as great as any the world has known, and is evidence that Leys feared to be regarded as a man of the right, an interesting and culturally telling aspect of this otherwise fearless and perspicacious man. But even Homer nodded. 

Leys is overwhelmingly a joy to read, however, for his honesty, his courage, his wit, his prose style, his erudition lightly worn, his elegance both of mind and expression, his wisdom about art, life, and literature. Unobtrusively, but crucially important for him, he was a man of faith. He was a true giant of our times, and is now deservedly the subject of a splendid biography by another Belgian sinologist, Philippe Paquet.

This biography is long—seven hundred or so closely printed pages—but unusually for a modern biography, it is not too long, at least not for anyone interested in the life of the mind, and at the end of it I was sorry to have parted company with its subject. I recall reading a biography of Brecht of approximately the same length, which in a certain way was a mirror image of this biography: Whereas in seven hundred pages Brecht hardly did a decent thing, in seven hundred pages Leys is revealed to have done nothing else.

This is not mere hagiography, for while the author clearly admires his subject greatly, this is because he was admirable. I very much doubt that anyone in the future is going to reveal that Leys had feet of clay or practiced the secret vices that are the delight of biographers, publishers, and public in times when we try to fit great men into the procrustean bed of our own mediocrity. What Paquet demonstrates is that Leys (or rather Ryckmans) was, from the first, the remarkable scion of a cultivated and remarkable family: One uncle was a learned, humane, and distinguished governor-general of the Congo, and another the doyen of scholars of pre-Islamic Arabia. He was endowed with what seems to have been a natural independence of mind and (which is much rarer) soundness of judgment.

Undertaking a journey to the Congo as a young man of twenty, Ryckmans took no advantage of his connections to travel luxuriously but on the contrary insisted upon seeing Africa from the bottom up. (No man was less assuming or luxury-seeking than he.) His published reflections on the fate of Africa as it approached independence are of an astonishing maturity and penetration:

In outline, we might say that their ambition [that of the Africans] pushes them at the same time to reject and become Europe. (When I speak of Europe, I mean the Europe that they know, that is to say the Europe in Africa). They want to be like these powerful men who humiliate them; they want to be those whom they do not want. . . .
Who can blame them for their avid ambition, their desire for power, their cultural aridity? These manacled men cannot plan their escape except by imitation of the only models of freedom and grandeur that we have given them. And what other image of Europe have they than of greed without measure, wealth without spiritual justification, and the exercise of power without limit?

There may be better brief descriptions of Africa’s predicament at the time of independence (and long after), but if so I do not know them.

The fact is that Leys demonstrated the same penetration and judgment on every subject on which he chose to write (and there were many such subjects). His was a kind of common sense raised to a higher power, the same kind of common sense that Dr. Johnson had. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Leys, unusually for a Francophone writer, and another manifestation of the independence and soundness of his judgment, had a great admiration for Johnson and what he called his “inexhaustible source of wisdom.” I cannot help but think of what a distinguished man said to Boswell about Johnson’s death: “It has made a chasm which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. Johnson is dead. Let us go then to the next best:—there is nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.”

I think the same might be said of Leys.

Theodore Dalrymple is a contributing editor of City Journal.